Thursday, October 13, 2005

Week 08, Corneille, Shaftesbury, de Stael

How to Define the Neoclassical Period. Our Annie Hall excerpt, which shows Woody Allen’s character appealing to “the author” as an argument-ending principle of interpretation, a conventional authority figure that his audience will accept as final. For Allen’s character, Marshall McCluhan is more of a stock figure than a flesh-and-blood individual -- notice that he steps from behind an ad prop, as if he were a cardboard dummy. And Allen’s character says, “wouldn’t it be nice if life were really like this?” But in real life, you can’t even find the sock filled with horse manure when you really need it.

You can find this same strong desire to arrive at consensus in social and political and artistic affairs, and strong desires betray strong counterforces. The C17-18 neoclassical period on the European continent was a violent, unstable one. All I need do is mention the Thirty Years’ War, a religion-based battle that started in Germany and got out of hand from 1638-48, or the decades of civil strife in France before the accession of the Bourbon King Henry IV in 1589, the weakness of Louis XIII’s regent Marie de’ Medici, or the English Civil War in the 1640’s that toppled the Stuart absolutist Charles I. [Louis XIII 1610-43, XIV 1643-1715, XV, 1715-74, XVI 1774-92 -- the “top Louis” beheaded as a result of the French Revolution, 1789. The Bourbons returned for a time after Napoleon’s defeat, 1814.] What people needed in social and political affairs was a sense of stability and continuity, assurance that there could be a settled order based upon a clear understanding of human nature, itself rooted in nature with a capital “N.”

What’s the implication for art and criticism? Well, neoclassical critics set out to define the RULES for creating and structuring literature, the rules underlying audience response, the social function of art (though not always in a rigidly didactic fashion). We find in C17-18 poetics and drama theory a strong appeal to conventions drawn from the laws of nature. Convention, or to use the fancier and more systemic term “decorum,” is the set of rules by which people live in acceptable ways and engage with art.

We remember that word decorum from the Augustan Roman Horace, where it was also an imperative, and by decorum Horace referred to the social and artistic conventions that educated people had come to find acceptable. The taste of the educated reader or spectator was a central concern for those who made art in the Roman Empire, and the same is true of the Neoclassical Age in Europe and in England.

Let’s just stop here and consider whether our own age might have something in common with C17-18 France: what about the art and politics that’s popular at the moment? It’s hardly a call to revolution or open experimentation, I’d say -- we have neo-cowboy movies and a Texan for President who uses phrases like “wanted: dead or alive” in foreign policy speeches. These aren’t the wild, radical, gimme-a-ticket-on-an-aeroplane sixties, they’re the anxious teens of the twenty-first century, a time of uncertainty thanks to September 11, 2001. (And it looks like we’re about to have a “Governator.” If Arnold wins reelection, we may have to call him “Governator II.”) Of course, this is hardly an age likely to appreciate periwigs and snuff and male manicures, but the point is that the country is in a “neomoralist” or even “neomacho” phase. There’s evidently a high demand for moral representations, black-and-white views that make things absolutely clear, and so the art and politics of the era follow conventions that suit the people’s mood -- or what they’re told is their mood, anyway. (And it’s obvious enough that politics involves manipulating a set of conventions, crafting an acceptable image of oneself, etc. -- there’s been a good deal of show business in our politics at least since the Nixon-JFK debates of 1960.) After all, this is a democratic republic, not a French absolutist monarchy.

And in art, we find many television productions about law-and-order themes and even shows like “West Wing,” along with Hollywood’s usual run of neo-westerns, FBI extravaganzas, and war films, Law-and-order authority figures are “in” these days. That’s because there’s a perceived need for such authority figures; in good times, people don’t put as much stock in such goings on. Earnestness seems to be in vogue -- what would Oscar Wilde say? People look to the Retro Imaginary when they’re uncertain and afraid: so we’ve resurrected John Wayne, J. Edgar Hoover and the G-Men, and maybe even “The Man with No Name,” along with some other perhaps less predictable heroes. Well, back to the past, and our texts:

The neoclassical dramatist or poet is no visionary and is by no means concerned with self-expression; rather, the poet’s task is to reproduce reality-- that is, human nature and physical nature--in a pleasing fashion. So we are dealing here with a mimetic theory of art, and as usual, where we have a mimetic theory of art, pragmatic concerns cannot be far behind. The refined audience, with its educated taste, can judge artistic representations on the basis of how well they conform to the laws of art and how well they observe and reflect the rules of society.

Moreover, there’s a philosophical angle to neoclassical mimetics: we demand that art set before us the typical and universal, the timeless, in human nature. We demand that nature and human nature be idealized; representation must accurately render the timeless essence of men and things, not their perishing particularities. Even Neoclassical comedy seems to do this -- which accounts for the continuing popularity of Moliere’s Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope. Those plays are still funny because they’re not limited to making fun of actual jerks in Moliere’s day -- he’s after what is universally ridiculous about us all, and has little trouble finding and representing it.

