5. The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork

5. The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork


Prof: Okay.
Moving then as quickly as
possible into our subject matter for today,
we begin a series of lectures on various aspects of
twentieth-century formalism– a big word.
At the end of our run through
the varieties of twentieth-century formalism,
I hope it doesn’t seem quite as big and that its many meanings–
yet a finite number of meanings–have been made clear
to you. That is to say,
what we’re taking up this week, is as much really the history
of criticism as literary theory. You remember in the first
lecture I said there’s a difference between the history
of criticism and theory of literature,
one difference being that the history of criticism has a great
deal to do with literary evaluation: that is to say,
why do we care about literature and how can we find means of
saying that it’s good or not good?
This is an aspect of thought
concerning literature that tends to fall out of literary theory
but not out of the materials that we are reading this week.
You can see that when Wimsatt
and Beardsley talk about the “success”
of the poem, they understand the whole
critical enterprise, including its theoretical
underpinnings– the question of what is a poem,
the question of how should we best read it–
to be still geared toward literary evaluation.
That makes the subject matter
that we’ll be discussing this week, as I say,
as much a part of the history of criticism as it is of
literary theory. We’re going to be
reading it with a theoretical spin.
That is to say,
we’re going to focus on the question of what a poem is and
the question, “What criteria should we
invoke in order to read it for the best and correctly?”
But there are other ways of
approaching this material. In any case, then, Wimsatt.
Beardsley by the way was
actually a philosopher who taught at Temple University,
a good friend of his. In the book in which the essay
“The Intentional Fallacy” appeared,
a book called The Verbal Icon, Wimsatt collaborated
with Monroe Beardsley on three essays,
and this is one of them. So we try to remember to say
“Wimsatt and Beardsley”
even though it is Wimsatt who taught at Yale.
That in itself needn’t be
significant except that the New Critics,
the school of critics to which he belonged,
have always been identified with Yale and indeed
consolidated here a kind of teaching method and attitude
toward literature which constituted the first wave–
the first of two waves–of involvement in literary theory
which amounts to the Yale English and comparative
literature departments’ claims to fame.
Many of those figures who
belong to the New Critics did much of their important work
before they arrived at Yale. Others never were at Yale,
and yet at the same time it’s a movement closely associated with
this institution. When I arrived at Yale,
Wimsatt was still teaching, Cleanth Brooks was still
teaching, and so I feel a kind of personal continuity with
these figures and understand, as we all will more fully later
on, the way in which the style,
and emphasis on the style, of close reading that evolved
within the New Criticism meaningfully and importantly
left its mark on much subsequent criticism and theory that hasn’t
in fact always acknowledged the New Criticism perhaps to the
extent that it might have. Much of this should be reserved
for next time when I talk about Cleanth Brooks and return to the
whole subject of the New Criticism and the way in which
it’s viewed historically– so much of it can be reserved
for next time. But what I do want to say now
is this. If it weren’t for the New
Critics, none of you probably would have been able to sit
patiently through any of your middle or high school English
classes. When Cleanth Brooks and Robert
Penn Warren published a book called Understanding Poetry,
first published in 1939 and then subsequently reissued again
and again and again as it swept the country,
suddenly schoolteachers had a way of keeping kids in the
classroom for fifty minutes. Close reading,
the idea that you could take a text and do things with it–
that the interpretation of a text wasn’t just a matter of
saying, “Oh, yes,
it’s about this and isn’t it beautiful?”–
reciting the text, emoting over it,
enthusing about it, and then looking around for
something else to say– it was no longer a question of
doing that. It was a question of
constructing an elaborate formal edifice to which everybody could
contribute. Students got excited about it.
They saw certain patterns or
certain ways of elaborating patterns that the teachers were
talking about and, lo and behold,
the fifty minutes was over and everybody had had a pretty good
time. This had never happened in an
English class before.>
>
Seriously, you’re English
majors because of the New Criticism–I admit,
especially if you went to private school.
This way of teaching did not
perhaps quite so much for a variety of reasons permeate
public school literature teaching,
but it was simply, as a result of Understanding
Poetry, the way to go.
It took time.
