Is Criticism an Art or a Science?

Over at The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman profiles Franco Moretti, who does work in “computational criticism,” and asks:

Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question. If you’re an English major, what should you study: the idiosyncratic group of writers who happen to interest you (art), or literary history and theory (science)? If you’re an English professor, how should you spend your time: producing “readings” of the literary works that you care about (art), or looking for the patterns that shape whole literary forms or periods (science)?

Rothman says it’s both:

In ordinary literary criticism—the kind that splits the difference between art and science—there is a give-and-take between the general and the particular. You circle back from theory to text; you compromise, or ennoble, science with art. But Moretti’s criticism doesn’t work that way. Generality is the whole point. By the end of his journey, Moretti may be able to see all of literature, but he’ll see it as an astronaut on Mars might see the Earth: from afar, with no way home.

He’s right of course, but I wonder if a better way to think about criticism is to avoid the false distinction between art and science in the first place.

The fact is both art and science are a result of a personal curiosity that pushes the individual towards the exploration and analysis of “laws” or patterns. In art, the exploration is of color, language, sound, emotions, and so forth. In science, it is of material phenomenon. Science, of course, states explicitly the criteria that must be met for an analysis to be considered valid. Art does not. But the two are not so different.

While Moretti has done some interesting work, the problem with many “scientific” approaches to literature is that too often they don’t begin with a question to be answered or a problem to be solved but are interested simply in proving the validity of a method for merely professional reasons. It’s the difference between a scientist who is fascinated with isotopes and energy conservation and who uses the scientific method to help answer his pressing questions, and one who is interested in the scientific method alone and who chooses to look at isotopes and energy conservation as a means of proving the validity of a method. The results are data dumps no one reads, answers to questions no one is asking or answers to questions that have already been answered.

In short, such approaches to the humanities—unlike both real science and real art—often lack imagination. In an excellent reexamination of C.P Snow’s (often misunderstood) two cultures argument in the current issue of Books & Culture, Alan Jacobs passes on this wonderful critique of “professionalism” from Loren Eiseley in a 1964 essay for The American Scholar:

Happily, the very great in science, or even those unique scientist-artists such as Leonardo, who foreran the emergence of science as an institution, have been singularly free from this folly. Darwin decried it even as he recognized that he had paid a certain price in concentrated specialization for his achievement. Einstein, it is well known, retained a simple sense of wonder; Newton felt like a child playing with pretty shells on a beach. All show a deep humility and an emotional hunger which is the prerogative of the artist. It is with the lesser men, with the institutionalization of method, with the appearance of dogma and mapped-out territories that an unpleasant suggestion of fenced preserves begins to dominate the university atmosphere.

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Scientism Is a “Hernia Clinic”

Jerry A. Coyne has another rant against religious belief in The New Republic in which he, again, equates science with materialism. The pretext this time is Elaine Ecklund’s latest round of polling and statistics showing that almost half of Americans think science and religion are compatible.

You can make polls say whatever you want, as Coyne tells us, and he takes exception with Ecklund’s numbers, but the real problem is not the numbers but the idea that science and religion are compatible. There is no “common ground” between the two for Coyne–philosophical or otherwise. True enough with scientism, I say. Not so much with science.

Science, Coyne writes, “is a toolkit: a way of thinking and doing that actually helps us understand the universe.” It tells us “what’s really true.”

Well, yes and no. Science does tell us a great deal about the material world, of course, but when it comes to things that really matter—love, goodness, meaning, beauty—science is a very ill suited toolkit that explains very little.

Anyway, it’s an all-too-predictable piece, but Coyne’s blithe regard for science’s supposed truth telling did make me think of the opening passage of the first book of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s highly recommended Durtal trilogy, which is worth this rather long set up. Speaking to Durtal in Là-Bas (1891) on the limits of materialism, Des Hermies says:

“Say what you will, their theory is pitiful, and their tight little method squeezes all the life out of them. Filth and the flesh are their all in all. They deny wonder and reject the extra-sensual. I don’t believe they would know what you meant if you told them that artistic curiosity begins at the very point where the senses leave off.

“You shrug your shoulders, but tell me, how much has naturalism done to clear up life’s really troublesome mysteries? When an ulcer of the soul–or indeed the most benign little pimple–is to be probed, naturalism can do nothing. ‘Appetite and instinct’ seem to be its sole motivation and rut and brainstorm its chronic states. The field of naturalism is the region below the umbilicus. Oh, it’s a hernia clinic and it offers the soul a truss!”

