Author: ananda (166.127.1.---)
Date: 04-12-05 12:31
Hi Mr. Swilley,
I hear your angst, and I understand where you're coming from. However, don't teachers need to adapt to where there students are? That's a big question these days.
Also, here's a post from a guy who studied formalism at the Univ. of Chicago.
Yes, we read rafts of new critics, Brooks, Wellek and Warren, R.P. Blackmur and on and on, as well as earlier critics — the focus was on Boileau, Johnson and Dryden, Reynolds, with poor Shelley (rightly, I think) taken to the chopping block as a critic, not as a poet — though he did come in for some whacks there as well. Of course we also read all the so-called formalist criticism of the Chicago critics themselves.
As for being a comparativist, there are many senses in which I was and remain one as a thinker. I don’t want to discard any critical method that may yield something useful, including history and biography, nor did the formalists, necessarily; the Chicago method wasn’t merely “formal,” it was highly pluralistic. R.S. Crane, one of the founders, said ”we ought to have at our command, collectively at least, as many different critical methods as there are distinguishable major aspects in the construction, appreciation, and use of literary works." They did, however, have an appreciation for works of literature as verbal structures, with particular goals in mind. In that sense they were “Aristotelian,” or better, “Neo-Aristotelian.”
Elder Olson, the only one of the founding Chicago critics with whom I studied, explained it somewhat this way in his class on poetics. The work of art, in Aristotelian terms, is like an axe, i.e., it has a final, formal, material, and efficient cause because it is: (1) made for a particular purpose (2) in a particular shape (3) out of particular materials (4) by someone. By examining whether the maker chose wisely with respect to each of the remaining “causes,” we can tell whether the maker did a good job in creating the product, regardless of whether the product is an axe or poem, or a novel. We can thus say that a toolmaker who made an axe to cut trees with a blade of 22K gold and a friable ivory handle is not a good toolmaker; but one who made the same object with a different final cause might be a good one indeed. The same is true of a work of art. The poet who wants to induce you to feel a protagonist’s pain (and intentionality is a big concept in the Chicago school – the poet has an effect in mind and has to choose the right materials) should not write his poem in limericks; the poet who wants to satirize that pain may do exactly that. You know that a writer or poem has failed when you get mixed signals from the piece and the “materials” are not clearly or consistently chosen to meet the particular end. It’s that equivalent of finding an axe with a good steel blade and a plastic handle that would break if you tried to chop anything: what was the damned thing made for?
A corollary of the assumption that literary meaning is to be found in the (generic) intention of the text is that, like Aristotle, they subordinate the function of literary language to the larger structure of the work as a whole: "The words must be explained in terms of something else, not the poem in terms of the words; and further, a principle must be a principle of something other than itself; hence the words cannot be a principle of their own arrangements." I know this sounds rather cold. It wasn’t. These people were passionate about literature. I remember Olson asking someone what poems he particularly enjoyed and being told that they aren’t meant to be enjoyed: they’re meant to be analyzed. Olson was shocked.
I think what really characterized my teachers was a very strong impatience with sloppy, dogmatic, or merely skeptical thinking. Start with the notion that the work you are looking at stand alone, was made for a reason, and has something to say. No criticism can be universal. For that reason, criticism based on universal philosophic systems (Hegel, Freud, Marx, Sartre) was a special of distrust, though their most extensive critique was reserved for the New Critics, whose almost exclusive concern with figurative language and irony they thought was limiting and reductive. The essays in Critics and Criticism on I. A. Richards, William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren (Olson) probably represent the core of the formalist critique of this group.
Olson and the others were not totally averse to using history or biographical information, but believed them on the whole irrelevant in discussions of the work itself, even likely to distract from the central issues of literary structure and meaning. When someone failed to see this, he could be scathing. Thus he called another graduate student in one of my classes a “fool.” when she stated that he had destroyed Auden’s “Lay Your Sleep Head,” — one of the most heart-rendingly gorgeous of English lyrics — for her by telling her Auden was gay. If you read that lyric and care about that one way or the other, you have no right to read poetry.
I"m not sure I subscribe to a touchstone theory of literary criticism a la Arnold, but otherwise I feel immense sympathy for this point of view. Literature and other arts are not pointless, nor should we be giving children or older staudents for that matter least-commmon-denominator entertainment rather than serious works. "Isn't the purpose of scholarly investigations into literature to expose our students to the best?" Yes. Why does it so rarely happen?
P.S. I think The Hobbit (and others of its ilk could be useful in a class on literary analysis and structure precisely because there are so many things wrong with it as a structure. But merely to force children to read it without analysis serves no useful purpose I can think of. It's dreary and time consuming and hasn't the slightest chance of teaching them anything.