If you had more than
fifty minutes, you could actually make ample
use of it. T.S. Eliot,
who was in many ways associated with the New Criticism,
one of its intellectual forebears, nevertheless took a
somewhat dim view of it and called it “lemon squeezer
criticism.” What this meant is it takes
time. You’ve got to squeeze
absolutely everything out of it, and so it was ideal from the
standpoint of teaching and was, it seems to me,
also wonderfully galvanizing intellectually because it really
did make people think: “look how intricate what I
thought was simple turns out to be.”
The New Criticism,
incontestably and without rival,
created an atmosphere in which it was okay to notice that
things were a little more difficult than they’d been
supposed to be. This in itself was
extraordinarily useful and constructive,
not just for subsequent literary theory,
I think, but for the way in which English teaching actually
can help people think better. All of this the New Criticism
had a great deal to do with– and when I talk next time about
the way in which it’s been vilified for the last
>forty or fifty years,
naturally I will have this in the back of my mind.
So in any case,
where did this preoccupation with form–
because we’re beginning to think about the way in which
theory can preoccupy itself with form–
where does it come from? Well, needless to say,
I’m about to say it goes back to the beginning.
When Plato writes his
Republic and devotes Book Ten,
as I’m sure most of you know, to an argument in effect
banishing the poets from the ideal republic,
part of the argument is that poets are terrible imitators.
They imitate reality as badly
as they possibly can. They are three times removed
from the ideal forms of objects in reality.
They’re a hopeless mess.
They get everything wrong.
They think that a stick
refracted in the water is therefore a crooked stick.
They are subject to every
conceivable kind of illusion, not to be trusted,
and Socrates calls them liars. Okay.
Now when Aristotle writes his
Poetics he does so– and this is true and rewards
scrutiny if one thinks carefully about the Poetics–
he does so very consciously in refutation of Plato’s
arguments in the Republic, and perhaps the keystone of
this refutation is simply this: Plato says poets imitate badly.
Aristotle says this is a
category mistake because poets don’t imitate reality.
Poets don’t imitate,
says Aristotle, things as they are.
They imitate things as they
should be. In other words,
the business of poets is to organize,
to bring form to bear, on the messiness of reality
and, in so doing,
to construct not an alternate reality in the sense that it has
nothing to do with the real world–
that is to say, it doesn’t mention anything in
the real world, or it somehow or other invents
human beings made out of chocolate or something like
that– instead, it idealizes the
elements existing in the real world such that its object is
something other than reality as such.
This is really the origin of
formalism. Aristotle is considered the
ancestor of the varying sorts of thought about form,
and it’s this move, this move that he makes in the
Poetics, that engenders this
possibility. Now turning to your sheet,
in the early, early modern period the poet
and courtier, Sir Philip Sidney,
wrote an elegant, really wonderfully written
defense of poetry, in one edition called The
Apology for Poesie. In this edition he,
while actually a fervent admirer of Plato,
nevertheless develops this idea of Aristotle with remarkable
rhetorical ingenuity and I think very impressively lays out the
case that Aristotle first makes, here in the first passage on
your sheet. Sidney’s talking about the
various kinds of discourse: divinity,
hymnody, science, philosophy, history–
in other words, all the ways in which you can
contribute to human betterment and human welfare.
He says in the case of all but
one of them, each discourse is a “serving science.”
That is to say,
it is subservient to the natural world;
its importance is that it refers to that world.
The first sentence of your
passage: “There is no art but one delivered to mankind
that hath not the works of nature for his principal
object.” This by the way– although what
they serve is not exactly a work of nature–
is why even that which is incontestably better than
secular poetry, in other words hymnody,
and also divine knowledge or theology–
even these fields, which are the supreme fields,
are also serving sciences. They are subservient to an idea
that they have to express, which is the idea of God,
right, and God is real. There’s no sense that we’re
making God up in this kind of discourse.
Sidney is a devoutly religious
person and there’s no semblance of doubt in his attitude,
and yet he is saying something very special about the poet who
is somewhere in between divinity and the other sorts of discourse
with which poetry is traditionally in rivalry:
science, philosophy and history.
