The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Monday, October 23, 2006

De la litteratura

I was recently re-reading Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction, a popular book in its time (1983, 2nd edition 1996).  It is a book that isn't without its merits (Eagleton is a good writer), but he spends more time proselytizing rather than going in-depth.  

Eagleton does ask a very interesting question, which I paraphrase as follows: What is Literature?  Many would define it as good or fine writing.  However, this poses a problem: if literature is by definition good, then there can be no such thing as bad writing, something even I'm not willing to accept.  Similarly, though, if one resists the value-laden definition, then "bad" literature becomes as valid as "good" literature.

I don't have any answers to this; I'm still grappling with this and similar issues that I've only come across or thought of recently.  I think it's a good thing, though, to question, at times, our assumptions, or, as Benveniste would say, ask for "proof of the obvious."


Blogger Dr J said...

Or, as I came to realize, such questions can become misleading lines of interrogation, not unworthy in thmselves, but more geared to ensure you pursue what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin. Don't mistake me: the question's valid, but only to a point; soon, very soon, if you entangle yourself in the weeds of that question, the more you're pulled down into unanswerable distraction. Soon you're defending Milton against Neil Gaiman; then both against a newspaper headline; and soon nonsense defeats sense as you search out a MacGuffin of an answer. By all means question, definitely. But don't lost your sense of overarching perspective.

Eagleton's book, btw, I'd credit as being well-written but too glib and flip to warrant too much consideration. It is a polemical introduction (c.f. Frye and Anatomy) and so to be treated with extreme caution, especially in the later chapters, as I think even Eagleton would now suggest.

Keep in mind, as you pursue your studies, the capacity for lit theory and lit crit to emulate Victor Frankenstein, to unleash a nemetic force, sometimes in fact guided by lit (as the monster was by Milton), but only half-aware of the possible problematics. There's a reason almost all of the onetime radical thinkers flashed their hands in the air and tried to yield the traffic, to mostly no avail. Miller, Lentricchia, Derrida, even Barthes to an extent, they all saw their sense bastardized into nonsense, as has Eagleton.

Hence Hitchcock: you have to be able to anticipate when you're chasing after a MacGuffin instead of answer. Do so, and this will put you 85% ahead of the game. It will, however, keep you from getting published in the PMLA (Prognostications of the Masturbatory Lonely Arseholes) and getting a SSHRC (insert your own acronymic breakdown here). Blindness and Insight, blindness and insight....

12:53 p.m.  
Blogger Douglas Chong said...

Dude, I've been under a rock the last few months. Been searching for a new job, life, goals, etc. Hope you're doing well. We've gotta catch up sometime. By the way, are you not in Toronto right now? This is how little I know.

11:53 p.m.  
Anonymous RK said...

You might want to see Eagleton in an unfamiliar guise, reviewing (ouch!) Dawkins' "The God Delusion" in the London Review of Books recently. (Google "Eagleton" and "Dawkins" and you'll find it.) It's a hoot, and a v-e-r-y different Terry.
Btw, Dr J, I see you mentioned Lentricchia -- did you hear that a year or two ago FL came out of the closet, and shamefacedly admitted that in fact, in private and very secretly, he LIKED literature? Another hoot.
Does one hoot plus one hoot make two hOOters?

6:32 p.m.  
Blogger Pious Labours said...

Hey RK,

Thanks for the tip: I'll google it now.

I'm well aware of Eagleton's recent apostasy. His "After Theory," in which he enjoined a return to Arnold occured, oddly enough, at the same time I was working on an Arnold presentation (Matthew, not Ahhnold :)
But I have yet to read After Theory.


8:51 p.m.  

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