The New York Times Book Review
The Practice Of Readingby Denis Donoghue
This lucid and elegantly written book is a sustained conversation about the nature and importance of literary interpretation. Distinguished critic Denis Donoghue argues that we must read texts closely and imaginatively, as opposed to merely or mistakenly theorizing about them. He shows what serious reading entails by discussing texts that range from Shakespeare's… See more details below
This lucid and elegantly written book is a sustained conversation about the nature and importance of literary interpretation. Distinguished critic Denis Donoghue argues that we must read texts closely and imaginatively, as opposed to merely or mistakenly theorizing about them. He shows what serious reading entails by discussing texts that range from Shakespeare's plays to a novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Donoghue begins with a personal chapter about his own early experiences reading literature while he was living and teaching in Ireland. He then deals with issues of theory, focusing on the validity of different literary theories, on words and their performances, on the impingement of oral and written conditions of reading, and on such current forces as technology and computers that impinge on the very idea of reading. Finally he examines certain works of literature: Shakespeare's Othello and Macbeth, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a passage from Wordsworth's The Prelude, a chapter of Joyce's Ulysses, Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" and "Coole and Ballylee, 1931," and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian demonstrating what these texts have in common and how they must be differentiated through a sympathetic, imaginative, and informed reading.
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The first book of criticism that I recall reading, pencil in hand and taking notes, was T. S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood. Many of its sentences have lodged with me for so long that I have stopped thinking of them as quotations; I recite them as if they were my own. "When we are considering poetry, we must consider it primarily as poetry and not as another thing." "Poetry is not the inculcation of morals or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words." "The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." These sentences are as close to me as lines from "The Waste Land": "In the mountains, there you feel free." "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." But what I found most edifying in The Sacred Wood was Eliot's concern for language, his sense of the relation between the quality of language and the quality of the feeling it inhabited, his conviction that a particular language was an indication of the quality of the society in which it was spoken. I admired, too, in Eliot's later critical writings, his responsiveness to differences of tone and style; as in "Poetry and Drama," where he comments on the first scene of Hamlet and notes the anticipation of the plot in Horatio's word "usurp'st" when he addresses the Ghost--"What art thou that usurp'st this time of night?" Eliot quotes the great speech by Horatio with which the scene ends:
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.
Break we our watch up...
This is great poetry, and it is dramatic; but besides being poetic and dramatic, it is something more. There emerges, when we analyse it, a kind of musical design also which reinforces and is one with the dramatic movement. It has checked and accelerated the pulse of our emotion without our knowing it. Note that in these last words of Marcellus--
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever `gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long,
--there is a deliberate brief emergence of the poetic into consciousness. When we hear the lines
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.
we are lifted for a moment beyond character, but with no sense of unfitness of the words coming, and at this moment, from the lips of Horatio. The transitions in the scene obey laws of the music of dramatic poetry.
During those years I was a student at University College, Dublin, and at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, having recently arrived from Warrenpoint, a small town in Northern Ireland where my father was the local police sergeant. For financial and other reasons, we were not a bookish family. I had access to a few shelves of books in the home of my local elementary teacher, Sean Crawford, but the range of reading matter was small. At UCD I read for a B.A. in Latin and English; at the academy--where my tuition for the first year was paid by a well-wishing donor, Alan Boydell, cousin of my music teacher, Brian Boydell--I studied harmony, counterpoint, and lieder. I worked as hard trying to sing Schumann's Dichterliebe as I did coping with Shakespeare's plays and poems. I don't recall feeling the need of a theory to get me started in reading literature or listening to music. In those days one learned a few rudimentary skills by practice or, as in my case, by apprenticing oneself to a master or several masters. If I gave any thought to theory, I'm sure I wanted a theory of the arts to be equally responsive to literature and music. It meant a good deal to me to know that Kenneth Burke's earliest essays were on music, that Eliot's Quartets were written in some relation to the last quartets of Beethoven, and that Theodor Adorno, the author of Negative Dialectics, also wrote The Philosophy of Modern Music. I read this latter book in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, without quite understanding why Stravinsky came out so badly from a comparison with Schoenberg. I didn't read Negative Dialectics till much later.
