Archive for May, 2004

Dividing Criticism and Theory

Tuesday, May 25th, 2004

One of the themes I seem to keep on tripping across these days is the division between historical literary criticism, literary writing intended for the mythical common reader, and academic criticism, such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. The latest example of this comes from this review of The Oxford English Literary History:

Writers are intensely interested in what might be called aesthetic success: they have to be, because in order to create something successful one must learn about other people’s successful creations… But conventional, non-theoretical criticism often acts as if questions of value are irrelevant, or canonically settled… In his new book, After Theory, Terry Eagleton describes two camps, the belletristic and the theoretical. Why is it, he asks, that the former is credited with seeing what is ‘really in the text’? ‘To see The Waste Land as brooding upon the spiritual vacancy of Man without God is to read what is there on the page, whereas to view it as a symptom of an exhausted bourgeois civilisation in an era of imperialist warfare is to impose your own crankish theory on the poem.

On the whole I have always been sceptical of claims regarding aesthetic judgement, where, it seems to me, the difference between opinion and prejudice is merely a recognition than man is as much a rationalising animal as a rational one. This seems particularly so in this case, where the problem is not that the Oxford Review lacks aesthetic discrimination, but that it does indeed discriminate between works according to an aesthetic the reviewer is not in sympathy with (i.e. one that prefers postmodern and politically committed aesthetics).

In fact, this review raises several questions that are poorly answered; for example, surely there is a great deal that is arbitrary about the formation of the canon (after all, the Victorians read Scott and Rossetti rather than Austen and Hopkins; a prejudice always rather more congenial to me than that of modern times). Equally, if one should be wary of reasing texts symptomatically, one feels tempted to ask what is the value of literature if it cannot be regarded as being symptomatic? But rather than doing nothing more than writing a rebuttal, it might be better to recall what a criticism of aesthetic merit resembled. Though he disliked the term ‘aesthetic’ FR Leavis would nonetheless seem to the very acme of the type of criticism being exalted. His criticism sought to weigh the merits of differing authors. Those admitted into the great tradition included George Eliot, James, Conrad and Lawrence; those excluded had Milton, Woolf, Tennyson and Hardy amongst their number. Dickens and Charlotte Bronte flitted between the two camps. While contemporary criticism might be guilty of neither selecting nor rejecting, aesthetic criticism promptly went to the other extreme.

There’s a good argument to be made that some notion of ‘literatity’ is important, even an arbitrary one. But such arbitrary notions cannot be founded on anything other than prejudice masked as judgement. It seems to me that a division between criticism and theory is something to welcome. Let the former return to being the preserve of writers like James, where there is little pretence that one is seeing anything other than a mirror of the writer themself (as with Rushdie and Franzen, both cited by the reviewer) while the role of the critic as self-appointed arbiter of taste can comfortably be left to wither on the vine. While I have a great many reservations about contemporary theory (its selective appropriation of philosophy and linguistics, its ignorance of historical conditions in favour of what remains a vulgar Marxism, to cite the two most obvious complaints in what would otherwise be a rather long list) I’d still prefer the likes of Bakhtin and Lukacs to Trilling and Richards any day of the week.

Freud and the Flat Earth

Saturday, May 8th, 2004

I recently came across this piece comparing recent In Our Time discussion of hysteria to a discussion of flat Earth theory. To a large extent such discussions seem somewhat anachronistic; if such a discussion took Freud seriously in scientific or medical terms then it is more of a living fossil than anything else. Pre-twentieth century science was not nearly as divorced from other disciplines as is the case today and Freud was working in a period before the likes of Russell and Popper had even established the notion of a philosophy of science. In short, I think it should be clear that Freud’s work has little value in scientific terms (particularly since much of what Freud attributed to hysteria can now be more accurately attributed to physiological disorders). But I do have some trouble with what seems to be a movement to discard Freud completely, being unwilling to accept that he might have a place in the history of ideas, if not the history of science. Something similar was apparent when I recently posted on the subject of Camille Paglia and Neal Stephenson’s views on the rise of the image and the deline of language as a communications medium; complaints were raised that Paglia was making empirical claims which could not be considered unless they subject to the strictures of the scientific method. The value of the concept is viewed as being entirely contingent upon its truth value. My uncertainty over this is largely due to the fact that the truth claims of something like Civilisation and its Discontents (or even The Interpretation of Dreams) don’t seem necessarily different in kind to me to those of Thus Sprach Zarathrustra or Being and Nothingness, both of which were written with truth claims in mind but which are rarely judged solely according to that criteria (indeed much the same could be held to apply to literature, which is far from being devoid of such truth claims).

My own view of Freud was largely determined by an interpretation of him written by Harold Bloom. Harold Bloom once made a rather good case to the effect that there were very few concepts in Freud that hadn’t been at least implicit in Western culture. Wittgenstein had a similar reaction, stating that Freud had not discovered the unconscious in the same manner as Colombus discovered the Americas, but had instead described a new notation for “psychological reactions.” Where Freud is commonly used as a means of interpreting writers, Bloom inverted this and users various Romantic writers to interpret Freud (appropriately so given that Freud often cited works of literature as often as patient case studies). To Bloom, Freud can best be described as a cultural mythologist:

My interest in Freud comes from the increasing realization that Freud is a kind of codifier or abstractor of William Shakespeare. In fact, it is Shakespeare who gives us the map of the mind. It is Shakespeare who invents Freudian Psychology. Freud finds ways of translating it into supposedly analytical vocabulary…I think Freud is about contamination, but I think that is something he learned from Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is about nothing but contamination, you might say. The Roman stage trope of contamination has to do with taking characters, with the names they have had in other plays and in history, and giving them the same names but making them wholly different characters. It is the way we live, it is the way we write, it is the way we read. It is, alas, the way we love: we are always taking the names of the dead or past characters and applying them to others.

