Aug 20, 2009


Sunshine Musings

From Yesterday:
GPK: Value is dynamic rather than static. Whose stock is worth more now? Does T.S. Eliot mean as much to readers as he did 40 years ago?

Bjo52: “Value”? I hope the marketplace is not the primary determinant of value. If so, all poetry is virtually worthless . . .


Now, about your example of the local coffee house composer-singer, the value of his work beside Dylan, the Beatles, and other icons, you say . . .

GPK: Even if it was the greatest song ever (a song by the local coffee house guy), isn't it a text subject to the demands of context? The rigors of genre and cultural expectation?

Bjo52: The rigors of genre, yes. But I question how much the text is subject to the demands of context, if you mean culture, history, and so forth. However, I love the hugeness of the question, so here are some thoughts.

Are you saying one cannot appreciate or understand, for example, Shakespeare’s Henry plays without knowing the historical background of the Lancaster and York unpleasantness, or Shakespeare’s own vulnerability because of his queen’s sensitivity about her ancestors? If so, I can't agree. Although understanding context probably enriches those events and characters for a modern reader, there’s plenty of meat in the plays independent of Elizabethan history or the actual history of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. In fact, that very universality is a major criterion in judging what’s good, isn’t it?

Coming at it from another important perspective, if a reader chooses not to examine the actual lines of the text, if he’s using the literature only as a way of understanding more about history, he’s a pretty limited reader. Should I trust a critic who's skimming in his study of character and poetry, a scholar who uses a play primarily as an illustration of some point about the Wars of the Roses or the aftermath in Elizabethan England--or 21st century America?

I don't mean that the two disciplines should never cross paths, and of course intellectual history and art history are legitimate, important fields of study--as long as they announce that their purpose is to look at the literature, philosophy, religion, art, history and so forth as disciplines in relation to each other. But too often I've heard teachers of English talk openly or even proudly of using literature to teach history, and through history, politics, and from there to the teacher's own biases. What happened to the text? I do not accept that the text is a mere prop for the study of other fields; it may be that too, but it must first be its own entity, worthy of and demanding of study for its own sake--its intellectual and aesthetic properties.

Students and other careful, well-intentioned readers must first approach the literature carefully, line by line, word by word, and comma by comma; from there it's a natural and legitimate step to challenging each other and teachers about meaning and technique. If that analysis does not occur, points about cultural, political, religious, or other contexts will amount to little more than sloganeering.

In turn, that is part of the reason there's so much animosity about political correctness, which should simply mean treating each other and our groups with respect. Instead, it seems to mean, "I had some communist professor who made me say and write things I didn't think or believe. That's why liberals suck." The logic is incomplete, to put it mildly, yet I can see where it comes from: the classroom as professorial throne, the professor as dictator, T.S. Eliot not just frowned upon, but banned.

Bring this into the current, so-called national conversation. It's become a shouting match, an amassing of cheap shots and lies. That has become the culture or context for our talk with each other. I'd rather read Roethke's "The Waking" one more time than listen to the hyenas.

A New Critical perspective, as I conceive of it, would say, "Wait. Where's the evidence? Where are the facts? Let's look at them carefully, thoroughly, dispassionately. To the extent that's humanly possible, let's leave self-interest, vulnerabilty, rage and bullying at the door and see if we can agree on what actually has happened and is happening in this text, which may be this poem alone or this nation and the world." Quite possibly, that kind of careful examination of text might even create a different context, a culture of analysis rather than rhetorical flap and hatred.

That's a lot to ask, and it will never completely happen because we are at least as emotional as we are rational. Shall we therefore not try it? Shall we accept our status quo: Loudest wins?

Shakespeare's Henry plays are very much about Hal’s development as a human, a man, and a leader, and the nature of—the heartlessness required of?—leaders. There's the simultaneous appeal and repugnance we’re likely to feel toward a wit and buffoon, a self-interested pragmatist like Falstaff, the ersatz survivor, who ironically does not survive (as Hal's pal, as citizen).

