Monday, November 07, 2005
Sticking to the Words
According to Ellis Sharp:
. . .[Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” is] a campaigning song, set in the real world. If you say that it doesn’t matter what the song is about, or whether it’s true or not, and that it’s just great music, then I think you’ve missed a lot of the point of the song. You aestheticise it. You turn it into an artefact detached from real life. That impulse reminds me very much of the American ‘New Criticism’ of the 1950s. The New Critics wanted to remove literature from life and history and regard writing as exclusively a formal structure – a well-wrought urn, an organic artefact, where all you discussed was language. The New Critics rubbished biography. The writer’s life, the writer’s intentions, were an irrelevance. Out with society and history, just stick to the words! But theory is never innocent, and the New Criticism slotted in nicely with the quietism of the age. If you don’t want to talk about history or society, you threaten nothing.
Heaven forbid that we “aestheticize” an ostensible work of art! Sharp’s admonitions here are like saying that the stories in today’s newspaper are too much like journalism or that the trouble with physics is that it contains too many darn equations. Reattach them to life! But just as physics no longer exists without the equations, art must be “aesthetic” in order to be itself in the first place. It’s the attempt to politicize works of art, to make them illuminate history or act as the servants of biography, that distorts them, not regarding them as artifact--which of course they are, first and foremost. If we don’t “aestheticize” art--that is, apprehend it on its own terms as art--we’ve failed to recognize it at all.
What in the world could it mean to say that in calling a song “great music” you’ve “missed a lot of the point of the song”? That music is something other than musical? That it’s more than music? The impulse behind such a claim is understandable--it’s a way of saying that something profoundly important has occured in one’s experience of “great” art of any kind--but to suggest that the “point” of a song or a poem or a novel lies elsewhere than in its embodiment as a song or poem or novel is to implicitly denigrate the form a particular work has taken: Don’t tell me this song is musically satisfying--it’s trying to change the world! That novel is pleasant, but it’s “merely literary.” Implicitly, such assertions tell us that musicians and novelists could be finding better uses for their time than just composing music or writing novels. They could be “campaigning.”
Sharp’s account of New Criticism is a fairly typical sort of misrepresentation among those who are apparently more interested in “society and history” than in literature. This kind of reductive description has especially been used for quite some time now by academics eager to rid the study of literature of all vestiges of formalism in favor of “cultural critique.” But the New Critics never wanted “to remove literature from life and history.” It’s very hard to see how this could be done in the first place--if it were to be removed from life, where would it go?--but at any rate the New Critics wanted precisely to locate literature in history--its history as literature--and provide it with “life” by identifying those characteristics particular to it, or at least particular to the experience of reading it. It’s not as if the “formal structures” with which New Criticism was concerned were already well-known, waiting to be pinned to works of literature in some act of literary preservation. For the New Critics, reading was a dynamic process, a dramatic process, during which judgment needed to be suspended. Formal structures remind us that a poem or story is not like “talk.” They have been shaped in such a way that a work’s “content” is not that easy to determine. Thus the New Critics’ use of such terms as “ambiguity” and “paradox.”
Sharp then reprimands Vladimir Nabokov for observing that a particular passage from Dickens’s Bleak House is “a lesson in style, not in participative emotion.” Sharp continues:
Bleak House is not simply a literary artefact. It powerfully expresses Dickens’s own seething rage and contempt for a supposedly Christian society where children died openly in the London streets. Bleak House projects Dickens’s vision of England as a rotten and corrupt society.
In my view, that Bleak House might express Dickens’s “rage and contempt” is not necessarily one of its admirable qualities. Fortunately, what Dickens really did in this novel--perhaps more effectively than any of his other books--was to transcend his rage and contempt and to translate them (if indeed they were feelings he held) into literary art, into a novel that is indeed fully shaped and ingeniously structured. And so what if the novel “projects Dickens’s vision of England as a rotten and corrupt society”? Such visions are a dime a dozen. The only thing that distinguishes Dickens’s “vision” is that it served as the impetus for a series of great fictions. Nabokov was right: What makes Dickens still a writer well worth reading are his specifically literary gifts, his ability to create singularly memorable characters, his prodigious prose style.
Returning to his discussion of Dylan, Sharp concludes: “Pop music self-evidently has dimensions that poetry lacks (the human voice, the backing music, the individuality of every performance, its immediate visceral impact) but I don’t see why that should prevent us discussing that aspect which they both share: words.” I’ll avoid debating the merits of analyzing pop songs as if they were poems (one could view song lyrics as poems of a sort, although comparing them to actual poems is, in my view, unfair to both, since they weren’t written to be poems), but suffice it to say that Sharp eliminates almost everything that defines song as a form of music ("the human voice,” “the backing music"), further reducing both songwriting and poetry to “[w]hat the two art forms have in common[, which] is a desire to communicate something, usually an experience, through words.” Never mind that in Dylan’s most creative period in the mid-1960s he focused more on “communicating” an experience through expanded musical means, the lyrics often acting as a kind of hypnotic accompaniment to the music rather than the opposite. In confining the artist’s ambitions to “a desire to communicate something,” Sharp strips art of its very identity, equating it with any other act of communication and limiting it to what it “is about.” Discouraging such an approach to art and literature was what New Criticism, in all of its quietism, was itself finally all about.
Sounds like one false binary after another. I taught Jameson’s introduction to *Postmodernism* today and was reminded what real cultural criticism can do: offer rich local insights about form and style in particular case studies, while tracing the call and response between form and social dynamics. Jameson treats art as art, which means treating it as symbolic form. But he also realizes that art is part of the social world with increasingly less and less “critical distance.” So the conflict isn’t between Sharp and Nabokov. Both are right and wrong. Exactly those artistic aspects of Dickens’ novel, and not simply its overt content, are what is socially significant.
I suppose that’s what’s called the dialectical imagination. That Jameson can call for a new art at the close of his essay, one that can simultaneously map the individual’s existential need for orientation in a new social order while also grasping the reality of this vast economic system, seems touchingly foolish and brave to me. One might disagree with any of Jameson’s claims in the essay, but in the face of such attentiveness and ambition, a lot of other criticism seems pointless.
Don’t tell me this song is musically satisfying--it’s trying to change the world! That novel is pleasant, but it’s “merely literary.” Implicitly, such assertions tell us that musicians and novelists could be finding better uses for their time than just composing music or writing novels. They could be “campaigning.”
No, such assertions tell us that in composing music or writing novels, some musicians and novelists are campaigning, and that to fail to recognize that is to do them a disservice.
"some musicians and novelists are campaigning and. . .to recognize that is to do them a disservice”
It does them a disservice only if they’re campaigners rather than artists. If they’re also artists, then to ignore their campaigning actually does them a service.
From a humanistic perspective, I have to disagree, Dan. I think that Ellis Sharp’s diagnosis of the New Criticism as being quietism goes too far in explaining everything through reference to a reified historical era. And yes, art must be aesthetic, and can not be reduced to history or biography. But suppressing the biography and evident intentions of the artist --"ignor[ing] their campaigning” in order to do them a service, like pretending that you don’t hear the crazy relative locked in the basement—is going too far in the other direction. A great work of art does not become any less so because it was written in part to campaign, or to flatter the author, or attack a rival, or do any of the other things that people do. Purposefully ignoring these elements seems to me to be not fully engaging with the artwork.
Whatever it was that motivated the artwork is now irrelevant to our being able to “engage” with it. These might be interesting things to contemplate--especially if you’re more interested in history or biography than in art--but as far as the work’s aesthetic impact on us is concerned, they’re sideline issues. If the work requires these considerations to be “fully” appreciated, it’s a failed work to begin with. Some works do too much “campaigning” to be salvaged, from an aesthetic point of view.
