On Pre-Political English
It may surprise readers of this magazine to learn that the kinds of political and identity work so common to literary studies today were precisely what we were told not to do back in the 1980s when I started graduate school. This prohibition was, in fact, a theoretical demand. We assume that theory and politics in the humanities go hand in hand, but that wasn’t the case at all. These were the years of High Theory, which demanded a whole other recognition that language was not exhausted by political meanings, and that more was going on in the workings of metaphor and connotation than social affairs. To discover racism at the heart of a novel was understood as hasty, simplistic, and inadequately theorized. People who read The Cantos and dwelt only upon Pound’s anti-semitism had failed to address his poetry as poetry. To find imperialism in Kipling took no critical talent. It’s not that politicizing readers were wrong—they were just crude. In their maladroit way, they did ethics, history, or politics, not literary criticism.
Most of the theorists assigned in our Intro. to Literary Interpretation class insisted on that boundary. If you’re in an English classroom, they said, do English. That means you had to register the literariness of the text in front of you: imagery, figures of speech, style and structure, irony, allegory, prosody, even the sounds of syllables . . . all the things that distinguished the work from history, ethics, and politics. Words, words, words were the focus. Every inference we drew had to be attached to specific details in the text, because that’s where the literary action was. One required class in philology, for example, had us do phonetic transcriptions of Shakespeare. In this way, poets did things with words that didn’t smoothly impart a meaning, an idea, or a moral, we were told. To say that Huck Finn is “about” racism didn’t make much sense. Before getting to the “about,” we had to examine how meanings emerged in the novel, and through what literary mechanisms (dialect, point of view, satire…). When Emily Dickinson comes across a snake in the grass and freezes as it scoots away, she describes her feeling as “zero at the bone,” a phrase that doesn’t have a concrete referent, but does evoke the brief shock. She bends words in a new direction, and good literary critics analyze the word-bending, not the feeling.
The rationale for this lay in the founding assumption of the discipline: in some writing the workings of language play an essential part. The literary side—metaphors, ironies . . . all the things that complicate the literal meaning of words, that make them stand out as independent of what they signify—has a shaping effect on concepts, values, principles, morals, and beliefs. You can’t translate them away into “content,” not without losing the thing that distinguishes the work as literary. Back in the 1940s, New Critic Cleanth Brooks called this mistaken mode of abstraction “the heresy of paraphrase,” and the most influential academic critic in the ’70s, deconstructionist Paul de Man, agreed. In a little essay late in his career, “The Return to Philology,” de Man spoke of ”concentrating on the way meaning is conveyed rather than on the meaning itself.” When we do that with literature, we find singular and baffling “turns of tone, phrase, and figure.” People who attend closely to them discover that what we take as mere wordplay is, in fact, a shaping element of communication.
This was exhilarating to me, to all of us. It was fun and adventuresome and competitive. We walked into seminars expecting some lightning to shoot off the page, and hoping to follow along and measure up. Lear and Tess and “Dover Beach” had magic inside. In one class a professor singled out Thoreau’s rule “to improve the nick of time” as an essential Americanism, smiling as she explored it, the presentation good enough for me to remember 40 years later. The habit carried over to us, we fledgling analysts learning to see and hear what lay readers overlooked. In those words were subtle twists and flashy technics that only a trained mind caught well. Literature was a challenge, and we had the special aptitude to meet it, an ear for ambiguity and trope plus the will not to resolve them into neat meanings and morals. We were like chemists diving into the atom, microbiologists with DNA. That’s what literary language meant to us. Big statements about gender and race and imperialism didn’t fly. What did a second-year PhD student in English know about such things? Our aim was to be connoisseurs of verbal art. We knew better than to simplify and stabilize the meaning of “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (Yeats, “Among Schoolchildren”). It’s too uncertain, too quirky. Why the impersonal term “body” at such a passionate moment? What do those apostrophes do? Is the last line a real question or a rhetorical one? Better to scan the equivocal verbal surface than to dig for political messages, which would be like discussing van Gogh without saying much about color.
Not everyone thought so. There were a few ideological types in our cohort, people pushing divestment from South Africa, race or sex matters, and a politicized English. We shared offices as teaching assistants and took seminars together, and their impatience with the literary side of things was obvious. (I don’t think they would disagree with this point.) I am not sure why they pursued humanities degrees instead of law or government or not-for-profit jobs, but they had the political edge. When it came to the real world, we were nowhere and nothing, graduate students scraping along by teaching freshman composition and doubting a good job would come (the market was awful). How this academic path drew people with political dreams didn’t figure. And why English instead of political science or another social field? Elite writers of the distant past were useless to them. Close reading didn’t serve the aims of social change. Who cares what Keats really meant by “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” when Reagan was screwing around in Central America? One might, perhaps, take a poem such as Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” and tie its curious diction and action (“taking dominion”) to U.S. imperialism, as one of the earliest political critics did around that time, but that would be a stretch, a bit of posturing, too, and not good literary criticism.