Meanwhile, I was trying to break into print, starting with book reviews for the Irish Independent, little essays on music for a weekly magazine, the Leader, and later, music criticism for the Irish Times. The Irish Jesuit quarterly, Studies, published some of my essays and reviews. But I wanted a larger context. It was my ambition to publish literary essays in the American quarterlies, so I kept up with the Sewanee Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Hudson Review even more assiduously than with their English counterparts, Scrutiny and Essays in Criticism. I read every new essay I could find by Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, William Empson, Yvor Winters, Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, Kenneth Burke, R. P. Blackmur, and Francis Fergusson. It was a glorious day for me when Ransom, in a handwritten letter, accepted my essay on Yeats's "Words for Music Perhaps" for the Kenyon Review. A few months later an essay of mine on Joyce appeared, my first name misspelled, in the Sewanee Review. Soon I was trying to write sentences of my own, not entirely purloined from those of Eliot, Burke, and Blackmur.
We may as well continue to call these writers the New Critics, though none of them liked the label and Trilling and Fergusson went their different ways. I admired the New Critics first because they were good writers. Some of them were poets or novelists first and critics only betimes. Each had his particular style, instances of which I transcribed on request forms in the National Library of Ireland. I was also impressed by the fact that these writers so evidently and powerfully read the literature they wrote about. At least to begin with, each of them submitted his mind to the book he was reading. He might assert himself later and keep his distance. When Eliot compared a few lines of Philip Massinger with their putative origin in Shakespeare, his judgment came with the authority of immense reading and the providential method of criticism he recommended, that of being highly intelligent. To compare Burke's essay on Marianne Moore with Blackmur's on the same subject was to be struck by the possible variety of literary criticism and the scale of the merit entailed. Blackmur spoke of criticism as bringing the work of art to the condition of performance. That was what these critics were doing. They didn't avoid generalizing, but their general statements always issued from a sufficient phalanx of particulars, local perceptions in the act of reading. Blackmur especially took care not to let his mind capitulate to a formula, a pattern set in advance of need. In "A Critic's Job of Work," he said that poetry is life at the remove of form and meaning: "not life lived but life framed and identified." But he was alive to the difference between a form and a formula--which he sometimes called a doctrine or a code. Thinking of Henry James, he argued that William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton sank by comparison "because their moral codes very often prohibited feeling, made whole classes of feeling impossible." Like Brooks and Tate, Blackmur acted upon Eliot's distinction between writers who think and feel in turns and writers who "feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose." Thought, Blackmur said, "defines relationships as formulae and makes a shorthand, a blueprint of its subject matter." More generally: "For most minds, once doctrine is sighted and is held to be the completion of insight, the doctrinal mode of thinking seems the only one possible. When doctrine totters it seems it can fall only into the gulf of bewilderment; few minds risk the fall; most seize the remnants and swear the edifice remains, when doctrine becomes intolerable dogma." It makes no difference to the case if the dogma is religious, political, social, or psychological, or if the formula is applied on behalf of one cause or another. Either way is death to critical intelligence and the experience of reading a poem or a novel. A formula is a form congealed.
Blackmur kept this emphasis in play. He proposed a distinction between Henry Adams and Henry James, with The Education of Henry Adams and James's Notes of a Son and Brother as the relevant books:
Both men were concerned with experience as education, and to both the judgment of education called for a specialized form of autobiography in which the individual was suppressed in the act, only to be caught in the style. James imagined human reality always through dramatizing the bristling sensual record of the instance--almost any instance that had a story in it--and let the pattern, the type, the vis a tergo, take care of itself, which under the stress of the imaginative process it commonly did. Adams, on the other hand, tended in a given case to depend on his feeling for human type and pattern--for history and lines of force--as the source of drama, and hence saw the individual as generalized first: so that whatever happened would fall into the pattern, if you only had the wit to see how--which Adams by the strength of his conceptual imagination did commonly see. To put it another way, Adams's set of intellectual instruments more or less predicted what he would discover; James resorted to instruments only to ascertain what his sensibility had already discovered.