“some musicians and novelists are campaigning and. . .to [fail to] recognize that is to do them a disservice”
It does them a disservice only if they’re campaigners rather than artists. If they’re also artists, then to ignore their campaigning actually does them a service.
You know better than they do, right?
Anyway, how do you propose to tell the campaigners from the artists? Didn’t a lot of baroque painting, for example, have a propagandistic purpose? Is it there a tipping point somewhere? Say, as long as it’s art, a polemic bent is an aesthetic discredit, but once the polemic reaches a certain level, the artistic aspects are a discredit to the campaign?
I know the difference between campaigning and art, yes. Chalk it up to experience. If one wants to be a campaigner, fine. Campaigning--real campaigning--can have admirable consequences. But why do I do also have to call it “art”?
It seems to me that relevance and irrelevance (in the sense of connection to politics and biography) are both descriptive terms, and should not be used proscriptively in order to say that any artwork with aesthetic value is disqualified because it is either too relevant or too irrelevant. A work may not require considerations of biography or history in order to be appreciated, but there are some artworks in which these elements seem to be fairly insistent, and in which you have to carefully not think about certain aspects of the work in order to ignore. And if you don’t ignore them, dismissing them due to an aesthetic commitment to lack of relevance harms your appreciation of the work. For instance, I definitely think that you can’t have an overall appreciation of the aesthetic inpact of Dylan’s work as art if whenever you notice that he’s campaigning, you mark this down as something which you need a strategy to avoid, a broken levee that must be reconstructed.
I know the difference between campaigning and art, yes. Chalk it up to experience. If one wants to be a campaigner, fine. Campaigning--real campaigning--can have admirable consequences. But why do I do also have to call it “art”?
Because it might be. I honestly don’t understand the origin of what seems to be distaste more than anything else for the idea that art isn’t a completely hermetic, autonomous endeavor.
I’m not asking you to think of the brilliant campaign strategist or polemicist as an artist. (Though I don’t think that would be completely unreasonable, either.) But I object to this “real campaigning” bit. Couldn’t someone plausibly realize that as motives to imagination and sometimes even action, songs, say, or novels can be excellent devices? And write a song or novel with that intent? But of course that wouldn’t rule out it being written artfully.
Just to point out the obvious, this post falsely conflates art with aesthetics - and a narrow sense of aesthetics, at that. Consequently, virtually every claim about art in this post is false.
Also, one could assign this post to students in a basic rhetoric class who could then have a field day picking out the various fallacies of argument found throughout.
The author of this post often has some thoughtful things to say about aesthetics.
That is, when they are not being badly distorted by the deeply political in effect, ideological fixation about stripping art of any meaning whatsoever beyond some vague and narrow notion of aesthetics, as pointed out in the comments above.
I simply don’t see how you can conflate art and aesthetics. Strip art of aesthetics and it’s no longer art.
“Couldn’t someone plausibly realize that as motives to imagination and sometimes even action, songs, say, or novels can be excellent devices?”
Someone could. But there’s no reason to call these “devices” art, as if the use of that term somehow magically makes these calls to action different--better--than ordinary calls to action. Although they could, of course, be skillfully composed. So could op-ed essays.
What if it turned out that Reuben Carter was in fact guilty of murder and Dylan had made a big mistake championing his cause? Would that fact make the song “Hurricane” any less powerful? What if the song had been about Timothy McVeigh?
As a work of art, I don’t think it matters. As a campaign, it would utterly destroy the value of the song.
But what this means, I think, is that a work can have value both as art and as campaign. Depending on what purpose we have in talking about the work, we will emphasize the aesthetic qualities or the political value of the work.
I don’t see any fundamental contradiction in a work have value both as art and as political propoganda. Of course, over time the political value of any work will diminish (ultimately to zero), while the artistic value will remain if the work has lasting value.
Some works have great political value (depending on your politics) and almost no artistic merit. This is pure propoganda. Other works have tremendous artistic merit and no political value. Other works have some degree of both.
I really don’t see the conflict here.
Someone could. But there’s no reason to call these “devices” art, as if the use of that term somehow magically makes these calls to action different--better--than ordinary calls to action. Although they could, of course, be skillfully composed.
Of course it doesn’t make them better than ordinary calls to action. You seem to think that I think that a calls to action and works of art are fundamentally different and wholly incompatible, and so to call a call to action a work of art is simply to praise it metaphorically. But I don’t think that “art” has to be a term of praise, and I do think that, as I said in my very first comment here, something can simultaneously be a work of art and a call to action—can be the latter be in being the former.
But I don’t understand why you think there’s no reason to call a well-crafted, aesthetically pleasing song—let’s grant it a compelling melody, interesting harmonies, and good lyrics, even if they do concern something of current moment—a work of art. (I’m assuming you don’t just have a prejudice concerning song in general.)
Propagandistic Counter-Reformation painting, is it art?
I am willing to call “a well-crafted, aesthetically pleasing song” art. “Aesthetically pleasing” being, in my view, the primary criterion to be applied. If, however, a song is mostly “campaigning,” and all attempts to “aestheticize” it are ruled out of court, then I see no reason to retain the word “art” to describe it.
If a work is “propaganda,” I have a hard time thinking of it as art to begin with. Although, again, some propanda is more effectively constructed than others.
> Of course, over time the political value of
> any work will diminish (ultimately to zero), while the artistic value will
> remain if the work has lasting value.
The political value of Aristophanes’ anti-war play Lysistrata, for merely one example, hasn’t diminished at all in over 2,000 years. The same is true of many other artworks. That play, along with other old and ancient artworks, has long been a significant part of anti-war work, etc., never moreso than today. See, for example The Lysistrata Project: http://www.lysistrataproject.org/
"What if it turned out that Reuben Carter was in fact guilty of murder and Dylan had made a big mistake championing his cause? Would that fact make the song “Hurricane” any less powerful?”
For me, yes. Rubin Carter is almost certainly guilty of murder, and there’s lots to indicate he’s the opposite of the simple, modest man Dylan describes. That changes how I experience the song significantly, and I don’t see how any worthwhile definition of art can exclude how it is experienced, the effect it has on the listener/reader/viewer. I feel something like embarrassment when I hear the song now, because its manipulative intent is so transparent. Some knowledge of the case helped clarify an unease I always had with the song as an aesthetic experience. I had felt it was simplistic, both lyrically and musically, but in a way that is satisfying ("powerful") if you’re in the mood for moral exhilaration. Now I experience its simplicity as the stupidity of moral auto-eroticism.
The lyrics are smug and clumsy, and much of the time they don’t sit well with the music, which is dominated by a lurching, demanding, melodramatic, patronizing fiddle and a self-righteously aggressive acoustic guitar chords. Much of the time the words sound like prose strung arbitrarily along a repetitive melody, the way children sometimes narrate their day’s activities to a favorite tune. The anti-racist lines are so cliched as to be almost funny ("Don’t forget that you are why-eeeete...") and even for a pop song, it has some atrocious rhymes ("We want to pin a triple murder on him / He ain’t no Gentleman Jim"). It sounds like it was written by an outraged teenager ("just like the time before and the time before THAT!"). I could go on.
The song is what it is, independent of the facts of the situation and people it is describing. But, whatever your understanding of those facts, I think that understanding must necessarily influence how you hear the song. A work of art that is less explicitly referential might not be affected by this dynamic. Surely Dan isn’t saying that art can’t be referential. And if it is, then how it refers to the real world must be part of its meaning as art. And the true state of the world must play a role in how the work of art refers to it.
