Sep 18, 2008

What Might a Man Dancing in Front of Your Desk Be Doing?

I have been going back through some notes on topics that I meant to get to before I took a summer hiatus from this blog (which doesn’t appear to have bothered anyone in the least). One of the small, lighthearted matters I wanted to draw your attention to, from this past spring, was a cartoon animation at the web site of the New Yorker, which I don’t think is available online any longer. The cartoon started with a guy dancing gaily in front of his boss in a corporate office. The boss says, “Say what’s on your mind, Harris -- the language of dance has always eluded me.” It’s a great line, and it brought to mind one of the central issues of modern literary study and practice, the issue of the final cause of literature. The photo is a shot of one of my sons dancing, rather vigorously, around our living room last winter. I can't remember ewxactly what he was trying to say.

On a narrow plane, the issue of cause nowadays often concerns whether poetry or literature in general have special functions or purposes that are above or beyond any purpose behind non-fiction writing or “communications” of any sort. There have been many critics over the past 50 years and even further back, Gerald Graff called them “anti-realists,” who have gone so far as to say that literature has NOTHING to do with life, but only with itself, a truly absurd conception that won’t go away since MallarmĂ©, for one, so successfully foisted it upon his admirers. (Stanley Fish has become one of our more famous anti-realists, as evidenced in his recent book Save the World on Your Own Time, which is being discussed in many places around the web. I might have to discuss Fish’s views some time.) But the cartoon trades on the idea that the arts really do say something, or, in effect, make statements of some kind. Even the metaphorical use of the word “language” in this way shows that the postmodern critics haven’t yet stripped literature of every shred of hope of realist importance or efficacy. It was Yvor Winters’s belief that literature’s final cause was to make statements, to communicate, even propositionally (God forbid!), and one that plays a central role in his criticism.

The cartoon also trades on another notion as well, that there is something very distinctive about what dance or painting or poetry or other arts communicate. I sense that the feeling is that, like the “language of dance,” the language of poetry is so different from “ordinary” language, written or spoken, and so important as well, that what can be said through the “language” of literature can be done in no other way (Winters believed it could be done in NO better way than poetry, a position I find a little extreme). Harris must speak to the boss through dance, because ONLY dance can say what he needs to say. Yvor Winters believed that poetry and literature are crucially different from or higher than ordinary uses of language.

But poetry and literature, at their core, were for Winters, simply, ways to make statements about life. He hinted on occasion that the notion that poetry was extremely different or even wholly other could be highly damaging to literature and forced many writers and critics down roads that they have gotten lost on. Winters’s rather pedestrian view, a matter of common sense all in all, is that literature, specifically poetry, is a form of communication, akin to all forms of language. Put simply, writers are trying to say something to us, to communicate, about the world we live in. This implies, I believe, that literature and poetry have the same purpose and share the nature of any kind of writing or speaking: memos, letters, news, reports, speeches, lectures, essays, monographs, works of journalism or history or social science. What are the dangers in regarding literature as a nearly wholly different mode of expression or import, something more like dance than a lecture? That is a matter for reflection. Any comments?

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