I liked this (email) conversation between Willa Glickman of NYRB and English professor Anahid Nersessian in “Late Romanticism”:
Perhaps understandably for a scholar with an interest in utopia, if less expectedly for a scholar of criticism, Nersessian believes in the importance of pressing forward with new visions rather than just critiquing existing ideas and systems. “I think lots of people believe the world right now is pretty bad—politically, ecologically—and that capitalism is responsible for a very large part of the situation. But being against capitalism doesn’t entail being for anything else,” she said:
It’s all very well to say “capitalism turns us into commodities, that’s degrading, human beings shouldn’t be degraded.” But how should we be treated, and how should we live? What would love and sex—among other things, like health care or having a job—look like in a good world? It’s important to take the risk of answering those questions, even if the answers are messy and provisional.
I wondered how she dealt with the complex relationship between literature and history in her own work—as she argues in her essay in the Review, relying on novels to understand the past can distort one’s vision of it. “It’s very tempting to use literature to confirm a hypothesis you already have about the world. For better and for worse, though, fictional texts don’t always give us good information about reality,” she explained:
Another danger can be to lean too hard on canonical literature that tells an “official” story about what life or people or relationships were like in such-and-such a time. If you ask a classicist, they’ll tell you that Plato—a member of an elite, all-male, free, and politically enfranchised class—is not your best informant for how the vast majority of ancient Athenians were living their lives, having sex, or negotiating intimacy.