Literary studies,” writes Rita Felski in her new book, The Limits of Critique, “is currently facing a legitimation crisis, thanks to a sadly depleted language of value that leaves us struggling to find reasons why students should care about Beowulf or Baudelaire. Why is literature worth bothering with?”
This question, she suggests, is either sidestepped by readers who stress suspicion as the default way in which to read, or else answered circularly: “As critical thinkers, we value literature because it engages in critique.” Suspicious readers view themselves as the most ruthless and scrupulous of readers; they transcend naive enthusiasm, see through everything, and are able, through persistent effort, to uncover the sin that each work of literature wishes to disguise.
In “normal,” amateur discourse about books—let’s say, at book clubs—people speak in the language of love and hate. You love, say, Elizabeth Bishop, but you hate Thomas Hardy. Within a narrative, you grow attached to some characters—however perversely—at the expense of others; you can have a passionate and judgmental conversation about someone in a book as if you were discussing a particularly irritating friend.
Love by itself is not especially articulate. And although people can learn to read more carefully and to understand more of the mechanisms by which they are moved, that is still not quite the same thing as well-understood love. Instead, people often self-deprecatingly explain their attachment away. “I like Elizabeth Bishop because, like her, I—” (am a lesbian, am an expatriate, love toucans, and so on). A deeply felt attachment expresses itself as mostly an accident. How to explain, then, that the object of love has, in fact, something to say?
Felski, a professor of literature at the University of Virginia, does not write to condemn critique as a method of reading. But much as one of her previous books, Literature after Feminism, was both a defense of feminist literary criticism and a consideration of its flaws, The Limits of Critique is an effort to point out the ways in which critique is just one way among many of engaging with a text. Alongside critique,
Felski believes that students need to learn “an analytical language for reflecting on, rather than repudiating, their aesthetic attachments.” We read for many reasons—out of love, out of hate, even out of a need for moral instruction. If there is an answer to the question “Why is literature worth bothering with?” there is no reason to suppose that suspicious reading is better equipped than love to give the answer. Instead, it seems to assume the question already answered, or at least not worth answering.
In Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, Mark Edmundson is also attempting to present—to his students, but also to the world—a better way of engaging with literature and with life. Something, he thinks, has gone horribly wrong. His students are sunk in bourgeois aspirations. They want only a life of financial security, nice cars, and the requisite 2.5 children. They are in college only to obtain a credential that has become necessary, if not sufficient, to the attainment of that life. Love is lacking here, too, but for a more insidious reason. Maybe professional training favors suspicion, but Edmundson’s students aren’t even suspicious. They just want to be safe.
Without detracting from Edmundson’s observation, we can grant the stock-character nature of this portrayal. You can meet these students in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, where they flit between “quick fixes and dull calculation,” and you can meet them again twenty-seven years later in William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep. That doesn’t, however, render them a fiction. Students get into the University of Virginia (where Edmundson also teaches) by being test-acers, after all.
To illustrate that there is another way to live, Edmundson first takes us on a tour of ancient archetypes—the hero, the thinker, and the saint—and then moves from there to attack some of the architects of middle-class modernity. By showing true dedication to something higher than mere security, the ancient models show up the cheap, if long, life that modernity offers. (Singled out for particular blame here are Sigmund Freud and William Shakespeare, on the grounds that they counseled accommodation to the unheroic life.)
But if reading suspiciously can’t answer the question of why literature is worth bothering with, neither can Edmundson’s approach, which instrumentalizes the books under consideration to the point of rendering them unrecognizable. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with taking a reader on a stroll through Homer, Plato, and the Bible to remind him that the world we live in now is not the only possible world. But there is something wrong—in the basic sense of incorrect, as well as in a deeper sense—with boiling each of these texts down to a single set of lessons. And to the extent that this is a problem with the books Edmundson champions, it’s even more of a problem with those he loathes.
