What is Literature? Can it be Recovered?

The question seems, at first, a simple one. We all have some idea of what literature is; of what is “literary” in character, and what is not. But as soon as we start pondering the distinction between a work of literature, on the one hand, and another that is patently textual but not literary, complications begin to accumulate and issues of value inevitably arise. And with those, matters of judgment about canonical and non-canonical books will surface, and debate about the principles from which such value judgments proceed. In the world of literary scholarship and commentary, with regard to literature in English, discussions of what is of value and why, have not only persisted for centuries but, today, seem to be even more contentious than ever.

There was the brouhaha over the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 to the American songwriter and performer Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions”. This award had been conferred, decades earlier, on such as the two greatest poets of the twentieth century, writing in English, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. Defenders and condemners of the award did not necessarily praise or criticise the decision along predictable ideological lines. Anna North in the New York Times (which one might have guessed would have supported it), stated plainly: “Bob Dylan does not deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature”, for the simple reason that he is not “a writer”, but “a brilliant lyricist”. In her assessment, the Nobel committee made “a disappointing choice”: “awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition … Literature needs a Nobel Prize. This year, it won’t get one.” Dylan is “a musician”, she declared. So song lyrics, on North’s assessment, are not literature.

Sean O’Hagan, writing in the Guardian, more predictably approved the award, rising above the literary issues of the debate, in the course of briefly summarising them and dismissing them, by declaring that Dylan deserved the prize—for being himself: “He is not a songwriter in the classic sense, nor a poet in the traditional sense, nor does he create literature in the accepted sense of the word; that, in fact, is the whole point—he has sidestepped these definitions on his singular journey. He’s Bob Dylan.”

A significant part of the issue of determining what literature is, is the matter of deciding what it is for. What purposes does it serve? Even if we can agree, as Louis Groarke argues in his stimulating book, that literature (which is “not philosophy”, but “embellished discourse”), communicates “something about a particular: a particular person, a particular place, a particular event, a particular way of doing something or thinking something”, and, in the process, does it in such a way “that enhances and enlarges our point of view and, as such, encloses a wisdom aspiration”, this raises the question that what will strike and satisfy one reader, in this way—as demonstrating “a path to wisdom”—may not strike or satisfy another so. And he acknowledges that “most professional critics today believe that literature cannot be defined” at all and that to attempt to “isolate and identify essential or necessary traits of literature” is, in their view, a “misguided and antiquated essentialism that has long outlived its usefulness”.

The Victorian critic and poet Matthew Arnold introduced the “touchstone” method into literary criticism and evaluation, with particular reference to verse, in his essay “The Study of Poetry” (1880), in the course of pursuing his thesis that literature, specifically in poetic form and at its best, was “a criticism of life”. The touchstones were short passages from recognised masterpieces—by Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth—which exemplified “high seriousness” and which lesser writers, such as Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and Shelley lacked. With these touchstones of such elevated thought to hand, readers and critics could avoid the fallacies of accepting historical estimations of writers, and of personal, subjective evaluation, and be equipped to recognise that “the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life—to the question: how to live”. But when we read the touchstones that Arnold cites in abundance, while agreeing that they are indeed splendid examples of the expression of important and profound ideas, for all his deprecation of personal evaluation, they are surely clear examples of his own.

One of the best-known touchstones is his quotation of a phrase from Dante, in the Paradiso: “In la sua volontade è nostra pace” (“In His will is our peace”), calling it a “simple, but perfect, single line”, appreciating, aesthetically, the aural resonance of the vowels in “la sua volontade” and “nostra pace”. It was a teaching—a touchstone, if you like—which T.S. Eliot (another great admirer of Dante) adapted, in “Ash-Wednesday, 1930” as “Our peace in His will”. This phrase, obviously, presents a seminal Christian idea—conformity to the will of God is the true source of peace for human beings. Yet Arnold himself (unlike the devout Anglo-Catholic, Eliot) was a non-believer. So it is difficult to see how this memorable phrase conforms to his concept of the “beautiful application of ideas to life” which is the essence of the touchstones’ purpose, beyond an aesthetic frisson; to the idea, in other words, that poetry, and literature more generally, is to be defined by and valued for the ways in which, through its aesthetic, verbal accomplishment (“the possession of the very highest poetic quality”), it brings the reader into contact with a profound understanding of human existence and its purpose, infused, to “an eminent degree”, with “truth and seriousness”.

