Friday, May 30, 2014

T.S ELiot, The Perfect Critic or just very useful for institutional requirements?

Anyone reading or thinking about Eliot realizes, sooner or later, that the huge mass of exegesis and discussion of his work and life means that any question is likely to have been answered.  In From Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation, John Harwood anticipated my question in my last post.  I’d recommend his book to anyone who’s interested in any of this. He wrote:

‘Eliot’s immense influence in the academy has usually been ascribed to the power and cogency of his judgments, buttressed by his reputation as one of the century’s greatest poets. How one man could have retained so many eminent advocates, and held his position for so long, was something of a puzzle to reflective observers.’   (Harwood (1995) p.101) One might add, even more puzzling given how incoherent and inconsistent he seems, and especially since he stayed formally outside the academy.

But as Harwood goes on to state, quoting Louis Menand, Eliot’s authority was not so much imposed on the academy as co-opted by it. The academy needed Eliot, and needed him precisely because he was outside the academy.

1)If literary criticism is simply the eloquent expression of an opinion, no matter how well educated that opinion, there is little to distinguish it from what people outside the lecture room do when they discuss a book or poem.  Intelligent scrutiny of poems is a natural extension of an interest in poems. "I like this" leads to "why" and answering 'why' is an act of criticism. So academic criticism, which, as Gerald Gaff and others have shown, is a recent development establishing itself against competition from the scholars and the humanitarians, has to distinguish itself to justify its own existence.  If all you need is the poem and the OED, why do you need to spend three years learning how to read?  So the professional critic has either got to be able to say something startling about the complex text: or say something complex about any text,  to justify herself.

2) ‘It is essential to the institutional status of the academic literary critic that criticism be regarded as a discipline which produces results that can be evaluated ‘objectively’-or else how can literary critics be professionally certified and rewarded in the university system. (Menard, qtd Harwood)
So the short answer was that Eliot, and his claims to objectivity, the appearance of “scientific” method he dressed what were really acts of highly educated and eloquent opinionating, were useful to those within the institution.

1) His poetry, like Pound's, and Joyce's writings,  lent itself to exegesis in a way few others did. The Waste Land seems to dare the critic to test his or her abilities against it. But it wasn’t just the poetry. What exactly was an ‘Objective Correlative”, was there a “dissociation of sensibility”, what exactly is being proposed about creativity in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. For that matter exactly what did Eliot mean by Tradition.  The business of explaining what Eliot had 'really meant' (sometimes by those who were committed to a belief in “The Intentional Fallacy" when analysing his poems) was soon underway.  By the late 1970s the estimate of books and articles on Eliot was a striking 4,319 (the waste land is only 400 lines long, leave out the unpublished poems and the plays and it’s unlikely he published five thousand lines of poetry). This doesn’t count the number of unpublished thesis and dissertations. Fifty years later the number must be enormous.
2) I'm not sure if I buy this, but Menand, and Harwood through him, argue that T.S.E.’s example was important as a link in a newly created critical tradition that allowed the first generation of academic critics to create a pedigree for themselves reaching back to Aristotle with Eliot the Key transitional figure between the gentlemen amateurs of the 19th century and themselves.

Whichever way, they needed him in a way he didn't need them.

The reaction when it came, mostly after his death,  was not just against Eliot’s poetry, or his criticism, or his reputation, but sadly against the man himself.

 Fortunately, whatever happened, whatever dirt the next set of Biographers throw, the poems are still there to be read in all their awkward, idiosyncratic beauty, and if you want to you can read them free of exegesis and the interference of 'Eliot for Dummies',  "Fifty two reasons why a feminist should burn his effigy", the placards of the "Viv not Tom" party or the questions set for the exam: "What is Prufrock's 'overwelming question'? Justify your answers".

You can trust your own intelligence and find your own way home.

And I have the suspicion that when the poems are read, readers will want to talk about them, and then there will be intelligent criticism round the kitchen table, measured out in coffee spoons, and people will argue whether Prufrock is a better poem than The Journey of the Magi and that might be the highest compliment you could pay them.

T.S.Eliot, The Sacred Wood, The Perfect Critic and that Hyphen again.

T.S. Eliot was the Poet-Critic in the twentieth century: he’s almost the epitome of that role. While The Waste Land may be one of the defining poems of the twentieth century, his Selected Prose published in 1953 had an initial print run of forty thousand copies.  In April 1956 he lectured to fourteen thousand people at the baseball stadium in Minneapolis on ‘The Frontiers of Criticism”. One popular version of Eliot’s career is summed up by Craig Raine (2006 which supplies the above figures) who having called him ‘The most influential and authoritative literary arbiter of the twentieth century and a publisher of great distinction (p.xii)’, wrote, ‘His status as a poet gave authority to his criticism. His difficult poetry was taken seriously…it was leant authority by the sound judgments in Eliot’s criticism and its dazzling range of reference. The poetry and the criticism were a great double act.” (p127)
Leaving aside that 'sound judgement'.

