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Love and its Critics

 | 
Michael Bryson
, 
Arpi Movsesian

1. Love and Authority: Love Poetry and its Critics

Texte intégral

I. The Poetry of Love

  • 1 Aharon Ben-Zeʼev and Ruhama Goussinsky. In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims (Oxf (...)

1Love has always had its critics. They range far and wide throughout history, from Plato and the Neoplatonists, to the Rabbinic and Christian interpreters of the Song of Songs, from the clerics behind the savage Albigensian Crusade, to the seventeenth-century English Puritan author William Prynne, who never met a joy he failed to condemn. Love has never lacked for those who try to tame it for “higher” purposes, or those who would argue that “the worst evils have been committed in the name of love”.1 At the same time, love has always had its passionate defenders, though these have more often tended to be poets—the Ovids, Shakespeares, and Donnes—than critics of poetry. The relationship between the two—poets and critics—is one of the central concerns of this book.

2The story this book tells follows two paths: it is a history of love, a story told through poetry and its often adversarial relationship to the laws and customs of its times and places. But it is also a history of the way love and poetry have been treated, not by our poets, but by those our culture has entrusted with the authority to perpetuate the understanding, and the memory, of poetry. This authority has been abused by a tradition of critics and criticism over two thousand years old, a tradition dedicated to reducing poetry to allegory or ideology, insisting that the words of poems do not mean what they appear to mean to the average reader. And yet, love and its poetry fight back, not just against critics but against all the real and imagined tyrants of the world. As we will see in the work of Shakespeare, love stands against a system of arranged marriages in which individual desires are subordinated to the rule of the Father, property, and inherited wealth. Sometimes, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost, love will even stand against God himself. As Dante demonstrates with his account of Paolo and Francesca, love lives the truth that Milton’s Satan speaks: it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

  • 2 This working definition is at odds with much, though by no means all, of the specialized scholarshi (...)

3What is this love? And how is it treated in our poetry? Ranging from the ancients to the early moderns, from the Bible to medieval literature, from Shakespeare to the poetry of the seventeenth century and our own modern day, the love presented here is neither exclusively of the body, nor exclusively of the spirit. It is not merely sex—though some critics have been eager to dismiss it in just this way. Neither, however, is it only spiritual, intellectual, emotional, or what is popularly referred to as Platonic. The love this book considers, and that so much of our poetry celebrates, is a combination of the physical and the emotional, the sexual and the intellectual, the embodied and the ethereal. Above all, it is a matter of mutual choice between lovers who are each at once Lover and Beloved. Often marginalized by, and in opposition to church, state, and the institutions of marriage and law, this love is what the troubadour poets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries referred to as fin’amor.2 It is anarchic and threatening to the established order, and a great deal of cultural energy has gone into taming it.

4Fin’amor—passionate and mutually chosen love, desire, and regard—has been invented and reinvented over the centuries. It appears in Hellenistic Jerusalem as a glimpse back into the age of Solomon, then fades into the dim background of Rabbinical and Christian allegory. It is revived in France, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, by poets and an unusual group of Rabbis, only to fade once again, betrayed by later poets writing under the twin spells of Neoplatonism and Christianizing allegory. These later poets radically reshape the ideas of love expressed in the poems of medieval Provençe and the ancient Levant, writing in what Dante calls the “sweet new style” (dolce stil novo) that changed love into worship, men into idolators, and women into idols. The influence of their verse is still observable in the English poetry of Philip Sidney two hundred years after the death of Petrarch, the dolce stil novo’s high priest. Subsequently, writers such as Shakespeare, Donne, Herrick, and Milton re-invent the love that had almost been lost, putting a new version of fin’amor on the stage and on the page, pulling it back into the light and out of the shadows of theology, philosophy, and law. For better, or for worse, fin’amor has been with us ever since.

II. Love’s Nemesis: Demands for Obedience

  • 3 ὅτι μὲν τοίνυν εἰσὶ φύσει τινὲς οἱ μὲν ἐλεύθεροι οἱ δὲ δοῦλοι, φανερόν, οἷς καὶ συμφέρει τὸ δουλεύ (...)

5Running parallel with the tradition of love poetry is a style of thought which argues that obedience, rather than passion, is the prime virtue of humankind. Examples of obedience demanded and given are abundant in our scriptures, such as the injunction in Genesis against eating from the Tree of Knowledge; in our poetry, such as the Aeneid’s portrayal of Aeneas rejecting Dido in obedience to the gods; and even in our philosophy, as in Aristotle’s distinction between free men and slaves: “It is true, therefore, that there are by natural origin those who are truly free men, but also those who are visibly slavish, and for these slavery is both beneficial and just”.3 Such expectations of obedience often appear in the writing of those who argue that human law derives from divine law. Augustine argues that though God did not intend that Man should have dominion over Man, it now exists because of sin:

  • 4 “Nullus autem natura, in qua prius Deus hominem condidit, seruus est hominis aut peccati. Verum et (...)

But by nature, as God first created us, no one was a slave either of man or of sin. In truth, our present servitude is penal, a penalty which is meant to preserve the natural order of law and forbids its disturbance; because, if nothing had been done contrary to that law, there would have been nothing to restrain by penal servitude.4

  • 5 “Ordo autem iustitiae requirit ut inferiores suis superioribus obediant, aliter enim non posset hum (...)
  • 6 “Nun aber kein Mensch von Natur Christ oder fromm ist, sondern sie allzumal Sünder und böse sind, w (...)

6Nearly a millennium later, Thomas Aquinas argues from a similar perspective: “The order of justice requires that inferiors obey their superiors, for otherwise the stability of human affairs could not be maintained”.5 Even a famous rebel like Martin Luther directs ordinary citizens to obey the law God puts in place: “No man is by nature Christian or religious, but all are sinful and evil, wherefore God restrains them all through the law, so that they do not dare to practice their wickedness externally with works”.6 According to John Calvin, absolute obedience is due not only to benevolent rulers, but also to tyrants. Wicked rulers are a punishment from God:

  • 7 Verùm si in Dei verbum respicimus, longius nos deducet, ut non eorum modò principú imperio subditi (...)

Truthfully, if we look at the Word of God, this will lead us further. We are not only to be subject to their authority, who are honest, and rule by what ought to be the gift of God’s love to us, but also to the authority of all those who in any way have come into power, even if their rule is nothing less than that of the office of the princes of the blind. […] at the same time he declares that, whatever they may be, they have their rule and authority from him.7

7For these thinkers, obedience is the prime duty of humankind, because it is ultimately in service to the God who established all authority in the first place. To be obedient is therefore to be pleasing to God.

8Such demands for obedience are ancient, and widespread, but resistance has its own long tradition. Étienne de La Boétie, the sixteenth-century author, judge, and friend to Michel Montaigne, argues that human beings have long become so used to servitude that they no longer know how to be free:

  • 8 “Il n’est pas croyable comme le peuple, dès lors qu’il est assujetti, tombe si soudain en un tel et (...)

It is incredible how a people, when it becomes subject, falls so suddenly and profoundly into forgetfulness of its freedom, so that it is not possible for them to win it back, serving so frankly and so happily that it seems, at a glance, that they have not lost their freedom but won their servitude.8

9La Boétie maintains that obedience has become so engrained in most people, that they regard their subjection as normal and necessary:

  • 9 “Ils disent qu’ils ont été toujours sujets, que leurs pères ont ainsi vécu; ils pensent qu’ils sont (...)

They will say they have always been subjects, and their fathers lived the same way; they will think they are obliged to endure the evil, and they demonstrate this to themselves by examples, and find themselves in the length of time to be the possessions of those who lord it over them; but in reality, the years never gave any the right to do them wrong, and this magnifies the injury.9

10This “injury” leads La Boétie to reject the idea of natural obedience, proposing instead a model through which he accuses “the tyrants” (“les tyrans”) of carefully inculcating the idea of submission into the populations they dominate:

  • 10 “[L]a première raison pourquoi les hommes servent volontiers, est pour ce qu’ils naissent serfs et (...)
  • 11 “il n’a jamais été que les tyrans, pour s’assurer, ne se soient efforcés d’accoutumer le peuple env (...)

The first reason why men willingly serve, is that they are born serfs and are nurtured as such. From this comes another easy conclusion: people become cowardly and effeminate under tyrants.10 […] It has never been but that tyrants, for their own assurance, have made great efforts to accustom their people to them, [training them] not only in obedience and servitude, but also in devotion.11

11Two centuries later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau raises his voice against the authority of “les tyrans”, arguing that liberty is the very basis of humanity:

  • 12 Renoncer à sa liberté, c’est renoncer à sa qualité d’homme, aux droits de l’humanité, même à ses de (...)

To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, the rights of humanity, even its duties. […] Such a renunciation is incompatible with the nature of man, and to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his actions. Finally, it is a vain and contradictory convention to stipulate on the one hand an absolute authority, and on the other an unlimited obedience.12

12But what Rousseau calls a renunciation of liberty, framing it as a conscious act, La Boétie presents as something that is done to rather than done by average men and women: “they are born as serfs and nurtured as such”. In the latter’s view, it is those in authority who “nurture” (raise, nourish, even instruct) their populations into the necessary attitudes of what Rousseau will later call une obéissance sans bornes.

  • 13 “Mais certes la coutume, qui a en toutes choses grand pouvoir sur nous, n’a en aucun endroit si gra (...)

13Such “nurture” performs a pedagogical function, teaching men and women to think their bondage is natural: for La Boétie, “it is certain that custom, which in all things has great power over us, has no greater strength than this, to teach us how to serve”.13 Some seventy years later, the English revolutionary John Milton makes a similar argument, describing “custom” as part of the double tyranny that keeps mankind in subjection:

If men within themselves would be govern’d by reason and not generally give up their understanding to a double tyrannie, of custome from without and blind affections within, they would discerne better what it is to favour and uphold the Tyrant of a Nation.14

14Milton, in pamphlets that ridicule the pro-monarchical propaganda of his day, berates what he calls “the easy literature of custom and opinion”,15 the authoritative-sounding, but empty writing and speaking that teaches “the most Disciples” and is “silently receiv’d for the best instructer”, despite the fact that it offers nothing but a “swoln visage of counterfeit knowledge and literature”.16 David Hume later notes “the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers”. Hume explains this submission as a function of “opinion”, or the “sense” that is inculcated into the many “of the general advantage” to be had by obeying “the particular government which is established”.17

15By the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger condemns “tradition” as a manipulative force that obscures both its agenda and its origins:

  • 18 “Die hierbei zur Herrschaft kommende Tradition macht zunächst und zumeist das, was sie ‘übergibt’, (...)