And he says this is what’s
unique about poetry. Only the poet disdaining to be
tied to any such subjection [subjection,
in other words, to things as they are],
lifted up with the vigor of his own invention,
doth grow in effect another nature….
He nothing affirms and
therefore never lieth. In other words, Plato is wrong.
The poet is not a liar because
he’s not talking about anything that’s verifiable or
falsifiable. He is simply talking about the
parameters of the world he has brought into being.
Sidney thinks of it as a kind
of magic. He invokes, for example,
the science of astrology. The poet, he says,
ranges freely within the zodiac of his own wit.
He also invokes the
pseudoscience of alchemy when he says that the poet inhabits a
brazen world, and of this–“brazen”
means brass– of this brazen world,
he makes a golden world. In other words,
poetry is transformational. In representing not things as
they are but things as they should be, it transforms
reality. All right.
So this is an argument which in
outline, once again, justifies the idea
of literature as form, as that which brings form to
bear on the chaos and messiness of the real.
Now I don’t mean to say things
just stood still as Sidney said they were until you get to Kant.
A great deal happens,
but one aspect of Kant’s famous “Copernican
revolution” in the history of philosophy
is his ideas about aesthetics and the beautiful and
about the special faculty that he believes has to do with and
mediates our aesthetic understanding of things,
a faculty which he calls “the judgment”;
so that in The Critique of Judgment of 1790,
he outlines a philosophy of the beautiful and of the means
whereby “the judgment” makes judgments of the
beautiful. He does a great deal else in
it, but I’m isolating this strand, which is what’s relevant
to what we’re talking about. In many ways Kant,
without knowing anything about Sidney, nevertheless follows
from Sidney particularly in this, as you’ll see.
I’m going to look sort of with
some care at these passages so all will become clear,
but particularly in this: Sidney–and I didn’t exactly
quote the passage in which Sidney does this but I urged you
to believe that he does– Sidney actually ranks poetry
somewhere between divinity and the other sciences.
In other words,
poetry is not the supreme thing that a person can do.
Sidney believed this so much in
fact that when he knew himself to be dying,
having been mortally wounded in a battle,
he ordered that all of his own poems be burned.
From the standpoint of a devout
person, he had no doubt that poetry was inferior to divinity.
Now in a way that’s what Kant’s
saying, too. In the passages you’ll read,
you’ll see that the point is not that art and the judgment of
the beautiful is the supreme thing that humanity can be
engaged with. The point is only that it has a
special characteristic that nothing else has.
That’s the point that this
whole tradition is trying to make.
This is the way Kant puts it,
turning first to the second passage:
The pleasant and the good both have a reference to the faculty
of desire [The pleasant is the way in which our appetency,
our sensuous faculty–which Kant calls “the
understanding,” by the way–
understands things. Things are either pleasant or
unpleasant. The good, on the contrary,
is the way in which our cognitive and moral faculty–
which Kant calls “the reason”–
understands things. Things are either to be
approved of or not to be approved of,
but in each case, as Kant argues,
they have a reference to the faculty of desire–
I want, I don’t want, I approve, I disapprove],
and they bring with them the former [that is to say,
the pleasant], a satisfaction pathologically
conditioned; the latter a pure,
practical, purposeful satisfaction which is determined
not merely by the representation of the object [that is to say,
by the fact that the represented object exists for
me, right]
but also by the represented connection of the subject with
the existence of the object [in other words,
by the way in which I want it or don’t want it,
approve of it or don’t approve of it].
My subjective wishes,
in other words, determine my attitude toward
it, whereas what Kant is saying is that my attitude toward that
which simply stands before us as what is neither pleasant nor
good, but is rather something else,
doesn’t exist for me. It exists in and for itself.
The next passage:
“Taste is the faculty of the judging of an object or a
method of representing it by an entirely disinterested
satisfaction or dissatisfaction.”
In other words, yeah, I still like it or don’t
like it, but my liking has nothing to do
either with desire or with approval–
moral, political, or however the case may be.
I just like it or I just don’t
like it according to principles that can be understood as
arising from the faculty of judgment and not from the
faculty of the understanding, which is appetitive,
and the faculty of reason, which is moral.
