Pleasure and change – the aesthetics of the canon

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By ROBERT ALTER*

Introduction to Frank Kermode's newly edited book

The pages that follow are Sir Frank Kermode's record of the Tanner Lectures given at the University of California at Berkeley in November 2001 and the lively discussions surrounding them generated by three challengers.

The issue of canon, and what might be suspicious or even insidious about the canon, has been hotly debated in academic circles since the early 1990s. This debate is often dictated by the widespread politicization of literary studies mentioned in various ways by Frank Kermode, Geoffrey Hartman and John Guillory. If the formation of the canon is motivated, as academic critics often claim, by a kind of "collusion with the discourses of power", in Kermode's summation of this view, the canon itself has to be viewed with the cold eyes of distrust as a potential vehicle of coercion, exclusion and covert ideological manipulation.

Kermode clearly rejects such notions, and indeed none of the participants in the discussion are inclined to defend them, with the marginal exception of a rather vague gesture towards the political at the end of Hartman's essay. Incidentally, one of the virtues of Kermode's proposals for thinking about what makes literary works canonical is that, instead of being polemically involved with the ideological definition of the canon (a dispute that has been fought all too often), he simply evades it, perhaps because it is unworthy of debate, and tries to present a different set of terms. Two of its three central terms – pleasure e change – appear as titles of his two lectures, and the third is chance.

I would note that this term is barely addressed in all three responses, perhaps because of its apparent awkwardness, but more likely because it does not readily lend itself to general explanatory theories. It may well deserve to carry more weight than the present discussion registers. Because we all like to have firm handles to hold on to when trying to understand complex phenomena, the usual assumptions we make about the canon are that it is somehow intentional, possibly on the part of the writers who aspire to enter it and clearly on the part of the communities of readers that set the canon, and that, in consonance with this intentionality, reflect certain intrinsic qualities in the works included, be they formal, aesthetic, moral, social, psychological or ideological. Kermode, citing a few examples, suggests that this canon formation is more like a game of chess in which, from time to time, the pieces are moved by a blind force of circumstance.

There are, for example, 150 psalms in the canonical biblical collection, apparently a kind of anthology spanning several centuries of poetic production. Some of these poems are magnificent. At least some others are more formulaic, and it is possible that many modern readers will find them relatively mediocre. Did these poems make it into what would become the biblical canon because ancient editors considered them the top 150 examples of psalmodic poetry in Hebrew, or because they more adequately expressed the devotions of Israelite monotheism?

It is obvious that some of these psalms have been preserved because they became permanently fixed in the canonical anthology. One is haunted by the idea of ​​a Hebrew psalm as sublime as Psalm 8 or as eloquently moving as Psalm 23, which does not survive as part of the canon only because the scroll on which it was recorded turned to dry dust in an old urn before that publishers could include it in the official collection. Kermode's notion of chance must certainly be taken into account as a salutary admonition against insipid reliance on whatever generalizations about the canon we might make.

As for the other two concepts proposed in the lectures, the notion of change does not provoke any real debate in the responses. It seems clear that when cultural eras change and we change individually or even idiosyncratically, the canon we imagine we are reading also changes, both in terms of how we view works and in terms of which works are included. It should be noted that the change in canon is in no way associated with the ancient dispensation of literary criticism to which Kermode rather elegiacly refers at the beginning of his first lecture (and, in my view, both Hartman and Guillory imagine too substantive a link between this elegiac prelude and the propositions about the canon that follow).

On the contrary, critics of the old dispensation tended to assume a degree of timelessness in the canon that has come to be rejected by almost all contemporary observers, including Kermode. Matthew Arnold conceived his touchstones, drawn from texts such as the Iliad, Divine Comedy and Shakespeare's plays, as lastingly valid, not subject to change. Revisionist critics of Kermode's youth, such as FR Leavis, with his infamous list of only four great English novelists (including two women), or, in the United States, Cleanth Brooks, with his controversial marginalization of Romantic poets, have composed new lists. canonical statements not in frank concession to inevitable change, but, on the contrary, in the assumption that their misguided predecessors had erred and that the canon they now proclaimed would henceforth be recognized as valid.

