Tuesday, July 1, 2014
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study
I would hardly pretend to objectivity while commenting on my brother’s book, my older brother who with grace and love taught me so much about literature and life. Still, the situation to which he responds and his own position should be of interest to everyone who cares about higher education and the humanities. I refer to him as I would any other author by his surname in spite of the fact that it is identical to my own.
Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: the Humanistic Alternative, James Seaton, Cambridge University Press.
We can only welcome the grand synthesizers who are willing to survey the greater range of a topic and audacious enough to draw conclusions from a bigger mass of data than any individual could fully digest. For without such ambition we would lack Gibbon, Vico, Marx, Frazer and Spengler. In Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: the Humanistic Alternative, Seaton considers the entire history of literary criticism in English as well as its sources in Greek antiquity. He proposes a new analysis and argues passionately and cogently for his own approach to literature. In doing so, he reminds those of us outside the halls of academia of the current state of the discipline in our better universities.
Apart from the grand scope of his project and his style -- clear, readable, learned, often passionate or drily witty -- Seaton is to be applauded for fighting the good fight on behalf of literature itself, though by his account he is engaged in something of a rearguard action. Those outside the profession as practiced in major research universities are likely to be unaware of the extent to which contemporary literary studies are dominated what is called “cultural criticism” and other forms of “Theory.” Seaton devastatingly demonstrates the derangement produced by the rise of this vogue, now perhaps just past its crest, in his analysis of two books presently used as college texts, but his savage indictment is better understood once one is acquainted with his idea of the proper uses of literature, what he calls “the humanistic alternative.”
According to Seaton literary critics fall into one of three schools: Platonists, neoplatonists, and Aristotelians. For him the last of these options is the most fruitful and correct, the one he also calls “humanistic.” Other analysts have divided the world into Platonists and Aristotelians, but here these terms are redefined . For Seaton a Platonist is one who, like Plato in the Republic, is suspicious of the appeal of literature because stories and poetry may encourage erroneous ideas. While for Plato, correct ideas are those derived from philosophic reflection and discussion, other “Platonists” in this sense might look to other sources of truth such as religious revelation or some variety of Marxist doctrine.
A neoplatonist, in this framework, is any reader who regards the author (most commonly, a poet) as the purveyor of truth due to privileged access to some higher reality. The idea Socrates articulates in the Ion that a poet is given divine inspiration reappears powerfully among the Romantics and more modern aesthetic cultists. Whereas for the Platonist literary truth was undependable, the neoplatonist regards the poet as a prophet indeed whose words arrive from some higher realm, be it the divine, the unconscious, or simply the imagination. 
The third alternative, labeled humanistic by Seaton is based on the comment in Aristotle’s Poetics that literature can teach how a certain sort of person is likely to behave. In other words, literature teaches us about other people in terms not of certainties, but of probabilities. “The humanistic tradition in literary criticism remains Aristotelian both in its view of literature as a source of insight about human life and in its willingness to judge grand theory by the norms of common sense.” (73) In its simpler forms, this is likely to seem familiar to most students including university graduates in majors other than English. After all, most often classroom discussion is largely centered on thematics, the text’s relation to lived experience, whether the characters behave in ways that illuminate life outside the page. Furthermore, though “the humanist tradition . . .turns to works of literature for insight into human life” (176), its exposition is always tentative, conditional, subject to qualification and change, part of a continuing reflection on human life by humans, each with a limited view.
According to Seaton’s account this apparently unexceptionable approach to literature is very nearly passé, barely represented in the academic discussions of today in which a variety of poststructuralists and cultural critics now possess all but hegemonic power. I can myself recall from decades in the past research papers by soi-disant Derrideans who exercised prodigious ingenuity before pulling the predictable rabbit from the hat and demonstrating that the author was in fact saying the opposite of what seemed to be the point. One might learn something from a subtle exercise of this sort, but, like any inquiry which leads always to an identical result, its charms wear rapidly thin. Seaton most directly engages this sort of shallow “Theory” in his devastating analysis of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and a casebook on Austen’s Emma.
I will leave readers to savor Seaton’s assault on the NATC in full and will summarize only his treatment of the second of these books. Alistair Duckworth’s edition of Emma provides ten essays to accompany the novel: five commenting on Austen’s book itself as well as an essay on each of the approaches included. These are Gender criticism, Marxist criticism, cultural criticism, New Historicism, and Feminist Criticism. The gender critic criticizes the ideal of manhood represented in the novel, praising it for rejecting the contemporary fashion, but condemning it for reverting to an old-fashioned formula in its place, presumably in this way failing to anticipate the critic’s own ideal. In a similarly half-hearted manner, the feminist concedes Austen’s mild assertion of the rights of women while castigating her for, believe it or not, her “failure to envisage a female community across social barriers.” (63-4) The Marxist is disappointed that Austen “fails to admit to admit that ‘impoverished middle-class women are victims of a capitalist system’” (64) You get the idea. Each of these essays basically seeks to prove that the novel portrays unequal relations between sexes, classes, and other groups. This is hardly surprising since the story is set in a society where such differences are highly significant. One might well criticize a work that somehow avoided reflecting society in such a fundamental way.
Apart from the fact that the critics’ findings are trivial and miss the many possible fruitful readings of the novel; they are also all much of a piece. One could have objected to the pigeon-holes in an older volume of this sort which might have featured a New Critic, a Marxist, a Freudian, and a Jungian, but at least there would have been some variety. Such tiresome sameness is particularly pernicious in a textbook directed at students who might be persuaded that this sort of vapid play represents the entire range of possible literary studies. But what value is there is lamenting Austen’s lack of twenty-first century political correctness even once?  The Marxist (and his colleagues) seem to differ from Engels who condemned ideologically driven fiction, what he called the Tendenzroman, while noting that the novels of the royalist Balzac contain more data on French society than “all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period.” 
