Thursday, December 21, 2006

Switching to Beta

Hello, all. Another technical note:

I am in the process of switching the blog over to the Beta version. I do not like Beta, as it requires us to create Google accounts, which I think is not good. Part of me would rather just switch this whole caboodle over to, which I have done (and will make to look pretty, I promise) here. If we decide to move there, this blog will still be up, at least as an archive for the old comments.

The one drawback of Wordpress is that it will not accept Haloscan. I like their comment-function better than Haloscan, and it is spam-regulated. We can still link to the old discussions here, and I will try to import recent comments and those from the Parker discussion, to keep it live.

The decision we need to make as a community is between the following options:

1. Do we want to stay on Blogger and make everyone get Google accounts to transfer to Beta?
2. Do we want to move to Wordpress, where everyone will still have to create new accounts, but they won't mess with your email?

UPDATE: I have decided, we are not all going to get Google accounts and switch to Beta. It is too much of a hassle. We are all going to Wordpress and creating accounts there. Once you have a Wordpress account, email me and let me know what email address you used and I will invite you to join the Long Eighteenth.

WHY DO I LIKE IT BETTER? Just look. The Collaborative Readings information is in an obvious bar across the header, and it has embedded Category links in the sidebar, too. You can navigate easily from post to post and the front page is always quickly accessible. If I'm not mistaken, the pages even load faster, which is a big deal for us dinosaurs still on dial-up.

Once you join, I'll set you all to "administrators" so you can edit comments (like if, for example, you see you've made a typo), check the blog stats yourself (so it's not all a mystery in my hands how many hits we get) and enjoy all the WP extras. I think this will be far better than the patched-together nature of our Blogspot blog.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thanks for voting!

I emerge briefly from the lightless pit of exam grading to thank any of you who may have voted for me for the MLA Delegate Assembly. I will be representing the graduate students of New York State from 2007-2010. May I not actually be a graduate student that long!

As we've mentioned in comments, this blog may be taking an unplanned mini-hiatus while we all do some deep-breathing exercises. I will probably need some advice about evaluating what are some truly baffling exam results. I only gave the exam, you'll remember, because I was concerned that all the opportunities for getting a grade in my class were based on extremely rigorous at-home and in-class writing, so I thought I'd make at least half of the exam easy, non-analytical questions one can actually study for.

As is par for my class, the students who were already doing well (about a third) studied very hard and got high A's, even a few perfect scores. The students who were not doing so great at the analytical exercises did not study at all (or freaked out, or something) and failed the exam mightily, misidentifying even the protagonists of the three novels we read, naming Samuel Johnson as "A Victorian poet," and answering the gimme question "Who is your favorite writer we read this semester and why?" with "William Burroughs" and no explanation. (Needless to say, we did not study William Burroughs in Brit Lit Survey.) I know my students probably know the answers to these questions—they're all pretty obvious and I have made sure in other ways that they read the material—so I'm guessing it's some kind of intense exam-phobia.

I can't ignore the final results; obviously many of my students deserve to have their grade raised by their excellent performance. But I also feel terrible dropping some of what are already barely-passing grades because of totally botched exams. Sure, these results are probably an effect of poor reading skills, and it is a reading class, so those skills are being tested, but testing someone on how well they understand my questions, as a text, is less important than whether they understand the literature itself.

So this is why I've been away from the blog. Thinking about it makes me want to bang my head against the wall, and though I would rather be thinking about interesting C18 scholarship, my head is otherwise occupied.

I am hoping Parker is able to join the conversation once the CUNY semester is out, which is this week.

Is anyone else coming to MLA? Should we have lunch one day?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Triumph of Grading Hell?

Is the discussion of The Triumph of Augustan Poetics over, or have we just unofficially adjourned until final grades for the fall semester are done? The latter, I hope!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Johnson and Fideism

Although the previous chapter was titled, “The Fideist Reaction,” there were several earlier hints of a “Protestant reaction” extending forward into the nineteenth century. That complete history does not appear in this chapter, as Parker analyzes Samuel Johnson’s works as part of the initial return of fideist art. Although the concept of a divided Samuel Johnson is not new, Parker provides us with new terms for that split in naming the two halves of Johnson’s literary nature—one part is Humanist curiosity about the world (and literature in particular), and one part is fideist skepticism about the value of earthly activities (literature among all others). This latter impulse is seen most strongly in The Vanity of Human Wishes and Rasselas, in which diverse human activity leads to the same sense of futility and exhaustion (with Solomon the representative, non-classical figure of spiritual weariness). This chapter really should be read with the previous chapter for full appreciation of the fideist motifs that Parker identifies in Johnson’s work. Among other motifs, Johnson’s work emphasizes futility, meditation, and stasis. This fideist element extended to Johnson’s perception of his own activities; his literary output stimulated and amused him, but could achieve for him no higher value: “For Johnson poetry (and every art) is a diversion, a toy…and a bauble” (238). Likewise, for Johnson private devotions, though a necessary and sober duty, could provide no sense of certainty, no knowledge of divine intentions. Parker argues that Johnson’s relationship to God, and hence to God’s works, is fideist in a specific and limited: “the form of imagination in which the divine is understood is infinitely remote from sensation, analogy, and all discursive knowledge” (231 n. 3). To seek, or rather linger patiently, is pious, but to expect certainty outside of the promises of the Bible is foolish.

This image of a fideist and un-analogical Johnson affirms the thesis of the book, which is that analogical representations of God became impossible after the Augustans had done their work. The contrast between Johnson in this chapter and the account of Edward Young in the previous chapter is meant to be instructive: one incorporates modes of inquiry despite pessimism about its relevance, and the other is meditative to the point of total absence/departure. The other part of this argument is that Johnson, by systematically (dialectically?) opposing his Humanist influences to his fideist beliefs, was in fact two—creating and sustaining a paradox, to the point that “Johnson was not a man of his time” (248).

This last assertion should be closely pondered for its historical implications. If Johnson combines all of these Augustan, Humanist and fideist influences, yet is not of his time, then how does he come to appear at the end of this book? It seems strange to conclude a historically situated reading with this kind of flourish, which shows respect for Johnson as a thinker and writer but leaves us in an odd place. We are told that “Johnson solved the problem that divided the literary culture of his day”—that is, the problem of reinstating religious expression in art—“by dividing himself” (249). The last time we saw such a division was in the account of Abraham Cowley, of whom it was said “He was one of the first to feel the failure of analogy. …one of the first to reckon with the problem of a necessary revision of consciousness” but also one who “left behind an indecipherable legacy” (78-9). If Johnson represents a solution to the problems created by the Augustans, where should we look for a continuation of that solution? If he is not of his time, what is his relevance? To put it another way, is Johnson a transitional figure like Cowley, a representative figure like Pope, or a revolutionary figure like Butler? This account seems in some ways to lean towards a transitional definition: Johnson looks back to Humanist authors “now obscure” and presides over the revival of “fideist art,” albeit without being able to fully occupy the fideist mode in the manner of Edward Young. I find myself wondering what might be the relationship of this final figure to subsequent fideism in Parker’s account.

Finally, I’d like to add on to Kirsten Wilcox’s final question in the previous post by asking frankly what our own assessment might be of the relative readability of Night Thoughts and The Vanity of Human Wishes. Wilcox asks whether Johnson and Young are “united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project”—if they are/if they are not, how might readability (or familiarity—the degree to which either is read these days) affect our ability to judge the similarity or difference of the impulses behind the two poems? And what then would be the relevance of such a comparison?

