Victoria Kahn's 'The Trouble With Literature'

This year's series of Clarendon Lectures in English were given by Professor Victoria Kahn, Katharine Bixby Hotchkis Chair in English at the University of California, Berkeley, between the 17th and 24th October. Ambitious, wide-ranging, and provactive, the lectures reframe the familiar question, 'why literature is troubling?', and have been a source of rich discussion among students and staff. Here, we revisit some of Kahn's key arguments, and hopefully fill in the gaps for anyone who was unable to attend the rescheduled lecture on Hobbes.

Titled ‘The Trouble with Literature’, Kahn's series of lectures prompts us to reconsider how we define ‘literariness’, and why it is often said to be troubling. Kahn argues against some of the dominant claims made by formalist and post-structuralist theorists about what it is that makes literature ‘troubling’ by pointing out that their approach ignores the rhetorical underpinnings of most pre-modern literary forms. From Roman Jakobson’s formalist focus on literature as a form of writing that privileges ‘the palpability of the sign’, to Charles Altieri’s discussion of literature as a ‘language game’, the self-reflexive nature of literature has tended to be taken as transcendent and ahistorical. For Kahn, such interpretations involve some historical amnesia: they ignore the vexed relationship between poetic making (poiesis) and believing that underpins the construction of rhetorical persuasiveness, and the literary forms associated with rhetoric. It is this vexed relationship that has informed anxieties about, and defences of, the literary from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics, to Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579) and Sidney’s Defence of Poesy (1580) and which Kahn argues is revisited by Kierkegaard and Coetzee. 


Image depicting the blinding of Isaac.


Kahn identifies the European Renaissance as the key moment when literature became ‘troubling’ due to the changing relationship between poiesis and belief that emerged from a new conception of rhetorical invention. In classical rhetoric, invention was used primarily as a neutral tool of persuasion that facilitated civic participation; and in medieval rhetorical traditions, the goal of invention was to gather ideas from an existing stock of arguments to confirm one’s faithful consent in a particular idea. This changed during the Renaissance, when rhetorical invention began to imply the creation of individual literary artefacts, which, like the artisanal creations of the Italian Renaissance, conferred upon their makers a privileged form of understanding: maker’s knowledge, or the idea that we only know what we have made ourselves. 

It is a form of this ‘maker’s knowledge’ that the protagonist of J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello asserts her belief in at the end of the novel. In a reworking of Kafka’s parable, ‘Before the Law’, Costello is asked by purgatorial gatekeepers to tell them what she believes in before she is allowed to pass. The character confesses that although she has beliefs, she does not believe in them, and ventures that although she does not believe in herself, she believes in the books she has written, and she believes in a scene from the Odyssey that ‘haunts’ her, of a ram being sacrificed – ‘the ram is not just an idea, the ram is alive, though right now, it is dying’. Belief, in Coetzee’s novel, is a visceral, emotional and reflexive response to the text’s vitality, registered as a recognition of the predication of life on the possibility of death. It is the more powerful for being an instance of ‘maker’s knowledge’, the special knowledge of the one who is a maker of literature. But this literary conception of belief is insufficient for the judges who reject her evasiveness; the novel ends with Elizabeth waiting to find out whether her second hearing will be successful.

For Kahn, the ending of Elizabeth Costello explores the way literature is often treated with hostility because of its capacity to demonstrate that belief is a ‘made thing’, elicited from rhetorical persuasion and literary interpretation. Tracing the origin of this idea back to the Renaissance, via the interventions of Kierkegaard and Kant, Kahn suggests that it was the impact of the Reformation which ultimately led to the vibrant (and troubling) nature of Renaissance literature, and not, as many have argued, the other way around. Kahn points out that as Christianity became fragmented along highly personal lines, and subjects engaged directly with the bible as a text to be interpreted, belief was increasingly thought of as a human construction. This attitude facilitated the idea that poets were capable not just of imitating reality (mimesis), but of creating their own autonomous imaginative worlds.

The second and third lectures in the series explored the vexed relationship between belief and poetic making in the work of two seemingly antithetical writers: Hobbes and Milton. Reconciling their divergent positions on both the Civil War, and on having freedom to choose one’s own religion, is a shared understanding of belief as something that is constructed, subjective, and a product of poetic making. In the first part of Leviathan, Hobbes sought to avoid the destructive vicissitudes of sedition and civil war by proposing a model of the commonwealth based on Euclidian geometry. Geometric objects appealed to Hobbes because they were constructed from known measurements using one’s own calculations, and thus offered a certain, secure form of maker’s knowledge. Hobbes’ conception of the perfect commonwealth relies on applying persuasive rhetoric to this Euclidian model in order to elicit rational consent from individuals who should reasonably choose to be represented by an autonomous sovereign, rather than living in a state of nature. For Hobbes, a functioning commonwealth could be achieved by reconfiguring the idea of faith as inner conviction to being an outward contract between subject and sovereign. The private matters of a subject’s conscience could not be compelled, but public declarations of faith could be elicited from subjects who assented to the rhetorical persuasions of their sovereign. Belief, in Leviathan, is presented as a rhetorically constructed expression of social fidelity. 

Milton is altogether more chary of allowing authorities to dictate the beliefs of individuals, and instead emphasises that belief should be constructed through individual acts of interpretation. Kahn points out that for Milton, neither religious authority nor the scriptural texts themselves were sufficient sources of religious belief. In seeking to ‘justify the ways of God to man’ in Paradise Lost, therefore, Milton was providing an interpretative supplement to traditional religious doctrine. Kahn goes on to examine Samson Agonistes, a poem that requires the reader to interpret the meaning of its protagonist’s death from an ambiguous second hand account. The key action is conveyed only through reports, so that it becomes the reader’s task to interpret the significance of his actions. For Stanley Fish, Samson’s destruction of the temple of Dagon is a heroic act of self-determination; but for John Carey, this view amounts to a justification of terrorism. Kahn’s point is that however one reads the text, Milton foregrounds the necessity of forming one’s own beliefs through literary interpretation, an exhortation that applies as much to biblical texts as it does to Milton’s poetry.

Kahn’s series of lectures therefore prompt us to ask important questions not just about how we understand the relationship between literature and belief, but also about how that relationship should be historicised. Kahn acknowledges arguments which trace, in the reaction against Hobbes led by the Cambridge Platonists and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, the emergence of aesthetics as an autonomous realm. She summarizes both the negative and positive versions of Hobbes’s influence (in Leo Strauss and Jürgen Habermas respectively). She identifies the problems with Kant’s hypothesis of disinterestedness as a bridge between aesthetic judgement and ethical judgement and, coming almost full circle, describes Kierkegaard’s rejection of Kant’s ‘disinterested’ aesthetic judgement in his foregrounding of the interest, pleasure and immediacy of art, and his dubbing the aesthete the ‘knight of faith’. Kierkegaard’s reading of the sublimity and absurdity of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac provides a powerful link to Coetzee, and to Elizabeth Costello’s response to the sacrifice of the ram in Homer’s Odyssey as her nuanced sense of just how she ‘believes’ in literature. Kahn’s lectures persuasively argue that modern understandings of literature as ‘troubling’ emerge from a much older precedent than is usually acknowledged. By placing Renaissance writers like Hobbes and Milton into conversation with Coetzee and Kierkegaard, the vexed relationship of literature to belief is afforded a new complexity.

30 October 2017