Entry from July 29, 2004

Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue,” writes Dana Gioia, the Endowment’s chairman in his introduction to that lament for the decline of literary reading in America. Maybe so, but they’re prepared to put up with the report’s sad news if the alternative is wading into controversy. It’s easy to shake the head and cluck the tongue about the fatal allure, particularly for the young, of television and the Internet, but what seems to me to be the primary cause of the public’s indifference to literature, namely the way it is now being taught in schools and universities, cannot be mentioned for fear of antagonizing the professoriate. As George Will put it, “Professors, lusting after tenure and prestige, teach that the great works of the Western canon, properly deconstructed, are not explorations of the human spirit but mere reflections of power relations and social pathologies.”

Those with long memories may remember how the National Endowment for the Arts came under fire in the eighties and early nineties for its support of controversial works, regarded as offensive by many, by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, whose “Piss Christ” remains to this day the one work of “modern” art that millions of ordinary people can name — because they regard it, not without reason, as representative of the dominant tendency in the arts today. But when it was briefly threatened with abolition during the Gingrich revolution, the Endowment began to think it the better part of valor to retreat into less controversial areas, and Mr Gioia, the chairman appointed by President George W. Bush, has been happy to continue this policy and keep a pretty low profile.

But now I think it is time for him to speak out against a kind of literary Dutch elm disease that is blighting and perhaps forever destroying so much beauty for generations to come. This is the pernicious influence among our academic scholars of the arts and humanities of what we might call neo-Marxism. Marxism itself may be and often is included in neo-Marxism — as they used to say in the dying days of the old Soviet Union, the only Marxists left were in American and Western European universities — but the essential thing about the tendency is its unspoken assumption that all human endeavor is reducible to power relationships. As Lenin put it: Who/Whom? Who is the oppressor and who are the oppressed? Who is the exploiter and who are the exploited? Once the world has been organized according to this pattern it becomes easy to repeat it endlessly.

Thus, just as the classical Marxist identifies the bourgeoisie as oppressors and the proletariat as the oppressed, for the Third Worlder the oppressors will become the rich countries of the West and the oppressed the poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America — many of them now not-so-poor; for the feminist the oppressors will be men and the oppressed women; for the homosexual the oppressors are sexual moralists, the oppressed any would-be libertines on whom they would “impose their values.” You see? It’s easy. The world is full of victimizers and their victims, if you only know where to look for them. And so it is that literary criticism, like history, sociology, philosophy, economics, theology and, indeed, all the humane studies, becomes an exercise in identifying both oppressor and victim beneath the smokescreen of God and religion or duty and honor or love and laughter that the dominant culture always throws up to disguise its various and inevitable adventures in viciousness and exploitation.

The beauty of the neo-Marxist tendency from the point of view of the intellectual is, first, that it guarantees him a job, since the essential business of identifying oppressors and victims requires years of academic training and is not to be left to mere amateurs, and, second, that its assumptions never have to be examined. Only a “classical” or “neo-liberal” economist, for example, would nowadays bother to examine the claim that the poor are poor because they are the victims of the rich; only a theist would care to consider the arguments for and against God’s existence. But the neo-liberal and the theist are discredited ex hypothesi, while the neo-Marxist can assume that the poor are exploited and that God does not exist because the now overwhelmingly neo-Marxist culture of the universities would simply collapse to the ground if he did anything else.

Short of closing down all the universities no measure recommends itself either to me or, I suppose, to the good people of the National Endowment for the Arts to remedy this lamentable situation. But at least they can be clear-eyed about the effect that it is having — that it must have — on a young reader. For if, by some fluke, such a reader arrives at university with some spark in him of love for literature still unextinguished by his high school English courses, it is sure to be doused in short order by professors whose attitude toward their subject is not one of the reverence and admiration that even middle-aged people can remember in their own teachers but one of mere contempt. He will be taught, if he persists in his literary studies, to feel the same contempt, the same sense of effortless superiority to the authors of the past whose only use is to provide examples of the various sorts of diabolical encodings with which the oppressor-cultures of their times have been able to mask a naked power lust. Once the trick has been learned, once the decodings and deconstructions have been accomplished and the results duly recorded in newer and better books by — who else? — the much wiser and cleverer professors, why would anyone bother reading the decoded and deconstructed works themselves again?

In other words, the situation described in the report is not an accidental result of the rise of electronic media but the structural consequence of a conscious decision taken by our intellectual élites to regard the monuments of Western literature and culture as nothing more than political window-dressing designed to conceal the oppressive realities of pre-revolutionary power structures. And once the skills of “close reading” and “practical criticism” as taught to previous generations have died out, superseded by those of feminist, post-colonial or “queer” studies or other forms of neo-Marxian analysis, the logical conclusion of the process will have been reached, where a fellowship of professors become the keepers of the sacred texts that justify, ironically, their own existence and no one else goes near them — the skills to understand them in any but the professors’ way having vanished.

Indeed, it is not clear how far even now we may have progressed down this road, since the report’s expansive, not to say promiscuous, definition of what constitutes “literary readers” includes “novel, short story, poetry, and play readers” undifferentiated as to what kind of novels, short stories, poetry or plays they have read. The 45.1 per cent of those surveyed who claimed to have read a novel or short story in the last year are not broken down as to whether they have read Danielle Steele or Tolstoy. My guess is that most of them are reading detective novels — which, after all, demand skills not unlike those involved in deconstructing Dickens or Trollope.

Both are exercises, that is, in semiotic decoding — puzzle-solving to the base vulgar — in which any loftier pleasures are uncovenanted and unusally unwelcome. As we would expect in such a case, there is plenty of evidence that the output of detective novels remains undiminished while signs of any new Dickenses or Trollopes on the horizon are, to say the least, few. This kind of reading bears the same relation to real “literary reading” that deconstruction bears to the old style of humane literary criticism — the kind, that is, that started from the assumption that the great works of the past were really great and that they still had things to teach us. Reading at Risk has nothing to tell us about how many people, if any, still believe this about works of literature, but why, if they do not — we should now seriously ask the wise men and women of the National Endowment for the Arts — should anyone bother to read them?

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