The Fideist Reaction

Like Bill Levine, I come to “my” chapter late and with less of a first-hand engagement with the rest of Parker’s book than I would like. That said, I’ve been finding the conversation deeply absorbing. This is a book that I will be coming back to, and I’m grateful to this blog for getting me engaged with it at a point in the semester when the demands of teaching exert a relentless pull.

Parker concludes the previous chapter (“Four Poles of the Christian Imagination”) with the recognition that the model he uses to describe the domain of pre-Augustan Christian poetry is not “a kind of simplistic nomenclature to round off the ragged edges and complexities of Christian poetics.” As Carrie pointed out in her post, these categories may be more supple and permeable than the model suggests, when applied to individual works and writers. Nevertheless, “fideism” emerges in the next chapter (“The Fideist Reaction”) as the inevitable solution to “acute” crisis in “the Christian poetic imagination.” The abandonment of analogism and the rise of empiricism, Parker argues, limits the religiously expressive power of poetry up to the 1740s. This transitional late-Augustan poetry (my term, not Parker’s) can range anywhere from the “dismally pedestrian” (Pope’s versions of the Psalms), to the “unassuming, pious, and prosaic” (Watts’ hymns), and the “dubious and contrived” (Hill’s nature poetry).

I wondered about this assertion of “the Christian poetic imagination” and the claim that “the period from 1670 to 1740 did not produce one really important Christian poem aside from hymns” (199). There seems to be a narrowing here of what counts as “poetic imagination.” It’s my impression that devotional poetry proliferates during this period (particularly by women writers), along with hymns (over 500 by Watts alone, as Parker notes). Might this sheer quantity (along with the kind of repetition and imitation it entails) suggest that “the Christian poetic imagination” in the period may have turned away from certain kinds of poetic virtuousity yet still be expressing itself in poetic social practices that sneak under the radar of close readings of aesthetically significant poems? But that’s me beating the new historicist drum, and thinking about the book I would write rather than responding the book Parker wrote.

For Parker, Matthew Prior’s Alma marks the transition to something new: Augustan in “tone and design” it nonetheless “repudiates a good deal of Augustan thinking.” Parker identifies that repudiation with his distinction between “Davidic” and “Solomonic” forms of poetic and religious imagination. The Psalms bear “a naturalistic plenitude like that of a good deal of Baroque English poetry.” After 1700, however, poets were drawn away from the Davidic Psalms to a different poetic vision, that of Ecclesiastes and Job, “a wisdom…based on…the testing in experience of the objects of creation and finding them unequal to man’s spiritual thirst” (218). This “Solomonic” way of viewing the relationship between humans and God was particularly amenable to the fideists who identified “neither image nor analogy, neither reason nor perception, in the endless journey to a God who remains distant and unknowable, except as an object of promise and hope” (215).

The chapter ends with a reading of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which Parker describes as “the supreme…emptying out of the Augustan field of natural objects, and also of the tensions inherent in the heroic couplet…done on behalf of a kind of morbid and protracted wisdom literature, the most peculiar in English” (221). One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Parker’s discussion of Night Thoughts was his effort, as in conveying the novelty of the Augustans, to get across just how new and unusual the poetry he’s writing about was to its contemporary audience. The reading of Night Thoughts is riddled with pithy assessments that simultaneously repel and entice—perverse book-jacket blurbs: “a work…of both incomprehensible novelty and proverbial truth,” “Night Thoughts in turn mesmerizes, irritates and stultifies,” “mixture of witty apothegm and ponderous meditation,” “the supreme dalliance in the field of fideist meditation.” I too have been mesmerized and irritated by Night Thoughts–and perplexed by its invisibility. Fairer and Gerrard did not include it in the Blackwell anthology Eighteenth-Century Poetry (as far as I know the only eighteenth-century poetry-only anthology in print at the moment), and the widely taught Longman anthology of restoration and eighteenth-century literature only includes the first third of Night the First.

Although Parker uses Young’s poem to fully flesh out what “the fideist reaction” is and how it appealed to contemporary audiences, it is here that I begin to wonder if a concept that achieves its supreme expression in such a bewildering poem is really a concept that can usefully unite the range of poetry that Young applies it to. Parker repeatedly speaks of Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes as the “companion piece” to Night Thoughts, yet while both poems present a similar theology of God’s inaccessibility and the crucial leap of faith, these themes play out very differently in the two poems. Young’s poem repeatedly reaches for God over a series of nights in a state framed by “sleep and languorous dream” (as Parker puts it) and rings every possible change on that search. In Johnson’s Vanity the possibility of seeking God (as a futile but perhaps psychologically useful last resort) is raised only at the end of a poem that for the most part focuses on thick descriptions of earthly life. Are these two writers united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project—or are they turning that project in new directions (in Young’s case, turning Thomson’s “anxious eye” inward to watch and learn from the fluctuations of the soul)?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Four poles of the Christian imagination

The placement of this chapter immediately struck me as curious--we don't hear about the "perennial Christian tradition" until Ch. 5 (pg. 174). BP offers the following explanation: "With the examples of Butler, Cowley, Pope and Thomson already fleshed out, it will be easier to summarize the conflicts between Augustan and Baroque imagination" (175). It's interesting to see him go back to the material that the Augustans were responding to, and then to move on to fideism in post-Augustan writers.

BP remarks early in this chapter that the Augustan "is the strand which has formed in different ways the prejudices and habits of thought for the class of enlightened elites which encompasses both capitalists and radical intellectuals" (175). I would propose this remark as something we might discuss further in the comments below. I would have thought, for example, that dissent and fideism were more fruitful philosophical veins for some radical thinkers--or even for capitalism in very traditional accounts of the Protestant work ethic via Weber.

BP presents four modes: the logist (which imagines "a faith perfected by knowledge . . . a faith presenting a distinct object to the intellect"); the analogical ("rather than verbal formulation and equivalence, it seeks in the image of the creature an intelligible or imaginative trace of God"); the mystical ("it attempts a severe discipline to find the unmeditated person of God") and the fideist (it "exists whenever God is perceived as an absence").

The delineation of these modes gives scholars of Christian writing a number of effective tools, allowing for precise descriptions of how a Christian author understands and represents God, and how a Christian author might represent or attain knowledge. Like any delineation, however, the boundaries between "modes" might be investigated. In fact, BP allows for some overlap between the modes within individual works, within the Bible as a whole, and within the careers of individual authors. He notes "the special relations of the two symbolic and the two ontological modes" as well. I would have liked to see more commentary on how some authors combine multiple modes and whether these modes can also be held as distinct categories of Christian symbolism and ontology.

For example, Bunyan is placed as a fideist writer on the chart of 194-5. This makes sense, for Bunyan does indeed seem to be alone in a world vacated by God, and often terrified of having been abandoned by God. As well, he works within classic genres of fideism--the confessional biography and the allegorical spiritual journey narratives. I am wondering, however, whether there is an element of the logist in Bunyan's writing which contradicts the fideist elements. Bunyan, of course, is a very different logist from, say, Eleanor Davies, but he does seem interested in verbal puzzles and in the revealing power of the Book. After all, there is an "Interpreter" figure in The Pilgrim's Progress--and Scripture and Biblical text seems to take on an extremely active role in Grace Abounding as well. And does not the great writer of allegory see God in the "creature" as well? Is there no capacity in Bunyan for the experience of a "figure-making God?" [Donne's words, quite by BP].

My final impression of the "four poles" is that each "pole" is a fruitful interpretative tool to approach Christian writers--but that individual Christian writers might have more of a mixture of each mode than BP allows here.

