07 February, 2007

Aesthetics with a Hammer

It is greater to hate the world than to love it; he who loves, thereby desires, but he who hates is self-sufficient, needing nothing beyond the hatred in his own heart, and no third party.

The Night Watches of Bonaventura (c. 1805)
On a recent comment-thread at the Valve, I admitted that I disliked the work of Virginia Woolf. In fact, I provocatively called her 'imcompetent'. The provocation turned out to be too much for the denizens of this website. It seems, gentlemen, that I had stumbled upon a nest of Woolfophilic vipers! In the ensuing carnage I was foolishly labelled 'sexist' and 'misogynist', and accused of a 'personal failing'. Mamma mia! Bloomsbury had prevailed. A man named Rich Puchalsky, who is near-omnipresent over there, claimed that my dislike of Woolf showed the 'poverty of my approach', that approach being 'formalism':
Thus formalism, at least to the extent that you advocate, is an impoverished approach, because it prevents you from appreciating certain forms of literature. . . at a certain point, the consensus of critical judgement is enough.
My response was as follows:
All outlooks prevent one from appreciating certain examples—and even certain forms—of literature. I would rather be discerning than blandly appreciate all things. And whatever it is you choose to dislike, I might turn around and say that your approach is impoverished because it prevents you from appreciating it.
To which he replied:
But certain outlooks prevent you from appreciating more examples and forms than others. That’s why I chose the word “impoverished”—the poor person has less than the rich person.
I think that many of my readers will have some sympathy with Rich's position here. The argument is couched in sadly utilitarian terms—as if Outlook A, which gave a positive valuation to 743 novels, were superior to Outlook B, which valued only 482—but assuredly there is some important thrust behind it. Rich's unstated assumption is that as your readerly abilities develop, as your intellect becomes more subtle and sophisticated, you begin to understand more and more literature—and you begin to like more and more literature. The word 'appreciate' bridges the two senses, 'understand' and 'like'. A similar argument is sometimes offered by jazz apologists—what sounds like a chaotic noise is revealed in its full delightful complexity by the ear that discerns the myriad tonal patterns therein.

But I wonder if I might tempt you with another thought.

Perhaps—perhaps—it would be just as acceptable to suggest the reverse—that the more sophisticated one becomes, the more subtle one's judgement, the fewer things one likes. Why appreciation? Why not rather depreciation? Or even contempt? Is there not as much pleasure—or more, even—in contempt, as in admiration? Does admiration not come from awe? And are we not awe-struck by the sublime, by that which we do not understand? Surely then, the more we understand a work, the less admiration we should have for it. Surely we come to learn a work, and its complexities, so as to transcend it—so as to make ourselves superior to it. The greatest of readers, then, would be superior to all books. He would despise as simplistic even Finnegans Wake. Down he would peer at the poor scuttlers in their labyrinth, chuckling faintly to himself as they busied themselves in its decipherment. What joy he would derive from his universal literary disprision!

Reader, whence comes your delight at having understood The Four Quartets? Be honest now. You say 'spiritual enrichment', or even 'the mere pleasure of the text'. But is it not rather a satisfaction at the thought of being with Mr. Eliot in a room, a small room at that, with just a few fellows, and of gazing out the window, down at the street, where the uncomprehending masses toil without rest?

How much better would it be to find yourself on a neighbouring rooftop, gazing proudly down on Mr. Eliot himself? Would you not then see the appreciant's insufferable smugness for what it really is?

Now, I admit that I am not the greatest of readers. I still admire Finnegans Wake, for instance. Oh, how I envy Mr. Joyce! He sits above me on his poenitential stool, casting down imprecations upon me in his unintelligible brogue. I lap them up, every one of them. And I appreciate 'Bonaventura'—perhaps identified with Schelling—who composed the miserablist classic Die Nachtwachen, prefacing this post. But at least I am a better man than Rich Puchalsky, who still appreciates Woolf! Do not snigger, dear reader. Perhaps there is some writer you appreciate, and would rather pretend otherwise. I was once like Rich. When I was 18 I thought The Waves a decent little bonbon, lyrical and suggestive. But then I turned 19. Does that sting? Then I suggest you get your foot on the ladder as soon as possible.


Rich cast aspersions on my ability to 'teach literature'. Well, I have a mind to impart this marvelous philosophy of depreciation to schoolchildren of an impressionable age—really to inspire them! I would have them learn by heart Hamlet's soliloquy, and recite it over and over, until they knew its every movement—how they would come to despise it! Shown a Renaissance sonnet, they would yawn, Oh! Another wittily inverted pentameter. Shown a passage from Henry James they would sigh, Ah, yet another meticulous character-portrait. Have you nothing more interesting for us? They would revel sybaritically in their grand scorn. The world could show nothing to them—and they would die content at their mastery of it. Or perhaps they would create a new literature, even more sophisticated than what we have, ripe for the contempt of the following generation. Would that be such a bad thing?