I was pleased, too, that the New Critics spoke of culture as if it did not coincide at every point with the interests of the state. It has been alleged that the pedagogical method they employed--practical criticism, close work on texts--is inherently conservative and that it is designed to imply that social harmony has the force of natural law. David Lloyd and Paul Thomas argue that the politics of "culture" is always conservative: "Culture is, to a civil society conceived as the site of the war of all against all, a domain of reconciliation precisely as is the state. But while the function of the state is to mediate conflicts among interest groups, it is the function of culture to interpellate individuals into the disposition to disinterested reflection that makes the state's mediations possible.... The importance of the discourse on culture lies in its theorization of an extrapolitical, extraeconomic space in which `freedom' and `the harmonious development of the whole person' can be pursued as the very ground on which representational politics can be practised." But literature and music can be attended to only in such a space. If I am listening to a quartet by Bartok or reading Nostromo, I should not be using the occasion to plan my next move in the class struggle or the war of all against all. If I were teaching one of those works, I would assume that I was in that extrapolitical, extraeconomic space at least for the time being. Besides, close reading was practiced equally by critics on the Right--Ransom, Brooks, and Tate--and by those on the Left--Empson and Burke. It was Burke who wrote a book called Counter-Statement and who formulated there a motto for the workings of the literary imagination: when in Rome, do as the Greeks. His first work of fiction was a grim comedy called Towards a Better Life. He always thought of the arts as bohemian counterstatements to the statements made by society and other institutions. Blackmur held that the civil purpose of literature was to remind the powers that be, simple and corrupt as they are, of the forces they have to control. It is an error to claim that the New Critics were in league with the White House and Wall Street or that those who were also Agrarians wanted to effect a strategic retreat south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
To cite a small piece of evidence: what is irony--the trope so much favored by Eliot, Brooks, Ransom, Burke, and Blackmur--but an act of the mind that refuses the destiny of official thought? In his essay on Andrew Marvell, Eliot chose to call irony "wit" and to say that "it involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible." I don't find a sinister "politics of culture" at work in that sentence. Or in Adorno's statement that art is art because it is not nature. One doesn't need to look far into Aesthetic Theory to find Adorno saying that "aesthetic identity seeks to aid the nonidentical, which in reality is repressed by reality's compulsion to identity" and later that "art allies itself with repressed and dominated nature in the progressively rationalized and integrated society." I don't claim that these few citations make the case, but they should discourage the current habit among intellectuals of trying to make bourgeois liberals feel ashamed of themselves.
In Dublin I eventually looked for an aesthetic theory among the New Critics, but with little success. Philip Blair Rice, Ransom's colleague at Kenyon College, published a few helpful essays in the Kenyon Review. Ransom turned Kant's third Critique to his own purposes. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe Beardsley wrote of literature in relation to philosophic and aesthetic issues. But none of these was decisive. Reading further afield, I was much taken with Philip Wheelwright's The Burning Fountain and, when I belatedly came to it, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. But these didn't quite satisfy. They seemed to be theories of myth rather than of literature. I knew that myth was important, but I couldn't be convinced that literature and myth were, in effect as well as in nature, one and the same. When Frye read a poem or a novel he seemed to survey it from an immense height and to discern mainly the pattern he was looking for, a seasonal myth that evidently accounted for everything by making it predictable. But he didn't see much detail. He was like Henry Adams in Blackmur's comparison of Adams with James. Wheelwright, too, wrote of literature as if he were mainly interested in rites, myths, and rituals. The Burning Fountain was instructive on the different kinds of imagination, but I wanted something more or something else.
