A William V. Spanos Reader: Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative

A William V. Spanos Reader: Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative


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A William V. Spanos Reader: Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative by Daniel T. O'Hara

The American critic William V. Spanos, a pioneer of postmodern theory and co-founder of one of its principal organs, the journal boundary 2, is, in the words of A William V. Spanos Reader coeditor Daniel T. O’Hara, everything that current post-modern theory is accused of not being: polemical, engaged, prophetic, passionate. Informed by his experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Spanos saw dire con-sequences for life in modernist aesthetic experiments, and he thereafter imbued his work with a constructive aspect ever in the name of more life. A William V. Spanos Reader collects Spanos’s most important critical essays, providing both an introduc-tion to his prophetic, visionary work and a provocation to the practice of humanistic criticism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810130845
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2015
Pages: 728
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.66(d)

About the Author

DANIEL T. O’HARA is a professor of English and Inaugural Mellon Term Professor of Hu-manities at Temple University. His books include The Art of Reading as a Way of Life: On Nietzsche’s Truth (Northwestern, 2009).

DONALD E. PEASE is the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor of the Humanities at Dartmouth College.

MICHELLE MARTIN holds a Ph.D. in English from Temple University. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, among other venues.

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A William V. Spanos Reader

Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative

By Daniel T. O'Hara, Donald E. Pease, Michelle Martin

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2015 William Spanos
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3084-5


Modern Literary Criticism and the Spatialization of Time

An Existential Critique


When seen in the light of the general condition of Anglo-American literary criticism between the Victorian and World War I periods, the so-called New Criticism must certainly claim our gratitude for undermining the traditional assumption that literature is a utility, an It, that serves either a moral or political or religious or psychological function, and thus for reorienting the direction of the critical act toward the text itself. But from the perspective of the late 1960s, a perspective looking back on one of the most barbarous centuries of civilized time and forward to the possible annihilation of time itself, we begin to see that the triumph of the concept of literature as end over that of literature as means has been achieved at a very great price. For in dogmatizing its autotelic nature, we have, in fact, despite theoretical insistence to the contrary, dissociated literature from life in a radical way and established a critical frame of reference that reduces the original encounter with the literary work to something perilously like an intellectual exercise expressed in a counter-language that does violence to the full existential experience. We are beginning to see at this late date that the principle of autonomy is sharply narrowing the boundaries and, in the process, dehumanizing the critical enterprise; indeed, that behind the strategy of the New Criticism lies the impulse to disengage literature from the defiling contingencies of life in historical time.

To put it in a way first given authoritative voice by Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of World War II in Les Temps Modernes, the collapse of the traditional Judeo-Christian world order and its system of sanctions and the emergence of radical alienation as the fundamental condition and lifestyle of modern man have driven the writer out of the precincts of relative certainty into the dreadful realm of the "not-at-home" (Heidegger's Unheimlichkeit), where to write necessarily means to write a literature of "extreme situations," a literature, that is, characterized above all by intense consciousness of metaphysical and ontological dimensions. And this literature, in turn, has revealed to us the real possibilities inhering in the old critical assumption that literature is integrally related to human life, that it speaks to man. Thus it is, in my opinion, that criticism of a literary work which is in fact a perilous exploration of the uncertain boundaries of human existence (periplum) is essentially a trivial and reductive gesture if it refuses to realize that the notorious — and perhaps unfortunate — reference by writers like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden to poetry as a superior entertainment is as much a painful, if ironically restrained, assertion of desperation as it is an effort to ridicule the embarrassing Victorian affirmation of sublimity or high seriousness as the criterion of excellence. Doctrinaire formalists, then, are not likely to welcome these observations about literature and the function of the critical enterprise. But I think that an expression of a renewed — though considerably deepened — awareness of the ultimately engaged nature of literature is already speaking to a new generation of students and readers of literature that has responded to the shattering existential diagnosis of the modern predicament and to its consequent rediscovery, as, for example, in the obvious cases of Brecht's and Ionesco's variant "anti-Aristotelianisms," of the integral reciprocity of the artists' ontic vision (whatever the degree of his consciousness of it), and the form and style his creation assumes.