I would be interested in talking about the emphasis in fideist Christian cultures of "fellowship" or even congregational unity. After reading BP's account of fideism, I wonder if the Lutheran and anabaptist and/or independent emphasis on fellowship is not a direct response to the hollow feeling of an absent God (the second half of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress might exhibit this kind of fellowship, as Christiana is accompanied by a vast company of fellow believers.)

On a separate but related note re. the baroque and shifts of cultural priorities, think of Alex Ross's remarks in The New Yorker about the resurgence of interest in Handel (of course, some of us never left him). Ross writes: "it’s a bit of a mystery why Handel has become so crucial for early-twenty-first-century listeners. The prior century made a cult of Bach, whose music takes the form of an endless contrapuntal quest. Perhaps, in an age of information overload and ambient fear, we have more need for Handel’s gentler, steadier art." Of course Ross also adds that Handel grants us not only gentleness and steadiness but also "high-class melodrama and psychological theater."

Here's the link:

I enjoyed this chapter a great deal.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Thomson and the Problems of the "Literal"

Excuse the belatedness of this post, as I’m still returning to normalcy after finishing up my last classes yesterday. I also wish that my comments could be better informed by a careful study of Parker’s entire work, but at the very least I’ll indirectly address some of the engaging blogging on the earlier chapters.

The highlight of this chapter is a shrewd reading of Thomson’s Summer as the most daunting experiment in the expansion of Augustan “literalism,” including a widened range of subject matter and an associative and accretive (or perhaps one could substitute “metonymic”) basis for the juxtaposition of its positivistic scenes. Parker applies his thesis quite deliberately to Summer, the one book of Thomson’s poem that is most free of moralistic, religious, or generically-encoded overtones and can thus serve as a test case for the limits of a purely empirical poetics. The metaphysical and analogical traces in the book of nature have been emptied out, along with the significations of classical literary tradition. Milton, whose influence is also challenged, is said to be competing with Newton for priority in Thomson’s representations of the summer sun, a poetic source of both “a neutral, mechanistic view and a traditional dramatic one” that emphasizes the fallen nature of the heterocosm. Thomson has already benefited from the satirical assaults on the Baroque aesthetic and its theological residue; thus the ground is cleared for what is by far the most naturalistic mode of poetic representation at this point in history and arguably the forerunner of modern conceptions of nature poetry--a bold move to make at this point after the dominance of Wordsworth—whom I’ll return to later—in this dimension of lit history, and the related dominance of Romantic aesthetics in defining modern critical formations of nature poetry.

At the same time, the application of the book’s larger thesis to Thomson strikes me as a somewhat insular, not only in eliding new historicism, as others have remarked, but also in the way that it engages with the critical practices one might associate with Earl Wasserman, an interweaving of close reading with what was then called the history of ideas, the way a single work is a synecdoche for a governing epistemological formation. Granted, we now recognize elements of continuity and change in formations consisting of works that overlap with and distance themselves from earlier norms. Perhaps, as Marshall Brown put it in Preromanticism, we may also sense that a such works are “on their way” to an emergent formation, remaining in a halfway house between the neoclassical and the Romantic, while still cohering as a viable epistemological construct with its own identity.

In response to earlier blog discussion, this chapter leaves me with no doubt that scientific and intellectual developments had to precede the literary innovation. For instance, one of Parker’s most incisive remark on the impossibility of a Lockeian poetry of pure sensation (160) enters his discussion as part of an elaborate concession to the various forms of abstraction inherent in the nature of language and in Thomson’s moralizing or other generalizing tendencies that may obscure the visual power, immediacy, and “physical verisimilitude” of the poetry. As Parker admits, he’s “running counter” to the major critics on Thomson who have focused on his “moral generalization, classical abstraction, and Christian theodicy” when he asserts that these are the “least important and the least representative qualities in Thomson” (159) and chooses to emphasize the poet’s extensive array of “neutral description” as his most genuinely innovative development. It may be of value to bracket this quality of Thomson, but Parker’s choice foregrounds the problems of selection, exclusion, prioritization, and driving home an overarching thesis in any literary history that attempts to define a “period.” When Wordsworth enters the discussion in rather flat ways that suggest a “resymbolization” and moral elevation of the literally descriptive poetry he had read in his youth but refused to acknowledge in his 1798 Preface, he and the other Romantics are reduced to the equivalent of contrasting boundary-markers; nor do we need to trot out Geoffrey Hartman to prove that Wordsworth and the other Romantics did not simply fall back on “intervening abstractions” to “color and direct” what would otherwise be the more purely empirical “concentrated description” of Pope and Thomson. Even given the concession above, what happens to the problem of poetic diction or the ways that nature turns into an ontology of poetic form and composition? It was Donald Davie who said that one finds Miltonic diction in Thomson, not Milton.

It’s a testimony to the book’s power and erudition that the Thomson chapter left me with several questions I feel rather uneasy in answering without further investigation. One is whether there really is such a thing as “purely literal” poetry. Can the literary historian clear an empirical space untarnished by metaphysical presence between the Baroque and the Romantic? It would also be a curious exercise—perhaps I’ll suggest it to a theoretically inclined grad student--to reflect on the elements of Bate’s Burden of the Past that trickle down into both Harold Bloom and Parker, and the polarized ways that they see poetic influence and originality panning out.

While Parker abundantly provides Arnoldian touchstones that contrast analogical Renaissance depictions of nature with the empirical literalism of Thomson’s, I find it hard to abstract even a few lines from any book of The Seasons that are not already infiltrated by some anterior form of discourse that secures moralistic, classical, secularized-theodical holism, or, alternatively, inductive-scientific closure of the sort that confers systematic meaning upon any individualized natural object as part of a metonymic chain of signifiers. Admittedly, the system of signification has drastically altered by the c18, as the taxonomic plenitude suggested by, for instance, Thomson’s “naturalistic” catalog of morning birds and their calls proceeds by a kind of overdetermined inductive process to signify the providential abundance of the world; it “shows” rather than “tells” as a more traditional hymn would do via openly allegorical “correspondence,” and it’s underwritten more by scientific certainty than by the implied or openly declared presence of a god. Indeed, as Parker clearly argues, the abundance of description threatens to overwhelm the elements of moral closure, but this observation may belong more to the reception aesthetic of the poem (the article on Thomson’s uses of contradiction that John Barrell and Harriet Guest contributed to the New Eighteenth Century collection, e.g.) than a historically-sensitive reconstruction of Thomson’s plan or poetic tendencies. As much as I appreciate Parker’s identification of “downward metaphors of modern positivism” (172) in The Seasons that suggest the affinities between humanity and a natural world denuded of analogical traces, I would ask whether the inductive leaps of science and empirical philosophy serve as the a posteriori God-term in this poetry of Newtonian discovery. Does a new, secularized sign-system (nature as a mechanistic process, e.g.) ever completely supplant its metaphysical predecessor or does it still depend on rewriting or re-allegorizing a continuous cultural heritage preserved in classical and Judeo-Christian texts, albeit approached “scientifically”?

One segment of Parker’s nuanced reading raised doubts about the “literal” that he made generous concessions to without quite establishing or modifying his main argument. Thomson depended on anthropological writings and natural histories in order to envision both edenic and chaotic scenes of life in Africa (165-67), and I agree that he deserves credit for his “studied prospect of minute detail,” even if this prospect relies on literary mediation and its allusive, mostly Miltonic bedrock, as well as elements of fantasy that supplement his factual sources. Yet even if we grant such descriptions the same “literal” status as the images of flora and fauna that his reputedly nearsighted vision could directly detect, the extensive descriptions of African nature indirectly underwrite a teleology of Whiggish progress, latch georgic cultivation (a mode that Parker had earlier discounted as a means of organizing sight and space in Summer [159]), onto the “Progressive Truth” of scientific inquiry, and justify imperial domination.

