Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Thought - The Elephant in the Salon

This book is an attempt to develop a set of instructions, an analysis of what has gone wrong in recent years with the various arts - especially fiction, since that is the art on which I'm best informed - and what has gone wrong with criticism. The language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations - not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and ideas -but sentences full of large words like hermaneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism, or opaque language, and full of fine distinctions - for instance those between modernist and post-modernist - that would make even an intelligent cow suspicious. Though more difficult than ever before to read, criticism has become trivial.

The trivial has its place, its entertainment value. I can think of no good reason that some people should not specialize in the behavior of the left-side hairs on an elephant's trunk. Even at its best, its most deadly serious, criticism, like art, is partly a game, as all good critics know. My objection is not to the game but the fact that contemporary critics have for the most part lost track of the point of their game, just as artists, by and large, have lost track of theirs. Fiddling with the hairs on an elephant's nose is indecent when the elephant happens to be standing on the baby.

At least in America art is not thought capable, these days, of tromping on babies. Yet it does so all the time, and what is worse, it does so with a bland smile. I've watched writers, composers, and painters knocking off their "works" with their left hands. Nice people, most of them. Artists are generally pleasant people, childlike both in love and hate, intending no harm when they turn out bad paintings, compositions, or books. Indeed, their ambition guarantees that they will do the best they know how to do or think they ought to do. The error is less in their objects than in their objectives. "Art is play, or partly play," they'll tell you with an engaging smile, serving up their non-nutritious fare with the murderous indifference of a fat girl serving up hamburgers. What they say is true enough, as far as it goes, and nothing is more tiresome than the man who keeps hollering, "Hey, let's be serious!" but that is what we must holler.

In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue - by reason and by banging the table - for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be. Not that I want joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least an evasion of too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think all critics and artists should he thoroughly familiar with it, and perhaps many are. But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchens at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.

The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game - or so a troll might say - because only a clown with sawdust brains would take our side and eagerly join in.

Like legitimate art, legitimate criticism is a tragicomic holding action against entropy. Life is all conjunctions, one damn thing after another, cows and wars and chewing gum and mountains; art - the best, most important art - is all subordination: guilt because of sin because of pain. (All the arts treat subordination; literature is merely the most explicit about what leads to what.) Art builds temporary walls against life's leveling force, the ruin of what is splendidly unnatural in us, consciousness, the state in which not all atoms are equal. In corpses, entropy has won; the brain and the toenails have equal say. Art asserts and reasserts those values which hold off dissolution, struggling to keep the mind intact and preserve the city, the mind's safe preserve. Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.


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Readers are welcome to tell me whose words these are. Without research.

34 comments:

Bill White said...

It wouldn't be you, would it? At any rate, I'd like to read more. Off to google.

William Luse said...

Nope, not me.

Lydia McGrew said...

Anthony Esolen?

But somehow, it seems more strongly worded than I would expect him to be.

William Luse said...

Nope, sorry.

Lydia McGrew said...

I thought I was having a bunch of other ideas to put here as guesses in the middle of the night, but now I can't think of a single one. Must have been dreaming.

Lydia McGrew said...

Camille Paglia? (Wild thought.)

John Ciardi?

Frederick Crews?

Allan Bloom?

William Luse said...

Heh. I'll give the answer by tonight.

William Luse said...

:~)Lydia keeps checking back. Think I'll put up the answer tomorrow.

Lydia McGrew said...

That's because I'm being so darned honorable and not googling it.

alaiyo said...

John Gardner, _On Moral Fiction_?

William Luse said...

Beth is a winner. (Unless she googled.)

Lydia McGrew said...

I don't feel so bad. I'm unfamiliar with Gardner.

William Luse said...

Do you think Beth googled?

alaiyo said...

No, I didn't! However, I have read Gardner's book about half a dozen times and certain phrases certainly are memorable, as well as the gist of it. It amazes me how easily it could be something written very recently. I regularly recommend it to students. (My copy is at the office, too, so I didn't look it up there, either! I am an honest internet quiz taker!)

Lydia McGrew said...

I was struck by that too, Beth. That it should have been written in 1977--It sounds more like 1997.

But it's a good reminder that in both art and in criticism, nihilism and deliberate meaninglessness are not new, and postmodernism is the natural follower of modernism. Is the poetry that C.S. Lewis called the "sick of everything school" of the early 20th century really more profound than _Piss Christ_? In criticism, much as it pains me to say it, postmodern criticism is the bastard but recognizable child of the New Criticism. (And how funny it sounds to call it "new" now, half a century on.)

William Luse said...

"I am an honest internet quiz taker!"

I know. But even honest people need needling.

"...is the bastard but recognizable child of the New Criticism."