> I simply don’t see how you can conflate art and aesthetics. Strip art of
> aesthetics and it’s no longer art.
You are correct. If art were stripped of aesthetics it would no longer be art. Interestingly enough, I never said otherwise. Thus, your point has nothing whatsoever to do with what I said. It’s a fallacy of argument to think that it does. I’ll go to my handbook to see exactly which fallacy that would be.
Would it be...?
A) Evading the Issue: You avoid the central point of an argument
B) Setting up a Straw Person: You imply that an opponent is arguing something that he/she is not.
C) Take your pick.
The political value of Aristophanes’ anti-war play Lysistrata, for merely one example, hasn’t diminished at all in over 2,000 years.
I find it hard to believe that the politcal value of the play is the same today as it was for the original Greek audience. How could it? The political context of the play is of completely historical value at this point. Not too many of us get worked up about the Peloponessian War. Separated by 2,000 years and a dead language, it requires either a tremendous critical apparatus for most readers to appreciate it or a talented translator to rework it for modern audiences.
>The lyrics are smug and clumsy, and much of the time they don’t sit well with the music, which is dominated by a lurching, demanding, melodramatic, patronizing fiddle and a self-righteously aggressive acoustic guitar chords. Much of the time the words sound like prose strung arbitrarily along a repetitive melody, the way children sometimes narrate their day’s activities to a favorite tune. The anti-racist lines are so cliched as to be almost funny ("Don’t forget that you are why-eeeete...") and even for a pop song, it has some atrocious rhymes ("We want to pin a triple murder on him / He ain’t no Gentleman Jim"). It sounds like it was written by an outraged teenager ("just like the time before and the time before THAT!"). I could go on.
“Hurricane” is one of my favorite Dylan songs. It is an angry song. And, the lyrics don’t fit with the music. They do seem forced which hightens the sense of anger. So does the this-happened-then-that-happened telling. I have a hard time not considering these things a choice by Dylan to sound immediate and unartful. It isn’t a good song to insist on the primacy of the aestetic experience.
Though the ability of analysis to mute the immediate impact of a work of art is probably a good thing if the story is false like people claim.
"this post falsely conflates art with aesthetics”
Exactly what does this mean other than it is possible to conflate art and aesthetics? That you could therefore separate them?
I am willing to call “a well-crafted, aesthetically pleasing song” art. “Aesthetically pleasing” being, in my view, the primary criterion to be applied. If, however, a song is mostly “campaigning,” and all attempts to “aestheticize” it are ruled out of court, then I see no reason to retain the word “art” to describe it.
Why do you think it must be aestheticized?
Why do you think that a song being mostly “campaigning” means that “all attempts to ‘aestheticize’ it are ruled out of court”, especially “all” and “ruled out of court”?
What goes into being aesthetically pleasing? I find some cutlery aesthetically pleasing, but I don’t think it’s art.
Exactly what does this mean other than it is possible to conflate art and aesthetics?
That having an aesthetic nature is necessary to be art, but that being art and being aesthetic are not identical. That’s one thing it could mean.
"That having an aesthetic nature is necessary to be art, but that being art and being aesthetic are not identical.”
I have no idea what this means.
> The political value of Aristophanes’ anti-war play Lysistrata, for
> merely one example, hasn’t diminished at all in over 2,000 years.
> I find it hard to believe that the politcal value of the play is the same
> today as it was for the original Greek audience. How could it?
Depends on the type of political value specified. How effective was the political value of the play in rallying support to stop war in Aristophanes’ time? How effective has it been today, given the dozens of performances in protest of the current US war and the resulting anti-war organizational growth resulting from those performances? In this sense the political value of the play may be greater than it was then. Is the political value identical in all ways? Of course not. But surely its socio-political effect can be said to be a political value. Surely it is anti-war now, like it was then. Is its political value large or equivalent or even greater now than in the time of Aristophanes in that it helps to rally its audiences and its thousands of actors and actresses against the war, as it may have done to some extent in the past? Quite probably. Thus, in this essential way, the political value (as measured by its effect, etc.) may well be equivalent, or may well have grown many times over. Some art is precisely that timeless and/or universal.
> political context of the play is of completely historical value at this
Not at all. See above. Political value can be understood and measured in a number of ways.
> Not too many of us get worked up about the Peloponessian War.
Of course not, but that’s beside the point of its political value. They had a destructive war to stop then; we’ve got one to stop now. In any event, the point of the play was hardly confined solely to that war. It surely may be seen at any time to be aimed at curbing destructive “state” power more generally, and at examining how people, women in particular, may or may not rally to curb such power, etc.... Some of its critique of gender is spot on today too.
> Separated by 2,000 years and a dead language, it requires either a
> tremendous critical apparatus for most readers to appreciate it or a
> talented translator to rework it for modern audiences.
Not at all. For example:
“Billed as “The Largest World-Wide Theatrical Protest for Peace,” readings of the ancient Greek antiwar comedy Lysistrata were held in 59 countries and in all 50 states in the US on March 3.
“The global readings, which totaled more than 1,000, were organized by New York City actresses Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower. The origins of the event were explained by the actresses on the web site of The Lysistrata Project: A Theatrical Act of Dissent: “Before we started Lysistrata Project, we could do nothing but sit and watch in horror as the Bush Administration drove us toward a unilateral attack on Iraq. So we emailed our friends and put up a web site. The response has been enormous.”
> Exactly what does this mean other than it is possible to conflate art
> and aesthetics?
> That having an aesthetic nature is necessary to be art, but that being art
> and being aesthetic are not identical. That’s one thing it could mean.
I have no idea what this means.
You might think that having a rational nature is necessary to being human, but that things with rational natures are not identical to humans. Then, it would be incorrect to conflate having a rational nature and being human.
IMO, if the political value of Lysistrata is of merely historical interest at this point (a surprising assertion!), then so is the play itself. Though certainly it does take a talented translator to make it “relevant” to modern audiences—the translator has to know Greek and English (e.g.) well.
Ben: If you’re saying that things other than art might be said to have “aesthetic” qualities, of course. But what does this have to do with the fact that by definition art is aesthetic?
Well, I’d like to hear more about what distinguishes art from other aesthetic things, I suppose. My last two comments, though, were just an attempt to respond to what seemed like some confusion in your comment of 8:51.
I’m pretty far back in the queue, but boy! do I disagree!
Song lyrics vs. poetry: paging Heinrich Heine.
This seems to be a version of the metaphysical belief that pure things are a priori superior to mixed things, so that when dealing with a mixed thing, we should purify it or pretend that it’s pure in order to appreciate it properly. So in order to undertand an aesthetic object which also has a political message, we must bracket out the political message in order to experience it truly; the political message can only diminish the experience, not enhance it.
The new critics who wrote that way about political messages did not write that way about, e.g., the religious vision of Dante or of Bach. There was a specific bias against politics, especially left-wing politics, especially anti-traditional politics.
To me it’s entirely reasonable to say that Dylan’s song might be enhanced by a powerful political message, and equally well might be diminished by a trite political message. Someone might say that “Hurricane” is a sentimental kind of victim-literature, for example.
To choose another example, I think that Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, ceteris paribus, would be of much, much less interest if it were a satire on the internal workings of the ad industry or of academic politics, rather than a statement about some of the great events of our time.
When I studied English under New Criticism types, we were forbidden to say that “Heart of Darkness” was about colonialism, and we were forbidden to read “Billy Budd” in terms of social justice. The Melville man was far, far too sympathetic to Captain Vere, and when he fixed his beady eyes on my young self, I could feel the rope tightening about my neck. (The fact that, based on his subsequent behavior, he may have been mentally ill is, of course, entirely irrelevant; his teaching was orthodox.)
