Feb 6, 2009

"Strange" Essays, T.S. Eliot, Helen Pinkerton, and More

James Matthew Wilson, the Treasonous Clerk (at “First Principles”), has written a couple comments in reply to a previous post, but his latest comment seems to require rather a reply by post than by further comment. I have reposted Wilson’s most recent comment below the following reply to it:

James: You make an unexpected turn here to Winters’s strange essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature,” which, for readers who aren’t all that knowledgeable about Winters, can be found in the readily available book The Function of Criticism. I’m not exactly sure why you make this turn in this context. We were discussing the attractions of Winters’s critical ideas to religious people. What does this subject have to do with Winters’s unique theory of genres (using the word “unique” in its strict sense -– the essay truly has NO parallel that I am aware of). Perhaps you can explain, though it might not matter.

But as to that essay itself, what I mean by calling it “strange” is that the singular ideas discussed therein have drawn not a single advocate in the past 60 years and few, if any, admirers. Indeed, no single critic, Wintersian or otherwise, has tried to build out from or improve on those eccentric but compelling ideas. I can think of no poet or critic, past or present, who has written sympathetically about Winters, to any degree, who also has endeavored to defend the “Problems” essay in whole or in large part. Further, only one obscure essay that I am aware of directly and thoroughly assesses the “Problems” essay (“Yvor Winters and the Antimimetic Prejudice,” Jonas Barish, New Literary History, Spring, 1971 [the photo is of a modern staging of one of the ancient Greek tragedies, which have occasioned much discussion of mimesis]). Barish’s nearly 40-year-old piece was almost entirely negative. I have long wanted to address Barish’s take, but haven’t found the time, alas. For I have so many defenses of Winters to throw up on other fronts, I have found it improvident to try to defend matters, as of now, universally rejected -- even by Wintersians.

Nonetheless, let me state, briefly, that I believe that Winters’s ideas in the “Problems” essay can be tweaked in such a way that those ideas might become more appealing to those who love and think highly of epic poetry, fiction, and drama. In my judgment, the real issue for Winters, an issue that, perhaps, he didn’t fully comprehend himself, was that writers in those “weaker” genres have not discovered or created sound ways of making general evaluations of their subject matter, with the ultimate goal of increasing our understanding, which, as Winters argued at length in the essay, stands as the final cause of literature. By rethinking the specific ideas in the essay in light of its more general, foundational concepts, I believe Winters’s objectives in the “Problems” essay will make greater sense and have much greater appeal. They have great appeal for me, at the least. Nevertheless, not a single writer has tried to back Winters up on his general approach to literary genres or on any of the specific ideas, leaving its defenders (or defender, meaning me alone) almost nothing to work with in developing a new approach to the essay. Still, as I imply, I agree with Winters quite widely and deeply on the ideas found in the “Problems” essay. As a consequence, I suppose it falls to me to try to defend a foundational approach to the “Problems” essay.

On yet another subject you raised, I’m not quite sure why you think Winters “loathed” Eliot (a word that I think offhand characterizes his view too strongly), but I am interested in your fleshing out your views on that. My view has been that Eliot’s writings, meaning in Winters’s judgment, were a rag-bag of insights, willy-nilly opinions and half-thought-out notions, in both poetry and criticism. The poems don’t add up to wholes, and this was for Winters a central, urgent concern -- as it is my own concern, if I may say. Winters prized and hoped to foster comprehensive, fully coherent evaluations in works of literature (all the parts working together as fully, properly, and rationally as possible). At the same time, he grew frustrated that so many writers at one time thought of Eliot as a sound and systematic thinker, rather than an occasionally erudite and interesting muser, a recorder of myriad learned notions and sparkling opinions. Winters wanted to get writers to put Eliot in proper perspective, albeit in his sharp way. (I add once again, though, that Winters’s “sharp way” was hardly any sharper than many reassessments of all sorts of writers and critics by hundreds of critics throughout the 20th century. I will probably never understand why Winters gets tagged as exceptionally harsh in the environment created by the endless literary wars of the past 12 decades, and more.)

I will say, though, that I disagree with Winters at points, about critical ideas and about individual judgments. What do you disagree with him most about, James? I’m very interested to know. I respect your judgments and opinions a great deal. I might disagree with you, but I am eager to reconsider my views in the light of the thoughts of someone I find learned, important, and worth careful study.

Pinkerton’s recent work is astounding. The blank verse meditations collected in the book Taken in Faith are, I judge (I am being cautious still), great poetry. I am almost sure that they should be part of the Winters Canon, standing among the very finest works of poetry ever written in the English language. John Baxter has published a study on her verse meditations on paintings, which are very fine poems, no question. But it is in the several blank verse meditations that Pinkerton reaches greatness, as I provisionally believe. I hope you’re going to write about them.

Finally, as to Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” I can hardly see any potential way to agree with you. I think there are passages of good poetry in them. But as a whole, they are badly lacking in overall coherence and generalized evaluative power. They are worth reading, don’t mistake my views on that. But they exhibit serious weaknesses. I don’t want to say more, so that my readers, few as they are, can feel at ease in studying the matter for themselves without fear of my jumping on them. (Apparently, I come across as too combative myself. A couple of critics who have interested in Winters won’t even write to me any longer just because I happen to disagree with them about certain things and am willing to defend my views, calmly and rationally. I don’t think I have ever been harsh, but people appear to be think differently. To me, they seem awfully touchy.) I truly am interested to hear why you think the "Quartets" are so great.

