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Posts Tagged ‘Nietzsche’

Redeeming the Debauched Falstaff

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, British Literature, Creativity, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Shakespeare, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The American Conservative. 

In The Daemon Knows, published in 2015, the heroic, boundless Harold Bloom claimed to have one more book left in him. If his contract with Simon & Schuster is any indication, he has more work than that to complete. The effusive 86-year-old has agreed to produce a sequence of five books on Shakespearean personalities, presumably those with whom he’s most enamored.

The first, recently released, is Falstaff: Give Me Life, which has been called an “extended essay” but reads more like 21 ponderous essay-fragments, as though Bloom has compiled his notes and reflections over the years.

The result is a solemn, exhilarating meditation on Sir John Falstaff, the cheerful, slovenly, degenerate knight whose unwavering and ultimately self-destructive loyalty to Henry of Monmouth, or Prince Hal, his companion in William Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy (“the Henriad”), redeems his otherwise debauched character.

Except Bloom doesn’t see the punning, name-calling Falstaff that way. He exalts this portly, subversive figure as the charming master of deception and rogue scheming, and more importantly as a courageous vitalist “unmatched in all of Western imaginative literature.” Bloom’s astounding reverence for this clever, corrupting, calculating, mischievous Bacchanalian—whose life-affirming zest is as delightful as it is disconcerting—reveals he’s capable of the same kind of strategic indulgence that animates his transgressive subject.

His opening lines establish an affectionate, worshipful tone: “I fell in love with Sir John Falstaff when I was a boy of twelve, almost seventy-five years ago. A rather plump and melancholy youth, I turned to him out of need, because I was lonely. Finding myself in him liberated me from a debilitating self-consciousness.”

This isn’t academic prose. Bloom doesn’t write scholarship in the sense in which English professors, who chase tenure and peer approval, understand that term. Could you imagine a graduate student in literature showing up at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention and pronouncing from behind a podium that “Falstaff wants us to love him”? Or that Falstaff “is the mortal god of our vitalism and of our capacity for joyous play of every kind”? That would end a career before it began.

To hold Bloom to professional academic standards is fundamentally to misunderstand the man. His criticism is art unto itself; it’s genre-defying literature: part memoir, part fiction, part psychoanalysis. He’s a character of his own creation, as imaginary as Falstaff, and yet real and alive. In his psyche, the mysteries of which he plumbs with Freudian apprehension, Falstaff, too, is alive—and more than that, he’s a deified “embassy of life.” Bloom calls him the “greatest wit in literature,” whose vices “are perfectly open and cheerfully self-acknowledged.”

Immediately objections spring to mind: Didn’t Falstaff take bribes from competent soldiers who wished to avoid battle, thereby dooming his innocent, rag-tag band of unready troops? Doesn’t this bawdy gambler fake his own death to avoid injury and then seek credit for Hal’s slaying of Hotspur? Isn’t he a compulsive liar and self-serving fabricator? Rather than earn his keep, doesn’t he mooch off borrowed and stolen money while fraternizing with lowly criminals in disreputable taverns? Doesn’t he find stealing entertaining? Doesn’t he fail miserably in his attempt to seduce married women? Doesn’t he thrive in the seedy underbelly of impolite society?

No matter. The venerating and visionary Bloom sees Falstaff’s flaws as part of his appeal. Falstaff, prefiguring Nietzsche and Sartre, stands outside ethical jurisdiction as the lovable übermensch, the seductive sum of his own deliberate actions and unbridled agency in a world without God. Falstaffianism can be reduced to an abrupt imperative: “do not moralize.” These are Bloom’s italics, emphasizing, perhaps, the enthusiasm with which Falstaff rebuffs normative codes and basic standards of decency, vivaciously embracing the self—the subjective, knowing, self-aware “I” that wills a future into being—with laughter and existential rapture.

