When You Want Everyone to Know (version bluestocking)

Degrees, titles, honors – they grant a certain level of legitimacy to the people who have them, but at the end of the day, we will seek the counsel of those whose opinions we trust and admire the most.  One of my favorite readers is currently teaching middle school English at a Boston charter school.  I’m going to call him Blitz.  The beginning of this blogpost is anecdotal, just because.

I’m one of a few people who, throughout college, actively sought out friendships based on intellectual connection rather than hobbies, proximity, shared interests, whatever.  Blitz and I were in a class in which we read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  We became friends after he took me to the supermarket, to help me recreate for our 23-person class the famed Banana Breakfast scene.  (Thank you, English Department, for providing a slush fund for fun classroom activities – my professor literally handed me a $100 bill and told me to go crazy)  Once you help someone make 23 banana milkshakes, the bonds don’t break easily.

As a ripe old junior English major to my anxious sophomore, Blitz somehow managed to take on the role of counselor in my life.  (Which is sometimes kind of annoying, because he’s only a year older than me, and post-college, is no longer really in the same hierarchical position to advise me all the time.) When, in the library, I was bemoaning the absence of enough intellectual partners in my life, those with whom I could discuss literature, Blitz said to me, maybe a little nonchalant: “You know, I don’t really need to talk about literature anymore.”  Indicating, basically, that he’d reached a certain point in his understanding of himself as a reader, a point at which which reading and books and art and meaning and all those Important Things were an obvious presence in his life, so he no longer had to air his interests aloud.  None of it even had to be mentioned anymore.  Like, if you’re a blond person, you don’t need to mention all the time that you are blond.  You just are.  I think the logic can be extended.

Where was I in my stage as a reader?  At 19, I wasn’t where Blitz was — but I think, in the last few years, that I’ve gotten there.  I’ve become distrustful of readers who congratulate themselves for reading, just as I’ve become irritated by the half-boastful complaints of “I didn’t get any sleep last night because of (work/study/whatever)!” This is not to say that a community of fellow readers is not important to me – it is highly important, but in my envisioning, my ideal community would be composed of other readers like me.  And we would sit there, just knowing the importance of the words we were reading, without being self-aggrandizing and speaking incessantly of ourselves as readers.

Fanny Burney is probably right there with me, as The Witlings is clearly making fun of these annoying readers who read – rather quickly – just for the sake of talk (not conversation, just talk), rather than reflection.  Some cringe-worthy moments from Act II, especially involving Lady Smatter, whose brilliant name rhymes with Chatter and evokes the superficiality of “smattering,” are:

I declare, if my pursuits were not made public I should not have any at all, for where can be the pleasure of reading books & studying authors if one is not to have the credit of talking of them?

O, I am among the critics. I love criticism passionately, though it is really laborious work, for it obliges one to read with a vast deal of attention. I declare I am sometimes so immensely fatigued with the toil of studying for faults & objections that I am ready to fling all my books behind the fire.

O lovely, charming, beauteous maid,— I wish this song was not so difficult to get by heart,— but I am always beginning one line for another. After all, study is a most fatiguing thing! O how little does the world suspect, when we are figuring in all the brilliancy of conversation, the private hardships, & secret labours of a belle esprit!

Manofwhitwit wrote in his corresponding blogpost that Burney’s father prevented the staging of The Witlings because the play would have been obviously offensive to the Bluestockings, one of the most conspicuous, female-dominated literary groups at the time.  Maybe that is true.  What I can’t figure out, then, is if Burney was also poking fun of herself, since she herself was so involved in the Bluestockings.  (In that case: How reminiscent of our po-mo (sorry) generation today; all we can do is recognize and be aware of our faults and laugh at ourselves, without actually addressing our weaknesses.) Or was she truly bothered by the empty blabbermouthiness (yes) of such supposedly highbrow groups of comfortable ladies?

If she meant to take a stand, then could we perhaps  believe that she may have wanted to stage the play?  To get the message across?

I don’t want to be Lady Smatter.  I don’t want to be that kind of reader.  I don’t want to read just a line or two, here or there, about the Bluestockings, and then come to a conclusion about them.  So all I have are questions and visceral impressions.  And here I will mention that I am not quite sure what to make of Miss Carter, either.

Elizabeth Carter’s letters to Miss Talbot were lovely and entertaining, and they make me miss my closest friends.  But see – Carter rarely goes a letter without mentioning what time she woke up to squeeze in some reading, how many hours she spent that day reading, how terrible she feels about her “utter neglect of [her] intellects” (331) if she takes a few weeks off.  I can tell she is a woman whose entire being rests on her scholarship, on her identity as a thinker… and yet, I can’t help but wonder: is it necessary to talk of it all the time?

However, I will grant that she wrote these in supposedly private letters to her best friend, and not to the whole world.  And we all know that talks with the Best Friend are sacred.

Yours, yours,

Florentina.