I don't know when I first read Susanne K. Langer's Philosophy in a New Key, but I recall that Donald Davie recommended it to me. He taught at the University of Dublin, Trinity College. We were friends, though we quarreled in later years when I reviewed in Partisan Review his book on Ezra Pound in the Modern Masters series. While it lasted and now again in sad retrospect, our friendship was a vivid part of my life in Dublin. I remember with special warmth being with him one day in his rooms at Trinity when he took down from the shelf a slim volume of Yvor Winters's poems and read "On Teaching the Young." In subsequent years when I have read the poem aloud and come to the last line, "Laurel, archaic, rude," I find myself trying to speak it in Davie's rigorous Yorkshire accent. Well, too late now. We shared books, articles, and the poems he wrote; though on the one occasion when I suggested a minor change in a poem, he declined the suggestion. Why he urged Philosophy in a New Key on me, I can't recall: in the event, it meant more to me than to him. I went on to read Langer's Feeling and Form and to be convinced that I had found the aesthetic theory I needed. Davie wrote about Langer in his Articulate Energy, but he didn't concern himself with the aesthetic questions that preoccupied me.
Feeling and Form satisfied me because it was predicated on music and therefore attentive to form, rhythm, cadence, and the texture of sounds. But the chapter I found most suggestive was the one in which Langer explained the fundamental concept of virtuality. It was not--or so I gather--virtuality as computer scientists use that term. Langer's virtuality is the quality of something that is created only to be perceived. The thing created exists in the ordinary world and may be put to ordinary purposes, but those purposes occlude its artistic or virtual character. Music is virtual time, architecture is virtual space, dance is virtual movement. The mode of existence of every work of art is virtual. If we approach it in another spirit, we deal with it opportunistically. The cathedral at Chartres is a place of worship; we enter its space to attend Mass, but when we look at it as a work of architecture, we observe its virtual character, its aesthetic relation to possibilities of spatial form, rhythm, contrast, and so forth. It has been created as a church, but as a work of architecture it exists only for perception. Music, to Langer as to Walter Pater, is the art that is most completely art, because its materials--sounds, sequences, forms--do not readily allow themselves to be diverted into other considerations. Sounds are used as advertising jingles, pop songs, noises in the street, but a symphony performed in a concert hall holds its force as music, virtual time. Literature is to a far greater degree at the mercy of ordinary speech, conversation, gossip, the newspapers, advertisements, TV. The poetic use of the word "light," as Valery remarked, has to clear a space for itself against the intrusion of its mundane employments.
With the virtuality of literature in mind, reading entails perceiving the pattern in the bristling sensual record of the instance, to recur to Blackmur's phrasing. The pattern is to be found in the same space as the words, neither above nor below them, neither to one side nor the other. Far from predicting the detail, it is seen as if in the split second after the detail. Here is an example from Feeling and Form, in which Langer reads a passage of Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village":
How often have I blessed the coming day,
When toil remitting lent its turn to play,
And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree,
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
The young contending as the old surveyed.
Langer reads this passage as a "created virtual history" that has the intricacy of a group dance. The pattern is deployed mainly through the verbs and the participles that act as adjectives. Society and the natural world appear to join in the dance: "the coming day," "toil remitting," "lent its turn"--that is, give play its turn or chance, to be yielded up again the following morning. The train "led up their sports" as a man leads a woman in a folk dance, "While many a pastime circled in the shade," as in the circles and entwinings of a dance. The harmony of the folk dance is then amplified to include young and old, contending and surveying, the distance of the survey marking the innocence of the games surveyed. This passage, near the beginning of the poem, presents a scene from childhood, recalled from years in which the village, "Sweet Auburn," was not deserted. The later part of the poem shows different formal patterns, most of them dismaying: "Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn." But the virtuality of the poem persists: it is what saves it from drifting into social history and losing itself there. "Created for perception," Langer says, not to be used, so long as we read it as a poem, merely to annotate a history of enclosures in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, the flight to the cities, the dominance of wealthy men, and other ills. Raymond Williams concedes, in The Country and the City, that "what is novel in `The Deserted Village' is the sense of observation: of a precise and visible social location." But he also maintains that for Goldsmith "to be a poet is, ironically, to be a pastoral poet: the social condition of poetry--it is as far as Goldsmith gets--is the idealised pastoral economy." But the phrase "pastoral poet" implies constraints and limits that aren't there. In Some Versions of Pastoral, William Empson shows how much diverse material, how much feeling of many kinds, can get into a pastoral poem before it closes upon the ideal reconciliation. If someone were to argue--as Williams doesn't quite--that Goldsmith's poem achieves the poise of virtual history at the expense of real or material history, or that Auburn in 1769--when he wrote the poem--was a village of poverty, disease, and dispossession, I would not deny this, but I would claim that, even in the nostalgic lines quoted, Goldsmith hasn't forgotten or transcended the "toil," and that in the word "remitting" we hear, as a token of the material life behind it, the word more commonly applied to toil, "unremitting."
