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An Obituary for Solzhenitsyn’s Writing

His seminal works are being "disappeared" at the hands of postmodern English professors.

by
Mary Grabar

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August 14, 2008 - 9:29 am
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Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, but if reigning English professors and textbook editors have their way, his writing will soon be disappeared.

The murder of 100 million by communist regimes during the twentieth century is a fact ignored or rationalized by leftists everywhere, of course. In political science and history, a few like Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes fight such prevailing revisionism with fact.

But in literary studies, the propagandizing comes under the clever cover of theories that purportedly embrace multiplicity and openness. While the most influential professional group, the Modern Language Association, has been the butt of jokes even by the New York Times for its annual convention, and while many dismiss its journal PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America) as irrelevant, jargon-laden musings of a priestly caste of academics, we cannot ignore the very real harm they do to intellectual life. A direct line connects the MLA, the disrepute of Solzhenitsyn, the loss of literacy, and the decay of our civilization.

Take, for example, the March 2007 issue, which I picked up among the outdated editions of textbooks free for the taking on a table in my English department. Although I had not read PMLA in years, it was like clicking on a soap opera after a long absence: One is quickly plunged into an ongoing plot propelled by lust, love, betrayal, and sickness. In its own way, the influential in the profession are driven by a lust for power and betrayal of the very culture that entrusted them with passing on its heritage. They set out, instead, to undermine the traditional reasons most people read, as articulated by Horace’s prescription for the writer: “to instruct and delight.”

The gatekeepers seek to prescribe for readers something beyond the age-old, tried, and true. According to PMLA editor Patricia Yaeger, “contemporary readers have a different agenda”: “the art of polyphony.” (But, as recent studies indicate, “contemporary readers,” especially those who are young, have simply stopped reading and signing up for English electives in college.) The critics, since Roland Barthes made his famous statement about the death of the author — or the notion of an individual creating a work with an intentional meaning — have promoted literature as a multi-voiced product of environmental forces expressed through an identity-less mouthpiece. Hence, Professor Yaeger intones, “As category confusion accelerates, we gravitate toward interstices and traces rather than clean causalities, binaries, or arrays.”

Yawn.

Like everyone else writing for PMLA and like tenure-guaranteeing journals, Yaeger puts into question “binaries” (like good and evil, truth and falsehood) and “arrays” (orderly arrangement, such as cause and effect, and the beginning, middle, and end of a plot). Yaeger also interprets a piece of “art” by Kehinde Wiley that graces the cover of the issue. Here, “black youths” in the attitude and costume of rappers take the place normally given to gods and saints in heavens depicted in eighteenth-century rococo paintings. “Just as these young men have become heaven’s jewels, so the heavens turn into a backdrop or accessory, like a scene in a music video,” she proclaims with subversive delight. Yaeger, like her fashionable colleagues, provides multiple readings in such merging of the sacred and the profane: “(1) these guys are just hanging out with the rococo; (2) they are signifying on white tradition and tilting its Euro values; (3) they participate in a polyphony as a sampling — the eighteenth-century sky a borrowed instrument or motif, their dharma halos aglitter with baroque surprise, their Nike swooshes and inversion of Mercury’s wings — with all the velocity of hip-hop adornment.” Wiley’s work is displayed at the Brooklyn Museum, made notorious for the 1999 exhibit, Sensation, which featured, among graphic depictions of naked children with distorted bodies, Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung. As in visual art, so in literary that increasingly turns to the visual, we have Professor Yaeger’s attempt to bring down the high and noble.

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