While applauding this first-rate book for its polemic purposes as well as its own sound ideas and well-wrought style, I have my own strictures. This book treats only literature, intentionally eschewing the other arts. This may be linked to Seaton’s scant consideration of form. Though form has been a constituent element of literature since the days when it all was oral, both as a signifying code and for its own beauty, we would suspect Seaton reads only to educate himself about human affairs were it not that he makes so many casual yet appreciative comments on the writers he discusses. The inclusion of visual art or music would have made it much more difficult to keep form in the background.
Form is deeply related to beauty, the sensation of pleasure which has always been considered an end of art. One may avoid fetishizing beauty without neglecting it. Surely if we pick up War and Peace for another go-round, our own motive has much in common with that of the Ibo women who gather about open fires in the evening to compose “moon songs.” We, like Shakespeare’s audience and those who habitually watch Breaking Bad, seek primarily pleasure, entertainment, an agreeable way to pass the time. We have evolved to excel in symbolic manipulation; it is little wonder that we find recreation in practicing our greatest skill.
For some works of art pleasure, whether formal beauty or amusement, may be the chief end at which the artist aims. Others may foreground description, either human or landscape. Some may primarily seek to move the reader to tears or laughter or some more complex emotion. If the writer or reader wishes to privilege theme, the result will be didacticism in some form, however indirect. (Actually, all popular and oral forms lend themselves to this sort of approach and the Horatian formula grants it importance equal to pleasure.)
Seaton’s discussion of moral imagination in Trilling (113-115) seems to suggest that the end of literary consumption should be a heightened sense of right and wrong within oneself and in society at large such that one would be more likely to discern the specious from the true in social schemes. Does anyone really think that literature professors, those of the old school at any rate, are equipped to lead more moral lives than other people? A good deal of our impression of the authors of great works is that their lives are as messy of not a bit more than most peoples’. The notion that the literati, if only they were to read in a humanistic manner, would be more politically sophisticated than their neighbors’ seems not only unlikely, but it sounds dangerously close to the sort of elitism Seaton consistently deplores.
He argues that the greatness of Trilling and Edmund Wilson rests on their ability to bring “insights gleaned from fiction, poetry, and plays to bear on moral, cultural, and social issues.” (143) This view would suggest that literature is a sort of educational aid to the understanding of other things. If Arnold was right in declaring that the critic must “see the object as it really is,” (144) how does that lead to the apparently more important secondary revelations outside the text? He rightly points out that just as researchers in the natural sciences can claim no particular qualification when commenting on moral or political issues, those in the humanities have no authority in questions of chemistry or physics. (175) It remains to be demonstrated that experts in literature have special access to the truth about morality or politics. Surely they are expert in the treatment of aesthetic texts and in that field alone just as the creators’ expertise is solely as artists.
In any event, information that can inform judgments about human affairs both individual and social is available from a number of sources, both in direct experience and in non-literary texts. Literature in my opinion differs from other forms of discourse in that it more accurately represents human consciousness in a rich range of ways: by recognizing the drive for pleasure that animates all living things, by admitting the irrational, conflicted, and unknown motives that often govern behavior, by foregrounding sense impressions, which is the principal way in which we enlarge our knowledge, and finally, by its capacity for investigating unanswerable questions, mysteries like love and sex, death and aggression, and ultimate reality. (Seaton is very suspicious of granting significance to metaphysical claims by writers in spite of the fact that religion in a broad sense is one of the most common and enduring themes.) Only works of art can imply an entire world-view. We do not find the depth and meaning in these areas from theologians or psychologists or medical doctors or encyclopedists that is available from Homer and Dante and Cervantes.
Somehow I think Seaton would largely agree. I know that we read in much the same manner. His own analysis stresses that a critic need not be always correct or even consistent to make meaningful comments on literature. In this volume he has not only set forth an original and useful description of literary history. He demonstrates in his own sensibility the humanistic values that have been traditionally associated with literary study while doing battle against those who would dismantle the discipline. The book is at once a pleasure to read and a record of the author's own pleasures in reading. No better authority is needed to demonstrate the value of a lifetime of treating literature as something that really matters.
The book, incidentally, sells for $90. Why can print-on-demand service produce equally handsome volumes for five percent of that price? It is certainly not due to royalties or advertising budget. Ask your library (a university library would be the best bet) to buy a copy.
1. Recall the situationist slogan from Paris 1968: L’imagination au pouvoir!
2. Seaton says that this expression was originally used solemnly and now “half-ironically.”  I believe that I first heard it used in a self-mocking manner about 1971 by leftists and only later -- from those with little actual experience in the movements of the sixties -- in more serious usage as a real standard of behavior.
3. Letter to Margaret Harkness. In an earlier letter to Laura Lafargue, Engels expresses the same admiration for Balzac referring to the conservative author’s “revolutionary dialectic,”, in contrast to the consciously leftist writers: “all the Vaulabelles, Capefigues, Louis Blancs, et tutti quanti.” Both letters are included in Marx and Engels On Literature and Art ( Moscow: Progress, 1976. P. 93). Marx, too, thought Balzac, with Cervantes, the greatest of novelists and planned to write a book on him. Fielding was another of his favorites. (Marx and Engels On Literature and Art, p. 439)