2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism
Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature
We are most inclined to imagine ideological creation as some inner process of understanding, comprehension, and perception, and do not notice that it in fact unfolds externally, for the eye, the ear, the hand. It is not within us, but between us.
M. M. Bakhtin,The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship
A distinctive strain of method and assumption runs through much twentieth-century criticism, centering in the idea of "structural analysis." Moreover, the critical ideas and literary practice of modern literature are often remarkably close together, so that the "structural" emphasis of the critics corresponds directly to a certain experimentation with language by poets and novelists. Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity and Joyce's Finnegans Wake suggest at once a new departure in taste and a close kinship of theory with practice.
Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature
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New Criticism's Modernist Canon
In this chapter, I wish to explore the questions posed by New Criticism, that is, the "frame of reference" within which this particular strain of early twentieth-century criticism sought to find meaning and hence attribute value to literary texts. The purpose is not to produce a comprehensive study of New Criticism in its breadth, nor to trace its "sources" through the centuries, nor to chronicle every turn it has taken in the last sixty years--the serial and simultaneous deviations and recoveries which have marked its development and sustained its hold upon British-American critical and literary imagination. One might endlessly debate the outer boundaries, originality, theoretical integrity, and indeed the very existence of something called "New Criticism" without approaching the historical phenomenon to which the very debatability of New Criticism testifies: the fact that sixty years after the "Revolution of the Word," New Critical modernism remains our Modernism; its canon, "The Canon" against which all alternatives announce their meaning. It is with this in view that I seek to identify and discuss only those concepts and modes of analysis that have proved most polemically effective in securing the hegemony of New Critical modernism. Clarity requires a preliminary examination of the critical discourse of New Critical modernism upon its own terms, within its own "frame of reference," as if it existed in isolation, separate from the literature it interpreted and valued. But to treat New Criticism thus, as a theory in abeyance of its object, is justifiable only if we continuously bear in mind the historical and analytical insufficiency of such an approach. The early practitioners of New Criticism, though they may have couched their analysis in universal terms, were not confused as to their role as determined advocates of a "new departure in taste." And it was no mere theoretical revolution, but a confluence of critical and practical discourses that produced both a "New Criticism" and a paradigmatic "New Novel" about which the meta-fiction of the novel could be successfully rewritten.
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M. M. Bakhtin, Discourse in the Novel
In 1934, M. M. Bakhtin, whose criticism of Russian formalism embraced the related constellation of European critical movements upon which British-American New Criticism also drew--French symbolism, German formalism, and the Geneva School--described the ways in which this integration was initially sought and some of its consequences:
There is a highly characteristic and widespread point of view that sees novelistic discourse as an extra-artistic medium, a discourse that is not worked into any special or unique style.
It was, however, precisely in the 1920s that this situation changed: the novelistic prose word began to win a place for itself in stylistics.
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T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley
Although it is convenient to speak of these changes as a "poeticization of the novel," the application of concepts based in the study of poetry did not result in a confusion of genres. Edmund Wilson may have written that Joyce's "prose works have an artistic intensity, a definitive beauty of surface and of form, which makes him comparable to the great poets rather than to most of the great novelists," but he no more took Ulysses for a poem than The Waste Land for a novel. Wilson's praise of Joyce's prose poetry raises Joyce above other traditional and modern novelists, not above other modern poets. T. S. Eliot offers this distinction when, in his "Introduction" to Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, he contends that the novel would "primarily appeal to readers of poetry":
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I. A. Richards, Psychological Theory of Value
The New Critical genealogy with which Cleanth Brooks opens Modern Poetry and the Tradition--Eliot, Tate, Empson, Yeats, Ransom, Blackmur, Richards--encompasses two oscillating poles between and with respect to which "good" organization is understood. First, the text has a "structure" because it is something made, something assembled from or discovered from an assembly of language. This is the sense in which T. S. Eliot spoke of "technical excellence," and of the artist "surrendering himself to the work to be done." Second, the text has a "structure" because its tensions and discords may be experienced--read--as a unified whole. In support of this, I. A. Richards advanced his "Psychological Theory of Value":
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Modernist Symbolism: Ulysses and Moby-Dick
The mode of organization New Criticism detects and the mode in which its canonical writers encode their texts posits a metaphysical hierarchy, at the apex of which stands, ambiguously, the self-sufficient text or the consciousness of the reading writer. This conjunction is evident in Feidelson's definition of the structural effects of symbolism. One may interpolate "mind" or "text" where Feidelson writes "symbol":
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Stuart Gilbert, James Joyce's Ulysses
In the case of Ulysses, the relation between critical discourse and novelistic practice was closer than kinship. We may speak of a "confluence" of the novel's two discourses legitimating a paradigmatic "New Novel" in more than a metaphoric sense:
One begins with close analysis, and only when the implications of the original are fully unraveled does one start looking for approximations in the other language. Thus I made a point of consulting Joyce on every doubtful point, of ascertaining from him the exact associations he had in mind when using proper names, truncated phrases or peculiar words[....] Joyce showed extraordinary patience in bearing with my interrogation[....] But perhaps most valuable of all were the hints thrown out quite casually (this was Joyce's invariable way) as to the sources of Ulysses.
