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Why I can’t write literary criticism

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Perhaps, you may have caught a glimpse of me milling around campus these past few weeks. If so, you would likely have noticed my trendsetting new accessory: a rotund, corpulent book. If you were discerning, you would have suspected (rightly) that my reasons for toting this undoubted signifier of intellectual puffery were manifold. Performing intellectualism is part of it, of course, but I carry around Susan Sontag’s new biography, “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” for reasons beyond simple pretentiousness. After all, if signaling my intelligence and refinement were my only goals, I’d drag around G.W.F. Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit.”

I must admit that Susan Sontag has invaded my psychic space. Her sardonic wit emanates from the biography in tidbits that echo ravenously within me. In her I see too much and too clearly — her self-loathing, masked in exuberant confidence; her uncomfortable and yet exhilarating commitment to art in any form; her agitating polemical abilities. Sontag found her words and spoke them, indifferent to retribution. 

But most of all, Sontag has leapt into my imagination because she dared to write criticism in a way that mattered. In “Against Interpretation,” her seminal essay in response to the limitations of the literary discipline, Sontag explains that “the modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.” In Sontag’s eyes, the main forms of digging occur in Marxist and Freudian readings, where works of art become symbols only of the “truth” of class struggle or psychological repression. These types of readings recall harrowing memories for any student who has been asked to “figure out” William Carlos William’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” in English class. 

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is enticing soil to excavate, especially for a Marxist. Is the red wheelbarrow a symbol of the proletariat’s pastoral past? Do the white chickens evoke future slaughter, just as the worker would find nothing but death in the squalor of the industrial mills? Why does so much depend upon it? Where is the person who would use the wheelbarrow? Why have physical and human labor disappeared from the poem? How are these symbols and images functioning to destabilize the bourgeois agenda?  

No, Sontag would say. Stop it! 

The poem evokes an image in the mind, an experience of emotion — no substitution of didactic meaning for image is required. What I did above, according to Sontag, displaces the “soil” of the poem’s words to find nutritional nuggets beneath. Yet such an approach does not recognize that these nuggets are not an end in themselves, but the tools to describe the emotional reaction that brought us to the poem in the first place. The “soil” is actually what we want. In Sontag’s language, “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”  By setting aside hermeneutics, she asks us to turn away from an endless proliferation of substitute interpretations. By turning towards erotics, she calls for us to develop new ways of talking about the art experience, focused on the strange things a 16-word poem might do to us.

This question of how to enact an “erotics of art” is a vexed one, especially in literary studies, especially for any young student embarking on a first foray into long-form literary criticism, especially when the current dominant mode of literary criticism in the academy has asked that we ignore our experience of literature. For instance, when I search “To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf on JSTOR, 2,186 articles come into being. During my tutorial in Oxford, I combed through article after article, book after book of this variety, written about Woolf in a way that made me despair. These critics took a beautiful thing and they dug up the subtext and they destroyed it. Woolf’s skill with language bowed to the idea that context reigns supreme. 

This idea that context reigns supreme has a name: New Historicism. According to Joseph North in “A Concise Political History of Literary Criticism,” New Historicism originated with a Marxist desire to identify how literary works are necessarily historically contingent. No longer could judgments about the “aesthetic” be used to value sonnets over slave songs. But this approach has had questionable efficacy. After all, the woes of neoliberalism — inequality, climate change, neoconservatism — seem to have intensified, despite “leftist” scholars’ prolific publication. 

I must, however, defer a longer discussion of literary criticism’s relationship to historical change for another piece. I discuss it chiefly to elucidate that the most common form of digging today is no longer psychoanalysis or Marxism, but precisely New Historicism. The work of art has become a symbol, a signifier even, of history. Yet North, in a direct lineage with Sontag, explains why this approach is so dissatisfying: “Very few people, it seems to me, start reading a novel by Virginia Woolf with the primary aim of learning more about British cultural life in the 1920s.” 

Moreover, one has the sense — and now we enter treacherous territory — that much of this historically contingent reading practice has siphoned our attention away from literature’s true power. Certainly, I sympathize with the project of New Historicism, in its desire to make defunct a model of literary criticism centered on white men writing about works by white men. Yet, I get the sense that we have sneaked away from literature itself. Literature is not history; it struggles mightily against it. 

But, it seems to me that much of literary criticism today has sublimated itself to publication quotas and esoteric, specialized, contextual, historical knowledge. No longer do we write about what art does and what it can do. We only write about what it was or did. In ignoring the aesthetic experience of literature, we evacuate its ability to influence the present. Helen DeWitt wrote in her breathtaking work of contemporary fiction, “The Last Samurai,” that “there are people who think the only reason to read a book is to write a book; people should call up books from the dust and the dark and write thousands of words to be sent down to the dust and the dark” (19). 

Lately, as I have been asked to apprentice myself to this current model of literary criticism, I have forced myself to repress a nefarious, blasphemous question: Why does literary criticism matter? 

For I had been told and asked of myself to believe that the answer is intrinsic. We seek coterie knowledge in the hope that these ideas will eventually trickle out of the dust and dark and into prominence. For now, those around me intoned, we must listen to Woolf, and work “even in poverty and obscurity” for a later moment of messianic transcendence. 

No, I want to say. Stop it!

I do not want to situate my small voice in a chorus of small voices, commenting on this or that minor point in this or that Modernist author. We do not have time for the slow trickle — we need the volcano. Call me hubristic, as I know many who read this article will. I do not care. I came to art for its erotics and I will no longer write in a way that abandons the orgiastic, tumultuous, incantatory “moments of being” that the best of literature unleashes within me. 

Contact Emily Elott at elotte ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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