Gerald Graff. Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. 1979.
Postmodern literature and critical theory have shattered and discarded the ancient
metaphor that literature is a mirror held up to the world. Among some thinkers the figure itself
is considered passe. They loathe not only the metaphor but the very belief that reality exists.
Such fundamentally nihilistic thinking permeates many disciplines today. In literature this
interpretation reveals itself mainly by evincing derision for the belief that literature is able to
refer to external reality. Professor Gerald Graff’s Literature Against Itself analyzes this loss of
referentiality and traces its development from romanticism through modernism and New
Criticism and on to the current postmodernism. Although his book may be more perceptive
about the problems than about the possibilities of restoration, it boldly rejects the solipsism of
contemporary literature and calls for a return to an aesthetics centered in reality.
Graff accurately perceives that the major affliction of literature is its loss of
referentiality. He locates the beginning of this loss in romanticism. Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth,
Emerson, as well as many others, tended to exaggerate the "legislative" power of poetry while
negating the utter dependence of poetry upon an external standard for justification and
validation. As they moved away from an objective standard, they progressively substituted for it
a literary creation--one for which no verifiable or believable authority existed. This weakened
the claim of literature to truth and simultaneously began its social and intellectual alienation.
Despite the extravagant claims of romanticism, it went awry. Far from creating more order in an
increasingly materialistic civilization, it led to only a more rampant subjectivism.
Graff maintains that the next logical step was into the extreme autonomy of our century.
Rilke and Yeats come readily to mind. They both developed esoteric systems to compensate for
their inability to discern any coherent exterior reality, Yeats achieving by far the more arcane
and idiosyncratic one. The presupposition of such a system is that there is no inherent design; the
artist must contrive one. Rilke and Yeats differ from a few of the romantics in that their thinking
is thoroughly secular, despite half-hearted assertions of some type of tenuous mysticism. Yet
what differentiates the modernists (such as Rilke and Yeats) from postmodern writers is that the
modernists remained, for the most part, humanists. They continued to believe, as the romantics
did, that poetry gives order and meaning, somehow or another, to reality. Wallace Stevens’ idea
that poetry is the "supreme fiction" exemplifies this position. He, along with Yeats, Rilke, and
others, persisted in believing that a humanistic worldview was essential to poetry. In criticism,
the New Critics were central to the loss of referentiality, for it was they who worked the
autonomy of romanticism into a critical doctrine. T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards were particularly
responsible for the development of the seminal ideas of close textual reading and of disregarding
the content of a literary work. The autotelic, self-sufficient text and the further trivialization of
literature were the offspring of the romantic inheritance of the period.
Postmodern literature indisputably "extends rather than overturns the premises of
romanticism and modernism." Most of Graff’s book is dedicated to proving the truth of this
statement. He painstakingly documents that postmodern literature concludes "with better logic,
that, if humanism is indeed a fiction, we ought to quit this pretense that it can be taken
seriously." Hence we have Barthes, Derrida, de Man, semiotics, reader-response criticism, and all
of the writers who celebrate some vague form of energy--for example, Jerzy Kosinski and John
Hawkes, along with the "Beat" poets.
However, to repudiate humanism is, as Graff recognizes, a slightly honorable position for
these critics and writers. They at least are honest enough to accept the inevitable conclusion that
must follow from their ungrounded thinking, something that most of the romantics and
modernists could not face:
Knowing and naming itself as fiction, literature becomes a vehicle for a nihilistic
meta-physics, an anti-didactic form of preaching. In a world in which nobody can
look outside the walls of the prison house of language, literature, with its built-in
confession of its self-imprisonment, becomes once again the great oracle of truth,
but now the truth is that there is no truth.
This is the postmodern "breakthrough": the grim truth at last confronted. Drawing upon Vico,
Saussure, Russian formalism, and modern linguistics in general, some postmodern thinkers and
writers hold that linguistic elements cannot signify anything in the objective world and that, as a
result, no intelligible reality exists. All is reduced to arbitrary codes of signifiers.
Although Graff does allow that linguistic signs are indeed arbitrary and that it is a
valuable lesson for literature and criticism to learn this, he points out that it does not follow that
the concepts referred to are arbitrary. External conventions, as well as internal, determine
meaning. An example he gives is the ambiguous statement "Keep off the grass." Without
external indication of the intention of the writer or speaker, one does not know how to
understand this simple statement. Does it mean to stay off someone’s lawn or off marijuana?
Only an intentional, external sign can clarify the meaning. In the same way, writing demands
intention by the author. Literature is not a Rorschach test, a contention that much of modern
literary culture is dangerously close to holding.
