Literary Webs

Now for another attempt to return to normal programming – at least for a moment.

I’ve been following several literary discussions lately. There is Daniel Green’s comment on that Judith Halberstam article – the one that Michael Bérubé commented on last month and I commented on the month before, at such length that I had to do it twice. That one – Daniel’s – ended with some comments that I’ve been musing about (on and off) ever since. About the distinction (and whether there is one) between literary and non-literary experience. Michael said one thing, Daniel said another, I said a third, Michael answered – and I’ve been trying to figure out what I think ever since. I’ve been thinking, to boil it down, about whether the pity and horror we feel at Cordelia’s death is in fact different from the pity and horror we feel at a comparable death in real life. I think it is. I think it hooks up to the way we feel about it in real life, but I think the feeling itself – the what is it like to feel this feeling – is different. Partly because Cordelia (and literary characters in general) is stripped down, as is the situation. Real life is so full of extraneous material, irrelevancies, and extra information, memory, experience, thoughts, that anything that happens there has to be different from what happens in literature, however detailed and encyclopaedic and complete it tries to be. Plus there’s the fact that reading novels and seeing or listening to plays is different from a lot of things we do in life. Plus there’s the whole question of rhetoric – of how Shakespeare got the effects he did with Cordelia. Plus more, but that will do to suggest the kind of thought.

Then Michael did a long post – an article, really – on Mark Bauerlein’s article here. That also prompted a lot of interesting comments, and Kevin Drum did a brief post on it, which brought a whole different crowd of readers. I was particularly interested by this comment of Michael’s:

And just to make my final point completely clear (because I didn’t quite nail it in the sixth comment above): the fact that Theory / anti-Theory so often appeared, when you and I were graduate students, as a struggle between the firebrands and the deadwood was not necessarily a good thing for Theory. I think it exempted some aspects of theory from skeptical scrutiny early on, and then led to a number of wagon-circling manueuvers in the 1990s as the P.C. nonsense and the various cults of personality took hold.

Exactly. That firebrands v. deadwood trope confused the issues all to hell, in my view. Which I said (sort of), and Michael’s answer clarifies things even further.

My recent thinking about this (still very much under construction) has been informed not only by challenges from the Valve, B&W, and the younger generation of the ALSC but also by my experiences over the past two years with the intro-to-grad-study course, about which I’ll say more in a separate post. (I’d place the second generation a bit later, Mark, but I’d agree that the discipleship—particularly around de Man, about which Guillory has written compellingly—was decisive.) So I’ve been trying to parse out just what in the anti-Theory response is a critique of (a) the celebrity phenomenon and its attendant wagon-circling, (b) the faddish leftism associated with theory, which is not identical to (a) but can go hand in hand with it, (c) the forbidding and/or unappealing prose of some theoretical modes, and (d) the actual arguments, point by point, of one or another theorist.

There you go; that’s just it. Items (a) – (c) can get so thoroughly in the way of (d) that one can’t even always find (d) – because one is so busy being distracted and irritated by (a) – (c).

This subject may begin to get somewhere. The Valve discussion of Theory’s Empire starts next week – July 12. Should be good.

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