On March 19th, 1800, Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a profile of the British Prime Minister published anonymously in the daily newspaper the Morning Post. That Coleridge was writing journalistic pieces is worthy of comment. We expect romantic poets to focus their attention on the oceanic depths of their own subjectivity, and to give voice to the mysteries of nature. They articulate fundamental realities beyond the daily grind of power and personalities, of states and statesmanship. This distinction applies not just to matters of content. The style of journalistic writing is more pedestrian than poetry. It works through a transposition of facts and ideas in efficient, serviceable prose. Journalistic writing can be read quickly, since it typically does not require much effort or contemplation. Presupposing no specific literary background on the part of its readers, it can function straightforwardly in the imparting of information.
"There is...a highly literate babble which is not guilty of faulty vocabulary or syntax, but is entirely lacking in literary depth. This is the realm of the extravagant lexicon, the seemingly admirable locution that can only leave its hearers unmoved, because it is dissociated from any internal or external authenticity."
Coleridge, however, was able to straddle these two mediums to remarkable effect. His writings from this period are perfectly literate in the journalistic sense. He doesn’t lead his readers unwittingly down any romantic rabbit holes. His pieces are easily readable, having a clearly perceptible, instantaneously given meaning. They do not require any strain or silence or solitude. But for all that, his contributions to the Morning Post manage also to be eminently literary. They are suggestive, creative in form and method, and though they don’t assume vast literary knowledge among readers, they still manage to draw on a long tradition of literary endeavors stretching back into the prehistory of the writer’s cultural identity.
Coleridge’s profile of William Pitt the Younger is a masterpiece in the intertwining of the literate and literary. Coleridge argues that Pitt’s war against revolutionary France was unwarranted, and that the suppression of his radical critics in Britain was unjust. One is left in no less certainty about this than if one were reading press reports of the collapse of the invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush in 2005, nor indeed of Emmanuel Macron’s violent response to the anti-globalist Gillet Jaunes alliance in 2019. Yet Coleridge also situates Pitt’s failings within a broader interpretive field, making fundamental claims about the human condition, and doing so against the background of a specific history. He marks out multi-layered avenues of meaning transversing across long trajectories of intellectual and spiritual development. Thus a rich tradition is on display, a quality you’d be hard put to find in takedowns of Bush or Macron.
Coleridge argues that Pitt’s errors of judgement have not arisen just because he misread the signs of the times and made questionable decisions. Rather, Pitt suffers from a misshapen human development. Now this is a man who is to this day the youngest British Prime Minister, having taken office aged 24 in 1783. Coleridge considers him to be a product of his “father’s…parental ambition” which provided a “mould” into which he “was cast, rather than grew.” What is lacking is an organic, personal developmental trajectory. Pitt is the product of another man’s ideal, and as such, somehow fragmented from the fullness of his own humanity. Coleridge draws our attention to the fact that “it was his father’s custom to make him stand up on a chair” when he was a child and conduct mock political speeches. By this practice, we read, “he acquired a premature and un-natural dexterity in the combination of words, which must of necessity have…obscured his impressions, and deadened his natural feeling.”
This interpretation of Pitt plays ingeniously with the interplay of the literate and the literary which Coleridge himself was conducting with such virtuosity. In Pitt’s case, however, these two factors are imbalanced and contorted. His awkward and imprudent decisions are the fruit of an artificial and immature interiority. Pitt had not been able to make his own way in the world; he had not followed his own path. His life-course had been crudely carved out for him and therefore had not unfolded, or flowered.
This stuntedness goes to the base levels of human perception. Coleridge imagines a young man who had not properly perceived things. As people are confronted by the unexpected things of life, the resulting accommodations and adjustments bear the fruit of self-knowledge, of wisdom. But Pitt had not been confronted by things which could reveal themselves to him and he to them, because he had already been trained and schooled in what things were and what was supposedly significant about them. He didn’t discover what really mattered for his own life, because apprehending that is something that needs to be explicated by painstaking, natural growth. Rather than being explicated, significance was already implicated for him in everything, learned by rote at his father’s hand. He related to the world through the unreal conceptualisations in which he had been drilled. He did not encounter things as such, for he was prematurely trained in the words and phrases which defined them beforehand. The result was a high-sounding orator, giving an impression of depth which masks a profoundly shallow and ersatz character. In the words of Coleridge’s biographer Richard Holmes, Pitt “lived in a world of verbal abstractions, moral clichés, and deadened emotions, which had no living connections.”
