Thursday, September 29, 2005

Week 06, Giraldi, Du Bellay, Sidney

Giambattista Giraldi’s Discourse on the Composition of Romances (273-79).

Giraldi defends the right of Italians to continue developing their own closely linked linguistic, cultural and national identity. Of course, as a Renaissance humanist who values the classics, he doesn’t advocate cutting Italian literature entirely free of the Greeks and Romans. That would be ignorance, not inspiration or liberation. He draws sustenance from Ovid, who treated his own Roman culture with considerable irony, taking all sorts of liberties with the myths and historical narratives of Augustan Rome. Ovid’s poetic tasks took him into uncharted territory, and he took the necessary risks to achieve something great; the modern authors of romance should do the same.

In his anecdote about Mariano Buonincontro’s nonsense poem that resulted in a high-serious four-volume critical commentary, Giraldi makes fun of what today we might call the “culture industry.” In terms more specific to the Renaissance, he makes fun of pedantry in the service of courtly and class status, of critics who make poor use of their time. It seems he would prefer to limit critical commentary’s scope to judgments about decorum and the author’s intention. On 276 Giraldi defines decorum as “what is fitting to persons, times, places”; he adds to this definition a status-based concern for “blood, position, dignity, and authority.” The romance is a popular genre, but it still seems to be written by and for gentlefolk.

But this anecdote brings up a complex philosophical problem – to what extent should we rely on the “author’s intention” as an interpretive control? To control the interpretive process gives the controller a great deal of power, so the matter is significant. And we don’t really escape the issue by claiming that a text is produced by a given social and political environment – such claims generally posit something very much like a super-self, or, for example, what T. S. Eliot calls “the mind of Europe.” In other words, it solves nothing to substitute “society” or “ideology” for “the author”; these concepts may differ in important respects, but they all work as interpretive controls rather like an “author function,” and the same basic objections can be raised against them.

It’s easy to see that Giraldi (and anyone today who finds the constant critical production of “words about words about words” a bit ridiculous and self-referential) has a point when he mocks the endless “levels” of commentary conjured up by our learned Sienese fool. We like to think of the literary text as something that deserves our primary attention, and we usually insist that criticism shouldn’t substitute for it commentary that gets so far away from the text’s formal and thematic properties that we never return to them. It’s wickedly fun to think of professional critical discourse as often no more than a way to earn tenure, and on the whole, I agree with the simple-minded proposition that a good critic sends us back to the literary text or work of art with renewed interest.

But criticism that does so need not be simple-minded; even the most complex critical texts can accomplish that goal. That’s my point, really – it’s probably not the critical works that explicitly propose to send us back to the literary text that are likely to do so most productively. As Oscar Wilde said, there’s something a bit pathetic about those who are always trying to teach somebody else something – and we might apply Oscar’s observation to critical essays and books as well. It’s best to be careful when we start confining a work to “the author’s intention” not only because intentionality itself is a dubious concept (as I’ve suggested several times in class, it is perhaps best to think of intention as an ‘‘ex post facto’’ construction rather than as something that precedes the act of writing or indeed any act whatsoever) but also because it implies a host/parasite relationship between literary texts and critical discourse. Humility is always in order for a critic – Alexander Pope is right about that – but there’s no good reason for considering interpretation to be an inherently parasitical act. Is there any meaning at all without interpretation? Isn’t all reading always already interpretation, so that there’s no point in condemning the interpretive process as parasitical?

That said, let me balance this “pomo” statement with a commonsense proposition: there’s much to be said for immediate experience of a literary work. ‘‘Your own’’ understanding is the one you should start with because without it nothing worthwhile is likely to follow. The impressionist critic Walter Pater was wise to write that a good critic’s first task is to know one’s own impression, to register that and learn how to convey it to others. All good criticism, I suggest, has an element of impressionism that leavens whatever method or ideological imperative otherwise impels the critic forwards.

Joachim du Bellay’s The Defence and Illustration of the French Language (281-90).
281. “For languages are not born of themselves after the fashion of herbs, roots, or trees….” When referring to language, Du Bellay goes beyond the organic metaphor – language is a function of desire and willpower. People shape language even as it shapes them. Culture is a set of reciprocal processes that represent a people to themselves, as something dynamic and present. What is the use of the past? We need past forms to work with. Culture is not natural in the sense of something given and fixed.

