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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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01/07/2009

Comments

ElAleph

Dan, I have read your blog for some time now, and many of your beliefs and assumptions about the interpretation of literature bother me.

- In today's post, as well as many previous ones, you express incredulity towards the possibility of enjoying literature in a historical, sociological, or political manner. I can tell you, with no reservations, that this mode of interpretation is of great pleasure to me and many others I know (yes, those others did study history in college, but their pleasure is real). Research on the context (critical, philosophical, literary, historical, etc.) of literature is one of the greatest pleasures I know, and to engage in this pleasure it is necessary to read literature in an "anti-literary" way.

- I also disagree with your anti-academia stance, which is strongly related to your suspicion of the "anti-literary." You have written that academics have lost their "moorings" by not focusing on aesthetics. But it is the purpose of the university to produce knowledge, not to foster appreciation. Literature exists and is therefore a proper object of academic study. And not only does literature exist, it exists as a part of society, as do reader's interpretations of literature. To make a Marxist critique of a novel arguing that it embodies the views of x-class for x-reason and has been received by x-critic in x-way because of x-socioeconomic situation is a legitimate way, if inevitably a bit biased, of producing knowledge about literature. To ask the literature scholar to focus on the aesthetic qualities of a work divorced from context is like asking a chemist to only pursue chemistry because it pleases him and as a subject separate from physical reality. Sure, the chemists I know got into their field because they derive pleasure from the subject, but their job is, like that of all scholars, to produce knowledge.

-And finally, I disagree that aesthetics can be studied separately from the context of a work of literature, except as misreading. In the comments to "Beyond the Literary" LML says that the fact that formal innovators in 18th century fiction were politically conservative disproves J's assertion that "formal choices are, in fact, political choices." This is a misinformed position. Fielding (for an example) chose to write "Tom Jones" as he did for reasons that are certainly political. Fielding's conservative (in a large sense, in his position as a magistrate Fielding was quite progressive) position in the novel is that natural goodness (like Tom's) is not complete until societal prudence is learned (as Tom does). The picaresque allows Fielding to show Tom's progress from natural to prudent, artificial, socially-recognized goodness. His various innovative ways of reminding the reader that "Tom Jones" is fiction (prefatory essays, addressing the reader, writing over characters) also support the positive view of artifice present in "Tom Jones." Another contextual meaning in this artifice is that Fielding presents his work frankly as fiction in direct opposition to Behn, Defoe, and Richardson. Finally, Fielding's refusal to present the interiority of his characters is a rejection of the ideas of individualism that were growing in England with capitalism. The old ways of community were better, according to Fielding. Richardson, however, in presenting his characters psychologically gives support to the individual against society. "Clarissa," for example, is a refutation of the political ideas of "Tom Jones." Where Tom Jones is "born to be hanged," improved by society, and ends up in a higher social station, Clarissa is naturally good and wrecked by her families attempts to better her social status. Near contemporaries to Richardson certainly read "Clarissa" politically. John Adams said "Democracy is Lovelace and the people are Clarissa." Although this is taking it too far, Adams did recognize the psychological realism of Richardson's novel as arising out of capitalism and individualism.

Now, despite my lack of organization or clarity, I would be surprised if you didn't find all this interpretation at least somewhat interesting and useful in understanding how literature interacted with culture in the 18th century.

To read literature aesthetically is to read literature without curiosity.

Steven Augustine

To write "To read literature aesthetically is to read literature without curiosity" is no less strange than it is risibly peremptory (and wrong). The actual formula goes something like: the total of possible books times the total of possible readers times total possible moods and re-readings = legitimate possible variations of interpretation. Systematize that at your (medieval-theologian-style) peril.

Also: Literature enjoyed as Art (at the most recondite edge of the word) and Literature enjoyed as Entertainment (defined as the virtual escape The People need after a long, hard day of Reality) are very different things, even (or esp.)when the same text is in use in both cases. These arguments often strike me as being about Japanese monoglots shouting from one side and French monoglots on the other.

We have drifted far from the territory of books and deep into the psychology of criticism.

Dan Green

"But it is the purpose of the university to produce knowledge, not to foster appreciation."

I agree. Which is why, in retrospect, I think it was a mistake to bring the study of literature--as literature, as a "discipline" in and of itself--into the academic curriculum in the first place, and why I also think the best thing that could happen to literature is that it now be removed.

