Fiction Sets You Free: Literature, Liberty and Western Culture (2007)
The failing of contemporary criticism is double: Hand in hand with the suppression of aesthetic autonomy, one finds also a growing reluctance to recognize the complex and dynamic temporality of literature. By dynamic temporality I mean that immanent sense of time within the literary work, its ability to reach backward, as part of a tradition, and forward, as a vehicle of innovation and anticipation. This sort of temporality is quite different from a single-minded and frequently reductionist focus on historical context.
The more rigorously criticism historicizes a work of art, in the sense of lodging it in the context of the moment of its production, the less likely it becomes for criticism to be able to explain either its own subsequent interest in the work or the possibility of lay—that is, nonacademic—interest in reading it.
Presentism implies not only a shift toward contemporary material (older material is denounced polemically as tied to dead authors), but an implicit structuring of time as always only a present, without a recollection of its past, without an aspiration to a future.
The simultaneity of the disappearance of literature (as aesthetic) and history (as development), which we can observe around us in the academy, points to a fundamental commonality; unraveling one implies unraveling the other, since both are grounded in the same goal-oriented structures that postmodern sensibility opposes. Both civilizational history and autonomous literature are constitutively teleological, dependent on notions of progress toward goals, and they both therefore face resistance from the antidevelopmentalism of contemporary intellectual life.
The modern reading of ancient literature involves a mode of reception that is not merely scholarly or antiquarian. Instead, aesthetic experience allows for a direct relationship between reader and work, despite the historical distance. Today’s consumer cannot participate in the ancient economy by trying to use an Athenian coin as legal tender; but today’s reader can participate in the ancient literary imagination though an authentic engagement with the Homeric text (no matter how much contemporary circumstances necessarily also enter into that encounter with the ancient text). Thus the historicist imperative of periodization evidently stands at odds with the potential for immediacy associated with literary reception and aesthetic experience.
The point is not that contemporaneity is insignificant. ... It is rather that there is something more important at stake in the temporal character of literature: its relation to history, understood as change and development, rather than as context and frame.
Benjamin describes the revolutionary moment when the past suddenly bursts into the present, as if rising from the grave to rectify the wrongs it suffered at the hands of a banally triumphant progress. Thus Benjamin’s historical materialism implies a capacity to link otherwise separate and distant moments in time through a profound empathy. The empathy takes on a revolutionary character by disrupting the regularity of quotidian temporality. Without this sort of tie to the past, no critical stance in the present is possible.
Periodization sequesters human experience. The historicist separation of the past from the present prohibits empathy with the past and therefore precludes criticism in the present.
The relevance of canonicity has nothing to do with the notion of codified establishments of hierarchical judgment (for which it typically attracts revisionist hostility). Instead, canonicity is important as the capacity to permit vibrant reading relationships to works from the past. ... Whatever else the canon may do, its primary function has been the preservation of the reception of literature across periodic borders, thereby calling into question the significance of those borders or the fetishism of contexts. The canon tunnels under the Berlin Wall that periodizers erect between literary regimes. As a fundamental level, therefore, periodization stands at odds with canonicity. Canonicity maintains, cultivates, and develops community over time and across generations; periodization breaks up that identity and suppresses the historical continuities through a strategy of temporal separation.
The assertion of the priority of contemporaneity, the celebration of the present, defines the politics of periodization. It is either a matter of our present, defined as the vanguard of historical progress, or it is the historical present of the objects of study, presumed to be fully grounded in that single, isolated moment of time. In either case, the classificatory impulse inherent in periodization tends to proscribe the more complex temporalities of tradition and anticipation.
Periodization is the disciplinary strategy with which the present establishes its rule over all time and encourages conformism, to the detriment of autonomy, individual and aesthetic.
The reified focus on the moment of literary production, in a distanced context—the typical topic of periodization—suppresses the experience of reception, the actualization of the past in the reader’s present.
Historicism runs counter to the specific capacity of the literary work to escape the limits of historical time, to allow for the cross-generational flourishing of tradition, and open the present to a multidimensional temporality.
The social sciences, ultimately, are about patterns, rules, and phenomena available to certain objective forms of explanation; the humanities, especially the study of literature, are about exceptional cases, singular works, and individuals that require subjective understanding.
Language use is a curious behavior, but once the transition to language is made, literature is a likely consequence, since it is linked to the dynamic of the linguistic symbol through the functioning of the imagination.
Flaubert poses as the outsider with insider information who excoriates a reality as degraded and mendacious. It is as if the literary standing of the author in the world of imagination and fiction paradoxically grants him a greater access to the truth than would be available in the falseness of empirical existence.
Literature is most social when it is least social.