The function of literary criticism is not only a matter of explication or formal analysis — though respect for the text is an imperative — but also (1) a matter of the sequential discovery and phenomenological articulation of the ontology that inheres in the formal structure or, more specifically, what I prefer to call the "time-shape" of the particular work; (2) the definition of its relationship to the prevailing worldview(s); and, perhaps most problematically, (3) the dialogic evaluation of its ontological commitment from the critic's own perspective, though I am ultimately inclined to say from the perspective that sees literature as a projection of an image of human life for the purpose of enhancing its quality in the real world. This dialogic approach not only can deepen our response to the literary work by illuminating the ontic ground of its existence but also activate an I-Thou relationship with the poet, that kind of engagement which admittedly is fraught with risk but also with possibility. In other words, it can generate existential knowledge, the only kind of knowledge capable of breathing life into an appallingly dehumanized world in which contempt for or, what is worse, indifference to other men has become so radical that it is becoming part of the ordinary to experience — indeed, to participate in — the wholesale slaughter of human beings in the name of statistical necessity.

The desire of most modern critics to distinguish between literature and belief and to render the critical act a confrontation primarily of an artistic event (I use the term in preference to "object") is, of course, a valid one, especially in the context of the narrow, sentimental moralism of so much nineteenth-century criticism. But we are also coming to see, especially in the work of such existential thinkers as Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Tillich, and others, that the assertion of the radical dissociation of literature and life (which too often is part of a quixotic — and dangerous — strategy to apply scientific principles of measurement to the study of art) might constitute a serious distortion of the phenomenology of literary perception and a reduction of the scope and depth of artistic significance.

I could invoke Sartre's concept of "engaged literature" here, but my point can be made more precisely (for Sartre's theory is more nakedly political than its philosophical sources warrant) by advancing at the beginning a counter-critique of that New Critical argument for the autonomy of a work of literary art which is grounded in the analogy between the plastic arts (especially in their abstract or, in Ortega's term, "dehumanized" form) and literature. This analogy, as Walter Ong has insistently pointed out, is so ingrained in the consciousness of these critics that it has become the root archetype of their critical vocabulary. The characteristic title of a New Critical text on poetry is, paradoxically, The Well Wrought Urn or The Verbal Icon. And in formalist theoretical discussion the literary work is invariably — one is tempted by the casualness of such usage to say necessarily — referred to as an "objective correlative" or "aesthetic object" or "artifact," the encounter with which, as in this recent example, is preeminently a matter of "seeing":

Having defined art as the shaping of relatively stable forms of human experience out of sensuously apprehensible materials, it remains merely to point out that literature is an art whose material is language. And just as the other arts radically transform the raw materials with which they work, so literature radically transforms ordinary language. Brancusi's Bird in Flight has as much relation to a lump of metallic ore as T. S. Eliot's Waste Land has to a lump of ordinary language. Furthermore, just as metallic ore can be fashioned for functional purposes, for making instruments (tools) by which we can manipulate our environments, so language can be fashioned into instruments by which we can manipulate our environments (labels, directions, political propaganda, etc.). But art, literary art, too is not useful in that pragmatic way — oh, it can be! Brancusi's Bird in Flight can be used as an excellent battering ram, just as T. S. Eliot's Waste Land can be used as an excellent sermon. But neither use is appropriate to the object's artistic function; as art objects they are meant to be looked at — not used!

