9. Conclusion: Only the myth lives in myth

In myth there is no life for us

When the literary history of the twentieth century is ultimately written, it is likely that the distinctive spirit of the literature of our day, both in theory and in practice, will be found to depend upon two factors: the emphasis on literary structure already mentioned and an unusual awareness of the linguistic medium itself.
Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature
[W]hy revert to myth?... This ideational rubbish out of which our world has erected its cultural edifice is now, by a critical irony, being given its poetic immolation, its mythos, through a kind of writing which, because it is of the disease and therefore beyond, clears the ground for fresh superstructures. (In my own mind the thought of 'fresh superstructures' is abhorrent, but this is merely the awareness of a process and not the process itself.) Actually, in process, I believe with each line I write that I am scouring the womb, giving it a curette, as it were. Behind this process lies the idea not of 'edifice' and 'superstructure,' which is culture and hence false, but of continuous birth, renewal, life, life.... In myth there is no life for us. Only the myth lives in myth.
Henry Miller, Hamlet

When the literary history of the twentieth century is ultimately written, it is likely that "the distinctive spirit of the literature of our day," to which Charles Feidelson referred, will be found to be largely a creature of the years between the First and Second World Wars.[1] As Feidelson could not have known in 1953, New Criticism's rise to academic preeminence in the 1950s and 1960s would be accompanied by no growing literary practice to match the increasing breadth and sophistication of its theoretical concerns. This discrepancy between theory and practice did not occur for lack of able writers. Post-war writers concerned themselves, as writers must, with "literary structure" and the "linguistic medium," but their "unusual awareness"--their breadth and sophistication--was dedicated, on the whole, to mapping the psychological and political confinements of social experience. While New Criticism in all its institutional variety continued the interpretive colonization of the literary past begun by Eliot and Joyce, even venturing into the once forbidden territory of English and American Romanticism, "Contemporary Literature/Literature Since 1945," the catch-all course in every college curriculum, filled with many works students and their professors had to strain to read in "The Modern Tradition." Anyone who has taught one of these courses knows that there is a limit beyond which Pale Fire and Gravity's Rainbow cannot be stretched; that Ralph Ellison's play with Moby-Dick is a sardonic rewriting of Ishmael's text and not of Feidelson's Great American Novel; and that, eventually, even Joyce begins to look in retrospect the troubled ethnic he has always been to the Irish.

While the twentieth century is not yet over, it would appear that in at least one respect Miller, writing in 1935, was more prescient than Feidelson, writing in 1953: the creative collaboration that launched New Critical modernism received its "poetic immolation, its mythos," long before the academy was suffused with New Critical hermeneutics and "understanding" The Waste Land and Ulysses became the sign of post-secondary school literacy. While the makers of the myth of Modernism took up residence "in the myth," in the literary and critical reflections of their own success, beneath the "cultural edifice" of the Modernist canon much has gone on without the legitimation of a critical "superstructure." It is not that the partisans of New Critical modernism have been indifferent to the course of "contemporary literature," but that their hegemony has meant an ability to read another generation of "new novels" as lesser images of the works of the early twentieth century, without feeling the absence of new "Ulysses" which "close reads" with anything resembling the results of Ulysses. This scenario, perhaps of complacency, is a product of power; power all the more effective in that it is dispersed. If there is a blindness in the center, that blindness is reproduced at the margins, where for decades those writing "against the canon" have been unable to articulate a comparably coherent aesthetic program to depose it. We read with New Critical eyes, and try to praise by what seem, even to us, "extra-literary" principles: "It's well written, but more to the point...." For this reason, whatever may be said of Miller's prescience, the literary history of the twentieth century cannot be written without Feidelson's mid-century insight.

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