Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Stephen Crowe responds to Apollonians and Dyonesians

The following post by Stephen Crowe is a reply to Apollonians and Dyonesians It was left as a comment, but hiding it away in a comment box doesn't do it justice, or perhaps I should say--doesn't do the question justice.

Stephen Crowe:

Hi Jacob! I really appreciate you taking the time to think about my comments. I want to pay you the same respect, and so I hope you’ll forgive me if I go on a little. I like to think that I am not quite as dry and dull as I might appear! For example, the graphic-novel comment was intended as a joke: the term “graphic novel” is a self-conscious attempt to distinguish comics for adults from the idea of “comics,” which are thought of as being for kids; so I thought it would be funny to imply that the only comics that actually use the term are intended for children. Apparently I was wrong! In any case, I only mentioned comics in the first place, not to be “self-consciously generous,” but because I like comics. I thought I’d have written something about them by now, but I never got around to it.

I can see that we don’t quite see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, but I’m of the optimistic opinion that honest discussion always leads to mutual enlightenment: even if all we learn is what the other thinks, that in itself is a valuable lesson. That’s why I have such a problem with emotional arguments. As you say, it does seem paradoxical to say, on the one hand, that the arts are primarily emotional media, and on the other to require that critical discussion of those media should be governed not by emotion but by reason. However, there is an important reason to maintain that demarcation, as I’ll try to demonstrate.

You fault me for “disparaging those which presume to express ideas about, ahem... subjects that are expected to provoke emotional response, in a manner and style that does the same.” But does a psychologist need to be insane in order to write about insanity? Art and the study of art are not the same thing; otherwise poetry criticism would be written in verse, and music criticism in musical notation. Anyone can enjoy or not enjoy a book; a critic should be able to explain their experience, to explain how and why it works. Otherwise what good are they? To do this requires analytical thinking—i.e. reason rather than emotion, in fact reason applied to one’s emotion, and to the devices at work in the text.

I was a little surprised to that you picked out the Black Garterbelt post for praise. It’s true that there is some genuine textual analysis in the post, and Rake admirably attempts to characterise Wood’s taste (though not quite correctly, I think: for example, “a placid, tranquil presentation, with the powerful feelings and emotion reflected in the characters rather than in the aesthetic choices” does not correspond with Wood’s avowed love of D.H. Lawrence). However, none of that textual analysis coalesces into any kind of argument. Instead, he ends with a non sequitur that amounts to a rather overwrought personal attack.

Taking a comment by Wood, that objections to ‘hysterical realist novels “are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality,” Rake latches on to the single word “morality” and draws it out into a wild paranoid fantasy: “The invocation of morality will not do,” he says. “When a critic starts passing moral judgments on an author's aesthetic choices,” he continues, “his zeal has outstripped his intelligence and he's of no use or consequence to me as a reader, at least on the subject at hand.” Finally, taking the word as a personal affront, he says this:

“I like and admire the fiction of DeLillo, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, et al. Does that make me morally suspect in Wood's eyes? Perhaps aesthetically bankrupt? Or simply ignorant? He certainly does not shy away from pejoratives such as inhuman, and it's naive to think that they're meant only to sting the architects of hysterical realism and not the readers and advocates of same.”

But this is a complete misrepresentation of Wood’s point! What he meant by the word “morality” (I believe) was to suggest that the style of hysterical realism might be the result of a fear on the part of the authors to face certain aspects of reality. This is a long way from the censorious tone that Rake perceives. He certainly never implies that any authors or readers are “inhuman.” This misrepresentation seems to me like little more than an attempt to write Wood off, in order to be rid of the pesky obligation to actually listen to what he has to say. At no point in Rake’s post does he attempt to actually meet Wood’s arguments in any real way, either by defending the value of so-called hysterical realist novels, or by rebutting Wood’s arguments for the centrality of emotion in literature. Instead of attacking Wood’s arguments, he attacks Wood himself. And this is the problem with emotional argument. Instead of expanding the breadth of our understanding, it contracts it.

As critics, we are like astronomers each with a telescope fixed on only one fixed area of the sky. By using our analytical skills to describe our differing views to each other, we can combine out efforts to construct a map of the heavens. I don’t want to stop you from reading Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon (James Wood might, for all I know; I can’t speak for him): I want you to explain to me why anyone would read them. The idea is not for one person to “win” the argument, but for two conflicting arguments to synthesise into a single understanding.


  1. "The idea is not for one person to “win” the argument, but for two conflicting arguments to synthesise into a single understanding."

    In synthesis is death.

    Woe to those who would harmonize the contradictions... Blake employed dialectic long before Hegel.

  2. I take it then that you're not a believer in the ideals of democracy?

    I'm kidding.

    Seriously though, your idea of good writing seems a little narcissistic to me. What's so special about the individual anyway? My favourite writing makes me feel at one with my fellows. In the ego is aesthetic death.

  3. We have rather different ideas on what constitutes an "individual." I don't see how what you say here follows from what I wrote.