I am not a philistine. Really, I’m not. Neither am I an inverted snob. I appreciate intellectual activity, and admire intellectual achievement. I appreciate also that subtle and difficult ideas often require subtle and difficult prose. If I find any writing incomprehensible at first reading, my usual response is to try to read it more carefully. But, read as carefully as I can, I’m sorry to say can make little sense of something like this .
Now, no doubt it’s unfair to pick on this when there are so many other pieces of writing I could equally have picked on, but this will serve as an example. It’s about literature, a subject that is close to my heart. I normally lap up writing about literature. And yet… All right, let us not be quick to pass judgement. Let us try to read this carefully. Here is the first paragraph:
What does it mean to talk about the end of literature? Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it. But this means that the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility. If the representational problem at the heart of the literary were solved (rather than abandoned in its literary form, which is always a possibility), we would no longer be talking about literature; we would be gods or, no less fantastically, we would be in possession of Borges’s Aleph. The contradictions internal to literature (as with those internal to capitalism) are immanently its end in that their resolution would entail its supersession, but they are also the precondition for its functioning. The end is, in that sense, the a priori; in other words, to indulge in a paradox, the end is in fact the beginning: which is to say that literature’s conditions of possibility and its conditions of impossibility are one and the same.
Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews reminds us. It starts with a rhetorical question: “What does it mean to talk about the end of literature?” Never having spoken about the “end of literature” myself, I do not have an opinion on the matter. But the word “end” can have at least two distinct meanings in this context, and I am not sure whether the author is referring to the purpose of literature, or to its demise. Maybe what follows will clarify. So let us continue.
Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it.
No clarification, then, but an assertion that seems unrelated to the opening sentence. What is this “impossibility” that literature is built around? What is this impasse that is “internal to it”? Well, maybe this will be clarified as well later. But so far, I have read two sentences, and two things are unclear to me: (a) What does the author mean by “the end of literature”? (b) What is the “impossibility” at the centre of literature?
Third sentence: “But this means that the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility.” Its phrasing (“But this means…”) seems to indicate that it follows from the statements made previously. It can’t follow from the first sentence, as that’s a question rather than a statement. So perhaps it follows directly from the second sentence (“Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it.”). But this second sentence, at the very least, assumes a knowledge that I, for one, do not have: I do not know what this “impossibility” is that literature is built around. And even if we are to leave this part of it undefined for the moment, how can it follow from this that “the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility”?
But whether or not the conclusion follows rationally from what has been stated earlier, it’s emphatic enough. “In fact”. It is a fact. Incontrovertible. It takes its place with such other facts as “water boils at 100 degrees Celsius” and “Paris is the capital of France”.
All right, let us not worry about that: let us continue, and accept that the “end of literature” – whether that means the purpose of literature, or its demise – is necessary for literature even to be possible. Next sentence:
If the representational problem at the heart of the literary were solved (rather than abandoned in its literary form, which is always a possibility), we would no longer be talking about literature; we would be gods or, no less fantastically, we would be in possession of Borges’s Aleph.
Concentrate, Chatterjee, concentrate! “The representational problem at the heart of the literary”. I’d guess that this “representational problem” is the “impossibility” referred to in the second sentence. At last! Some clarification! But then again – what is this “representational problem”? We don’t really have a clarification at all: something that wasn’t explained is merely replaced by something else that isn’t explained either.
But whatever this “representational problem” is, if it were to be solved rather than “abandoned in its literary form” … Whoa, whoa there! Presumably, if the problem, whatever it is, is “abandoned”, that means it remains unsolved. But the author is specific here: “abandoned in its literary form” (my italics). This implies that this problem may conceivably be solved in some form other than the literary. What form is that, then? That’s not explained either, it seems. Well, let’s not get worked up over it: after all, I don’t even know what the problem is, other than it’s something to do with “representation”. But whatever this problem is, we, as humans, can’t solve it: if we could solve it, we would be gods, and therefore not human. Or we would be in possession of Borges’ Aleph, and that is equally impossible. OK, I get that: the long and the short of it is that, we cannot solve the problem. Whatever the problem is.
So let’s take stock: where are we?
1. There is a problem about representation in literature – although it is unclear what this problem is;
2. This problem is severe enough to be regarded as an “impossibility” – although what is impossible is unclear;
3. Literature could not exist if its end (meaning “purpose” or “demise” – take your pick) didn’t also exist;
4. It is impossible for humans to solve this problem. However, it is possible to leave this problem unsolved. But only in a literary form.
I can’t help thinking at this stage that it’s just as well that it is possible to leave this problem unsolved, because if it were impossible either to solve the problem or not to solve the problem, we’d really be well and truly buggered.
At this point, I admit, my mind starts to wander. I am only four sentences in, and try as I might, I cannot make sense of any of the four sentences I know I’ve read. My eyes wander too, and light upon the opening words of the second paragraph: “To speak a little more clearly…” At last, I think to myself! I knew if I persevered long enough, I’d find enlightenment! So I skip to this second paragraph, and find this:
To speak a little more clearly, I would say that the institution of literature, only a little more than two centuries old, is structured around a central dynamic, namely a dialectic that plays out between an impulse toward the sublime (an anti-representational practice that, because it forswears representation, remains true to its object at the cost of losing it as object) and an impulse toward allegory (a representational practice which, because it is representational, in taking hold of its object deforms it absolutely). Borges, in “El Aleph,” was fully aware of this dilemma; possession of the Aleph does not make its owner a better poet. It seems to me, though I don’t have time to more than gesture toward it here, that this dynamic can be played back from the beginning, like an algorithm, in a number of different contexts and situations, and that in each case it will have a definite endpoint, an impasse internal to it which finally cannot be superseded.
My eyes wander further, and light upon the words “I want to say something very simple, probably too simple…” I read on, and find this:
I want to say something very simple, probably too simple, about literary criticism and Marxism, and that is that the forms of attention required by literary analysis are particularly congenial to Marxism. Why would this be? It would not be outrageous to claim that literature in the modern sense and the dialectic were born in the same place, at the same time (Jena, at the turn of the nineteenth century, in the circle around the Schlegels and their journals and, in the case of Hegel still feeling his way through the Jena “system-drafts,” decidedly at its margins). So a genealogical case might be made (but it would be far beyond my competence to make it) that in the twentieth century these sibling rivals discovered themselves to be long-lost brothers…
Fair enough, I admit it: I’m thick. I love literature, and I love reading about it, and, I flatter myself, I have, in my time, read some very intelligent and complex analysis of literature. I am also prepared to make an effort with difficult writing, and to think as clearly as I can. But this – and this is far from a sole example – defeats me, and it can only be because I’m thick. So I’d be grateful if someone out there could explain this to me. Just the first four sentences will do.