Marjorie Garber – “The Use and Abuse of Literature”

“The absence of answers or determinate meanings is exactly the set of qualities that make a passage or a work literary.” – Marjorie Garber

The world is forever asking us to to join feuding mobs, each clamoring they have the truth. Any attempt at independence always causes suspicion; it suggests shiftiness. Nothing is more confusing to a dogmatic party than an individual’s “shifty” refusal to stand around for stamping and labeling. In fact, the dogmatic parties are quick to label that refusal anyway: it is “cowardice” or “apathy” or “feeble-mindedness.” If you’re not with them, you’re against them. But if you’re not with them, and also not against them, you’re incomprehensible. You’ve evaded the comforting simplicity of dichotomies. But not joining is hardly cowardice, and it’s often the bravest, and deadliest, choice. There’s safety in the herd. In the wilderness, the loner is prey. You either stampede with the unquestioning hordes, or you get stamped on. In gentler societies, the lone voice is simply made to disappear from a conversation.

When you’re asked to pick sides you’re also being told to stand in submission; you’re denied movement. Stay left or stay right; the important thing to a party is that you stay STILL. The famous F. Scott Fitzgerald line goes that intellect is the ability to hold two opposing views on a subject without being paralyzed. But he’s doubly wrong. A) Intellect is the ability to hold three, or five, or TEN different views on a subject. Two is a failure of the imagination. B) Paralysis doesn’t come from moving around and not being able to choose between two views; paralysis actually comes from choosing one of the views and not moving at all. If you settle on a dogmatic destination, that’s where you’re stuck. The traveler is forever finding pleasure on the road.

The culture wars that waged on literary circles quite viciously during the 80s and 90s were not exceptional in their demands for partiality. They still go on, naturally, but one party has been decimated by age: (the party that spoke for “dead white males + Jane Austen,”  if you were wondering.) These wars were and are predicated on ignoring any number of obvious statements: that one can understand and even sympathize with queer theory or Marxist theory or feminist theory or post-colonial theory or deconstructionist theory, or any number of other -isms, without necessarily surrendering the intellectual autonomy that every thinking person owes to themselves. One can uphold a canon AND argue for its elasticity AND include newcomers; one can accommodate tradition AND be sympathetic to transgression.  A swimmer can go as far from the shore as stamina and curiosity will allow, but they must also know when to return to the shore before they drown.

What happens to those who adopt a critical dogma is that, by necessity, they become hypocritical; they can only attack outwards, trying to batter the architecture of someone else’s beliefs, because they’re too deeply invested and entrenched in the defense of their own equally shabby fortress.

ABOVE: The Scarlet L

I’ve already thrown in traveling, swimming, and architecture (and probably exhausted your tolerance for cheesy metaphors), without getting at my point, so let’s just say that Marjorie Garber’s “The Use and Abuse of Literature” is a brilliant, stimulating book on the history and state of modern literary theory. It comes from exactly the kind of mind I admire: one that travels; one that swims far away from the shore without losing sight of it; and one that fully understands the architectural flaws of the academic tower she by necessity inhabits. Highly recommended.



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