What I am suggesting is that the New Critics and their progeny, both in and out of the academy, assume the literary work to be such that, like the modern abstract painting or sculpture, we apprehend it more or less simultaneously, in an instant of time. They tend to "look at" the work as if it were a static visual object, an unmoving whole without sequence and thus, unlike life, devoid of those qualitative distinctions — which involve some kind of relationship — between one moment in time and the next (change) that give motion to or, better, that dramatize experience or, what is the same thing, move the perceiver, make him a participant rather than a passive spectator or, at worst, a voyeur. In short, they tend to abstract or to dehumanize literary art. To appropriate from Roquentin's comments on l'aventure in Sartre's La Nausee, the critical act begins for the formalist not at the beginning (which is, in fact, in medias res), but only after the reading or perceptual process terminates; at the vantage point, that is, from which, like an omniscient god — which, it is worth reminding ourselves, man cannot be, no matter how good his memory — one sees all its temporal parts at once as a whole, the many and particular as one, thus radically minimizing the sequential dimension and reducing the existential experience.

For all Cleanth Brooks's insistence, therefore, that a poem is "dramatic," the critical method he employs pays remarkably little attention to the temporal sequence, the process of events embodied in its verbal expression. As long as he is dealing with a lyrical poem, say, Tennyson's "Tears, Idle Tears," or Yeats's "Among School Children," where the time-shape is apparently less important than the image or metaphor patterns, this kind of spatial apprehension is obscured. But when he is confronting a genre where the emphasis is essentially temporal — the novel or the drama, for example — the New Critical technique of spatial analysis — and its reductive implications — becomes dramatically clear. Thus, for example, in his famous explication of Macbeth (in the interest of fairness I choose this fine essay rather than more vulnerable spatial analyses such as Robert Heilman's study of King Lear or G. Wilson Knight's studies of Shakespeare's plays) he experiences the tragedy, not as, above all, a dramatic action, as a sequence of integrally related events, but rather, as his point of departure in the lines about the dagger "breeched with gore" (II, iii) suggests, as a lyric poem that, in turn, has the generic characteristics of the plastic arts. As brilliant as the explication is, it is, nevertheless, primarily a study of the reflexive relationship between images with only passing reference to the sequence of events that generates and is ontologically prior to the image. It has its source, that is, in the simultaneous or rather spatial perception of the play. As a result it arrests the dynamic motion and violates the existential drama of Shakespeare's tragedy.

When Brooks says that "the structure of a poem resembles that of a play" and that the "dynamic nature of a drama ... allows us to regard it as an action rather than as a formula for action or a statement about action," what he is in fact pointing to is not so much the definition of dramatic action as sequence of events, but rather to the Richardian or plastic definition of drama as a pattern of resolved stresses, which means, of course, a pattern of spatial images seen simultaneously from a teleological perspective, or, to adapt from Roland Barthes, from the perspective of the preterite mode. What is implicit in Cleanth Brooks is explicit in G. Wilson Knight, whose work on Shakespeare is pervasively reminiscent in method of the essay on Macbeth. Though he does not completely reject the time dimension, it is obvious both in theory and especially in practice that his is essentially a teleological approach the ideal of which is to be able to see the whole action spread out, as it were, in space: "One must be prepared to see the whole play in space as well as in time. ... A Shakespearian tragedy is set spatially as well as temporally in the mind. By this I mean there are throughout the play a set of correspondences which relate to each other independently of the time sequence which is the story. ... Now if we are prepared to see the whole play laid out, so to speak, as an area, being simultaneously aware of these thickly scattered correspondences in a single view of the whole, we possess the unique quality of the play in a new sense."

