Very well then, I contradict myself

Most of the professors I had in graduate school entered the profession in the late 1960s or 1970s. They were perhaps the last generation to be schooled on critics like T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, and F.R. Leavis, the big critical cats of 50 or 60 years ago. Quite naturally they rebelled. By the time I entered graduate school the rebellion was complete and discussion of the New Critics or the Scrutiny crowd only arose as a way of explaining the sweeping egalitarian changes that entered literary studies in the 70s and 80s. I had one professor who always sneeringly referred to the old gang as “High Anglican A-Holes.”

My grad professors went into battle with slogans like “Always Contextualize.” Ironically, they seldom contextualized their elders. The standard line I heard about the old guard was that they had seen themselves as mandarins carefully guarding something called “The Tradition,” which was exclusively white, Western European and male (although Jane Austen and George Eliot usually made the cut). At best, these critics were characterized as snobs and fuddy-duddies; at worst they were charged with imperialism, racism, sexism, and crypto-fascism.

What I did not understand until later was that the High Anglican A-Holes had also been in rebellion. Much of their carefully de-contextualized, “apolitical” criticism was a reaction to what they perceived as the diminishment of literature by the superficiality of mass culture. Their aim—in as much as they had one—was to protect the aesthetic experience from being overrun and destroyed by the prevailing context. They had a kind of embattled worldview that saw middlebrow and popular culture as threats. They shut out this world and tried to approach poems as ahistorical objects that had to be understood solely by their own internal structures.

More and more I find myself half in sympathy with these older critics, but I’m of two minds about them. They were racist, exclusionary, sexist and, yes, not a little crypto-fascist (a few of them even overtly fascist). At the same time they were also right in their assertion that the aesthetic nature of poetry is its primary intelligibility. I first came to this view years ago while taking a grad course on British Romantic Poetry. The professor had assigned us to read Jerome McGann, who wrote a pioneering New Historical essay on Keats' "To Autumn.” McGann purposefully chose this poem because it had been an exemplum of the apolitical nature of poetry for the old guard.

So McGann started his analysis by putting "To Autumn" in its "tight" socio-political context. Keats had written the poem in September 1819 after walking through some stubble fields and open country. But McGann's move was to point out that only a few weeks earlier, and not too far from where Keats walked, the authorities had suppressed a crowd agitating for universal sufferage and protesting the Corn Laws. This event, which became known as the Peterloo Massacre, fueled much resentment against the government. McGann argued that Keats' evasion of dealing with politics was a political move in itself. In as much as the poem evoked a timeless escape from the problems of the day, it actually colluded with power to perpetuate the myth that some ahistoric sanctified individualism remains outside the political reality.

So there it was. With that neat little trick McGann could make everything about politics. His criticism reduced all poetry to a vulgar binarism. Either a poem acknowledges its political agenda or it helps to perpetuate the in-place hegemonic power structure by obscuring the truth that all is politics. This struck me as a little too cute. McGann hadn't proven that "To Autumn" was about politics. He had simply demonstrated that a clever person can interrogate an object away from its primary intelligibility.

By the fall of 1819 it's likely that Keats knew he was dying of tuberculosis. He had been a medical students after all and he'd seen his brother die of TB. So he was 23 and dying. Perhaps we can forgive him for his inattention to the Corn Laws. There is a context for the poem's structure, of course, but it's as much an aesthetic or personal one as it is political. As Helen Vendler notes, the structure suggests a dialog with Milton, with Shakespeare, and also with Keats’ own earlier odes. Keats wasn’t evading anything. He was just talking about a subject that McGann wasn’t interested in.

A person can have aesthetic concerns and political concerns that have nothing to do with each other. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible for wonderful metaphors to be in the service of evil ideas and god-awful ones to be in the service of an absolute good. In the end, ethics and aesthetics never quite cohere. At root, there’s something fundamentally amoral about poetry—and that’s okay. Our politics and our tastes can stand in contradiction.

Take me for instance. Yesterday I engaged in some snotty, elitist caterwauling about half-educated students who will graduate on Saturday (Hoots and Air Horns). At the same time I truly believe that education (and poetry is a part of that) can be amazingly transformative. It opens up possibilities for students to reconceive their ideas, values, self-definitions, and sometimes even their politics. At the same time I just as firmly hold that anyone who teaches poetry trying to achieve any of these goals has made a dreadful error. Do I contradict myself?

Yes, proudly.


Viola said…
I'm so glad that I found this blog. I did my Arts degree over twenty years ago and the first university I went to concentrated on deconstruction and Modernism. I then went to a more traditional one and I can remember rather liking F.R.Leavis.

The critics who argue that every piece of literature is political even if the author avoids this subject really annoy me. Some of them even look down on Jane Austen because she wrote about the 'upper middle-class' and avoided writing about the Napoleonic wars and the poor! It's quite ridiculous.

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