Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Bauerlein on the New Critics, and Hughes on Dickens

In an essay flagging the upcoming publication of a new anthology, Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism, the literary critic Mark Bauerlein argues that the now unfashionable New Critics - most famously William Empson with his Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), but also IA Richards, Cleanth Brooks and RP Blackmur - were "the first humanists to make theory into a recognized disciplinary activity". I've always learnt something from Bauerlein's work - his book Literary Criticism: An Autopsy was of great help during my years as an undergraduate struggling to figure out what to make of the turn of literary studies towards "theory" - and I totally endorse his argument, directed at professors of English on the one hand and at commercial publishers zealously hanging on to copyright on the other, that:

professors owe respect to the past of their own fields. It is up to them to safeguard intellectual history, to keep the pressures of money and fashion at bay. The actions of a commercial press here demonstrate that if professors take their field's past for granted, or if they regard that past as an inferior practice, it will fade and disappear. They should realize that, for all the adversarial postures toward the market and bourgeois values, their "presentism" (or "post-1966ism") combines all too smoothly with the bottom line of the corporations who own their forebears.
Alongside Bauerlein's "What We Owe The New Critics" you might also want to read his essay "Theory's Empre", Andrew Delbanco's classic NYRB essay "The Decline and Fall of Literature", and Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer's acerbic survey from 1995 "Farewell to the MLA". I regret that I have not yet been able to read Delbanco's widely praised biography of Herman Melville.

And in a marvellous essay in the Guardian on Charles Dickens's Christmas stories, Kathryn Hughes writes about how Dickens often used Christmas "as a time to wake up the dozing conscience of the prosperous urban middle classes" and notes of his most famous Christmas story that:

What makes A Christmas Carol so important is that it marks the first time that anyone tried to imagine what a modern, urban Christmas might look like. Here you will find no lingering nostalgia for the Baron's Hall with its extended kith network and 12 days of feudal feasting. Instead, this is a pared-down Christmas, a single day's holiday enjoyed by small nuclear families with no historical or social links to anything beyond themselves. We never hear about Bob Cratchit's mother or sister, and even Scrooge's nephew's house party consists only of close family. When the memory of a joyful Christmas past is held out to Scrooge in the form of Fezziwig's Ball, which he attended as a young man, it is an after-work party held in a merchant's warehouse rather than a scene of feudal feasting. So Dickens demonstrates triumphantly that a meaningful Christmas is possible even in the most contemporary and urban of settings.
What I like best about Dickens is his immense verbal energy and riotous metaphorical imagination - think of Lady Tippins in Our Mutual Friend, with "an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon" - and this facet of his work is taken up in another lovely essay from some years ago by Joseph Bottum, who himself sounds like a character out of Dickens.

And some other things I've been reading over the week gone by: Andrew Sullivan's long essay in the Atlantic Monthly on the Obama campaign, "Goodbye to All That", and Jeremy Waldron's close inspection of the idea of free speech, a big theme in our national conversation and especially on the blogosphere, in his essay "Boutique Faith", arguing among other things that "the costs of hate speech, such as they are, are not spread evenly across the community that is supposed to tolerate them".

1 comment:

Uncertain said...

Hi Chandrahas, wish you a happy new year!

Don't you think that Waldron has treated the whole issue of free speech, abyss redemption and truth quite naively? The whole concept of abyss redemption seems to be predicated on what seems to me a naive assumption that at any given point of time, one knows what constitutes sin or falsity or an abyss. But does one really?

In 17th century Europe, when Galileo and Copernicus were championing the heliocentric model of the universe in opposition to the formidable might of the Church, most lay Europeans pretty much thought the Church had its facts right. So the equivalent debate in the 17th century would have been about curtailing or not curtailing Galileo's right of free speech. We now believe that Galileo was right (or at least more right than the Church) and so in actuality, if anyone, Galileo was indulging in abyss redemption.

My point is this: For most of the contentious issues of today, nobody really knows what the truth is (today) .. so how does one decide who's gazing at the abyss and how does one decide whose speech constitutes the abyss?

Next, this beautiful notion of the "free market place of ideas".. do we have a "free market place"? I think every market place has inherent power structures which bound the freedom of the marketplace. If the marketplace were indeed free, how come eugenics held sway in many western countries, received funding from Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations for years, before the end of World War II?

Every market place at any point of time has associated with it, a normative view and there are costs not to hate speech per se, but any speech which runs counter to the norm (in any direction) .. these days hate speech is of course counter normative in academic circles in UK and USA. So is any research which doubts global warming. So is any gender discrimination research in organizations.

My point: there is no such thing as a free marketplace of ideas. So an abyss could just be counter-normative speech .. not necessarily always false. I see no evidence which suggests that an abyss always consists of falsehoods.

Which is why I found Waldron's treatment of free speech and abyss redemption to be naive.

Lastly, Waldron mentions that his American friends believe free speech to be a fundamental value and right - globally. You rightly pointed out that a major part of our (Indian) national conversation revolves on issues of freedom of speech and expression. Sociocultural anthropology and psychology, both recent fields, have been pointing out for some time that all values (including equality, individual freedom, pursuit of happiness etc.) are specific to a few nations in west europe and north america and are NOT globally espoused . Before we Indians uncritically accept freedom of speech as a right (and our constitution already has), we must question if this freedom is in line with Indian cultural heritage. I am not taking any side here .. I am merely wondering aloud if freedom of speech ought to be as global a right as generally thought in the USA.

Forgive me this long comment.