King Wenclas

It's pretty humorous to have Mr. Green in the position of being "anti-academia," when every one of his posts reeks of the academy. Are you all kidding yourselves? The moment a general reader sees the word "hermeneutics" he'll start snoozing.
Where's the STUFF of literature? Drama, ideas, action, thunder, expressed in a coherent manner? (Only what the great novelists presented us and hooked us-- at least me-- on literature.)
Strange, I can't find it anywhere.

Dan Green

"hermeneutics"

I was, of course, quoting Josh Corey's use of the term (and he himself seems to be using it in invisible quotation marks, as a comment on the way the term was used in "Theory").

ElAleph

My one-liner at the end of my post was just that, Steven. I wanted something snippy at the end of my long-winded post. Please don't take it too seriously, I regret making it.

"The actual formula goes something like: the total of possible books times the total of possible readers times total possible moods and re-readings = legitimate possible variations of interpretation."

I don't disagree. Despite your exaggerations (unless you count minor, imperceptible differences in interpretations as different interpretations) I say that those interpretations are one of the objects of literary scholarly study. Why does x-group or x-critic interpret a work in x-way?


And Dan, are you saying that what university literature departments do is itself wrong (at least superficially an anti-intellectual position) or that what they do should be subsumed under history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, religion, economics etc. departments? If the latter, which I am assuming is your position, my answer is that although that may be possible and sensible as far as research on literature is concerned, it would be disastrous. This is because of the position literature professors have in undergraduate pedagogy. The teaching of writing, from freshman comp to senior Shakespeare, is the primary pedagogical purpose for English departments at most state schools, and even at many liberal arts schools. Historians, psychologists and the like do not have any training in composition, whereas at most schools literature scholars do.

Making composition teaching the job of a new rhet/comp department would solve that problem but create another (And would only work in those few universities large and well-funded enough to have a full division of rhet/comp people rather than one or two). If this were to happen, the value of an English Literature major to most students would be greatly lessened. Currently English majors from good schools often have an easier time finding jobs than marketing majors competing for the same openings, because industry trusts, based on their experiences, that English majors can capably handle writing. And while those English students are learning how to read and write, they are also getting to study literature, often aesthetically.


"We have drifted far from the territory of books and deep into the psychology of criticism."

It sounds like a good place to be to me, but I'm sure you disagree.


"Only what the great novelists presented us and hooked us-- at least me-- on literature."

One of my points is that there are a significant number of people who got hooked on literature because of its relation to history or philosophy, etc. (and politics, although I personally know less of these than one would expect) and not solely (though always some) for aesthetic reasons. What I don't understand is the hostility towards these readings (any hostility of my own, perceived or real, I apologize for. It is not intended).

Perhaps it just comes down to two types of people: the artist and the nerd. You're never going to get the artist to understand the pleasures of research and applying a theory to discover something about the way literature works in society or psychologically. And you're never going to get the nerd to understand why someone would read a book simply (there is my bias showing) for immediate pleasures, whether just as entertainment or in a more thoughtful manner like James Wood or the readers of this blog.

Jacob Russell

Wenclas,

Do you wave your bloody red shirt at the academy because you want to break through the conformity of the establishment... or because you believe there's some virtue in being intellectually incurious?

That's probably a rhetorical question...

Dan Green

I do think the teaching of writing could be handled in some kind of comp/rhet department, although I am becoming increasingly dubious about the value of writing courses as well.

I don't think that with the elimination of what is still called "literary study" the "value of an English Literature major to most students would be greatly lessened" because it already has almost no value. "Communications skills" can be acquired by other means than studying literature.

Many English majors undoubtedly do regard their course of study as valuable, especially in retrospect, but I would guess it's an indirect and intangible value, not one that is immediately remunerative.

ElAleph

"'Communications skills' can be acquired by other means than studying literature."

Sure, but if literary study is a proven method of teaching them, and it is, then I don't see why it is of "almost no value." An "indirect and intangible value" is still a value.

