Thursday, February 28, 2008

Literary Criticism, David Hume, & Bertrand Russell

Eight months ago, one of my very best friends gave birth to a little girl. I first saw her the next day, as she was being changed, and she unexpectedly (and to her father’s chagrin) peed all over the place. ‘A natural born critic,’ was my quick reply, and we all smiled while her father washed up.

David Hume, writing in Of the Standard of Taste, claims that ‘it is natural to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled’ (Bizzell 831). In other words, he is asking us to submit that a universal bar of good taste exists in the world, and all men are seeking this universal bar through different methods and with different opinions.

Hume goes on to say that the critic with a narrow view who is unable to grant that an opposing view has merit whether he agrees with it or not can be persuaded that when shown ‘an avowed principle of art; when we illustrate this principle by examples, whose operation, from his own particular taste, he acknowledges to be conformable to the principle; when we prove, that the same principle may be applied to the present case, where he did not perceive or feel its influence;’ this critic must conclude that the dissonance lies not in the artistic principles, but in himself (Bizzell 834). Hume is claiming again that this universal bar of good taste can be evaluated, and offers as a method of evaluation the comparison of different works to prove a principle before returning to the work at hand and applying said principle. On face value, this seems to be a logical and adequate statement to make.

But as Bertrand Russell points out in The History of Western Philosophy, Hume claims in his famous Treatise of Human Nature that ‘abstract ideas are in themselves individual, however they may become general in their representation’ (661). He further states that when ‘we have found a resemblance among several objects, we apply the same name to all of them.’ I would submit that ‘good taste’ is itself an abstract idea, and as such cannot be represented apart from things that meet its criteria. Russell goes further, claiming that a common name, such as ‘cat,’ is ‘just as unreal as the universal CAT is’ (661). Christening something with the label of ‘good taste’ is has just as little meaning as the strange concept of having Good Taste be essentially a collection of ideas and techniques that are represented in things that are appealing to the educated mind.

Hume goes on in his Treatise to claim that there is no connection between any two things, and that merely the ‘sight of A causes the expectation of B, and so leads us to believe that there is a necessary connection between A and B. The inference is not determined by reason, since that would require us to assume the uniformity of nature, which itself is not necessary, but only inferred from experience’ (Russell 665). In other words, we have no real reason to think things that have been true in the past will be true on the future. Applying this to literary criticism, one must question whether something that has been deemed to be in ‘good taste’ by a significant portion of the critical audience will continue to be so in the future. Many works of art or artists come in and out of vogue as time passes; the best example in our studies would likely be Aristotle, whose studies were essentially ignored for many centuries. But in the 20th century, Will Durant said of Aristotle, ‘no other philosopher has contributed so much to the enlightenment of the world.’ And one need only to look at various fashion trends over the last fifty years to see how things once in good taste no longer are thought to be so.

Hume had fascinating ideas concerning the nature of criticism, many of which remain accurate and true to this day. Yet he seems to miss in Of the Standard of Taste, the very thing he warns against in his Treatise: that the representation of universal ideas can become general, and that at that point it is near impossible to apply universal rules to a concept, whether it be literary criticism or something else.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sprezzatura & Lee Siegel

Have you ever seen these two together in the same place?

As city-states in the fifteenth century increasingly came under control of single families, the public man of Cicero was replaced by the figure of a courtier, someone who needed to defer to the ruler in public and wield their political influence behind the scenes. This covert power was symbolized in part by sprezzatura, ‘according to which the talented and humanistic learned person should make his or her accomplishments appear to be the outcome of unstudied nature, not art.’

The term sprezzatura stood out to me from an entirely different realm. Almost three years ago, New Republic columnist and blogger Lee Siegel was suspended and then fired for posting strident defenses of himself under the disguised persona of Sprezzatura. This was seen as a lapse in ethics, yet even today, as Siegel debuts a book written while on suspension, the exact nature of these lapses isn’t altogether clear.

Unfortunately, the blogs in question have been deleted, but reports say that Sprezzatura’s ‘haughty, intemperate, somewhat panicked tone was a dead giveaway, particularly when coupled with his eerie allegiance to the blog-master ("You couldn't tie Siegel's shoelaces").’ As Siegel struggled to defend himself, one wonders exactly how readers were mislead by this false persona. ‘In the two online discussions where Sprezzatura most prodigiously manifested himself, he was, both times, busted by his fellow posters. "I would say with 99% confidence that 'sprezzatura' is a Siegel alias," declared a poster on one thread, while another crowed, "We see you, Lee. We see you."’

Bizzell and Herzberg write in The Rhetorical Tradition that during the Renaissance, the ‘historical relativity of truth began to be noticed in the study of classical texts’ and for these humanists, ‘rhetoric becomes the means by which history helps to shape usable truth. To be actively useful, the responsible citizen must express philosophical insights in language that is convincing in contemporary circumstances.’

And in a sense, isn’t this what Siegel was doing? His job was to write columns and blog entries that are convincing and generate discussion. By presenting an alter ego that is a supporter of his rhetoric, doesn’t he just create a self-fulfilling model? A reader would read a column and then see support for this opinion from Sprezzatura, and likely others. That reader might think, ‘This is supposed to be convincing, and it has worked on these people, so I guess it is good rhetoric.’ Siegel is shaping truth in this manner.

Sprezzatura also seems to be an apt alias for Siegel. He wields his power behind the scenes, disguising his identity, to further persuade readers that his position is the correct one, and that he is qualified to speak on these subjects.

