literary criticism

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.

literary criticism

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.

literary criticism

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.

Drama

The Significance of Humoural Theory in Early Modern Drama

UnknownWhen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Court in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Hamlet comments (in regards to the theatrical entertainments to be performed) that ‘the Humorous Man shall end his part in peace’ (2.2, 320). By ‘humorous’ Hamlet cannot mean ‘amusing’, ‘comic’, or ‘funny’ (OED A 4) ) for according to the OED that meaning came first into use in 1652, approximately fifty years after Hamlet was written. Instead Hamlet is referring to humoural theory which was in keeping with ancient and medieval physiology and medicine (OED A 1) as expounded by Empedocles, Hippocrates, and Galen – four building blocks or ‘roots’ of the material world with shared qualities resulting in certain physiological and psychological manifestations called humours and temperaments (Greenbaum, 7-18) found in all warm-blooded animals (Paster, 115):

ELEMENT QUALITY HUMOUR TEMPERAMENT
Fire Hot/dry Yellow Bile Choleric
Earth Cold/dry Black Bile Melancholic
Water Cold/wet Phlegm Phlegmatic
Air Hot/wet Blood Sanguine

The idea is not so much that, for example, black bile causes melancholy but that in some way it resides in it; in this sense ‘melancholy’ is not just a passing mood (as we might use the word today) but more or less a way of being in the world (Paster, 116-117). Humoural theory ascribed certain characteristic proclivities to the various temperaments as follows (taken from The Regimen of Health by John Harington, 1607, reproduced in Greenbaum, Appendix E and Nicholas Culpeper’s Descriptions of Temperament, reproduced in Greenbaum Appendix D)):

TEMPERAMENT CHARACTERISTICS
Choleric Violent, fierce, ambitious, proud, oft malicious, courageous, quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.
Melancholic Studious, solitary, pensive, musing, suspicious, avoids sport, harbours anger and hate, covetous, cowardly, envious, obstinate, spiteful and squeamish.
Phlegmatic Inclining to be fat, slothful, deadened spirit, dulled senses, little growth, dreamy (of great rains and drowning), sleepy, forgetful, shamefaced and sober.
Sanguine Loves women, wine, and all recreation (especially cards), merciful, courteous, enjoys pleasantries and music, not apt to take offence or be ireful, inclined to weep easily but little affected by grief.

In telling us that it is the ‘humorous’ character who will ‘end his part in peace -Hamlet hints that the theme of finding balance is one of the key significances of humoural theory for early modern drama. In his play Cynthia’s Revels, Ben Jonson expounds on this idea; ‘a creature of most perfect and divine temper’ is ‘one, in whom the Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ (i.e. balanced); whether this requires balance of all four humours or just two or three remains unclear and hence for purposes of this essay I will assume that balance is achieved when there remains no ‘emulation of Precedencie’. Jonson notes that should a man wish, to ensure his Humours and Elements are ‘peaceably met’, he must ‘strive’ through both his ‘discourse’ and ‘behaviour’ to be ‘Judicious’ (i.e. sensible in all matters’ (OED ad A 1). In other words, if the required effort is made and humoural balance is achieved such that no single temperament dominates, then according to Jonson ‘Fortune could never break’ a man (excerpt from Cynthia’s Revels is reproduced by Greenbaum, 38).humoral theory

Naturally no person could consist of a single temperament – as far back as Galan in the 2nd century it has been accepted that such ‘pure’ states are not possible in nature (Greenbaum, 14). Because the four temperaments share certain qualities, combinations are to be expected; in his translation of Galen’s Art of Physick (reproduced by Greenbaum in Appendix F), Nicholas Culpeper helpfully includes descriptions of certain ‘compound’ temperaments – for example a Choleric/Melancholic (sharing dryness) not only dreams of ‘Murders’ and ‘Hurts’ proceeding from ‘fire, fighting, or anger’ but is also ‘quick Witted’ and ‘studious’; he is however more ‘suspicious’, ‘fretful’, and ‘solitary’ than Choleric men. Not only that but in regards to men (but not to women) the transition from hot/dry (during adulthood all men are presumed to be hot/dry) to cold/dry occurs naturally with age (aging lowers body temperature).

