Aug 18, 2009

THE NEW CRITICISM, Part 3, The Biographical Fallacy

The Biography of the Nut? The History of This Nut's Species? The Context of the Nut? What the Nut's Team of Psychoanalysts Said about the Nut?

Or the Nut Itself--Taste, Smell, Touch, Sight, and even Sound?

Regarding The New Criticism--my version of it anyway--the history, context, and so forth, of the nut are of no use, are without nutrition, unless the user has understood and experienced the nut itself. Once the nut has been experienced directly, by one who knows nuts, those other factors might make interesting playthings, but they will not feed the squirrel--who, I repeat--can distinguish a good nut from a rock, without memorizing Herodotus on the Peloponnesian Nut Wars.

Here's some more on the quasi-academic way of saying that.

Surely the “biographical fallacy” is a self-evident truth: good reading does not inject details of the author’s life into his writing. The author or his biographer might have gotten it wrong, might not have understood where a particular creative impulse came from. Or he might lie about it!

Yeats’s love for Maud Gonne, Keats’s love for Fanny Brawne, Nietzsche’s apparently pathetic life in relation to his bold notions, including that of a superman—these putative facts about the author’s life, juicy as they might be, should have nothing to do with the way we interpret or evaluate his words on the printed page. We’ll never actually know the biographical details, so let’s just do the honest, sometimes difficult work of interpreting the text.

Of course there are some qualifications. For example, language has changed since Shakespeare’s time, so we need an occasional footnote about telling “a hawk from a handsaw” in Hamlet or “’Sblood” as a recurring oath. And in Macbeth, it helps to know we can reasonably assume that childless Lady Macbeth’s comment about “the babe that milks me” probably refers to a child who died, given the commonness of infant mortality in eleventh century Scotland. What we must not do is jump to the conclusion that a significant theme in the play is, for example, a Shakespearean obsession with abortion-related guilt or the bard’s mourning the death of his own lost child.

Even the facts about the actual Scottish king should have no bearing on the Macbeth in the play, who is a fictional creation. Shakespeare played fast and loose with the sketchy historical facts available to him, so why should we bring them to bear on his plays, his works of art?

All this seems so obvious to me that I do not understand why the New Criticism has fallen out of favor in the last few decades, unless its proponents grew so extreme that they became absurd. I’m aware that the New Critics are associated with formalism in poetry; but I don’t remember, or never knew, if that was a justifiable connection or one created by their detractors. I see no reason why a New Critic’s careful attention to text—including punctuation and line breaks—should be limited to rhymed or metered poetry. Surely good free verse requires, deserves, and should invite the same kind of scrutiny.

Next, I intend to get back to Mr. Gothpunkrocker. But this should be enough for one day. Enough of what? Be kind. (Rewind?)

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