Kate Havard argues in Commentary that “Bloom must actually reckon with the sorts of things Falstaff does that would seem monstrous in real life.” I’m not sure about this mandate. Everyone is susceptible to wickedness. We’re fallible. Yet the magnitude of our evil acts is proportionate only to our capacity and will for achieving them. Greater power over others has the potential to increase the enormity of our chosen wrongs. Two hearts, equally blameworthy, can enact varying degrees of harm. With our meanness and malevolence, depravity and double-dealing, we’re all like Falstaff at some instant, even if we “cannot say that we are Falstaff’’ (my italics this time) because Falstaff cannot be universal—he’s too shrewd, raucous, and riotously convivial to be an archetype.

That we haven’t occasioned rank violence or mass damage is only evidence of our own powerlessness to do so in our moment of darkness. Our minds have contemplated horrors that our bodies never brought to bear. Knowing this, one begins to appreciate Bloom’s melancholy voice in such an adoring account. “Falstaff is no everyman,” he intones, “[b]ut all of us, whatever our age or gender, participate in him.” This truth, if it is one, doesn’t excuse Falstaff; rather it makes his decisions disturbingly recognizable.

Falstaff stands for absolute freedom, challenging dogmatic pieties even as he uses them to his advantage. He signals human choice and authenticity, but he’s elusive and multifaceted. “There is no single Falstaff,” Bloom submits. “In my youth and middle years I thought I knew Falstaff. That Falstaff has vanished from me. The better I know Sir John the less I know him. He has become one of the lost vehemences my midnights hold.”

This tragicomic Falstaff is so complex and ambiguous that he undermines expectations, avoids patterned behavior, and escapes simple explanation. “Falstaff is as bewildering as Hamlet, as infinitely varied as Cleopatra,” says Bloom. “He can be apprehended but never fully comprehended. There is no end to Falstaff. His matrix is freedom but he dies for love.”

Falstaff is a more cunning and charismatic version of Chaucer’s drunkenly crass miller, whose hilarious tale of casual adultery lacks the stark intentionality that makes Falstaff so treacherously in control. He’s like a flatulent Santa Claus, without the meekness or mildness of Christian self-denial. He is, in a word, exuberant, and as Bloom opines, “Exuberance in itself is a shadowy virtue and can be dangerous to the self and to others, but in Falstaff it generates more life.”

Bloom commendably acknowledges the charges leveled against him: “I am weary of being accused of sentimentalizing Falstaff.” He says he’s “been chided for sentimentality when I observe Falstaff betrays and harms no one,” and he pleads with us to enjoy Shakespeare’s rendering of the Fat Knight, adding, “Do not moralize.” The point is not to elicit agreement but to move you emotionally, although his expressive mode is less sentimental than it is spiritual or mystical. He has a jovial appetite for living, thinking, and loving that resembles Falstaff’s in its sheer capaciousness—hence his aside that he’s a “lifelong Falstaffian.”

The Book of Genesis asserts that God made man in his image. One wonders whether Bloom’s ecstatic Bardolatry—he once called Shakespeare “a mortal god”—leads to a different but related conclusion: that Shakespeare, as God, created Bloom in Falstaff’s image. Although age has thinned his once corpulent physique, Bloom is, at times, the boastful embodiment of the bombastic, iconoclastic genius (Sir John) whose chief weakness is his fondness and devotion. At other times, he’s a prophetic seer haunted by the daemon, devoid of merry wit, laughter, or redemptive charm and enthused by ineffable forces to cry out with beautiful despair and angst. His gusto seems ever-present, as does his displayed interiority.

Yet there is no single Bloom. You may think you know him, but then he vanishes as a lost vehemence.

“He has never abandoned me for three-quarters of a century,” Bloom muses of Falstaff, “and I trust will be with me until the end. The true and perfect image of life abides with him: robustly, unforgettably, forever. He exposes what is counterfeit in me and in all others.” Perhaps that’s why Falstaff is so threatening: he lays bare that manipulative, liberated part of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge or even fathom, that’s alienated and estranged from other people, accessible only to the “I myself”—the only thing we know that we know.

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The Unmeaning of Uneaning

In Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Books, Humanities, Science, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 19, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Chronicles. 

A computer was the victor on a popular television game show, easily defeating its human competitors; an arms race is under way involving militarized robots that can take the battlefield in the place of inferior humans; in Japan, artificial-intelligence software has outperformed college applicants on a standardized college-entrance examination.