John: I doubt that you were “forbidden” to say or write anything you wanted. This is just more anti-New Criticism hyperbole. That you studied with a psychotic professor is hardly evidence that New Criticism was invalid.
Doubt all you want about a class I took and you didn’t take, but that sort of political statement was not admitted in that class. Around 1975-1980 I was introduced to an orthodoxy, and it was what I said. Nothing tells me that the professor was out of line. His psychosis was just frosting on the cake.
“Benito Cereno” is another example. The captain of the slave ship was to be treated as a victim, and the leader of the slave revolt as the embodiment of pure evil. This was not a rare and unusual reading. (Even one of the less obnoxious faculty was totally uninterested in Melville’s attitude toward slavery and the Civil War—Melville was a Northern Democrat). There was a real censorship going on.
You’re swinging wildly. None of the various things I read about Heart of Darkness put in the context of Belgium’s murderous rule of the Congo. It was there in the text if you looked for it, and the history was known, but the book was not discussed that way.
If Dylan’s anti-war message in Masters of War had been reversed (praising say generals and bombing) the song would be interpreted completely different. There is no easy way to separate form from content--the aesthetic from the referential. That doesn’t mean form is content; but perhaps content determines form, or how form is perceived. George Grosz drawings are read they way they are--as brutal, yet sublime depictions of post-WWI germany, of dismembered soldiers, fat industrialists, prostitutes, etc.--because of the historical context. Apres WWI and WWII, the art which doesn’t at least suggest large-scale atrocity is itself an outrage. Adorno, for all his flaws, realized this.
I guess this is as good a place as any to ask this question: Dan, are you *ever* going to stop posting what seems to be exactly the same point, over and over and over, about these art-and-politics questions? It seems you can pull out a quotation from some review or article nearly every day, lay it out, and then say, “But the problem with x’s take is that s/he insists on seeing y as a political work, and on imparting some ethical and social meaning to the text from outside it...” Honest to God, you’ve made your point and everyone knows what you think by now—even if I can’t paraphrase it, trust me, that’s my problem and not yours. What comes next? What lies beyond this debate for you? When will you finish your own book? Are you going to stay angry forever?
At least it keeps him off the streets.
"This was not a rare and unusual reading.”
Bullshit. It’s an idiotic reading only a psychotic would offer. More likely, the point was being made that “Benito Cereno” shouldn’t be read the other way around: the leader of the slave revolt as all sweetness and light and the captain as “the embodiment of pure evil.”
DP: Actually, this was not a “the problem with x’s take is that s/he insists on seeing y as a political work” post. It was a brief defense of New Critical/Nabokovian aestheticism against ignorant attacks. That you choose to see it this way is indeed your problem and not mine.
"But just as physics no longer exists without the equations, art must be “aesthetic” in order to be itself in the first place. It’s the attempt to politicize works of art, to make them illuminate history or act as the servants of biography, that distorts them, not regarding them as artifact--which of course they are, first and foremost. If we don’t “aestheticize” art--that is, apprehend it on its own terms as art--we’ve failed to recognize it at all.”
Whose voice are you speaking in here? From the third paragraph of your essay on, yes, you are talking about New Criticism and Nabokov, although I think your claim that this post is unconcerned with the political bent of the Dylan critic is disingenuous. But I’m not sure either of us is worth talking to at this point, and for my part I apologize for trying. No response is needed. Your implicit judgment that I am a worthless and ignorant person is absolutely correct, and I am sorry to waste your time. I wish you well with your writing.
It probably was a tactical error for me to reveal that my teacher was a psychotic. Especially because he probably wasn’t one—I just concluded that he was because he was so unpleasant and because his critical standards were so obnoxious. (Unreliable narrator here).
I read several pieces of Benito Cereno criticism, and the quite reasonable point that captains of slave ships have it coming to them was never made. The leader of the slave rebellion was, in fact, depicted as the apotheosis of evil in some of the criticism.
Many of the American New Critics were Confederate sympathizers, and the British ones felt a lot of nostalgia for the middle ages, and in the old days (which held on a long time at my third-tier school) it could not be assumed that English professors accepted the truism that slavery was a horrible thing. Nuanced irony was the preferred response. Effectively, this kind of apoliticism was pretty conservative, and after having lived through that, I’m not terribly indignant that the worm has turned and the academy is supposedly dominated by leftists. I just wish that they weren’t Lacanians.
DP: It was not your ignorant attack. I don’t know who you are.
"the quite reasonable point that captains of slave ships have it coming to them was never made.”
But surely Melville himself didn’t write “Benito Cereno” in order to make such an obvious point.
But surely Melville himself didn’t writer “Benito Cereno” in order to make such an obvious point.
I’m not claiming that Melville was making a political point, though he may have been doing so; maybe he was trying to sucker a lot of people into feeling sympathy ofr a slave trader.
The point I was trying to make was that the New Critical rejection of “politics” had an implicit conservative bent, and included the suppression of quite commonsensical political points that almost any non-conservative reader of “Heart of Darkness”, “Benito Cereno”, or “Billy Budd” would feel impelled to make.
Melville was attempting to portray a slave trader who was also still a human being.
Some of the New Critics were of an explicit “conservative bent.” Others were not, and later critics inspired by New Criticism were by no means uniformly “conservative” either. Even if every single New Critic was a right-wing bigot, however, this does not in itself make a critical approach sympathetic to New Critical formalism inherently conservative. One could equally dislike readings that use literature to advance a right-wing agenda. The politics/literature conundrum isn’t even “political” in this sense at all.
Few would argue the superiority of Grapes of Wrath or 1984 over “Lolita” or “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Nonetheless, if a central function of literature is to represent injustice and teach values (explicitly or implicitly), then 1984 could be viewed as useful and indeed important a work as Lolita might be. And a straightforward work such as 1984 has, most likely, had more of a measurable effect than a Lolita or “V” in terms of changing people’s perceptions towards the possibilities of totalitarianism. That sort of dystopic realism may not be au courant among postmods or aesthetes, but at least in terms of heuristics, an Orwell (or even Steinbeck) remains quite viable.
"if a central function of literature is to represent injustice and teach values”
Big if. I, for one, as a good postmod aesthete, reject this notion entirely. If literature is only of use “in terms of heuristics” in academic study, better it not be taught at all.
Nonetheless, if a central function of literature is to represent injustice and teach values (explicitly or implicitly)
Literature (and art in general) have no such “central function,” except to the extent that lots of people like to use it for that function. “Function” is simply a function of the various uses authors and readers wish to make of literature. Lots of people look to literature for political advocacy or moral instruction. Lots of people do not, but instead look to literature for other purposes, such as the experience of aesthetic frission or catharsis. Sometimes people look to different texts for different purposes.
I see no bases for classifying some purposes as “central,” except to the extent that most (or perhaps a large plurality) of readers have those purposes. But in that case, we are really talking about descriptive rather than prescriptive phenomena.
Dan asserts a Nabakovian view as though no other is worth bothering with, but is there any good reason to accept Nabakov’s interesting but narrow approach to literature? As I recall, he had little or no respect for Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Stendahl, or Cervantes. Anyone who wants to follow Nabakov can do so, but why should anyone else care? I like other approaches better.
"A central function” is not “the central function”, i.e. not exclusive. It means “one of the good things literature does”, or something like that. “Central” presumably differentiates it from more peripheral functions.
