Friday, September 3, 2010

On Speaking the Language

Caleb Crain is a blogger, but, unlike the rest of us, one who is often actually worth reading. His training, and to a great degree his interests, are in American literature, a fact for which, as a horribly unfashionable exponent of High Classicism, I will not so much blame as pity him, and which, despite all my expectation to the contrary, seems to have left the sharpness of his intellect all but untouched; only a favorable disposition towards Freudianism reveals him. This Caleb Crain then, possessed of no small amount of both sagacity and taste, and yet hardly accustomed, as we shall see, to think within the constructs of earlier civilization, has taken upon himself to read "desultorily, and with no ambitions for speed or even completion," the Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser. It is a pleasure I would recommend to all. After commenting first upon the archaism of his diction, Mr. Crain passes this evocative judgment on the allegorical world of Spenser's poem:

"In principle I don't mind it that one character stands for virtue, another for virginity, etc., but many of Spenser's characters represent their ideas so impartially that they don't quite come across as people. Add in the poem's resort to fantastical and sometimes gruesome imagery, and the reader sometimes feels as if he is trapped in another person's unconscious, prey to mysterious forces incarnated as monsters, elves, and beauties, all lacking the sort of personal self that might in a pinch be negotiated with."

The rest of the post continues with a discussion of the episode with Redcrosse and Despair, and its relevance to psychoanalytic discussions of suicide, which, if such things hold your interest, would certainly be worth reading. What more attracts me in Mr. Crain's comment is all the many things it says about how a reader raised on the novel has been taught to enjoy a text, and what a scholar trained in the last two centuries has been taught to find, indeed also what such readers cannot find and cannot enjoy--and his comments show he is certainly aware of this fact. Whatever I may say on this point has in all likelihood already been said, and more eloquently, by C.S. Lewis in one or other of his scholarly publications, to which I would direct the interested reader, especially his The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image.

Mr. Crain's first observation, and the problem he has with Spenser as a reader of novels, is that the allegorical characters of the poem are not "believable," in his words, "don't quite come across as people." I assume we all know what is meant by "people," but it is worth parsing the statement out. Mr. Crain, I would wager, does not mean primarily things like the monstrosity of Duessa when she is uncovered by Arthur and revealed to be not a person but demon, or Occasion with her grotesque forelock. Such characters certainly do not come across as "people," but in the same way the giant Orgoglio, or for that matter the Rivers and Months that parade at various points in the poem, do not come across as "people": they are something other than people to begin with, and in that are well portrayed. What Crain means, rather, is that the human characters of the poem do not possess the depth of psychological complication one expects from the great novelists or may easily see in the great dramatists. One has, instead, people who are not "people," but rather move more comfortably in a world populated by Venus and Diana in their allegorical modes, and who have names like Braggadocchio.

What is it about such writing that troubles the modern reader? Does Spenser's method so offend against verisimilitude as to render his text unreadable because implausible? Or is it merely uncomfortable to find human beings who are not the complex individuals we often wish ourselves to be, who are "mere" instantiations of a transcendent ideal. For a man of Spenser's philosophical predilections, of course, such an instantiation is more "realistic" than the jumbles of quirk and nuance that our novelists portray. Yet we easily enjoy the writing of those whom we dissent from philosophically, and so in the case of Crain's dissatisfaction with Spenser I think one may more justly point to the long shadow cast by novelistic aims and procedures over all our current conceptions of literature, and narrative literature most of all. Unless one has become steeped in pre-modern literature, and done so in a way that is critical and attentive, any narrative piece will have the appearance of a failed novel. And I should perhaps say that, for someone who has somewhat become so steeped, the best novels too begin in their turn to take on the aspect of a failure.

Since we have spoken already of Lewis, it will perhaps first do to point out that Mr. Crain's second observation, that there is an aspect of Spenser that speaks to the mysterious and irrepressible power of the unconscious, has a certain resonance with the comments of that great critic. As he says, in The Allegory of Love, comparing Spenserian profundity with the elegance and charm of Ariosto, one of Spenser's "real concerns" is

"the primitive and instinctive mind, with all its terrors and ecstasies--that part in the mind of each of us which we should never dream of showing to a man of the world like Ariosto."

While Professor Lewis emphasizes what we might perhaps call the shame of those deep chords that Spenser touches, for Crain the problem is that they cannot "be negotiated with." There are many things, of course, other than our unconscious selves and desires that cannot be negotiated with, and among them is another of Spenser's "real concerns": the nature of the universe. And here we come to a very important question, for the greater part of Spenser's allegories display for us "the way things are." The Cantos of Mutabilitie do this most explicitly and profoundly, but one may also point to the Seven Deadly Sins in Book I, Alma's castle in Book II, or the Temple of Venus in Book IV, with Spenser's fine adaptation of some beautiful verses by another poet who wrote on "the way things are," Lucretius (Stanzas 44 following of Canto X of Book IV reproduce the opening lines of De Rerum Natura). What does it mean to transfer these non-negotiable realities from the order of an external world to the chaos of an internal one? This, it seems, is what Mr. Crain has done almost by accident, or perhaps it is better to say, by second nature.

The self is, after all, what we have been told literature is best employed in interrogating. To the natural sciences belong the discourses of physical reality and the metaphysical reality (or its absence) is a project for philosophers. The self, however, remains for us a field of inquiry in which literature has lost little prominence as a means of communicating knowledge. And yet it remains an empirical inquiry like the others, one in which its authority, like its pleasure, as we have seen above, derives in some sense or another from a reproduction of the psychological reality that is faithful in a very particular way. To approach literature like Spenser's expecting the "meaning" to be in some sense primarily a descriptive account of the self is only natural for a person of our age, but it is also only natural that such an endeavor will produce the sense of flatness which Mr. Crain identifies in the poem's allegory; it is precisely the sort of flatness one would find in Henry James if one were looking for the moral and philosophical heft of Dante's Commedia.

I suppose what most catches me about Mr. Crain's reaction is that it is not at all how I reacted to Spenser's poem when I first read it. To me, beyond the sheer consistent volume of the poetry--Spenser is closer to Homer in this regard than any other poet we have--what was most striking about the Faerie Queene was the clarity and texture of its allegorical representations. Before modern democracy or the modern sciences had even arisen, Spenser's narrative of Artegall's encounter with the Giant (Book V, Canto II) had already laid bare with precision and charm both the unity and the absurdity of those two powerful ideologies; the Cantos of Mutabilitie already mentioned give an account of reality which no philosopher could surpass and only the best might even equal for either propriety or presentation. Not once, however, did I long that Sir Guyon might become a "believable" character and cease to represent the virtue of temperance, nor did I ever suspect that the Bower of Bliss was primarily a fantasy of Spenser's eros (though it would not of course have portrayed what he intended it to portray if it did not touch those erotic chords within us). We are faced once again with the simple fact that learning to understand a poet's language amounts to far more than Mr. Crain's amusing trips to the OED. It requires rather a philologist's submission to the idiom of the poet, both in content and in the key to content, form.

No comments: