Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ceci n'est pas une reading of Mansfield Park

... there are so many forms of literary criticism. There’s the theoretical approach, where the text is a pretext for whatever theoretical model’s being run past you. The postcolonialist position where you discover, amazingly, that the writer against colonialism is also implicated in colonialism, and only the superior critic can see this. Or deconstruction in its many forms, where you arrive at predetermined indeterminacy. That kind of literary criticism looks like close textual criticism but is often doing what Derrida called ‘working the text, working the passage’: the clever thing in deconstruction is to achieve two polar readings of the same passage. Which is a demonstration that language is inadequate. That’s the given telos — so there is a kind of monotony here. And also a kind of perversity — it’s about working the material until metal fatigue sets into the language. Then there’s historical criticism, which is more interested in anything but literature. Perfectly sensible, intelligent academics are actually bored by literature. They want to get into history, to do philosophy. They’d like to do politics. And obviously you get loads of this — Said’s reading of Mansfield Park, it’s all about the sugar trade, it’s all about slavery. Well, actually, no it isn’t. He’s aware of the element of travesty, of course, he’s a sophisticated man — he’s perfectly aware that he’s bringing something 20th century into this which isolates, focuses, magnifies … it’s a cropped reading of the novel. It takes a tiny bit, blows it up and says isn’t this interesting? And it is quite interesting, but it’s not a reading of Mansfield Park


This is another tic of the academy at the moment, that all poems are about poetry, writing poetry. And what amazes me is how these truisms get into circulation and how hard they are to get out of circulation. And then when they are out of circulation, everyone’s thinking — how could anyone ever believe that? Helen Vendler — all poems are about the writing of poetry. No they’re not.

-- Craig Raine


Philip Metres said...

I have great sympathy for Raine's point of view, but just for the sake of argument, I'll dispute the ease of his claim. Raine is of course both right and wrong; Mansfield Park--the place (fictive and real), and the novel--would not exist without colonialism. Pure and simple. That doesn't make it a good reading of the novel, of course, but Said is saying that lingering on the margins of such works--what's off the page, so to speak--is also critical to how we understand a literary work. Yes, there is no doubt that literary criticism can be enormously self-serving, and wrong-headed, and bafflingly idiotic at times, but that doesn't make all selective readings suddenly null and void.

Don Share said...

Well put, Phil, and thank you. I suppose one thing Raine is getting at is that selective readings are coercive in their own way. This has what Virginia Woolf called "a weakening effect upon the mind" of the credulous believer -and who among us is free of credulity? We suppose, after all, that something actually happens when a work is written about...