J.L. AUSTIN AND EDMUND WILSON IN POST-MODERN BRACKET SEEK TO ADVANCE TO THE FINAL FOUR

J.L. Austin: Can this Englishman advance past Princeton’s Edmund Wilson to the  Final Four?

WILSON:

The old nineteenth-century criticism of Ruskin, Renan, Taine, Sainte-Beauve, was closely allied to history, and novel writing, and was also the vehicle for all sorts of ideas about the purpose and destiny of human life in general. The criticism of our own day examines literature, art, ideas, and specimens of human society in the past with a detached scientific interest or a detached aesthetic which seems in either case to lead nowhere. A critic like Herbert Read makes dull discriminations between different kinds of literature; a critic like Albert Thibaudet discovers dull resemblances between the ideas of philosophers and poets; a critic like I.A. Richards writes about poetry from the point of view of a scientist studying the psychological reactions of readers; and such a critic as Clive Bell writes about painting so exclusively and cloyingly  from the point of view of the varying degrees of pleasure to be derived from the pictures of different painters that we would willingly have Ruskin and his sermonizing back. And even Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey have this in common with Clive Bell that they seem to feel they have done enough when they have distinguished the kind of pleasure to be derived from one kind of book, the kind of interest to be felt in one kind of personality, from the kind to be found in another. One is supposed to have read everything and enjoyed everything and to understand exactly the reasons for one’s enjoyment, but not to enjoy anything excessively nor to raise an issue of one kind of thing against another. Each of the essays of Strachey or Mrs. Woolf, so compact yet so beautifully rounded out, is completely self-contained and does not lead to anything beyond itself; and finally, for all their brilliance, we begin to find them tiresome.

AUSTIN:

The more you think about truth and falsity the more you find that very few statements that we ever utter are just true or just false. Usually there is the question are they fair or are they not fair, are they adequate or not adequate, are they exaggerated or not exaggerated? Are they too rough, or are they perfectly precise, accurate, and so on? ‘True’ and ‘false’ are just general labels for a whole dimension of different appraisals which have something or other to do with the relation between what we say and the facts. If, then, we loosen up our ideas of truth and falsity we shall see that statements, when assessed in relation to the facts, are not so very different after all from pieces of advice, warnings, verdicts, and so on.

We see then that stating something is performing an act just as much as is giving an order or giving a warning; and we see, on the other hand, that, when we give an order or a warning or a piece of advice, there is a question about how this is related to fact which is not perhaps so very different from the kind of question that arises when we discuss how a statement is related to fact.  Well, this seems to mean in its original form our distinction between the performative and the statement is considerably weakened, and indeed breaks down. I will just make a suggestion as to how to handle this matter. We need to go very much farther back, to consider all the ways and senses in which saying anything at all is doing this or that—because of course it is always doing a good many different things. And one thing that emerges when we do do this is that, beside the question that has been very much studied in the past as to what a certain utterance means, there is a further question distinct from this as to what was the force, as we may call it, of the utterance. We may be quite clear what ‘Shut the door’ means, but not yet at all clear on the further point as to whether as uttered at a certain time it was an order, an entreaty or whatnot. What we need besides the old doctrine about meanings is a new doctrine about all the possible forces of utterances, towards the discovery of which our proposed list of explicit performative verbs would be a very great help; and then, going on from there, an investigation of the various terms of appraisal that we use in discussing speech-acts of this, that, or the other precise kind—orders, warnings, and the like.

The notions that we have considered then, are the performative, the infelicity, the explicit performative, and lastly, rather hurriedly, the notion of the forces of utterances. I dare say that all this seems a little unremunerative, and I suppose it ought to be remunerative. At least, though, I think that if we pay attention to these matters we can clear up some mistakes in philosophy; and after all philosophy is used as a scapegoat, it parades mistakes which are really the mistakes of everybody. We might even clear up some mistakes in grammar, which perhaps is a little more respectable.

And is it complicated? Well, it is complicated a bit; but life and truth and things do tend to be complicated. It’s not things , it’s philosophers that are simple. You will have heard it said, I expect, that over-simplification is the occupational disease of philosophers, and in a way one might agree with that. But for a sneaking suspicion that it’s their occupation.

Here we have two classic different types of Criticism: Austin (b. 1911) is asking what we are really doing when we say things, while Wilson (b. 1895) is asking what did those people over there say that gave us, or did not give us pleasure? The one is a philosopher, the other a critic.

Both these approaches do share a belief that meaning exists behind, not in, the text. We know what “shut the door” means, says Austin, but does it mean, “shut the door, or else!” or “oh I beg you, please, please shut the door”? Language, according to Austin, is the door, but there is something besides language which is coming through the door to potentially help us, or do us harm. The performative reality of ‘shut the door’ is precisely what fiction and poetry convey, by dramatizing expression.

So in that sense, a critic of literature like Wilson is following Austin’s philosophy by judging dramatic expression—literature.

Would Austin agree that literature is a “speech-act?” If so, it is interesting how Austin attempts to go beyond speech to something more real—and then runs smack into fiction. And does not literature make warnings and give advice?

