The Use and Abuse of Literature and What Good Are the Arts?

By Marjorie Garber
By John Carey

It’s a painful question that, along with a host of other painful reflections, usually raises its head around middle age. Has reading all of those books been worth it?

When I was at university studying English I had a favourite professor who was nearing retirement. Looking back, he certainly had his doubts. “I could have been a plumber,” he privately confessed. I didn’t think he was joking, or at least not entirely. And so when I found this passage by Leon Battista Alberti quoted in Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature it took me back:

I have often heard distinguished scholars say things about scholarship, that could really make anyone give up the desire to engage in it. Among other points, for there were many and varied arguments, they were open about the fact that they themselves, though at one time they had chosen to study books, would, if they could start over, gladly take up any other kind of life. I was far from believing that they were sincere, these men who had never spent any period of their lives not engaged in the study of texts, and not only did I believe that they spoke quite differently from what they felt, but I actually blamed them a little for it. I thought it was wrong for learned men to discourage younger students and also wrong for highly intelligent men to continue on a course if they did not really believe in it. I diligently interrogated many men of learning and discovered that in fact almost all were of the same mind, namely estranged from the very study of books to which they had devoted their lives.

Garber notes the “odd ‘contemporaneity'” of Alberti’s comments, suggesting that such an observation is as common among people she knows today as it was over five hundred years ago. And as a Harvard professor of English (as well as something called Visual and Environmental Studies), her familiarity with this cynical attitude is even more damning. If well-paid Harvard faculty have lost the faith and no longer believe that the “study of books” is worth it, what of the rest of us?

Just as damning is a scene in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. The hero, Conrad, is providing home care for an elderly couple, one of whom is a retired English professor. When he mentions his own interest in poetry the retired prof responds in a speech worthy of one of Alberti’s distinguished scholars:

“Twenty-three,” said the old man, still not looking at him. “That’s a good age to be interested in literature. You have so much time . . .you have so much it seems to be spilling out of your pockets. You don’t need to worry about what an incalculable luxury literature is. Entire civilizations are founded without any literature at all and without anybody missing it. It’s only later on when there’s a big enough class of indolent drones to write the stuff and read the stuff that you have literature. When I saw all those eager hands sticking up as I taught, I always wanted to tell them what I’ve just told you, but what right did I have to play the iconoclast after making a living my whole life taking it seriously, or at least with a straight face?”

“Literature’s a sort of dessert,” he concludes, breaking into tears. “Life’s about cruelty and intimidation.” To help make his point a gangster then breaks in and terrorizes the old man’s wife until Conrad manages to scare him off.

All of those books, all of that poetry at the tips of one’s fingers . . . what good is it? What’s the point of reading literature anyway?

Marjorie Garber and John Carey are both distinguished literary scholars in their own right, so we might come to them expecting answers to questions like these. From Professor Garber, however, we only get more questions. This is both deliberate (she thinks that “one of the defining characteristics of literature and literary study is to open questions, not to close them”), and also something inherent in modern academic prose. Purporting to address a general audience, her writing is wrapped in layers of careful rhetorical tissue and rhetorical bubble-wrap, emphasizing the qualified, indeterminate, and provisional. It’s hard to know even what her title means.

Her main concern seems to be the defense of literary theory from its various critics, but even this is unclear. Discussing pop-lit bestsellers by Alain de Botton and Pierre Bayard she concludes that “decades after the culture wars worried about whether college students were being taught the right stuff, these books suggest that you can have a literary experience without having to bother to experience literature, and that it’s stylish – even cool – to do so.” This sounds somewhat critical, but even after going back and re-reading this section I can’t see where she offers an opinion on the matter either way. What does she think of this development? Is it something to be concerned about? Deplored, or celebrated?