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David Mills’s “While We’re At It”

I have enjoyed David Mills’s “While We’re At It” column in First Things for the past couple of years and was sorry to learn that he is no longer with the magazine. His final column is in this month’s issue.

Richard John Neuhaus, of course, had a style all his own, but Mills’s wry wit kept me turning to the section first, just as I did in Neuhaus’s day. The short divisions of the column lend themselves to news items or brief commentary or commendation, much like blog posts, as I think Hunter Baker once suggested.

The problem with snark is not its negativity but its lack of style. Mills writes all sorts of pieces, but his occasionally sharper “While We’re At It” entries show the restraint, specificity, and instructiveness that distinguishes the run-of-the-mill sarcasm of too many blogs (sometimes even this one!) from criticism that pleases and corrects–no bludgeoning and few wasted words.

There’s this anecdote, for example, from the February 2014 issue:

As a young couple, casually but well dressed, the man in his forties and the woman in her thirties, walked by, the woman said, “Well, at least my breasts are firmer.”

I would be interested to know in what world that’s a plausible sentence.

Or this from the same issue:

There is, you will probably be shocked to find out, a Yippie Museum, but probably not shocked to find out that there being one, it’s in Greenwich Village.

Sometimes you need to know when not to add something. From the June/July 2013 issue:

The reporter asked what kind of pope the next pope should be, and America’s Fr. James Martin, S.J., said, “Well, first he has to be a holy person.” After a pause, which Fr. Martin described as “uncomfortable,” the reporter said, “Father, I can’t just say that he needs to be holy. I was hoping you would talk about something like women’s ordination and birth control.”

And there’s this instructive note from the April 2013 issue:

“Put not your trust in princes,” says the psalmist, advice nearly everyone forgets when he finds a prince he likes.

Of course, taking these selections out of context strips them of their charm, but they are good reminders nevertheless that, as with so much else in this life, less is more.

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A Dana Gioia Reading and the Complete “Catholic Writer Today”

At the end of January, Dana Gioia gave a reading and spoke at Houston Baptist University’s second annual writer’s conference. Gioia is one of the best readers today. Like E.E. Cummings, he mixes selections of his own work with commentary and the work of others. The result is a reading that is like a musical composition–a series of short movements with interconnected themes. It was a wonderful performance and is available at HBU’s YouTube channel for a short time. Watch it while you can.

Gioia also spoke on his important First Things‘s essay, “The Catholic Writer Today.” The complete version of the essay has recently been published by the excellent Wiseblood Books and is available here.

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Happiness in Literature

Over at The New York Times, Leslie Jamison and Adam Kirsch comment on whether it is more difficult to write about happiness than sadness or suffering.

Jamison suggests that it is because happiness seems like “a closed circuit”:

It’s more interesting to read about something being wrong than everything being right. Happiness threatens the things that every writing workshop demands: suspense, conflict, desire. It also threatens particularity. Happiness collapses characters into people who look just like everyone else, without the sharper contours of pathos to mark their edges and render them distinct. As Tolstoy famously tells us at the beginning of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Of course, happiness is often used as a contrast to sadness—and the presence of one heightens the impact of the other in a work—but what about “happiness on its own terms,” she asks, “apart from contrast?”

More than anything else, I think of a scene from the very novel whose opening sentence seems to deny happiness a specificity that the novel conveys so beautifully. Midway through Anna Karenina, after Levin has had his marriage proposal accepted by the woman he loves, he wanders the streets of Moscow at dawn. He is sleepless and exulted, “perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life.” But what makes the passage such a sublime evocation of happiness — to my mind — is precisely the way it delivers “material life” in such crystalline terms:

“And what he saw then, he never saw again after. The children especially going to school, the bluish doves flying down from the roofs to the pavement, and the little loaves covered with flour, thrust out by an unseen hand, touched him. . . . The dove, with a whir of her wings, darted away, flashing in the sun, amid grains of snow that quivered in the air. . . .”

This isn’t happiness as homogenizing force — turning all families alike, all love into a Hallmark card — this is happiness offering singularity: a vision that won’t ever be repeated.

I think this is still happiness in contrast. Kitty’s previous refusals and the possibility that she would never accept, heighten Levin’s (and our) joy. But Jamison’s point that the image of happiness presented here is both concrete and individual is spot on. (Another example of a “singular” expression of happiness is in the epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when Raskolnikov is saved.)