The tradition that becomes dominant hereby makes what it “transmits” so inaccessible that at first, and for the most part, it obscures it instead. It hands over to the self-evident and obvious what has come down to us, and blocks access to the original “sources”, from which the traditional categories and concepts in part were actually drawn. The tradition even makes us forget there ever was such an origin.18

16In contrast, Edward Bernays—a member of the Creel Committee which influenced American public opinion in favor of entering WWI—regards such manipulation as necessary to ensure the obedience of the masses:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.19

  • 20 It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the (...)
  • 21 Обычай деспот меж людей”. Evgeny Onegin, 1.25.4. In Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin. Sobraniye Sochin (...)

17Though Bernays thinks of such techniques as a good thing (foreshadowing developments elsewhere in the twentieth century),20 for earlier thinkers like La Boétie, Milton, and Hume, it is crucial to keep a watchful eye on those who draw “the most Disciples” after them, for what they are teaching may well be the lessons of obedience to what Aleksandr Pushkin calls “Custom, despot between the people”.21

18Alongside the long narrative of demands for obedience, stands a counter-narrative and counter-instruction in our poetry, framed in terms of forbidden love and desire. Love challenges obedience; it is one of the precious few forces with sufficient power to enable its adherents to transcend themselves, their fears, and their isolation to such a degree that it is possible to refuse the demands of power. Love does not always succeed. But for its more radical devotees—the Dido of Ovid’s Heroides, the troubadour poets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Occitania, the famous lovers of Shakespeare, and Milton’s Adam and Eve—love is revolutionary, an attempt to tear down the world and build it anew, not in the image of authority, but that of a love that is freely chosen, freely given, and freely received. Love rejects the claims of law, property, and custom. It opposes the claims of determinism—whether theological (Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, and the notions of original sin and predestination), philosophical (Foucault, and the idea that impersonal systems of power create “free subjects” in their image), or biological (as in Baron d’Holbach’s 1770 work Système de la Nature, which maintains that all human thought and action results from material causes and effects).

  • 22 John Milton. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. London, 1644, Sig. A2r, https://books.google.c (...)
  • 23 Simon May. Love: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), xii.
  • 24 Ibid., 4–5.
  • 25 Obedience is the soil in which universities first took root. In their beginnings, universities were (...)

19These points of view can be found all too frequently, often dressed in the robes of what John Milton calls “pretended learning, mistaken among credulous men […] filling each estate of life and profession, with abject and servil[e] principles”.22 But in the more radical examples of our poetry, love defies servile principles, and is unimpressed by pretended learning. Neither is love merely a Romantic construct, a product of “the long nineteenth century [that extends] well into the twenty-first”,23 nor a secular replacement for religious traditions. As Simon May points out, “[b]y imputing to human love features properly reserved for divine love, such as the unconditional and the eternal, we falsify the nature of this most conditional and time-bound and earthly emotion, and force it to labor under intolerable expectations”.24 It is precisely “time-bound and earthly” love—a passion that always brings an awareness of time running out, and the concomitant urge to fight to extend that time even by the merest moments—that is the powerful counterweight to the “servil[e] principles” imposed on us by the individuals and institutions that demand our obedience. Too often, the poetry written about this love has been ill-served by its ancient and modern critics. Reading the theological and academic critics of poetry inspires the troubling realization that many such critics are part of the very system of authority and obedience which, La Boétie argues, accustoms people to tyrants, and against which the poetry itself protests.25

III. Love’s Critics: The Hermeneutics of Suspicion and the Authoritarian Approach to Criticism

  • 26 In the “human sciences”, critics often “act as agents of the micro-physics of power” (Elisabeth Str (...)
  • 27 Bob Altermeyer. The Authoritarian Specter (Cambridge: Havard University Press, 1996), 6.
  • 28 Along with the “right-wing” authoritarianism cited above, Altermeyer also defines a “left-wing” aut (...)
  • 29 Frederic Jameson. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell (...)
  • 30 “décèle l’indécelé dans le texte même qu’elle lit, et le rapporte à un autre texte, présent d’une a (...)
  • 31 BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) are used here throughout (except in quotations, where u (...)

20How does this alignment between literary criticism and repressive authority function? By denying poetry—particularly love poetry—the ability to serve as a challenge to the structures of authority in the societies in which it is written.26 As we will see especially clearly when we consider the commentary that surrounds the poetry of John Milton, the thinking behind such work often displays “a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established”,27 whether that authority is political, cultural, or intellectual. There is an endless body of criticism that serves not only to undermine poetry’s potential for political, theological, and even aesthetic resistance, but to restrict the manner in which readers encounter and understand poetry. From the beginning, together with the tradition of love poetry, a tradition of criticism (expressed now from both “conservative” and “radical” points of view)28 has grown that subordinates and dismisses human passion and desire, often arguing that what merely seems to be passionate love poetry is actually properly understood as something else (worship of God, subordination to Empire, entanglement within the structures of language itself). The pattern of such criticism—from the earliest readings of the Song of Songs to contemporary articles written about a carpe diem poem like Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time”—is to argue that the surface of a poem hides a “real” or “deeper” meaning that undermines the apparent one, and that the critic’s job is to tear away the misleading surface in order to expose the “truth” that lies beneath it. Frederic Jameson exemplifies this technique in his argument that the true function of the critic is to analyze texts and culture through “a vast interpretive allegory in which a sequence of historical events or texts and artifacts is rewritten in terms of some deeper, underlying, and more ‘fundamental’ narrative”.29 Louis Althusser describes interpretation similarly, as “detecting the undetected in the very same text it reads, and relating it to another text, present as a necessary absence in the first”.30 We can trace similar thinking all the way back to the controversies over Homer and Hesiod in the sixth century BCE:31

  • 32 Sir John Edwin Sandys. A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. I: From the Sixth Century B.C. to t (...)

The Homeric representations of the gods roused a protest on the part of the founder of the Eleatics, Xenophanes of Colophon (fl. 540–500 B. C), who says that “Homer and Hesiod have imputed to the gods all that is blame and shame for men”. […] In reply to protests such as these, some of the defenders of Homer maintained that the superficial meaning of his myths was not the true one, and that there was a deeper sense lying below the surface. This deeper sense was, in the Athenian age, called the ὑπόνοια [hyponoia–suspicion], and the ὑπόνοια of this age assumed the name of “allegories” in the times of Plutarch. […] Anaxagoras […] found in the web of Penelope an emblem of the rules of dialectic, the warp being the premises, the woof the conclusion, and the flame of the torches, by which she executed her task, being none other than the light of reason. […] But no apologetic interpretation of the Homeric mythology was of any avail to save Homer from being expelled with all the other poets from Plato’s ideal Republic.32

  • 33 Francois Rabelais, who finds a good reason to laugh at nearly everything, laughs also at this parti (...)
  • 34 “Ποιητὴν […] πάντα στοχάζεσθαι ψυχαγωγίας, οὐ διδασκαλίας”. Strabo, Geography, 1.2.3. In Strabo, Ge (...)
  • 35 Philip Sidney. The Defence of Poesie. In The Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney, Vol. III, ed. by (...)

21Such readings originally tried to defend poetry against its critics,33 though in a rather different sense than did Eratosthenes, the third-century BCE librarian of Alexandria, who held that “poets… in all things aim to persuade and delight, not instruct”,34 or Philip Sidney, for whom “the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth”.35 But suspicion has long since been adopted by the critics as a method of attack, rather more in the spirit of Plato than in the spirit of Sidney or those early defenders of Homer and Hesiod.

22Employing a method Paul Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of suspicion (les herméneutiques du soupçon), the modern version of this reading strategy is a matter of cunning (falsification) encountering a greater cunning (suspicion), as the “false” appearances of a text are systematically exposed by the critic:

  • 36 Troi maîtres en apperance exclusifs l’un de l’autre la dominent, Marx, Nietzsche et Freud. […] La c (...)

Three masters, who appear exclusive from each other, are dominant: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. […] The fundamental category of consciousness, for the three of them, is the relation between hidden-shown or, if one prefers, simulated-manifest. […] What they have all three tried, by different routes, is to align their “conscious” methods of decryption with the “unconscious” work of encryption they attributed to the will to power, to social being, to the unconscious psyche. […] What then distinguishes Marx, Freud and Nietzsche is the general hypothesis concerning both the process of “false” consciousness and the decryption method. The two go together, since the suspicious man reverses the falsifying work of the deceitful man.36

23For Ricoeur, the hermeneutics of suspicion is not something that is simply borrowed from the “three masters”; rather, it is modern literature itself that teaches a reader to read suspiciously:

  • 37 Ce peut être la fonction de la littérature la plus corrosive de contribuer à faire apparaître un le (...)

It may be the function of more corrosive literature to contribute to making a new type of reader appear, a suspicious reader, because the reading ceases to be a confident journey made in the company of a trustworthy narrator, but reading becomes a fight with the author involved, a struggle that brings the reader back to himself.37

  • 38 “Une problème nouveau est né: celui du mensonge de la conscience, de la conscience comme mensonge” (...)
  • 39 These readings demonstrate
    the thought pattern that’s at the basis of literary studies, and of any s
    (...)

24Yet suspicion is more fundamental, more deeply rooted than can be explained by the lessons of reading. Not long after outlining his analysis of the “three masters”, Ricoeur makes an even starker and more dramatic statement: “A new problem has emerged: that of the lie of consciousness, and of consciousness as a lie”.38 Here, if one desires it, is a warrant to regard all apparent meaning (indeed, all appearance of any kind) as a lie in need of being dismantled and exposed. Such ideas, and the reading strategies they have inspired, have done yeoman’s work in literary and historical scholarship over the last several decades. But as with so many useful tools, this one can be, and has been overused.39 Rita Felski pointedly questions why this approach has become “the default option” for many critics today:

  • 40 Rita Felski. The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 5.

Why is it that critics are so quick off the mark to interrogate, unmask, expose, subvert, unravel, demystify, destabilize, take issue, and take umbrage? What sustains their assurance that a text is withholding something of vital importance, that their task is to ferret out what lies concealed in its recesses and margins?40

  • 41 Ibid., 34.
  • 42 Fleming, 100.
  • 43 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 111.
  • 44 Ibid., 39.
  • 45 As Felski notes:
    Anyone who attends academic talks has learned to expect the inevitable question: “B
    (...)

25Maintaining that “suspicious reading has settled into a mandatory method rather than one approach among others”, Felski describes this method as “[i]ncreasingly prescriptive as well as excruciatingly predictable”, portraying its influence as one that “can be stultifying, pushing thought down predetermined paths and closing our minds to the play of detail, nuance, quirkiness, contradiction, happenstance”. Literary criticism that leans heavily on this method can lend itself to an authoritarian approach to reading, as “the critic conjures up ever more paralyzing scenarios of coercion and control”,41 while readers “have to appeal to the priestly class that alone can explain”42 the text. Such criticism treats texts as “imaginary opponents to be bested”43 in service of an accusatory, prosecutorial agenda, as “[s]omething, somewhere—a text, an author, a reader, a genre, a discourse, a discipline—is always already guilty of some crime”.44 The trials have become so zealous and overwhelmingly numerous that they have long since become formulaic,45 products of a template-driven approach whose verdicts can be anticipated at the beginning of the essays and books that use this method.