Was I correct in assuming that you think historians and psychologists are warranted in studying literature, but if someone is called an English professor, then hands off!? I think that position places too much emphasis on names and categorization. Just because the computer scientist's work can be reduced to physics does not mean that computer science should not be a separate discipline. I argue the same in relation to the work of a historical literary critic. What he is doing is certainly more historical than literary at the core, but the study of literature, even from a science or social science approach, requires set of skills that is not taught in other academic departments. Do you think literature would somehow be bettered if other departments each opened up a division of literature and then literary scholars changed their titles to "Associate Professor of History and Literature" or "Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Literature?"

Or are you actually opposed to any approach to literature except the aesthetic one?

LML

The common feature in Bolano's and Sebald's work is a preoccupation with rehabilitating literature. Both writers seem to have taken seriously the idea that the horrors of the 20th century call into question the premises of literature. Both are besotted, nevertheless, with literature. They write out of political reality and toward literary possibility, all the while deeply skeptical that literature is worth the trouble. Both are contemptuous of other writers who proceed as though the playing field hasn't changed, and both are talented enough to remake old forms. This ability is what makes them important. They offer a specifically literary kind of possibility that seemed unavailable, lost to history.

This is not a denial of the role of politics in the novel; it's simply, as Dan says, evidence that any novel worth reading once its historical moment has passed will marshal its politics to aesthetic ends.

Dan Green

EA: Anyone can do anything he/she wants with literature, of course. But if someone called an English professor wants to use literature in historical or psychological analysis, I'm not clear why that professor isn't a history or psychology professor. The study of literature's secondary and tertiary effects has increasingly been subsumed under the title "Cultural Studies," and a department of Cultural Studies could certainly exist, especially if its members acknowledged they're not doing "liteary study" as it was initially conceived.

Opposed is too strong a word. Uninterested.

Jacob Russell

The question posed by the "horrors of the 20th century" is whether it is possible for literature to be more (and/or other) than ideology and propaganda, that is, cultureal weapons in our march toward mutual suicide.

That it will be put to such use is inevitable--the risk and the hope is that literature (let me broaden this to include the art in all its forms) cannot be reduced to its uses. That is what it means to value aesthetic understanding, which is not another means of reduction, but a continuing effort of liberation, over studying art as "something else". Aesthetic understanding doesn't exclude the many contexts that inform a work, historical, political, religious, philosophical, but it does not fix the experience to them. If we truly have no choice but to assign equal signs (=) between the work and its contexts, we might as well scrap the whole venture and just get on with the business of killing each other.

ElAleph

LML: "novel worth reading"

I can't even try to guess what is meant by "worth reading." But your emphasis on the novel is telling and reminiscent of James Wood. Why not Medieval mystery plays? Their "historical moment has passed" and I don't think there are many (or any) who read them for their "aesthetic ends." You might say they aren't "worth reading" then, but I find the 2nd Shepherd's play's deliberate misuse of Biblical typology to be a quite worthy subject of study. The play can even be quite funny (an aesthetic reaction), but only in its cultural context.

Most pre-19th century literature isn't (and can't be) read in your aesthetic way. Sure, there are major exceptions: Shakespeare and Homer and other so-called giants. But all historical moments will pass, including the current one that has produced the interesting ideas of Sebald and Bolano. It is the historical moments that interest me (among other anti-literary things). If you care about other things, I have no problem. But too often my natural approach (yes, natural, this is how I've always usually approached literature, even though the use of theory and the like are not natural) to literature is denigrated as a "perversion." This all reminds me of a more sophisticated version of those times in high school where a "poetry-lover" asserts that scansion and analysis ruins the poem. I just don't get it.

Dan: The answer is that English Departments are the place where such things are done. Although I agree that Cultural Studies holds promise for these approaches to literature, at the moment Cultural Studies tends to focus on contemporary, PoMo culture and minority -isms, so most literature scholars still need to be part of English departments. In my opinion you can blame the misconceptions about literary studies and the existence of literature as as separate department even though it uses the methods of other departments on the New Critics. They were the ones who needed literature as a separate department not the Marxists, feminists, psychoanalysts, etc.

But the reality is that English departments are an intrinsic part of current university structure, for the reasons I have said in this post and others. It may be more rational to reorganize the university (Linguistics shouldn't really be in English either, as its placement often precludes conversation with CS and Psych, which are more important than English for the discipline). But restructuring is pretty much out of the question without some strong impetus. Its like trying to change the BCS. Change will come someday, but all we can really do is wait.