Coleridge did not only draw recondite conclusions about human psychology in this primordial hit piece. Pitt’s upbringing, he says, was “a fact of no ordinary importance in the heraldry of morals and intellect.” Let us consider this word heraldry. Coleridge here makes use of a metaphor, and as such, employs a word which has both spontaneous meaning or recognition, combined with an element of suggestiveness, or surprise. An effective metaphor bespeaks something both literate and literary. It has layers of meaning which are associative; pointing to something beyond pedestrian discussions of morality or intellectual development. For heraldry refers to an ancient tradition of symbolic, graphic representation, to a world of subsidiary meanings in which history, identity, genealogy, and religious dispositions function as unspoken signs.
This means Pitt is not only lacking interiorly, but exteriorly too. He is lacking in his ability to navigate the unspoken lineage of history and tradition. Pitt’s own intellectual background has also not been allowed to unfold through him. He is like the fruit grown out of season, that looks the part but tastes like a thinned and watered-down version of its properly harvested and ripened counterpart. Or he is like sour grapes grown under hydroponic lights, never exposed to the unpredictable glare of the sun but subjected only to the carefully quantified chlorinated water of computer operated sprinklers. Pitt views the world through eyes which are dissociated from the broader ecosystem of tradition in which he sits: “A plant sown and reared in a hothouse, for whom the very air, that surrounded him, had been regulated by the thermometer of precious purpose; to whom the light of nature had penetrated only through glasses and covers; who had had the sun without the breeze; whom no storm had shaken, on whom no rain had patted.”
Today, Coleridge’s profile has prophetic power. Pitt’s oratory is like that of the dead-eyed spin doctor, calculated to impact lobbyists and donors by advisory committees. His is the premeditated language of the strategically-minded centrist. One might retort that Pitt was a great politician and administrator, while Coleridge was notoriously chaotic in domestic and financial affairs. But this difference represents the respective emphases of each man, the former leaning to efficacy and quantifiable success, the latter to something less tangible and qualitative, to the passions and convictions that make the professional speech writer shudder. Pitt’s speeches showed a mind Coleridge said was “founded and elemented in words and generalities,” and by this, says Holmes, Coleridge was “extending a Burkian notion of slow, steady, harmonious development out of a tradition and rooted human experience” (my emphasis).
The basic norms of human development as understood today are closer to Pitt than they are to Coleridge or Burke. Literacy triumphs over the literary. Linguistic proficiency is the efficient attaching of exclusive meanings to words, and their arrangement with generally valid syntax. Adopting artificially imposed patterns of circumscription, and above all imparting information with spontaneously lucid outcomes, are seen as the most solid indicators of a well-educated population. It is thought that when Coleridge wrote for the Morning Post, 12 percent of the world’s population could read and write. Now it’s closer to 86 percent, with countries like Korea registering a full 100 percent of literate members of the population in some studies. But while literacy is relatively easy to quantify, the literary refuses to be contained. How might we discern how literary people are today? To be literary is something much more subtle, something about which politicians’ advisors cannot trot out statistics. Instead of efficiently attaching meanings and referents, the literary is suggestive, and issues in limitless resonances. Instead of valid syntax, the literary plays with form and method according to its own rules.
To be literary is to have that strange something which Coleridge considered to be lacking in William Pitt. It is to have witnessed the unfolding of a cultural tradition in one’s own life , to have disclosed the situated meaning and significance of a specific people or peoples in the interplay of embodied circumstances and irreducibly personal interiority. It is something like Cicero’s description of the development of the mind by philosophy, something we can glimpse best with metaphors of natural growth: cultura autem animi philosophia est (“philosophy is the culture of the soul”). We are dealing here with the realm of cultivation, of flowering and flourishing rather than the explicit, instrumentalised skills collated by proponents of international development. We are pointing to peoples formed in shared tradition, of authoritative texts and stories and their histories.