Remember, then, that your appreciation of certain books—whether Don Quixote or Notes from the Underground—is really no more than a sign of your own personal failings, your incompetence as a reader.

In my next post I shall be telling you about some books I appreciate.


John Cowan said...

Entertaining sophistry, but sophistry nonetheless.

Critical appreciation is about critical understanding, and has little or nothing to do with personal or visceral appreciation. One may gain great pleasure from reading (or in your case, having read) a work which one's critical function values very low indeed; in other words, one can enjoy trash without failing to see that it is trash. (I had that experience yesterday.)

As we learn more, we become more able to appreciate a work in the critical sense. This is connected with the fact that when we don't like the work of a particular artist or school, we tend to think that the works are all alike. Understanding brings out the differences.

The person who, as he knows more and more, likes less and less, is a familiar figure among reviewers (John Simon is a striking example) but not among critics proper.

Anonymous said...

Today's diatribe is a deliberate attempt to provoke comments - just like my uni tutors used to throw into the tutorial, then sit back and prove us all wrong. I shall continue reading undeterred.

Anonymous said...

What I like, especially, is that "Rich", the scourge of impoverishment in all its sad forms (the wretched gourmet who eschews the Burger King's offer of enrichment, for example) was so presciently named by his parents! A tour of his compound reveals, no doubt, the book shelves of leather-bound (gold-leafed) classics...Treasure Island, The Jungle Book, Call of the Wild, and so forth; the wine cellar (egalitarianly above-ground) with its screwtop treasures; the framed sunsets on the walls of the sleeping quarters and the velvet masterpiece in the rec room/TV center/ mead hall...those wise dogs and their pool cues. A lesson in living!

Anonymous said...

To read (or to be read) is one thing, to reread is quite another.
“Je n'écris que pour être relu.” (It's only to be reread that I write.) -- André Gide

Malone said...

Nice to see that the strident misanthropic old Conrad has returned.

If a work of art must rise to the standard of the sublime in order for you to appreciate it, it's no wonder you turn your back on the pleasures of the text in order to engage in the social pleasure of elitism.

And I would have characterized you as more of an old-fashioned philologist than a formalist, but that's purely based on the evidence of this blog, not on the positions you've taken elsewhere.

Languagehat said...

The recognition that one cannot appreciate everything, and should not try, is a symptom of growing maturity; the impulse to sneer at what one does not appreciate (to call Woolf "incompetent," as if one's own appreciation were the final judgment) is a disease of youth.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. The apparent immaturity inherent in knocking what others (even, perhaps, a majority) perceive as 'great'. True, as well, of Ms. Woolf's dismissal of Mr. Joyce's cloacal 'Ulysses'? Nabokov's knocking of Don Quixote, Dostoevsky and Freud? Or is there a waiver granted in cases of *celebrity* animadversion?

Strong opinions require only confidence to assert and reason to defend, I'd say. Why Ms. Woolf should be further above the jurisdiction of Mr. Roth's personal dismssal than, say, an unknown scribbler in a dank bedsit in Elephant and Castle is beyond me. If by 'maturity' you mean the knee-jerk circumspection of a PC equivocator...well, okay then.

Erik said...

I bet these books will be very simple: the more books one has read, the more one will appreciate simplicity and hate complexity, according to your reasoning if I understand you well, and I agree. I'm reading a very simple book right now, and yet in its simplicity it is a literary monument, a pity it's Dutch: "Kneeling on a bed of violins" by Jan Siebelink. But I must admit that I didn't read as many books as one would expect at mu age, at most a fraction I think of what you have read.

Pedro Eduardo Ferrari said...

For all my bad English, I used to think Virginia Woolf was just about fin-de-siècle purple prose revitalized with a very saccharine teenager pathos and some witty borrowings from great english prose stylists. That was in a time when I could stand reading Orlando in the course of a week, pausedly. I tend to be far less opinionated now: can't read half a page.

Shawn Thuris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Conrad H. Roth said...

I am relieved to discover that most of my readership have taken this dismissive missive with the requisite good humour. The agelasts (admirers of Woolf?) can suit themselves. Let each cleave to his own strengths.

LH--come come old chap, let's not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late. Perhaps I remain a queasy graduate squeezing his pimples--and perhaps those pimples are merely painted on.

Proserpine--I think a formalist aesthetic sits quite nicely with a taste for old-fashioned philology.


Everyone else--yes, yes, yes.

Languagehat said...

Why Ms. Woolf should be further above the jurisdiction of Mr. Roth's personal dismssal than, say, an unknown scribbler in a dank bedsit in Elephant and Castle is beyond me.

It's not a matter of being "above the jurisdiction," it's a matter of having some sense. If I find myself failing to appreciate some author generally considered a master, I can either say "Huh, I guess I just have a blind spot there" or "Hah! I have seen through the veils of obscurantism and cultural hegemony that cause so many to fall into the trap of pretending to like what is plainly nothing more nor less than a verbal dog's breakfast!" I tend to find the first approach more agreeable to both my personality and the laws of probability. The whole "Shakespeare is just another dead white male propped up by the culture industry!" shtick got stale quite some time ago.

