Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.
“Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde confession. In the same man there exists two persons. The first is a “historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, without noticeable impediment about literature as a political instrument.” (59) This man could murder a piece of literature and expose show how literary texts are devious acts of power. The second is a man who simply enjoyed the pleasures of reading good literature. One might imagine that the second man is Dr. Jekyll, a polite, composed, model citizen and that the first man is Mr. Hyde, a ruthless villain, robbing people of the pleasures of life. Although many non-academics might see things this way, the fact is that in the academy – specifically literature departments – the second man is the one who is paraded as a model to be emulated and the first is deemed to barbarous to roam the halls of the elite institutions of academia. Such a man is called “non-literary.”
In explaining his experience of living as a literary critic and a lover of literature Frank
Lentricchia exposes some of the absurdities of the sort of literary criticism practiced by various approaches to the study of literature, including (but not explicitly named) the New Historicism. He explains that at one point he was convinced that as a literary critic he could “be an agent of social transformation, an activist who would show his students that, in its form and style, literature had a strategic role to play in the world’s various arrangements of power” and that all literature was “either in opposition to or in complicit with the power in place.” (60) However, Lentricchia eventually came to believe that this sort of approach to literature, which is standard in literature departments is misguided. He now believes that literary criticism is “a form of Xeroxing.” (64) Literary critics a live in an echo-chamber, when they speak of the imperialism, homophobia, sexism, etc. hidden in a literary text, they are simply voicing their own ideological concerns. Instead of being concerned with the “power plays” supposedly voiced in literary texts, Lentricchia now contents himself with simply trying to “describe what is on the page.” (67) And thus, it seems that for now Lentricchia’s Mr. Hyde, the lover of literature, has eclipsed Dr. Jekyll, the literary critic.
This essay does a fine job of exposing the fact that literary criticism can serve as a form of political activism. The literary critic, by exposing the supposed ideologies present in great works of literature, believes she can shape and mold her audience towards pursuing a better world. There is something noble about this. However, Lentricchia, rightly in my mind, exposes the fact that in their desire to make the world a better place, some critics can read things into texts that are not actually there simply because the critic is driven by a particular agenda. This is what he calls “Xeroxing.”
The act of “Xeroxing” is a danger that is not just present for the literary critic but the historian as well. Its too easy to read sexism or racism, issues which a historian is right to be concerned with, into historical texts which are neither sexist or racist. “John Calvin did not allow women to take the pulpit in Geneva, therefore he is a sexist.” “Peter Martyr Vermigli never attempted to teach outside of Europe, therefore he is euro-centric.” These are potential examples of “Xeroxing” in the discipline church history. Lentricchia is right, we should attempt to allow our “texts” speak for themselves instead of imposing our own judgements upon “texts” for issues that “texts” are not even concerned with.
See, Frank Lentricchia, “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic,” Lingua Franca 6/6 (September/October 1996): 59-67.