When development is untethered from a specific place, it ceases to witness to genuine development. Viewed in this way, it is not unthinkable to suggest that citizens of countries with the lowest literacy rates might have a much greater literary sensibility than their ostensibly more-developed neighbors. For there the world can still be viewed through culturally collective perspectives and shared narratives, not the abruptly demarcated criteria of efficient participation in the globalized order. Literacy fragmented from the literary celebrates superficiality; its crowning glory is unambiguous transparency of communication. Richness of meaning, however, flourishes beneath the surface. It works with the permeability and porosity of language saturated with the struggles of life. Literacy rates have skyrocketed, while a genuinely literary sensibility is ever harder to find.
We might well ask whether, like battery hens or factory farmed foods, the mind of William Pitt is now writ large across the world. Many minds, especially those at the top schools, are grown in hothouses, their written and spoken expressions essentially performative, like the boy Pitt being displayed by his father while he stood on a chair. Today’s literate subjects are lacking in those qualities pertaining to the realm of the literary, to the unspoken webs of significance suggested by Coleridge’s use of the word heraldry. The specific genealogies, traditions, and identities once enclosed in a shared history of symbolic representation are replaced by the corporate logos of a globalised world. As there is nothing to be explicated or drawn out from the logos of Apple, IBM, Shell, FedEx, or Mercedes, those reared in this world of malfunctioning hieroglyphs approach the written word as equally terminal in superficiality. Theirs are words which refer to, but do not play with, their referents. Words guillotined on all sides by regulative norms, and truncated before they make their own impression.
Few people would doubt that we now live in a world of highly literate people which paradoxically produces hitherto unimaginable levels of babble. This world with such greater levels of written comprehension seems if anything less likely to create the earth-shattering texts that constitute the literary canon. Even if there are literary greats working today, one wonders if they would have a large readership, or at least one sufficient for their greatness. For today’s readers are like Pitt, too prematurely circumscribed in how to encounter the world to be encountered by the world as revealed by another. If literary genius is to be found today, it will struggle to make its way through the overarching generalities and clichés which dominate a world focused on literacy.
After Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was published in 1774, it was a publishing sensation not only on account of its unprecedented sales, but because the plot and prose were so affecting that scores of young men committed suicide, in some cases in homage to its main character. This was a time when literacy rates were low, but a text could so profoundly move its readers that they would take their own lives. It was a time when a leader like Napoleon Bonaparte could be so moved by a text that he aspired to become a novelist like its author. In contrast to Coleridge’s criticisms of Pitt as stunted and fragmented, Napoleon famously greeted Goethe with the words apportioned to Christ in Scripture, with the words applied to a man traditionally understood to be the fullness of human perfection: “voila l’homme!” (ecce homo!). Today the bestselling book of all time in Britain is Fifty Shades of Grey, followed by the Harry Potter series. Devotees to these works are provoked into behavior safely locked away from public view in the first case, or to infantilized dressing-up in the second. That people’s characters would actually be formed by these texts is more of a disturbing possibility than it is a likely one.
To be concerned with great texts is now politicized. This concern is well-articulated by Patrick Deneen in The Failure of Liberalism:
[T]he emphasis on great texts—which were great not only or even because they were old but because they contained hard-won lessons on how humans learn to be free…has been jettisoned in favor of what was once considered “servile education,” an education concerned exclusively with money making and a life of work, and hence reserved for those who did not enjoy the title of “citizen.”
Fulsome citizenship is the fruit of the literary character; servile adoption of skills is for mere subjects. The focus on literacy rates then seems to be a method of global subjection, a stealing of peoples’ traditions and identities.
Deneen draws our attention to a profound contradictoriness at play here. While “[c]laiming to liberate the individual from embedded cultures, traditions, places, and relationships,” he writes, “liberalism has homogenized the world in its image” and done so “fuelled by claims of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity.’” The shift from the world of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Fifty Shades of Grey brings us to a situation whereby “rather than imparting the wisdom and experience of the past,” culture “becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all orientated toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment.” There are no shades of grey in a reading or writing comprehension test, just the binary of pass or fail, and then dopamine surges become the raison d’etre of culture itself. To highlight these concerns is to bring matters once presupposed into the full glare of scrutiny. Things are thematised as worthy of attention once they have become—to coin a phrase— “problematic.” Explicit convictions are formed about things which have been explicitly cancelled, things once implicit and assumed but now accused of being a toxic mess of unconscious bias and microaggressions.