The change, as Kermode delineates it, is a sign of the provisional character of the canons, an idea not very favorable under the old dispensation. Precisely in this respect, I believe that Guillory is wrong in stating that Kermode advocates a “return to the touchstone notion”. Quite the contrary, he devotes the attention he gives in the second lecture to TS Eliot's touchstones explicitly to illustrating the force of change and, in this remarkable case, the peculiar and distorting individual sensibilities that colored Eliot's readings of the canonical texts. As Guillory himself aptly puts it, Eliot's "touchstones are somewhat idiosyncratic canon, exactly what canon should not be."

The main topic of debate in this discussion is pleasure. This is perhaps unavoidable because the kinds of pleasure afforded by reading a literary work, as opposed to the kinds of pleasure one gets from a glass of sherry, can be basically resistant to description and definition. In any case, Kermode preferred an episodic and reflective, but not systematic, approach to the theme of literary pleasure, concluding with an example from Wordsworth that, while suggestive, is not entirely transparent, and, as a result, his challenger understands in many ways. ways what he means by "pleasure", with a certain amount of cross-talk between them, a common thing in such discussions. I do not intend to present a grand synthesis of what pleasure in literature implies, but I would like to try to resolve some of the issues raised.

John Guillory vigorously defends a kind of democracy of pleasures and opposes what he considers an argument for a “higher pleasure” in reading literature in Kermode's first lecture.

I suspect that behind this objection lies some uneasiness that Kermode, as a critic educated under the old literary dispensation, might want to take us back to the antediluvian era when Matthew Arnold and many of his followers claimed a "superior authority" ( Guillory's words) to literature as a kind of secular substitute for revealed religion. In fact, Kermode does not speak of “superior pleasure” (although the expression occurs in a quote he makes from Wordsworth), he only mentions a specific and quite peculiar pleasure in reading canonical works, which is precisely what Guillory defends, and he nor does he associate this pleasure with the idea of ​​authority. There is not the slightest need to assume a hierarchy of pleasures in order to recognize that there is something different in the pleasure provided by a great literary work. Even a distinction between simple and complex pleasures is not entirely helpful in this regard. The pleasure of a hot shower is undoubtedly simpler than the pleasure of reading Proust, but there is no evidence that, for example, the pleasure of sexual consummation, especially when the relationship between the partners is intense, is less complex than the experience of reading, although it is certainly of a very different kind.

The precise nature of the difference remains elusive. Kermode initially invokes Czech structuralist Jan Mukařovský's notion that "part of the pleasure [of a literary work] and the value its presence indicates and measures is likely to lie in the object's power to transgress, to break out, interestingly and revealingly, of the accepted modes of such artifacts”. Although it does not become a central part of the argument, this concept may well be retained as a useful starting point. After all, a canon constitutes itself as a transhistorical community of texts, and lives its cultural life through a constant and dynamic interaction between each new text and an unpredictable number of previous texts and formal norms and conventions. As Kermode observes at the beginning of the second lecture, “each member [of the canon] only exists in the company of the others; one member qualifies or nurtures the other”.

In a related vein, Carey Perloff aptly reminds us that it is writers resurrecting, transforming, and interacting with their predecessors who both perpetuate and modify the canon, not professors or critics compiling lists of approved authors. This impulse of innovation or even, as Kermode proposes, of transgression in a community of admired predecessors can distinguish the pleasure of the text from at least simpler kinds of extraliterary pleasures. If you enjoy a hot shower after exercise, you may be put off by a noticeable change in water pressure or temperature. If you're an admirer of Philip Roth's novels, you certainly wouldn't want Sabbath's Theater give you exactly the same pleasure as you got from reading the reverse of life or a novel by any other writer, and its oh-so-surprising fusion of obscenity, hilarity and dark existential seriousness is innovative and transgressive exactly as Kermode, to paraphrase Mukařovský, suggests a literary work should be.