So with that said,
perhaps just to add to that, the fourth passage:
“Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object so
far as it is perceived in it without any representation of a
purpose.” You say, “Whoa,
what is this?”>
>
Kant makes a distinction
between the purposive and the purposeful.
What is the distinction?
The purposeful is the purpose
of the object in practical terms.
What can it do?
What can it do for me?
How does it go to work in the
world? What is its function among
other objects? What bearing does it have
on–in particular–my life? But the purposiveness of the
object is the way in which it is sufficient unto itself.
It has its own purpose,
which is not a purpose that has any bearing necessarily on
anything else. It has, in other words,
an internal coherence. It has a dynamism of parts that
is strictly with reference to its own existence.
It is a form.
It is a form and that form,
because we can see it has structure and because we can see
it has organization and complexity, is purposive.
That is to say,
it manifests its self-sufficiency.
So that’s Kant’s famous
distinction between the purposive,
which is the organization of an aesthetic object,
and the purposeful, which is the organization of
any object insofar as it goes to work in the world or for us.
An aesthetic object can
be purposeful; that is to say we can view it
as purposeful. I see a naked body,
which the art historians call a nude.
Let’s say I don’t accept that
it’s merely a nude. I want it or I disapprove of it
and, lo and behold, it’s no longer aesthetic.
I’ll come back to that in a
moment, but I hope you can see that that is a distinction
between the purposive and the purposeful.
Now just in order to reprise
these important distinctions, I want to turn to a passage in
Samuel Coleridge who is, at least on this occasion,
a disciple of Kant and is, I think, usefully paraphrasing
the arguments of Kant that we have just been engaged in.
This is the fifth passage on
your sheet: The beautiful [says Coleridge]
is at once distinguished both from the agreeable which is
beneath it [and notice the sort of stationing of the beautiful
as Sidney stations it between what’s beneath it and what’s
above it]– from the agreeable which is
beneath it and from the good which is above it,
for both these necessarily have an interest attached to them.
Both act on the will and excite
a desire for the actual existence of the image or idea
contemplated, while the sense of beauty rests
gratified in the mere contemplation or intuition
regardless whether it be a fictitious Apollo or a real
Antinous. In other words,
the judgment of beauty does not depend on the existence of the
object for its satisfaction. Now Oscar Wilde,
ever the wag and a person who generated more good literary
theory in ways that didn’t seem like literary theory at all,
perhaps, in the entire history of thinking about the subject,
says in the famous series of aphorisms which constitute his
“Preface” to The Picture of Dorian
Gray– he concludes this series of
aphorisms by winking at us and saying,
“All art is quite useless.”
I hope that after reading these
passages and enduring the explication of them that you’ve
just heard you can immediately see what Wilde means by saying
all art is quite useless. He’s appropriating a term of
opprobrium in the utilitarian tradition–
oh, my goodness, that something would be
useless, right?–he’s appropriating
a term of opprobrium and pointing out that it is an
extraordinarily unique thing about art that it’s useless;
in other words, that it appeals to no merely
appetitive or other form of subjective interest.
We don’t have to have an
“interest” in it in the sense of owning
part of a company. We don’t have to have an
interest in it in order to appreciate it.
In other words,
we can be objective about it. We can distance ourselves from
our subjective wants and needs and likes and dislikes,
and we can coexist with it in a happy and constructive way that
is good for both of us, because if we recognize that
there are things in the world which have intrinsic value and
importance and what we call beauty,
and yet are not the things that we covet or wish to banish,
we recognize in ourselves the capacity for disinterestedness.
We recognize in ourselves a
virtue which is considered to be the cornerstone of many systems
of moral understanding. To realize that we’re not
interested in everything and merely because we’re interested
take a view of things, but that there are things that
we don’t have to have that kind of interest in and can
nevertheless recognize as self-sufficient and valuable,
is important. Wilde’s suggestion,
but I think also Kant’s suggestion before him,
is important for our recognition of our own value.