Of course, such a view can hardly be viewed as surprising; one of the principal reasons Freud achieved the status he did was because of his influence on vast swathes of early twentieth century literature from Mann to Auden, Lawrence, Woolf, Gide and Dreiser to name only a few. Nor is such a view especially original; Robert Musil had taken the view that Freudianism was characterised by double-bind logic, wherein if we cannot detect an Oedipal desire within us, for instance, this proves all the more that the desire is there, but deeply repressed. Nonetheless, Musil regarded his rival as having achieved greatness not as a scientist but as a pseudopoet. On the whole, I would have thought this sufficient to qualify Freud for a place in the history of ideas, if not the history of science. But then, I came across this:

In the last hundred years such thinkers as Marx, Freud, Sartre and Lévi-Strauss have (set) out from a culture alienated from its traditional beliefs, disconsolately counting the small change of its new spiritual poverty, they have returned richly laden with belief and certainty in order to announce the discovery of the Brave New Worlds of dialectical materialism, of psychoanalysis, of existentialism and of structuralism. Many thinkers have greeted these discoveries with relief and enthusiasm. But because of their profound lack of familiarity with the orthodoxies of their own culture, they have often failed to recognise that the New Worlds in question are in reality but part of the old religious continent which was once their own, and that what they have embraced are not fresh theories of human nature but Judaeo-Christian orthodoxies which have been reconstructed in a secular form.

On the one had, such an argument is a familiar one, with the work of Richard Dawkins representing a better known illustration of it; science and the scientific method are viewed as the sole means of explaining the world (thereby displacing not only religion but also literature, history and philosophy to varying extents), wherein the individual could step outside their own perceptions of the world and thereby obviate the need for interpretation (or, as Mary Midgley put it; “But of course the idea that the universe could be deflated down to the facts is one she has constantly fought against. We could not begin to understand a world that was made of facts and nothing else; such a world is itself an imaginative vision and not a scientific one.“. In short, the same kind of scepticism shown by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations. In this case, it also assumes that an individual can step outside their own culture (and therefore, to take another unscientific metaphor, to discard their memeset in its entirety). In such cases, I would have thought it very clear that the value of a concept is not reducible to its truth value alone; christianity is unlikely to have any truth value at all but this hardly means that all aspects of it need be ignored (surely the concepts of free will and salvation through individual agency are not entirely without merit and are worth perserving). This particular approach dwells on the veracity of a claim in an eternal present and divorces such claims from historical context and culture. Oddly, this in itself strikes me as a reconstruction of the religious approach to truth at its worst and not being different in kind to roundheads whitewashing church murals or Mao’s cultural revolution. Perhaps the best statement of my view of this can be found in Hayek’s Scientism and the Study of Society:

Till Science has literally completed its work and not left the slightest unexplained residue in man’s intellectual processes, the facts of our mind remain not only data to be explained but also data on which the explanation of human action guided by those mental phenomena must be based… The question is here not how far man’s picture of the external world fits the facts, but how by his actions, determined by the views and concepts he possesses, man builds up another world of which the individual becomes a part. And by “the views and concepts people hold” we do not mean merely their knowledge of external nature. We mean all they know and believe about themselves, other people, and the external world, in short everything which determines their actions, including science itself.

A History of Fascism

Wednesday, May 5th, 2004

Terry Eagleton has been reviewing a history of fascism. Much of what he says sounds reasonable, though I’m a little inclined to think that if fascism is to be defined, historical and political definitions are somewhat limited; Umberto Eco’s typology of an ur-fascism has always struck me as a more convincing concept. On the whole though, I’m more struck by the observation that ends the review:

Liberal capitalist nations are becoming more authoritarian under the threat of terrorist attacks, while societies which were already authoritarian, such as China, are turning capitalist. The two systems are meeting each other, so to speak, coming the other way. Meanwhile, the globe is well furnished with capitalist set-ups that were never liberal in the first place, as well as with regimes whose former colonial proprietors exported market forces to their shores while forgetting to include democratic institutions in the cargo. The assumption that the free market and political democracy go naturally together was always pretty dubious, and fascism is one dramatic refutation of it.

I’m a little surprised that anyone should imagine free markets and liberal democracy to be necessarily contingent. Though the theory that argues for such a connection is far from being unreasonable (the notion being that only a framework of civil rights are capable of guaranteeing the conditions for capitalism, e.g. by safeguarding property rights), one need surely only consider the respective economic fates of Weimar Germany and Hitler’s Germany to think twice about that. Alternatively, one might consider the economic fates of China and post-communist Russia (particularly now that economic confidence and an increasingly authoritarian regime in the Kremlin appear to be hand in glove with one another).

Thom Gunn

Tuesday, May 4th, 2004

The death of Thom Gunn marks the end of what I had viewed as one of the most important bodies of work in modern literature. Certainly, he had always seemed to me to be the most important poet since Auden. Where most twentieth century poetry retreated either into a sense of quirky parochialism (Larkin, Betjeman) or into solipsistic romanticism (Hughes), Gunn had always seemed ably to effortlessly offer a via media between romanticism and realism.