Mathematicians have been asserting, since Pythagoras, how number underpins all of nature. The discipline of physics has spawned an entire speculative cosmogony that strives to discredit and replace Genesis. Religious minds, not to be outdone, declare their own field of study central to human existence—they have done so for centuries, and will continue to do so. Orwell, the political thinker, insisted that “all issues are political issues.”
Believe it or not, once upon a time, not that long ago in fact, literary scholars asserted the primacy, centrality, and univeral importance of literature. Poems and novels! You’d be hard pressed to find anyone asserting that so confidently today—and the quarrels and skeptical eye-rolls would come from other literary scholars, who would point out that literature in the 21st century has been downgraded, culturally marginalized, deemed of less than universal import or importance. Notice how no one’s really that crazy about it anymore?
The usual explanation for this shift away from literary art is that the masses are distracted—by television, movies, the Internet, newspapers, Twitter, late capitalism and its advertisements, the new ubiquity and superior appeal of music, the quickening pace of life, etc. Consider, though, the fact that, before universal education and a 95%-plus literacy rate in the Western world, most people couldn’t read. Literature, even in its so-called Golden Ages, was, before the 19th century, the province of a specifically educated few; for the rest there was vaudeville and bear-baiting. It’s hard to wrap our brains around this in the age of 200,000-book print runs and author tours, but Petrarch wrote much of his work for about three hundred people total. Today, when literary novelists complain of their decreasing market share, they forget that literature, taking the longest historical view, has been the love and passion of the very few.
With the modern-day attrition of readership, literature is simply returning to its baseline share of societal attention. It just so happens that the people today who aren’t interested in literature know how to read; in the days when shop signs were pictograms, you, as a writer, assumed that the majority of people would never access your work, and you were fine with that. The 19th century explosion of an Internet- and T.V.-devoid middle class with free time—and the associated market for serialized prose fiction as a primitive television series—was a transient historical phenomenon. It was followed up and reinforced by the 20th-century industrialization of book-making, but the ride is over, which means more and more books with smaller and smaller print runs. And, as an unjustified side effect, a loss of confidence on the part of people who love literature.
That’s not the only factor, either; these phenomena are often “multifactorial,” as the scientists like to say. Manuscripts were scarce and precious once; a copy of, say, Virgil, which today you might find online for free at a dozen different sites, was in 1300 A.D. perhaps the only way to access Virgil for five hundred miles in any direction. We literary people treasured literature in part because we treasured physical books—often copying them by hand, or, after the advent of the printing press, hiding and secretly reading banned ones. The specific reverence of the book extended to the art of writing and the act of reading. In the age of Project Gutenberg (God bless it!), the complete works of basically all humankind are available in a compressed format, ready to be dragged and dropped onto a thumb drive and pocketed. This has had, I suspect, a certain psychological effect that the printing press didn’t: The dematerialization of the written word. Letters on a screen are transient configurations of light, each pixel as fine as dust. Parchment and vellum were expensive and physically thick; paper was cheap and physically thin; light is ubiquitous and intangible. Technology has not just created rivals for human attention, making literature seem like a weaker, older, unpopular medium (when it was always older and unpopular, just not weaker, then or now). Technology has also made what we create seem evanescent and lightweight.
Another factor, that returns to Orwell—this time, his famous statement in Why I Write—“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” This is something one would expect from a mind with a primarily political bent; it’s the equivalent of the Christ-crazed late Tolstoy insisting the only true literature was religious. Unlike Tolstoy’s assertion—which was never likely to get very far in the West’s secularized literary culture—Orwell’s has been taken up by theorists who take great pleasure in pointing out, say, that Hamlet was written in the same year that the East India Company was established. That all literature is in fact a political artifact, a tool of imperialism. Hence the attacks on the Western Canon.
It’s even easier to attack the Great Books and dead white males of the past in our own post-Judaeo-Christian intellectual climate, with its no Latin and no Greek: Our fixation on technology and contemporaneity, married to Darwinian notions of species evolving out of past adaptations, has created a psychological gulf between 21st century man and the past. We believe we have seen deeper into human darkness (Europe 1939 – 1945), repudiated the sins of our benighted forefathers (abolition of slavery), and evolved radically new ways of communicating (the Internet): Our dead no longer understand us. This sense of a rupture with the past was also the attitude of Europe after Christianity supplanted classical Mediterranean religion and culture, say between Constantine and Dante. We generally call that period “the Dark Ages” today.
Of all these factors, though, the most frustrating to me is the preventable one, the treason of the clerks. The political (Marxist, feminist, postcolonial: pick your poison) approach to literature denies literature exclusivity of being, any true autonomy. Literature comes to seem an unwitting or sometimes quite eager (Kipling) tool of Nefarious and Racist Imperial Designs. If everything is political, nothing can be fully understood literarily. The words are no longer sufficient unto themselves. They hide something ugly, violent, xenophobic; they are, even when they express truth, at some level lies.
This was the devil’s bargain struck by Western universities in the mid to late 20th century: The quest for “relevance” made them politicize literature; their politicization of literature made literature itself irrelevant.
I hereby abjure all relativism, all soft-pedaling, all “political” acknowledgement of alternate perspectives–and declare capital-L Literature to be universal, universally human, transfiguring, transcendent, self-sufficient, a world entire. The fact that more and more people don’t or can’t access it is no indication to the contrary; the same is true of the discipline of higher physics, whose universality and authority are not undercut by the fact that the majority of people can’t master it or even access it. And–pace Orwell–literary art, if it so choose, can be as independent of politics as the calculus.