“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.”
—Romans 15:4

By the early 1960’s, conditions in America and in Europe had proceeded far enough that pundits and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic felt free to confirm what they referred to as “the death of God.” At about the same time, a coterie of American academic literary critics, inspired by others of their kind in France, were preparing to announce “The Death of Literature.” Since God and literature have been more or less inseparable at least as far back as the ancient Hebrew prophets, it was perhaps unsurprising that the two deaths should have been announced concurrently. On the other hand, one may wonder whether people for whom such venerable traditions as God and literature are dead may not rather be said themselves to have died in some essential part. Alvin Kernan, Avalon Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Princeton University, takes a less prophetic and more Olympian view of the matter. The God problem, first of all, does not exist for him within the context of The Death of Literature, the Word and works of art constructed by human beings of words being apparently unconnected in his mind at the metaphysical—or indeed at any—level. (On the one occasion Kernan does make reference to what he calls “the holy,” he has in mind the events of the holocaust and its sufferings.) As for the literary problem, the “literature” that Kernan believes to be “dead” is something much more specific and limited than anything the reader, in coming to his book, likely understands. “What has passed, or is passing,” Kernan writes,

is the romantic and modernist literature of Wordsworth and Goethe, Valery and Joyce, that flourished in capitalist society in the high age of print, between the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth. The death of the old literature in the grand sense, Shelley’s unacknowledged legislation of the world, Arnold’s timeless best that has been thought or written, Eliot’s unchanging monuments of the European mind, from the rock drawings in Lascaux to The Magic Mountain. . . . Not so long ago at all, there seemed nothing absurd in Northrop Frye’s argument in Anatomy of Criticism that the totality of literature formed an extensive scheme, mystical in its symbolism, but orderly in its structure, originating in the fears and desires constituting the human soul and moving through history in the form of the great literary myths, corresponding with nothing less than the seasonal cycles of the natural year.

This understanding of literature appears restrictive enough to alleviate one’s sense of dis-ease, until the realization dawns that Kernan is not speaking just of Romantic and Modernist literature, which after all forms a relatively small part of the corpus of Western literary works, but of the Romantic and Modernist comprehension of that whole as well: one which, moreover, prevailed as recently as the early 1960’s, when it was laid precipitate siege to by “phenomenology, structuralism, deconstruction, Freudianism, Marxism, [and] feminism” in the universities and by what Kernan calls “the hermeneutics of suspicion” in society at large. Even so, at this point the thesis of Kernan’s book may seem much less dramatic than its title.

The literature that Kernan perceives to be vanishing both from the social world and from human consciousness was, in the author’s words, “a historic event” that seems to pass in company with many other institutions belonging to what the historian John Lukacs has described as the “bourgeois era.” This “historic event,” or “social reality,” was an objective complex of print technology and publishing houses, academic departments and a large reading public, nationalist loyalties and democratic dogmas, copyright law and artistic license, and the myth of the literary genius—accepted unquestioningly by the partisans of genius as well as by the genius himself The hero, although he was in many respects a creature of bourgeois capitalist-industrialism, was from the outset at pains to affirm his alienation from it. For him the modern world of commerce, finance, and Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” was the enemy of mankind’s intuitive life, including the afflatus that put certain prize specimens of mankind in direct touch with that life. Coleridge stated the Romantic artist’s idea of himself as well or better than anyone when he identified the creative imagination as “the prime agent of all human perception, and . . . a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”

The claim, though not necessarily excessive of itself, was certainly pregnant with the potential for what the ancient Greeks called hubris but which was, in the Christian context, something even worse. In the course of time, as the Romantic era passed and was succeeded by the Modernist one (Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle, demonstrated how directly the second developed from the first), the artist began to regard himself as no longer a privileged being with intuitive insight into “the infinite I AM,” but rather as a necessary surrogate for Him Who no longer existed. In this way the artist consecrated himself as priest, not only of art but of the artist as well. As this happened, he acquired a church, an ecclesiastical structure, preferments, and an ecclesiastical property rivaling those of the Vicar of Christ in Rome. In other words: independent genius grew into a part of the social and intellectual establishment of Western society, thus establishing for itself that “social reality” in which its work by definition found a place, filling satisfactorily the expectations it satisfactorily created. After this—and all of a sudden—the deluge.

“They stood in line,” Kernan writes of the radical literary theorists of the last thirty years, “fought for a place at the front of it, to demonstrate the meanness and emptiness of books and poems that had long been read and taught as the highest achievements of the human spirit. Humanism became a term of contempt, and the work of literature an illusion.” Here, surely, we can discern the extent to which the Word and the word are ineluctably connected in the history of Western thought, the fate of each reflective of the other until the end of time. Although it is enough to mention the name T.S. Eliot to refute the idea that literary Modernism was exclusively agnostic or atheistic, still by the 1960’s Western literature had been drained of its religious content to the point where its transcendental qualities offered no target at all for the new literary nihilists. All that remained of the Christian view of man was humanism, and so it was humanism that the Barthes, the Foucaults, the Terry Eagletons, and the Susan Sontags set up for ridicule. According to the deconstructionist theory, “literature” is condemnable not only for its having been chiefly produced by white Western bourgeois males seeking to exert their misbegotten power against the poor and the oppressed, but for claiming substance when it in fact has none (odd that so potent a class weapon should have been actually insubstantial!), being instead the representation of a series of receding illusions, realities infinitely deferred; while the “author” himself, so Roland Barthes has asserted, is no more than a historical idea, “formulated by and appropriate to the social beliefs of democratic, capitalist [and Christian?!] society with its emphasis on the individual.”

