Tuesday, September 13, 2005
In an essay about the “feud” between the critic Irving Howe and the novelist Ralph Ellison about the role of “protest” in fiction, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington observes:
. . .Whereas Ellison saw a danger in collective generalizations, Howe was attuned to the perils of erasing society. In his autobiography, A Margin of Hope, Howe asks, “Since language has unbreakable ties to possible events in experience, can the meaning or value of a work be apprehended without some resort—be it as subtle and indirect as you wish—to social and moral categories?” The quote is taken from a passage on Howe’s student days, studying the tenets of the New Critics and their aspiration to substitute close analysis of a text for the study of background historical forces. Typically for projects this high-minded, the New Critics failed to see that “the evaluative terms offered by New Criticism—terms like coherence and complexity—were heavily freighted with associations drawn from history, psychology, morality. Is there any evaluative term not so freighted, and must not any attempt to find purely ‘intrinsic’ values wither into sterility?”
Howe’s contention that because “language has unbreakable ties to possible events in experience” criticism must attend to “social and moral categories” is an argument that is very frequently made by those who believe that literature transcends mere “art.” It is these “unbreakable ties” between language and the reality it represents that make literature different than, say, painting or music. These forms are freer to “be themselves"--to create a closed-off space where aesthetic qualities are allowed a degree of autonomy--than literature because the latter occurs in language and language is the means by which we conduct our everday affairs and through which we make the world meaningful.
In my opinion, however, it is precisely because literature is made from a medium so thorougly tied to modes of conventional discourse and ordinary communication that the creation of genuine art using such a medium should especially be acknowledged and allowed a certain degree of independence from the kind of “social and moral” criticism favored by Irving Howe and his current epigones. Creating literary art is very hard to do, and writers have had to resort to increasingly radical strategies (hence both modernism and postmodernism) to wrest it away from the moral inspectors.
Nothing we do, of course, is entirely beyond the reach of “social and moral categories” if we choose to employ them. But why must we always do so? Why is it necessary to subject that human activity we call “art” to relentless political and cultural analysis even when the artists themselves reject such an analysis as a willful distortion of the purpose of their work? Because we can? Can we not also choose to preserve an aesthetic space for works of literature? Besides, if you really are most interested in sociopolitical or moral interrogation in the first place, why spend your time trying to whip poems and novels into some suitably discursive shape?
Thus, for Howe to say that the kinds of critical terminology associated with New Critical formalism are “heavily freighted with associations drawn from history, psychology, morality” is to say something not very interesting or very useful. That human beings forge their conceptual and critical tools from various sources of human activity is not a very startling revelation. Where else could we get them? No one who ever believed in the efficacy of such terms as “coherence” or “complexity” ever believed they were “instrinsic values” separated from historical forces and derivations. They were just terms that served nicely, right now, to describe the aesthetic goals much of modern literature had set for itself. For me, it is those who cite the historical contingency of everything, as if this were urgent news, who betray a residual longing for absolutes and essences. How awful we don’t have them!
Wellington admonishes Ellison for “brandish[ing] a vision of Art with a capital A,” for encouraging a fruitless debate that just goes “round and round.” But the argument is not circular. The dispute between the view that art is “truth telling” and the view that art is art could be settled if the parties agreed that “Art with a capital A” can exist if we allow it to (that it has its own kind of value if we allow ourselves to find it), but that this doesn’t foreclose the possibility that “truth” will emerge for some readers as well (perhaps not so forcefully for others). Those of us who agree with Ellison simply don’t want to rush quite so quickly from the immediacy of art to its supplementary implications.
But why must we always do so? Why is it necessary to subject that human activity we call “art” to relentless political and cultural analysis even when the artists themselves reject such an analysis as a willful distortion of the purpose of their work? Because we can? Can we not also choose to preserve an aesthetic space for works of literature?
The answer is that we don’t, it isn’t, we can and we can. But I’ve always found this argument is that it’s Ellison who’s making it. Race isn’t read into Invisible Man the way it is other works; the novel works by motivating the sympathies around the social and moral category of race. Whatever immediacy there is to the novel depends on the reader’s awareness of a relentlessly political problem of mid-century America. It’s one thing to say, as Hugh Kenner has, that Waiting for Godot‘s really about the French Resistance (code-names, endless waiting, unclear identities, &c.); it’s another entirely to say that Invisible Man‘s a political novel.
Edit: “But what I’ve always found strange about this argument...”
Irving Howe and his current epigones
I think this is way off, Dan. You could count the current epigones of Howe (who was no reductive moralist) on one hand. In fact, the contemporary moralists have far less in common with him than they do with the New Critics. The most earnestly pc criticism out there these days quite frequently accepts theoretical accounts of the free play of the signifier that have more than a little in common with the New Critics’ emphasis on the intentional fallacy. Even in this particular debate, I think Howe was actually far less moralistic than Ellison, who was not exactly shy about freigthing literature with ideological baggage. It was Ellison, after all, who said he was more afraid of Howe than he was of Mississippi racists. That was 1964.
I agree with Sean and Scott. I would add that it’s difficult to conceive of an argument in favor of “formalist” readings of literary texts that doesn’t fall back upon what you call “moralism” at some point. In order to see this, just ask yourself - why do non-ideological or non-moralistic readings of literary texts matter? The New Critics, for example, were self-consciously making a moral case for formalism - that formalist readings of literary texts open up to us a kind of experience that has been eroded by industrialism and mass society, and that this kind of experience is a good thing. This is very, very obvious in their Agrarian writings of the 1930s.
"why do non-ideological or non-moralistic readings of literary texts matter”
I would say because there’s a place for non-idelogical or non-moralistic readings. Why is this view moralism?
"I would say because there’s a place for non-idelogical or non-moralistic readings. Why is this view moralism?”
According to this explanation, you have no basis for preferring what you call “non-moralistic” to “moralistic” readings - except, perhaps, that non-moralistic readings give you, personally, more pleasure.
But in any case, there’s an implicit moralism in your own account of “Art as Art.” I.e., you argue that art “has its own kind of value if we allow ourselves to find it.” What is this value?
"you have no basis for preferring what you call “non-moralistic” to “moralistic” readings - except, perhaps, that non-moralistic readings give you, personally, more pleasure.”
My basis for preferring “non-moralistic” readings is that I prefer readings that concentrate on a work’s aesthetic qualities. The latter are what I read for in a work of literature. This is the “value” we can find if we look for it. You can attribute whatever concealed moral ideas to me you’d like, but they just aren’t there.