Tragedy, it seems, has even less problem finding what is noble in us, but also what is dangerous at the same time. Racine still plays well, and so do the Greek tragedians. It’s much harder to appreciate Aristophanes because he’s so topical, so local. We may insist that “all politics is local,” but the neoclassicals would insist that art certainly should not be. It should be kept in mind, of course, that we should be ready to run whenever a culture pushes its ideals and values upon us as “timeless and universal.” One culture’s universal verities might just turn out to be ideological bunkum by another’s lights. That’s one definition of ideology: by various means -- art, politics, social institutions and customs -- we naturalize our understanding of the world and lose sight of the fact that ideas actually come from someplace and some time.

This naiveté is one risk, while the other is that adherence to conventions may cease to be based upon the firm belief that conventions are rooted in nature -- and then we are just observing conventions for the sake of observing conventions: sham formalism, in other words. We end up as Thomas Carlyle’s nightmare universe of flunkies who just do things because everybody else does them that way and almost always has.
Later, the Romantics will see neoclassical reaching for what is universal in humanity as a blasphemous, empty formalist demand for falsification and abstraction. William Blake said somewhat illogically, “to generalize is to be an idiot.” (Of course, the infinitive form of the verb he uses is itself a generalization.)

In any case, what 17th and 18th-century readers and viewers wanted was precisely pleasing and reaffirming generalizations about human beings and the societies in which they lived. The neoclassical age felt a deep need to represent the world as a stable place, and human actions as based upon a stable set of faculties and passions: the bedrock of human nature. And the universal tends to melt into the ideal, what Aristotle might have called the ennobling of the type -- that tends to theories that say art uplifts us, elevates our moral sensibilities.

Well, the poet conforms and sometimes plays upon the types of human nature and the demands of verisimilitude or lifelikeness in representation. The poet speaks for and through cultural norms; he stages them. Neoclassical poetics is by no means revolutionary; its power comes not from its capacity to "disturb and disintegrate" the values of the reader or viewer. Neoclassical poetics, rather, implies a reinforcing and shaping kind of art.

This all leads us to a discussion of Corneille’s views on tragedy and on audience psychology because he seems to be worried about just such a lapse into stupid formalism and empty rule-promoting. The saving grace of neoclassical art and theory has always been its dollop of common sense, the willingness of the best thinkers to remain flexible and see the “rules” as something to be worked within, but not simply to be accepted slavishly. And Corneille is not slavish.

I want to ask students about this, but I'm prepared to say that Pierre Corneille’s audience is sophisticated. The members of this audience want to be pleased first and foremost, and they have nothing against the representation of sentiment and passion, but they remain quite capable of analyzing a plot or character. What has not been well constructed and what is not true to the type risks not pleasing the audience. A rational theory of poetry, as Rene Wellek says, need not exclude the representation of passion as an important element in audience response. (Of course, neoclassical poets and critics would not be caught, along with William Blake, saying "too much, or not enough!")

The most rigid form of dramatic theory would call for strict observation of the so-called “three unities”: the demand for a stable system of representation means that one word must mean one thing and refer clearly to something in the world, and similarly that one stage play must represent one action, in one location, in one very restricted time frame. It’s as if the spectators are birds whom we want to eat the grapes we have painted on the canvas -- we want them to take the stage play for reality itself. Corneille, I think, doesn’t quite go this route, and is concerned that this kind of prescriptiveness may limit the playwright beyond what is really essential to the production of fine and pleasing art. Rules are good -- you need them as funnels for artistic creativity -- but you don’t have to be a drooling idiot in the face of them, either.

Post-It Notes On Corneille (there are no marginal notes)

An introduction to Neoclassicism: Louis XIV reigned from 1643 to 1715. Corneille writes in the middle of the 17th century, around 1660. This was a turbulent age, an age of war and economic uncertainty. People wanted stability, and they wanted reflections of that stability in their cultural products, their language.

367. “The term unity of action does not mean that tragedy should show only one action on the stage.” So much did they want stability that Corneille finds himself trying to inject some “common sense” talk about the theater into the discourse of critics and the public. The demand for verisimilitude can go too far. Corneille seems to put his faith in the ideal of the “taken-in” spectator because he says that the spectator must be left serene and untroubled. That is, there should if possible be an unbroken logical succession in the action of a play. If you force the spectators to do a lot of double takes, the dramatic illusion will be broken.

373. “Aristotle wishes the well-made tragedy to be beautiful and capable of pleasing without the aid of actors and quite aside from the performance.” The point is that the viewer is not to be made to do all the work himself. The representation must therefore be as logical and seamless as possible. Reality depends for Corneille, as for Aristotle, upon probability and necessity.

373-74. “ the rule of the unity of time is founded on this statement of Aristotle….” Du Bellay thinks observing the unity of time is a good idea, but is flexible.

376. “As for the unity of place, I find no rule concerning it in either Aristotle or Horace.” The unity of place is relative – an entire city can be unified. The important thing is to maintain credibility in particular dramatic scenes. Neoclassical authors believe we should follow conventions because they are rooted in nature. But the best of them also understand that we tend to begin treating conventions as extrinsic imperatives divorced from real life. If the rules are to render what is universal in human nature and conduct, we must be flexible since life itself calls for flexibility. So should art.

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


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