I’m not trying to excuse his behavior; I think it generates many questions about internet ethics. People have gone to prison for trying to make money this way, esp. in the stock market. But this would seem to be one of the first battles in the ‘historical relativity’ of our times, and thus one of the first battles on what is truly good rhetoric in the internet age.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Book of Other People

Like almost any anthology, The Book of Other People is uneven. Edited by British novelist Zadie Smith, the idea was to write a story about a new character, to ‘make somebody up.’ There were no rules about gender, race, or species, so a couple of authors took advantage and we end up with a story about a monster and a story about a dog. All proceeds are to go to 826NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children from 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, a service that I wish was around for me when I was growing up. The organization, and its sisters, was started by the omnipresent McSweeney’s empire.

The strength of the collection is its lack of an overall theme or argument, unless one would consider that the theme is to show that there is no fixed way to invent a character, and the varying styles and genres of the stories exh
ibit this fact. I do wonder how the authors were selected, since of the twenty-three stories I was not familiar with seven of the authors. Perhaps not a huge number, but I have been reading McSweeney’s for years. The fact that the book is being promoted in England as well, which is likely why an editor with across the pond appeal like Smith was chosen, probably has a lot to do with it.

Rather than giving an account of all the stories within, let me just say that a few I found very good (Vendela Vida, Miranda July, Aleksander Hemon), one I felt was horrible (Nick Hornby), but most I found unremarkable. The two comic stories by C. Ware and Daniel Clowes were both good examples of creating a character and placing him into a powerful narrative. Of course, in any open call anthology like this, such unevenness is almost always the norm.

Perhaps I am a bit cynical, but I question the honesty of Smith in her preface. Since the anthology is for charity, none of the writers have been paid for their story or their time. This would especially be an especially big commitment of time for Ware and Clowes not to be compensated for. Yet the copyright page lists nine of the stories that have been previously published, six in The New Yorker. Unless I’m mistaken, I think that The New Yorker pays pretty well for its stories. This isn’t to say that submitting a previously published story for a charity anthology should be frowned upon; it just seems to me that Smith was a bit misleading. In a sense, these authors didn't work for free at all. Of course, all authors own the copyrights to their stories, so undoubtedly we will see them appear in another collection in the future (it seems to me that Ware’s comic is part of a graphic novel he has been serializing in his Acme Novelty Library), so perhaps none were really working for free, or perhaps only for free up front.

In the end, I was under whelmed by the book. Perhaps this is due to my cooling to McSweeney’s in general, but perhaps it is due to the lack of quality I found with the book. It’s probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Reading List: January 2008

I've always enjoyed when my friend Steve Mollmann does this, so I've decided to follow his example. He and I have different tastes, I suppose, so I rarely comment on his entries, but it is my wish that some of you might comment here and that this forum might be a place where some interesting discussions take place.

1. Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis: Though not exactly the book I wanted it to be, Michaelis does a very good job presenting Schulz's life as a narrative and highlighting how he wrote personal matters into the Peanuts strip. Read more about my thoughts here.

2. 100 Bullets: Samurai by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso: The seventh collection in this comic series was interesting enough, but whether it is the protracted periods between my reading of the collections or a failure of Azzarello's, I just can't ever seem to keep track of who is who.

3. The Studio by John Gregory Dunne: An interesting look at the operation of a movie studio in the sixties, though it is a bit of a shame that Dr. Doolitte with Rex Harrison takes up most of the narrative. I really only read this to learn a little more about Dunne, since I was so captivated by his wife Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.

4. Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens: Though I wasn't aware that Orwell needed such a strident defense, the ever opinionated Hitchens does a nice job putting the actual Orwell (or should I say Eric Blair?) into context with much of the criticism about him. Orwell was about so much more than 1984 and Animal Farm, but I'd read a collection of his essays before I tackled this.

5. The Zoo Story by Edward Albee: Though I struggled with reconciling some of the Christian symbolism with other aspects of the play, I was incredibly struck by the naturalism. The symbolism isn't outside of the play at all, so his message doesn't feel forced, something that unfortunately happens in a lot of contemporary drama. I also learned that he wrote a first act to be presented along with this play, but unfortunately it isn't available in print yet. Curses.

6. Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet: Though I think Mamet writes dialogue better than almost anyone, I not a huge fan of his work. I was glad to read this though, because seeing these salesmen like wounded animals willing to lash out at anything is what I needed to steer me away from sales as I look for another career.

7 . Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer: I'm not in love with Foer's characters or his melodrama, but what I am wowed by is the design in his book. He employs changing fonts, pictures, drawings, color, and more to create a narrative that very intriguing to me. I'm beginning to become consumed with books written and conceived as physical objects, with that physical object's properties being integral to the narrative itself. An easier, though more radical, example might be Mark Z. Danielewski's work.

8. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov: I'd never read this before and was struck at how funny I found it at times. In the end, I found it to be a truly great play, for it offered so much material without ever forcing me into any one interpretation. Highly recommended.

9. Night by Elie Wiesel: There was a recent article in the NY Times Book Review about the history of this novel, so I decided to finally read it to see what I was missing. While I felt that Wiesel truly captured the horrors of the concentration camps, I was a bit underwhelmed by the prose and some of his transparent narrative tricks.

10. Miss Julie by August Strindberg: This was my second time through the play, and while I still find it worthy of study, I found it a bit too melodramatic. I also noticed some nuance that I'd missed, making me ultimately dislike a character I'd liked the first time. There's a lot going on with gender v. sex, men v. women, and aristocracy v. servant class, but not enough to truly make it stand out from a hundred other works.

11. All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones: In his second collection of short stories, Jones has solidified himself as one of my favorite contemporary writers. I was floored by his Pulitzer winning novel The Known World, so as soon as this was released in paperback I picked it up. The prose is incredibly crafted and rich with detail. This may very well be the best current American writer.

Please, let me know your thoughts.