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pleasure

Oh, Pope.  I do not know how to read you.  I don’t know how to make sense of you.  Alas.  I may just be playing devil’s advocate here against the general air of Oh-Pope-has-been-so-unfairly-labeled-as-a-jerk-but-really-he-was-the-most-moral-genius-just-a-bit-cynical-is-all (which I’m sure is all very true) that I have been presented so far, but let me just posit that I don’t know how to read Pope because I don’t know what he thinks of his readers. 

Who are the satires, the vituperation – no matter how hilarious – meant for?  What kind of reader does Pope care about?

In Peri Bathous I’m looking specifically at the following declaration:

‘Tis a fruitless 

[Page 11 ] 

Undertaking to write for Men of a nice and foppish Gusto , whom, after all, it is almost impossible to please; and ’tis still more Chimerical to write for Posterity , of whose Taste we cannot make any Judgment, and whose Applause we can never enjoy. It must be confess’d, our wiser Authors have a present End, 

Et prodesse volunt, & delectare Poetæ. 

Their true Design is Profit or Gain ; in order to acquire which, ’tis necessary to procure Applause, by administring Pleasure to the Reader: From whence it follows demonstrably, that their Productions must be suited to the present Taste ; and I cannot but congratulate our Age on this peculiar Felicity, that tho’ we have made indeed great Progress in all other Branches of Luxury, we are not yet debauch’d with any high relish in Poetry, but are in this one Taste, less nice than our Ancestors. If an Art is to be estimated by its Success, I appeal to Experience, whether there have not been, in proportion to their Number, as many starving good Poets, as bad ones?

Knowing full well that Peri Bathous is a satire, ridiculing contemporary poets and the everything-for-sale ethos of contemporaneous Britain, I know, obviously, that this paragraph is dripping with sarcasm; Pope is not actually “congratulating” his Age for the high premium being placed on giving the reader Pleasure, or for having a culture of poetry that’s resisting “high relish.”  But I don’t understand why Pleasure is being presented as something to be scoffed at.  I don’t know how the rest of you read, but “pleasure” in reading is very important to me; I would stop, otherwise. 

Considering the fact that nearly every critical piece we’ve read on Pope describes him as a highly moral man – an Achilles in a world of Hectors – I can only assume that Pope wants his readers to be as invested in issues of morality – right and wrong, corrupt society—as he.  But if readers went along with authors just out of political allegiances, rather than actual enjoyment of the authors’ artistic or literary merits, there would be many more impactful authors than actually exist. 

Now, this may just come down to a question of the definition of pleasure.  I prefer black coffee to the saccharine, caramel-coated frappuccino.  My pleasure in reading comes as much from bitter realizations and mind-screwing challenges as it does from gorgeous language and vivid imagery.  If there are authors who can provide all of those, I will provide the Applause, and maybe even pay some money. 

Yours sincerely,

Florentina 

Remembering Pope

To my kindred spirits —

It’s crazy (but entirely explainable) to me that a character would change so significantly in translation, which is just another form of creation.  Steven Shankman explains that Pope’s interest and devotion in allowing his characters – whether Achilles, whether Eloisa – to have many dimensions, to be as angry or as passionate as they want, was what set him apart as a poet.  Pope’s elevation of and emphasis of an angry Achilles in his translation of The Iliad differs widely from George Chapman’s rendering of Achilles, portrayed instead as “an ideal Renaissance hero who, from the opening moment of the poem, is largely in control of his emotions”(65).  So here we have two completely contrasting visions of one of the most important characters in classical literature – Achilles as wrathful, or Achilles as reasonable. This seems pretty important to our general understanding of The Iliad, doesn’t it?

It’s not such a stretch to think that just as our understanding of Achilles depends almost entirely on the way writers have constructed him for our public consumption, our understanding of Pope also depends on the way others have written about him.  The picture of Pope as an angry, vituperative man has always abounded – in his time, and in ours.  Yet what matters is the degree of sympathy granted to him. There might have been less when his enemies were alive, but there is probably (certainly?) more now.

I haven’t read enough of Pope to give my (truly worthless) opinion on whether he possessed genius or not.  I’ll bet he did.  I know that Pope had a lot of enemies in his time, but this week’s critical readings were largely Team Pope, and this was a fact that jumped out at me.  Shankman uses Pope’s version of Achilles elevate both the mythical character and the poet himself, as he repeats and validates Pope’s envisioning of himself as “Achillean warrior for truth” (70). And J. Paul Hunter, who really likes alluding to male genitalia (I was thinking of naming this post “Penis” — just to get your attention, friend.  Are you still reading this?), dismisses those poets who wrote mean-spirited, “anonymous” poems to attack Pope:

–          The couplets, flaccid and repetitious, develop the plot tediously; the poetic texture is like that of the poets had entombed in The Dunciad.  But just as important is the tastelessness and pointlessness. (628)

–          Epistle from a Nobleman, scarcely disguised as by Lord Hervey, appeared a few months after Verses to the Imitator. . . The tone of the poem itself is less shrill than Verses to the Imitator, but its attempt at a relaxed, detached urbanity results instead in a limp, flaccid lack of intensity. (630)

If I feel fondly toward this understanding, posthumous image of Pope, it’s partially because the literary authorities are telling me to. And because a Popean verse is the title of one of my favorite movies of all time – can you guess which?.  So I feel mistrustful, skeptical.  (But Florentina!  Great literature is just great literature! Right!)