Still it is not unusual to display a dominant temperament – for example Hamlet’s tendency to melancholy is more than evident when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. Not only does he tell them that he has ‘lost all my mirth’ but also that he has ‘forgone all custom of exercises’ (2.2, 294-5). Later in the same scene he actually names his complaint – ‘my melancholy’; (2.2 590). But regardless of how many times Rosencrantz reminds Hamlet of his ‘ambitions’ (2.2, 250-260) – suggesting that Hamlet’s friend sees him as Choleric/Melancholic and hence having ambitions – Hamlet refuses (whether consciously or unconsciously) to engage with the full range of his temperaments – he does not ‘strive’ to be ‘judicious’ but instead allows himself to wallow in melancholy’s ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ (2.2, 300-301). In his essay Hamlet and His Problems, TS Eliot (81-87) concludes that such refusal leaves Hamlet ‘dominated by an emotion’ which ‘is inexpressible’ – he can neither ‘understand’ nor ‘objectify’ it – and if a key character such as Hamlet remains inexpressible on stage, then as Eliot suggests the play is an ‘artistic failure’.

This is not to suggest that all such exaggerations of type result in artistic failure. Compare Hamlet with Shakespeare’s I Henry IV – where in the opening conversation between Prince Hal and Falstaff (1.2, 69-70) the latter declares himself ‘as melancholy as a gib cat’ (cats by nature, are melancholy, Paster, 119). When Hal goes on to compare Falstaff with ‘an old lion’ or ‘a lover’s lute’ – again associated with melancholy (Paster, 115) – Falstaff plays along until Hal invokes the ‘melancholy of Moorditch’ (1.2, 73-74) at which point – with this implication of fetid stagnancy – Falstaff begs off the game (‘thou has the most unsavoury similes’, 1.2, 76). Although obviously aware of his humoural difficulties, like Hamlet, Falstaff fails (perhaps due to age) to balance his melancholy. Yet to my knowledge no one (including TS Eliot) has suggested that Henry IV is an artistic failure and this may be at least in part because by the end of 2 Henry IV the Choleric Hal (he has ambitions as he tells us from the start – ‘Yet herein will I imitate the sun, I.2, 186) and the Melancholic Falstaff cancel each other out. As Eliot (95) notes, in Shakespeare’s successful works his characters act upon each other in a way that is always fitting to their characteristic proclivities; there seems little doubt that Hal heightens his own fortunes at the expense of Falstaff’s.

Shakespeare’s use of humoural theory in Henry IV is in sharp contrast to that of Jonson. TS Eliot (89) suggests that in order to appreciate Jonson’s work, we must not look at the ‘emotional tone’ in a ‘single verse’, but instead at the ‘design of the whole’ work. This is because the success of Jonson’s comedies (but not his tragedies) is not because the characters have an effect on each other (as is the case with Shakespeare) but instead because of the effect of their combination as a whole (Eliot, 94).

Jonson’s work is satire and satire levels criticism against the real world. Thus it should thus come as no surprise that Jonson does not depict humours as balanced – but exactly the reverse – fortune breaks those who allow their characteristic proclivities to slide too far out of balance. Jonson himself has said in the Prologue to Every Man and His Humour that his intention is to ‘sport with human follies’ and ‘laugh at them’ because ‘they deserve no less’. Yet that is not to say that Jonson is more interested in the generation of laughter than in obtaining humoural balance; in his next sentence he qualifies that having seen his play ‘there’s hope left’ that once ‘you, that have so graced monsters’, may learn what it means to be men.

volp2If we are to learn from Jonson, then as TS Eliot suggests (89) we must look to the ‘design of the whole’ work. Like Hamlet, Jonson’s characters are exaggerations of type. Unlike Falstaff and Prince Hal, they fail to balance each other. However they become balanced as the result of the actions of outside forces. For example in Volpone balance is delivered through punishments imposed by the Avocatori, or four Magistrates; with Every Man in His Humour balance comes through the judgements of Justice Clement, also a magistrate. I further suggest that each character’s punishment/ judgement is in keeping with something that triggers a balancing shift in dominant temperament.

For example, in Volpone, the majority of the major players – Volpone, Mosca, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino for the most part display a single domimant temperament as the gulls obsequiously line up to secure their anticipated booty when the ‘childless, rich’ hoaxter Volpone ‘feigns sick’ and ‘offers his state to hopes of several heirs’ (The Argument, 1- 7): they receive balancing punishments as follows:

CHARACTER DOMINANT TEMPERAMENT PUNISHMENT
Volpone Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

 

Along with his servant, Mosca, he plots the hoax on the others because he glories ‘more in the cunning purchase of my wealth’ than it its ‘possession (I i, 30-33).

Sanguine – hot/wet – not apt to take offence and little affected by grief.

Although he looses all wealth and sent to prison – he addresses the audience at end of the play indicating that for him ‘no suffering is due’ if the audience praises him – ‘clap your hands’ (Epilogue, 1-6)

Mosca Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

Along with his master, he plots the hoax but turns on him in the end – refusing to acknowledge the hoax hoping to ‘inherit’ Volpone’s money himself.