282-83. “The Romans called us barbarians….” Roman literature, says Du Bellay, was propaganda. The record it leaves is that of the victor. The Romans defined “civility” along with all non-Roman things as barbaric. They could be inclusive, but only in the sense of co-opting other people’s religious and cultural symbols. Consider our former “melting pot” metaphor of what is American. Language is power. Culture matters because it is the way we represent ourselves to ourselves. The Romans saw culture as a means of maintaining social and political control, and in the process they devalued the language and culture of the Gauls and other subject peoples.

284-85. “But they, in the manner of good agriculturals, did first transplant it [culture] from a wild to a domestic place….” Du Bellay employs the organic metaphor again with regard to culture. He does not imply a sense of wildness. Rather, he says that the Romans grafted from the Greeks the best in their culture. Literary Latin was a self-conscious production, not a lucky accident. Artifice is central to Roman success. We must take what nature gave us as a point of departure, or a “raw material” to be refined. Du Bellay is not offering an inversion of the relationship between humanity and nature; he is making a claim on behalf of going beyond mere necessity. As King Lear would agree, humanity is that which goes beyond the lowest common denominator. Du Bellay implies that poets are the guiding power in shaping the national self-expression of a people.

285-89. Every language is unique – compare Shelley’s “violet in a crucible” or Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect.” But this goes towards the central notion that imitation is not a matter of copying. First, as on 289, Du Bellay says we must know our “natural gifts,” and then imitate the most appropriate ancient authors. This process may involve adherence to or internalization of formal qualities, but the point is not slavish imitation. The point is to take nourishment from the ancient authors, and then do excellent things in our own right. At the best, that is the spirit in which the Renaissance humanists “look back” to their predecessors, treating the products of past cultures as stock, as the source for new grafting. The Romans showed the way in their love of all things Greek.

289-90. See the bottom of the page: “who desires to live in the memory of posterity must, as though dead in himself, sweat and tremble many a time.” Once again, Du Bellay argues that poets shape language, which in itself bears culture. So he insists that merely popular French vernacular forms, while they may constitute basic cultural expression, are not enough. The French must do their homework in the classics. Newness requires the incorporation of something alien. You cannot simply dismiss the past – a remark that is worthy of being considered in light of modernism and postmodernism, which entail arguments over the extent to which the past is valuable.

Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry (326-40, 348-50).
Introduction: Sidney is fighting Stephen Gosson’s “School of Abuse,” which this playwright had ironically dedicated to him. Gosson makes the usual arguments that drama is licentious, and says that theaters incubate and cover all sorts of immorality on the audience’s part.

Behind Sidney’s argument are Christian psychology and humanist educational doctrine. Here’s a brief account of humanist education: Sidney borrows from Horace’s dictum that poetry should teach and delight. Similarly, Sidney says that poetry teaches us by pleasing us. What, then, does a Renaissance humanist mean by education? The term means “full development of all one’s faculties, with the closest possible approximation to human perfection as the goal.”

The point is not simply to memorize content; it is to develop a person’s potential. ‘‘E-ducere’’ means “a leading forth,” and the aim is a well-rounded and virtuous individual. Keep in mind that ‘‘virtus’’ connotes power, force, strength (cf. ‘‘virtú’’). Education should develop a person’s moral and intellectual powers so that he can act in the world. As Sidney puts it, “well doing” is the goal of all learning. We learn for the sake of doing. This practical goal contrasts with the heavier touch of scholastic erudition.

The Classical and Medieval Liberal Arts are the Trivium of grammar, rhetoric, logic; and the Quadrivium of arithmetic (#), geometry (# in space), music (# in time), astronomy (# in space and time). In scholasticism, which combines philosophy and theology, the goal is ‘‘scientia,’’ wisdom, or science in the liberal sense. (Opposing this is the practical learning that we get from the servile or useful arts.)

Renaissance humanists are impatient with their church-bound medieval counterparts; their own encounter with the ancients, combined with changes in economics, environment, and the emergence of national cultures and languages, makes them prefer the Roman emphasis on the language arts as vital to civic culture. Therefore, poetry, despite many arguments about its relation to rhetoric or the art of persuasion, is an important branch of the language arts. Cicero himself had said poetry should be part of a young person’s studies.

