The Plusses and Minuses of New Criticism

The New Critics established that ‘literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response’, but the New Criticism was eventually rejected as being ‘intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless’ (John Willingham).

new criticismNew Criticism emphasizes close reading of a text – treating it is a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object – ‘art for ‘art’s sake’ – rather than a work fitting into some larger cultural or other context.

Such an approach is somewhat useful for at the end of the day all that we do have is the text and the larger context into which it may fit remains at best interpretation or conjecture. In this regard, New Criticism can never be ‘methodologically fruitless’; words do speak for themselves and if we are to understand what it being said it helps to focus on what is (as opposed to what is not) on the page.

However there is also significant room to argue as does Willingham, that New Criticism is intellectually naïve in the sense that for although we can never know for certain how the greater context in which it was written influences the text, we can be certain that it has indeed influenced it and if we ignore that influence then we have lost a great deal from our aesthetic experience.

For example in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a close reading of the text in 2.5 where Ferdinand expounds ‘Rhubarb, O for rhubarb (t)o purge this choler’ may well leave us none the wiser. Certainly a 21st century reader realises that Ferdinand is angry (for ‘choler’ has retained that link) but the connection between ‘rhubarb’ (the New Critics were keen to focus on ambiguity and indeed tried to show the unity beneath the text’s apparent disunity) and ‘purging’ that ‘choler’ is lost. Without context, it is almost impossible to fit rhubarb together with anger (unless one suggests they are both related to the colour red). Indeed we may even be tempted to see this ambiguity or disunity as a flaw in the work; many 21st century readers tend to judge a work harshly when we are forced stop reading and think.

However if we know that in the early 17th century rhubarb was considered to medicinally ‘purge’ or cure ‘choler’, then a meaningful connection is made. But unless we understand that Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ is not a fleeting state of mind, but his temperament, we cannot realise the full import of this connection. We can rectify this however if, for example, we examine this text as might a proponent of New Historicism – in conjunction with a text contemporary of the period. For example in John Harrington’s 1607 Poems on Temperament, we discover that a choleric like Ferdinand is not only angry, but he is ‘oft malicious’ and ‘all violent and fierce’. Not only that but ‘on little cause to anger’ a choleric like Ferdinand is ‘great inclin’d’. This understanding of the nature of his temperament presents a different picture that if we were to believe him simply angry on a certain day.

Further, if we accept that a text is an ‘aesthetic object’ (however TS Eliot and others might have us define that) then if we are to take anything valuable away from our ‘aesthetic experience’ , we need to focus on what it tells us about ourselves. For example, if we were to examine this text as might a proponent of feminist literary criticism, we might focus more on the suggestion that Ferdinand intends to ‘purge’ his temper on his sister (whom in a few lines earlier was pronounced ‘a notorious strumpet’) because she has married not to his liking even whilst he appears to have no problem that his brother, the Cardinal, keeps as his mistress, another man’s wife. Where is the equality in this asks the feminist? How can the Duchess express herself (as she clearly is attempting to do by marrying of her own choice) if politically she has not the power to do so? Now the focus is no longer just on a choleric brother having a 17th century rant but on the sexual politics of the period and how they might still inform our own sexual politics in the 21st century.

If we were to examine this text as might a proponent of psychological literary criticism then we would focus not on Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ and its manifestations but instead on its potential causes – perhaps the problem is sexual libido gone wrong – this is not an unreasonable suggestion what with all the knives and their phallic symbolism (in 3.2 Ferdinand sneaks into his sister’s boudoir and surprises her with a knife) and Ferdinand’s protestations in 4.1 about the effect on him of her body (‘Damn her, That body of hers’). Thus instead of Rhubarb to ‘purge’ Ferdinand’s ‘choler’, a 21st century psychotherapist might prescribe psychoanalysis or even a modern day substitute for ‘rhubarb’ like prosaic. What might this tell us about how much scientific advancements have changed 21st century society as opposed to that of 17th century?

In summary, if we wish to come to grips with a text then as suggested by the New Critics we should focus on the text. To do otherwise make it all to easy miss not only what has been written but also to add things that have not. In this sense the approach of the New Critics cannot be methodologically fruitless. It can however be intellectually naïve to believe that one can fully appreciate a text (or indeed any piece of art) if one does not understand it in the context in which it was created. It is likewise intellectually naïve not to attempt to draw conclusions about what that text or piece of art might tell us about ourselves – for example how society has or has not changed over time.

The Birth of Tragedy and other Cultural Lies

‘This dynamic…is the original dramatic phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s eyes and now to act as if one really had entered another body, another character’ (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy).

It is my understanding that with this quote Nietzsche was referring to classical Greek drama wherein dramatists seize upon a metaphor or image that when presented to the audience through mimesis or imitation, conveys a ‘seminal truth’ rather than a ‘cultural lie’. In other words, if a tragedy is to achieve ‘transformation’ in the sense to which Nietzsche was referring, then it must provide audiences with something more deeply meaningful than mere entertainment or political party line. For Nietzsche, transformation was not simply a matter suspending audience disbelief, but instead allowing the audience to actually enter the world of the Greek god Dionysus, in whose realm lies all primordial truths and with it, the tragic suffering inherent in comprehending these truths.images

If by action we are referring to stage performance (rather than theme or underlying plot), then to the extent audiences were encouraged to see such performance as mere entertainment, I would suggest that Renaissance tragedy more often than not misses Nietzsche’s mark. Bottom line, most Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were by necessity as interested (if not more) in making money than they were in imparting seminal truths. According to Mike Pincombe in his article ‘English Renaissance Tragedy: Theories and Antecedents’ in the Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, Elizabethan audiences were in tune with the idea that ‘tragedy’ required ‘the fall of a great man and a lot of shouting to go with it’. To the extent Renaissance dramatists played to that idea, then if most of the audience focus was more on the ‘shouting’ than the gathering of primordial truths, it would seem ‘transformation’ would not likely have often occurred.

