Ron Rosenbaum

The Relic and the Damage Done

U.S.A. Today recently reported deeply depressing news on the study of Shakespeare in U. S. colleges. With one exception (Harvard) no study of Shakespeare, the greatest artist of the English language is required in any U.S. college, and indeed even by most English major programs at those colleges.

It’s like studying physics while denying the existence, or at least the importance, of gravity. I tend to agree with those who oppose the proliferation of the use of he word “denial” to define that which they disagree with. It defines denial down. And yet I certainly am tempted to call this “Shakespeare Denial

It’s sad, but it’s certainly true that students are being denied something powerful and beautiful, when for one reason or the other they refuse or are not required to read Shakespeare in college. One reason or another: I came across one reason recently.

An encounter I had recently with a contemporary English professor at a major university who was ostensibly teaching Shakespeare to at least one class, made Shakespeare aversion by students explicable considering what’s on offer by whom.

I’ll call him The Relic. It’s not about him, but about a sadly obsolete, discredited vision of literature he shares with all too many in academia who committed to it without much skepticism when they were graduate students and lack the intellectual independence to question it now.

The Relic was the embodiment of two generations of pseudo-scientific sophistry that gave itself the shorthand name Theory in literary studies. It was based on the work of a French theorists, notably Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, whose transmittal by gullible relics continues. Continues even despite the recent revelation that Foucault had, in his recently translated late works, repudiated the sophistry upon which most academic literary criticism is founded (I wrote about this in an earlier blog post citing the distinguished philosopher Richard Wolin writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education last fall).

Yes, Foucault renounced as foolish the foundations of most literary theory U.S. academics base their entire intellectual vision upon. Completely pulled the rug out from those antiquarians who still quote Foucault as if they knew what they were talking about.

Sad because The Relic had been left behind by the smarter of one-time theory devotees, who have awoken in horror to see the clone army of jargon-parroting cultists they have helped spawn. Sad because, although the gullible relics of the clone army may not evince much intellectual sophistication in their undeviating devotion to discredited Theory, they do have one thing on their side: tenure. They will be there spreading their literature-averse nonsense and hiring pathetic suck-up acolytes to clone their theory theses and impose them on vulnerable students for generations to come. Let’s face it, it’s a form of abuse.

And yet like the proverbial Japanese soldiers who used to be said to be “holding out” on isolated Pacific islands unaware the war had been lost, you still run into them even in good universities, clinging like barnacles there with their tenure, still clutching to their antiquated post-modern icons for dear life, pathetically convinced that the “truth” they’d adopted as naive grad students was a truth for all time.

In any case I encountered one of these relics recently after giving a lecture at University of Chicago. The lecture was entitled “Shakespeare and the Terror of Pleasure” and sought, among other things to describe the origin of these relics, the origins of the post-modernist theory bubble that still clings to life among the intellectually gullible in academia.

It is my Theory of Theory which I adumbrate in The Shakespeare Wars: that the so called New Critical revolution in reading, “close reading”, attentiveness to Empsonian ambiguity, had brought those who embraced its attentiveness to poetry such as Shakespeare’s to an almost dangerously disturbing closeness to the generative power of the language, to the virtually radioactive beauty of the words.

And had caused an abreaction in certain of those exposed to it: the terror of pleasure. A terror that had led them to flee to, to fabricate, elaborate scaffoldings of French literary theory to shield themselves from having to stare into the abyss of pleasure close reading opened up, to give themselves an illusion of control over, indeed superiority to the literature. (They know what’s really going on, although never in a million years could they replicate the beauty of a single iambic pentameter line. Which is why they like to imagine the “author” didn’t exist because it allows them to believe it isn’t their lack of talent that is responsible for their failure to create anything other than opaque jargon-clotted journal articles. No human beings actually “author” great works, they are the product of the historical “power relations”, alternatively of the culture of the time, not of any single human being. And besides they are unable to mean anything because language itself is inherently incoherent.

It allowed them to disbelieve in the notion of individual literary genius (who could be smarter than they were?) Or indeed even of literary value itself. (Just because it’s hard to define it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist–but their Theory gives them no reason to “privilege” a Shakespearean sonnet over the prose on the back of a cereal box).

I was pleased that among those in attendance at my lecture was the distinguished scholar David Bevington an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and editor of one of the great collected editions of Shakespeare, almost universally known as “The Bevington edition”. He’s one of the scholars who could acknowledge the occasional virtues of postmodernism, particularly its feminism and skepticism, yet not give himself over to its sophistry. Probably because as a textual editor he was immersed in Shakespeare’s language at close, closest hand, didn’t fear it, relished it, and realized on some deep level how irrelevant most Theory was. In any case the fact he had kind words for my lecture and for The Shakespeare Wars at the reception afterward made writing the book worthwhile.

But then there was The Relic, who at the close of the lecture both in bombastic and misguided questions, and in post-lecture badgering, made it clear that he believed he knew The Truth.

And The Truth for this particular relic, the true source of the truest Truth that ever was writ was–I’m not making this up– to be found in the works of Paul de Man, the literary theorist whose most well know legacy was his cover up of his pro Nazi propogandist past. Yes, de Man, the former champion of Hitler’s rule, who hid his past collaboration with the Nazi regime in wartime Belgium from everyone in America and managed to mesmerize a particularly gullible segment of now-antiquated post-modernists with his version of deconstruction. Talk about a pathetic discredited relic for our poor befuddled Relic to cling to for The Truth.

I’m not arguing that his Nazi-friendly past had anything to do with the follies of de Man’s literary theory. Although some of his followers seemed to be, inadvertently, making the case for the connection when they tried to defend de Man’s silence on his pro Nazi anti-semitic propaganda (European literature would be better off without Jews, he maintained, when he enjoyed the privileges of a pro-Nazi lickspittle during the war).

His supporters (some of them anyway) claimed that de Man kept silent about his Nazi friendly past because de Man’s entire literary theory was based on denying the truth value or stability of words and meaning, so anything he said –in words of course–honestly and apologetically about his shameful past could not possibly convey the truth of the experience. (more likely wouldn’t convey the truth of his feelings which he never renounced). Thus de Man’s shameful silence about his shameful past was not convenient but principled. And this is the literary Theory icon the relic adhered to.

Anyway one has to imagine that the Shakespeare taught by The Relic could not help but be infused by his slavish uncritical devotion to de Man. Poor Shakespeare, poor students. I foresee a lifelong Shakespeare aversion in reaction to such exposure, if they get Shakespeare through the lens of de Man or a de Manian. (de Maniac?)

The USA Today survey reflects the generation of destruction deconstruction and the rival schools of sophistry have wrought. Weep for those who have Shakespeare ruined by these people.