Tuesday, 18 October 2005

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On Evaluative Criticism, Part the First of an Interminable Series; or, Emetic Prose and the People Who Emit It In the seminar room, graduate students set aside their typical standards of literary dress and don the scholarly robes they're expected to wear. They leave whatever criteria compels them to purchase books for reasons of pure enjoyment outside the seminar room when they enter it. Why? Because evaluative criticism has no place in contemporary scholarship. In my second entry on Pinter's Nobel selection, I complained that "if [the selection committee has] been influenced by his recent poetry then they've compromised their standards and have degraded the legacies of previous award winners." My reasoning behind this statement is fairly simple and straightforward: his politically convenient poetry barely qualifies as poetry. It's heartfelt, yes, but so is the work of the fifteen year old "playwright" who penned this dialogue: So many changes happening at once. I don't see how we survived it. Turn on the television and what do you see? Massacre and slander coming from the next generation. The point, if you want the point of it. Well, I don't have one. That's the problem, I find the strangest little paradoxes of life, but no useful meaning of or for them. Comma splice? Check. Wildly inappropriate conjunctive phrase? Check. Super-sincerely felt emotion expressed via a pompous faux-philosophical soliloquy? Check. It contains all the familiar elements of a life and its concerns vomited on the page. The "poetry" Pinter's produced since he announced his retirement has that familiar emetic feel. So one answer to Rich's complaint—that "contemporary literary studies is so far away from considering issues of quality that [there are not] any grounds for complaint that the Nobel choosing process is political"—would be that poetry which excites vomition should not be rewarded with a Nobel Prize. Why does it does it have that effect? Sheer dreadfulness. The rhyme scheme? Terrible. The rhythm? Uninterestingly inconsistent. The propagandistic intent? Brazenly transparent. Combine aesthetic inaudicity with patent proselytical intent and what you have resembles neither art nor skillful propaganda so much as an adolescent discharge of undigested emotion. Does this constitute evaluative criticism? It certainly does. I find it interesting that the ear for language Pinter possessed in the '50s and '60s has turned tin since his retirement. I had always considered that particular skill permanently acquired. Pinter proved me wrong. Whatever it is about his political commitments that has caused his ear such atrophy interests me intellectually, but it doesn't validate his latter-day ejecta aesthetically. It gives them the gravitas due all talent squandered, but it doesn't compel me to read a whit more than I absolutely have to. All of which is only to say that I can't identity the antecedent of "it" in the previous sentences, and that the more I attempt to the more tangled my thought becomes. I do not believe, as some suggest, that any account of my reaction would necessarily constitute an ex post facto justification for whatever gut reaction I've had. There's a reason my gut reacts as surely as there's one my knee sometimes jerks....

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