In the best postmodern way, I should let you know at the outset that I am not going to talk about either King Lear or Ginger Meggs. I have juxtaposed Shakespeare’s tragic monarch and the hero of the once-popular cartoon strip – as indeed I have juxtaposed Andrew Marvell, the late Metaphysical poet and Mickey Mouse – in various public ruminations about the problems associated with the reading, teaching and appreciation of literature in English in the contemporary classroom, specifically, in the current New South Wales Higher School Certificate English syllabus (but, of course, not only there).

Such juxtapositions are meant to highlight the jettisoning of value in education, in general, reflected earlier this week, for example, when the Australian Catholic University saw fit to confer honorary doctoral degrees on the Wiggles. The thinking (if it might be so called) behind such events as this reveals a degraded idea of the university – if I may use Cardinal’s Newman’s term of high conception in reference to such a debased context. It goes well beyond a modern re-consideration of (and, at times, a healthy re-valuation of received ideas about the university and educational ideals in general) to expose, in postmodernism, an utter disconnection from and ignorance of what those ideals might be. The Sydney Morning Herald, to its credit, derided the “doctoring” of the Wiggles for the stunt it was. But that it was possible at all is indeed stunting, diminishing, demoralising – and this, in a Catholic University during Holy Week.  

Yet “postmodernism” is a clumsy and unilluminating term, for various reasons. The first has to do with “modernism” itself. In art – literary, musical and visual – Modernism, with a capital “M”, was a movement, largely taking place between the two world wars and, in literature at least, having its annus mirabilis as early as 1922, with the publication of arguably the greatest poem and novel of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses. The next generation of writers — someone, for example, like W.H. Auden, whose artistry was maturing through the 1930s — were, strictly-speaking, post-Modernist: drawing upon what Modernists like Eliot had achieved, but subverting aspects of that achievement, making their own distinctive contributions. A generation later, in the 1950s, Philip Larkin and other members of the so-called “Movement” school of poetry, were also (and more obviously) reacting against Modernism, so were post-post-Modernists, in the sense of their relationship with the original (and, by now, distant) Modernist movement. So, it is both hard to pin down the Modernism which postmodernism is related to, and also to date its inception, and, most challengingly, to find what common set of beliefs and attitudes it is supposed to embody and to which domains it can be restricted. I think we may have some idea about what postmodernism in architecture might entail. But is there a postmodernist approach to mathematics, for example? And what might that involve?

A scene from King LearWhat does seem to be agreed is that the essence of postmodernism, in relation to the reading, teaching and appreciation of written texts, is that, first, there is no limit to be set on what might qualify as a “text” (a bus ticket will do) and no absolute value to be placed on any particular quality of a text: with regard to its aesthetic value, or its significance with reference to its meaningfulness or meaninglessness – let alone any qualities of a moral or spiritual kind, its celebration of eternal verities (which are a chimera in any case). Therefore, there are no “canonical” texts, for example, in the study of literatures in English – no necessary, required reading for graduates with an English Literature degree: a qualification it is perfectly possible to obtain, today, without having read a word of Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Yeats or T.S. Eliot – the greatest poets of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, postmodernism is a synonym for intellectual chaos and ignorance.

What is needed is a term for this approach to art and literature that is not parasitical upon a previous classification like “Modernism”, but which simply presents itself as itself, as much as this elusive quantity can be identified. I would suggest “Anarchism” had it not been used before, in a variety of contexts. In Greek, of course, “anarchy” means “without authority”, the absence of an “archon”, a chief magistrate in ancient Athens. But this is inadequate, too, because the promoters of the brave new world of so-called postmodernism are authoritative and prescriptive to a fault. Their “Thou shalt nots” are at least as strident as those of the defenders of canonical texts. Having achieved their kudos from berating and destroying the Establishment, in the silly sixties, they are now the Establishment themselves and will brook no contradiction – are, in fact (and I have been around long enough to have experienced this) far less liberal than the hierarchies they demolished, while, of course, endlessly proclaiming their tolerance of diversity, “difference” (so much better if you can say it in French, giving it the patina of theoretical respectability) and all the other claptrap of a pseudo-intellectual system which has no centre other than the individual’s conviction about his or her ownership of The Truth. Yeats saw it clearly in “The Second Coming” in 1919: “the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned”.