By the same token,
all this harping on the autonomy of art–
that is to say, the self-sufficiency of art,
the way in which it’s not dependent on anything,
or as Sidney says, the way in which it’s not a
serving science existing merely to represent things other than
itself, right?–the way in which this
is possible for art is, as also our own capacity to be
disinterested is, a way of acknowledging that
freedom exists: that I am free,
that things are free from my instrumental interest in them,
so that in general what’s implicit in this view of art and
this view of human judgment, and what makes it so important
in the history of thought, is that once again–and this is
not the first time we’ve brought this up in these lectures and
won’t be the last– it’s a way of recognizing that
in addition to all the other things that we are,
some of them wonderful, we are also free.
There is in us at least an
element that is free, independent,
serving nothing, autonomous.
This idea of our freedom,
and by implication of the freedom of other things,
from our instrumental interests is what sustains the formalist
tradition, and against various kinds of
criticism and objection that we’ll be taking up in turn as
the case arises, sustains and keeps bringing
back into the history of thought on these subjects the notion
that form simply for its own sake–
as the notorious Aestheticism movement at the end of the
nineteenth century put it– is valuable.
All right.
Now John Crowe Ransom,
who was never at Yale but is nevertheless one of the founders
or first members of a self-identified school of
figures who called themselves the New Critics,
published a book called The New Criticism, and
that’s>where the term “the New
Critics” comes from.
You may have noticed in your
Wimsatt essay that there is a footnote to somebody named Joel
Spingarn who wrote an essay called “The New
Criticism” in 1924.
Not to worry.
That has nothing to do with the
New Criticism. That just means criticism which
is recent,>
a different matter altogether.
By the same token,
there is the work of Roland Barthes and some of his
contemporaries– Poulet, whom I mentioned,
Jean Starobinski and others– that was called in the French
press La Nouvelle Critique.
That, too then is an instance
of the New Criticism being used as a term, but that too has
nothing to do with our subject. The New Critics,
the American New Critics as they are sometimes identified,
were a school–and I use that term advisedly because they are
self-identified as a group– a school of people who evolved
this idea of the independent status–
Ransom calls it a “discrete ontological
object”– of the work of art and the
means whereby it can be appreciated as independent in
all of its complexity. Our first foray into the
thinking of this school will be our reading of Wimsatt and
Beardsley’s “The Intentional
Fallacy,” which I’ll get to in a
minute; but, simply as a reprise,
take a look at the two passages from Ransom which complete
what’s on your sheet and which, I think you can see,
create a link between the sort of thinking you’ve encountered
in reading “The Intentional Fallacy” and the
tradition that I’ve been trying to describe.
Passage seven ought to be
completely transparent to you now because it is simply a
paraphrase of the passages I have given you from Kant and
Coleridge: “The experience [says Ransom]
called beauty is beyond the powerful ethical will precisely
as it is beyond the animal passion.
Indeed, these last two are
competitive and coordinate.”
In other words,
what they have in common with each other, ethical will and
animal passion, is that they’re both grounded
in interest. Right?
That’s the point of Sir Kenneth
Clark’s word, “the nude.”
>For the naked human being,
as viewed both by the appetites and by moral reason,
as a common term from the standpoint both of what Kant
calls “the understanding”
and from what Kant calls “the reason,”
the expression “naked body” is just fine;
but if we do believe there is another category,
the aesthetic, viewed by an independent
faculty called “the judgment,”
we need another word for what we’re looking at–
modern painters like Philip Pearlstein and Lucian Freud
would strongly disagree, but in a way that’s the point.
When we’re looking at a
painting of a naked body we don’t say,
“Oh, that’s a naked body.”
We say, “That’s a
nyewd,” and that distinction is what,
as it were, bears out the implicit way,
the semiconscious way, in which all of us acknowledge
there to be a category that we call the aesthetic judgment.
On the other hand,
a lot of people think it’s all hokum,
and in fact the predominant view in the twentieth century
has been that there’s no such thing as disinterestedness,
that whatever we are looking at we have an interest in and form
views of, and that this Kantian moment of
dispassionate or disinterested contemplation is what the early
twentieth-century critic I.A. Richards called a
“phantom aesthetic state.”
The predominant view is of this
kind of–but, just to do it justice in
passing, there is a certain sense, is there not?
in which we suddenly find
ourselves, without meaning to and without
being simply victims of any sort of cultural tyranny,
standing in front of something, clasping our hands,
tilting our head and feeling somehow or another different
from the way we feel when we typically look at things.
