THE ROAD TO CRITICISM’S FINAL FOUR

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Two more wins.  That’s all Harold Bloom or Edmund Wilson needs.  As the fate of the other philosophers in the Classical, Romantic and Modern brackets smashes on the rocks of wit and time, in the Post-Modern Bracket, Harold Bloom and Edmund Wilson prepare to advance to the cherished spot atop the Critical Parnassus.

What claims do these two professors have on us? Both are classic ‘old white guys’ defending a Canon of old white guy literature, if we might be crude and blunt about it. They are both ‘conservative’ in the way all English professors are generally conservative—and when they are not, students think “cool.” Bloom and Wilson are not cool. They both embody, “Hey kids! Get off my lawn!”

Were the giants of canonical literature ever cool? Or whatever is cool not canonical? Do we have two choices: the Great or the cool?

Yup, that’s it. And sometimes the cool is great (a great jazz musician) and the great is cool (Byron’s jokes, Homer’s mayhem).

The present is a tiny window. Those who study history belong to a much larger window, but the problem is: how do you fit the larger window into the smaller one? Sure, the brain can hold a lot of information, but the brain quickly forgets a lot of information, too; education for the sake of education tends to be a useless exercise of ‘info in, info out.’

Let’s say we feed the brain with ‘Homer to the Present’; how do we stop it from all just leaking out? Never mind those not interested in learning literature at all; even the earnest, the curious, the devoted may forget tomorrow what they learn today, especially if what they learn is just a massive pile of facts. What we need is a thread of learning, a kind of meaningful theology or creed which holds the facts in place and transforms them into a second language. The first language, our native tongue which we share with our peers, enables us to communicate with each other; few forget the first language, and even without formal literary study, many become quite adept at this first language, and use it to do all kinds of amazing things–after all, language itself, literary or not, is amazing. Who needs that second language, then? What is it?

Selection is the key term; literature is nothing more than the history of language, and selecting for the smaller window of the present from the larger window of the past is what it’s all about. The whole thing is quite simple. The critic, the professor, in this case Bloom and Wilson, succeed or fail in how well they select. In fact, we who use the first language (the language we all speak and share in order to communicate) succeed in the same way, pulling in from ‘our second language’ all which makes how we communicate in the first language interesting, drawing from the larger into the smaller, so that we are more than just a speaker of a language, more than the sum of our (speaking) parts.

This second language is like our soul which inhabits the first language (our body). Everyone has a body; the body is a common thing, but it is ultimately how we ‘do’ things, just as it is with this first language that we always speak, even as those rich in a ‘second’ language pour their second language into the first.

Speech that is very refined—and some would say ‘uncool’ and pretentious—is the Second Language glimpsed in its exposed existence as a Second Language: this, for some, is what Literature is. The simple act of emoting or singing might bring about this effect: the soul is ‘speaking!’ But if someone cannot sing, and if the emoting fails to move or amuse, we immediately sense that here no soul exists; the attempt was made to draw on the Second Language but apparently the person has no Second language, even as they may be perfectly adequate in expressing themselves with their First Language. We say they have no poetry, no drama, no flair; and if they persist in singing and emoting poorly, we call them a fool; and if they stick to their first language, we are satisfied, and finally judge them as not being a dramatic type; we would not go so far as to condemn them as really having no soul, however, even if perhaps we might find ourselves whispering behind their backs that they are a little dull.

We notice several things here. 1) The second language can disappear into the first; both are languages; 2) the second language can be seen in its naked state as something distinct from the first language—and here 3) it is immediately judged as something that annoys or amuses.

The whole of the Literary Canon, then, including the contemporary poet uttering their poem today, hoping to have an impact now, is subject to our judgment: does this amuse or annoy? We cannot escape this judgment, no more than we can taste food without subjecting ourselves to its tastiness or lack thereof.

