Thursday, February 27, 2003

Week 05, Brooks, Wimsatt & Beardsley

Cleanth Brooks and W. K. Wimsatt & W. M. Beardsley. Brooks’ “The Heresy of Paraphrase” from The Well Wrought Urn (1350-65), and “The Formalist Critics” (1366-71). Wimsatt & Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” (1371-87) and “The Affective Fallacy” (1387-1403). General Notes on Cleanth Brooks’ “The Heresy of Paraphrase” from The Well Wrought Urn (1350-65).

The New Criticism. Our editors mention the essay collection I’ll Take My Stand (1930). John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate were sympathetic with an agrarian and anti-scientific, anti-industrial movement in the South. This kind of philosophy goes way back to the Southerners who opposed the new party of Lincoln—the railroad and banking interests, etc. So the formalism that develops may be in part a way to reassert the old values – states’ rights and artistic autonomy, to put it crudely. These authors oppose utilitarianism’s vulgar notion of language as denotative, and education as immediately useful for all the wrong reasons—making money, for the most part.

If you read through the book mentioned above, you’ll find one of the authors decrying the way Northern capitalists have turned the educational system into a means of churning out factory workers—everybody gets what passes for an education, but it’s the kind of education that only crams facts into people’s heads, and doesn’t teach them in the C18 Enlightenment or Renaissance humanist fashion to make proper use of their leisure. In fact, leisure becomes either time to fill up with competition or mere dissipation—not something productive that envelops one’s entire existence, work included. In this sense, the Brooksian way of experiencing a poem could be traced back to Kantian disinterestedness, Schiller’s play drive, and other formulations that deal with art as an experience of our mind’s freedom from being determined by nature or by our fellows. It isn’t so much that we are free to say anything we like about the poem, but rather that if we approach it with due regard for its connotative workings and formal integrity, we will be granted an authentic experience of a very different kind than we can have in the busy everyday world, where everything is done for some other purpose beyond itself. Poetry is an end in itself, and we are privileged to see that we, too, can exist in this fashion—just as that Southern planter worked only to gain leisure, not to amass a pile of wealth or show off to the neighbors.

The New Critics emphasize connotativeness and figuration. The connotative aspect of language is better suited to human nature, more likely to improve us, than any number of facts. But it is worth keeping in mind that the background of American formalism is Southern Agrarianism. Many of us have been trained to offer “close readings,” so we have been exposed to this kind of idea. Of course, the best formalists are the ones who don’t entirely follow their own prescriptions. That is, they don’t ignore history or biography. Read Abrams’ Mirror and the Lamp, for instance. No method or system humans devise is perfect, after all, so it’s best not to be rigid.

Moreover, the New Critics rebel against purely biographical and historical criticism. I recall the old anecdote about the Harvard professor who ends an analysis-free, history-biography-psychology-filled lecture with “damn fine poem, men, damn fine poem.” But there is something almost scientific about the way formalists describe the critic’s task—which is paradoxical, given their opposition to industrialism and scientism. They find it necessary to theorize in terms that the scientific or modern mind can understand.

The formalists transfer romantic claims about the genesis and value of poetry to the text itself. They want to purge the romantic metaphysics and keep the claims about art’s value to keep humanity together. So we still get a stirring defense of the poetic word, without any romantic talk about inspiration or genius. The poetic symbol is critical; poetry is a site for the recovery of common passions that link people together in a community—it is therapeutic. Brooks insists he does not see poetry as therapeutic, but his theory as a whole belies this claim. Let’s go through the Norton selection “The Heresy of Paraphrase” from The Well Wrought Urn; see my page-by-page notes below.

Summary Observations: Brooks’ main points are that a good poem’s formal structure has all the integrity of a biological organism. Poetry is autonomous or self-contained and is not therapeutic in any way that critics need concern themselves with. Poetic language thrives upon connotation, not denotation, and irony and paradox are central to poetic structure because they are the way poetry “warps” and transforms ordinary language into meanings rich and strange. Anglo-American formalism is to some extent humanistic since it transfers the romantic exaltation of poetic imagination to the language of the poem. An irony of formalist discourse is that although it generally tries to carve out a space for the study of literature in a world obsessed with the scientific paradigm, it is compelled to do so mainly in terms acceptable to science.