How in the world is all that confined to the context or culture of young Henry's or Shakespeare’s England? What could be more timely than the bellicose rhetoric of Hotspur, or Glendower's exotic claims of a direct connection to the gods, the question of whom we can believe, and when, why, how?

We don't need to study aged history to appreciate the meaning and relevance of this; we may if we wish--out of curiosity or idleness. But what we must do is listen carefully to the characters' words and look at his actions and see how they're alive today. We don't need to know the particulars of the cultures that produced these characters; every culture produces these characters, admires these characters, divides loyalties among these characters, fears these characters, obeys and is victim of these characters.

Shall we compare Hal to George W. Bush, two overgrown children born into the lap of everything? Hal made it work, while even most conservatives now say, less than a year after the facts, that W. never did. How many history books about the Wars of the Roses must I read to acknowledge the plausibility of that comparison? Or the rigors to which a successful politician must submit, even if he’s a king, supposedly ruling by divine right? My answer is zero history, zero understanding of other cultures to get the gist of these plays that might seem so rooted in and confined to their specific eras.

Maybe it’s true that Leonard Cohen could not have written what he has written at other times or within other cultural norms. Maybe his culture has helped to produce him--surely it isn't either/or, is it? On the other hand, many or most great artists were aliens, or rebels, in their own times and places. I don’t know if that describes Cohen, but neither do I think we must have those answers in order to understand and love the beauty or wisdom this or that song. If we have some knowledge of Cohen's personal or cultural history, it might be useful or it might be dangerous; our first job and pleasure is to hear the song, not researching the intellectual climate in which it was written.

Ditto the unknown player at the coffee house. He may be singing about personal issues in early 21st century America, but if he isn’t at the same time singing about universal human concerns, he won’t be much remembered or honored beyond his few decades on the planet. And if he makes a zillion dollars, it won’t matter in the way that Dickinson and Whitman matter--they should matter first for their poems, secondly at most for the ways they do or do not reflect their culture.

GPK, is that too pompous for the sly humor in your commentary? It won’t be the first time I’ve been accused of bombast. I very much appreciate the sly humor, provocation, and enlarging of issues that you bring to the table.


gothpunkuncle said...

I'll concede that I'm not getting it. You're advocating a close and exclusive reading of the text, and then using current events (the reign of Bush the lesser) as a lens and context for the Henry plays? I like the reading, but it's not New Criticism. It's a history-of-ideas approach. G.W.B. does not exist in the text, nor does the historical Henry. This connection is forged beyond the margins in the lecturer's ideology, which is fine by me. The lecturer can be both analytical and passionate, and I'll love him all the more for keeping both of those juggling pins in the air.

For the record, I'm not that smart, know very little about British history, and, as far as I'm concerned, Shakespeare could have been a group of syphilic whores who wrote wonderful plays behind their pimp's back, appropriated the likeness of the village idiot and invented the entire Shakespeare persona as a lark. It wouldn't change the way I read the plays. I remember a heart-to-heart with a Catholic girlfriend who confessed that she'd be devastated if science proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there simply was no Jesus of Nazareth. I, on the other hand, would still feel some kind of faith in the golden rule, that "Do unto others..." bit, which has always struck me as an idea and a text as divine as they come.

I assume, in spite of my intellectual shortcomings, we have instinctive common ground to work with.

But, ah, the differences: I think you may see language as essentially Platonic, where as I'm less committed to that model. Words represent, as cave shadows represent... ? Well... they represent otherworldly analogues that I should have faith in and try to understand? Maybe.

Blackmur and crew used such tools as metaphor, image, tension and irony to explicate a text, but aren't all of these concepts socially constructed? (Well, GPU, ALL language is socially constructed...) Don't these concepts only pop -- and you mention classroom discussion -- in the context of a dialogue?