On the other hand, a book could never order us to “shut the door.” But by replicating actions and showing intelligence, literature has that performative “force” which Austin is trying to get us to understand is always involved in even ordinary language.  Not just what an utterance means, Austin says, but its force. The question of charisma and force of personality arises; some individuals have forceful personalities even as they may not be big in stature or smart; but somehow their word is law. Then we have law itself, and its force.

There are complex forces of which words are merest shadows, and words’ attempt to describe the sun only enhances their shadowy nature. Between the thing and its representation there is something far more important: “I pronounce you man and wife” has a meaning, but more importantly, it is a performance, and it is with the performative that we escape the inexplicable sun and its shadow, “sun.”

Telling someone what to do is where language is clearest, and means the most.

Wilson prefers the 19th century novel of “life” to the exquisite vagueness of the modern literature; he thinks the novel is where the classical epic lives, not in contemporary poetry.

Austin seeks the performative “life” behind the meaning of language; Wilson, the “life” behind literature.

As Austin says, “it’s not things, it’s philosophers that are simple.” Wilson and Austin are really quite simple in what they say. Wilson and Austin are both asking us to read vertically, not horizontally—deeply more than widely. They are not New Critics. They are Old Critics. Throwbacks. They believe life is more important than speech.

Since philosophy of the kind Austin practices is mainly instinctual and steeped in common sense, in the long run it is probably less useful than Wilson’s, which is historical and more particular, and in many ways doing the same thing: criticism analyzing literature is like philosophy analyzing language—since it is finally what is happening ‘behind the scenes’ (Is this person good, or bad? What do they want? How are they trying to get it?) which is the object of our search, and there will never be one way to do this kind of search, given the complexity of human nature and human action.

WINNER: WILSON

J.L. AUSTIN, PERFORMATIVE LANGUAGE PHILOSOPHER, SEEKS TO ADVANCE AGAINST PALESTINIAN SCHOLAR OF LITERATURE EDWARD SAID

image

Edward Said (d. 2003)

J.L. Austin worked for British Intelligence.

Great Britain, losing its Empire while cozying up to the American one, was trying to save its ass: a dying Empire, known for its spies, using a spy, Austin, to cook up a philosophy to save itself, should make us curious, at least. Austin was a plain-looking, bespectacled man, like Philip Larkin; Larkin quietly became Britain’s best poet since Tennyson, and Austin is the philosopher we need to read because his take on language is so brilliant, and really quite restorative.

Britain and the West suffered a tremendous decline in the first part of the 20th century; it was a Futurist age in which Things came to dominate in Art and Architecture, War and Wit; the Body of the World was revealed in all its horror: morality and all it’s beautiful delicacy was crushed by the steely, large, obscene, photographed, Object; Modernism emerged all decked out in haiku imagery and Bauhaus cement and Ezra Pound and Marcel Duchamp and Coco Channel and Blimps and Auto cars and Cubism and Jew-hating, Gertrude Stein-loving Paris. Bing Crosby and Abstract Metal Sculpture stepped out together in an orgy of bad taste: tough guy, ethnic-obsessed, Skyscraper, Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra bullshit took over.

The West finally let its hair down in 1963 with the Beatles’ first LP and Beauty returned. The Big Sophistication of Modernism fell and Technology that was small and nimble saved our lives. Ugly politics continued, of course: US/West versus Russia/Middle East, but Technology triumphed over fake, stylish Symbol in the meantime; science conquered empire for a while. The ingenuity of Franklin and Poe fought the tyranny of oil and opium to an uneasy standstill. Uneasy, to be sure. Did the Beatles bring us love or drug addiction? It was hard to tell, but at least, in our materialism, we got to decide. The planes of 9/11 were actually a Hindenburg type disaster, belonging to Modernism’s last horror gasp.

J.L. Austin said ALL language worked like “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Language was not a thing; it was a performance. What matters is what something does, not what it is. The truth was not a ‘that’ or a ‘this’ but a ‘thus.’ It was Socrates who told us this a long time ago. Modernism brought in Ayn Rand and literal-minded Aristotle. Shelley, Plato, Beauty, and the Romantics were dumped.

Modernism insisted on ‘the new,’ but “I now pronounce you man and wife” will never get old; Byron’s rhymes do a little more than Pound’s twists and turns and junkyard thing-ism. The American liberal, a holdout of Modernism, proudly insists that Religion is “not true,” that reality is much closer to the rascality of Pound—but the American liberal misses the point that it is not what something is, it is what something does, which finally matters.

Edward Said, who spent his life attempting to enlighten the West about the civilized heritage of the Middle East, before he died in 2003, founded, with Daniel Barenboim, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, so that Israelis and Arabs might perform Beethoven together. The orchestra is named for a work of lyric poetry by Goethe inspired by Hafiz, the Persian poet.

The orchestra is surely more meaningful than most modern philosophies could possibly be.

WINNER: J. L. AUSTIN

Austin and Edmund Wilson will battle for the Post-Modern championship and a spot in the Final Four!

 

 

 

 

HERE’S THE SWEET 16 IN SCARRIET’S 2014 MARCH MADNESS POETRY PHILOSOPHER TOURNAMENT!

Johann Wenzel Peter , Fight of a lion with a tiger , 1809

Here are the Literary Critics worth reading: the Top 16 Who Have Prevailed So Far and Have Made It To the SWEET SIXTEEN!