Finally, to quibble with one example from what I generally find to be his illuminating analogies to the history of painting at this time: How can West’s Death of Wolfe be said to treat its subject in a way that “yields no figurative depth” (156) when there’s an obvious attempt to parallel this hero of secular, modern imperial history with those of the past? It’s not necessary to compare Wolfe with Jesus to see that it’s more than a “merely structural” pose that is indebted to a “mechanical” tradition of history painting that had been emptied of its analogical or typological force. One problem here is that “structural” cannot be equated with “literal”; another is that the moral dimension of this scene has to come from somewhere: is it only “modern” British history or is some level of analogy with classical and biblical culture inevitable, however much their “absence” is now supplanted by the presence of the present. And does even the most “mechanical” of traditions (which gives short shrift to West’s innovations) carry with it some overtones of prior figurations; let’s call it intertextuality if we don’t like the evaluative assumptions inherent in the word “depth.”

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Alex Seltzer on "Scientific Verse" up to about 1730

Alex Seltzer has sent in a guest post in response to Parker's Chapter 4, which is as follows:

In chapter 4 on "Thomson and the invention of the literal," Parker discusses the new objects of poetry: "By 1720 poetry was no longer a basically religious or even courtly manner. It was for the first time the art of everything. It was the vehicle of the fully literal, the realization of the physical and detached nature of things." [p. 137] He then cited Margaret Doody: "Nothing is so common, so bizarre, so unclean -or so grand -that it can't be appreciated and consumed by the poetic process." Doody, The Daring Muse, p. 9].

I have been delving into the "scientific verse" of poets such as Blackmore (Creation), Prior (Solomon), Baker (Universe), Collins (Nature Display'd), Brooke (Universal Beauty). To these I add Thomson's Season's which impresses me as being on a much higher plane and less concerned with the argument by design which was the common theme. My goal has been to extract "arguments by design" based strictly on biological models. The purpose is to draw a parallel between the imagery of these poets and the illustrations of the contemporary naturalist, Mark Catesby. His illustrations of new world flora and fauna have been labeled as the "graphic equivalent of poems." (David Wilson, In the Presence of Nature, 1978, p. 147).

Turning to the natural theological verse of the above poets, we find the bedrock of such poetry consists of example after example of "proofs" of the divine creator's existence as reflected in "the book of nature." More often than not, the poet points out the obvious and conveys it in bombastic terminology. To cite one of my favorite examples, here is Brooke on the architectural skills of bees (a pet topic of these poets) from his Universal Beauty:

Swift for the tasks the ready builders part,
Each band assigned to each peculiar art;
A troop of chymists scout the neighboring field,
While servile tribes the cull'd materials wield,
With tempering feet the labored cement tread,
And ductile now its waxen foliage spread.
The geometricians judge the deep design,
Direct the compass, and extend the line;
The sum their numbers provident of space,
And suit each edifice with answering grace.
Now first appears the rough proportion'd frame,
Rough in draught, but perfect in the scheme;
When lo! Each little Archimedes nigh,
Mates every angle with judicious eye;
Adjusts the center cones with skill profound
And forms the curious hexagon around.
[book 6, lines 191-206]

To repeat, was such poetry consumed, if not by a broad public, then by an influential elite? Are these just faint echoes of John Ray's Wisdom of God? or powerful amplifications that brought "the argument by design" into the mainstream? The very fact that poets were tackling a variety of new subjects suggests that the audience was broadening but that is supposition on my part.

Secondly, is it fair to regard this now as "bad poetry?" Blackmore's Creation was defended by Johnson (Lives of the Poets) but he condemned Prior's Solomon as tedious. I don't know about the others. (Swift's famous ditty about flea's hosting smaller parasites may have been directed towards Baker). I find much of this poetry (to my delight) comparable to the howlers of William McGonagal's Victorian-era "poetic gems" ("Greenland's Icy Mountains"), but he had the defense of being uneducated, whereas Collins' "Little Archimedes" screams that he had a classical education. In fact, there seems to be a conspicuous "show-off" element, each poet trying to out-do the next, much as Swift's "Flea" suggests. Was this sort of poetry exceptionally bad, or merely run-of-the-mill bad? Maybe such a discussion is irrelevant in an academic context?

I've found little on these biologically-oriented poems other than Bonamy Dobree's English Literature in the Early 18th Century. Suggestions on further reading are welcome -both on the poems and the broader context. (Perhaps other pre-1730 poems could be included?)

Sincerely, Alex Seltzer (art historian unfamiliar with poetry) Philadelphia

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Parker Chapter Three: "Pope and Mature Augustanism": Some Reflections

Reading Parker's chapter on Pope was both difficult and interesting for me. Difficult because I have not done much work in the beginning of the century for years now, and interesting because the Augustan poets created my early love affair with the eighteenth century. The first class I took for my masters degree, nearly 10 years ago at the tender age of 21, straight out of my bachelors program, was Augustan Satire, Parody, and Burlesque. The course followed the same rough outline that Parker takes in his book: we began with Butler's Hudibras and continued on with Swift's scatalogical poetry, which fascinated and mystified me, and moved on to Pope and Gay. As Dave wrote, there were numerous sections in Parker's book that pulled together a lot of things about the individual writers I had previously thought but not in an organized way. Parker's book is so dense and his analysis so layered that I have found it enormously difficult to be critical--I feel like my three year-old daughter must feel when she looks at the selection of princess dolls at the Disney store and all she can say is, "Wow." There were so many different ideas that really intrigued me that I am having a hard time picking just a few to discuss.

There are aspects of the chapter that are brilliant. Parker's analysis of the meaning of the sylphs in The Rape of the Lock is one such aspect. Rejecting previous interpretations of the sylphs and their role within the poem, Parker suggests rather that the sylphs have no real function in the poem, and that this is Pope's point in including them. They are not real; they do not exist. Parker writes, "The imagination alone can add them. They are beautiful traces of cultural memory. Their elaboration only enforces the strict realization of their metaphysical impossibility" (106). The non-existence of the sylphs works, according to Parker, to emphasize to the reader Belinda's "autonomy--and through Belinda the autonomy of the man or woman of sentiment. By collapsing the heavenly and the demonic spheres, the binarism of Renaissance spirituality becomes purely psychological" (106).

Another intriguing aspect of Parker' s argument in this chapter is his notion that Pope's inclusion of the sylphs helps make the satire in the poem seem gentler and thus "masks" the Hudibrastic elements of the poem: "The sylphs, the sphere of the angelic and the fatal, lack the real force and weight of the personified 'Discord' of Boileau, the 'Ignorance' of Butler, the 'Absurdity' of Hobbes, or Dryden's 'Dullness.' All these are substantial elements in the moral landscape of the Augustan world. Their role is to anatomize the vices of the vain and ignorant and to clear a space for the Lockeian sensus communis. Such a withering critique retains the normative power of traditional satire. In this difference lies the particular power and charm of Pope's poem. For the modern reader, Butler and Swift may appear to bludgeon mankind. Their satire is often violent, sometimes repellant. The Rape of the Lock, while performing the cultural work of Augustan satire--that is, clearing away the rubble of the past, and making a space for the imperturbable observer--does it with such grace and elan that it goes unnoticed" (107). In all, Parker's discussion of The Rape of the Lock and particularly of the role of the sylphs within the poem made me wish, as I think Carrie and Dave have also, that I had read this book before now.