If you strip literature of any heuristic or political or ethical function I think you reduce it to a type of syntactic music, if not decoration; and in that case, great writers would have done better as composers or classical musicians; and I think mozart or Coltrane are far more effective than say Joyce in doing pure aesthetics.
Crime and Punishment, or Heart of Darkness are not merely decoration or verbal music. Isn’t tragedy related to human experience and history, and isn’t this apart from the beautiful phrasing and rhetoric? Yes. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not solely about the syntactic dance, or formal organization: it’s about political and historical themes-- republicanism vs the monarchy for one, and also ethical--does the ends justify the means, if you want to snapshot version. It is the academic hyper-aesthetes such as Nabakov who have reduced lit. to a type of music or painting (I doubt Conrad shared that view).
Aristotle over Wilde and art pour le Art any day of the week.
A central function” is not “the central function”, i.e. not exclusive. It means “one of the good things literature does”, or something like that. “Central” presumably differentiates it from more peripheral functions.
“Central” suggests some quality that is inherent, intrinsic, or necessary to literature. “Peripheral” suggests some quality that is extrinsic or accidental.
As a vulgar pragmatist, I deny that any meaningful distinction can be maintained between qualities that are intrinsic and extrinsic to literature.
Literature does a lot of good things (and bad things according to some). I don’t see any basis for distinguishing the good things that are “central” and the good things that are “peripheral.”
If “central” simply means that a lot of people use it for that purpose, then I can accept that. Like I said, that is merely descriptive.
Here is some food for thought regarding a pragmatic approach to literature:
For us pragmatists, the notion that ther is something that a given text is really about, something which rigorous application of a method will reveal, is as bad as the Aristotelian idea that there is something which a substance really, intrinsically, is, as opposed to what it only apparently or accidentally or relationally is. The thought that a commentator has discovered what a text is really doing - for example, that it is really demystifying an ideological construct, or really deconstructing the hierarchical oppositions of western metaphysics, rather than merely being capable of being used for these purposes - is, for us pragmatists, just mere occultism. It is one more claim to have cracked the code, and thereby detected What Is Really Going On . . .
But opposition to the idea that texts are really about something in particular is also opposition to the idea that one particular interpretation might, presumably, because of its respect for “the internal coherence of the text,” hit upon what that something is. More generally, it is opposition to the idea that the text can tell you something about what it wants, rather than simply providing stimuli which make it relatively hard or relatively easy to convince yourself or others of hwat you were initially inclined to say about it . . .
Reading texts is a matter of reading them in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens. What happens may be too weird and idiosyncratic to bother with . . . Or it may be exciting and convincing . . . It may be so exciting and convincing that one has the illusion that one now sees what a certain text is really about. But what excites and convinces is a function of the needs and purposes of those who are being excited and convinced. So it seems to me simpler to scrap the distinction between using and interpreting, and just distinguish between uses by different people for different purposes.
Richard Rorty, “The Pragmatist’s Progress,” in Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge University Press 1992) at pp. 102-06.
Blah: I agree with Rorty about 95% of the time. This, however, is one of his blind spots. He’s concerned in this passage with what a text is “about.” And he’s right that it’s not intrinsically “about” anything. People take from them what they will.
But he has very little to say about what it’s like to *experience* literature, or art in general. This is one area where he hasn’t paid enough attention to his philosophical lodestar, John Dewey. Dewey tells that there is something distinctive about art, and that is that it provides us with an experience only to be discovered in art. An encounter with art, Dewey tells us, is the most clarifying experience we can have. It requires that we be open to experience itself in a way not to be found elsewhere.
This is what is “intrinsically” valuable about art. Too often interpretation shuts off this process.
so following Blah, a study of Conrad’s use of present particples in HOD is as valid and “intrinsic” as an analysis of HOD’s relationship to, and embodiment of, the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo in the late 19th century.
Why not extend that sort of vulgar pragmatism-relativism and claim that an O’Henry story could be just as important and “meaingful” as a detailed history of WWI.
In place of the verbose, effete Rorty-apres postmod., I suggest a re-perusal of Aristotle’s Poetics, however bad for the lit. bidness that may be.
Pay attention, Shem. I reject the very idea of “intrisic.” Nothing is intrinsic to the HOD.
Also, I don’t recognize what you mean by “valid” in this context.
Moreover, importance and meaningfulness are functions of what particular purposes we are using something. For some purposes, sure, an O’Henry story is as important as a detailed history of WWI. For other purposes, not. What does that prove?
Finally, by all means read Aristotle’s Poetics, it won’t hurt you. But I should inform you that pragmatism is very rugged and masculine, not at all effete.
on the other hand maybe the literatteur should pitch that old Aristotle muck, and begin anew with Adorno:
“after Auschwitz poetry is impossible”
then strap some C-4 on and head to the Bancroft or Getty: get down with yr badself, and earn your 15 minutes of fame, comrade
Yass, Wm. James, Peirce--manly men, to be sure. Yet I would tend to agree with Russell--since we are drifting towards philosophy here, until the V. censor catches up to me--that a pragmatic utility criteria (James’ “cash value of truth") in and of itself is not necessarily good or proper, and could be quite horrorific: obviously nukes are a much more efficient means than TNT in blasting apart villages, but that doesn’t mean “better.” That may be obvious, but I think much of pragmatism is afflicted by that relativistic problem.
Tho I am not a marxist, I think there is some truth to Adorno’s “negative” position regarding aesthetics, but I would expand; what really is say the greatest art--TS Eliot, Stravinsky--in light of the Bolsheviks, WWI and WWII, Hiroshima, the camps, ‘Nam, environmental destruction. etc. My own sense is that literature often works as a type of intoxicant which prevents humans from gazing at the the real spectacle of say Verdun or concentration camps or A-bombs; but that doesn’t mean I favor Bobby Dylans instead of TS Eliot.
(though maybe someone such as Pynchon, more than Nabakov, does aim in the right direction by attempting to blend high and low art, the Shakespearean prose (sometimes), modern science and history with the AL Capp, R. Crumb, and Charlie Parker type of feel--but I don’t read that as aestheticism or relativist, but as a type of “maximalism").
I don’t see that Bertrand Russell in any way solves the ethical problems inherent in pragmatism. He and the logical positivists seemed doubtful of the possibility of ethics, and Russell’s own ethico-political writings were archaic and commonsensical.
"There is no easy way to separate form from content--the aesthetic from the referential. That doesn’t mean form is content; but perhaps content determines form, or how form is perceived.”
Ben Shahn’s book The Shape of Content explores this quite well.
A character may come to see the light intellectually on some point in a scene. The author’s potrayal of this intellectual awakening drives the scene, but if the reader doesn’t understand the idea that the character is coming to realize, then the reader doesn’t get the full effect of the aesthetic movement of the scene, or misinterpret it all together - especially if, let’s say, that as the character is getting the point, coming to enlightenment, the lights in the house go out and the character stops reading or thinking etc. Well the reader may think this shift in setting may be similar to the character’s intellectual or emotional or moral state, when in fact a contrast is intended. Thus the reader will be aesthetically lost as well - mistaking the real aesthetic contrast for non-existent aesthetic congruence. Thus, again, if you ignore or deny the moral/intellecuatl/emotional/informational/etc dimensions of art you can’t very well understand the aesthetic dimensions, and their further implications, very well or at all either.
"if the reader doesn’t understand the idea that the character is coming to realize, then the reader doesn’t get the full effect of the aesthetic movement of the scene”
There’s no reason why the reader won’t get the full aesthetic effect in this scene if he/she “doesn’t understand the idea that the character is coming to realize.” He/she will miss out on the *intellectual* content of the idea, but the movement toward awakening will still be the same--if indeed this is an aesthetic effect in the first place. It’s more an alternative way of explicating the idea. Or maybe I just don’t understand your point in the first place. You’re saying the reader needs to have the same knowledege of “ideas” that the characters and/or the author have?
