On Loving Literature

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EXCERPT: [...] Deidre Shauna Lynch, the Chancellor Jackman Professor of English at the University of Toronto, has just published a book titled Loving Literature: A Cultural History. To canvass the history of this concept called literary love, the book winds its tortured and tortuous way through that important British cultural chunk between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Lynch wishes to uncover “how it has come to be that those of us for whom English is a line of work are also called upon to love literature and to ensure that others do so too.”

Except I’m not certain that anyone is really calling upon academics to love the subject they study—the point is that they seem categorically incapable of such love, and so they are being pitied for so ardently missing the point of literature.

[...] Lynch dislikes that academics “must make their peace with the fact that viewed from the outside their work does not look like work,” but this again misses how academics are perceived by those sensible enough to dwell outside their ranks: The problem is precisely that their work looks too much like work—onerous, meticulous, pointless, jargon-soaked work without application either to literature or to living. “My experience,” writes Lynch, “does not suggest to me that the personal is repressed when departments of English go about their ostensibly clinical official business.”

Very glad to have her word that her own experience refutes our perception of English departments—although that term “suggest” seems rather unsure of itself, does it not?—but the rest of us have had our own experiences of reading what those English departments produce. We have the fruits of those experiences, and the fruits are rotten: unreadable prose and classes with incomprehensible names. Also: Think twice about any writer who doesn’t mind using the term “business” when referring to “literature.” (Lynch’s previous book has the mind-warping title The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning.)

Seemingly displeased with the conception of literature as having the rare ability to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and others, Lynch has this to say: “We don’t treat literature as a thing but as a person: lovers of literature construct the aesthetic relation as though it put them in the presence of other people and with the understanding that the ethical relations so conjured must not be instrumentalized.”

Good luck parsing whatever that last part is supposed to mean, but clearly she prefers to treat literature as a “thing” and not as a “person,” and one wishes that academics would do just that, because it would be an immense improvement over what they actually do, which is to treat literature neither as a thing nor a person but rather as a frog splayed and pinned to a table. They then dispose of the frog’s innards and insert a tract for their own ideological purposes, a tract that has little or nothing to do with how that poor frog croaked its song in life...

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