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Hatred of Literature


At the Baffler website, Jonathon Sturgeon reflects on literature’s diminishing cultural significance. His jumping-off point is the book The Hatred of Literature by William Marx, recently translated from French by Nicholas Elliott and published by Harvard University Press. In the book, Marx provides an overview of the history of “anti-literature,” and Sturgeon supplements it with a list of present-day detractors who have helped drive literature to the cultural margins. Here’s an excerpt from Sturgeon’s piece:

In its final two sections, The Hatred of Literature turns to more contemporary matters. Namely, Marx deals with the charge that literature is useless to society, an argument enhanced by literature’s perceived lack of authority, morality, or ability to convey the truth. Actually, the situation is much worse. To be sure, literature is useless, but it also fails to honor the one trait ascribed to it by Plato: its ability to imitate things in the world. “The moral of the story is that literature does not adequately reflect the whole of society,” Marx admits, half caving to the arguments of its prosecutors. “When the regime is aristocratic, literature is criticized for not being aristocratic enough and not belonging to the clan of the powerful; when it is democratic, it is accused of being elitist and contributing to the system’s flaws.”

For Marx, this state of affairs exposes an essence of literature: it is powerless. Not only that, it is relatively valueless: “its status as an unprofitable activity in the republic expose it to every accusation and every proscription.” Yet Marx finds solace, not to mention his many negative definitions of literature (“Literature is what remains when everything has been removed”), in its hatred. “Far worse indeed than the hatred of literature would be indifference: may the gods prevent that day from ever arriving.”

Image: Plato, hater of literature. Via