Arnold references “Aristotle’s profound observation that the superiority of poetry over history consists in it possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness”. And Groarke, in this book’s “exercise in applied Aristotelianism”, takes up this theme, arguing that “Aristotle provides a larger metaphysics, an epistemology, a philosophy of language, a logic, a moral philosophy, and even a theology that can serve as a ground-work for literary criticism” and challenges the popular misconception of Aristotelian thought, by arguing that “he conceived of metaphysics as the coming together of the worldly and the otherworldly, not as the exclusion of one for the sake of the other”. For Groarke, works that may truly be regarded as literature are those which reveal the “perennial value that aspires to and struggles towards some experience of ineffable transcendence”: literature “lifts readers up to an intensity of lived experience so momentous we can scarcely account for it”. He endorses the contention of the American poet and critic Yvor Winters, that “poetry is the last refinement of contemplation”. We care about literature, Groarke argues, because it “keeps pushing us further and further” towards the transcendental. It is morally edifying, too: “it lifts readers up to some higher possibility of understanding”. Any worldview which would “expunge deep mystery from the world” is an approach that is “not only nonsensical but anti-literature”.

Aristotle, who “had a metaphysics, an epistemology, a philosophical anthropology, an ethics and an aesthetics that acknowledged transcendental aspects of knowledge and existence” is, thereby, at the centre of Groarke’s project: “I aim to present a contemporary account of literature in an Aristotelian vein”. And he reminds us that the Aristotelian approach was best exemplified in the work of the so-called “Chicago School” based at the elite university there and which rebelled against “what they saw as the narrowness of the New Critics, their main rivals”, whose exclusive concentration on the text itself differed strikingly from the Aristotelian approach “that viewed the literary text as an organic whole ordered to a specific end (télos) by an author with formal intentions”. The New Criticism and so much that has followed from that (much of which the New Critics, themselves, would have abhorred), in the continuing erosion of “English” as a discipline, and of literary criticism as a worthwhile intellectual undertaking, triumphed over the Aristotelians and they long ago faded from sight. Groarke, for whom literature is “not just a religious endeavour but a moral one”, is engaged in an exercise of recovery of that tradition: “literature is important because it expresses the transcendental. It utters the unutterable. This is the key idea in the book.”

The modern world, with its “love affair with science”, has “swept aside untidy bits of evidence, traditional beliefs, metaphysics, immateriality, intuition, mystery, objective morality”, while what is truly literature, Groarke believes, stands—like religion itself—“firmly opposed to this trend”. He would widen the discipline of literary criticism, again, to embrace the broadest of these categories, “the transcendent”. And in a detailed series of analyses of different approaches by literary critics, he accounts for all the life- and literature-denying movements which have bedevilled the teaching and appreciation of literary works, especially in the relentless process of the corruption of Humanities faculties and courses in universities in the Western world in our day, and which have now gained an apparently irreversible stronghold in the school system, too, where processes of “de-colonising the curriculum” have eliminated the study of numerous classic texts.

With regard to structuralism, for example, Groarke writes that it construes language “as a self-contained system of ideas cut off from the real world” which is “at odds, not just with Aristotle, but with the spirit of literature”; then, deconstructionists “want to leap from the fact” that language is “a rich repository of subtle, sometimes obscure nuances”, to the “conclusion that meaning is utterly indeterminate”, and so on.

What Aristotle’s philosophy presents to us, contrariwise, is the idea that “intelligence is trustworthy and knowledge is possible”. Inquiry is:

not a waste of time, a sin, a mere game, a mental illness. Some arguments are better than others; wilful ignorance is contemptible; wisdom is an admirable aspiration. We have to continually choose between laziness and insight, self-interest and objectivity, rigorous truth and mere distraction.

What is breathtaking about these sentences—and should be alarming to anybody retaining a grain of respect for the life of the mind—is that we have reached such a low point in what remains of education in our schools and universities, particularly in the teaching and nurturing of the appreciation of literature, that they need to be affirmed at all.

Professor Groarke would have his readers recover—or if they have never experienced it, understand—the idea

that literature supplies opportunities for intelligence gathered up in an artful and superlative moment of beholding what is fundamental, real, meaningful, and true. Literature provides an opportunity for contemplation (theoria), facilitating a divine-like gaze upon the world.

Herein lies the major problem with the book—or, more positively, the challenge it presents—which is not a deficiency in the detail and plausibility of its argument, but the absence of sustained, close readings of a range of literary texts that will exemplify such points and claims as these, just quoted, giving their general, but abstract meaning the necessary specific and sustained focus. It is not enough merely to list some great texts and names, as Groarke does at one point: “the Bible, Beowulf, Boccaccio, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf, and Eliot”. To invoke what is “real, meaningful, and true” requires detailed analysis of literary texts and passages—close reading, as we used to call it—to reveal these qualities in action, so to speak. This, to be fair, would probably require the book to be twice as long. Indeed, a companion volume, undertaking precisely this task, would not only be generally welcome, but of great assistance to that small but growing community of committed scholars and teachers blessedly emerging in reaction, in various places, against the destruction of literary studies that has been so successfully and disgracefully pursued in the mainstream academy for half a century.

