I once wrote a poem wherein I made reference to the Amazons, and to the notion that this all-female tribe excised the right breast to make drawing a bow easier. A fanciful etymology even proposes that the tribe’s name (a – madzos, or “breastless”) refers to this practice, though few philologists take the derivation seriously. It hardly matters. The name exists, the legend exists, and there’s an end on’t, as Shakespeare might say.
Well, it happened that I had occasion to read this particular poem at some silly forum (yes, yes, I know… I have frequently resolved never to attend another, but there’s always some pain-in-the-ass acquaintance who manages to drag me to one).
When I had finished speaking, someone in the audience raised an objection. He said “Scholars agree that the Amazons are purely legendary, and never really existed. Also, the idea that they cut off the right breast is totally false.” He announced all this in that tone of hectoring accusation that one associates with back-bench parliamentarians.
I replied “If they are purely legendary, what the hell does it matter what they did or didn’t do?”
You might ask how it is possible to keep such a simple thought from occurring to a human mind. But if you do ask that question, you are out of the loop when it comes to understanding how total is the misapprehension of literature today, even among the professional class that is entrusted with the teaching of it.
Recently in the TLS, Elizabeth Lowry commented that “the suspension of disbelief that was previously definitional in painting and literature has now been superseded by the will to believe.” In other words, overly earnest readers are now fixated on the absolute and verifiable truth-value of what they read, and feel swindled if they discover that any element of a work is the product of fictive mimesis. If something that an author writes does not correspond with objective reality as presented by Wikipedia or by the New York Times or by the canons of Received Opinion, it is a “lie” that should be greeted with indignation. H.H. Munro once wrote a short story about an encyclopedia salesman who tried to sell his wares to a novelist, using the argument that it was unthinkable for a serious author to have a detectable error of fact in his work of fiction. The story (circa 1915) was comic-satirical, but today the vast majority of consumers of literature think exactly in this philistine manner. That was the problem with the jerk who questioned me about the Amazons. He wanted a Literature for Fact-Checkers.
One reason for this misperception is the puritanical attitude that anything not a clear, direct, and unambiguous statement of fact is somehow morally suspect. I say “attitude,” because you don’t usually find people stating it openly. It’s more of a frame of mind, or a disposition. Persons suffering from this disability have a troubled, worried look on their faces that indicates deep discomfort with anything that is “questionable” or “debatable.” And heaven forfend that it be untrue! They’ll go into cardiac arrest if they suspect that to be the case. Like the anal-retentive William Shawn who edited The New Yorker in days gone by, they believe in armies of fact-checkers.
Persons with this problem—and they are legion—have completely misunderstood the nature and function of literature. I venture the guess that this is probably because they haven’t read a lot of it, and what they have read has been pretty thin fare, offering little in the way of real aesthetic satisfaction. They come to literary texts with the same acquisitive mindset that they bring to their algebra book or their French grammar: Here is a place for me to get information! Here is a factual source for me! And when they discover fictive mimesis instead, they get angry.
Who are these stupid people, and where are they coming from? They are coming from our grade schools and high schools, where a largely philistine teaching staff sees literature as nothing but a megaphone for “ideas.” And if the ideas are wrong or inappropriate or offensive or unfashionable, the books containing them are dismissed as useless or unteachable. Try teaching Moll Flanders to your high school English class, and see what happens when your contract comes up for renewal before the brain-dead local school board.
But I won’t blame just the K-12 sequence. The universities deserve a few whacks as well. The problem is in fact exacerbated in the colleges, where the study of literature has degenerated into a Babel of jargonizing “theory.” English departments have been Balkanized into little defensive fortresses where feminists, deconstructionists, queer theorists, Foucaultians, Lacanians, Marxists, and a host of other politicized partisans ransack texts in order to find support for their peculiar take on reality. Naturally, in a milieu of this sort, the only thing that is going to matter is the “idea-content” of a text, and whether that content is “correct” or not. It’s all fraudulent, tacky, and utterly alien to the genuine study of belles lettres, and to disinterested scholarship. Compare an issue of PMLA from 1950 with the current issue, and you’ll be embarrassed at how America’s premier journal of literary scholarship has deliquesced into mindless Frogspeak.
This notion that literature is a well into which one dips one’s bucket for the water of enlightenment and edification is profoundly naïve, and yet it is close to becoming universal. Thousands of idiots believe that poetry should provide you with “moral uplift” and “positive thoughts” and “worthwhile messages” and “wholesome aspirations” or similar Sunday-school pieties, not to mention the ratification of one’s ethical-political viewpoints. And all those other things that poetry can also do well—attack, mock, execrate, fight, outrage, lie, dissemble, tempt, propagandize, degrade, titillate, and rankle, to name a few—are banished from sight and memory. Incidentally, this is why most young people would rather watch a violent movie than read the saccharine effluvia that passes for poetry today. At least the violent movie is exciting and provocative. That’s preferable to the emasculated sweetness and light of decorous, workshop-vetted poems, all anxious to be “truthful” and “responsible.”
Let’s get poetry out of the hands of the Gatekeepers of Propriety and Veracity. Let’s make it fictive and dangerous again. And if some fact-checkers in the audience are hurt or offended or outraged, let ’em drop dead.