Steven Augustine

ElAleph:

" 'We have drifted far from the territory of books and deep into the psychology of criticism.'

It sounds like a good place to be to me, but I'm sure you disagree."

To the extent that literary art therefore shrinks to the dimensions of a prop in the very dull stage production of the critic/scholar's id: yes. I disagree.

Dan Green

I myself find the mystery plays quite aesthetically compelling, as I also do the Metaphysical poets, Restoration comedy, and Milton, among the other pre-19th century literature (just sticking to English literature) you find disposable. Either I'm a freak of nature or your aesthetic sensibilities have become extremely coarsened through your fixation on your "anti-literary things."

I actually agree that the current mess that is literary study can be traced back to the New Critics, although their culpability is unwitting. As I've discussed in several previous posts on this blog, their academicization of literary criticism inevitably led to the parade of ever newer "approaches" to literary "scholarship" that's gotten us where we are. They would, of course, be appalled that their efforts have ultimately led to the ejection of literature from literary study, but history plays cruel jokes.

Steven Augustine

ElAl:

Btw, when did you start using this pseudonym? Are you doing undercover research for your next cross-posting over at T. V. ? Or is this just a kinky, Batman-inspired move..?

LML

EA: My emphasis on the novel is a result of this post, and Dan's blog generally, being primarily about that particular art form.

As far as what's "worth reading," okay, that could be clarified. I mean literature that speaks to me across contexts peculiar to the historical conditions prevailing at the time of its composition. All historical moments indeed end, but until the last moment has come, "literature" will be constituted of those texts that speak across individual moments. You're right, medieval morality plays for the most part haven't made that leap. Your study of the Shepherd's Play sounds primarily historical to me. I don't begrudge you that study. I am objecting to your contention that "aesthetic" issues are narrower than the kinds of context-dependent readings of literature that you are interested in performing. As Jacob Russell says, real aesthetic appreciation of a text takes all such contextual matters into consideration. I furthermore agree with Jacob's statements about literature's ability to elude the limits of its historical moment. Is it an act of faith to believe that literature can do this? Maybe so, and I'll plead guilty to that form of faith, but as you say, empirical evidence exists: many people outside the field of Classics continue to be moved by Homer.

LML

Oops, "mystery plays." The typo is indeed indicative of a larger ignorance about the genre. I'm glad somebody's out there reading them, though.

ElAleph

Steven: Batman? What? I'm not sure what your asking. Is there someone else with this same moniker?

"very dull stage production of the critic/scholar's id"

It's not always dull. And it's often very informative. Even a Marxist critique that throws objectivity out of the window and pushes for specific political ends typically contains a lot of good historical research and theory. And amongst the best Marxists the political bias is pretty thought-provoking as well. I find it hard to believe that anyone can read Jameson and not see that.

Dan: The problem with the New Critics is that they created the expectation that academic criticism should be literary and aesthetically-driven. That type of approach cannot last long in the academy, and it didn't. But there are those outside and inside the academy that seem to expect professors to be Eliot.

"your aesthetic sensibilities have become extremely coarsened"

No, I just find that pursuing knowledge and developing ideas or a theory are greater and far less ephemeral pleasures than the aesthetic appreciation of literature.

"literature's ability to elude the limits of its historical moment"

Considered in cultural context, ideas like this are quite interesting, but I personally don't find much in literature that "speaks to me." There are cases of being emotionally moved, like Joyce's "Araby" or the end of "Lawrence of Arabia," but do they speak to me? Not really. What invariably gets the juices flowing is the academic approach that is disparaged as dull, dry, mental masturbation. The stereotype of the dull academician is only true from an anti-intellectual viewpoint. I find there to be much enthusiasm in the academy. Yeah, in one sense the literature/math/economics/art history professor is the dullest guy in town, but (more often than you know) he loves his subject and his approach to it.

Dan Green

No, the New Critics created the expectation that "approach" is everything. Now literary study is essentially nothing but the free flow of new approaches.

"I personally don't find much in literature that 'speaks to me.'"

This to me sums up the current state of literary study. It is dominated by those to whom "literature doesn't speak." It's perfectly ok that literature doesn't do much for you, but that anyone who feels this way would want to be a professor of literature seems to me very weird.

