Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Some Notes On A Draft Essay Titled Two And Half Cheers For The New Criticism

What follows are some notes given to my friend who authored the above referred to essay. As it’s in draft form, I can’t reproduce it, but I’m confident that my comments will make fairly clear what I’m responding to.

Here it is:

I just read your paper. I assume it’s a draft to be edited. I have so many marginal notes that they needed their own margins for notes on notes.

I don’t know what you want me to say about it, if anything. But I’ll make a few broad points.

I liked the history of ideas part of your paper, what set of considerations and pressures led to the New Criticism (NC) as a temporary academic mainstay.

I made an initial note about distinguishing among genres and noting that the NC typically applies to poetry. But part way through it struck me that really you have a trans-genre conception of it, which you most concisely state at the outset: “unified complexity” via “theme.” That definition takes the NC beyond its usual range of shorter poems and expands it to apply to all literature. That, if I’m right about it, might be made more clear. 

Overall, I find the argument of your paper somewhat confusing. “Two and a half cheers” suggests to me, with the resonance of the phrase “two cheers for democracy”—you give NC an extra half cheer—slightly muted enthusiasm for it, slightly since we’re only half a cheer away from muting the muting. I understand the paradox forming the spine of your argument: NC distorts, even falsifies, the nature of literature but it’s an invaluable pedagogical tool. But this paradox belies your titular fraction of two and a half. For even as NC is quite handy for teaching literature, can its distortion and falsification earn a score of 83.333%?

Of course this is only a playful quibble. More seriously, the NC in its distortion and falsification of the nature of literature comes in for quite a drubbing throughout the bulk of your paper. But on the last page, in the last few paragraphs you give it an encomium that drives against, and is hard to put together with, that drubbing. You write, “Futher, new criticism not only gives us the deep truth about works of art, but cognitive meaning, and finally beauty.” That startles me given what comes before knocking the NC. I thought to myself and noted, “Where does this come from. It subverts, or at least cuts against, the preceding argument.” If there’s some resolution of this tension, I’m not seeing it.

Overall, as well, I find the critique of the NC unsatisfying and unpersuasive. For example, you quote Alvin Kerman confessing his allegorical interpretation of Othello: his view of it descends to it being,

...a conflict between barbarism and civilization: "In some ways I have schematized Othello as just such a morality play, offering an allegorical journey between heaven and hell on a stage filled with purely symbolic figures."...

Who reasonably intelligent, besides someone caught in a reductive notion of the NC, would speak about Othello this way in interpreting it? To do so is both bad criticism and isn’t compelled by the NC.

Another example that gets closer to heart of things and impales you, I’d argue, on a contradiction is this by Meyer Abrams:

...The usual strategy of the imagist critic is to pull out a selection of such items and to set them up in an order which is largely independent of who utters them, on what occasion, and for what dramatic purpose. Freed from the control imposed by their specific verbal and dramatic contexts, the selected images readily send out shoots and tendrils of significance, which can be twined into a symbolic pattern---and if the critic is sensitive, learned, and adroit, often a very interesting pattern. The danger is, that the pattern may be largely an artifact of the implicit scheme governing the critical analysis...

Briefly, who’s to say that that’s “the usual strategy”? Asking roughly the same question just put to Kerman, why would anyone extract quotes denuded of dramatic context, independent of who says them, of their dramatic occasion and of their dramatic purpose? It’s utter foolishness to do so and the NC needn’t compel it. 

In that, here’s the contradiction: if, as you define it, the NC is the elucidation of complex unity via theme such that it’s trans-genre and ranges past shorter poetry to apply to all literary genres, then why can’t that unity be in part comprised by analyzing the selected quotes in their dramatic context, by who says them, by why they’re said, which is to say, what occasions them, and by their dramatic purpose? Your expansive notion of the NC would be missing vital literary components if critics didn’t attend to what Abrams dismisses out of hand. 

Given your paper, I could multiply the examples of what I see as inadequately dealing with the NC, but I’ve just given you the flavor of what they’d taste like.

Finally, for these few notes, I have a big problem with the/your conception of interpretation by way of the NC, or perhaps necessarily in the nature of literary criticism, being allegorical. I understand the point of a necessary tension in reading old works with current eyes. The characterization of interpretation as allegorical seems misconceived. 

Allegory is a symbolic structure wherein X throughout means or stands for Y, pretty well one on one. While an interpretation might conclude X stands for Y if that reading emerges from the text, the first step in interpretation is to understand what X means, and what it means may or may not be referable to Y. 

So if we say Othello is marked by jealousy, or that indeterminacy is of Hamlet’s essence, or that Huck is one kind of morally discerning kid about race on the raft but more conventional about it off the raft, then we are starting to come to critical and, so, interpretive, terms with who they are. And regardless of the distance between the time of those works and now, allegorizing is a severe misnomer for what we’re doing.

Anyway, I could go on but enough is enough I’m sure. As I have to run to an appointment, I’m sending you this as just written and not reread. So please excuse what doubtless are many errors grammatical, typographical, substantive and otherwise.

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