Monday, March 26, 2012

"The Death of Literature"

Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature considers some themes that he revisited a few years later in his memoir In Plato's Cave.  Of the two books, I prefer the latter, for Kernan is a wonderful memoirist, whether writing about Great Lakes Naval Station or about Yale and Princeton. Yet I am glad to have read the former, for its treatment of a number of matters.

Copyright is one. It is useful to hear that MPAA and RIAA are not the first groups to try to extend copyright as far as possible, and then some. In the chapter "Literature and the Law", Kernan discusses Cambridge University Press's attempt to establish a definitive edition of D.H. Lawrence--whose works by then were leaving copyright--and to suppress other editions. And
There is nothing new in all this. London booksellers throught the eighteenth century, as we shall see, claimed what they called "perpetual rights," even though the clear wording of the 1709 copyright act limited ownership of a text to twenty-eight years. Only a judgment by the House of Lords brought the matter to a momentary end, but publishers and agents have continued to strive for what they consider justice, and the Lawrence texts are only one of a number of similar attempts in recent years to establish new copyrights on the basis of new editions of works that continue to sell well.
Second, there is his notice of Lionel Trilling's book Beyond Culture (1967), including
In the face of the anger loose on campus, Trilling belatedly and painfully had to recognize what we have seen in chapter 1, that since the last 1700s literature had its face set against the mainline social order. Acknowledging that the classics of modern literature are not politically or socially neutral, he perceived, apparently for the first time, a "bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through modern literature."
Indeed. I find in Jacques Barzun's The House of Intellect (1959), I find
Where have intellectuals learned, together with their anti-intellectualism, these diffident gestures of the spirit? The answer is: in the novel. The novel from its beginnings in Don Quixote and Tom Jones has persistently made war on two things--our culture and the heroic.
Barzun's book did not precede Trilling's essays by much; yet Barzun gives little indication of surprise.

Kernan concludes the book
 The last phase of the old romantic and modern literature rather than ending in the 1960s may have extended to a last apocalyptic period in which the angels of death [e.g. deconstruction] were not visitants from some other world but exaggerated versions of positions which, positive in their earlier forms, became destructive in their extremes. The beginnings of a new literature would then appear, if at all, only when some new way, plausible and positive, is voiced to claim for the traditional literary works a place of some importance or usefulness in individual life and for society as a whole.
I don't know. It is my impression that the lesser English departments of Kernan's generation had something to answer for in turning out newspaper critics who had learned to apply a pound of analysis to an ounce of reading, and to examine the lyrics of Johnny Cash with tools and seriousness suited to John Keats. And the word deconstruction, which was hardly a rumor in the 1970s, has escaped into general use: I've seen requests for bids that used "deconstruction" in place of "demolition"; and a ludicrously fat catalogue from Restoration Hardware arrived today with entries for various deconstructed armchairs--where it seems to involve burlap.

Yet I don't see a large effect on the reading of those who do read. The novels that are advertised and read are not radically different in structure or sentiment from those advertised and read 50 or 75 years ago. The professoriate as justly dislikes many of these novels as the older generation disliked many of the hyped novels of their day, and surely wrongs as large a proportion with undue praise or blame.

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