In the first essay, in his first book, The Sacred Wood,  Eliot laid down the law according to Tom.

He argued that the poet, or artist, made the best critic. At the end of ‘The Perfect Critic’ he stated: ‘The two directions of sensibility [presumably creativity and criticism] are complimentary; and as sensibility is rare, unpopular, and desirable, it is to be expected that the critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person (p16)’.

In the companion piece, The Imperfect Critic, Eliot wrote, of Swinburne as Critic, that Swinburne was writing not to instruct a docile public, but as a poet writing notes on poets he admired. 'And whatever our opinion of Swinburne’s verse, the notes upon poets by a poet of Swinburne’s dimensions must be read with attention and respect' p.17.  Eliot’s suggestion here, with the typical qualification ‘whatever our opinion’, is that what Swinburne wrote as a critic is worthy of interest because of his stature as a poet. 

At first sight this seems to confirm the popular idea that the poetry validates the criticism, but this was not Eliot’s argument.

Describing Swinburne as a critic in ‘The Perfect Critic’:

‘Swinburne is one man in his poetry, and a different man in his criticism to this extent and in this respect only, that he is satisfying a different impulse; he is criticizing, expounding arranging’ (p.5). ‘…So I infer that Swinburne found an adequate outlet for the creative impulse in his poetry; and none of it was forced back and out through his critical prose’ (p.6).

‘This gives us an intimation why the artist is-each within his own limitations-oftenest to be depended on as a critic; his criticism will be criticism, and not the satisfaction of a suppressed creative wish-which in most other persons is apt to interfere fatally’ (p7).

Therefore, according to early Eliot, because they straddle the hyphen, poet-critics can bifurcate themselves, and put their emotions and creative impulse into their poetry, and turn their intellect and interest to criticism. For the early Eliot the hyphen guaranteed the criticism, not because of the poet’s knowledge and skill as a poet, but because the poet’s creativity could be channeled one side of the hyphen and the poet’s critical faculty, purged of the need to be creative, and not needing an emotional outlet, could focus on the intellectual task in hand.

Less than fifty pages later Eliot would famously attempt to purge the poetry of emotion in Tradition and the Individual Talent, further suggesting the desirability of splitting an already split personality, currently flip flopping (automatically? At will?) on a binary switch between creativity and criticism.

However, the contradictions in his argument don’t concern me.

What intrigues me is that Eliot could not only argue that artists make the best critics, for reasons I suspect most readers brushed aside, but that people were willing to accept the ‘argument’.  That the ideas of a great poet on poetry are worth considering is one thing, though not beyond debate. That the great poet is ipso facto a great critic confuses two separate activities.  What validates criticism should be the quality of the criticism, not the biography of the critic. The irony in Eliot’s case is that the evidence, for example The Waste Land manuscript and his attempts to have the Bolo poems published,  suggests he had a limited ability to be critical of his own writing, at least at a conscious level where it could be verbalized.
Which should lead us to Yeats.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Puzzling over value 9A. T.S. Eliot as critic

I'm tracking back through Eliot's criticism.

Before commenting, here's the young Eliot, in the first chapter of his first book, laying down the law about criticism.
Almost a hundred years later there are still people who think their emotional response to a poem is not only sufficient but far superior to any critical attempt at understanding or evaluation. There's also a flat earth society.

This impression [an uneducated response to over powering beauty] may be so deep that no subsequent study and understanding will intensify it. But at this point the impression is emotional: the reader in the ignorance which we postulate is unable to distinguish the poetry from an emotional state around in himself by the poetry, a state which may be merely an indulgence of his own emotions. The poetry may be an accidental stimulus. The end of the enjoyment of poetry is a pure contemplation from which all the accidents of personal emotion are removed: thus we aim to see the object as really is and find a meaning for the words of Arnold [What words of Arnold?].And without a labour which is largely a labour of the intelligence, we are unable to attain that stage of vision 'amor intellectualis Dei'.
Such considerations, cast in this general form, may appear commonplaces. But I believe that it as always opportune to call attention to the torpid superstition that appreciation is one thing, and ‘intellectual’ criticism something else. Appreciation in popular psychology is one faculty, and criticism another, an arid cleverness building theoretical scaffolds upon one’s own perception or those of others, On the contrary, the true generalization is not something superposed upon an accumulation of perceptions; the perceptions do not, in a really appreciative mind, accumulate as a mass but form themselves as a structure; and criticism is the statement in language of this structure, it is developed sensibility, the bad criticism on the other hand is that which is nothing but an expression of emotion. (The Perfect Critic in The Sacred Wood p15)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Puzzling over Value 8C

The argument in Carey's book, (see previous post) is on the same level as arguing divorce rates are linked to margarine consumption.....or any of the other "spurious" correlations on the web site at this link:

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Puzzling over value 8C: John Carey and 'The intellectuals and the Masses'.

