The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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There is, however, a problem with the moralistic approach that Gerc-Crits employ, and that is its terrible simple-mindedness and philistinism. It was a problem for Mrs. Grundy, and it is a problem for the likes of Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, too. Moralistic tests of cultural achievement always wind up being reductive, and the more ruthlessly applied, the more reductive they appear. This is where the jargon of deconstruction and kindred continental imports has been a godsend for academics. It has allowed them to indulge their moralism to the hilt while at the same time appearing intellectually sophisticated (or incomprehensible, which is often just as good). As Ellis observes, "Combining race, gender, and class criticism with the language of deconstruction takes care of both problems at once. Politicized criticism gives deconstruction an apparent seriousness of purpose, and in return deconstruction makes a rigorously moralistic position seem avant-garde and sophisticated." Nice work if you can get it.

Unfortunately, as Ellis shows, the moralism is as unconvincing as the sophistication is bogus. Ellis is hardly the first to point out, but he nevertheless usefully reminds us, that the anti-Western and (in particular) anti-American animus of so much Gerc-Crit has its origins in a utopian Romanticism that goes back at least to Rousseau. It was disastrous then, and it is disastrous now. Moreover, in extolling the virtues of societies and civilizations other than our own (and at the expense of our own), Gerc-Crits are merely following in the footsteps of the intellectually disgruntled from Johann Herder to Margaret Mead and beyond. The most ironic aspect of this whole performance is that "Those seized by this mood may imagine that they are taking an anti-Western stance, but that is all part of the same pattern of self-delusion."

In fact, criticism of the West has been a prominent ingredient in the West's self-understanding at least since Socrates invited his fellow Athenians to debate with him about the nature of the good life. As Ellis suggests, no civilization in history has been as consistently self-critical as the West. The very concept of "ethnocentricism," which is used like a sledgehammer to disparage the West, is a Western invention.

Our Western cultural inheritance is not perfect, but it has succeeded in raising us from the barbarism of a state of nature. It has managed to abolish many forms of human cruelty, has given us forms of democratic government that actually work, and has a record of human thought in literature and philosophy that offers extraordinary range, depth, and complexity. Far from debasing human beings, it has enhanced their dignity in a thousand different ways. We can build on it, extend it, modify it; but if we allow the politically correct to pull it down with their characteristic utopian promises about what they can replace it with, we have only ourselves to blame. We can be sure that if we allow their destructive resentment to destroy yet again so that they can create perfection, we shall witness the destruction but never see the benefits promised.

As a kind of corollary to this observation, Ellis enunciates a political dictum, the wisdom of which is worth the price of Literature Lost: If, when a great moral principle is introduced, its full cost must be paid immediately, progress will never occur. When it comes to moral progress, we have more to fear from self-declared partisans of virtue than from cautious traditionalists.

If the claims of Gerc-Crits to greater moral sensitivity and insight cannot stand, neither can their assumption of superior intellectual sophistication. One of the first things one notices about Gerc-Crit is how drab and unvarying it is. Works of literature are read not for their own sake but for predetermined political lessons about some form of racial injustice, sexual oppression, or class warfare. The result is formulaic criticism-by-number. As Ellis notes, Gerc-Crits "are convinced that their triad of issues is fundamental and that anything else is superficial." But, he asks with refreshing common sense, "Why must all literature be about the same thing?" What is left out of the Gerc-Crit view of literature is literature. Trivializing the nature of aesthetic experience -- which in its highest sense binds us to a larger community by educating that most social of faculties, taste -- Gerc-Crits reduce everything to politics. But even their view of politics is simplistic, for, as Ellis observes, "A meaningful politics must recognize other important values in human life. Indeed, politics makes no sense when it stands by itself. If the question who wields political power is not broadened to take account of what that power is to be used for -- that is, what human values it will serve --then it reduces to a matter of who manages to subdue whom . . . . "And that is not so much politics as its barbaric alternative.

The real villain in this story is not, as Ellis puts it, "theory but bad theory." The irony is that "theory," which once meant a respectful, disinterested beholding of reality, has come to be synonymous with a form of intellectual political activism. In tracing the course of that devolution, Literature Lost tells a very sad tale.

Roger Kimball is executive editor of the New Criterion.