Instead of arguing a thesis or engaging in any kind of intellectual analysis Garber only promotes an endless (since it “resists closure”) conversation full of all the usual banalities and platitudes, and accompanied, just as inevitably, with an injudicious sprinkling of scare quotes around words that have absolutely no need of them (e.g., “no interpretation of literature is ‘final’ or ‘definitive'”). Just how empty it all is can be illustrated by quoting a bit of it at length. Here she is comparing E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web with George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

In Orwell, animals become more like men, to their detriment; in White, men become more like animals, to their benefit. What remains “open” rather than “closed” however, is not only the ambivalent power of writing but also the question of interpretation. Political satire? Children’s story? Moral fable? Through the presence in both novels of the manifest theme of writing, reading, and interpretation, each becomes itself an allegory of the dangerous activity it describes and enacts.
This Möbius-strip structure – the shape of a surface with only one side that can be formed into a continuous loop – is a familiar image from modernist art and structure. It was a favorite, for example, of M. C. Escher, as well as a recurring presence in science fiction and time-travel narratives. This image goes back to ancient times, when it was associated, as we’ve seen, with the ouroboros, the serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail. Is this a figure of closure, or of its impossibility? The riddling form suggests that the answer to both is yes.

The temptation to skim is irresistible. What is all of this saying? What, for example, does the image of the Möbius strip really have to do with anything, since the structure it describes is only in Garber’s head? Literature, she vaguely concludes, is an ambivalent riddle containing a multiplicity of meaning open to further interpretation. But then so what? If the study of literature was this easy, I don’t see why it would be worth it.

Whatever else you want to say about him, John Carey is not one to write (in one of his own nice images) prose with “the precision of cooked spaghetti.” He is a writer with strong opinions, and in What Good Are the Arts? he’s not afraid to share them. At times he gets a little too breezy (his assertion that art was not regarded as art until late in the eighteenth century is absurd, and his attempt to defend the point in an Afterword added to the paperback edition doesn’t help a bit), but overall he is convincing. His rejection of the elitist pretensions of “high” art – the subject of an earlier book, The Intellectuals and the Masses – is again front and center, but his main targets this time are the various explanations given for the value of the arts. First he offers up a radically subjective definition of the subject, “What makes a work of art is that someone thinks of it as a work of art.” And so, for them, it is. Moving on, in short order he disposes of arguments that art can be a form of spirituality, that science can prove the worth of the arts by demonstrating some psychological or physiological benefit, and that art can in some way make us “better.”

That said, his conclusions are in fact quite similar to Garber’s. Much of the power of literature, which Carey sees as a superior art because of its ability to be self-critical and engage more fully with ideas, is seen as arising out of its “indistinctness” and ambiguity. Once again we are in the world of asking questions that have no answers.

That language cannot communicate meaning fully and finally is sometimes spoken of as a shortcoming, making language less useful than it might have been, whereas in fact this very inability to communicate fully and finally is a condition of literature’s existence.

Such indistinctness has “imaginative advantages,” as does literature’s grounding in the personal and arbitrary response of the reader. What all of this leads to, however, is the notion that literature plays “a vital role in strengthening our sense of self,” which sounds suspiciously like another way of saying it makes us better. Nor does Carey have a lot of evidence for why he thinks literature has this effect. In one study some prisoners apparently got something out of reading Lord of the Flies, but that’s about it.

Carey does make the argument that the arts need to be made less remote to the wider public, but he doesn’t specifically address the question of whether they will finally be worth it. And in asking that question I’m not only referring to the individual expense (in terms of both time and money), but also whether art for the masses is worth the public expense that keeps much of it on life support.

Let us be honest about this: without government funding there would be virtually nothing of what we traditionally think of as the arts today. Where would the money come from for art galleries and opera houses and publishing subsidies, not to mention funding university arts departments? As individuals and as a society we invest heavily in the arts. Is it worth it? Is it worth it for all of the unemployed and the underprivileged who don’t get to enjoy any of the benefits? Is it worth it for the young man whose twenty (plus) years of schooling landed him on the dayshift (if he was lucky)? Isn’t literature just a luxury, a sort of “dessert,” the enjoyment of which is just a kind of highbrow form of conspicuous consumption?

I would be derelict indeed in a review such as this if I didn’t try to offer some answers. Answers that will be, in the spirit of Carey’s essay, personal in nature.

