The return to innocence: a response to Lim Lee Ching


In the last couple of weeks, the interweb has been filled with voices arguing about the decision of the National Library Board to first remove, then pulp, then backtrack in spectacular fashion — flip-flopping like the Brazilian back-line during the recent World Cup — in relation to two allegedly objectionable books: And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express. One of those voices belongs to my colleague from this Review, who posited that “this [issue] is no longer merely about book banning; it has crossed the threshold to take on the spectacle of a pyre … from which no hope may rise.” [1] This was a position which clearly resounded with many a reader, echoing as far as the Irish newspaper, The [2]

And whilst most of the points raised by the multitude of sides have been valid — some even enlightening, most rather entertaining — the problem is that the discourse is hinged around the notion that ‘literature has to be protected as it is a repository of culture, of wisdom, perhaps even of life itself.’

Which unfortunately, misses the point.

For, literature itself is fundamentally useless.

Which is precisely why those in power have always been fearful of it. For here, one should never forget that the first to be shot are always poets and writers. Not because they actually do anything, but that precisely by doing nothing they give—allowing all echoes of gift to resound—open, the space for us to imagine something else, something other. And by entwining literature with use, all that is done is to tie it down, enchain it, to the state.

Ironically, those who claim to love literature are the ones who have done the most violence to it. We can hear this resound in common complaints from those who write, avid readers, ones who teach. These include: “we should be taken more seriously”; “I wish people would stop saying that we only read story books”; “we are transmitting important life skills to our students”; basically attempts, gestures, towards gravitas. But, what else is literature but the reading of stories. Which is not to say that stories are only found in books. However, what is crucial is the love for stories: and this is learned, developed, through an attention towards, a love of, for, books. Here, one should not forget the echoes of both book and learning itself in literature (from the Old English boccræft). And once we open the register of learning, we should also not forget the dossiers of mimesis, repetition, habit, and habitus.

Or, as Neil Murphy might say: “show me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are.”

For, we are always already in a relationality with what we read. Even before reading happens—prior to the act of reading—one has to open oneself to the possibility of reading, open oneself to reading itself. Without necessarily knowing what reading itself even is. Thus, to claim that literature has a use is to diminish it, to enchain it to value, production, logic, ratio, reason. It is to do nothing other than to attempt to erase literature.

Which is not to say that literature has no effect on us. But that is not its point. For, what happens—affects us—does so after, or perhaps during, reading; and this is not where literature as such lies. For, literature lies in letters (littera); and like all writing, it is of the order of death.

Which means that: to love literature is to be in love with the dead.


Keeping in mind that to love is to be in a relationality that “encompasses the experience of the possible transition from the pure randomness of chance to a state that has universal value.” (Alain Badiou) Which is not to diminish “pure randomness”; on the contrary, the very possibility of love rests on it, hinges on taking a “chance.”

And the gamble that is taken each time one picks up a book, the risk one runs in attempting to attend to a text, is the possibility of falling—along with all the potential disasters this entails—in love.

Thus, the stake in literature one’s very own self.

For, if writing is of the order of death, reading is then an openness to the possibility of resurrection.

And more than that, if literature is a love of the dead, opening oneself to death is an openness to the unknown, and potentially always already unknowable. Perhaps this scares us, and it should. This is why Milan Kundera calls it the unbearable lightness of being: it is the refusal to be grounded, to be pinned down, known, that is unbearable, that continually provokes us, challenges us, perhaps even tears us apart.

It is perhaps symptomatic that there is a ‘crisis’ in literature—both early last year when there was a minor kerfuffle in parliament about the the role of a literary education in Singaporean Schools; and now with the NLB saga—at the very moment when the state of Singapore is obsessed with concocting an identity. For, if reading literature is about love for the unknown, is about possibilities, it is thus of the order of difference rather than identification, sameness.

In other words, literature is always anti-stasis, anti-state. And more than that, it is always also a challenge to the self, to our selves: it is a call to attend to the possibility of another, of something that is more important than us.

And like any call, it might well lead us to dash ourselves on the rocks.

Herein lies its danger.

And its beauty.


Jeremy Fernando

[1] Lim Lee Ching. ‘Editorial: The end of innocence’ in The Singapore Review of Books (11 July, 2014):
[2] ‘Singapore national library to destroy LGBT-themed children’s books’ in The (11 July, 2014):

(Editor: These are the final comments that the Singapore Review of Books will make on the present issue.)

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