Of course, like so much that passes for theory today, deconstruction is not criticism at all, but simply bad philosophy. It is also essentially dishonest philosophy, insofar as it secretly pays tribute to what it seeks to destroy by jealously hoping to take over the gutted traditionalist structure and refurbish the shell according to its own taste. With insight Kernan observes, “It may well be more realistic to see all these radical types of criticism that have discredited the literary texts as the last apocalyptic phase of an old literary order collapsing in on itself in a time of radical change, rather than as the bringers of a new more free and open literature.” By extension, I think, it is equally realistic to see contemporary radical criticism as a reaction, in part justifiable, against the exalted moral, theoretical, and existential claims of the Modernist literature that came before it. If that is so, then the contemporary occasion identified by Kernan as “The Death of Literature” amounts to the canceling out, the one by the other, of two literary developments, the one immediately recent, the other relatively so. What, in that case, does this situation imply for the future—not of Kernan’s “literature” but of literature itself in its broader and much more deeply historical reality?

Kernan believes that the damage done to “literature” by deconstructionist criticism is “irreversible,” something that I for one doubt very much. Deconstruction is a part of that strain of nihilism that, having entered Western civilization by its philosophical trachea in the mid-19th century, has passed through its political abdomen and is presently making its way through-its cultural anus. Deconstruction is more than a literary and a philosophical dead end: far worse from the standpoint of its practitioners, it is a professional dead end as well. How many times can you get contracted—and paid—for simply chanting nada, nada, nada? One time, surely, says it all: not even a French doctor or an American professor can elaborate forever on the idea of nothingness. Yet turning from deconstruction to all the other isms that currently piranhize the flailing bulk of literature, we must certainly concede that the politicization of every nook and cranny of contemporary life—to say nothing of its major institutions—has, for the foreseeable future at any rate, made a literary reading of literature impossible. Readers, in other words, can no longer read books as books were written to be read. Added to that fact is the probability that Western civilization has passed beyond what George Steiner has called the classical age of reading, whether from the Gutenberg page or from the flickering screen of the computer. A revolution in consciousness may indeed be taking place so that, as Kernan suggests, “The great changes that have come to literature in recent years in the midst of a transition from a print to an electronic culture seem to be better explained by the informational mode of change than a mechanical one.”

But even if this were so, the significant question is: a revolution in whose consciousness? There is a sense in which all such speculation goes on at a level of statistical abstraction and, if not social, then at least intellectual irrelevancy. Kernan is mightily concerned that “literature” is preparing to drop like a rotten apple from its bough on the tree of human knowledge, and then to disintegrate in the social world. “In its place,” apparently, he says, “people are [already] beginning to see ‘communications,’ a subject with both practical and theoretical dimensions, and considerable usefulness.” But what people is he talking about? It is true that the 19th century saw the creation of adult education, lending libraries, academic departments of literature, and a mass reading public. More people read books, more people bought books, the stock of literature and of the creators of literature rose precipitously. But did the quality of the new literature improve? Was Shelley an artistic improvement over Marlowe? Is Mailer a refinement upon Conrad? If the disgusting commercial mess that is contemporary publishing and contemporary public education has anything to tell us, it must be that “literature,” like everything else in modern democratic culture, is inherently inflationary. Literature is of necessity created by a tiny minority of human beings, and perhaps it is best that it should be read by a not greatly larger one. In his recently published memoirs, John Lukacs speculated that we may be again entering an age in which serious writers and literary artists—poets, historians, philosophers—will arrange for the printing of their own books, and for the distribution of these among a small circle of friends and interested strangers, even as the great (and no so great) commercial houses devote themselves exclusively to the production of video packages, diet books, and TV-between-covers for consumption by the Proletariat of the Western World.

In a piquant aside, Alvin Kernan notes: “Only in the Third World, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, do the novel and poetry have something like the cultural power they exercised in the West as recently as two or three generations ago.” Significantly, it is in those regions of the world also that Christianity, largely discarded by the nations of the contemporary West, is currently making great advances. Among human societies where decadence has not fallen like a twilight, the structure of reality remains communicable to the people, both through imaginative writing and through the sacred texts, in which the laughable phrase “infinite deferral of reality” comes up short against the great I AM. Where the Word goes, it prepares a place for the word—and vice versa. Wherever men, no matter how few of them, seek truth, there too—as for three thousand years—is literature. 


[The Death of Literature, by Alvin Kernan (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) 230 pp., $22.50]