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The Subversive Nature of Art and Literature–and what that means for the literary life

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Art, literature, is by its nature subversive of its contemporary social and economic order.

  • Art is contemptuous of philistine values.
  • Art is elitist. But the elite are not those of the power classes since the power class has no use for art—not real art. The Philistines are the power class.
  • The elite are those who, while yes, technically are of the power, privileged class, can rise above and realize the vacuity of philistine values.
  • All true art subverts philistine values. The great masterpieces of pure beauty, of pure art for art’s sake, subvert by their very existence. The great masterpiece of pure art, of pure literature, screams out “I exist,” “I transcend.” Imagine a great piece of marble such as the Pieta by Michelangelo. Certainly, the piece promotes an intense devotional response. But in economic terms it serves no purpose beyond beauty. But who cares. Nothing of that sort matters to philistinism unless it can be commodified.

So, when our friends ask us how to distinguish great literature from among all the books lining the bookshelves down at Barnes & Noble, ask them to pay attention to which books pledge their loyalty to the social and economic orders of the day and which pledge their loyalty to pure art. Which books are primarily commodities for philistine market forces and which aim to subvert commodification? These questions are easily determined and require no particular literary acumen.

Questions always arise anytime in our postmodern period when the big questions of art and literature arise such as: Why does philistinism abhor the word “elite”? Can a work of true art collaborate with philistine values? Or, Who are the philistines? Can those of us who are serious in our own tastes about literature really escape our personal philistinism? (Alas, I wrestle constantly with this and usually fail.) Can philistinism coexist with democratic values?

Questions, questions, questions. I want to talk a lot about these big issues in this blog. Join in.

Living the Literary Life

Hello.

My name is Paul Varner. You can find my formal biography on the Biography page, but suffice it to say here that from my earliest days of adulthood I have lived a life of literature. I discovered real literature, as opposed to all the popular paperback Westerns, mysteries, and spy novels I read as a teenager, when I was stationed in the US Air Force near San Francisco in the crazy hippie days. Actually I discovered literature when I discovered the famous City Lights Bookstore and learned all about the Beat Movement, then the talk in my world of literature. I specifically discovered poetry that mattered to me when I read through many times Donald Allen’s famous New American Poetry anthology. Here was a kind of poetry I had never encountered in high school English courses. Years later I was to write a major scholarly book on the Beats as well as several scholarly books on popular Westerns and serious literature of the American West.

I took the usual route of majoring in English as an undergraduate. In my first English class I met the girl I would fall in love with, Jeanine Baker, and with whom I would go through graduate school at the University of Tennessee, with both of us receiving our PhDs in English the same day. I left the crazy Beats and the Westerns behind for the pursuit of canonical literature, the best that has been thought and written in Western culture. We followed each other throughout our careers from one university to the other where we served as professors of English. Jeanine also entered administration and ultimately became Academic Vice President and Provost at two fine private universities. Together we led lives dominated by our passion for literature.

I have written books on literature and taught many college courses in literature. And I certainly know that there are plenty of websites and plenty of blogs about literature, about reading books, and about favorite authors. Many of the blogs devote themselves to passionate reading of current novels, bestsellers and otherwise. Many discuss indie novels and Kindle-type favorites. But I have seen very few online sites, or published books, that really devote themselves to what it means to live a life in which serious literature—Shakespeare, Henry James, Dostoevsky, Goethe, Wollstonecraft, and all the rest—passionately matters. It matters regardless of whether one is an academic or simply a widely read, educated reader. The Life of Literature, I hope, will speak to all of us who take the idea of literature as part of who we are.

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