Our machines are becoming a part of us, one of us.  Manufactured retinas have restored sight to the blind; the maimed and the crippled have regained their limbs and appendages in the form of robotic prosthetics; brain implants have alleviated problems associated with Parkinson’s disease; a company called EmoShape manufactures robots that display human emotions, including anger and fear and sadness.

But where there is human flesh, even a simulacrum of human flesh, there is the potential for eros.  The 2013 film Her explored the possibility that humans will attempt romantic congress with computer operating systems, reducing love to an algorithm and human sex acts to masturbatory exchanges with disembodied, computerized voices.

We have created our own reproductive anatomy—lab-engineered penises and vaginas—that soon will be tested on men and women with congenital defects.  Men may now visit virtual-reality brothels.  A baby recently was born out of a transplanted womb.

We are building more robots and killing more human fetuses than ever before.  Luminaries like Stephen Hawking warn of the dangers of artificial intelligence; futurists, on the other hand, celebrate the rise of cyborgs and the arrival of transhumanism and even posthumanism.  Synthetic biologists are learning, they claim, to direct natural selection through gene therapy and cell manipulation.  Silicon Valley’s brightest have announced that they are seeking “cures” for human aging.

In light of all this, the question of the meaning of human existence seems more urgent than ever before.

Edward O. Wilson purports to answer this question in The Meaning of Human Existence, his 30th book.  Wilson is one of the world’s most renowned scientists.  He is by all accounts a gentleman who enunciates his words in a soft, Southern drawl.  Raised in Alabama, blind in one eye, he developed a boyhood fascination with insects that eventually led him to Harvard, where he took his Ph.D. in biology.  He earned his reputation by studying ants and by writing popular books that are accessible to laymen.  On Human Nature, his fourth book, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1979.  He has, despite his atheism, drawn praise from conservative intellectuals.  In 1989, for instance, The Rockford Institute, which publishes this magazine, gave him the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters.

As titles go, Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is bold if not presumptuous.  Works that set out to establish definitively the “meaning” of human life promise more than they can deliver.  First, there is the problem of meaning itself.  Thus, Wilson begins with a short chapter titled “The Meaning of Meaning,” which, not surprisingly, raises more questions than it answers.  The meaning of meaning, according to Wilson, resides in the blurry overlap between two worldviews: the theological and religious worldview that locates meaning in the design and intention of an omnipotent creator, and the scientific worldview that locates meaning in the random accidents of history and in the nondesigned, adaptive, spontaneously ordered laws of nature.  These worldviews are tenuously linked, Wilson suggests, in their treatment of human free will and intentionality.

Wilson claims, for example, that intelligent organisms evolve associatively to combine their intents and purposes for their mutual benefit; their behavior grows more alike over time as together they respond to environmental imperatives and learn to commiserate and to cooperate as a social unit.  What was once merely the mechanical firing of brain activity in individual persons has become a behavioral trait among groups of humans.  Wilson provides an arthropodic example:

A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly.  That is the meaning of the web.  The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web.  Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense.  But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.

Meaning itself is not identified in this illustration: Wilson does not tell us what it is, only where we might find it.  It’s up to us to do the searching.

Despite his prefatory lip service to theology and religion, Wilson adopts a materialist worldview, which seems, the more he describes it, less and less compatible with the theological and religious worldview, until at last there is no overlap at all.  Wilson tells us that there “is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life.  Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance.”  He assures us that the “eternal conflict” between groups of people “is not God’s test of humanity” or “a machination of Satan.”  “It is,” he says, “just the way things worked out.”

Wilson is convinced that humans are for the first time in their history (“not just the six millennia of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millennia”) leaving behind the process that, he claims, produced us—namely, natural selection—and entering into a new age of choice in which we have available to us a genetic “shopping list” to “direct our own evolution.”  He proposes that we understand our biological and evolutionary past in order wisely to shape our future.

One would think that a grounding in history or tradition would aid in satisfying this ambition, but Wilson makes clear that he is rejecting this kind of history and promoting a secular and scientific history that is not only stripped of providence, angelic intercession, heavenly statutes, and divine intervention but also antecedent to all written records.  “Humanity,” he avers to this end,

arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution.  We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own.  Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.