For example in her introduction to the New Mermaids edition of the A-Text of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Ros King notes that the popularity of the play was due in large part to the audience’s interest in the special effects (the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope must have been a feat). Even the side story of Rafe and Robin having ‘stolen one of Doctor Faustus’ conjuring books’ and playing at their own conjuring in order to obtain ‘the kitchen maid’ for ‘thy own use’ would seem for the most part although entertaining also distractive – not contributing in any meaningful way to the main plot of Faustus’ struggle regarding Christian redemption and most certainly not reflective of a primordial truth.

Rather than conveying a ‘seminal truth’, the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope would seem to be more easily justified as an attempt to further a ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that although first printed in 1604, the play was most definitely written when the staunchly protestant Elizabeth I was still on the throne. The connection between Renaissance tragedy and the politics of the moment is also addressed by other Renaissance writers such as Sir Phillip Sidney in his The Defense of Posey, where he suggested tragedy ought to teach kings to avoid tyranny. In his article Tragedy and the nation state (Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy) remarks that the relationship between English tragedy and the nation-state was ‘there from the start’.

This does not mean that because a tragedy conveys a ‘cultural lie’ such as political party line and is also entertaining (lots of ‘shouting’ going on) that it cannot also deliver that (Dionysian) ‘seminal truth’. Indeed in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, there was not only the fall and tragic suffering of Hieronomo, (albeit not really a ‘great man’) but also the seminal truth that justice is not able to be achieved even when the king is not a tyrant (this of course also likely another ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that if it had been otherwise the censors of the time would likely have refused for the play to be presented – or worse).

In summary, if Nietzsche’s conception of ‘transformation’ required tragedy to deliver seminal truths rather than cultural lies to the audience, then I would have to conclude that for the most part Renaissance tragedy likely most often failed to achieve it. Renaissance dramatists were for the most part economically dependent on having their plays well-received and if audiences had the notion that tragedy should include the fall of a (more or less) great man with a good deal of shouting going on then it only made sense that is what the dramatists delivered; focused on the ‘shouting’, it would have been hard to focus also on seminal truths. That is not to suggest that in many cases seminal truths were not available, as with Dr Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy. However I would suggest that such well-entertained Renaissance audiences most likely had to work harder to find them than classic Greek audiences might have done. Finally, as the connection between tragedy and nation-state was always present, it is unlikely that any seminal truths would have been conveyed undiluted by some very necessary ‘cultural lies’.

Structuralism and the ‘New Perspective’ on Literature

StructuralismStructuralism holds that a culture can be understood by means of the structure upon which its language, or structural linguistics, is modelled. This is because according to Saussure, the meanings assigned to words as well as the relationship between words (i.e. sentence structure) are maintained solely by convention. I have found this ‘new perspective’ of structuralism valuable in my study of literature because it provides enriched understanding about various cultural values and beliefs underlying the texts. It does however have its drawbacks which should be acknowledged if such value is not to be severely diminished.

For example, in 1.2 of Shakespeare’s play I Henry IV, when Hal proposes that when he becomes king, Falstaff should serve as his hangman, Falstaff responds that this ‘jumps with my humour’. Without placing the word ‘humour’ in its correct cultural context, I might be tempted to interpret this as an expression of Falstaff’s present mood. This would make it much more difficult to make meaningful connections with the lines that follow whereby Falstaff suggests he is as ‘melancholy’ as a ‘gib cat’ or ‘lugg’d bear’. However when I consider such comparisons to be signs of early modern cultural convention, values, and beliefs, I find myself addressing the complexities of Galenic humoralism which incorporates ideas about inborn temperaments relating to scarcity or excesses of bodily fluids – in the case of melancholy that of black bile. Hence Falstaff is not just feeling melancholy– he is melancholic. This has implications for his future because by nature of his humours, regardless of what he might wish to be otherwise, he is non-energetic, serious, solitary, suspicious, and mistrustful. Now the associations with animals (all mammals with blood were considered to be effect by the humours) start to make sense; the ‘gib cat’ or gelded (castrated) cat signals Falstaff is always ineffectual and the ‘lugg’d bear’ suggests that he realises he is being baited by Hal but is unable to do anything about it.

As a feminist looking at texts through structuralist eyes, I am also able to hone in on sex-inflected signifiers pointing to specific patriarchal cultural values I am keen to eliminate. For example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet prematurely presumes his mother behind the death of his father – ‘frailty, thy name is woman’ – taking this as a signal of key cultural attitudes I am able to identify it as insidiously dangerous for women as is Virginia Woolf’s ‘Milton’s bogey’ (the depiction of Eve as inferior, alone responsible for mans’ eviction from the Garden or Eden in Paradise Lost). According to Gilbert and Gubar, such attitudes inherent in some of the most important works comprising the literary ‘canon’, cuts women from the ‘spaciousness of possibility’. Once such ‘signs’ of cultural attitudes as this are identified, they can be openly discussed and hopefully dispersed. But whilst they remain buried in the unconscious minds of readers, they continue to give weight to damaging cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Not only that but the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss expanded the tenets of structuralism to the interpretation of myths and stories and the identification of various motifs and themes repeating through cultures and history. Armed with such understanding, I come to Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, ready to rely on, for example, the myths and legends surrounding the wounded Fisher King of Arthurian fame regarding the unfavourable consequences of a society’s sterility to help me understand the consequences of section about the bored typist and her equally disempowered clerk as they have sex without consequence or pleasure in The Fire Sermon of that poem.

However valuable structuralism are in focusing on valuable insight on other cultural believes, it has its drawbacks: for example it is impossible for me to neutralise the effect of my own cultural values and beliefs when I read about Falstaff and his melancholy. Although I can intellectually understand the significance of his humours for his future in terms of early modern ideals, I still cannot stop thinking if only he could get some psychological help (such as we are accustomed to request today), things would have turned out differently for him and such thoughts distract me from the realities of the story that Shakespeare wrote. Not only that, but in reaching so far into the cultural underpinnings of a text, I take my eyes further and further away from the text in its own right.