I can imagine another objection to Langer's idea of virtuality. Isn't it just the theory of "aesthetic distance" under another name? Not quite. Ransom gives the tone of this theory as vividly as anyone: "Art always sets out to create an `aesthetic distance' between the object and the subject, and art takes pains to announce that it is not history. The situation treated is not quite an actual situation, for science is likely to have claimed that field, and exiled art; but a fictive or hypothetical one, so that science is less greedy and perception may take hold of it." But the difference between the theory of aesthetic distance and the theory of virtuality is that the first simply removes the artist from the scene he contemplates or imagines: it doesn't say what he does then. The spatial figure is misleading, since it doesn't hold for each of the arts. Langer's theory keeps the artist within the relevant existential mode--time, space, movement, history, voice--and shows him acting there in behalf of perception alone. It has the further merit of acknowledging the tension between the "ordinary" behavior in the relevant mode and the distinctive artistic way of negotiating that mode; between history and virtual history, for instance.
For a while I thought that Langer's theory of art was all I needed, but I found that it didn't provide a theory of reading with adequate recognition of detail. It gave me a feasible sense of art and cautioned me against thinking of a work of art as a mere reflection of life or a transcript of an instance of life. I held to an aesthetic sense of literature, but as if by natural or acquired inclination. I couldn't expound that sense except as a prejudice respecting the formal character of a poem or novel. During those years it was becoming more difficult to recommend an aesthetic reading of a book: negative associations hung upon the words "aesthete" and "aestheticism" and upon the phrase "art for art's sake." "Decadence" was just around the corner. But I was unwilling to submit to those colleagues who wanted literature to be something else: spilt religion or spilt politics. Or to those who had grown to dislike literature and wanted to set up Theory as an independent artifact. I contrived to do without an adequate understanding of reading for many years, and to read literature as I might play billiards, doing the best I could on each occasion. But at some point I came across an essay by Louise M. Rosenblatt called "On the Aesthetic as the Basic Model of the Reading Process." The audacity of the title caught my interest.
Now that I have read Rosenblatt's books I see that they depend on two related sources. The first is a theory in favor of aesthetics that starts with Kant and reaches full stretch in Friedrich Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. The theory holds that an aesthetic sense of life is not the marginal or eccentric attitude it has often been deemed to be, but the most comprehensive attitude available. Every other sense of life--moral, economic, and so forth--is subsidiary to the aesthetic sense. Schiller defends this position by grounding it on a theory of human freedom. Of this freedom, the distinctive mark is play. We are most human when we are at play. The second source of Rosenblatt's work is the distinction between "sense" and "meaning" that she finds in L. S. Vygotsky's Thought and Language. According to Vygotsky, sense is the comprehensive word, meaning merely one of its capacities. I quote this passage from Thought and Language: "The sense of a word ... is the sum of all the psychological events aroused in our consciousness by the word. It is a dynamic, fluid, complex whole, which has several zones of unequal stability. Meaning is only one of the zones of sense, the most stable and precise zone. A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears; in different contexts, it changes its sense. The dictionary meaning of a word is no more than a stone in the edifice of sense, no more than a potentiality that finds diversified realization in speech." Staying within Schiller's tradition and acting on Vygotsky's claim for the "preponderance of the sense of a word over its meaning" (emphasis in original), Rosenblatt distinguishes between efferent reading, in which "the reader's attention is focused on what he will take away from the transaction," and aesthetic reading, in which the reader's attention is concentrated on "what he is living through during the reading event." If you are reading the directions on a bottle of medicine, an efferent reading is enough. It is enough, too, if you are flicking the pages of a newspaper in search of a piece of information. Efferent reading is often called Practical English or Business English. But where a new experience is offered, only an aesthetic reading is adequate. Rosenblatt says, "The actual lived-through reading process is, of course, not a word-by-word summation of meaning, but rather a process of tentative organizations of meaning, the creation of a framework into which the reader incorporates ensuing words and phrases. The notion that `literal' reading should come first (to make sure the text is `understood') is the result of the very assumption I am challenging: namely, that literal, or efferent, meaning has a priority.... [Aesthetic reading] is not efferent reading plus aesthetic elements, but a distinct kind of reading, requiring an initially different stance, a different focus of attention, a concentration on lived-through experience, on the part of the reader." Rosenblatt doesn't associate her aesthetic reading with Speech Act theory, but the two work well together, emphasizing what words and sentences do, and the reader's experience of following them. Her theory is compatible, too, with Empson's emphasis on "complex words" and the diverse experiences they offer. Her argument for making aesthetic reading the basic model of reading seems convincing. Such an approach would transform expository writing programs in our schools, colleges, and universities: it would show how reductive and demeaning the current fixation on the literal, cognitive, and referential aspects of language really is.
