Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pigeonholed Critics

I'm warming up for a paper that's a comparative analysis of two essays of criticism. We were supposed to pick two essays that deploy one of the critical methods we read examples of in class, and the essays were supposed to be on something besides the texts we read for the class. To make things more complicated for myself, I have chosen two essays that employ the methods of, but don't fit the exact definition of "feminist criticism" and "psychoanalytic criticism."

I decided to go this route in part because I've been wanting to get Virginia Woolf's criticism into a paper (besides the big one I've been working on for a year). But my other motivating factor for choosing these essays is that I want to talk about how most of what you read on any text does not actually fit into a strict definition of one type of criticism or another. Critics have their theoretical leanings, and they approach the text informed by some framework, but they do not necessarily write shining examples that can be labeled "How to be a Marxist" or something.

The essays I'm using for this paper both come from Norton Critical Editions. I looked back through forty years of different NCEs, and found that this inclusion of essays on everything from biography, to textual analysis (looking at the physical text and how it has appeared in different forms to make cases for its meaning), to our familiar friends and foes like feminism and cultural criticism, is typical of Norton. They also include reviews and letters from the author's contemporaries and essays on the greatness of the author's whole catalog. Finally, they include essays from many different time periods. You can find, as I said, the author's contemporaries, plus folks writing at the beginning of anything like modern criticism in the late nineteenth century (for older works), folks reflecting some impact of formalism of the early twentieth century, folks caught up in the tensions and emerging theories of the fifties and sixties, and of course folks espousing every brand of post-structuralist fun you can think of. Only none of them identify themselves with a signpost or a secret handshake or anything like that.

For this class (a survey course in literary criticism) we used Bedford/St Marten's editions of Hamlet, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and The House of Mirth. As we only read these three longer works plus Cleanth Brooks' The Well Wrought Urn, you can tell we actually spent a good deal of time on the criticism of each work, for an undergraduate course anyway. These books seem to be specifically designed for the not-so-advanced student, because they all include essays on "What is Decon" "What is Feminist Criticism" etc. followed by an essay about the text written by a card carrying, easily identifiable Deconstructionist or Feminist or whatever have you. While some of these essays overlap -- several of the Mirth essays deal in economy because the novel lends itself to it -- they would still be identifiable without the essay labeling system because of their adherence to one central methodology and even their mention of other critics by the label ("other feminist critics have said...").

This was all very convenient and helpful for learning more about these types of criticism. Personally, I didn't need to learn what they are (and I admittedly did not read all the essays that introduced each method), but I benefited by seeing how the different deployments yielded different results. For me, finding the parts of the texts from which you can cast out a theory seems like it would be the hardest part. In fact, one of the options for this paper was to do our own reading in one of these traditions, but I didn't think I could meet the page requirement and I didn't know where to begin. Where do they get some of these zany ideas? They bring a way of looking at texts with them, of course, But it must take many months or years of looking at texts in just that way to be able to extract this stuff from something as vast as a novel. You need to learn what kind of net to cast before you go fishing for the Marx eels or Decon dolphins.

Besides, my comparative analysis mode is already in full swing this semester and I'd like to hone it. My Hamlet paper (discussed below er...above?) received an "A minus." I thought I had produced a gem! It is precisely the interwoven conceptual pairs that multiply into foursomes that keep dodging my ability to see all sides of the concepts I'm trying to explain. So I present these great ideas and I don't follow through or elaborate enough (even though I've already filled the 8 to 10 pp without cheating). I think they expect me to write 20 page papers because that's the "level" and length of paper that the ideas I have about this stuff would require. That's very flattering and all, even with the disappointment dripping from the comments, but I've got a workload like the rest of the kiddies, and I'm too old for those three-hour-sleep-nights of yore.

Ok, enough about me -- back to the books.

I am concerned that these typecast critics will give students the impression that these methods can only be applied rigidly and that anything outside of a rigid application is just some kind of inexplicable, dangerously (or sloppily) original criticism. I have these worries about the way I think about critics, but I am falling victim to it anyway. I had a lot of trouble selecting the essays I'm using for this paper.

The first essay I chose is Virginia Woolf on Thomas Hardy, specifically the parts about Tess of the d'Urbervilles since I have to focus on one text for each critic. Virginia Woolf is arguably an early feminist, but she predated the post-structural, political (or even linguistic) definition of feminist criticism. She brings up practical problems about the portrayal of women in literature and about how women write or are made to write.

The second essay I chose is by Stephen Orgel (from one of the Universities of California) and it's titled "Prospero's Wife." He takes an inventory of previous psychoanalytic readings of The Tempest and weaves them in with his own ideas about the what he finds to be the conspicuous absense of Prospero's wife in the tale. So this is a psychoanalytic essay in a way, but it has a healthy "meta" function to it. Usually I can't stand this type of criticism because it is so ridiculously into Freud and Lacan. I think the critics have their own repressed or poorly directed obsession with these psychology figures and make hot conceptual love to the old guys by reifying their outdated (though partially useful) theories.

Sorry if I used "reification" wrong (and in a sentence with love-making metaphors). I have never had the chance to slip it in anywhere. If I start trying maybe I'll get the hang of it. There's so many definitions of "reification" depending on what system you're operating within, that I could just blame any misuse of it on that "Oh, you mean that kind of reification. Well, I mean the other kind." Faux pas skirted!

Anyhow, Orgel takes a friendly but objective look at these past attempts at psychoanalytic work on The Tempest, and he adds his own informed but non-crazy interpretations.

Both Woolf and Orgel show how a critic can bring a framework to a text, extract and present meaning from it using their framework, but without having to give over to a strict method that may occlude many interesting and important features of the text.

I think I've mentioned this before, but I like to call this kind of criticism organic. It grows up inside the reader/critic and though it is effected by its environment (being exposed to feminists, deconstructors, etc.) it retains a kind of core which does not have its locus in the method, but in the critic and his or her real, deep appreciation of literature. Another way to describe it would be "holistic" criticism. Not that it addresses every angle, but that it applies its main method and remains informed by the spirit of the critic, of the age, of language, of the author, etc.

A straight feminist (haha) or a straight psycho critic (haHA!) gives the text the radiation treatments and doesn't take any personal responsibilty for it. It ignores the text's medical history, it's parental information, it's spirituality as it zaps the hell out of it with its tools and technology (new theories). One of the best and most holistic decon essays I've read (Norris on Mirth) created the effect that the critic had merely untied a bow on top of the text and let the meaning cascade out of it, with a few massages and adjustments here and there. So often reading a decon essay is reminiscent of watching a surgeon remove tidbits of meaning from the most unlikely hollows, using the most frightening tools! It was nice to avoid the horror show with Norris' very feminine administration of the holistic version of Derrida's decon pharmacia.

Now for my date with Woolf and Orgel. I think we're having lots of coffee and maybe some pie if we get any work done.

UPDATE: Cinco de Mayo, took the lit crit exam, picked up my paper (described here). I got an A with no minus next to it! A snippet of of praise, plus the note that always says something like "...but, you know, you only scratched the surface." Of course that's all that happens in ten pages. But I think this one might be a candidate for revision and expansion.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.