I hope that's not a hit against the New Critics, at whose knee I was raised. The "perverted" child, perhaps.

Lydia McGrew said...

I was raised at their knee, too, or at least at one or two sets of knees for a few years. That's why I said it pains me to say it. They are the precious and now incredibly rare old guard who, where they have not retired, are the last voice in the wilderness of contemporary secular English departments telling students that the work of literature is more important than the critic, that it has an existence and a reality independent of our "readings," and that understanding literature takes hard work, thought, and empathy rather than the childish application of cookie-cutter "critical theory" and jargon. God bless them, especially Dr. Harold Weatherby, my now-retired thesis adviser from Vanderbilt.

However, yes, I think that their fight with the yet more old-fashioned "old historicists," as they are now called, was to the detriment of literature in various ways.

William Luse said...

You might enjoy this article, by a man still writing who is probably its best defender against what you describe in your first paragraph. You'll see a lot of familiar names in the course of it, and a discussion of a Donne poem near the end: http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9308/articles/young.html

Lydia McGrew said...

I remember reading that article on dead-tree when it came out. (I had a physical subscription to FT at that time.) It manifests the best of the New Criticism, and I think he is quite right about why the po-mos hate them. The leftover New Critics and I will die in the same ditch for the importance of the work of art.

I've never read Brooks's _Well-Wrought Urn_ all the way through, only parts of it. That might be fun for a plane trip next January when we're going to a conference.

William Luse said...

Young also has a book, here: http://www.isi.org/books/bookdetail.aspx?id=dd5e3751-88e0-480e-8d2b-2407311fcd17 - which I'll probably buy. I'm thining of reviewing Gardner's book for our Review.

Lydia McGrew said...

No doubt Young would be pleased to know that his article sent me back to re-read Donne's "Canonization." I'm with him in his one implied difference with Brooks: The poem is undoubtedly lighthearted and boisterous rather than "heavy."

On the other hand, I get impatient of what seems to me the pedantry that requires us constantly to say, "the voice" or "the speaker" rather than "Donne." It works okay for many love sonnets (though not all) but try doing it with "Batter My Heart, Three-personed God," and it becomes just another rule imposed on the text: "Thou Shalt Not speak of the speaker as the author."

William Luse said...

"Thou Shalt Not speak of the speaker as the author."

Technically you shouldn't (although I'm not sure "technically" is the word I want) since everyone knows that the author is Donne. But the speaker is more than Donne. The narrator of a poem or story is a persona invented by the author to represent universal concerns. His dilemma is our dilemma. This in no way prevents the reader from saying, "You have spoken to my heart. Thank you, Donne." But it does protect the integrity of the poem as a finely crafted thing (a well-wrought urn) against the corrosive efforts of the various critical schools who think that the work's significance lies in what they have to say about it rather than in the work itself.

Lydia McGrew said...

"The narrator of a poem or story is a persona invented by the author to represent universal concerns."

Well, that's the kind of absolute statement that I can't help feeling the urge to respond to by saying, "Sometimes yes, and sometimes no."

Lydia McGrew said...

For myself, I do not think that an absolute author-speaker distinction is at all necessary to protect the poem against those critical schools. The poems did well and were understood for hundreds of years without those rules before those critical schools ever came along. I don't think anybody's understanding of "A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning" was ever harmed by Izak Walton's statement that Donne wrote it for his wife when he was traveling to the continent. Enhanced, rather. Nor did some sort of New Historicist (or feminist, or postmodern, or Freudian, etc.) reading somehow spring up from Walton's biographical information by any sort of critical necessity.

On the contrary. I would tend to say that when we cut the poem off from the author in a truly radical and doctrinaire way (which I'm afraid some New Critically trained people do do), we are precisely opening the door to all manner of relativism in interpretation, because the poem is no longer tied down epistemically.

William Luse said...

I don't think anybody's understanding of "A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning" was ever harmed by Izak Walton's statement that Donne wrote it for his wife when he was traveling to the continent.

Well of course it wasn't.

Enhanced, rather

No (except in however this knowledge affects you emotionally). The poem doesn't gain any added significance because you know this piece of information. Suppose you didn't know it. The poem would still say what it says. If Donne wants the fact that he wrote if for his wife to enhance the poem, then this fact should, at least by implication or context, be in the poem.

I would tend to say that when we cut the poem off from the author in a truly radical and doctrinaire way (which I'm afraid some New Critically trained people do do)...

None of my acquaintance.

...we are precisely opening the door to all manner of relativism in interpretation, because the poem is no longer tied down epistemically.