What most intrigues me is Parker's larger point about the scope of the Augustan "project," if such it can be called, and the ways in which he suggests poetics dictates similar shifts in other fields. I am really interested in his notion that imaginative shifts create philosophical ones, rather than the other way around. There was one particular section that struck me in this regard: "Although the low Augustan, the Hudibrastic, has an obvious counterpart in the practice of Hogarth, and the higher in Gainsborough and Wilson, these connections point to an underlying departure from emblem and icon. Landscape and history painting invoke the classical as literal" (122). This passage encapsulates a primary point of Parker's third chapter: the classicism in Pope is transformed from analogical to literal through Pope's use of what Parker calls "the method of the empirical within poetry" (122). However, the passage also points to the broadness of Augustanism in the early 18th century and reinforces his previous hints about the connections between Augustan poetics and novelistic writing. These hints were tantalizing to me, almost in an agonizing way, because they were just hints--I wanted more in-depth discussion of the connections between Augustan poetics and the novel, though I recognize that such a discussion lies outside of Parker's purpose in this work.

There were so many of these types of hints that made me stop reading and just think for a while--one or two sentences in which, as I said above, random thoughts I'd had about the writers coalesced into more distinct shapes--and the more I try to write about them, the less satisfied I become with this post. So I will stop here and hope to continue the discussion in the comments area.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Chapter 2: the eclipse of analogy, and periodizations of the sign

A few thoughts about ch. 2, which take off from my earlier post.

The more I read this book, the more strongly I'm reminded of the epistemic arguments of the Order of Things, and especially the periodizations of the sign offered in that book, as well as those influenced by Foucault's and Juri Lotman's historical semiotics. I'm thinking here of David Wellbery and Friedrich Kittler's work on the historicity of signification, though I don't expect others to follow me there.

I say this knowing full well that BP argues against epistemes in his introduction, but for me the most compelling part of his argument is the way in which he uses the large-scale paradigm-shifts in figuration as the basis for his Baroque-Augustan dividing line. This is one reason why I think that BP's work sits very nicely with Wellbery and Bender's work on "rhetoricality," and the massive implications of the shift from rhetorical to anti-rhetorical paradigms during the Enlightenment. This anti-analogy/anti-rhetorical shift encompasses many of the issues of prose style, history-writing, etc. that come up here in this chapter.

I'm also intrigued by the notion in the closing pages about this period's "reinvention of nature," and it does seem that BP is exactly right when he talks about the natural scenery of Pope's pastorals being more literal, more empirical, more temporalized somehow than the leafy scenes found in earlier versions of the pastoral. I'm not sure I want to read the Deus Absconditus into this as quickly as BP does, but it does mean that the presence of empirical science is being registered in very subtle ways: perhaps science lends to things an impervious shell of facticity that the Augustan observer need not delve into. But I do appreciate BP's idea that the "literalism" of the Augustans is not a blankness or absence, but a very specific set of approved relations to signification, with other forms of signification either interdicted or degraded almost beyond recognition.


Transitional Augustan poetry, anyone?

I promised I would pick up the slack on the "Transitional Augustan poetry" chapter, and have written and deleted several posts that attempted to address this chapter. All my attempts were very bad, so I have decided to keep this as short as possible and hope for comments.

I enjoyed this chapter very much, as it addresses Cowley, whose poetry I often find myself reading aloud in funny voices. In fact, I would say this was the chapter that most directly answered my own queasiness/fascination with the early Augustan. Much of the who/what/when/how of the Augustan shift is described in this chapter, but I admit I required seeing Parker elaborate in the Pope chapter that follows before I saw clearly where this was going.

I wonder if it is a failure of my imagination that I am more comfortable discussing authors who are self-consciously manipulating a dominant aesthetic than those who are caught between two ages, still holding onto the tail of one while they grasp out toward the head of the next. I think Parker does this well, but I did not nod furiously along as I read it (as I did when I came to Pope), but thought instead, "Is that really so?"

Monday, December 04, 2006

belated but joyful posting

Dear all,
I find myself in an overwhelming week of dreadfully packed days and cannot imagine being able to write anything substantial until Friday at the earliest...and maybe even Sunday. I'll be covering the "four poles of the Christian imagination" chapter, and I will need more time (dinner was pizza at the Q74 bus stop). But I didn't want any more time to go by without saying what an enriching experience reading The Triumph of Augustan Poetics has been--just the kind of book that you want to press into the hands of anyone interested in poetry or culture. I wish I had read it years ago. For me this is a model of what a critical book should be. The book is, first of all, extremely generous, opening up all kinds of entrance points into the period--letting you explore all kinds of valleys and streams of your own, testing out the arguments against your own pursuits. But Parker also honors & enriches the reader by offering his opinions of texts and giving you a sense of the intellectual work behind this judgement. I like the way he shows his cards, over and over again--there's a unique combination here of deep thinking and a kind of open-ended joyfully opinionated discerning engagement.

More later. Hours to go before...

Dancing on Bloody Stumps: Samuel Butler's Turn against the Baroque

Let me begin by saying how much I enjoyed reading this chapter about Butler. It's been a long time since I read a literary history that was as substantial as this one was, which seamlessly integrated intellectual history with literary history in its treatment of the culture of the Baroque, even while it sustained a through-line of argument from beginning to end. For this reason alone, I'm grateful I came upon this book, which to me seems like a natural for teaching in a course like my Restoration-Eighteenth century Preseminar, which is designed to cover the major authors, genres, and issues of our period for grad students beginning work in the long eighteenth.

Since Triumph synthesizes so many of the classic critical texts and arguments I've used for teaching this material (Eliot, Wasserman, Miner, etc.) over the years, it seems like a good choice for that kind of wide-ranging period-based course. One of my recurring experiences while reading the book was seeing Parker explain his constellations of authors (Butler-Swift-Sterne, for example) in ways that I had intuited but never fully articulated to myself. This quality makes it a good model, I think, for those trying to teach students to devise their own literary histories, or trying to write their own.

As I mentioned last night, I also liked the fact that Triumph maintains a global view of generic relations during this period, and tries hard to see these authors as engaged in debates and problems that predate their careers and ramify for the rest of the period. The specifically figurative terms highlighted in this study, terms like "analogy" or "literal," or the period terms, like "Baroque" or "neo-classical" or "Augustan," clearly group together texts from different genres, written for disparate purposes, but which reveal the pressure of a particular episteme on the writers of the same era.

(Incidentally, though BP faults Foucault and the other "Zeitgeist historians" for neglecting the fissures of interest and divisions of thought which mark every culture (24), it's unclear to me how important these fissures are to his own argument, since both Butler and Benlowes, Cowley and Dryden, in their own ways experience a culture-wide "eclipse of analogy," though Benlowes and Cowley suffer an irrevocable irrelevance because they are less capable (or less aware?) than Butler and Dryden of responding to this Zeitgeist shift in their own writings.)

As for Butler, Butler's importance in this account stems from the fact that he represents the first historical instance of what BP calls the "rhetoric of exclusion," (25), the "special elements of modernity in English Restoration and eighteenth-century writing--disaffection from ritual, alienated individualism, positivism, mistrust of language, and the cult of taste" (27). Butler becomes especially important because of his role as formal, stylistic, and moral-intellectual model for the Augustan generation of writers, chiefly Swift and Pope (25), but it seems to me that Butler's advantage over writers like Cowley or even Dryden seems to lie, as with Hobbes, in his self-awareness of his own modernity, and his lack of nostalgia for the inherited authorities that other writers of his generation still tried to rely upon.