The first language cannot, and is not, judged in this way: it merely tells us something; the first language is like the food’s nutrition; it is below the radar of our taste and conscious judgment. Learning the first language in our earliest days, we taste it not; we are fed it without being conscious of pleasure or annoy—the act of communication—putting pieces together to communicate—is all. But what is really happening at this stage is that we ourselves in our pre-literate animal state are the real first language, and what we have been calling the ‘first language’ is our ‘Second Language’ until gradually the real Second Language (the literary history and soul of the human race) falls upon us with its shadow, brightening our first two languages.

We become mature speakers when we can ‘taste’ nutrition; instead of merely being attracted to sugar and sweet taste, our taste and the good (what is good for us) coincide. Some, the non-literate, the soul-less, are forever split: they like what is sweet and bad for them and they  hate what has no sweet taste but is good for them. They are like children always annoyed by learning. Life has taken pity on them; they have learned their first language and forever benefit from it; and having a First Language guarantees the Second Language may visit them and carry them along with its pull.

The Second Language is the Good disguised as something Sweet; it is the large converting itself to the small so that the pitifully narrow present might be guided by the vast truth of the past. Again, selection is all; the sweet which can best cover the good is selected; the good is selected, the sweet which is sweet, but not too sweet, is selected; every necessary combination is selected, and then all those selections are selected. The poet selects an audience, selects selections for that audience; the audience selects from poetic selections, the critic selects from poetic selections and audience selections alike.

The critic—Bloom and Wilson—use the first language to describe the second language; both their first language and the first language of others, to judge the second.

The second language, literature, what we have called the history of language, is judged precisely as that, with a language which is purely useful and not itself up for judgment. Critics are those who wish to judge, and not be judged. They wish to admire, not be admired. They wish to teach, not be taught. They wish to select from the larger and convert it to the smaller; this is what they in fact must do.

Let us turn to Wilson, the conservative critic, doing exactly this.

Observe how he crushes the pretense of Valery:

It seems to me that a pretense to exactitude is here used to cover a number of ridiculously false assumptions, and to promote a kind of aesthetic mysticism rather than to effect a scientific analysis. In the first place, is it not absurd to assert that prose deals exclusively in “sense” as distinguished from suggestion, and that one has no right to expect from poetry, as Valery says in another passage, “any definite notion at all”? Is verse really an intellectual product absolutely different in kind from prose?  Has it really an absolutely different function? Are not both prose and verse, after all merely techniques of human intercommunication, and techniques which have played various roles, have been used for various purposes, in different periods and civilizations? The early Greeks used verse for histories, their romances and their laws—the Greeks and the Elizabethans used it for their dramas. If Valery’s definitions are correct, what becomes of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe? They all of them deal in sense as well as suggestion and aim to convey “definite notions.” These definitions have, however, obviously been framed to apply to the poetry of Valery himself and of Mallarme and the other Symbolists. Yet it does not really apply to even them. As we have seen, Valery’s poetry does make sense, it does deal with definite subjects, it does transmit to us “something intelligible that is going on inside his mind.” Even though in calling his book of poems “Charmes,” he has tried to emphasize its esoteric, magical, non-utilitarian character, we cannot admit that it is anything but an effort like another of articulate human speech. What happens when we communicate with each other, in literature as well as in curses and cries for help, and in verse as well as prose—what part is played by suggestion, and whether sense and suggestion are different and separable—are questions which take us far and deep: I shall return to them in a later chapter. But Valery has already let us see—it is even one of his favorite ideas—that he understands the basic similarity between the various forms of intellectual activity; he has taken pride in pointing out the kinship between poetry and mathematics. And if the function and methods of poetry are similar to those of mathematics, they must surely be similar to those of prose. If Valery resembles Descartes, as he seems willing to indulge himself in imagining, then it is impossible to make a true distinction between the philosophical or mathematical treatise and however Symbolistic a poem. Valery betrays himself here, it seems to me, as a thinker anything but “rigorous;” and he betrays also, I believe, a desire, defensive no doubt at the same time as snobbish, to make it appear that verse, a technique now no longer much used for history, story-telling or drama and consequently not much in popular demand, has some inherent superiority to prose. He has not hesitated even to assure us elsewhere that “poetry is the most difficult of the arts!”