Also, it is through structuralism that Roland Barthes developed his position regarding the relationship between author, text, and meaning. While I agree in some respects that the reader is at least a co-author of a text in the sense that he or she will necessarily interpret text in line with his or her own cultural beliefs (as I did with Falstaff and his melancholy), I cannot agree with Barthes that the ‘birth of the reader’ spells the ‘death of the author’. Although we can never be certain what Shakespeare was trying to achieve by having Hamlet make such an affront to women in his speech regarding frailty, we do know that he meant them there for some purpose and (given the 16th century culture of which he was a product) that such purpose is more than likely at odds at least in some respects with any meaning that I coming from a 21st century mind-set might make of them. Just realising this makes us aware of the implications of any meaning that we might chose to assign.

In summary, whilst considering a text through the framework of structuralism (in the sense that I acknowledge that each word or sentence on the page is a signal pointing toward some deeper underlying cultural perspectives), my reading and understanding of literature is expanded and enriched. Further, I am able to articulate certain words and phrases that signal cultural perspectives with which I wish to take issue – for example as a feminist I am interested in covert patriarchal textual jibes at women. However the structrualist approach does have drawbacks, not the least in respect to at least as a co-author of textual meaning, I am unable to neutralise the effect of my own cultural perspectives on a text and whilst trying to undercover all that underlies any text, I take my focus further away from that text.

New Historicism – the Relationship Between Literature and History

New HistoricismUnlike with other historicist approaches to literature, for a New Historicist history is not (or not just) a backdrop against which, for example, a play like Shakespeare’s King Lear was written; the connections between such a text and the historical (facts/events) conditions in which it was written are always more complex. This is because New Historicism refuses to prioritize a literary text. Instead it focuses on parallel readings of other literary and non-literary texts in order to frame the text in a politically-charged and fully-embodied ‘historical’ experience.

In his essay Shakespeare and the Exorcists, Stephen Greenblatt makes clear that whilst we acknowledge that Shakespeare used historical background material for King Lear (like a contemporary account of exorcisms written by one Samuel Harsnett that provided the names of the fiends like Flibbertigibbet that hounded Edgar, the disguised Poor Tom), we cannot assume that the borrowing of information was a one way street. Perhaps others borrowed as much from Shakespeare as he did from them? If so, then what might this mean for the ‘larger cultural text’?

The New Historicist reminds us that history itself is ‘written’ in the same way as is a literary text. More importantly, the history that we are most likely to read was written by the ‘winning’ side – i.e. those who successfully held and retained power. Rather like Michel Foucault, the New Historicist believes that words are power and that it is through words that we are ‘communicated’ into being. Those who would ‘normalise’ and ‘socialise’ us to their purposes will ‘write’ history to suit their purposes.

Hence Greenblatt examines the ‘institutional strategies’ in which both Lear and Harnsett’s account of exorcisms are embedded. He concludes that both are part of an ‘intense’ and sustained struggle’ to redefine societal values during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in regards to sacred institutions upon which of course the king’s ‘divine right’ to rule rested. It was all part of a politically inspired strategy to ‘reinscribe evil’ on the ‘professed enemies of evil’ – and if by his text Harnsett was trying to expose this ruse for what it was – performance/theatre (and apparently he was somewhat successful in this goal), then perhaps the message that Shakespeare meant to send along with his character Poor Tom (whether intentionally or not) was along the same lines?

We will never know for certain but by regularly asking questions such as this, New Historicists problematise the understanding of the relationship between literature and history. There are many who are happy reading the significance of Poor Tom and related references to Bedlam as a symbol of the madness into which the play is descending or as reflective of the way in which ‘mad’ people were treated during the period. After all Bedlam was a bricks and mortar place with a reputation and history which is well documented and to make too much more of Poor Tom and Bedlam than that, is not without it dangers.

While it is true that all texts, both literary and non-literary, carry history with them, it would seem all too easy (in hindsight) for the New Historicists to discover links and influences that simply were not present at the time; or if they were present then it is equally easy to under or estimate their effect; looking back in time, one is hardly likely to get the mix exactly right for not only are they dealing with contemporary 16th and 17th century interpretations of what was going on at the time but we are throwing in own 21st century gloss as well. Indeed this is part of the goal of Cultural Materialism – using present day materials (like a program from a recent production of King Lear) to examine cultural consistencies between then and now.

This brings up a whole new set of potential problems through trying to identify issues that are timeless – in the sense that they were topical both in the 16th/17th centuries and in the 21st century. Whilst in some regards history does repeat, it is again all too easy to look back in time and overlay contemporary concerns onto historical situations in a way that is at best inappropriate and at worst, rewriting history to suit New Historicist viewpoints in the same way that along with Foucault, they often accuse others. This is especially true as they move further and further away from the actual text in front of them as they conjecture how it is that language really works.

Use and Abuse of Power in the Writings of Virginia Woolf

Three GuineasWhilst answering a letter received from a (unidentified) gentleman asking for her opinion on how war might be prevented, in her essay, Three Guineas, Woolf launches into a historically rich vindictive questioning not only the sense of asking her such a question, for unlike the gentleman she had been denied access the education that would have allowed her to answer him, but also how such inequality had come about.

Whilst in full flow in answering the latter point, she quotes from Gray’s Ode : ‘what is grandeur, what is power? – what the bright reward we gain?’

Gain indeed; power is what people want and in her writings Woolf not only demonstrates this but she also deals with some of the ways and reasons it occurs.

For example, in her memoirs, Moments of Being, Woolf recalls how when just eighteen years of age and after a long evening of being dragged about London to a series of gala parties and strategically important social events, her step-brother had crept into her bedroom and ‘flung’ himself on her bed, taking her ‘in his arms’ as a ‘lover’. If by power we mean that one person possesses a sense of dominion over another, then certainly with such behaviour her step-brother (older and presumably wiser) had abused his power although what he had wished to gain through it, Woolf does not conjecture. That she thought it an abuse of power is clear enough however for the next few sentences note that his behaviour would not have been acceptable to the ‘old ladies’ of ‘Kensington and Belgravia’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf investigates the power struggle between a married couple, Mr and Mrs Ramsay – which through those memoirs Moments of Being, we learn are created in the likeness of her own parents. Whilst Mr Ramsay wanders about pondering great things like the philosopher David Hume ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his wife sat charitably knitting stockings for needy children. In conjunction with reading Woolf’s memoirs, we can conclude that she believed that in essence Mrs Ramsay had died young feeding her husband’s constantly flagging vanity. Is this an abuse of power in the sense of exercising dominion over another? Perhaps not – but we do know that at least Mrs Ramsay took pleasure in her ‘bright reward’ when exercising her power by refusing to tell Mr Ramsay that he had been right that it would rain tomorrow, she knew she had ‘triumphed again’.

