Monday, September 27, 2004

Week 06, du Belley, Corneille, Pope

Alexander Pope Notes

Nature: nature is structured like mind, operates in a rational and stable way. The ancients based their works upon Nature, so studying Homer is like going “back to nature.” They’re the same, in fact. So the “rules” are actually based on nature -- that’s why we should follow them, and why we should value the ancients. Not to hold them in high regard merely shows that we have gone astray from what Dr. Johnson will call “just representations of general nature.”

Imitation: Notice the predominance in C18 of certain mimetic figures: mirror, speech as dress, ornament. What is to be dressed and finely decked out is “nature,” human nature, or the social and political hierarchy. These are already solid and “there”; the point is to make them memorable and attractive. In this way, poetry is something like elegant rhetoric, whose point is to reaffirm our sense that our ways and understandings are right. “Whatever is, is right.” You say you want a revolution? Well, we’d all like to change your head….

The point is that neoclassical critics generally support the principle of hierarchy underlying the social order -- so they can conceive of a genial, erudite critic who does justice to the work itself and helps a somewhat broader “public” (gentlemen, not Dickensian kitchen scullions and hookers) understand the work’s complexities to as great an extent as possible. So such a critic serves the text and the public.

Modern formulations betray an anxiety that culture is either a top-down ideological control mechanism or an exercise in commercial vulgarianism: bread and circuses, the nightly news as entertainment, etc.

Of contemporary interest:

Relationship between author/work/public and criticism:

Calls for consideration of the cultural value of art: does it reflect already held value system and merely “dress” or adorn it? Or is art a shaping force, a creator of culture, rather than a passive storehouse of normative ideas and aesthetic images?

We can see art as establishing and maintaining consensus, or as tearing it down in favor of something new. Seems reasonable to say that it has done all these things -- interesting to watch how critics and artists have reacted to them (example: romanticism).

Some critics see themselves as guardians of culture -- highbrow watchdogs, one might say, others see themselves as unmasking texts’ claims to normative status, others claim they’re more or less operating in a politics-free zone where they are able simply to “see the object as in itself it really is.”

During C19, the notion of a “public” and even of several levels of public, from the low to the high, really becomes an issue. We see the rise and fall of the “man of letters” and the advent of what George Gissing describes in New Grub Street as hack journalists and critics churning out semi-cultured pablum for a quarter-educated public. Pope isn’t really facing this kind of crass commercialization or embourgeoisification of art to the lowest common denominator. But you can see in his admonitions to critics to “know their limits” a flicker of anxiety that criticism may be starting to pander to a paying public. Modern artists have had to try and turn this stricture into a positive thing, but it isn’t easy to do, and to varying degrees it may mean ceding ground on the claims surrounding art’s power to change people and even societies.

a) Is literary author superior?

b) Is critic’s task to explain the text, add to it? (Arnold/Wilde)

c) To what extent should authors be familiar with criticism?

d) Today, “theory” asserts something like an independent right to be what it is, and not simply be a handmaid to art. This claim reject the notion that art innocently exists as an autonomous realm or that it straightforwardly adorns a culture’s values.

e) Rejecting the responsibility to make texts accessible to a broad public by explaining them amounts to an atrophying of the critical function, or at least a narrowing of it to wholly academic circles. This is not necessarily to be condemned since there is much of value that “the public” simply can’t appreciate and yet shouldn’t hound out of existence. But if that’s all there is to it, it’s easy to see that the arts are too divorced from just plain folks to have much of a social impact. They look like the products of marginalized, specialized labor -- not something vital that everyone has some interest in.

Post-It Notes

441. “Too many critics” would be troubling. Pope values just criticism for the same reason Horace does -- it can notice the best work and make it available for public appreciation and emulation by modern authors. But criticism quickly becomes an industry, almost detached from its object. Consider modern formalism as a looming, institutionalized propagator of artistic standards. Bad critics pander to a vulgar public -- this would be a good place to mention Pope’s background as a Catholic and as someone who had to earn his living as a writer.

442. “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan….” Here at lines 46-49 is the lesson adapted for critics. You can’t just spin out “rules” from your own head. The great author of classical times isn’t to be condemned because he does something you don’t understand. Homer and Virgil constitute an external, transhistorical, universal set of standards to which you must conform your sensibilities: taste is intricately tied to education. This is an anti-mass way of understanding art -- we shouldn’t go up to the work with our hands in our pockets and expect it to please us at first sight or first read.

“Unerring Nature….” Nature is Pope’s sun, source, and end. Mind and nature work analogously; the world follows Reason -- it is an intelligential order. Homer follows human nature, which accords with natural process. See page 443, where Pope writes that the rules are themselves rooted in nature. So conventions are natural to humanity, not mere extrinsic ornaments. The artist and critic help us appreciate the intelligibility of the natural order, the compatibility of mind and nature.

443. “those rules of old, discovered, not devised….” Neoclassical authors such as Pope are careful to insist on selection from nature -- nature must be “methodized.” They do not say authors should copy nature in the lowest sense. This carefulness is partly due to the moral that is pragmatic, demand of neoclassical criticism: art should teach by delighting. But it is also an Aristotelian demand to derive the universal significance from the particular instance.

446. “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Pope is against mediocrity for the same reason as Horace: art should reflect our society and values to us elegantly; that is the meaning of decorum. Otherwise, we end up with Plato’s demagogues and critics and artists pandering to the lowest common denominator. In that case, art would not exert any shaping power, and we would be on a degenerative arc with respect to the ancients. At the bottom of the page, Pope insists we must know the whole work, not just the parts.

447. “True wit is nature to advantage dressed.” True wit does not get itself a raised podium or become its own order of things. The 18th century authors distrust words and wittiness because they tend to get in the way of truth, of things as they are, and so forth. Witty language “dresses” nature to advantage. Just as fashion succeeds only when it knows the body well, so art must accord with human nature. Words “clothe” thought, which implies that thought itself refers to a stable order of things prior to language. The emphasis is on coherence, on building and maintaining consensus. True wit is like nature in that both give us back a proper image of our mind.

448. “But true expression, like the unchanging sun….” Pope makes the same point about language here -- it should clarify things and “gild them.” But it should not change the object. True felicity lies in apprehending the order of things, and in expressing that order attractively. We will see Matthew Arnold refer nostalgically to what he calls “the object as in itself it really is.” He thereby reasserts human values and facts, not scientific objectivity as something opposed to stable human values.

450. “Some foreign writers, some our own despise;/the ancients only, or the moderns prize….” Pope does not simply say the ancient authors are better: the category true-false does not reduce simply to old-new.

454. On achieving consensus in public taste: the term “the public” implies a degree of democracy, at least in the sense understood by a market society. Since the function of the critic is to be positive and to form public taste and morals, the critic must behave in a civil manner. Notice that Pope says pride is the main fault of intellectuals, at lines 631-32. Recall how Sir Philip Sidney describes the way to move people towards virtuous action. That is a typical 18th-century notion -- literature is better than philosophy. If the critic is an authority, he is a benevolent one, not a tyrant, not destructive because you cannot achieve consensus that way.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.


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