In this shared contempt for inherited authorities (classical and biblical), Hobbes along with Butler seem interested in the prestige of the new science, even if they both had deeper interests in the antique or the arcane than earlier commentators had once believed. But I wished while reading this chapter that BP had also spent a little more time considering the fact that perhaps the greatest reason for mid-century writers of every political background to reject inherited authorities was the massive failure of elite culture to protect its interests during the Civil Wars.

This may be my own hobby-horse, but I do think that we could substitute "anti-rhetorical" for BP's "anti-analogy" or "anti-Humanist" while describing Butler or Hobbes, and come up with a fine explanation for what inspired royalists like Hobbes and Bramhall to tangle with one another for much of the mid-century over Free Will. So I wonder whether Parker would accept my substitution of "rhetoric" for "analogy" in this argument, to designate the common enemy for both Butler and Hobbes in the political ruins of the mid-century? (Cf. for example, 48-9)

Though I find no mention of Habermas or Koselleck here, it seems to me that the rhetorical-polemical move BP identifies with Butler--equating Protestant enthusiasm with superstitious Catholic (or Anglican) demands for persecuting one's opponents--is congruent with Habermas and Koselleck's observations about the momentous step taken when Hobbes equated "conscience" with "opinion." (Cf. Public Sphere, 90 and n.) The result was that in Habermas' terms, "it was of no consequence for the state from whose perspective one was worth as much as the other." This doctrinal indifference fosters an erastian distrust of any group who claim a "religious" motivation for their political views, and reinforces a skeptical look at the motives of anyone who uses religious identity as the basis for political participation. This is what underlies what BP calls his "genius to discover the underlying likeness between all the varieties of religious imagination" (33).

I think the emphasis later in the chapter on the intellectual debts of Hume and Gibbon to Butler's "even-handed" rejection of enthusiasm and superstition (what else is there?) reveals something about the polemical strand of Enlightenment hostility to religious institutions and especially popular sectarianism, though I don't think it tells the whole story. I was also intrigued by the few comments about the Butler/Sterne connection, which I think would properly center on the question of the figural in Sterne, and our difficulty in deciding where the boundary between the literal and the figural lies in much of Sterne's bawdy. Calling this quality in Butler novelization seems like a partial gesture, but it doesn't really explain how this kind of figuration traveled from Butler's poetry into Sterne's novelistic prose.

Finally, it seems to me that the closing pages' story of modernization as debasement, materialization, literalization, etc. simply reopen the problem I wondered about at the outset of this essay, which is what authors escape this logic, if these supposedly fissured or uneven set of developments seem nonetheless to demand in every instance a "search for the literal," or a language that "evades the necessity of metaphor"?



Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Augustan Period as a Rethinking of Traditions

Thanks, Carrie, for setting up this reading and providing us with a very lucid introduction to BP's book and its aims.

Since I'll be posting tomorrow morning on chapter 1, the Samuel Butler chapter, I'll just take up a few issues from yours and Matt's posts. Nonetheless, I think these issues will probably recur in discussion:

For me, the most useful thing about the Triumph is its ability to serve as a case study in the opposing literary-historical problems of periodicity and the persistence of traditions. Even more helpfully, this book really does have the generic breadth that enables BP to view these developments in the broadest possible light.

Here, the key question seems to involve the exact relation of Augustan "neo-classicism" to two forms of inherited or "traditional" (this is BP's term, I think) authority: historical Christianity and classical antiquity. So we have the period-specific uses of Horace or biblical sources, but the sometime puzzling persistence of genres like the epic

In this instance, Parker focuses upon the transition out of the "Baroque" and into the "Augustan" to fashion a larger-scale argument about the birth of modernity, which is treated here as yet another narrative of disenchantment, flattening, loss of collective and sacred meaning, etc. etc. The goal, as far as I can see, is some kind of historicist reanimation of the Baroque, so that its true breadth and depth can be seen from the inside rather than outside.

Carrie's description nicely encapsulates this aspect of the argument:

While the critical history of the Augustan period has always marked the move away from metaphor, flights of imaginative fancy, "superstition" and "enthusiasm," and the shift toward a commitment to empiricism and mimetic description, Parker specifically notes that this shift comes, first, as a total rejection of the aesthetics of traditional Christianity, not necessarily, as the writers of the age would style it, as a "return" to classical values. The only way to get to the aesthetic values of Addison, Pope, and Johnson is by first actively destroying the dominant modes of representation.

I agree with this characterization of the period's novelty, though it doesn't seem at all counter-intuitive to me, or even that surprising, in the wake of, say, Raymond Williams' discussion of the dominant and the residual in Marxism and Literature, or the reception studies of the classical past done by the followers of Warburg, or the recent critics of Swift who have emphasized his affiliations with the Moderns rather than the Ancients. In fact, I would be interested to hear more specifically from Parker who his specific targets were when he wrote this book, or at least what forms of criticism he was writing against. I do agree wholeheartedly, though, with the book's argument that "neo-classicism" nowadays seems a whole lot more "neo" than "classical."

What I am not sure about is whether BP has really gotten beyond the "dissociation of sensibility" thesis of Eliot, since he seems to be arguing for a similarly broad and irrevocable estrangement of poets and poetry from the sacred (or is it from a holistic culture that embraces the sacred?) around the mid-seventeenth century. The anti-rhetorical, anti-figurative, anti-analogical thought of the Augustans was first given memorable expression by Samuel Butler, the poet who invented a form, Hudibrastics, ugly enough to suit his era's political behavior. And as I'll elaborate tomorrow, I find this reading of Butler very convincing.

Nonetheless, what I really wanted from this introduction, and what I didn't quite receive, was a fuller explanation of what BP meant by "the literal" in writing, and what relation this term had to the still-emergent empiricism of the mid-seventeenth century. Here I would second Matt in his questions about the causal relations of literature to philosophy.

What's more, I kept wondering about the exact contours of the big historical break we keep hearing about, and whether it happens fast or slowly, or in a number of places or all at once. But it is nice to hear that Samuel Butler and his writing stand as one of the causes of these momentous changes.


Parker's Intro, Follow-up: The Pace and Dating of Cultural Change

Carrie, thank you for arranging this event and getting us all started. I'm looking forward to the discussion. Thank you also for your careful account of Blanford Parker's argument. I appreciate the time you have taken to summarize the complex and wide-ranging argument of the introduction and the ease with which you seem to have done so. My only quarrel with your reading is your claim that Parker details a "slow conceptual divorce of art from the traditional Christian imagination." In fact, I don't think the discursive and imaginative changes described arrive gradually in Parker's literary history at all, but rather arrive suddenly and violently. At various moments, Parker describes the shift from Baroque to Augustan aesthetics as a "rupture," "irruption" and "interruption."

It is not uncommon for scholars of the late 17th century to locate shifts of all kinds in this period, but Parker's attempts to explain the changes are, as Carrie Shanafelt rightly points out, quite radical. What is perhaps unique about Parker's account of the period is that he makes aesthetic shifts primary (as opposed to, say, philosophical shifts). According to Parker, by the end of the 17th century, not only had the conceptual framework of the scholastics been destroyed, but so too had the imaginative foundation upon which it stood. The rhetorical moves made by Hobbes, and Butler in particular, are the necessary precondition not only for the tropes and argumentative structures in Swift and the later Augustans, but also for the emergence of a secular modernity. Parker's implicit argument seems to be that changes in philosophy and religion are predicated upon changes in imaginative associations. The later logics of science, literalism, and positivism depend upon lateral, metonymic, and spatial associations rather than upon analogy, and this shift occurs first in Butler and his contemporaries. Once the change has occurred in poetry, every aspect of culture, literary and intellectual, must come into ideological alignment (despite, of course, the persistence, as Parker quickly points out, of figures like Bunyan, Wesley and Whitefield -- but their rhetoric, too, is sharpened by the need to respond to the changed imaginative landscape, post-Butler).