And that, too,
is an intuitive way of saying, “Yeah, however rigorously
we can define it or defend it, something like this does seem
to go on in our minds at certain kinds of moments of
experience.” We just feel differently
looking at a certain work of art or a certain landscape,
let’s say, than we feel looking at other sorts of things.
Maybe we don’t know why.
Maybe we doubt that the
difference is absolute in the way that Kant wants to insist it
is. Nevertheless,
we have in tendency feelings of this kind and we should
acknowledge them because again, at least in terms of a weak
understanding of these positions,
it does tend to justify them. At least it explains to us why
people can have had such thoughts.
Okay.
Wimsatt–I keep saying Wimsatt.
Again it’s Wimsatt and
Beardsley, but I already explained how that is.
Wimsatt right off the bat
attacks what he calls “the Romantic understanding of
literature.” Now what does he mean by
Romantic? It’s the attitude which
supposes that a “poem,”
and that’s Wimsatt’s privileged word which I’ll try to explain,
that a poem is an expression–
that is to say, is the expression of some
passion or profound genius working its way into a form,
but that the important thing is the expression.
This much, by the way,
Wimsatt has in common with Gadamer,
because Gadamer doesn’t talk much about authors either,
and Gadamer is interested in what he calls meaning,
the subject matter, die Sache.
Right?
He’s not interested in
your sort of expression of that meaning or my
expression of that meaning. He’s interested in the way in
which a reader can come to terms with a meaning conveyed by a
text, and that much,
as I say, despite the profoundly different nature of
their projects, Wimsatt and Gadamer have in
common. So a poem is not an expression
but an independent object with a self-contained meaning,
and if this meaning is not self-evident to the attentive
reader then we don’t judge the poem a success.
This is where evaluation comes
in. The success or failure of a
poem depends on the realization of meaning.
It doesn’t depend on our going
to the archive, finding out what the author
said in his letters about it, finding out what he told his
friends, or what he told the newspapers.
It doesn’t involve any of that.
If the meaning is not clear in
the poem, we judge the poem a failure.
We don’t refer–we have no
reason to refer, if we respect the autonomy of
the poem as such, we don’t refer–we don’t appeal
to an authorial intention. Hence, on page 811,
the left-hand column, about a third of the way down:
“… [T]he design or intention of
the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for
judging the success of a work of literary art…”
It follows from this that even a short poem,
even a short lyric poem–and here you could see
Wimsatt “following” Foucault,
though obviously not following but anticipating Foucault,
and again they have nothing to do with each other,
but there is this overlap–even a short poem doesn’t really have
an author. It has a “speaker,”
a figure speaking in the poem, that needs to be understood
dramatically, that is to say as though the
poem were one of Browning’s or T.S. Eliot’s dramatic
monologues–in other words, so that the speaker of any poem
on Wimsatt’s view is a speaker endowed with a certain
character, a certain viewpoint,
a certain argument to be put forward,
and our concern about the speaker has to be a concern
within the poem about the way in which this character is
elaborated, and not reinforced,
somehow, by biographical reference to that which is not
the speaker but the author standing back there somewhere
behind the poem. Now why focus on the
“poem”? Notice that we never hear about
literature. We never even hear about
“poetry.” The object of attention for an
analysis of this kind is the poem.
Well, the poem is,
as John Donne puts it, a little world made cunningly.
It’s a microcosm.
It is a distillation or
quintessence. It is a model in other words
for the way in which literature can be understood as
world-making– not a representation,
again, of things as they are but of things as they should be;
whereby “things as they should be”
is not necessarily an ideal but rather that which is formal,
that which is organized, and that which has a coherence
and makes sense self-sufficiently and within
itself. That’s why the poem,
the lyric poem, is privileged among the forms
of literary discourse in the New Criticism.
All literature is by
implication a “poem,”>
but the poem is the privileged
site of analysis whereby this broader statement can be made to
seem reasonable, hence the emphasis on the poem.
The absence of the Romantic
word “poetry” is therefore not insignificant.
Poetry is that which just sort
of spills out of me. It’s the spontaneous overflow
of powerful feelings. (Never mind that.)
