Thursday, September 20, 2007

Week 05, Joachim du Bellay, Giacopo Mazzoni

Page-by-Page Notes on 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.

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

Page-by-Page Notes on Giacopo Mazzoni’s On the Defense of the Comedy of Dante

302-03. “It is the common opinion of all schools….” Mazzoni offers an Aristotelian classification of the categories of being; while Plato had divided everything into the realm of Forms or Truth and a sham phenomenal world (the one we call “material reality”), Mazzoni gives us “the observable, the fabricable, the imitable,” and tells us that each is worthy of attention.

304-05. Idols are simulacra; they are not solid material things. Icastic imitation, according to Mazzoni, represents simulacra of the things we find in the real world. Phantastic imitation represents simulacra of the artist’s imagination or “caprice.” If I paint a unicorn, I’m engaging in phantastic imitation. Mazzoni doesn’t care to insist that art should try to copy “reality” in what we today might call a photographic sense. Instead, artists copy simulacra or idols that aren’t necessarily tied to the material realm.

307-09. We may recall that when he invokes “probability and necessity” as criteria for an excellent drama, Aristotle insists on logical plot construction and avoidance of anything that would shock the audience’s common sense: a play shouldn’t try to cover a ridiculously long time span, nor should its events be cobbled together haphazardly or piled on to the point of confusion.

An intelligible pattern should emerge by the end—otherwise, how is the audience supposed to learn anything; how otherwise will pity and fear be induced and thereby lead to catharsis? Mazzoni’s term for this demand is “credibility.” The Italian critic praises Dante’s ability to deal with the ineffable and with abstruse theological or philosophical concepts in a convincing, accessible manner. How does Dante manage to do it? By means of his genius for phantastic imitation—Dante explores states of the soul, stages of spiritual progress or regression, and he makes us see and feel what’s going on in the spiritual realm. At base, I think Mazzoni is suggesting that Dante is a fine Sophist rhetorician and image-crafter. The author of The Divine Comedy doesn’t work within simplistic oppositions such as true/false or possible/impossible. He gives us credible and persuasive images of things that would not otherwise be representable, things that are far beyond the ability of a merely craftsmanlike painter to deliver on a canvas.

Mazzoni’s thinking accords well with the classical way of describing the literary arts: they constitute a species of rhetoric, a pleasing kind of persuasion emphasizing eloquent discourse and imagery to move an audience. The rhetorical tradition, Mazzoni understands, leads criticism in a more positive direction than the Platonic insistence that a work of art ought to (but can’t) copy material reality or stick to simple truth. Plato, that is, judges art by the standard of philosophy’s ontological imperative, and finds it lacking.

310-12. Well, everybody can see that Plato’s condemnation of art is pretty severe, so Mazzoni has his work cut out for him if he wants to enlist Plato on his side. What kind of sophistic did the philosopher condemn? Mazzoni says it’s only the kind that sets forth patent falsehoods with the express purpose of getting us to take them for true. Plato didn’t trust Homer’s morals, I infer, because that artist gives his audience a pleasing and seductive view of Olympus , expecting his hearers to accept it as an accurate depiction of how the gods really behave.

312-13. Good sophists, however, help us to “examine the apparent credible.” To accomplish that, artist and audience must (at least for a while) put aside philosophy’s quest to “teach truth” in some final manner. I believe Mazzoni is suggesting that literature leaves us room to examine life’s more complex aspects, which is, after all, the only way we are going to become able to deal with them. This latter seems like an important point because Renaissance humanist critics such as Mazzoni would agree with Sir Philip Sidney’s injunction that (to paraphrase) “the aim of well-knowing is well-doing.” To treat representations with a view to their “credibility” implies a certain respect for the seriousness and difficulty of things themselves—see Mazzoni’s response on 314 to Aristotle concerning Empedocles. The worthiness of art lies in its manner of approaching the objects it chooses to represent.

Some class members may recall that in discussing Gorgias of Leontini, an ancient sophist, I suggested that sometimes not believing in something is the most appropriate way to honor it. The same thing, more or less, might be said about Mazzoni’s mimetics—he seems to be suggesting that one must know how to “game,” to “play,” with complex things, characters, and events. I infer that art is about approaching and coping with sloppy reality. As the modern critic Kenneth Burke wrote, literature might be understood as “equipment for living.” If that’s the case, why should it matter if the representation is literally accurate? It might be argued that the people with the most rigid, surefire sense of what’s real and what isn’t real are the biggest dupes of all because life is, after all, full of uncertainties—much of life is subject to discourse, to the battle of notions and emotions. Mazzoni is of course a good Renaissance humanist, but we can read him as very “modern” in his sophisticated understanding of representation’s complex adequation to a complex “reality.”

315-21. On 315, Mazzoni brings up the “civil faculty.” What is the social purpose of art, its Aristotelian first cause? On 316, we find that central humanist concern for the value of leisure. Art, in Mazzoni’s view, is a species of play. Still, it shouldn’t be divorced from ethics or the civil faculty that discovers those “credible and marvelous” things and events worthy of representation. A key remark is made at 319 middle: Mazzoni favors representations that give restorative pleasure, that work in the service of social utility. The point here is to “order the appetite and submit it the reason.” Rhetoricians work with the passions—they don’t reject the passions. Renaissance critics show a strong desire to defend poetry (and criticism) for its social utility. Renaissance humanist education prescribes the full development of all faculties with the aim of approaching perfection. Medieval theologians recognized our need for what appeals to the senses (thus Aquinas on the value of metaphor in the Bible), but they also betrayed an obvious distrust of pleasure. Our Renaissance theorists, with some trusty pagans to back them up, begin to recuperate pleasure and link it to social utility. The individual is starting to matter not as an unique entity (i.e. modern bourgeois subjectivity), and not as a stark construct of conscience combined jarringly with a squirming bag of appetites tending towards evil, but rather as a complex aggregation of faculties and capacities, multifarious potential to be developed.

Mazzoni is, therefore, a typical Renaissance humanist. But he’s distinctive, too, because he offers us a sophisticated sense of how art can both please us and help us deal with the complexity of human nature and societies. We are responsible for the world we have at least partly created, and art is a species of play that restores us, a game that helps prepare us to act virtuously in the world. I suppose that Mazzoni, with his emphasis on “credibility,” is a kindred spirit to Philip Sidney, who declares in his “Apology for Poetry” that “the poet nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Mazzoni’s claim is that poets need not “affirm” some narrow set of real-life experiences to accomplish something entirely constructive and uplifting for humanity.

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

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