Conrad old bean: Nothing personal, I just like to see if those who dish it out are averse to taking it. I think you know I don't consider you any sort of fool.

Anonymous said...

"If I find myself failing to appreciate some author generally considered a master..."

I'd better hold my tongue on the literary merits of Stephen King (I guess I just have a 'blind spot' there), in that case...consensus being such an infallible tool of appraisal. And 'sense' warns me against dismissing Miss Pearl S. Buck as a second-stringer gifted in diligence rather than Art, the Nobel Prize being the irrefutable sign of her mastery. Pearl S. Buck...James A. A. Joyce...a difference in degrees rather than category, right? And now that you've equated Virginia Woolf with William Shakespeare (though how his name got dragged into this I can't quite figure) I'm hesitant to point you towards the fact that I wasn't 'agreeing' with Conrad that Woolf is over-praised; I was disagreeing with your bizarre contention that him saying so is by definition immature.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Come on guys, let's not turn this into the Valve. We got a good thing going here.

Sir G said...

I hate Virginia Wolf, and, like you, think she is grossly overrated. In Puchalsky's terms I am REALLY impoversihed: I don't read comics or watch superman or pay lip service to Bertold Brecht. Deliberate attempt to provoke comments? I doubt it, but it has had this effect, hasn't it? Keep it up, Conrad, hate them. What's a man's use in life if he has no pet hates to indulge?

Sir G said...

Ach, mein gott, i didnt know Nabokov hated Freud and Dostoevsky and Don Qixote. That's great, all make my list. Of course, Nabokov is on it, too.

Malone said...

Steven Augustine. Your rhetorical style is evocative . . . you may take that as a compliment, if you like.

(A non-sequitur from a non-agelast.)

Anonymous said...

Persephone (I'm feeling Greek at the moment):

How else shall I take it? (Tipping my hat)

Languagehat said...

I'd better hold my tongue on the literary merits of Stephen King (I guess I just have a 'blind spot' there), in that case...consensus being such an infallible tool of appraisal.

Ah, thank you for reminding me I left out an important qualifier: I meant "generally considered a master by people whose opinion I otherwise respect." I see your arsenal includes a quiver of cheap shots; it's admirable that you want to defend the Admirable Conrad, but you might want to do so with more appropriate weaponry. As he is aware, even if you are not, I hold him in respect and affection even as I yanked the chain he left out so temptingly in plain sight, so you needn't be quite so determined in your vigilance.

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John Emerson said...

Coming here from Language Hat, where I posted the following, advocating the move from appreciation to depreciation, and then from normative depreciation to pure depreciation:

It seems to me, though that you were depreciating what you thought was 'bad' literature, rather than depreciating neutrally.

In fact, though, I didn't mean it, since I think that analysis should be an integral. contributory, but subordinate part of personal appreciation / depreciation. In other words, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

I skipped the Valve thread, since I have never read Woolf, under the impression that I probably would not like her. This is, of course, the ultimate and triumphant depreciation: "I have so much contempt for Plato that I have never read him", as a student (an overenthusiastic pragmatist?) told William James or someone like that.

"Be fair, and if you can't be fair, be arbitrary": William Burroughs. There's too much stuff to read, and if you acknowledge a canon you'll never discover anything. My method has been to range as far as possibly, take chances with inexpert readings, ignore whatever I feel like, insult whatever I feel like, and write about things I like or dislike (in literature, mostly what I like).

To me the killer at the Valve, and even more so Crooked Timber (which isn't very literary anyway) is the transformation of literature into a serious, responsible activity, when in fact a lot of its value come from the escape from seriousness and responsibility -- writing a novel is not like surgery. I blame the Germans and the Victorians, who felt guilty when they weren't producing something.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I agree, John, except about the Germans and Victorians, whom I generally admire.

renuka said...

Perhaps we outgrow certain books and styles? Especially when one can see the point of view without even reading the whole work?
However, there are few gems that we reread.
I am inclined to think, the wiser we become the less we like to read--- but we reach this point after reading a great deal--
I have begun to take more interest in science and mathematics lately after 15 years in the humanities--degrees in greek, latin, french, german and philosophy.
It has a different kind of beauty and rigor--now after studying Math---I can see why my Mathematics friends--the creative ones do not like to read too much. I think I might very well after all the humanities be just happy as a math teacher.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Familiar words. I haven't got there yet. Maybe because I started from maths.

chris miller said...

It does seem, Mr Roth, that you've been trolling the Valve.

To conflate a judgment of incompetence with personal dislike would seem to belong outside the
"debate and circulation of ideas in literary studies and contiguous academic areas"

Alert and serious Valvers should, of course, have immediately recognized that and completely ignored you -- but I'm the last person to blame a troll for wanting to have fun at the expense of pious academics.

(I don't know how I missed this post back in February. BTW -- you promised that a subsequent post would present some literature that you liked -- but I can't find it)