Melancholic – cold/dry – harbours anger and hate, spiteful.

Sentenced to be whipped and sent to the galleys as a slave, he hisses to his accomplice in crime, ‘Bane to thy wolfish nature (V xii. 115)

 

Voltore Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.

 

Although a lawyer, he perjures himself to ensure he gets the ‘inheritance’ – Volpone realises this and plays Voltore further – ‘unscrew my advocate upon new hopes’ (V Xi, 20).

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

After disbarred – V xiii, 126-128, we imagine he is shamefaced to have so scandalized the worthy men of his profession.

Corbaccio Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.

 

In order to secure he is Volpone’s sole heir he disinherits is own son.

‘And disinherit my son? (I iv,95-96) and ‘Tis done, ‘tis done, I go’ (I iv, 132).

 

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

Upon losing all his worldly goods & being sent to a monastery to ‘die well’ at V xiii, 1129-1330 we can imagine his spirit will be deadened.

Corvino Sanguine – hot/wet – Loves women.

It is his prize, his beautiful wife, that he offers up in order to secure his ‘inheritance’. “The party, you wot of, Shall be min own wife (II vi, 80-81).

Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, quick to anger.

Sentenced to public humiliation and losing his wife at V xiii, 134-139 –he reacts angrily but cleverly – ‘I shall not see my shame, yet’.

In summary, the significance of humoural theory in Early Modern Drama is to be found in a character’s success or failure in ending ‘his part in peace’ in the sense that by the end of the play, his ‘Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ – or balanced. This can occur either through (1) striving to judiciously ensure no one temperament dominates to the end as Hamlet failed to do or (2) balancing dominate temperaments with other characters as did Prince Hal and his friend, Falstaff. Additionally Jonson has demonstrated that a character’s unbalanced humoural temperaments can achieve balance through the ‘design of the whole work’ by having balance imposed from the outside.

 

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Bibliography

Jonson, Ben. Five Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William. 1 Henry IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Eliot, T.S. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Greenbaum, Dorian Gieseler. Temperament – Astrology’s Forgotten Key. Bournemouth: The Wessex Astrologer Ltd, 2005.

Paster, Gail Kern. ‘Melancholy Cats, Lugged Bears, and Early Modern Cosmology: Reading Shakespeare’s Psychological Materialism Across the Species Barrier’ (113-129). Reading the Modern Early Passions – Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rose, and Mary Floyd-Wilson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

literary criticism

The Role & Representation of the City in Modernist Literature

DublinersIn her essay Characters in Fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’ – people began to behave differently, she says – giving the example of behaviour of one’s cook – Victorian cooks stayed below in their kitchens and did their jobs whilst Georgian cooks were always wandering upstairs to borrow newspapers or get advice about a hat.

The implication is that if human character has changed (and according to Woolf at the end of the day all literature is about character) then literature must change as well. What better backdrop than the city to illustrate these changes! The problem is however that not all modernist writers were interested in representing the same changes and even where they were, they did not all do so to the same effect.

Cities provide a convenient container, their infrastructure juxtaposing the old and new. In the section entitled ‘The Fire Sermon’ in his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot uses London’s Thames River to represent the differences between the nostalgic majesty of Elizabethan times (‘Elizabeth and Leicester’ – ‘beating oars’ – ‘a gilded shell’ – ‘red and bold’) and 1920’s London (‘trams and dusty trees’ that ‘undid me’ with little promise of a ‘new start’). Both these representations involve connections (boats/trams) whilst at the same time implying a fundamental disconnect. By choice of images invoked the speaker in this section of The Waste Land seems to suggest that the changes he or she experiences has turned yesterday’s London into a worse place.

Cities also provide a privileged space wherein everything that can happen birth, marriage, death, etc.) does happen with routine regularity. Although the speaker in the Waste Land seems to find little pleasure in his or her London, Virginia Woolf’s heroine, Clarissa, in Mrs Dalloway takes immense pleasure in hers – what with its ‘omnibuses, sandwich men, automobiles, and armies of people’. Little did she know however that just in a few hours wandering about London’s West End, Clarissa would confront so many complex issues –ghosts from her own past (prior lovers Peter Walsh and Sally Seton) and the devastations wrought by war (in the form of the suicide of poor Septimus). It is dislocating just to think of all the things a city throws up to its residents in a single day but the reader of Mrs Dalloway gets the sense that Clarissa finds more plusses than minuses in her London than did the speaker in Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Cities have a way of taking on a life of their own – contracting and expanding according to the needs of society as it changes. In Howards End, EM Forster represents the dislocation felt by the Schlegel family as their long-time London home is pulled down to make room for building a block of new flats. Like Clarissa Dalloway’s London, the Schlegel’s house is a temporal container (albeit in miniature) – for their ghosts. But rather like Woolf’s Clarissa, Margaret Schlegel found her London exhilarating and in the changes that the speaker in Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ found so threatening, Margaret found the promise for a ‘new start’ which would take her where she had needed go all along, Howards End.

