I think John Howard’s position is too absolutist,
but being concerned about the way literature appears to be being taught is
legitimate. In the mid-nineties I penned a satire directed at the excesses of
postmodern literary theory called Dead White Males. It was a big box office
success but drew the wrath of postmodern academics like the ones I had
satirised.

I was accused of being deeply conservative and not understanding that
the human consciousness is formed and controlled by the ideologies contained in
“texts”. The theory posited that so called imaginative fiction was no more
than ideology promoting the national, class, race and gender positions of the
author. What annoyed me about such a smug analysis was not that it didn’t
contain SOME truth, but that it was being taught as if it was a TOTAL truth.

Having
formally studied psychology at the height of the behaviourist boom in which all
human behaviour was said to be socially (ie ideologically) constructed, I’d been
down that path before and mistrusted it as a total explanation of why we are as
we are. There’s no doubt social construction is an important mechanism in
creating us but we’re also biologically constructed.

The deep behavioural
predispositions that millions of years of evolution have left us with didn’t
suddenly disappear after the chimpanzee. We have a universal set of human
emotions that vary little between cultures and which drive us to universally
exhibit egocentricity, tribal affiliation, susceptibility to charisma, nepotism,
sensitivity to social pressure, altruism, excessive fear of threat, pair
bonding and other deep rooted tendencies that literature has identified as
“human nature” for thousands of years.

I thought the postmodernists’ credo, that
there was no such thing as a human nature and we were just creatures of our
immediate society and its ideologies, was nonsense. We can all palpably
understand the jealous fury of Medea at her husband leaving her for another
woman in a “text” written over two thousand years ago. We can also identify
with and become engrossed in the jealousies, and political infighting between
powerful families in the Icelandic sagas written over eight hundred years ago.

What great writing does is identify the enduring truths about human nature
that cross time and culture. Shakespeare was undoubtedly hierarchical and
patriarchal, but he was also better than any writer before or since at analysing
the powerful universal human motives that drove his characters and still drive
us.

Unlike John Howard, I believe there is nothing wrong in pointing out to
students that literature has an ideological content, but to treat our best
literature as being nothing more than ideology would seem to be abandoning our
greatest repository of human wisdom.

Peter Fray

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