Saturday, 24 February 2007

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Conservative Literary Theory: William Faulkner now, Dave Sim shortly I often wonder what conservative literary theory would look like. Reading through Malcolm A. Kline's complaints about the MLA—which continue well into February—I gather that it would emphasize the appreciation of great literature. What would qualify as great literature is obvious: Dickens, for one; Shakespeare, for another. But I come here to bury Kline, not point out the obvious fact that his paragons of literature were considered base in their own time. (Doing so would mock his kicker of a finale to that second article, in which he laments the erosion of historical knowledge. I do too. Only it seems we read different histories.) But I feel constructive tonight, by which I mean: I want to say something positive about the tension necessarily created by the representation of "core values" in literary texts. In the classroom, I would teach this by having the students read Faulkner's Light in August (1932). That there on your left is the cover to the first edition. Click on it and examine with care. Can you tell the race of the man it depicts? If you haven't read the novel, the answer should be firmly in the negative; but if you have, you'll be no less confused. The race of the protagonist, Joe Christmas, is both specular (in the novel) and speculative (to the readers). So maybe you can't tell anything about his race, but what about his class? Does the tilt of his hat signify? The cut of his clothes? What about his slumped shoulders? The gentle forward cant—half performed cool, half pure exhaustion—does it signify? It should. What happens in Light in August—not to mention much of what follows—is that Faulkner forces himself to consider the disconnect between his sympathies with poor itinerant whites and the casual racism which life in Oxford demanded. In fine, Light in August is the book in which you can see sympathy and ideology clash in the philosophical mess of an artfully constructed novel. If pressed, I would argue that Faulkner emerged from his racism sometime in the writing of this book. The brilliance of this novel—as well as the five to follow—are born of his struggle against the values he'd uncritically breathed living as he did, when he did. And they are, by far, the height of his artistic achievement. Someone like Kline, for whom all art is instrumental, ends up parroting the claims of the liberal ideologues he denounces. All his high-minded talk of high literature obscures the conflict of conscience implicit in its creation. By advocating this purity of spirit approach, Kline accepts the assumptions of his ideological opponents. Thus, my kicker: He doesn't desire Shakespeare so much as an ideologically inverted Mike Gold: America, O step-mother, you struck us from the light, You made us slaves and clowns, you kept us in our place. But History has spoken, and breaking thru the night, We artists and thinkers shall bless our martyred race. That's from Gold's atrocious Hoboken Blues: or The Black Rip Van Winkle:...
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More on the Possibility of Conservative Literary Criticism (I'm elevating this long comment to a post because it's germane to what I'll be posting later about Cerebus. It is somewhat sketchy—and by no means original—but I think it captures the double-bind deadlock of conservative critics of literary studies.) When I wrote this, I didn't have a problem wondering what I meant by "conservative." I thought "whatever Kline was angling at" would suffice. Sure, it's incoherent, but so is the predominantly liberal theory we have today. On the one hand, I think it absurd to hold a prospective conservative scholarship to different standards those by which we abide; on the other, since (as Luther notes) one of Kline's objections is the inherent pluralism of contemporary literary studies, I don't think those standards even apply. Building on Waxbanks' elegant defense of Bloom, I think we know where we can start: Conservative literary theory cannot be based on a particular canon. The Culture Wars and the foetid miasma of its trenches will do us no immediate good, since few believe that Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Melville shouldn't be taught—that'd they're somehow inadequately "literary" in some regard—only that they should be taught alongside Behn, (George) Eliot and Stowe.* That Dickens has acquired literary imprimateur suggests that the criteria are malleable. As does the inclusion of any novels, which until the modernists were considered hybrid beasts; capable of fleeting moments of literariness, but on the whole mere prose, constructions of the sort anyone who could read a newspaper could write. All of which is beside the point, as the article Paul Cantor article Andrew linked to lays plain. Still, even Cantor relies on a pluralistic model of cultural production: The historicist model of culture is fundamentally flawed. Far from being self-contained and monolithic, most cultures are open to outside influences and as a result become multivalent and hybrid in character. Shakespeare is universal because he embraced cultures and traditions outside his own—although his argument suffers here from being too quick on the triumphalism. Not that he's necessarily wrong—I have a friend working on the appropriation of Shakespeare by Nigerian authors in the 19th and 20th centuries—only that Shakespeare translating well in Germany, the former Soviet Bloc and Japan is not evidence of universality. The fact that Kurosawa's Ran translates King Lear into 16th century Japan may say more about plots involving the abdicaton of power in clan societies; such plots may only resonate "universally" in those countries in which clan obligations are symbolically operative, a source of nostalgia in largely alienated lives. It could be many things, none of them necessarily having to do with the universal quality of the Shakespearean text. But then there's the problem of what else should be included in the canon. We all agree that Shakespeare should, but what about all those books written by brown people who live on islands we've never even heard of. Can they possibly produce great literature. This is where arguments like Cantor's can easily be reversed: if the power of an individual voice...

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