But if some kind of purposeful novelty, together with a necessary affirmation of belonging to the existing textual community, points to the defining context of the pleasure of the canonical work, what will be its differential character, its special content? With regard to this central question, the discussion is somewhat obscure on all sides. Guillory, sensibly enough, wants us to keep in mind the specificity of the pleasure we experience through literature, but makes no proposal as to what that might be. Hartman, who, unlike the other challengers, is uncomfortable with the very canon association of pleasure, fears that the term and concept of pleasure "falls into the abyss". It offers no more than an oblique hint at what this might mean, though it seems to react to the introduction of Kermode's discussion of the notion of enjoyment of Roland Barthes with his suggestion of a response so intense that it shatters identity.

French theorists tend to have a predilection for startling and metaphysically violent exaggerations, and it is possible that Hartman's horror of the chasm opened up by the concept of pleasure was influenced by such habits of thought. Kermode, here and throughout his work, expresses a more measured (perhaps British) sensibility, but it may be that he retains some vestige of Barthes' vocabulary of ontological crisis when, in considering his decontextualized quotation of Wordsworth, he proposes a conjunction of happiness and discouragement as a distinctive quality of the pleasure derived from reading a canonical text.

The element of dismay or loss certainly pits reading against dancing and sherry, and I suppose it is an integral part of the "philosophical" character of canonical literature, on the assumption that any philosophical reflection on the human condition is limited in some way to recognizing the ineluctable loss, the dissolution and painful disjunction between human aspirations and the arbitrary circumstances of existence. The interweaving of happiness and dismay certainly takes up a lot of space in canonical literature. It works perfectly in “Resolution and independence”, and is evident in a wide range of texts from the Book of Job to King Lear, Moby Dick e The Karamazov Brothers. In reading such works, we get a strong sense of euphoria at the masterful power (and courage) of the poetic imagination along with a painful experience of anguish at the vision of suffering or gratuitous evil or destructiveness articulated in the work. Hartman is certainly right to link this peculiar combination with what in other conceptual frameworks is called the sublime.

The obvious problem is that not all canonical works are expressions of the sublime. Two major categories of literature that include many eminent canonical texts have very little to do with the sublime and cannot be linked with the experience of loss or dismay except through much interpretive effort. The first, which manifests itself in certain types of romance, satirical poetry and drama, is a mundane literature of everyday life. In this type of writing, the authors address the network of social institutions, often contemporary, and the spectrum of character types, with their diverse weaknesses and virtues, that can be seen colliding and interacting within these social contexts. The observational intelligence is stimulated by such texts and is essential for the pleasure of reading them, and this exercise of intelligence is inseparable from the writer's deft handling of literary form - the style, the narrative invention, the dialogue, the strategies for complication of meaning through irony, and so on.

Among the most notable examples of this literature of worldliness in English are the poetry of Alexander Pope – one might think especially of his extraordinary “Moral Essays” – and the novels of Jane Austen. The pleasure afforded by such writings is of a particularly adult (which is not to say "superior") kind, one that is more social and moral than philosophical. It does not involve the dissolution of the self or an existential abyss, but a delicious game of perception, an invitation to ponder motives and make subtle discriminations about the dilemmas of behavior, character and morals. As a pleasure of the faculty of intelligence exercised through ingenious language, it is distinguished from extraliterary pleasures, whether simple or complex. Sometimes this worldly perspective can be prominent in a literary work that also expresses loss or dismay, as in Stendhal or Proust, but this is not necessarily the case.

The other category of literary expression largely alien to the sublime is comedy. It can be admitted that there are works in which comedy is felt as a triumph over loss and which, therefore, seem to correspond to Kermode's description of a mixture of happiness and dismay: in the Ulysses Joyce's lively comic play and final grand affirmation of love and life are courageous assertions in the face of the disaster of the Blooms' marriage, the remembered death of their infant son, and the decline of Leopold Bloom's manhood; in Tristram shandy Stern's amusing wit and sheer farce are in part a nervous reaction to the narrator's fears of impotence, castration, and the threat of death from tuberculosis.