In that same novel, Woolf also touches on wider social issues of use/abuse of power when Mr Ramsay ponders on whether the progress of civilisation depends on ‘great men’. He concludes it does not because the ‘greater good’ does depend on the existence of a ‘slave class’ (like the liftman in the Tube). Even whilst he himself finds this idea distasteful, he decides the best way to avoid dealing with it an upcoming lecture he is to present, is to ‘snub’ the ‘predominance’ of the arts – which only decorates human life and does not represent it. The reader cannot help but think such contemplation rather rich given the privilege Mr Ramsay himself enjoys with his summer house in the isles of Scotland complete with a bevy of servants and maids.

Unlike with her essays, in her fiction Woolf oddly refrains from abuse/abuse of narratorial/authorial power by pushing one view at the expense of another (as do many writers). Instead she maintains a gentle neutrality – presenting a story and letting it speak for itself – and at least in To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway the narratorial/authorial voice never intrudes has it does in, for example, EM Forster’s Howards End. And even where we do hear the narratorial/authorial voice as for example in her novel, Orlando, both sides of the power struggles are evenly presented – not only does Orlando’s lover ‘Sasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ jilt him when he is a man (instead of the other way around), but as a woman Orlando sees both plusses and minuses of her new gender-based situation – although her new skirts are ‘plaguey’ around her heels, the stuff of which they are made is the ‘loveliest in the world’ as it shows off her skin to such ‘advantage’.

 In summary, in both her essays and fiction Woolf demonstrates that she is more than aware that power is what people want – Three Guineas deals extensively with this point in regards to how for so many generations men and the church have used the power of their money to deny women equal access to education. She deals with the sexual abuse perpetrated by step-brother in her memoirs and also the inevitable power battles inherent in a marriage. Interestingly unlike in her essays, in her fiction Woolf does not use her authorial voice to push an agenda, instead simply letting the story speak for itself.

The Impact of World War I on Modernist Writers

‘We have all had a tremendous jolt; . . . we are far more conscious of our condition than we were, and far less disposed to submit to it’ (Bernard Shaw).

According to Mr Lewis in his Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, it was said that when one certain intellectual was asked why he was not fighting to save civilization, he answered that he was the civilization for which men were fighting. Pompous as that might sound to 21st century ears, there is an element of truth in the comment and in Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf explores this in some detail; civilization – or as Mr Shaw puts it, our ‘condition’ – as was known pre and post war was decidedly different – but whether there was anything worth saving – anything worth ‘submitting to’ in the words of Mr Shaw – from the earlier period was for the modernist writers, a point of conjecture.

Mrs DallowayThe novel is framed around its heroine, Clarissa Dalloway’s, day in London as she prepares for the party she is giving that evening. The novels develops around two seemingly unrelated plots – the shell shock and eventual suicide of Septimus, a veteran of the First World War and the fifty-two year old Clarissa’s social calendar, complete with significant reminiscences of jolly pre-war house parties when she was but eighteen years old – ‘hollyhocks, dahlias – all sorts of flowers swimming together with their heads cut off’ – the effect was extraordinary ‘coming in to dinner at sunset’ – then those glorious kisses of Sally Seton whilst ‘star-gazing’ and Clarissa had been ‘wearing pink gauze’ – ‘was that possible’?

Clarissa’s party was to be no less splendid than those pre-war parties – populated as it would be with all those characters from the past – the once young men and women who were now the ‘old guard’ – the very people that postwar society was holding responsible for the war. The two different plots in Mrs Dalloway do not come together until the very end of the novel when Clarissa hears of the suicide of Septimus, a man she had never known. It seems that this knowledge has prevented Clarissa from also committing suicide although why she would want to do that – so privileged she was such – is not completely clear. If, as she believed, her life was a failure then more had to be wrong than that she had not been invited along with her husband, Peter, to lunch with Lady Bruton that day.

According to Mr Lewis, Woolf called this novel a elegy – a ‘lament for the ‘dead’ – but was it a lament only those that had physically died like Septimus, as the result of the war or was it also a lament for the death of the pre-war civilisation of which, according to her own memoirs in Moments of Being, Woolf too had been a privileged member?Mrs Dalloway

In his landmark poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot also addresses the trajectory of civilizsation but seems to take a different tact than Woolf. The civilisation he appears to favour is that of the classical world of ancient Greece along with lofty personages like Tiresias – who as punishment from the goddess Hera, had witnessed life as both a man and a woman. In his notes to the poem, Eliot admits that although not a character per se, Tiresias is the ‘most important personage’ in the poem. But is this solely because Tiresias is able to provide a unisex description of the sad love tryst in The Fire Sermon between the ‘bored and tired typist’ and her ‘young man carbuncular’?

I think not. I would suggest that is only part of the picture Eliot paints. Another part of that picture is rather like that presented by Woolf in Mrs Dalloway – questioning whether perseveration of pre-war civilisation – however defined – was really worth all that civilisation has paid for it. Eliot suggests that as was the case with the ancient Battle Mylae in 260 BC when Carthage was lost, the ‘corpses’ that had ‘begun to sprout’ as the result of the First World War is an equally extortionate price and worse, in What the Thunder Said we learn from the poem’s speaker that regardless of that extortionate price already paid, the break with the past is firm and complete anyway – the ‘lands’ will be ‘unable to be set in order’ because ‘London bridge is falling down’. All that is left to do now is to gather up those ‘fragments’ from the past and ‘shore’ them up ‘against my ruins.’

