Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Single-minded devotion to literature

Transcribing J. V. Cunningham’s lecture notes on the history of criticism, principally on form and style, reminded me of something that Orwell wrote in 1948 after the Soviet Union had consolidated the Eastern Bloc. The events of the past decade had made a “purely aesthetic attitude towards life impossible. No one, now, could devote himself to literature as single-mindedly as Joyce or Henry James,” he said. The modern literary intellectual simply could no longer refuse to accept “political responsibility,” even if doing so meant “yielding oneself over to orthodoxies and ‘party lines,’ with all the timidity and dishonesty that that implies.”

In America, this was the age of the New York intellectuals. Criticism was politically engaged. When Alfred Kazin said in the preface to On Native Grounds (1942) that he had “never been able to understand why the study of literature in relation to society should be divorced from a full devotion to what literature is in itself,” he was taking aim at V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1927), a Progressive history, and Granville Hicks’s Great Tradition (1933), a Marxist interpretation of American literature, even though Hicks himself had already resigned from the Communist Party by then. Kazin took it for granted that a modern literary intellectual would want to study literature “in relation to society”; his innovation, if it can be called that, was to propose marriage with “literature in itself.”

By then, of course, a school of Anglo-American criticism had arisen that wished “literature in itself” to remain single and unattached. John Crowe Ransom named the school in 1941 with his book The New Criticism. And if he, T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, and Yvor Winters—the critics discussed in the book—along with such later-comers as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, R. P. Blackmur, and Allen Tate did not enjoy a “purely aesthetic attitude towards life,” they certainly tried as hard as Joyce or Henry James to devote themselves single-mindedly to literature. Later that would be called their politics—a decision as political as any other—but the punch would not land. If everything is political, what is the force of calling anything political?

The New Critics were Cunningham’s chief opponents, because he was as single-minded as any of them in his pursuit of “literature in itself.” Indeed, he spoke repeatedly of “the tradition”—in the singular—as when, naming the poetic genres that were handed down from the Renaissance, he observed that “some texts disappear from the tradition,” and are thus without consequence. Of all his literary opponents (with the exception of Winters, whom he refrained from criticizing publicly out of gratitude and loyalty, despite the bitter enmity that had grown up on both sides), Cunningham was hardest on Cleanth Brooks:

Here lies New Critic who would fox us
With his poetic paradoxes.
Though he lies rigid and quiet,
If he could speak he would deny it.
And yet Brooks’s first major book was Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), in which he used the singular term in exactly Cunningham’s sense. With the passage of years and the deaths of both men, it is now obvious that they had more in common than either would acknowledge.

The current day resembles Orwell’s more than Cunningham’s and the New Critics’. It is impossible to avoid talking about politics with increasing heat and voice. The modern literary intellectual is once again obliged to accept political responsibility, even if he promises not to write about politics. So, for example, Daniel E. Pritchard criticizes Gov. Bobby Jindal (R–La.), but mangles the argument in his partisan eagerness to score points, and I feel compelled to correct his error—all the more because I respect Pritchard apart from his politics. My arrière-pensée, my belated embarrassment, is not enough to remove my fingers from the keyboard.

Only part of the problem is political, however. The other part—to my mind, the larger part of the problem—is literary. And the fault does not lie with the poets and critics of Cleanth Brooks’s and J. V. Cunningham’s generation. They lived for literature, and they lived a full life. They have neither descendants nor successors. No one lives for literature any longer, because no longer is it a full life, the commitment of every working hour to reading and writing, wherever—to whatever abandoned genre and ruined reputation—it leads. Now literature is, as Daniel Green once memorably put it, “everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama . . . if the author intends it to be taken as literature.” Literature is writing, that is, of a certain kind, which is literary. Green is fully representative of the new single-minded devotion, which preserves “literature in itself” by reducing it (in advance) to irrelevance. But he is not alone. This is also the institutional mission of creative writing. And “literary” fiction. And contemporary poetry. All of it so pure that an idea has never violated it. A good many “literary” writers live in a circle drawn by their own ambition to be taken as literary. By comparison, even hyper-partisanship seems as alive as a young panther.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

It's hard for me to determine whether this aspiration to an apolitical "single-minded devotion to literature" applies to writers or critics or both here... the term "literary intellectual" is ambiguous.

I think critics, if they're true critics, should be able to separate themselves from their biases, political or otherwise, and analyze literature through lenses not their own, lenses in opposition to their beliefs. But does the critic owe any obligation to society - outside of his work? Probably not. I think the critic's only "responsibility" is to speak truthfully and boldly (with no "timidity [or] dishonesty") about the literature at hand.

And Writers...... Among my favorite authors are sexist, racist bigots - and I'm a Black woman. As a reader, it's important for me to ingest what I read as a work sovereign of its creator... and good writers know that good readers read that way. Critics *sometimes* don't have the luxury of dismissing the beliefs of the author when they've got their "literary intellectual" caps on, but it's fun to view literature alternately from a place of ignorance and a place of enlightenment, wouldn't you say?

I have some other thoughts, but I don't know that much about literary criticism and fear I'm not making any sense lol.