Now Wilson on T.S. Eliot from the same work, Axel’s Castle:

It will be seen that Eliot differs from Valery in believing that poetry should make “sense.” And he elsewhere, in his essay on Dante in “The Sacred Wood,” remonstrates with Valery for asserting that philosophy has no place in poetry. Yet Eliot’s point of view, though more intelligently reasoned and expressed, comes down finally to the same sort of thing as Valery’s and seems to me open to the same sort of objection. Eliot’s conclusion in respect to the relation of philosophy to poetry is that, though philosophy has its place in poetry, it is only as something which we “see” among the other things with which the poet presents us, a set of ideas which penetrate his world, as in the case of the “Divina Commedia:” in the case of such a poet as Lucretius, the philosophy sometimes seems antagonistic to the poetry only because it happens to be a philosophy “not rich enough in feeling…incapable of complete expansion into pure vision.” Furthermore, “the original form of philosophy cannot be poetic”: the poet must use a philosophy already invented by somebody else. Now, though we admire the justice of Eliot’s judgments on the various degrees of artistic success achieved by Dante, Lucretius and others, it becomes plainer and plainer, as time goes on, that the real effect of Eliot’s, as of Valery’s, literary criticism, is to impose upon us a conception of poetry as some sort of pure and rare aesthetic essence with no relation to any of the practical human uses for which, for some reason never explained, only the technique of prose is appropriate.

Now this point of view, as I have already suggested in writing about Paul Valery, seems to me absolutely unhistorical…

Edmund Wilson, to put it simply, accuses the Modernists Valery and Eliot’s redefinition of poetry as something excessively pure, in the small window of their present day, as betraying the Second Language, the larger window of literary history which includes “Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe.” And Wilson is right. Call him “conservative,” but he actually speaks for a larger window—one that can easily fit into the smaller window of our time. Why “easily?” Precisely because of the nature of the geniuses Wilson lists: who are essential for their ability to say more with less. Eliot and Valery fret over the relationship of poetry to philosophy, worrying that the former cannot contain the latter. But as Wilson implies, this “unhistorical” position demeans poetry. Valery and Eliot might argue that verse is no longer a vehicle for prose-subjects as it once was, and the task now is to find ‘the poetry’ or the ‘poetic vision’ in writing which is neither quite verse nor quite prose, and to call this “unhistorical” is a grumpy attempt to stifle progress. But the Modernist position, which has prevailed—who reads Wilson anymore?—is abstractly and vaguely argued and has proved to be rather impotent.

Harold Bloom has spent his latter career championing Shakespeare’s dramas, and since Bloom is no poet, this activity is free of all “anxiety.”  Shakespeare invented Freudian psychology, Bloom asserts, but he never acknowledges how Plato’s dialogues influenced Shakespeare’s plays, though Bloom is full of “precursor” talk in general. Bloom favors Emerson over Poe to such an extreme degree that Bloom’s judgment cannot possibly be trusted anywhere else. Bloom believes “study” and “reading” are “holy,” and his attempt to see all of poetry as One Poem is admirable, but unfortunately with him, as with Eliot and the Modernists, this attempt is finally bookish and separated from the real world of love which lives behind the poem.

WINNER: WILSON

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

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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

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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

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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!

 

 

CLEANTH BROOKS LOCKS HORNS WITH HAROLD BLOOM

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The owlish Cleanth Brooks.  In his eyes, the “process of composition” has nothing to do with “the thing composed.”

 

BROOKS:

 

To make the poem or the novel the central concern of criticism has appeared to mean cutting it loose from its author and from his life as a man, with his own particular hopes, fears, interests, conflicts, etc. A criticism so limited may seem bloodless and hollow. It will seem so to the typical professor of literature in the graduate school, where the study of literature is still primarily a study of the ideas and personality of the author as revealed in his letters, his diaries, and the recorded conversations of his friends. It will certainly seem so to the young poet or novelist, beset with his own problems of composition and with his struggles to find a subject and a style and to get a hearing for himself.

