The truth in literature

A turning point in my life came when I enrolled in AP Lit in my senior year of high school. My teacher, Mr. Ricketts, was hands-off to the point of being neglectful. He basically handed us a list of classic works of literature and encouraged us to write sample papers to practice for the AP test — as few or as many as we liked. Every week we did an exercise where people brought in exemplary sentences to try to unravel how they “worked.” Only a couple texts were explicitly assigned as a whole-class read, mainly Greek tragedies. I was in heaven, finally given explicit permission to do what I had been doing throughout junior high and high school in any case — reading and thinking about whatever I wanted.

I remember very little of the content of the class, such as it was, but two moments stand out to me. The first is when we went over a critical essay by James Schroeter, “The Four Fathers: Symbolism in Oedipus Rex” (which I’m almost afraid to read at this date). In the essay, he correlated each of the father figures in the play with one of the three main schools of literary criticism — the poetic (Aristotelian), Freudian, and anthropological schools. Obviously this framing was more than a little artificial, but it introduced me to the very idea of criticism. And it also introduced me to the idea that you can just sit down and read Aristotle or Freud or (perhaps less impressively) Frazer — which I proceded to do. That was the semester I became a Great Bookist!

The second was more subtle but more formative. We were reading Euripides’s Alcestis, in which the title character sacrifices herself for her husband, but is miraculously returned to life. Mr. Ricketts pointed out a potential ambiguity here — is she really back, or has Hercules brought the shitheel husband a corpse to torment him for being cowardly enough to let her sacrifice herself for him in the first place? We batted around evidence for both points of view and seemed to be at a deadlock. Then Mr. Ricketts argued that the passage was saturated with imagery of light, which is associated with Apollo, which must mean that the resurrection is real. This absolutely blew my mind. I had previously tended to view imagery and description as dispensable ornamentation, but he was showing that it was a new level of evidence for analyzing the work — perhaps even the most essential evidence.

As I wouldn’t have been able to put it then, the truth of literature was at the level of form, not of content. And I really did think something like truth was at stake, even though I would have been be hard pressed to articulate how or why. I just knew that I had to track it down. I not only had to read all the best and most complex books, I had to grasp them at this formal level — then I would know something truly decisive. I planned to devote my life to this kind of truth, and in a way, you could say that I actually did.

But what was I actually after? It wasn’t purely aesthetic beauty, or if it was, it was a kind of beauty that pointed beyond itself. The satisfaction of admiring a particularly well-wrought urn could not be the ultimate goal. It had to tell us something about how to live. The form of the work somehow had to reveal the shape of the world. It feels almost too obvious to need stating, but this conviction makes sense for someone whose life was deeply saturated by the Bible, whose every conviction had to be grounded in some kind of textual evidence. (Things seem to be different now — the waning influence of true fundamentalist literalism has, quite unexpectedly, hollowed out the evangelical mind rather than creating space to enrich it.)

Surely the idea of this formal level of meaning was seductive because it could provide me with a kind of theological trump card. At the same time, though, by then I was already beginning my Catholic phase and relativizing the role of the Bible as such for my life. It was, strangely, the form of textual authority that outlived its concrete content, even if understanding the Bible remains very important to me. And that authority was real. I was sure that by studying “The Waste Land” in epic detail, reading all of its sources and scouring the scholarship — all for a final paper in a freshman American lit survey! — I would hit on something profound and valuable, something that could change my life. That meant that the “theory”-laden readings that claimed sometimes oulandish political implications for literary analysis made perfect sense to me. Yes, I thought, that’s it exactly! Or — since I was becoming a true academic — that’s precisely it!

Everything fits into this trajectory. I shifted my attention from literature to philosophy eventually, but I still read them as literature, as texts — hence why I remain a hardcore continentalist and why I find the analytic approach of boiling down the richness of the text to the thin broth of a fetishized “argument” so offensive. The text is the thing itself! You can’t just reduce it to some argumentative content — you need to attend to its literary form! This literary approach also accounts for my unique approach to language acquisition, where I have learned to read (and only read) many languages with the goal of teasing more nuances out of the text. And all my work is “literary” in this way, whether my text is a TV sitcom or the literature on neoliberalism, whether I’m teaching the Odyssey or music or cosmology.

All it took was two moments to divert an entire life onto an extremely idiosyncratic path out of evangelicalism and into an equally idiosyncratic mode of inhabiting the academic life. I was saved — truly saved — by the Word, the very Word that could have doomed me forever. That gap between form and content was my way out, my narrow path to freedom.