In Kirsch’s response, he argues that the trouble with writing on happiness is a distinctly modern problem:

Dante took the reader to Paradise, where the universe was justified as the ordered creation of a loving God. Shakespeare allowed the men and women of his comedies to enter at least an earthly heaven, the happily-ever-after where Beatrice and Benedick playfully bicker. No, it is specifically modern literature that has been unable to give a credible picture of human happiness.

This is because in an age of skepticism like ours the “ones who shock and sadden us…appear as truth-tellers.”

I wonder if this rather narrow view of truth (that it is mostly the debunking of morals, metaphysics, hope) has not only made writing about happiness more difficult, but writing in general worse. As Walker Percy puts it, when there “is nothing to attack…the novelist has only one recourse: he has to do stunts. And like a circus acrobat’s, each stunt has to be more death-defying than the last one.”

There are exceptions, of course, to Percy’s sweeping statement but I think in general, it’s true. The modern novel or play is not only darker but smaller and more superficial (though often in a particular academic way) with a much shorter shelf-life than previous great works. But maybe I’m being overly pessimistic.

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We’re All Racists

“Can you be racist or sexist without meaning to be?” That’s Noah Berlatsky’s opening question in a piece on race, gender and art at The Atlantic, but I bet you already know the answer.

According to Berlatsky, people are unintentionally racist and sexist all the time because “prejudice” is our “default” position. For example:

The folks at South African game development studio QCF Design have a post which addresses this issue in some thought-provoking ways. QCF designed Desktop Dungeons, a role-playing video game. The game started out with more male characters than female, but as it developed through its Beta version, QCF decided to try to change that. They added female characters, but more than that they worked to make sure that “the women in DD’s universe [would] be adventurers first and runway models second”… In other words, the designers intended to be non-sexist, but that intent in itself wasn’t sufficient. They had to work at it.

* * *

Like Desktop Dungeon, the Riordan books also show that, even with obvious good intentions, racism and sexism aren’t easy to leave behind. It’s true that Riordan includes heroes of many different backgrounds—but the central, most important heroes (Percy Jackson and Jason Grace) are white guys. Nor does Riordan avoid stereotypes. As just one example, Piper, the female lead in Lost Hero, is a daughter of Aphrodite and her power is charming people, while the two guys get more blasting, shooting, blow-things-up kinds of powers.

None of which is to say that Lost Hero or Riordan’s other books are horrible. It’s just to point out, again, that avoiding stereotypes or creating art that doesn’t lean on prejudice in one way or another is a struggle. It’s not something you stumble into just because you “don’t automatically see color in people,” to quote video director Jesse Lamar responding to the suggestion that his Pixies video had handled racial issues poorly. Nor can you avoid sexism simply by being “gender-blind,” to quote Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth responding to the suggestion that his magazine doesn’t do a good job covering comics by women or publishing criticism by women. If you don’t want to make art that’s prejudiced, then you need to take conscious, concrete steps to make sure your art isn’t prejudiced—like QCF did.

Here’s how this works: Did you create a game or write a book that had more male characters than female characters? You did? See, you’re an unintentional sexist because any lack of parity in any work of art is the result of your latent sexist attitudes alone. How about your painting? Do you tend to paint portraits of white females? You do? See, you’re an unintentional racist because the only reason you have chosen to paint white women is your latent prejudice against women of color.

You can’t just say you’re “color blind,” ignoring race and color in the name of treating everyone equally. No, you have to show that you’re not a bigot by making sure whenever you write, paint, sculpt, or create anything, all races and genders are equally represented without any hint of stereotype.

We’re all sinners, and Berlatsky’s not being manipulative or self-righteously humble when he confesses that “racism and sexism remain a big part of how you (and I for that matter) think and imagine.” “Change is hard,” my children, “but it’s only impossible if you insist that you’re already perfect.” Go and sin no more.

Listen, I certainly agree that we have a natural tendency to devalue other people for all sorts of things, not just color and race, but also religion, social standing, and even place. But lack of parity cannot always be reduced to bigotry (something conservatives in media and academia need to remember, too), and if it could, well, we’d have to admit that every single work of art is a testament of our unintentional racism and sexism.

Berlatsky also lets himself off the hook by focusing on forms of supposed discrimination that would be familiar to us: more men than women, fewer Latinos than whites. He doesn’t mention Chinese-Americans, Pols, or Samoans and completely ignores various invented genders. He might say that as long as there are some non-whites in a piece, it is free of racism, but is it? Isn’t this a rather Eurocentric definition of racism?

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Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?

It has become increasingly popular to question whether or not Shakespeare wrote the majority of the plays attributed to him despite the fact that there is little evidence to suggest he didn’t.

