I Too Dislike It

The Hatred of Literature BY Professor William Marx. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 240 pages. $29.

Vladimir Nabokov saw the beginnings of literature in a familiar idiom. He imagined a boy “running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels.” The child was shouting, reasonably and referentially enough, “Wolf, wolf.” But this alone was not literature. “Literature was born,” Nabokov says, “on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him.”

So literature is a kind of lying? Well, yes, among other things. The ideal definition was offered early in the game, long before the word literature was used by anyone. The formulation is so sly and full of what it is not saying that we might think it was devised by Henry James rather than by Hesiod’s Muses. “We know how to tell many falsehoods that seem real,” these goddesses said, “but we also know how to speak truth when we wish to.” This is among their first remarks to Hesiod as they set about teaching him “beautiful song.” Literature cannot exist without the possibility of lying, but as we learn from an old Hollywood movie, The Ox-Bow Incident, there’s truth in lies if you get enough of them. There are rich modes of untruth too, of course.

In The Hatred of Literature, first published in French in 2015 and now skillfully translated by Nicholas Elliott, William Marx has fine things to say about the Muses, those of Hesiod and others. (“The Iliad,” he notes, “presents itself both as a single long prayer to the Muse and as an actual song sung by the Muse.”) They are figures, Marx suggests, for the belief that “the poet’s knowledge is only borrowed,” and that stories were granted to storytellers by external powers. These “words from elsewhere,” as one of his chapter titles calls them, were all we had until philosophy and science took over and assured us that knowledge was not such a fragile or oblique affair after all.

Marx also offers what he calls a “variation” on the Nabokov story that is a considerable enrichment of it.

There is a big leap from “I’m off to find us a mammoth for lunch” to “Daddy said: ‘I’m off to find us a mammoth for lunch.’” . . . The leap is even greater to “And the Great Goddess said: ‘Let us create mammoths so that humans can have lunch.’”

The first leap takes us into reported speech, “an act of violence against ordinary utterance,” since utterers are supposed to be present when uttering; the second leap extrapolates an origin for the very possibility of an utterance of this kind. It “imagines the words of a fictional and distant creature”—and what’s more, of a creature who can create. By the end of the book Marx is proposing a lyrical endorsement of the works that enact this possibility. They

speak of the world, of humans, gods, politics, hearts and feelings, memories and the future, what did not and will never take place, and what might happen after all. . . . They create new universes and new cities, rename the real, transform it, abolish it, idealize it, leave it intact. They make me exist.

With a friend like this, we might think, who could have enemies? As his title makes clear, this is not at all Marx’s question. The first words of his book are “Literature is a source of scandal,” and by his second paragraph he is arguing that literature needs to be opposed: “There is no literature without anti-literature.” We might think of Raymond Williams’s careful start to his entry in Keywords: “Literature is a difficult word, in part because its conventional contemporary meaning appears, at first sight, so simple.” This is not Marx’s style, but his point is similar, even if he enjoys contradicting himself: Literature “has been a permanent opponent—public enemy no. 1—the thing we most love to scorn, attack, and belittle. Literature is always the weakest, most suspect discourse, the one that is always on the verge of going out of fashion and being left behind.” The contradiction almost disappears, though, when we realize what Marx is worried about. He needs to keep the thought of literature’s enemies alive because there is something “far worse” than any hatred of it could be: indifference. I suspect Marx believes we may have already reached this condition, although he locates it in the possible future. In that case, there would be a certain poignancy in the perhaps too late last words of his book: “May the gods prevent that day from ever arriving.”

Marx’s book is organized around four trials (which he also calls “suits,” “fronts,” and “scenes”). Literature is prosecuted because it lacks authority, because it is not interested in the truth, because it is immoral, and because society doesn’t need it. In the first trial, dazzling definitions flit by although it is not clear whether they come from the prosecution or the defense: “Literature is the sleep of reason. . . . Literature is nostalgia for a fallen power. . . . Literature is what remains when the other discourses have completely taken over the field.” The second trial—which pits literature against science—is dominated by a very funny reconstruction of the 1950s controversy concerning “the two cultures.” According to Marx, chemist and novelist C. P. Snow, in his lecture proclaiming the division of scientific and literary languages, was not simply lamenting a failure of understanding between scientists and fiction writers; he was conducting a semi-concealed “unilateral criticism of the shortcomings and harmful effects of literary culture, and only literary culture.” I was surprised to read that the fame of the printed version of Snow’s lecture was “global” and “read around the world,” but perhaps the repetition of the claim represents wishfulness rather than history. One doesn’t want one’s enemies to shrink in size.

