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Literature is Dead, Long Live Literature

By (January 1, 2011) No Comment

Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature

By Gregory Jusdanis
Stanford University Press, 2010

We are knee-deep in a pool of forecast and fatalism. For too long, critics bemoaning the alleged demise of literary standards have held a confident sway, their tireless exclamations of death and disintegration resounding annually in the columns of magazines and the web. Leading novelists like Philip Roth habitually proclaim the death of reading as a discipline, egged on by imposing figures like Harold Bloom, who seems to have been lamenting the death of literature since the death of Shakespeare. These polemics are necessary, sure, but there is a danger of cramping or obscuring the art they set out to defend in the first place. The result is counterproductive. “In their solemn The novel is dead, there sounds a Platonist Let it be dead,” Ralph Ellison remarks, and I’m with him on that. Good writing is its own defense; writers don’t need to be propagandists, too.

As a contribution to current debate, Professor Gregory Jusdanis’s Fiction Agonistes: A Defense of Literature is a much-needed tonic. Relying on his powers of levelheadedness, Jusdanis skillfully dismantles a number of preconceived notions about the function of literature in society. The threats from which he seeks to defend the theory and practice of literature are basically two different threats, one from within and one from without. The former is precisely the fatalism of literature’s highest priests, particularly with regards to the future of writing. The threat from without, which occupies the majority of this book, is the need for literature to defend itself against external forces, particularly in order to prove itself relevant and useful.

Jusdanis is clearly concerned with how we talk about literature, both inside and outside the academic environment. He partly faults teachers and professors (including himself), for having failed to provide “students a rationale for taking classes of literature, as opposed to those in history, geography, economics, or psychology.” We have, according to Jusdanis, lost the ability to articulate clearly why it is that the study of literature is important. “Why are we silenced by art?” he asks. “Why are we, who study and write about the various arts, so hard pressed to defend their value…why do we search clumsily for a rationale for what we do?” The current relationship of literature to society, Jusdanis argues, is more unstable than is usual, and as an art form it has had to “justify itself in a way not necessary before.”

Jusdanis traces this current predicament of the literary arts back to Plato, and to the central dilemma of poetry: “to justify itself by claiming expertise outside its realm but then stand accused of appropriating undue authority.” Poetry, ever on the defensive, internalized Plato’s condemnation and constructed its own sphere of specialization, becoming, in the most extreme cases, l’art pour l’art. The slide into aestheticism is a looming threat, and Jusdanis posits the modern critique of literature as a question of its autonomy: “we accuse [literature] of withdrawal from history and its own isolation.”

The predicament is not necessarily a new one, but the tension between the autonomy of art and the external forces of history and politics have heightened throughout the course of the twentieth century, which saw unprecedented calamities and slaughter, coupled with an increasing dissemination of information. Politics became, in some sense, more accessible, and therefore more influential, not least in the study of literature, where, among other things, feminist theory and Marxist theory contributed to opening up literary texts to surrounding constellations of thought and experience. Not that Jusdanis seems particularly interested in the question of what exactly the merits of certain schools of thought are. As I was reading Fiction Agonistes, I sometimes found it difficult to place its author. This isn’t meant as a criticism; on the contrary, I think it an ambition of Jusdanis, in this book, to rise above squabbles about the reaches and limits of queer theory and to simply ensure that such discussions can take place. A democratic spirit imbues the book; Jusdanis quotes liberally from a wide range of critics and scholars as if they were all in the same boat together, striving to keep literature afloat on the tumultuous sea of modernity. Nothing, it seems, is too expansive; the expansion of literature never collapses into limit, but merely opens up our definition of it.

Author Gregory Jusdanis

The main thrust of Jusdanis’s democratic theory is his notion of the ‘parabatic’ capacity of literature. On the one hand, art should be autonomous, its study determined by aesthetics more so than politics; on the other hand, an art that does not respond to or take notice of mass murder and genocide runs the risk of being irrelevant, even reactionary. Jusdanis’s solution is paradoxical, and rightly so. He formulates and sustains a case for the reconciliation of the antithetical notions of autonomy and social critique. In a brilliant and revelatory section on Kant’s aesthetics, Jusdanis shows that the autonomy of art is essential if art is to function socially and politically. Though he has frequently been reprimanded as the father of modern aestheticism, Kant actually “reinforced the critical dimension of humanistic enquiry against an unbending theology and a steely state.” In doing so he placed art in a universal sphere that encourages a collective practice, or what Jusdanis refers to as a “process of social exchange.” Open to all, art becomes “a dialogical process,” and therefore both autonomous (it exists in a defined, separate sphere) and political (it invites collective critique and experience.) In a section titled “Only Autonomous Art Can Be Political,” he writes:

The idea that the art world was free of social and state control opened up a conceptual forum in society from which artists and intellectuals were able to criticize a host of oppressive systems from absolutism to capitalism, from sexism to imperialism. The exercise of intellectual freedom was primarily an aesthetic enterprise, based on the call that art should be free, originally from the priest, the prince, and then from the entrepreneur, the police, and the bureaucrat. In other words, the capacity of intellectuals to evaluate reigning social, cultural, and political norms was ensured by the dominion originally declared for art.

