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.