Thursday, February 05, 2004

On Lentricchia
So I mentioned Frank Lentricchia's essay "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic." The online essay is a shortened version. You can find the complete essay in the Lingua Franca anthology.

My favorite part of the essay is:

I’ve never believed that writers had to be superior in anything, except writing. The fundamental, if only implied, message of much literary criticism is self-righteous, and it takes this form: “T.S. Eliot is a homophobe and I am not. Therefore, I am a better person than Eliot. Imitate me, not Eliot.” To which the proper response is: “But T.S. Eliot could really write, and you can’t. Tell us truly, is there no filth in your soul?”

There's a similar paragraph in Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes, in which the narrator says something along the lines of "literature contains politics, but politics does not contain literature." He then states that people who really want to write about politics should becomes journalism majors, and I enthusiastically concur.

A little googling produced one interesting response to Lentricchia's essay by Danuta Fjellestad, who claims to hold that "without an education in literary theory, students have little chance of thinking clearly and with complexity about the assumptions that guide what we take to be interpretations of texts or about the stakes in different dimensions of reading." Now that's an arrogant statement, especially since philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, and history would help literary students a lot more, given the sheer vapidity of much contemporary theory.

But I digress. Fjellestad later writes "Teaching theory well means questioning the near-hegemonic position of any fashionable discourse and paying respectful--which does not mean all-accepting--attention to a whole spectrum of literary theories." Does the reader note the contradiction here? The umbrella of literary theory should always have hegemony, but the little theories should never have hegemony. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the mind boggles. Nevertheless I agree that a historical survey of theory would be a good thing for incoming students. And I commend Fjellestad for paying attention to a spectrum of theories. But the climate of literary studies is such that certain theories do have a hegemony. For example, it would be suicide for an untenured professor to be anti-poststructuralist, anti-third-wave-feminist, or (God forbid!) pro-capitalist in that climate.

Fjellestad does note that Lentricchia's new style of teaching is a personalized one, in which books can become just a springboard for personal anecdotes. Fjellestad suspects that the class then becomes a shallow discussion group in which the teacher does not pour forth his knowledge of the history of theory. Lentricchia never claims that he doesn't put forth his knowledge, though. I suspect that he does so frugally. Fjellestad, in fact, notes that theory can be taught well or poorly but doesn't acknowledge that literature-without-theory can also be taught well or poorly. We ought to trust Lentricchia and his anti-theory cohorts to do it well.


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