  • 46 Felski traces this attitude back to “the medieval heresy trial”, noting that “[h]eresy presented a (...)
  • 47 Karl Popper. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (New York: Basic Books (...)

26But why? What is the appeal of this approach? Karl Popper suggests that it is because “[t]hese theories appear to be able to explain practically everything”, while a devotion to this method has the effect “of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated”. Those who undergo this conversion behave in much the same way as new cult members, on the lookout for heresy,46 dividing the world into believers and unbelievers: “Once your eyes [are] thus opened you [see] confirmed instances everywhere: the world [is] full of verifications of the theory […] and unbelievers [are] clearly people who [do] not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it”.47

  • 48 Mark A. Wrathall. Heidegger and Unconcealment: Truth, Language, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge U (...)
  • 49 “hat ihren Grund in der Wahrheit als Unverborgenheit” (Martin Heidegger. Grundfragen der Philosophi (...)
  • 50 “Die Unverborgenheit des Seienden als solchen ist der Grund der Möglichkeit der Richtigkeit” (ibid. (...)

27In addition to the influence of Ricoeur’s “three masters”, this approach also hinges on on a widely-diffused (mis) use of the work of Martin Heidegger, especially his engagement with the meaning of “truth” or Wahrheit. For Heidegger, “the essence of truth is always understood in terms of unconcealment”,48 a notion he derives from the Greek term ἀλήθεια (aletheia—discovered or uncovered truth) in the pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus. Heidegger divides the concept of truth into correctness (Richtigkeit) or accurate correspondence of ideas with things as they presently are in the world, and the unconcealedness or discoveredness (Unverborgenheit or Entdecktheit) of entities. The first is necessarily grounded in, and dependent upon the second, for there can be no truth about things in the world without things in the world. For Heidegger, truth as correctness “has its basis in the truth as unconcealedness”,49 while “the unconcealment of Being as such is the basis for the possibility of correctness”.50 Thus Wahrheit is both the surface truth of what exists and the deeper truth that existence itself exists.

  • 51 In the extant fragments, Parmenides describes τὸ ἐὸν as the kind of eternal, unchanging whole that (...)
  • 52 According to Aristotle’s summary,
    The second of these is called “Achilles”. It is this in which the
    (...)
  • 53 The Instance (or the Particular) shares in the nature of the Eidos (or form/idea), though imperfect (...)

28But what has any of this to do with the reading of literature? Heidegger’s thought proposes a two-level structure, much like that found in Parmenides, who argued that τὸ ἐὸν to eon, or What Is—should be understood in terms of an unchanging reality behind the changing appearances of the world.51 It is also seen in the paradoxes of Zeno (designed, as in the example of Achilles and the Tortoise, to demonstrate the unreality of the world of motion and appearances52), and the dialogues of Plato (for whom the eidos or Idea is the ultimate reality that the world of appearances merely exemplifies or participates in—μέθεξις / methexis—in an incomplete and shadowy way53). Heidegger argues that to get at truth not merely in its surface, concrete, or ontic sense, but in its deeper, structural, ontological sense, the seeker must go through a process of unveiling, reaching a state he called disclosedness (Erschslossenheit), accompanied by a process of clearing (Lichtung), removing what is inessential and shining a light (Licht) on the core that remains.

  • 54 Walter A. Brogan refers to Derrida’s concept of différance as “a radical and liberated affirmation (...)
  • 55 “De Man’s relation to Heidegger is especially contorted. De Man from the start contests Heidegger’s (...)
  • 56 In Foucault’s account, “Heidegger has always, for me, been the essential philosopher” (“Heidegger a (...)
  • 57 For Heidegger, art itself (and not its interpretation or interpreters) is that which reveals (or un (...)

29The basic working method of much literary criticism in its modern European and American forms is indebted to Heidegger’s recovery and reformulation of this pre-Socratic notion of truth as disguised, hidden away, and obscured by a layer of what one might call “lesser truth” or illusion. Heidegger’s influence on French thinkers like Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida is profound,54 and its traces work their way through American criticism like that of “Deconstructionists” such as Paul de Man,55 and even the “New Historicist” work of Stephen Greenblatt (through Foucault56) and the innumerable scholars and critics who have followed in his wake in recent decades. Much of the criticism we encounter in this book operates on the assumption that a poem has a surface (the actual words and relationships between them) that must be cleared away in order to reveal the truth. The complexity of Heidegger’s thought is often left behind by such a process,57 but what remains is the basic notion that the truth of a poem is concealed by its words, and by its writer, and that the job of the critic is to pull back the curtains.

  • 58 For Roland Barthes, the critical search for “truth” is quite useless, as there is no “truth”, nor e (...)
  • 59 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 69.
  • 60 “The first pivots on a division between manifest and latent, overt and covert, what is revealed and (...)
  • 61 Richard Rorty. The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 1 (...)

30Some critics argue, however, that “truth” is a naïve concept, especially where the interpretation of poetry is concerned.58 These critics argue that “to impute a hidden core of meaning [is] to subscribe to a metaphysics of presence, a retrograde desire for origins, a belief in an ultimate or foundational reality”.59 Richard Rorty addresses the split between the two camps that Felski calls “Digging Down” and “Standing Back”60 by first emphasizing their similarity, arguing that “they both start from the pragmatist refusal to think of truth as correspondance to reality”,61 before outlining the crucial difference:

  • 62 Ibid., 152.

The first kind of critic […] thinks that there really is a secret code and that once it’s discovered we shall have gotten the text right. He believes that criticism is discovery rather than creation. [The other kind of critic] doesn’t care about the distinction between discovery and creation […] He is in it for what he can get out of it, not for the satisfaction of getting something right.62

  • 63 Such a “Nietzschean” reading can be seen in J. Hillis Miller’s deconstructive reading of Percy Shel (...)
  • 64 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 20.
  • 65 New Historicism falls into the first camp. It is perpetually in a state of high alert for the opera (...)

31Though Rorty might be accused of cynicism here, there is an identifiable split between the kinds of critics who apply a hermeneutics of suspicion in what might be called a “Freudian” sense—digging down through the layers and strata of a culture or text as a psychoanalyst would dig through the manifest content of a patient’s dreams in search of a deeper, but hidden, content (or truth)—and those who apply a hermeneutics of suspicion in what might be called a “Nietzschean” sense, stripping away the pretenses and postures of a culture or text in order to demonstrate that it is pretenses and postures all the way down (that there is no truth but the provisional one we create, dismantle, modify, destroy, etc.).63 But as Felski points out, “[in]spite of the theoretical and political disagreements between styles of criticism, there is a striking resemblance at the level of ethos—one that is nicely captured by François Cusset in his phrase ‘suspicion without limits’”.64 Each kind of criticism is in the business of near-perpetual unveiling. Where they differ is that one school seeks to reveal what they believe lies behind the veils, while the other school seeks to reveal the “fact” that there are only veils with nothing behind them.65

  • 66 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 148. Bruce Fleming expresses a similar idea: “[t] he people in char (...)
  • 67 Kate McGowan. Key Issues in Critical and Cultural Theory (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2007), (...)
  • 68 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 143.
  • 69 Ibid., 138.
  • 70 In Noam Chomsky’s view, such interrogations are impediments to meaningful resistance:
    In the United
    (...)
  • 71 This term, from Judges 12:5–6, comes out of a context of war and violence, in which one tribe neede (...)
  • 72 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham and London: Duke (...)

32Such skeptical criticism, whose two branches are more alike than different, “thinks of itself as battling orthodoxy yet it is now the reigning orthodoxy, no longer oppositional but obligatory”.66 This “obligatory” stance is frequently taken up in service of what its practitioners claim is an adversarial agenda, a way of reading texts that resists the ideologies and practices of power by revealing or unveiling them. It is in such criticism that we encounter terms like interrogation, with all of its none-too-subliminal suggestions of violence; a fire-against-fire use of violent analysis to uncover or reveal (or fabricate) a “violence” inherent in the text. As Kate McGowan puts it, “[t]he value of unrelenting interrogation is the value of resistance”.67 But it is often “far from evident” how interrogations of poems, plays, and novels “published in […] undersubscribed academic journal[s]”68 serve as effective resistance to anything except poetry itself. Such criticism and its “close ties to modes of professionalization and scholarly gatekeeping make it hard to sustain the claim that there is something intrinsically radical or resistant”69 about either its style or its substance.70 Suspicion becomes its own point, perpetuating itself for itself, operating as a tribal shibboleth71 that allows members of an in-group to recognize one another. In Eve Sedgwick’s view, readings that stem from this method battle with and obscure poetry, “blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand”.72 As these alternative ways of understanding are blotted out, poetry, and its readers, can be reshaped into a desired ideological form. This reshaping presents itself in a number of ways, but two lines of argument have long been dominant: first, the idea that poetry, and language more generally, refers only to itself; and second, the idea that the author is “dead” and irrelevant—perhaps even an impediment—to the understanding of poetry.

IV. The Critics: Poetry Is About Poetry

  • 73 “On a constaté avec surprise que la question: ‘Qu’est-ce que la littérature?’ n’avait jamais reçu q (...)
  • 74 “pour celui-ci, l’art est une fuite; pour celui-la, un moyen de conquérir” (Jean-Paul Sartre. Qu’es (...)
  • 75 “l’écrivain, homme libre s’adressant à des hommes libres, n’a qu’un seul sujet: la liberté” (ibid.,(...)
  • 76 [l]’art de la prose est solidaire du seul régime où la prose garde un sens: la démocratie” (ibid., (...)

33This notion can be traced to Maurice Blanchot, a right-wing journalist who became a left-wing philosopher and literary critic after the Second World War. Blanchot argues—in a sideswipe at Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1948 work What is Literature?—that “it has been found, surprisingly, that the question ‘What is literature?’ has never received anything other than insignificant answers”.73 Sartre argues that the poet writes to escape the world, while the prose writer engages with it, “for one, art is a flight; for the other, a means of conquest”.74 The politically-committed prose writer works for the cause of liberty: “the writer, a free man addressing other free men, has only one subject: liberty”,75 and such work only has meaning in a free society: “the art of prose is tied to the only regime in which prose holds any meaning: democracy”.76

  • 77 “adressée au langage, derrière l’homme qui écrit et lit, par le langage devenu littérature” (Blanch (...)
  • 78 “l’œuvre d’art, l’œuvre littéraire—n’est nini achevé ni inachevée: elle est. Ce qu’elle dit, c’est (...)
  • 79 Eric Richtmeyer. “Maurice Blanchot: Saboteur of the Writers’ War”. Proceedings of the Western Socie (...)

