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Whazzappenin` In Lit Grit
by Stanley Fogel

guide for those perplexed by literary scholarship`s abandonment confident answers in favour of problematic questions I ALWAYS HATED lit crit. Whozzat wild guy in the Fielding novel? Why DionysUS (my prof told me). The airborne guy in the late Melville book? Must be PegasUS. The dude with the initials J. C. in The Sound and the Fury? Gotta be JesUS. Whazzat flower in a Wordsworth poem? P`raps a gladiolUS. The Bible, the Greek myths, the English country garden - home to university lit majors. A venerable address, a clean well-lighted place. Admittance controlled by old guys in tweed. The missus outa sight (recalled, if at all, with a twinkle in the eye). Make sure, if the gardener`s named Mellors, he`s carrying around not only a dibble, but also a label - "noble savage." When it`s vacation time, motor on over to Stratford or go snort the dust at the British Museum. I hated lit crit so much I became an English professor. Pulled weeds and tidied the literary terrain as I`d been taught. Took the hoi polloi, a.k.a. students, on library tours, handled the august tomes, a.k.a. the classics, with reverence. Trimmed the texts` unruliness the way Eddie Pensiero, the barber in Thomas Pynchon`s Gravity`s Rainbow, tamed split ends: Assume a state of grace in which all baits were once distributed perfectly even, a time of innocence when they fell perfectly straight, all over the colonel`s head. Winds of the day, gestures of distraction, sweat, itchings, sudden surprises, three-foot falls at the edge of sleep, watched skies, remembered shames, all have since written on that perfect grating. Passing through it tonight, restructuring it, Eddie Pensiero is an agent of History. Not barbarously but like a barber, I clipped away in classes, at conferences, and for obscure academic journals. (Perhaps, to be self-critical and self reflexive, currently a popular practice, it is fair to say that the "obscure" and "academic" of the previous sentence are redundant.) I cut away the text`s purported excrescences, saved its myths and iterative images, until I had a coiffed, sartorially splendid artefact that, like the flattering mirror held to the side of a client`s head, offered what I imagined was "lit:" The stylistic devices, the tropes - call them the colouring - were shown to be harmonious, cohesive, and integral parts of the whole book. No punk haircutting here. Our story, the story of literature as told by literary critics, was on the tips of our scholarly tongues, as well as at our fingertips. It was a coherent story, a stable story, like the folktales which, the German critic Walter Benjamin declared, bound a culture. It spoke of major figures (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton), major periods (Renaissance, neo-Classical, Romantic), and themes so universal they could have been culled from fortune cookies ("affirm your dignity;` "deny your sanity;" "reconcile dualities"). It was spoken properly, genteelly, by seemly men (of course) who were without self-interest (sure, sure) and without gender and race biases or blind spots (sure, sure). Its message was that some books were lit and some were pap; that the gap, certainly not a construction of those men, couldn`t be bridged; that lit was good for you, that it made you more tolerant ...which would then make lit critics the most tolerant people of all (sure, sure). In building terms, which will soon be dismantled, its storey was structurally sound, containing not a maze of rooms, but rather a dormitory-like floor plan. The architect and warden of this edifice was Northrop Frye. He wrote that literature`s hallowed spaces are anchored by "the still center of the order of words. Criticism... recognizes the fact that there is a center of the order of words:" Not until recently did lit critics notice the prayer and panic couched in that assurance as well as in the scientific language of his Anatomy of Criticism. In Frye`s heyday if anyone had yelled "fire" (or "feminism") that august scholar would have led us as calmly to the exits as he had already pointed us to the heart of literary and critical enterprises. In Frye`s great (building) code we were to assume that "literature is a total form, and not simply the name given to the aggregate of existing literary works." Marquis de Sadean rooms, say, filled with rubber truncheons were closed to the public or were reduced to closet space, even if to some sub-cultures they might have offered a satisfying sight. (Call it, to raise right now the feminist attempt to write finis to the floor plan, a "beau voir.") Low-budget rooms full of weightlifting mags or Kathy Acker chapbooks were off limits to the literati, except as marginal materials for the marginal parts of their lives. All`s changed, changed utterly. To redistribute the emphasis of the preceding two paragraphs: margin and centre are thought to be arbitrarily assigned designations, ones in need of the intellectual equivalent of Allied Van Lines. "Utterly disgusting" say the apoplectics, in this case a homonym for apocalyptic. Out of their outrage comes an end-of-millennium epitaph for civilization. It`s the end of order, normality, morality, and merit fulminates Allan Bloom (in The Closing of the American Mind) and the not-so-youthful bloomers whose carping can be heard in and out of academic institutions on both sides of the border. (An inventive etymologist might speculate that, for them, carpe diem means "to complain daily") Borderline practices, they say, are defiling sacred tomes and sacred rituals. Anarchists and `60s-scarred free thinkers, they say, are contaminating the universities` lofty goal: the discovery and transmission of knowledge, assumed to be an understandable body of information that can be absorbed by reason and rigour. Whazzappened to cause this crisis? The answer can be revealed if you promise me one thing: you wont think this matters vitally to anyone not on the mailing list of Queens Quarterly or Notes and Queries. Lit crit, whether of the plot, character, theme and Bible set or the paradoxical, paratactical, postmodern (whooo-eee) set, has always played to a lim ited (pardon!) audience, one that goes gaga over Jacques Derrida`s ungloved appearance. Blissfully unaware of intellectual break-dancing, a much larger crew is rendered epileptic at the sight of one of Michael Jackson`s gloves and the frame that snakes around it. Whazzappened, then? Deconstruction. The gloves are off, but first a feint or two: Gerald Graff, in Professing Literature, a book on the history of English departments and on the teaching of literature in