And to emphasize the work seems to involve severing it from those who actually read it, and this severance may seem drastic and therefore disastrous. After all, literature is written to be read. Wordsworth’s poet was a man speaking to men. In each Sunday Times, Mr. J. Donald Adams points out that the hungry sheep look up and are not fed; and less strenuous moralists than Mr. Adams are bound to feel a proper revulsion against “mere aestheticism.” Moreover, if we neglect the audience which reads the work, including that for which it was presumably written, the literary historian is prompt to point out that the kind of audience that Pope had did condition the kind of poetry that he wrote. The poem has its roots in history, past or present. Its place in the historical context simply cannot be ignored.

I have stated these objections as sharply as I can because I am sympathetic with the state of mind which is prone to them. Man’s experience is indeed a seamless garment, no part of which can be separated from the rest. Yet if we urge this fact of inseparability against the drawing of distinctions, then there is no point in talking about criticism at all. I am assuming that distinctions are necessary and useful and indeed inevitable.

The formalist critic knows as well as anyone that poems and plays and novels are written by men—that they do not somehow happen—and that they are written as expressions of particular personalities and are written from all sorts of motives—for money, from a desire to express oneself, for the sake of a cause, etc. Moreover, the formalist critic knows as well as anyone that literary works are merely potential until they are read—that is, that they are re-created in the minds of actual readers, who vary enormously in their capabilities, their interests, their prejudices, their ideas. But the formalist critic is concerned primarily with the work itself. Speculation on the mental processes of the author takes the critic away from the work into biography and psychology. Such explorations are very much worth making. But they should not be confused with an account of the work. Such studies describe the process of composition, not the structure of the thing composed, and they may be performed quite as validly for any kind of expression—non-literary as well as literary.

 

BLOOM:

 

The best critics of our time remain Empson and Wilson Knight, for they have misinterpreted more antithetically than all others.

When we say that the meaning of a poem can only be another poem, we may mean a range of poems:

The precursor poem or poems.

The poem we write as our reading.

A rival poem, son or grandson of the same precursor.

A poem that never got written—that is—the poem that should have been written by the poet in question.

A composite poem, made up of these in some combination.

A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority. The failure to have begotten oneself is not the cause of the poem, for poems arise out of the illusion of freedom, out of a sense of priority being possible. But the poem—unlike the mind in creation—is a made thing, and as such is an achieved anxiety.

How do we understand an anxiety? By ourselves being anxious. Every deep reader is an Idiot Questioner. He asks, “Who wrote my poem?” Hence Emerson’s insistence that: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts—they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Criticism is the discourse of the deep tautology—of the solipsist who knows that what he means is right, and yet that what he says is wrong. Criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.

 

The New Critics were not new. They belonged to the band of revolutionary Modernists determined to remove from the Academy, in Brooks’ words, the “typical professor of literature in the graduate school, where the study of literature is still primarily a study of the ideas and personality of the author as revealed in his letters, his diaries, and the recorded conversations of his friends.”

This early 20th century enemy, the “typical professor,” which Pound and Ransom likewise attacked in their writings (see “How To Read” and “Criticism, Inc”) was in the way, not because they took no “account of the work” (a pure straw man argument) but because they took “account” of Milton, Shakespeare, and Keats, rather than Pound, Eliot, and their New Critic friends. The New Critic’s approach had nothing to do with theory, criticism, or pedagogy.  Brooks’ back-pedaling apology above rings hollow—because it is.  (God forbid “biography” or “psychology” be in the mix!) The New Critics’ plea to look at “the work” instead of “the ideas and personality” of the author was secret code for: get the famous authors like Keats and Milton out of the Academy; let us in.  It was really that simple. Where is the proof that “the work” was not studied in the cases of Keats and Shakespeare? The New Critics merely said it was so, and it was so. The Creative Writing push by the New Critics (Allen Tate) and their allies (from Paul Engle to Ford Maddox Ford) soon followed, the ultimate example of: “focus on the work” and never mind those “famous authors” and their “diaries.”  The “new” wasn’t ideological.  It was personal.   The “new” wasn’t philosophy.  It was ambition. This was the great secret of Modernism.