Every year, Scarriet holds their version of March Madness, with 64 authors competing for the championship.

In 2010, the first year of the tournament, we used every Best American Poetry volume, David Lehman, editor, to determine the field.  Winner: Billy Collins

In 2011, Stephen Berg, David Bonnano, and Arthur Vogelsang’s Body Electric, America’s Best Poetry from the American Poetry Review. Winner: Philip Larkin

In 2012, Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Winner: Ben Mazer

In 2013, casting about for players, we amassed 64 Romantic poets, including modern and contemporary poets fitting the Romantic mold. Winner: Shelley

This year, Scarriet used the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, and Jeffrey J. Williams, which has produced a true clash of giants:

Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Sidney, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Marx, Freud, Pater, De Beauvoir, Saussure, T.S. Eliot, etc.

The earth actually shook as the combatants went toe to toe in this year’s March Madness.

The critc-philosophers who made it to the Sweet 16 are:

CLASSICAL

1. PLATO d. Sidney

2. DANTE d. Aristotle

3. POPE d. Aquinas

4. ADDISON d. Maimonides

ROMANTIC

5. WORDSWORTH d. Marx

6. COLERIDGE d. Burke

7. POE d. Peacock

8. SHELLEY d. Emerson

MODERN

9. BAUDELAIRE d. Saussure

10. FREUD d. Benjamin

11. WILDE d. Pater

12. (John Crowe) RANSOM d. T.S. Eliot

POST-MODERN

13. (Edmund) WILSON d. Northrup Frye

14. (J.L.) AUSTIN d. Cixous

15. (Edward) SAID d. De Beauvoir

16. (Harold) BLOOM d. Sartre

Scarriet would ask you not to try this at home: The winners are all white men.

We are really sorry, VIDA.  But when women—or the women presented in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism—only write on women, this narrowness itself contributes to a certain amount of self-marginalizing.

This is a universal problem: if the oppressed are thrown in an intellectual hole, how do they dig themselves out—in a truly broad intellectual fashion?

Perhaps this is why there’s a certain dislike for this kind of competition: the best rises to the top, producing an historical unfairness, given what human history has been.

We see the problem.  We make no apologies, however, for our experiment.

YEAUHHHHHH!!!! SWEET 16 IN THE POST-MODERN BRACKET!!!

Edmund Wilson, who bullied his way into the Sweet 16: Yea, I’m an asshole, what of it? he seems to be saying. In Letters, arrogance goes a long way.

EDMUND WILSON VERSUS NORTHROP FRYE

Wilson (d. 1972) was a magnificent snob, believing himself above government, morality, tact, and popular literature. He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years after World War Two and got off with a slap on the wrist. He served on the Dewey Commission in the 1930s, an elaborate effort by a few American intellectuals to clear Trotsky against the Soviet findings of the Moscow Trials. Trotsky wrote the following re: the Commission:

The Moscow trials are perpetrated under the banner of socialism. We will not concede this banner to the masters of falsehood! If our generation happens to be too weak to establish Socialism over the earth, we will hand the spotless banner down to our children. The struggle which is in the offing transcends by far the importance of individuals, factions and parties. It is the struggle for the future of all mankind. It will be severe, it will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm let him step aside. In time of reaction it is more convenient to lean on the bureaucracy than on the truth. But all those for whom the word ‘Socialism’ is not a hollow sound but the content of their moral life – forward! Neither threats nor persecutions nor violations can stop us! Be it even over our bleaching bones the truth will triumph! We will blaze the trail for it. It will conquer! Under all the severe blows of fate, I shall be happy as in the best days of my youth! Because, my friends, the highest human happiness is not the exploitation of the present but the preparation of the future.

“It is the struggle for the future of all mankind. It will be a severe, it will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm let him step aside.”

These are indeed fighting words. “Give up physical comfort” to spread Socialism over the face of the earth. “It will conquer!” Etc. Here’s the world which Wilson, Princeton man, snobby blue blood and literary critic, swore by and lived in. One can say, “despite his pedigree, Wilson was fighting for the salt of the earth,” or, Wilson was a dangerous political lunatic, who thanks to his pedigree, was able to do as he pleased.” Take your pick.

Wilson dismissed J. R. Tolkien as “juvenile,” and asked Anais Nin to marry him, claiming he would teach her how to write. Wilson was interested in “Symbolist” literature, a genre which cannot be defined; those like Wilson, who were interested in it, claimed it was post-Romantic. Wilson, a typical Modernist, defined Romanticism as something silly which preceded Realism. Wilson’s opinion of Poe was that Americans were too “provincial” to appreciate him, unlike Wilson himself, who thought Poe “insane” and whose whole understanding of Poe was that Poe was a bridge between Romanticism and Symbolism—which is ignorant. We always hear that Wilson had “many wives and many affairs,” but why any woman would be interested in this pompous hack is hard to fathom. My guess is that he tried to have affairs and they came to eventually be reported as affairs. He could get literary women published, since he was a well-connected reviewer; perhaps he had personal charisma; perhaps his socialist opinions made him seem gallant with a certain set. His writing  is pedantic, dreary, worthless. A writer who believes in world socialism and makes Baudelaire his specialty has to be suspect. Wilson hung around Edna Millay a great deal; it calls to mind for us Yeats and Maude Gonne: great women harmed by politically motivated men who did more than admire them. Millay was a thousand times the genius Wilson—the more worldly—was.