This argument – the merging of two opposing notions in the theory and criticism of literature – forms a kind of counter-narrative to prevailing opinions.  Art “criticizes society by merely existing,” Jusdanis quotes Adorno; its autonomy is precisely what is oppositional, and therefore political. This is because art’s autonomy is never fully autonomous; “we need, in other words, counterversions of nature, to examine the difference between a reality and its imagined reconstruction.” The autonomous sphere in which literature exists is always in dialogue with the real world to which it is a response. This is the “tension between artifice and verisimilitude” that Jusdanis considers essential to our understanding of the world. “Knowing the world is a matter of interacting with truth and fiction.”
The only real problem with Jusdanis’s arguments is that they lack textual support. His choice of literary texts – John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Eudora Welty’s “No Place for You, My Love” – leave something to be desired. In a discussion of the political capacity of literature, wouldn’t Milan Kundera or Stendahl or Irving Howe have been appropriate to bring in? Or some of the contemporary novels that deal with the political concerns of our time, such as Ian McEwan’s Saturday or Elias Khoury’s Yalo?

The final chapter of Fiction Agonistes, “The Future of a Fiction,” envisions, in keeping with the largely amiable and compromising spirit of the book, a less dire future for literature. “I propose we move beyond the celebration of or mourning over art’s death, avoiding the language of the Götterdämmerung and the sack of Troy and recast the situation as a transition,” Professor Jusdanis writes. This, of course, is the threat within literature, the danger that those of us whose task it is to defend literature against exterior threats resign ourselves to fatalism or disillusionment. Few critics I know of are as sober on this issue as Jusdanis; on the hand, he welcomes the transition of literature from being confined to print to being increasingly digititalized. On the other hand, he recognizes as utopian and unrealistic the claims that such transitions will fundamentally revolutionize literature.

In a reading of Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel, which takes the encyclopedic form of, for instance, Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, Jusdanis concludes that it “asserts the longevity of storytelling,” despite its being a radically postmodern work:

If there is indeed a tug-of-war today between database and narrative, mirroring the push-and-pull image of author and reader in Pavić’s preface, then this novel ends up confirming the power of narrative to give meaning to stacks, rows, and columns in the archive. Or rather, it says that, in the Bouvard-and-Pécouchet world of infinitely expanding references, stories are still vital as is the distinction between fact and fable.

The hypertext, then, does not necessarily spell out the doom of literature, despite the promise of the Internet to “make all readers into Bouvards and Péchuchets.” Nor does it, in Jusdanis’s view, resemble anything quite so earth-shattering as its proselytizers make it out to be. In particular, the argument that the hypertext will liberate the reader from the constraints of linearity, page numbers and authorial bullying, is shaky at best. “As any social construction, it entangles readers in its own web of protocols,” he writes, classifying hypertext writing as simply another literary genre, useful primarily as “a critique of the printed text rather than its successor.”

Here, again, I think, more attention to literary texts would have been appropriate. Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, seems indispensable to any discussion of literature and the internet, but also contemporary novels like J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year or Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story would have helped illumine Jusdanis’s arguments. Both novels are formally innovative and suggest ways in which the traditional form of a print novel can respond to and challenge the more nebulous digital text. Both Coetzee and Mandanipour manage to incorporate on the page multiple stories; Coetzee by sectioning the page into three different narratives, and Mandanipour, similarly, by telling three aspects of the same story at once; the one that will pass the Iranian censors, the parts of it that won’t, and finally the counternarrative about the struggle of writing against censorship in the first place. If what we are witnessing today is merely a shift in technology, then I think Coetzee and Mandanipour have increased the book’s longevity.

In his own vision of the future, Greogry Jusdanis constructs a discourse within literature itself, of which hypertext writing is merely a new development, a new voice. (The Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas says in an interview that “there is no radical division between the printed and the digital word, as they would have us perceive, only continuity.”) Our efforts spent worrying about the ability of literature to exist in a digitalized age are therefore misplaced, Jusdanis seems to argue. The efforts should be directed elsewhere, against the external threats that, since the time of Plato, have held literature in suspicion. “We have so little confidence in the efficacy of the arts within the public sphere,” he writes early on. The many Death of [fill in blank] polemics are merely symptoms of this lack of confidence, rather than solutions to it. As an alternative, Jusdanis encourages us to rethink the ways in which talk about literature, and in allowing it in all its complex semiautonomy, to simply speak for itself.

Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. His writing has appeared in Words Without Borders Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation and The Critical Flame. He writes a literary blog for the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten.