Filipendula Literaria: Applied Literary Studies

Article excerpt

Although all students of English literature harbour the illusion that they are engaged in "literary studies", this fortunate circumstance does little to help us when we wish to understand the scope and nature of "literary studies" as a formal discipline in the humanities. And things are even worse for the formulation to the east of the colon in my title, since the parentage of an "applied literary studies" is still in question and is still full of problems.

The problems concern ethics, epistemology, and meaning. Although such categories are fraught with traps for the unwary, ranging from their dangerous proximity to cliche--their "so-whatness"--to their built-in levels of vagueness and incipient circularity, they offer a point of departure for an approach to reading commensurate with the ideals and principles of an "applied literary studies".

The first category, ethics or moral philosophy, encompasses the relationship between "real-life" moral dilemmas and literature, as attested to by traditional literary canonicities and, for example, by the current emphasis on Levinasian analysis and interpretation. Shakespeare's examination of the perilous ethics of murder, conflict and succession; Dostoevsky's fables of hate, jealousy and revenge; Thomas Mann's relentless contemplation of the aesthetics of desire in Death in Venice; Vladimir Nabakov's allegory of allusion, new-world fantasy and perversion in Lolita; Dickens's exploration of utilitarian philosophy in Hard Times; Mary Shelley's examination of the morality of creating new forms of life in Frankenstein; Michael Ondaatje's obliquely poetic analysis of the intersections between outrage and tenderness in Anil's Ghost; the growing list of texts on bioethics, environmental philosophy and genethics: such works probe the premises of our moral imperatives and bring into special prominence the dangerous instability of moral discriminations.

The second category is concerned with the sources of knowledge and belief, knowledge acquisition and construction, as well as truth and justification, and with the kinds of knowledge appropriate to specific fields such as physics, mathematics, the humanities, the social sciences and religion.

The third category, "meaning", carries with it the burden of centuries of discussion and debate, and is obviously far too elusive to be useful here. It enters the discussion, nevertheless, because "meaning" constitutes the irreducible core of literary studies, whether pure or applied.

I shall begin by considering some of the implications of a formulation that has fallen on hard times and has been actively shunned by Anglo-American textual professionals and exegetical fecundicists as "reductive": the "moral of the story". Elizabethan allegorists and Victorian novelists would have been pleased to know that their readers were interested in "the moral of the story", since they were aware that the term "moral" represents a complex amalgam of ethical, religious and social conventions and injunctions predicated on specific political and social circumstances. But contemporary theorists sneer at what they see as easily accessible moral teachings; the opportunity to construct an exegetical interface between a text and its epiphenomenal apparition, a Lacanian allegory, say, or a Derridean dialysis, is an opportunity not to be missed, and is thought to be far more gratifying than the possibility that the text might be saying something about something.

The simple fact that works of literature are about something, and that they could be said to point to a moral, leads to two simple corollaries: that criticism should do justice to the consciousness of the writer; that it should be capable of modulating thought and perception.

If we were to accept the idea that, like the mathematical notion of an imaginary number, something called applied literary studies exists, we might come to believe that it has "been there all along, unobserved until we'd asked the right question" (du Sautoy 2004: 68-69). …