34While Sartre’s ideas are certainly contestable, Blanchot goes to the opposite extreme: what writers seek to accomplish is irrelevant, since the meaning of literature, its essence, its “one subject” is nothing more than language itself. For Blanchot, the question of literature only finds meaningful answers when it is “addressed to language, behind the man who writes and reads, to the language that becomes literature”.77 Literature says nothing except to affirm its own existence: “the work of art, the literary work—is neither completed nor unfinished: it is. What it says is only this: it is—and nothing more. Apart from that, it is nothing. Whoever wants it to express more, will find nothing, find that it expresses nothing”.78 This articulates a view of writing in which words do not and cannot represent any world in which writers and readers live: for Blanchot, the “writer must commit to […] words rather than the things that words represent. This is nothing less than the writer’s abandonment of representation’s claim to be able truly to conjure things before the reader”.79

35This basic idea informs a great deal of modern criticism, much of it based in French thought of the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, Jacques Derrida argues that one cannot understand a text by referring to something outside it:

  • 80 Et pourtant, si la lecture ne doit pas se contenter de redouble le texte, elle ne peut légitimement (...)

Yet if reading must not simply redouble the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than itself, to a referent (metaphysical reality, historical, psycho-biographical, etc.) or to a signified outside text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. This is why the methodological considerations that we risk here on an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above, as to the absence of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is no outside-text.80

36Similarly, Jacques Lacan argues that language is a closed system, in which our signifiers cannot ever point to a “thing” that is somehow outside the system:

  • 81 “Précisons donc ce que le langage signifie en ce qu’il communique: il n’est ni signal, ni signe, ni (...)

Therefore, let me specify what language means in that which it communicates; it is neither signal, nor sign, nor even a sign of the thing as an external reality. The relationship between signifier and signified is entirely enclosed in the order of language itself, which completely determines the two terms.81

  • 82 “unit non une chose et un nom, mais un concept et une image acoustique” (Ferdinand de Saussure. Cou (...)
  • 83 “τρία φάμενοι συζυγεῖν ἀλλήλοις, τό τε σημαινόμενον καὶ τὸ σημαῖνον καὶ τὸ τυγχάνον” (Sextus Empiri (...)

37These ideas can be traced back further to the ideas of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose work (first published in 1916) analyzes language as a system of signs, which “unite not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image”82 or what he will later refer to as a signified and a signifier, using ideas that date back to Sextus Empiricus (c. 160–210 CE) who claimed of the Stoics “three things, they say, are yoked with one another, the signified, the signifier, and the thing that happens to exist”.83 Saussure, unlike the Stoics, attempts to define linguistic signs purely internally, with as little reference as possible to any “thing that happens to exist”. Such signs are not to be read in terms of any positive content or reference, but in terms of their difference from other signs in the overall system:

  • 84 “Quand on dit qu’elles correspondent à des concepts, on sous-entend que ceux-ci sont purement diffé (...)

When we say they correspond to concepts, we imply that these are purely differential, defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with other terms of the system.84

38In fact, for Saussure, language is entirely composed of differential relationships, a series of differences without any positive terms:

  • 85 dans la langue il n’y a que des différences. Bien plus: une différence suppose en général des terme (...)

[I]n language there are only differences. Even more: a difference generally supposes positive terms between which it is established; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that pre-exist the language system, but only conceptual differences and phonic differences issuing from the system.85

  • 86 It should be noted here that these observations apply to Sassure’s discussion of what he calls lang (...)

39Saussure’s analysis treats language as a sealed system, internally-focused and without reference.86 In Saussure’s view, the basic unit of language, le signe linguistique, is arbitrary. It has no necessary link with the world of objects and actions outside of language, and is simply an association of sounds and concepts:

  • 87 “Le lien unisssant le signifiant au signifié est arbitraire, ou encore, puisque nous entendons par (...)

The unifying link between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, or again, as we intend by signs the whole that results from the association of a signifier with a signified, we can say it more simply: the linguistic sign is arbitrary.87

  • 88 “Blanchot […] rendu possible tout discours sur la littérature” […] “un creux qui parcourt comme un (...)
  • 89 “Die Dichtkunst ist die allgemeine Kunst des in sich freigewordenen, nicht an das äußerlich-sinnlic (...)
  • 90 οὐ γὰρ φύσει ἑκάστῳ πεφυκέναι ὄνομα οὐδὲν οὐδενί, ἀλλὰ νόμῳκαὶ ἔθει τῶν ἐθισάντων τε καὶ καλούντων(...)

40Blanchot views literature in much the same way Derrida, Lacan, and Saussure view language, and this view of the self-referentiality of both language and literature has been enormously important for later critics. “Blanchot […] made possible all discourse on literature” in Foucault’s view, reducing it to “an empty space that runs as a grand movement through all literary languages”.88 In so doing, Blanchot owes a significant debt to Hegel, who in his Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik argues that poetry, properly speaking, is disconnected from materiality or any concrete reference to the material world: “Poetry is the universal art of self-liberated spirit, not bound to external sensuous material for its realization, but moving only in the inner space and inner time of ideas and feelings”.89 However, Blanchot adds a twist to Hegel’s disconnection of poetry and materiality by working with an idea of language as an arbitrary yoking of words and ideas, pursuing an argument that ultimately derives from Plato in the dialogue Cratylus. In that work, Hermogenes disputes Cratylus’s notion that words are derived directly from nature, by insisting that “on the contrary, for their origins, each name is produced, not by nature, but by the customs, habits, and character of those who are both accustomed to use it and called it forth”.90

  • 91 In a discussion of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ideas about “propositional” versus “eminent” or “absolute” (...)

41From Hegel’s declaration that poetry is “not bound to external sensuous material”, to Blanchot’s idea that the question of poetry is properly “addressed to language” and “expresses nothing” is but a short step, and thus we find ourselves facing contemporary critics who advance the argument to insist that poetry is always and only about itself.91 However, the linguistic ideas that underlie much of this (post-Hegel) have been seriously questioned by recent research:

  • 92 Damián E. Blasia, Søren Wichmannd, Harald Hammarströmb, Peter F. Stadlerc, and Morten H. Christians (...)

a careful statistical examination of words from nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages reveals that unrelated languages very often use (or avoid) the same sounds for specific referents. For instance, words for tongue tend to have l or u, “round” often appears with r, and “small” with i. These striking similarities call for a reexamination of the fundamental assumption of the arbitrariness of the sign.92

  • 93 The irony of such claims is that a number of later thinkers who engage with Saussure rewrite him, c (...)

42These new findings threaten to unsettle the entire line of thought based on a long-held assumption, including the oft-repeated claims that language refers only to itself and that poetry refers only to poetry. Perhaps, at long last, such claims can be reconsidered.93

V. The Critics: The Author Is Dead (or Merely Irrelevant)

43This idea is one we will encounter, among other places, in critical work on John Donne, a poet whose life and poetry might otherwise seem inseparable, so closely do the emotional themes of the poetry match the known struggles of the poet. The idea that emotions, thoughts, and experiences of the poet are immaterial to an understanding of the poem is one that has been with us since the advent of the so-called New Criticism. Wimsatt and Beardsley have argued that the author’s intentions are both undiscoverable and irrelevant:

  • 94 W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy”. The Sewanee Review, 54: 3 (July–S (...)

[a] poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge.94

44From the idea that a poem is “embodied in language” and “detached from the author”, it is but a short step to criticism that insists a poem is solely about language, and communicates no other meaning of any kind. At the time Wimsatt and Beardsley were writing this article, this argument was already being made across the Atlantic.

  • 95 Ibid., 487.
  • 96 “nous savons que, pour rendre à l’écriture son avenir, il faut en renverser le mythe: la naissance (...)

45The irony of the authors’ closing statement—“Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle”95—is that too much criticism of the last several decades has been written by those who have bypassed consulting the oracle by becoming the oracle. This idea can be seen in more highly developed form in the notion promulgated by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in the 1960s that the author does not exist for readers in any traditional sense—what exists or is perceived to exist is an author function. For Barthes, “we know that in order to give writing its future, the myth must be reversed: the birth of the reader must be paid for by the death of the author”.96 In Foucault’s view, writing refers primarily to two things—language, and the death of the author:

  • 97 On peut dire d’abord que l’écriture d’aujourd’hui s’est affranchie du thème de l’expression: elle n (...)

We can say first that today’s writing has freed itself of the theme of expression: it refers only to itself, and yet it is not caught in the form of interiority; it identifies with its own unfolded externality. […] Writing unfolds like a game […] where the writing subject constantly disappears. […] The writing subject destroys all the signs of his particular individuality; the writer’s hallmark is nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must take the role of death in the game of writing. All of this is well known; and in its own good time, criticism and philosophy has taken note of this disappearance or this death of the author.97

46In turn, the entire concept owes a debt to the nineteenth-century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who in “Crise de Vers” argued for a pure form of poetry from which the author would be eliminated:

  • 98 L’œuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poëte, qui cède l’initiative aux mots, par le he (...)

The pure work implies the disappearance of the speaker of poetry, who yields the initiative to words, mobilized by the clash of their own inequality; they illuminate each other’s reflections, passing like a virtual trail of fire on precious stones, replacing the breathing perceptible in the old lyrical verse or the enthusiastic personality that directed the phrase. The structure of a book of verse must be everywhere its own, innate, eliminating chance; still, the author must be omitted.98

47This decades-long trend has marked a struggle in which critics have kidnapped poetry, subordinated it to their own imperatives, and reduced literature to the status of just one more cultural “text”, or object of analysis, upon which to demonstrate their acumen. For Paul de Man, such criticism has a quasi-theological function akin to unmasking idolatry:

  • 99 Paul de Man. Blindness and Insight, 12.

Criticism […] functions more and more as a demystification of the belief that literature is a privileged language. The dominant strategy consists of showing that certain claims to authenticity attributed to literature are in fact expressions of a desire that, like all desires, falls prey to the duplicities of expression. The so-called “idealism” of literature is then shown to be an idolatry, a fascination with a false image that mimics the presumed attributes of authenticity when it is in fact just the hollow mask with which a frustrated, defined consciousness tries to cover up its own negativity.99

  • 100 Geoffrey Hartman. Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (New Haven: Yale Unive (...)
  • 101 Ibid., 202.

48Geoffrey Hartman speaks of this as a criticism that “liberates […] critical activity from its positive or reviewing function, from its subordination to the thing commented on”.100 Hartman argues for infinite freedom for the critic, since “there is no absolute knowledge but rather a textual infinite, an interminable web of texts or interpretations”, which needn’t be subordinate to something called “literature” because, as Hartman puts it, “literary commentary is literature”.101

  • 102 Deborah Larson, John Donne and Twentieth-Century Criticism (London: Associated University Presses, (...)
  • 103 Ibid., 14.
  • 104 Ibid.

