Aug 10, 2009

THE NEW CRITICISM AND THE ANT FARM OF LIFE

As an all-round pile of virtue, I am completely honest about everything. So I’ve been getting militant about what we know, or think we know, or can know, or how we came to know it—or came to think we know it. We know very little; we inch forward. Yet others seem to think we can know so much we can play golf with God.

Among my several ongoing Herculean endeavors, I try to use strategies of literary criticism as a way to get at other problems, the solutions to which might prevent divorce, war and most human injustice.

I have breakfast buddies; one group of four meets every month or so, with the understanding that we have come together because we’ve been called upon to discuss timeless, epic matters, such as education, politics, and metaphysics—the usual suspects. From one perspective, these are merely more freshman dormitory ramblings. From another, better vantage point, however, it's clear that we should never pretend to have outgrown those concerns, for that is when we end up talking endlessly about golf, plumbing, brownie recipes, and babies’ bowel habits.

One Saturday morning the breakfast boys were speaking freely about the author’s life, character, and intentions during the composition of The Get-Down Dirty Frolick Papers. Turns out that Dickens—not Charles, but Big-Lew-Tiny Dickens (BLT to his breakfast pals)—underwent gall bladder surgery halfway through that novel’s composition. The vast majority of reviewers inferred, therefore, that Dickens’s thorough, precise, artistically rendered gore, splattered throughout the second half of his murder mystery, was the result of the author’s daily three-hour study of his own gallstones, which sat in a jar on the mantle, beside a shot glass with a cyst floating in formaldehyde—it had been removed three years earlier and is now widely accepted as the inspiration for Dickens’ contemporary classic, Chicken Fat Floats.

When I asked if they’d forgotten about the New Criticism, my friends stared at me. Puzzled, I gently reminded them of the New Criticism’s rejection of biography as a means to understanding literature. They stopped chewing. They raised their silverware as if to attack. Slim Tim developed a little spittle in the corner of his mouth.

These are smart guys, so their rage led me to wonder: am I the only one who still clings to The New Criticism as an approach to understanding poetry (I'd include all serious literature)—and through that, understanding what one can and cannot know about most things, from religious beliefs to magical popcorn.

The New Criticism was developed at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s and then at Kenyon College in Ohio. It remained in favor into the 1960s (Wikipedia). It still makes complete sense to me, but no one else, it seems.

The New Critics' thesis holds, modestly, it would seem, that readers and critics should look only at the words on the page to interpret a text. Serious readers are interested in the song, not the singer or the auditorium; leave the singer and his venue to the biographer, historian, or architect, not the simply good reader, whose subject is the song.

Stay tuned for more. Sleep well.

4 comments:

gothpunkuncle said...

Well... if it's the song not the singer, and Blackmur and his boys -- and they WERE all boys, unfortunately, back in the day -- were right, shouldn't we be able to more easily calculate the qualities of a text that works? Wouldn't criteria for excellence just be a matter of carefully reading the Norton anthologies with an eye toward commonalities in its selected offerings? Perhaps I'm more of a song and dance man than a literate type. I could study . . . Rolling Stone magazine's top recordings of all times? The Billboard charts? I'm afraid that the song has extrinsic value as well as intrinsic value. The New Vaudvilleans won a Grammy in the late sixties for "Winchester Cathedral." I'm not sure if anybody even sought Leonard Cohen's opinion on this. 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?

To illustrate further, I was at my local coffee house the other night enjoying a competent, if unknown, musician who sang and played guitar. One of his original tunes got a bigger reaction out of the crowd than the Dylan/Beatles/Standard fare he sandwiched it in between. Perhaps he's a better song writer than the artists he was covering, but I doubt it. He could have had friends in the audience; there may have been young ladies in the audience more caught up in the timbre of his voice and his manly good looks. I don't know. Perhaps the song was humorous at a point when the evening had gotten solemn. Even if it was the greatest song ever, isn't it a text subject to the demands of context? The rigors of genre and cultural expectation?

BANJO52 said...

Wow, GPK, many thanks for a thorough, frisky response, which I hope will generate more of its kind--including at least one from me.

For starters, I'm not sure "ease" in calculating the excellence of a text, including a song, is the primary issue . . .

I'm not a major fan of Eliot, although I've been known to say aloud that "Prufrock" is the greatest poem every written in English.

But more to your point, isn't the question whether Eliot OUGHT to mean as much now as he did 40 years ago? If he doesn't--if his WORK doesn't--is that the fault of the work or the readership, which has perhaps become lazy and/or too preoccupied with Eliot's objectionable personality traits and offensive political thoughts to bring intelligence to his work?

As a footnote, I recently heard that more than one tenured professor has recently been fired for simply puting Eliot on a syllabus. So much for academic
freedom.

Gotta quit for now. Hope this continues.

BANJO52 said...

GPK, P.S. -- Please believe me when I swear I'd posted today (Aug. 11), including the photo, BEFORE I read your comments. So explain this karma thing to me again . . .

And thanks again. I've just begun my work with you, youngster.

gothpunkuncle said...

I think I see how this is going to go, Nuncle 'Jo: you playing the blinded old coot with a crown of wild flowers and nettles, me, well, I'll try not to be TOO foolish.

We have some points of agreement. Author bio isn't always the best lens to view a text from (so why has this blog recently made me think about Eliot's politics and Faulkner's drinking problem?) Speaking of T.S., I, too, prefer "Prufrock" to "The Waste Land" (probably because out of the two, it's the text that seems to be grounded in corporeal human experience, not IDEAS. If the experience isn't the author's, so be it. But tell me, Sirrah, whose does it become? The reader's? The parchment's?) And here that famous trinity of antiquity rears its rhetorical head: ethos, logos, pathos. Out of the three, the text in and of itself can only deliver the center of that tryptic. Or am I mistaken?

"The Waste Land" has not weathered well, and it's, ironically, the fault, not of the work itself or the lazy reader, but the context that it helped to create. This disembodied collage of despairing world philosophies fell out of fashion. Where once it was, rightly so, valued for its originality of form, having been imitated in the canon too often, it is no longer unique. (Funny how we value both the unique and the universal in a piece of art, eh?) Have I ever shared with you that intimate detail from MY autobiography? That I can only make love to a woman if she first utters a nonsensical epigraph in some dead language?

Nor will I now.

Text and context. Beans and cornbread.

Please keep in mind that the New Criticism is a pedagogical tool, not an aesthetic one. It was invented to keep teachers tenured, not pluck at the tender, pink heartstrings of girls in their summer dresses.

I'll take Lowell's Notebook poems; you can keep "Lord Weary's Castle."

You can take ALLAN Tate, I've got Jim's home phone on my Rolodex.

Lovers' Lane