Commentary Magazine


Repentance and a Stand

Thinking about the situation in response to which men like Paul Goodman (p. 39) and Erich Heller (p. 47) have been driven—once again!—to make the case for literature; thinking about the hostility on all sides to literary values and the indifference to them where so recently there was respect, I found myself wryly remembering that once, as a practicing literary critic, I wrote the following sentences: “A literary critic ought—or so they tell me—to regard literature as an end in itself; otherwise he has no business being a literary critic. For better or worse, however, I do not regard literature as an end in itself. . . . I look upon it as a mode of public discourse that either illuminates or fails to illuminate the common ground on which we live.”

Now I meant by this to challenge the enormous confidence of the literary world of the 1940’s and 50’s, its smug insularity, and the sterile aestheticism into which, as it seemed to me, it had begun a catastrophic descent, with a mistaken idea of the autonomy of literature to justify and legitimate the fall. I had, I think, a point, and I would still wish to insist on a conception of the autonomy of literature based on the model of a sovereign nation engaged in lively commerce with the rest of the world rather than a xenophobic one turned in upon itself in fear of foreign influence. Nevertheless, knowing what I know now—how empty the confidence of the literary world actually was—and having seen what I have seen—a commuity unable to defend the values it holds in sacred trust against even the flimsiest charges of irrelevance or obsolescence or “elitism”—: knowing all this, I repent of those sentences that once upon a time I wrote.

Not everyone can, and perhaps not everyone should, regard literature as an end in itself, needing no justification from religion or science or politics or any other aggressively expansionist domain of human action or knowledge. But writers certainly should, critics should, and teachers should—just as “they” once told me. It was not for the better, it was for the worse, that I, a critic, refused to regard literature as an end in itself. For in practicing criticism without the license of that belief, I was fostering the growth of a vulgar idea of the relevance of literature and thereby helping to subvert both the general understanding of what the autonomy of literature truly means and the general esteem for the literary mode and the virtues distinctive to it—to it alone and to no other mode of expression or public discourse.

I was, of course, not the only citizen of the Republic of Letters who contributed to such subversion. There was, for example, the well-known literary scholar whose crassly simplistic views of the relation of literature to politics have not prevented him from becoming the President of the Modern Language Association. And others contributed even more: one has only to mention the illustrious names of Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler, and Susan Sontag, each of whom lent a further degree of plausibility to the gloating notion that literature had become irrelevant or obsolete, and did so not only in argument but also by using the intellectual weapons of the Republic of Letters itself to celebrate the activities of some of its most aggressive and most egregiously philistine enemies. I myself did nothing so grand, but I did my share, such as it was, and I am sorry for any harm my words may have caused.

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On another occasion and in another context, I wrote the following sentences: “Either a critic does care, and care passionately, when a bad book is praised and does believe enough in the importance of discrimination to put all personal considerations aside in the fixing and arguing of a judgment, or he is no critic regardless of how much ‘criticism’ he writes. . . . Translated into plain English, the idea that wrong critical judgments do not really matter means that the literature in question does not really matter, that it lacks the power to shape the spirit of the age, to mold and extend consciousness, to heighten a sense of reality which would otherwise be dulled, to make order where there would otherwise be disorder, to bring life to the mind and imagination where there would otherwise be illness and death.” Of these sentences I do not repent. On the contrary, knowing what I know now and having seen what I have seen, around sentiments like the ones expressed in those sentences I would hope that the Republic of Letters—writers, critics, and teachers—might in the future reconstitute itself and make a permanent stand.

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