YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 22, 2009

On “literariness” and “the ethical state”

The theme of this blog is the hopeless project to repair fragments. First I review the fiction of a unified Jewry, then I take on literary criticism as promulgated by New Critics, the organic conservative parents of today’s “New Historicists.”

Last night I saw the 1999 film Sunshine, directed by Istvan Szábó, and written by Szábó and Israel Horovitz. Besides its obvious merits as an epic rendition of three generations of Hungarian Jews in the twentieth century, the film raised a question that it is typical of this director’s work: can the artist find refuge in aestheticism at all times, or is there a particular moral imperative to unmask deceptive elites when they use the arts (including overt propaganda) to misguide the people? (In the case of the Sonnenschein/Sors family, the three characters played by Ralph Fiennes bond with the ruling authorities, first the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then, after the Great War, Hungarian nationalists in alliance with Hitler, and then, after the defeat of the Nazis, the Hungarian Communist Party, until the youngest Sors rebels against the Communists and changes his name back to the obviously Jewish Sonnenschein.) And more, can Jews, even when they convert to one of the dominant belief systems, find safety by separating themselves from other Jews? Obviously not. I bring this up today because the conflict in the Middle East has sharply divided what is sometimes called “the Jewish community,” though any alert Jew, secular or religious, would find the term implying a unified Jewish community absurd.

What is interesting about the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum (particularly with respect to critical method) in late 1930s America is the shotgun wedding between the aesthetic and the moral, in the service of what I have been calling corporatist liberalism or organic conservatism or the ideology of the moderate men, and that others call progressivism or the Third Way. These critics called themselves Formalists or New Critics, or more recently New Historicists. What follows are gleanings from the cutting room floor: footnotes to Hunting Captain Ahab that were saved for future publication.

[In what follows the reader should understand that I have not selectively excerpted the quotes from Norman Foerster’s seminal book, erasing concrete definitions, contexts, and examples. The vagueness and abstractness are in the original. Also note that Marxism had consistently been presented in the writings of  populists and progressives as a materialist ideology, whereas 1930s Marxists themselves were split on this crucial question: some were Hegelian-Marxists writing in the tradition of German idealism; others were materialists and positivists; see Partisan Review, the debate between William Phillips and Edmund Wilson.]

See Norman Foerster, et al, Literary Scholarship: Its Aims and Methods (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1941): especially the Introduction by Foerster, Chapter  Three by René Wellek, and Chapter  Four by Austin Warren. This latest group intervention in the teaching of literature was, as usual, directed against the disruptive and decadent forces of science, Marxism, psychoanalysis, relativism, romanticism, naturalism and realism, all of which were seen as reductive, deterministic, and invasive:  realism and naturalism had mounted false claims to objectivity.  Always born of literary tradition , not “social history, the biographies of authors, or the disjointed appreciation of individual works” (118), a literary work was a “dynamic system of signs” (97-98) to be judged by critics with respect to a larger, constantly evolving and unpredictable set of values (124-125).  Science and literature occupied different spheres: (the language of science was denotative and transparent; that of literature was connotative and generated multiple meanings including the accretions of previous interpreters, as Wellek and Warren explicated in a subsequent text, Theory of Literature, 1948, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation).  But science (materialist Marxism in the minds of the authors?) was not comparable to the literary as a guide to action:  for instance Catholicism was demonstrably superior to Marxism : “…no critic who is himself a scrupulous and integrated mind can regard Catholicism and Marxism—to cite a pair of contemporary options—as equally tenable readings of reality.  Privately, he must have arrived at the decision that one exceeds the other in maturity and coherence; and, as between two hypothetically equal writers, the one a Catholic and the other a Marxist, he must consider the “true believer” to be the greater, though this certainly need not mean that the critic will use his author, whether “orthodox” or “heretical”, as the occasion for doctrinal homily (166).” (Warren had cited critics, including Plekhanov and Farrell, who agree with his critical methods,  neither labeling their authors, nor practicing “vulgar sociology,” p.164)).

Maintaining their moderate credentials, the authors keep their distance from racialism, folkishness, and postulations of a national literature without exactly disavowing these ideas then associated with Nazism (113, 128).  (The impetus to the study of medieval, folk literature, and literature of the Orient, is attributed to the tastes of women and the middle-class, p.154.  Cf. postwar descriptions of Hitler’s base.) Foerster’s introduction does not deviate from his article on reforming the Ph.D in English in The Nation, 5/10/19.  For instance, “race” is the first item in the list of materials useful to biographers, ahead of “family, the social status, the individual experiences and mental characteristics of an author” (102).   Published in 1941, this volume, it seems to me, expresses (or echoes) the opposition of the universalist but tolerant, culturally pluralistic (121) Catholic Church to its upstart rival, German Nazism. For instance, Catholic toleration was demonstrated in the practice of censoring the Index Expurgatorius for “the uneducated and inexperienced,” while opening them to “the critical and mature” (148). (The Nazis did the same for Melville’s Benito Cereno and Billy Budd.)