They had moral fervor, though, which our disciplinary sense couldn’t match. I recall one fellow in a seminar discussion repeating, “You can’t escape ideology,” as if it were a law of physics that the rest of us must acknowledge. The teacher was a deconstructionist explaining how some of Walt Whitman’s lines “problematized” the representation of things. He liked to quote the abstract painter who, when asked by two ladies in a gallery staring at one of his inscrutable works, “Young man, what is that?” replied, “Madame, that is paint.” We absorbed that schooling in the materiality of the sign as part of our training. Our objecting fellow student, however, saw this as a cop-out. He wanted action, and the theory on the table led nowhere. It paralyzed the critic. When the professor answered with points about mediation, textuality, and Nietzsche, he came back with the same insistence: “You can’t escape ideology.” To him, all that stuff about the “play of signs,” “indeterminacy ofnmeaning,” Derrida’s il n’y a pas d’hors-texte . . . they were escapist maneuvers, and flights from power and politics. Stop pretending to be innocent and studious, he seemed to say, and stop casting words as neutral tools. We’re all implicated.
There was a genuine question here—whether the workings of literary language preceded ideology or were determined by it—but I’d already been catechized into poststructuralism and didn’t care to rehearse the basics. The ideology he asserted was “always already” a formed thing, I was certain, and the formation was a matter of phenomenology and language, not politics and struggle. He thought he was astute; I thought he was obtuse, and lazy, too. His we-must-see-and-do-ideology didn’t mark him as a truth-teller. It saved him the labor of literary analysis, which took a lot more savvy and less self-righteousness.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d scolded us in a different tenor, with a little wit and lightsome banter. A grin, a joke, a little raillery and less rebuke would have opened the issue, not closed it. That’s what stood out to me at the time. We began the session expecting some insight and trickery, like when a teacher pointed to a single word change in Blake’s “The Tyger,” from “Could frame thy fearful symmetry” to “Dare frame thy fearful symmetry,” and made it resonate between “Who would dare such a feat?” and “How dare he...” Moments like that we swallowed whole and smiled, but not our ideologue. He wasn’t happy; he killed the fun. Even if we had agreed with him, it wouldn’t have raised the mood. That was the only impact he had: no persuasion, only a dampening. Literary study wasn’t supposed to be our delight, not according to him. Whitman’s lines lay before us as a field for speculation, words and sounds and wavering meanings ready for our junior efforts, which we loved to try. Not for him, though: no joy or intensity when facing “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”
Ten years later, we were the minority, the odd ones. Everything had changed, though I didn’t know it. In 1996 I was still caught up in words and truth and representation, not realizing that the field had moved elsewhere, straight toward the ideologues whom Harold Bloom dubbed the “School of Resentment.” Theory had attached to politics and identity, Derrida himself pointing the way with an article on apartheid in Critical Inquiry in 1985. The New Critics were now remembered as right-wingers (many came out of the South and favored an agrarian world), while de Man had been discovered as a contributor to a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium in his youth. In the contest of methods, literariness was a bygone concern—something to learn in Poetry 101, not a serious practice. Stay with it and you came off as a reactionary: not dangerous, just quaint and uninteresting, a mandarin caught in a “sterile formalism.”
Yes, politics and identity had won, big time. If you didn’t experience it, you can hardly imagine the momentum those leftward humanists had in the ’90s, before the decline in enrollments and outside interest had become clear, when Queer Theory, Gender Theory, and race matters seemed fresh and liberating. They had History on their side, so they thought, and the institutions would surely go their way for many years to come. We admitted dozens of doctoral students every year at Emory, and I would estimate that four out of five of them had an identity edge of some kind. One of them told me in my office once that Elizabeth Fox-Genovese should not be leading the Women’s Studies Department because no person who opposes abortion belongs anywhere near it. At one faculty-student party, a PhD candidate (whom I’d never met) grumbled to a group of five that the American literature sophomore survey course that semester had not a single Native American text on the syllabus, and wondered about the backward teacher. I divulged that the teacher was me and we both laughed awkwardly.
There wasn’t much laughter of any other kind. They won, yes, but triumph didn’t seem to please them. A longstanding enjoyment was gone and nothing took its place. They ended the pleasure of tallying the duplications that take place in “The Purloined Letter,” and following Jacques Lacan on what those duplications reveal about language, truth, and subjectivity. They downgraded the satisfaction of marking the grim ironies of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” How trivial those pursuits appeared to individuals out to end heteronormativity in American society. Only small-minded, unfeeling creatures could relish the music of Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” in the wake of the Rodney King riots. Life is serious, a battle against injustice, rough and ceaseless—there’s always so much more to do! Literary study should be the same. Effectual and righteous, and definitely not entertaining.
The discipline wouldn’t survive, of course, not with its leaders uninterested in the very thing that distinguished it from other fields. Not many 19-year-old guys looking to enjoy Hemingway’s heroes or girls caught up in Sylvia Plath’s verse would stick around. These visionary professors were willing to see English fall before they let go of their political temper (which had anti-literary effects). In 2019–2020, less than one in 50 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in English, a sorry plummet from the one-in-13 that was claimed in 1970. We may be tempted to blame, in part at least, the politicization of the humanities for the collapse, but we should add another factor, the fun factor. When the seminar lost its dramatic and dicey aura, when political judgment replaced literary invention, when humanists dropped the frolics of interpretation for the claims of virtue, when literary language didn’t much matter, English was no more. The problem with the School of Resentment was not its politics. It was temperament. They were a bunch of sourpusses.
Featured image: Odysseus on the island of the lotus-eaters in engraving (18th century) by Theodoor van Thulden via Wikimedia Commons.
Mark Bauerlein, an Emeritus Professor of English at Emory University, is a Senior editor at First Things magazine. His books include The Dumbest Generation (2008) and, most recently, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up (2022). He invites you to follow him on Twitter.