Why Read Literature Part 2: We Still Need Scalpels

By Mark McConaghy

In part one of this series, I asked the question: why read literature in this day and age? What can literature actually do to better humanity? While intellectuals, professors, and graduate students may feel that an answer to such a question is readily apparent- literature Enlightens! Enthralls! Nurtures our Soul!- I have always found it necessary to justify the things we take for granted. Indeed, if ideology is anything, it is precisely those things we take for granted. Those elements of “common sense” and “general knowledge” that are so accepted that they don’t need justification, for they simply just are. Like death or the free market.

Of course, it is precisely in those common sense truths that our ideological blind spots are to be found. For it is those truths which we accept without question that, in very precise ways, structure the very limits of thought itself. We cut ourselves off at the knees without even knowing it, all the while thinking our thought is open and limitless.

If cultural criticism has any role in the 21st century, it must be to rigorously attack those truths which we hold dear, to tear them from their place of un-inspected complacency, open them up, expose them to light, and reveal how they have structured just how and what it is possible to think in our present day. Any movement such as ours- that takes as its goal the elimination of human suffering forever- would have to begin with an attack on those forms of thought that produce, perpetuate, and legitimize violence in our social system, accepting it as a necessary outcome of the social process itself.

The Task of Cultural Criticism in the 21st Century
The Role of Criticism in the 21st Century

So in the spirit of rigorous inspection, I ask once again: given our addiction to digital media, our waning attention spans, and the anachronistic nature of sheer textuality itself, why should one defend literature as a field of discourse that digitized citizens should invest their time in, either as potential readers or, more dauntingly, as potential writers prepared to throw employment security away for the pursuit of their artistic dreams?

Language, unlike film, stays static on the page. It is nothing but symbols placed together, a code like any other, one that can mean the world to someone fluent in it but can mean literally nothing to someone for whom it is foreign. There is no guarantee that language can flow sensuously, as film so often does. Film is a medium whose visual form ensures it a proximity to a kind of pan-linguistic universality that literature could only hope to reach, tied as it is to its inevitable rootedness in a particular local or national linguistic milieu, one that does not reach to the level of “worldly art” until it has been translated into the colonial langua-franca of the modern age: English.

Indeed, the entire paradigm of “world literature” as a kind of universal republic of letters designed to nurture all people, regardless of national or ethnic affiliation, is dogged from the first by the rootedness of language itself: can Tolstoy in translation really be considered Tolstoy in his full genius? Ask anyone who has ever translated anything into another language: something is always lost in the epic leap one takes when replacing one word with another between languages.

Yes, you may point out that film requires subtitles in translation and that something inevitably is lost there as well. And yet translating vernacular dialogue, which makes up the vast majority of linguistic utterance in a film, is not nearly as difficult as translating densely constructed prose, where even the slightest change of word placement can affect the entire rhythm, feel, and architecture of a sentence. Something is inevitably lost in a film’s subtitles as well, one would be crass to suggest otherwise. And yet there is a tremendous amount that is left in place as well- the music, lighting, camera work, acting, editing, pacing, etc…The bones of the art work don’t need to be translated, from start to finish, into a foreign patois, as is the case with literature.

How can the immobility of the printed word compete with this?
How can the Immobility of the Printed Word Compete With This?

All of which is to say, one can add the ease of transnational mobility to the already convincing set of reasons that buffet the case for digital visuality as the dominant cultural medium of the 21st century.

In the face of this dominance, wither literature?

Any defense of literature must, at the beginning, admit its deficiencies, all of which have been exhaustively discussed in part one of this post. Of course literature is hampered by the sheer density of language itself. It does not move; it does not have a guaranteed sensuality to it; it requires the patience of readers in order to make it live. If it does not have such a committed readership, it is literally dead on the page, inert, motionless, nothing but scribbles thrown into the wind of history.

And of course it is much more difficult to engage with than digital visuality: it requires active movement of the eyes and the conscious faculties of imagination. One cannot simply just sit back and let literature flow around one, as one can with such wondrous ease in the face of youtube clip after youtube clip.

One cannot, I believe, argue for the power of literature by trying to technically compare it to film, where it will inevitably come up as lacking in accessibility, speed, and popularity.

The power of a literary discourse in our age, whether it be the slightest of poetic fragments or the orchestral grandeur of a Jonathan Franzen novel, lies in its anachronistic slowness. In the responsibility of attention and concentration that a literary work requires from us. Film is like a transparent map that is unfurled in front of us- so many of the connections, the structure, the levels are already made clear to us by formal design (think of music cues, curtly plots twists, the swirling momentum of montages, etc.). Film is almost impossibly manipulative in the sensuous power it has over us, engaging so many of our senses all at once.

