Literary Theory as Art
In Part 2 I was speaking of those who study the writings of their own tongue and approximately of their own time. This kind of study provides a lot of room for speculation. The study of ancient texts in long dead languages requires very considerable intellectual effort simply in order to gather a basic understanding of them and of the historical and social circumstances in which they were written, and thus to be able to enjoy them, and thus to be able to say something new about the story. It is odd that such scholars dedicate their intellectual labours to the search for such minimal scraps of context as might be recoverable, in order to shed fresh light on the story and its role in the society that produced it, while the scholars of modern writings in their own languages resolutely ignore the abundant and well known contextual background of their object of study in order to use it as a tool for illustrating their own ideas.
Vast sections of our universities, of those parts of them dedicated to the humanities, make no attempt to seek truth, to discover new things, although they claim to. If they presented themselves as giving opinions, as riffing on the texts and situations they look at, as merely using the text they are analysing as a starting point, as a way to set their minds working, as a medium to express their own opinions, ideas, moral judgements, intellectual conceits, innovative thoughts, prejudice, ignorance or whatever- that is, if they told the truth- they could be judged on how far they achieve the goal, and on how interesting or useful the results are. Or they could just have fun. They could do a form of art. Of course, they would be less obviously suited to tenured posts at universities if they were open about what they do, and their motives for doing it. And they wouldn’t get to take themselves so immensely seriously.*
Art does not care about truth. It has no need of truth. Or rather it has its own truth, some form of perceived coherence. Its purpose is to communicate something. I don’t think it matters much whether the perceiver appreciates what the originator had in mind. It’s easy to do art. A minimum of imagination, something to express, anything, and a medium. There are plenty to choose from. It may not be good art, people might not like it, or understand what it’s for, or agree with what it says, but it’s art.
*The more direly dreary and politically charged areas of the humanities attract people who are not intelligent enough for real academic work, but who want to feel part of the game. They’re like the boy you allow to play on the team sometimes because his father has an off-licence, but only when it’s cold and wet, and only at left back. There are parasites on every human virtue and achievement.