A good book or essay or poem is not primarily an object to be put to use, or an object of experience: it is the voice of You speaking to me, requiring a response.
- Martin Buber, I and Thou
At times I am gripped by an absurd desire: that the sentence I am about to write be the one the woman is reading at that some moment. The idea mesmerizes me so much that I convince myself it is true: I write the sentence hastily, get up, go to the window, train my spyglass to check the effect of my sentence in her gaze, in the curl of her lips, in the cigarette she lights, in the shifts of her body in the deck chair, in her legs, which she crosses or extends.
- From the diary of Silas Flannery in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler
I hope I didn’t make you feel too uncomfortable last month. I guess my paragraph in my “Of Time and the River” post about what I wanted out of readers and writers was kind of creepy:
If I wrote you a book review or report, it would only foreshorten the book, creating waterfalls in the navigable, tidal river. Besides, even if I wrote the best book review, it would only stand on its own, pour itself into only its own river, so – best case – I’m no longer reading with you when you read it. I want you to read with me. We’d feed off of each other’s reactions, but even that’s not enough, ultimately. You have to read the book with my reactions and associations, and I have to read it with yours. So you have to read it with me, maybe as me, and maybe me as you, or maybe in heaven one day.
I think I’ve been going through an aesthetic crisis of sorts, though “aesthetic crisis” is a ridiculous formulation, almost an oxymoron that belittles both words. Maybe I’ve just reached some kind of impasse with reading and writing. For the past few years, I’ve struggled with the place of writing in a more contemplative life. I like what I’ve learned about contemplation and writing both, but I strongly suspect that writing – at least as I’ve understood writing – detracts from a more contemplative life. Carrying around all those words, fussing over sentences and diction in my daydreams . . . how can I clear my mind when I have such a demanding hobby on top of everything else? It has helped me spiritually and mentally, granted. Is writing part of my calling, or is it only a distraction?
And am I trying to make reading and writing do what contemplation does? If so, why? To justify a compulsion? Or to find reading’s and writing’s limits – to satisfy myself that reading and writing can’t do what I want them to do?
Part of us is very intellectual, wanting to read all the books in the library – or even wanting to write all the books in the library. Then there’s the other side of us, which is sheer silence, inarticulate – the silence of nature, of the sky, of pure being. [Joyce Carol Oates, quoted in Greg Johnson’s Invisible Writer, A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates, 10-11]
And, off and on during the writing process, I think about readers. Not readers in general, but you. (Still creepy, huh?) I wonder how my writing may carry on some sprawling conversation blogging helps bring about – sprawling for me, anyway – sprawling over topics and web logs and, after five years, over some remarkable time. You’re in my head, in other words.
The author must more or less consciously create the image of the reader he is addressing. [Louise M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, 76]
Creative activity is often – again, perhaps always – powered by the drive to accomplish, in terms of the production of an object of art, an adjustment or readjustment in certain obscure relationships with other persons. [Walter J. Ong, The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies, 19]
Living with an audience is like learning to surf. The ocean – the audience – is too much. Surfing puts the audience in its place, and it requires balance. Blogging’s spikes in readership and positive, life-giving comments are fun to ride but can lead to some hairy wipeouts. In writing, I feel what Ong calls the “adjustment or readjustment in certain obscure relationships” at both the intellectual and the inarticulate levels that Oates refers to. What is going on?
Writing that “Of Time and the River” post helped me feel more what I want from reading and writing. I was speaking of impulses and drives, trying to feel something primary or primordial going on inside of me. What is it I want from you? If you’re in my head as I read and as I write, why is that feeling of wanting to understand your writing and wanting to be understood in my reading rooted in wanting to be one with you: a marriage of true minds, and a polygamous one at that, since I’d have other intimates – others readers and writers – others with whom I’d be one?
Yet though there is a sense in which every reader writes the book he reads, paradoxically the writer is the one person excluded from such an activity by virtue of having already written the text. Thus the reading figure comes to signify not only the reader’s pleasure but also the writer’s alienation, both from the reader and from his own text. As Beckett said apropos Proust: ‘Art is the apotheosis of solitude.’ The very medium of language which unites reader and writer also drives them apart. . . . To read a book, to love a person, it is necessary to be other than that book and that person, and we read in order to overcome our otherness. [Peter Washington, from his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition to Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler]
The end of contemplation is theosis, at least in Orthodox thought. Is my desire for oneness with my readers and writers more deeply similar to my interest in contemplation than I had suspected, and in a fundamental way legitimate?
