A SOFT answer turneth away wrath. Alvin Kernan follows a screaming title - ``The Death of Literature'' - with some subtle chamber music noteworthy for its cunning modulations and contrasting voices. Literature is in trouble. Recent polls show that only about 10 percent of adult Americans read it. And by read it, they mean read something literary every year or so. This means spending maybe 20 hours per annum - compared with more than 20 hours a week these same literate Americans devote to watching television.
Professor Kernan has been writing about this problem for years. With ``The Death of Literature,'' he completes a trilogy that began with ``The Imaginary Library: An Essay on Literature and Society,'' (Princeton University Press, 1982). In the second work in the series, ``Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson'' (Princeton University Press, 1987), he worked out a model of what it means to be literary.
Kernan wrote, ``Books and the larger world of letters of which they were a part were Johnson's principal means for making reality, not so sacred, perhaps, but serving the same purpose as religion, sermons, and prayers, to shield him from nothingness.''
In ``The Death of Literature,'' Samuel Johnson and his ilk have disappeared into the mists of time. A massive shift has taken place. ``Humanism's long dream of learning, or arriving at some final truth by enough reading and writing, is breaking up in our time,'' Kernan writes.
The first couple of chapters eddy around famous scandals. Kernan's argument may surprise some of his peers. When an exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe provokes the wrath of politicians and cultural groups, and changes the way the federal government supports the arts, Kernan says a pox on both your houses. Later he discusses the pornography trial of D. H. Lawrence's ``Lady Chatterly's Lover'' in the same terms with the same exasperation.
Of all the posturing on both sides in the Mapplethorpe controversy, he says, ``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.''
The trial of ``Lady Chatterly's Lover'' in 1959 illustrates ``the inability of the literary professionals ... to describe with any precision and concert the characteristics of literature or to state with any firmness and conviction its place in social life.''
Whereas the judge at the trial could argue that the artist had a duty not to harm a fellow member of society mentally or spiritually, those defending art could not say why art was worth defending when it did seem so to harm.
The inability to explain, in widely compelling terms, the value of literature and art plagued the beginnings of the modern period. In vivid scenes, Kernan takes us back to the time when English literature was first being discussed as a possible subject in universities. Although eventually English came to mean the reading of classic novels and Shakespeare, it never quite established itself on a sound footing of knowledge that would preserve its place in academe.
In witty and devastatingly understated pages, Kernan shows how this shaky foundation has caused the top-flight university departments of English to totter recklessly in our time. Wrapped in opaque names such as ``deconstruction,'' modern academic criticism has topped the romantic tradition of the alienated artist by claiming to expose the nature of literature as a victim and transmitter of impersonal and dehumanizing social forces.
Authors are ``read'' in terms of their ``contexts'' - as the professor sees them through Marxist, feminist, or other spectacles. At its worst, contemporary criticism denies any value to language, exposing self-contradiction at the root of all writing, though never pausing to apply it to the very words of the critic. Recent academic trends have undermined literature as much as the video revolution. Authors have been replaced by texts, and texts by social structures; criticism has become a form of suspicion.
While these Lilliputian debates raged, literature gave way to television, word to image.
``Visual images,'' Kernan says, ``don`t provide the same kind of truth as words. What they say is not necessarily inferior but it is different. Meaning is much more on the surface, experienced immediately rather than discovered by extended in-depth analysis of the image. The meaning of the visual image is also far less complex, lacking the multiplicity of meanings characteristic of single words and the ironic ambivalence set up between words.''
Kernan is not blaming people for watching TV. He is blaming professors for not defending their turf. He shows throughout his book that without systematic study, literature will fail to compete in modern society.
He has sharp words for the video culture that elevates image above words. We know from his volume on Samuel Johnson how the technology of printing multiple copies in readable, inexpensive editions elevated the author to a status that Johnson, for one, deserved. Modern authors, on the other hand, seem fated to work against the prevailing technologies.
Kernan's tale is told with such discreet charm that it's easy to fail to see that his unwillingness to promote cheap answers and hopeful delusions is balanced by the force of his own example. Eloquent, witty, sage, and fair, ``The Death of Literature'' bears the message of hope in the only direction it can go - to those who share Kernan's concern with the life of true words in our time.
Kernan's antidote for what ails literature is not to turn back the clock. The book age has given way to the electronic age. But if we are to continue to understand each other, continue to trust each other, we must learn to respect the meanings of words, and that includes the meanings of the words of authors.