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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Monday, January 25, 2016


Yes, people disagree about what good poetry is. I view my own definition as wholly banal & likely to be accepted by everyone. Strong, memorable images and rhythms, poetry that does something with language--all that. I think it's inherent in the poetry that has become most canonical. The songs of Blake, or the musicality of Campion or Lorca, or the Odes of Keats or Haiku of Basho. The verbal wit of Quevedo.

Yet people disagree with me. I cannot force myself to believe that they are equally right, or entitled to their own taste, since in fact I cannot believe that. Belief is an interesting thing: it does not result from an act of will or decision. I cannot, for example, believe that Nebraska is to the South of me when I am in Kansas. I cannot simply choose to believe in the literal existence of the god Thor. I recognize, intellectually, that aesthetic judgment is subjective, but I know, with Kant, that this recognition of subjectivity has no effect on my actual feeling about such judgments as they pertain to me.

What is more: this judgment, and my superior judgment, is actually a finely honed ability of mine, one for which I have trained rigorously for many years. I believe that it is a critical tool. It allows me to perceive other things about literature that would be simply invisible to me if I weren't able to perceive that some poems are aesthetic failures. There is a reason for a failure, a cause, and looking at that cause allows us to make other judgments.

Imagine a musical critic who wasn't able to make judgments. He could (I am using masc. pronoun here because I am imagining him as a version of me) listen to music and analyze it. He could have a vast knowledge of it, in fact, on the theoretical level. Wouldn't we feel, though, that he was handicapped in some way? Even if the ultimate point were not to say what music is better than some other music, we would want him to know what people appreciate in the music of Debussy, and explain why some Debussy works better than other parts of it in producing that effect.

Judgment is neither the first not the last thing. Saying something is good or bad should not shut down a conversation, nor be simply assumed as background information.


el curioso impertinente said...

You're beginning to sound like F.R. Leavis.

Whatever next?

Thomas said...

"Belief is an interesting thing: it does not result from an act of will or decision." That's an important observation. I was thinking about this the other day was well. There's a sense in which belief also doesn't follow directly from our thinking. Our beliefs are sometimes resistant even to our own arguments. We think we've defeated them intellectually, we want to defeat them (because they're doing something bad to our lives or to our research projects), but the next morning we wake up and we still believe.

Desires work the same way, of course. They change. But not simply at our behest.

Jonathan said...

There are beliefs that are more like habits. I can choose how often to change my socks. For years I would use a fresh pair every day, because when I was younger my feet really sweat. Then I realized that my socks did not smell even after two days. Many beliefs function in a kind of "as if" manner. Act as though ... and see what ensues. For example, I assume most people will like me and act accordingly. That seems to work for me.

When we resist our own arguments we are putting ourselves backwards. Maybe change the habit first and let the belief tag along?

Thomas said...

It's the hardest thing to accept in the life of the mind, actually. The idea that our thinking is ultimately rooted in habits. And yet it is so important to understand this about ourselves and our scholarship. Changing your mind in any substantial way is as hard as getting into shape or learning a skill. It takes repeated, disciplined action to change.