Graff brilliantly exposes why "avant garde" ideologies fail to challenge contemporaneity:
"They are the entrenched ideologies, or at least play into them." The alienated psychology of the
postmodern artist has been so thoroughly absorbed into the general society--or the postmodern
artist has so thoroughly absorbed the alienation of modern, fragmented society--that there is no
longer any fundamental difference between their thinking. The various coteries basically
embrace the same values of irrationality and anti-intellectualism, skepticism, and nihilism that
pervade contemporary world civilization. They mistakenly redefine their failure as a
"breakthrough." Much of the writing of contemporaneity, as Graff observes, is a symptom of the
malady instead of an exploration of it. In a strange way, referentiality has almost been restored;
the mirror is cracked, but it reflects the condition of our age.
Graff demonstrates that literature has conspired against itself to bring about its own loss
From the perception that "poetry makes nothing happen," as Auden in our century
has said, we move to the imperative that poetry ought to make nothing happen,
and finally to the axiom that it is not real poetry if it aims at practical effect. By
this logical route, the alienated position of literature ceases to be an aspect of a
particular historical condition and becomes part of literature’s very definition.
Although he states that the reason for this deflating redefinition is due to literary thinkers
having accepted a certain conceptual bill of goods, he still tends to locate the causes of it in the
political arena, in the appearance of modern mass society, and in the pressure upon literature of
scientific advancement. Nowhere in his book does Graff approach the understanding that for
man to lose touch with true external authority means he has lost touch with objective reality.
Anomie, in the old sense of the word, is all that can possibly follow. And regardless of his
beliefs that literature is dependent upon a convincing conceptual and theoretical understanding
of the world and that literature has denied itself such an understanding, he himself fails to
elucidate what one might be. Suffice it to say that the result of such a redefinition is not only the
loss of referentiality but signficance as well. The writer turns to mythology, linguistic games.
This redefinition is not, however, a recent phenomenon. Literature has been, as Graff states at
one point, "in the process of telling us how little it means for along time, as far back as the
beginnings of romanticism." That this redefinition of literature has found doctrinal expression in
Auden and other writers and critics should come as no surprise. But poetry does and must make
something happen; it repairs and polishes the mirror; it perceives the order that exists in reality;
it leads to practical effect; it opens our eyes to new possibilities of life and thought; it reflects
man’s deepest sense of consciousness. As Robert Hayden wrote, "Poetry does make something
happen, for it changes sensibility." Such change, incontrovertibly spiritual in nature, is the
prerequisite for any transformation in the objective, quotidian world.
As a remedy for the problems of referentiality and redefinition, Graff offers mimesis:
The writer’s problem is to find a standpoint from which to represent the diffuse,
intransigent material of contemporary experience without surrendering critical
perspective to it. Since critical perspective depends on historical sense, on seeing
the present somehow as part of a coherent historical process, this task demands a
difficult fusion of the sense of contemporaneity with the sense of the past that
gives contemporaneity distinct definition.
Graff’s mimetic fusion" is indeed difficult given contemporary assumptions about history and
society, assumptions that, in the end, Graff shares. Without an understanding of the major
motivating events of history, any effort at "fusion" is doomed to failure. He primarily proposes
that a new "fusion" be based on a view of history as degenerating into the mass society of today.
That this has occurred during the last century is undeniable. Such a phenomenon has certainly, as
he contends, vitiated the rational, critical capacity of society and replaced it with mass forms of
thinking that are lacking in content. Yet such a fact is itself merely the symptom of a much larger
problem. And his "fusion" would actually result only in another personal, willed mythology,
which is precisely what he argues against throughout his book.
Nevertheless, Graff is definitely seeking to restore coherence to life. He cites Saul
Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet as an attempt to reaffirm the meaning of such words as truth,
honor, compassion, virtue. But ultimately such an attempt remains for Bellow and Graff as
deprived of any respectable authority as the attempt by the romantics and modernists to affirm
humanistic values. The religious ground for such verities has not been restored; rather, they are
asserted solely out of a nostalgia that can command no more respect than earlier attempts by
scholars and writers to impose, by themselves, order on existence. Similarly, in his chapter
"English in America," he claims that the collective efforts of scholars are required "to reconstruct
our history." This is presented after acknowledging the manner in which literary scholars and
teachers have collaborated during the last century to drain literature of its referential ability. How
this tendency may be reversed is not explained any more than the assertion that respectability
must be returned to the "old words."
Although Graff demystifies in a masterly way the thinking of many scholars and writers,
he meets some of them in the end in a vague and ungrounded program of revision. At the same
time, it seems that perhaps Graff understands the predicament in which he, modern literature, and
contemporaneity find themselves. Between the lines of his book one would like to sense perhaps
an awareness of the futility of political, academic, and literary solutions to the spiritual perplexities of
today. In an age as disjointed as ours, to understand such a large part of the problem is a formidable
and admirable accomplishment.
Copyright (c) 1983 Frederick Glaysher. Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself, reviewed in World Order, 17 (Spring 1983), 45-47.