ART & ETHOS
It seems a narrow choice the age insists on.
How about being a good Greek, for instance?
That course, they tell me, isn't offered this year.
- Robert Frost, "New Hampshire"
The beginnings of what we call "literary criticism" predate the advent of literacy itself. As Andrew Ford describes in his superb study, The Origins of Criticism (Princeton U.P., 2002), the judgement of song was an integral part of the ancient Greeks' public festivals, as well as their elite "dinner parties" (symposia). But both archaic song and its critique were transformed, about 2400 years ago, by two new forces : literacy and democracy.
The spread of writing introduced a new medium for "song". Suddenly there was a rivalry between memorized-improvised oral performance on the one hand, and poems-as-texts on the other; new questions were raised about the nature and purposes of poetry, which are reflected in the oral/textual dialectics of poet-performers like Simonides and Pindar.
Meanwhile, the movement (in Athens and other cities) from tribal tyranny to elite democracy, with the concomitant rise in the importance of public oratory, helped create a new class of educators and rhetoricians devoted to the craft of writing. This laid the groundwork for Plato's idealist critique of art in general, and for Aristotle's empirical-scientific analysis of poems as specifically aesthetic objects, different in kind from works of either science or oratory.
Ford depicts, with great acuity, the shifting grounds of influence, synthesis and debate between, on the one hand, the ethos of public speaking and oral song, and on the other, the ethos of textual independence, aesthetic autonomy, and philosophical critique. The technology of writing was transforming Greek notions of art.
We, too, have been undergoing two or three centuries of comparable change in the technology of art and writing. This reality, of course, presents vast perspectives for the study of comparative literature. But here I am concerned with lessons that might be drawn for the practice of poetry criticism. Two large themes, among several others, emerge from Ford's study. The first is that the sense of a self-standing, autonomous art work was never a given, but was postulated by sophists and philosophers in partial or complete opposition to the traditional notion of song as a function of collective identity (fitting seamlessly into ritual festivals, forms of collective self-affirmation). The second theme represents the gradually-sharpening differentiations which emerged between oral performance, written poetry, rhetorical discourse in general, and literary criticism per se. What kind of landscape becomes visible, when we superimpose the Ford model of ancient Greece on the contemporary scene?
We might notice immediately that the dialectic between ethics and aesthetics has never gone away. Poetry criticism is still shaped by the most varied chemical compounds of evaluation, mixing questions of social relevance, fitness and morality, with responses to the aesthetic aspect of poems. Ethical or political judgements are determined by the critic's own stance, allegiances, and interest in those realms; aesthetic judgements are shaped by the critic's prior likes and dislikes, background knowledge and affinities. The critic may impress an audience with an idiosyncratic blend of ethos and aesthetic, since notions such as "moral beauty" may involve rankings of various sorts, based on ideology, or questions of "seriousness" of treatment in relation to subject-matter, etc.
If the dialectic between ethics and aesthetics is irresolvable, and continually shifting, is it possible to develop any firm critical criteria whatsoever? In the middle of the last century, the group known as the Chicago critics suggested three complementary responses to this problem. First, they proposed a theory of "critical pluralism" : ie., there could be many equally-valid critical approaches (they were careful, meanwhile, to distinguish pluralism from both relativism and scepticism). Second, they asserted the need for a "para-criticism", or the criticism of criticism : tools with which critics could clarify their own assumptions and those of others (ie., what, exactly, are the social or aesthetic premises behind a particular critique?). Third, they promoted a new reliance on the method of Aristotle, whose categorical approach implemented a proto-scientific analysis of artworks : poems were distinct objects, with ends unique to themselves, which were to be differentiated sharply from those of science, politics, philosophy, and related discourses.