1355. “Unless one asserts the primacy of the pattern, a poem becomes merely a bouquet of intrinsically beautiful items.” This statement is very similar to what Matthew Arnold says in the “Preface” to his own 1853 Poems. Earlier than that, during the C18, poetry was rhetorical, a matter of formal eloquence: poetry as prescription for what we should believe or do. (Think of Pope’s finely chiseled couplets: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of mankind is man.”) Poetry should not be a collection of isolated, even if excellent, lines. Brooks continues that “The structure meant is certainly not ‘form’ in the conventional sense in which we think of form as a kind of envelope which ‘contains’ the ‘content’.” The term “form,” therefore, means structure. The meaning isn’t outside the poem. It is generated within the poem, which is a largely self-sufficient meaning system. As Brooks explains, “The structure meant is a structure of meanings, evaluations, and interpretations; and the principle of unity which informs it seems to be one of balancing and harmonizing connotations, attitudes, and meanings.” The poem’s structure works rather like Coleridge’s power of imagination: it “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative,” etc. (681). A poem doesn’t cancel tensions or give us reductive propositions; it unifies and harmonizes things otherwise discordant, and preserves the richness and complexity of experience. A poem is a formal object that allows us to understand it only on its own terms, which it generates from within itself. (We may remember Coleridge’s claim that the symbol delivers “multeity in unity.”) Brooks writes, “The unity is not a unity of the sort to be achieved by the reduction and simplification appropriate to an algebraic formula. It is a positive unity, not a negative; it represents not a residue but an achieved harmony.” All of this is very similar to Coleridge.

1356-1357. Brooks does not agree that poetry makes referential statements. When this claim is set forth, “the critic is forced to judge the poem by its political or scientific or philosophical truth; or, he is forced to judge the poem by its form as conceived externally and detached from human experience.” As the romantics say, genius works according to its own laws; Coleridge declares in “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius,” “No work of true genius dare want its appropriate form.” Brooks gives us the same claim, the same organic metaphor, without the direct spiritual overtones since he is talking about poetic language, not the mind of the poet. Poetry’s meaning is dependent on its own contexts and connotations—it need not refer to the world of denotation. Whatever the outside context of a poem or play may be, the essentials of that outside context need to be transformed into terms intrinsic to the work itself. As Brooks puts the matter, “[W]hatever statement we may seize upon as incorporating the ‘meaning’ of the poem, immediately the imagery and the rhythm seem to set up tensions with it, warping and twisting it, qualifying and revising it.” What would have been a scientific or denotative statement must be submitted to the poetic process, which, again to borrow from Coleridge on secondary imagination, “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create” (676).

At the bottom of 1356, Brooks writes, “let the reader try to formulate a proposition that will say what the poem ‘says.’ As his proposition approaches adequacy he will find, not only that it has increased greatly in length, but that it has begun to fill itself up with reservations and qualifications—and most significant of all—the formulator will find that he has himself begun to fall back upon metaphors of his own in his attempt to indicate what the poem ‘says.’ In sum, his proposition, as it approaches adequacy, ceases to be a proposition.” So if we try to paraphrase a poem, the paraphrase keeps leading us back to the original situation, to the context, to the connotative aspects of the text’s language. Poetry has to do with metaphor and figure, and it does not refer to the world in utilitarian contexts. It generates its own contexts. Towards the bottom of 1357, Brooks says that we tend “to take certain remarks which we make about the poem …for the essential core of the poem itself…. [Form] and content, or content and medium, are inseparable.” We will see how Brooks continues to make his case in the next few pages, but in general, he (like Wordsworth in his “Preface”) emphasizes how good poetry links disparate experiences vitally, and how it rejects artificial, abstraction-dependent language that doesn’t speak to common human nature. He emphasizes the autonomy and integrity of the text, even to the point where the formalist critic becomes something of a natural scientist, describing how that “acorn-poem” grows into an “oak-poem,” or observes how it holds together as an organic unity. It’s fair to ask, “But how can a poem be a hermetically sealed meaning system? How can it be an autonomous object to the extent that formalists think it can?” For heuristic ease, I suppose, most teachers treat literary works as if the formalist view were more or less correct, but when it comes to “doing theory,” why, notions of organic wholeness are “a whole ‘nother matter”: today, few critics would insist on the completeness and near self-referentiality of an invidual work of art.

