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Going Around in Circles

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This is going to take a little while to do, so bear with me–I may have to use multiple posts.

But before I start for real, I want to take the occassionon to point out that my “aarrggh” in the title of the last post has nothing to do with assertions that “standards are relative,” and everything to do with the fact that I was trying to talk about a specific thing–the rhythm and the music of the prose–and had that discussion violently yanked into the territory of the “great work” and “characterization” and whatever. 

In that first post, I made no assertions whatsoever about what makes one work “great” or even “good.”  I was talking about the prose on its own.

And unlike judging a work to be good as a whole, it doesn’t require fifty years, or even fifty minutes, to tell the difference between good and bad prose.  The standards for good writing in English have been largely unchanged for centuries, and where they seem different what is actually at work is the disjointedness of time.  Words that were clear and precise in usage in one century may become less so over the years, so that, reading them now, they seem vague and ambiguous. 

The music and the rhythm remain, though, and they have the same qualities in Chaucer as in Shakespeare and in Shakespeare as in Spenser.  Right on down to us.

The reason that it takes fifty years to determine if a work as a whole belongs in the canon–which is not the same thing as deciding if it is “good” or “great”–is because the contemporaries of the work may be responding to all kinds of ephemeral and entirely parochial aspects of that work that are not really intrinsic to it.

A couple of years ago, the National Book  Association got into a lot of rouble with many of its members by asking  Stephen  King to be the keynote speaker at its annual awards banquet.  “Disgraceful!”  they thundered.  “He’s not a real writer!”

But those judgments were by and large not based on King’s work but on King’s income, and to a certain extent on the libertarian-to-traditionalist political assumptions some people find in his presentation of family (among other things) as a good thing. 

And many people like King’s work for the same sorts of reasons that Harold  Bloom dislikes it–and their judgments are just as illegitimate for the same reason. 

This is inot a phenomenon restricted to the arts.  Scientists spent decades resisting the increasingly corroborated hypothesis that intelligence is highly heritable, not because the science wasn’t there but because they felt it had political implications that they weren’t able to stomach. 

On top of that, the work as a whole has many more constituent parts than just the quality of the prose.  Great prose will not a masterpiece make, at least not on its own–I give any of you Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t  Dance, which contains some of the most beautiful prose in twentieth century English, and that is otherwise completely useless. 

We wait fifty years to let the arguments die and the  petty human emotions calm down, and then we see if people feel compelled to go on reading the book (or the poem or whatever), and then, and only then, do we have something we can even start investigating with any kind of objectivity.

But right now, I simply want to make two statements, and I’ll spend the next several days going over my reasons for saying what I’m about to say. 

1) First, I reject the idea that a standard of quality in literature is invalid unless “any intelligent person” could apply it and come to the same conclusion. I’m an intelligent person, and yet I cannot look at a Taylor series, for instance, and judge whether it has beenvalidly  validly and correctly cosntructed.  Nor could I judge whether one mathematical proof is better or more elegantly constructed than another.

This does not mean that there are no objective standards of elegance in mathematical proofs.  It means that I haven’t been trained to understand them.  The demand that the standard for literature be so simple that “any intelligent person,” no matter how sparse his training or dilettantish his acquaintance with the field is just another way of saying that the humanities are nothing but hobbies, with no real knowledge or expertise necessary to understand them.

I think exactly the opposite is true.  I think it takes a lot m ore work to understand the humanities in general and literature and particular than it does to understand mathematical equations, and I see no reason why “any intelligent person” should be in a better position to evaluate literature than they are to evaluate mathematical proofs.

2) Second, I don’t just disagree with theat quote from Kelvin, I think it’s one of the most dangerous and destructive delusions of the modern era. 

Science is extremely useful for what it’s good for, but what it’s good for is essentially plumbing. 

I’m not denigrating plumbing.  Plumbing is very important.  It’s also extremely limited.

Science can tell us virtually nothing about what it means to be human, never mind what we should do to live humanly.  It can’t even tell us what chocolate tastes like, or what C above high C sounds like.  It can give us equations for both, and molecular models for the first–but you can study those all you like, and you still won’t know. 

Kelvin’s statement is a perfect example of scientism–the process of transforming science from a useful but limited method of investigating some parts of the world into a religion, and it’s given us everything from Stalin to the whole language approach to reading instruction.

But I’ll get back to all that tomorrow.  At the moment, it’s raining where I am, and I’ve got Handel’s Messiah.

Written by janeh

November 14th, 2009 at 7:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Going Around in Circles'

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  1. If you were to visit our artistic establshment–the reviewers, critics and professors of art, literature and film–and rummage through the basements, attics and dresser drawers, you know what I bet you’d find a lot of? “QUESTION AUTHORITY” buttons. They’d be very rusty, of course.

    When a naval architect or a civil or aeronautical engineer tells you that one of his products, actual or only projected, has thus and so properties, you can be pretty sure he’s right and that others, shown the same plans or the same bridge or dam, will agree with him. “Good” or “bad” seldom enter into the conversation, but “suitable” and “appropriate” do. A sensible civil engineer knows that some situations call for Boulder Dam, and some call for 20 feet of mud. Mind you, something REALLY new can engender controversy, and actually require testing. But then everyone can see and judge the results of the test. And the wings DO sometimes fall off the plane, with grevious results for the architect.

    When a film, book or architectural critic writes about something, this is different. There may be technical points–kitchen too far from the dining room, behavior of character not adequately explained–but it is, by and large, an aesthetic judgement. Some of them love Frank Lloyd Wright, some Federal and there are a few who love Carpenter’s Gothic. That’s why I have to scrounge around for critics whose taste runs with mine, and can’t take any of them too seriously. Because a lot of what goes on IS taste–or politics, or personality. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is getting to be an old story these days.

    Now, there could be science here too, but that’s been said a lot. Anyone remember Astrology? Alchemy? Eugenics? Palmistry? Phrenology? The Coming Ice Age? Lamarkian evolution? How about Freudian Psychology?

    The basic premise underlying good and bad prose as fact and NOT taste is that something is good or bad prose whatever one wants it to be, and will be the same to any qualified observer. Now if a “qualified observer” is someone who went to the same schools and read the same books, one could expect a certain uniformity of opinion, but I could expect that of the Freudians or the phrenologists. It does not advance the argument.

    What brought those other “bodies of knowledge” into disrepute, is that they could not demonstrate predictive qualities to the non-specialist. If an expert could consistently feel the depression where the Bump of Honesty should be and identify thieves, there would be board-certified phrenologists checking out new employees today–not because everyone studied phronology, but because they could demonstrate their expertise to the non-expert. No one could, so they aren’t.

    But where does the literary critic denouncing “bad prose” take a similar risk? At what point might the wings fall off the critical airplane, if you will? If they can’t, then all we’re left with “my fellow critics and I all believe this. If we disagree they’re mistaken.”

    There is a book on String Theory titled NOT EVEN WRONG. If good or bad prose requires years of training to perceive, then so be it. But it leaves me with no way to contribute to the argument, and indeed no argument to which to contribute. And it would seem that all those people who “seem to prefer bad prose” have a pretty good excuse.


    14 Nov 09 at 9:30 am

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