A formal approach to poetry

How close does the “history of ideas” approach come to data-mining as the study and criticism of literature? I was rereading Christopher Tilmouth’s Passion’s Triumph Over Reason, and I began thinking about this. I met the author a few years back, in his Cambridge room in a turret of Peterhouse, when I was planning on undertaking a PhD (on the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester) there. We discussed the various approaches that are common now, and while he is not necessarily a party to the more theory-laden schools of thought, he certainly was familiar with their content and understood their attraction to many. I was there to talk to him about the possibility of taking a more formal approach to literature (which is in keeping with my techno-functionalist interests in philosophy!), one which did not make the text merely a conduit to discuss a particular theory of discourse, one which, incidentally might be anachronistic. At the same time, however, I felt that there was something about the historical scholarship approach to poetry that didn’t resonate for me. Continue reading

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Reading through allegory and metaphor

Homeric allegoresis had come into existence as a defense of Homer against philosophy.

E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, p.205

This is still true, for few modern students of literature allow themselves to be simply readers; there is the fear which I below called the unliterary, which leads us into the temptation to read literature as a key to something else. This can be sociology, politics, psychology, etc. via the poem or book or painting or film. Those who are literary readers can be either aesthetic or antiaesthetic. An old fashioned (indeed, regarded as antediluvian by most) example of the former would be Harold Bloom, and the boa-deconstructionists of Deconstruction and Criticism (Geoffrey Hartmann, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller) are occasionally the latter. Most often they are allegorists manqué, and their allegory seeks to elucidate their god of the textual gaps.  Continue reading

Literary and unliterary reading

For myself, I split the reading of literature into two broad groups, namely the literary and the unliterary. The unliterary reader approaches a piece of fiction, or a poem, the way they would if it were any other text. They are epistemic and systematic, and so we can perceive the impact a book (etc.) has on them almost immediately, since their experience of it is not mediated by other concerns beyond “what does this tell me”. The literary reader’s experience is reflected, however, and so a text can fruitfully be read and reread. It is in this sense, like Montaigne in his tower, reading his 5,000 book library over and over, a little at a time, that such literary readers may be considered gnostic. It is the continued experience of the text that defines them, because they are an element of a community of interpreters. This goes for all readers of texts, including films, comics, magazine articles, etc. If you have at any stage debated the merits of a particular text, or suggested “what if they had casted X rather than Y”, or played some variation of “name your top 5 villains of all time, and say why”, then you are a member of this interpretive community. You are a literary reader.  Continue reading