Yoram Hazony is another writer who has drawn attention to collective inheritances and traditions as social goods. In The Virtue of Nationalism he highlights the effectiveness of collective concerns between subjects of a particular nation: “the need to strengthen its unique cultural inheritance and pass it on to the next generation.” “Mutual loyalties,” he writes, “bind human beings into families, tribes, nations, and each of us receives a certain religious and cultural inheritance as a consequence of being born into such collectives.” While Hazony seems generally consonant with Deneen, the two men have some important differences. Let us recall that William Pitt was lacking not the fluency of having had an inheritance imparted to him, but the more subtle fruits of fulness of character which grew from the internal and external interplay between himself, that inheritance, and embodied life in the world. For Hazony, it seems, tradition is just something handed on and transmitted statically, not something in and by which people find themselves and witness to their own unfolding. While Deneen understands the formation of character to be unavoidably literary, for Hazony it has become something like being literate, bearing knowledge about one’s own tradition but not participating in and unfolding its wisdom in new ways during the course of life.
Of course, the importance of literacy should not be dismissed. Without an ability to transcribe one’s words into lettered form, and read the forms transcribed by other people’s writings, we would be living in a world of nonsensical babble. The literate and the literary complement each other. Suggesting that people do not learn to read and write is absurd. But babble can function in different ways. While it is undeniable that great texts in the hands of the illiterate would be as worthwhile as an ancient papryus inscribed with untranslatable cuniform script, there is another type of babble which is much harder to pin down. This is the high-sounding babble of profound superficiality, the toying with impressive words which are appended onto a shallowness of meaning. There is therefore a highly literate babble which is not guilty of faulty vocabulary or syntax, but is entirely lacking in literary depth. This is the realm of the extravagant lexicon, the seemingly admirable locution that can only leave its hearers unmoved, because it is dissociated from any internal or external authenticity.
Literary aesthetics has long since worked from the conviction that breaking the rules of literacy can be deeply creative. Yes, playing with vocabulary, syntax, narrative voice, or descriptive norms is indeed almost a sine qua non of today’s understanding of literary art. At its most productive, such literary skill belongs to the domain of the avant-garde. The term avant-garde, according to Renato Poggioli’s The Theory of the Avant-Garde, was originally political. Poggioli cites a text by Gabriel-Désiré Laverdant from 1848 which states: “Art, the expression of society, manifests, in its highest soaring, the most advanced social tendencies: it is the forerunner and the revealer.” Moreover, “to know whether art worthily fulfils its proper mission” is to know “whether the artist is truly of the avant-garde.” That which was being revealed, for Laverdant, was the revolutionary politics of 1848. Art was in the vanguard of social change, stimulating and provoking a more just and equable social order. It is only after 1870, says Poggioli, that the term avant-garde took on what he calls a “secondary meaning,” which was purely “cultural-artistic.” Now, the invective of avant-garde aesthetics was not necessarily aimed at an unjust world, but more generally, at that considered passé. Forerunning, revealing, disclosing, pushing forward (“make everything new!”) was then untethered from concrete socio-political concerns.
To be genuinely avant-garde, then, is to be at the vanguard of disclosing neglected or unknown realities. It follows that artistic expressions which are avant-garde one day will be passé the next. Poggioli shows how this term, passé, is frequently applied to “only recently vanquished avant-gardes.” Discerning what might be genuinely avant-garde, rather than passé, involves that hard-to-articulate literary quality which Coleridge found lacking in Pitt. The process allows artistic expressions to reveal themselves, to disclose something, and the process is related—albeit transposed into a very different framework—to the interplay of interior and exterior reciprocity in a genuinely literary sensibility. When personal and collective authenticity are no longer interweaving in literary constructions, we approach the point where artistic expressions might look and sound avant-garde, but actually be passé, in a manner analogous to the highly literate babble of texts disassociated from any literary depth. At a time when the highest accolades and esteem can be apportioned to such mediocre writing, it is worthwhile to ask what sort of mediocrity we are dealing with in particular cases. That is, are we confronted with the inauthenticity of a) illiterate babble or b) unliterary, passé babble?