Finally, it should be mentioned that in the course of writing this Study I read it out to Joyce, chapter by chapter, and that, though he allowed me the greatest latitude in the presentation of the facts and indeed encouraged me to treat the subject on whatever lines were most congenial to me, it contains nothing [...] to which he did not give his full approbation; indeed there are several passages which I owe directly to him.
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T. S. Eliot: Ulysses, Order, and Myth
Before attending to the imaginative consequences of the critical and literary consensus Gilbert and Joyce forged in 1930, we would do well to consider its direct inspiration: T. S. Eliot's 1923 essay, "Ulysses, Order, and Myth." Eliot's Dial essay makes clear that the paradigmatic New Critical novel was to seal narrative's fate. Writing before Gilbert and Joyce, Eliot entered the critical discourse that represents and so legitimates changes in the novel's form as historical necessity:
In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. [....] It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious. It is a method for which the horoscope is auspicious. Psychology (such as it is, and whether our reaction to it be comic or serious), ethnology, and The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a few years ago. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.
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James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The same consequences for modern narrative and narrative analysis flow from the Joycean aesthetic Stuart Gilbert adopted at the beginning of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' as the key to proper interpretation:
In his earlier autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce, through the mouth of Stephen Dedalus, defines the qualities which, in his view, give aesthetic beauty to a work of art.
"'It awakens, or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an aesthetic stasis, an ideal pity or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth, prolonged and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty.'
"'What is that exactly?' asked Lynch.
"'Rhythm', said Stephen, 'is the first formal aesthetic relation of part to part in any aesthetic whole or of any aesthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the aesthetic whole of which it is a part.'"
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Eugene Jolas: transition, Poetry is Vertical
Joyce and Gilbert were not alone in conceiving the "rhythm of beauty" as the proper order of the text, the mind, and Nature. Others took up the cause. While publishing Joyce's "Work in Progress," the Paris-based magazine transition followed its three issues declaring the "Revolution of the Word" (nos. 16/17, 18 and 19/20) with three issues (nos. 21, 22, and 23) carrying the subtitles, "The Vertical Age," "The Vertigral Age," and "Vertigral." The manifesto for which Eugene Jolas was primarily responsible, "Poetry is Vertical," appeared in 1932 along with a collaborative "Homage to James Joyce." The modern novel, not modern poetry, occupied the center of Jolas' attention. Three years earlier, he had declared, "NARRATIVE IS NOT MERE ANECDOTE, BUT THE PROJECTION OF A METAMORPHOSED REALITY" and "TIME IS A TYRANNY TO BE ABOLISHED." In the ten points of "Poetry is Vertical" Jolas elaborated Stephen Dedalus' "rhythm of beauty" into a critical and creative agenda. Under Jolas' "verticalism," "metamorphosed reality" was ambiguously a projection of the "inner life" of the mind and a "hermetic language" of the text:
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M. M. Bakhtin: The Forms of Time and Chronotrope in the Novel
One would like to believe that M. M. Bakhtin had obtained a copy of transition 21 and was replying to Jolas and Gillet when he wrote critically of Dante's "vertical axis" of symbolic interpretation in 1937-38. Otherwise, Bakhtin's analysis is preternaturally to the point:
Here the influence of the medieval, other-worldly, vertical axis is extremely strong. The entire spatial and temporal world is subject to symbolic interpretation. One might even say that in such works time is utterly excluded from action. This is a "vision," after all, and visions in real time are very brief, indeed the meaning of what is seen is extra-temporal (although it does have some connection with time). In Dante, the real time of the vision--as well as the point at which it intersects with two other types of time, the specific biographical moment (the time of a human life) and historical time--has a purely symbolic character.