The New Criticism isn’t
interested in spontaneous overflows of powerful feelings.
Wimsatt has his little joke
about drinking a pint of beer, taking a walk.
So the New Criticism just isn’t
interested in those sorts of spontaneous overflow.
Sorry.
>
I won’t go there.
>
But in any case, he goes on.
He goes on to say,
“All right. If we’re focused on the work of
art in and of itself, on the poem,
we obviously in thinking about what it means need to come to
terms with three kinds of evidence.”
That is to say,
some things have a bearing on what it means and some things
don’t. What does have a bearing is
language– that is to say,
words in the public domain which all of us share and which
we can study in order to come to terms with the exact meaning of
the poem. A certain word–this is,
of course, what kept you in your high school classes for so
long–a certain word has five or six different meanings.
The New Criticism delights in
showing how all five or six of those meanings do have some
bearing on the meaning of the poem.
That’s all legitimate evidence.
That is what one uses to build
up the structure of the interpretation of the poem.
What is not relevant is what
I’ve mentioned already: what the author said about the
poem in letters to friends, to newspapers and so on.
That has no relevance.
Then Wimsatt acknowledges that
there’s a sort of messy third category of evidence which has
to do with language and is therefore legitimate to a point,
but also has to do with the author’s idiosyncrasies–
that is to say, the way that author in
particular used language, certain coterie words,
or simply a private misunderstanding of certain
words. You’ve got to know when you’re
reading Whitman what he means by “camerado.”
It’s not exactly
>what the rest of us typically
mean when we–well, we don’t use that word exactly,
but it’s>
>
what we typically mean when we
speak of comrades or comradeship.
In other words,
the word is loaded in ways that–
Wimsatt would probably acknowledge–
need to be taken into account if we’re going to understand
what Whitman is up to. Now this is very tricky,
and he spends the rest of his essay talking about the murky
boundaries between types of evidence,
type of evidence number two which is out of play and type of
evidence number three which may be in play but has to be dealt
with in a gingerly and careful way.
But I’m more interested,
actually, in a footnote which arises from
this argument about the idiosyncratic nature of language
as a particular author may use it because the footnote says,
you know what? That’s just one consideration
we bring to bear on the function of language in a poem.
This footnote,
number eleven at the bottom of page 814 over to 815,
is just about as devastating and counterintuitive a
pronouncement as is made anywhere in our entire syllabus,
the most earth-shattering pronouncement that anybody could
ever possibly make in the New Criticism.
Well, look at this footnote:
And the history of words after a poem is written
may contribute meanings which if relevant to the original pattern
should not be ruled out by a scruple about intention.
That is bold.
The great creator raised his
plastic arm, right? Everybody knows Akenside didn’t
mean polymers, but now we’re all into
cyberborgs and we take all of this very seriously.
In a way it’s a tribute to the
great creator and also an acknowledgement of the fact that
the great creator lives in the Eternal Moment.
He’s not subject to history.
The great creator knew in the
eighteenth century that some day plastic would mean polymer,
right? Obviously that’s one of the
divine attributes. Therefore, if the great creator
chooses to raise his prosthetic limb,
that is simply a way of understanding what it is like to
be everything, omnipotent and omniscient in
the Eternal Moment. In other words,
if you take Wimsatt’s eleventh footnote seriously,
that is a perfectly legitimate way not to ironically undermine
Akenside’s line but actually to reinforce it and to give it a
kind of formal richness which it does not otherwise have.
I realize that I’m out of time,
and so I’ll begin the next lecture by talking about a poem
of Yeats called “Lapis Lazuli” written in 1935,
in which he talks about the way in which people who build up
things that have been destroyed are always “gay.”
And of course,
if we invoke intention, Yeats doesn’t mean that they’re
always gay in our sense. He is using the English
translation of the German word froehlich from
Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Yeats is an astute and
careful reader of Nietzsche and in some ways is elaborating on
what Nietzsche says in that book in his poem “Lapis
Lazuli.” At the beginning of the next
lecture we will do the same thing with the word
“gay” that we’ve just done with the
word “plastic” and then we will go ahead and
consider the essay of Cleanth Brooks and other aspects of the
New Criticism.

Dereck Turner

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