A goal of good lit crit: humanity

This post is from a letter I wrote a friend as part of correspondence we had in 2011 that touched on the purposes of literary criticism.

3PictureGeorgeSteinerOne of the things I love about [literary critic George] Steiner is how the development and state of language, and even the act of reading, are ultimately moral issues for him.  People who genuinely love Shakespeare can commit atrocities of twentieth century magnitude, he asserts.  So we have to be affected by what we read.  One of my favorite lines from one of the Language & Silence essays (“To Civilize our Gentlemen”):

In I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism we find the following:

The question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well.  If unfortunately it does arise, either through the poet’s fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different type of activity.

To which the answer should be: No, we have become men.

He sees a link between Calvinism and historicism (and positivism) in the field of literature that Harry Jaffa seems to intuit in the field of political science (and of course Steiner has lots to say about the relationship of literature and politics).  Calvinists and historicists (strange bedfellows . . .) don’t recognize what one might call a divine spark in human nature, and so projects such as self-government and even humanity (humane, human-ness) become impossible. (This is the irony of Calvinism, to me.)

3PictureBookSteinerLanguageSilenceSteiner seems to have struggled long and hard with his calling.  He is a critic who in some essays seems almost to apologize for his calling’s existence.  But that struggle, I think, won him a clearer notion of what a true critic does than I have yet read anywhere else.  (I celebrate his understanding of criticism, but I celebrate his own humanity even more, which gives me hope that my own struggle with the inconsistencies of writing and silence, while they may never make articulated sense, may transform something in me one day.)  He thinks good criticism can “show us what to reread, and how.”  (There are a lot of books out there; lots of first reads, even, to choose a second from among . . .)  “Secondly, criticism can connect.  In an age in which rapidity of technical communication in fact conceals obstinate ideological and political barriers, the critic can act as intermediary and custodian.”  And the third purpose makes a helpful distinction between a reviewer and a good critic:

There is a distinction between contemporary and immediate.  The immediate hounds the reviewer.  But, plainly, the critic has special responsibilities toward the art of his own age.  He must ask of it not only whether is represents a technical advance or refinement, whether it adds a twist of style or plays adroitly on the nerve of the moment, but what it contributes to or detracts from the dwindled reserves of moral intelligence.  What is the measure of man this work proposes?

And the final defense of lit crit in this same essay (“Humane Literacy” (1963)):

Because the community of traditional values is splintered, because words themselves have been twisted and cheapened, because the classic forms of statement and metaphor are yielding to complex, transitional modes, the art of reading, of true literacy, must be reconstituted.  It is the task of literary criticism to help us read as total human beings, by example of precision, fear, and delight.  Compared to the act of creation, that task is secondary.  But it has never counted more.  Without it, creation itself may fall upon silence.

I just want to stand up and shout.

I love what you say about practicing lit crit before embarrassing ourselves in public, and I think Steiner is with us there, too:

. . . what the critic hopes for is a qualified assent, a “Yes, but . . ” which will compel him to reexamine or refine his own response and lead to fruitful dialogue. . . .  No less than an artist — indeed, more so — the critic is in need of a public.  Without it the act of ideal reading, the attempt to re-create the work of art in the critical sensibility is doomed to becoming arbitrary impression or mere dictate.  There must exist or be trained within the community a body of readers seeking to achieve in vital concert a mature response to literature.  Only then can the critic work with that measure of consent which makes disagreement creative.  Language itself is the supreme act of community.  The poem has its particular existence in a “third realm,” at a complex, unstable distance between the poet’s private use of words and the shape of these same words in current speech.  To be realized critically the work of literature must find its complete reader; but that reader (the critic) can only quicken and verify his response if a comparable effort at insight is occurring somewhere around him.

(From his essay “F. R. Leavis.”) It reminds me of Calvino’s and Walter Ong’s thoughts on the reader’s essential role in creation.

Philosophy in fiction

Tolstoy or DostoevskyIt occurs to me, rereading Tom Jones, that a novel can get across the life of an idea better than a treatise or a tract.

It’s not just that a novelist can sell a reader on her idea better than a nonfiction writer can his.  It’s that the idea can come across more fully, more like what it is: an idea enjoyed, feared, implemented, resisted, expanded upon, corrupted, corrupting.  The idea as obsession, as communication, as liberator, as oppressor.

When I think about expressing ideas in fiction, though, I face facts. I’m not attracted to stories as much as I am to language and to ideas, to abstractions.  Here’s how I know.  I never read fiction for plot.  I wore out two Bibles by the time I was thirty, and in them, the law, the histories, and the gospels — basically, the narratives — show some modest wear.  The epistles, those redoubts of instruction and abstraction, are in tatters.

I realized a few weeks ago that I’ve never watched a minute of television drama made since 1970.  (That’s about the last year I watched a local news broadcast, too: local news has most of the news stories.)  I also don’t remember jokes, anecdotes, names, or faces.  I often tune out, and sometimes interrupt for the gist, when people start telling me stories.

One last piece of evidence.  We had to recite cases in law school.  I never got the facts straight.  My contracts professor once asked me, pointedly, in front of a hundred of my peers, “Have you read this case?”  I had — I really had — but it didn’t take.