A recent, critically lauded work of literature—Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School—has babble as one of its primary themes: The protagonist is a skilled high-school debater, who can adopt the “drivel” of the politician at will. Lerner describes this manipulation as akin to “the spoken warnings [in] television commercials for prescription drugs…disclosed at a speed designed to make it difficult to comprehend.” It is conveyed in a way which we cannot but connect to the age of social media, being “disclosure designed to conceal.” Another character undergoes a psychological trauma, and describes how her “speech started breaking down, fragmenting under the emotional pressure” and “became a litany of non-sequiturs.” The white, middle class youths of Topeka, Kansas are comically portrayed via the “rapid array of finger movements”—gang signs adopted from the Folks gang of Chicago—and a flashback to a childhood among drunken parents likens their voices to “those Peanuts cartoons where the adult voices are just some kind of ‘wah-wah’ noise,” just some “meaningless shaped sound.”
Lerner peppers his descriptions of our babbling world with political allusions. The “litany of non-sequiturs” is said to be “what Palin or Trump sound like.” The teenagers’ adopting of the gang signs is shown to be ridiculous because they’re “white kids bound for college who had no volk beyond their common privilege.” Lerner diagnoses not just the babble of the digital age, but our culture currently enthralled to populism, and ravaged by the culture wars of identity politics. On this front, the setting of Topeka is significant, because it is the home of the Westboro Baptist Church. The barbaric lunacies of Fred Phelps and his family provide a particularly powerful instance of disconnected babble. The slogans on their placards need not be repeated here, nor Lerner’s portrayal of them picketing “in sweat-soaked T-shirts…indicating verses in Leviticus.” The Westboro Baptist utilization of Scriptural texts is an apt, if extreme, example of literate babble: of words appended to realities, wrenched thoughtlessly from great texts, and deprived of having any genuine impact on those wearing them emblazoned on their clothes and placards.
At the same time, however, it is curious that Lerner adopts the most absurd example of culture wars rhetoric for this novel, that something unanimously considered as idiotic serves as the foil for the Democratic Socialists of America, sensibilities he seems to want to encourage. The ‘90s world of the end-of-history is obviously a more comfortable place for Lerner than the world we live in today, a time when Super Tuesday indicated which shade of centrist might take office next. Any move toward disclosing something genuinely new, genuinely timely, and genuinely literary is abruptly closed off from the start as belonging to the terrain of the Westboro Baptist Church. With such unquestioned and unquestionable coordinates in play, one wonders whether Lerner’s book itself slips into the world of literate babble.
An almost conceited use of literary techniques adds to this impression. Genuinely literary avant-garde constructions play with literacy, and presuppose it. But Lerner’s pseudo-modernist toying with the narrative voices threatens to malfunction. For instance, each chapter has its narrator given in parenthesis under its heading. This is something one might expect in ancient texts that have lost their interpretive field in time, that have become disconnected from their readers’ literary inheritance. It is reminiscent of the notes and commentaries on texts which we need help to navigate our way through. But Lerner’s world is supposed to be a highly astute diagnosis of our own. Literary art that cannot function without the interruption of the concerns of literacy is literary art which is not toying with the rules of literacy, but which could become incomprehensible.
The overall effect is one not uncommon in highbrow writing today, which feels as rooted in and disclosive of the literary canon as the Phelps family are of the ancient Scriptures. The Westboro Baptists emerge not just as literary foil, then, but as something strangely analogous to that artful writing which cannot and will not accept the ways in which this world is changing. This somnambulistic stubbornness explains why today’s arthouse bookshop feels like a satirical exhibition on the meaning of the word passé. It is the recently vanquished avant-garde still holding the line, the slogans of the ‘68ers emblazoned on their t-shirts and placards. We are thrust therein into a world like that of William Pitt’s oratory once again: witnessing “a premature and unnatural dexterity in the combination of words” which “must of necessity” divert our “attention from present objects,” obscure our “impressions,” and deaden our “natural feeling.”