The barbarians are not at the gates, but are inside and in charge, as Professor Simon Haines (himself a former professor of literature) of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, has tellingly observed:

What has been hardest of all to fathom [in the destruction of the Humanities] is the decades-long war of attrition carried out against the study of poetry and other literary genres, especially the English poetry and literature of the past, by other academics in the humanities—most of all, incredibly, within English departments themselves.

If literature is to be valued in the ways Groarke compellingly suggests, and for the benefit of civilisation at large, then, the centre, as it were, must be rigorously maintained somewhere. And if not in the universities, where? The literary critic F.R. Leavis went so far as to claim that the English school should be at the centre of the university. That such an idea, which was sufficiently provocative when he stated it, would rightly be regarded as ludicrous today, is a measure of the degradation and dissolution of the discipline in our time.

Ars longa, vita brevis, and the time that committed students of literature can spend in wide and deep reading, under informed and wise guidance, is even briefer. So the recovery of the study of the great books of Western civilisation, in the context of a historical conspectus, from the later medieval period to the present—which was once the taken-for-granted disciplinary basis of “Eng. Lit.”, now all but totally repudiated—and with equal representation of the four genres of literature: poetry (which has almost totally disappeared), drama, fictional and non-fictional prose, would need to be actively recovered, in the context of what T.S. Eliot famously termed “the common pursuit of true judgment”. The intelligent discernment of what is “real, meaningful, and true” in literature, and how such as poets, pre-eminently, assist us to “make sense of human experience”, as Groarke puts it, in any ultimate, transcendental sense, is a task as complex as it is worthy and, ultimately, it is a lifetime’s undertaking. Significant literary utterances invite us into the unutterable realm of “the universal, the incalculable, the incommensurable, the ineffable”.

Uttering the Unutterable: Aristotle, religion and literature
by Louis Groarke
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023, 336 pages, Canada $113

Barry Spurr, Australia’s first Professor of Poetry and Literary Editor of Quadrant, is currently completing his next book, Language in the Liturgy: Past, Present and in the Future.


5 thoughts on “What is Literature? Can it be Recovered?

  • Silvermullet says:

    Thank you Barry, a most interesting read. In 1951, as I suspect you know, Cecil Day Lewis, in an inaugural lecture at Oxford University, opined that ‘the poet’s task today is both narrower and more complicated than we could wish. As a popular entertainer he has long gone out of fashion, and this has deprived his work of the buoyancy and confidence which come of the interaction between an artist and a wide, simple-hearted audience’.
    He added ‘Western civilisation is no longer a tide, on which or against which he may swim, but a confusion of cross-currents’. Prescient indeed.

  • Stephen Due says:

    I recall an old headmaster who chastised the assembled secondary school for not listening seriously during a performance of a piece of classical music – probably by Mozart or Beethoven – I don’t recall the composer. He said: “You boys may think you are judging this music, but actually it is judging you”.
    The same may be said of literary scholars and teachers who support ‘decolonising’ literature and similar processes of cutting out what have always been considered great writers. Those being cut out are, in reality, judging their censors.
    There used to be a view, found in a number of classical writers, that great literature acquires a life of its own, and so carries the author’s name into eternity. What lasts, has become the test of greatness. Can we imagine a future in which the great works of the human spirit perish entirely from the collective memory? I think we can. Nevertheless, the fact that Western civilisation has continued to exalt Homer and Shakespeare and the Bible, must be allowed to carry considerable weight. It cannot be an error of judgement that so many generations have revered and preserved these works.
    It follows that we should be admonished not to stand in judgement over the canon of great literature. Probably the deficiency lies within us, rather than in the works we are rejecting. Our attitude should be to listen – and learn. Think of the testimony of Keats to Homer. He began with his own experience of life – “Oft have I travelled in realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen” – and yet here in this ancient book was a revelation akin to discovering a vast continent, rich, new and unexplored. We should approach the great works of literature with this expectation – that they will open up whole new worlds of understanding, challenge the intellect, and stir the soul out of its slumber.

  • rosross says:

    Excellent article. I see literature as art with words. Literature is not just writing it is the best of writing and it speaks and stands for itself.

    We will not restore literature until we remove the modern fad for assessment by agenda where colour, class, religion, gender etc., are considered to be superior to quality, standards and art.

    Agendas poison the creative forces and cripple any artistic process.

Leave a Reply