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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Literary Criticism and its Dullness

X poet "uses parallel construction and sharply delineated images to highlight essential life patterns." That is one way literary criticism can be boring. The formula "uses x to do blank" is just so formulaic I can hardly tolerate it, even though I sometimes tell very inexperienced undergraduates how to do this. I would be perfectly happy if I never did a "poetic analysis" again in my life, or had to say, about a paper, that of course the poetic analysis is ok, but the paper as a whole fails to have a point.

Another boring mode is the standard approach to a novel, in which the critic basically retells the plot from a particular "thematic" angle. It is well suited to the novel (or any narrative fiction) because it uses the forward motion of plot to further its own argument. It isn't exactly plot summary, because it is more interpretative than narrative, but it can come dangerously close. It is very dull if you haven't read the novel. I can tell when it's done competently, but I have a hard time caring about it. I end up skimming to see whether the critic is doing it in the standard way. If so, fine.

So I guess my question is why do we teach and perpetuate these norms, if we ourselves are put to sleep by them? Or maybe it's just me.

My own mode, on the other hand, is a kind of meta-analysis that could be boring in the wrong hands too. Hopefully not in mine. I am interested in what gives value to particular literary modes, or in resolving a critical contradiction or problem. Why does everyone say that the main value of a given writer is y, when y is in fundamental conflict with z, and z is what this writer is really about?

I sometimes forget, then, to include the part where I talk about Lorca's plays and poetry. I'll have to do that at some point, maybe in a third book about him. Even then, I will be approaching them through critical problems.


Here's one: Lorca is approached through biography, but he is a dramatist and a dramatic poet. The subject of enunciation is rarely him, even in his lyric poetry. That kind of displacement is fascinating to me. Take the little remark at the beginning of Bernarda Alba: "El poeta advierte que estos tres actos tienen la intención de un documental fotográfico." He talks about himself in 3rd person (el poeta), using a conventional synonym for dramatist, but in what is one of his less "poetic" plays. He talks about authorial "intention." But the intention here is to present a documentary, not a product of his "poetic" imagination. The documentary as genre purports to have no authorial voice, to present things as they really are, but in fact this is never the case. Documentaries are typically selections of a very few images (still or moving) out of a vast number of possibilities. Imagine shooting 200 hours of film over several years in order to produce a documentary of 2 hours. !%. (Of course, in the work of Michael Moore, for example, the narrative voice is very much in your face. There is no pretence that there is no "author."} The play by Lorca if very Lorquian; it is not some "objective" documentary. Hence the statement of "intention" is deliberately misleading. To find the author's intention, we have to discount his own statement.

And what is the status of mimesis here? He calls it "Drama de mujeres en los pueblos de España." But it only takes place in one "pueblo de España." It is thus meant as "representative," in the sense that it stands in for other, similar situations. Yerma is Poema trágico en tres actos y seis cuadros." So that is a tragic poem, and BA is not. Bodas de sangre is "Tragedia en tres actos y siete cuadros."

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