Finally cities become symbols in their own right – representing a particular society as a whole – how characters react to this tells as much about them as the society itself. For example, in James Joyce’s story ‘Clay’ in Dubliners, Maria finds enough to admire in her city. Not only does she have a job that allows her enough money to pick and choose amongst the delightful goods at Downe’s cake-shop (and finally purchase a ‘thick slice of plumcake’) but she also has family with which to share them. Although Maria’s Dublin is more claustrophobic (despite singing nostalgic songs and playing games with her brother’s children, one cannot help thinking that Maria – ‘blushing very much’ – feels a bit put upon by her family) than Clarissa Dalloway’s London, it would appear better then what she might have experienced in days gone by (that a prayer book and subsequent jokes about entering a convent serves to remind everyone how much times have changed for the better, at least for women).

In summary, if as Woolf suggests human character has changed then modernist literature needed change to reflect that. The city provides an excellent opportunity to accomplish this because as a back-drop for the modernist writer’s characters, it is a privileged space – a container or microcosm – of humanity. Naturally with changing times comes feelings of dislocation but the way in which various modernist writers approach representations of their chosen cities suggests that for some such dislocation was welcome (as in the case of Maria, Margaret, and perhaps also Clarissa) while for others like the speaker in The Waste Land it was not.

literary criticism

TS Eliot and the Struggle for Maintenance of a Living Language

TS EliotLiving, the poet is carrying on that struggle for the maintenance of a living language, […] which must be kept up in every generation; dead, he provides standards for those who take up the struggle after him’ (T. S. ELIOT).

23 March 1921 – Virginia Woolf made an entry in her diary describing a taxi ride she shared that evening with T.S. Eliot in which she told him that neither of them were as good as Keats. He agreed noting that neither of them wrote ‘classics straight off’ because ‘we’re trying something harder’.

I am not even tempted to suggest that by a ‘living language’ Eliot was referring to that used by everyday people in their everyday lives. It takes only one look at his landmark poem, The Waste Land, and its collage of disjointed imagery, references to classical myth (by his own admission in his notes to the poem, he says that Tiresias, punished for affronting the Greek goddess Hera, is the ‘most important personage’ in the poem), and German, Greek, French, and Italian passages to realise that Eliot was not the least interested in making his mark on the common folk. What interest could he possibly have in maintaining a ‘living language’ for use by the likes of the ‘bored and tired typist’ and her ‘young man carbuncular’ that he so sardonically depicts in that poem’s section entitled The Fire Sermon?

By ‘living language’ he must be referring to something else – something perhaps related to that comment he made in the taxi to Woolf – something that would impress not only (1) his contemporaries like Woolf (he read The Waste Land out loud in her parlour and the Woolf’s publishing company, The Hogarth Press, printed the UK version of his poem) but also (2) those poets who (as he notes) will take up the struggle after him.

Unfortunately for purposes of that ‘living language’, these later poets are inextricably linked with those who have come before. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot suggests that (at least in the eyes of a critic) a poet always walks a thin line between being innovative and following in the footsteps of those before him – get the mix wrong and the poet will either be regurgitating the past or completely out in the (present) left field. Eliot also suggests that an aspiring poet should aways be aware of the ‘main current’ (which does not always flow from those with the most distinguished reputations) whilst at the same time being aware that art never improves (albeit the subject matter changes).

Quite what all this means for the struggle of maintaining a ‘living language’, we can only conjecture – not only can maintaining this ‘living language’ not have to much do with innovation which usually strives to improve art, but it also can not have much to do with the poet’s personal experience because in that same essay, Eliot advises that the ‘emotion of art is impersonal’. If the ‘living language’ is neither about living, nor about how the folks in the street communicate, nor about taking a innovative approach to poetry, then about what can it be?

