So back to Rorty's "The Inspirational Value of Great Literature." My recent posts on what makes great novels great--perhaps summarized as "The Technical Value of Great Literature"--have gotten me thinking not only about literary value, but also literary pleasure, which has gotten me thinking about Richard Rorty again. Looking back on the essay, which targets many of the theoretical positions I've inhabited, has crystallized a question I've asked myself: Have my studies of literature inhibited, affected, or enhanced the pleasure I take in reading?
Rorty begins the piece by taking a jab at Jameson's Postmodernism, which he accuses of being--gasp--"unromantic." The postmodern perspective, he argues, assumes a smarmy air of "knowingness"--a theoretical 'tude that precludes the ability to enjoy reading. Citing Bloom, Rorty claims that contemporary critics (re: post-structuralists) have sullied the humanities, mutating the study of literature into a lowly social science. He compares the dilemma to one he feels has already stagnated philosophy, a field that has, he believes, become culturally irrelevant, "derived of romance and inspiration" because of the analytic tradition.
Rorty offers a detailed lamentation of what he claims has been lost. Inspiration via reading, he states, is garned through the realization of of "someting greater to hold onto," "something more to this life" that cannot be manufactured mechanically or similarly excavated, something that necessitates individual genius (are we starting to see why he gets along with Bloom?) to write or understand. More succintly: sublimity through humanism = a good read.
For a philosopher, Rorty makes some pretty illogical equations; to locate literary value within the ability to inspire is one thing, but his claim that inspiration necessitates hopefulness belies a more problematic conflation of hopefulness and willful ignorance. By Rorty's reasoning, it is impossible to derive inspiration from a text when one's "righteous indignation and social hope" have led him or her to constantly hunt for the cultural machinery that has fabricated its ideology. The notion reminds me of a photograph we saw in Brain and Thought, of a mouse whose mutated, oversized cortex bulged out of its skull and impeded its ability to survive.
Which brings me back to my initial question, which leads to a conflict that has plagued the focus of my studies at Yale. After focusing my academic work on postcolonialism, postmodernism, the dangers of identification and the cultivation of resistant reading, I've found that--while I do derive pleasure from Rushdie, Naipaul, Kincaid, et al--my favorite novels are those produced on the wrong side of the ocean. And herein lies the hole in the sheet Rorty is casting over the post-structuralists: A reading that induces inspiration--wonder, pleasure, catharsis--can coexist with a critique of the structures that have shaped the text.
The romantic magic whose depletion Rorty bemoans, then, does not evaporate when the author's context is examined and when his or her words are deconstructed--it is aroused in their reception. Sublimation is not, as perhaps Bloom would wish, achieved in the deification of the genius; it occurs when the genius' words induce the reader to reflect on the process of reading, to consider his or her dis/identification with ideas, language, tropes, and to see the world in a different light.