We could begin with Homer, as Edmundson does. Faced with the choice between “a short heroic life that brings glory or a long peaceful life full of humane contentment,” Edmundson claims that the true hero will always choose the former. The true hero in this instance is Achilles; his Trojan rival, Hector, lacks “single-minded devotion to the ideal,” largely because of his ties to his family. “The pure hero,” Edmundson writes, “often sees family as an impediment and is always suspicious of it, if not hostile.” Pure Achilles, who values nothing more than glory—certainly not his life—kills impure, life-and-family-loving Hector.
Yet how is one to square this summary of Homer with the experience of reading Homer? It’s not simply that, in the epic itself, these deaths are not really a straightforward matter of the victory of the pure. The ways in which the characters relate to death and the heroic ideal are themselves conflicted and complex. On the basis of Edmundson’s telling, who would anticipate Achilles’s cry to Odysseus that “a man’s life cannot come back again,” that he desires “to take a well-wedded wife in marriage, the bride of my fancy, / to enjoy with her the possessions won by aged Peleus”? Who would expect the bleak moment in the Odyssey when Achilles’s ghost confirms to Odysseus that, indeed, dying wasn’t worth it? The Iliad is not an antiwar epic, but neither is it an endorsement of a simple death-for-glory code.
Hostility toward family life is what Edmundson’s preferred types largely share, expressed, sometimes, as hostility toward women in general. On philosophers, he writes that “if so far the metaphysical tradition has often been…misogynistic, which it has, those qualities often arise out of anxiety,” because, he explains, marriage involves the sort of activities that crowd out time for reflection, including child rearing and housekeeping. Indeed, marriage and family life are, to the philosopher, “potential poisons” that “take the thinker away from eternal matters,” situating the would-be Socrates in complacent mediocrity:
In the Symposium Plato tells us how the thinker converts the energy of his sexual desire into the energies he needs to pursue the understanding of beauty and Truth. When those energies are absorbed into the (perhaps) real but mundane pleasures of marriage, they have less chance to inspire celestial flowerings. Then there is the constant pressure of domestic distraction: the barking of the family dog, the illness of the children, money worries, the Lilliputian triumphs of requiting the mortgage and keeping the taxman away from the door.
Although Edmundson never straightforwardly casts the family as the central villain in his story of the slide from ancient ideals to modern mediocrity, there are by my count perhaps twenty separate passages in Self and Soul that circle that indictment. Any text that approvingly cites Schopenhauer as a guide to marriage, as Self and Soul does, is harboring some deep-rooted hostility of its own.
Not surprisingly, given Edmundson’s constant flitting from one citation to the next, his use of his texts remains unconvincing. The kind of love discussed in the Symposium, for instance, was unlikely to end in marriage. If the dialogue is read dramatically, it is not at all clear that we are meant to take as the obvious truth Socrates’s account of love as a ladder on which, as we ascend, we gradually lose interest in human beings. More to the point, though Edmundson dismisses Socrates’s own marriage as an elaborate performance, the attentive reader of Plato will notice that in the Phaedo, Socrates and Xanthippe have two young children. That Socrates, even in old age, seems to enjoy sleeping with his wife doesn’t exactly disqualify his marriage from being a joke, but it does make his marriage a more complicated reality.
No book that runs through as many examples as Self and Soul does will be able to do its examples justice. But even when Edmundson slows down—as he does with Homer, the New Testament, and Shakespeare—his readings of texts are hard to accept. A naive reader of the Gospels is extremely unlikely to conclude, with Edmundson, that Jesus’s message is that people “can be born anew if they have the strength to be,” and that one should “throw off guilt and live in the present.” And if the point is the lessons, rather than the texts, then why take the reader through the texts at all? But if the idea is to show the genuine and transformative difference of the past, why not let the past show itself in its complexity and its capacity for dramatizing self-disagreement? And if the ultimate point is to dissuade his students from embracing domesticity, why not welcome the long-standing feminist critiques of marriage instead of framing women and marriage, taken together, as the enemy?