If so, could my aesthetic crisis be attributable to an unconscious suppression I’ve participated in as an American reader and writer of the early twenty-first century, years after New Criticism began dominating classroom instruction and prevalent attitudes toward reading and writing? Though New Criticism’s greater influence on me may have come before I had ever heard of New Criticism, I have also studied it, enjoyed its delicious fruit (as Louise Rosenblatt said of New Critics, “their practice was always better than their theories”), and defended it in discussions against deconstructionism and all other comers.
But I am no longer sure that a poem is an object. I think this New Critical notion has tended to suppress an experience of intimacy I have begun to discover as a reader and a writer.
A primary tenet of New Criticism is that a poem or any other work of literature is an object, that it has a separate existence from its author and the particular period and artistic movement in which it was produced, and that it may be considered as a work of art without reference to these outside things. The independent object-ness of a poem allowed Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and the other New Critics to consider the poem on its own linguistic and aesthetic terms. While the New Critics later incorporated scholastic tools, such as historical and genre-oriented studies, to buttress their aesthetic, literary readings, they stayed true to their view of a work of literature as being primarily an object.
The “object” tenet allowed New Criticism to move American literary criticism away from earlier textbooks and criticism that examined poems only for their message and their place in the poet’s biography and in literary schools and movements. A poem cannot be reduced to its message, the New Critics asserted, and, to me, New Criticism was one of the greatest gifts to the world for getting that idea across. But perhaps a poem cannot be reduced to an object, either. Seeing a poem as an object distances the poet from her readers and bars the reader from a more intimate reading experience.
How is it possible to defeat not the authors but the functions of the author, the idea that behind each book there is someone who guarantees a truth in that world of ghosts and inventions by the mere fact of having invested in it his own truth, of having identified himself with that construction of words? [Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler, 154]
Since I wrote my “On Time and the River” post last month, I stumbled on a quote by Walter J. Ong, whom I mentioned earlier, that seemed to express something like my impasse:
As contemplation [of a work of art or literature] enters upon a more serious stage, the human being is driven by the whole economy of what it is to be man to find opposite himself, in that which he contemplates, a person capable of reacting in turn. This drive is primordial and will not be denied.
That’s it! I thought. Reading (and maybe writing) as a primordial desire for intimacy.
It’s sad (and, as we’ll see, ironic, too) that the guy is basically out of print. Ong offers a major, early critique of New Criticism. He is grateful for New Criticism’s attack on what Ong calls “the personalist aberration” and “personalist deviationism” in criticism, tracing this aberration back at least as far as Dr. Johnson, but he is critical of New Criticism’s tenet that works of literature amount to objects. He published the essence of his critique in 1954 in his essay “The Jinee in the Well Wrought Urn,” which became the first chapter of The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies published in 1962, the preface of which, in turn, refers to the “now aging New Criticism.” (It’s aging pretty well: Cleanth Brooks’s seminal essay collection The Well Wrought Urn has been in print continuously since its original publication in 1947, while I had to pay forty bucks for a copy of The Barbarian Within that came, as advertised, with the binding falling apart. If I had wanted the book in one piece, it would have cost me a good deal more.)
Mark McGurl, whose book The Program Era was a subject of my “Of Time” post, writes that Ong “with Marshall McLuhan would come to symbolize the [1960’s] fascination with the relation of print and other media technologies to the human voice” (231). Ong was also part of what McGurl calls “the reflexive return to orality” that began more or less in 1960 with Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales, which advanced the notion that Homer’s epics were oral compositions.
Orality has been clawing its way back. Starting in the sixties, the emphasis in university writer’s workshops nationwide switched from “show don’t tell,” a formulation that predates New Criticism but that dovetailed with that school’s emphasis on mimimalism and irony and on its attention to craft, to “find your voice.” (Under the guidance of New Critical tenets, however, the writers workshops swallowed up this newer mantra, too, taking the orality out of “voice” and changing the mantra’s essential meaning to something like “discover yourself, or at least your individuality, in your writing.”)