The only sensible answer remaining is in regards to subject matter (which admittedly according to Eliot does change); here the horrors of the Great War of 1915-18 come to the fore – for it is without argument that for many people (including poets) this war quite literally changed their world. Now we return to The Waste Land on more solid ground – for it more than adequately incorporates the destructive element of this war. Now the disjointed imagery makes more sense – how could anyone who had lived through such unprecedented devastation feel anything but disconnected? Now the sad reminiscences of the speaker in The Burial of the Dead about drinking coffee in the ‘sunlight’ in the ‘Hofgarten’ before going ‘down’ – ‘hold on tight’ – can be seen as both contemporary and timeless – that and ‘weren’t you with me at ‘Mylae’? serves to remind us that sadly war and its devastating are enduring through the generations – now the connections drawn between that ancient Battle of Mylae in 260 BC and the ‘corpses’ that have ‘begun to sprout’ in 1918 make perfect sense.

In summary, if in Eliot’s estimation any living poet is to carry on that struggle for the maintenance of a ‘living language’, he must look not to his personal experience nor to his innovative techniques, but instead to his subject matter else when dead and judged by those who will struggle after him, he will be judged to have simply regurgitated that which has come before or relegated to the ranks of poets deemed to have been out in left field. Quite how such judgement squares with Eliot’s comment to Virginia Woolf that he and she were not writing ‘classics’ as did Keats but ‘trying something harder’, I am afraid that I still cannot quite say except perhaps in the extent that Eliot hopes it shall place him in the ranks of those of his contemporaries who will someday have the most distinguished reputations.

literary criticism

Use of Fragmentation in the modernist work of Forster, Eliot, and Woolf

montageIn large part, modernist writers responded to the social conditions of modernity which, for a variety of reasons, spelt a serious disconnect with the past; naturally the old has always given way to the new but such transition had never before been perceived as so obtrusive – so fragmented – as it was in the early 20th century.

Not only had scientific advances thrown prior conceptions of physical reality out of the window (for example, the installation of city street lamps had all but eliminated the distinction between night and day) but also philosophers like Nietzsche had undercut traditional notions of an ordered, meaningful metaphysical reality by, for example, eliminating God. If that were not bad enough, psychologists such as Freud and Jung undercut traditional notions of perceived reality with suggestions that it was not human rationality running the show (as had been believed for almost 400 years) but instead an uncontrollable unconscious manifesting either as unruly, repressed personal desires or collective archetypal patterns reflected in myth and dreams.

Hence for purposes of this essay, I define fragmentation as any technique used by modernist writers to address these many fragmented, often seemingly disconnected, strands underlying modern constructions of reality. I suggest that whether or not such techniques are useful depends on the purpose for which the writer chose to use them and whilst we can never know what that purpose was, it is virtually impossible to determine if they were useful except in the limited sense that we as readers get a sense of the turmoil that society must have in some degree felt during this period.

Some modernist writers like EM Forster sought to connect fragmented bits of reality. For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not. He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat. But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear) for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify in disconnectedness especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity – for example in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

Most certainly as each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt when all around them they got the same message. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

For example, in Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected. In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.

In summary, if we evaluate the usefulness of techniques of fragmentation for modernist writers in terms of whether their readers get some sense of the frustration that 20th century western society must have felt in the wake of changes on so many levels of ‘reality’, I suggest that at least in regards to Forster, Eliot, and Woolf it has been useful albiet in different ways; Forster suggesting that connections can be made between the fragments and provides clues how this might be achieved. Eliot suggests that such connections are inconcievalbe and we had better just make do with what we have with the fragmented ‘ruins’. Finally Woolf suggests that connections are not only are possible (through our perceptions of reality) as we grow older (and presumably wiser) these connections will be naturally be made.

Drama

New Criticism – its usefulness & drawbacks


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). So what the usefulness and drawbacks, if any, of New Criticism?

New 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.

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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.

literary criticism

Representations of Gender in Modernist Literature – Virginia Woolf & TS Eliot

A Room of Ones OneModernism has been seen as a response to widespread concern that the traditional ways of representing the world distort actual experience. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis suggests that modernist literature attempts to respond to this ‘crisis of representation’ by creating literature that is radically different. Attitudes toward gender relations were shifting during this period and thus I suggest that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seized upon using radically different representations of gender in order to explore their own take on the gender-related concerns of modernity.

