Thursday, April 06, 2006

Healing Literary Criticism

I have been talking with a lot of friends about the race-gender-class approach to literature. Remember "the Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic?" I do. I have felt that my whole life: "the erotic transport" of reading, the "secret glee" of nights spent with my favorite books and poems. But my papers never reflected this. I believe I actually did a postmodern ecofeminist reading of a set of poems last semester, if you can believe it, but I didn't come out of the paper with a wider appreciation of the poet. I just felt tired of her.

Also, I am immensely disappointed with the lit classes next semester. For the seniors in this class who may not have looked at the course offerings - the upper division classes focus almost entirely on race, class, or gender. Needless to say, I didn't sign up for any of them.

I suppose that what I am getting at here is the fact that literature is in trouble. Not everywhere, and not in all areas, of course, but departments are leaning farther and farther away from form. Chinua Achebe publicly dismissed Heart of Darkness for being racist, arguing that it should no longer be taught. Essentially, he says that we should toss the form away if the content is immoral. Content beats form.

But Dolen and I were talking in her office the other day about content and form, deciding that it is not possible to separate the two. Form is content, and content, form. Can you imagine one without the other? Can you imagine a line without color? It is not possible. So how can you privilege one over the other? How can you say that something's ugly content merits discarding a beautiful form? I want to put form (and beauty) back into focus. I want to re-unify form and content by stepping away from cultural studies and re-injecting a love of form into literary criticism.

But, my friend asked, in focusing on the beauty first, are we just hiding in art? Are we really going to ignore the "real world" just so that we can selfishly enjoy literature again? He said that the inequalities in race, gender, and class are problems that need to be addressed. He said that economic, gender, and racial disparities are actually growing, and we need to fix what's happening by drawing attention to it. Looking at beauty won't cut it in today's world.

I, too, am disturbed at the serious, varied problems riddling the earth. Though I would contend that we are a little better off than 50 years ago, I certainly acknowledge that there are intrinsic troubles everywhere. And I think that cultural studies in literature is not the way to address them. This is not to say that *literature* is not a way of effecting change, or even that literary criticism isn't, but that restricting departments and class offerings to race/gender/class studies has clearly been ineffective. If this works, shouldn’t these problems be getting better?

But since they dry out the books, taking away something pleasurable from the readers, the cultural studies actually hurt their causes. Imagine this. Somebody reads Faulkner and loves it, but is told that Faulkner is a racist, and that his books are racist. This prevents her from enjoying the book, for she suddenly has to feel guilty for liking a "racist" novel. She doesn't ever stop liking the book, but she can't think about Faulkner without a twinge of guilt. She can no longer talk about her pleasure, and suddenly any of the good the beauty in the book could have provided her is cut off. On some level she knows that cultural studies deprived her of her enjoyment of the novel, identifying it with something that deprives one of pleasure. And so cultural studies undermines racial activism.

So we know that jumping straight to the immoral parts of a novel actually works against morality. Does this mean that literature is lost? I say emphatically no, that, in fact, it has an immense power to enact social change. I accept Elaine Scarry's tenet that beauty incites deliberation, causing us to "gape" as we stare at it. Beautiful literature will draw us in, holding our gaze upon whatever it chooses. Let's look at (surprise) Lolita. I would never, ever, choose to read a 250 page psychological study on child molestation, but I ached after that book. And it forced me to look at child molestation, really look, feel, and even become halfway complicit in child molestation. With the little jabs of Lolita sobbing, Nabokov reminds us of Humbert's immorality. And these jabs are necessarily personal, shocking, revolting, nauseating. Beauty caused us to "buy in" to Humbert's system, allowing us to experience the horror of rape more personally than any imperious, moralizing cultural study would have done. So beauty is not responsible for immorality. Nabokov is very responsible in Lolita; he could have used his mesmerizing prose to lull us out of morality, causing us to forget morality. The little reminders of Lolita's pain shock us out of our reveries, affecting us more powerfully and viscerally because of the text's beauty.

And like all powers, if used irresponsibly, beauty can have some adverse consequences. It can distract us so that we forget the immorality. In a documentary about Charles Manson, I was shocked to see how beautiful he is. It would not surprise me if that aided people's willingness to prostitute themselves and kill others. And though his powers of persuasion extended far beyond his beauty, it certainly didn't hurt. I am confident in saying that his beauty gave him that much more sway, that much more influence over his followers.