It’s at a moment like this that I’ll turn to a critic I admire, one I am more familiar with, for reassurance.  The clearly written prose of Dr. Johnson, a friend I made sophomore year of college and have turned to from time to time (never mind that he thinks women can’t be pastors), is much more reliable.  Johnson gives us an even-keeled review and bio of Pope in his Lives of the Poets – there’s praise, and there are admissions to character faults. Here I found out that Pope was born a sweet, delicate boy and was called, in his youth, “the little nightingale” (Brady 473). But Johnson chastises where appropriate, granting that one could discover in Pope’s character “an appetite to talk too frequently of his own virtues” (479), and that the poet “pretends insensibility to censure and criticism, though it was observed by all who knew him that every pamphlet disturbed his quiet, and that his extreme irritability laid him open to perpetual vexation; but he wished to despise his critics, and therefore hoped that he did despise them” (537).

But of course, we have this final, eloquent praise — “After all this it is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, whether Pope was a poet? otherwise than by asking in return, if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?” (559) — and little else needs to be said.

You believe what you want to believe, who you want to believe.

Sincerely yours,

Florentina

(edited to replace “inordinate” with “eloquent” in the last paragraph)

What Kind of Reader are You? On criticism and Eagleton

What kind of reader are you?

Dear English Major Friends,

You probably decided to study literature up until now because in some capacity, you enjoy reading.  Because you identify as a reader. You may also be a poet or fiction writer, but most probably, you’re not (someday later, you might think). And so your relationship to literature is probably dictated by your role as reader. The author is important — for the act of indisputable creation — but you’re also important, because the text couldn’t be brought to life without you.  If you’re a melodramatic type, you might say drastic things like I would be dead without literature (metaphorically, anyway).  I wouldn’t be conscious, I wouldn’t be alive.  

Maybe you are one step past being a lay reader, but you’re still not quite a creative writer. So somewhere in between — maybe you are just a literary person in general?  Maybe you write long, florid e-mails or letters to your friends.  Or you learned how to write love letters from all those novels and poems you consumed when you were a little bit younger, a little more impressionable.  Like me.

Nonetheless, you love literature.  Now, can I ask you, my fellow classmate, something else?  How do you feel about being a critic-of-sorts (critic-in-training?) now that you’ve chosen this major or profession?  How do you feel about writing papers *deconstructing* those works that you like (or could care less about, but it’s a part of the syllabus) and declaring publicly your love or displeasure for a certain paragraph, a certain image?  Instead of sitting in that armchair of yours, completely and privately absorbed in plot and language, simultaneously in the author’s world and in your own mind?

In the passage we read from The Function of Criticism, Eagleton lays out how the role of criticism changed drastically from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century – how it moved from an air of gentlemanliness and a sort of cultural unification, to “scurrility and sectarian virulence” (37).  In all of this change, in all the “vituperation” (37) that criticism eventually evolved into, one wonders how much actual emphasis was placed on any of the texts being examined.  What happened to the art itself in the middle of the cultural-political battleground?

Literary criticism is complex, and its history and function has changed throughout the centuries, as we’ve read in the Eagleton.  At one point Tatler 29 is quoted, and I’m actually not at all interested in Eagleton’s analysis of the quote.  Instead, I just want to look at the quote: “That of all Mortals, a Critick is the silliest; for by inuring himself to examine all Things, whether they are of Consequence or not, he never looks upon any Thing but with a Design of passing Sentence upon it; by which means, he is never a Companion, but always a Censor” (20).

Is it too rash to say that once a highly commodifed literature becomes up for public literary criticism, (which has also now become commodified on its own) a violence of sorts is performed?

The last paragraph in the Eagleton paragraph was profoundly moving to me, with the thought-provoking idea that in the movement toward the extreme commodification and proliferation of print, authors lost an “audience to address in the first place” (43).  It sounds as though the authors were, in essence, abandoned. This, believe it or not, makes me feel a real sadness.  I don’t know what kind of reader you are.  But I know what kind I am — the same melodramatic type who feels like the world as I know it would not exist without fiction; who feels hugely indebted to creative writers for doing something I have not proven capable of doing, and giving me something special; who is thus fiercely loyal.  Let the critics participate in the vituperation.  I just want to read and breathe in all those words.

Yours sincerely,

Florentina Riza