Sunday, May 08, 2005
Straight “A"s in Love
From "Representing Isabel Paterson" by Stephen Cox:
While I was writing about Paterson, academic friends asked me, "What thesis do you want to prove?" I learned to answer, "None." A thesis is expected to be "cutting-edge," but I didn't want to cut anything. I wanted access to the longest circuit of books and ideas. I began to think that we might learn more about literature if we spent less time using literature to prove a point.
[...] If you read only what's amenable to your theory, or embarrassing to someone else's, you may be reading such a narrow range of literature that your theory is, basically, just representing itself — an obvious short circuit. You need to do more browsing in the stacks. [...] I entered the library already knowing what to look for. And too often I was simply looking for a fight with someone else's theory. That's what my professional position encouraged me to do. But a walk through the neighborhood is generally more informative than a police report.
These reflections led me to notice that although our job as teachers and writers is to represent books and authors in some way, nowhere in the MLA Job List does one find "a wide acquaintance with literature" stated as a qualification. Yet even Pound, blessed and cursed with a highly individual point of view, whispered to the shade of Walt Whitman, "I have detested you long enough /...Let there be commerce between us". Paterson would have liked the word commerce. People engage in commerce to find new pleasures, not to obliterate the strange and unpredictable sources of pleasure.
I nod, smugly. (And lately I need all the smugness I can get.) Yes, I know this one. Academic practice is not precisely at one with either the practice of criticism or the practice of reading. Oversensitive, maybe, to that discrepancy, unlike my fellow Valvists, I never considered pursuing literature through the classroom.
To be fair, though, neither is writing criticism precisely at one with pleasurable reading. Many books leave me with nothing to say but "Give this a chance," just like normal folks do.
Criticism is an individual's response to an artifact, yes. It's also part of a conversation between an individual and an artifact. And — here's the rubbed-raw patch — it's also part of a conversation between individuals.
An educational institution must lay particular emphasis on that final aspect if it's to avoid fraudulence. But the rules by which one joins a conversation — no interrupting; engage the established context; don't mix diction levels — oppose the pleasures of the surprising artifact. We enthusiasts deservedly have a poor reputation in polite society.
Rather than attempting to reform the academy, it may be wiser for the weary academic to borrow a concept from a different set of vilified maladepts and gafiate.
(But don't expect relief in the corporate world. A similar ambiguity poisons "commerce".)
So that’s the reason you never considered pursuing literature through the classroom! Or do you give a different reason every couple of months? Anyway, thanks for inviting the reformers to leave, Ray: they were getting on my nerves.
Some desultory thoughts on your comment and how it relates to Cox’s project:
I wonder whether the “engage the established context” prescription is not responsible for some of the weak points in the middle of Cox’s essay, where he sets up strawman “liberal imaginations.” Trilling is far too interesting to focus upon picking fights with, but there’s nothing novel about so doing: I look at Cox’s assertions that academic humanists, specifically in literary studies, are loath to engage with nonliberal thought among U.S. authors and think, hm, haven’t Pound and Eliot and Hurston and Bellow and Davenport and Heinlein and Chandler been studied, and their very different political stances explicated? And then where does “Intellectuals on the Left often visualize the Right as a unified alliance of material and intellectual interests” come from? Stop the presses: Whittaker Chambers hated Ayn Rand! If Cox is trying to make as part of his argument the claim that literary scholars ignore conservatives, the very presense of that claim does little (for me) but offer a vehicle for a couple of tropes that have come to be de rigerur in any essay about a long-neglected author.
I note too that reading “what’s amenable to your theory” is not a criterion used exclusively by academics: probably most readers are drawn to work that presents a worldview (inasmuch as literary works do that) they can recognize and even sympathize with. It’s a pretty small step from there to focusing on works that jibe well with your theoretical/polemical professional agenda.