49With each new “reading” of a poem, or play, or novel, etc., the critics displace the original authors, making themselves supreme as both author and interpreter. But not quite all readers have given their assent to this state of affairs. With the poet John Donne, for example, what upsets a critic like Deborah Larson is that too many readers refuse to align themselves with this view, resulting in “the continuing interpretations of Donne’s poetry through his life and of his life through his poetry”.102 Larson argues that such meetings of literature and life are wholly inappropriate, insisting that “Donne’s poems should be recognized as a group of mainly unrelated monologues, spoken by several varying and contradictory personae playing a number of roles”.103 Note the language of compulsion, even duty—the poems should be read as unrelated, not only to the life of the poet, but to each other. The problem, however, is that too many readers are breaking the rules: otherwise we “would not have been arguing for the last hundred years over Donne’s rakish youth and his conversion to ‘sincere’ love, nor would any one of his poses become the dominant one, as has often happened”.104

  • 105 T. S. Eliot. “Donne in Our Time”. A Garland for John Donne, 1631–1931, ed. by Theodore Spencer (Cam (...)
  • 106 Larson, 71.
  • 107 Many critics would sign on to half of Barthes’ death-of-the-author formula, while ignoring the part (...)

50This, in a nutshell, is what a great deal of literary criticism has become over the last several decades—an explicit argument that art should be held at a wide remove from life, that art has little or nothing to do with the artist except as a locus of linguistic, socio-historical, economic, and political forces, and that art reflects nothing more than a set of sterile techniques and conventions. This attitude of superiority of the critic to the poet, with its distancing of life from poetry, is aptly expressed by the poet-critic T. S. Eliot: “If Donne in youth was a rake, then I suspect he was a conventional rake; if Donne in age was devout, then I suspect he was conventionally devout”.105 The obvious gesture here is reduction—Donne’s lived experience is described as “conventional”, and therefore of small importance, scant account, and slight claim on the attention of the critic who tells readers move along, nothing to see here. But, as Larson complains, “[b]iographical interpretation […] is difficult to escape from, even with a conscious effort”.106 Why should it be escaped from? Why may it not be one tool among many? Because to the extent that the poet is allowed to exist, the free reign of the critic is threatened.107

51The authoritarian relationship between critic and poet goes back to the very beginnings of what we define as the Western tradition:

  • 108 G. R. F. Ferrari. “Plato and Poetry”. In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 1: Class (...)

Philosophy has long had a need to keep poetry in its place—as Plato, alluding to the “ancient quarrel” between the two, was among the first to tell us (Rep. 10.607b). But what is striking in Plato’s attitude is that […] he regards poetry at all times and in all its uses with suspicion, as a substance inherently volatile.108

52Such hostile criticism reduces poetry to mere “convention”, or it views poetry as a secret code which plays “hide and seek” with its readers, as critics argue that the “real” meaning of the poetry is either wildly different from the apparent meaning, or is so lost in textual, contextual, and linguistic tangles as to be wholly undiscoverable.

  • 109 The most famous example of this is Paul de Man, who in his work Allegories of Reading (1979), rewro (...)
  • 110 Noam Chomsky. Online discussion that took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine’s Left On-Line Bulletin Board. (...)

53This book argues for readings of love poetry that oppose such hostility, that challenge the free reign of the critics, and resist criticism’s unrelenting interrogation of poetry. Along the way we will frequently encounter critics for whom love in poetry must be defined reductively as a “convention” or a “literary commonplace”, or in one especially egregious case, as “a citation” of the perceived experiences of others. We will encounter eminent scholars who describe individual poets as “sick”, and others who would—if only they could—literally rather than interpretively rewrite the poems and other texts upon which they expound.109 This authoritarian approach to literary criticism is perhaps an understandable side-effect of what Noam Chomsky calls “the self-selection for obedience that is […] part of elite education”.110 It reflects the goals that Fichte, the German Idealist philosopher, outlines for the new education (der neuen Erziehung):

  • 111 “Willst du etwas über ihn vermögen, so mußt du mehr tun, als ihn blos anreden, du mußt ihn machen, (...)

If you would have power over a man, you have to do more than merely address him; you must shape him, and shape him so that he cannot want otherwise than you would have him want.111

54Such critics often seem unable or unwilling to see poetry as anything other than a self-referential system of conventions, tropes, and signs, disconnected from life, irrelevant except for the urgent need felt by the critics to make sure that readers are trained to see as they see, and read as they read. Obedience, once selected, becomes the lens through which these critics read, and the method by which they would shape readers in their own image, so that they cannot want otherwise, a process we can see at work in the long history of the relation between literature and criticism, beginning with the allegorical readings of the Song of Songs.

  • 112 Though Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus claim that “[i] n the last decade or so, we have been drawn t (...)
  • 113 “Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, / Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum” (Johann Wolfgang Von Go (...)

55A consideration of the Song of Songs and its interpretive history reveals that criticism claiming to expose the hidden has a very long history, shaping the way we have been taught to read and understand poetry and other literary forms for over two thousand years. The earliest examples are not rooted merely in suspicion, but in the openly-expressed desire to exercise authority over the hearts and minds of others, and many modern examples of suspicion-based criticism retain more than a trace of that original impulse. But if we can learn to hear their voices once again, the poems considered here have more than enough power to fight back against such entrenched ways of reading—not merely through the brilliance of their surfaces,112 but through the passionate depths of their engagements with the love that was once called fin’amor. Such love—often forbidden by those who would be obeyed—is presented by the poets as a temptation, a seduction, a siren’s call to the too-easily missed experience of being truly and fully alive. As Goethe’s Mephistopheles slyly observes: “Gray, dear Friend, is all theory, / And green is life’s golden tree”,113 and in such beautifully mortal seductions lies the heart of love’s response to its critics.

Notes

1 Aharon Ben-Zeʼev and Ruhama Goussinsky. In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 63.

2 This working definition is at odds with much, though by no means all, of the specialized scholarship on troubadour poetry. One of the major contentions of this book is that too much of the work by specialists in many literary fields minimizes, reinterprets, or outright ignores the human elements of love and desire in poetry, a situation which scholars like Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay admit has gone too far. See “Introduction”. In Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, eds. The Troubadours: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 6.

3 ὅτι μὲν τοίνυν εἰσὶ φύσει τινὲς οἱ μὲν ἐλεύθεροι οἱ δὲ δοῦλοι, φανερόν, οἷς καὶ συμφέρει τὸ δουλεύειν καὶ δίκαιόν ἐστιν” (Aristotle. Politics, ed. by Harris Rackham [Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press], 1932, 1255a, 22, 24). Unless otherwise noted, all translations are ours.

4 “Nullus autem natura, in qua prius Deus hominem condidit, seruus est hominis aut peccati. Verum et poenalis seruitus ea lege ordinatur, quae naturalem ordinem conseruari iubet, perturbari uetat; quia si contra eam legem non esset factum, nihil esset poenali seruitute coërcendum” (Augustine of Hippo. De Civitate Dei [Paris: 1586], Book 19, Chapter 15, 250, https://books.google.com/books?id=pshhAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA250).

5 “Ordo autem iustitiae requirit ut inferiores suis superioribus obediant, aliter enim non posset humanarum rerum status conservari” (Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae: Vol. 41, Virtues of Justice in the Human Community, ed. by T. C. O’Brien [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006], 2a2ae. Q104, A6, 72).

6 “Nun aber kein Mensch von Natur Christ oder fromm ist, sondern sie allzumal Sünder und böse sind, wehret ihnen Gott allen durchs Gesetz, daß sie ihre Bosheit nicht äußerlich mit Werken nach ihrem Mutwillen zu üben wagen” (Martin Luther. Von Weltlicher Obrigkeit [Berlin: Tredition Classics, 2012], 10).

7 Verùm si in Dei verbum respicimus, longius nos deducet, ut non eorum modò principú imperio subditi simus, qui probè, & qua debét fide munere suo erga nos defungútur: sed omnium qui quoquo modo rerum potiuntur, etiamsi nihil minus praestét quàm quod ex officio principum. […] simul tamen declarat, qualescunque sint, nonnisi à se habere imperium.
Jean Calvin.
Institutio Christianae Religionis (Geneva: Oliua Roberti Stephani, 1559), 559, https://books.google.com/books?id=6ysy-UX89f4C&dq=Oliua+Roberti+Stephani,+1559&pg=PA559

8 “Il n’est pas croyable comme le peuple, dès lors qu’il est assujetti, tombe si soudain en un tel et si profond oubli de la franchise, qu’il n’est pas possible qu’il se réveille pour la ravoir, servant si franchement et tant volontiers qu’on dirait, à le voir, qu’il a non pas perdu sa liberté, mais gagné sa servitude” (Étienne de La Boétie. Discours de la Servitude Volontaire [1576] [Paris: Éditions Bossard, 1922], 67, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:La_Boétie_-_Discours_de_la_servitude_volontaire.djvu/73).

9 “Ils disent qu’ils ont été toujours sujets, que leurs pères ont ainsi vécu; ils pensent qu’ils sont tenus d’endurer le mal et se font accroire par exemple, et fondent eux-mêmes sous la longueur du temps la possession de ceux qui les tyrannisent; mais pour vrai, les ans ne donnent jamais droit de mal faire, ains agrandissent l’injure” (ibid., 74–75, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:La_Boétie_-_Discours_de_la_servitude_volontaire.djvu/80).

10 “[L]a première raison pourquoi les hommes servent volontiers, est pour ce qu’ils naissent serfs et sont nourris tels. De celle-ci en vient une autre, qu’aisément les gens deviennent, sous les tyrans, lâches et efféminés” (ibid., 77–78, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:La_Boétie_-_Discours_de_la_servitude_volontaire.djvu/83).

11 “il n’a jamais été que les tyrans, pour s’assurer, ne se soient efforcés d’accoutumer le peuple envers eux, non seulement à obéissance et servitude, mais encore à dévotion” (ibid., 89, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:La_Boétie_-_Discours_de_la_servitude_volontaire.djvu/95).

12 Renoncer à sa liberté, c’est renoncer à sa qualité d’homme, aux droits de l’humanité, même à ses devoirs. […] Une telle renonciation est incompatible avec la nature de l’homme, et c’est ôter toute moralité à ses actions que d’ôter toute liberté à sa volonté. Enfin c’est une convention vaine et contradictoire de stipuler d’une part une autorité absolue et de l’autre une obéissance sans bornes.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Contrat Social. In The Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rosseau, Vol. 2, ed. by C. E. Vaughan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915), 28, https://books.google.com/books?id=IqhBAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA28

13 “Mais certes la coutume, qui a en toutes choses grand pouvoir sur nous, n’a en aucun endroit si grande vertu qu’en ceci, de nous enseigner à servir” (La Boétie, 68, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:La_Boétie_-_Discours_de_la_servitude_volontaire.djvu/74).