Also, would you call yourself a Wintersian, James? Well, maybe you should save an answer to that for some later post. That’s a big question that begs, perhaps, a big answer.


2/03/09 comment from James Matthew Wilson:

What is so rewarding in Winters is his effort to ensure that a reader knows why Winters believes what he does, and judges as he does. One senses his "foundationalism," that is, his belief that beliefs have foundation to the extent that they are true, and that such foundation can be explored and articulated. He was not an "emotivist," as Alasdair MacIntyre would put it: one's judgments are accountable in terms that are not reducible to a mere, inarguable emotional preference.

Winters's fascinating theory of literary genre in The Function of Criticism is the great challenge to any of his admirers. I admire the consistency, and see that he has discovered some truths about literature in general. I don't agree with most of the conclusions there drawn, because the premises on which they are based seem weak. I know of no other modern critic, however, about whom one could make such an assertion. Most of them confuse or conflate their premises with their conclusions; or, rather, they hide the former and pass off the latter with a kind of erratic, pretentious swagger. Such is what Winters clearly loathed about Eliot (though I think Winters misperceived the rationale behind Eliot's writings, and consequently couldn't read them properly).

As a general point, let me note that it is not for being "excessively judgmental" that one ought to condemn anyone. Judging is what the mind does to come to know what it perceives. If one finds Winters shrill -- and in a few cases, I do find him so -- it is not because he has judged "too much" but because he has judged a premise true without adequately entertaining possible objections to the premise.

An update: a) the Pinkerton essay is away, and I intend to pitch a second one to another journal, because her work requires more attention, even within the scope of what I wish to say about it; and b) Finlay does deserve an essay of his own, and I'll provide it within the next two years; finally, c) Finlay clearly had immense admiration for Winters; what he criticized in Winters was a "gnostic" tendency that is evident in several poems. As Pinkerton has argued in an essay responding to Finlay, this tendency is evidently not present in other Winters poems. It would take a great deal of space to hash out who is correct; I'll get 'round to it.

P.S. surely Auden qualifies as a major Christian poet, though no poem of the Twentieth Century can compare with Four Quartets. It is the one long poem of the last century that is unquestionably a permanent addition to the life of mankind -- and of course it is about Christian belief, experience, and theology.

1 comment:

James Matthew Wilson said...

Dear Ben,

Thank you for the courtesy of this long and thoughtful response to my comments. I shall have to respond rather more briefly, but, I hope, adequately to the occassion.

The context of my comment was a response to those of the fellow who was, in turn, replying to your post. To wit, I hoped to explain to him why it was Winters appears "too judgmental." When one seeks to persuade others of one's convictions, rather than merely voicing a "preference" and saying "that's my personal opinion, anyway," one is, in our present historical moment, going to appear "judgmental."

I hoped to explain how the apparent fault in Winters's writing -- an overt dogmatism -- is in fact a virtue. He seeks to arrive at the truth about things, rather than merely to express his "opinions."

Regarding the "Problems" essay, it does seem limited to me, because Winters appears there to suggest that literary genres that speak in character necessarily fall prey to the immitative fallacy. I would suggest, with you, that "tweaking" his argument would save it. Frankly, I think it a fascinating essay that merits serious consideration. In brief, if one could account better than Winters did for the necessary presence of "imitation" in mimetic artforms such as literature, and therefore grant a little more "license" than he does in that essay, I could imagine nothing with which to disagree. But as the essay actually appears, there are problems; it seems to exclude from legitimate artistic practice the kind of verse that Winters acknowledges as permissible and even necessary when he mentions Jonson's "The Alchemist" (in his essay on Crane, is it?).

I could hardly call myself a Wintersian. To offer just a few reasons why, let me note the following. As a critic, he brilliantly contemplates the nature of reason, but he would have been even more brilliant in this respect had he read Aquinas properly (unlike many persons who claim to know something of Thomism, he did read Aquinas's writings, but his interpretation seems short circuited). As a poet, Winters had a genius for the plain style and for the meditative lyric, but he was too critical of more "golden" styles (to use the conventional language) and he was too possessed of the lyric mode as the chief one for poetry. This leads to all kinds of conclusions that, despite Winters's intentions, are "romantic." More importantly, they narrow the kind of poem that he holds up as distinguished, even if he was capable of appreciating more than he was willing to praise in print. More problematically, this fixation on the lyric leads him to perceive fragmentation where it need not be discerned. This, too, is a problem in his theory that can be "tweaked" and, thus, retained.

In a looser respect, however, I might fit the bill of that title. His poems are wonderful, his criticism distinguished almost to the point of surpassing that of any other modern writer, and, finally, his overall perspective is one that can give form to an entire way of life. His work has influenced me not only as a poet and critic, but as a human being. That is precisely why all his work is so important: it contributes to a total vision, a comprehensive intelligence, that most serious persons expect to discover in a great mind. Anything less is mere fragments, mere ideology.

Pardon me, after such an encomium, if I merely note that Eliot's "Quartets" are so coherent or "organic" that to see them as fragmented or separable is to misread them. I would not make such a claim about Pound's "Cantos," and yet Winters pays Eliot the insult of judging his work inferior to Pound's. I'm writing a book on Eliot and Maritain at the moment, and plan to follow that with a reader's guide to Eliot's poems; I hope the latter will make a better, because thorough, case for the coherence and importance of his work. But, perhaps the fact that I judge it necessary to write something so lenghty as a reader's guide with excuse my not attempting to convince you of the "Quartets"' worth in this limited forum.