You’ve expressed an interest, Ray, in hearing my beef with Delany’s “Politics of Paraliterary Criticism.” I’ll point out, as a “placeholder,” that several of the authors the neglect of whose work Cox bemoans are singled out by Delany as those who were once stars and will never be canonical again, not having held up terribly well over time. From that perspective, Cox’s defense of Cabell, Benet, et al is simply a reflection of bad taste. To Cox, of course, the question, “Is this author any good, or merely of importance to cultural history?” does not lack meaning, as it would to some (it occurs to me to bring it up in this context because Delany claims that a young scholar of whom he asked it found it unintelligible); but the criteria both for “good” and “important” are very different for Cox; and I think his initial defense of the neglected generation --that there are minor literary modes still unjustly overlooked-- is, although not novel, worth expanding upon further. If we are, to paraphrase Anthony Boucher, not considering a cow in terms of its points as a cow but unjustly chiding it for being a poorly-made elephant when we slight Vachel Lindsay, how can we learn to do otherwise?
"Or do you give a different reason every couple of months?”
More likely every time the question arises. And each one a gem!
I agree that most aesthetic criticisms of academia could be leveled at other allegedly supportive institutions as well. Journalistic practice seems just as hostile to the production of pleasurable reading and writing. And certain approaches to religious or political practice play holy hell with stack maintenance, much less stack browsing.
When I emphasize the strictly temporal nature of “the canon” or “the literary mainstream”, I suspect I often make the same insinuation you take Delany to task for—the argumentative triumph of “And we don’t read any of them any more!” implies a different sort of triumph: “And we’re better off for not reading them.” But press me on particular cases and I’ll usually cave. Delany, as I remember, remains a champion of Merejkowski’s Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci among other examples of the once-high-mainstream. And one of the most interesting tasks of feminist scholarship has been to redirect attention to once successful and then more or less forcibly neglected writings by women.
So far as I can recall, Ray, I’ve never heard you “make the same insinuation” --indeed, that’s part of the strength of your disagreement with Delany on the utility of even talking about “the paraliterary.” I want to discourage the metonymy you use: I’m not taking “Delany to task,” merely one of his essays. Certainly, he sometimes supports and sometimes contradicts its points elsewhere --contradicting himself is part of his project of resembling Whitman, like the beard. But had Merejkovsky had shown up in the essay in question, I can only imagine that the essay would defend him on the grounds of his similarity to the Great Works and dissimilarity to Lindsay, Millay, et al. That’s the rhetorical corner I see that essay having painted itself into.
Back to Cox --he seems to feel an uneasy relation with the project of feminist reclamation, doesn’t he? Not just with respect to Izzy Pat, but at the point where he sez, Yes, many of these are women, but that‘s not the aspect of their marginalization I want to talk about (Indeed, he seems loath to concede that “marginalization” is the term for what he’s discussing, only because such schemata of marginality as Guillory’s don’t fit the authors he would reclaim).
The greatness, limitations, and responses to feminist reclamations are illuminating. It’s been suggested that Elaine Showalter more or less neglected Ouida because she took the political philosophies of the authors she sought to reclaim more seriously than Ouida’s anarchism. The wildly uneven quality of the Virago Press’ publications has been noted by commentors who seem uninterested in remarking upon the wildly uneven quality of “mainstream” canons. And the oft-repeated claim that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was out of print for many decade during which it was in fact available for some time in Groff-Conklin-type horror story anthologies says a good deal about blindness and visibility.
I guess the flip side of the question I asked in my first comment is, once we can no longer use Johnsonian or Bloomian evaluative claims ("the best that has been thought and said"/"the school of resentment"), and once we’re aware of the strictly temporal nature of which you speak, is there any way we can retain the category of Just Not That Good?
I’m glad that someone thinks my suspicions are unfounded, and I apologize for the metonymy.
“...is there any way we can retain the category of Just Not That Good?”
I don’t think so, but we can easily join a conversational set of Those Who Don’t Think It’s That Good. I generally feel better when I argue for the It’s Better Than You Think Because team, though.