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Review of James Seaton’s “Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 31, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review first appeared here in The University Bookman.

Back when I was a pimple-faced graduate student in English and law, I ordered a book from Amazon titled Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies. The book had been out awhile, but I had only recently come across an intriguing piece by its author, James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University. I read my purchase in earnest and then dashed off a complimentary email to Seaton days later. He responded, and we struck up a dialogue that continued for several years. I once visited him at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, where he spoke to a small crowd about George Santayana. He had just edited two of Santayana’s seminal essays for Yale University Press and had recruited Wilfred M. McClay, John Lachs, and Roger Kimball to contribute to the edition. We got along swimmingly, and Annette Kirk ensured that he and I had time alone to discuss whether I should apply to a doctoral program in English or continue down the path of the law.

Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism has all the themes and qualities that first drew me to Seaton. It is a collection of Seaton’s latest essays and reviews revised and synthesized into a comprehensive case for humanistic inquiry. Amplifying his arguments from Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism and reformulating his principles about the value of literature to society, Seaton continues to undercut the discipline of cultural studies, which he decries for its “obligatory leftism.” His leading contribution—the subject about which he stands to forge new directions in the field of literary criticism—is to revitalize old contributions, namely, the humanistic tradition as defined by Irving Babbitt and as represented by Aristotle, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Ralph Ellison. Chapters Two and Four are profitable beginnings of this project because they explain which critics (William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and which schools of criticism (Romanticism, Marxism, and the New Criticism) fall outside the humanistic tradition. These chapters, Four especially, are exciting, provocative, and significant. They supply the basis and much of the substance for the rest of the book and suggest that literature is not an agent of ideology, nor literary theory a master key that unlocks the door to grand solutions for political, scientific, and economic problems.

For those who are uninterested or unversed in literary criticism, however, reading Seaton will be like watching strategic athletic maneuvers—swing! parry! dive!—without a sense of what’s at stake in a sporting match whose tactics and rules are unknown. From the start he frames his argument with Plato and Aristotle, but today’s graduate students in English will be unclear what these men mean for the larger project of humanism or why they matter to contemporary audiences. With the exception of the Norton anthologies, most accounts of literary criticism in popular anthologies begin with Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century or with the New Critics in the early twentieth. The pinnacle of influence for these late critics roughly coincides with the development of English departments as institutions. To begin at the beginning—with the Greeks—will disorient those trained to look back at the literary canon through the prism of “contemporary” theories.

This remark is not a reproach of Seaton but of current literary studies; the chief merit of Seaton’s methodology is to demystify literary studies and to affirm there’s nothing new under the sun: the latest theories have definite antecedents (not necessarily good ones) and can be mapped by their continuity with other methodologies. Marxists of the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse, for example, follow in the wake of Plato: “Just as Plato had insisted on the necessity of censorship in his ideal Republic, Marcuse argued that suppression of free speech was required in the twentieth century for the establishment of what he considered true freedom.”

Seaton’s knack for classification emerges forcefully in the opening chapter. Here he arranges under three heads the whole history of literary criticism: the Platonic, the Neoplatonic, and the Aristotelian. He defines literary criticism as “a continuing conversation” among these three traditions inspired by just two Greek men. Adhering to the third category, the Aristotelian, which he calls humanistic, Seaton rejects the first because it questions the aesthetic value of literature, distrusts the sensory effects of literature, and treats great works as mere symptoms of ideological structures or institutions. “The philosophy of the Republic,” Seaton explains, “leaves no room for judging poetry according to literary excellence; all that counts is its political and social impact.” Seaton rejects the second, the Neoplatonic, for defending literature and poetry on the narrow and quixotic “basis of the moral and spiritual elevation it made possible.”