Nevertheless, I’ve read a dozen books by novelists on how to write novels.  My friend Michael, who also never writes fiction but at least is an excellent raconteur, reads them and passes them on to me.

Get the idea?  I don’t do stories.  But I’m enamored of them, crazy about the idea of stories.

Here’s another obstacle.  Writing fiction about ideas is out of vogue.  It’s fine to have a theme and all, people feel, but any greater role for an idea makes the fiction seem enthusiastic or polemical.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think an aversion to overcrowding fiction with ham-handed, ideological agendas is a matter of the age we’re living in.  I find a universal truth in the notion that good fiction, even a good parable or fable, can’t be first and foremost a vehicle for its message. But we’ve taken that truth to an extreme, I think because we have so few universally held myths stout enough to hang our ideas from.  (Myths I can handle.  Tell me a story a thousand times, set it to liturgy and holidays and commentary, and I can remember it.  Hell, I’ll serve at its altar.)

The most recent book Michael gave me was Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  (A dozen books on writing fiction, and I’m only now reading Dillard’s classic?)  She says:

People love pretty much the same things best.  A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but what he alone loves at all.  Strange seizures beset us.  Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree. . . .

Why do you never find anything about the idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Dillard asks.  Because (she answers) it is up to you. (67)

But does Dillard confuse wood for spark, or purpose for fillip?  As a college writer-in-residence, Faulkner tells that story about Caddy’s underwear, but I don’t think it’s why he took up writing fiction.  The vision of Caddy climbing a tree just got him going, to hear him talk about it.

But what if it’s an idea I want to burn?  I could find a spark anywhere for writing about it, but do ideas legitimately burn in fiction anymore?  And the kind of fiction I’m thinking of doesn’t have ideas as mere theme or adornment.  These ideas are the work’s backdrop and its reason for being.  (You probably have clicked around this site enough to get some idea of my ideas.  It doesn’t take many clicks to do so.)

George Steiner thinks Dostoevsky’s characters burn ideas:

Dostoevsky’s heroes are intoxicated with ideas and consumed by the fires of language.  This does not man that they are allegoric types or personifications.  No one, with the exception of Shakespeare, has more fully represented the complex energies of life.  It means simply that characters such as Raskolnikov, Muishkin, Kirillov, Versilov, and Ivan Karamazov feed on thought as other human beings feed on love or hatred.  Where other men burn oxygen, they burn ideas. (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism 289)

Intoxicated with ideas and consumed with language?  Maybe I’ll give up the thought of writing and become a Dostoevskian character.

But Dostoevsky, and not just his characters, burned ideas, particularly one:

Writing to Maikov in 1870, with reference to the projected Life of a Great Sinner, the novelist confessed: “The fundamental idea, which will run through each of the parts, is one that has tormented me, consciously and unconsciously, all my life long: it is the question of the existence of God.”  This torment was at the heart of Dostoevsky’s genius; his secular instincts – the power of the story-teller, the inborn sense of drama, his fascination with politics – were profoundly conditioned by the religious cast of his mind and by the essentially religious quality of his imagination. . . . Around “the question of the existence of God,” Dostoevsky’s novels elaborate their special vision and their dialectic.  They raise it now by affirmation and now by denial.  The problem of God was the constant impulse behind Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic and ultra-nationalist theories of history; it made moral discriminations of the utmost insight a necessary art; it gave the activities of intellect their pivot and tradition. (287 – 288)

Even if I had a fraction of Dostoevsky’s talent, are we in an age where our novelists or their characters can burn ideas like oxygen?  Here’s where the idea of the idea-as-backdrop comes in.  Steiner feels like Dostoevsky’s generation of Russians had a rendezvous with destiny:

The contemporaneity of religious fervor and poetic imagination in nineteenth-century Russia, the dialectical relationship between prayer and poetry, was a specific historical circumstance.  It was no less rooted in a moment of time than was that coalescence of occasion and genius which made possible Greek tragedy and Elizabethan drama. (321)

Our mythologies, which Steiner believes “can be of diverse orders: political, philosophic, psychological, economic, historical, or religious” (232), aren’t as deeply rooted as those in nineteenth century Russia (319).

That may be why some English and American writers are skittish about ideas in literature.  We’re diverse and disconnected, and while we’ll scream about politics, we rarely talk about it in the context of great ideas.  There’s little mythological (in Steiner’s broad sense of the word) bottom in our literature, so our literature can’t hold ideas. It’s like variations on a musical theme when the theme’s gone.  The variations clash, and everyone sounds insensitive to how the others are playing.

Rebecca West considered “a failure to recognize the dynamism of ideas” as the chief flaw in English literature.  Geoff Dyer, in his introduction to John Berger’s Selected Essays, takes issue with Craig Raine’s notion, which Dyer feels is prevalent in England today, that “We need ideas, but not in our art.”  “This belief,” Dyer responds, “is a serous blot on the English literary landscape” (xii).

Steiner feels a need to reorient us to the notion of ideas in novels before he examines Dostoevsky’s:

In suggesting that a novel may be a façade or a mask for a philosophic doctrine, we involve ourselves in error.  The relationship between thought and expression is at all times reciprocal and dynamic. (232)

Tom Jones and The Brothers Karamazov have been the chief pillars of my novel reading from high school on.  Tom Jones is a comedy set over a wide period of time with a friendly narrator; Karamazov is a tragedy in compressed time with a hidden narrator, a kind of stage director.  The books are so different.

