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Volume 14, Issue 3: Tohu

Reading for Keeps

Jared Miller

Anyone who has a deep and abiding love for literature understands the unique power of its various elements and their possible effects on the lives of those who allow themselves to be immersed in them. I once heard a rather disturbing story about a friend's high-school literature teacher, who confessed to being plunged into a year-long cycle of depression after reading Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. While such extremes are (I hope) relatively rare, few can dismiss the intense communication of minds which occurs during the reading of truly great fiction, nor can they deny that literature actually shapes reality rather than only passively mirroring it. By both reflecting and transforming, fiction is a tool by which reality reshapes itself.

The active function of literature in society has been variously formulated and emphasized in the history of criticism. Classical theorists (and the newer reader-response critics) treated its interaction with individual readers; Matthew Arnold touted the belles lettres as a kind of cultural capital that would unify society after the collapse of Christianity; Marxists believed fiction to be both an expression and support of bourgeois thought, and this led to the social and political view of literature which dominates today, and which I want (at least in part) to defend.
Borrowing from earlier Marxists, the critics of the seventies and eighties collaborated with various social causes, and began to connect all literature to its historical and social context, viewing all fictional works as expressers of ideology, and works of the primary canon in particular as expressers of the dominant ideology of white, wealthy, patriarchal heterosexuals. Minority groups (or as critic Harold Bloom calls them, the Schools of Resentment) seized the opportunity to establish "counter-canons," illustrating the long-neglected literature of the oppressed, and as a result the field of literary studies began to look like a cross between Balkan geography and the Democratic national convention. Groups jockey for academic respectability, developing feminist theory, queer theory, black theory, postcolonial theory, and the like, freely throwing about terms like "hegemony," "identity politics," and "marginalization." They reduced works of fiction to unconscious political/social/racial/sexual agendas, and the canon to a population of "fit" texts, naturally selected by society to propagate those values most advantageous to its ruling class.
This sort of politicization of literature provoked a violent reaction from some critics, such as Harold Bloom and Roger Kimball. A growing number have since reclaimed the aesthetic and subjective aspects of literature, affirmed for the most part the traditional canon, and reemphasized reading for the pure joy of it, allowing those of us more concerned with the pursuit of Beauty to breathe a sigh of relief. If everything is about ideology, then every piece of great literature is ultimately little more than propaganda. The bloody Marxist god Politics is a cruel but petty master, and the fanatic impulse to free various social identities from real or perceived oppression can create "nationalist" extremes that isolate them further from one another.
But despite the whining of the Resenters, and the importance of joy, beauty, and form, we cannot now relapse back into the frigidity of New Criticism (which tempted T.S. Eliot and even, occasionally, C.S. Lewis). Christian critics tend to land by default into an odd breed of simplistic theological formalism, crowing over "Christian themes" (as all you fans of The Matrix out there do), or drawing undue pleasure from dissecting various technical aspects of the text, never going any further, and not recognizing that the ideological question posed by the Resenters is crucial to any rigorous Christian criticism, being identical to what we call the issue of worldview or antithesis.
When we interpret texts, films, advertisements, or any cultural artifact pushed under our nose, we must be as suspicious as any ideologue. This is especially true of modern works, which are largely secular, heavily shaped by literary theory (rather than the other way round), and often navel-gazing formal experiments or rah-rahs for a victimized identity. As we know, fiction has power, and we ought to be aware of that power and the subtle ways in which it can influence one's belief-system. Fiction provides us with a vicarious experience, vividly portrays imagined motivations and consequences, and excites identification and pity. If we are not careful about where our sympathies lie, we will find ourselves blown about by every wind of plot. Even if we fail to identify with modern works, failing also to read them ideologically will dull our apologetic. A sheltered evangelical freshman at State U. reads Waiting for Godot, and after objecting to surface crudities, he is likely to dismiss it as "pointless" or "boring," a shallow response likely to draw nothing but scorn from his professor and peers. Of course Beckett is pointless—that is the point. They reason not badly or incompetently (thus they are still read) but wickedly. On both defense and offense, the Christian reader must be an ideological reader.
The Marxists and their heirs have known these things for years, and we are further behind than we usually are. Seventy-five percent of America's consumers claim to be Christian, but one could never infer that fact from the things they consume. With books as with food, we become what we eat, and the unresisting reader will swallow much more than what is good for him. Books are worldviews incarnate, little salesmen who are good at making friends and influencing people, and not one of them is aesthetically, politically, or philosophically neutral. Publishing is warfare; and all reading is reading for keeps.

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