The Use and Abuse of Literature

Book by Marjorie Garber

Literature, as Harvard professor Garber points out, was once something an educated person possessed, a familiarity with the best writing and criticism, not something he or she read or studied. And even when that usage—Samuel Johnson said that John Milton “had more than common literature”—passed, the familiarity with quotations and references remained as a signifier of education, a means by which people of similar backgrounds and interests recognized one another. That social function has long since been usurped among most people, by references from film, TV and the digital world. Small wonder then, Garber argues, that those still immersed in the old literary culture—and who fail to separate literature’s intrinsic value from its social utility—feel we are plunging into the cultural abyss: it’s all part of what Garber calls the abuse of literature.

The title of her book is archly ironic. It pays tribute to Nietzsche, author of On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, and thus father of dozens of book titles like Use and Abuse of Statistics. Readers understand instinctively what their authors mean to say—any human construct can be turned to good or ill. But, contrary to her own title, Garber argues persuasively that, in literature, use and abuse are distinctions without a difference.

That’s because, whatever its past social role, literature is practically useless. It answers no questions—it only raises them. Endless questions, too: people have discussed the meaning of Hamlet for centuries and will go on doing so until the end of time. Indeed, to paraphrase a famous judicial remark about recognizing pornography, that’s how we know literature when we see it: the real thing is inexhaustible and subversive. As Emily Dickinson said, “If I read a book and I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Literature has no set meaning, or real use, or real capacity for abuse. It merely makes us think and imagine; it merely blows the tops of our heads off.

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