Ong’s ideas fit me. He finds that in an important, theoretical sense, all of literature, and not just Homer’s epics, has a “primary oral and aural existence.” A poem is not an object but “radically a cry, a sound emitted from the interior of a person, a modification of one’s exhalation of breath which retains the intimate connection with life which we find in breath itself . . .” (Barbarian 28) (Ong’s argument should not be confused with any form of deconstructive criticism. Indeed, far in advance of deconstruction’s heyday in the 1970’s and 80’s, Ong advanced arguments reiterated later by literary critic George Steiner and others that the parsing of sounds below a level recognizable to the speaker is not grist for meaningful literary criticism simply because such sound is not “heard” in any meaningful sense. “[I]t is fallacious to imagine that words are capable of being reduced to impulses,” Ong says (52). It occurred to me, reading Ong, that the New Critics brought deconstructive arguments upon themselves as the next logical step to their tenet that poems are objects.)
Ong positions words (and, consequently, poems and other literature) as both interior to the speaker and invitational to the hearer:
For, although, as Eliot justly maintains in [his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent”], works of literature are “not the expression of personality but an escape from personality,” and in this are unlike ordinary dialogue, they are nevertheless not quite an escape to an object, a thing adequately conceivable, even analogously, in terms of surfaces and visual or tactile perceptions. Works of literature consist in words, and, as we have suggested, words themselves retain in themselves ineluctably something of the interiority of their birth within that interior which is a person. As cries, they go “out,” but they are not extensions of, or projections of interiority. In this sense Camus’s and Sartre’s view of man as an interior exteriorizing itself is quite inadequate to the totality of the human situation. We are more accurate if we keep our metaphors closer to the world of sound and think of speech and of works of literature as “amplifications” or, better, as intensifications of an interior. All words projected from a speaker remain, as has been seen, somehow interior to him, being an invitation to another person, another interior, to share the speaker’s interior, and invitation to enter in, not to regard from the outside. (32)
That’s Ong’s basic formulation, stripped of its supporting arguments.
A couple of other schools of thought have also kept me from suffocating under New Criticism up to now, but neither of them has the potential reach that Ong does, I believe. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Walter Pater and the so-called impressionist critics, but I admire Pater’s desire to turn his reactions to literature into more literature. I’ve seen this idea picked up by a modern literary critic I mentioned earlier, George Steiner, in his book Real Presences. Louise Rosenblatt, whose transactional theory of poetry is the second school I refer to, criticizes Pater for “charming us away” from the initial art that serves as the subject of his own art (Rosenblatt 132), but isn’t that the point? Pater is simply reading like a writer, and there can be – and most often should be – a fine line between poetry and good literary criticism, I think. Literary criticism that can’t admit that it goes beyond its subject is kidding itself.
Rosenblatt criticizes Pater in part because her project is to stay at the center of the reading experience, and in that project she resembles Ong. She claims that a poem “must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an object or an ideal entity” (12). A poem is “an event in the life of a reader, as embodied in a process resulting from the confluence of reader and text” (16). Rosenblatt applies to reading the transactional theory initially developed by John Dewey and Arthur Bentley in the 1890’s. Transactional theory in psychology eschewed a stimulus-response model, noting that “the living organism selects from its environment the stimuli to which it will respond” (17). For Rosenblatt, calling a poem a stimulus (or an object) and a reader a passive responder to that stimulus or object shortchanges the reader’s role in a poem. Her book has helped me understand the levels of my involvement as a reader, and because her principal focus has always been on pedagogy, her book has put some theoretical backbone into my lit teaching.
But to pull off her transactional analysis, Rosenblatt makes a distinction between the text of the poem, which she sees as static, and the poem itself, which she sees as the event – the transaction between the reader and the text. Ong, however, goes further. He sees the text as in one sense dangerous, threatening to reverse the “objects as words” formulation he believes the pre-typography world was more sensitive to. “In a sense every one of man’s works is a word,” Ong says (49), an internal expression, an external invitation to the speaker’s interior, and destined to perish, in an actual word’s case, “as soon as it has passed to the exterior.”
