When Literary Theory Lost Its Conscience

When Literary Theory Lost Its Conscience
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Because this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Crime and Punishment, I found myself immersed in a deeply satisfying commemorative analysis of Dostoevsky’s acclaimed novel. Every once in a while, a perceptive piece of literary criticism proves useful, and this one provided a rich context of Russian historical and ideological backstory, careful attention to the text via analysis of crucial quotes, and a valid critique of the epilogue’s literary failings. 

For me, though, the essay’s greatest value consisted of raising distinctly moral questions that pricked my conscience even though, unlike Crime and Punishment protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, I haven’t been toying with the idea of committing an ax murder lately. Still, certain questions arose in this piece of lit theory that made me want to beat a hasty retreat into moral parameters keeping crime, punishment, and sin at a healthy distance. For example, how do tiny alterations of consciousness take place in which we’re convinced that wrong is right? When, exactly, are those dark choices made--in the moment of the crime, or in the days and months leading up to it in which the mind entertains and proceeds to give evil thoughts ample encouragement? And probably most important to this book, why the relentless pangs of guilt and conscience following the murder when Raskolnikov remains convinced he was doing the world a favor by killing off someone whose existence bred misery?

All of which made took me back to another compelling, highly useful literary essay published recently by Lisa Ruddick of the University of Chicago in which she laments the current state of the humanities and, in particular, English theory. Titled, “When Nothing is Cool,” Ruddick’s essay reviews current trends in literary scholarship marked by what she calls “the thrill of destruction,” “deadness or meanness,” and an academic sadism which “disdains interpersonal kindness [and] I-thou connection.”

Since I can’t seem to shake off residual English grad student tendencies decades after the fact, I was particularly interested in excerpts Ruddick included from interviews with actual English graduate students. The more reflective and intuitive the students, Ruddick observes, the deeper their psychic malaise under the pressure to conform to “an immorality they can’t put their fingers on,” one in which the slightest value judgment—even against pedophiliac themes—equates bourgeois naiveté. With radical politics fostering an aversion to ideals that non-academics and ordinary people hold dear, students find themselves relinquishing the soul which enabled them to be moved by a poem or novel in the first place. 

Ruddick’s essay, an abridged version of a chapter that appears in 2015’s The Future of Scholarly Writing: Critical Interventions, interestingly finds admirers in realms and websites geared toward everything from philosophy to gaming to ethics, with the Hannah Arendt Center comparing Ruddick’s description of academic joy in destruction to Arendt’s assessment of amoral attitudes among the war-time German elite. Fellow academics disturbed by English department inclinations to shake the value out of what, Ruddick writes, “seems alive, human, whole” find, if not hope, at least camaraderie in her call for “tiny acts of courage to say uncool things,” no matter how moralistic they’ll look to fellow scholars.

The religiously inclined, not surprisingly, also find affinity in Ruddick’s appraisal. Theologian John Stackhouse admires the courage it takes to say, “There is something morally, spiritually wrong—even perverse—at the very heart of what we do.” He compares Ruddick’s concerns with those C.S. Lewis articulated in The Abolition of Man, in which the constant debunking of values leads to a dystopian future in which a small elite prescribe morality based solely upon their capricious whims. 

Ruddick’s discussion on literary theory’s disavowal of the inner life is particularly interesting to those who look to literature not just for mental engagement, but for moral direction. She compares Tibetan Buddhists’ beliefs in an inner wisdom “that sits at our hearts” with psychoanalyst Donald Carveth’s concept of a conscience he calls a “still small voice”—a term I first learned in Sunday school. In current English lit discourse, however, Ruddick points out that if the conscience exists at all, it represents embarrassing, uncouth bourgeois common sense.  Under such conditions, she writes, “the faculty of moral discernment gets weakened through a sheer lack of affirmation.” And lack of affirmation—in today’s moral system that David Brooks and others have noted is based not on right and wrong, but on inclusion and exclusion—can be just as brutal in the academic world as on Twitter. So the desire for academic conformity compels students to subordinate the still small voice or risk being called out as moralistic or conservative. Thus creeps in their angst, malaise, and disconnect.

Yet while English departments may indeed fall prey to what Ruddick calls “a postmodern affinity for what is flat or depthless,” writers continue returning to “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner put it, “which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.” Readers, in turn, continue craving explorations of the inner life and moral dilemmas—literary theorists be damned.  And readers across the globe continue flocking to fan pages and discussion groups in which to probe the intellectual, psychological, and yes, moral inclinations of our favorite authors and, even more important, sate our craving for meaning. As one insightful comment thread pointed out on a Transcendentalist page discussion, the gift of literature helps us witness the raw and disorganized aspects of life through an author’s filter, a filter which not only creates a secondary layer of reality, but which also gives meaning and moral weight to what we go through.   

Theorists and academicians who continue to ignore readers’ thirst for meaning, transcendence, and for everything Ruddick calls “alive, human, whole” run the risk of irrelevancy. Even more seriously, as Gary Saul Morson points out in the Crime and Punishment piece, relevantly titled “The Disease of Theory,” academic sophists share culpability when loss of conscience leads to depravity. As French philosopher Bruno Latour pointed out in his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” social critics deride “objects of belief” like religion, conscience, and art while simultaneously holding an “unrepentant positivist” approach for only what they cherish—all of which contributes not only to irrelevancy, but to double-standards and “critical barbarity.”

Unless more brave scholars like Lisa Ruddick come forward, the parallel universe of literary theory will become more and more insignificant to readers worldwide who stubbornly yearn for Dostoevskian wisdom, heightened consciences, and food for the soul that enables a book to move us in the first place.

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

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