Northrop Frye, unlike Edmund Wilson, was not worldly. He was merely a professor, and a very good one. He came under scrutiny from the Canadian government for his opposition to the Vietnam War, but Frye’s influence was chiefly literary.

Frye’s influence can be summed up this way: Harold Bloom. Criticism eclipses Reviewing. Useless and pretentious literature gets a free pass because it fits into the professor’s “scientific” view of literary “tradition.”  Frye, like Bloom, excuses all sorts of nuttiness in the name of Profound Scholarship. One doesn’t read a book. One takes a book and fits it into an ever-changing tradition that includes the Bible and various texts throughout recorded history, in a way that changes those texts: modernism, as invented by its godfather, T.S. Eliot. The one thing that is not allowed is common sense. The unstable and the ‘highly significant’ rule. Reality as understood in a populist context is forbidden.

Edmund Wilson falsely presented himself as an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, in order to “upset” theological authority. Frye/Bloom has the same ambition, a bold one. Confuse, and then attempt to be influential within that confusion. Literature as Fabricated Contemporary Religious Scholarship. Literature, for the Ambitious Modernist Critic, is not something which comes into the life of someone who peruses a story or a poem for a half an hour from its beginning to its end, the story or poem succeeding or failing on its own terms. Literature is rather a vast joint corporate enterprise which demands abstract expert-ism as far removed from the ordinary reading experience as possible. Welcome to John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” Welcome to Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety.” Welcome to Edmund Wilson’s “Symbolism.” Welcome to Northrop Frye’s “Science.”

Words, words, words.

WINNER: EDMUND WILSON

*

HELENE CIXOUS VERSUS J.L. AUSTIN

Austin exists in the present, with his theory of performative language: language, in the most radical sense imaginable, does not mean; it does.

Cixous (pronounced seek-soo, or ‘looking for Sue’) exists in the past, since her work comes out of her academic success in the radical 60s and 70s in France, when French Writing (Ecriture) Theory exploded onto the scene, casting aside German Idealism and Anglo-American pragmatism as the sexiest thing around. Why sexy? Why the past? Because Western Tradition had repressed everything that was not Male and Ideal; and now Cixous was ‘writing’ the ‘female body’ in order to redeem the past—which clings to the effort.

Austin worked for British intelligence; in him, Anglo-American pragmatism, in its smug complacency, triumphs over the French Theory and the Freud and the Feminism and the Derrida and the Lacan of Cixous—who finally over-argues her case.

If the goal of the woman is to triumph over her mere flesh, while the man’s ambition is to reduce the woman to mere flesh for his pleasure, it is clear that feminist projects which rely on dualisms of past/present, A/not A, penis/no penis, male/female, light/darkness, many/one, speech/language, West/East, body/mind, beautiful/ugly, are doomed to fail, for even with conscious efforts to subvert these dualisms, the French Theorist either remains trapped in them, or drifts off into over-heated incoherence.

Austin, by showing that language is performance, brought flesh to language in a way the French Theorists, with their deferrals of meaning and their difference, could never quite pull off; non-gendered flesh, too, and thus deliciously feminist/not feminist.

WINNER: AUSTIN

*

EDWARD SAID VERSUS SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR

The one overwhelming thing which Modernism did, and here we include everything, whether it is the feminism of a De Beauvoir or the postcolonial historicism of a Said, was the squashing of sincerity.

Is sincerity a good in itself?

If it is naive, and based in ignorance, if it lacks irony or a sense of humor, they will say sincerity verges on stupidity.

We speak of a useful sincerity, however, free of pain, which, even within its “stupidity,” has the potential to abide and achieve and discover hidden good.

There is a kind of false and bitter “sincerity” which depends on a surrounding insincerity for its existence, an energy possessed by the socialist who needs to convert the world to its vision of simple good, for example. But such ‘save-the-world’ proselytizing is rarely sincere. It assumes too much insincerity in the other.

The kind of sincerity which Modernity has destroyed is the pure and simple kind, guided by love and hope and innocence, neither afflicted nor distracted by deep anxieties or doubts.

This type of sincerity, we imagine, is at the heart of Mozart’s music, and any sustained action of genius: naive, focused, splendid, unique, human, alone, happy.

At first blush, this good type of sincerity is described (and attacked) as sentimentality. The cynic dare not call it stupidity, for the cynic is well aware of how everything is stupid or ‘not what it seems,’ this knowledge characterizing the unsentimental cynic in the first place.

Simone De Beauvoir had to attack sentimentality to ‘free’ women from the dire effects of Victorian romance. For Said, the citizens of the West had to be made aware of the blood on their hands—not just employees of the East India Company—everyone is somehow guilty.

Sentimentality as it existed in the 19th century in the great writings of the Romantics and even in writers like Wilde, who used his wit to keep the spirit of the Romantics alive, was banished in the 20th century, and with it, the more important, and more beneficial, sincerity; the sincerity which stimulates people in a reciprocating atmosphere of cheerfulness and good withers, as churlish cynicism triumphs among the self-aware, chattering classes.

Stupidity of the brain is sometimes necessary for wisdom in the heart.