But Tom Jones and Karamazov are both about ideas.  They’re both political and religious novels, though not in the sense of All the King’s Men (political setting) or the Left Behind series (religious indoctrination).  They both examine political theory and religious doctrine without falling into tract or allegory (despite Tom Jones’s “Allworthy” and “Thwackum”).  They extend beyond their ideas to touch something universal, something that readers who aren’t enamored with their ideas – indeed, readers who reject them – may still draw life from. In other words, while the novel serves the idea, the idea serves the novel more.

Under cover of method

Beth at Cassandra Pages recently posted some of George Steiner’s handsome, personal prose – the kind of prose I didn’t know he had in him, though I’ve read a lot of his literary criticism.  I knew he had written one or two novels, but before reading Beth’s prose I couldn’t have guessed that his descriptive writing would have been much count. I guess I’ve been influenced too much by Steiner’s own distinction between creative writers and “secondary” writers, such as critics — a distinction he makes central in his book Real Presences.  Creative writers write fine criticism, but how can a critic be expected to create?

I read a similar, personal piece in Camera Lucida by literary critic Roland Barthes.  Check out the subservient relationship of theory to his personal aims of grieving his mother’s death and celebrating her life, and the beautiful prose that results (translated by Richard Howard):

At the end of her life, shortly before the moment when I looked through her pictures and discovered the Winter Garden Photograph, my mother was weak, very weak. I lived in her weakness (it was impossible for me to participate in a world of strength, to go out in the evenings; all social life appalled me).  During her illness, I nursed her, held the bowl of tea she liked because it was easier to drink from than from a cup; she had become my little girl, uniting for me with that essential child she was in her first photograph.  In Brecht, by a reversal I used to admire a good deal, it is the son who (politically) educates the mother; yet I never educated my mother, never converted her to anything at all; in a sense I never “spoke” to her, never “discoursed” in her presence, for her; we supposed, without saying anything of the kind to each other, that the frivolous insignificance of language, the suspension of images must be the very space of love, its music.  Ultimately I experienced her, strong as she had been, my inner law, as my feminine child.  Which was my way of resolving Death.  I, as so many philosophers have said, Death is the harsh victory of the race if the particular dies for the satisfaction of the universal, if after having been reproduced as other than himself, the individual dies, having thereby denied and transcended himself, I who had not procreated, I had, in her very illness, engineered my mother.  Once she was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the superior Life Force (the race, the species).  My particularity could never again universalize itself (unless, utopically, by writing, whose project henceforth would become the unique goal of my life).  From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death.

Geoff Dyer points out in the books’ introduction that many academics don’t care for Barthes’s later work, including Camera Lucida, finding it “symptomatic of a diminution of the rigor that had marked his first incarnation as systematizer and semiologist.”

Barthes doesn’t care. He loves having the objective theory serve the subjective end of celebrating his mother’s life.  And now that he has given birth (as he puts it) to his mother, the “project” of writing would be the “unique goal of my life,” the one last attempt at universalizing his particularity.  Therefore, writing’s stylistic demands take precedence over all that playful theory in Camera Lucida.

There are other hints that Barthes intends to put writing ahead of theory in Camera Lucida.  When he earlier published two celebrated essays on photography, he says, he felt “torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical; and at the heart of this critical language, between several discourses, those of sociology, of semiology, and of psychoanalysis – but that, by ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naïve it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system.”

Nevertheless, most of Camera Lucida’s first half is theory; his mother and the Winter Garden Photograph aren’t fully discussed until the second half.  Early in the second half, though, he confesses that the “free and easy manner” and “banality” with which he discussed theory mask the strong feeling he now reveals:

What I had noted at the beginning, in a free and easy manner, under cover of method, i.e., that every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent, I was rediscovering, overwhelmed by the truth of the image.  Henceforth I would have to consent to combine two voices: the voice of banality (to say what everyone sees and knows) and the voice of singularity (to replenish such banality with all the élan of an emotion which belonged only to myself). (76)

And the older theorist would serve the younger father:

As Spectator I was interested in Photography only for “sentimental” reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, I think. (21)

The Winter Garden Photograph wounds him (I see, I feel).  Only because of what he sees and feels does he then notice, observe, and think.  The theorist makes theory the servant of and vehicle for his feelings.

The result is the language of theory shot through with personality and wonder.  And some pretty great prose, ably translated (Dyer tells me) by Richard Howard.  I see how a theorist can write.

[This is the second of three posts on Camera Lucida.  The first is here.]


On How to Mark a Book: “I’m not suggesting that you mark every book you own, any more than I would suggest that my dog mark every tree he sniffs. But you should be free to mark up most books in the most worthwhile core of your collection. My dog has his favorites, and so should you.”

A friend this week pointed me to an interview of George Steiner, the literary critic, on YouTube.  In the middle of it, Steiner explicates a Chardin painting, “Le Philosophe Lisant.”  He draws some significance from its reader’s pen:

He has his pen next to his reading.  Serious reading means you read with a pen.  What do you do with a pen?  You underline, you take notes on the page, you write around the margin.  What are you really doing?  You are in dialog with the book, you are answering it, you are speaking to it, and if you are very arrogant and very ambitious, you are saying secretly, you can write a better one.  And that is the beginning of a certain relationship of passionate joy and love with the text.

