Thursday, October 13, 2005


Lately much of my spare time has been whittled away by the writings of R.S. Crane and Elder Olson, leading members of the mid-20th century group of scholar-critics known as the Chicago School. From the perspective of 50 years later, theirs appears to have been a valiant effort to expand the hermetically-sealed horizons of the (contemporary) New Critics - whose pedagogical dicta regarding poetry (through such media as the best-selling text, Understanding Poetry) threatened to turn poets into crafters of refined ships-in-bottles, flimsy bric-à-brac.

I have written elsewhere about one of the pivotal arguments in their polemic, based on a distinction between discourse (argument, rhetoric) and mimesis (representation). However, as ancient Philo pointed out somewhere, the divine Logos divides only in order to bring into harmony (unite); and if we are to do likewise, it behooves us to strive for some kind of synthesis. Listen to the comedian Aristophanes (from his play Frogs) :

Aeschylus : Why do we marvel at a poet?

Euripides : For cleverness and advice; we make men better citizens.

Cleverness and advice : deixotetos and nouthesias. These details courtesy of an acute, well-grounded study by Andrew Ross, titled The Origins of Criticism : literary culture and poetic theory in classical Greece (Princeton U.P., 2002). Here is a sample:

"The contrast here is ethical and stylistic at once : deixos characterized a speaker or saying as striking, memorable, bold, and witty : Aristophanes used it especially of Euripides... and his Dionysus uses deixos for the 'fecund' (gonimos) poet who is capable of producing 'noble' (gennaion) and 'bold' (parakekinduneumenon) expressions. Nouthesia, a word made by compressing old gnomic formulas for 'putting a wise thought in the heart,' implied gravity, moral authority, concern for the other's well-being. Aristophanes is combining two styles of using poetry : the one offers sophistication, diversion, and wit - for example, the ridiculous but modern 'Aether, Zeus' bedroom'; the other promises moral soundness. The opposition between nouthesia and deixotes is between 'the time-honored, traditional' education bent on inculcating courage and moderation, and the new, based on science and sophistication." [Ross, op.cit., p. 200]

Ford's book steeps us in the milieu of 6th-4th century Athens. He provides a brilliant context for Plato's obsession with poetry (The Republic) and Aristotle's response (The Poetics). In this regard, I direct your attention to the quote from Elder Olson, in a previous essay, regarding the ethical and political power of poetry. How, exactly, does poetry "inculcate values"? Plato famously asserts the opposite. He argues that the vague, gnomic utterances of poetry make free with ambiguity : that they can be interpreted to support any argument whatsoever : that they are specious authorities, grist for every mill. Olson and R.S. Crane attempt a counter-offensive, by way of their distinction between mimesis and discourse : poetry is not didactic at all, it is iconic. But this argument is doubly double-edged : it both distances them from the New Critics and aligns them with them; it aligns them with authoritative Aristotle, and separates them from him.

If poetry is reduced to the iconic, the mutely representative, it becomes exactly what Plato would censor : the infinitely suggestive, multivalent text; ultimately ambiguous, essentially New Critical. And even if we accept Crane's and Olson's arguments regarding Aristotle's emphasis on the mimetic, representational (para-verbal) poetic substance, we are left with a basically aesthetic resolution (dénouement) to the creative process : the tragic poem "succeeds" by means of the craft which makes for a "self-standing", affective object. The Chicagoans successfully burst the bubble of New Critical poetic diction : but adducing the substance of poetry as affective-dramatic mimesis is not quite successful in defusing the (Platonic) charge of ethical irrelevance.

We have not quite expressed our Philovian synthesis, either. How to get at this? Let's go back to Aristophanes' Frog-quote, above. The influential poet combines cleverness and advice, Ford's "wit" and "heart", sophistication and profundity.

How? By a creative act which is itself synthetic : so synthetic as to elude theoretical-critical paraphrase. What is that Stevens passage? "The poem must evade the intelligence almost successfully..." Something like that. Oh well.

A dancer spins on her toes, and we are hypnotized. She is silent; her dance speaks for itself; the longer we dwell on that beautiful rotation, the more heart and mind become commingled, confused, intertwined.

The real and essentially theatrical protagonist of our Chicagoan-Aristotelian dramatic-mimetic poem-concept is : the words themselves ("cleverness, advice"). But these words will not be dissected and reduced to a theory of language. The words are a precipitation, a translation. They are one with their unspoken, unspeakable origin. The poem as a whole is larger : something like a song, something like a dance, something like a person : singing, dancing...

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