Understanding “words as objects” doesn’t just keep us from being better readers, as Rosenblatt asserts. For Ong, it keeps us from ourselves and, thereby, others.
Here are other quotes from “Voice as Summons for Belief: Literature, Faith, and the Divided Self,” one of the essays in The Barbarian Within, all of which in one way or another help me begin to understand my own “cry” in my recent post (i.e., “I want you to read with me. We’d feed off of each other’s reactions, but even that’s not enough, ultimately. You have to read the book with my reactions and associations, and I have to read it with yours. So you have to read it with me, maybe as me, and maybe me as you . . .”):
If we can conceive a thought within ourselves, it is the sort of thing that our fellows – the more perceptive ones, anyhow – can enter into. If we can think it, others can, too. (50)
Every human word implies not only the existence – at least in the imagination – of another to whom the word is uttered, but it also implies that the speaker has a kind of otherness within himself. He participates in the other to whom he speaks, and it is this underlying participation which makes communication possible. The human speaker can speak to the other precisely because he himself is not purely self, but is somehow also other. His own ‘I’ is haunted by the shadow of a ‘thou’ which it itself casts and which it can never exorcize. (52)
This other within must hear all, for he already knows all, and only if this other, this thou, hears, will I become comprehensible to myself. (53)
Although the wearer of a wolf mask among primitives is not a wolf, he somehow really participates in wolf-ness. In this situation, where the object-world is not clearly differentiated from the world of voice and person, belief has not the depth of meaning it enjoys in a civilized society, for the same reason that science itself has not: the two are confounded with each other, for the dialectic which sets them apart with some precision has not yet sufficiently progressed. . . . As the tension between visual and vocal grows [in theater over the ages], and with it the use of the truly dramatic character and the formalized separation of drama from life, there grows also, paradoxically, and awareness of the foundation in real human existence for dramatic character. A character in a drama is a person set off, advertised as other. Yet this state of being-set-off, this remoteness in the midst of intimacy, is found in real life, too, and experience of drama teaches us to recognize the fact. . . . The sense of being-set-off is not annihilated by intimacy. Indeed it is heightened . . . For in assuring me of my closeness to your consciousness, this dialogue assures me also of the uniqueness of your consciousness and of its ultimate inviolability – of the fact that, naturally speaking, I can never know what it is to be you, can never share this ultimate experience of yourself with you. (60 – 61)
. . . any utterance, even a scientific utterance, is the manifestation of a presence, which cannot be “grasped” as an “objective” of knowledge can be, but only invoked or evoked. . . . we know how difficult and unconvincing it is to apply the notion of “grasp” to a poetic work. The notion can, of course, be applied to some extent. We can speak of “grasping” Hamlet or The Marriage of Heaven and Hell or Absalom, Absalom! But to so speak is not very satisfactory, not convincing. It seems much more real to speak of the response which these works evoke from us. The “evocative” quality – which is to say, the “calling” quality – is paramount in a work of real literature. Literature exists in a context of one presence calling to another. (58 – 59)
Ong’s essay weaves these ideas with theories of why the “evocative quality” of the more detached writers, such as Joyce or Faulkner, is more poignant than that of Poe, who can’t achieve the “masklike detachment” of the former; what it means to read a poem; the role of criticism today; the intimacy of music; why poetry is “in one sense communication par excellence”; and why the “poetry of withdrawal” common in the twentieth century is a good thing.
º º º
All of that interests me. The quotes bunched at the end of this post’s previous section help me understand what I’ve been feeling as a reader and as a writer, and they validate those feelings to a large extent. But what really draws me to Ong is his central project – the reorientation of poetry and the rest of literature from object to voice. It feels like my slow spiritual reorientation from Evangelical Christianity to a more Orthodox formulation. The reorientation also suggests a strong connection between my current aesthetic impasse and my earlier, full-fledged identity crisis.