When I was in my twenties, an itinerant preacher visited our little church.  Mid-message, he asked,  “Who has a Bible that he can’t write in?”

I raised my hand.

“Well, would you get one that you can write in?” he thundered.  A canned rejoinder.

“Oh, I have one of those, too!”

Both our faces went red.

I never saw him again, but I still love him, despite the conventions that we labored under.

Voir dire

A lawyer usually concedes the opposing proffered expert’s credentials and does not contest her opponent’s motion to have the court recognize the witness as an expert in a particular field.  The alternative is voir dire, a self-contained evidentiary session in which both sides get to question the proffered expert in the jury’s presence concerning his credentials before the court accepts him as an expert and permits him to testify as one.  Voir dire often turns into an expert’s showcase, often sours the community of experts (especially doctors, who run pretty tight in most communities) against the lawyer who challenges the expert’s credentials, and often gives the lawyer whose client has hired the expert an opportunity to highlight his theory of the case through his questioning.  Voir dire of expert witnesses, then, is rare, but it is usually more contentious, and therefore more fun to watch, than the voir dire of potential jurors, a preliminary procedure of every jury trial.


The Book of Hebrews, for no immediately apparent reason, opens with a long comparison of Jesus with angels.  Old Testament scripture is brought to bear to support the idea that Jesus is superior to the angels.  I have heard a number of sermons and talks that use some of the material in Hebrews’s first chapter to support various points, but I have heard no talk that explains why the comparison is made in the first place.  One might think that the writer’s Jewish audience has fallen from its understanding of Jesus’ supremacy in the new Jewish sect’s cosmology and has begun to worship angels, or at least has begun to venerate them more than Scripture would hold with.

The comparison of Jesus with angels, though, has nothing to do with angel worship.  The purpose of the comparison is not subject to a private theological interpretation by any current sect of what we call Christianity.  The comparison is only an example of the tactics used by Hebrews’s writer to advance some good and proper theology.

One of the themes of Hebrews is the superiority of the new covenant for which Jesus serves as the one sacrifice and the sole high priest.  The earlier, Mosaic covenant is inferior because of its inability to make its beneficiaries perfect in a transactional sense.  Indeed, the new covenant is revealed in Hebrews as the older covenant honored by the old covenant (generally, the first in time means a great deal in the New Testament), since Levi, the priestly tribe under Moses’ covenant, pays tithes through his forefather Abraham to Melchizedek, the mysterious priest referred to historically in Genesis, prophetically in Psalms, and exegetically the Book of Hebrews.

The writer’s Jewish audience is in danger of neglecting the salvation brought to them by this new covenant.  They are enamored not with angels, but with the older covenant, not as a type of the newer covenant, as the writer would prefer, but as a superior covenant to it.

So what’s with the angels? Like a trial lawyer, Hebrews’s author is establishing two speakers’ relative credentials.  The comparison finally leads to this: because Jesus is higher than the angels, his words are in some sense superior to theirs, and we better not neglect them. (Hebrews 2:1-4 – “words spoken through angels” vs. “salvation first spoken through the Lord.”)  Hebrews chapter 1, then, compares the relative authority of two speakers.

Jesus speaks to us in the Gospels of the new covenant.  But when did the angels speak?  The Hebrews are familiar with the notion that God in some sense gives the Mosaic covenant and laws through angels.  Stephen, for instance, reminds his Hebrew audience that the law is “given by God’s angels.” (Acts 7:53 (REB).  For more on the angels’ role in giving the law, see Deut. 33:2, Acts 7:38, and Gal. 3:19.)  The comparison of speakers, then, gives way to a comparison of covenants and the covenants’ associated sacrifices, promises, and priesthoods brought into the world by the speakers.

[The writer of Hebrews uses a similarly lawyerly tactic to support Melchizedek’s superiority over Aaron as a high priest.  Most first-time readers of Hebrews may not understand the reference to “two immutable things” in Hebrews chapter 6.  Reading comprehension leads to one possible conclusion: the two immutable things are “the promise and the oath.”  God knows we use promises and oaths in our legal systems to assure one another and to make things operative.  God speaks our language; he’s willing to utilize our contract law.  Hebrews discusses two Old Testament verses containing promises and oaths.  Here’s the first:

[To Abraham:] I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you. (Heb. 6:14)

(The “surely” parts are the oaths.  It may be easier to see this in the Revised English Bible translation: “I vow that I will bless you abundantly and multiply your descendants.”)  This idea of the promise and the oath takes on more importance once Melchizedek enters the letter at the end of chapter 6.  That’s because the last part of chapter 6 (verses 13 through 20) sets us up for this main promise-oath combo found well into the next chapter:

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 7:21, which itself is a translation of Psalm 110:4)

In other words, just as Hebrews sets up Jesus’ credentials as a speaker in chapter 1 before we even hear from him, Hebrews sets up the basis for Melchizedek’s credentials as a high priest in chapter 6 before the writer even mentions him.]

