Thursday, December 30, 2010

The perfectly made-up thing

 It is possible, of course, to enjoy the literary-historical hall of mirrors in which traditional motif and classical allusion repeat and reflect one another for their own sweet sake, but sooner or later we will come up against the Johnsonian objection referred to earlier ["Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief," the famous remark of Johnson on Lycidas]. Essentially, this boils down to asking what after all, is the human value of the perfectly made-up thing? And the answer must be that it depends on the seriousness of what is at stake beyond the attainment of artistic finish, and on the depth of the poet's engagement with considerations other than the technical and the aesthetic. In Virgil's ninth eclogue, for example, you can sense that there is much at stake for Virgil. Again, the setting involves the kind of land grabbing that is father had suffered [which we see depicted in the first eclogue], and the deeper theme is essentially asking the question "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?" This is the question that Shakespeare would ask fifteen hundred years later (in Sonnet 65), and it's the one which always presents itself when art feels called upon to stay power.
-Seamus Heaney, "Eclogues 'In Extremis': On the Staying Power of Pastoral"

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Close reading and formalism, knowledge and sense

The new formalism, as it has been called, has gotten much less flack than the old one (Michael Wood writes of this in his new book). Perhaps because there is a realization going around that, well, we're smarter now, we've done the theory, now we can look at all those small formal things in the text with less rigidity (or however you want to characterize the crimes of the formalists). In particular our attention can wander to historical issues, political issues, but we'll always have the right object in view: form.

Maybe. What I find odd, however, is not so much the people who would identify with the new formalism (they're often trying to work out just what this might mean), as those who take comfort in it, and assume something else: that it was not formalism which lent a problematic basis for literary studies, but close reading. Saying we're new formalists, for these people, just means we can look at form and close read only really when we need to, when it is advantageous and sensible--not all the time.

This tendency here--and I don't mean to describe anything as clear cut as a position, and I'll probably be much too hard-and-fast as it is in trying to just to give some accentuating weight to a pull we might find in contemporary criticism--the tendency, I think, is more than reasonable. What's particularly good is its utter rejection of facile claims made in the 80's and 90's about "the ethics of reading," which assumed that close reading is something we do everywhere (just as the world can be understood as a text), and that to distantly read something amounted to being unethical (by which they really meant, immoral). In another context, Peter Brooks has said it was clear this position was bankrupt when it came time to explain how people like John Yoo could willfully misread statutes in the law to justify torture with something that looked a lot like what these ethical readers did constantly: it was clear just from the abandonment of poetics in anything like this form of ethics that reading and ethics had to be brought together in a less mashed-up, less defensive (in that this "ethics" was essentially something only the humanities could give you, since it couldn't really give you knowledge, like the sciences), less immediately politicized way (which is just to say that it actually had to be thought through).

The inclination I'm describing involves thinking something similar, but also involves a willingness to go, sometimes, much further in the formalist direction than the new formalists themselves. Indeed, it reworks the basic components that constitute form, rethinks the matter of form and what the literary object can be made up of. Instead of the poetics of Brooks (which I might recommend to a , it claims the territory of aesthetics, and there is something exciting about that. At the same time, I'm not sure it brings us any further towards answering questions about the knowledge the literary object can contain, and in fact may block certain ways into asking questions in this area. For it is knowledge which is ultimately the reason for close reading--why it was invented, and why we do it--and to celebrate the death of the close reader at the same time as you find comfort in form is to assume that there is no urgency to the question of whether the literary object can know something, and that we can better address our reading problems by attending instead to the nature of its sensuousness.

For close reading is much more about construing messages in the act of communication than about paying attention to form. It is about meaning, ambiguity, parables, plots: rhythms, to encapsulate things, and use a more small-scale example, more than meters (or, maybe, meters more as beats, since I don't mean to say at all that prosody only goes in the formalist direction--indeed, it becomes a tool in going the opposite way). So to align it with formalism in order to bash it, which is what has been going on at least since the 60's in the US (and actually earlier), is actually a strange move. Form was the first thing I.A. Richards actually attacked in his litany of aesthetic bogeys (Angela Leighton is the only person who I've seen actually figure this out, in a recent book On Form--perhaps because she actually went back to read Richards). It was because of the prominence of formal (if not exactly formalist) approaches that he thought we needed close reading in order to to eradicate. It only really became a formalist practice in the way we know it now after people like Wimsatt, Brooks, and the Yale people turned it into explication (or "explicitation," as Wimsatt nicely put it), and Modernists like Allen Tate and Yvor Winters gave the object itself that hard minimalist, sculptural edge to it. To accelerate the narrative, we might just say that PoMo poetry people, for all their bashing of formalism, actually only got more excited about that minimalism (the people into novels tended to do much better, as they recognized getting rid of form opened up logics of desire which really had a different texture than what verse form broke down into). We've been stuck in the formalist jam ever since, really, so to blame close reading makes little sense, since it never was close reading's fault. The English I think have a richer sense of why close reading can't go away, I think, because they never had such a stringent formalism there (though not having one leaves them with fewer moves to make ultimately with readings--it's pretty much always towards history).

In short, not unlike the hyper-political-theory people this position wants to move away from, it is an approach that seems to suppose we can always make sense of what poetry is about if we want to, if we look hard enough. Close reading is precisely asking whether we can make such a supposition, or at least in its real practice--which I think people do less often than we think--complicates such an assumption. Which is why we keep reading Christopher Ricks and Helen Vendler (not that there's no other reason to read them, of course).

I don't mean to be dualistic about knowledge and sense. I mean only to note that there is another aspect to poesis besides or rather beside making, which this tendency I'm describing occasionally recognizes often only to forget it: namely, the the vatic, possessed, oracular, inspirational aspect. And that close reading attends to this.

I'm less sure whether I don't mean to (that's certainly a phrase that hedges your bets) champion close reading over formalism. It remains a more open question to me whether the part formalism should play involves breaking down whatever dualism there is between knowledge and sense, and pushing sense (via their fates, as Susan Stewart might say, their own kind of knowing) towards questions of knowledge. Even if the tendency I'm describing often forgets knowledge it can occasionally break things down precisely by its focus on the sensuous side of things--maybe sometimes better than a smartly directed new formalism could. I think when it gets polemical, though, the dualism can't help but be deepened, and most of the time anyway such a mode sinks knowledge too far in sense to allow any jumping of the gap. In this case, it might be smart to see more of what we can accomplish by close reading without the formalist crutch.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Public good

After the unaccountable treatment the noble plan of Sir Christopher Wren met from the interested views of ignorant, obstinate, designing men, (notwithstanding it had the sanction of the King and Parliament) who by rejecting it did an irreparable injury to the city of London, the author cannot hope to see a scheme so much inferior to that, adopted in the manner he could wish; he doubts not but it will by many be treated as Utopian, a work of supererogation, and that the old cry of private property and the infringement on liberty will be objected and urged with the greatest vehemence, in opposition to the good effects he proposes…

It is very certain that no public good ever was proposed to which interested individuals have not objected, but it certainly does not follow, that for this reason public good is not to be attended at all.

-John Gwynn, London and Westminster Improved (1766), vi-vii