OPINIONSnGreat Exaggerationsnby Chilton Williamson, Jr.n”Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.”n— Romans 15:4nThe Death of Literaturenby Alvin KernannNew Haven and London: YalenUniversity Press; 230 pp., $22.50nB y the early 1960’s, conditions innAmerica and in Europe had proceedednfar enough that pundits andnintellectuals on both sides of the Atlanticnfelt free to confirm what they referrednto as “the death of God.” Atnabout the same time, a coterie of Americannacademic literary critics, inspirednby others of their kind in France, werenpreparing to announce “the death ofnliterature.” Since God and literaturenhave been more or less inseparable atnleast as far back as the ancient Hebrewnprophets, it was perhaps unsurprisingnthat the two deaths should have beennannounced concurrently. On the othernhand, one may wonder whether peoplenfor whom such venerable traditions asnGod and literature are dead may notnrather be said themselves to have died innsome essential part. Alvin Kernan, AvalonnProfessor of Humanities Emeritusnat Princeton University, takes a lessnprophetic and more Olympian view ofnthe matter. The God problem, first ofnall, does not exist for him within thencontext of the death of literature, thenWord and works of art constructed bynhuman beings of words being apparentlynunconnected in his mind at thenmetaphysical — or indeed at any —nlevel. (On the one occasion Kernanndoes make reference to what he callsn”the holy,” he has in mind the events ofnthe holocaust and its sufferings.) As fornthe literary problem, the “literature”nthat Kernan believes to be “dead” isnsomething much more specific and limitednthan anything the reader, in com-nChilton Williamson, Jr. is the seniorneditor for books at Chronicles.n30/CHRONICLESning to his book, likely understands.n”What has passed, or is passing,”nKernan writes.nnnis the romantic and modernistnliterature of Wordsworth andnGoethe, Valery and Joyce, thatnflourished in capitalist society innthe high age of print, betweennthe mid-eighteenth century andnthe mid-twentieth. The death ofnthe old literature in the grandnsense, Shelley’s unacknowledgednlegislation of the world, Arnold’sntimeless best that has beennthought or written, Eliot’snunchanging monuments of thenEuropean mind, from the rockndrawings in Lascaux to ThenMagic Mountain. . . . Not sonlong ago at all, there seemednnothing absurd in NorthropnFrye’s argument in Anatomy ofnCriticism that the totality ofnliterature formed an extensivenscheme, mystical in itsnsymbolism, but orderly in itsnstructure, originating in thenfears and desires constitutingnthe human soul and movingnthrough history in the form ofnthe great literary myths,ncorresponding with nothing lessnthan the seasonal cycles of thennatural year.nThis understanding of literature appearsnrestrictive enough to alleviate one’snsense of dis-ease, until the realizationndawns that Kernan is not speaking justnof Romantic and Modernist literature,nwhich after all forms a relatively smallnpart of the corpus of Western literarynworks, but of the Romantic and Modernistncompreherisioh of that’whole asnwell: one which, moreover, prevailed asnrecently as the early 1960’s, when it wasnlaid precipitate siege to by “phenomenology,nstructuralism, deconstruction,nFreudianism, Marxism, [and] feminism”nin the universities and by whatnKernan calls “the hermeneutics of sus-n