According to the plastic perspective on the literary arts, then, the verbal construct inevitably becomes, in Eliseo Vivas's phrase, an object of "intransitive apprehension," of inactive and disinterested or "irenic" aesthetic contemplation. But as Gotthold Lessing reminded us in Laocoon (1776), which constitutes his response to Winckelmann's confused attack on Virgil's "volatility" in favor of the restrained Stoic immobility embodied in the Greek Laocoon group, a literary work is not in fact a piece of sculpture or a painting, not even when poets like Ezra Pound and other Imagists deliberately attempt to achieve the feel of sculpture or painting. It is not primarily "to be looked at." It cannot, as Joseph Frank too easily assumes in his seminal, though often misleading, essay on spatial form in modern literature, be projected spatially and perceived more or less simultaneously in a moment transcending time. It must, rather, be projected temporally and apprehended or, to use Martin Buber's term, "met" sequentially in time: if it be true that painting employs wholly different signs or means of imitation from poetry, — the one using forms and colors in space, the other articulate sounds in time — and if signs must unquestionably stand in convenient relation with the thing signified, then signs arranged side by side can represent only objects existing side by side, or whose parts so exist, while consecutive signs can express only objects which succeed each other, or whose parts succeed each other, in time. Objects which exist side by side, or whose parts so exist, are called bodies. Consequently bodies with their visible properties are the peculiar subjects of painting. Objects which succeed each other, or whose parts succeed each other in time, are actions. Consequently actions are the peculiar subjects of poetry. Lessing's distinction, needless to say, is problematic in its oversimplification. His confrontation of the issue in the context of a debate over specific plastic and literary works imposed circumstantial and historical limits on his insight. Thus, for example, the prevalence at the time of representing human form in painting and, especially, in sculpture and of imitating action in terms of a broadly Aristotelian concept of plot in poetry made it rather easy for him to present the distinction as clear-cut polarities which are not quite appropriate to the modern tendency to "abstract" or "dehumanize" in both art forms. Further, he is clearly wrong in his insistence that a painting or a sculpture is perceived in an absolute instant of time. And any full discussion of the aesthetics of the distinction must take these aspects into consideration. Nevertheless, Lessing's distinction obviously has ultimate validity, especially its focus on the sequential character of the verbal medium and the fixed character of the plastic medium, and stands as "one of the great seminal insights into the nature of literature." It is, therefore, strange that this distinction, as the less than cursory treatment in Brooks's and W. K. Wimsatt's Short History of Literary Criticism clearly suggests, has not had a greater impact on the discussion of literary theory.


Excerpted from A William V. Spanos Reader by Daniel T. O'Hara, Donald E. Pease, Michelle Martin. Copyright © 2015 William Spanos. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction Prophet without a God? Secular Humanist, Par Excellence Daniel T. O'Hara,
Part One: Existentialism and the Postmodern Turn,
Chapter 1 Modern Literary Criticism and the Spatialization of Time: An Existential Critique (1970),
Chapter 2 The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination (1971),
Chapter 3 Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and the Hermeneutic Circle: Toward a Postmodern Theory of Interpretation as Dis-closure (1976),
Chapter 4 Hermeneutics and Memory: Destroying T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets (1978),
Chapter 5 Charles Olson and Negative Capability: A Phenomenological Interpretation (1979),
Chapter 6 Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych: A Temporal Interpretation (1980),
Part Two: Humanism and the Poststructuralist Turn,
Chapter 7 boundary 2 and the Polity of Interest: Humanism, the "Center Elsewhere," and Power (1984),
Chapter 8 The Apollonian Investment of Modern Humanist Education: The Examples of Matthew Arnold, Irving Babbitt, and I. A. Richards (1993),
Chapter 9 Culture and Colonization: The Imperial Imperatives of the Centered Circle (1996),
Chapter 10 Heidegger, Foucault, and the "Empire of the Gaze": Thinking the Territorialization of Knowledge (2000),
Chapter 11 "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby, the Scrivener": Reflections on the American Calling (2008),
Part Three: American Exceptionalism and the Secular Turn,
Chapter 12 The Question of Philosophy and Poiesis in the Post-Historical Age: Thinking/Imagining the Shadow of Metaphysics (2000),
Chapter 13 Edward Said's Humanism and American Exceptionalism: An Interrogation after 9/11 (2008),
Chapter 14 Herman Melville's Pierre; or, The Ambiguities and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: The Imperial Violence of the Novel of Manners (2011),
Chapter 15 The Calling and the Question of the Secular (2012),
Chapter 16 Arab Spring, 2011: A Symptomatic Reading of the Revolution (2012),
In Lieu of a Conclusion: A Discussion between William V. Spanos and Donald E. Pease,

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