Friday, 26 August 2005

Literary Interest, Part III: Crossed Fingers & Muddled Minds Welcome to Part III of my continuing attempt to understand Steven Knapp’s Literary Interest and come to terms with its implications. (In what follows it’s possible that I demonstrate a constitutional inability to do either. Feel free to say so without worrying about my feelings. You could stuff my pride in a thimble and still have plenty of room for a thumb, i.e. I would rather be right eventually than wrong in perpetuity.) Commenting on my second (still muddled) attempt to pin down Knapp’s argument, Adam Stephanides argues The primary question Knapp is asking in this chapter is whether it is possible for a work of literature to necessarily mean something other than what the author intended it to mean, using Paradise Lost as a test case. As would be expected from the co-author of “Against Theory,” Knapp’s answer is “no." I read that section under the same assumption and came to the same conclusion (though I neglected to mention it in that post). My entire discussion assumed that the point toward which Knapp marched would marshal against all arguments resembling “the Romantic Argument,” i.e. ones in which the critic rescues the coherence of the intended world at the expense of the author’s intentions. On The Valve, HZ forwards a different but not necessarily contradictory interpretation: So, Knapp wants to know: What is the payoff of treating literary works as if they had a a “special kind of representational structure, each of whose elements acquires, by virtue of its connection with other elements, a network of associations inseparable from the representation itself.” What are we interested in when we are interested in THAT? HZ’s account diminishes the importance of the prescriptive angle Adam and I believe to be entailed by his local statements. Granted, assessing these statements outside the global context of Literary Interest encouraged the speculation that led to my misrepresentating Knapp’s larger claims. (The first person who acknowledges the resemblence of my misinterpretation to the type of misinterpretation Knapp calls “the Romantic Argument” wins August’s Meta-Award for Meta-Awareness.) While HZ almost convinces me that Knapp’s interest in “literary interest” is disinterested, my experience reading Walter Benn Michaels suggests otherwise. (Not that I think there’s a one-to-one correspondence between the two. However, given the vehemence with which they argued in “Against Theory” and their response to responses to it, not to mention “Against Theory 2: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction, I find it difficult to believe that their initial positions and mode of argumentation could be that different.) I cannot accept the proposition that Knapp validates the argument that “literary interest” is the better or possibly even only way readers approach literature. That there are valid and invalid interpretive strategies must be the point of Literary Interest. Right? Right? Otherwise the entire book would be nothing more than a sophisticated account of the solipsism any engagement with literature entails: Literary interest offers an unusually precise and concentrated analogue of what it is like to be an agent in general. For part...
One Quasi-Bloomian Query: Philip Roth & Sinclair Lewis As I'm prepping my contribution to The Valve's mini-seminar on Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, I've slammed into something I have to account but don't believe I'm doing so adequately. To quote my future-self: In American Pastoral, the central character, Swede Levov, searches for answers about (and the current address of) his daughter-the-political-terrorist, Merry. One account of her radicalization blames it on her relationship with her grandfather, Lou Levov, who "during the Vietnam War ... had begun mailing Merry copies of the letters he sent to President Johnson, letters that he had written to influence Merry's behavior more than the president's" (287-88). While visiting during "the summer of the Watergate hearings," Lou and Merry spend the majority of the time haranguing the television: "The so-called patriots," Lou Levov said to [Swede's wife] Dawn," would take this country and make Nazi Germany out of it. You know the book It Can't Happen Here? There's a wonderful book, I forget the author, but the idea couldn't be more up-to-the-moment. These people have taken us to the edge of something terrible." (287) The first question raised by this passage is why Roth deliberately elides or Lou unthinkingly forgets Sinclair Lewis' name. I have no answer to that question outside of a very general statement about authorial anxiety. In The Plot Against America, Roth shies away from associating Lewis' name with his novel. Despite the incredible popularity of It Can't Happen Here--published in '36 to capitalize on the upcoming election, adapted for the theater that same year and performed by WPA actors across the country, It Can't Happen Here may've been the most popular, i.e. most-read and most-watched, work of 1936--Roth fails to mention it even though it belonged to the world the novel shares with ours. (The Lindbergh Administration takes office in 1940.) While I can see the practical reason for failing to mention it--an actual prophetic novel which imagines much of the same ground as an imaginative alternative history probably has no place in it--there's something off-putting about the fact that Roth still feels compelled to have Lewis appear, albeit briefly, in The Plot Against America: Meanwhile, Walter Winchell continued to refer to the Bundists as "Bundits," and Dorothy Thompson, the prominent journalist and wife of novelist Sinclair Lewis, who'd been expelled from the 1939 Bund rally for exercising what she called her "constitutional right to laugh at ridiculous statements in a public hall," went on denouncing their propaganda in the same spirit she'd demonstrated three years ealier when she'd exited the rally shouting "Bunk, bunk, bunk! Mein Kampf, word for word!" (177, emphasis mine) Who is Sinclair Lewis in the fictional world of Roth's novel? A novelist with an important wife. Roth seems unable to do with another what he does so masterfully with himself his selves, namely relate to an actual novelist who has written a novel very similar to one he himself has written. Does Roth want us to assume that Lewis' novel hasn't been written in his...

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