The Harvard literary critic Walter Jackson Bate used to do a slapstick routine. “Close reading,” he’d say, thrusting a book toward his face. “Closer reading,” he’d grunt, ramming his face inside the book. Then “very close reading,” he’d mumble, nose pressed against page and not a word of print visible.
In his new book Why Read? (Bloomsbury), Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, argues that academics are reading so closely that “the connection between word and world [has gone] dark.” Like Bate a generation earlier, Edmundson believes the “word” should be interpreted broadly; professors (whom he’d rather call “disciples”) should extract their heads from the text and look after something a little more consequential, namely “soul-making.”
“My sense is that for a great number of people in America and the West, religious space is waning,” Edmundson tells the Voice. “Without reliance on the Scriptures, how are you going to shape your life? You can be guided by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Shelley, Wordsworth . . . ” Why Read? is a self-conscious reaction to what he sees as the current state of literary criticism—morally frivolous, sex-crazed, and deliberately “cool.” The fad for French theory has turned into something of a dead end, quickly ushering literary criticism toward irrelevance. Looking for a way to reinscribe the English department into everyday culture, critics like Edmundson have returned to the language of early humanist criticism—hearts, souls, death, evil, values.
According to Robert Stein, an English professor at Columbia, we’re seeing a mini-religious revival within literary studies. “For a while, theory really covered up an instability, an indecision about why anybody teaches literature,” he says. “Recently there has been a seizure of a certain kind of literary teaching—it’s either a secularized, or not quite disguised, Christianity.”
Certainly Terry Eagleton’s recent After Theory (Basic Books) looks in this direction. Eagleton—whose Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) was the preeminent undergraduate guide to postmodern theory for more than two decades—has decided that theory has failed, requiring something more “fundamental.” Theory, he writes, never addressed the big questions: “religion and revolution,” “morality and metaphysics.” In attempting to answer these questions himself, Eagleton, a fervent Marxist, encourages selflessness, reciprocity, and collective action. His request reads like a recipe for political liberation, but also Christian paradise.
In less spiritual contexts as well, theory is being challenged by more romantic ways of writing. The English Institute, sponsored by more than 50 university English departments, held a 2002 panel titled “Uncritical Reading,” devoted to understanding what happens when you don’t interpret books with “critical distance,” “annotation,” “archival research,” and “irony.” And, as James Wood writes in The New Republic, the genre of “confessions of a former theorist is burgeoning at about the same pace as confessions of former supporters of the Iraq war.”
Whereas a couple years ago we were seeing titles like ” ‘Strange Longings’: Keats and Feet,” or “The Anus in Coriolanus,” many scholars today are less interested in minute theoretical analysis than in good old author appreciation. A new study by Arnold Weinstein, a Brown professor, reads as if it’s a caricature of the move toward domesticating criticism. The title is A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life, and the introduction, throughout which Weinstein continually compares his bookshelf to a medicine cabinet, is titled “What the Heart Is.” He opens the chapter by asking, “How many of you are hurting now?”
This impulse to turn literature into a question of healing and converting is due, in part, to an increased sense of the academic’s isolation. Five years ago, the presidents of roughly 500 universities declared, in a proclamation called the “Civic Responsibility of Higher Education,” that it was the university’s duty to help students “realize the values and skills of our democratic society.” Last month, the literary scholar Stanley Fish wrote an editorial in The New York Times addressed to other academics asking, essentially, that they be realistic. The “practices in our own shop” are too narrow, he wrote, to be “forming moral character, or fashioning democratic citizens.”
Over the last 20 years, English professors have told us that a text can be interpreted from any angle—political, sociological, psychoanalytic—and accordingly, those departments (political science, sociology, psychology) have appropriated the texts and methods of the English department. What the English department hasn’t lost, though, is the idea that with a uniquely English (read: Christian) decoding of the word, lives will be transformed, and critics like Edmundson have seized upon the classic sentiment to broaden the stakes of their “shop.”
“Once we become the department of possibility and maturity,” Edmundson says, “great things could happen. We could be the spiritual and intellectual core of society. . . . Studying the humanities is about getting another chance. It’s not about being born again, but about growing up a second time.”