However, many examples of comic literature are not affected by such anxieties. The fiction of Rabelais, some if not all of Molière's plays, and, in the biblical canon itself, the Book of Esther (a fusion of folk tale and satirical farce) give pleasure thanks to the high exuberance of verbal and narrative invention. Tom Jones is another characteristic example: the protagonist's temporary banishment from Paradise Hall, the shadow of possible incest and imprisonment cannot be taken too seriously in the comic structure of the novel, which constantly delights in the subtle exercise of witty irony and doubling down. inventive of amusing incidents and of human types. If literature, as all participants in this discussion variously assume, engages in a kind of wrestling match with the various aspects of the human condition, including the most profoundly disquieting ones, it is also a form of play with language, history, represented speech. , and playfulness itself, displayed by a master of the art, and can give us, as we are creatures of language, history, and speech, an abiding pleasure of a kind that makes us want to retain such works in a canon.

The abandonment of the comic may be a symptom of our dark intellectual climate. There is no place for this, for example, in the western canon of Harold Bloom, who sees the canonical in terms of constant struggle and confrontation, and, while there are no Bloommians among the participants in this discussion, they seem to share his idea that literature is an existentially serious craft, and do not give much space to the possibility that the enjoyment of the canonical text is sometimes also lacking in seriousness or even “low” (though perhaps at the same time complex).

The scope of this canon discussion is naturally academic, but to some extent this can be a problem, because no vocational group that I can think of is more inclined than the scholar to confuse the contours of their professional world with the contours of the world. Thus, Hartman wonders why "the change in the study of literature, recorded and deplored by Kermode, is acanonical", whereas what is acanonical surely should belong to the literary works themselves, not to the attitudes and methods applied in the analysis of literature. literature in our institutions of higher learning, and I don't think Kermode means to suggest that literary studies has become "acanonical", only that it has developed some odd views of what makes a canon. A syllabus or a list of required readings for a certain grade is something very established by academic authority, but professors often confuse what they do in campus with the functioning of cultural or even political reality outside the perimeter of the campus.

In this regard, Carey Perloff's intervention offers a welcome corrective to the general discussion. Perloff, not an academic but artistic director of San Francisco's Conservatory Theater, offers a front-line perspective where old works are preserved or revived for living audiences and where new ones begin to enter the canon. From this privileged practical perspective, she sees the canon shaped and redirected by artists who review and use the recent works of other artists, without professorial mediation. Her view of the canon is hopeful, not clouded by existential prostration, because she is witness to how his life is repeatedly renewed by the creative energy of individual artists aware of his predecessors, and one might assume that his sense of the pleasure conveyed by canonical works it is very concrete, because if the plays that Perloff puts on stage did not delight her audience, she would lose her job.

So pleasure turns out to be a reasonably useful criterion for the canonical, although, as these discussions indicate, it is not without its ambiguities. It is not intended to claim, as I think all debaters would agree, that this enjoyment of the canonical is associated with some unique authority inherent in canonical texts. Literature appeals in part because it invites us to see, through the devices of language, more subtly or more deeply who we are and what our world is like, and that vision can be disheartening, pleasurable, or both.

Of course, there are other ways of seeing that can have depths of their own. Whatever its subject, its mood and its form, literature also pleases because we feel delight or exultation in witnessing the exercise of the pure magic of words and the architectural mastery of the imagination. When once-prized works fail to please as times and tastes change, they drift to the margins of the canon – as happened to the novels of George Meredith or the poetry of James Thomson. The pleasure of reading, of course, is neither purely aesthetic nor purely the consequence of the formal properties of the text and is often influenced by the values ​​articulated in the work. Thus, the evolution of the canon cannot be explained solely in terms of the intrinsic qualities of the literary text, but also has to be linked to quite complicated considerations of social and cultural history, as Kermode's notion of change suggests. However, such considerations would take us beyond the horizon of the discussion collected in this volume, which at least offers some glimmerings of illumination on an issue that is urgent for culture.

*Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California-Berkeley. Author, among other books, of The Art of Biblical Narrative (Literature Company).

 

Reference


Frank Kermode. Pleasure and change: the aesthetics of the canon. Organization: Robert Alter. Translation: Luiz Antônio Oliveira de Araújo. São Paulo, Unesp, 2021, 146 pages.

 

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