Exordium: Pugliano praises his own horse; Sidney backs Pegasus, Muse of Poetry. He pretends he’s just illustrating the point that everybody thinks his own job’s best. This is typical of the “sprezzatura” style: easy-seeming grace, carelessness. That’s the best way to fight the boorish diatribes of Stephen Gosson. Sidney is not trying to be overly erudite – his sprezzatura argument reflects the passionate workings of the poetry and drama that he is defending against Puritan moralists who see it as dangerous and connect it with the behavior of a licentious audience.

330-31/936. Sidney follows Aristotle on imitation, with nature as the source. But while other disciplines are limited by their subject matter and must work with what already is, for better or for worse, the poet’s intellect escapes such narrow ties. The poet conjures for us our Golden World beginnings; he is the “Wizard of Ought.”
This emphasis on the poet’s creative power is pre-romantic: Sidney is not saying that the poet’s mind takes on godlike powers to create an independent reality. Rather, he’s using faculty psychology to argue that the poet’s wit, has a freer range than other people’s, and so the poet can go beyond imitating nature. And by “wit” he refers mainly to the imagination, fantasy, and memory. Those are three of the inner wits, and their function is to process and recall sensory data. (The other two are judgment and sensus communis.) This is a much more mechanical and passive idea about imagination than we will find in romantic poetics, where the mind is more original and creative than combinatory and receptive.

331/937. Sidney also follows Aristotle in saying that poetry gives access to universal patterns: the poet makes not a particular Cyrus but a universal Cyrus, a “speaking picture” of a virtuous king. The poet grasps the principle by which nature made the original Cyrus, so he can complete Nature’s work by recognizing the eternal Form immanent in that material Cyrus, giving us a pattern of moral conduct to imitate. Sidney says that our faculties encompass nature’s workings, and the poet’s work therefore honors God the first “maker” of the original Cyrus.

331/937. Erected Wit/Infected Will. Here is the faculty psychology behind Sidney’s defense. The point is simple: when humankind fell, the will, appetite, and reason went out of sync, so that we are constantly being pulled away from virtuous conduct by our lowest appetites. In order for virtuous behavior to reign, our will must be properly aligned with God’s plan for us. Since unfortunately we are usually “misaligned” in these latter days, we need pleasing patterns to realign our will so that it can let reason work as it should, and action happen as it ought.

331-32/938-39. The three kinds of poet: David, philosophical poets such as Lucretius, and poets who “imitate” only “what may be and should be.” These latter are the ones we need today. Sidney says that what constitutes a poet is moral purpose—the poet imitates in order to deliver universal moral lessons. Verse form helps us remember poetry, enhancing its effect. Sidney begins making distinctions between the poet, the philosopher, and historian by reminding us of the following moral purpose: “the final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” And he further describes the body as a dungeon imprisoning the mind. In sum, a medium that appeals to the senses leads us beyond the senses; this accords with Augustine and Aquinas.

334-40/940-43. Only the poet teaches in a sufficiently concrete and delightful manner; historians remain tied to things as they really happen in an unjust world, imitating a corrupt world’s ways may further corrupt us. Philosophers teach abstractly, and cannot move us to virtuous action. Poetry moves us to learn and to behave well, so we will put our learning to good use. Poetry mediates between abstraction and materiality, sense and understanding; it is medicine for the fallen, taking us back to first principles and possibilities, causal patterns.

348-49. The charges laid at poetry’s door: 1) there are better uses of time; 2) poets lie; 3) poetry is morally corruptive; 4) Plato banished poets. As for 2, the poet “nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Besides, people don’t take what they see on a stage or read in a fable as literally true. We know how to keep our distance from make-believe and yet take it seriously enough to profit by it morally, while truth-narratives like history may mislead us. Sidney may recognize here what Aristotle doesn’t in Poetics: history requires invention and “emplotment.” Poetry, at least, doesn’t make false promises or bogus systems of abstraction. It mediates between sense and spirit for fallen humanity.

350-51. On 3, any instrument can be dangerous if misused—if it couldn’t hurt someone, it wouldn’t be worth much. So “man’s wit abuseth poetry.”

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


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