Saturday, January 21, 2006

Balance & Complexity

Was flipping through the 'Comment' section in Poetry yesterday when the new issue came, and was getting a little disheartened. Both Mary Kinzie and William Logan (of course) seemed to me to be focused on the idea that there is major work and minor work. And I'd have to actually do more than skim these articles to really take issue with them, mind you, but they both seemed to align things along the axis of major work being stuff that dealt with certain types of themes: perhaps religious or philosophical issues (and here I really take issue because if what you want to do is write a treatise, well, then write a treatise, don't write a poem), death, and what not.

And minor poetry deals, I suppose, with minor themes--which would be what? What exactly is a minor theme? Love? Family? Children? Something humorous? It would seem to me that a theme or situation is presented in a minor key or a major key, not that we can simply go around separating minor and major themes as we might separate the sheep from the goats. Kinzie also seemed to suggest that anything that was lyric would be, by definition, a minor work, because lyric is a minor medium. Hmmm. . . since it's basically what we have right now--lyric, meditative, narrative--no one writes epics anymore, really--I'm not sure we can apply the standards of the Renaissance, Augustan, and Romantic ages, and, well, squeaking into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to our present poetic moment, which runs really from World War II through the present.

I guess I find these attempts to categorize major work or greatness using simple classification data rather far-fetched. It seems one might need to start with a new definition of the 'major'.

I just keep tracing these arguments back in my mind to ancient rhetorical arguments about the differences between rhetoric/poetry and philosophy, as well as to the basic divide between Aristotelian and Platonic thought that directly characterizes so much of the discourse about literature through 1600, and that continues to influence our own discussions less directly.

Plato has no use for poetry at all, yet his thinking in the theory of the cave and the ladder of love are adapted for reasons I'll never really know. This is the source from which I think the people who feel a need to identify 'greatness' and 'major themes', as they would point to the grander animals at the zoo, this is the source from which they draw their ideas. There is, somewhere beyond our intellectual reach, something we might refer to as Truth with a capital 'T'.

Literature then, is a project of which the ultimate aim is to uncover not just truths, but Truth. This statement makes me uneasy just because I am too much of a relativist (so out of step with the Bush era) to really trust that. I think what makes me most uneasy about the Platonic version of this is that the true platonists believe that there is a gilded pre-fab Truth out there, towards which we all must reach, or damn us to hell, I suppose. Pat Robertson is a platonist, for example, in many ways, because he believes there is only one Truth out there, and God has told him what it is. So, therefore, he can tell which of our many available moral copies of truth is closest to the One Truth.

And that's what makes me so uneasy about strands of platonism that I see reflected in literary criticism. That there are definitive major or minor themes out there that approach major or minor truths, is a strand of platonic thinking. Who can tell what is the truest falling off from the 'world of undivided light' as Robert Hass describes Plato's theory of the cave in "Meditation at Lagunitas"? Well, that's exactly it, who can tell?

And that's part of the great rebellion against the Great (White) Man tradition in literature, that saw 'theory' rise into prominence in lit. discourse. Not that the vast over-correction of course was the right thing either. One of the things that 'theory' leaves in its wake is the author her or himself--for example.

But Aristotle's sensibilities are frequently overshadowed by our tendency to go for the big Platonic Rush--isn't it so much easier to say that the Truth is out there and we can surely find it? Isn't it nice to be the person who knows what that is, because you can speak with so much authority?

Aristotle's Rhetoric is also incredibly influential, as much as the Poetics which is lost to the Western world until around the 1560s or 1570s, I think--would have to look it up and double-check. Sidney, for example, in An Apologie for Poetry is using Plato as a straw man to work out his ideas, because (jesus saves) the Poetics, Aristotle's great lost work, has finally come to light again. I have this yearning to re-read Sidney, so perhaps I can do that and give some examples.

But the Rhetoric with its utterly sensible demeanor, is what I love. Why does rhetoric or art have a right to exist? (Because Plato, you remember, bans them from his Republic, as things that would too much stir up emotions and wreak havoc, and that would distract Men from the project of philosophy.) Aristotle's answer? Rhetoric and art have a place in our lives because they are a matter of craft, and that makes them a type of skill, not just the channeled rantings of a seer or lunatic (see Plato's dialoge Ion). And the development of various discourses, whether rhetorical, political, forensic, or artistic, is best done when attention to the speaker, the subject matter, and the audience is balanced appropriately. This is bowdlerized soon afterwards to suggest that there are high, medium, and low styles of discourse--and this is eventually blended with platonism to give us a sense of there being major and minor work, for example.

But what Aristotle is really talking about is balance--what makes any work great is a sense of balance and attention to the appropriateness of its various factors and influences. Aristotle is concerned with complexity, really--that there is nothing so simple and straightforward as an unadulterated truth that we could find just by knowing the right people or being in the right place at the right time. This seems most graceful and correct to me: balance in the midst of life's complexities.

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