The writer of Hebrews, knowing that he cannot win his argument on an appeal to the covenants’ relative merits alone – his audience has a lifelong and even cultural investment in the old one – resorts to the superiority of his expert.


[book cover]What does it mean to read?  George Steiner’s Real Presences argues that “an account of the act of reading, in the fullest sense, of the act of reception and internalization of significant forms within us, is a metaphysical and, in the last analysis, a theological one.” Steiner does not refer here to theological doctrine but to theology in its broadest sense: the possibility of the unknown.  The previous statement I quote is not his thesis, but it is related to it: our culture has “a certain reduced condition of the poetic and of the act of creation.”  In the second (the middle) section of his book, Steiner traces our condition to philosophical developments during the 1870’s in Western Europe and Russia as expressed in Mallarmé’s and Rimbaud’s writings, writings which, with “all that they entail, splinter the foundations of the Hebraic-Hellenic-Cartesian edifice in which the ratio and psychology of the Western communicative tradition had lodged.”  The Western communicative tradition is an a priori “relationship between word and world,” the existence of speech-acts.  Late-nineteenth-century nihilism and a “Nietzschean intuition” gone mad lead to twentieth-century deconstruction, the doctrine of literary criticism fashionable in the latter part of the last century.  Deconstruction, in short, holds that meaningfulness in words is a pretense, and that words serve as signs only out of a persistent laziness and cultural comfort with a disproved theological, Logos model of meaning.

Steiner finds the tenets of deconstruction unassailable – indeed, even helpful in many respects – but he doesn’t find them ultimately persuasive.  He spends the third and final section of his book arguing, not from logic, but from an a priori acceptance, that art, music, and literature presuppose “the other,” that they begin in immanence (where deconstruction would suggest they remain), but that they move toward transcendence:

. . . it is the enterprise and privilege of the aesthetic to quicken into lit presence the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between man and ‘the other’.

The battle between immanence alone, on the one hand, and immanence and transcendence, on the other, cannot be fought in the arena of reason alone, since the two sides may not agree on even the nature and role of proof.  (Proof suggests a “positivist cosmology” and a finite, “terminal” universe, Steiner asserts.  The vehicle of the best of Western art, writing, and music, however, is usually myth, which, contrary to proof, suggests an open-ended universe, a less dogmatic and more apophatic approach to mystery.)

But the greater reason that Steiner concedes the argument but not the day to deconstruction has to do with what is at stake.  Essentially, neither side advances an argument; both sides advance only competing, irreducible presumptions.  The axioms are not only fundamental as foundations to what arguments could be advanced; they are also fundamental to the question of whether the arts will survive in Western culture.  If “general sentiment” follows academics for whom “the question of the existence of non-existence of God will have lost all actuality,” then the creation of great art, music, and literature will be a matter of history alone.

Therefore, arguments alone will not carry the day; instead, “this essay argues a wager on transcendence.”  In advancing such a wager (“argues a wager” is more of a poetic expression than a dialectic one), the book’s third section resorts to a re-grounding in what it means to read, to visit the visual arts, to hear great music.  Although he believes music is his strongest suit, Steiner examines reading more closely than listening to music, probably because of the average reader’s more extensive experience with reading than with listening closely to music or enjoying the visual arts.  Steiner develops reading as a relationship that involves reserve, courtesy, trust, and a meeting of freedoms that, in the end, results in “total indiscretion.”  Literature (as well as art and music) “queries the last privacies of our existence. . . . It proposes change.”

Section three, then, isn’t so much an argument (of a wager or otherwise) as it is an instructor’s slowing down of a slow dance to point out the couple’s steps.  Steiner reconnects us with what we’ve always intuited about reading, and then he compares irreducible presumptions.  Real reading, he suggests, requires “the other,” requires the acknowledgement of real presences. Deconstruction’s refusal to acknowledge the transcendent in reading is based on gamesmanship, not relationships, Steiner concludes.

But I have not described the first of Real Presences’s three sections.  Steiner spends a great number of pages there establishing that, in our culture, the aesthetic has become “academic,” that “we welcome those who can domesticate, who can secularize the mystery and summons of creation.”  We therefore live in a Byzantine age “in which the exegetic and the critical [what Steiner elsewhere calls ‘the secondary’] dominate” to the detriment of the creative.  For a variety of reasons, we cannot perform “an authentic act of reading.”  Here’s one reason:

We flinch from the immediate pressures of mystery in poetic, in aesthetic acts of creation as we do from the realization of our diminished humanity, of all that is literally bestial in the murderousness and gadgetry of this age.  The secondary is our narcotic.

Later, Steiner makes various connections between the ascendancy of the secondary and the ascendancy of radical nihilism (the book’s second section), and between the ascendancy of the secondary and our inability to read (third section). Section one also wanders into interesting sub-plots that get away from strict credentials, but Steiner believes the reader – the judge – will allow him some latitude in his voir dire to advance details which, in the end, enrich the jury’s understanding of his theory of the case.  Steiner is a methodical advocate. It isn’t until the end of the book, after all – long after the voir dire that makes up the first section is over – that we discover that we’ve been lawyered:

I have, before, cited some of those who know best: the poets, the artists.  I have found no deconstructionist among them.