1358-59. “To refer to the structure of the poem to what is finally a paraphrase of the poem is to refer it to something outside the poem.” Brooks argues at 1359 top that if we try to maintain a distinction between form and content, “we bring this statement to be conveyed into an unreal competition with science or philosophy or theology.” We cannot win at that game. Trying to make poetry yield objective knowledge will always fail. It would be best to recognize that literature connects us to another dimension of language, one perhaps most proper to us as human beings. At 1359 bottom, Brooks offers several metaphors for poetic structure: “The essential structure of a poem... resembles that of architecture or painting: it is a pattern of resolved stresses. Or, to move closer still to poetry by considering the temporal arts, the structure of a poem resembles that of a ballet or musical composition. It is a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme.” We may see tensions in a building’s structure, but the edifice stands and it is beautiful—consider arches, flying buttresses, and so forth. Perhaps Brooks’ rhetoric here will remind us of John Ruskin’s spiritualized way of interpreting architecture in The Stones of Venice. As for Brooks’ comparison between poetry and music, we don’t take musical notes as representations of anything else; it is obvious that with music we can’t distinguish between form and content. Brooks will develop indirectly another dimension of the music metaphor later on, when he insists that although poetry certainly involves emotion, that quality is embodied in the poem and need not be traced to the author. Music, too, seems to generate its own affective or emotional weather: we all know Beethoven was “a stormy romantic genius,” that he was passionate and moody; but somehow, when we listen to his “Moonlight Sonata” or the Fifth Symphony, there’s no need to get behind the delightful notes and ask, “how do I connect Beethoven’s personal feelings with these notes?” The notes engender and embody feeling, so to speak—we don’t look outside the music for an explanation. Brooks evidently thinks language should be treated with the same respect.

1360-1361. The third metaphor Brooks offers is that of drama. Here again, we feel comfortable not referring opinions and feelings back to the artist, but even more importantly, “conflict” is built right into plays. What the characters say gets its value from how the words relate to other characters and events in the play. As Samuel Coleridge declares, “a willing suspension of disbelief” governs our response to poetry—we do not insist that it refer directly to life. We take it as a genuine experience in its own right. Brooks deals with the notion of unity in poetic composition as follows: “The characteristic unity of a poem... lies in the unification of attitudes into a hierarchy subordinated to a total and governing attitude. In the unified poem, the poet has ‘come to terms’ with his experience.... the conclusion of the poem is the working out of the various tensions—set up by whatever means—by propositions, metaphors, symbols. The unity is achieved by a dramatic process, not a logical; it represents an equilibrium of forces, not a formula” (1361). The play must resolve its own conflicts within the contexts that it has itself established. Then Brooks considers attitudes and feelings, saying that “the effective and essential structure of the poem has to do with the complex of attitudes achieved.” Again and as Coleridge would agree, a drama or poem “balances and reconciles opposite or discordant qualities.” It does not cancel out the complexity and richness of life, but preserves it in a publicly accessible manner, in the structure of a work of art. What is most worthwhile in terms of thought and feeling should not be allowed to collapse into a private world, a private sanguage (solipsism). Brooks is offering another means of salvaging humanism, one more compatible with scientific demands than were older kinds of humanism.

1362-63. Brooks does not make extravagant claims about poetic language, the power of figure and connotation. He professes, “I have in mind no special ills which poetry is to cure.” Poetry is not therapeutic. On 1363, Brooks renders somewhat more precise what he means by the sort of sea change language undergoes in literature: “[I]rony is the most general term that we have for the kind of qualification which the various elements in the context receive from the context.” He explains below that the “terms of science are abstract symbols which do not change under the pressure of the context. They are pure (or aspire to be pure) denotations; they are defined in advance” (1363). But in poetry things are different: “When we consider the statement immersed in the poem, it presents itself to us, like the stick immersed in the pool of water, warped and bent.” What would Friedrich Nietzsche say about Brooks’ acceptance of scientific terminology as pure denotation, as language that simply gets out of the way or points to absolute reality? Essentially, Brooks accepts the scientific outlook and its understanding of language. This acceptance combines with the hardening of the binary opposition between poetry and science. The formalist method objectifies emotion in order to preserve it. It flattens out what the romantic critics posited as depth of soul. Feeling is embodied in the poem; feeling does not involve reference back to the human author.

