‘The Hatred of Literature’ Will Deeply Satisfy Lovers of Literature

This is a deep dive into the history of literature and the murky threats it's faced that have only served to make it stronger.

William Marx
The Hatred of Literature
Belknap / Harvard University Press
Jan 2018

Those who come to this book seeking validation of their negativity towards the written word will be sorely disappointed. Rather than examine a particular antipathy towards a specific form, William Marx examines how the fear of ideas inherent in all literary forms, be it Plato through C.P. Snow, has served only to build up a hatred of the form in general. We hate what we fear, and we reach that state of apprehension because it comfortably serves our immediate interests. Willful ignorance has always been a more comfortable and popular state than that of an academic, than the life of a pilgrim on a quest for the truth. We have always hated literature while at the same time we hold it at a safe distance. Confuse this hatred of literature with illiteracy and the picture gets hazy. The latter is not always a chosen condition. Most illiterates have no reason to hate literature if they have never had exposure to it. Those who have spent their lives hating literature have done so because it’s always been a threat to the status quo or ruling parties. The spoken word can immediately be disregarded in a silent world. Unless we institute round-the-clock bonfires, literature is forever.

In his comprehensive and rich examination of how and why literature has always been on trial, Marx’s The Hatred of Literature carefully spells out how the four indictments (Authority, Truth, Morality, and Society) against the form have served to threaten our existence as thinking people and weaken the fabric of society. What is Literature? What texts do we trust? Marx looks at literature through the eyes of its foes. He weaves in political leaders, philosophers, theologians, and professorial types whose missions often seem to be at odds with the more high-minded pursuits of the form. Has the roughly 2,500-year history of literature as a form rendered it untouchable? As a people, we have created literature to explain mysteries, envelop truth in allegories, escape into the great unknown, and build alternative worlds. We have debated its utilitarian purpose, its virtue as a moral beacon, and its validity. If we fail to reach a clear conclusion to any of these categories, we claim that literature is harmful.

Marx manages to open this book understanding that it’s going to be a tough ride, even for those of us inclined to pay full price for the experience. Literature is scandalous, and Marx warns his reader that the scandal may not always appear in the expected places. Plato condemned the poets, serving only the nine muses and not any notion of truth. Marx notes that the first division lines between intellectuals seemed to have been drawn between poets and philosophers:

“The first lesson of philosophy: whatever it is that the poets do, it’s not philosophy. What a lesson! The poets’ cheeks are still stinging from it. But if it isn’t philosophy that they’re doing, what is it?” If the philosophers dismissed the muses, those wispy nine sisters of divine inspiration, what were they providing as an alternative? Did they need to provide an alternative? “Logos” was the first definition of literature, and it was a “…discourse without compromise.” Contrast that with the notion that literature was “…nostalgia for a fallen power” and you have the clearest understanding of this struggle. The more we advanced as a people, the greater the urge was to never look back. Literature was (and perhaps still remains) the siren call that romanticized and deconstructed reality only to re-purpose it in an idealized image.

Perhaps literature could only be defined as the thing that’s attacked, the Other. Marx reflects: “In the Middle Ages, the word poet was long a synonym for a priest or theologian of paganism.” The threats against literature coming from authorities have always been combined with truth, especially in such societies where the “truth” came only from philosophers and religious leaders. Whether or not that “truth” was confirmed by the presence and prevalence of literature usually determined the severity of the attack. In Chapter Two, “Second Trial: Truth”, Marx develops a fascinating account of British writer C.P. Snow and his improbable popularity as a thinker, an examiner (and proponent) of anti-intellectualism in the late ’50s. Marx claims Snow was homophobic in his dismissal of those who elevated literacy:

“The argument is clear enough: literary culture only interests homosexuals and is sterile, perverse, and dangerous…According to Snow, literature… is no longer necessary. Never does he make an attempt to balance his argument by pointing out science’s shortcomings in dealing with contemporary problems; never does he advise science to glean the slightest thing from… literary culture.”

Marx’s examination of Snow’s foe, F.R. Leavis, proves entertaining and enlightening, proof that the fights science had with religion seemed to go concurrently with science and literature. Concepts of “truth” were always the common bond. Marx concludes that the “…question of truth is only an excuse…” We will continue to take sides solidly in perceptions of that which is true and that which is idealized, but for Marx “…the future looks rosy for anti-literature…” So long as we affix ourselves to rigid positions that fail to allow for variations of “truth”, literature will have a difficult time walking, if you will, without looking over its shoulder to determine threats.

In “Third Trial: Morality”, Marx examines such texts as Madame Bovary and the idea that the modern trend to have women as victims in literature is nothing new. The accusation of immorality against literature is less gender-based so much as the idea that the poets have always wanted to figuratively kill their teachers. The threats Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye have always faced serve to solidify the idea that we want to kill our teachers because of perceived moral transgressions. Marx also cites and summarily dismisses the idea of “trigger warnings: being applied to Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, where traumatic rape and torture and other issues are prevalent. In that sense, Marx concludes, a bond has developed between the greatest secular and sacred texts:

“The literary canon has therefore developed on the model of the biblical ‘canon’ — but a canon that is subject to the principle of the freedom of inquiry… [the] problem is that literary texts, including those that are apparently the most virtuous, do not always offer examples of good morals.”

The bottom line in the Morality chapter is simple: “To refuse a book the possibility of shocking those who read it is to impose on literature constraints that should not be its responsibility…” The chapter takes a deep dive into Plato and Aristotle, so any unprepared reader should get their vaccines, if you will, before entering what might be alien territory. It’s worth the time and effort.

In “Fourth Trial: Society”, Marx examines social issues from France, his personal perspective. He discusses former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s dismissal of a famous French novel The Princess De Cleves. He asks a question that might be more understandable for non-Europeans: “Is Proust too difficult or elitist?” (The American reader might be referred to a website featuring photos of people carrying around David Foster Wallace’s impenetrable tome Infinite Jest and pretending to read it.) Marx notes Sarkozy’s summary negation of The Princess De Cleves and asks an interesting question: “Can one possibly imagine the minister speaking this way about the visual arts or cinema?” For Marx, literature was not a comprehensive reflection of society and had no reason to serve that purpose. When there is “…more continuity in anti-literature than in literature…” then the form is still a work in progress, and it is built by societal demands as much as it influences the direction of its readership.

Literature is authoritative, visionary, capable of action, and an expression of both the individual and collective sensibility. It remains under threat, but the form itself will mutate and not lose its potency as society transforms. The Hatred of Literature could have been a ponderous text more in love with itself than it has a right to be, but the author sprinkles it with a sense of levity and humor. The reader also benefits from the fact that Marx is not writing from an American perspective. His topic is the history of literature and how it has always faced threats, no matter its location. By the time he reaches his conclusion, the similarly inclined reader will most likely share his sentiment that the hatred of literature does not and will not foreshadow its demise. Like Tom Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath vowing to Ma that he will carry on so long as there’s a hungry mouth to feed or justice to be gained, written expression will move forward to meet the needs of its people. The marketplace changes, but curiosity and aspirations to intellectually search for something and somewhere better than the here and now will always be needed.

RATING 9 / 10