In summary, as Mr Shaw points out the First War World gave everyone a tremendous jolt and made them more than aware of their ‘condition’ – the reality of their civilisation – and the question of whether the price paid for trying to preserve had been too high. Woolf seems to suggest that her civilisation was worth preserving  at any price;  certainly Clarissa and her friends in Mrs Dalloway were not about to throw away the prestige and power they had accumulated over the years. The suicide of Septimus might have dampened the mood of Clarissa’s party but at the end of the novel we have been given no reason to expect that next year Clarissa would not be giving the same party all over again. In The Waste Land, Eliot seems to be suggesting that the pre-war civilisation had deeper roots than those recognised in Mrs Dalloway and that whilst it might be a good deal harder to dig out those roots, it was well worth doing.

The Cultural Construction of ‘Woman’ throughout history in Western Art & Literature

chasityIn her groundbreaking work, The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argues that contrary to popular belief, femininity, or what it means to be a woman, is not organically or metaphysically predetermined, but culturally determined. Is ‘woman’ a construct? Beauvoir most certainly argued yes and I have to agree, at least in the sense that the literature and art of Western civilization provides much to support her allegation.

For example, in her essay Poses and Passions, Zirka Filipczak reminds us that the poses adopted by men and women in the artwork of the English Renaissance are strategically quite different – whilst men are represented as active (holding a sword, perhaps) and intelligent (hands on a stack of books, for example), women either sit modestly silent, their empty hands crossed demurely across their girdles or, in exceptional circumstances, they hold a bible. Ms Filipczak suggests such poses were sociality established in order to demonstrate those qualities which were most highly prized in each of the respective sexes; there is much to support this too.

For example, during the English Renaissance chastity was the most important virtue in women. Certainly one legitimate reason for this was that men needed to be certain that the sons borne by their wives were actually their rightful heirs. But another important reason was as demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s comedy, Volpone, with the character Corvino – society rains shame upon a man who is cuckolded and hence a man must take every precaution to ensure such a disaster does not happen.

In her novel, Orlando, Virginia Woolf underlines the social determinations of virtues such as chastity when Orlando, her hero turned heroine remembers how ‘as a young man’ she had ‘insisted’ that women should not only be ‘obedient’, ‘scented’, and ‘exquisitely appareled’ but also ‘chaste’. Orlando reflects that this means that now he is a she – I shall now have to ‘pay’ in my ‘own person’ for such desires for certainly now she realises that women by nature are none of these things. But as T.S. Eliot makes clear in his poem The Waste Land, at least in the early 20th century things had not changed much when in the section, ‘The Fire Sermon’, the ‘bored and tired’ typist who casually has sex with ‘her young man carbuncular’ is, through allusion to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, compared to an 18th century woman, who has likewise ‘stooped to folly’. But the 18th century hides her ‘shame’ fro ‘ev’ry eye’ instead of having audacity, as does the 20th century woman, to ‘pace about her room’ and ‘put a record on the gramophone’.

Another important myth propagated by men (they were, after all, almost inevitably the ones doing the painting and writing) was that women are dependent upon and inferior to them. They did not have to reach any further than the Bible for support of this position. As Woolf made clear in her essay A Room of One’s Own, that when resurrecting ‘the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’, one had to look past ‘Milton’s bogey’ and his colourful depiction of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden all because of one woman named Eve. As with the portrait poses, these myths (if one should choose, as I might, to see the Bible as such) force stereotyped roles upon women and if the women fail to conform to these culturally ‘accepted’ standards then all will be lost.

This is amply demonstrated in Kyd’s Renaissance drama, The Spanish Tragedy, when Bel-Imperia dared to love Antonio and not Belthazar as mandated by her brother and father, all hell broke loose; everyone (except her father – no doubt because he was the king) died as the result. The Duchess of Malfi in Webster’s play of the same name provides another example – not only did the duchess (now a widow) marry of her own choosing but she also neglected to preserve her chastity in the eyes of society (she was commonly known as a ‘strumpet’). This gave her brother, Ferdinand, added ammunition when he determined to proceed with her murder.

In the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft very capably argued that the problem with women was not that they were by nature irrational and emotional but that they were educated to be thus. Educate women properly, she argued, and they will stop acting like children and instead like adults. Unfortunately for Wollstonecraft, like the Duchess of Malfi she neglected to look after her own chastity and thus provided her detractors enough ammunition to successfully ‘shoot down’ her otherwise legitimate claims. Even by the mid-Victorian times, education for women remained a significant issue as demonstrated by Charlotte Bronte’s heroine, Jane Eyre – one can only imagine how dismal her future would have been had she not escaped from her nasty aunt, Mrs Reed, and (although at some personal expense) received a decent education at Lowood.

Even that however did not ensure her longer-term success as the only paid positions available to her afterwards was as a teacher or governess. As the story of Jane Eyre made clear, even being (or at least demonstrating) oneself to be the intellectual or moral equal/moral superior of a man did not ensure she was thus treated. Lucky for Jane that her Mr Rochester was more a Gothic than Victorian hero. Until the early 20th century such inequality was more than apparent as Virginia Woolf made clear in her novel, To The Lighthouse – whilst Mr Ramsay strutted about thinking great thoughts, his wife Mrs Ramsay sat and knitted stockings for needy children.

Not only did men naturally consider themselves superior to women but they showed significant fear and agitation when a woman like Jane Eyre, did demonstrate herself to be their superior. As Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Ivy Wife, written in the late 19th century about a woman who successfully competes with a man, makes clear such folly will be the ruination of them both.

In summary, Simone de Beauvoir argued that ‘woman’ is a construct at least in the sense that what it means to be a woman is culturally determined. I would have to agree that she has a valid point as there is much evidence throughout the history of Western art and literature to support it. For example, there have been centuries of such works reminding women that ‘chastity’ is their most important virtue and that along with being subservient and inferior to men, if they fail to ensure their behaviour remains within the culturally accepted boundaries all hell will break loose both for them and their households. Such ‘womanly’ concerns were reinforced by their education and attempts by reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft to improve education for women were ‘shot down’ with allegations of her own indifference to chastity. Such concerns have persisted well into the 20th century as has been well documented by male and female writers such as Woolf, Hardy and T.S. Eliot.

Disguise as a Device in Renaissance Drama

VOLPONE: I ne’er was in dislike with my disguise

Till this fled moment.

