Monday, March 30, 2009

Cunningham’s history of criticism

Note: In the spring of 1976, I took a seminar on the history of literary criticism with J. V. Cunningham, who was the Hurst Visiting Professor at Washington University that semester. The course text was Allan H. Gilbert’s Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden, originally published in 1940, an anthology that was particularly good for its selection of Italian Renaissance critics—Tasso, Castelvetro, Minturno—and for its extensive topical index. I have already shared an anecdote from this class, concerning an assignment, and told how the enrollment sheet, misprinting the course’s name as the “History of Literacy Criticism,” amused him. (Now that I have taught graduate students, and seen for myself what passes for literacy among recent college graduates, I understand why he was amused.) Although there were fewer than a dozen students in the class, Cunningham lectured for the full two hours, without notes, leaning forward, his legs crossed tightly at the knee, speaking in a soft but audible voice that encouraged the student to lean forward also.

Only recently, to my great joy, did I turn up my class notes. And since today is the twenty-fourth anniversary of his death, I thought it fitting to honor Cunningham by distributing some of these notes. I have included about a third of the whole. His admirers, of whom there are many, will be grateful for his remarks on the history of criticism—the first new publication of Cunningham material in several years—even in the fragmentary form in which I offer them here. As he said, in the final note that I have from the class, “Our feeling for fragment as form is an explanation of free verse.”

Meter. Poets must learn, young, to speak and hear it.

Writing aims at being unalterable and permanent. Thus records and tape recordings are forms of writing.

Form precedes its realization, even in the first instance.

A literary work is a convergence of forms.

The assumption of translation is that things can be said in several ways and that the ways can be compared.

Dialogue. People aiming at a sort of change through oral interchange. An elementary form of it is the catechism, a question-and-answer dialogue. Modern forms, unknown to antiquity, include psychotherapy, labor negotiations, a roundtable discussion. These are Socratic dialogues in well-furnished rooms.

Background information is often imparted (or learned through study) merely for the sake of believing in the foreground. Thus, when Laertes warns Ophelia against marrying Hamlet, he is speaking plain truth, for he is speaking in the foreground and must be believed. The background was this. All mixed marriages between a royal personage and a commoner ended with the commoner in prison, in exile, or dead.

Dialectic. It is a conversation held under certain rules: (1) The answerer is required to reply in as few words as possible. (2) He is required to answer the question exactly as put. (3) He is not allowed to ask new questions. (4) Or to boggle at the form of the question as put to him.

The “old” meaning of the word art. A field in which things can be accomplished by certain steps and procedures. If the steps are not general then they don’t belong to an art. If a procedure is not applicable to every poet then poetry is not an art.

Divine inspiration. The man becomes completely engrossed. The inspired becomes not himself. He is narrowed to relevance. He becomes pure style.

Tolerance is almost identical to indifference.

You won’t last long unless you know how to lie. Including the reputation for not doing so.

Unity is an invention of the New Critics, developed to enable them to replace the writer’s style. If you just read the thing—and didn’t have to write an introduction to it—it would never occur to you that there is a problem of unity. In Shakespeare the unifying element is the plot. There is no paper in that, but there was a play.

Worrying about unity in a literary work comes about because of posing unity as a problem in the first place.

In Plato, paradox is employed to make the worse appear to be the better course.

Sacred text. (1) Allusion to it carries prestige. (2) The text is inseparable from its commentary.

A text has a value in its society that may reflect an inaccurate interpretation of it.

One can see the art of tragedy working through Sophocles to produce Oedipus.

An artist must follow a model. That is the meaning of mimesis.

If it is not done by art, in the old sense of the word, then a man cannot give a coherent explanation of the step-by-step process of creation.

The world of poetry used to be defined by who wrote in what meter. Poets were known by their methods, meters, and style.

“So much depends/ upon a red wheelbarrow. . . .” That so much depends upon who is King of Denmark is another matter.

Character in tragedy. What a man does to seek or to avoid something displays his moral choices.

For Aristotle, character is the subtle habits of a man that lead him to make moral choices. In this sense character is distinguished from pathos, the strong feelings that may arise suddenly in a man but are separate from his steadfastness.

Modern critics tend to “vague-ify” and psychologize—that is, they turn the externals inward. The obvious is repellent for some reason to the literary sensibility.

