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This article is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.

The Beautiful Lie: Towards a Biology of Literature Chris McCully

Peter Goldsworthy's article 'The Biology of Literature' (PNR 119, pp.39-44) is a timely reminder that the enjoyable reading of literatures is more, and vibrantly more, than a victim of the cultural materialism that would reduce it to an exercise in ideology. As propagated by what Harold Bloom trenchantly calls 'the School of Resentment' (The Western Canon, 1996, p.7), reading, writing and criticism - that endless set of mutual interrogations - have increasingly become unshackled from the inherited structures of the engaged mind, from a plausible construction of the aesthetic, and from any worthwhile hermeneutics. The current orthodoxies of Theory may, as Nicolas Tredell points out in the same issue of PNR, be 'far past [their] triumphalist phase' (p.35), but they are still, from a hermeneutic and empirical point of view, a-theoretical: conclusions are often non-replicable; results are non-verifiable (except to the circle of the adept); the diachronic and generic range of current Theory is often self-defeatingly narrow; and investigative procedures seem to be designed with political teleologies as their main purpose and justification.

Goldsworthy's article usefully relocates writing within a world of cultural and linguistic universals, and is a necessary prompt that such universals may be researched by reference to the evolution, the structures, and the functioning of the human brain. In this sense it's unfortunate that Goldsworthy opens his case by invoking the signing employed by chimps: in a provocative study, the linguist Ray Jackendoff (Patterns in the Mind, 1993, chapter 10) concludes that apes do ...


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