14 John Milton. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (London, 1649), 1, Sig. A2r, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A50955.0001.001/1:2?rgn=div1;view=fulltext;q1=Tenure+of+Kings+and+Magistrates and https://books.google.com/books?id=EIg-AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA1 (1650edition).

15 John Milton. Eikonoklastes (London, 1650), 3, Sig. A3r, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A50898.0001.001/1:2?rgn=div1;view=fulltext;rgn1=author;q1=Milton%2C+John

16 John Milton. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. London, 1644, Sig. A2r, https://books.google.com/books?id=6oI-AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP9

17 David Hume. “Of the First Principles of Government”. In Essays, Literary, Moral, and Political (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1870), 23, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t1fj2db8p;view=1up;seq=27

18 “Die hierbei zur Herrschaft kommende Tradition macht zunächst und zumeist das, was sie ‘übergibt’, so wenig zugänglich, daß sie es vielmehr verdeckt. Sie überantwortet das Überkommene der Selbstverständlichkeit und verlegt den Zugang zu den ursprünglichen ‘Quellen’, daraus die überlieferten Kategorien und Begriffe z. T. in echter Weise geschöpft wurden. Die Tradition macht sogar eine solche Herkunft überhaupt vergessen” (Sein und Zeit [Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1967], 21).

19 Edward Bernays. Propaganda (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928), 9, https://archive.org/details/EdwardL.BernaysPropaganda#page/n3

20 It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind. […] If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it? (Bernays, 27, 47). Bernays’ ideas are not far removed from those being promulgated on the other side of the Atlantic ocean by an aspiring literary critic and author whose Ph.D. in literature was obtained at the University of Heidelberg in 1921, and whose critical acumen was given a real-world application approximately a decade later:
Propaganda is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. […] Whether or not it conforms adequately to aesthetic demands is meaningless. […] The end of our movement was to mobilize the people, to organize the people, and win them for the idea of national revolution.
Denn Propaganda ist nicht Selbstzweck, sondern Mittel zum Zweck. […] ob es in jedem Falle nun scharfen ästhetischen Forderungen entspricht oder nicht, ist dabei gleichgültig. […] Der Zweck unserer Bewegung war, Menschen zu mobilisieren, Menschen zu organisieren und für die nationalrevolutionäre Idee zu gewinnen. [March 15, 1933].
In Joseph Goebbels,
Revolution der Deutschen: 14 Jahre Nationalsozialismus (Oldenburg: Gerhard Stalling, 1933), 139.

21 Обычай деспот меж людей”. Evgeny Onegin, 1.25.4. In Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin. Sobraniye Sochinenii. 10 Vols., ed. by D. D. Blagoi, S. M. Bondi, V. V. Vinogradov and Yu. G. Oksman (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1959), Vol. 4, 20, http://rvb.ru/pushkin/01text/04onegin/01onegin/0836.htm

22 John Milton. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. London, 1644, Sig. A2r, https://books.google.com/books?id=6oI-AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP9

23 Simon May. Love: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), xii.

24 Ibid., 4–5.

25 Obedience is the soil in which universities first took root. In their beginnings, universities were training grounds for service in the church or at court (for those students who took degrees), and institutions that inculcated obedience in the wider population. The subversiveness of an Abelard or a Wycliffe—which in each case came at a far greater cost than any paid, or even contemplated by the academic critic today—is most clearly understood in that context. This is best illustrated by the Authentica Habita, the 1158 decree of the German Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa) granting special privileges to teachers and students of the still-forming University of Bologna in order that “students, and divine teachers of the sacred law, […] may come and live in security” (“scholaribus, et maxime divinarum atque sacrarum legum professoribus, […] veniant, et in eis secure habitient”). This decree also outlined what Frederick believed to be the essential purpose of education: “knowledge of the world is to illuminate and inform the lives of our subjects, to obey God, and ourself, his minister” (“scientia mundus illuminatur ad obediendum deo et nobis, eius ministris, vita subjectorum informatur”) (Paul Krueger, Theodor Mommsen, Rudolf Schoell, and Whilhelm Kroll, eds. Corpus Iuris Civilis, Vol. 2 [Berlin: Apud Weidmannos, 1892], 511, https://books.google.com/books?id=2hvTAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA511).

26 In the “human sciences”, critics often “act as agents of the micro-physics of power” (Elisabeth Strowick. “Comparative Epistemology of Suspicion: Psychoanalysis, Literature, and the Human Sciences”. Science in Context, 18.4 [2005], 654, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0269889705000700). Noam Chomsky, when asked how “intellectuals […] get away with their complicity [with] powerful interests”, gives a telling response: “They are not getting away with anything. They are, in fact, performing a service that is expected of them by the institutions for which they work, and they willingly, perhaps unconsciously, fulfill the requirements of the doctrinal system” (“Beyond a Domesticating Education: A Dialogue”. In Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Miseducation [Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004], 17).

27 Bob Altermeyer. The Authoritarian Specter (Cambridge: Havard University Press, 1996), 6.

28 Along with the “right-wing” authoritarianism cited above, Altermeyer also defines a “left-wing” authoritarianism which displays “a high degree of submission to authorities who are dedicated to overthrowing the established authorities” (219).

29 Frederic Jameson. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 13.

30 “décèle l’indécelé dans le texte même qu’elle lit, et le rapporte à un autre texte, présent d’une absence nécessaire dans le premier” (Louis Althusser. Lire le Capital [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996], 23).

31 BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) are used here throughout (except in quotations, where usage may differ) in lieu of the theologically-inflected BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini).

32 Sir John Edwin Sandys. A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. I: From the Sixth Century B.C. to the End of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 29–31, https://archive.org/stream/historyofclassic00sanduoft#page/29

33 Francois Rabelais, who finds a good reason to laugh at nearly everything, laughs also at this particular absurdity of literary history:
Do you believe, in faith, that Homer, when he was writing the
Iliad and Odyssey, thought of the allegories that Plutarch, Heraclides Ponticq, Eustalius, and Cornutus dressed him in, and which Politian took from them? If you believe that, you don’t approach by foot or by hand anywhere near my opinion.
Croyez vous en vostre foy qu’oncques Homere, escripvant Iliade et Odyssée, pensast es allegories lesquelles de lui ont calefreté Plutarque, Heraclides Ponticq, Eustatie, Phornute, et ce d’yceulx Politian ha desrobé? Si li croyez, vous n’aprochez ne de piedz, ne de mains a mon opinion.) (Francois Rabelais. “Prolog”. Gargantua et Pantagruel. In Œuvres de Rabelais, Vol. 1 [Paris: Dalibon, 1823], 24–25, https://books.google.com/books?id=a6MGAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA24)

34 “Ποιητὴν […] πάντα στοχάζεσθαι ψυχαγωγίας, οὐ διδασκαλίας”. Strabo, Geography, 1.2.3. In Strabo, Geography, Vol. I: Books 1–2, ed. by Horace Leonard Jones. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1917, 54.

35 Philip Sidney. The Defence of Poesie. In The Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney, Vol. III, ed. by Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923), 29, https://archive.org/stream/completeworks03sidnuoft#page/29

36 Troi maîtres en apperance exclusifs l’un de l’autre la dominent, Marx, Nietzsche et Freud. […] La catégorie fondamentale de la conscience, pour eux trois, c’est le rapport caché-montré ou, si l’on préfére, simulé-manifesté. […] Ce qu’ils ont tenté tous trois, sur des voies différentes, ce’st de faire coïncider leurs methods “conscientes” de déchiffrage avec le travail “inconscient” du chiffrage qu’ils attribuaient à la volonté de puissance, à l’être social, au psychisme inconscient. […] Ce qui distingue alors Marx, Freud et Nietzsche, c’est l’hypothèse gènèrale concernant à la fois le processus de la conscience “fausse” et la méthode de déchiffrage. Les deux vont de pair, puisque l’homme du soupçon fait en sens inverse le travail de falsification de l’homme de la ruse.
Paul Ricoeur. De l’interprétation. Essai sur Freud (Paris: Seuil, 1965), 32, 33–34.

37 Ce peut être la fonction de la littérature la plus corrosive de contribuer à faire apparaître un lecteur d’un nouveau genre, un lecteur lui-même soupçonneux, parce que la lecture cesse d’être un voyage confiant fait en compagnie d’un narrateur digne de confiance, mais devient un combat avec l’auteur impliqué, un combat qui le reconduit à lui-même.
Paul Ricoeur. Temps et Récit, Vol. 3: Le Temps Raconté (Paris: Seuil, 1985), 238.

38 “Une problème nouveau est né: celui du mensonge de la conscience, de la conscience comme mensonge” (Paul Ricoeur. Le Conflit des Interprétations: Essais D’Herméneutique [Paris: Seuil, 1969], 101).

39 These readings demonstrate
the thought pattern that’s at the basis of literary studies, and of any self-enclosed hermetically sealed sub-world that seeks to assert theoretical hegemony over the rest of the world. […] The individual is not the measure of all things: I, the commentator, am the measure of all things. You always have to wait for me, the academic or theoretician, to explain it to you. For example, you’re
really doing A or B because you’re a member of a certain class and accept its presuppositions. Or you’re really doing C and D because of now-inaccessible events in your childhood. What you personally think about this doesn’t matter.
Bruce Fleming.
What Literary Studies Could Be, And What It Is (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008), 100.

40 Rita Felski. The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 5.

41 Ibid., 34.

42 Fleming, 100.

43 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 111.

44 Ibid., 39.

45 As Felski notes:
Anyone who attends academic talks has learned to expect the inevitable question: “But what about power?” Perhaps it is time to start asking different questions: “But what about love?” Or: “Where is your theory of attachment?” To ask such questions is not to abandon politics for aesthetics. It is, rather, to contend that both art and politics are also a matter of connecting, composing, creating, coproducing, inventing, imagining, making possible: that neither is reducible to the piercing but one-eyed gaze of critique.
The Limits of Critique, 17–18.

46 Felski traces this attitude back to “the medieval heresy trial”, noting that “[h]eresy presented a hermeneutic problem of the first order and the transcripts of religious inquisitions reveal an acute awareness on the part of inquisitors that truth is not self-evident, that language conceals, distorts, and contains traps for the unwary, that words should be treated cautiously and with suspicion” (“Suspicious Minds”. Poetics Today, 32: 2 [Summer 2011], 219, https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-1261208).

47 Karl Popper. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 34.

48 Mark A. Wrathall. Heidegger and Unconcealment: Truth, Language, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 12.

49 “hat ihren Grund in der Wahrheit als Unverborgenheit” (Martin Heidegger. Grundfragen der Philosophie. AusgewählteProbleme derLogik”. Gesamtausgabe. II. Abteilung: Vorlesungen 1923–1944. Band 45 [Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann Verlag, 1984], 97–98).