A complex plot—containing sharp reversals, exposing character and motive—is for Aristotle the completest form of tragedy’s art.

Thought. In Aristotelian terms, it is what a speaker would ideally say in arguing for or against something. Defects of speech, then, are defects of thought.

Improbabilities may exist in the antecedents of the story but not in the tragedy as it takes place from line one to the end.

Ciceronian style. It must be free from lowness and have elements of what is unusual. “People like what strikes them and are struck by the out-of-the-way,” Cicero said.

The middle style is clear, clear, clear.

The first question to be asked of a style is this. What is its vice? How does it go bad?

The Attic style. It is plain and ordinary, yet more elegant than most uses of the language. At first reading, however, everyone is sure he can write that way.

Appropriateness is the end of the plain style. Also: a dry wit.

The purpose of the plain style is to persuade, of the pretty style to charm, of the grand style to move or bend.

The quiet, plain style. It is noticeably unnoticeable. Two examples from Stevens: “The room was quiet and the world was calm.” And: “junipers shagged with ice.”

Romantic rhetoric. Its elements: classical allusion, little big words, a cosmic subject-matter.

The abstract simile: “As familiar as a bad mistake.”

The neighboring word. Surrounding the first word that comes to mind with approximations. It can be an elegant variation. Or a way of saying both words. An example from Hart Crane: “blue wink of eternity.”

The easiest way to make a usually eight-syllable line pentameter is to add a single two-beat adjective. This is the major defect of Gray’s style.

The unhappy epithet: “more happy, happy love” (Keats).

The style must be chronic to be recognizable.

An accumulation of bad habits marks the colloquial style.

Style is a means of differentiating experiences, of cutting experience apart from the generalities that modern psychology has left us with.

Style is not an attitude toward experience. An attitude is but striking a pose before experience. Style is a means of transforming experience.

There is no such thing as no style. The no-style is impossible.

(Cunningham asks the students for their definitions of style.) One says, “It’s the way a writer uses words.” “You might think of style as the way words use a writer,” Cunningham replies.

The writer seeks the unique in the common language.

Impropriety is the new standard in literature.

The finder of his theme will be at no loss for words.

Writing must be accurate (that is, objectively right), but it also must have something that takes the reader in.

Longinus. Criticism as a great mind responding to great literature and recording its response.

The transmission of the tradition has almost been an accident.

When style is overpowering it takes us over. We think we have said what we have heard.

A striking style depends first of all upon its thoughts. Pathos helps thoughts become striking by disrupting the form of an old idea.

It would be indecorous to ascribe a fault to Jane Austen.

The legend of the poet as poet: biographical criticism, sometimes without biographical detail.

“Yes, but. . . .” It is the current critical rubric. By its means, critics dispose of the obvious.

The progress of Shakespearean tragedy is from first intimation of disorder to order’s return. The fortunes of one house have gone to wreck; another house succeeds it. Tragedy must be written in the high style; it must be stately written, fit for kings, containing not common things.

The violent death of great men is the end of tragedy. When enough of it happens, you know the play is almost over.

The great tragedians did not write to fulfill Aristotle’s analysis. Shakespeare’s tragedies are written in line with the stipulations: they provide the conception, the realization of it, and its principle of order. One of the author’s decisions is the perception that his material is suited for an established literary form. You have to mean the form. You cannot fall into it by accident.

Dante’s definition of a poem: a rhetorical fiction, written metrically.

Fiction is a gimmick, a device. Not an idea; that blurs it.

Medieval commentary: making the structure, though obvious, explicit. “The poem is divided into three parts.”

A work of literature should not only stick to the point; it should stray. It should have, so to speak, something extra here and there.

Behind the work of literature is unsolicited and almost overpowering experience. It could be made up, but more likely seen.

In modern literature we witness a widespread need for anti-formality which often takes the form of vandalism. It goes by the rubric Make It New.

Variety is good. It is also distracting.

Verse has lines in addition to grammar. This is its distinguishing mark. And a line is formed by systematic phonetic repetition, the most obvious of which is rhyme. For the lines must be heard.

Rhyme is a sufficient principle because it determines the line.

We have been told that meaning lies in irregularity. Is regularity—1, 2, 3, 4—then meaningless?

The principle of the ghost text. No one has read a poem who has not constructed and rejected as he read some of the alternative poems whose nonexistence gives timbre and resonance to the text. These nonexistent alternative poems are ghost texts.

