What is literature, anyway?

A discussion of the way texts are interpreted and misinterpreted

Garber analyzes the language of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Garber analyzes the language of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
By Adam Kirsch
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2011

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The title of the new book by Marjorie Garber, an eminent professor of English at Harvard University, makes it sound like a grand polemic in the style of “The Closing of the American Mind.’’ It comes as a surprise, then, to find that it is actually a leisurely and learned ramble through dozens, if not hundreds, of texts and topics. Often it is hard to see the logic behind Garber’s choices: She examines classic texts like John Donne’s “The Canonization’’ and Ezra Pound’s haiku-like poem “In a Station of the Metro,’’ but she is equally happy to devote half a page to listing books with the phrase “use and abuse’’ in their titles, and she spends what seems like an inordinate amount of time attacking a 30-year-old book called “Metaphors We Live By’’ by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, for its “devaluation of the power and nature of words.”

This variousness has been a hallmark of Garber’s career — she is the author of books on Shakespeare, real estate, bisexuality, and pets — and it enlivens “The Use and Abuse of Literature’’ with many incidental insights and pleasures.

But the real justification for Garber’s method is the way it enacts her central thesis: that literature is not so much a subject as an activity. When we use the word “literature,’’ we may think of a library full of texts, or a gallery of famous authors, or even a heading in a course catalog. But all of these images are too static, too thing-like, in Garber’s view. “[L]iterature itself is a work in progress and in flux,’’ she writes.

The case study that best expresses Garber’s understanding of literature is her short analysis of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.’’ Anyone who has read this fable in a high school English class will remember the list of seven commandments that the rebel animals write on a wall. These express a creed of revolutionary puritanism, forbidding animals to wear clothes or sleep in a bed, and culminating in the unambiguous statement, “All animals are equal.’’ Over the course of the story, the new animal rulers, led by Napoleon the pig, systematically break each one of these rules; the most sinister thing, however, is that they do this without acknowledging it. Instead, they simply rewrite the commandments, insisting to their cowed subjects that they must have misremembered them.

To Garber, this story is an example of the “rewriting and defacement’’ at the heart of literature, the way texts are constantly being interpreted and misinterpreted.

What is missing from Garber’s analysis is any mention of the fact that “Animal Farm’’ is a fable of the Russian Revolution, and that the rewriting of the laws is Orwell’s parody of the way Marxist dialecticians justified every action of the Bolshevik government as a historical necessity. That is not because Garber doesn’t know this, of course, but because she doesn’t think it is interesting in a literary sense. For to say that a literary work has an intention or a purpose comes rather too close to saying that it has a meaning; and for Garber, a meaning is not nearly enough.

Here, in essence, is the answer to the question posed by Garber’s title. Paradoxically, she suggests that we abuse literature whenever we try to use it, and we use it properly only when we honor its uselessness. To ask whether a work of literature is “good for you’’ or “bad for you,’’ Garber writes in her introduction, is “judgmental and moral’’; such moral effects “are incidental and accidental byproducts of literature, not literary qualities.’’

Most dedicated readers would agree that there is an important truth here. Literature cannot be judged on crudely utilitarian grounds. Nor can a literary work be fully judged by its moral or political effectiveness: to read a novel or poem for its message is to lose what makes it a novel or a poem.

But Garber is saying something more radical than this. It is not just that she wants to preserve literature’s autonomy; she wants to deprive it of any testimonial or communicative purpose. To read “Animal Farm’’ simply as an allegory for reading and interpretation is to miss what it has to say about self-righteousness, power, and corruption. Similarly, Garber argues that we should read Freud and Marx as “literary authors.’’

But this is to traduce their own belief that they were discovering new truths about society and psychology. And literature cannot exist without a commitment to some kind of truthfulness, even if a certain style of criticism can. The problem becomes obvious when Garber writes that “[l]iterature produces, and is in turn produced by, modes of critical analysis.’’ But surely this is to make a pretty serious omission. Actually, literature is produced by authors, and authors write in order to create something true and beautiful, and not to be used, or abused, by critics.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. His new book, “Why Trilling Matters,’’ will be published this fall.

By Marjorie Garber
Pantheon, 319 pp., $28.95