50 “Die Unverborgenheit des Seienden als solchen ist der Grund der Möglichkeit der Richtigkeit” (ibid., 102).

51 In the extant fragments, Parmenides describes τὸ ἐὸν as the kind of eternal, unchanging whole that later Christian theologians will use as a basis for their understandings of the divine:
ἔστιν ἄναρχον ἄπαυστον
[…]
Ταὐτόν τἐν ταὐτῷ τε μένον καθἑαυτό τε κεῖται
χοὔτως ἔμπεδον αὖθι μένει · κρατερὴ γὰρ Ἀνάγκη
πείρατος ἐν δεσμοῖσιν ἔχει, τό μιν ἀμφὶς ἐέργει,
οὕνεκεν οὐκ ἀτελεύτητον τὸ ἐὸν θέμις εἶναι·.
It exists without beginning or ending
[…]
Identical in its sameness, it remains itself and standing
Thus firmly-set there, for strong and mighty necessity
Limits it, holds it in chains, and shuts it in on both sides.
Because of this, it is right
what is should not be incomplete.
Fragment 8, ll. 26, 29–32,
Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, ed. by Hermann Diels (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1903), 124, https://archive.org/stream/diefragmenteder00krangoog#page/n140

52 According to Aristotle’s summary,
The second of these is called “Achilles”. It is this in which the slowest runner is never overtaken by the fastest; because since the swifter runner in the chase is always, at any given moment, first forced to reach the point where the fleeing runner set into motion, of necessity the slowest runner, who had the headstart, will always be in the lead.
Δεύτερος δ΄ καλούμενος Ἀχιλλεύς. ἔστι δ΄ οὗτος ὅτι τὸ βραδύτατον οὐδέποτε καταληφθήσεται θέον ὑπὸ τοῦ ταχίστου · ἔμπροσθεν γὰρ ἀναγκαῖον ἐλθεῖν τὸ διῶκον, ὅθεν ὥρμησε τὸ φεῦγον, ὥστ΄ ἀεί τι προέχειν ἀναγκαῖον τὸ βραδύτερον.
Aristotle,
Physics, Vol. II, Books 5–8, ed. by P. H. Wicksteed and F. M. Cornford (Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934), 180, 182. This paradox is helpfully visualized in the following Open University video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skM37PcZmWE

53 The Instance (or the Particular) shares in the nature of the Eidos (or form/idea), though imperfectly: “The term Methexis, Participation […] connote[s] a closer relation of the Instance to the Eidos […]: the Instance really has something of the Eidos in it, if not the Eidos in its full purity” (John Niemeyer Findlay. Plato: The Written and Unwritten Doctrines [New York: Routledge, 1974], 37).

54 Walter A. Brogan refers to Derrida’s concept of différance as “a radical and liberated affirmation of Heidegger’s thought” (“The Original Difference”. Derrida and Différance, ed. by David Wood and Robert Bernasconi [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985], 32). As Andre Gingrich notes, “Heidegger’s own phenomenological appreciation of literature influenced Ricouer’s hermeneutic approach”, and “[b]oth Ricouer and Derrida acknowledged Heidegger’s strong influence upon major areas of their respective works” (“Conceptualising Identities: Anthropological Alternatives to Essentialising Difference and Moralizing about Othering”. In Gerd Baumann and Andre Gingrich, eds. Grammars of Identity / Alterity: A Structural Approach [New York: Berghahn Books, 2004], 6–7). For a comprehensive account of Heidegger’s influence on French intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, see Dominique Janicaud’s Heidegger in France, Indiana University Press, 2015.

55 “De Man’s relation to Heidegger is especially contorted. De Man from the start contests Heidegger’s signature notion of Being, but does so in an authentically deconstructive fashion, such that de Man’s own counter-notion of ‘language’ cannot be grasped apart from an appreciation of Heidegger’s project” (Joshua Kates. “Literary Criticism”. In The Routledge Companion to Phenomenology, ed. by Sebastian Luft [New York: Routledge, 2012], 650–51).

56 In Foucault’s account, “Heidegger has always, for me, been the essential philosopher” (“Heidegger a toujours été pour moi le philosophe essential”). In his “Le retour de la morale”. In his Dits et écrits, 1954–1988. Vol. IV: 1980–1988 (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 696–707 (703).

57 For Heidegger, art itself (and not its interpretation or interpreters) is that which reveals (or unconceals) the truth of Being: “The artwork opens the Being of beings in its own way. In the work this opening, this unconcealing, of the truth of beings happens. In art, the truth of beings has set itself in motion. Art is the truth setting itself-into-works” (“Das Kunstwerk eröffnet auf seine Weise das Sein des Seienden. Im Werk geschieht diese Eröffnung, d.h. das Entbergen, d.h. die Wahrheit des Seiended. Im Kunstwerk hat sich die Wahrheit des Seienden ins Werk gesetzt. Die Kunst ist das Sich-ins-Werk-Setzen der Wahrheit”) (“Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes”. Holzwege: Gesamtusgabe, Vol. V [Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977], 25).

58 For Roland Barthes, the critical search for “truth” is quite useless, as there is no “truth”, nor even any operant factor in a text, except language itself:
Once the author is removed, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose a knife’s limit on the text, to provide it a final signification, to close the writing. This design is well suited to criticism, which then wants to give itself the important task of discovering the Author (or his hypostases: society, history, the psyche, liberty) beneath the work: the Author found, the text is “explained”, the critic has conquered; so there is nothing surprising that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic, but also that criticism (even if it be new) should on this day be shaken off at the same time as the Author.
L’Auteur une fois éloigné, la prétention de “déchiffrer” un texte devient tout à fait inutile. Donner un Auteur à un texte, c’est imposer à ce texte un cran d’arrêt, c’est le pourvoir d’un signifié dernier, c’est fermer l’écriture. Cette conception convient très bien à la critique, qui veut alors se donner pour tâche importante de découvrir l’Auteur (ou ses hypostases: la société, l’histoire, la psyché, la liberté) sous l’œuvre: l’Auteur trouvé, le texte est “expliqué”, le critique a vaincu; il n’y a donc rien d’étonnant à ce que, historiquement, le règne de l’Auteur ait été aussi celui du Critique, mais aussi à ce que la critique (fût-elle nouvelle) soit aujourd’hui ébranlée en même temps que l’ Auteur.
“La mort de l’auteur”. In Le Bruissement de la Langue. Essais Critiques IV. Paris: Seuil, 1984, 65–66.

59 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 69.

60 “The first pivots on a division between manifest and latent, overt and covert, what is revealed and what is concealed. Reading is imagined as an act of digging down to arrive at a repressed or otherwise obscured reality”, while the second works by “distancing rather than by digging, by the corrosive force of ironic detachment rather than intensive interpretation. The goal is now to ‘denaturalize’ the text, to expose its social construction by expounding on the conditions in which it is embedded” (ibid., 53, 54).

61 Richard Rorty. The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 151.

62 Ibid., 152.

63 Such a “Nietzschean” reading can be seen in J. Hillis Miller’s deconstructive reading of Percy Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life”, in which Miller claims that Shelley’s poem, “like all texts, is ‘unreadable’, if by ‘readable’ one means open to a single, definitive, univocal interpretation” (J. Hillis Miller. “The Critic as Host”. Critical Inquiry, 3: 3 [Spring, 1977], 447).

64 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 20.

65 New Historicism falls into the first camp. It is perpetually in a state of high alert for the operations of power, and constantly on the lookout for “complicity with structures of power in whose language [knowledge] would have no choice but to speak” (Vincent P. Pecora. “The Limits of Local Knowledge”. In Harold Aram Veeser, ed. The New Historicism [New York: Routledge, 1989], 267). As Foucault—in many ways, the “godfather” of New Historicism—puts it: “there is no power relationship without a correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any field of knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute power relations at the same time” (“qu’il n’y a pas de relation de pouvoir sans constitution corrélative d’un champ de savoir, ni de savoir qui ne suppose et ne constitue en même temps des relations de pouvoir”) (Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison [Paris: Gallimard, 1975], 32). The New Historicist critic looks to unveil or reveal the operations (and cooperations) of power and knowledge, all the while risking being complicit with the very structures of power he or she seeks to unmask, since “every act of unmasking, critique, and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes” (Harold Aram Veeser. “Introduction”. In his, ed. The New Historicism, xi). Deconstruction belongs to the second camp. For Paul de Man, literature obsessively points to “a nothingness”, while “[p]oetic language names this void […] and never tires of naming it again”. For de Man, “[t]his persistant naming is what we call literature” (Blindness and Insight, Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism [New York: Oxford University Press, 1971], 18). For J. Hillis Miller, an author’s works “are at once open to interpretation and ultimately indecipherable, unreadable. His texts lead the critic deeper and deeper into a labyrinth until he confronts a final aporia”. The critic burrows further and further beneath the veil of surface appearances only to find unresolvability, an impasse, which leads us to understand that “personification” in literature “will always be divided against itself, folded, manifold, dialogical rather than monological”. The final assertion (or unveiling) of the essay is that literature is best understood through “multiple contradictory readings in a perpetual fleeing away from any fixed sense” (J. Hillis Miller. “Walter Pater: A Partial Portrait”. Daedalus, 105: 1, In Praise of Books [Winter, 1976], 112).

66 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 148. Bruce Fleming expresses a similar idea: “[t] he people in charge of contemporary classrooms see themselves as overthrowing prejudices, fiercely challenging the status quo. In fact, for the purposes of literary studies, they are the status quo” (27).

67 Kate McGowan. Key Issues in Critical and Cultural Theory (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2007), 26. Emphasis added.

68 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 143.

69 Ibid., 138.

70 In Noam Chomsky’s view, such interrogations are impediments to meaningful resistance:
In the United States, for example, it’s mostly confined to Comparative Literature departments. If they talk to each other in incomprehensible rhetoric, nobody cares. The place where it’s been really harmful is in the Third World, because Third World intellectuals are badly needed in the popular movements. They can make contributions, and a lot of them are just drawn away from this—anthropologists, sociologists, and others—they’re drawn away into these arcane, and in my view mostly meaningless discourses, and are dissociated from popular struggles.
“Noam Chomsky on French Intellectual Culture & Post-Modernism [3/8]”. Interview conducted at Leiden University (March 2011. Posted March 15, 2012),
https://youtu.be/2cqTE_bPh7M?t=6m49s [6:49–7:31].

