January 12, 2012

Has literature always been dying since the beginning?


Circa 167 B.C., the Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer is said to have said “Nothing is said that has not been said before.” He probably wasn’t the first person to make this statement, and he certainly wasn’t the last. The feeling that language and writing continually fails to be truly, deeply original and significant has haunted literature in all its forms. In a fascinating, hypnotic essay at The Guardian, Andrew Gallix tracks the “death” of literature through history, quoting writers and critics throughout the centuries who have felt that literature (or poetry, or the novel) has come too late, and is or soon will be deceased.

As early as 1758, Samuel Richardson had wondered if the novel were not just a fad, whose time had already run out. By the 20th century, the picture looked far bleaker. Theodor Adorno felt that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. In 1959, Brion Gysin complained that fiction was lagging 50 years behind painting. In the early 60s, Alain Robbe-Grillet attacked the mummification of the novel in its 19th-century incarnation. In 1967, John Barth published “The Literature of Exhaustion” in which he spoke of “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities”. The same year, Gore Vidal diagnosed that the novel was already in its death throes: “we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods”….

“Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us,” writes Lars Iyer in a remarkable essay recently published by The White Review. According to the author of Spurious (shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize), we live in “an unprecedented age of words”, but one in which Important Novelists have given way to “a legion of keystroke labourers”. Literature only survives as literary-fiction kitsch: a “parody of past forms”; a “pantomime of itself”.

Where does this sentiment come from? This desire through the millennia to insist on the end of literature, even as literature persists, and seems destined to persist. Is everyone merely wrong, overeager to sign the death certificate? Or, as Gallix suggests—by quoting those who wrote before him on the topic—perhaps…

…Harold Bloom is right: belatedness is not merely an “historical condition”. After all, it was already one of the major themes in Don Quixote….[A]s Gabriel Josipovici points out, “this sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern.”…The novel, says [Tom] McCarthy, has been “living out its own death” ever since Don Quixote; the “experience of failure” being integral to its DNA. If it weren’t dying, the novel would not be alive.