Because this change must necessarily occur first in the imagination and be made manifest in poetry, it might make sense to argue for the slow growth of a newly organized set of imaginative relationships and associations, their gradual deployment by writers, and a slow seepage of a new ideology into the broader culture. While we might imagine changes in poetic style to be gradual, Parker makes it clear that these changes in style and the attendant intellectual modes they imply are quite sudden. "The process whereby English culture moved from the acrobatic credulity of Browne to the cool and abject skepticism of Hume in less than eighty years was neither automatic nor inevitable… The suddenness and severity of this moment of Augustan interruption is still of the greatest significance in our endless struggle to explain modernity" (24). Here, in addition to arguing for the speed of these changes, he also insists that their occurrence is far from inevitable. I understand this to mean that these changes seem to grow out of acts of imaginative will, deliberate interventions -- both rhetorical and stylistic -- on the level of representation. It is the collective effort of writers and thinkers overthrowing the tyranny of scholasticism, and challenging all at once, through a reordered set of imaginative relationships, the four traditions of Christian theology that Parker argues the Baroque world inherited.

The question remains, and I think it may (still and always) be the central question for students of the Early Modern Period (and of the Enlightenment): how radical is the break and how sudden? What is entirely new, and what remains either transformed, or perhaps fully intact, from one period to the next? Parker is careful to distinguish the changed set of imaginative relationships from what others might call "Zeitgeist." He also challenges Foucault's assumption that the episteme of one period is unknowable to people of another. Furthermore, he argues for a continuity of imagination -- here called modernity -- from the age of Butler to our own age (the age of Colbert? -- Colbert seems to use similar satirical techniques of exclusion and leveling, especially in his efforts to collapse differences between liberals and conservatives). But, despite Parker's efforts to argue that history is not marked by divides across which one generation may fail to recognize another, Parker argues for a pretty sudden and severe shift. No doubt, the Civil War is the great traumatic event allowing for such a compressed period of intellectual change. I am inclined to agree with Parker on this point, but I also try to be cautiously skeptical about such arguments (the most recent being the contemporary tendency to locate in 9/11 the spontaneous birth of an entirely new world).

In the discussion of McKeon's book, Carrie Hintz wrote in one of her comments, "I have medieval colleagues who regularly chastise me (however gently & affectionately) for assuming that the epistomelogical/ cultural/ literary changes which congealed into modernity all emerged in the early modern period." Indeed, I think there is always a danger of arguing too forcefully that everything or most things changed all at once, and in a few years. In a later post, Hintz referred to "habits of mind" as an explanation for such shifts in culture. It seems that Parker is suggesting a transformation in deeply rooted habits of mind in this period. He makes a compelling case for this kind of reading of history, and in locating the changes in style, rhetoric and associative figures makes their seeming suddenness hard to ignore. This, of course, raises one further question, perhaps the hardest of all to work out, and that is whether the associative structures of imaginative literature cause changes in intellectual history, or if they instead register changes already underway.

Introduction: The Christian imagination vs. the critical history

Welcome to the collaborative reading of Blanford Parker's The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson! We look forward to a great conversation over the next week as we move through this text, with responses to Parker, Parker's responses to us, and our dialogue with one another. Please feel free to jump in at any point in the comments and/or with posts on the front page. Keep in mind that comments over 10,000 characters will be truncated, so if you have something very lengthy to say, consider posting it to the front page (if you are already on our contributors' roster) or emailing it to me and I'll put it up for you. I will begin with a short response to the introduction, and we'll proceed roughly sequentially from there.

Parker's introduction begins with a reframing of the discourse surrounding Augustan aesthetics as a process of rejecting the Baroque, which he describes as a set of aesthetic responses to four traditions of Christian theology, the mystical, logist, fideist, and analogical. The Augustan, for Parker, is not, as has been assumed by most critics, a return to classical, or even the creation of a "neoclassical," aesthetic, but a slow conceptual divorce of art from the traditional Christian imagination.

This divorce begins with the leveling satires of Boileau, Butler, Rochester, Dryden, and Swift, which mock not Christianity itself, but the imaginative excesses of Christian thought, "the 'acrostic land' of the logist; the maddened, inward 'aeolist' imagination of the fideist; the self-lacerating obsessions of the mystic; and most of all the empty conceits of the analogists" (2). While the critical history of the Augustan period has always marked the move away from metaphor, flights of imaginative fancy, "superstition" and "enthusiasm," and the shift toward a commitment to empiricism and mimetic description, Parker specifically notes that this shift comes, first, as a total rejection of the aesthetics of traditional Christianity, not necessarily, as the writers of the age would style it, as a "return" to classical values. The only way to get to the aesthetic values of Addison, Pope, and Johnson is by first actively destroying the dominant modes of representation.

This move is, of course, never separate from the historical relationship of the seventeenth century succession to the rise of religious faction. No aesthetic movement is ahistorical. "Augustan literature," Parker writes, "was the first great victory over the culture of analogy, memorial authority, and traditional theology, and their classicism is no more backward-looking or authentic than that of Shelley or even Joyce" (7). Parker argues against the twentieth century critical history that has compressed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century aesthetics so that "Leavis [...] and Brooks [...] began to see the same virtues of figural compression and even conceit in Pope and Gray that Eliot had discovered in Donne" (9). That is, the distinctions that were so self-consciously made across a hundred and fifty years of poetry, that moved from the theological and aesthetic excesses of the "metaphysicals" to the empirically descriptive poets of the high Augustan, have been minimized from the great distance of the New Critical era, and that compression has, to some extent, not been remedied in the intervening years.

The poverty of criticism in the period is partially to blame. Parker notes that the poetry between the late Renaissance and the Romantic eras are not well read even in primary texts, much less in critical ones. He also faults the "too rigorous distinction between the prose and poetic genres of the period" (12) for the lack of criticism on Augustan aesthetics. It has been easy for criticism like T.S. Eliot's to become ascendant and remain, always, on the table when so few have offered to correct it. Parker's extended criticism of Eliot's misrepresentation of the Augustan as a "revolt against the 'descriptive'" (18) demonstrates the intrusion of Eliot's own aesthetic commitments into his treatment of the era.

But while Parker faults Eliot for compressing the Augustan into a modern fantasy of historicized poetic difference, he criticizes Foucault for the opposite—removing the Augustan from its Baroque roots and setting it alongside the undeniably modern. That is, Parker feels Foucault is guilty of being duped by the rhetoric of the Augustan, which self-consciously attempts to erase its own history for the sake of innovation, while, as Parker shows in the first chapters of the Triumph, tendrils of surviving Baroque "excesses" still spring up everywhere in transitional Augustan poetry.

This seems to me to be a book that has the potential to radically reconfigure our understanding of the Augustan era, and to allow both for historical attention to the origins of eighteenth-century aesthetics and for the innovations of the era. I look forward to seeing how you feel this approach could be applied to criticsm and even pedagogy, and I will respond further in the comments.

The Price of Innovation

Commenting on the “Blogs and Wikis” thread below, Carrie Shanafelt wrote,

Every time I try to introduce innovative methods and texts that my English majors don't expect, it ends up benefitting those who work hard and are curious and penalizing those who are just trying to get a C. That is, I feel the more pedagogically sound my teaching is, the more my classes' grades split into As and Fs.

