Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Problematic ...

... Argument and monologue. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I have not been following this dispute, so I will confine my comments to what popped into my mind while reading David's post.
What is literature? Jesuit product that I am, I would start with particulars we can all agree upon. Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens - I think everyone would agree that what they wrote is literature. I suspect Plato, Montaigne and Charles Lamb would make muster, too, though they all wrote nonfiction. So it is easy to see how The Origin of Species could be accounted literature. It's well-written and accessible. I would say that Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra and Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung are also literature. Kant and Hegel, on the other hand, I don't think brought a literary dimension to their philosophical writing. So their writing qua writing lacks some quality evident in Nietzsche's, Schopenhauer's and also Kierkegaard's.
Daniel Green's Rieff review
I rather like. I am not sure if I would agree with his conclusions were I to read the book, and his review would not dissuade me from reading it. But I can see why he didn't like it. I do think a writer's work should be judged on its own terms and not in terms of the writer's biography, though I see nothing wrong with learning as much as one can about the author of books one finds interesting. Often, it is the work that helps explain the author, rather than the other way around.
Disputes like this would proceed better, I think, if the disputants first laid out what it is they agree about. For if they do not agree at all on certain key points there really is no basis for discussion.

Update: I have bumped the post to draw attention to the latest comments.


  1. I agree with you, Frank: I think they need to figure out if they're even talking about the same thing. Both Myers and Green make valid points, and both represent certain ideologies behind literary criticism that neither admit to: Myers the very conservative literary view, almost the essentialist view; and Green the more post-modern view. Both viewpoints have strengths. But they do seem to be talking past one another.

    I've commented somewhere in the threads of this argument, and was roundly ignored. LOL No worries. My attempt was to point out what works in their arguments, and what doesn't. I think your stipulations are pretty good ones.

    I don't think Green makes his case, to win me over to his side of the argument. But Myers is not convincing either; that's partly because his tone is often smugly superior—which itself comes across as a steady undertone implying that any thinking person would naturally agree with him on most points—but also because he assumes that we all already agree with what literature is defined as. Even when Myers explains himself, you get the feeling that his definitions are a sort of absolute pronouncement: he won't budge on them. His mind is already made up. I see Green's attempts to argue with Myers as partly an attempt to get Myers to rethink his own definitions (the post-modernist tactic vs. the established order as a set of assumptions), and that's where they butt heads. Green will budge; Myers won't or can't.

    So to me, it's a classic example of how two opposed paradigms have a hard time understanding each other, much less communicating on any real level. They talk past each other a lot, rather than to each other.

    Anyway, that's my observations from the sidelines. I don't think this will ever be resolved, to be honest: it's a fundamental clash of paradigms. The way to resolve it is the same way one must resolve a paradox, by holding both opposing lemmas in minds together till they fall into dynamic balance. I think both of these gentlemen are too unwilling to look past where they believe they're completely in the right.

    As for Myers' and Kurp's lists of books, which started this whole thing off, those lists were innately problematic, because they were based on several assumptions about literary quality that one might call regressive, even counter-revolutionary. (IMO, Kurp is best when he writes his daily observations, or ties a literary example to real life, in appreciation.)

  2. I posted the following over on Myers' thread that you linked to, in the wake of his reassessment of his own behavior in this dispute, for which I applaud him.

    I completely agree with Litlove here. That was exactly how I was feeling about it, too.

    Furthermore, to me it seemed to carry many of the almost archetypically numinous tropes of a fundamental clash of opposing paradigms. Which is why it seems to me that you both talked past each other, rather than at each other. You'll never convince each other, because your individually cherished underlying assumptions about the nature and reality of "literature" are in opposition, or so it seems. I put "literature" in quotes because that wasn't really what the argument was about, I thought; it was the label itself that was being reified by all involved, from my perspective, and I tend to question all such reifications. As Litlove said, propose a definition then discuss it; don't start with an assumption of a definition that cannot be shifted or evolved.

    I completely agree that one has a responsibility to keep returning to ideas again and again to clarify, deepen, and rework them. It's almost the same motif as a potter approaching the clay; we keep making the same pot till we get it right. However, there is the matter of style: some prefer to coax the materials, rather than pound on them.

    You're quite correct that trying to enforce another's intellectual rigor is an act of aggression. On another occasion I might even have compared it to bullying; something I know a bit about. The energy dynamics of the emotions in play are always important to monitor; it's always wise to check one's motivations. My only motivation here is to applaud you for the realizations that Litlove has brought to light.

    Best wishes to you.