"Men are but Children of a larger growth,
Our appetites as apt to change as theirs." --- Dollabella in John Dryden's All For Love (4.1.43-44)
Rickety Rak (Don't Talk Back)
Spent much of tonight reading from Christopher Ricks' Essays in Appreciation(1998), which is -- to my general surprise-- more in tune with my of thinking than I had anticipated. In many Ricks is a mixed bag: his editions of Eliot (Inventions of the March Hare) and Tennyson (simply called Tennyson) are annotated to the point of copious excess, and his study of Eliot (T. S. Eliot and Prejudice) provides some fine insights while occasionally tumbling toward dross. Essays is very interesting-- even if, very often, his purported topic falls by the wayside like a snake's skin-- and exceptionally erudite, and more often than not one gets the sense of a broad range of reading asserting itself in somewhat kaleidoscope forms. I particularly like some of his remarks on the academic juncture between theory and 'practical criticism' (a term Ricks finds as euphemistic as I do), and I would like many of my colleagues to consider them without defensiveness. I like these lines, for example:
Theory, in its professionalized and systematic intellectuality, widens the gap between critics and non-professional readers; between critics and writers; between critics and scholars; and -- smaller of scale but professionally germane-- between graduates and undergraduates. [Geoffrey] Hartman, for whom the only alternative to theory is 'practical criticism,' says roundly that 'practical criticism is more of a pedagogical and popaedeutic than mature activity' (the words 'propaedeutic' itself being intended to couw the young and immature); he speaks them of 'the mind of the novice,' and of 'the danger in whis undergraduate or undeveloped form of practical criticism.' I share none of the beliefs which underlie such a way of speaking, such an estimate of practical criticism in any of its forms, or of undergraduates, or of the alternatives as Hartman conceives them. But I am sure that Hartman is right to depict theory, or advanced thought as they like to think of it, as intrinsically inimical to undergraduate teaching. ("Literary Principles As Against Theory" 331-332)
The Hartman text to which Ricks refers, by the way, is Criticism In The Wilderness. Much of the criticism I read that is of the past 35 years tends to think itself 'enlightened' as it quibbles endlessly about philosophy, history, materialism, and the importance of theory. I remember about five years ago being told by a professor that I wore my distaste for theory like 'a badge of honour, and in part she was right; she was, I think, wrong though to assume this a failing or a limitation on my part, and I think in many ways Geoffrey Hartman a living proof of this error, as he began an intelligent and insightful critic only to become righteously converted to theory (deconstruction in particular) and, as a result, little more than a prattler of the same old ideas and the same old issues. The academy is glutted with theorists rather than thinkers, people who have come to accept certain ways of thinking as natural laws (e.g., every text is informed by ideology, and is therefore a statement of ideology), and who spend their careers in effect reproducing so-called proof of such laws. Part of this, I suspect, has something to do with a desperate attempt to prove that literary studies has a specific social function, a role to play in the broader determinations of human thought and how hums think (and with this, it becomes insipid self-justification). Another part of this, though, is a general reluctance to accord literature itself much power-- instead, the notion of theory-driven studies empowers the critic and effectively allows the critic to stand with a kind of superiority over literature which very often becomes a kind of condescension in the analysis. Further, literature ceases to be a subject of study as it becomes instead little more than a platform for supposedly 'higher' levels of thinking-- what Hartman might call 'graduate' and 'postgraduate' thinking. Ultimately all of this tends toward hornswoggle, towards self-legitimizing and evasive "but but but-ing" that attempts to categorize and to characterize rather than to contemplate and to study. As Ricks says, the gap between scholars and writers, and scholars and amateurs (and so on), is widened, and deliberately widened, with theory as its crowbar. To discuss literature in terms of its properties and principles is merely "propaedeutic," which means, basically, introductory or preliminary; it is 'naive,' a good start, but green and immature. Horse-shit.