Woolf wrote extensively regarding women’s access to a level playing field – be it in marriage or the learned professions. In her essay A Room of One’s Own, she muses suggestively on the fate of William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith, who, although as talented as her brother met with a very different results purely because of her sex. After running away from home to pursue her writerly goals, poor Judith would have been denied the same opportunities to display her talents as her brother would have enjoyed – and hence finally broken by the societal ‘ideas and prejudices’ that blighted her life, after committing suicide and instead of being enshrined as would be her brother, lay buried at ‘some crossroads’ where the ‘omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf evoked images of her own parents to demonstrate the inequalities of the sexes in marriage. Whilst Mr Ramsey (so gruff that he excited in his children such ‘extremes of emotion’ that they fanaticised ‘gashing a hole in his breast’ with any handy sharp object) strutted about pondering great things such as the philosopher David Hume, ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his long-suffering wife, Mrs Ramsey (adored by her numerous children), charitably knitted stockings for the Lighthouse keeper’s son (with a ‘tuberculosis hip’). But whilst Mr Ramsey lived a long, literary life littered with accolades, Mrs Ramsey died young having burned herself out in the service to others (Mr Ramsey was especially needy).

In another novel, Orlando, Woolf evoked representations of the androgynous Tiresias who as punishment for affronting the goddess Hera, was forced to experience life as both a man and a woman. Whilst as a man, the character Orlando lived and loved in unfettered freedom, eventually being appointed ambassador to Constantinople where between long, luxurious lunches, he was ‘kept busy’ with the ‘wax and seals’ and ‘various coloured ribbons’ of officialdom. However upon becoming a woman, Orlando was ‘forced to consider her position’ and with the ‘coil of skirts about her legs’ concluded her life now revolved solely around preservation of her chastity – that ‘jewel’ and ‘centre-piece’ – laying at the foundation of womanhood.

Tracy Hargreaves (Androgyny in Modern Literature) has suggested that for a broad range of writers, the androgyne has signalled both cultural regeneration and degeneration – a disruption in ‘normative’ gendered identities which can be seen as being ‘divine or reviled’. But whilst Woolf takes the position that such disruption would be divine, Eliot seems to suggest that as women become more like men, society suffers.

Certainly this is the picture he presents in his poem, The Waste Land when in the section entitled The Fire Sermon, the ‘bored and tired’ typist returns home from work ‘at teatime’ and ‘lays out food in tins’ before coupling indifferently with her equally uninspiring ‘small house agent’s clerk’. As is well known, androgynous beings cannot reproduce and impotency is an important theme of The Waste Land – much of its symbolism suggestive of the myth of the Fisher King whose damaged sexuality was the cause of his kingdom being infertile and drought-stricken (the poem invokes this from the beginning commenceing with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’).

In his notes accompanying The Fire Sermon, Eliot states that Tiresias was the most ‘important personage’ in the poem, ‘uniting all the rest’. After witnessing the grim love-making of the typist and clerk, the speaker (presumably still Tiresias), making an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly), looks wistfully back in time to the 16th century when a woman ‘knew’ her place as a woman (after illicit promiscuity, she could only hide her shame and die) rather than lackadaisically turning on her ‘gramophone’ as did the ‘bored and tired’ typist, saying ‘Well now that’s done’ and ‘I’m glad its over’ as perhaps might a man. Such reversals of gender can only spell trouble – for with the departure of normative gendered identities all hope of cultural regeneration is now lost (keeping in mind that Tiresias could prophesize the future) and our own civilisation is now destined to fall away as did Carthage – ‘burning burning burning burning’.

literary criticism

If a rose is a rose then why isn’t an Author an author?

imagesRose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

This sentence was written by Gertrude Stein as part of her 1913 poem, Sacred Emily and, when queried as to what it meant, Stein replied that although once a poet could use the name of a thing and the thing really was there, now poets call on these same words only to find they are nothing but worn-out literary phrases. Stein was keen to point out that although she was quite aware that in daily life no one goes about saying ‘…is a…is a….is a’, nonetheless it was her opinion that with this sentence, the rose was red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.

What is an author?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary an author is both (1) a ‘writer of a book or other work’ (OED I 1 a) and (2) a ‘creator’ in the sense of giving rise to something (OED II 4 d). Neither definition suggests that an ‘author’ is one who gives meaning however much some might cherish that thought. Stein appears to be suggesting that the meaning of her most famous sentence speaks for itself – not because of anything that she as its author has done – but rather because at the end of the day, a rose really is a rose. As Jennifer Ashton (582) notes, for Stein poetry is ‘a vocabulary entirely based on the noun’; because it is the job of a noun to name something, it should not be a leap of faith to presume that when a noun is invoked it is intended to mean that for which it is its job to name.

Naturally it is not that simple and Stein went on to question the relationship between author, text, and meaning. At least two other thinkers, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, have also weighed in on the subject. Whilst many commentators focus on Barthes and Foucault, I suggest that it is Stein who offers the more comprehensive and enduring elucidation with her ideas concerning the operation of Zeitgeist (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Not only that but, according to Curnett (4), the poetry and fiction written by Stein is perfect for examining issues of authorial intent because her work is so complex that it defies decoding in ordinary ways. By relinquishing any attempt to exercise ‘authority’ over her words, Stein did what no other author has had the courage to do (Curnutt, 5-6).