As for Harold Bloom, (who later on in his career became more mainstream in his populist writings: Shakespeare-worship, etc) the agenda in his Anxiety of Influence is basically the same: focus on “the work” in an effort to overthrow the larger, more sane view currently in place.

Bloom’s “The meaning of a poem can only be another poem” is just a more crackpot focus on “the work” than even the New Critics offered.  A writer like Edgar Poe (excoriated by both Brooks and Bloom) can no longer be regarded as standing for sane, or wise, philosophical principles. Everything has to be yanked down to a Alice-in-Wonderland universe of  ‘close-reading,’ in which poems mean each other, etc.  Tunnels (“hidden roads”) wind about. Scholarship becomes mystical, hermeneutical, claustrophobic. Criticism becomes its own ‘poem.’ The fresh air of the heavens, in which philosophy takes the broadest view possible, is refused for the swamp of intra-textual hermeneutics. Obscurity is rewarded. Only those who can breathe for long periods underground will be worthy to effect the revolution from within.

 

 

WINNER: BLOOM

CAMILLE PAGLIA SPEAKS OUT AS SCARRIET BASEBALL POETRY PLAYER REP

MMMarla Muse here!  I’m speaking with Scarriet Baseball Poetry Player Rep Camille Paglia!  Camille, thanks for meeting with me today on this murky mountaintop!

CP: You’re welcome, Marla.  Nice dress!

MM:  Thanks!  Sappho wore it.

CP:  I knew it looked classic.

MM:  Camille, what are your goals as the Scarriet Baseball Poetry Player Rep this season?

CP:  Well Marla, I believe that custodianship, not deconstruction, should be the mission and goal of the humanities.

MM:  Custodianship does seem to be the spirit of Scarriet Baseball Poetry

 CP:  I love baseball!  I love poetry!  My attraction to poetry has always been driven by my love of English.  What fascinated me about English was what I later recognized as its hybrid etymology: blunt Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Greco-Roman abstraction. The clash of these elements is invigorating, richly entertaining, and often funny, as it is to Shakespeare, who gets tremendous effects out of their interplay. The dazzling multiplicity of sounds and word choices in English make it brilliantly suited to be a language of poetry—and baseball! It’s why the pragmatic Anglo-American tradition (unlike effete French rationalism) doesn’t need poststructuralism: in English, usage depends upon context; the words jostle and provoke one another and mischievously shift their meanings over time.

MM:  Yes!  To fan.  To strike out.  How weird is that?  Now, in your approach to poetry, what “method,” if you’ll forgive that term, do you espouse?

 CP:  I believe that close reading, or what used to be called “explication of text,” not only is the best technique for revealing beauty and meaning in literature but is a superb instrument for the analysis of all art and culture. Through it, one learns how to focus the mind, sharpen perception, and refine emotion.

MM:  Do tell!

CP:  My secular but semimystical view of art is that it taps primal energies, breaks down barriers, and imperiously remakes our settled way of seeing. Animated by the breath force (the original meaning of “spirit” and “inspiration”), poetry brings exhilarating spiritual renewal. A good poem is iridescent and incandescent, catching the light at unexpected angles and illuminating human universals—whose very existence is denied by today’s parochial theorists. Among these looming universals are time and mortality, to which we are all subject.

MM:  I’m certainly subject, especially every morning when I first look in the mirror!  Camille, what in your background has prepared you to be Players’ Rep?

CP:  The foundation of my literary education in college and graduate school in the 1960s was a technique known as the New Criticism, which studied the internal or formal qualities of poetry. I was impatient with what I regarded as its genteel sentimentality, its prim evasion of the sex and aggression in artistic creativity. Urgent supplementation was needed by psychology as well as history, toward which I had been oriented since adolescence, when I began exploring books about Greco-Roman and Near Eastern archeology.

