Literary Criticism without Literature

My title has two meanings. The first is that, since the 1980s at least, what calls itself literary criticism has consisted largely of abstract theory, most often concerned primarily with itself. An enterprise both gnostic and narcissistic, such criticism reduces ultimately to ideological formulas which, once pried free from the encrustation of verbiage, reveal themselves as the hoariest of political clichés, never out of daily use since 1848, which function mainly as group-identity noises. All contemporary critics are smarter than Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dostoyevsky, but no one is smarter than le grand Jacques, Noam Chomsky, or Naomi Wolf. Although exiled to the periphery, actual criticism has continued to exist, but it is the tendentious type of discourse that has come to dominate the English and other literature departments over the last thirty years. The second meaning, the one that interests me in what follows, relates closely to the first.

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New Article: From Romanticism to Traditionalism

My essay From Romanticism to Traditionalism appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website.  The argument is that numerous premises of contemporary Traditionalism find their prototypes in early-Nineteenth Century Romantic Movement.  The essay cites the work of the English lake Poets, especially William Wordsworth and Samuel T. Coleridge, as well as the work of Chateaubriand and Goethe, and of the American “Hudson River School” of painting.  I try to demonstrate the parallelism between Wordsworth’s outlook, or Goethe’s, and the outlook of the founders of Twentieth Century Traditionalism, such as René Guénon and Nicolas Berdyaev.  I offer a sample…

The Romantic subject resembles – or, rather, it anticipates – the Traditionalist subject, as Guénon, Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), and others have defined it.  Guénon himself in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945) characterizes modern man as having “lost the use of the faculties which in normal times allowed him to pass beyond the bounds of the sensible world.”  This loss leaves modern man alienated from “the cosmic manifestation of which he a part”; in Guénon’s analysis modern man assumes “the passive role of a mere spectator” and consumer, which is exactly how Wordsworth saw it.  Of course, Guénon does not write of loss as an accident, but as the logical consequence of choices and schemes traceable to the Enlightenment.  As Wordsworth put it, “We have given our hearts away – a sordid boon.”

According to Berdyaev, writing in The Destiny of Man (1931), “Man is not a fragmentary part of the world but contains the whole riddle of the universe and the solution of it.”  Berdyaev asserts that, contrary to modernity, “man is neither the epistemological subject [of Kant], nor the ‘soul’ of psychology, nor a spirit, nor an ideal value of ethics, logics, or aesthetics”; but, abolishing and overstepping all those reductions, “all spheres of being intersect in man.”  Berdyaev argues that, “Man is a being created by God, fallen away from God and receiving grace from God.”  The prevailing modern view, that of naturalism, “regards man as a product of evolution in the animal world,” but “man’s dynamism springs from freedom and not from necessity”; it follows therefore that “evolution” cannot explain the mystery and centrality of man’s freedom.  When Berdyaev brings “grace” into his discussion, he echoes the original Romantics, whose version of grace was the epiphanic vision, the event answering to a crisis that brings about the conversion of the fallen subject and sets him on the road to true personhood.

Angel Millar has done an exceptional job in presenting the essay.  I take the opportunity here to thank him publicly.

There’s No Such Thing as Women

Retortion is a beautiful thing.

A correspondent of our fellow orthospherean blogger and valued commenter Joseph of Arimathea has noticed that if latter-day feminism is correct in its assertion that sex is nothing but a social construct, like language – this being why feminists like to call it by the linguistic term, “gender,” rather than the proper biological term, “sex” – then *the female sex does not actually exist.* All appearances to the contrary, there is no such thing, really, as a female.

