How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Literature
By Jacob Culberson
“For our knowledge of man and of his behavior in this concrete world, literature has always been the great organon. And rightly so, for in insight, depth, subtlety, range, and perspicacity, it has no rival among the means to knowledge.”
—Richard M. Weaver, “Contemporary Southern Literature”
There are many reasons why I chose English literature as one of my majors, but I daresay that not one of them was really political in nature. I have found throughout my reading life—from the time that I sat in my mother’s lap and heard her read Tolkien for the first time to the moment as a high school senior that I discovered Eliot’s Four Quartets glowing and smoldering unassumingly amid the labyrinthine passages of the Internet—that literature is the medium through which my own mind is best suited to perceive truth. It has variously comforted me, buffeted me, buttressed my beliefs, and torn down my misconceptions.
Literature (and perhaps all art, though through a darker glass) speaks to every facet of human existence. But as an undergraduate student of literature, I have found that the preeminent and predominant concern of English departments is singular and myopic: identity politics. Whether the author under consideration is Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Flannery O’Connor, the only aspects of human existence that get any real play are gender, race, class, and sexual orientation.
In a survey of early English literature, for instance, my class spent an hour speculating on the reasons for the limited role of women in Beowulf, and not two minutes considering the overwhelming moral nature of the tale. In that same class we read only one piece of criticism: a lengthy essay giving a “queer” reading of many of Shakespeare’s plays.
The political orthodoxy behind these lines of analysis is predictable and rarely questioned. Literature, it seems, has become a petri dish for the sociologist, himself but the academic adviser to a political machine.
“A sick society,” C. S. Lewis wrote, “must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion: to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.”
It is frightening how far this “deadly disease” has spread within the academic system, and how much it has distorted the picture of man literature provides. The challenge I and many others face is this: to persist in the love and study of literature in spite of the distinctly unlovable distortion that we must tacitly accept in exchange for precious credit hours.
Jacob Culberson is a junior at Vanderbilt University and a regular blogger for IntercollegiateReview.com