It’s been a quarter of a century, but wasn’t Desire the album that brought us “Romance in Durango” ("soon we will be dancing the fandango"), “Joey” ("king of the streets, child of clay . . . what made them want to come and blow you away?"), and “Mozambique” ("the sunny skies are aqua blue . . ."). Clearly, the Nabokovian approach is correct and Dylan reveals his narrator here to be fatally enthralled by two-bit romance and limping doggerel. Then again, maybe it was just a bad album.
Clearly, the Nabokovian approach is correct
That’s debatable, but an expected statement from someone with a vested interest in upholding literary aesthetics. Besides, maybe he was “only in it for the money” at this stage--how do we know what lyrics are meant to be taken as the “authentic expression”? To be honest, I don’t care for most Dylan music, but I don’t care for Nabakov’s rococco wit either; and the lyrics to say Masters of War can be read as poetry, just as say Pablo Neruda’s poems (sometimes set to music) can be so read. If the Vietnam war was not an ethical Act, then it seems that anything--even somewhat hastily scribbled lytics set to predictable country-folk harmonies--in opposition to that Act might be applauded.
Is Pound, or Louis Ferdinand Celine preferable to Dylan as well? I suspect that countless professional literary types would argue that yes, regardless if Celine was Vichy, his writing was superior in terms of both form and content to that of troubadour Dylan. The Lit. business, apart from a few rustics such as Wordsworth or Emerson, depends on a sort of quasi-aristocratic milieu, and a Dylan, like Wordsworth, is not easily accomodated by Tory aesthetics.
I’m glad you asked.
The revealing of the idea, via the character’s thought, largely comprises the crucial aesthetic effect, Dan. It also happens to be an intellectual effect. That’s often how novelists come up with their various layers of aesthetics. They sit down to make some point - emotional or intellectual or moral and so on - and they make it. Then they see how it came out. If they don’t like the aesthetics of the making of the intellectual etc point (or if they don’t like the point itself) they rewrite it with aesthetic (and other) considerations in mind. Sometimes aesthetic considerations are initally foremost, sometimes not. Regardless, if the intellectional or emotional or moral (I’ll call this “substantive") point is not made, the aesthetics are irrelevant, since, often, both aesthetic and substantive purposes must be achieved for the artist to be satisfied.
Believe it or not, artists are often not solely or even primarily motivated by aesthetic purposes, not even necessarily the ones who absolutely and painstakingly love to, and do, attend to aesthetic details.
And believe it or not, various intellectual concepts, as well as morals, as well as emotions, as well as psychological states, as well as sacred beliefs, as well as even policy formulations, as well as plain old information - and other substantive matters - can have aesthetic shape in and of themselves, in their more-or-less direct (e.g., some thoughts) and indirect presentations (e.g., various symbols).
Where do you think aesthetics come from? Formulas? Are novels composed of formulas? Visually interesting word arrangements?
Art consists of a (usually, if not always) purposeful arrangement of many of the elements of life, including the moral, political, emotional, and other substantive elements - some of these elements are in and of themselves aesthetic or rendered aesthetic, others are sort of lumped in to help contextualize or explain or otherwise augment/enhance/expand the art - or even sometimes apparently as a sort of breather from some aesthetic flow of the work. Of course, at a certain level everything is aesthetic, right down to a flurry of quarks, were it possible, or whatever the most irreducible concept of nature is these days.
Your notion that art and aesthetics are identical guts an understanding of art and thus a significant part of the humanities.
How appalling that the humanities, including art, could help “students explore fundamental questions of human experiences: What is worthy of our labor? How do human beings communicate ideas, emotions, and endeavors? What is just or corrupt, beautiful or repugnant, noble or disgraceful? How do different cultures honor and enact what they value? How should we balance community responsibility and individual freedom? What does it mean to be human and what fosters that humanity?” How terrible that “questions such as these are examined in the context of major texts in literature, philosophy, scholarship, and the arts, as well as lived experiences.”
But art doesn’t consist of this, according to you. None of this is art, for art is only aesthetics. It is simply unthinkable that art consist of anything beyond aesthetic components – especially if it is any good. What need do we have of any substantive elements in art when we have the aesthetic? What need do we have for that which broadly helps engender “women and men who can think, reason and communicate clearly; who understand the complexity of problems and who can look beyond a “quick fix”; who are willing to question that which is taken-for-grant-it; who recognize and assess the ethical consequences of decisions; who are resourceful, creative and open to innovations and change; who cultivate their imaginations; and who can critically evaluate and appreciate alternatives”? How dare “the Humanities [including art] foster [such] skills and insights”? Who cares that “our democratic society depends on them and they enrich our personal lives”?
The horror! the not necessarily aesthetic-only horror! that the humanities, including art, be thought of as “modes of examining and understanding human experiences, human aspirations and achievements, and human expressions.” How terrible that art be understood as “a mode of discussing and debating moral and ethical questions.” The discursive horror of it all. The informational horror. The political horror. The social horror. The emotional horror. The psychological horror. The horror of such lack of respect for what art really is - aesthetics.
Humans surely do not in works of art “talk, dance, sing, paint, praise the beauties of their beloved” in any way that can be understood as anything but aesthetic. Surely not in ways that can be understood as moral or psychological or social or political, let alone emotional. Surely humans would never create art comprised of any element apart from the aesthetic. Who could even know what such a notion could possibly mean? After all, no one makes art “to tell stories, maintain legends, build monuments, try to discover facts, live by rules, make choices between better and worse.” There is only the aesthetic, thank god. [And surely all the other “postmod aesthetes” and everyone else rushing to agree would certainly tell us all the same.]
It is simply preposterous that “knowledge of the humanities” (including art) “is necessary if we are to find meaningful solutions to many of the world’s irritants.” After all, though “Dewey tells us that there is something distinctive about art, and that is that it provides us with an experience only to be discovered in art,” and that though “an encounter with art, Dewey tells us, is the most clarifying experience we can have,” and though “art requires that we be open to experience itself in a way not to be found elsewhere,” we know without a moment’s thought that art means strictly “aesthetics,” and it is in studying an “aesthetic,” say, stream of consciousness style that we can have “experience” clarified for us. Clear?
And of course laughably dim-witted is the notion that “one of the most valuable and also one of the most delightful aims of a liberal education is to nourish in each of us…the innate curiosity and courage to take seriously what is said by the great stories told in cultures other than our own.” Dimwitted that is insofar as one pretends that we are referring to anything but the aesthetics of another culture, that is, of another culture’s stories, because for a story to reveal any meaningful moral, social, political, or psychological notion or experience of a another culture is absurd, for that is no part of art. Art is only the aesthetic story of other cultures and anything else. There is no other meaning or element of art than the aesthetic. To learn riveting or dazzling or wondrous or beautiful moral or social or psychological or emotional or political lessons from a work of art – preposterous. No such lesson is ever any part of art. How could it be – it’s not aesthetic. And we all know that no moral or social or psychological arrangement or reveleation is aesthetic in and of itself. Because, you see, aesthetics are pure – utterly a thing apart from this world - especially, that is, if any good.
Art is not made up of morals or of emotions or of ideas or of sacred beliefs and certainly not of policy positions. Art is made up of aesthetics only. I say so.
Art = Aesthetics. Clear?
How about: Art is an experience with aesthetic components that (usually) more or less serve to organize at least some and often many or virtually all of the many other crucial components.