As De Beauvoir writes:

To recognize in woman a human being is not to impoverish man’s experience: this would lose none of its diversity, its richness, or its intensity if it were to occur between two subjectivities. To discard the myths is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask, that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth.

She protests too much.

Said, who spent his childhood in the British colony of Palestine, wrote:

Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent; it has regularly seemed otherwise to me, and certainly my study of Orientalism has convinced me (and I hope will convince my literary colleagues) that society and literary culture can only be understood and studied together. In addition, and by an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that needs only to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be be perfectly understood.

The genie is out of the bottle. Not only is war impossible, peace and reason are, too. Where the phrase “anti-Semitism” exists, sincerity cannot exist. Luckily, one can get back a certain amount of sincerity by stepping off the stage, putting aside certain books, and ignoring certain individuals. But the problem with the landscape remains.

WINNER: SAID

*

SARTRE VERSUS HAROLD BLOOM

We expect critics to be critical. As Northrop Frye has said, we can’t teach literature, only the criticism of literature, and this is why so many poets hate critics—precisely because critics are critical in Frye’s sense. And, since Frye is correct, Criticism dominates learning, our learning, whether we want it to, or not. And more than this, Criticism writes our poetry, as well. Wilde and Poe both explicitly stated the obvious: the critical sense is what writes the poetry; the so-called creative or imaginative faculty is merely the critical faculty reversed. Criticism does not create, it judges; exactly, and the creative faculty does not create either (only God does)—the creative faculty combines; and every moment of the combining process is effected by the judgment, by the critical intelligence of the artist.

Harold Bloom is a successful critic for the same reason Poe was a successful critic: a host of minor poets strongly dislike them. Bloom pursues the logic laid out here by vilifying Poe and championing Emerson; Poe’s test was more severe: one was less a critic if one was not a poet (Bloom is not) while Emerson’s test simply said that any strong argument was poetry. Poe’s rivalry is something Bloom cannot face. Bloom is therefore not critical, precisely because his critical choices are driven by the fact that he is not a poet himself—which fulfills the prophecy.

Sartre is too anti-Literature to be a poet or a critic; Sartre is like Bloom, then, but one who knocks over Bloom’s chess pieces, even as Sartre agrees with Emerson that argument is finally all.  Listen to Sartre here:

There is no ‘gloomy literature,’ since, however dark may be the colors in which one paints the world, one paints it only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it. Thus, there are only good and bad novels. The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith. But above all, the unique point of view from which the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more freedom.  One can imagine a good novel being written by an American negro even if hatred of the whites were spread all over it, because it is the freedom of his race that he demands through his hatred. But nobody can suppose for a moment that it is possible to write a good novel in praise of anti-Semitism. For, the moment I feel that my freedom is indissolubly linked with that of all other men, it cannot be demanded of me that I use it to approve the enslavement of a part of these men. Thus, whether he is an essayist, a pamphleteer, a satirist, or a novelist, whether he speaks of individual passions or whether he attacks the social order, the writer, a free man addressing free men, has only one subject—freedom.

Sartre is still playing chess, with white and black pieces, even though some have run away in an attempt to be “free.” Bloom plays a more elaborate game of chess, one that keeps the pieces upright, even as we have no idea how the game is proceeding, though we do know Shakespeare is Bloom’s king and Emerson, the queen, perhaps. Literature can be ‘too gloomy’ for Bloom—he accused Poe of precisely this, even as he praised Emerson’s health and clarity. But those who accuse Poe of playing too much in a minor key tend to be those who play in no key at all and instead do a lot of thumping: Sartre thumps very loudly in order to flatter a certain sensibility. Bloom sings fragmented medleys, flattering in a far more rarefied fashion.

WINNER: BLOOM

The last of the women—de Beauvoir and Cixous—have fallen!

The Post-Modern bracket is now Wilson, Austin, Said, and Bloom!

 

 

J. L. AUSTIN AND FRANTZ FANON IN FIRST ROUND POST-MODERN ACTION

Fanon: Saw 9/11 coming in the 1950s

AUSTIN:

Philosophers have assumed utterances report facts or describe situations truly or falsely. In recent times this kind of approach has been questioned—in two stages.

If things are true or false it ought to be possible to decide which they are, and if we can’t decide which they are, they aren’t any good but are, in short, nonsense.

Secondly: people began to ask whether statements dismissed as nonsense were really statements after all. Mightn’t they perhaps be intended not to report facts but to influence people in this way or that, or to let off steam in this way or that? Or perhaps these utterances drew attention in some way (without actually reporting it) to some important feature of the circumstances in which the utterance was being made? On these lines people have now adopted a new slogan, the slogan of the ‘different uses of language.’ The old approach, the old statemental approach, is sometimes called even a fallacy, the descriptive fallacy.

I want to discuss a kind of utterance which looks like a statement and grammatically, I suppose, would be classed as a statement, which is not nonsensical, and yet is not true or false. These are not going to be utterances which contain curious verbs like ‘could’ or ‘might,’ or curious words like ‘good,’ which many philosophers regard nowadays as danger signals. They will be perfectly straightforward utterances, with ordinary verbs in the first person singular present indicative active, and yet we shall see at once that they couldn’t possibly be true or false. Furthermore, if a person makes an utterance of this sort we should say that he is doing something rather than merely saying something.