1364-65. Brooks cites John Donne’s poetry as a good example of irony and in general of the warping of language within poetic contexts. Donne employs logic, to paraphrase Brooks, “to fight the devil with fire.” That author “proves his vision by submitting it to the fires of irony—to the drama of the structure—in the hope that the fires will refine it.” In other words, “the poet wishes to indicate that his vision has been earned, that it can survive reference to the complexities and contradictions of experience.” (Brooks’ direct quotation from Robert Penn Warren.) He continues that “It is not enough for the poet to analyze his experience as the scientist does, breaking it up into parts, distinguishing part from part, classifying the various parts. His task is finally to unify experience. He must return to us the unity of the experience itself as man knows it in his own experience” (1364-65). Such claims are reminiscent of Coleridge or Wordsworth or Percy Shelley in the way that they contrast the man of science with the poet. (See, for example, Wordsworth’s remark that “The Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor” or Shelley’s statement that “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know…we want the poetry of life” [658 and 712, respectively].)

At 1364 bottom, Brooks makes a qualified statement about the experiential status of a poem: “The poem, if it be a true poem, is a simulacrum of reality—in this sense, at least, it is an ‘imitation’—by being an experience rather than any mere statement about experience or any mere abstraction from experience.” Archibald Macleish had said much more directly, “A poem should not mean but be.” And on 1365, Brooks tells us that the poet is “giving us an insight which preserves the unity of experience and which, at its higher and more serious levels, triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern.”

That’s an impressive claim for a critic who insists that poetry is not or should not be therapeutic. It is every bit as grand a claim—again stripped of metaphysical overtones—as the ones made by the romantic poets a century and a half before Brooks. The poet will deliver to us something science cannot give and, perhaps, something we had thought was utterly lost—a sense that all experience is unified. We derive this sense from a species of encounter with language unavailable to us when we use it in other ways. We might ask just how different any of this really is from romantic emphasis on a renewal of spirit and a revivification of language by means of poetic encounters. How much does transferring the concept of “interiority” from the poet to the poem differentiate new critical formalism from romantic expressivism? And does Brooks’ doctrine still seem compelling when it comes at the expense of separating poetic language from the world of reference? Wordsworth had argued that his poetry employed “the language really used by men,” which at least had the virtue of not separating poetic language from ordinary life. (Of course, the concept of selection was vital to Wordsworth—he was not claiming to deliver ordinary language unaltered.) Some critics of Brooks might say that you cannot leave things at this level, that you must reconnect words with the world if your theory is to be compelling. They might say you cannot just claim by means of a discussion of something so two-dimensional as “structure” that poetic language preserves human potential and interiority. Why, the skeptical reviewer wants to know, should we preserve this connotative potential of language if doing so is not somehow good for us?

Oddly enough, Brooks’ New Critic defense of poetry in the name of its formal, structural properties shares a common problem with the art for art’s sake movement of the 1890s. When it comes to authors such as Oscar Wilde, one either “gets it” or one doesn’t. If someone says, “aesthetical poses and shocking forms of art don’t do much for me,” the aesthete will just keep doing the same thing and dismiss that person as a philistine. But obviously, Brooks is writing this essay because he wants to change people’s minds and bring them over to his views about the nature and value of poetry. He is in fact defending poetry, just like a long line of critics and poets before him. That is unarguably a humanistic enterprise. He is interested in poetry as mediating between a modern, scientific way of understanding the world and another, more ancient one that seems to have much going for it. Movements based on shock and confrontation—including modernism, to be sure—share this problem. They’re trying to preserve older, metaphysical, spirit-suffused notions about humanity without really believing in the old philosophical terms that made it possible to “come right out and say it.” A metaphor for meat-lovers: are we getting turkey or tofurkey here? As I suggest in my general remarks and as I learned from Prof. Michael Clark at UC Irvine, the formalists talk about literature as its own place, an autonomous realm that critics, even though they are no scientists, can analyze with much the same precision as a scientific researcher. They find themselves defending literature as relevant in the terminology lent to them by an imperious scientific paradigm, which paradigm or course they say is opposed to or very different from that of the arts. But this maneuver may only further isolate literature as something separate from the main part of life, as something we can study with clinical precision but not really connect with any other area of our lives. So how does such a program of criticism change the way people see their world and their place in it? Of course, those who make such remarks may be expecting formalist critics to accomplish more than they themselves find possible.

