Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Ruthless storytelling

If you know me, you know that it is relatively rare for me to feel of a new work of criticism that I MUST READ IT RIGHT NOW - I am more likely to say that about the new Lee Child novel. But it does occasionally happen, and has happened happily just now in the form of voracious consumption of Joseph North's Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. I can't say that I share Joe's politics, but I love his account of criticism and its tug-of-war with scholarship over the twentieth century: this is a fascinating, highly readable and often very funny book, essential I think for anyone working in Anglophone literary studies. I'm definitely thinking of adding it at the end of my MA seminar syllabus, if I ever teach that course again, not least for the ruthlessness and delicacy with which he "close reads" the style of other critics. And look at this comment, in a close reading of some sentences by George Levine in which North detects "the more disturbing tones of the underlying sensibility . . . a sensibility to which equality itself has something of the taste of a necessary evil. It is this underlying sensibility that the rhetorics of critical thinking and diversity, properly executed, are usually able to manage and conceal. I note that critiques offered at the level of sensibility are sometimes read as ad hominem attacks, and I certainly do not offer mine in that sense" -- hahaha, must borrow a version of that gesture to use myself, as I am a strong believer in the value of sensibility as an indicator of motives and values, and have often been shot down in meetings on exactly the ad hominem charge!

Things I would ask Joe about if I were a respondent to the book on a panel (but am too lazy to write out properly): (a) What about Barthes? He supports the story, in some sense (think of his criticism veering much more strongly to Michelet and to photographs and drawings rather than to literary work more traditionally conceived), but it seems hard to explain how Sedgwick and Miller stand out so much without at least a nod to the joyful playful contributions of RB; (b) Principled neglect of institutional histories, expansion of higher education and the probable contraction of some of its more luxurious US franchises? (c) What about Maggie Nelson and The Argonauts? Surprising lack of mention of the extent to which arts must supplement both criticism and scholarship in the kind of political project he imagines (this may have something to do with the oddity of T. S. Eliot). Again, instititional contexts, job market, jobs moving to teaching writing and often creative writing - surely there is some hope in that realm along the lines he discerns here.

The artist moved to despair


Fuseli, "The artist moved to despair before the grandeur of ancient ruins" (1778-79) (via)

From Catherine Edwards, Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City: “The nature of the artist’s despair remains open. Is it provoked by the impossibility of emulating the greatness of the past, still overwhelming even in ruins? By the knowledge that even the greatest works of art will decay? Or is it rather caused by the unassuageable longing for a closer contact with the long vanished dead? These ruins, though of vast stature, are yet human in form; the artist stretches out his hand to touch flesh that turns out to be cold, unresponsive stone” (15).