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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Of Genius

Posted by John Holbo on 01/21/06 at 11:24 PM

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Man is born to a limited situation; he is able to understand simple, accessible, definite goals, and he accustoms himself to employing the means that happen to lie close at hand; but as soon as he oversteps his limits he knows neither what he wants nor what he ought to do, and it is all one whether he is distracted by the multiplicity of the things he encounters or whether his head is turned by their loftiness and dignity. It is always a misfortune when he is induced to strive after something which he cannot proceed towards through a practical activity.

Friedrich von Schlegel:

Though genius isn’t something that can be produced arbitrarily, it is freely willed - like wit, love, and faith, which one day will have to become arts and sciences. You should demand genius from everyone, but not expect it. A Kantian would call this the categorical imperative of genius.

I quoted the Goethe bit in this post, as part of my argument against Theory: “The problem with Theory, as a normal feature of disciplinary life, is it the nature of Theory never to be normal - always to be excessive and paradigm-shattering. You cannot oblige people to be this, on a regular basis, and expect them to maintain their intellectual honesty, not to mention dignity and equilibrium.” On the other hand, there is something to be said for Schlegel’s point of view. (For, as Schlegel writes, “Many thoughts are only profiles of thoughts. They must be inverted and synthesized with their antipodes. Thus many philosophical writings became very interesting which would not have been so otherwise.") And yet Schlegel’s point is not necessarily inconsistent with my complaint: not only demanding genius but institutionally mandating its regular production amounts to expecting it.

Finally, this sage observation from Tom Jones seems somehow relevant:

As this is one of those deep observations which very few readers can be supposed capable of making themselves, I have thought proper to lend them my assistance; but this is a favour rarely to be expected in the course of my work. Indeed, I shall seldom or never so indulge him, unless in such instances as this, where nothing but the inspiration with which we writers are gifted can possibly enable anyone to make the discovery.

Also, I’m glad Drawn & Quarterly is bringing out the moomin stuff. (Ah! Here’s what it will look like.)


Was Tove Janssen slithy? Did she gyre and gimble in the wabe?

The imperative of theory to be always revolutionary,but in the right way,is like that fashion imperative to be always different and exciting, but in a way that the same old fashion people like a lot. In theory the method seems to be to take the same old tar baby of about 10 canonical theorists and then stick one new author onto it, such as St. Paul or Vico or Carl Schmitt.

By John Emerson on 01/22/06 at 10:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“The problem with Theory, as a normal feature of disciplinary life, is it the nature of Theory never to be normal - always to be excessive and paradigm-shattering. You cannot oblige people to be this, on a regular basis, and expect them to maintain their intellectual honesty, not to mention dignity and equilibrium.”

Yes, but the problem with turning mainly to science as the focus of literature study is that scientific studies of literature, as far as anyone knows, can only pale in both breadth and importance compared to the possibilities inherent in discoursive analysis and traditional creation (fiction, poetry, drama...). Is this not evident? Can it not be readily explained?

The scientific study of literature (with “science” properly understood) is about as viable as “Theory” ever was or can be. Doesn’t mean nothing can be done in the attempt to be scientific. But using science to examine literature can probably only go about as far as employing science to study politics - not very. The notion of political science and literature/literary science are equally Quixotic.

Literature/literary analysis, political analysis, and statistical study - sure, absolutely, all to the good when well done. But that’s not science. It doesn’t get to the level of theory, traditionally understood, anymore than “Theory” does.

So what can be learned via literature? How is it useful? Bernard Smith and Kenneth Burke and others have their ideas as I’ve noted before and explore at my sites.

And Noam Chomsky comments:

“If you want to learn about people’s personalities and intentions, you would probably do better reading novels than reading psychology books. Maybe that’s the best way to come to an understanding of human beings and the way they act and feel, but that’s not science. Science isn’t the only thing in the world, it is what it is...science is not the only way to come to an understanding of things.” “If I am interested in learning about people, I’ll read novels rather than psychology.” “I think the Victorian novel tells us more about people than science ever will...and we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” “We learn from literature as we learn from life; no one knows how, but it surely happens. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry (science), which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope.” “It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do.”

