The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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This is the fate that surely awaits Literature Lost. Even now, I imagine, Yale literature professors are writing furious letters to the director of the Yale University Press to express their outrage that such a book was published under its auspices. And the situation is all the more serious because Ellis is not a first-time offender. His 1989 book Against Deconstruction, a brief but meticulously argued attack on one of the most poisonous and influential academic fads of our day, marked him as an untrustworthy ally in the pursuit of intellectual fatuousness. It was all the more objectionable for being written in clear, precise English, and for subjecting the arguments (and pseudo-arguments) of the deconstructionists to the unflattering light of rational analysis.

Literature Lost continues and expands on the discussion Mr. Ellis began in Against Deconstruction. As in that earlier book, he is at his best when patiently setting forth and criticizing the key assumptions and arguments of his opponents. He brings a philosopher's rigor to the notoriously muddled field of literary "theory," subjecting its often grandiose and pretentious claims to the tribunal of common sense.

But where Against Deconstruction focused on a fairly narrow set of arguments and attitudes, Literature Lost steps back to consider the fate of the humanities -- and literary studies in particular -- in the age of political correctness. Along the way, Ellis devotes particular attention to a number of influential figures Terry Eagleton, Gerald Graff, and Stephen Greenblatt, among others -- whose work epitomizes one or another aspect of what he calls "PC logic." As Ellis notes, so successful has this radicalization of the academy been over the past two or three decades that " it requires some effort to recall what the typical attitudes toward the study of the humanities were just a short while ago." We live now at a time when -- to quote the influential literary Marxist Fredric Jameson -- even literature professors believe that "everything is 'in the last analysis' political."

In essentials, the argument is as old as Thrasymachus' insistence, in Plato's Republic, that "might makes right," though it got a major overhaul when Marx came along with his theory of ideology. As Ellis puts it in what is perhaps his neatest analogy, "As Marxism is to the economic sphere, so cultural political correctness is to the cultural sphere." Just as the one promised abundance and everywhere brought penury and unhappiness, so the other promises greater freedom and diversity and winds up demanding a twisted puritanical conformism in intellectual as well as moral matters. The great peculiarity is that "just at the time when in the real world Marxism was collapsing so completely that its viability as a political theory seemed almost at an end, its influence in the universities of the English-speaking world was increasing just as dramatically." To a large extent, Literature Lost is a meditation on this puzzle.

The idea that "everything is "in the last analysis' political" reduces art and literature as traditionally conceived to little more than a self- indulgent diversion. For the race-class-gender lobby, all social, artistic, and intellectual life must be subjected to a battery of political tests. It's the Sovietization of intellectual life, where the value or truth of a work is determined not by its intrinsic qualities but by the degree to which it supports a given political line.

In some ways, as Ellis points out, this approach to cultural life is a highly moral -- or, rather, a highly moralistic -- one. Although it is thoroughly anti-bourgeois and thoroughly anti-traditional in its morality, it nevertheless seeks to judge every product of the human spirit by the degree of "virtue" it exhibits -- where "virtue" is defined beforehand by whatever gay, feminist, Marxist, racial, or ethnic totem the particular critic has sworn allegiance to. In this respect, gender-race-class criticism --let's call it Gerc-Crit for short -- is no less vigilant than Mr. Bowdler and no less sanctimonious than Mrs. Grundy.

The extraordinary, if perverted, moralism of Gerc-Crit (the "G," incidentally, is soft, as in "German," the "C" hard as in "arc") is one of its great appeals. Few things are more titillating to intellectuals -- who grow up being told that their pursuits are of limited social utility -- than the prospect of infusing their work with high moral purpose. How edifying to think that one was not simply teaching a novel by Jane Austen but was somehow also striking a blow for female emancipation! How exciting to believe that one was not just reading Shakespeare but was somehow challenging imperialism as well!