After TS Eliot dismissed ‘the importance of authorial intent’ in the 1950’s, the question of ‘what is an author’ has come under increasing scrutiny in the sense of ‘authorial intent’ as an interpretive heuristic (Curnett, 5). The question heats up when, with his 1967 essay, Death of the Author, Roland Barthes eliminates not only (1) ‘authorial intent’ but also (2) the ‘Author’.[1]

Barthes argued that inherent within any text is a multitude of ‘indiscernible’ voices and that the ‘Author’ is nothing more than a shaman or bard who, as in days of old, channels these voices whilst taking no authority or ownership over them. Hence Barthes suggested that rather than allowing authority and ownership to reside with the Author, we instead must transfer them to the reader. The apparent reason that someone must be assigned authority and ownership over words and their meaning is that in the capitalistic ideology underlying much of Western society, ownership equals power (Butler, 25-26).

This idea of words as power is taken up by Michel Foucault when he suggests that knowledge and power are joined by discourse – a set of interlocking and mutually supporting statements, ideas, and concepts (Butler, 45). According to Foucault, we are created through discourse, or the sum of the knowledge we accumulate. Worse, discourse is used to exclude and control – to obtain and retain power (Butler, 45). Society’s power holders – scientists, politicians, the media, and even our parents – decide what we’re told and thus ‘communicate’ us into being. Is it thus any wonder that in his 1969 essay, What is an Author?, Foucault’s opening parry is ‘what difference does it make who is speaking’? Likewise, is it any wonder that Foucault suggests that authors have no God-given message for which readers should be waiting and that it is imperative to realise that an ‘author’ is simply a function (albeit with a culturally accepted pedigree) by which someone – or something – wields enormous (and dangerous) political power?

According to Bennett & Royle (23), these essays by Barthes and Foucault must be considered in their cultural and historical context – as ‘providing a simplified but forceful articulation of a variety of intellectual positions that merged in the 1960’s, in France and elsewhere’. Is it any wonder that these two essays are held to have spelt the ‘death’ of the ‘author’ (with or without the corresponding ‘birth’ of the ‘reader’) given that the most pressing postmodern ethical argument concerns the relationship between discourse and power (Butler, 44)? If knowledge and power are, indeed, joined by discourse then in the spirit of the postmodern is it not better to locate that knowledge and power where it is most effectively controlled – i.e. in readers? Is it not better to take back our Cartesian ‘selves’ as the giver of ‘meaning’ – the pride of the Enlightenment – rather than allowing our ‘selves’ to be controlled by ‘meaning’ (Butler, 50)?

For Barthes and Foucault, texts constructed by a reader have the political advantage of doing away with a dangerous author viewed as, he or she necessarily must be, the bourgeois, capitalist, owner and marketer of his or her ‘meaning’ (Butler, 23). Indeed some have suggested that in keeping with the postmodern thought emerging at this time, the pursuit of textual uncertainties (including the work of Barthes and Foucault) was reactionary against a ‘manufactured consensus of the established political order’ (Butler, 24).

Whilst I am not suggesting that the work of Barthes and Foucault has not been valuable in expanding our understanding of the relationship between author, text, and meaning, I am suggesting that their work was at least as much politically motivated as it was academically motivated and should be viewed as such. Bennet and Royle (23) have suggested that Barthes’ essay was not as ‘systematic’ and ‘rigorous’ as it might have been and despite having admitted it would be unrealistic to assume that ‘the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state’, Foucault was unwilling to entertain parameters by which it might operate other than in regards to power relations (Walker, 552). I believe it telling that however much Barthes and Foucault railed about the connection between ownership and the ‘meaning’ of a given text, they were both unwilling to abandon the notion that – somehow – somewhere – meaning and ownership exists.

Like Foucault and Barthes, in her 1929 essay, Composition as Explanation, Gertrude Stein suggests it is wrong to focus on a finished work and extrapolate about its author (or vice versa). But unlike Foucault and Barthes, Stein does not feel the need to do away with the author (or convert him or her into a theoretical function). Instead she simply states that which I suggest is not only logical but fairly obvious – an author is not the same thing that he or she has ‘made’ (24). Stein goes further by positing that (1) nothing is ever really ‘made’ but instead only ‘seen and that (2) this ‘seeing’ (i.e. the making of meaning) is never accomplished by individuals but by successive generations based on ‘how everybody is doing everything’.