Jacob Russell

We are ephemeral. We don't last. We have inherited a great intellectual tradition of clinging to abstractions that we pretend will bring us to some sort of apotheosis--enduring truths. It isn't that the study of these abstractions is dull, but that they are abstractions and they are noting like us. You are right--aesthetics addresses our response to what is ephemeral, as we are. Notice the contradiction: it's leaving behind those contextually rooted abstractions that enable us us to experience the work beyond the closure of it's historical period... aesthetics concerns itself with what makes that possible, asking: what is it about us, about oursevles, our ephemeral being touching on the ephemera of the work of art, that which makes it live, as we live, in a shimmering ever changing and ever vanishing light.

ElAleph

"It's perfectly ok that literature doesn't do much for you, but that anyone who feels this way would want to be a professor of literature seems to me very weird."

You claim to not be the narrow aesthete, but this is about as narrow as it gets. Literature "does" a lot for me, as I consider it an open gate to knowledge and a fertile field for the development of ideas and theories. It probably won't surprise anyone here that I began my academic pursuits with the intention of becoming an archaeologist. Potsherds, like literature, are human artifacts that are quite revelatory of the culture that created it. Is this the original intent of the pot? No, but it would be absurd to say that an archaeologist misuses the pot or that pottery suffers under the critical eyes of the academic.

It is certainly possible to love literature without having literature "speak to you."

Another analogy: One can divorce the aesthetic appreciation of a college football game from the economic realities of the BCS, but to do so is willful ignorance.

That's what you aesthetes are doing - watching football. And don't think that your pseudo-mystical fetishistic reverence for literature isn't mirrored in football as well. Spend a few weeks around Norman and you might hear something like this:

"We are ephemeral. We don't last. We have inherited a great [football] tradition of clinging to [victories] that we [know] will bring us to some sort of apotheosis--enduring [national championships].

Indeed, Jacob frames literature in fully Christian terms, including soteriology, self-effacement, prophecy (speak to you), and morality. Which leads me to my third analogy. Aesthetes are the true believers, the Feenomanites, if you are familiar with Dennet. Academics are the Feenomanists, agnostics who record and categorize the occult knowledge of the Feenomanites, thus producing anthropological knowledge.

The most interesting thing about this literary religion is that every participant seems to be a prophet, claiming that his god "speaks to him."

I apologize for any offense I have caused to the honorable followers of Feenoman.

Jacob Russell

Where you get the Christian soteriological prophecy stuff from what I wrote I have no idea--certainly not from me. My appreciation of literature is quite stripped of such residue. You have rather crudly misread what I presented as opposing stances as though they were the same, as though I were embracing the "great tradition" and its abstract apotheosis rather than explicitly rejecting it!

Chris

With all respect: There are, perhaps, other open gateways to knowledge, other fertile fields for the development of ideas and theories -- that do not possess what it is that literature, what art, possesses uniquely? Or, to put it another way, is there not a certain flattening that takes place when equating the amphora with The Aeniad? Or Thucydides with Virgil?

It is not "pseudo-mystical" to possess an ear, and to make claims for its abilities. Some people just can't -- well, those of us of a certain age can recall the inadvertent comedy of color television manufacturers selling their wares in TV commercials aimed at people with black-and-white TVs.

ElAleph

Jacob:
1. In my latest post I'm being partly tongue-in-cheek.
2. The Christianity is quite present:

-"a continuing effort of liberation"

-"If we truly have no choice but to assign equal signs (=) between the work and its contexts, we might as well scrap the whole venture and just get on with the business of killing each other." (implying that literature somehow "saves" us and brings peace. If that isn't apotheosis I don't know what is.)

-"We are ephemeral. We don't last. We have inherited a great intellectual tradition of clinging to abstractions that we pretend will bring us to some sort of apotheosis--enduring truths." (Ever read Ecclesiastes? Or Medieval Mystics like Eckhart?)

-" the ephemera of the work of art, that which makes it live, as we live, in a shimmering ever changing and ever vanishing light." (Sounds like the Holy Ghost is giving art its power, perhaps to "speak to" people)

Actually, the anti-abstraction sentiment in your post is more reminiscent of Zen than Christianity, but your diction is not. Either way, it tastes like religion to me. I won't treat literature like a golden calf.

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