Monday, September 30, 2013

Ethical Criticism is About the Future

This post starts where the previous one, Ethical Criticism in the Wild, ends, looking forward.

Let me begin with a passage from the end of Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep. He’s just quoted from a Chekov story (“Home”) observes (p. 484)
We all have “this foolish habit,” [liking stories] and we all are by nature caught in the ambiguities that trouble the prosecutor. Yet we are all equipped, by a nature (a “second nature”) that has created us out of story, with a rich experience in choosing which life stories, fictional or “real,” we will embrace wholeheartedly. Who we are, who we will be tomorrow depends thus on some act of criticism, whether by ourselves or by those who determine what stories will come our way – criticism wise or foolish, deliberate or spontaneous, conscious or unconscious: “You may enter; you must go away – and I will do my best to forget you.”
Each culture provides every member with an unlimited number of “natural” choices that seem to require no thought.

Let me repeat: “Who we are, who we will be tomorrow depends thus on some act of criticism…” But we cannot know the future. We can only try to guide present actions in a certain direction.

* * * * *

Here’s a longish comment I made in John Holbo’s discussion, Raiders of the Last Arc, a Pretty Good Film. First the set-up: Bloix had suggested that Waring read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, “with a woman protagonist written for the most part in the first person” (comment 165). In comment 171 Waring replies, “Why should I be compelled to read Freedom [because it has a female narrator]?”

I then reply as follows (174):
“Why should I be compelled to read Freedom on that same basis?”

I figure you asked that question in a rhetorical mode, Belle, but I'm going to un-rhet it and provide an explicit answer: You shouldn't. There's only so much time in the world, you've given Franzen a chance already, and he's given you no reason the want more. Nor, on the face of it, has anyone in these conversations come up with compelling reasons for you to reconsider.

And the thing is, it is possible for a person to reconsider and give an author, or a composer or a performer, painter, whatever, another chance. They have to be 'within range' and the reconsideration means hard work. You change yourself so that this thing you didn't like, now 'fits'. But someone has to give you a compelling reason to make the change.

When you're young, the prospect of flunking in school may, just may, be a compelling reason. But we're adults here so that kind of thing doesn't work.

And, it's possible for people to like different things.

In any event, I figure that the value of contemporary works is pretty much in suspension. We each of us have our preferences, but that proverbial 'test of time' really does take time. I mean, even Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare in his time. People knew he was good, some of them, but it took a couple of centuries for him to become The Immortal Bard. What made him immortal was other people copping his stuff and building around and on it.

We don't know what contemporary writers are going to have their stuff stolen by our grandchildren. It's our grandchildren who're going to make the call about the great writers of today. All we can do is nominate them.

So, some folks here want to nominate Franzen for consideration by the grandkids. OK.

And Belle is saying that, from a certain group of writers who happen to be very well known these days, she doesn't want to put any of them in nomination. And she's given her reasons.

End of story.
And that’s pretty much how it think it is with present day culture – fiction, poetry, plays, film, music, TV, art, sculpture, etc. We each have our personal preferences, and some of us may make a distinction between our personal preferences and excellence. But works of art exist only in relation to the population that appreciates them. And that population changes over time.

Thus a new work may find a large and appreciative audience, and then be forgotten a decade later. Another work may not find its audience until well after its first appearance. Thus the value of contemporary works is undetermined in the large.

And the value of past works is subject to modification by present work. As T. S. Eliot put it in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
What, then, is the million of academic ethical criticism?


  1. Indeed, "the million." Especially in the case of poetry when it may be received differently by an audience who reads it on the page, by the audience who hears its performance. Which mode "counts" and has the lasting weight? Hypothetically, a critic in the audience of a live performance is also experiencing the mood of the crowd in a way that is not experienced by the reading, alone, of a book. I would go so far as to say that the experience of performance is not measured necessarily, in the case of poetry, by the memorability of the words. Indeed, can we consider enchantment useful and desirable as one port of call of many in considering how to go forward? the relationships of poem/performer/audience may well be
    focused concentration with a subtle vitality that is transformative for all people present. A pleasure of having something that you didn't know you wanted, and now you have "it."

    And, reading the book on the page brings those same words to light in a very different way.

    I could go on!

    Great posts, brother!

  2. Thanks, Sally.

    Enchantment counts for a lot, in music performance too.