Does aesthetic reading apply only to literature? Yes, but with this qualification: that we turn the standard definition of literature around and say that a work of literature is a work that calls for an aesthetic reading and gratifies it. If it doesn't, it isn't. Let me give an example, a stanza from George Herbert's "The Pearl":
I know the ways of Pleasure, the sweet strains,
The lullings and the relishes of it;
The propositions of hot blood and brains;
What mirth and music mean; what love and wit
Have done these twenty hundred years, and more:
I know the projects of unbridled store:
My stuff is flesh, not brass; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Than he that curbs them, being but one to five:
Yet I love thee.
I can't bring myself to say what an efferent reading of these lines would be. It might be nothing more than: I know what pleasure is, and how diversely tempting it is, but the conclusive fact is that I love you (God). An aesthetic reading would seek the experience of imagining what it would be to love God in that way. Such an experience would be just as readily available to an agnostic or an atheist as to a Jesuit. A reader would follow the words, swaying with the rhythm of each phrase, responding to every change of pace and emphasis--the quickening in the grumble of the last two lines, for instance. To give a little detail: lullings and relishes are on the scale of pleasure, but at opposite ends of it, the one soothing, the other pungent. The relation between them is emphasized by the `l' in "relishes" that chimes with the run of "ls" in "lullings." The startling difference of tone between "propositions" and "hot blood and brains" is echoed in that between "projects" and "unbridled store," especially as the whole poem is an act of bridling. The rhetorical flourish in "my senses live," the challenging verb coming at the end of the metrical line, and the sudden contrast with the domestic grumble that follows: these are the constituents of the experience--itself an act of imaginative participation and sympathy--to which the stanza incites us.
Or take this passage from James's "The Private Life," in which the woman described is an actress, Blanche Adney: "It is difficult to be cursory over this charming woman, who was beautiful without beauty and complete with a dozen deficiencies. The perspective of the stage made her over, and in society she was like the model off the pedestal. She was the picture walking about, which to the artless social mind was a perpetual surprise--a miracle. People thought she told them the secrets of the pictorial nature, in return for which they gave her relaxation and tea. She told them nothing and she drank the tea; but they had all the same the best of the bargain." The oscillation between "difficult" and "cursory" comes to a misleading rest upon the distinctly cursory phrase "this charming woman," but the paradoxes that conclude the sentence make an efferent reading absurd. To read the passage at all, we have to read it aesthetically as a lived-through experience, assenting to every change in rhythm and tone. In Vygotsky's terms, we engage in the sense rather than the meaning. The sense is an experience, corresponding to the movement of the sentences: it is not a static block of meaning waiting to be translated or otherwise construed. The wit of the passage is the play of feeling between Blanche's force of presence--her stage presence extended into social life--and the system of exchange in which she plays her charismatic role. The measured decorum of "in return for" and "the best of the bargain" keeps the economy of the exchange in force. We read these sentences as if, listening to Alfred Brendel playing a Beethoven sonata, we were also following the score.