After Strange Gods is cited favorably: “…some of Eliot’s recent prose pieces, notably After Strange Gods, seeks to “apply moral principles to literature quite explicitly” without forgetting the nature of literature….” (164).  Those who imagine that the New Critics banished moral criteria in favor of an uncluttered aestheticism have not examined the context in which their tenets were formulated. It was the class polarizing romantic Nazis who were the materialists, nihilists and iconoclasts.  The reformed critical theorists should integrate aesthetic and moral criteria; properly deployed in criticism of “maturity and coherence,” these were interpenetrating (143-151).

On the question of literariness, see René Wellek, p.101:  the “environmental context” is “supplementary” to the study of those intrinsic qualities of the art work considered in its [purity].  “When these environmental methods are pushed to their deterministic extremes, and literature is conceived as causally determined by any one or any combination of these forces, a proper comprehension of literature has actually been hindered. All such extrinsic studies do violence to the individuality of the literary work and to the nature of literary evolution. Any causal explanation of a work of art by some external activity necessarily must ignore the actual integrity, coherence, and also intrinsic value of a work of literature. The work is reduced to an illustration of an example in a different scheme of references.” (101-102).  Again, the invading foreign races and the freethinking Jews of Eliot’s speech seem to embody the extreme deterministic forces that are their targets. This is a crucial point overlooked by Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (U. of Minnesota Press, 1983).  Eagleton wants to fit the New Critical artwork into the Marxian concept of reification (the fetishized commodity appearing to its producers as an object alienated from their labor) and to link the new critics to reaction and Fascism (as they understood the concept). Austin and Warren, however, deplored the notion of the isolated artwork; when they talked of individuality and originality, they meant that variety partook of the higher unity with traditional values (the value of order and continuity with the past). This makes them Burkean conservatives and gradualists. They are arguing against the tyranny of radical puritans and Jews, agents of apocalyptic social transformation and anarchy. Eagleton wants to represent the structuralist New Critics (like the phenomenologists) as false objectivists demanding closure and certainty, whereas (he says) the post-structuralists respect the biases of the participant-observer and respect multiplicity. He also (wrongly) suggests their inception  (flourishing) in the South during the late 1930s, thus linking them constantly to southern slaveholders. My book attempts to correct his account and his periodization; see my discussion of the corporatist discourse of The Nation and of Irving Babbitt and F. O. Matthiessen; the latter are activists who want to synthesize neoclassicism and romanticism in order to defeat heartless individualism/laissez-faire capitalism, in the Stalinist Matthiessen’s case, personified in the character Captain Ahab.

René Wellek, though he retains the discourse of organicism, must reject the absorption of literary history into natural history, for that would render intervention by elites into politics pointless. “We must conceive…of  literature as a whole system of works which is, with the accretion of new ones, constantly changing its relationships, growing as a changing whole….such predictable changes called laws have never been discovered in any historical process in spite of the brilliant speculations of Spengler or Toynbee (121-122).  On the other hand, there are cycles, but it is the genre or style which rises and falls:  [Warren:] “Between literary history in its strict sense and criticism, the relation appears to be this: That which is at once history and of literature must take form as a chronologically arranged study of an aesthetic sequence (as distinct from the biographical or social references of literature or its ideological content); it must concern itself with the cycle—the rise, equilibrium, and fall of a genre or style.  But this involves, at every moment, the use of critical criteria—in the definition of the genre (and what belongs or does not belong within it), in the estimate of what elements (added or enhanced or better arranged) are to constitute “progress,” and of what constitutes the norm or height of the genre toward which it advances, from which it falls away. It is thus a serious error to speak of literary history as concerned only with facts, for only a system of values can determine what facts are relevant. The literary historian must either be a critic as well, or borrow his standards from traditional estimates or from practising critics (169-170). Note that the critic/literary historian is not beholden to any particular class, but has become part of an independent intelligentsia in modern times, and yet he is always bound to “tradition,” even though new values are admittedly created. The key value here is “equilibrium,” an appropriation of homeostasis in the biological organism, misapplied to “the body politic.”