The third trial has at its center a remarkable-sounding work called De futilitate poetices, published in Amsterdam in 1697. Futility is the least of it. The writer, Tanneguy Le Fèvre, son of a poetry enthusiast and editor of the same name, seeks to “show that the art of poetry is one of the most harmful sources of ignorance, impiety, and every crime.” In a typical passage, Le Fèvre, revving himself up to shower scorn on Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, and Horace, writes: “If we examine the lives of the poets whose works are presented as the canons of art, we discover that some were drunkards, others debauched, others adulterers, and others yet were infected with execrable vices that are in our parts rightly punishable by death.”

The unfortunate hero of the fourth trial is Nicolas Sarkozy, given this role because of his remarks about La Princesse de Clèves in 2006, when he was Minister of the Interior in France. He said the presence of that novel on a syllabus for a civil service examination was the work of “some sadist or imbecile.” There was protest: public readings and discussions of the work, new books about it, a film adaptation. It would be agreeable to think this was a defense of literature rather than an attack on the minister, but I’m afraid the latter option is the more plausible. One of the most effective book titles of recent years is the philosopher Alain Badiou’s De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? (What is Sarkozy the name of?). The title of the English edition, The Meaning of Sarkozy, is also good but doesn’t catch the cruel mock-bewilderment of the French.

Marx’s most ingenious and effective rhetorical move is to take literature in its modern, post-Romantic sense, and then to find its enemies in times and places where the word had no hold. Literature as we know it did not exist in classical Greece, but Plato condemned poets, and considered their work an affront to truth. The philosopher, Marx says, “was not targeting literature as such . . . but something that would become literature.”

Plato, at one point called Chairman Plato, is the real villain of the book. He “already uses nearly all” of the arguments anti-literature will employ over the later centuries, and we “have most effectively, though unwittingly, realized his program.” The program was ostensibly to exile poets from the ideal republic, but it would have been, and has been, enough to make them irrelevant. Marx has a devastating formula for the Chairman’s theory: For Plato, “the lies of poetry are dangerous not because every lie is dangerous, but because every lie is dangerous when it is not told by the state.” Of course Marx knows that Plato was a writer, an employer of fictions and perfectly capable of irony, but he can’t really allow this aspect much play in his book. It would threaten to turn an enemy into a tricky friend. Marx tries to put the problem to rest by comparing Plato unfavorably with Homer: “There may be more human truth in book 11 of The Odyssey, in which Odysseus encounters the dead, than in the heavy-handed, allegedly scholarly myth of Er the Pamphylian” (in The Republic). More human truth: You don’t have to be C. P. Snow to think this claim might be a little slack.

Perhaps Marx’s finest example of an attack on literature—it appears in the second trial—is the response of the philosopher and historian Ernest Renan to being complimented on a piece of his literary prose. He laughed uncontrollably and at length. This is not hatred of literature, of course, just jovial scorn, entirely appropriate from a man who believed that the wonders of nature could outdo the wonders of poetry any day. “Even great art will disappear,” Renan wrote, putting words to his laughter. “The time will come when art will be a thing of the past, a creation made once and for all, a creation of the nonreflective ages, which man will adore but recognize no further need for.” It’s true that Renan also thought literature was a comfort and a defense against evil. But then he also believed that one day science would make evil disappear and all artists and writers would be out of a job. One of the many attractions of The Hatred of Literature is that it so lucidly shows the arrogance of such a fantasy and so wittily suggests something of what literature, “the ultimate illegitimate discourse,” can do when it seeks the opposite of comfort.

Michael Wood is the author, most recently, of On Empson (Princeton University Press, 2017).