Sunday, July 18, 2010

Moral music and the shirt-sleeve manner

Paul Fry makes a great point about the "undue solemnity" of literary theoretical writing in the following, which is from his excellent 1988 book, The Reach of Criticism. Fry is introducing a (particularly good) chapter on Dryden:

Shelley's Defence of Poetry [...] rivals any theoretical text of which I am aware in its metaphysical precision and range, but also succumbs in a good many places to the undue solemnity and curdling of expression that lessens the impact of much current writing [...]. Dryden's "Preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern," to which I now turn, is theoretically precocious almost by accident, perhaps, although its intricacy of thought remains extraordinary however one accounts for it, but is written in the enviably casual manner that has been tacitly forbidden in modern criticism, especially in American universities, ever since impressionism became a code word for irresponsibility and laziness.
-"The Other Harmony of Dryden's 'Preface to Fables,'" in The Reach of Criticism 87.

This is of course right about Dryden, and the idea of not an answerable, but an enviable style is a wonderful one, exactly capturing how we feel while reading his flexible (and often funny) prose: we sink under Milton, as Johnson (quoting Addison) once said, but we reach out and over to Dryden--despite having been put to shame.

But Fry's remark is also right about "current" writing: though the solemnity in theoretical writing has definitely fallen off from the unbearable years--right at the time Fry pens these lines--I think Fry might be (and probably is) surprised at just how solemn theory still is. Lightness is returning as theory rediscovers literature (and critical theory fritters itself away, gets replaced by more practical theoretical ventures like architecture and media studies, or turns to philosophy departments finally made tolerant by its efforts), and we are truly entering a new age of interpretation and theorizing about interpretation. But we still are subjected to so much "curdling of expression" or, to use another apt characterization, "weird moral music." This last phrase is used by Michael Wood to characterize "certain sentences" of Paul de Man (in a current work, Literature and the Taste of Knowledge, see p. 181), and I think it not inappropriate--as de Man, however much the solemn also solemnly detest him, can be considered the type and symbol as well as a key originator of this sort of attitude.

Fry takes a broader view of the origin of this phenomenon, and attributes it to a certain tradition that has governed criticism in America. But what's most fascinating about this is that, for Fry, the tradition doesn't directly encourage solemnity: the curdling of expression isn't a result of any sense that American criticism needs to be serious. It emerges instead from a prohibition of unseriousness, of a casual manner in interpretation.

This is a claim that supports and is supported by the main position of the book and his massive, more nuanced, more expansive, more recent Defense of Poetry (1995): namely, that interpretation proceeds despite its method, surrendering to the suspension of sense produced by the multiple senses of words. This might seem completely unrelated, but the connection is easy to make and forceful one it's made. Though Fry isn't an enemy to all method in all endeavors, he believes that methods for interpretation try to minimize this suspension of sense. It is not that the aim of following a method will often limit the attentiveness one can have for multiple meanings, but in every interpretation it is the words that call to us, not the procedure, regardless of whether we follow method or not. So what we end up doing when following a method of interpretation is remain open to meanings, and then proceed to sacrifice the openness we had to produce a reading. The interpretation comes from this jockeying between what the method accepts and what we read in the text, not from the effort to bring out more of we read in the text and to supply it with some shape. Naturally, this latter effort is going to be more frivolous, more playful, since the suspension of meaning involves precisely allowing that words might not have a serious, earnest intention behind them. So method cultivates solemnity as it curbs meanings, and the tradition of Anglo-American criticism in America has always encouraged the subjection of interpretation to a method or methodized sort of procedure. Indeed, for Fry, this is encouraged by much "current" theory as well. We never really have allowed to experiment with casual interpretation.

But all this is clear enough from the passage, though the point is made by developing this last claim. This, however, actually makes things more poignant, since it involves developing its other side: the notion that everything we take to be casual in interpretation never really has been truly casual at all. We think the casual manner is the freedom allowed to impressionism, but the real situation is that the latter only flourishes with solemnity--as evidenced by the fact that it can turn back into solemnity in an instant (de Man, for me, is again the best example of this). Never acquainted with the hard work involved in the casual manner--which is hard work, involving a deft control of that indirectness Americans have never tolerated--we think we can pass of the products of laziness as the same thing.

But in the book Fry adds to a wonderful footnote to all this, which is really my reason for discussing his claim. Why? Because it recommends two critics who defy this prohibition. Now, you might think Fry may or may not be right about all the above. I personally don't think method is as responsible for the problems of criticism as the desire to follow a method in criticism, and I think that while it is very justifiable to group these things together and oppose method tout court, it might be better to stress the difference. Another way of putting this is actually to put Fry's claim another way as well: real methods are developed only after we think we have followed them. So the problem is the desire to get out in front of a method and just coast. But what this tells you is that the desire to methodize is something different altogether than the desire to follow a method, and I myself think this former desire should be cultivated--instead of the desire for theories, which we could for the sake of argument just call the grounds of various methods. It has become too easy to come up with the ground of something, and we have too many of them now: instead of developing grounds, what needs to be developed are more ways over the ground, which are more closely related to the paths actually traversed in an interpretation. And involved in that is (if you'll indulge the overdrawn metaphor one last time) a refusal to conflate these ways with those actual paths, such that people can come along and think they can just follow a way instead of an actual path--as if the way existed before they interpreted. Fry isn't, you see, too far from this, and of all the critics out there I think he most admits of this other approach (and certainly in my eyes he has the most definitive view of what a literary text is and what interpretation involves). But regardless of what you think, you have to grant that he is exactly right in the following, the footnote, which I'll leave you with:

Nearly all critics adopt the shirt-sleeve maner from time to time in order to indulge their audience or themselves, but the only modern critics since the decline of belletrism who consistently write with negligent ease (though others write very well in more formal, more severely plain, or more playful styles) are two of the best, William Empson and Kenneth Burke.
-The Reach of Criticism, Note 1 to Chapter 3, 217.

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