Wednesday, October 12, 2005
From a speech by the Estonian poet and critic Märt Väljataga, reprinted in Eurozine:
. . .I share Terry Eagleton’s nostalgic utopia of a public sphere or “republic of letters”, where the literary criticism could operate. Instead of indulging in jargon and terminological games, literary criticism would regard not only academic colleagues but a wider public as its potential audience.
The first prerequisite for this is good writing. Perhaps it would help if a literary critic conceived of [him]self as a travel writer. Before a layman goes on a trip, he may want to read more about the history, the people, the landscapes, and the present political and cultural situation of the place he is visiting. Sometimes, he may wish to read about them afterwards, when the trip is over. Analogously, a reader may be interested in reading good books of criticism and biographies of authors. Works of literary criticism could be seen as travel books of the written world or the republic of letters – as guides, reportage, travelogues, or impressions. There are respected canonical authors whom even a specialist finds difficult to visit without a guide. Some authors are made boring by school teaching; some have ossified into monuments. The critic should keep alive interest in literature, and if it is beneficial for the author’s reputation, so much the better. Even if a dose of iconoclasm is needed, it’s still better than respectful oblivion.
I am aware that the study of literature is not exhausted by the kind of writing I have envisaged. The historical and philological scholarship that produces grist for the critic’s mill is at least as important. This kind of research needs a better protected environment than criticism or theory, and I am afraid that they can survive only in the academy. Of course, a good critic can be a good scholar. But even if the scholar’s writings are extremely dull, even if they possess only the virtues of meticulousness, pedantry, and industriousness, she still deserves the highest respect.
And then there is a third kind of writing about literature, namely theory. Unfortunately, this term has acquired two very different meanings. One could be identified with general poetics, the study of the conditions and regularities of literature. This is the continuation of the Aristotelian project to which the “moderate structuralists” (Genette, Todorov, Lotman) have made an invaluable contribution. It has helped to clarify the conceptual framework in which we discuss the properties of literature. If it is treated in a pragmatic or instrumental manner, it can escape the parodic repetition of all those epistemological and ontological paradoxes into which philosophy has run.
The second understanding of “Theory” associates it with features of postmodernism, as described above. Instead of being a quest for most general regularities of literature, it has become an undisciplined eclecticism, which justifies itself through some vague utopianism or delusions of political relevance.
The full article has a rather interesting description of the situation in Estonia.
But as for the rest, I am amused by the lead-off with Terry Eagleton. In my vague childhood memories of Marvel comics, I recall that they’d have some kind of ongoing plot device of two heroes encountering each other, each thinking the other was a villain for some contrived reason (the excuse for a good “who would win” bit between people who’d normally have no reason to fight), before teaming up to defeat the real bad guys. Well, I’m sure that you see where this is going:
Holbo: “I know you—in your _Literary Theory: An Introduction_ you transformed living texts into historically posed statues!”
Eagleton: “I’ve never heard of you… but you must be up to no good!”
Eagleton: “You know, I’m really over that whole Theory bit. That’s so over!”
Holbo: “Oh, that’s good. Very… good… I guess we stand together now.” (Strangely, the poorly inked depiction of Holbo’s face appears to be scowling. Or is it just the cheap paper?)
Thanks Daniel, that’s an interesting piece. It so happens that I once started writing an essay that would have compared literary criticism to travel writing, then imagined what it would be like if travel writing were like contemporary academic criticism - e.g. what if you had a Theory-inflected guide to Rome? (Those who think they have no theory of Rome are merely victims of an older theory of Rome ...)
Rich, the Eagleton where he runs through the list of famous authors - you are remembering me critiquing this in my dialogue - is from another book, not the “Introduction”. It’s from “Criticism and Ideology”, from way back in 1977, so maybe I should give him a break, eh? [I think I’m remembering title and date correctly.]
It’s sort of a problem with my dialogue that I try to make Eagleton such a paradigm Theory-head when he really has tried to get out from under that. I just don’t see him succeeding. But perhaps I should lighten up.
I was almost sure I remembered him going through snippets of texts in the Introduction and explaining how each was a result of the relations of production that existed when it was written. Well, it seemed funny in the one brief moment between the end of typing and the scroll down to the “Submit” button…
I think that your category error is in thinking that your marked dislike for his writing is because of “Theory”. There’s a common thread between Eagleton, Frum, and Zizek, but it’s not Theory.
When I was in grad school, I once picked Mr. Eagleton up from the airport. He was not a very friendly person.
The nicest person I picked up from the airport was Barbara Herrnstein Smith. She invited for coffee and pie. She totally rocks!
Very level-headed and insightful piece, although I think he’s wrong to suggest that the pressue to seem scientific is what produces the vagueness that literary jargon seems to veil. That pressure might produce the jargon, but vagueness doesn’t necessarily follow.
To the extent that Valjatega’s diagnosis is correct--it certainly was bracing, although I’m pretty lightly read--I would be more inclined to explain its causes in generational rather than institutional terms (likely with reference to television and maybe empirehood).
Meaning, to be explicit, that perhaps, for various reasons, those of us with literary proclivities who came of age in the late twentieth century suffer from an inability to speak broadly about our world with any confidence that our views will be shared or validated by our peers and thus find comfort in a system of discourse whose only criteria for valid statements is that they be unintelligible.