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Peter Brooks: Reading for the Plot
Observing the legacy of this struggle, Peter Brooks has summed up the fate of narrative under the hegemony of New Critical modernism in Reading for the Plot:
"Reading for the plot," we learned somewhere in the course of our schooling, is a low form of activity. Modern criticism, especially in its Anglo-American branches, has tended to take its valuations from study of the lyric, and when it has discussed narrative has emphasized questions of "point of view," "tone," "symbol," "spatial form," or "psychology." The texture of narrative has been considered most interesting insofar as it approached the density of poetry. Plot has been disdained as the element of narrative that least sets off and defines high art--indeed, plot is that which especially characterizes popular mass-consumption literature: plot is why we read Jaws, but not Henry James.
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Symbolism, Point of View, and Mythic Structure
In recent years, the value of the canon produced by the alliance of New Critical modernism has been openly challenged, now inside as well as outside the academy. Historical studies of the vast bodies of "unconsciousness" literature largely excluded from the canon and over which the canon defines itself--folklore, dimestore novels; black, ethnic, proletarian and women's literatures--have proliferated. Tracing the continuity of other traditions, these studies seek to highlight the implicit, and sometimes explicit, bourgeois, racist, and sexist nature of the canon's claim to universal value. However, the very success with which these competing traditions have been excluded from the canon renders it most difficult for students of these traditions to do much more than generally condemn white-male, middle class culture and gesture in explanation toward grand socio-economic structures. The precise aesthetic and interpretive mechanisms whereby the hegemony of the canon has been secured, its standards naturalized, often go largely unexplored and unexplained. This difficulty lies at the heart of the current "crisis of difference" experienced in these marginalized literatures. Without a thorough, historical understanding of the rise and continued power of canonical modernism, any attempt to "value" competing texts tends either to erase their difference through aesthetic assimilation, or to relegate their study to sociology, where they become documents of dubious empirical value.
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New Critical Symbolism
New Critical Symbolism
The analysis of symbolism, assimilated to the novel by way of poetics, has been the forte of New Criticism since its inception. The use of symbolism, rather than plot, to structure the text is the proverbial hallmark of high modernism. As I have said, it was no coincidence that Moby-Dick was rediscovered in the 1920s. Van Wyck Brooks's "usable past" was a symbolic past. The very language with which Brooks first raises the idea of a "usable past," invokes the symbolism of the final chapter of Moby-Dick where Ishmael floats upon Queequeg's coffin:
The present is a void, and the American writer floats in that void because the past that survives in the common mind of the present is a past without living value. But is this the only possible past? If we need another past so badly, is it inconceivable that we might discover one, that we might even invent one?
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Henry James on Joseph Conrad
New Critical Point of View
If Miller's writing disrupts symbolic readings, it wrecks similar havoc upon analyses of point of view that seek to integrate the text as a figure for the mind of its creator, its narrator(s), or its reader. With the New Critical turn, "point of view," a long-standing tool of both critical and novelistic practice, was called upon to do more than discriminate between the narratives of authors and their personae. Dating at least from Fielding's effort to wrestle the genre from Richardson, this bifurcation in the novel's form, which divides the novel between omniscient and first person narration, reached an apotheosis in Henry James's "balloons of consciousness." But to deal with Conrad's and Faulkner's tales within tales, point of view was resurrected, brought once more to the interpretive center of the novel to lead a form of critical afterlife. Characters might be treated as authors. No longer were they, like Richardson's Pamela, seeking to express a merely personal experience in the world. Experience remained personal, but the character/narrator expressed an experience of the world. Each could be analyzed as would-be omniscient narrators, struggling for the distance from which to command a totalized worldview. Consciousness, this time the mind of the character/narrator in place of the omniscient author, could remain at the interpretive apex of narrative, standing as the constructed symbolic unity of what Miller called narrative's "welter of criss-crossed tracks".