MM:  Interesting, Camille, because Thomas Brady, the sitemeister of the world-famous poetry site Scarriet, is a fierce opponent of the New Critics.

 CP:  The New Critics’ admirable reaction against a prior era of bibliographic pedantry had eventually resulted in an annihilation of context, an orphaning of the text. New Criticism was also hostile or oblivious to popular culture, the master mythology of my postwar generation. For that I had to look to bohemian artists like Andy Warhol or dissident academics like Marshall McLuhan and Leslie Fiedler. But the New Criticism, attuned to paradox and ambiguity, was a sophisticated system of interpretation that has never been surpassed as a pedagogical tool for helping novice as well as veteran readers to understand poetry.

MM:  Hmm, so the New Criticism wasn’t all bad then?

 CP:  The destruction of the New Criticism by the influx of European post-structuralism into American universities in the 1970s was a cultural disaster from which higher education has yet to recover. With its clotted jargon, circular reasoning, and smug, debunking cynicism, post-structuralism works only on narrative—on the longer genres of story and novel. It is helpless with lyric poems, where the individual word has enormous power and mystery and where the senses are played upon by rhythm, mood, and dreamlike metaphors.

MM:  Yes, post-structuralism, a disaster. How few persons kept their sanity in the 1970s!

CP:  Poetry and poetry study were steadily marginalized by pretentious “theory”—which claims to analyze language but atrociously abuses language. Poststructuralism and crusading identity politics led to the gradual sinking in reputation of the premiere literature departments, so that by the turn of the millennium, they were no longer seen even by the undergraduates themselves to be where the excitement was on campus. One result of this triumph of ideology over art is that, on the basis of their publications, few literature professors know how to “read” anymore—and thus can scarcely be trusted to teach that skill to their students. Cultural studies, for example, despite its auspicious name, has been undone by its programmatic Marxism and is a morass of misreadings or overreadings.

MM:  I know you have a deep affection, even love, for the artist and poet.

CP:  I revere the artist and the poet, who are so ruthlessly “exposed” by the sneering poststructuralists with their political agenda. There is no “death of the author” (that Parisian cliché) in my world-view.   There’s no death of the hitter, or the pitcher.  They are timeless.

 MM:  Yes, absolutely.  Will you defend the integrity of all the players involved in Scarriet Baseball Poetry?  Even the author of the whole concept himself, Thomas Brady?

CP:  Authors strive and create against every impediment, including their doubters and detractors.

 MM:  There are so many!  Doubters and detractors, I mean.  But I understand Thomas Brady is a fan of yours.

CP:  I know.  He wrote me a poem once.  Poets speak even when they know their words will be swept away by the wind. I lost his poem.  But look, Marla, in college Greek class, I was amazed by the fragments of archaic poetry—sometimes just a surviving phrase or line—that vividly conveyed the sharp personalities of their authors, figures like Archilocus, Alcman, and Ibycus, about whom little is known. The continuity of Western culture is demonstrated by lyric poetry, which from its birth in ancient Greece has played so significant a role in the emergence of nationalism, spawning in turn our concept of civil rights.

MM:  Ah, yes, the Hartford Whittiers!  But that whole tradition is imperiled now?

 CP:  As a student of ancient empires, I am uncertain about whether the West’s chaotic personalism can prevail against the totalizing creeds that menace it. Hence it is critical that we reinforce the spiritual values of Western art, however we define them.

MM:  “Chaotic personalism,” I like that!  I like to say the East is Confucianist and meditationist, the West is confusionist and medicationist.  Tell us some more of your background, Camille.

