Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Western Lit -- Just a Kafkaesque Exercise?

David Frum begins this NRO essay talking about Franz Kafka's enigmatic (but enduring) novel, The Trial. But he ends up making some important observations about literature, modern culture, and education. For instance...

...Despite Kafka's high place in the contemporary literary canon - despite the hugely improved new English translations which have provided the texts for the excellent Geoffrey Howard audio recordings - I cannot help fearing that these riches are sought by fewer and fewer. Literature is a declining presence in our modern society, increasingly an academic preoccupation. Intelligent young people read literature at university, and when they graduate, they stop. When they feel the need to feed the imagination, they turn to movies or television shows.

Here in the blogosphere, certainly, the contrast is stark. I just did a Google blogsearch. For "Franz Kafka" and "The Trial," 7900 entries. For HBO and "The Wire," 59,000. For HBO and "The Sopranos," 72,000. For "Battlestar Galactica," 399,000.

Now "The Wire" and "The Sopranos" are fine shows, that do many of the things literature does. I loved the early seasons of "The Sopranos" myself. As for Battlestar Galactica, well who am I to cavil at a show that has done so much to introduce adolescents around the world to the appeal of things Canadian? Still, I do often feel that we live in a world gone color blind or hard of hearing, cut off from deeper connections that were once broadly shared.

The decline of literature is a phenomenon with many causes. Technology is the most important obviously - movies and TV are more arresting, more accessible, and less demanding than text.

There are cultural changes at work too. Contemporary culture has scant room for arbiters of excellence, yet without them the obvious and easy will drive out the enduring and important. In any area of art – not only literature, but also music and the visual arts - the modern person reminds me of the first encounter of the modern child, raised on fried chicken strips, and an actual roast chicken: “This thing has bones!”

Then of course there is the collapse of self-confidence among those who ought to act as arbiters. Roger Kimball has devoted a lifetime of work to excoriating the multiple self-betrayals of teachers and critics of the arts and literature. So far, alas, the results of his labors are at best inconclusive.

What happens all too often in high school and college literary classes is this:

Students are assigned work of very low literary quality. These works are chosen to provide sexual/racial/ethnic diversity. Or because they talk explicitly about sexuality or some other topic deemed likely to excite student attention. Or because they reflect approved attitudes on the issues of the day.

The usual result is simply to bore the students - to deaden for a lifetime any potential enthusiasm for the thing they think they are studying. But for the small minority of students whose enthusiasm for reading cannot be killed even by the academic study of literature, the effect is (if possible) even worse. For them, the study of literature has been turned into an experience of organized lying...

And yet I persist in hoping that precisely because literature touches something profound and permanent in the human spirit and human condition, that the very best will continue to find its audience. The Trial of course ranks among the very best. And it even gives us a story, a style, and a word to describe the dominant character of contemporary literary life: what is it, but Kafkaesque?