Here’s a very simple formulation: “we” (critics, students of art and literature) say that literature and art are worthwhile. But in order to get our point across, we must describe this worthwhileness in terms acceptable to the scientific/academic community. Doing so only makes us look more isolated and tangential, and not relevant to the community at large. True, the public’s notions may be less “romantic” and more “scientific” and compartment-happy than I’m making them sound. But on the basis of my own experience as a teacher, I gather that most of us still go to literary works hoping to derive pleasure from them and to make connections between the fictional characters’ actions and views and our own. In differentiating ourselves from the scientific paradigm, we end up aligning ourselves with that paradigm as just another highly compartmentalized and specialized interest group against the commons. We have our “legitimate object of analysis” and our approved methods of analysis to be used on those objects. There’s much sense in this critique, although I wouldn’t condemn a theory based on the dilemma I am describing. It’s a lot easier to describe a problem in this simple way than to figure out what to do about it. My sense is that many modern theorists still believe in the uplifting power of art, at least to some degree. And many stop listening to them when they insist otherwise and practice what they preach: “long reading” (for example, deriving general claims about the novel from interaction with a gargantuan novel-database), as opposed to close reading of individual texts has its benefits, but being really interesting to read isn’t one of them. I recall reading structuralist stuff in graduate school that more or less reduced literary texts to mathematical equations. With that sort of method, you could hand people the keys to the next universe, and they would still complain. There isn’t an easy way out of the dilemma I’m describing: most of us love “literature,” but we really don’t believe in things like “the autonomous text,” authorial presence, or anything that smacks of essentialism. But then, “literature” as a concept is essentialist and humanistic. Much criticism proceeds in the mode of denial—its latter-day methods still pursue (to an unacknowledged extent) old-fashioned humanistic goals. At what point does co-optation amount to the complete erasure of difference and alternative value? At what point does the dance of believing and not believing take on the dimensions of an Orwellian “this is and is not true” statement? Our cultural studies authors will provide some valuable observations on how to assert and maintain the “worldly” situatedness of literary texts, but they by no means do away with the problems I’ve been trying to describe here.

Page-by-Page Notes on Cleanth Brooks’ “The Formalist Critics” (1366-71).

1366-69. This piece doesn’t make a substantially different case from the earlier essay we have read, but in it Brooks refutes some of the main criticisms leveled against formalism. His list of articles of faith is interesting in that it defines the object of formalist criticism, the “successful work.” He doesn’t say all literature responds equally well to formalist analysis or that formalism is the only worthwhile kind of criticism. On 1368, Brooks rejects a couple of common criteria for judging a text’s excellence: the “author’s sincerity” criterion and the “it gave me an intense reaction” standard. Neither, Brooks insists, tells us much. As for the first one, well, Oscar Wilde said that (to paraphrase) “all bad poetry begins with sincere emotion.” Poetry isn’t simply self-expression. The second criterion is equally objectionable in that it strips poetry of any value other than the emotional wallop it packs. And surely, that’s like saying all music should take as its theme, “I’m so lonesome I could die” just because it’s common. Such notions diminish the range of humanity to what can be encapsulated in a saccharine pop song. Certainly a poem ought to spark some kind of reaction, probably both on the emotional and intellectual level—but Housman’s “bristling beard” standard doesn’t go very far towards encompassing the possible range of worthwhile responses.

1370-71. Brooks acknowledges that literary works may, indeed, have a great deal to do with life experience and with ideas. He insists, however, that whatever real-world complexity and “recalcitrancy of the material” there is must be dealt with in appropriately sophisticated contexts derivable within the text itself. Literature deals with ideas by “involv[ing] them with the ‘recalcitrant stuff of life’,” and “The literary critic’s job is to deal with that involvement” (1371). Brooks takes issue with Lionel Trilling’s suggestion that many “literary ideas” are drawn from areas of life that have nothing to do with literature proper. Authors such as Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner, says Trilling in The Liberal Imagination, benefited greatly from the study of Freud. Brooks counters that “knowing what a given work ‘means’” is a “basic” sort of knowledge (1371); it must be derived from close study of the work itself, not from the application of methods more proper to psychoanalysis. In other words, we shouldn’t put O’Neill’s Tyrones from A Long Day’s Journey into Night on the couch and then call the results the meaning of the play. Well, that returns us to the claim that formalist analysis is foundational because it puts us most directly in touch with what is proper to the realm of literature.