When the issue at bar is outside the province of the jury, attorneys resort to experts.  Steiner spends the first section of his essay comparing speakers.  The poets speak with more authority than today’s academics – the secondary speakers, the self-appointed keepers of a guttering aesthetic torch.


In one sense, voir dire is merely procedural and tactical, a justified means to theological ends. In another sense, where all parties to the litigation concede truth’s immanence in some manner, it isn’t the argument but the words of the expert that carry us.  At the end of Job’s trial, after all, God doesn’t argue with Job; he simply compares their credentials.  And, broadly speaking, the dispensation of justice, the act of covenanting, and even the act of reading are theological enterprises worthy of the finest defense.


The tyranny of the secondary school


Last week, I failed to secure the conviction of the five-paragraph essay.

I start with the excuses.  I haven’t practiced law for over a decade now.  The judge had no concept of the learned treatise exception to the hearsay rule.  The jury found against us by the thinnest of margins: three to two.  The majority on the jury pointed out that my co-counsel and I had not produced sufficient evidence that Ms. Essay had corrupted the writing of vast numbers of grade-school children.  But how many children did we have to bring in as witnesses?  How many lifeless, voiceless expository papers?

We certainly proved Ms. Essay’s corrupting influence. We failed to produce evidence of the problem’s pervasiveness only because the judge wouldn’t permit us to put it on.  You see in the above photo some of the other lawyers comforting me at counsel table after the judge ruled that I could not get my evidence out of my treatises through my experts or through any other means.

But I must take a deep breath here.  I am not writing to vent or blame the ref or even to retry the case against the five-paragraph essay.  I am writing about a similar but larger problem: the tyranny of the expository essay (five-paragraph or otherwise) in secondary education.

We performed the mock trail as part of the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s summer institute.  For the record, Ms. Essay was there in person and proved to be a strong witness on her own behalf.  My opponent and I were chosen as lead counsel because of our legal backgrounds, but both of us agree that our co-counsel out-lawyered us.

Despite the adverse verdict, our witnesses made their point: the five-paragraph essay doesn’t work, and almost none of them is teaching it anymore.  Unfortunately, these witnesses are in the minority among grade-school teachers in that respect today.  The roots of the five-paragraph essay’s pervasiveness go back more than a century to when instruction in the written form of rhetoric was carved up between expository writing and composition (i.e., what was left of written rhetoric).

My first hint that high-school students have little concept of the flexible fundamentals of rhetoric came during my first year of teaching when my entire ninth-grade class failed to recognize a rhetorical question.

“How many sentences are in a paragraph?” I asked.  I was making some point about the flexibility of a paragraph.  I assumed they knew that a paragraph could hold any number of sentences.

“Five,” almost all of them called back in unison.

I have since tried to trace down the source of the “five” answer in vertical meetings among fifth- through ninth-grade language arts and English teachers.  The teachers in those meetings all recognized the answer five, but none of them pointed to her own grade’s instruction as the culprit.  Instead, they pointed to third- and fourth-grade teachers, none of whom, as I may have mentioned, were in attendance.

Part of the problem with the current instruction in writing in most public schools is that structures teachers intend as “scaffolding” become religious dogma for students.  I once heard some pastors joking about one of their number’s strategy of moving a piano one inch every Sunday in order to reposition it across the chancel without upsetting the congregants’ religious sensibilities.  Children are at least as dogmatic as adults, and they often defend the constructs they are taught with a religious and territorial ferocity.

A couple of months after the “five” incident, my department head observed my explanation of the five-paragraph essay’s requirements during my first semester of teaching.  My explanation to the class was perfunctory, and she encouraged me to go back and really teach it: to model a thesis sentence, to have the class write topic sentences together, to practice the requirements in chunks and in groups.  She was right, of course.  But while my students’ writing in general got much closer to meeting my structural requirements after I had taken her advice, their writing was still dull and voiceless.

This summer at the institute, theory is confirming what I have observed in the classroom: teaching one structure for all expository writing does bad things:

  1. It produces “a voice of serious-minded pretentiousness, statements of the obvious, and high-flown diction,” as Tom Romano describes it in his book Crafting Authentic Voice.
  2. It poisons students’ minds against the essay, a wonderful literary form that was first used, and used well, for personal expression, and that offers a great deal of flexibility.  (Have you ever read some of the early essays in essay anthologies, starting with those by Michel de Montaigne?)
  3. Despite the efforts of many teachers, the accretion of years of expository writing leaves students with the impression that the five-paragraph essay is the only way to write an essay.  College composition instructors complain about this mindset.
  4. Instead of teaching structure, teachers requiring five-paragraph essays are preventing students from learning structure.  By giving them a one-size-fits-all structure (the hat is fine; just whittle your head a little), teachers are preventing students from seeking and discovering a structure that fits their content and voice.
  5. Students need an authentic audience as part of the process of reclaiming their voice.  What is the audience of a more formulaic expository essay in high schools?  The audience is a construct, a sort-of dramatic convention, that the teacher and the student believe in to pull the essay assignment off.  The real audience, of course, is the teacher.  In the case of an expository essay about literature, the high-school student assumes that the teacher knows more about the essay’s subject than the teacher, yet she must pretend that her audience knows less.  This complicated, rarely discussed relationship between writer and audience spooks the writer and deadens voice.
  6. What the hell is an objective essay?  Classical rhetoric had no notion of objective writing.  Aren’t we supposed to be teaching students to be critical readers, to discover bias in their reading, and to discern fallacious arguments?  How can we then turn around and teach the gospel of an objective essay and reinforce this belief with the proscription of elements that hint at subjectivity, such as humor and first-person pronouns?
  7. If we want students to take risks with expression and content, we must be prepared for them to take risks with form.  Shouldn’t form serve content, in any event? Isn’t that the problem rhetoric got into before the eighteenth-century Scottish reformers claimed that rhetoric is more than window-dressing for ideas, and before they insisted on reinstating a moral component of rhetoric?

