I've nearly finished the required
periodic trip into the Lit-Crit-scape, and I feel like one of those deranged
characters being led to a cell on the old Barney Miller TV show.
The detective says, "Yeah, Barney, I found this guy down by the library
grabbing passersby and threatening to poke the eyes out of anyone who'd
write lit crit--whatever the hell that is."
I know, I know--everybody's got to do it.
You've got to publish to stay alive. But that's the same argument they
used in defense of slavery--you just couldn't raise cotton without 'em.
Frankly, I'm not sure I buy it.
Sure, there's some good criticism out there.
But pressuring everyone to contribute leads to an ungodly situation. "Yes,
child, you may go out in the literary criticism--just be careful not to
step in any."
And the issue really has little to do with
artistic temperament vs. scholarly. It's more like this: For a paper on
Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," I waded through an article that examined
the epistemological dilemma posed by the story. The reader proceeds from
epistemological indifference to epistemological anxiety through the course
of the narrative, according to Christopher Metress. Not to say that
there isn't a smidgeon of an epistemological question raised in the story,
but the "Boat" is not about epistemology--hell, I don't see that it's all
that much about naturalism. "The Open Boat" is about a writer who takes
a sentiment like, he felt utterly forsaken and resented it, and
turns it into:
When it occurs to a man that nature does
not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim
the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw
bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are
no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would
surely be pelleted with his jeers.
Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels,
perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in
pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: "Yes, but
I love myself."
A high cold star on a winter's night is the word
he feels that she says to him. (Crane 666)
In the July 19, ‘99 New Yorker is a
piece by Adam Gopnik, less review than unabashed lionization of poet Randall
Jarrell. (No Other Book by Brad Leithauser, Harper Collins:
a collection of Jarrell's poetry, criticism, and misc. journalism)
Besides poetry Jarrell apparently wrote criticism,
but he did it right--from the heart, as well as the head--and he seems
to have been one of the few worthy of a license to practice. (Gopnik's
piece includes excerpts.) I dearly love the following for its succinct
[Jarrell, 1941:] "Our universities should produce good
criticism; they do not--or, at best, they do so only as our prisons produce
good counterfeit money: a few hardened prisoners are more or less surreptitiously
continuing their real vocations."
A prefatory note to Huckleberry Finn reads:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative
will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will
be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
Several things I like about that note. First,
and parenthetically, it connects three independent clauses with two semicolons,
a thing I was told by a certain American Lit. professor should not be done.
But then Mark Twain's concern is not to satisfy any literary requirements;
his aim is to capture a time, a language, a people, a river, and all with
authenticity; the voice required for such a task doesn't necessarily bend
to the rules.
So why is it that we must take the best stuff
fitted into words and discuss it as if we wear white labcoats and carry
clipboards? It seems the height of irony. What if Homer or
Twain or Woody Allen had taken to their narratives with the language of
the Modern Language Association? Where would we be then?
The cold, formal language of science results
from the notion that ideas stated in such form can be protected or prevented
from such troubling things as bias and emotional involvement of the writer.
Instead, this strained and convoluted language only cloaks the inevitable
bias and emotion. That humans could do anything without personal involvement
is a leftover fiction from the nineteenth century "perfection of mankind"
Literature chronicles the human condition--isn't
that a fusion of the heart and the head, passion with a smattering of reason?
If logic, reason, is an imperfect science, surely logic contaminated by
passion is an impossible mess (and splendor) that will submit to no science
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