We can imagine that Brooks would have quite a problem with the claims of a cultural studies author who might say, for example, that the “meaning” of Shakespeare’s The Tempest has mostly to do with how the play is scripted by and inflects a nascent western discourse of imperial definition and domination, which claim we propose to validate by referring almost continually to the historical record left us by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and to the writings of historians and critics of our own time. That is to treat a literary text, he would almost certainly say, as if it were just like any other kind of writing, any old historical document or newspaper clipping, rather than as an extraordinary performance that “deals with” this real-life issue (among others) in an embedded, dramatic manner most proper to itself.

My putting it this way doesn’t make the problem of “context” disappear, of course—I’ve read a bit too much Derrida to buy into the notion that you can just delineate a seamless literary or dramatic “object” as Brooks does, and then go to work on it with the tools of formalist analysis, confident that the reading at which you arrive amount to something foundational for any other possible kind of analysis. But at the same time, when you’ve read enough post-everything criticism that avoids close encounters with what you consider sophisticated works of art, it’s easy to see the attraction of Brooks’ formalist imperative: whatever its flaws, it at least encourages us to pay attention to the workings of language. I don’t think it’s entirely old-fashioned and pre-post-literate-age—at least I hope it isn’t, anyway—to suggest that not being able to pay such attention marks a critic as a blockhead and dupe, however sophisticated his conceptual framework may otherwise be. Any brand of criticism that says “attention must be paid” to a text’s actual words can’t be all bad, can it? At the same time, I wouldn’t care to be limited to formalist analysis—I admit that my own way of approaching texts is scandalously impressionistic, though I don’t want to be misunderstood here: a major source of my “impressions” comes from my reading in philosophy, religion, literature, and contemporary theory. It isn’t “personal” in the simplistic sense. An old friend of mine says that good criticism makes readers (whether they be general readers or sophisticated critics) want to go back and re-experience the text first-hand. That makes sense to me—whatever methodology the critic brings to the text (formalism included), it ought to have that effect, or it fails in an important respect. This isn’t in any way to condemn a critic who has determined that, say, dealing with lots of nineteenth-century pulp novels is important because it sheds light on what sorts of books got written, how they got written, and how they were received by diverse publics. It’s only to suggest that a really fine researcher will come up with interesting, enlightening things to say about such material without pretending it is intrinsically meritorious as literature (a common mistake, I think: “this book I’m writing about now has been misunderstood, etc.—or as some wiseguy said about Wagner’s music, “it’s better than it sounds”). If he or she succeeds in this regard, I’ll probably want to go back and read one of those Jane Austen novels on my shelf again thanks to what I’ve learned about and from her “lesser” sister and brother novelists.

Page-by-Page Notes on W. K. Wimsatt & W. M. Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” (1371-87).

1375-77. Section I. I like the mention of causality here; Wimsatt and Beardsley insist, rather in the manner of Friedrich Nietzsche’s deconstruction of that concept, “It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of an artificer. ‘A poem should not mean but be.’ A poem can be only through its meaning...” (1375). It is true that authors may revise their work, but to this we can apply the wonderful remark by Thomas Hardy’s character, “He’s the man we were in search of, that’s true... and yet he’s not the man we were in search of. For the man we were in search of was not the man we wanted” (1376). The authors say that the poem belongs neither to the critic nor to the author; it “belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge” (1376). I. A. Richards, an intentionalist critic, says poetic experience is a “class” of experience rather similar to other kinds. Richards takes as his standard that of “the poet when contemplating the completed composition” (1376). Wimsatt and Beardsley disagree, of course. As for myself, I rather like the idea that the experience of reading a work of art is not easily distinguishable from other sorts of life experience—a notion that takes me somewhat away from either the for or against sides of this argument.

1377-78. Section II. Arguing against Benedetto Croce, Wimsatt and Beardsley discuss the notion that we should employ historical research to understand and reproduce in ourselves how authors saw what they were doing while creating a work of art. On 1378, the authors mention Richards’ “fourfold distinction of meaning into ‘sense,’ ‘feeling,’ ‘tone,’ ‘intention.’” Allen Tate criticizes Shelley for what Wimsatt and Beardsley call a “kind of insincerity” in that this author imposes similes on his material “from above” rather than in a way that comes from within the poem organically.