For all I know, readers all over the world may be engaged in aesthetic reading, but I doubt it. For one thing, it is slow reading; it takes time and patience. Our students are short of time if not of patience. I have taught English, Irish, and American literature now for many years, at University College, Dublin, later at Cambridge, and for the past nearly twenty years at New York University. This is not the occasion to make comparisons or general comments on my years as a teacher. But I will mention one consideration. I am surprised to find so many students reluctant to release their imaginations. I have met students who refuse to read Yeats's "Leda and the Swan," because--they have heard--it deals with rape. A year or two ago at New York University, I taught a graduate course called Aesthetics and Aesthetic Ideology. Stimulated by a remarkably fine essay by Karsten Harries on metaphor, I asked students in one class to read three poems: Thomas Campion's "There Is a Garden in Her Face," William Carlos Williams's "Queen-Ann's-Lace" and Ransom's "The Equilibrists." In the event, one student said that she could not take part in a discussion of those poems. Why not? Because each of them, she said, is based on the metaphor of a woman's face or body being cultivated by a man. The poems were politically unacceptable. I then had one of my few brainwaves. I suggested to the student that she take her refusal as the theme of her term paper and ponder it as carefully as possible. A few weeks later she submitted one of the most cogent, intelligent papers I have read. I won't rehearse her arguments. It is sufficient to say that she indeed read the poems and set her imagination to transcend her natural or socially constituted reluctance.
But I recognize that the social current is strong and is moving for the most part the other way. I take the imagination to be the capacity to imagine being different; to enter notionally and experimentally upon experiences we have not had, ways of life other than our own. Imagination in that respect is the means of sympathy. I can sympathize with someone only to the extent to which I can imagine being that person. Emmanuel Levinas's Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being are the most persuasive treatises on this faculty, but we don't need to theorize the Other to acknowledge what an act of imagination entails. We know it in the rush of sympathy and sorrow and anger we feel at the sight of someone's pain. "O to have seen what I have seen, see what I see," Ophelia says. Imagination is the seeing of difference. But there are forces at large in society that urge on us not the imagination of difference but the repetitive recital of the same. These forces are probably innate to societies as such: they want to persist in their being. Some of them are constituents of "identity politics." On all sides we are urged to define ourselves, and to do so by assembling the nearest categories and stereotypes to hand: I am female or male, white or colored, gay or heterosexual, Occidental or Oriental. If I am what I am, then you can't imagine what I am. Surely I can't be the only person who resents being told that I can't understand what it means to be a woman because I'm not one, can't understand being gay because I'm not, can't imagine being African-American because I'm Irish and white?
The bearing of these forces on the reading of literature is clear. It follows from the logic of "identity politics" that literature is compelled to confirm my prejudice--or my socially constituted identity--or be denounced for not doing so. If I'm a woman, I won't read "Leda and the Swan," because it's allegedly a man's poem, not only written by a man but written for men who enjoy the fantasy of raping a woman. If I'm white, I can't read Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison. If I'm middle-class, I can't make anything of Invisible Man. If I'm a Christian, I can't imagine what a Jew feels about Shylock and The Merchant of Venice. If I'm an Indian, I can only feel patronized by A Passage to India. Each of these attitudes is by now a stereotype, available to anyone whose conditions of life are fulfilled in it. As a stereotype, each is a superficially helpful category, comforting to those who have been instructed to need it, but beyond that each imposes a lethal constraint on the possibilities of one's life. I wonder why we allow ourselves to be dictated to by the politicians of identity. The waltzes indeed have ended, in these days of disinheritance, if we think we need an identity according to that insulting formula. What is identity politics but the enforced repetition of the same, masquerading as the supreme declaration of difference?
I am aware of the difficulties. The destiny of men and women presents its meanings, unfortunately, in mostly political terms, as Thomas Mann said. The emergence of the managerial class as the dominant one is a crucial factor. There has been a shift of interest, especially among young people, from the written word to film and TV and tape. Reading a book is not a social or communal act, it is a private matter. There is also a widespread belief that books are a going or a gone medium; the future is the World Wide Web. Certainly it is hard to imagine a time when enthusiasm for books will be as vigorous as it was forty or fifty years ago. I have been reading Kafka Was the Rage, Anatole Broyard's memoir of his postwar years in Greenwich Village: "I realize that people still read books now and some people actually love them, but in 1946 in the Village our feelings about books--I'm talking about my friends and myself--went beyond love. It was as if we didn't know where we ended and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn't simply read books; we became them. We took them into ourselves and made them into our histories.... We had been living with whatever was close at hand, and books took us great distances." I don't know what has happened to those great distances.
