Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Criticism and the police

Daniel Green continues to police the stray and fugitive remarks about literary criticism that steal across the literary blogscape. His latest warning comes in response to some reflections on criticism by the fiction writer J. Robert Lennon, although he does not spare Nigel Beale, an unrepentant recidivist who keeps “fall[ing] back on his core notion that criticism is essentially an evaluative act.” Green instructs them in the law, barking that, in addition to its mission of being “at least as much descriptive as evaluative,” criticism must also take into account the “larger context of literature itself, within which the reader must approach the work. . . .” The most “substantive” criticism, you see, is written by “literary critics who conceive their first and primary commitment to be to literature as a whole, defined as an ongoing collective enterprise with an identifiable history to which current works inevitably have a meaningful relationship and among whose current exponents some equally meaningful connections can be made.” Wake me when the sentence is over.

Set aside the fact that Green’s conception of literature is question-begging and circular. “[E]verything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama is literature,” he finally concluded after long pestering from me, “if the author intends it to be taken as literature.” Until he locates the key to unlock the self-enclosed circle of his own confusion—a first responsibility which he has never accepted onto himself—Green is disqualified from speaking of “literature as a whole.” The phrase, when used by him, is vacuous.

But what could the phrase possibly mean? Even adopting a more coherent version of Green’s late Victorian ideal, literature-as-a-whole would include fiction, poetry, and drama written in many different languages, most of which will not be known with sufficient fluency for the writer and critic to make “meaningful connections.” Does every poem refer helplessly to every other poem ever written? Even if it were possible to conceive what this might mean, how would the conception be useful? How would it work?

Here is a small example. Jane Austen was born in 1775; Nahman of Breslov, the famous Hasidic rabbi, was born three years earlier. Both wrote fiction. Nahman’s Sippurei Maasiyyot, a collection of thirteen mystical tales, was published, in Yiddish and Hebrew, in 1816—the same year in which Austen wrote Emma. On any conception of it, literature-as-a-whole would have to contain both Austen and the Breslover, but in what conceivable sense do both of them belong and contribute to the same “ongoing collective enterprise with an identifiable history to which current works inevitably have a meaningful relationship”? What are the “meaningful connections” that might be drawn between these two “current exponents”? And what difference would they make?

What we have here is evidence of the decay of faith. And Daniel Green is a pious mutawwa, a one-man Committee for the Prevention of Literary Vice, correcting this one and that one, enforcing conformity where he can no longer enjoy a community of belief. The time of the religion of literature has long passed.