By contrast, Seaton submits, the “humanistic view of literature” might be “a middle way between the Platonic condemnation of art and literature and the Neoplatonic elevation.” The humanistic view “remains Aristotelian” because it considers “literature as a source of insight about human life” and is willing “to judge grand theory by the norms of common sense.” While Plato would expel poetry and theater from his ideal Republic, segregate poetry from philosophy, and train his Guardians to submit their virtues to the service of the State, Aristotle calls for “individual judgment about the literary merit and relevance to human life of particular works from audiences and certainly from would-be critics.” Neoplatonist overstatement about the manner in which “poetry brings us closer to the divine” also finds no place in Aristotelian humanism, which modestly maintains that literature “can tell us important things about human life but little about the universe.” Humanists write of the person as the person: they turn to literature to learn and to teach how to live well and wisely without fancying transcendental essences or utopian abstraction. The very crux of Aristotelian humanism is that “the importance of literature is linked to the significance of human life itself,” not to the political, ideological, or religious convictions that a work of literature implicates.

The triadic paradigm (Aristotelian, Platonist, Neoplatonist) may seem reductive, and indeed it is, but such reduction establishes recognizable classifications that encompass a diversity of interests and approaches while shaping a vocabulary for arranging distinctive properties into taxonomies to set apart certain authors and texts. Despite his skill for categorizing and simplifying schools of literary criticism, Seaton is steadfast that literary criticism is distinct in function and form from science: the former is as much an art as the art it explicates, whereas the latter is an empirical discipline that ascertains the natural rules of the phenomenal world by gathering and testing concrete data, building consensus among experts, and denominating general propositions to describe observable events. The contrast is not as sharp or essentialist as I have portrayed it—the pragmatic tradition of Peirce, James, and Santayana falls somewhere between art and science—but the fact that literary criticism has splintered into innumerable, contradictory schools suggests that the disparate methods and judgments of literary critics are not derived from shared conditions or by recourse to the same techniques.

Criticism of the humanistic variety championed by Seaton is found today not in academic journals but in popular literary reviews and journals such as this one. It has the important civic function of educating and inspiring mass audiences. Humanism rejects the “implicit promise” of cultural studies “that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.” Humanism, instead, engages in public debate without resorting to naked polemics; its practitioners understand or at least appreciate the complexity of the cultural norms and standards of readers outside the ivory tower. Professors in the academy, on the other hand, disconnected from the lifestyles and manners and conventions of the general public, tend to write themselves into little corners, retreating from the potential scrutiny of educated laypeople and insisting that true scholarship “requires specialization on topics specific enough to allow for the production of new knowledge, not open-ended conversation about questions to which no definitive answer is possible.” Seaton’s model of humanism advocates a different errand: “to make available to the larger culture the testimony of literature on human life … by accurately assessing the literary merit of the witness.”

They waste it that do state it with no style. Seaton, accordingly, makes short work of the “dominant theorizing” that lacks “literary distinction,” and he does so with his own unique style that remains as accessible to the educated layperson as it is to professional scholars of literature. His is not the delightfully repetitious, grandstanding prose of a Harold Bloom or Richard Poirier—the type of prose that, in its very makeup, shouts down the technical writing of hyper-professionalized humanities scholarship. Yet Seaton can turn a phrase with the best of them. Although it is a subsidiary point, the notion that a critic should write in a mode many people will enjoy is the literary equivalent to popular sovereignty: the common reader, not the expert, ought to determine which works continue to be read and therefore which become canonized. Like his guides Ralph Ellison and Dwight Macdonald, Seaton, mindful of his audience, takes pains to avoid jargon even as he discusses such theorists as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno whose writing is riddled with esoterica.

Seaton ends with a hopeful note: “Although the task of addressing the arguments of the dominant contemporary theories is important, the decisive answer [to the question what to do now that the dominant theories dismiss the importance of literature to life and thought] will come from the literary criticism of the twenty-first century that conveys to the general public the pleasures and insights that poems, plays, and fiction continue to make available to all those willing to attend.” Let’s hope the coming decades yield critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, who were “members of a humanistic tradition capacious enough to study the connections between literature and society while also insisting that poems, plays, and novels should be judged on their own merits as works of art.”

