Thursday, 03 August 2006

Easy Erudition, Anyone? [X-posted to the Valve] So I'm reading Jonathan Arac's Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies this afternoon and am flat dumbstruck by the erudition displayed therein. After dashing through the complete works of Harold Bloom—which is akin to dashing through the Western canon once-removed, no mean feat in itself—he surveys the response to what he calls the "theory boom" in American literary studies. He possesses an intimate familiarity with everything, passing judgments on Bloom's wavering allegiances here, the adoption of M.H. Abram's notion of "heterocosm" there, Geoffrey Hartman's Nietzschian rhetoric yonder ... and so on ad infinitum. I don't dip my quill in Latin ink just to be pretentious, either. The man seems to have had the requisite infinity needed to read what he's read. I don't have that kind of time. I suppose I have to accept the fact that I'll never title a chapter "The History of Romanticism in Contemporary Criticism." I could cry. Or write a PSA: Parents, start your children reading contemporary criticism young. If they haven't read the complete Keats and W.J. Bate's John Keats by five, their first tenure review may well be their last. The best I can do is read Arac's chapter about the history of Romanticism in contemporary criticism and hope I remember enough to pass for someone reasonably well-read. Only throwing it in the memory well isn't enough. It has to float. Or I have to find some way to fake it. The intellectual equivalent of what us Southerners call "floaties." Because honestly, how does one fake dizzying erudition? Slap a quote from here, there and one from there, here? Rewrite the books no one remembers reading or even having written anymore? Wait a minute, that baby's buoyant. You know, if Arac's book weren't written so damn well, I'd probably be rewriting right now. Sentence-by-sentence. Learning what he means by revising how he says it. By the time I finished, I'd know what he knew but has long forgotten and have myself a manuscript with what credit card companies call a "pre-approved stamp of approval." Plagiarism is the only option, people. There's no way we can read that much. Come to think of it, there's no way he could've read that much. I'm tempted to say that everything ever written isn't a footnote to Plato but a plagiarism of him. The continuity of the Western tradition must be the result of a massive fraud. No other explanation fits. Maybe now I can sleep without the nagging feeling I ought to be dousing the midnight oil with pages from Frye's Anatomy of Criticism ...
Turning the Autotelic on its Head, One Poem at a Time [X-posted from the Valve ] Continuing with the general theme of my scholarly shortcomings, I'm proud to annouce that I'm terrible at close-reading cold. Worse than that, even. Some people spin stupendous yarns on the spot. I spin my wheels. Unsuccessfully. Too much stupid gunk in the gears ... by which I mean, too much stupid-gunk in the gears, preventing my wheels from even spinning. My remedy? Mandatory close-readings. Cold. No preparation. No background research. I'm practicing a radical New Criticism here, the kind which only ever existed in the minds of its opponents. I hope to be a good Horacian and entertain while edifying, but fear that until I get better at this, the entertainment will be in the mocking and the edification nil. The first victim will be Robert Browning's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." Of all the poems ever written since the dawn of time, I chose to open with this one because I've always had an affinity for Browning ... and because, since it's a dramatic monologue, the sad skills I've acquired reading novels may apply. Below the fold you'll find the temporarily autotelic little bugger as well as my New Critical gloss on it: Gr-r-r—there go, my heart's abhorrence! Water your damned flower-pots, do! If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence, God's blood, would not mine kill you! What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming? (5) Oh, that rose has prior claims— Needs its leaden vase filled brimming? Hell dry you up with its flames! At the meal we sit together; Salve tibi! I must hear (10) Wise talk of the kind of weather, Sort of season, time of year: Not a plenteous cork crop: scarcely Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt; What's the Latin name for "parsley"? (15) What's the Greek name for "swine's snout"? Whew! We'll have our platter burnished, Laid with care on our own shelf! With a fire-new spoon we're furnished, And a goblet for ourself, (20) Rinsed like something sacrificial Ere 'tis fit to touch our chaps— Marked with L. for our initial! (He-he! There his lily snaps!) Saint, forsooth! While Brown Dolores (25) Squats outside the Convent bank With Sanchicha, telling stories, Steeping tresses in the tank, Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs, —Can't I see his dead eye glow, (30) Bright as 'twere a Barbary corsair's? (That is, if he'd let it show!) When he finishes refection, Knife and fork he never lays Cross-wise, to my recollection, (35) As do I, in Jesu's praise. I the Trinity illustrate, Drinking watered orange pulp— In three sips the Arian frustrate; While he drains his at one gulp! (40) Oh, those melons! if he's able We're to have a feast; so nice! One goes to the Abbot's table, All of us get each a slice. How go on your flowers? None double? (45) Not one fruit-sort can you spy? Strange!—And I, too, at such trouble, Keep them close-nipped on the sly! There's a great text in Galatians, Once you trip on it, entails (50) Twenty-nine...

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