It’s when Edmundson turns to Shakespeare, however, that the flaws of his approach become most troubling. As he points out, there is a rich tradition of hating Shakespeare, a tradition I happen to enjoy myself. But if Tolstoy’s prolonged assault on King Lear is, in its way, illuminating, Edmundson’s general attack on Shakespeare is not. It involves, instead, strange leaps from play to author and back again. Because heroic characters suffer in tragedies, Edmundson argues, Shakespeare wants to destroy heroic values. But isn’t the destruction of the hero what makes tragedies, well, tragic? To leap from Othello’s downfall in Othello to the statement that Iago speaks for Shakespeare is as big a jump as to presume that Creon in Antigone speaks for Sophocles. To say that Shakespeare’s characters speak only to get something out of others is flatly incorrect, even if one excises Hamlet, as Edmundson does.
Shakespeare likes women—perhaps even prefers them to men, which Edmundson regards as, at least, problematic. (Rather strangely, Edmundson also depicts Shakespeare as a champion of the family, although the actual work of family life is mostly absent from Shakespeare.) In Shakespeare’s fondness for women, Edmundson detects an assault on masculinity: The playwright wants woman ascendant, at man’s expense. Shakespeare, in Edmundson’s reading, is the harbinger of feminism, offering the “terms that, in centuries to come, will be applied by feminists to the oppressor, the hypermasculine man of prowess.” But if this is the case, why precisely is that a strike against him?
One cannot read Self and Soul without being impressed by Edmundson’s sincerity. Whatever it is he detects in his students, it truly troubles him. And there is more to life than being comfortable, although this is a truth that even parents with children can grasp. But in the end, Self and Soul’s instrumental readings of literature are even more limited than suspicious readings. It, too, fails at articulating what we might call a hermeneutic of love—or even, in the case of Shakespeare, of hate. If Edmundson’s students are to be saved, it’s only going to be through an encounter with the real thing—which will never, if it is any good, be distillable to a type or a lesson.
So where can we find this “real thing,” or, at least, a guide to finding it? If one is inspired by Felski but disappointed by Edmundson, what is the next step? Edmundson’s focus on the Iliad brings to mind “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” a 1940 essay by Simone Weil (available in the 2005 New York Review Books Classics edition War and the Iliad that pairs Weil’s “On the Iliad” with a contemporaneous essay by the philosopher Rachel Bespaloff). Weil’s reading of the Iliad, with its deep identification with the sufferers of force, is as tendentious as anything in Self and Soul. In his introduction to War Music, Christopher Logue’s re-imagining of the Iliad, Garry Wills writes that because “Weil could not admit the fierce joy in battle…much of Homer was a closed book to her.”
Yet I would say that Weil, in approaching the text as “the purest and most loveliest of mirrors,” provides a model of serious engagement, one both passionate and rigorous. It was Weil, for instance, who brought to my attention Achilles’s passionate declaration that he does not wish to die. And although Weil is tightly focused on one thread in the whole of the Iliad, she can thus draw out the ways in which force eradicates the personhood of everyone in Homer’s poem. “[The Iliad’s] bitterness,” she writes, “is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjections of the human spirit to force…. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is.”
Closed as at least some of the Iliad might have been to her, Weil could draw from it an understanding of suffering that did not read like a simple schoolbook lesson, that allowed for the delight in the use of force even as it dwelt on the cost. Her essay is a work written by someone who seems deeply drawn to something she has heard in Homer’s verse. What Weil wants is to understand, and make explicable, what it is she is hearing.
That the essay was written at the beginning of World War II could explain the urgency of her writing—but the urgency comes, really, from the poem and the subject, since force, as Weil ruefully remarks in her opening sentences, is not going out of our world anytime soon. Her treatment of the “poem of force” is a work, that is to say, of deep moral conviction and articulate passion. It’s a work, even, of love.