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H. G. Wells and Education: How Students Respond to Big Ideas

Wells 02

Posterity remembers Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) primarily as a novelist.  He came into public acclaim around the turn of the century on the basis of his “scientific romances” such as The War of the Worlds (1897), The First Men in the Moon (1901), and The War in the Air (1906), but he soon turned his attention to the social novel, demonstrating a talent similar to that of Charles Dickens in Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1906), and The Undying Fire (1919).  Wells was one of the original public intellectuals of the mediated age, his voice familiar to listeners of the BBC, his visage familiar from newsreels.  He believed in the social efficacy of science and technology, called himself a socialist, adding that his vision of socialism was so far ahead of Marxism and Leninism that compared to him their adherents were living in the Stone Age.  In the monumental Experiment in Autobiography (1934), perhaps surprisingly, Wells tends to characterize almost all his activities under the heading of education – and he makes it clear that he thought of himself, no matter to what he put his hand, as above all an educator.  He wrote any number of explicitly pedagogical books.  The Outline of History (1919), A Short History of the World (1923), and The Work, Health, and Happiness of Mankind (1932) come to mind, the first two still useful today.  Wells’s first idea of a career, in his early twenties, was a school mastership.  He persevered through normal training and migrated through a number of appointments until the poverty of it irked him and he turned to writing.

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Post-Literacy Continued

I offer a brief continuation of my main essay on post-literacy.  My old graduate school buddy “Ivar the Midwesterner,” who teaches humanities on faculty at a “nondescript state college east of the Left Coast and west of the Mississippi,” inveterately asks his freshman composition students on the first day of class to respond in writing to the following prompt, one of the aphorisms from the extant fragments of the Archaic-Age Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (the “Logos Philosopher”):

All men should speak clearly and logically, and thus share a rational discourse and have a body of thought in common, just as the people of a city should be under the same laws.

Here are five typical responses, as Ivar assures me, to the prompt:

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Post-Literacy and the Refusal to Read

A colleague who teaches in the humanities at the state college where I work also teaches at a nearby private college.  In the colleague’s description, the private college is perpetually in the grip of a panic over the prospect of a drop in enrollment.  The college’s administration has therefore instituted an unwritten but implacable policy the upshot of which is that the student is always right, no matter how absurd his complaint, and the consequence of which is that instructors must never tax students beyond an infantile minimum of scholarly exertion.  Among the consequences of the consequence are that students refuse to undertake out-of-class reading assignments, fail quizzes related to those assignments, and then lodge complaints with chairs and deans against the instructor.

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Supersizing the Whopper: Higher Ed in the Trenches

My old graduate-school office-mate “Ivar the Midwesterner,” who teaches at “a nondescript, mid-tier state college west of the Mississippi and east of the Left Coast,” has, for years, collected the wildest, most desperate student-improvisations from the final examination in his survey of the classics in translation.  Some entries in the following catalogue come from as long ago as ten years while others are of recent vintage.  Ivar writes that he started to insert sic where it seemed necessary, but soon grew sic of it.

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Falsehood in Word is Evil in Deed

Noisy artificial limits of any kind ipso facto engender moral hazard. The classic example is the limited liability corporation, which encourages investors and managers to take risks over and above what they would undertake if their personal liability was not limited. FDIC insurance is another.

But this nomological principle applies everywhere. Wherever a limit is set by men that does not correspond to the limits set by nature and reality, agents are prompted to act as if the artificial limits were the real, natural, true limits: i.e., to lie, even if only to themselves, about what it is prudent or good to do, or else to lend credence to such a lie, and so do wrong, or ill, even if only unwittingly.

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Article on Ancient Atomism

My article on ancient atomism appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website.  In particular, I undertake a reading of Lucretius’s great poem On the Nature of Things, a strange mixture of bold speculation that anticipates modern physics and cosmology more interesting perhaps for its fairly concerted critique of sacrificial religion.  I offer a sample –

 

Posterity knows only a little about Lucretius and much of what it knows it gleans from autobiographical references in his poem.  The poem itself is paradoxical.  Alleging to explicate, for the sake of a potential recruit, the scientific truths discovered by Epicurus, the truths that will redeem life for the one who accepts them, On the Nature of Things couches itself in the language of insistent evangelism, making of its intellectual hero, as George Santayana noted in his study of Lucretius in Three Philosophical Poets, a secular saint.  The poem attests a powerful experience on the part of its author, which can only be described as spiritual conversion, which he then wishes to foster in another.  Already in the generation just after Epicurus, his followers acquired the habit of referring to him under the honorific of soter or “savior,” an etiquette that imitated in turn a propaganda device of Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasts.  Lucretius, whose time and place knew the afflictions of political breakdown, picks up this thus slightly tainted habit.