It isn’t that the political and social sphere should be off-limits to critics, only that critics should, as Seaton does, subordinate their political and social presuppositions to aesthetic judgments, the most discerning of which account for the value of imaginative literature to plain living and high thinking. The best criticism helps us to understand how literature makes life better, more meaningful, and more fulfilling. Simple as it sounds, this proposition is tremendously complex because of the tremendous complexity of life itself. Held to his own high standards, Seaton succeeds: his chapters force you to consider what role literature has played in your own development, and how that role might play out in the lives of others. Good literature is more than a material object; it’s a way of living, a crucial check on those who purport to know it all with utter certainty.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Daniel J. Kornstein

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Communication, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Politics, Rhetoric & Communication, Shakespeare, Writing on June 4, 2014 at 8:45 am
Dan Kornstein

Daniel J. Kornstein

Daniel J. Kornstein is a senior partner at the law firm of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, in New York City.  He earned his law degree from Yale Law School in 1973 and has served as the president of the Law and Humanities Institute.  He has authored several books including Loose Sallies, Something Else: More Shakespeare and the Law, Unlikely Muse, Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal, Thinking under Fire, and The Music of the Laws.  His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and the Boston Globe.  In 2002, Dan received the Prix du Palais Littéraire from the Law and Literature Society of France.  In 2013, King Michael of Romania awarded him the Order of the Crown of Romania.

AM: Thanks for taking the time to discuss your new book with me, Dan. The name of the book is Loose Sallies, and as you state in your introduction, it’s not about fast women named Sally. For those who haven’t read the introduction or purchased the book yet, could you begin by discussing the book generally and say something in particular about your chosen genre: the essay.

Loose SalliesDJK: Thank you, Allen, for this opportunity. Those of us who occasionally write are, as you know from your own experience, always delighted to have a chance to explain a bit about how and why we scribble. Loose Sallies is a collection of essays written over the past 25 years mostly about topics of general interest. The first 75 pages is about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and why that remarkable process and its end result are still so important to us today. The rest of the book ranges over a wide variety of topics, from our precious civil liberties to profiles of some famous judges and lawyers to current controversies. It should, I hope, appeal to everyone.

AM: Phillip Lopate has said that the essay is a “diverting” type of literature and that its hallmark is intimacy. You call the essay “intimate, informal and reflective, as if you are sitting at home in your living room or dining room and having a pleasant, sometimes provocative, sometimes stimulating, but always, one hopes, insightful and enlightening conversation.” I agree. The essay is my favorite genre because it’s the genre of the person. You can’t know a person until you’ve met the persona he creates in his essays—and if you don’t write essays, you may not know yourself. Who are your favorite essayists, and what is it about their essays that you find compelling?

DJK: My favorite essayists are the obvious ones: Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Addison & Steele, Hazlitt, Lamb, Orwell, Mencken, Macaulay, Emerson, V.S. Pitchett, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, George Will, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Joseph Wood Krutch. My favorite living essayists are Lopate and Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar magazine. All these writers make their essays compelling by their clarity of thought and uniqueness of expression and their ability to communicate original, stimulating ideas, making us see familiar things in a new light. Epstein, for example, can write on literary personalities as well as personal topics we all think we know about but do not really. Everyone in my pantheon of great essayists is a superb writer with a distinctive and memorable style.

AM: I recently interviewed James Elkins, a law professor at West Virginia University, here on this site, and he talked about lawyer poets and said that “our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law.” You have something to say about this seeming double life. “Writing,” you say, is “part of my double life. I have a life other than the lawyer’s life I lead on the surface. The two sides—law and writing—reinforce and complement each other.” I’ve heard the phrase “the two worlds” problem used to describe the lawyer who is also a writer. But this doesn’t seem to be a problem for you, does it?

DJK: A lawyer IS a writer. Writing is most of what a lawyer does. To be a good lawyer, one needs to be a good writer. Verbal facility, sensibility to language, and lucid thinking are prerequisites for both. A legal brief and a piece of expository writing have much in common. Both have a point to make to persuade the reader. Both rely on effectively marshaling evidence to demonstrate the correctness of a particular perspective. The topics may differ, but the skill and technique are similar. The problem facing the lawyer-writer is more one of time and energy and desire than anything else. Law is a demanding profession, which means taking time off to do anything else cuts into one’s otherwise free moments. But if you want to write, you make the time.