When I say ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ I do not describe the christening ceremony, I actually perform the christening.

If I say ‘I congratulate you’ when I’m not pleased or when I don’t believe the credit was yours, then there is insincerity.

If I say something like ‘I shall be there,’ it may not be certain whether it is a promise, or an expression of intention, or perhaps even a forecast of my future behavior, of what is going to happen to me; and it may matter a good deal, at least in developed societies, precisely  which of these things it is.

By means of these explicit performative verbs and some other devices we make explicit what precise act it is that we are performing when we issue our utterance. But here I would like to put in a word of warning. We must distinguish between the functions of making explicit what act it is we are performing, and the quite different matter of stating what act it is we are performing.

Consider the case, however, of the umpire when he says ‘Out.’ Performing has some connection with the facts.

Statements, we had it, were to be true or false; performative utterances on the other hand were to be felicitous or infelicitous. They were doing something, whereas for all we said  making statements was not doing something. Now this contrast surely, if we look back at it, is unsatisfactory.

Ills that have been found to afflict statements can be precisely paralleled with ills that are characteristic of performative utterances. And after all when we state something or describe something or report something, we do perform an act which is every bit as much an act as act of ordering or warning.

 

FANON:

The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an underdeveloped middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace.

 

Colonialism pulls every string shamelessly, and it is only too content to set at loggerheads those Africans who only yesterday were leagued against the settlers. The idea of  the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572 massacre of Protestants in Paris) takes shape in certain minds , and the advocates of colonialism laugh to themselves derisively when they hear magnificent declarations about African unity. Inside a single nation, religion splits up the people into different spiritual communities, all of them kept up and stiffened by colonialism and its instruments. Totally unexpected events break out here and there. In regions where Catholicism or Protestantism predominates, we see the Moslem minorities flinging themselves with unaccustomed ardor into their devotions. The Islamic feast-days are revived, and the Moslem religion defends itself inch by inch against the violent absolutism of the Catholic faith. Sometimes American Protestantism transplants its anti-Catholic prejudices into African soil, and keeps up tribal rivalries through religion.

 

Austin is not well-known, which is a pity, for this brainy, nerdy, Harvard/Oxford/military intelligence 1940s-1950s professor is very easy to understand and articulates the crucial idea about language which goes to the heart of every philosophical debate from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein to Derrida; linguistic theory, poetry, science and religion cannot be understood without understanding what Austin is talking about in the brief excerpts above: All language is performance. This is Austin’s conclusion. Language doesn’t lie or tell the truth—it does things, and it does things whether or not it lies or tells the truth. Language poetry comes out of this whole notion that language is performance.  But in a misguided manner, since language poetry is so awful, and since the poets have always understood that poetry is precisely that which is neither true nor false, and yet is not nonsense—due to both its pleasurable effect and its grammatical epistemology.

Fanon confines himself to the facts of colonialism—a completely different topic one would think, but not really: “Moslem minorities flinging themselves with unaccustomed ardor into their devotions” is a prophecy of 9/11 made in the 1950s. Religion—the realm where language is performance—dominates politics, or, it might be said, is politics, and always will be. Liberalism has unconsciously known this, and its victories in the university and in Washington—uneasy, dumbing-down, ravenous sorts of victories, threatening to collapse all that Liberalism ostensibly stands for—are due precisely to this knowledge. If science and democracy often seem irrational, this is why.

 

WINNER: AUSTIN

 

MARCH MADNESS! POETRY! THEORY! MADNESS! HOLY MADNESS! REAL, ACTUAL MADNESS!

“Philosophy is the true Muse” —Thomas Brady

THE BRACKETS

CLASSICAL

1. Plato
2. Aristotle
3. Horace
4. Augustine
5. Maimonides
6. Aquinas
7. Dante
8. Boccaccio
9. Sidney
10. Dryden
11. Aphra Behn
12. Vico
13. Addison
14. Pope
15. Johnson
16. Hume

ROMANTIC

1. Kant
2. Burke
3. Lessing
4. Schiller
5. Wollstonecraft
6. De Stael
7. Schliermacher
8. Hegel
9. Wordsworth
10. Coleridge
11. Peacock
12. Shelley
13. Emerson
14. Poe
15. Gautier
16. Marx

MODERN

1. Baudelaire
2. Arnold
3. Pater
4. Mallarme
5. Nietzsche
6. Wilde
7. Freud
8. Saussure
9. Jung
10. Trotsky
11. Woolf
12. Eliot
13. Ransom
14. Heidegger
15. Benjamin
16. Adorno

POST-MODERN

1. Wilson
2. Burke
3. Lacan
4. Sartre
5. Brooks
6. De Bouvoir
7. Austin
8. Frye
9. Barthes
10. Fanon
11. Rich
12. Bloom
13. Derrida
14. Said
15. Cixous
16. Butler

Ben Mazer’s “Poetry Mathematics” and the 30 Best Poetry Essays of All Time

First, the List:

1. REPUBLIC (BKS, 3, 10)- PLATO
A truism, but agree or not, every poet must come to terms with Plato.

2. THE FOUR AGES OF POETRY- THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK 
This essay rocks.  A genuinely great work of sweeping, historical criticism.

