Thursday, October 05, 2006

Week 07, Corneille and Vico

General Notes on Pierre Corneille and Neoclassicism

How to Define the Neoclassical Period. Recollect the segment of Annie Hall that 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 – McCluhan steps from behind an ad prop, as if he were a cardboard dummy. Allen’s character says, “wouldn’t it be nice if life were really like this?” But in real life, one can’t even find “a sock filled with horse manure” when it’s really needed. We can find this same strong desire to arrive at consensus in social, political, and artistic affairs; strong desires betray strong counter-forces. 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 of all this fighting 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 have been the prevailing trends in art and politics for the last several years? The last several years have hardly amounted to a call to progressivism or individual experimentation, I’d say—in politics, we have a President who uses phrases like “bring it on,” “wanted: dead or alive” and “smoke-‘em-out” 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. 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 “neo-moralist” or even “neo-macho” phase. As for art, 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 (until recently) 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 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 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. Of course, 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 risk 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.” (The infinitive form of the verb he uses is itself a generalization.) In any case, 17th- and 18th-century readers and viewers wanted 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. The universal tends to melt into the ideal, which Aristotle might have called the ennobling of the type—this tendency favors theories that say art uplifts us and 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. Poets speak for and through cultural norms; they stage 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 discussion leads us to Corneille’s views on tragedy and on audience psychology because he seems to be worried about something I mentioned above: 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. Corneille is not slavish, and his audience is sophisticated. The members of this audience want to be pleased first and foremost. 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 René Wellek says, need not exclude the representation of passion as an important element in audience response.

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, that it must 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, and we want them 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 too narrowly at the expense of 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.

Page-by-Page Notes On Corneille

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. In the English context, 1660 is the year of the Restoration following the reign of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell and his “Saints.”

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, if possible there should 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 viewers are not to be made to do all the work themselves. The representation must therefore be as logical and seamless as possible. For Corneille as for Aristotle, reality depends upon probability and necessity.

373-74. “The rule of the unity of time is founded on this statement of Aristotle….” Corneille considers observing the unity of time a good idea, but he 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 treated as “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, and the best of them also understand that we tend to begin treating conventions as extrinsic imperatives divorced from real life. If the rules of art are to render what is universal in human nature and conduct, we must be flexible since life itself calls for flexibility.

Page-by-Page Notes on Giambattista Vico’s The New Science

402-03. Against Cartesian rationalism, which bases the search for systemic truth on “clear and distinct ideas,” Vico offers an approach we might call genetic: how do civil societies become what they are? So his cycles of Gods, Heroes, and Men would be the key to understanding their development. The gentile or non-Hebraic nations have all gone through such cycles or corsi and ricorsi. If we want a true understanding of human societies, we must realize that they are made; i.e. they are a product of human activity and choices. Central to the quest for understanding is a study of language—Vico is an early philologist, and it’s clear that he believes much can be discerned about a people when we study their language closely. Corresponding to the age of Gods and Heroes are forms of language with a predominantly sacred, ritual, imaginative dimension. As Nietzsche (another great proponent of philology) might suggest, primitive language is close to the rawness and freshness of human perception in its infancy, and, at least to an extent, very much attuned to what seems to be the primal instability of all phenomena in the world around us.

In the period of human infancy, the relationship between people and their world is marked by sublimity, by magic, by the wonderful. At 402 bottom, Vico insists that writing isn’t some late-stage invention. Instead, letters codify and reflect the stages of thought and speech, with which they are apparently of twin birth. The written word is a concrete record of human development. Finally, language comes to be more common, and fully conventional in the sense that it is a system of signs with agreed-upon meanings wielded by self-conscious speakers.

404-05. Vico grants much importance to mythology, to the interpretation of fables. These fables are the foundations of nations and sciences, and they stem from “public needs.” Vico’s idea is that we should study “the world of civil society,” not Cartesian foundational deductions or “the world of nature” (empiricism’s focus). This emphasis doesn’t leave aside an eternal history or larger providential pattern: la scienza nuova or the “new science” is, according to Vico, “a rational civil theology.” Providence isn’t an abstraction; it works through human history. There’s a progressive pattern to things, so when a society moves through its cycles, it doesn’t simply return to absolute barbarism. (I’ve read that Vico saw his own age as a return to another “age of men” following a less enlightened medieval period.) Vico isn’t exactly saying that primitive ways and forms were better; he is saying that if we want to understand the development of civil societies, we need to study and appreciate all stages of their development – not simply begin making deductions based on present values in an ahistorical fashion.

414-16. Tropes, writes Vico at 415 bottom., “were necessary modes of expression” arising from primitive imagination and thought. Irony, with its way of looking askance at earnest notions, apparently comes later. Figurative language, in Vico’s scheme, is not a late addition to some earlier and simpler form of speech – it is the primary characteristic of primitive speech and writing. Therefore, the philologist and philosopher shouldn’t discount them as excretions, as “non-serious” language that can be left aside in the quest for clarity and truth.

Vico seems to be an early appreciator of the impasse between French rationalism and English empiricism. One side insists that we can deduce everything we need to from the operations of reason and just leave aside the messiness of human history or the complexity of the natural world. The other insists that we can “induce” larger patterns of meaning by investigating and interpreting the processes of nature. Vico’s grand enlightenment aim is to arrive at a single history that will encompass the workings of Providence as well as the difficult realm of human action, language, and desire. We should understand that God works to connect events and ages causally, and we should arrive at methods appropriate to an understanding of the “content” of those human epochs. I suppose that the big question to answer here is “what is progress, and how has it been made?” How is humanity arriving ever close to a never fully realized potential?


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