Bassoff (77) links Stein’s argument to the findings of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in that there does appear to exist a formal relationship between societal structures and their art and that such relationship lies at the base of their ‘social reality’. As Stein (24) notes in her essay, every period differs from any other period ‘not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted’ (emphasis added). Bassoff (77) suggests that by this, Stein means that each society will see various things (including texts) as a ‘rework’ of their own conditions. Bassoff (78) likens Stein’s argument to that made by Jacques Derrida suggesting that the meaning of a text is constantly being produced or developed in the sense that there is always ‘something to be added afterwards.”

Whether this ‘reworking’ constitutes ‘Zeitgeist’ – the ‘spirit or genius that marks the thought or feeling of a period or age’ (OED, n), I am in no position to suggest. What I will suggest, however, is in her essay, Stein posits that it is neither the ‘author’, in the OED sense as writer or creator, nor the reader (or any group of readers) that gives meaning to text. Instead, meaning is and will continue to be given by whatever it is that lies at the base of that generational ‘reworking’. I further suggest that this view is more (1) comprehensive (in the – OED adj, 1a – sense of larger in scope) and (2) enduring (in the OED adj – sense of lasting) than that of either Foucault or Barthes.

As Bennet and Royle (23) point out, rather than solving the problem of interpretative authority, Barthes has simply transferred it to the reader whilst for all intents and purposes, Foucault has transferred it to a theoretically constructed function (Walker, 551). Stein has done neither. Her argument allows for ‘real life’ readers and authors to continue as they always have been presumed to been operating in regards to text and meaning whilst also acknowledging that (1) such meaning is made and (2) will change over time. As Bennet and Royle (23) point out, the essays of Barthes and Foucault must be ‘seen’ in ‘cultural context’. By contrast, Stein’s essay ‘is’ cultural context. As Stein (27) herself writes, ‘As I have said in the beginning, there is the long history of how everyone ever acted or has felt and that nothing inside in them in them in all of them makes it connectedly different. By this I mean all this.’

‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

In replying to the query of what this sentence meant, Stein referred to ‘all those songs that sopranos sing as encores’ about ‘I have a garden! Oh, what a garden!’ Although she did not put too much emphasis on that line, she did point out that ‘you all know it; you make fun of it, but you know it.’ Equally although successive generations of readers have been familiar with both Stein and her work, it is precisely because they have failed to understand it and thus laughed at it (and her), that she has been made famous (Curnutt, 4).

What is an author?

images-1In summary, although the ideas of Barthes and Foucault are useful in understanding the relationship between author, text, and meaning, Stein’s ideas about Zeitgeist as ultimate determinant of meaning are more (1) comprehensive in the sense that she was not compelled to spell the ‘death’ and/or ‘birth’ of anything or anybody but instead has looked beyond such theoretical particularities to realistic generalities and (2) enduring because unlike the work of Barthes and Foucault, Stein’s ideas are not wedded to the political ideology of any particular period but are consistent with the fundamental anthropological understanding about human society, amen. Finally, let us not also not forget that whilst Barthes and Foucault were both unwilling to abandon the notion that – somehow – somewhere – meaning and ownership exists, Stein practiced what she preached by relinquishing any attempt to exercise ‘authority’ over her words.

[1] Barthes’ use of a capital ‘A’ is often taken to mean that with his death sentence he was referring not to an individual author but to the concept of author and the functions associated with authorship.

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Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author (pp. 142-148). Image-Music-Text. ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. What is an Author? (pp. 205-222). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. ed. by James D Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley and Others. New York: The New Press, 1998.

Stein, Gertrude. Composition As Explanation (pp. 21-30). Gertrude Stein: Look at Me Now and Here I Am – Writings and Lectures 1909-45. ed. by Patricia Meyerowitz. Hammonsworth: Penquin Books, 1967.

Ashton, Jennifer. ‘Rose is a Rose’: Gertrude Stein and the Critique of Indeterminacy. Modernism/Modernity, Vol 9, No. 4, pp. 581-604.

Bassoff, Bruce. Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 1978, pp. 76-80.

Bennet, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. The Author (pp. 19-34). Literature. Criticism and Theory. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 4th Edition (2009).

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism – A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Curnutt, Kirk. Parody and Pedagogy: Teaching Style, Voice, and Authorial Intent in the Works of Gertrude Stein. College Literature, Vol 23, No. 2, June 1996, pp. 1-24.

Walker, Cheryl. Feminist Literary Criticism and the Author. Critical Inquiry, Vol 16, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 551-571.

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