AM: I’m curious, when did your love of literature begin? Did you have an “aha!” moment, or did the love evolve over time?

DJK: I cannot recall ever not loving literature. My paternal grandfather was a printer at Scribner’s and when I was a little boy he gave me four books by Robert Louis Stevenson that my grandfather had himself set in type in 1907. I gave Treasure Island to my son and Kidnapped to my daughter, and still have the other precious two volumes on my shelves.

I remember my father taking me as a youngster to the Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street to get my first library card. In those days, the main building had a circulation department, and my father’s choice for my first library book was, of course, Tom Sawyer, a good choice for a ten-year old boy.

I remember as a teenager reading as much as I could in addition to books assigned in school. There were nights spent, in classic fashion, with a flashlight under the covers after bed time.

Inspiring teachers helped too.

AM: You’ve written a lot on Shakespeare. How did your fascination with him come about?

DJK: Like most people, I first met Shakespeare in high school English classes. Luckily for me, around the same time New York had a summer program of free Shakespeare in Central Park, which continues to this day. Starting in the summer of my junior year in high school — 1963 — I began to see two of Shakespeare’s plays every summer. It was at one of those performances — Measure for Measure in 1985 — that the passion grabbed me. I was 37 years old and had been practicing law for 12 years. As I sat watching Measure for Measure, I realized for the first time how much the play was about law, and that recognition — the “fascination” you refer to — set me off on a project that would last years. First, I wrote a short essay about Measure for Measure for the New York Law Journal, our daily legal newspaper. Then, months later, I saw a production of The Merchant of Venice and wrote another essay. From there, one thing led to another, and before long, I had the makings of a book.

I reread the plays I had read as a student and read many others for the first time. Then I read as much as I could find about Shakespeare and the law. The result was my 1994 book called Kill All The Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal.

I am still fascinated by Shakespeare. Each time I read or see one of his great plays, I get something new out of it.

AM: Many essays in Loose Sallies concern politics, law, government, and current events. You discuss the Founders, Holmes, Bill Clinton, Hugo Black, Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand—all sorts of people and even some decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. You manage to do so without coming across as overtly political, polemical, or tendentious. How and why?

DJK: It is a question of style and goal. Every one of the essays has a thesis, some of which may even be controversial. The idea is to persuade your reader to accept your thesis, and that requires care and sensitivity, logic and demonstration, not name-calling or verbal table-pounding. If I am “overtly political, polemical or tendentious,” I will probably not convince anyone who does not already agree with me. A writer has to be smoother and subtler. We live in a country right now riven by political and cultural partisanship. Public controversy today between “red” and “blue” is almost always shrill. A reader tires of it; it becomes almost an assault on our sensibilities. To reach people’s hearts and minds, you have to credit both sides of an issue but explain patiently and show convincingly why you think one side is more correct than another. I am not running for public office so I have no “base” to appeal to. But I can at least try to keep the tone of the debates I engage in civil and pleasant.

AM: Do you consider the essays on these topics literary essays?

DJK:Most of the essays in Loose Sallies are not about so-called “literary” topics. True, one is about the literary style of Supreme Court opinions, and two discuss Justice Holmes’s opinion-writing style. But they are exceptions. So I do not think the essays for the most part are “literary” in that narrow sense. Nor do I think they are “literary” by way of being precious or mannered. I genuinely hope, however, that they are “literary” in the sense of being clear, crisp, well-written statements on a variety of topics of interest to all Americans today.

AM: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Loose Sallies has been enjoyable for me. I keep it on my desk in the office so that, when I need a ten-minute break, I can open it and read an essay. I slowly made my way through the entire book in this manner: a break here, a break there, and then, one day, I was finished. I really appreciate all that you have done not just for the law, but for arts and literature. It’s nice to know there are lawyers out there like you.

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