Over at The Weekly Standard, I review a book defending the Bard as author. Many arguments against Shakespeare begin with the assumption that the man of Stratford-upon-Avon could not have written the plays because he lacked the education or experience to do so. But:

While Shakespeare did not attend university, he had an excellent secondary education provided to him by the position of his upper-middle-class father. Stratford-upon-Avon was no London, but it was a bustling market town visited regularly by traveling theater troupes. Many of Shakespeare’s hometown friends went on to serve in positions of prominence in the court and in London. And while it was unusual for a playwright not to have a university education, this might explain some of the early animosity he faced from other playwrights.

Furthermore, Shakespeare’s plays bear the mark of being written by a professional theater man. The author’s uses of doubled roles (so that 8 to 10 actors could perform a play of some 20 parts) and acute awareness of how long it would take to change costume or “execute a technical effect,” James Mardock and Eric Rasmussen write, would have been of little concern to courtiers like Edward de Vere or Walter Raleigh. Also, many of the plays’ parts seem to be written for actors who were members of Shakespeare’s company, most famously Will Kemp and Richard Cowley.

Others argue that Shakespeare alone could not have written the plays because they are works of genius, and we all know that genius does not exist. To believe in genius, as one respected Shakespeare scholar put it, “is simply to invoke magic.”

But is it? Genius is a slippery, subjective word, no doubt, but it is a useful shorthand for exceptional works or writers, which, in turn, can be debated and qualified.

What’s odd—and this is characteristic of the constructivist approach to literature in general—is that instead of qualifying “genius,” some anti-Shakespeareans, who pride themselves as being hard-nosed rationalists and empiricists, follow the zaniest theories to ridiculous ends to hold on to the theory that genius is an illusion. And instead of arguing that Shakespeare was not a genius, it is argued that he wasn’t even a playwright. There’s no middle ground, it’s all or nothing.

Sounds like a religion, and an irrational one at that.

Some new evidence might come to light at some point, but until it does, it is safe to say that Shakespeare wrote the plays, not Christopher Marlowe (who would have had to fake his death, move to Italy, never return to England to bask in the fame and fortune that were rightfully his), not the second-rate poet and courtier Edward de Vere, nor anyone else.

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The Price of a Free Ride

Amtrak has posted  details and an application form for its “residency” program on its blog. Turns out it’s not so free after all. Applicants must grant Amtrak “absolute, worldwide and irrevocable” rights to use all material on the application form, which includes a writing sample:

Grant of RightsIn submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.

This raises the question of whether Amtrak also owns what is written on the train during the “residency.” No word on that yet.

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Amtrak Writing “Residencies”

photo: pio3/shutterstock

Amtrak is trying something new. No, it didn’t turn a profit or decrease late arrivals. But it will begin offering writing “residencies” on selected long distance lines.

I love trains and wrote on how trains offer a “poetic” way to see the world a couple of years ago for TAC, so naturally I think this is a great idea.

Details have not been released yet, but The Wire reports that Amtrak will favor writers with a strong social media presence. Last night, Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Director of Social Media, got on Reddit to give a few more details and answer questions. Quinn noted that the company will set up on online application form soon and that “residents” will be selected by a panel of individuals “from Amtrak and the literary community.” Writers of all genres will be allowed to apply.

The idea for the residencies came about when novelist Alexander Chee told PEN America that he loved writing on the train and wished “Amtrak had residencies for writers.” This made the rounds on Twitter and ended with Jessica Gross—who asked Amtrak on Twitter “How much momentum do we have to gain for this to become real”—doing a “test run” for the passenger rail service on its New York-Chicago line.

Gross traveled with her brother and wrote on the experience at The Paris Review. “Writing requires a dip into the subconscious,” she writes, and a train provides a space that is both public and private. Moreover, there is a comfort in being surrounded by fellow travelers while “ensconced” in a sleeper cabin, where a writer can plumb her “secret desires” and “fantasies.” Gross also suggests that a number of writers like working on a train because it provides them with, in the words of critic Evan Smith Rakoff, “a set, uninterrupted deadline.”

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Robert Frost on Why Nations Go to War

From a 1915 letter to English poet Edward Thomas explaining why Americans were (at the time) against fighting Germany:

But few consider the war any affair of ours. No one goes to war on general grounds of humanity. We extend sympathy on general grounds of humanity. We fight only when our material interests are touched. Yours were when Belgium was invaded; ours weren’t.

From the first volume of Frost’s letters, just released by Harvard.

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