Would such a "neo-Aristotelian", categorical approach simply instaurate an a-political, merely technical criticism - a sort of Mandarin literary engineering, divorced from ethical and historical concerns? Not necessarily. In fact a clear political ethos might require the kind of exactitude which would distinguish between literary effects which involve our recognition of beauty (aesthetics), and their logical or ethical implications. Thus we might be able to acknowledge the technical ingenuity involved in works of kitsch, melodrama, bombast, propaganda - which would only sharpen the argument for their ugliness with respect to a different scale of values. The same exactitude with regard to aesthetics would sharpen our awareness of misplaced criticism as well : praise or derogation of the aesthetic quality of poems, based not on the supposed ideological bent of the artist or the art work, but on that of the critic.
It would seem, then, that a criticism or poetics flowing from the general approach of the Chicago critics, would be one which is grounded in an evaluation of the poem as a "self-standing" aesthetic object (or act). But the Chicago schema is, as they themselves admitted, a set of preliminaries. For one thing, as I have mentioned elsewhere, it is not obvious how Aristotle's theory of the tragic or epic poem applies to other modes. It seems more applicable to film, prose fiction, and drama than it does to lyric, didactic or satirical poetry. Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to try to extend the model, and toward that end I would offer the following premilinaries of my own.
A poem, then, of whatever mode or genre, is a work of art, an aesthetic creation : which means that its main effect is to please us with its beauty. We respond both immediately and with circumspection to the beautiful. By this I mean that taste and judgement become involved as a result of our immediate response, leading us to accept or reject the work based on an increasingly acute scale of values : a scale in which the aesthetic and the ethical cannot easily be distinguished from each other. The role of the critic is to explore the character and formal qualities of the work, in order to determine more clearly how its elements and effects move us in such a particular way. As the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam put it, "the logos or logical meaning is just one (among others) of the poem's building blocks". If such logos illustrates most directly the ethical aspect of an art work, then one of the critic's tasks is to analyze just how meaning interacts with the other building blocks of the poem.
And what are these other building blocks? Aristotle would argue that the pleasure of tragic poetry depends on a unity of effect, stemming from the representation of one "whole action" (the plot). The poetic technique involves the selection and organization of materials so as to embody that one whole action to best effect. What, then, conveys the pleasing beauty of other modes of poetry? Let us assume that the substance of any poem's effect involves a unity of impression : just as in a play or a novel, a lyric poem has a beginning, middle and end, and the aim is to shape them into a unity. The basic elements of the lyric whole can be outlined as follows:
1. texture (sound, rhythm, diction, imagery)
2. representation (story, reality, plausibility)
3. sense (pathos, emotional effect)
4. implication (argument/logos; meaning/ethos)
It will be seen that #3 and #4 stem most directly from, or are implied by, #1 and #2, respectively. This may have further implications for the poem's architecture. The critic's effort is to illuminate how the poet's motive and ingenuity - purpose and technique - whether through inspiration or invention - draws these building blocks into a unique whole. As Aristotle showed, and as the Chicago critics reasserted, that unity is not to be defined by or equated with the poem's diction alone. The Chicagoans decisively dismantled the 20th-century cliché that (verbal) form is merely an extension of (logical) content : for them, as for Aristotle, the words are just one of the materials (one of the elements) out of which the holistic form (the plot, the action, the impression) is shaped. This, again, is the pivot on which hinges the generic distinction between poetry and rhetoric : words are material for a beautiful shape, rather than the medium for a persuasive argument. Truth may be unitary; but the beautiful persuades or moves us toward truth not through logic or reasoning, but through something Plato called "charm" (the effect of a "fine" union of ethos and art).
It could be argued that such an "elementary table" is a pedantic exercise, burdening the would-be critic with categories which are both vague and unnecessary. Perhaps, for many, it is just that. Still, I would add : these elementary distinctions, these "building blocks", are a simple map of what is, nevertheless, a real landscape : a minefield of problems which, sooner or later, will face anyone engaged in the critical evaluation of poetry. And a map, even a very simple one, might be the beginning of an adventure.