No. 23: Remark Defending Literature
May 4, 2014
[In Response to this WSJ article]
Few people realize just how significant this sort of thing is, even in /r/TiA the opinion this article is expressing will likely be met with a degree of skepticism or hostility. The reason is most of them are probably products of of just the sort of trend this article is so concerned about, there is so little engagement today in the educations students receive with pre-Victorian literature, to the point where the people who are quickest to dismiss the older works of the Early Modern Period have the least understanding of what those works are even actually like.
In François Rabelais’s exuberant stories from the 1530s, the giant Gargantua sends off his son to study in Paris, joyfully conjuring up the languages—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean and Arabic—that he expects his son to master, as well as the vast range of history, law, natural history and philosophy.
This book for example is completely different than what you might expect a novel from the 16th century to be like. In one chapter Pantagruel and his friends meet a beggar on the road, who, if I remember correctly, it turns out is making his way home after a period in Ottoman captivity. They try and inquire to the stranger about his situation, but he responds to them in a series of different, increasingly archaic languages and dialects they aren’t able to understand, much to Pantagruel’s consternation. Later the same character, after joining Pantagruel’s retinue, is wronged by a woman and to get back at her, on Easter or some other significant religious holiday, he takes a dog’s vagina that he cut out of a bitch in heat and hides it in the folds of this woman’s dress. During religious ceremony the woman is then swarmed by dogs that piss and shit all over her.
Honestly, older books are more enjoyable and funnier than most things that come out today. Classical literature isn’t even this homogeneous thing, some books, like Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Don Quixote, and Gil Blas, and Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy, are weird and funny and full of unbelievably bawdy humor, even by post-modern standards. While others are profound and spiritual, and centered around an insightful analysis of universal themes of human inequality and striving after a better world.
The writers also are totally heterogeneous in their backgrounds and beliefs, and many of them were part of oppressed minority groups within the context of the time period they lived during. In 17th and 18th century British literature, I’m just going to go ahead and say it, black people don’t really fucking matter, Irish and Scottish people do, as do Papists and Methodists and other religious non-Anglicans.
If you ask most people it’s unlikely that they’ll even be able to tell you what century the English Civil War or the Thirty Years War took place in, and frankly, if you don’t understand what those kinds of conflicts were about, and how truly devastating and transformational they were, you can not begin to properly understand the period-specific social and political tensions that were central to the era.
To take Scottish and Irish and English writers and pretend that there’s not a huge difference between them, to just combine them all under the category of “White”, that’s honestly downright insulting. Personally I don’t give two shits about “black voices” in Augustan era British literature, we should be asking where are the “Scottish voices” instead, that’s an infinitely more relevant and important question to ask. And as it turns out, they’re everywhere. If you don’t recognize the centrality of something like the “Scottish Question” to 18th century British culture so much of it will simply make no sense to you whatsoever. You won’t be able to understand things like the depiction of Scotland Tobias Smollett gives in Humphrey Clinker, or the “Ossian Controversy”, or a thousand other little things.
You need to be extremely careful dismissing Pre-Victorian literature and culture, and I think the reason so many young college aged SJWs do it is because they simply don’t really understand what it is they’re rejecting, so it’s easy for them to just throw it all out the window because they would rather take “Introduction to the Graphic Novel” or “Queer Voices In Avant-garde Cinema”. We shouldn’t allow them to make that decision so flippantly though, they just aren’t in a position to know what’s best for themselves intellectually.