17 July 2008

Criticism Near and Far

Our journey finds us today musing over the nature of criticism. Our launching pad: Guy Davenport's "Narrative Tone and Form" in The Geography of the Imagination:

"Narrative voice (tone, attitude, confidence) is as characteristic of its epoch as any other style. We do not, however, live in an epoch; we live between epochs. Literature, once a river defined by banks, is now a river in an ocean. Johnson and Voltaire read, or looked into, everything that came from the presses. A scholar's learning nowadays is certified by the ignorance with which he surrounds his expertise. It is therefore almost impossible to tell if the twentieth century has a style variously perceived by a variety of sensibilities, or the greatest diversity of styles known to cultural history."

"Flaubert has learned to make things articulate." [Does he use 'articulate', here, as verb (such that 'things speak') or an adjective (such that the things tell us something)? Probably the latter. Either way, he's succinct and correct.]

"The style of Kafka is a marriage of Flaubert and the folktale. The beginning of Amerika is good Flaubertian prose, restrained and objective, right up until the second sentence, which describes the Statue of Liberty. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven. That is the most brilliant imaginative touch in modern literature." [I'm buying.]

"I see a pattern here: a movement from assuming the world to be transparent, and available to lucid thought and language, to assuming (having to assume, I think the artists would say) that the world is opaque."

"The radical change in twentieth-century narrative is of form. There has been a new understanding that literature is primarily literature and not a useful critique of manners. And there has been a vigorous search for new patterns to the novel."
And he proceeds to discuss the architectonics of the contemporary novel, citing O. Henry's lost Cabbages and Kings and Paul Metcalf's Genoa. (This is a topic we'll reserve for another day, hoping to bring Gass and some others into the mix.)

Then we find this, an essay by Morgan Meis over at The Smart Set. He is an editor at one of our favorite venues: 3 Quarks Daily (though sometimes I feel I need at least 5 or 6 to sustain me). Meis draws the distinction between two 'styles' (let's call them) of criticism: distanced and close-in. The Kantian tradition calls for distanciation, top-down, objective evaluation of the work of art based on a set of stated criteria; we suspend our emotional involvement in the story for the sake of arriving at an aesthetic judgment. The other trend lacks rules and addresses each work on its own merits: "Another way to say this is that each work of art generates its own set of rules. The only way to deal with any individual work, then, is to read out that set of rules, to discover something about its own internal logic. A criticism that wants to step away, to achieve distance in order to apply a set of external rules and to make judgments, ends up stepping away from the only criterion available: the criterion there within the work." Close and far. These are the choices Meis confronts. He opts for the close-in view.

The problem with Meis's view of closeness gets you a department of, say, Madonna Studies alongside your basic Bach Studies, or comparative comic books alongside Gide and Camus and Sartre. We at WoW have nothing against relativism per se; in fact, our usual attitude is something on the order of 'the more the merrier.' How then to deal with the problem of standards, objectivity? In our last couple posts we've framed the issue somewhat differently: Is criticism the bacteria in the stomach of the leech or is it in the business of delimiting the presentation of consciousness in the work of art?

To take Meis's dilemma at face value, we think Davenport was on to something. None of us is a Johnson or a Voltaire. Or a Coleridge or Pater. Or even a Wood or Kermode (see Frank's delighted review of James's How Fiction Works here). We are exposed to vast amounts of 'art' (often disguised as entertainment or advertisement) every day. There is so much of it we have to limit our own consumption—hell, I can't even read every so-called 'great' novel coming down the pike. So we pick and choose the things that entertain us, the things we like. Each of us is a critic, of sorts, and can say that we like something or we can identify with it in some way. And if we don't like it, we can vote with our feet or our remote control or our pocket book. Our opinions are what they are maugre our degree of ignorance. Each of us has standards; they simply haven't yet been articulated. Perhaps it is the critic's task to articulate the standards at play in the enjoyment of the specific work of art before her and to compare it with like-minded works and differentiate it from others based on the standards at play. This assists the lover of, say, "Die Hard" or The DaVinci Code (book or movie, take your choice) or "Sleepless in Seattle" or The Nanny Diaries (book or movie) in locating other works he might find enjoyable. This is the function of, say, the music genome project and its website, Pandora, in the field of music: identify certain attributes (instrumentation, beats per minute, poetic lyrics, melodic, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus structure, etc.) of a given piece of music and then locate and suggest others that share some portion of those same attributes. This is primarily a descriptive function. After all, there are good commercials and bad ones, good pop songs and bad ones, good thrillers, romances, chick-lit and bad ones, good commercial TV shows, movies, plays and bad ones, etc. They succeed or fail on their own terms. Viewers, readers, listeners get out of these works what they bring to them. There is, thus, a certain solipsism, uncritical self-affirmation to Meis's view.

Setting aside the issue of whether one can identify and, then, describe the attributes of a great work of literature (and, believe me, this is a whopper of an issue) (or, for that matter, of film or piece of music or painting or dance), we believe there's more to the critical function than mere description. Description stops at the level of identification and subjectivism: "I liked that book because I could identify with the protagonist and could sympathize with her. It resonated. It touched me where I live. It reminded me of that other book I liked." Beyond that, though, is the matter of interpretation. Is this part and parcel of the critical function? We believe it is. What's more, this is the area in which we found James Wood's How Fiction Works most lacking. But what, precisely, is interpretation? What criteria, if any, can we expect any reliable interpretation to have?

It's fair to expect any interpretation first to do the work of description Wood lays out in his book—Meis's option. This is the necessary minimum. Any interpretation must plausibly incorporate these elements; it must be compatible with them. In the great novel all of the elements of fiction should work toward a coherent end and that interpretation will be most powerful which utilizes more of these features in framing its view. There are also some critical norms. They are not set in stone. They change over time and from culture to culture. The descriptive enterprise doesn't tell us whether a work is good or great with respect to, say, the tradition or the canon or serious contemporary standards—it only tells us if it succeeds on its own terms. For example, we might say a Madonna pop-song is a really good example of a pop-song and succeeds because it's listenable, danceable-to, and has a good beat. But, where does it fit in the tradition of musics that include, say, Gregorian chants, Bach oratoria, Beethoven's late quartets, etc.? This question applies in analogous form equally to The Firm and Invisible Cities, The DaVinci Code and Midnight's Children.

But what are those extratextual critical standards? Is it, as Wm. Gass has postulated, the Test of Time? If they are in constant flux, how can we nail them down? And once we've done so, how do we weave our descriptive work in with them? Harder still: How do we deal with the sui generis novel?

This is by no means our last post on this issue.

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