I write with the heat of conversion from my own, forsaken faith in the five-paragraph essay.  But my target is not just the five-paragraph essay or the use of any other off-the-shelf structure in writing instruction.  I believe that colleges and high schools overemphasize literary analysis essays in general.

Like kudzu, expository writing about literature has its place.  Reading reflections help us learn more about the materials we read than if we only read them. Good expository writing can also act as a bridge between a reader and a piece of literature.  But much of the expository writing about literature that is published today (a lot of it we call literary criticism) is crabbed and esoteric.  It is more unapproachable to an average, educated reader than the work it sets out to explain. Michael Hamburger’s point in his book The Truth of Poetry is well taken:

Instead of mediating between the work of art and a non-specialist public, [literary criticism] has become as specialized and as difficult as modern poetry is reputed to be; more difficult often, because poetry has its own way of communicating complex perceptions, and because critics have added their own complexities to those of their texts.

Indeed, Cliff Notes and Spark Notes provide a truer form of expository writing today than does academic journal writing in general, if evidence of public consumption has any credence anymore.

When I was an English major at the University of Virginia in the late ‘70’s, the English department there was considered by at least one national ranking to be the best in the nation, just ahead of Yale’s program.  I took 54 hours of English as an undergraduate – a good number above the hours I needed for my major.  Except for my grade in a single course, my grades were determined by a combination of expository essays written outside of class and expository essays (glorified short answers) written in response to exam prompts.  The one exception was my freshman composition class, which I failed to place out of before entering college. Despite the stigma of remediation that hung around the class, I learned more in that course about how to write than I did in the other 51 hours of English combined.  In composition class, we learned something about eight different modes of rhetoric and practiced writing in them.  We read excerpts from great literature, found patterns and techniques in them, and adopted in our own writing some of the techniques we discovered.  What stuck for each of us became parts of our individual writing voices.

None of this happened in my literature classes, though.  We read and discussed literature, and we wrote essays about it.  We were never instructed on how the kind of writing we did in any of the modes of rhetoric might inform our expository writing.  We were never instructed on how to write at all.  We rarely got meaningful feedback on our writing.  I didn’t know that I could get any help, though I realize now that I could have gotten help had I asked for it.  And my experience was not uncommon at what was arguably the best English program in the country.  (Incidentally, I understand that Virginia has since fallen pretty far from its former, short-lived eminence.)

English departments have emphasized the study of literature at the expense of a more well-rounded study of rhetoric and composition for over a century.  According to the sixth and current edition of The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing, the two professors who held Harvard College’s Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory were the central cause of this change in emphasis, and the nation’s other colleges (and its secondary schools), not surprisingly, followed suit:

In 1806 Harvard College established the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory and became, thereafter, the dominant influence on the development of rhetoric at other American colleges. Edward T. Channing, who held the chair for thirty-two years (1819–1851), continued the Scottish emphasis on belletristic taste and the psychology of persuasion but shifted the emphasis in practice from speaking to writing and increased attention to literary exempla. From the literary models, Channing derived rules for correct grammar, style, and organization, which were taught more and more prescriptively as the century went on.

Francis J. Child, who held the Boylston Professorship after Channing (1851–1876), had studied philology at a German university before taking the chair and came to Harvard determined to turn the study of English from rhetoric to literature. Child bitterly resented the time he had to spend correcting student compositions. He delegated as much of this work as he could to faculty underlings and concentrated on enlarging Harvard’s offerings in literature. In 1876, to keep Child from moving to Johns Hopkins (the first American university to be organized in departments on the German model), Harvard created the first Professorship of English for him, and Child spent the next twenty years developing the English literature curriculum. His successor in the Boylston Professorship, A. S. Hill, continued the rule-bound focus on written composition begun by Channing, but it was now clear that composition was a second-class subject and that rhetoric was hardly mentioned in the English department.

(Emphasis mine).  I resent the time I have to spend correcting student compositions, too.  I’m discovering through this summer’s institute, though, that most of this time is poorly spent.  This year I intend to spend less time writing notes on papers and more time training and coaching writers.

George Steiner sees the same development as the Bedford Bibiography in terms of literary exegeses’ dominance over their subject matter, the “primary” works of literature and art that, he argues, have not flourished in modern times.  His book Real Presences describes academia as the chief culprit in this triumph of “secondary and parasitic discourse” that he dates from around the turn of the twentieth century. The American universities around that time began to import “the pedagogic programmes, the ideals of graduate study and doctoral research, the bibliographic orientation towards the secondary, of the German university system.”  So Steiner concurs with the Bedford Bibliography concerning the cause and the timing of the American academic love affair with secondary (exegetic) writing about literature.