Literature, on the other hand, has much less of an immediate sensuality. It cannot really ever knock our socks off the way a Christopher Nolan film projected on a 50 foot Imax screen can. A dear classmate of mine at NYU’s film school put it best. Over coffee I once asked him why, given how talented a writer he was, he had not decided to pursue writing fiction instead of movie making, given what a logistical nightmare making films are. He simply flashed a sly grin and replied that, while he did love novels, they just lacked the oomph that films had. As he said this he punched his fist into his hand, as if that one simple gesture could explain the complex difference between the two arts forms.

But literature’s lack of punch is, in my opinion, precisely where its strength lies. For, in a moment of dialectical reversal, literature’s seeming ghastly impotence in the face of the visual becomes, in fact, the very source of its value, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Literature requires the investment of mental energy in order to truly make the art form live. As our eyes flit across word after word on a page, an entire mental world must be imagined by us as we go along with the words in front of us. The words are just the beginning, the shaded outline if you will, which the reader must him or herself color in. The words guide and mould our responses to the text, but only to a point.

The reader always has the right to laugh at, scoff off, belittle, and walk away from what is in front of them. Even in the totalitarian societies of the 20th century, in which the texts a student could read were rigidly proscribed for them, you always had the power to silently, in your own mind, reject the Party-created drivel in front of you. Sometimes the last line of defense when all social progress has been stifled, democracy abridged, and violence completely legitimized is a form of resistance that has no textual presence, no name or identity, but exists solely in the mental worlds of responsible people who are powerless.

In any event, literature’s first mark of importance is precisely this: its density. Where films are so often all surface and flash, brazen movement through the lives and histories they show us, text is density. It plunges inward, into the depths of sentences and paragraphs, with our readerly eye pushing the process forward.

As such, literature has a capacity for interiority that few other art forms possess. It can bring us into the deepest reaches of the interior psyche of its characters, fleshing out the rhythms of their thoughts, quirks, and most repressed desires with complete authorial power. In the span of a couple of sentences, a person’s entire life-world can be cuttingly articulated, guts and all.

The Density of Language
The Density of Language

Literature’s penchant for interiority does not just stop at characterization. A writer, as Lu Xun so aptly told us all those years ago, is a doctor. He or she diagnoses the internal diseases, the un-acknowledged cancers, the violences large and small that dehumanize a society. Thus a piece of literature, no matter how seemingly self-interested, personal, experimental, or nonsensical it is, is tied to the social in an irrevocable way, even if sets itself up as completely uninterested in social critique itself. Apathy to the social is, as the theorists so often tell us, a form of sociality itself.

Thus a society should preserve and support literature, no matter how anachronistic it seems in the face of other art forms, because the best of literary discourse is like a scalpel on the social body, cutting through the layers of fat and misinformation that clog social discourse, getting straight to the heart of the matter: what are the real problems, the confounding personal deformities, the convulsive traumas that prevent us from creating a more human future?

Simply put, literature, be it in the form of a grand symphonic novel or the tiniest of poetic fragments, reveals to us how and why we hurt. How and why we are broken.

If it can do that, it can provide us not only comfort, but an ethical road map to addressing those wounds and building a better society.

Literature then becomes what?

It is part social diagnosis, part ethical philosophy, part utopic projection, part entertainment (in the form of a good story well told), and part psychoanalytic deconstruction of its primary characters. If a piece of literature can’t somehow hold in tension all of these critical tasks before it, if it confines itself to being mere entertainment, or if it overemphasizes its diagnostic function at the expensive of the joyful play of language, or if it becomes a trite political manifesto, than it fails. It will be a partial literature, a literature we can take or leave.

But pure literature- Literature literature- must somehow take in upon itself all of these tasks. It must, as if by some impossible miracle, take all of them up within the various layers of the text itself, crystallizing an historical moment in the folds of its sentences, a work of language that provides a jolt into history itself, a trip-wire that explosively forces upon us all of the most pressing issues, dilemmas, and traumas of a particular place at a particular moment.

Literature as Scalpel
The Pen as Scalpel

In this way, literature becomes more historical than history, more truthful than the most factually accurate textbooks in all of their archive-sanctioned authority.