In other words, aesthetics are not the end all be all of art, despite their more prominent role in art than in much or possibly all of the rest of life.
Listen to this blithering: “People do need novels and dramas and paintings and poems, ‘because they will be called upon to vote.’” This guy is almost as out of line as the former Governor of Illinois, the one who saw a showing of the play The Exonerated and later said that it contributed to his decision to make law a moratorium on the death penalty in the state. The fool. So easily swayed by the emotion and morality of the play, which surely had nothing to do with the aesthetics of the play, which must have been lousy to non-existent for the governor not to be simply enraptured by the equation of it all, the aesthetic conceptualization. After all, it is important to see how aesthetics are all there is to art and how aesthetics must more-or-less remain pure. It is important, and it is so, because it is said to be so. And it simply cannot be understood how anything or anyone could conceivably claim otherwise.
[For the authors and sources of most of the words in quotation see: http://www.sfsu.edu/~humadvis/whystudy6.htm
I know that such a note here of a link doesn’t really aesthetically fit into my comments, but I thought the link might be potentially illuminating and/or useful nevertheless]
“The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts; for instance, the movies, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of love-nests, murders, and exploits of bandits.” -John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)
"They sit down to make some point - emotional or intellectual or moral and so on - and they make it.”
This is the crux of our disagreement. No fiction writer worth reading--certainly worth reading in the long rung--sits down to “make some point.” This reduces the writing of fiction (or poetry) to writing editorials for the paper.
I still don’t understand your previous comment about “intellectual awakening.”
> “They sit down to make some point - emotional or intellectual or moral and
> so on - and they make it.”
> This is the crux of our disagreement. No fiction writer worth
> reading--certainly worth reading in the long rung--sits down to “make some
> point.” This reduces the writing of fiction (or poetry) to writing
> editorials for the paper.
Yes, of course, because Dante never sat down to “make some point” in the Inferno - literary fiction that is certainly not worth reading in the long run. Nor did Homer sit down to make some point about the mores of civilized behaviour in the Odyssey, which of course is why the Odyssey is readable today.
> I still don’t understand your previous comment about “intellectual
No one is surprised.
In fact, to the extent Dante did attempt to “make a point” it ruined his work. All those passages in The Divine Comedy which are in essence Dante’s effort to get back at his political enemies are tedious in the extreme.
“to make some point about the mores of civilized behaviour”
You really think this is why Homer composed The Odyssey? How simplistic.
Instead of engaging in labored attempts at irony and sarcasm, you could try to explain your comment, and then I might know what you’re talking about. How is it that “the revealing of the idea, via the character’s thought, largely comprises the crucial aesthetic effect”?
> In fact, to the extent Dante did attempt to “make a point” it ruined his
> work. All those passages in The Divine Comedy which are in essence Dante’s
> effort to get back at his political enemies are tedious in the extreme.
Obviously what I mean by “make a point” is not what you mean by it.
> “to make some point about the mores of civilized behaviour”
> You really think this is why Homer composed The Odyssey? How simplistic.
I never made this claim either. Yet another fallacy of argument. You’re a professional at it.
> Instead of engaging in labored attempts at irony and sarcasm, you could try
That’s odd. You mean you can’t hear the laughter?
> to explain your comment,
I did my work.
> and then I might know what you’re talking about.
> How is it that “the revealing of the idea, via the character’s thought,
> largely comprises the crucial aesthetic effect”?
Tony: Perhaps. Yes, you did. No, I can’t. No, you didn’t.
> Tony: Perhaps. Yes, you did. No, I can’t. No, you didn’t.
There it is once again - the usual - all claim (the easy thing), no explanation (the difficult thing).
You’re making all the claims: “The revealing of the idea, via the character’s thought, largely comprises the crucial aesthetic effect.” Tell me how/why and I’ll discuss it further. “They sit down to make some point” Tell me what you do mean by this and likewise.
It’s not simply misguided to read Macbeth as a representation of syntax, style, and organization, but to do so misses the central, and indeed perennial, themes of the play--themes which relate to existing, and in some sense verifiable, states of affairs. How and by what means did it come to be established that there are no themes to a literary work, or that theme is always subordinate to the aesthetic aspects? That sort of aestheticism is as much a matter of faith as anything. A play (and plot structure) such as Macbeth may be reset in say Miami with coke dealers (and Macbeth was hinted at in “Scarface” with Pacino), or Chicago with mobsters shows the perennial nature of the themes; Richard III and many other Shakespearean dramas have that aspect. Are the re-stagings simply to highlight the rich rhetoric or organization? I think not, and as Tony indicated certain aesthetic elements are there to reinforce the content and themes: the setting and denouement of the tragedy, the fall of the “hero,” and subsequent catharsis are both aesthetically pleasing and rational to some degree. That may be a bit old-fashioned a view, but literature does hinge on those sorts of rational expectations--often moral or political--and the language is not merely poetic, but representing possible events and actions--Macbeth’s solliloquy at the end ("Tomorrow....")would be quite a bit less powerful if the reader was unaware of the dramatic events--the weird sisters, Lady Macbeth, the murder of Duncan, his wife’s death, his impending demise.
"How and by what means did it come to be established that there are no themes to a literary work, or that theme is always subordinate to the aesthetic aspects?”
It’s never been establihed that literary works cannot be viewed in terms of “theme,” but umpteen different themes could be identified in, say, Macbeth. If you want to focus on what you think is the central theme, fine, but don’t tell me that having isolated this theme and ridden it as far as it will go that you’ve then explicated Macbeth. You’ve barely begun.
If theme isn’t subordinate to the “aethetic aspects,” there’s no point in calling it a “literary work” in the first place.
The restagings you describe surely do not “highlight the rich rhetoric or organization.” They usually destroy them.
Whatever it was that Homer and Dante were doing or trying to do, they weren’t crafting pure aesthetic objects. It’s OK with me if someone prefers to read these works as pure aesthetic objects, but that doesn’t strike me as the best way to read them. I would say that these were very mixed works, best appreciated as impure. I certainly resent being told that any other way of reading is wrong.
The “art for art’s sake” guy, Theophile Gautier, identified with the hippopotamus. I like that better than his aesthetic doctrine. (Details at my URL).
> You’re making all the claims:
And I’ve explained them.
> “The revealing of the idea, via the
> character’s thought, largely comprises the crucial aesthetic effect.”
> Tell me how/why and I’ll discuss it further. “They sit down to make some
> point” Tell me what you do mean by this and likewise.
Tell me, what is it you don’t understand? Is it “sit down”? Is it “aesthetic effect”? Yes, tell me, what exactly is it that you mean?
I’m the last person to say that “any other way of reading is wrong.” My way of reading is way out of fashion in the academy today, so by that measure I’m wrong. But wrong for what? You can read Dante for history, for theology, for politics. You can also read it as literature. But this requires first reading it for its aesthetic qualities, or “literature” is simply a meaningless term.
There are perhaps central or essential themes, and then subthemes, but there are limits to saying what the possible themes are. And again Aristotle certainly thought a serious theme (concerning important political and historical events) was one of the primary attributes of an entire dramatic whole, and that the poetics and sytle, even formal organization, were subordinate to plot, character, theme. And many other traditional critics would hold that literature had some thematic and dare I say referential function: In “Defense of Poetry” Shelley continually suggests poetry should be interpreted not just as, uh, artsy shits and giggles, but as a sort of intellectual and indeed rational force comparable to law or philosophy. It is those literary aesthetes who view literature as a type of elite decoration, who deny that tragedy really even matters, who humiliate the great poets such as Shelley and Shakespeare on a daily basis. Better some romantic agony--by someone who does it authentically, such as Shelley--than the Bloomsbury tea-room and the TS Eliot bogus pathos.