The reasons for this sustained assault upon the study of English literature are many and varied and have some particular Australian components which makes the resistance to them even more difficult here than it might be in, for example, Britain or North America.

Essentially, postmodernism is a political phenomenon, deriving from the culture of resentment and victimhood which is one of the least edifying outcomes of the increasingly democratic and demotic twentieth century in Western societies. It is a peculiarly self-defeating, self-destructive and paradoxical phenomenon because, in its opposition to what – in a shorthand term – we might call “high art”, the very people who it is depriving of access to the classics (through demonising them, their creators and their purveyors, as a conspiracy of oppressive elitism or proposing the Marxist dismissal of them as conspicuous waste) are left with a mess of pottage of works which are condescendingly and patronisingly deemed to be the only suitable and “relevant” study for the demos.

That deprived constituency, recognising its deprivation, will, in time, turn upon its self-righteous persecutors and inhibitors. In a mild way, we are encountering this already, at the university, where students come to us after the miseries of the NSW HSC [New South Wales Higher School Certificate] English syllabus (not to mention what has gone before it, over those twelve years of school so-called education) and say that, now, they want “to read the classics”. Once, in the disreputable dead days beyond recall pupils were exposed to a good diet of this material even by the time of the Intermediate Certificate, let alone the Leaving Certificate (taken in the equivalent of today’s Year 11).

Nowadays, you have one of the febrile supporters of the New South Wales Board of Studies arguing that we could not possibly expect the senior school students of western Sydney to read Milton. That great mind has nothing to do with their lives; they could not relate to Paradise Lost; therefore, it must not be read. Large-scale works of English provenance are revolting expressions of the dated grandiose imperialist patriarchy of Britannia and old Christendom irrelevant to our enlightened and advanced age. And, at this point, insular Australianism usually kicks in, with the theme of repudiating anything and everything that might be Eurocentric to affirm our liberation from our disreputable European past. So, prescribe some contemporary Australian trash and then claim to be affirming the young and their class struggle against the oppressive and supposedly monolithic past, still defended in some reactionary quarters by dinosaurs, as I have been called (and revel in the description).

Andrew MarvellOne of the great defenders of the current syllabus goes about telling students that, instead of studying Wordsworth, they should be concentrating on his sister, Dorothy, who, oppressed by his phallocentric, patriarchal, masculinist presence was thwarted in her own poetic ambition which, had it been allowed to flourish, instead of being silenced by her brother and his work, would have written works of genius comparable to those Wordsworth himself composed. And then we wonder that students are skeptical about the whole process of reading and appreciation served up to them in this context of resentment and political correctness.

What are the qualities that distinguish a great work of literary art? All but one of these are offensive to what we might generally gather under the umbrella term of a postmodernist approach to the reading, teaching and appreciation of literary texts. The exception is the close attention to structures of language (or “discourse”, as they like to call it), animated by and expressive of that complexity and subtlety which we expect to find in great literary texts. This, in postmodernist textual study, at its best, is salutary. Unfortunately, it has two major drawbacks. First, the weaker brethren find it the least congenial process of reading, so are inclined to resort to other boiled-down aspects of postmodernist theorising, such as the non-idea of reading and evaluating a text purely in terms of what it says to you, the reader, and how it speaks to your life (and your “journey”, to use one of the terms beloved of syllabus composers), without regard to the contexts biographical, intellectual, historical and social which produced it and to which any intelligent reading of a text must submit in order for a cogent comprehension and assessment of it even to be initiated.

And secondly, it misses the essential point of literary study, by focusing attention on structure rather than meaning which, in combination with the reader-centred evaluation, counteracts the power of a great text to lift us out of our own inevitably limited selfhood and contemporary situation to focus on a larger interpretation of life and human existence which may utterly contradict everything that we, to date, have believed or accepted as valuable, but which encourages our attention because of the combination of intellectual substance and aesthetic accomplishment which are the hallmarks of great artistic expression in literature and which, in time, may come to sustain us in life itself. This, for the postmodernist, is a bourgeois fantasy. The self is the only self-sustaining entity, alone and palely loitering in the wasted land of postmodernist subjectivism, in the final death-throes of Romanticism which is contemporary culture.

