THE DEATH OF LITERATURE

By Alvin Kernan

Yale University Press. 230 pp. $22.50

ALVIN KERNAN has packed enough theses into this short, dense book to fill many a larger volume, and a brief review can barely mention -- much less do justice to -- only a handful of them. An emeritus professor of humanities at Princeton, Kernan in some 200 pages attempts nothing less than a tour d'horizon of the contemporary American literary scene, touching upon everything from deconstruction and academic Marxism in the universities to the rise of the electronic culture to the shift in attitudes toward copyright.

What is remarkable is not that Kernan does so much but that he does so much of it well; in the steadily rising tide of books about the collapse of American literary and artistic culture, The Death of Literature is the most comprehensive, thoughtful and (to my way of thinking) right-minded I have thus far encountered. If Kernan gives the deconstructionists and other academics more due than they deserve, chalk it up to good manners; he is kind to his colleagues, but it is a killing kindness.

It is Kernan's central thesis that literature as we have come to know it is dead, "the romantic and modernist literature of Wordsworth and Goethe, Valery and Joyce, that flourished in capitalistic society in the high age of print, between the mid-18th century and the mid-20th." Great bursts of what Kernan calls "literary activity" still take place, from the writing and publication of novels and poetry to the academic and journalistic criticism of same, but in the larger world the whole little show is an irrelevance; literature, especially the cramped and narcissistic "serious" literature of the moment, no longer has anything to say to the world, which in turn has chosen to ignore it.

This is a truth not merely unbeknownst to the community of the literary but one to which the members of that community would passionately object. An essential tenet of the romantic literary tradition, Kernan argues, is the superiority of literature -- and, by extension, of art -- to the baser world in which it is forced by circumstances to exist. What Kernan calls the sense of "superiority of art to morality and middle-class values" also entails a sense that literature and art matter more than ordinary life, that because they seek to explore what writers and artists fancy to be higher questions, they are somehow exempt from the mundane business of the world.

Which is to say that the people who practice and criticize literature and art believe themselves possessed of entitlements both moral and cultural, which is in turn to say that Kernan's analysis could scarcely be more timely. To wit, his comments on the furor over the National Endowment for the Arts:

"There is no real intellectual life in all this, only the acting out of traditional romantic art-attitudes in the interests of politics, prestige, money and social power, which are no longer in accordance with understood realities, such as the fact that art is only what its parent society says it is. For all the fury that the art world mustered in the defense of the power itself to define art, and to claim all the attendant publicity, to the world at large the Mapplethorpe-Helms affair is only further proof that the arts are the province of the loony left with no real bearing on the serious matters of the world, and to those who think about such matters it is simply a tired repetition of conventional views that assume that art is a particular and definite kind of object, that its chief end is epatering the bourgeois, and that it is of such critical importance to the world that it should be supported by the society it mocks."

In literature as in art, these are "attitudes more suitable to another time and place than late 20th-century America," a country far too concerned with more pressing business to devote more than the flicker of an eye to the bluster of these self-appointed guardians of high culture. It is a pity that Kernan chose not to devote more than a sentence or two to what now passes for serious literature, for an extended analysis of it could only have bolstered his case; but his dissection of the deconstructionists points in the same telling direction.

Kernan is kind to them in this sense: he believes that deconstruction can be viewed as "criticism at its traditional social function of preserving whatever can be saved in a time of radical questioning of basic institutional values and beliefs," which is to say that at least on this level he takes it seriously. Otherwise, though, he is at pains to puncture the self-righteousness of these radical-Marxists manque' who are "themselves intellectuals, students and teachers, usually working in the universities, depending on high culture for their status and their livings."

"Ours is a strange time," Kernan correctly notes, and then correctly adds, "but it has in it . . . few things stranger than the violence and even hatred with which the old literature was deconstructed by those who earn their living teaching and writing about it. They stood in line, fought for a place at the front of it, to demonstrate the meanness and emptiness of books and poems that had long been read and taught as the highest achievements of the human spirit. Humanism became a term of contempt, and the work of literature an illusion." TO WHICH must be added: To what end? Kernan takes note of the "new-left form of political action with a neo-Marxist conception of society as the scene of a relentless power struggle," and certainly he is right, but there is more to it than that. Those who come to destroy the old literature do so for the basest and most venal ends: personal advancement, tenure, academic prestige, what passes for power in the departments where the humanities are taught. Kernan is probably right to argue that the old romantic literary tradition is dead, that if literature is to survive it must become "a concept and an activity that serve human needs and enlist the honest respect of the society in which it must exist," but make no mistake about it: no such noble thoughts motivated those who have so merrily hastened it to the executioner's chair.

So in the end Kernan comes down hard on the academics, but they are far from his only targets. He shows how the law, itself in thrall to romanticism, has aided and abetted the sense of literary superiority by sanctioning various entitlements; he writes pungently about how literature has arrogated unto itself the control of language by setting itself up as the standard by which dictionaries are written; he demonstrates with particular acuity how television is inherently and implacably hostile to words. In regard to this last, he speaks the truth that too many of us would deny: "Literature's ability to coexist with television, which many take for granted, seems less likely when we consider that as readers turn into viewers, as the skill of reading diminishes, and as the world as seen through a television screen feels and looks more pictorial and immediate, belief in a word-based literature will inevitably diminish."

So it is that here, toward the end of his analysis, Kernan comes back to what he said at the beginning: the death of literature is to be viewed not as a discrete event but as a single element in "a time of radical political, technological and social change." To expect that literature can be immutable at a time when all else is in upheaval is self-deluding and naive; but it is the illusion upon which the vanity of we literati still feeds, and there is no evidence that we have as yet seen through it.