Tellingly, Wilson does not define what it means to “save” or what we need to be saved by or from if there is no God, Hell, sin, Satan, or transcendental moral order to the universe.  He is apparently content in his belief that “[t]here will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above.”  “We have,” he adds, “only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.”

To seek answers to the meaning of human existence from this secular perspective in which man isn’t begotten by Adam but descended from Homo habilis and improved from organism to super organism, Wilson could have turned to the ideas of Emerson or Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell or Einstein or Ayn Rand, philosophers enthralled by the awesome powers of the human mind and dismissive of the doctrinal claims of religion in general and of traditional Christianity in particular—but he doesn’t.  Nor, thank goodness, does he turn to the close-minded, militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins (who is mentioned in the book) and Sam Harris.  He instead turns to “the biological evolution of a species and the circumstances that led to its prehistory,” professing that both our altruism and our instinctive, selfish urge to cooperate are explainable by science, which, therefore, is necessarily antecedent to, although participatory with, the humanities.  Wilson’s problem with the humanities seems to be that they retain the residue of theology, which was once the queen of the liberal arts.

Because in Wilson’s view human creativity and collaboration are the inevitable products of the impersonal forces of raw nature, he considers the “task of understanding humanity” to be “too important and too daunting to leave to the humanities.”  He maintains that “the humanities have not achieved nor will they ever achieve a full understanding of the meaning of our species’ existence” if they do not account for the “biological origins of human nature.”  He reasons that, since human nature has biological origins, and since creativity arises through competition and natural selection, we ought to embrace the ideals of the Enlightenment in which the humanities and the sciences were unified enterprises rather than distinct fields of operation.

Wilson blames Romanticism for the divorce of the humanities from science; rather than irreconcilable differences, he sees in this former marriage a powerful synergy that has since grown weak as experts in their respective fields have become hyperspecialized, the division of their labor increasingly alienated from the Big Picture.  The fact of the matter, he submits, is that the “explosive growth of scientific knowledge” has “everything” to do with the humanities, because “[s]cience and technology reveal with increasing precision the place of humanity, here on Earth and beyond in the cosmos as a whole.”

The meaning of human existence according to Wilson is found not in what we have created but in what has created us: a self-perpetuating, unthinking process of biological production shaped by genetic variety and the instinct for survival, not by a benevolent Creator.  The dust jacket informs us that this is Wilson’s “most philosophical work to date.”  But what we have here is a meandering series of essays that display with exceptional style an accretive learning arrayed from scientific theory.  And we also have a man, however gentle and unassuming, making grandiose claims based on mere supposition—not a call to arms but a triumphalist celebration that the war is already over.  Science has won; religion has lost.  Any seeming contradiction between religion and science must, he insists, be resolved in favor of the latter; any potential overlap between the two fields must, he reiterates, be dismissed.  He thinks that religion hinders knowledge, holds us back, and distracts us from real truths by enslaving us to fancy and superstition.  And he’s wrong.

His secular perspective isn’t unique, and it isn’t philosophical, either—at least not without some analytical backing or historical context.  Wilson supplies neither; he submits as fact what is open to interpretation.  When Wilson informs us that there is no God, as if that “reality” were as established as the laws of gravity, he undermines his credibility and throws philosophy out the window.  No need for proofs, second guesses, theological nuances, or even doubt.  His scientific faith in the unprovable—although politely conveyed—is on equal footing with religious faith in the unprovable.  Wilson doesn’t reject faith; he embraces it.  His faith is evident in his speculations that are unsupported by hard data—for example, that “[b]eyond the solar system there is life of some kind” (he admits that he lacks “[d]irect evidence” for this proposition but suggests that the evidence “may come soon, perhaps within a decade or two”), or that “life may have originated somewhere with molecular elements different from those in DNA and energy sources used by organisms on Earth.”  These claims aren’t provable, yet he believes them.  This is faith in the most rudimentary sense.