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New Critical Point of View
There are few means of disputing James' invocation of the meta-fiction of the novel short of asserting that "reality" is otherwise than he insinuates, that is, that Conrad's material--the story he seeks to tell, the characters he seeks to render--does demand the formal structure of "Chance." Whatever answer Conrad might have offered to James' criticism, it is New Criticism's answer to the "predicament" that concerns me here. For it is in answer to the "predicament" James posed that New Criticism is wedded to a psychoanalytic reality, even absent a specific allegiance to symbolic structures. The key concept is "repression" as it delineates the relation between the conscious and the unconscious. With this concept, psychoanalysis, as distinct from other psychologies, steps into the gap and offers to solve the dilemmas of point of view on a wholesale basis. The concept of repression, and the vision of reality it evokes, allows the "author" to be divided against himself without ceasing to constitute a single psyche, a single point of view. The author writes with greater perception of structural precision than he knows. It allows "character/narrators" to say more than they say: form becomes content and lapses speak most loudly. And, it allows the "reader" to perceive more relations than can be named: language works unconsciously to structure experience. But, most crucially, should one promulgate critical objections to the psychoanalysis of authors, to the analysis of the purely fictitious psyches of character/narrators, or to making meaning dependent upon a hypothetical reader's response, psychoanalysis still offers a seductive model of the self-contained text: the dream text.
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A Welter of Crisscrossed Tracks
Miller's meandering anecdotal narrative is resistant to this type of reading. While theoretically possible, it is in practice most difficult to discover the missing elements that might lend completed "roundness" to Miller's narratives. The narrative leaps and jumps assume so many points of view, not from chapter to chapter but in rapid succession from paragraph to paragraph, from sentence to sentence, and even from clause to clause that its is most difficult to find the level of formal synthesis on which the text constitutes its own coherent point of view upon the world. Critics who have attempted to psychoanalyze Miller's texts have been driven from Freud to Jung, but with the inevitable consequence that the discovered "form" takes on the appearance of what Henry James called a "mystic impulse." Faced with such difficulties, one must either dismiss Miller's narratives as bad modernism, or begin to recognize the ways in which his texts' resistance to New Critical analysis is the consequence of a studied effort. This is the dilemma that the weightless symbolism of the "bottle" passage deliberately poses. Here, it becomes necessary ask the question whether the very concept of "text" is not so "overdetermined" with New Critical meaning that it cannot embrace the phenomena of narrative without converting narrative into a manifestation of point of view.
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Mythic Method and the Shape of the Story
Mythic Method and the Shape of the Story
The aesthetic legitimacy of Miller's narrative claims cannot be comprehended by a criticism that tends to equate narrative with primitive storytelling, with the chronological relation of events as they "happened," or "happened once upon a time." To say as much is not incompatible with the fact that there are circumstances under which New Critical modernism has valued narrative texts: New Criticism lends legitimacy to narrative if it can be psychoanalyzed, if it can be anthropologized. But this kind of legitimacy, which high modernist critics, beginning with T. S. Eliot, have discovered in narrative, entails a devaluation and delimitation of narrative's aesthetic potential in the modern world. Central to T. S. Eliot's most influential formulation of "mythic method" is the presupposition that storytelling is atavistic. Only through symbolic interpretation may it be made relevant to the historical reality of the urban, industrial West: "Psychology [...], ethnography, and The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a few years ago. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method." Canonical modernist criticism tends to insist on this equation, seeing narrative only where there is chronology, and interpreting that narrative as an atavistic remnant, a symbol of the mythic past present in the modern psyche as the unconscious.
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Northrop Frye: Anatomy of Criticism
These "archaic" patterns are discernible as elements within the "historical genre," but only if one "backs up," as Northrop Frye says in his influential treatment of the "shape of the story" in his Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957). Frye begins his third essay, "Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths," with an analogy between literature and painting and music. In effect, the analogy is Frye's "working through" of the manner in which James Joyce incorporated archetypal plots into the "symphonic orchestration" of Ulysses. Frye explains the painting analogy:
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We have no need for genius--genius is dead.