3. POETS WITHOUT LAURELS- JOHN CROWE RANSOM
Short essay, but historically explains Modernism…Ransom was more than just a New Critic…

4. PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION- EDGAR A. POE
Wrote a poem, then added a philosophy: cheap!  Uhh…no, that misses the point. Close writing trumps close reading…

5. POETICS- ARISTOTLE
Groundwork.

6. VITA NUOVA- DANTE
Practical document of poetry as mixture of Aristotle, romance, and religion. 

7. A DEFENSE OF POETRY- SHELLEY
Wide-ranging idealism.

8. LAOCOON: ESSAY ON THE LIMITS OF POETRY & PAINTING- G.E. LESSING
18th Century Work of Classical Rigor. A keeper.

9. AN APOLOGY FOR POETRY- SIR PHILIP SIDNEY
“Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.”

10. PHAEDRUS- PLATO
Tale of rhetoric and inspiration by the poet-hating poet.

11. PURE AND IMPURE POETRY- ROBERT PENN WARREN
Smash-mouth modernism from the 1930s—lots of Poe and Shelley-hating.

12. SYSTEM OF TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM- F.W. SCHELLING
“All knowledge rests on the agreement of something objective with something subjective.”

13. ON THE SUBLIME- LONGINUS
The sublime, baby!

14. TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT- T.S. ELIOT
The avant-garde reigned in by humdrum?

15. PREFACE, 2ND ED., LYRICAL BALLADS- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Speaking like real men!

16. LETTERS- KEATS
Selfless excess.

17. THE POET- EMERSON
Walt Whitman, Inc.

18. WELL-WROUGHT URN- CLEANTH BROOKS
A Defense of Close-Reading New Criticism: Poetry As Paradox and Non-Paraphrasable Ambiguity

19. THE ARCHETYPES OF LITERATURE- NORTHRUP FRYE
Jungian rebuke of the New Criticism…

20. CAN POETRY MATTER?- DANA GIOIA
Yes, believe it or not, this one belongs to the ages…

21. ESSAY ON CRITICISM- POPE
Iconic, metrical…

22. THE STUDY OF POETRY- MATTHEW ARNOLD
High seriousness, dude…

23. ON NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL POETRY- FRIEDRICH SCHILLER
Supremely Romantic criticism

24. THE ION- PLATO
A curt and elegant reminder for the poetic blowhard…

25. PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE- SAMUEL JOHNSON
Always a place for the moral conservative…

26. CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT- KANT
“An aesthetical judgment is not an objective cognitive judgment.”

27. RATIONALE OF VERSE- POE
The best user guide for the craft of verse, period.

28. PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCES- J.L. AUSTIN
This clever-ass essay blows everything to hell, making Language Poetry possible…

29. THE ENGLISH POET AND THE BURDEN OF THE PAST- W. JACKSON BATE
Published prior to, and is more cogent than, Harold Bloom’s more famous work…

30. FOUNDATIONS OF POETRY MATHEMATICS- BEN MAZER
A useful look at what the cool kids are saying…

Tedious, unscientific, hare-brained manifesto-ism (Pound, Charles Olson, etc) did not make the list.

We found Mazer’s “Mathematics” eccentric and odd at points, yet despite its uncanny moments, sincere and earnest throughout.  The work, just recently published, seems the natural outcome of an “end of the line,” “uncertainty principle” post-modernism looping back to classical German Romantic idealism, which is exactly what we take the dual “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” (2.1 b) to mean.

We like the sly rebuff of “The classics are static. They do not change.” (2.3)  This could be censor or praise, and Mazer’s ambiguity is a good thing.  It seems to solve something.

Here is the Romantic Mazer: “A greater amount of emotion is the effect of a greater work of art.” (2.4)  “There is no poetry higher than the music of Beethoven.” (2.11)

Here is the Mazer of J.L. Austin: “Poetry differs from nonsense in being incontrovertible. It cannot be proved to be nonsense, that nothing is being said.” (2.2)

Here is the great puzzle.  We are not sure, but it seems Mazer implicitly agrees with Austin—who said (to the satisfaction of some) that “nonsense” cannot be proved to exist since language is a “performance,” not an “imitation.” 

If art is essentially imitative, reality, within the frame of the picture, is boiled down to essense, order, and beauty. If poetic language is imitative (the default belief for thousands of years) there needs to be correspondence between subject and object, between understanding and nature; this is the basis of science, society, and art.  Keats’ “Beauty is Truth” formula is that supreme correlation, which, in a mere 100 years, has fallen into its opposite—because the imitative function of art has been rejected.

In poetry, J.L. Austin provided the reason. Language, Austin said, is a “performance,” and not just performative in obvious ways (“I now pronounce you man and wife” or “Move your ass, bud!”) but in every way.  “Truth is Beauty” is not verifiable, because all language-use is an action, and acts in a specific context.

No one who is honest, however, buys Austin’s rhetoric, and we think Mazer only buys it against his better judgement.  Mazer’s example of Beethoven is telling; Mazer’s “Mathematics” has great merit in saying a lot in a few words. What says more than ‘Beethoven?’  Genius often surprises, not with its complexity, but with its simplicity, and we cannot think of another poetry critic who would casually toss Beethoven on the table—and yet why not?  What artistic work is more “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” than Beethoven’s?  Beethoven is “incomprehensible” in a very real sense: listening to Beethoven’s music, we have no idea what he is saying, or what he means.  Yet the artistic impact of Beethoven’s music is “incontrovertible.”  No one would say Beethoven’s music is “nonsense,” a word Austin specifically uses in his argument (“Performative Utterances” no. 28 above).