So where does that leave literature study? In the rich and vital arena of analysis and creation, just like always. Bernard Smith - one among many - has made some important points in this regard.

Though Moretti’s statistical work sounds interesting and useful, if ultimately not terribly broad, as I’ve noted elsewhere Columbia University has in part played a rather unfortunate role in the study of literature:

Columbia’s reactionary role in American literature has a considerable history, as literary critic Maxwell Geismar touches on below in his introduction to New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties (Ed. Joseph North) (1969): “I welcome this anthology for several reasons, but mainly because it is part of something which I have begun to think of as our ‘buried history’ in the Cold War period. Recently a group of American historians have been digging into, one might say, ‘excavating,’ the true facts of this Cold War Culture – the curious period from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties – and the results are very interesting. We have had almost a quarter of a century of conformity, comfort, complacency and mediocrity in American literature – this epoch of ‘instant masterpieces’ – and only now can we begin to put the pieces together and find a consistent pattern…” (1).

“…it was the Cold War that brought about the downfall, in 1949, of one of the most brilliant journalistic enterprises in our literary history. At the war’s end, a new epoch of repression was about to start. Another great achievement of the Depression years was the WPA Federal Theater Project; and Halle Flanagan’s history of this, in her book Arena, ends with the congressional investigation and foreclosure of the Federal Theater by political figures who are, by Divine Grace or special dispensation, still active in Washington today… What was the real truth, the true historical dimension, of the Cold War? As I said in opening this Introduction, a new group of Cold War historians have been giving us a whole new set of impressions, which, alas, most of those who lived through the period, and are so certain of their convictions, will not even bother to read and to think about.

“For if they did…the Schlesingers, the Galbraiths, the Kristols, the Max Lerners, the Trillings, the Bells, the Rahvs, the Kazins, the Irving Howes: all these outstanding, upstanding figures of our political-cultural scene today…they would have to admit both their own illusions for the last twenty years, and the fact that they have deliberately deluded their readers about the historical facts of our period. Since it was they who fastened the Cold War noose around all our necks, how can we expect them to remove it? – even though, as in the cases of Mary McCarthy and Dwight MacDonald, and the estimable New York Review of Books, they have bowed a little to the changing winds of fashion today. Due to student protests at base, and student confrontations on Cold War issues, Professors Bell and Trilling have indeed moved on from Columbia to Harvard University – but after Harvard what?

“Mr. Trilling has even ‘resigned’ from contemporary literature, saying at long last that he does not understand it – but only after he led the attack for twenty years on such figures as the historian Vernon Parrington, the novelist Dreiser, the short-story writer Sherwood Anderson, and other such figures of our literary history. And only after the Columbia University English Department had taken the lead in setting up Henry James as ‘Receiver’ in what amounted to the bankruptcy of our national literature. The Cold War Liberals, historians, critics and so-called sociologists, also clustered around a set of prestigious literary magazines like Partisan Review, The New Leader, Encounter of London, Der Monat of Berlin, which had in effect set the tone and the values of the ‘Free World’ culture. When it was revealed, about two years ago, that these leading cultural publications and organizations (the various Congresses and Committees for ‘Cultural Freedom’), as well as some student organizations and big unions of the AFL-CIO, were in fact being financed and controlled by Central Intelligence Agency – the game was up…” (10-12).

There has been some indication also that the Paris Review was bankrolled by the CIA.

More information on Geismar’s points is available in his valuable memoir, Reluctant Radical. (Geismar himself was ironically also a Columbia graduate: “I was class valedictorian for 1931, though actually, as I learned later, the one student who had a better academic record was turned down for this honor because he looked too Jewish. I didn’t; I was passing happily. It was only when I’d won the Moncrief Proudfit Fellowship in English Letters that I confided to the dean that I, too, was Jewish – in those days my conscience only bothered me after the fact....” Later, in mid-life, as a top literary critic, Geismar was railroaded off an early TV literary show by the CIA, as he details in his memoir.

More information on the CIA’s role in American art and cultural affairs is available here:

By Tony Christini on 01/22/06 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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