Neither Eliot's mythic method nor its subsequent modifications in light of Russian formalism can come to grips with Miller's narrative. By "narrative," I mean the surface sequence of the text, composed not just of events and anecdotes, but of transitory symbols, caricatures, authorial asides, theoretical essays, literary allusions, real and surreal landscapes, confessions, invectives, in short, the endless cultural and literary bric-a-brac the reader must traverse to follow Miller from one end of his texts to the other. With Eliot, Miller saw in the twentieth century a "Waste Land":
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Walter Benjamin: The Storyteller
With the loosening of the hegemony of New Criticism, we have come to understand that the very notion of the story as an elementary, chronological, closed, rigidly formal genre is a product of the discourse that hails the rise of the "non-narrative" modern novel. The difficulty is that even dissident modern critics, such as Walter Benjamin, who lament the course of history--social, economic, and aesthetic--view the story as somehow out of place in modern culture:
Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant. . . . One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. . . . For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power.
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Henry Miller's Paris Narratives
It is because New Criticism has had to efface narrative in order to reread and rewrite literary history as its own that narrative analysis provides the opportunity to historicize New Critical modernism without "correcting" it. For, even with respect to narrative, New Criticism is not in error. To repeat, its hegemonic function was never to understand narrative, but to subdue it. The vision of New Critical modernism has proved a potent force in British-American literary history, not in least measure by its ability to refigure that literary history in its own image and concerns. Arising as a distinctly twentieth-century movement, New Critical modernism colonized the past as its own prehistory, rereading and rewriting the "classics" of prior aesthetic regimes into an almost seamless "usable past" such that any attempt to step outside New Criticism appear not only a step outside serious literature but a step outside history itself. Joyce's Ulysses and, crucially, the early accounts of its meaning and method, together form the paradigm of modernism's colonization of the literary past. As I have said, Stuart Gilbert's collaboration with Joyce upon James Joyce's 'Ulysses' marks a historic moment in which a text and a exegetical method meet such that thereafter Modernism and its place in literary history become almost unthinkable except on New Critical grounds. From that paradigmatic moment it becomes possible to repeat of Modernism what Van Wyck Brooks said of American letters prior to 1918: "it seems to me significant that our professors continue to pour out a stream of historical works repeating the same points of view to such an astonishing degree that they have placed a sort of Talmudic seal upon the [...] tradition." The irony within which Van Wyck Brooks is caught arises because, while he apprehends the interrelation of criticism and writing, he understands it as a purely local phenomena--a deplorable development at a particular moment in American literary history. Van Wyck Brooks' historical vision, disciplined by his purpose, remained evaluative. He sought to change literary history; the point, however, is to understand it.
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Nothing is diminished by being historicized
But, just as narrative is not a primitive, unchanged literary archetype, there is no "pure" narrativity hovering in the void outside New Critical structure and symbolism. To project Tropic of Cancer into some alternative modernist realm of pure narrative, untouched by the categories of New Criticism and awaiting only its own critical theory to develop its full aesthetic force, is akin to taking Whitman's spontaneity literally. It is akin to "creating a usable past," after Van Wyck Brooks. It is akin to reading the text with Roland Barthes as that which "before History [...] achieves [...] the transparence of language relations." Such projections are utopian, as useful rhetorically as are all utopias, but as limited, analytically and historically, as are all utopias. What "counts" as narrative is historically contingent. It is impossible to describe the resistive "other" element of Miller's narrative without a recognition of his close engagement with New Critical modernism--the only "Modernism" British-American literature has had. Any analysis of Tropic of Cancer immediately discovers not a paucity but a plethora of symbolism. Analysis discovers not an absence of perspective but an exponential increase, "as if the inner eye, in its thirst for a greater reality, had converted the pores of the flesh into hungry seeing mouths," and not an indifference to temporal structures but a meticulous proliferation of incompatible "spots of time.["] Miller did not fashion his narrative in a vacuum. Like Tristan Tzara's Dada poetry, it was not really pulled randomly out of a hat. Rather than ignore the emerging modernist consensus, Miller carefully tracked it in order to insinuate his narrative alternative into its lapses: "We are going to put it down--the evolution of this world which has died but which has not been buried."
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The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism - Notes
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