(BEN JONSON, Volpone)

VolponeWith these lines Volpone indicates that he is becoming tired with pretending to be sick and wants to give up the con game (give me some wine to ‘fright’ this ‘humour’). Although not a disguise per se which necessitates change in identity but instead a change in condition, his feigning illness is still a deception perpetrated to further plot development.

However it is my contention that such change in condition as Volpone’s is not as helpful as it might be in understanding the significance of the device of disguise in Renaissance drama. This is because unlike with disguise, a mere change in someone’s condition (such as illness) does not allow him/her to leave his/her entire past behind him and become someone else altogether. If as postmodern philosophers like Foucault have suggested, the ‘self’ is narrated into existence by the stories that we and others tell us about us, then this ability to be someone else allows the disguised character to disconnect with his/her story and play an entirely different one to great effect.

For example, with Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar who is himself the victim of deceit, is able to dismiss all boundaries of wealth and class when he disguises himself as a poor (and slightly mad) beggar named Poor Tom. Lear himself sympathizes with Edgar’s situation (as Poor Tom) in a way that we can imagine would have been impossible had Poor Tom still been the Edgar that Lear had always known (or even a mad version of Edgar). In the process of this interchange with Poor Tom, however Lear learns something very important about his own situation (‘unaccommodated man’ is no more than an ‘animal’).

In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Bel-Imperia’s servant, Pedringano, uses disguise to perpetrate his deceit in exposing his mistress and Horatio as lovers to her brother, Lorenzo and would-be lover Balthazar. If in the garden with her lover, Bel-Imperia had realised that is Pedringano accompanying Lorenzo and Balthazar, the game would have been given up much earlier and the play’s plot much changed; for example Hieronomo would have more quickly and easily identified his son’s murderers and audience would not have witnessed nearly so much of his agonizing prevarication, the very painful explorations of the nature of revenge that Kyd achieved would have fallen by the wayside.

In Middleton’s The Changeling, the substitution of Beatrice’s maid for Beatrice in consummating the latter’s marriage to Alsemero is also perpetrated by disguise. Beatrice cannot allow her husband to realise that she is not a virgin. Not only does this result in the maid’s death which furthers the plot (toward Alsemero’s understanding of what has been going on behind his back) but it furthers one of the primary themes of the play – that of changelings and explorations of what happens when a person or thing is (surreptitiously) exchanged for another.

But in this play disguise also operates at much more sophisticated level. Keeping in mind Foucault and the narrated ‘self’, we can see that even without a disguise Beatrice plays two roles/stories living up to at least two different ways that she is perceived; Alsemero’s ideal of womanly perfection and also DeFlores’s ideal of ugliness. At the end of the play when Alsemero is discussing with Beatrice’s father, Vermandero, the identity of Alonzo’s murderers, he even uses the term ‘disguise’ – (I have ‘two other’ that were more ‘close disguised’) in reference to the real perpetrators, Beatrice and DeFlores. Clearly the realisation that Beatrice had played such two different roles triggers an even greater epiphany for Alsemero than had Poor Tom’s disguise triggered for Lear – for at the very end of the play Alsemero willingly admits that although previously he had been a ‘little ass’ he now considers himself to be a ‘great fool’.

In summary, a mere change in condition (illness) such as that demonstrated by Volpone is not as useful as it might be in considering the significance of disguise in Renaissance drama. Even though Volpone suggests that he had almost become the sick man whose role he had been playing (‘fore God, my leg ‘gan to actually ‘have a cramp’) he is still not seen by others as a different person. This prevents furtherance of scenarios that actual disguise allows such as great epiphanies as with Lear and Poor Tom- or clandestine operations like with Bel-Imperia’s servant, Pedringano – both of which further plot by either clarification or confusion. In the case of Beatrice in The Changeling, disguise operates at several levels – in my view the most important being in demonstrating how one person can in effect be two persons because we define ‘self’ or personage in regards to the stories we and others tell about ourselves. If she had merely been feigning illness like Volpone, such differences would be been anticipated hence taking much of the sting away from Alsemero’s final realisation.

Tradition and Form in Renaissance Tragedy

doctor-faustus-as-a-morality-play-5-638In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot advises that ‘art never improves’ even if the ‘material of art’ is never quite the same. According to Eliot, to be accepted into the coveted literary canon an author treads a fine line between innovation and tradition and hence although we might expect some development over time (refinement and complication) it is likely to more to do with economics than anything else.

Whilst the Renaissance dramatists were probably not worrying about being admitted to any future literary canon, they were interested in having their plays performed. I can imagine that many were also interested, for economic reasons, in having as many plays performed as possible in the shortest period of time. Hence it only makes sense that for economic (and doubtless other reasons), tragedy developed by treading Eliot’s fine line between innovation and tradition – or if you will, current ideas and inherited form.

The form of English tragedy has most certain evolved over time – with Chaucer it was a ‘ditty’ about prosperity ending in wretchedness whist in later periods it had morphed into sad stories about a man’s fall as told by his ghost. By the 15th and early 16th century, we see the so-called ‘everyman (morality) plays’ – whereby on actor represents all of mankind with angels and the like tempting him to do evil with a view to investigating notions of Christian salvation.

At least in part, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1594 or thereabouts) is a throwback to these earlier morality plays. Faustus follows roughly the same form as the earlier plays in the sense of featuring polarised figures of good and evil (in Faustus the Evil and Good angels are constantly quarrelling as to whether Faustus is capable of repenting and in the A text in reality there was little possibility). As were the earlier plays, Faustus is didactic in the sense it aims to teach about what it takes to be a Christian. However unlike with the earlier plays the temptations do not come from outside ( i.e. with players representing specific qualities such Lechery or Sloth). As the opening scene demonstrates, without any outside stimulation Faustus prevaricates on whether he should ‘settle his studies’ and follow the party line by being a physician and making a ‘heap of gold’ or instead to follow his own inclinations and learn about alchemy and sorcery. I suggest this change in focus from outer to inner temptation is in keeping with expanding ideas about the nature of personal freedom (no longer constrained by a limited choice such as amongst the proscribed professions) but now encompassing a full range self-chosen goals from which Faustus makes his choices.

Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586) signals a revival of the tragedies by the Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca doubtless in part because Seneca had fallen back into favour with the ruling monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Spanish Tragedy focuses on revenge, a favourite Senecan theme, as the tragic protagonist Hieronimo struggles to obtain justice for the murder of his son, Horatio, and finally is forced to take revenge.

Kyd’s work also adopts Seneca’s five act structure and endorsement of Aristotle’s unities of action (no scene is a digression from contributing directly to the plot – as was the case with Faustus and the subplot with the two clowns, Robin and Rafe). But it fails to adopt unity of time which requires the action of the play to be compressed to usually to no more than a single day. Although there is no specific time period over which the action of The Spanish Tragedy takes place, it must have involved more than 24 hours for Hieronimo to learn the truth and decide on his course of action.

Interestingly The Spanish Tragedy also adopts the typically Stoic (again adopted by Seneca) idea that failure to remain unruffled in the face of difficult emotions such as Hieronimo faced after finding his murdered son (he rants and raves through several soliloquies about the injustice of it all) results in madness. Also of note is the use of Andrea’s ghost to frame the play as the ghost, like in those earlier English tragedies, tells the sad story about Andrea’s demise.

The Spanish Tragedy has been seen as a crude forerunner of Shakespeare’s later more complex and sophisticated tragedy, Hamlet – the two focusing on revenge, ghosts, and madness in fairly much the same ways. Yet although Hamlet may be a more complex character than Hieronomo (Hieronomo rails about the injustice of it all, whilst Hamlet takes this further and questions the very nature of man (‘what piece of work is man!’)), it is quite possible tthat Shakespeare made Hamlet too complex and sophisticated. In his essay entitled Hamlet and His Problems, T.S. Eliot concluded that as a play, Hamlet was an ‘artistic failure’ because Hamlet was so obsessed by emotions that he could not objectify, that there was nothing Shakespeare could do with the plot to express Hamlet who had worked himself to a point of inaction.

In summary, if we are to agree with the argument put forth by T.S. Eliot that art never improves even if the material of art changes, then it only makes sense that each new tragedy is a negotiation of inherited form and current ideas and fashions. This certainly seems to be the case as such famous tragedies such as Faustus, Hamlet, and The Spanish Tragedy – which clearly build not only upon older forms of English tragedy but also on classical forms such as that used by the Roman dramatist and philosopher, Seneca. Not only does the structure of these plays hark back to earlier times but also the tropes (ghosts and madness) and themes (revenge and Christian redemption).

The Concept of Canon & The Secret Book of John

Excerpt from my (as yet unpublished) novel, Adieu the Rose:

Marseilles

December 1920

“Your anger is that of all the wronged women since the beginning of time, Sophie.” Mother Superior fingered multi-coloured spines. “Yet the answer lies within not without.”

Although deeply pious, the mother superior was surprisingly progressive and she encouraged her nuns to be the same. After a challenging childhood in Corsica, this amazing woman had taught herself to read and write in several languages including English. Not only was she politically astute, but she’d developed strong allies in high places. Much to the chagrin of the Vatican, The Mother regularly published radical ideas about religious reform in the secular press. Her official library contained the accepted canon of Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine. Her personal library – kept under lock and key – was deeply heretical ranging from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to alchemy and a good bit in between.

Most of the nuns found this library alternating between fascinating and confusing. But the most confusing to Sophie was a collection of sacred alternative texts that had been handed down from ancient Mesopotamia. It was from this collection that the Mother Superior selected a slim volume.

The Secret Book of John?” squeaked Sophie.

“Like me, child, you search for the truth,” replied the Mother. “Yet when you fail to easily find it you’re all too willing to accept the lies. This Gnostic text explains a good deal about what it means to be a woman and how it came to pass that all women share the same anger.”

“Isn’t anger a personal thing?”

“Is original sin personal?”

Sophie edged closer to the ancient stone fireplace and rubbed her hands before the well-tended fire. It was the week before Christmas and Marseilles was not only miserably damp, but deadly cold.

“According to that text you hold in your hands, original sin resulted not from Eve’s encounter with the snake but from the arrogance of God.” Pouring more tea, the Mother beckoned for Sophie to sit next to her on a comfortable-looking settee. “In order to give life to his human creations, Adam and Eve, God stole light from the Mother Sophia. Eve thought this terribly unfair and it was whilst trying to return the light to the Mother, that she first tasted the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.”

“If that’s true,” replied Sophie, “then where does that leave Christian redemption?”

This was the most pressing question. Despite the exculpating eulogy that the Bishop of Beraux had delivered at her uncle’s funeral, Sophie prayed each and every day that her relative would never find redemption. It was inconceivable that such a life of wickedness on the part of such a privileged man should receive the same divine pardon as the theft of a piece of bread by a starving child. Nonetheless, it was a sad realisation that like the hungry flames of Hell, her own anger had engulfed her. Likewise it was a sad realisation that anger such as hers had assumed a life of its own. But worst, was the realisation that was that her anger was all that she had and that she wasn’t about to give it up without a fight.

“According to The Secret Book of John, it was with this act of disobedience that Eve kick-started the process of redemption.” The Mother chuckled. “You can imagine that God wasn’t best pleased that his own sin had been found out. Let’s suppose for a moment that this story is true. Then can you imagine how Eve must have felt to be eternally damned for doing something so noble?”

“She’d be angry.”

“Might it then be possible that if, as the Church teaches, all women are burdened with Eve’s sin they might also be burdened with her anger?”

“I think… maybe…yes.” Patting the soft swell beneath her plain, brown robe, Sophie considered whether her anger was driving her crazy or whether it had already done so. “Mother, I’m confused.

______________________

Unknown-1Albeit confusing and anger-provoking, the concept of canon is undoubtedly useful. Else how could it have endured for more than two thousand years? [1] Arguably, however, a more basic question is for whom and for what purpose is it useful and in this regard, I agree with the Mother Superior’s suggestion – the answer lies within not without.