I think I’m approximately at the same space aesthetically as I am theologically. The theological aspect of my identity crisis a dozen years ago parallels the aesthetic theory behind my current reading and writing impasse. New Criticism represents, for me, a kind of fundamentalism that nurtured and directed my aesthetic pleasure in reading early in life. But just as I discovered twelve years ago that my version of Evangelical Christianity was my chief mechanism for keeping me from myself, I am discovering that New Criticism is enforcing a kind of false separation between aesthetics (beauty) and intimacy in my reading and writing. Understanding literature as voice might help me bridge that separation, and it might even help me resolve the conflict I feel between contemplation and writing. Reading, writing, sex, contemplation – one looks for the one in the two and, finding it or something like it, becomes herself again, maybe for the first time again.
New Criticism’s emphasis on the autonomy and “object-ness” of literature, particularly its exegesis of literature without regard to historical or literary movements or to the writers’ biography, reminds me of Evangelical Christianity’s essential approach to the Bible. (Cleanth Brooks would turn over in his grave at such an association: he used New Criticism’s tools to advance a high-church conception (i.e., irony and metaphor) of literature against a reformist conception (experience) associated with the Romanticists, as Harold Bloom has pointed out.) Some critiques of both New Criticism and Evangelical Christianity point to the same historical forces that parented them: the Enlightenment and its philosophers (on the Evangelical side, see Nancey Murphy’s excellent, slow read, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism) as well as the Gutenberg press.
The 1960’s was a pivotal decade for both Evangelical Christianity and American criticism, and both pivoted from text to orality, or, more truly, from text alone to text tempered with orality. In what McGurl calls a “reflexive return to orality,” the sixties generation implemented recording technology, experimental writing, and aspects of theater to emphasize a more immediate, intimate, and voice-oriented approach to literature. At the same time, the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Movement brought a more immediate, intimate, and spirit-oriented understanding of Christianity to Evangelical circles. The Charismatic Movement’s emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues and modern-day prophecy, is part of that movement’s commitment to orality and intimacy. (In the Bible, of course, “spirit” can also be translated as “breath,” which is a term Ong uses along with “cry” and “voice” to emphasize literature’s intimate and oral basis.) Indeed, while Homeric scholars were beginning to debate how much of the Illiad was created during poets’ oral performances, Charismatic Christians were beginning to debate how much credence to give prophecy spoken during church services at which the gifts of the Spirit were manifested.
It is significant to me that both the literary and theological movements toward orality succeeded only in “balancing,” but not transforming, their respective fields. On the literary front, college and high school writers workshops still maintained a New Criticism-certified “object” approach to literature with the same attention to craft; the experimental orality of the 1960’s served mostly to reemphasize sound in printed or electronically published poetry. But it is still principally only the sound of the silent, written word. With or without the writer’s care for sound and her implementation of sound devices, very little poetry is experienced orally today. (There are signs of change today as there have been off and on since the 1950’s, however.)
On the theological front, much of Evangelical Christianity, including Charismatic churches, has absorbed the Charismatic movement with little change to dispensational theology prevalent since the nineteenth century. Many Evangelical circles have dropped the dispensational formulation that “spiritual gifts passed away with the apostles,” but most have kept other dispensational notions, particularly eschatological and exegetic ones. The movement has caused many Evangelicals to overemphasize a New Testament distinction between the two New Testament words for word, logos and rhema, but it hasn’t put much of a dent in fundamentalism’s literal (from the Latin for “letter,” a concept which Paul compares unfavorably with “Spirit”) approach to the Bible.
But the movements towards orality both in literature and in theology ultimately point to more than mere adjustments. Various Orthodox theologians understand the Charismatic movement as something between God’s grace in the face of, on the one hand, and a culture’s severe reaction to, on the other, a Western Church that long ago separated mysticism from theology and relegated religious experience in large part to either saints or kooks. The Orthodox Church still commits little of its theology to the formality of paper, preferring instead to house it in its liturgy and other practices – practices that are mostly oral in nature – that have existed for centuries.
And Ong, for his part and in the name of literature, concludes “Voice as Summons for Belief” in 1958 with the hope that “voice is in some ways regaining a prestige over sight, that we are at the end of the Gutenberg era.”
I hope so, too. But if my own intellectual, personal, and spiritual struggles over the past dozen years are any indication, it may be just the beginning of the end.
Posted July 12, 2009.