Ideology Kills Truth, and Literature
In the wake of the good news that no academic department will sponsor The Vagina Monologues at Notre Dame this year, we learn that the play was performed on campus last year only because it was sponsored by the English and Sociology departments. This fact speaks volumes about the inadequacies of both departments. For a sociologist to sponsor a play specifically designed to alter our social patterns is rather like a reporter creating his own news. This is a simple fault of dishonesty. But what about the English Department?
I must begin by protesting that some of my best friends are English professors. My wife is a high school English teacher who has sometimes taught on the college level, and I myself have taught English literature in college, though it was not my primary field. Let it be known, then, that I harbor no ill will toward the practitioners of this noble craft.
Ideology and Relativism
Nonetheless, it is not without reason that English departments have been described as the last bastion of Marxism. By this it is meant that such departments are too frequently staffed by the stupidest of ideologues, those who are the very last to abandon preconceived notions in the face of reality. At first glance, it is hard to see why this should be so. It is precisely the mark of great literature that it extends our experience of reality by portraying this or that aspect of it with such precision, insight and power that, when finished reading, we have grown in wisdom. So how have university English departments become the haven of ideologues?
The answer is, in one word, relativism. The lack of belief in truth leaves English professors at a profound disadvantage because their subject is the least amenable to external standards. The study of literature concerns itself less with facts than with the experience of life. It doesn’t measure anything. It does not proceed by discursive reason or logic. Literature’s sole reality check, apart from the effectiveness of the writing, is the quality of its insight into the human condition. Therefore, if one believes that all insights are relative—that there really are no superior insights—then one has swept away the only principle which enables the study of literature to be self-correcting or self-improving.
Work in the hard sciences is largely tested by the quality of its tangible results, including technological success. The social sciences are based on formal observation and various measurements of behavior which enable subsequent scholars to correct the work which has gone before. Political Science depends for its analysis upon real socio-economic and political systems. History, with all its room for conjecture, relies ultimately on data which reveals what actually happened.
Philosophy must live or die by formal argument. Theology, to be worthy of the name, must have its benchmark of Revelation. Music and art share in literature's experiential strengths and weaknesses, but I pass over them here because they do not share with other fields the precise meanings associated with language and ideas. Of all the disciplines which deal directly with ideas, the study of literature possesses the least effective external mechanisms for self-correction and progress.
This is because the study of literature deals with that most subjective of all concepts, insight, and insight creates a dilemma for a relativist culture. Insight is valuable only insofar as it sharpens our perception and increases our understanding of reality. For this reason, insight depends upon an ultimate belief in both reality and the possibility of the mind’s conformity to it, which we call truth. Remove the idea of truth and insight becomes nothing more than interpretation. Remove the idea of truth and literature becomes the one and only cognitive subject in which personal interpretation reigns supreme.
The crisis of the West—that spiritual crisis by which the West doubts and disparages its own hard-won wisdom, values and achievements—has doomed English professors to irrelevance. No longer able to open young minds to the heights and depths of human nature's constant search for and discovery of meaning in the myriad realities of life, English professors are forced to manufacture relevance by adopting interpretive stances in the service of personal and social causes.
Because it is so easy in contemporary English departments to succeed academically through uncorrected personal interpretation, English departments actually attract precisely the kinds of intellectuals whose regard for their own private ideas overshadows any interest in shared intellectual labor, any desire for the progress of the guild, and any hope of correction according to reality or truth. Thus have English departments become the ultimate domain of egoists with pet ideas, the ultimate refuge of those who are so preoccupied with themselves and their interpretations that they cannot recognize reality even when it mugs them. Both by analogy and frequently by fact, they are the last bastion of Marxism.
Faith in Reality is Key
Yet once again this should not be so. The study of literature, like literature itself, weakens and dies when it is used to bend reality to its own interpretive purposes rather than to deepen our understanding and appreciation of reality itself. Just as a didactic story fails as a story in the precise degree that it is didactic, so too does any interpretation fail when it overlays the reading with an agenda. The benchmark for insight is reality itself, and the study of literature will not revive until those who study it begin again to think in terms of the mind’s conformity to reality as the standard for human thought.
This is important, of course, for every branch of knowledge, but it is precisely the core, merit and joy of literature that through words it can open our eyes to reality (and so our minds to truth) very nearly directly, without benefit of a system or a procedure or a technique. The study of literature is therefore intensely rewarding for the same reason that it lacks an apparatus of self-correction: it transfers human experience from the mind of a gifted author to the mind of an attentive reader. We benefit from these stories and situations and worlds by which very perceptive writers extend our experience. We benefit not only by imaginative pleasure, but by a direct movement of our intuition, through which we grasp reality more surely than we did before.
In a short column, it is not possible to do justice to a subject which is at once as concrete as personal experience and as abstract as human reflection and wisdom. Even the attempt to do so will doubtless stretch the patience of readers who, perhaps rightly, expect a more focused topic and a more precise argument. But I hope this small essay indicates why I was not surprised when I learned that at Notre Dame an awful ideological play's last gasp was sponsored by the English department. Learning this was, in fact, what I call an “aha” moment. Everything came together. It all made sense. It was to be expected. In this space, I wanted to tell you why.
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