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.

Who said this?

Anybody know who said this?...trying to link this quote to its author:

"we know we are rightly judging a thing to be beautiful by observing that our mental faculties are being stimulated in such a way that the imagination enters into a kind of freeplay with the cognitive powers producing a variety of pleasure completely independent of interest or concern over wether or not that thing taken to be beautiful actually exists."

Monday, April 03, 2006


So I just finished doing some electrical wiring in a burst of energy and then sat down to my dinner in front of the tv when I saw a familiar smile bursting through the set. It was Jason! He was performing with a friend in a band on television in some kind of contest. But I only caught the last few seconds. I heard his friend say, "Jason's a really weird guy." I stayed with the show because it looked interesting...young people doing their artistic thing is always interesting to me. Then they announced the winner: Handshakes! Jason's group won the whole thing. Wow. I'm impressed.

But I'm not surprised. Kudos Jason!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Brimstone Ugly

First off, let me say to my throngs of expectant readers, I’m sorry this is late. I had an incident involving a canary, a set of stilts and a premature mango prevent me from doing anything of value on Friday.

Now then, down to business. I’ve found it interesting, perhaps even Scarry, to superimpose Elaine’s theories above my literary endeavors. In the misty midst of her indulgently romantic crusade in the name of beauty, I see questions of what I shall call Humbertism peaking through the fabric. (Or shall we pull an Oprah and just call it what it is—?) Romanticized and well-articulated incest/pedophilism/predatory enactment of unfulfilled childhood fantasies/rape—whatever you like—can be measured on the Scarry scale for their quantitative allotment of beauty. If beauty is

1. sacred
2. unprecedented
3. life-saving
4. incites deliberation

my reply to H.H. (not Nobokov) would be as follows:

1. To call the practice of violation “sacred” is so obviously immoral that I will spare you a didactic rant. However, I will note that my, oh, my austere southern Baptist upbringing is such that I know I must be associating the sacred with the moral. To read Lolita is to question one’s eager desire to cast at the pedophile, what we would call in my family’s vein of the Church, hellfire and brimstone. Yet to read Nobokov is also to question one’s preparedness, or resume, upon which one feels qualified to pitch the sinner into the aforementioned mode of damnation. Scarry mentions that Odysseus feels that his nude arrival in front of, (ironically.) a young girl on a beach (no less!) is beautiful because it has something to do with intuition. Okay, so when one is in the presence of the sacred, one can sense it intuitively. Although H.H. would have us believe that his repugnant incest was ordained by the divine, I would contest. I still stick to Kant’s theory that beauty takes us by surprise. So does the sacred. Hummy’s actions were too premeditated to be instinctual, and too followed by flowing logic and defense (Nobokov wanted it this way, hence the letter format) for his takeness with Lolita to be attributed to a divine hand. In other words, any old nymphet would do (as we see in his lust after Lolita’s schoolmates and the local children), but he just happened upon this one.

Did it become sacred? I think it became enchanting, but there is an electric fence around the sacred which a slimy rapist cannot penetrate. I think H.H. talked himself out of his moral obligation as an adult, and, Baptistly speaking, because he felt so guilty—enough so that he would traverse the US in it’s entirety, twice—he was aware of the fissure between his actions and morality. This is where I may have to break with Scarry, although I have not yet finished the book. I don’t think all types of beauty confer with morality. I think the sacred implies that which is moral. In Odysseus’s case, he may have felt stunned by the child because he was on dry land again, because she was innocent, because he wanted to violate her and that may, for some, be beautiful. There’s no accounting for taste. But the difference between him and Humbert is that H. acted on his impulse.

2. See above.

3. I renew my claim that one cannot harm others in the name of beauty. Having broken with the ever appealing malediction of my Baptist baptism and taken up with a Hindu interpretation of Buddhist Daoism (erg), I think it wrong to harm others. I carry spiders outside, down six flights of stairs in the winter. I believe that were beauty and morality to converge on a topic where the harm of another living being was in question, I might question the morality at work. Or, as often happens in the “Justice,” better yet, the Penal System, the life of an “immoral” person is placed below the life of a “moral” person. In this case I would opt for a minimalist’s morality in which one of the less-than-10 commandments would be “Thou shall not harm other living beings” even to save thy own damn life. I don’t give a rat’s butt if Humbert’s actions saved his life. He killed Lolita, in a very real sense.

My primary problem, thus, with H.H.’s actions was that not only did he repeatedly rape a pubescent child, but that said child showed little psychological damage. Were Lolita in the flesh, she would have been in therapy, on drugs, or in unhealthful life situations until she got into therapy or drugs. No matter if she “seduced” the adult or not. In the end, the claimed beauty did not only not save a life, but it snuffed two; three if we value Humbert’s enough to count his insanity and imprisonment.

4. I saw not a moment’s hesitation once Humbert2 arrived at the primary opportunity of violation. And after that, he raped her twice more the same night without “deliberation.” There was nothing immortal about his immoral actions, and so he stood in the shoes of a man, by Scarry’s standards, who was about to do a not beautiful thing.

By our current mode of thought, Elaine Scarry’s mode, Humbert could not make a case for his actions that used the term “beauty” in the same way one might claim “temporary insanity.” This, I believe, stems from the fact that the Scarry mode of thought regards beauty and morality as being synthesized. And I think we might all agree that Humbert’s impulses and thoughts may have been beautiful (hence the form of the writing, too), but his actions—because of their lack of morality—are brimstone ugly.