Friday, January 07, 2011

GS: then and now, part 2

So I'm not sure why I'm sitting down to type this out right now, because it knocked around in my head for the last six weeks of the semester, but here it is anyway.  I was trying to come up with a way to explain the difference between the way the study of literature worked back in the 80s and how it works now, and why I'm not all that happy with the new way, and the best i can come up with is to describe something that happened in my theory class this fall.

We were studying New Historicism, which is--roughly speaking-- going back and studying original historical documents like maps and advertisements and newspaper copy to see how they shed light on a particular work of literature.  Usually the idea is to show how the author misrepresented what was really happening, or distorted it, and then you examine why they might have done that.  The classic example is Wordsworth's famous poem, "Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey."  The poem is about a walk that Wordsworth takes in the woods, where he sits at some elevated point and looks out over the River Wye and describes the beauty of the scene.  He talks about how he is trying to store up the beauty in his memory so that when he's back in the city, he'll have something to sustain him through the soul-draining dreariness of urban life.  It is noteworthy that although the title says that he is "above tintern Abbey," the Abbey doesn't appear in the poem at all.  So he is having this transcendent spiritual moment in the natural world that is unrelated to church and religion, which would be a pretty significant break for the time period.

It reminded me of a poem by Philip Larkin, "Church Going," in which the narrator, out on a bike ride, stops by a deserted church and meditates on the state of religious belief.  He wonders "When churches fall completely out of use / what we shall turn them into...shall we avoid them as unlucky places?"  But even though he thinks the churches no longer serve a purpose, he finds himself drawn to them:

It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much can never be obsolete
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious.....

so there you have Wordsworth, or his narrator, sitting a few miles above Tintern Abbey, aware enough that it is there to put it in the title of his poem, but not feeling that he needs to be in a church to meditate on what transcendence means.  And you have Larkin's narrator, pulling off his cycle clips as he walks into the empty, echoing chamber of a church, and trying to sift out what is still important about the religious experience the church represents, even though the church itself has become obsolete.  And then you have me, asking many of the same questions about my own experience-- which of the beliefs I was raised with have validity outside the narrow interpretations of my youth?

And that's what I love about the study of literature.  That feeling of connection, that you and somebody who was writing two hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, or in a blog ten minutes ago, have something in common, in spite of all the things that make you different. 

but the theory perspective, the new way of doing the study of literature, is to take the opposite tack.  To take Wordsworth's poem and show how what it really is, is a facile, self-serving homily that reinforces his position as a white male who takes advantage of the capitalist system to operate from a position of power, while consciously or unconsciously relegating women, minorities, and the working classes to marginalized, voiceless positions.  a New Historicist will go back into whatever historical records they can find about the place and see if they can reconstruct what Wordsworth actually saw as he sat looking out over the River Wye.  And according to at least one critic, what he would have seen was industrial waste and pollution, because the town where Tintern Abbey was located was the site of a coal factory that spewed smoke and pollution into the air.  Also the town had a number of poverty stricken homeless people or beggars.  So the fact that Wordsworth described the beauty of the scene without discussing the pollution and the poverty of the workers makes a statement about what Wordsworth thought was important and what he chose to say and not to say. 

It's just a choice about how you want to look at it.  You can choose to find the ways that Wordsworth or Larkin are similar to you, and have something to say that's relevant to you.  Or you can choose to pick away at what they say and show how it doesn't really have a universal meaning after all, because it ignores so much of the rest of what human experience was like.  The New Historicist is trying to prove that what Wordsworth and Larkin were saying is not universal, and certainly not Universal, that there is no transcendent human idea or experience that we can all relate to in literature.  But you don't have to think that their ideas are universal in order to find them relevant to your own experience.  I'm not claiming that their ideas are universal, I'm just saying that they mean something to me.  Not in some remote, detached academic way, but as one human being speaking to another through the medium of the printed page. 

I see the point of the New Historicist.  It's interesting to know what Wordsworth chose not to say, and it does tell us a lot about the state of mind of an educated white male who lived at the time.  But I don't see the point of getting up on a moral high horse and judging him for having the mindset that he had, for having cultural blinders on, like we all do (who knows what they will find interesting about our era two hundred years from now that we don't even notice).  We can't go back and change it.  It's something that's worth noting and then moving on.  It's not the place to stop and set up camp.  That hyper-critical, righteous indignation is not a place I want to live. 

So that's it.  I think.  It's why I don't fit in very well in grad school, and although I'm trying to approach the experience as an opportunity to learn a different way of thinking and to stretch my brain to work in a different direction, it's not really a direction I want to go.


  1. Not going to post a reply on every single one of the last few, but I am reading them all. Sometimes twice. The way you put this very deep and thoughtful process down here on to paper (okay, not really paper, but you know what I mean) is brilliant. I love these, keep going. And keep telling me the story of that Book. Good job!
    (I don't want to live in that negative place either.)

  2. thanks, Julie. I appreciate that, because when I post stuff like this I worry that I'm boring people to death. A surprising (to me) number of people seem to read this stuff-- I get about 25 hits every time I post, even though not many comment (which is fine, I'm just grateful to have readers). But I never know what people are interested in since they rarely say anything. (hint, hint)

  3. and just p.s. the title of the poem is actually "Lines, Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." If you're on a river, and the River Wye is mentioned several times in the poem, "above" means "upriver." So he might have been a few miles "upriver" from Tintern Abbey, in which case he wouldn't have been able to see the town at all. But when I said this in class, it was dismissed as less important than the fact that Wordsworth chose not to talk about the ugliness along with the beauty.

  4. I would have brought up that exact same point about being above the river.