But of course, this is no reason to go sit down and write off beauty. As I have already shown, it is the mechanism by which literature opens our eyes, by which we may willingly be led to moral truths. The examples of its misuse are always individual, for there is no one quality in beauty that bends us to immorality. And just as, within individual works, it can bend us to immorality, so it can direct us to morality. More broadly, I do believe that, per Scarry, the raw experience of beauty makes us more moral. It does imply some higher truth, for the same thrill that flashes up my nerves reading Lolita bursts upon the hiker in the Grand Canyon; the simultaneous ubiquity and diversity of the experience of beauty nods towards something greater. And I could rehearse Scarry's argument that beauty encourages lateral distribution, or Murdoch's contention that it de-centers us so that we may grow, or Schiller's that the aesthetic play-drive actually enables society's existence...

People will always read literature for the experience, so perhaps it is comforting to know that we can have that experience and become more moral, that beauty can take our hands and lead us far from ourselves.


Blogger China said...

You bring up some good points here. One of the things I've criticized the English department/school for over the last couple of years is its approach to feminism; I consider myself a feminist by its most basic definition (that women and men have the right to be equal, period), but am a bit bothered by the extra attention given to women in the form of separate women's studies courses or emphases (misleadingly called "gender studies" for the most part). If women are just as capable as men of producing quality work, then we shouldn't be required our own league. Writing is not a sport of upper body strength! But the same goes for race, and for class. I don't think there will ever be real equality in society or in the broad college environment until we are taught to see each other as being on par with one another. Just as with race and class, it's important to be taught how people have struggled throughout history so that we are grateful for what we've been given, but we should also focus on the present and future so that we can be mere peers who transform the world as we want to see it.

Regarding the decision to study content or form in school, I truly feel that if a much heavier emphasis was placed on form, gaps between social groups would close somewhat because people from any background can study form and find something beautiful, even if what they find beautiful is different from what others choose to focus on. Content and form cannot be separated, but you can choose to focus on content differently. Looking at Lolita, Nabokov has a very sensual writing style and is therefore the ideal person to convey the love/"love" story that he does - I don't think any other writer could have pulled off Lolita's plot and gotten the exact same reaction out of his readers. But where content and form strike a balance is in the place where the reader may separate character from writer; one might focus on content and call the novel ugly or immoral because of its characters, and potentially go further to say that the novel itself, and not simply the main character, is immoral. But in following form, my preferred approach, one could say that while Humbert's character is immoral, Nabokov's awareness of Humbert's flaws, his mode of thinking, his effect on Lolita (however subtle) is insightful, that the amount of thought to go into such a carefully planned character and story is perhaps more beautiful than anything that actually occurs in the novel. Nabokov isn't just a beautiful writer because of the words he pieces together - everything could have been written in perfectly elegant language and still not looked right - but the careful thought he's put into how his characters think, act, and react is fantastic to "watch" in action.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Sarah E. Smith said...

I agree! All of this yelling about what we aren't, what we don't have, and what they don't let us be undermines feminism. People end up replacing the term "Feminist" with "femme-nazi." Humans are humans. Hm. It's almost like the content/form "debate." Perhaps formally we are all humans, though in content we are men, women, black, white, poor, rich. I agree with you that people will not find equality until we are taught equality. We don't want to be yelled at.

And the formal view of "Lolita" seems to be much wider and more nuanced in its look at the text. Staying within the bounds of the characters, yes, it may be immoral. However, it is, after all, a novel, something finite we hold in our hands. I think you are right to note that form will really help us see.

So once and once again, I agree wholeheartedly.

1:28 AM  
Blogger scottordway said...

Sarah- I also bristle a bit when I think about the balance that the department strikes between classes devoted to the so-called "cannon" and those that seek to provide an alternative to it. As I said in class the other day, it strikes me as odd that we're not required to read a word by Shakespeare, nor must we take a class in criticism/ theory, nor must we read the classics in any capacity. There are no shortage of courses that will satisfy the requirements of the major without really digging into some of the languages heartier fare.

It's difficult to design a department that effectively walks the line between tradition and innovation, balancing the two in a way that gives students the most comprehensive understanding of their field. I think the weak suit of "race-gender-class" studies is that it shifts the emphasis from the rigorous understanding of the artform that is literature- its forms, techniques, history, trends, and microscopic details- to a study of how fits into its environment. The question is then raised: is the goal of a lit. degree to understand literature better, or to understand society better? I'm inclined to think that if it's the latter, then perhaps it should fall under a different name.

And lastly, China, I totally agree with you about the Feminism bit. The real respect for female authors will come when we stop studying them for their "woman-ness" and simply appreciate the good ones and disregard the bad ones. It would be a disservice to the "dead white males" of history to read them with their masculinity in mind; instead we focus on their literary contributions. It seems like we do women that disservice with the separate emphases that you mention.

12:25 AM  

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