1379-84. Sections III-IV. The authors have been quoting various others on how poetry gets produced, and they come round on 1380 to the point that “judgment of poems is different from the art of producing them.” We must deal with the work as “something outside the author” (1381). What is “internal is also public,” and “what is external is private or idiosyncratic”; there is also “an intermediate kind of evidence about the character of the author or about private or semi-private meanings” (1381). Wimsatt and Beardsley mention Lowes’ Road to Xanadu as relying heavily on external evidence of the second and third sort for the meaning of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” But this is, by implication and in my phrase, to judge by one’s Baconian private “Idols of the Cave,” by hobbyhorsical and associationist preoccupations rather than by attentiveness to the poem’s words. On 1382, we find the following statement: “There is a gross body of life, of sensory and mental experience, which lies behind and in some sense causes every poem, but can never be and need not be known in the verbal and hence intellectual composition which is the poem. For all the objects of our manifold experience, especially for the intellectual objects, for every unity, there is an action of the mind which cuts off roots, melts away context—or indeed we should never have objects or ideas or anything to talk about.” The outside is cut off to focus on the inside, so to speak. Well, that’s how concepts gather their power to describe—by dismissing a great deal that doesn’t fit in order to sharpen our understanding of something as stable and solid. We know that we do this in many life situations, of course, but why should it necessarily be the goal in the analysis of literature? As an example (1383-84), the authors say some critics are mistaken in assessing John Donne’s lines about “trepidation of the spheares” in terms of the latest theories of astronomy. Donne was interested in things like that, but according to Wimsatt and Beardsley based on their understanding of the poem’s internal context, the phrase probably refers to earthquakes, not celestial motions. To suggest otherwise, they argue, is to set forth one’s private preoccupations (i.e. one’s deep interest in Renaissance astronomy) at the expense of the public meaning that can be found within the poem.

1384-87. Section V. Wimsatt and Beardsley consider the allusiveness we find in authors like T. S. Eliot. To what extent, for example, is J. Alfred Prufrock, when he says “I have heard the mermaids singing,” referring to Donne’s “Go and catch a falling star”? We could consult the author as an oracle, but this would not be literary analysis. The question is, “does it make sense to suppose that Prufrock is thinking of Donne within the poem’s context, or that Eliot himself, based on what we find in the poem, was thinking of that poet?” The authors also question how we should treat footnotes like those in “The Waste Land,” which purport to tell us what the poet was thinking when he composed particular lines. It would seem that Eliot couldn’t find a way to incorporate his meaning into the poem clearly, so he relied on extraneous footnotes. In sum, Wimsatt and Beardsley argue throughout their essay that biographical criticism is an updated version of romantic expressivism, and their logical term “fallacy” implies that it must be rejected on scientific grounds.

Page-by-Page Notes on W. K. Wimsatt & W. M. Beardsley’s “The Affective Fallacy” (1387-1403).

1388-96. The authors discuss various attempts to distinguish “between what a word means and what it suggests” (1389). They mention Charles L. Stevenson’s book Ethics and Language. There is in these first few sections an interest in the notion that when it comes to emotions, many critics try to ward off a certain drift to which the realm of feeling is, in their view, subject. Even language that is primarily descriptive may suggest certain emotions. They also disagree strongly with sublimity-based theories that pin the value of poetry to the heightened or intense emotions it is capable of arousing.

1396-99. Section III. The authors quote Thomas Mann: “Art is a cold sphere.” Well, the connection to Immanuel Kant is obvious here. Art should be considered an autonomous realm, one that is free of our merely private feelings and associations. An act of literary criticism resembles Kantian aesthetic judgments in its coldness. The authors say on 1397, “that a poem or story induces …vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account. The purely affective report is either too physiological or it is too vague. Feelings, as Hegel has conveniently put it, ‘remain purely subjective affections of myself, in which the concrete matter vanishes, as though narrowed into a circle of the utmost abstraction.’” Talking about emotions the way a biologist would cannot delineate poetry as a specific object for analysis. That kind of discussion pokes a hole in the poem’s formal integrity. The question is whether emotion can be translated into a text or whether it remains untranslatable and vague. That’s a huge point of contention between what the authors call “classical objectivity” and “romantic reader psychology.” They say that “The more specific the account of the emotion induced by a poem, the more nearly it will be an account of the reasons for emotion, the poem itself, and the more reliable it will be as an account of what the poem is likely to induce in other—sufficiently informed—readers” (1398-99).