Still, the imagination is not idle or redundant. If you go to see a film, you read it aesthetically, not efferently, if it's worth reading. If not, not. If you watch a TV program worth watching, you read it aesthetically. The same applies to books, for those who read them slowly and patiently. So I don't think the ways of reading that I have been recommending are archaic. It is still as desirable as ever to attend to the first act of Hamlet as Eliot and Kenneth Burke attended to it. I began with Eliot, so I'll end with Burke. I'll quote a good deal of the commentary for the pleasure of writing it out:
It is not until the fourth scene of the first act that Hamlet confronts the ghost of his father. As soon as the situation has been made clear, the audience has been, consciously or unconsciously, waiting for this ghost to appear, while in the fourth scene this moment has been definitely promised. For earlier in the play Hamlet had arranged to come to the platform at night with Horatio to meet the ghost, and it is now night, he is with Horatio and Marcellus, and they are standing on the platform. Hamlet asks Horatio the hour.
HORATIO: "I think it lacks of twelve."
MARCELLUS: "No, it is struck."
HORATIO: "Indeed? I heard it not: then it draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk."
Promptly hereafter there is a sound off-stage. "A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance shot off within." Hamlet's friends have established the hour as twelve. It is time for the ghost. Sounds off-stage, and of course it is not the ghost. It is, rather, the sound of the king's carousal, for the king "keeps wassail." A tricky, and useful, detail. We have been waiting for a ghost, and get, startlingly, a blare of trumpets. And, once the trumpets are silent, we feel how desolate are these three men waiting for a ghost, on a bare "platform," feel it by this sudden juxtaposition of an imagined scene of lights and merriment. But the trumpets announcing a carousal have suggested a subject of conversation. In the darkness Hamlet discusses the excessive drinking of his countrymen. He points out that it tends to harm their reputation abroad, since, he argues, this one showy vice makes their virtues "in the general censure take corruption." And for this reason, although he himself is a native of this place, he does not approve of the custom. Indeed, there in the gloom he is talking very intelligently on these matters, and Horatio answers, "Look, my Lord, it comes." All this time we had been waiting for a ghost, and it comes at the one moment which was not pointing towards it. This ghost, so assiduously prepared for, is yet a surprise. And now that the ghost has come, we are waiting for something further. Program: a speech from Hamlet. Hamlet must confront the ghost. Here again Shakespeare can feed well upon the use of contrast for his effects. Hamlet has just been talking in a sober, rather argumentative manner--but now the flood-gates are unloosed:
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell...
And the transition from the matter-of-fact to the grandiose, the full-throated and full-voweled, is a second burst of trumpets, perhaps even more effective than the first, since it is the rich fulfilment of a promise. There is more of this in Counter-Statement, I am happy to report.
The moral of the story is not: Back to the New Criticism. I wish it were. For one thing, those critics had the incitement of a new and demanding literature to deal with. New methods were required. Imagine being one of the first readers of (Blackmur lists them in Anni Mirabiles) Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and Henry IV, Ortega y Gasset's Invertebrate Spain and Revolt of the Masses, Valery's Charmes, Yeats's The Tower, Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe, Pound's early Cantos and "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" Eliot's "The Waste Land" Joyce's Ulysses, Stevens's Harmonium, Mann's The Magic Mountain, Gide's Counterfeiters. Add to the list Empson's early poems and, a few years later, William Carlos Williams's Paterson and Wallace Stevens's Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Then think of forms of reading adequate to each and to the sum. The moral is interrogative: Are we quite sure that we have devised methods of reading responsive to our own needs and to the literature we have still to read? Or that we haven't merely transcended the need and forgotten the incitement?
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