And since Beethoven is a Romantic era figure and belongs to the classical Romantic tradition—one which seeks correspondence between understanding and nature, it is useful to examine Beethoven (as poet) in light of Austin’s explicit attempt to invalidate correspondence, with the result that every linguistic trope is controvertible.  But even if we take every utterance to be performative, this does not mean that we as speakers and writers do not still seek correspondence between understanding and nature.  Speech (poetry, art) without correspondence is still nonsense. 

The metaphoric nature of poetry attempts to stretch correspondence; but stretching is not breaking.

The Language Poetry school, the unfortunate result of Austin’s philosophy, is what happens when anything breaks instead of stretches.

Mazer, trapped in a post-J.L. Austin universe, longs to reunite with Romanticism, a shameful act in today’s Letters—burdened by the nonsensical spasms of modernism, as the bodily correspondences come apart—but this only makes Mazer’s yearning that much more profound and leads to the success of his poetry.  As any good Romantic knows, the longing for correspondence is more important than the correspondence itself.  The Language poet is inevitably too self-pleased.

When Mazer says, “Beauty is characterized by being indefinable,” (2.9) we read between the lines and find Romantic longing.

ONE MORE LOOK AT ALABAMA

“Stars fell on Alabama”   –Old song

As promised, here’s the Final Part 5 report on the Alabama ‘What Is Poetry?‘ conference which took place 25 years ago in October.  

What happened at that October 1984  conference, exactly? 

The old guard– Ignatow, Simpson, Levertov, Stern, and Vendler–won the battle, but lost the war.

The Language Poetry team, led by Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff,  scored almost no rhetorical points, and were even humiliated several times in the final group panel discussion.

Charles Bernstein was asked to “name names” of “policemen-poets” running “official verse culture” and could only sheepishly come up with one: T.S. Eliot.  Denise Levertov, with political guns blazing, said Bernstein’s concern for “official verse culture” was parochial and small-minded.  Unable to specify what made her outsider position important or unique, Marjorie Perloff was painted into a corner by Louis Simpson.  At one point Vendler said, to applause, “If you look at the statistics of dissertations done and M.A. theses done all across the face of America today, you will find that overwhelmingly they are done in twentieth-century studies, and the past is in danger of being forgotten altogether by the English departments.”

However, just sharing the stage with the status quo helped Bernstein and Perloff.   In a major capitulation to the barbarians, Helen Vendler conceded a huge point to Bernstein, explicitly agreeing with him that poetry makes language “opaque” and “problematic.” 

Well.

Poetry does not make language “problematic.” 

Poetry does the reverse; poetry overcomes the “problematic” aspect of language—this is why it is poetry! 

But don’t tell that to Vendler or Bernstein, champions of Art’s for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry, respectively.  

Art for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry would seem to be miles apart, but they’re not, actually.  

Both schools are more concerned with “How poetry tells us” than “What poetry tells us.” 

Vendler’s modernism really has little trouble fitting into Bernstein’s post-modernism.  

Erudition for its own sake will suffer from pedantry. 

But even worse than the old-fashioned pedantry—which once characterized the absent-minded English professor of old–is the erudition which attaches itself to a program, to a theoretical framework.  Free and open inquiry may thrive in a pedantic morass, but it never thrives when ideology stacks the deck.  Ideology turns erudition into a monster.

No one can accuse Vendler of being ideological—and this is precisely why her surrender to Bernstein is so harmful.  She did not surrender to his ideology, per se.  She generously and unconsciously abetted post-modernism because she found it intellectually pleasing to find how easily her modernism fit into Bernstein’s post-modernism.

Modernism decided to make poetry “problematic” or “difficult” (T.S. Eliot first ascribed the term “difficult” to modern poetry) in response to all sorts of issues, which, looking back, seem manufactured in light of a certain pessimism bearing down on the age, a heady manifesto-ism in general, and Eliot’s intuitive push towards the erudite and learned.  It was natural for this journey down “Problematic Lane” to lead from the opaque coyness of Wallace Stevens to the utter madness of LANGUAGE poetry.  

Bernstein’s intellectual legacy traces through Stanley Cavell, who was Bernstein’s mentor at Harvard, to J.L. Austin, a member of British Intelligence, who was Cavell’s Harvard professor.

Austin was a Moral Philosopher at Oxford who specialized in language, coining the term “speech acts” to describe speech as action–as opposed to speech as a mere passive agent of description.  Already we can see that—for this school of analytic philosophy—there is no speech which is not opaque and problematic—all speech is shot through with motive and desire, not just poetry.  Vendler, therefore, by conceding that poetry’s role was to “problematize language” was coming over to Bernstein’s turf and surrendering to him without a fight.

‘French theory’ did not only come from France.  It came from Oxford and Cambridge universities.  It came from Bloomsbury. (See G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.)  Modernism and post-modernism have the same parent and are the same age.  Helen Vendler and Charles Bernstein are puppies of the same litter.

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