Tony: You assert that “The revealing of the idea, via the character’s thought, largely comprises the crucial aesthetic effect. . .It also happens to be an intellectual effect.” You’ve now redefined “aesthetic” to mean simply “intellectual.” Or you dismiss the aesthetic as merely an ornament: “Then they see how it came out. If they don’t like the aesthetics of the making of the intellectual etc point (or if they don’t like the point itself) they rewrite it with aesthetic (and other) considerations in mind.” An afterthought. Is this what you mean, that aesthetic qualities are ornamental? And what *do* you mean by the “intellectual etc point”?
> as Tony indicated certain
> aesthetic elements are there to reinforce the content and themes:
Or are intrinsic in them or contrast with them, etc....
> Tony: You assert that “The revealing of the idea, via the character’s
> thought, largely comprises the crucial aesthetic effect. . .It also happens
> to be an intellectual effect.” You’ve now redefined “aesthetic” to mean
> simply “intellectual.”
No. As I’ve already noted, some, and in fact all, ideas intrinsically have aesthetic effects. This is not controversial.
> Or you dismiss the aesthetic as merely an ornament:
Not at all.
> “Then they see how it came out. If they don’t like the aesthetics of the
> making of the intellectual etc point (or if they don’t like the point
> itself) they rewrite it with aesthetic (and other) considerations in mind.”
For example, the character could arrive at her idea by way of some direct brief way or by a route winding and whatnot. The way would alter the aesthetic effect. Authors choose.
> An afterthought. Is this what you mean, that aesthetic qualities are
> And what *do* you mean by the “intellectual etc point”?
etc refers to the other “substantive effects” I mentioned: moral, emotional and so on.
Maybe I should add that it strikes me that you may not intend to be purposefully deceptive about your statement that you think I said Homer wrote the Odyssey “to make some point about the mores of civilized behaviour.” You should know, as I assume everyone else does, that I mean that statement ironically. It ought to be obvious to anyone not asleep that literally I am making fun of the idea that the Odyssey is readable today because it is pointless. So, it you weren’t purposefully trying to deceive about my point, then apparently you just don’t get the irony. Hopefully this is not simply another instance of the well documented pattern of your willfully imposing some fallacy of argument upon another’s words.
And the further conclusion is not drawn: if literature is primarily aesthetic and there exists no inherent relationship to ideology or theme or possible reference, then the writing of De Sade or Celine can be easily viewed as superior to say Wordsworth or Conrad (if one wants to play the comparison game). So Mr. Green, is the writing of Dr. Celine, who escaped France to pal around with the Waffen SS for a year or so before the end of WWII, superior to that gloomy realism of say a Theodore Dreiser? Having read a decent chunk of Celine’s “Mort a Credit” a few years ago, I admit I found much of it amusing and well-written but of course very misanthropic, racist and pornographic. But those extra-textual aspects shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying the beauty of the prose right? Mussolini also was quite a proficient writer ( superior to Hitler): so we should be able to savor the splendor of Il Duce’s wit and wisdom as well, right--and Stalin too, who was not such a bad dialectical type of writer.
Tony: I’m sorry, but your explanations are all so vague ("by way of some direct brief way or by a route winding and whatnot")and slippery that they do nothing to convince me I should take your ideas about aesthetics seriously. As opposed to your political ideas. We may agee about those.
Yes, I guess I just don’t get the irony.
> Tony: I’m sorry, but your explanations are all so vague ("by way of some
> direct brief way or by a route winding and whatnot")and slippery that they
> do nothing to convince me I should take your ideas about aesthetics
Do these explanations seem “vague and slippery” to anyone else? I’ll be happy to explain further, if so.
Shem: I actually like both Dreiser and Celine, but wouldn’t otherwise think to compare them. Certainly not on literary grounds. If you mean to suggest that Celine was a “bad man” and Dreiser was a more admirable human being, I’d probably agree.
Reading lit. strictly from an aesthetic viewpoint does not mean that there are any objective aesthetic rules of standards. Most professional college-boy literary types would probably hold that Nabakov’s Lolita is superior to say Orwell’s 1984 in terms of aesthetic qualities. But that sort of preference could not be established with any sort of objectivity. Are there some objective stylistic operations--richer or broader vocabulary, a greater number of latinate stems or something, more complex sentence structure, organizational “rules”, etc.--which one can plug the the two texts into and the have the correct assessment outputted? I don’t think so. In fact I suspect most academic lit. types enjoy Lolita (or, say, Proust) precisely because of its hints at an ancien regime sort of amorality and elitism which doesn’t bother itself with realism or egalitarian politics: so the political context is still there, but being implicitly opposed by its very absence.
There’s another important aspect to aesthetic rather than political or pdychological types of criticism: they tend to uphold and reinforce scholarship and literary “erudition.” Joyce supposedly said he wrote Ulysses to keep professors engaged for a hundred years or something. Ulysses is lit. according to Academia, Inc. Replete with classical knowledge, Latin, references to other great literary works (it parallels the Odyssey), Ulysses may be said to embody the aesthetic values which most lit. scholars uphold. Those values, however, are not any sort of universal aesthetic standards. Mere erudition does not a story make. Or at least I would like to read the essay which shows that the aesthetic qualities of Ulysses are superior to those found well-crafted story such as Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home. Erudition and complexity of language does not equate to literary quality; in fact in many cases it may be detrimental.
Dan, it seems pretty clear that you favor the purely aesthetic way of reading (Nabakov’s) over all others, considering it more fundamental:
“...not regarding them as artifact--which of course they are, first and foremost."
My conviction is that the mixed reading (religious, political, and everything else) is primary and superior, and that the pure aesthetic reading is abstracted out, and defective.
Part of Nabakov’s aestheticism grew from his strong dislike of most of the actual forms of leftism and rightism of his time. Beyond his aesthetic theories, he actually disagreed with the popular political messages. Joyce was doubtful (or worse) about Irish nationalism, but there’s a definite humane commitment in his writing which has a political aspect.
Is Tolstoi’s work damaged by its preaching? Dostoevsky’s? Nabakov says yes, I say no.
The other way to defuse the critic who examines literature according to “aesthetic” standards, is to ask what those aesthetic standards might consist of. Can say a chapter of Lolita (or the entire book) be plugged into some style-o-meter and result in a high score, and a chapter from say Grapes of Wrath (or the book) be plugged in and result in a low score? Is there some way to objectively measure aesthetic affect and/or function? I don’t think so; it could proceed via information theory--some sort of lexical and syntactical complexity measurements--but most lit. people would not agree that successful lit. is “good” or satisfactory simply because it is more complex, or due to a richer vocabulary. (And one would seemingly need an “iron-o-meter” as well--yet irony seems to depend on extra-textual factors so might not be very suitable for aesthetic benchmarking)
A complexity measurement might work, but it would have to draw on more than just lexicon or syntax, perhaps certain patternings, or organization, innovative use of imagery etc. I haven’t encountered any such complexity standard ( perhaps a Jakobson was doing this to some extent). One would like to think--and I do--that Pagannini is preferable to, uh, Muddy Waters, but why? The complexity and innovation of Pag. provides more pleasure or meaning, perhaps, but how to determine that--for some Muddy would be much more satisfactory. This hints at ye olde agency requirement, which is what I think Herr Green, like most in the lit. business, is implicitly suggesting: those who “know” prefer Nabakov (or Pagannini) to say Dickens or Steinbeck (or Muddy Waters)--yet they could hardly demonstrate why that should be the case.