Friday, 23 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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