May 9, 2007

The Foil of the New Criticism

Last October on a blog called Samizdat, a fellow by the name of Robert Archambeau put out a small essay on Yvor Winters’s role in the heyday of the New Criticism in the mid-20th century. Archambeau implies with his title, “Beyond Close Reading and the G.I. Bill: A Secret History of the New Criticism,” that he has made some discovery about Winters, but what he says is less a discovery than a compelling reinterpretation of Winters’s place among the New Critics, if any place he has. The essay can be found at:

Archambeau’s central point, rather recounted than defended in detail, that Winters was someone whom the New Critics considered a heretic and thus, a critic from whom they could negatively distinguish their own positions, is probably correct as far as it goes. Archambeau’s idea doesn’t tell the whole story of the New Criticism or of Winters’s bit part in the movement, certainly, but it appears to be one piece of the story. Archambeau states convincingly that “the autonomous principles of literature” stood at the center of the movement called the New Criticism, and because Winters did not study literature or write his poems as though they were endeavors autonomous from all else in human life and thought, he was seen as a convenient foil to argue against.

The curious conviction of the New Critics that literature is completely autonomous, as you might guess, seems a little silly to me. Their discussions of the concept sound much like discussions of free will in philosophy. Though we might take a position of complete opposition to the concept of free will, it appears obvious, at least in my estimation, that no one can live according to any such belief to any degree for more than 10 seconds. Almost just so, though the New Critics wrote often in vindication of the comprehensive autonomy of literature, none of their writings employs the principle for more than an obligatory phrase or two. Because literature is the work of living human beings in human language and read by living human beings, it would appear, to write it and read it and think about it and talk about it forces literature and life together in snug, far-reaching, and incontrovertible ways.

Archambeau writes a bit about the New Critics’ objections to paraphrasing works of literary art. Across his writings, Winters had a good deal to say about the issue of “paraphrasable content,” though this issue seldom comes up for discussion in current literary debates. And not surprisingly. Postmodernism, in its plenteous forms, long ago won in a rout at the Agincourt of literary criticism and very few of the issues that the New Critics once haggled about still under discussion. Still, Archambeau gives us an insightful, if brief, discussion of the subject. Winters’s discussions of P-content are found mostly in the book In Defense of Reason, especially in the first section, which is composed of his first book, Primitivism and Decadence (which was an expansion and revision of Winters’s Stanford doctoral dissertation from the 1930s). I think the matter of P-content still has importance in and bearing on the study of literature, but the current consensus, however strong or weak it might be, has perhaps gone too far the other way in many respects. Speaking very generally, our current critics tend, under the influence of postmodernism and its endless spin-offs, to read too much for the paraphrase -- and believe in too many paraphrases. Paraphrases in current criticism are in fact endless, and the practice of spinning them out is something deconstruction has fostered in our thinking, in my view.

I must stop there for now on P-content. Much more could be said about the topic. But I hope you’ll offer some of your own ideas on such matters after reading Archambeau’s short piece, which is worth pondering.

Coming back to Winters’s connections to the New Criticism, critics down the years have often mentioned that Winters is classified with the New Critics, but I wonder whether many of them even believe this. For I have found very few who ever tried to defend the classification. Almost always, in my reading, critics have brought up Winters’s relationship to the New Critics in order to say that one barely exists. Archambeau appears to be in agreement with many others about Winters’s divergence from the New Critics and their emphasis upon the autonomy of poetry. Terry Comito in his fine study of Winters’s entire career, In Defense of Winters (1986), argues that Winters’s differences with the New Critics were radical and fundamental:

Unlike the other New Critics with whom he is rather misleadingly grouped [notice that Comito does what most do: mentions that Winters was part of the New Criticism in order to dismiss the idea],... Winters insisted again and again that literary language is not a mysterious “other,” apprehensible only under the somewhat tautological category of the “aesthetic.” On the contrary, it is a refinement and perfection of the language in which society conducts, or seeks to conduct, or fails to conduct, its everyday life. The poet’s language is not, therefore, exempt from the responsibilities incurred in our worldly projects. Indeed, for Winters, it is particularly accountable, and he spent much of his career calling poets and critics to account with a ferocity that seemed unbalanced or faintly ludicrous to those for whom literature remained an academic pursuit.

Comito is correct in this description of Winters’s views, and I believe, more importantly, that Winters was right about the nature of poetry and literature in general. (Yet Comito goes a little over the top. Though Comito claims it here, though others have made the similar claims, Winters was not often so “fierce” in his opposition to other views that he seemed “unbalanced.” Indeed, many another critic, even the New Critics who took on Winters [see Stanley Edgar Hyman in The Armed Vision] were just as “fierce” in opposition to him as he was in dissent from their theories and judgments. I’m not saying that Winters wasn’t forceful and hard, even rough and remorseless at times. But he didn’t achieve a different order of roughness or hardness than many another brawling New Critic. Even gentle Cleath Brooks took a few rough swipes at Winters in his essay on him. It’s time, I think, that we judged Winters less on reputation and more on what he actually wrote.) Nonetheless, Comito’s description of Winters’s view of poetry’s engagement with the world is accurate and highly important to the future of the art.

For as often as he has been mentioned as part of the movement, Winters discussed the New Criticism only a couple times in his published essays, and nowhere did he study that loose grouping of theorists in a comprehensive manner. One of his significant discussions of the New Critics came in a long essay that was republished in The Function of Criticism, “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature.” In that piece he briefly discussed R.S. Crane and Cleanth Brooks, as well as other New Critics (even more briefly). You will find the most sustained treatment of ideas that are associated with the New Criticism in the essay on John Crowe Ransom (pictured on the left) in The Anatomy of Nonsense, which was republished in In Defense of Reason. As a New Critic, Ransom had his own distinctive critical concepts, especially the one that poetry and literature possess tissues of irrelevance, the formal properties of writing, in which are found the essence of literature, as opposed to whatever superficial referential content the writer might have happened to write about. Winters attacked this idea and many of Ransom’s other ideas with great force in the essay, in the belief that such ideas finally render poetry and literature futile:

And poetry, according to Ransom's theories, is precisely contemptible. Aside from the doctrine of imitation, which is so confused that it will not stand criticism even within the terminology of Ransom's own thought, Ransom offers no principle of rightness in poetry. Poetry is an obscure form of self-indulgence, a search for excitement by ways that Ransom cannot define, in which we proceed from a limited and unsatisfactory rational understanding of our subject to as complete a confusion as we are able to achieve; it is a technique, not of completing rational understanding, but of destroying it and getting nothing in return. The poem is composed of rational understanding, which is there because we cannot quite get rid of it, but of as little as possible; of a conglomeration of irrelevancies of meaning; and of what Eliot would call, I suppose, an autotelic meter, which goes on its secret way, accumulating irrelevancies of its own and helping to force additional irrelevancies into the meaning.

This a fair example of Winters’s usual style, which has been for so long interpreted as ferocious. But what Winters does here, and what he does so often in his essays to his opponents, is push Ransom’s views, hard, to their rational limits, which I do not see as “fierce” in the least. How much do I agree with this forceful and cogent assessment of Ransom’s views? Quite a lot. But most of us have forgotten almost all of what was up for debate. Ransom stands higher than Winters, but neither stands high any longer in literary culture. Ransom’s ideas about the tissue of irrelevance have fallen by the wayside, if ever they had much influence. Ah... the grass of the field: here today, tomorrow pitched into the fire.

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