One of my critical mentors remains Northrop Frye, who once quite rightly remarked that literary theory that cannot be explained and made useful at the kindergarten level is ultimately useless. To speak as critics like Hartman do-- and to think as he so often does-- is to lock oneself in the ivory tower and to pretend with a kind of Freudian super-authority that one knows 'what is really going on' when, in fact, one is every bit as muddled in one's thinking as anybody else. Theory becomes a crutch, a shot to the alcoholic, a fix for the addict. That crutch or shot or fix becomes a means of verifying and asserting one's supposed critical importance, or one's so-called intellectual sophistication. It becomes the dais seperating the professor from his/her students, even if, all the while, the professor lectures that the readers are as responsible in the creation of the text as the author is. It's a profoundly democratizing gesture, but it is merely gesture because it in fact implies and necessitates a prescribed way of thinking about literature that is more social-scientific (and therefore verifiable) than humanistic, more paradigmatic than individual. As such, recent critical theory takes more from other fields-- like philosophy, history, gender studies, cultural studies, anthropology, poltical and social thought-- than it does from fields that are distinctly and a priori literary or rhetorical (musical, dramatic, verbal). It seeks a language of its own, a jargon that includes such verbal dandies as 'discourse,' 'construction,' 'diaspora,' 'regendering,' 'marginilization,' and 'politicization.' I'm not, of course, against such words per se but their application in recent criticism is roughly equivalent to academic braggadoccio. And when I see them in scholarly print, or hear them invoked in supposedly intelligent discussion, I'm provoked to realize that the gong has been struck and the discussants in question should remove themselves from the stage before Chuck Barris has to drag them off. It ultimately becomes about sloppy and lazy thinking guised as high-mindedness, and the perpetrators of it become rather like Malvolio, yellow stockings and cross-garters replaced with convenient lingo and easy answers. But their language and their answers are not accessible to kindergartners-- they depend on an accepted world view that children have yet to adopt, and which they hopefully will not have to adopt. Theory, it seems to me, is only as valuable as its immediate applicability, and the recent tendencies to assume the be-all-and-end-all-ness of theory are as misguided as the tendencies of religio-fundamentalists who cling to the Scriptures without placing the words of those Scriptures into context, even if, for example, "an eye for an eye" stands in contradiction to turning the other cheek. It becomes the easy answer, readily supplied-- an interpretive god out of the machine. And this fundamentally ires me because critical thought becomes taciturn and tautological, and critical responsibility becomes minimal. The critic/scholar/thinker abandons the basics-- including the so-called 'undergraduate' desire to interrogate-- and tends toward 'advancements' of a conceptual revolution (post-1968, or so it's often dated) that are basically little more than 'graduate' tendencies to determine and to fix.
When I think of the truly important scholars/critics of literature, I think of the people who confronted what they studied with individual character, and with individual honesty-- T.S. Eliot, Samuel Johnson, John Dryden, Matthew Arnold, G. Wilson Knight, Northrop Frye, William Empson, Frank Kermode, Hugh Kenner, R. P. Blackmur. Each had their bailywicks, each had their problems. Each developed what one might call theories. (I'm sorry I name no women, but even many of the better female critics, like Julia Kristeva, are very uncomfortable adherent to awkward paradigms and assumptions; I could add Virginia Woolf, perhaps, but her criticism is often stilted and obtuse.) But none of them belonged to schools, even if for some of the above schools followed in their names. And I have to find it indicative, or at least suggestive, that many of our major surviving critics-- Kermode, Harold Bloom, Frank Lentricchia-- have taken to elegizing or eulogizing the study of literature. One of Bloom's best gestures is his declaration in The Western Canon that he is a Marxist critic, following Groucho rather than Karl in the notion "whatever it is, I'm against it." He wouldn't belong to any club that would have him as a member. (Bloom probably recoils at the fact that he and Eliot shared a fondness for the moustachioed one). Our 'schools' devote themselves almost monastically to a series of precepts which almost invariably cloud them from responding 'honestly,' and indeed the 'honest response' to literature (and the world) is seen as cliched and naive Platonism. It is not.
I, for one, will remember occasional insights and turns of phrase (and analysis) far better and far longer than most of rancid theoria now current; I will better remember criticism that is imaginative and lucid than I will jargonistic fol-de-rol. And, what's more I will pass on these ideas and thoughts to others, whether they know it or not, because they influence my own way(s) of thinking about literature and often the world. After all, what use is criticism if it is impractical?