universities, writes that universities manage to suppress the arguments that mark the shaping and changing of course curricula. What we have come to accept as the traditional division of English departments into historical periods, major figures, and genres (poems, plays, novels), with their attendant faculty specialists, may not be the best framework for the study of a cultural product such as literature. One reason is that it makes of literature too autonomous, too self-contained a realm. Another reason is that it leads one to believe that things in print are naturally more important and wor thy of close scrutiny than things on video, on TV in films, and on pop-music stations. A third reason is that it privileges authors, those magisterial folk whose opuses of plaints and plots, metaphors and metaphysics demand for them extreme reverence. Inflated are terms such as "genius" and "imagination." Authors become industries: print their diaries. letters. detritus: interview them endlessly on art and the Persian Gulf; build them up as icons, then watch them demand liposuction if the bulking yields unsightliness. Traditional lit crit also gives a groomed, narrative sense of the history and development of literature. Graff prefers a more contested space, where questions about who teaches what and how those books are chosen are put into the foreground of the educational process. Challenged, too, is a model in which the social homogeneity of those who became students or professors made for tacitly shared theories of literature and teaching. Without a unified cultural tradition to impart, the university should investigate the formation of cultural traditions, what criteria have been used to produce them, and what has been ignored or excluded as a result of those criteria. If one word could breezily be uttered to encapsulate deconstructive critical practice, it could be "problematize." That is to say - well, you may as well say "problematize" aloud because, even if it`s not in your updated, second edition Random House Dictionary, it probably sounds better to your ears than the welter of French words and phrases such as "mise en abyme" (the endless replication of images) and "soul rature" (under erasure) that deconstructionists have dragged onto the academic playing field. You shouldn`t, however, think the language of English departments was unilingual and unsullied before the French revolution. Remember the many years in which "catharsis" and "nemesis" were chanted in out studies, making Aristotle`s language into anything but Greek to me (and you). So go ahead, problematize, or make a problem out of what didn`t seem to be one. The British tradition has been our model for years? Perhaps it has colonized us; perhaps it is too Eurocentric. Perhaps (gasp) CanLit is merely the same construction with the names changed to protect the indigenous. Now that`s a problem. Other problems are the gender ratio of our university faculties, the terms that we use to explain literature, our categories for organizing literature, our criteria for constructing the category literature itself. Perhaps literature is only what gets taught as literature. Perhaps lit crit is not some handmaiden to truth, but a conflict-laden arena in which different entries, psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist et al., produce different truths. Perhaps the literary text isn`t some elaborate, intricate construction with everything there for a purpose, that being the transmission of moral and aesthetic meaning. How about introducing the reader not as an absorbent recipient of a book`s pith or heart, but as a politicized person, the fact of whose reading itself deserves study. What kind of pleasure is that reader taking anyway? Instead of Frye`s socially productive pleasure of the text, try Roland Barthes`s less conservative allures. They are chronicled in The Pleasure of the Text, a short read sans sermons, since, according to Barthes, the pleasure of the text cannot be anything but short. Do you drift off when you read? Cruise the text arbitrarily? Gain your pleasures discontinuously? That`s OK ...you didn`t actually believe, did you, that the person who taught you Moby-Dick read it "steady on, from start to finish, like the highway people`s line machine" in William Gass`s essay-novella Willie Masters` Lonesome Wife? The etymology of the word professor is "one who has taken the vows of religious order." For too long literature has been taught with a large dose of religiosity, manuscripts being passed around as if they were the shroud of Turin (before it was discredited). Whatever complaints can be made about current academic practice - yup, it uses arcane language to convey inscrutable ideas in unreadable journals - at least it has demystified literature; it has produced an intellectual enema of sorts. Besides, most highly specialized academic disciplines have highly specialized vocabularies. How many of us have sat at a physicist`s table? Too complex it is; we prefer our dining room`s table, or our favourite bistro`s table, whose quirks are more familiar (but less numerous) than the physicist`s quarks. Try, too, laying a spread on a philosopher`s table and sitting down either to an epicurean feast or to stoic fare on Plato`s chair. So what if talking among themselves, lit critics gather around a table to talk about "Hyperscholarship in Composition Studies: The Pedagogy of Metatheory" or "The Lesbian Phallus: Or, Does Heterosexuality Exist?" (these being a couple of the topics examined at the 1990 meeting of the Modern Language Association). Perhaps now that East German marks have been taken out of circulation in favour of the commercially more powerful West German marks, the East German ones can be turned over to universities to operate as an internal currency. Academics could spend them on campuses to mark the fact that some highly concentrated internal activities needn`t be spread elsewhere. Unlike the Exxon Valdez spilling its guts precipitously onto Alaska`s shores, scholars could dump their ideas into the economy only in a refined state. Nonetheless, in dealing with students or in writing reviews for the popular media, some lit critics have energetically reshuffled some traditional shibboleths. It`s not that pedantry has been expunged from academe - far from it. It`s just that pedantry`s paraphernalia can be seen to be what they always have been: agents of cultural policing. Suspicious, now, of any attempts to explain lit, you`ll no doubt consign this to the garbage can. As long as you are jettisoning your high school and university lit notes as well, it`s OK with me.

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