And yet our emphasis on literature as a laborious work of language signals another critical aspect of this art form that we must recognize: despite all of the critical tasks that literature must take upon itself, it must accomplish all of these in as indirect and subtle a manner as possible.

Literature must make a critical political point, but it cannot do so in a crude manner. It must do so through plot, characterization, rhetorical effect, the delicacy of language itself. If a work of literature boringly lists all the problems society is facing, it becomes nothing more than a newspaper editorial. If literature works in too direct a fashion, if you feel the presence of the author’s mission behind every sentence and in every character, than it loses its rhetorical power and political efficacy.

This has always been the confounding nature of literature. It is imminently political and undoubtedly social, and yet it can neither be too political nor too social at the same time. It must keep a distance from direct political sentiment even as, cumulatively speaking, the text itself must work as a direct shot to the political establishment it is written in opposition to.

Literature thus has an impossible mission ahead of itself: to be political, but tactfully so; to be diagnostic, but not clinically so; to lead major social change, without turning itself into the crude mantras of a street protest.

And here we come back to one of the major challenges literature faces in this day and age. The 24 hour news cycle, the complete obliteration of private lives, an information society’s desire for transparent, easily understood facts…all of this ensures that the indirectness which literature needs in order to succeed is hopelessly out of place in this age of digital instancy.

Literature’s indirectness seems too slow, too patient, too quiet a form of social protest in a day and age where subtlety has been lost and rhetoric whittled down to the length of a sound-bite.

And is this not why literature seems more and more like a specialized sub-field of cultural discourse rather than the propulsive force that defines the cultural field itself? Literature has become a field of semi-leisure/semi-critique whose lax rhythms and individuated consumption pales in comparison to the bombast of network media, the grandeur of the filmic blockbuster, the attention-grabbing immediacy of the hit TV show, and the diaglossic cacophony of the youtube canon.

In a world of direct immediacy, how can the indirect and the patient survive?

Is this why we now feature “political analysts” and “professional pundits” as the talking heads that define our cultural discourse, where in a quainter age we would have felt it was the writer who alone had the social knowledge and moral virtue to pass judgement on our times?

The Writer as Society's Moral Conscience
The Writer as Society’s Moral Conscience

Literature is in a curious position of being more accessible than ever (digital databases, kindles, and the still dependable existence of national library systems), more stably grounded in our thinking about national cultures…and yet less relevant to our future than ever before, less powerful and important in shaping our public thought.

Not because the kind of scalpel-sharp literature we need right now is not being written. Read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and you will come away with all you need to know about the pathos and the tragedy of the last decade of American life. It is simply that literature has reached a formal impasse, edged out of popular consciousness more and more by increasingly powerful digital mediums whose privileged sheen, prolific speed,  and downright fun allows them to outstrip literary production in an unfair contest of might and force.

Has literature ever seemed like a more 19th century art form than it does today, in the face of the digital sleekness of the Ipad and the instant accessibility of our netflix cues?

Writers, editors, and critics should not underplay these real challenges facing literature. But nor should our recognition of them be reason for despair.

For literature-as-scalpel is still needed today. We need, now more than ever, prophets of the social who can cut through the commodified rhetoric and tell us what the real stakes of our history are.

Literature’s influence has always, ultimately, been only as great as those who decide to read it. To ensure the vitality of literature, no amount of government support or academic encouragement can replace the sheer force of readers clamoring for more of the scalpel-sharp diagnosis that literature can bring. All efforts to promote literature thus must begin with the nurturing of current and future readers.

And to develop readers, one needs to develop people with patience, openness, and genuine intellectual curiosity about the world. That is to say, you need people with precisely those critical faculties that our current popular culture seems intent on obliterating completely.

To be a reader of literature is thus itself already a political position, one that resists all the flattening forces of a contemporary culture that stays on the surface all the time, that is content with the easy answer in the face of moral terror, and that obliterates our sense of the time and the space needed for genuine critical thought.

Indeed, the task of valuing literature may be greater than even I here have stated.

It may be, in the end, nothing short of a form of cultural resistance against all the diminishing forces in our digitized, media-embossed society that, quite literally, obliterate what it means to be human in the fullest and most critical sense of the term.

For in the face of surface, literature promises depth. In the face of speed, it promises lethargy. In the face of optimistic emptiness, it promises wounded truth.

It cannot but be a marginal aesthetic form in our current day and age. And yet it is precisely from this marginality that literature must gain its strength and steel itself.

For we still need scalpels.

They pave the way for those wielding battle-axes in the street, pushing forward towards a radically different, fundamentally more human social world.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books.

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