Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Bad Critic

We all know what the bad student does. He takes literally what he should read metaphorically; he is "plodding" and unimaginative. She answers too quickly in class, with the "easy" version of the answer, as though you had asked a stupid question with a super obvious answer. When asked not to be so literal minded, however, the student will come up with super-convoluted, overly metaphorical answers with no basis in the text. The bad student is literal when he should be metaphorical and metaphorical when she should be literal.

A bad critic will do the same. If there are four doves in a Lorca poem, those represent the four gospels. Why? We have no idea. These far-fetched readings go along with a very limited and literal minded approach, rooted always in biography and authorial intentionality. The bad critic needs to reverse his approach, but how to do this? Isn't knowing when to look accurately at the basic facts in front on you, and when to interpret a bit more, the very basis of being an intelligent critic? We can't just tell her to "be intelligent about it." (Obviously that's not the only definition of intelligence, but it is one of them. You can seem "brilliant" precisely by going for a lot of far-fetched stuff, if you know how to play the game.)

There ought to be a way of formulating this as a hermeneutic rule.





Self

As James Shapiro shows in Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, the biographical subject to whom Shakespeare's works are attributed seems woefully inadequate under modern (romantic) theories of authorship in which literature is seen to be the expression of a self. There is probably no human "self" adequate to Cordelia, Lear, Hamlet, Ophelia, Prospero, Ariel, Othello, Juliet, and Rosalind. In other words, any authorial subject would be inadequate.

With Lorca, the situation is reversed: we know who wrote Lorca's works, and the biographical self is seen to be wholly adequate for explaining these works. It is not anachronistic to apply modern / romantic notions of literature to Lorca. Almost all Lorca critics see his works as an expression of his self, his ideology, his personality, his experiences. Why not?

The literal-mindedness that makes people hunt for Shakespeare's experience (he writes about Italy, so he must have been to Italy!) does enter in Lorquian criticism. For example, Lorca is not permitted to be the author of fictional works. His plays have to derive from "real life."

Even my graduate students know that biographical explanations are out of bounds, but somehow this is the dominant approach in Lorca studies. There is no question of going back to a pre-modern or early modern notion of authorship, but at least we can have one that has learned the lessons of postmodernism.