One would think Wilson would be more cautious after relying for so many years on “kin selection and its extensive inclusive fitness,” only to learn that “inclusive fitness was not just wrong, but fundamentally wrong.”  Wilson nevertheless evinces not even a modicum of doubt regarding the possibility of a Creator.  He seems blithely unconcerned that, having been wrong about one major premise, he might be wrong about another.  What standing should we assign to someone who faces Pascal’s wager and refuses even to hedge a bet in his own favor?  He is either heroically bold or foolishly proud.

His faith is more rudimentary than that he decries in theism, which recognizes an infinite, sovereign God, eternal and unchanging, Who permeates and controls everything and from Whom all material substance derives.  Wilson’s faith comes across as plain hope about what we’ll learn if the sciences can accomplish this or that.  His diversionary hypothetical speculations about extraterrestrial visitors and about how the humanities (to him, “the natural history of culture”) rather than the sciences would help us explain ourselves to these saucer-flying aliens might seem as radical or absurd to Christians as the doctrine of the Trinity or the nature of the Holy Spirit might seem to an atheist like him.  When Wilson states that the “interval between habitable and inhabited may seem like an eternity to the human mind, but it is scarcely a night and a day in the nearly 14-billion-year history of the Milky Way galaxy as a whole,” he doesn’t seem to realize there’s a scriptural equivalent to this dictum: that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Wilson’s hope about the knowledge-creating possibilities enabled by science sometimes collapses into optimistic but unprovable conclusions about what is real or actual; the distinction between what might be known and what is known remains, too often in his book, fuzzy.  He asserts without qualification that,

[i]n time, likely no more than several decades, we will be able to explain the dark matter of the Universe, the origin of life on Earth, and the physical basis of human consciousness during changes of mood and thought.  The invisible is seen, the vanishingly small weighed.

This is pep-rally speak for scientists, and one has to admit, whether he is an atheist or a theist, that such talk is exhilarating.  Who doesn’t want more answers to these vexing elements of our phenomenal existence?  But when the stakes are so high, and the need for resolution and purpose so urgent, should we believe without hesitation a scientist who refuses to doubt his own suppositions, who goes far beyond rejecting the Genesis account of Creation to deny the possibility of any sort of creator altogether?

By the end of Wilson’s argument, readers are left wondering what, exactly, the title of his book refers to.  Wilson can teach us interesting facts—that some ant species enslave other ant species, for instance, or that the warrior ants are really a bunch of old ladies—but he can’t tell us the meaning of human existence because, in his paradigm, there can’t be any beyond the mechanical, chance desire to be altruistic in order to preserve and protect our “nests.”  Therefore, he reduces the meaning of human existence to this:

[I]t is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.

Our meaning, then, is a sequence of biological accidents aided or offset by our own deliberate choices—and nothing else, nothing at all, according to Wilson.

The mark of a good scientist is curiosity and imagination; when those cease, so do reliable answers to tough questions.  Wilson foregoes any discussion of aseity and fails or refuses to account for how the cosmos could arise out of nothing.  Certainly, there’s the Big Bang, but what caused that?  And what caused the things that caused that?  And why couldn’t there be a God Who created us to evolve?  The fact that this is but a short book is no excuse: If you’re predicating the meaning of human existence on the nonexistence of God, you must at least address or acknowledge the weaknesses of your argument.

Wilson wants to explicate the complex niceties of biology and then, having gained our attention, demands that we take him at his word that God is irrelevant to the meaning of our astounding, sometimes joyous, sometimes agonizing, and always confusing presence on this one small planet in this apparently enormous cosmos.  Follow him at your own risk.

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.

Cornel West’s Genealogical Approach

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Philosophy on February 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

“My genealogical approach subscribes to a conception of power that is neither simply based on individual subjects—e.g., heroes or great personages as in traditional historiography—nor on collective subjects—e.g., groups, elites, or classes as in revisionist and vulgar Marxist historiography.  Therefore, I do not believe that the emergence of the idea of white supremacy in the modern West can be fully accounted for in terms of the psychological needs of white individuals and groups or the political and economic interests of a ruling class.” 

