Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Art of History

I've devoted an entire day to reading more of Metahistory trying to understand White's differentiations based on modes of emplotment, ideologies, and narrative tropes. What I find interesting is that he identifies the romance and the satire as the primary modes of historical thinking during the 19th century. White's thesis undermines any scientific status given to history, instead proposing that all history is fiction and can offer no more authenticity or facticity than literature. If that is so, then whether we're looking at Scott's historical novels, Carlyle's account of the French Revolution, or Gibbon's history, all these narratives offer the same kind of "knowledge."

Now, if Scott fits the romance paradigm, then Shelley would fit the satire paradigm: satire is Shelley's primary mode of expression of his political ideology. That, according to White's schema, would make Shelley a liberal (and Scott an anarchist?). Shelley is certainly a liberal, and if the philosopher most associated with satire (ideally, that is) is Croce, then his idealist philosophy definitely fits Shelley. But what does it say about Scott?

Having read two of Scott's novels I found his heroes passive, pusillanimous, and ineffectual--nothing like Byron's heroes: "Mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Edward Waverly lets things happen to him: he hardly ever makes his own decisions. The action of The Heart of Mid-Lothian depends on Jeannie's devotion to save her sister. And even so, Jeanie's moralistic, Christian, conformist choice to tell the truth in court, instead of telling "a white lie," would have resulted in ounces of ink salvaged and many a pages less to read.

White writes that a romance is "fundamentally a drama of self-identification symbolized by the hero’s transcendence of the world of experience, his victory over it, and his final liberation from it--the sort of drama associated with Grail legend or the story of the resurrection of Christ in Christian mythology. It is a drama of the triumph of good over evil, of virtue over vice, of light over darkness, and of the ultimate transcendence of man over the world in which he was imprisoned by the Fall" (White 8-9). In other words, a romance epitomizes Christian values in a world divided into easy moral dichotomies. It is a drama of redemption as men ultimately triumph over it, as reflected most accurately in Nietzsche's philosophy, according to White. Of course, Nietzsche would have nothing to do with dichotomies: dichotomies of any sort are imaginary and totally wrong--especially the binary rules of morality imposed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. What White wants to associate with the existentialist in his theory is Nietzsche's emphasis on "Metaphorical consciousness," I think, especially as it manifests itself in myth. Where Irony is the denial of life, Metaphor is life's heroic affirmation. 

What Scott does in his novels then is escape into a metaphor: he gives history order and form as if it were the truth. His books produce heroes not because of the deeds they commit, but rather by their embrace of this newly created or mythologized reality accepting all the consequences instead of evading them despite the premonition or awareness of historical facts eventually leading to their own destruction. Perhaps this is the reason why Scott was so dearly loved as a novelist: he mythologized the past in order to make it palatable after the cultural, widespread disenchantment with the French Revolution. He tried to turn history into a good story in order to empower the next generation to have the strength and the confidence to take the future into its own hands despite the mishaps of the past.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On Method

It's the middle of the summer! I have a month and a half before my exams, and having completed all my primary readings I'm concentrating on the critical and philosophical part of my studies. This week I started (re)reading some of the more influential scholarship on Shelley. And, having read Pulos, I've moved onto a more recent study by Hoagwood. Critical methods have certainly changed in 30 years! Although Mr. Pulos' situation of Shelley's philosophical position in the skeptical tradition from Plato to Hume and Kant offers a comprehensive explication of skeptical thought influential to Shelley, this kind of mapping of the poet's thought against philosophy that Mr. Pulos, along with others (including Notopoulos and even Hoagwood himself) is as artificial as Hume's skeptical conclusion of causation: just because there is a constant and evident conjunction between the two (historically and ideologically), doesn't mean that the connection is real. It is merely imagined by the critic.

But isn't literary analysis in general all about imagined connections, you might ask? What would Mr. Freud say about it? What would Marx? How do feminist theories deal with this issue? Queer theories? New historicist? I guess what we're pointing to is a difference in scholarship: it is one thing to take a piece of literature and try to re-interpret it within a different theoretical framework, regardless of the author's intentions, and another to impose a rubric on the author, within which he has developed his work. What I see as a major problem with the latter kind of scholarship is that it makes dogmatic assumptions, and with them possible distortions, of the original work. What Mr. Pulos, Mr. Notopoulos, Mr. Hoagwood among others assume is that Shelley was consciously aligning himself with some philosophical tradition. But Shelley, as much as he toyed with the idea of being a philosopher, was a poet. So why are we desperately seeking to find some consistent form of philosophy in his writings?

Hoagwood in the prologue to his volume strongly suggests the other critics' (such as Mr. Scrivener in Radical Shelley and P. M. S. Dawson in Unacknowledged Legislator) treatment of "Shelley's poetry or poetics as an ultimate end" is erroneous and "unnecessary" (xvii). O Mr. Hoagwood! You are confused! What I'm seeing is an attempt at re-inventing Shelley (once again) as a philosopher. I must acknowledge that Mr. Hoagwood's method is limited to Shelley's prose works; however, as a poet, Shelley's prose indeed has the same narcissistic, self-reflective, language-centered quality that privileges imagination over reason. Since Shelley is a poet and not a philosopher, I propose treating his poetry and poetics as a commanding centerpiece of scholarship.

Here I am not suggesting that Shelley was not both a poet and a philosopher. In fact, he was one of the most philosophical poets of his age. I do not reject his prose works as having no philosophical value; I only would like to stress that the critical method some of the critics have employed is inappropriate perhaps given the fact that Shelley as a master of language, self-proclaimed "legislator of the world," and--if we believe J. L. Austin--a creator of the world manipulates language not in search of some objective truth but rather to deconstruct conventional conceptions or cultural dogmas into epoche or "suspension of judgment," in Sextus Empiricus' terminology or John Keats' "negative capability."

Thus in my project, I would like to consider Shelley's poetry and poetics (along with Wordsworth's and Beddoes's as representatives of their respective "generations" of Romanticism) as an unconscious response to the apparent pervading social anxiety over the passage of time. In my thesis I am more concerned about the problems of time, space, and identity and their evolution during the period between 1790s and 1840s through the lens of poetry of these three literary figures, and less about what these poets had to say about the problem: not the conscious commentary on time but their intimations.

Why look at poetry rather than philosophical or social tracts? Because what poets offer is an acute sensitivity to their sociopolitical environment that finds outlet in their poetry for the perceived anxiety. As Shelley explained to Godwin in a letter of December 11, 1817 regarding Laon and Cythna, "I am formed, if for anything not in common with the herd of mankind, to apprehend minute and remote distinctions of feeling, whether relative to external nature or the living beings which surround us, and to communicate the conceptions which result from considering either the moral or the material universe as a whole. Of course, I believe these faculties, which perhaps comprehend all that is sublime in man, to exist very imperfectly in my own mind." Unlike philosophical treatises, poetical reflections offer a glimpse at an individual psyche, rather than gross generalizations of a society at large, and hence, a more complex and detailed look at pervading cultural apprehensions.

In Romantic poetry and poetics we can find encoded perhaps a unique, profound but subtle hermaneutics of time. Because poetry quite often reveals more about the poet and his soul than about the world he/she attempts to describe, a careful analysis of the language provides a time portal into history. Through Wordsworth, Shelley, and Beddoes I would like to deepen the understanding of the Romantic concept of time, the passage of time, the anxiety over its fragmentation--a concern over the separation between the past and the present--, and its effect on the construction (or deconstruction) of Romantic identity.