Lewis on English Majors

[English Literature as an academic discipline] directs to the study of literature a great many talented, ingenious, and diligent people whose real interests are not specifically literary at all. Forced to talk incessantly about books, what can they do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about? Hence literature becomes for them a religion, a philosophy, a school of ethics, a psychotherapy, a sociology—anything rather than a collection of works of art.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Last fall I gave a talk on literary theory and in my research I discovered (or rather, I confirmed) that English Departments are an utter and complete sham. When I was in school, some of my professors and fellow graduate students loved stories and poetry—and at least one of my professors tried to bring that love into the classroom—but when it came to “serious” literary discussion (the kind that gets published in respectable journals), the conversation turned from the stories themselves to the religion, philosophy, sociology, history, or sex embedded within the story. I met a PhD student whose dissertation was not about literature but about the history of a particular book—the physical object, not the content. Nothing wrong with that, but doesn’t it seem like a task more suited to a budding historian than a lover of literature?

English majors pick projects like that because literature does not lend itself to the kind of scientific analysis required in the modern university. At some level, English departments are aware of this and it keeps the chair of the department up at night. Will his budget be assured come the morn? In his book on literary theory, Terry Eagleton describes the shaky identity of English departments when they first came into being in the 1920s:

The definition of an academic subject was what could be examined, and since English was no more than idle gossip about literary taste it was difficult to know how to make it unpleasant enough to qualify as a proper academic pursuit.

Eagleton goes on to say that English departments survived thanks to the rise of nationalism in the 1930s. When your nation goes toe-to-toe with another, you’re much less likely to dismiss even the least significant aspect of your culture. English people suddenly became much more loyal to their own literature than they were before and its place in the university was assured.

Still, the problem of how to make reading for fun an “unpleasant” academic subject persisted. Lewis says it was solved by literary criticism.

Everyone who sees the work of Honours students in English at a university has noticed with distress their increasing tendency to see books wholly through the spectacle of other books. On every play, poem, or novel, they produce the view of some eminent critic. An amazing knowledge of Chaucerian or Shakespearian criticism sometimes co-exists with a very inadequate knowledge of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Less and less do we meet the individual response. The all important conjunction (Reader Meets Text) never seems to have been allowed to occur of itself and develop spontaneously. Here, plainly, are young people drenched, dizzied, and bedevilled by criticism to a point at which primary literary experience is no longer possible. This state of affairs seems to me a far greater threat to our culture than any of those from which the Vigilants would protect us.

Academics love it when an eminent professor writes a new book about Shakespeare because it gives them something new to focus on and they can debate the accuracy of his judgment. It’s much easier to analyze someone’s claims about a book than to analyze the book itself. None of this nonsense about the “literary experience.” No more reading for “enjoyment” or “beauty,” whatever that is. Swaddled in criticism, the English major is free from such messy topics.

Lewis’s solution to this sorry state of affairs:

I suggest that a ten or twenty years’ abstinence both from the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good.

I wholeheartedly agree.

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