                             —Cornel West, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism”

Cornel West expressly borrows from Nietzsche and Foucault when he employs the methodology of genealogy.  Genealogy documents or tracks the development of ideas and their relation to human organization.  Genealogy traces knowledge to its systemic formations across networks of discourse.  Genealogy does not recover origins because origins are not recoverable.  Instead of recovering origins, or attempting to recover origins, genealogy describes the emergence and development of social structures and attitudes based on certain conditions for knowledge construction.  Genealogy is not about using history to legislate to the present or to validate contemporary attitudes and viewpoints.  It is about analyzing ways that attitudes and viewpoints arise and function.  It is about how systems of belief inscribe and imprint themselves on the human body, and how discourse bears a direct relation to individuals and their regulation by society.  Genealogy is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.  Rejecting a telos, it seeks to understand the function and not the merits of discourse formation.

West’s genealogy focuses on the emergence of white supremacy in Western discourse.  Because genealogy is not teleological, West rejects Marxism and its variants as starting-points for explaining “the complex configuration of metaphors, notions, categories, and norms which produces and promotes [objects] of discourse.”  The tendency of Marxism toward essentialism, class dualism, human reductionism, and grand narratives simply will not do for West, who indicts “[t]raditional, revisionist, and vulgar Marxist types of historiography” for focusing “primarily on powers within nondiscursive structures” (such as powers of “kings, presidents, elites, or classes”) and for reducing the “powers within discursive structures to mere means for achieving the intentions, aims, needs, interests, and objectives of subjects in nondiscursive structures.”  In short, West indicts Marxism and its variants for simplifying social and cultural phenomena that are highly complex.

To some extent, moreover, Marxism diminishes the importance of language and rhetoric to the actions of individuals, whose motivations are contingent upon the time or circumstance in which they were produced.  Although humans are acting agents with the capacity to follow their will, they are also limited by the vocabularies and knowledge available to them.  This conception of limitation on human agency does not correspond with the Marxist conception of limitation on human agency.  The Marxist conception of limitation on human agency has to do with the reduction of individual action to some collectivist cause or linear narrative determined by class.  Rather than coming into being because groups of people desired power and suppressed or marginalized their class competition, the discourse of white supremacy emerged because of several historical and discursive accidents.  Even those eighteenth and nineteenth century writers who were antislavery unwittingly contributed to and perpetuated the discourse of white supremacy by classifying human bodies in keeping with scientific schema.  For these reasons, among others, West suggests that Marxism and its variants wrongly deny “the relative autonomy of the powers in discursive structures” and hence reduce “the complexity of cultural phenomena.”

Book Note: Poetic Justice and Legal Fictions, by Jonathan Kertzer

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Writing on September 28, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following excerpt first appeared as part of the Routledge Annotated Bibliography of English Studies series.

This book is a compilation of literary essays that at first blush seem to have no through line save for an attention to law in the abstract.  Nevertheless, each chapter is connected by the theme of justice and the relation of language to both law and literature.

Á la Flaubert, the book treats justice as the supreme literary value, and it distinguishes between the justice of literature and the literariness of justice.  Language has its own jurisdiction and can be used judiciously, and the author seems to believe that signifiers can represent the phenomenal world in ways that have a practical bearing in law.  By the same token, language itself is regulated by laws even as it enacts laws.  The author discusses literary justice as a poetic expression of the material world.

The phrase “poetic justice” refers to the possibility that poetry might offer something better than truth in order to bring about justice; the truly poetic is just.  Genre and jurisdiction resemble one another in their conceptual claims to authority or law.

Beginning with judicial discourse in comedies, more specifically with the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the book moves through Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Disgrace, Huckleberry Finn, The African Queen, Billy Budd, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Anil’s Ghost, and other works.  The book therefore does not limit itself to discussion of a particular historical period, a fixed geography, or a specific genre.  Rather, it weaves together a wide range of novelists, theorists, and historical figures, many of whom are unlikely to be categorized together were it not for their interests (some longstanding, some fleeting) in law.

What allows the book to read as a unified whole is its analysis at the intersections of justice, law, and literary forms.

Foucault’s Nietzschean Genealogy

In Art, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Western Philosophy, Writing on September 17, 2011 at 10:02 am

Allen Mendenhall

“Genealogy […] requires patience and knowledge of details, and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material.  Its ‘cyclopean monuments’ are constructed from ‘discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method’; they cannot be the product of ‘large and well-meaning errors.’  In short, genealogy demands relentless erudition.  Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies.  It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.’”

