Commonplace Book: Moral Philosophy, Religious Criticism, the Hatred of Literature, and the New Censorship

[Introducing a new series of posts: Commonplace Book, a weekly compilation of links to things I’ve read, with occasional commentary. Commonplace Book takes over from my now-dormant Tumblr, grandhotelabyss, and this first entry, to ease us all into the transition, is comprised of recent Tumblr posts.]

Agnes Callard, “Who Wants to Play the Status Game?”:

There is a philosophical conundrum at the root of all this: morality requires we maintain a safety net at the bottom that catches everyone—the alternative is simply inhumane—but we also need an aspirational target at the top, so as to inspire us to excellence, creativity and accomplishment. In other words, we need worth to come for free, and we also need it to be acquirable. And no philosopher—not Kant, not Aristotle, not Nietzsche, not I—has yet figured out how to construct a moral theory that allows us to say both of those things.

Morality as it pertains to individuals in everyday life is either easy—be nice to strangers and acquaintances—or impossible—what are the authentic mutual obligations of intimates? It therefore either doesn’t merit theorizing, in the first case, or, in the second, is only worthwhile as subject matter not for theory but for long, labyrinthine novels, preferably written by George Eliot or Henry James. I am impressed, though, at how well the above paragraph scales up beyond individual morality into a political theory, whatever one thinks of it. Insofar as Callard’s implied political critique is twofold—the right is inhumane for arguing against safety nets; the left is destructive for toppling aspirational targets—then the political solution is clear: eliminate poverty, and what inequality persists after that will be just.

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Becca Rothfeld, “The Joy of Text: James Wood’s Inspired Reading”:

The caricature, of course, is of a palate stable in its stuffiness: Detractors picture Wood as a tireless advocate of the mannered realism that died out with Flaubert. But in fact he is much harder on shopworn realists like le Carré than he is on experimentalists like his beloved Krasznahorkai. He adores Hrabal, who dashed off a novella in a single sentence, and esteems Knut Hamsun, a master of modernist enigma.

A point somehow missed by a whole generation—Wood’s modernist critique of realism—here made with concision and elegance. I say this as someone once persuaded, and then very much not persuaded, by Wood’s aesthetic strictures. I recently re-read a couple of the brilliant hatchet-jobs that made Wood’s name in the ‘90s, the ones from The Broken Estate left out of the apparently more genial retrospective collection Rothfeld reviews. I admired the passionate prosecutorial sharpness as much as I did when I was 19, and who would fail to admire a working reviewer with a coherent aesthetic system? But the system leaves out too much—or at least, if I’m being honest, different things than I would leave out. When he accuses Updike or Morrison of being profligate with description and metaphor, of lavishing excess language on the world unjustified or untroubled by those epistemological questions asked by certain modernists early and late, I can’t help but hear the voice of the philosopher expelling the poets. Amusingly, identity politics says Morrison and Updike are opposites, but they’re close kin according to Wood’s aesthetics, and mine. The dispute, as Wood would be the first to observe, might be theological before it is literary, still less political. For me, salvation is earned by works; for Wood, by faith alone.

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Jon Baskin, “On The Hatred of Literature”:

Going back to Plato—perhaps the first hater of literature on record—philosophers and religious authorities have attacked art for the same reasons our professors taught us to deconstruct and distrust it: because it is unpredictable, unreasonable and often inconsistent with their preferred politics or morality. It was also a lesson that was destined, in the years that followed, to seep off campus. Even as New Historicism fell out of fashion in literary studies—along with the broader postmodern notion of “critique” that had produced it—the students it had trained were taking up positions in the public intellectual magazines and book reviews, where they now preside over the gradual disappearance of a distinctively literary mode of criticism: a criticism, that is, that attends to matters of form, style and character, that takes aesthetic experience seriously, and that appreciates the emotions inspired by an artwork as fully as, and as constitutive of, its politics. To the extent that this disappearance has gone unremarked, it is because the hatred of literature, though it remains almost unheard of among the general reading public, has become the default mode in the upper reaches of our literary culture. As was the case in my college survey course, the highest honors go to the most eloquent haters.

This should be read in conjunction not only with the censoriousness below, but with The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent proclamation of literary studies’ imminent institutional death. How to take this development? There is unseemly schadenfreude to be had in watching it happen to thinkers complicit in their own usurpation—thinkers who would rather be turned out in the storm than admit that Schiller or Arnold may have had a point, thinkers who would not confess under torture the plain and obvious truth that all their Foucauldian cultural studies and poststructural “Marxism” were so serviceable to the money-men that the money-men might as well have authored those theories in the first place. The social citadel of literature had to be demolished so that Marvel/Disney, YA fiction, and the imperial surveillance state could reign, this in the name of liberation. And literature itself? Literature is “simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree,” is simply “news that STAYS news”—let it live outside the law. Students come to me in despair. I tell them that if they were set down at almost any time in human history, they would see audiovisual spectacle as the cultural dominant and authoritarianism as the central political fact. Remember Shelley: the spectacle and the tyrant will be buried alike, shattered in the dunes of time, and poetry alone will live. So write it.

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“Dear Oprah: 138 Writers Ask You to Reconsider American Dirt:

This is not a letter calling for silencing, nor censoring. But…

In a forking timeline, of course, Oprah developed a taste for the neomodernist-Sebaldian and chose petition-signer Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archivea brilliant novel, for her book club instead. In that timeline, the critics who assailed Luiselli for her use of the “vanishing Indian trope,” and for what some regarded as her irresponsible dissimulation of her own and her characters’ specific racial and immigration status, devised a similar petition and convinced all the same people to sign it, plus Jeanine Cummins, probably. Luiselli is only a synecdoche here; a similar story could be told about a number of the signatories, if not all of them. A generation or two back in our timeline, writers organized not to assail but to protect the right of another author both to publish and to promote his work undisturbed, even though his book had been accused of more than the famous blasphemy charge: it had been criticized, too, and not unreasonably, for dealing unkindly with migrants. But the guild-consciousness of writers said that the freedom to write, speak, publish, and promote underwrote the freedom to criticize, and so had to be defended first.


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