Monday, November 19, 2012

The Critical Romance


While searching for a terrible narrative theory book at the university library, I couldn't help but let my eyes run over the varied surfaces of the lit crit books in those densely packed stacks.  Clothbounds, shiny paperbacks, leather volumes, all shapes, sizes, and textures of criticism. Some of it -- most of it -- is certainly either useless to my particular interests, or just plain bad.  But everyone once in a while a title catches my eye. This time it was The Critical Romance.

I knew it would be in line with my interests, but I thought it would be bad. I even took a picture with it (along with some horrible thing entitled The Fate of Meaning) looking very serious, and sent it to a friend, just because the books seemed so ridiculous.  (I had seen one called Reading with Feeling that needed its portrait done too, but when I went back to find it someone had actually checked it out! Ugh.)

After our photo session I left the books on the re-shelf shelf.  And before I got out of the building I went running back.  I must have The Critical Romance!

Finding this book was excellent timing.  My last post on my "Critical Mission" briefly outlined my goals, and some bits and pieces of a mission statement, for the nascent journal I'll soon be working on.  This book is full of the right kind of stuff to get us going, and keep us inspired.

What is The Critical Romance? It's getting passionate about literature again.  And passionate about writing on it.  That is, passionate about criticism itself.

"Aren't we critics alienated from criticism by the lack of a language, a technique or attitude of intimacy?" asks the author, Jean-Pierre Mileur.  This intimacy is precisely what we are trying to bring back and revel in with our journal!  The language of intimacy is the language of a persona and a voice behind the writing. The attitude of intimacy is the critic's particular fervor for a subject. The attitude is writing, as Mileur puts it, "determined by needs and satisfactions distinctive to him as a person."  Fucking beautiful!  A critic should only write on what he is intimate with (intimate, not necessarily most knowledgeable), and he should write on it in a way that satisfies him.

The one part of that great interrogative quoted above that I can't parse is the technique of intimacy.  Mileur discusses in the next paragraph how philosophical and discipline-approved approaches (definitely techniques) rarely yield a satisfying critique of the most interesting bits of literature.  It's as if the technique needs to be transcended in favor of a feeling out of the literature and the writing.  The critic must work on his "night moves," and not get them out of a book like a high school senior in one of the five million '80s movies about losing your virginity.

My sexual metaphors are my own, and they come up often when I talk writing.  It's partly the reproductive nature of the act of writing, but much of it has to do with this intimacy that Mileur talks about, and sometimes with men's and women's gendered expressions of themselves onto the page.

 I bring up metaphor by way of transitioning to the other thing that struck me about this book.  Mileur uses (and purposefully deviates from) a metaphor fashioned by Hemingway: writing is architecture.  Hemingway is the shit, but I don't dig his metaphor.  He is not the first to use metaphors of buildings to describe writing, and Virginia Woolf stands out as one who compares men's writing in particular to architecture (empty houses).  In her day, I think that metaphor was apt.  But since her time, writing is anything but formulaic as laying a foundation, putting up a frame, filling in the materials, and embellishing the edifice.  Hemingway certainly doesn't work that way!  Nor does Virginia (yes, we're on a first name basis).  Nor does the Romantic Critic, or any passionate writer.

In my essay on Virginia Woolf from a few years back, I had run with her metaphor of architecture to describe men's writing, and went wild with an extended conceit about men building cathedrals with their words, while women grow trees.*  This is where the surprising deja vu happened with The Critical Romance.  Mileur acknowledges that the architecture model works for modern, sterile criticism, and calls these stark articles and books sky-scrapers, "clean-edged and soaring," rising to  a "privileged perspective, monumentalizing high-mindedness, and intellectual force." Hyyeahhh!  Just look at it!

*(And let me be clear that I was only using the metaphors of architecture v. nature as gender specific in the Woolf essay, not so much here. It is true that there is a masculine sort of association with the disciplined, formulaic high-minded writing that Mileur is talking about -- it's not that men write it (women are just as awful at criticism these days) necessarily, but that it displays traditionally masculine values and attitudes, while the rhetoric of working with nature usually connotes the feminine.)

But this soaring skyscraper model does not work for what we should be doing in our critical romancing.  He calls that landscaping!  So close to my metaphor of cathedrals and trees, but updated.  The landscape metaphor allows for so many directions (not that architecture doesn't take humbler forms than house-of-God and steel-and-glass, but it always requires a foundation, a unity, a stillness and a deadness that landscaping can and must forgo).  Our landscapes can be "orderly" French gardens, English "parodied landscape, with a ruined abbey thrown in for scale and pathos," or even (and this is so great) "simply a person out for a walk."

The architecture model, and the conventions that actually lead to criticism being built that way, does not allow for meandering, dead ends, stopping to smell the roses, or anything of the sort.  It is planned and meticulous, and self-contained.  Working in the romantic vein creates anything but that kind of critique.  Romantic criticism is more like an immersion in the nature of the word than a rising up to survey it.  And speculations and contemplations are welcome, as the critic traipses its stone paths and wooded glades.

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