" Literature Lost," by John M. Ellis. New Haven: Yale University Press. 262 pages. $25.
In classrooms across America, including the seminars and lecture halls of the most prestigious colleges and universities, the subject of literature is all too often being taught by people who do not love literature, who do not revel in its richness, who are not stimulated by its complexities or challenged by its profundities, but who are instead bent on using it to impose their own political and social agendas. This is the theme of John M. Ellis' exceptionally persuasive book "Literature Lost," which ought to be required reading for any student about to enroll in a literature course.
Ellis, a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is hardly the first person to call attention to the follies of "political correctness" or voice dismay at the erosion of values at institutions of higher learning. But his lucidly written book offers one of the most insightful analyses of the problem.
Clear thinking and common sense are the hallmarks of his approach. Step by step, he examines the factors that led to the current crisis. He patiently explains the twisted logic whereby proponents of cultural relativism argue that no culture can claim superiority to any other, only to turn around and assert that primitive, proletarian and Third World cultures are all far worthier than "imperialist" Western culture.
He astutely dissects the gyrations of academic feminists who seem unwilling or unable to draw a distinction between actual instances of sexual harassment and mere criticism of their particular ideology. And he convincingly defends the much-attacked values of the European Enlightenment for establishing the ideals of rational inquiry, objectivity and a common humanity, which provided the foundation for modern notions of social and political justice.
The great works of Plato, Dante, Homer and Shakespeare, as Ellis observes, offer their readers not some list of "eternal verities," but rather a record of "fascinating stuggles with problems and issues," in short, a spirit of "eternal questioning."
The study of literature can open minds to the diversity and complexities of human experience. In the hands of the current "race-gender-class" academicians, however, works of literature are studied only in order to reach preordained political conclusions. Ellis shows how this approach is completely at odds with the genuine spirit of scientific inquiry that is willing to follow truth wherever it may lead and that welcomes stringent criticism as the best way of rooting out weak points in a hypothesis.
Cutting through the jargon
One chapter, analyzing the pretensions of soi-disant "postmodern" literary theory, may be of more interest to professors and students than to the general reader. But the bulk of this book addresses the concerns of the literate public both inside and outside of academe. Ellis cites surveys that indicate there is now more racial prejudice among the college-educated than among those lacking a college education - a reversal of what used to be the case before the implementation of affirmative action and so-called "multiculturalist" curricula!
Unlike the leading Marxist theoreticians, who claim to speak for the downtrodden but write an obfuscating jargon comprehensible only to one another, Ellis writes an elegantly crisp, plain English that makes his arguments quite easy to follow. His book deserves the widest possible audience.
Merle Rubin writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia and studied English as an undergraduate at Smith College and Yale University.