Do others attempting innovative teaching methods encounter this phenomenon? When we try to get students to interact with difficult course material in new ways, does it inevitably punish the students with lackluster academic skills and reward those who come to the class with better preparation for success?

I was struck by Carrie’s comment because her wiki assignment strikes me as an excellent way to meet the learning needs of a certain kind of “C” student: the ones who are willing to make an effort but who (for whatever reason) write poorly and have trouble figuring out how to do the interpretive close reading that gets rewarded in the literature classroom. Asking all students to produce a chunk of information on schedule seems like a great way to use and reward the skills that these “C” students bring to the course. It also seems like an entirely appropriate way to punish the other kind of “C” student—the ones who could do better but choose not to as they run down the clock on their degrees. The expectations and requirements for success are clearly spelled out, as are the consequences for not meeting them. It’s not the instructor’s responsibility to translate students’ willful mediocrity into precisely the mediocre grades they think they deserve. But perhaps in the context of a variety of writing assignments that go against the grain of lit-class practice, weaker students don’t perceive the distinctions between the skills that are being drawn on and just get generally discouraged?

I guess I’m wondering if the A/F bifurcation Carrie is observing just polarizes the range that would be there in a more traditional incarnation of this class, or if innovative methods rearrange the categories of excellence such that talented students who coast get punished more than they would by less innovative methods, and hardworking but intellectually limited students get rewarded more?

My own efforts at innovation in my Enlightenment class seem to have produced a different kind of dynamic. A higher percentage of the class than in the past seems to be engaged with the material and willing to make an effort to understand, interpret, and contextualize it, but the remainder that hasn’t been bought on board (though smaller) seems much more resistant and entrenched than in the past. It’s as if the more I make C18 material accessible and comprehensible to students, the more room I give the ones who dislike it to really hate it, and to assert their inability to shake the assumptions they came in with. It's gratifying that this semester this hostility seems focused on the material and not me, but otherwise I’m not sure if this phenomenon counts as progress or not.

Anyone else care to take a break from end-of-semester grading to reflect on the price of innovation?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Blogs and Wikis for Undergrads

As some of us prepare for next semester's teaching, I'd like to propose a variation on Dave's thread below: using blogs or wikis for undergraduate C18 teaching.

I've tried using WebCT to generate online discussions in previous classes, with only limited success. Part of the problem is that WebCT in my institution has a reputation for being slow, cumbersome, and unreliable--and it seems to crash spectacularly at least once a semester--so students tend to regard it with suspicion. The other problem is that I haven't been able to come up with a way of requiring and evaluating online discussions that doesn't seem strained and artificial, inadvertently stifling the potential of the medium for provoking original, spontaneous, and risky thought.

Moving away from WebCT to other formats would solve the first problem. I've looked at Carrie Shanafelt's wiki (which I gather takes the form of Wikipedia, but doesn't actually interact with the "real" Wikipedia that created such problems for Thalia's Daughters--correct me if I've got this wrong). And clearly, I have also perused Miriam Jones's course blogs. I see a lot in both formats that I would like to emulate, but I'd like to know more about the potential problems and pitfalls of the form. Do students balk at creating the necessary online identity? Do they actually read each other's posts, comments, and wiki entries? How do you encourage them to respond to each other? Has the public availability of the sites been a problem? Do students find it reasonable to post to both a blog and a wiki among their other course requirements?

I know Carrie and Miriam have both discussed their use of these course elements already on this site, but I would be interested in knowing more about these kinds of nuts-and-bolts issues from them, and from anyone else currently blogging and wiki-ing with success. I would also be interested in hearing the experiences of people who have not found it pedagogically useful to take their students online, or who have been stymied by logistical problems.

Friday, December 01, 2006

William Empson, Hero of Modern Criticism

Courtesy of those mannish men who populate the Valve, I'm passing along two good LRB reviews of William Empson's recently published letters and biography, edited and written, respectively, by John Haffenden. The first is a memoir/review by Frank Kermode, the second an essay by Adam Phillips.

Kermode talks from personal experience, and gives us his own insights into Empson's truly appalling personal hygiene, along with a few unappealing details from Empson's love life. Phillips' essay seems to me to be the more insightful, and I appreciated this description of E's non-method:

He was a critic with an idiosyncratic intelligence and without a method – so he could be admired but not followed. He didn’t want to gang up to bully the bullies; what he was after was piecemeal refutation of unacceptable arguments whenever they occurred. Letters were one of the ways in which he could do this. ‘What else does one write criticism for except to win agreement?’ he asks in a letter to Christopher Ricks, and yet the winning of agreement – or perhaps the winning of too much agreement, the way literature coerced assent instead of opening argument – was the very thing that troubled Empson.

. . . .

‘The more one understands one’s own reactions,’ Empson wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, ‘the less one is at their mercy.’ The possibility of disagreement was, I think, mostly evidence for Empson that one was not at anyone’s mercy. The writer could be at the mercy of his conflicts, just as the critic could be at the mercy of the text, or the institution that employed him. So the Empson who believed that the most morally disreputable thing a writer could do was suppress the conflicts that animated him, the Empson who preferred a clash to a consensus, could also write in a letter when he was in his sixties that ‘poetry is insincere unless it is clinical, resolving conflicts in the author and thus preventing him from going mad; to do this it must satisfy himself as completely unconfused and indeed bare; and if the effects of doing this were trying for the reader, that was nothing to worry about – he could have the pleasure of doing a puzzle.

A similar, ultimately rationalistic tactic characterizes his Structure of Complex Words, I'd argue, whereby we learn very patiently to unfold the "doctrines" contained within Complex Words so that they lose their force over us.

And yet alongside the Structures, my personal favorite, we have to consider Milton's God, which has a passage that Kermode points out as one of the best, most thoroughgoing responses to Pascal's Wager he knows of:

[Pascal] argued, while more or less inventing the mathematics of Probability, that since the penalties for disbelief in Christianity are infinitely horrible and enduring, therefore, if there is any probability, however tiny (but finite) that the assertions of religion are true, a reasonable man will endure any degree of pain and shame on earth (since this is known beforehand to be finite) on the mere chance that the assertions are true. The answer is political, not mathematical; this argument makes Pascal the slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie. A man ought therefore to reject such a calculation; and I feel there has been a strange and unpleasant moral collapse during my own lifetime, because so many of our present literary mentors not only accept it but talk as if that was a moral thing to do. Clearly, if you have reduced morality to keeping the taboos imposed by an infinite malignity, you can have no sense of personal honour or of the public good.

Whatever one thinks[writes Kermode], whatever Pascal might have said about this, it is rather thrilling to have Christian doctrine lined up against ‘personal honour’ and ‘the public good’, and in such strong Johnsonian prose. But the voice is the true voice of Empson. He even calls Pascal ‘neo-Christian’, thus grouping him with his own craven and shameless contemporaries who don’t even pretend to believe in their religion; ‘they regard it as a general moral truth that one ought to tell lies in favour of the side which is sure to win.’

This "political" reading of Pascal's authoritarian forms of prediction fascinatingly anticipates views like those found in Suskind's One-Percent Doctrine, transforming the ascetic Pascal into a repulsive, Cheneyesque figure.

I have always felt there was some affinity between Johnson and Empson, apart from their views on the deity, and I think we may have found it here on Pascal. There is, certainly, a willingness to label others not just immoral but disgusting. But somehow, in the course of making those judgments, and even while arguing for them, Empson never loses sight of the conflicts that motivated those judgments in the first place.