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"David A. Lewis" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Ezra Pound discussion list of the University of Maine <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 12 Oct 1998 11:38:16 -0600
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Messrs Arwin & Pearlman,
Scholars in my discipline ("Art History" or the "History of Art" depending on
which side of the fence one stands) have been grappling with the issue science
vs. criticism for a very long time know, much of the methodology runs parallel
to "critical theory" in literary studies.  In my view, the task of the art
historian (which in many ways differs from that of the art critic and the art
theorist) is twofold: 1) to examine the work of art within its historical
context, and 2) to consider in what ways that work may have relevance for our
own times.  My sense is that many different approaches (ranging from formalism
and biography to marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, behaviorist theory and
psycho-history) may prove useful in helping us better understand the work and,
hopefully, by extension, ourselves.
There is, I fear, always the danger of becoming seduced by the "methodology,"
i.e., of pursuing it for its own sake, rather than as a tool to illuminate the
work.  To my chagrin, I have read far too many scholarly studies that fall
into this trap; indeed, some horribly distort the object to "fit" the theory.
The serious study of art (be it literary, visual or performing) can be well
served by science, but in the end, as Baudelaire rightly maintained, the most
incisive criticism is itself an art.
David Lewis
Arwin wrote:
> Thanks for your intelligent response. I agree with you about eclecticism,
> but having studied briefly something which was exact and yet required
> insight into a very wide area of study (Artificial Intelligence) I can't
> help but believe that things could and should be better.
> Method for instance. I'm sure you are in favour of thousands of books being
> published each year that hardly differ from one another, but make it
> totally impossible to, in one's lifetime, read everything. Have you any
> comments on that? Of course, you need not comment if you believe literary
> research should not be attempted as a serious science.
> Kind regards,
> Arwin
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Daniel Pearlman <[log in to unmask]>
> To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
> Date: Monday, October 12, 1998 1:21 AM
> Subject: Re: psychoanalytical criticism
> >Mr. Arwin has just said, and I excerpt:
> >>
> >>In general there is nothing wrong with a psychoanalytic approach. Or
> should
> >>I say, in theory there is nothing wrong with a psychoanalytic approach.
> >>Many scholars and critics with no qualification whatsoever attempt
> serious
> >>discussions of a creative process that involve biology, psychology,
> >>culture, communication, sociology, history, phonology, linguistics, and
> so
> >>on. Usually however these scholars and critics only have any
> qualifications
> >>of note in perhaps one or two of these fields.
> >>
> >This sounds like a frank recognition of, and even justification for, the
> >"amateur" status of literary critics.  We are "eclecticians," and should
> >remain so, avoiding any attempt to scientize, because we don't need any
> >fundamental "theory" to justify our individual perceptions.  The best of
> us
> >are amateurs in the best sense: lovers of literature who explore, in
> >public, our full intellectual and emotional range of reactions thereto.
> In
> >addition, the eclecticism of our experience maps the mental world of the
> >writer/artist better than the tunnel view of the specialist.  We should be
> >as educated as possible about as much as possible, but never take one
> >thread of our knowledge as the key to Truth (if you'll excuse the mixed
> >metaphor).
> >>
> >Arwin says:
> >
> >>It is my belief that in current literary criticism the two major problem
> >>areas are improper delineations of the area of specialisation with
> regards
> >>to training and/or qualifications, and the use of old-fashioned theories.
> >>To begin with the latter, we will hardly accept a heart-surgeon to
> proceed
> >>on his patient using late 19th century developments and equipment, and
> yet
> >>that is exactly what most psychoanalytic literary criticism is doing
> today.
> >>That this is a very topical issue is evidenced by a similar discussion
> >>about the differences in qualification between "amateur" and
> "professional"
> >>psychotherapists and psychiatrists on the Pound-list (where only real
> >>difference should be that a psychiatrist is qualified to prescribe
> >>medicine, basically being a doctor, and a psychotherapist limits himself
> to
> >>alteration of thinking and behavioural patterns).
> >
> >I disagree about the inapplicability of "old-fashioned theories" because
> >theories are always in conflict with each other, and if there happen to be
> >trends, e.g., away from Freudian sexism/determinism, nevertheless there is
> >much in old-fashioned Freud that is still indispensable to an
> understanding
> >of a broad range of social phenomena (mutatis mutandis for Jung).  The
> fact
> >that modern dream researchers have developed new "theories" about the
> dream
> >being the way the brain makes sense of experience, i.e., its homeostatic
> >function, does not invalidate Freud's way  or Jung's way of looking at the
> >symbolic structures dreams throw out.
> >
> >Arwin says:
> >>
> >>In my view, the creative process is, in theory, simple and the areas of
> >>research clearly definable: at the centre of the research is the text; on
> >>the left is the writer, on the right is the reader. The text is a form of
> >>communication between the writer and the reader.
> >
> >Well, I can't think of anything more rawly scientistic, in the worst
> sense,
> >than to regard the creative process as simple.  That would mean that the
> >human brain is simple.  (Some are, of course. ...)
> >>
> >... Where are the works which study, not endless particular instances
> >>and details of literary history, but attempt to ask fundamental questions
> >>on the meta-level? And once that has been done (an easy task, because all
> >>the knowledge is there as well as endless particular instances to build
> >>meta-scholarship on), a solid scientific method ought to be developed.
> >
> >There have been plenty of "theory of literature" books!  Where ya been?
> >But no practising critic needs such generalizing in day to day
> >applications.  ... I am sure that the most incisive and insightful
> >psychological criticism of specific authors and works I have read was
> >written by total "amateurs," as they would have to be called, rather than
> >by diplomaed psychological specialists.  The great critic has the
> artistic,
> >i.e., synthesizing sensibility, and you find little of that in the
> >analytic, reductivist approaches of most specialists in the more
> >respectable, big-grant-attracting disciplines, like Sociology.
> >
> >Arwin further says:
> >>Surely, once some of this more serious work has been done, we can start
> >>taking ourselves seriously.
> >>
> >Is Arwin suggesting that none of us poor-schmuck literary critics can be
> >taken seriously until the defining "Literary Theory of Everything,"
> >equivalent to the physicist's Holy Grail, the TOE, or GUT, comes
> >out--written by some genius who has finally seen how Simple it all is?
> >Come on, Arwin guy, give us a break.
> >
> >==Dan Pearlman
> >
> >P.S.: Arwin, Melitta is a brand of coffee-filter.
> >Dan Pearlman                    Office: Department of English
> >102 Blackstone Blvd. #5                 University of Rhode Island
> >Providence, RI 02906                    Kingston, RI 02881
> >Tel.: 401 453-3027                      Tel.: 401 874-4659
> >email: [log in to unmask]            Fax:  401 874-2580
> >