Hamburger measures in monetary terms the poets’ diminished role at the hands of those who explain poetry, and, like the Bedford Bibliography, Hamburger places the time frame in the latter half of the nineteenth century:

Very few, if any, serious poets since Baudelaire have been able to make a living out of their work; but thousands of people, including poets themselves, have made a living by writing or talking about poetry.

Hamburger and Steiner see poets and other artists as the victims of the secondary, while the Bedford Bibliography emphasizes rhetoric’s victimization.  I don’t think any of them would disagree with one another on this score.  Certainly they all agree that the victims have lost ground to a Byzantine culture (and Steiner means “Byzantine” in the historical sense he develops in his book – a stifling, analytically oriented culture) of the secondary.

In passing I’d like to mention the larger, popular notion of nineteenth-century philosophy being acted upon with dire results in the twentieth century.  One of my favorite theses along these lines is that of Professor Harry V. Jaffa in his book A New Birth of Freedom.  Jaffa argues that the brand of historicism and relativism preached by John C. Calhoun may have fallen to Lincoln’s natural rights view of the republic at Appomatox, but it won the subsequent peace.  Here is Jaffa at his most strident:

The historical school, which by the 1850s had largely displaced the natural rights school of the Founding, had also given rise to the romantic movement of the mid-nineteenth century. It too repudiated natural right, because it repudiated ‘rationalism,’ insisting as it did that ‘the heart had its reasons which reason did not know.’ Accordingly, Lincoln’s Socratic reasoning was rejected, because the very idea of justification by reasoning had come to be rejected. History, not reason, decided that some should be masters and others should be slaves. This movement of Western thought, from the natural rights school to the historical school, culminated in the Nazi and the Communist regimes of the twentieth century.

The point of both Jaffa’s and Steiner’s books is the destructive force of relativism (for Jaffa, relativism in political theory; for Steiner, relativism in aesthetics and literary criticism).  I suspect that there is a deeper connection between Calhoun’s philosophy, the Harvard chair’s disdain for grading papers, and the influence of the German university system, but I haven’t proven it yet.  Like Lincoln, who used his first debate with Douglas to test drive his allegation that Douglas, Buchanan, and Taney were involved in a secret conspiracy, I’ll prove it all later.  I’ll try to work in Marx and Nietzsche, too. Meanwhile, back to high school.

Parents want their children prepared for colleges.  Parents and colleges put a lot of pressure on high schools to make students proficient expository writers, and school systems have responded by requiring English teachers to require their students to write a certain number of essays a year.  Most of those essays are expository in nature, and most of the expository essays are literary analyses.  Research papers are also required across some of the high-school curriculum, and these papers amount to more expository writing with references to evidence outside the textbook and outside of any specifically assigned reading.

To meet these demands, many English teachers emphasize a single structure.  (I have also emphasized a single structure.  I hope I’ll stop emphasizing structure on first drafts, and then find ways to teach how structure can complement content on subsequent drafts.)  Many high school English teachers teach thesis sentences, topic sentences, body paragraph structure, lead-ins (not how to write creative ones; just a checklist of what must go in them) and concluding paragraphs.  Well-recognized package structures, like the five-paragraph essay, stick, and they move from grade to grade with students.

It has become my summer’s central theme: how to manage the tricky business of meeting the state’s and the parent’s expectations for expository writing while also producing excited and skilled writers.  The two goals tend to be at odds without vigilant mediation.  Many teachers with more skill and experience than I have don’t know enough about good writing instruction theory to know that excited and skilled writers are even possible.  I don’t know it for sure yet, either, but I’ve now seen evidence of it at the institute this summer.

Many students have thanked their teachers for their help in making their writing come alive for them.  The theory behind these successes is out there, most of it written in the past thirty years and most of it recapturing parts of rhetorical instruction lost since the salubrious Scottish influence of the eighteenth century waned. We have books by Peter Elbow, Tom Romano, Barry Lane, and other instructors of English teachers singing the same chorus against the formalistic instruction of expository essays.  I usually hate sentences that begin with, “All of the literature suggests,” but this is one of the rare cases where all of the relevant, recent literature really does suggest the same thing: the pervasive means of teaching writing in most American high schools is wrong.

[picture]This afternoon I asked Donald Gallehr, a member of the National Writing Project’s board of directors, why American secondary writing education has remained so hidebound after a generation of English teachers has been taught “process” (the shorthand for process writing theory and practice that amounts to a more complete written rhetorical education).  He sees it as a combination of teacher intransigence, the heavy influence of expository-writing- and iiterature-oriented college English departments, and the overemphasis of testing codified in No Child Left Behind.

My theme here amounts to his second reason.  Since the bifurcation of Harvard’s English department into literature and composition, the small part of college English departments responsible for composition instruction has had little influence over how writing is taught at either the college or high-school level. Fortunately, since I was in school, just about every college and university in America has adopted a writer’s program similar to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The National Writing Project seeks to expand the workshop’s reach into American high schools.

[In the photo, my legal team comforts me after our defeat. I updated this post on July 8, 2014.]