Monday, December 12, 2005

War Poetry/Lit Crit

I’ve been interested in Robert Archambeau’s discussion of war poetry (with contributions from the inestimable John Peck). I don’t find the Kevin Prufer poem he quotes particularly compelling (at least on third & fourth readings), but I did have some thoughts about the “anonymity” he discusses. First of all, I don’t particularly read what’s going on in David Jones’s In Parenthesis – the superposition of previous wars over the Great War – so much to be a matter of the contemporary soldier’s “anonymity” (after all, Jones carefully and emblematically names his contemporary Tommies) as simply a matter of precisely superposition. That is, the Anglo-Welsh Great War soldier does not lose his contemporary identity when he recognizes that he’s standing in the same shoes as one of King Harry’s invaders of France, but rather finds his contemporary situation enriched (a dreadful word, given the horrors described in the poem, but I can’t come up with a better at the moment) and deepened. Which to me at least is something far more interesting (and one sees it as well in Bunting’s “The Spoils”) than a mere loss of contemporary identity, contemporary name. Yes, as Archambeau puts it it’s a matter of “getting at the shared life beyond the individual life,” but I don’t think it necessarily involves the loss of individual identity, as in the anonymity imposed by the state apparatuses of Jarrell and Auden.

For my money, Prufer isn’t so much making use of Jones/Bunting modernist tropes as he is adopting the icy unnaming of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” – a short story effective not for so much for showing the universality of the war experience as for making it come alive through specific and telling individual detail. And isn’t the Unknown Soldier synechdoche rather than metonymy for all the unknown dead? [wink]
Michael Peverett pointed out last week, in connection with my note on Rosmarie Waldrop’s Reluctant Gravities, that an extract from that book can be found online; he also reminds us that Waldrop’s book of critical essays, Dissonance (if you are interested) is out from the University of Alabama Press, by far the most prestigious venue for new studies on modern & contemporary poetics (nudge nudge, wink wink!). He also responds to my brief note on Margaret Talbott in the New Yorker, where she claims that “in science – as opposed to, say, literary criticism – interpretations can be wrong” (my italics). I responded with an instance of a howling misreading in a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Michael comments:
I am not so sure about your example from MND. This is a misunderstanding of 16th-century English and yes it is wrong. MT obviously doesn't have this in mind when she talks of "interpretations"... My own view is that value placed on an artefact cannot be wrong (or right), but leaving value aside there is many a true and false statement that may be made about an artefact - the leaves in the painting are really green not blue, for example, or Christ's rib-cage is short of a rib.
Okay, yes, Talbot doesn’t mean the sort of “interpretation” that involves knowing what a word or sentence means, or how it ought to be inflected in performance – in fact she doesn’t mean “interpretation” at all when she talks about literary criticism, she means evaluative judgement, as Michael alludes to a bit later. What she’s saying in short is “science deals with stuff that can be right or wrong, but literary criticism is all a matter of taste, de gustibus & so forth.” Now I think think that there’s more than just a coincidence of names between “interpreting” a work of literature by writing an essay or commentary on it and “interpreting” it on stage (for a play) or in a public reading (for a poem or story). (We see the distinction much more clearly in music, where “interpretation” almost always means performance, while what musical scholars do is “analysis” or “commentary.”) But whether one takes what Talbot says as a vague remark about what literary critics in the New Yorker generally do, or as a general impression of interpreting literature is all about, her words have the effect of setting literary studies back a century or more – which is where I suppose most New Yorker readers would like it to be.


egyptiansally said...

How funny, I was just looking up war poetry yesterday. My search didn't yield anything fruitful, though quite by accident I did stumble upon rain poetry. Scary...

Kevin Marzahl said...

Without defending Talbot or the New Yorker target demographic (I've not read the article), I wonder, Mark, why pursuing questions of "taste" (rigorously, natch, and maybe this is what's lacking for you in Talbot) would "have the effect of setting literary studies back a century or more"? Is that terrain really so contaminated, so exhausted? Why would it not instead advance "literary studies"? What constitutes an "advance" in "literary studies," anyway--the imprint of a "prestigious" press? Dispelling "fuzziness"? Describing the "fuzziness" more precisely (and what would be the limits of this precision)? Generating "fuzziness"?

Mark Scroggins said...

Pursuing matters of taste *rigorously* -- as in much of the recent "return to the beautiful" tendency burbling in the academy -- would be a good thing. And no, that terrain's not at all contaminated, is indeed a place where much of the time I'd like to situate myself. But Talbot's offhand remark acts to subsume everything literary studies does, these days a really remarkable panoply of provocative (and not-so-provocative) approaches to texts, under the tent of a simple "I-like-this-book" evaluative criticism.

Like any discourse, literary studies has changed over the past century, in good ways and bad. I simply find it much more interesting now than it was 100 years ago; which may simply reflect my situated prejudices. (For instance, I regret the absense these days of the sort of nuanced literary history that Taine or Brandes were writing.) I'd certainly be leery of calling what's happened an "advance" (with Hegelian overtones), but I do think that literary scholars & critics are thinking about a wider variety of things, and with a more compelling set of tools, than they were in at the turn of the 19/20th centuries.