1399-1401. Section IV. A key statement: “it is a well-known but nonetheless important truth that there are two kinds of real objects which have emotive quality, the objects which are the literal reasons for human emotion, and those which by some kind of association suggest either the reasons or the resulting emotion.... The arrangement by which these two kinds of emotive meaning are brought together in a juncture characteristic of poetry is, roughly speaking, the simile, the metaphor, and the various less clearly defined forms of association” (1400). Metaphor brings together these kinds of meanings having to do with emotion. This statement allows Wimsatt and Beardsley to describe how literary critics may deal with emotion and yet maintain criticism as a logical, precise enterprise. In speaking of Macbeth, they say that “a poetry of pure emotion is an illusion. What we have is a poetry where kings are only symbols or even a poetry of hornets and crows, rather than of human deeds. Yet a poetry about things. How these things are joined in patterns and with what names of emotion, remains always the critical question.” And at 1401 bottom comes another fine remark: “Poetry is characteristically a discourse about both emotions and objects, or about the emotive quality of objects, and this through its preoccupation with symbol and metaphor. An emotion felt for one object is identified by reference to its analog felt for another—a fact which is the basis for the expressionist doctrine of ‘objectification’ or the giving to emotion a solid and outside objectivity of its own. The emotions correlative to the objects of poetry become a part of the matter dealt with—not communicated to the reader like an infection or disease... but presented in their objects and contemplated as a pattern of knowledge. Poetry is a way of fixing emotions or making them more permanently perceptible when objects have undergone a functional change from culture to culture, or when as simple facts of history they have lost emotive value with loss of immediacy” (1401-02). Emotions, say Wimsatt and Beardsley, become associated with certain objects in a given historical context. Poetry preserves in a figurative manner the emotions and attitudes of past cultures, and the formalist critic can help us reconstruct a stable extra-personal “consciousness” from the past. This consciousness isn’t that of the author; the text itself is very much like a being that we can come to know and relate to in terms of its structure.

Wimsatt and Beardsley are suggesting that poetry keeps open a space—the poem as a formal, public object—for the preservation and understanding of universal feelings. It preserves and respects emotion by embodying it in a formal or dramatic structure. The specific conjunctions of words with emotions may change, but the range of human emotions doesn’t change. These ideas might be one way formalist critics respond to charges that the engagement with art they favor is bloodless. Perhaps things are somewhat like that for the critic who is concerned foremost with analyzing works of art, but this same “cold” examination may open up other readers to a “warmer” engagement with poetry that would otherwise have gone uncomprehended. The ordinary reader just might have an experience that is both universally communicable and yet intimate and specific, rather than solipsistic and vague, or simply hollow. Promoting this ideal, satisfying response isn’t the immediate aim of the formalist critic, however, who must stick to his or her primary task of structural and context-based analysis. It’s also probably true that part of the value in reading literary works is the way they teach us that the passions, too, can be objects of our reflection. Such reflection might be described as vital to a well-rounded human being (it’s entirely plausible to read Aristotle’s Poetics this way), although we won’t find formalist critics making such openly humanistic claims or showing such warm and fuzzy regard for the ordinary reader. They must, it seems, be ever so slightly “cruel only to be kind.” (A practical aside—the above notion makes sense, as anyone who has done much teaching in, say, C18 literature should know. Many students, who, like most of us, enjoy “easy” things more than difficult ones, don’t respond immediately to certain neoclassical texts because their language and formal conventions aren’t easily accessible to modern readers. But with patience and some help attending to such texts, they often warm up to reading them. British literature from the romantic period forwards doesn’t have the same problem: most students have no trouble relating to romantic lyric or to Jane Austen’s wry take on her heroines’ position in Regency Britain.)

Macbeth’s supposed feelings as he utters the line, as quoted on 1401 top, “Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to the rocky wood” should be comprehensible even to readers in some future time who might not utter anything resembling such a line to express similar feelings. If Wimsatt and Beardsley are correct, such readers should be able to discern Macbeth’s feelings from the total circumstance of the poem: he is in a horridly unenviable situation—a man once loyal but now increasingly isolated and bound to follow the course of treachery and homicide that brought him to the throne. The words Macbeth speaks convey what a man of his time and in that situation would feel. We don’t need to ask Shakespeare or his contemporaries to verify that this is so because the poem itself gives us the strongest possible indication that it is. Such a connection would be incomprehensible only to readers in a culture that didn’t associate bloody murder with dread and guilt. Finally, much of what Wimsatt and Beardsley write is entirely compatible, in its somewhat more technical way, with the Cleanth Brooks essays we have read: a poem “embodies” emotion and ideas in its unified, intelligible structure, and we should analyze that structure on its own terms rather than looking directly to other disciplines to help us explain it.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home