CP:  At Harpur College (my alma mater at the State University of New York at Binghamton), I took courses in Metaphysical poetry and John Milton from an expert in seventeenth-century literature, Arthur L. Clements, whose close readings and innovative integration of Western and Asian religions made a deep impact on me. I had what can only be described as a conversion experience in the classes of Milton Kessler, a poet who had been a student of Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington. I took or audited four of his courses: “Introduction to Poetry,” “Visionary Poets,” “Poetry as Play,” and “The Confessional Poets.” Kessler’s theory of poetry was based on sensory response and body rhythms. Partly because he had been trained in voice and opera, he endorsed emotional directness and amplitude in art. His classroom explications were dramatic, celebratory, and ingeniously associative, bringing EVERYTHING to bear on the text. That intense way of reading poetry was definitely not the norm in graduate school. The first paper I submitted at Yale (“Exoticism in Wallace Stevens”) came back with the dismissive note that it was a “qualitative appreciation, which we find so often in reviews of contemporary poetry.”

MM:  That reminds me, Camille, of a story Page Smith used to tell. He submitted a thesis and it was rejected because it was too interesting to read—he was told to make it more dry and boring!

CP:  The next stage in my comprehension of poetry came from Harold Bloom, whom I did not know (I had never taken his seminars) until I was drafting the prospectus for my doctoral thesis, then titled “The Androgynous Dream” but later called Sexual Personae. Hearing of my psychoanalytic topic via the grad student grapevine, Bloom summoned me to his office and offered to be my advisor. He announced, “My dear, I am the only one who can direct that dissertation!” And of course he was right.

 MM:  Yes, and Harold Bloom is, of course, Scarriet Poetry Baseball Commissioner this season.

CP Bloom’s massive, interdisciplinary erudition and electrifying insights into the spiritual dimension of literature were exactly what I needed for the development of my work. He was then the scholar who had revolutionized Romantic studies with his extraordinary books on Blake and Shelley. It was several years before he published The Anxiety of Influence, the book that made him an international celebrity.

MM:  It sounds like you and the Commish have always been in agreement.

CP:  Though he was tartly skeptical of my zeal for mass media, I found Bloom’s thinking otherwise completely in sync with the neo-Romanticism of the sixties’ cultural insurgency. Both Bloom and Kessler, with their profound empathy and fiery, prophetic temperaments, seemed to me more visionary rabbis than professors.

MM:  Are there any differences you have with the Commish?

CP:  The case of Sylvia Plath illustrates the signal differences between Bloom’s critical code and mine: he has colorfully rejected her work, while I have elsewhere called “Daddy” a central poem of the twentieth century.

MMPlath is playing terrific outfield this year for the Amherst Emily in the AL for Scarriet Baseball Poetry.  Camille, what drew you to this job?  What made you decide to take it?

CP:  My attentiveness to the American vernacular has made me restive with the current state of poetry. I find too much work by the most acclaimed poets labored, affected and verbose, intended not to communicate with the general audience but to impress their fellow poets. Poetic language has become stale and derivative, even when it makes all-too-familiar avant-garde or ethnic gestures.

MM:  Yes, stale and derivative.

CP:  Poetry’s declining status has made its embattled practitioners insular and self-protective: personal friendships have spawned cliques and coteries in book and magazine publishing, prize committees, and grants organizations.

MM:  Yes, that drum is beaten at Scarriet daily!

CP:  Our most honored poets are gifted and prolific, but we have come to respect them for their intelligence, commitment, and the BODY of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem. They have lost ambition and no longer believe they can or should speak for their era. Elevating process over form, they treat their poems like meandering diary entries and craft them for effect in live readings rather than on the page.

MM:  Right, so true!

 CP:  Arresting themes or images are proposed, then dropped or left to dribble away. Or, in a sign of lack of confidence in the reader or material, suggestive points are prosaically rephrased and hammered into obviousness. Rote formulas are rampant—a lugubrious victimology of accident, disease, and depression or a simplistic ranting politics (people good, government bad) that looks naïve next to the incisive writing about politics on today’s op-ed pages.

MM:  κάνετε θαυμάσιο τον πιό θαυμάσιο!  Camille, we must break for a commercial, but we’ll be right back after this word from Silliman’s Blog….

Part 2 of the interview can be found at https://scarriet.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/scarriet-baseball-poetry-player-rep-paglia-interview-part-two/

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