Friday, December 09, 2005

Home Page for E491

Welcome to English 491, History of Literary Criticism
Fall 2005 at California State University, Fullerton

This blog will offer posts on all of the authors on our syllabus. It contains two kinds of notes: general and page-by-page. Both kinds are optional reading. While the entries are not intended as exact replicas of my lecture notes (and in fact, they cannot include an important part of the class sessions since each student will offer a few in-class presentations), they should prove helpful in your engagement with the authors. They may also help you arrive at paper topics and prepare for the final exam. Unless otherwise noted, the edition used for our selections is Leitch, Vincent (ed.). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.

A dedicated menu at my wiki site contains the necessary information for students enrolled in this course; when the semester has ended, this blog will remain online, and a copy of the syllabus will remain in the Archive menu.

Rationale for the course: while there is some literary criticism on our syllabus, many of our Norton Criticism and Theory authors write straightforward philosophy and social theory, not literary criticism. But that’s fine with me. This is not a course in “applied” criticism or theory. Instead, my goal is to help ground you in some of the thought that made 20th-century literary theory possible. Literature isn’t necessarily a central concern for authors such as Plato, Augustine, Kant, Marx, or Nietzsche, but their notions concerning truth, beauty, language, politics, etc. serve as enabling ideas for modern ways of discussing literature and art.

I don’t suppose this course will cause an immediate upsurge in your understanding of literature or “life in general.” I don’t know that reading Kant or Hegel will help anyone get a better grade on a paper about Milton (though it might, in some cases), much less run into the street and change the wicked ways of the world. This is difficult, contemplative stuff we’re studying, and much of it takes several readings over many years to pay its best intellectual dividends. It would be better to think of Kant, Hegel & Co. as “lifetime companions” rather than as schoolmasters who offer us discrete dollops of factuality. I’m 42, and only in recent years have I felt able to respond to such philosophers. Nowadays I try to “think along with” texts by these writers as if I were having a conversation with them. I don’t feel overwhelmed by the complexity of their ideas. I wasn’t able to read them that way at first, and at times I’ve found engaging with them frustrating. But if a reader will stick with the task and approach it with a cheerfully Nietzschean attitude (“Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!”), the material can inform the way he or she thinks about any number of things, including even those that touch upon practical concerns (politics, social issues, etc.) rather than “just literature.” Those who strain for immediate benefits in intellectual matters risk losing any benefit whatsoever. And as for changing the world’s wicked ways, even if reading philosophy and literature doesn’t let us do that in any tangible way, I still think there’s value in not being an utter dupe – the kind of person who imbibes notions wholesale from television, talk radio, official statements by politicians, print journalism, and so forth: if “do little harm and try to see things somewhat accurately” is the best I can attain as a citizen, I’ll settle for that and continue leading my perfectly useless “examined life.”

So here are a few practical suggestions: take good notes (even—and especially—on what sounds obscure or confusing), don’t miss too many classes (audio mp3 recordings of sessions are available online—see our E491 wiki menu at; the link to the audio files is under the E491 Resources sub-menu), and above all, don’t worry about it if not everything is immediately and 100% comprehensible the first time you read it! If you get the basics of, say, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic or Kantian aesthetics, you’re doing just fine. I’ve become fairly good at dealing with Kant, Hegel & Co. without “sounding like Kant and Hegel”—my aim is to be understood, not to impress people with my polysyllabic prating. I want students to finish the course with the feeling that they have obtained a good “first foundation” for learning still more later on. Below are some thoughts about four of our most important authors:

Plato – modern readers are both fascinated and repelled by Plato’s obsession with order and truth and by his distrust of art as a kind of lie. As we say today, Plato views art as ideological subversion or even outright madness. In modern times, the notion that art is socially and politically subversive, of course, actually appeals to some commentators. Others, like Plato himself, distrust it on the same grounds. Again and again, Plato’s powerful combination of mimetic (representational) and pragmatic (morality-centered) concerns finds its way into public discourse about art (and, in modified forms, literary theory itself) right on down to the present day.

Augustine – Saint Augustine gives us a good instance of early Christianity’s theory of signification. Reading him is vital because 19th-century romanticism, a key movement in western literature, is suffused with Christian hopes and anxieties that it overtly rejects. Romantics such as Shelley seem to have carried forward an elegiac conception of “fallen” language as incommensurate with divine truth, incommensurate with the expression of spirit and emotion. Romanticism, with its emphasis on the power of the symbol, also carries forward a certain faith that the gap between God and man, between the letter and the spirit, can be bridged.

Marx – Some might say that Marx the “economic determinist” marginalizes art since he places it as part of an ideological superstructure subservient to economics proper (the engine of history and its characteristic class struggles). But that would be an oversimplification – art and literature, according to Marxists and those who borrow from them, often serve the dominant class as a means of articulating and defending its power. Those disciplines might also provide a space for contesting the ideological foundations of the ruling order – so again, we find some critics pointing towards the subversive potential in works of art.

Nietzsche – this philosopher-as-literary-man distrusts his idealist German predecessors’ penchant for systems and certainty, and has been enlisted as a supporter by those who would tear down the traditional privilege of literature over criticism and theory, of the creative artist over the critical expositor. One might, of course, also suggest that the same authors exalt literary and artistic thought as the master discipline. Nietzsche prefers to treat “big ideas” about truth, being, and meaning with the light and playful touch of a true stylist, so he is sometimes called the father of 20th-century theory (deconstruction in particular) for this reason. Always resourceful in the face of philosophy’s insoluble problems, he celebrates language and creativity even as he points out that humanity’s faith in time-honored “truths” about itself and world stems from deep misunderstanding. A fair amount of modern literary theory takes its cue from this resourceful stylist in its dislike of systemic claims about literature, society, politics, or anything else.


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