Part of the problem with the present-day teaching of literature – apart from the initially disabling conviction that it would be better if “literature”, as a concept, didn’t exist — is that we know too much. Burdened by the daunting mass of knowledge about the past, for example – now available at your fingertips on the Internet – readers and teachers and syllabus-composers are not unsurprisingly drawn to the watered-down versions of postmodernist theory (which, the philosophers tell me, are so watered down as to be a contradiction of its genuine theoretical bases in the thought of such as Derrida and Foucault). These can, by a theoretical sleight of hand, dispose of the requirements of layers of knowledge which were once required to be brought to the reading of any text worth reading. When this is linked to a politically-driven program to discredit the past in general – which was wrong about everything (only the present, and your present, precisely, having any value or validity) – and an aggressive rejection of any requirement to be humble (or humbled) before the works of genius (derided as a social construction imposed upon the powerless to ensure their submission to elites), that anything of value from the past survives is astonishing.

When I suggested, in a Herald article, that the idea that anybody could graduate in English Literature without having undertaken the serious study of Milton, a furious correspondent (an English teacher) decried my defence of Milton, asking why on earth would anybody require his presence, as a sine qua non, on an English syllabus. That Wordsworth himself wrote one of the most celebrated sonnets in the language about Milton would only have confirmed her view of the conspiracy of men of genius from which we are now being liberated by a congeries of feminist-Marxist-ersatz PoMo-theoretical enlightenment:

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

This irrelevant effusion, from the boys’ club of the dead poets’ society, in praise of a man of genius, by a man of genius, is in fact literature occupied about its proper and ancient business, of the immortal expression of profound truths, challenging the decay of present mores – Wordsworth has the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath in mind – but ranging over the centuries, recalling the challenges Milton himself faced to his evolving principles at the time of the English Civil War and celebrating the qualities of his poetic voice and the profundity of his life, not least in his courageous bearing of the tragic blight of blindness for a man of letters. Wordsworth’s specific references to such as the “altar”, symbolic of the Church, and “the heroic wealth of hall and bower”, to “manners” and “virtue”, not to mention “godliness” and the great poet’s humility, his “lowliest duties” construct a multi-layered poetic petition (within the tight constraint of the sonnet-form) of moral and spiritual dignity and urgent social concern which, certainly, has no immediate relevance to the superficial realities of 21st-century Australian life as experienced by an 18-year-old boy or girl. Instead, it presents a vision of and response to life that is perennial in its scope and expression. The challenge – and no-one is denying that the task is difficult (that is part of what makes it worthwhile) is to submit to what it has to say, connect with it through a considerable amount of research (into the circumstances of the poem’s composition and its various references), and then see how and why it has spoken to readers, strikingly and memorably, for 200 years. But that pedagogical and intellectual exercise, into which a gifted and dedicated teacher will draw his or her pupils, requires a profound belief in the worthwhile character of the exercise itself, founded, in turn, on a love of literature. And that’s where the problems lie. The poison of postmodernism – at least, in its boiled-down version, peddled by the politically-driven syllabus-composers from the School of Resentment – has effectively jettisoned such works and their appreciation (and, indeed, love) from the curriculum. It is a betrayal of the young which is nothing less than a disgraceful scandal.

The intelligent young have seen through it. Several have told me, in recent years, how they went through the motions of conforming to the syllabus formulae for the “correct” discussion of texts, using the jargon, saying the “right” things, knowing that, in the future, they could return to the study of literature and nurture their love for it untrammeled by this straitjacket of the mind. But this is no consolation for the less gifted students who should have as much right to be exposed to the best that has been known and thought in the world, to the great books, but who are being denied this access by soi-disant educators who preach social liberation through intellectual and cultural deprivation.

Dr Barry Spurr is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Sydney.