                                      —Michel Foucault, from “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”

This brief passage by Foucault has three references to Nietzsche.  The essay from which the passage is drawn demonstrates Foucault’s immense debt to Nietzsche, citing as it does no other thinker but Nietzsche (save for a fleeting reference to Paul Ree, whose term “Ursprung,” or “origin,” Nietzsche adopts).  Of all Nietzsche’s ideas and practices, genealogy is the one that Foucault cultivates most impressively.  Genealogy is a methodology by and with which one documents or tracks the development of ideas and their relation to human organization.  In other words, genealogy traces knowledge to its systemic formations across various networks of discourse.  That is why genealogy “requires patience” and “depends on a vast accumulation of source material.”  It is a process, and processes take time to work out. 

Genealogy does not recover origins because origins are not recoverable.  Origins are fluid, not fixed; they are not, strictly speaking, origins at all—if, that is, “origins” is taken to mean single, absolute causes or definite, immutable sources.  Rather, for Foucault, “origins” is a term of convenience—perhaps strategically essentialized—referring to sets of beliefs and activities that constitute discursive structures mobilized by numerous truth claims.  That is why Foucault can employ the term “origins” in one sentence and then, in a subsequent sentence, seemingly reverse course by calling origins “chimeras.”  The point is not to define or explain origins; the point is to discredit the idea of origins as self-evident and immanently knowable. 

Origins themselves are inaccessible; the emergence and development of structures based on ideas, however, are not only accessible, but also edifying.  Foucault’s genealogy, therefore, seeks to collect data about numerous truth claims and then to explain how these data form and shape culture.  As Foucault says of genealogy, “It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.’”  Note the quotation marks around “origins.”  Those marks suggest an intent to divest that term of its expressive purchase.  Origins are knowable only as points of loss or complication, only as intricate and multifaceted constructs that, when examined closely, signify multiple and heterogeneous phenomena and that thus enable and sustain further inquiry.     Read the rest of this entry »

The Problem with Legal Education; or, Another Piece About the Aimlessness, Pointlessness, and Groundlessness of Law School

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Teaching, Writing on July 27, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The latest issue of Academic Questions (Summer 2011: Vol. 24, No. 2) devotes most of its content to legal education.  Published by the National Association of Scholars, Academic Questions often features theme issues and invites scholars from across the disciplines to comment on particular concerns about the professoriate.  (Full disclosure: I am a member of the NAS.)  Carol Iannone, editor at large, titles her introduction to the issue “Law School and Other Tyrannies,” and writes that “[w]hat is happening in the law schools has everything to do with the damage and depredation that we see in the legal system at large.”  She adds that the contributors to this issue “may not agree on all particulars, but they tell us that all is not well, that law school education is outrageously expensive, heavily politicized, and utterly saturated with ‘diversity’ mania.”  What’s more, Iannone submits, law school “fails to provide any grounding in sound legal doctrine, or any moral or ethical basis from which to understand principles of law in debate today.”  These are strong words.  But are they accurate?  I would say yes and no.

Law school education is too expensive, but its costs seem to have risen alongside the costs of university education in general.  Whether any university or postgraduate education should cost what it costs today is another matter altogether.

There is little doubt that law schools are “heavily politicized,” as even a cursory glance at the articles in “specialized” law journals would suggest.  These journals address anything from gender and race to transnational law and human rights.

But how can law be taught without politicizing?  Unlike literature, which does not always immediately implicate politics, law bears a direct relation to politics, or at least to political choices.  The problem is not the political topics of legal scholarship and pedagogy so much as it is the lack of sophistication with which these topics are addressed.  The problem is that many law professors lack a broad historical perspective and are unable to contextualize their interests within the wider university curriculum or against the subtle trends of intellectual history.

In law journals devoted to gender and feminism, or law journals considered left-wing, you will rarely find articles written by individuals with the intelligence or learning of Judith Butler, Camille Paglia, or Eve Sedgwick.  Say what you will about them, these figures are well-read and historically informed.  Their writings and theories go far beyond infantile movement politics and everyday partisan advocacy.    Read the rest of this entry »

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