Jul 6, 2007
Wnters's Supposed Anti-Mimesis
It's summer, of course, and the time for writing blogs seems to evaporate. I've been spending a lot less time working on this project in the past month or so because my life has taken its yearly turn when I go to northern Michigan to help run a family business on Lake Superior with my brothers. Yet I've been reading plenty -- and plenty by and about Yvor Winters, in addition to other fare. One piece I went back to this summer was an essay about Winters's study of the function and usefulness of the drama, which can be found in his essay "Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature," an essay which was republished in his collection The Function of Criticism. The 1971 essay about Winters's work in this area that I have been working through again is by James Barish. It came out in the Johns Hopkins journal New Literary History and was entitled "Yvor Winters and the Anti-Mimetic Prejudice." It is the only detailed consideration, at least that I have found, of Winters's admittedly rather surprising essay ever published, though there have been a number of critics who have made sidelong comments, usually dismissive, or downrigfht derisive, about the "Problems" essay down the decades since it was first published.
Barish's oppositional essay is certainly worth finding and reading. For students and professors, it is available for free on J-STOR, the web site that offers many journal atrticles. If you don't have access to J-STOR, I'd be happy to send you a text version of Barish's essay, though, of course, it remains under copywright and cannot be reprinted without permissions.
I think that Winters's "Problems" essay, despite that it is had no effects on the study of drama, is one of the most important to the future of the study of Winters, as I have hinted a number of times before on my Winters Web Site and this blog. Winters concentrated on poetry quite heavily, as is well known. But his general literary theory, as Winters himself mentioned from time to time, has strong applications to all genres of literature and to many of the other fine arts, as we call those artistic activities that we consider the most "serious" in one sense or another. The "Problems" essay offers a few rough ideas, some no more than implied, that can lead the next generation of Wintersian critics, if it ever arises, forward in more widely applying and extending Winters's ideas about conceptual analysis, literary form, and evaluation to other genres of literature and arts related to literature, such as theater and film.
One has to wonder why Barish, back in '71, several years after Winters's death, bothered with his essay. I will give it a full consideration some time fairly soon on this blog, but for the present, I will say that the title gives us just about everything Barish had in mind to say. He finds Winters to be "anti-mimetic" and Winters's judgments concerning drama to be "prejudicial." Yet, let me state flatly -- though without making a case for my statement at this time -- that Barish is wrong on both points. First, Winters was certainly not "anti-mimetic" in the sense that Barish defines this term or in any sense I know of. Briefly, Winters saw mimesis as only a part, but a logically subordinate part, of works of literary art and of writing and reading those works. He wasn't "against" mimesis at all. He did not believe that mimesis has no purpose, importance, function, or value.
Second, Winters had no "prejudice" against drama as a genre. Yes, he saw theaterical mimesis as less important and as having a different function than thousands of critics saw and see it still, Barish presumably numbered among them. And yes, he believed that poetry was the greater art for various reasons. But Winters argued for a subordinate status for mimesis rationally, clearly, and in detail in his "Problems" essay. That Winters makes arguments in the logical manner that he does shows that he was not prejudiced. He certainly stood in disagreement with many critics about the status of drama as a genre, but was not prejudiced against them and their positions. Simply put, Winters argues for a different understanding of mimesis and the drama. Barish can disagree with Winters's arguments and offer his own counter-arguments, but to call Winters's position one of "prejudice" is to load the dice against Winters from the get-go -- and should be called prejudicial in itself.
My own interests have moved toward the study of film in recent years. I have been looking at film for some time now using the general critical principles of Winters's literary theory. I'm not ready yet to go public with a comprehensive Wintersian look at the cinematic art, but I will be discussing this general subject more when I return to Barish's essay in the next year on this blog. Again, I've been working through Barish's essay and will be considering his ideas and arguments in detail, just because he is the only critic to consider Winters's ideas about drama in detail. His thoughts will provide us with an excellent springboard to study the extension of Winters's theory of literature beyond poetry and even beyond literature in the years ahead on this blog.