See also Austin Warren’s concluding remarks in a review of Christian Gauss, A Primer for Tomorrow, American Review 5 (Nov.?1934): 106-107. Warren joins Gauss in lamenting the loss of “a centre.” Warren writes, “But where is such a centre to be found? Here the Dean cannot help us, for he has found no “religion”, even in the reduced form of “social myth,” capable of enlisting his whole-minded and whole-hearted support. And he really desires incompatibles–a compelling faith, and toleration of all opinions. He wants liberty and authority. Ross Hoffman, in his article in the October REVIEW, sees the dilemma, candidly analyzes it, and boldly asserts that the time has come when the dispersive tendencies of democracy must be checked by the authority of the state, nationally representing Christian civilization. He envisages a “humanistic and ethical state, sworn to alliance with good morals and civilized religion, having much more in common with the early medieval monarchies and the Holy Roman Empire than with the modern, laicized, bureaucratic state”. Can such a “social myth” command Americans, divided as they are into many varieties of religion and irreligion, sectional in their cultures, diversely backgrounded? The prospect for an authoritarian state deriving its power not from the personality of a dynamic leader or the supremacy of a class but from a common religious and ethical faith, a common philosophy of values, seems more remote and more hopeless with us than with any other nation.  Yet Dean Gauss and Professor Hoffman and, I believe, most thoughtful Americans agree in their conviction that votes and tools cannot sustain civilization. What then, is the prospect before us? One shaft of hope, I repeat, has perforated our night. The sleepers have awakened; the watchmen have ascended the walls.”

The following issue of AR (December 1934) published Norman Foerster’s address at Rockford College, Illinois, “The College, The Individual, and Society,” repudiating materialism and the elevation of sentimental humanitarianism. “In its origin, humanitarianism was, I venture to assert, primarily a manifestation of materialism. It was not in harmony with the retreating forces of religion and humanism; it was part and parcel of the new emphasis on outer nature and the physical benefits promised by the Industrial Revolution. It called for freedom, but it meant nothing so certainly as it meant freedom from physical suffering. Freedom from physical suffering is a good thing, but it is not the best. Relatively to ethical and spiritual values it is not important. No great civilization ever made this its dominant preoccupation. If previous ages had emphasized proportionate living, or the welfare of the soul, or the development of personality, the humanitarian movement now emphasized the claims of the body.  It stirred appetite rather than virtue. Desires increased, things increased with which these desires could be satisfied; and men became more and more enmeshed in desires and things.” (136-137). (Does the reader see the critique of “consumerism” here?)

          Cf. Calvert Alexander, The Catholic Literary Revival (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1935), with its conclusion calling for a Catholic “free press” copying the independent publications of Jews, Communists and Socialists) to combat the pernicious influence of mass media and liberal Catholicism. The task for Catholics was to delegitimate “natural man” to reinstate “supernatural man,” but without returning to the nineteenth-century Romanticism of DeMaistre or Bonald.  Students of alternative media should study the influence of evangelical Catholicism (revolutionary conservatives, the born-again moderns) in the theorizing of public broadcasting as well as the formation of the academic disciplines of cultural history and the history of science, confessional psychoanalysis, and the ideology of democratic pluralism.

The New Historicism of the post-60s generation:  “Formalist” New Critics (notoriously conservative) supposedly focus on aesthetic values alone, ignoring context (which is not true, see above), while the corrective younger New Historicists (a mixture of self-styled radicals, including some Marxists, romantic anticapitalists, and primitivists) see texts as generated from contexts.  New Historicists claim to be relativists, but their relativism is professed in response to administrative adjustments to clamoring women and non-whites after the movements of the 1960s. Both generations derive their rooted cosmopolitanism from Herder.  See Wesley Morris, Toward a New Historicism (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1972); each chapter is headed with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot.  My diagnosis of romantic conservatism in the Left and New Left includes the “cultural materialists” such as Alan Sinfield, Literature, Politics, and Culture in Postwar Britain (Berkeley: U.C. Press, 1989), part of a series, “The New Historicism.”  Sinfield’s idealism comes out in statements such as “The contest between rival stories produces our notions of reality, and hence our beliefs about what we can and cannot do”(23), and in his epigraph to the Introduction from Gramsci: “In acquiring one’s conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all the social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting. …The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without  leaving an inventory.”  Introduced as “an exemplar of the New Historicism,” David Reynolds discussed canon revision at UCLA, 5/16/91, advocating “reconstructive criticism” (continuous with the “old cultural historicism” of Constance Rourke, William Charvat, and Henry Nash Smith) to end the Canon Wars: Scholars should reconstruct the socio-literary milieu by explicating a “broad range of literary texts produced in different regions and by different social groups.”

Some recent books are attempting to rehabilitate the Southern conservatives/New Critics, marking what they see as a powerful critique of bourgeois society/possessive individualism, but, alarmingly, are refusing to engage their protofascism. See for instance, Thomas Daniel Young, Gentleman in a Dustcoat: A Biography of John Crowe Ransom (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976):495, fn 14,  who cites Left-wing accusations that the Agrarians were preparing the way for fascism in America only to delegitimate them; Mark Jancovich, The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism (Cambridge UP, 1993); and Mark G. Malvasi, The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1997):153-4, stating that the Agrarians’ association with profascist Seward Collins (beginning in 1933) was “turbulent and brief,” and citing his doctoral dissertation. This is a strange claim given the continuing presence of the Agrarians in American Review. Would Collins even have approached the group to start his blatantly pro-Nazi, pro-Fascist journal had he thought their thought was out of synch with his own?


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