Sunday, March 07, 2004

At the beginning of the seminar he taught last semester on Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, Prof. Peter Hohendahl said that he believed Adorno had become a "classic," by which he seemed to mean a text that no longer directly engaged our intellectual environment (it was no longer an "intervention"), but rather had become part of that environment's foundations, the necessary backdrop for understanding that which was not yet classic (he seemed to imply that this was the status of Habermas' text) and which was still active in the struggle to make/understand our world ("how everybody is doing everything," in Gertrude Stein's parlance, which incidentally goes to the root of the too-easily effaced Aufhebung between making and understanding). I believe a collorary to this proposition is that one may take two basic approaches to reading a "classic": reading it as background, as intellectual history, as a secondary source to a more primary (that is, contemporary) text; or one may engage it directly by reading it "against the grain," which is to say "close reading"—treating the text as a literary text. Literary texts themselves may be read as classics—I take any straightforward explication of, for example, what Eliot and Pound were up to in The Waste Land as a "classic" reading; they may also be read against the grain, which is probably ninety percent of the Eliot explication industry (New Historicist readings, postcolonial readings, and so forth). The problem that I'm experiencing now arises from trying to write about texts which have an undeniably "classic" status for the post-avant community (Oppen, Zukofsky, Olson, Johnson) but are still virtually unknown to the literary community at large (represented synecdochally in this case by English departments). A fair amount of interpretive labor is still required on my part simply to understand and explicate what someone like Oppen was up to: I have to distinguish objectivist from symbolist modes of writing, explain the often negative presence of the political, trace the influence of Heidegger, etc. But a large number of poets and a smaller number of critics have already more or less internalized all this stuff: they have been influenced by Oppen, often in fundamental ways, without having mustered the kind of large-scale critical investigation to transform him into an acknowledged classic. I guess I'm talking about the unfinished labor of canon formation, which becomes especially problematic in the case of writers (and their self-appointed descendants) who seek to undermine the hierarchical and institutional structures that make canons possible in the first place.

This is the sort of problem that disappears if you look at it from the right angle, and this angle is easily accessible to me when I wear my poet's hat: it's enough to me to intuit and respond to the nearly astral influences shed by a canonically "unknown" (unknowable?) poet like Ronald Johnson without producing a treatise on his poetics. But my other hat, that of the literary scholar, is really only fun to wear when I'm able to assume a text's classicness so I can skip the labor of explication and go right to the kind of speculative improvisation that reading-against-the-grain encourages. It is my continued and perhaps naive hope that it's posssible to do this sort of writing as a scholar, footnotes and all. Certainly a large part of the pleasure I've already derived from my dissertation research ("research" never seems like quite the right word, since I'm not delving in archives; it's almost more like a highly disciplined variety of daydreaming) comes from reading texts against the grain of their "classical" context: when I turn Lawrence into an Objectivist or locate a momentary rejection of Christian transcendence in Eliot's Four Quartets I get a lovely little frisson. It's also true that the status of these texts qua classics means that I can do what I like to them without fear of "damaging" them or inhibiting their canonicity; this might even be my explicit goal. But when I write about Johnson, I do want to enter him into the canon, or at least a canon: I want my reading to lead to further readings. This might be a fundamentally different critical task, requiring other faculties than those the clever graduate student generally relies upon. It's probably no coincidence that the best writer on Johnson I've been able to locate is Guy Davenport, whose style is erudite without ever being academic, and whose essays invariably make me want to read whatever writer he's discussing, be it Johnson or Archilocus. This genre of writing is closer to the review than it is to the critical essay. But what does it mean to write a "review" of Discrete Series or RADI OS? A willful travesty of temporality in answer to the travesty of these writers' having gone unreviewed in their own time?

I am starting to put together a little essay on Johnson's ARK, and perhaps thinking of it as a review will provide me with the elbow room that I fear treating him as an undercanonized classic will deprive me of.

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