No, relativism creeps in when one says, "Oh, he wrote that for his wife? How sweet," and takes this personal enhancement of the reading as constituting the author's intent *even if* it's not in the poem. (On a quick re-reading, I think an intelligent reader would deduce that it probably *was* written for his wife without consulting Walton or anyone else.) If a reader is allowed to do this (and it happens to me all the time with students who want -even think they're entitled - to impose their speculations upon the story, to which I always demand: where's the evidence?) then what's to stop the post-modernist from sucking all the significance out of the poem and transferring it to himself?

Every well-crafted thing of any beauty is the work of a human mind sharing its vision of the "human condition", Faulkner's "eternal verities of the heart", and it is this bare fact (the author's authority itself over his own work) that the New Critics are at pains to protect. They are to literary criticism what evidentialists are to Biblical scholarship. There is, btw (re your first paragraph), no guarantee against corruption, modern judicial interpretations of our constitution and revisionist historical criticisms of Biblical inerrancy being decent examples. Gnostics are always with us.

alaiyo said...

_At War with the Word_ is an EXCELLENT book (and I don't often feel compelled to shout on the internet!). One of its chapters is a version of an essay you can find online -- maybe at FT? -- called "The Old New Criticism" which I refer my students to quite often. I believe it's the final chapter that discusses the devastation wreaked by deconstruction on such things as the reading of our Constitution; even though it's not really taught so much explicitly today as it was when I was a grad student in the 80s, deconstruction has become the default setting. New Criticism at its best is the counterpoise to it. I am hoping we can bring Dr. Young here to speak one of these days.

And of course you may needle away, Bill! I usually can't identify quotes, so I'm always so happy when I actually know one! Also this was a reminder that I had intended Gardner for one of my re-reads this summer; must grab the book next time I'm at the office.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think it's a rather ridiculous false dichotomy to say, "Either this is explicitly stated in the text or you are bringing in something totally irrelevant." What's interesting here is that no one--New Critical or otherwise--denies that facts like word meanings, the meaning of historical allusions, and the like, are relevant to interpretation. If someone uses the phrase "Queen of Heaven" of the Virgin Mary in a work of literature, it's relevant to know in some more detail about the Catholic doctrine that Mary is the Queen of Heaven. (Such doctrinal explanations become _hugely_ important when reading Dante, for example.) If somebody refers to a rosary, it's relevant to explain to students what a rosary is, and so forth. If a poem uses a figure of speech with which students are unfamiliar (perhaps because it is now archaic), this "extra-textual" information is something a responsible editor or teacher should give. In "The Canonization," an explanation of the myth of the phoenix is simply part of telling about the meaning of the poem, for example. This is all really obvious. But if someone refers to a trip he's taking, and we say, "Oh, by the way, that was a trip to Germany he took in such-and-such a year," suddenly, that's not supposed to be allowed.

It's my opinion that this is arbitrary. In both cases, the poem is using and/or making reference to something outside the text, and it's part of understanding the text to give the additional information.

Lydia McGrew said...

The special relevance of other works by the same poet is also something that good interpreters should acknowledge. George Herbert has a poem that makes an anagram of Mary's name and refers to her as the one in whom the Lord of Hosts pitched his tent. It is relevant to understanding what degree of devotion to and what doctrines concerning the Virgin Mary are being evoked there (the poem itself is only two lines long) to read Herbert's other poem (not a very good one) on the Anglican Church in which he does the standard "via media" thing, made famous by Hooker, chiding the Puritans in one stanza and the Roman Catholics in another and hence declaring a kind of triumphal Anglicanism that is supposedly better than either of its contemporary rivals. Had a Catholic poet written the poem about the anagram, it would quite legitimately invoke and even point to the whole range of Catholic doctrine about Mary as the "Mother of God." Written by Herbert and interpreted in the light of his other poetical works, it doesn't and shouldn't.

These sorts of considerations are, in my opinion, just as relevant as considerations of time and place, avoiding anachronism, etc.

William Luse said...

E.g., "If a poem uses a figure of speech with which students are unfamiliar...this "extra-textual" information is something a responsible editor or teacher should give."

Well, yeah, but it won't add anything to the text. This isn't even related to what the New Critics were trying to defend (the integrity of a work in its own right) and none of my points seem to have any force with you, so thanks for now.

William Luse said...

Beth, if I decide to review Gardner's book, I might be asking you for a few thoughts on what you'd like to see addressed.

alaiyo said...

Would be glad to respond, Bill.

William Luse said...

Unless you'd like to do the review. ???

alaiyo said...

Well . . . that is appealing . . . let me think on it for the weekend, and collect the book from my office . . . I'll let you know early in the week. What would be the deadline?

William Luse said...

September, but August (late) would be better. (Allows time for revisions.)