In 1941, explicating a Dickinson poem, (Renunciation / Is a piercing virtue, / The letting go / A presence for an expectation) Blackmur points out that the word "piercing" "always shocks us." But as a goth punk UNCLE, I've seen far too many youngsters with studs in their ears, lips, noses, tongues and eyebrows to react in a 1941 manner to the word "pierce." The wor(l)d has changed.

I think the New Critics would allow for this metaphorical leap: text=artifact. But the meaning of an artifact changes. The beautifully bulbous stone goddess means something at least slightly different in the museum showcase than it did in the cave, in the presence of a ceremonial fire and a hot young primitive hoping to add to the tribe's numbers. We can imagine two neighboring tribes, one dangerously underpopulated and the other dangerously overpopulated. Though contemporaneous, one tribe reads the stone simulacra as a goddess, the other a she-demon.

At the heart of my failure to grasp you may, I suspect, lie a failure to understand your definition of "culture." Are we discussing a "standard of excellence" as explicated in M. Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, or is culture better defined as "all the characteristic activities and interests of a people" (Eliot 1948 -- oddly enough!)? Your thoughts here might help.

Gothpunkuncle said...


I think you're on to something when you frame voice as a bridge between speaker and text. My point was simply that Leonard Cohen didn't win that Grammy, but went on to earn the respect of his peers and critics.

And, no, value goes far beyond commercial concerns in my book. It is tempting, though, to frame all culture as commodity, if the investment can be time and thought and that sort of pondering
the heart engages in, not simply dollars and cents.
I'm going back to the coffee shop to further study my previously referenced favorite local sub-celebrity tomorrow night. I'm going to take a pen a pad and try to figure out what this young man actually has going for him in terms of song, and will do my best to stick to the text, dear Banjo.

In the meantime, be well, and maybe you should take in your local scene as well because, as the kids say: "Dude, your grandmother is smokin' hot." (Definitely the prettiest bird on this blog.)

BANJO52 said...

Can't believe you put all this together that fast!

Well, Eliot's 1948 definition sounds closer to what I mean, though I hesitate without remembering or researching more about . . . CONTEXT!! ha.

I'd be more likely to make the coffee shop rounds--the culture there--if you didn't wear me out with all this highfalutin THINKING.

I'll try to stand aside for awhile and let others in. Rumor has it they're about to storm my Bastille, fascinate as they are by this subject.

altadenahiker said...

Is this the point where I put a straw of oat hay in my mouth and say, "well surr, the way ah see it..."

altadenahiker said...

Ok, after chewing on the straw for a bit, I'll say a couple of things: A piece - lit, painting, sculpture, music -- must be able to stand upright without the crutch of historical context, otherwise it's nothing more than quaint.

I don't think any work of art can be approached without education, but that's not a single road. Or even a chronological one. Andre Breton's Nadja, for example, is what helped me finally appreciate Measure for Measure.

Berol said...

I now have a rough idea of what the New Criticism thesis is; I don't apology for that, because I suspect the thesis itself is at best a rough one. But here's something of possible relevance.

In a freakish chemical accident when he was three, Michael May had both corneas destroyed. This left him blind. Forty years later, by virtue of a miraculous operation, he received new corneas, and consequently, his visual apparatus was once again made completely whole. However, he could not "see". Why? The belief among researchers is this: May did not have those forty years of experience to teach his brain to interpret what his visual apparatus took in; where you and I see a curb, for example, Michael sees light patches of different shadings.

Relevance? It suggests to me, at least, that with this new understanding of how vision works, SEEING the sculpture (i.e., seeing in itself) requires historical knowledge, or something akin to same; otherwise, one doesn't SEE, but only experiences patches of light. (Perhaps that's why Jackson Pollack canvases are shit....)

BANJO52 said...

I have to think through Berol's comment some more, but the potential parallel is fascinating.

Surely literary theory is a lot more palatable and less pretentious if it trains us to see all things better, not just poetry, fiction, and drama.

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