Thursday, May 19, 2011

Criticism as pure provocation

T.T. Heine, Loie Fuller [src]

Charles Rosen, appreciating Kermode in the NYRB, paraphrases him thus:
Properly practiced, in short, interpretation protects the works of the past from becoming disposable junk by astonishing the readers, making them take a second look. It keeps the past alive.

(Isn't it faintly Micawberian to paraphrase a quoted passage with "in short"?) I can't tell if Rosen is reading Kermode correctly but I like the idea of throwing absurd interpretations at people as a way of getting them to pay attention to the text, and -- in the process, maybe, of trying to respond to the critic's trolling -- to see what they had previously skimmed over. (But cf. Kant being "woken from his dogmatic slumbers" by Hume and -- in Russell's version -- inventing a soporific in the Critique so he could sleep again.) I was thinking about the "astonishment" business recently re the question of how people get interested in poetry; but perhaps a more reliable course of action is to have readers become obsessed, perhaps for bad reasons at first, with some particular writer or other, and hope that sheer familiarity brings solicitude with it.

The first piece of literary criticism I ever read, innumerably many years ago, was Kermode's long introduction to the Arden Tempest; I don't remember what was in it, but it left me very interested in Shakespeare. (I loved the lists of textual variants.) Other than that I know Kermode mostly through his essays and the delightful war reminiscences in "My Mad Captains." I've read his book on Shakespeare's Language  -- it is very good on Richard II and King John but boring on the later work; Kermode spends too much time expressing his astonishment to be much use. I also read the Yeats book (Romantic Image) at some point, but might as well not have; I don't remember a thing except the frontispiece (see above) and a remark about Auden emphasizing the right to use poetry discursively. For some reason I'm doing the Romantics right now, and I mean to go back to it once I'm done rereading Moby Dick.

Incidentally this Kermode sentence (from a quote near the end of the piece) feels powerfully like a Pope passage transprosed:
It is so long since most writers had the necessary education, or could afford the pleasures and find the women, that if they were made available we should hardly know what to do with them.
(It is mostly the balanced "A, or (B or C)" construction, and "afford the pleasures, and the women find" that does it.)

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