A Textual Reality

We live in a textual reality

Texts, I am suggesting give meaning even to the contingent and fleeting events of our lives, and that is one reason why we value them. But the conditions of our being come to us already scripted, textualised, shaped in patterns into which we fall, almost like actors given a script that they must follow. The human condition is a condition of textuality.

What we call realism, then, in literary works may be nothing more than a reading of those “scenes of language” that shape the actual world and turn its inhabitants into characters upon a textual stage. That is, literary realism may be most real when it represents events that are already “scenes of language.”

The Reading the World chapter in Robert Scholes’s The Crafty Reader is a reminder to read and reread Barthes and Baudrillard. Scholes’s book has acquired more substance during subsequent contemplation.

Reading Poetry and the New Critics

..the New Critics .. did some brilliant work in the exegesis of poetic texts.

What I am calling modernist in their teaching .. can be reduced to a powerful opposition between the rhetorical and the poetical. This view was put succinctly by Yeats when he said that he made rhetoric from his quarrels with others and poetry from his quarrels with himself. “Rhetoric” in this modernist formulation signifies writing that is persuasive, interested, seeking to move the reader in a particular direction; whereas “poetry” signifies writing that is contemplative, disinterested, which hovers among possible directions held immobile by irony, paradox, or ambiguity. Such a notion is rooted in Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgement’, in which he defined art as “purposefulness without purpose” – a definition echoed in Arnoldian “disinterestedness” and strongly present in modernist formulations as well, sometimes expressed as a desire to write a book or poem about nothing. In contrast with this ideal is the notion of rhetoric as vulgar, commercial, or political, always interested (in the bad sense of that word) and therefore never interesting. In the vocabulary of many modernists, including the New critics, this often takes the form of an overt rejection of what is called “sentimental” or “sensational” and a more covert rejection of the public and political. The dignity of poetry requires those who teach it to accept  the fact, in Auden’s famous formulation, it “makes nothing happen”.

The first full essay in Robert Scholes collection The Crafty Reader is sufficient reason to read his book. Those that follow are absorbing but less provocative . Reading Poetry: A Lost Craft introduces Scholes’s hypothesis, that reading well (i.e. craftily) is a craft not an art, but it is his recantation of the aesthetic concerns of the New Critics that is the more engaging argument.

Scholes convincingly identifies a “persistent strain of misogyny running through the thinking of the “men of 1914″ and their followers,” particularly in their onslaught on sentimentality.

The New Age Archive and Paradoxy of Modernism

Some very lively debates about modernity and aesthetics took place in the pages of The New Age, a weekly magazine devoted to literature, the arts and politics. The magazine ran from 1907 to 1922, offering readers a response to the conditions of modernity.

One of several discoveries of reading Robert Schole’s Paradoxy of Modernism is of a complete online archive of The New Age. Within its pages are contributions from writers like Hilaire Belloc, Havelock Ellis, T. E. Hulme, Holbrook Jackson, Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.

Scholes book is good, though I am not convinced of his central thesis, that to truly appreciate Modernism we have to read more widely, particularly the minor texts (what Scholes calls “durable fluff,” “iridescent mediocrity” and “formulaic creativity.”) Josipovici and Scholes broadly agree on the origins, and inevitability, of Modernism, but would disagree on its transition to Postmodernism. More on the book on another occasion.