I wasted far too much time reading this. The idea that Pound, Joyce and Eliot, wrote the way they did with the sole purpose of excluding a mass readership to preserve their own sense of superiority is so wayward that only a rigorously argued case, with some kind of convincing primary evidence, would redeem what at first sight appears a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

In the Preface to his book “The Intellectuals and the Masses’  John Carey begins:

This book is about the response of the English literary intelligentsia to the new Phenomena of mass culture. It argues that Modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth-century educational reforms. The purpose of Modernist writing, it suggests, was to exclude these newly educated (or ‘semi-educated’) readers, and so to preserve the intellectual’s seclusion from the ‘mass’.

The book is remarkably unconvincing, because there is no ‘argument’.  

There are two undeniable facts, which most people might accept.
1) British culture in the period 1890-1939 was riven by social divisions and class snobbery. Many people, including writers, expressed opinions about the ‘masses’ which today seem vile.

2)  Modernist Literature, whatever that means and who ever it might include, required different reading practices than the writing of Marie Corelli and Henry Newbolt.

Were the two casually related?  Carey states they were, but he never attempts to prove the link. All he does is heap up examples of the first. 

While Carey rightly points out the masses were an abstraction:

 ‘The ‘mass’ is, of course, a fiction. Its function as a linguistic device, is to eliminate the human status of the majority of people-or at any rate, to deprive them of those distinctive features that make users of the term, in their own esteem, superior.’ [And 'its function as a linguistic device is....' is typical of the level of thinking throughout the text. One of its functions? Its function in certain contexts?)

He never stops to consider that words like ‘Intelligensia’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘modernist’ are equal fictions.  Or that their use in his book function as a linguistic device to eliminate any distinctions between writers or cases.  And his refusal to define his own terms, or consider his own assumptions, means he can conscript any writer who said anything nasty to his argument and quote them.

Q) Was D.H.Lawrence, who gets a lot of press in part one, 
A) A Modernist, 
B) Difficult, 
C) An intellectual, 
D) One of the Intelligentsia

Because Carey offers no definitions of any of those terms there are no answers possible to that question.

It is interesting that a Professor of Literature at Oxford could write such a badly argued book. A grade ten student writing an essay that began with the first paragraph quoted above would be required to prove the argument using evidence.

It doesn't get me anywhere in the excellence vs elitism problem either. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Puzzling over Value #8b: Peter Barker and Robert Johnson

Slight pause while I finish  Carey's book: The Intellectuals and the Masses:Pride and prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia; 1880-1939  which so far isn't very convincing

Two thoughts to be going on with:

In ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’ Alan Lomax writes this of Robert Johnston:

In fact, little Robert added Lonnie Johnson’s tricky orchestral style to the licks of Charley Patton and Blind Lemon that Son House passed on to him. Like other much-recorded New Orleans musicians, Lonnie Johnson had creolized the blues, reorganized their lyrics so each one told a story, and set them to book learned harmonies. Little Robert played some of Lonnie’s sophisticated progressions, but he set his highly ornamented, almost oriental vocal style over them. P16

That made him Excellent, he was carving out his own niche, but did that make ‘Little Robert”  “Elitist”?

Of course not, like any professional he was looking for the edge that distinguished him from the crowd. It is the natural pursuit of excellence and if he were good enough, it was going to take him away from the competition. Standing out from the crowd meant more work, more money. It also earned the respect of his peers.

Here’s Son House, as recorded by Lomax: And play, that boy could play, more blues than air [sic] one of us. Folk would say he couldn’t, but we know, us musicians, that he was the man. What little I know I taught him, but he put his own sound in it, and sing with it, sing all night. (Op cit p16)

So the question is: does, and if so, how does, someone like Ezra Pound or James Joyce as artists pursuing their craft, differ from "Little Robert"?

Second point, I like trees, I think they are beautiful, and if I were any kind of decent photographer I'd take thousands of pictures of them. But I'm not, and a lot of pictures, photographic or painted,  just do them badly.

Peter Barker is a British artist who does trees better than any other painter I've seen. Now, he is excellent. If I had the dosh and was in the habit of buying pictures,  I'd buy his, because he does them so well and I don't like badly painted trees. 

Does that make me or him elitist? (His pictures can be seen at the link below)