When it comes to the study of literature it helps to take the long view. In its modern academic form this only started at the end of the nineteenth century. We should remember that for hundreds of years European universities had been dominated by the scholastic method and debates over arcane matters of theology, all of which is meaningless now. In time we may look back at deconstruction and post-structuralism in much the same way. Fashion and taste are an inextricable part of art history. There are no timeless universals. Gray emphasizes this:

If we are content on finding something of “universal” significance in our culture, it is likelier to be in science than art. Richard Dawkins, in his book A Devil’s Chaplain, imagines superior creatures from another star system (they will have to be superior, he notes, to get here at all) landing on our planet and acquainting themselves with our intellectual stock-in-trade. It is unlikely, he suggests, that Shakespeare, or any of our art and literature, will mean anything to them, since they will not have our human experiences and human emotions. Equally, if they have a literature or an art, they are likely to seem alien to our human sensibilities. But mathematics and physics are another matter.

This reminded me of The Possibility of an Island, where Michel Houellebecq has one of our “neohuman” descendants conduct just such a thought experiment:

I meditated for some time on grace, and forgetting; on what was best about mankind: its technological ingenuity. Nothing now remained of those literary and artistic productions of which mankind had been so proud; the themes that had given birth to them had lost all their relevance, their power to move had evaporated. Nothing was left, either, of those philosophical or theological systems for which men had fought, and sometimes died, and had even more often killed for; all that no longer aroused the slightest echo in a neohuman, we could no longer see in it anything more than the arbitrary ravings of limited and confused minds, unable to produce the slightest precise of simply practical concept. Man’s technological predictions, on the other hand, could still inspire respect: it was in this field that man had been at his best, that he had expressed his deepest nature, there he had attained from the outset an operational excellence to which the neohumans had been able to add nothing of significance.

I don’t agree with any of this. Science, I would argue, is just as much a human art as oil painting or poetry. And of course “universal” isn’t a standard to be applied to aliens. Nobody would make claims for art meaning anything to creatures without “human experiences and human emotions.” This is because art, and our engagement with art, really is an essential part of our “deepest nature.” This doesn’t mean art is necessarily good for us, just that it will always be with us. Porn, for example, first took shape in the Venus of Willendorf and is still being downloaded (nostalgically, or so we are told) by Houellebecq’s neohumans.

That said, it’s hard to make a case for the functional utility of the arts. With the advent of the Internet and the downgrading of all culture into content I expect things to get even worse in the near future, as art has to take up shop in what Jaron Lanier, in You Are Not a Gadget, sees as creativity ghettoes huddled outside of the prevailing economic system. Art will, in other words, become more and more a fringe activity.

Still, I would like to hold on to something. In part for selfish reasons: I like the idea of living in a world where there are still people who have read, and can discuss, Middlemarch. But utilitarian arguments can also be made. I see a world that has given up on literature as a very scary place. Literature does feed and exercise the imagination, which is something worth promoting. It encourages engagement with the ideas of others, taking us outside ourselves in ways that the Internet, which cocoons us within a seamless web of self, is constitutionally opposed to. And finally it helps to develop critical thinking: “because [literature] is the only art capable of criticism, it encourages questioning, and self-questioning” (Gray). This is a skill and mindset our super-mediated age is much in need of.

That said, I think the institutionalized study of literature, at least on anything like the present scale, will eventually come to be seen as a historical anomaly. According to numbers provided by Garber the numbers of students pursuing English degrees is already at a post-WW2 low and trending down. This makes sense, and as the economy continues to weaken we should see a further contraction. As noted above, much of the arts are already on government life support now, and other forms of health care are likely to take precedence in the zero-sum game of public funding. The arts will have to adapt to this new environment.

It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations when the terms of the debate, words like “literature” and “art,” defy precise definition. It seems, however, that we have an innate natural capacity and desire to create and enjoy art. Put another way, art is an activity much like eating or fucking, and we’re going to keep right on “doing it.” I would like to see it done well, responsibly and with gusto, as this will make both for healthier citizens and a healthier society.

Review first published online May 2, 2011.