This, however, is not the current view. According to Krupat (157-158), the concept of canon is generally understood in either of two (diametrically opposed) ways: (1) as formed exclusively by power relations or (2) as ‘the very best that has been thought’. I suggest that both keep the focus solely on someone – or something- other than the reader and as such can only further the ‘canon brawl’. As Krupat (158) acknowledges, if we ‘force people to read our books now, not theirs, they will fight back, conflict unending’. As Sophie acknowledges, anger is a very engaging emotion especially when it takes on a life of its own.

Krupat’s proposed solution to the ‘canon brawl’ is to either (1) dispense altogether with the concept of canon or (2) compile a canon to suit everyone’s tastes. I purpose that neither is realistic – let’s face it – some books really are better than others and as for suiting everyone’s tastes – at least in America this has proved impossible. Even after including an impressively extensive list of ethic/racial/gender groups in his sample canon, Krupat admits that he had still left out writers representing Chicanos, Italian Americans, and Scandinavians – not to mention the Jewish immigrants.

If we accept that (1) the concept of canon has existed for at least two thousand years and likely to exist for a few more and (2) in our increasingly globally mobile society, canon formation will not become easier then we need to look for a new solution and I propose that to be a radical change in our point of view.

In this regard, it is instructive to study the formation of biblical canon which, like a literary canon, is a compilation of writings believed to possess some ‘inspired’ special quality which conveys special status. Studies have shown that this special quality is dependent not so much in what it offers the community but instead how it furthers the community’s common values and ‘faith’. While it is true that initially some person or group of persons exercises their higher authority to form the canon, when the community at large no longer supports this canon, de-canonisation takes place (Zaman, 538-542).

In other words, biblical canon is formed by and for the benefit of the community in order to establish the norms underlying ‘life and behaviour’ (Zaman, 538). Further the biblical canon is altered and embellished by the literary canon which is arguably itself built on the idea that the collective self can be known and represented through a collective autobiography called canon (Krupat, 160). In other words, rather like a democratically elected government, the canon is ‘by the people and for the people’. Your candidate might have lost this election but he or she may win the next.

For example, it is true enough that if The Secret Book of John had been incorporated into the Bible, Sophie would not have such cause to be so angry; she would never have learned (as have many Western women) to define her place in the collective vis a vis the biblical Eve. Although she might not have realised it, Sophie’s problem grew exponentially when that biblically depicted Eve was further magnified and maligned by the literary canon with, for example, the creation of Milton’s Satanically inspired Eve in Paradise Lost (Gilbert and Gubar, 189).

It is likewise true that although The Secret Book of John was well known during the first centuries A.D. and still read in the eight century (Barnstone, 51) – it was not incorporated into the final biblical canon. This was not because it did not possess that ‘inspired’ special quality or that the Gnostics were not sufficiently Christian (actually they considered themselves the true and uncorrupted Christians). It was because the Gnostics lost out politically to the orthodox Christians (Barnstone, xviii). If Valentinus, a major Gnostic thinker, had won his bid to be elected as pope of Rome, we can imagine how the New Testament, fixed at Carthage in 397, might have been different. Likewise even though Milton was originally part of the literary canon, he has since been down-graded by a ‘political act masquerading as a poetic revaluation’ when TS Eliot and critic FR Leavis determined to ‘drag’ English Studies into a ‘bright new hard-edged future’ (Jacobs, 51).Secret Book of John

It is likewise true, however, that both Paradise Lost and The Secret Book of John still remain readily available for any and all who wish to read them. As the Mother Superior points out to Sophie, even for those who search for the truth it’s all too easy to accept lies. Whilst a canon is a compilation of writings believed to possess some ‘inspired’ special quality conveying special status, canon is not ‘truth’ set in stone by those with higher authority. Nor is it ‘lie’ similarly perpetrated by that higher authority to perpetuate that truth. When the community at large gets fed up with the existing canon, de-canonisation does and will take place. Who knows but that The Secret Book of John may yet (re)join the biblical canon much in the same way that Milton might be reinstated to his.

Viewed in this way, canon takes on a different significance than simply a method by which to ‘force people to read our books now, not theirs’. Viewed in this way, readers can acknowledge that canon represents community views regarding the norms underlying ‘life and behaviour’. It is neither an edict from on high any more than it is set in stone. Whilst such change in point of view might have been difficult to sell to previous generations, I suggest there is little or no excuse for present company not to at least entertain the idea.

In summary, let’s face it – some books really are better than others and as for suiting everyone’s tastes – although the Mother Superior’s official library contained the accepted canon of Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine, her personal library – kept under lock and key – was deeply heretical ranging from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to alchemy and a good bit in between – but (most importantly) this amazing woman was surprisingly progressive and politically astute enough to acknowledge and bridge the difference.

__________________

Excerpt from my (as yet unpublished) novel, Adieu the Rose:

Marseilles

December 1920

“Confusion comes when you’re unable to see things for what they are,” said the Mother. “Anger, however, comes when you refuse to accept things as you know they are. Eve couldn’t change her situation, Sophie, but imagine how miserable she’d have been if she’d refused to accept it?”

“How do I find the courage to accept my situation, Mother?”

“Prayer, child, and plenty of it.” Mother Superior softly kissed her cheek. “It’s your anger that’s keeping you from God and you’ll feel better when you and He are reunited.”

Passing through the dimly lit hall on her way back to her cell, Sophie came to the bewildering conclusion that not only was her anger keeping her from God but it was also keeping her from herself.

_____________________________

Bibliography

Barnstone, Willis, ed. The Other Bible. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic, 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Jacobs, Richard. A Beginner’s Guide to Critical Reading, An Anthology of Literary Texts. London: Routledge, 2001.

Krupat, Arnold. ‘The Concept of the Canon, The Voice in the Margin’ (157-162). Debating the Canon: A Reader from Addison to Nafisi. ed. Lee Morrissey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Zaman, Luc. Bible and canon; a modern historical inquiry Studia Semitica Neerlandica; 50. Leiden, Koninklijke Brill NV, 2008.

[1] Like the concept a literary canon, a Great Tradition also prescribes a ‘must read’ list albeit perhaps based on different terms. Hence for purposes of this essay I will treat them as substantially the same.