Teaching Introduction to Literature, I see a curious new phenomenon: more and more students complain, bitterly, about how dark the readings are. I’m not sure what this new critical term means; I employ a canonical set of works including Hawthorne, Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Sophocles, and newer works by Phillip Larkin, Tobias Wolff, and J.G. Ballard. If such authors do anything, they force us to face existential questions. Once, students went to college to experience just this sort of perennial questioning. Today, questioning is a nonstarter having been replaced by what Phillip Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic” and, as he predicted, by students preoccupied only with themselves and with attaining a “durable sense of well-being.” This ends any interest in reading about what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the tragic limitations of human existence and how to meet them and endure them with dignity.” When Larkin observes that
At death you break up: the bits that were you Start speeding away from each other for ever With no one to see
it does not sit well with the Facebook and Twitter crowd, many of whom are now convinced that advancements in regenerative medicine will indefinitely postpone their senescence. With death no longer inevitable, they find that a literature based on the tragedy of mortality is both archaic and irrelevant. In insulated, technological isolation, with electronic “friends” and avatars, Comedy Central and Family Guy, they are more concerned with distraction and are irritated that plot and character create inevitabilities and moral consequences. That’s just so...dark.