A poem’s stanzaic form controls the outline. Thought either corresponds to the outline or it doesn’t.

The notion that tragedy involves the tragic flaw is no longer associated with a single critic. It is, so to speak, the dictionary meaning.

An Elizabethan plot is but a large sheet listing entrances and exits and props needed. It was drawn up for the prop-keep. It is a digest of the scenes.

How difficult it is to write in praise!

The writer asks himself, “Can I think of a plot that will parallel this? Can I take this work of literature as an example of something I might produce?” Let us, then, consider literature as a productive science.

We look for continuities. We want plausibilities. There are no blinding flashes in modern literature. We have excluded from fiction and from life—that is to say, from our views of life—the essentially interesting, the extraordinary, the sudden.


Anonymous said...

Laertes doesn't warn Ophelia against marrying Hamlet. He warns her against getting involved without marriage.

D. G. Myers said...

Only partly true. The context of Laertes’ warning is obviously marriage. He tells Ophelia that Hamlet may love her now, but his choice—whom to marry—is not entirely his own, “for on his choice depends/ The safety and health of this whole state;/ And therefore must his choice be circumscribed. . . .”

If for Ophelia love is an affair of the heart, for the song of a king it must also be an affair of state.

Accordingly, Laertes advises her to show caution in listening to Hamlet’s love songs, weighing carefully what it would mean to “lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open/ To his unmaster'd importunity.”

Getting involved without marriage is a modern concept, which Shakespeare would not have understood. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Laertes warns Ophelia on the subject of marriage to Hamlet.

Hearing this warning, a modern thinks of sex. The Elizabethan audience thought of the political consequences of marriage between royalty and a commoner.

Becca the Promo Mami said...

You've given me enough fuel to last a LONG while. Thank You! Pithy, poignant - near heroic couplets in substance and brevity.

"The assumption of translation is that things can be said in several ways and that the ways can be compared." <-- I've spent the last week or so vacillating between the English and French versions of Bouillier's The Mystery Guest and am miserable (it's all documented on my blog).... this is timely.

"The purpose of the plain style is to persuade, of the pretty style to charm, of the grand style to move or bend." <-- I'm drawn to dandyism in literature, so it's definitely the charming, pretty style for me.

"An accumulation of bad habits marks the colloquial style." & "In modern literature we witness a widespread need for anti-formality which often takes the form of vandalism. It goes by the rubric Make It New." <-- These are the reasons I've disliked many of the books I've recently read.

"When style is overpowering it takes us over. We think we have said what we have heard." <-- Montaigne is the master of this plain, persuasive style. You'd think you'd come up with some of the self-realizations he documented. And these notes of yours, of Cunningham's, I find myself nodding in agreement and gasping in epiphany as I read them.

"How difficult it is to write in praise!" <-- I started my own commonplace blog last week (this blog has been my inspiration) and already I feel I'm being too negative, finding fault with everything, being a literary *hater* (lol) - but it's much easier for me to identify and criticize the source of my dissatisfaction in what I read... which is strange because there's so much pleasure to be had in a book.

What a teacher Cunningham must have been!

R. T. said...

How I envy your experiences in Prof. Cunningham's classroom. Thank you for your generous sharing of your rediscovered notes. When I get bogged down in sorting through literary criticism of the past quarter century, which happens often, I can now clear my mind of cant and return to your notes (which I have taken the liberty of copying), and those notes will help me understand again why I fell in love with the teaching of literature. POSTSCRIPT TO ANONYMOUS: Read Hamlet again, but think less about the substance of Laertes' comments to his sister, especially in terms of what it all must mean to Ophelia, and think more about the ways in which Shakespeare is laying the foundation for the audience's deeper understanding of Hamlet's problems as well as a foundation for the audience's realization that Shakespeare's play was rather covertly and politically topical.

Anthony Whittaker said...

Thank you for posting these notes. There is content there that is truly inspirational.

Jay Livingston said...

"Meter. Poets must learn, young, to speak and hear it." Did he also say that you had to read poetry out loud? You can't read it silently.If you're in a quiet place like a library, you must at least mumble.

marly youmans said...

I am enjoying these. Thought it was "black wink of eternity" rather than blue... Shall have to look it up. And I remember hearing in school long ago that it was a typesetter's error for "wing" but that Crane liked it.