71 This term, from Judges 12:5–6, comes out of a context of war and violence, in which one tribe needed a quick and easy way of identifying infiltrators from the enemy side:

וַיִּלְכֹּ֥ד גִּלְעָ֛ד אֶֽת־מַעְבְּרֹ֥ות הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן לְאֶפְרָ֑יִם וֽהָיָה כִּ֣י יאֹמְר֞וּ פְּלִיטֵ֤י אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ אֶעֱבֹ֔רָה וַיֹּ֨אמְרוּ לֹ֧ו אַנְשֵֽׁי־גִלְעָ֛ד הַֽאֶפְרָתִ֥י אַ֖תָּה וַיֹּ֥אמֶֽר ׀ לֽאֹ׃
וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ לֹו֩ אֱמָר־נָ֨א שִׁבֹּ֜לֶת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר סִבֹּ֗לֶת וְל֤אֹ יָכִין֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר כֵּ֔ן וַיֹּאחֲז֣וּ אֹותֹ֔ו וַיִּשְׁחָט֖וּהוּ אֶל־מַעְבְּרֹ֣ות הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן וַיִּפֹּ֞ל בָּעֵ֤ת הַהִיא֙ מֵֽאֶפְרַ֔יִם
אַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּשְׁיִ֖ם אָֽלֶף׃

And the Gileadites captured the passages of the Jordan to Ephraim, and it happened that when the fugitive Ephraimites said “let me cross over”, the men of Gilead said to them “are you an Ephraimite?” And if he said, “no”, then they said, “say Shibboleth”, and if he said “Sibboleth”, because he could not pronounce it right, then they took him and slew him at the passages of the Jordan, and there fell at that time forty two thousand Ephraimites.
Unless otherwise noted, all Hebrew Biblical text is quoted from
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, ed. by Karl Elliger and Willhelm Rudolph (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1983). All Greek Biblical text is quoted from The Greek New Testament, ed. by Barbara Aland (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014).

72 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 131.

73 “On a constaté avec surprise que la question: ‘Qu’est-ce que la littérature?’ n’avait jamais reçu que des réponses insignifiantes” (Maurice Blanchot. “La Littérature et le droit à la mort”. La Part de Feu [Paris: Gallimard, 1949], 294).

74 “pour celui-ci, l’art est une fuite; pour celui-la, un moyen de conquérir” (Jean-Paul Sartre. Qu’est-ce que la littérature? [Paris: Gallimard, 1948], 45).

75 “l’écrivain, homme libre s’adressant à des hommes libres, n’a qu’un seul sujet: la liberté” (ibid., 70).

76 [l]’art de la prose est solidaire du seul régime où la prose garde un sens: la démocratie” (ibid., 82).

77 “adressée au langage, derrière l’homme qui écrit et lit, par le langage devenu littérature” (Blanchot. “La Littérature et le droit à la mort”, 293).

78 “l’œuvre d’art, l’œuvre littéraire—n’est nini achevé ni inachevée: elle est. Ce qu’elle dit, c’est exclusivement cela: qu’elle est—et rien de plus. En dehors de cela, elle n’est rien. Qui veut lui faire exprimer davantage, ne trouve rien, trouve qu’ellen’exprime rien” (Maurice Blanchot. “La Solitude Essentielle”. L’Espace Littéraire [Paris: Gallimard, 1955], 12).

79 Eric Richtmeyer. “Maurice Blanchot: Saboteur of the Writers’ War”. Proceedings of the Western Society for French History, 35 (2007), 255.

80 Et pourtant, si la lecture ne doit pas se contenter de redouble le texte, elle ne peut légitimement transgresser le texte vers autre chose que lui, vers un référent (réalité métaphysique, historique, psycho-biographique, etc.) ou vers un signifié hors texte dont le contenu pourrait avoir lieu, aurait pu avoir lieu hors de la langue, c’est-à-dire, au sens que nous donnons ici à ce mot, hors de l’écriture en général. C’est pourquoi les considérations méthodologiques que nous risquons ici sur un exemple sont étroitement dépendantes des propositions générales que nous avons élaborées plus haut, quant à l’absence du référent ou du signifié transcendantal. ll n’y a pas de hors-texte.
Jacques Derrida. De la Grammatologie [Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967], 227.

81 “Précisons donc ce que le langage signifie en ce qu’il communique: il n’est ni signal, ni signe, ni même signe de la chose, en tant que réalité extérieure. La relation entresignifiant et signifié est tout entière incluse dans l’ordre du langage lui-même qui en conditionne intégralement les deux termes” (“Discours de Jacques Lacan”. La Psychanalyse, 1 [1956], 243).

82 “unit non une chose et un nom, mais un concept et une image acoustique” (Ferdinand de Saussure. Cours de Linguistique Générale, ed. by Tullio de Mauro [Paris: Payot & Rivages, 1967], 98).

83 “τρία φάμενοι συζυγεῖν ἀλλήλοις, τό τε σημαινόμενον καὶ τὸ σημαῖνον καὶ τὸ τυγχάνον” (Sextus Empiricus. Against Logicians, 2.11, ed. by R. G. Bury [Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1935], 244).

84 “Quand on dit qu’elles correspondent à des concepts, on sous-entend que ceux-ci sont purement différentiels, définis non pas positivement par leur contenu, mais négativement par leurs rapports avec les autres termes du système” (Saussure, 162).

85 dans la langue il n’y a que des différences. Bien plus: une différence suppose en général des termes positifs entre lesquels elle s’établit; mais dans la langue il n’y a que des différences sans termes positifs. Qu’on prenne le signifié ou le signifiant, la langue ne comporte ni des idées ni des sons qui préexisteraient au système linguistique, mais seulement des différences conceptuelles et des différences phoniques issues de ce système.
Ibid., 166.

86 It should be noted here that these observations apply to Sassure’s discussion of what he calls langue, the system of language (or the abstract rules of a signifying system), as opposed to parole, the actions of speech and understanding though which that language is used by human beings. A great deal of so-called Saussurian and post-Saussurian theory seems to operate as if the latter did not exist.

87 “Le lien unisssant le signifiant au signifié est arbitraire, ou encore, puisque nous entendons par signe le total résultant de l’association d’un signifiant à un signifié, nous pouvons dire plus simplement: le signe linguistique est arbitraire” (ibid., 100).

88 “Blanchot […] rendu possible tout discours sur la littérature” […] “un creux qui parcourt comme un grand mouvement tous les langages littéraires” (Michel Foucault. “Sur les façons d’écrire l’Histoire” [interview with Raymond Bellour]. Les Lettres françaises, 1187 (15–21 June 1967), 6–9. Reprinted in his Dits et écrits, Vol. 1: 1954–1975, 593).

89 “Die Dichtkunst ist die allgemeine Kunst des in sich freigewordenen, nicht an das äußerlich-sinnliche Material zur Realisation gebundenen Geistes, der nur im inneren Raume und der inneren Zeit der Vorstellungen und Empfindungen sich ergeht” (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik, Vol. 1 [Berlin: Dunder und Humblot, 1835], 115, https://books.google.com/books?id=Fss9AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA115).

90 οὐ γὰρ φύσει ἑκάστῳ πεφυκέναι ὄνομα οὐδὲν οὐδενί, ἀλλὰ νόμῳκαὶ ἔθει τῶν ἐθισάντων τε καὶ καλούντων” (Plato. Cratylus. Parmenides. Greater Hippias. Lesser Hippias, ed. by Harold North Fowler [Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1926], 10).

91 In a discussion of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ideas about “propositional” versus “eminent” or “absolute” texts, Rod Coltman puts the case in the starkest possible terms: “Because it does not refer to anything outside of itself, there is nothing beyond the poem that is more important than the poem itself. The text of the poem remains, in other words, because the poem is not about anything, or rather, it is only about itself” (Rod Coltman. “Hermeneutics: Literature and Being”. The Blackwell Companion to Hermeneutics, ed. by Niall Keane and Chris Lawn [Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2016], 550–51). Richard Klein makes a similar point, asserting that the “fragility of literature, its susceptibility to being lost, is linked to its having no real referent” (“The Future of Literary Criticism”. PMLA, 125: 4 [October 2010], 920, https://doi.org/10.1632/pmla.2010.125.4.920).

92 Damián E. Blasia, Søren Wichmannd, Harald Hammarströmb, Peter F. Stadlerc, and Morten H. Christiansen. “Sound–meaning Association Biases Evidenced across Thousands of Languages”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113: 39 (27 September 2016, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1605782113).

93 The irony of such claims is that a number of later thinkers who engage with Saussure rewrite him, covertly reversing his relation between the signifier and the signified. Saussure gives precedence to the concept over the sound-image: “One cannot reduce language to sound, […] it is merely the instrument of thought, and does not exist for itself” (“On ne peut donc réduire la langue au son, […] il n’est que l’instrument de la pensée et n’existe pas pour lui-même”) (24). Jacques Lacan reverses Saussure’s relation, representing it as S/s, with “S” referring to the signifier (Saussure’s “sound-image”) and “s” referring to the signified (Saussure’s “concept”). But rather than acknowledge his wholesale reversal of the relation of the terms, Lacan ascribes his own formula to Saussure: “the sign thus written, deserves to be attributed to Ferdinand de Saussure” (“Le signe écrit ainsi, mérite d’être attribué a Ferdinand de Saussure”) (Écrits [Paris: Seuil, 1966], 497). For Lacan, the signifier, in its most pristine state, is not what Saussure described as the instrument of thought; in fact, it signifies nothing at all: “all real signifiers, in themselves, are signifiers that signify nothing. […] The more a signifier signifies nothing, the more indestructible it is” (“tout vrai signifiant en tant que tel est un signifiant qui ne signifie rien. […] car c’est précisément dans la mesure où, plus il ne signifie rien, plus il est indestructible”) (Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre III: Les Psychoses: 1955–1956, ed. by Jacques Alain Miller [Paris: Seuil, 1981], 210). This conception of language had been rejected a decade before by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, for whom there can be no signifier without a signified because “expressional meaning” (“udtryksmening”) is always connected to “expressional form as expressional substance” (“udtryksform som udtrykssubstans”), due to “the unity of content-form and expression-form established by the solidarity of what we have called the sign-function” (“den enhed af indholdsform og udtryksform der etableres af den solidaritet som vi har kaldt tegnfunktionen”) (Omkring Sprogteoriens Grundlæggelse [Copenhagen: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, 1943], 51, 53).
Even before Lacan’s sleight-of-hand rearrangment, Claude Lévi-Strauss had inverted Saussure’s relation between the signifier and the signified: “symbols are more real than that which they symbolize; the signifier precedes and determines the signified” (“les symboles sont plus réels que ce qu’ils symbolisent, le signifiant précède et détermine le signifié”) (“Introduction à l’œuvre de Marcel Mauss”.
In Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et Anthropologie [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950], xxxii). This latter view makes it possible to “read” language as wholly determinative of thought, which when combined with Barthes’and Foucault’s differing formulations of the “death of the Author”, renders literature—already denied any externally-referential ability—a mere function of language itself. Barthes traces this idea back to the French poet Stephan Mallarmé, claiming that “for Mallarmé, as for us, it is language that speaks, not the author; to write, is through a prior impersonality […] to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘me’” (“pour [Mallarmé], comme pour nous, c’est le langage qui parle, ce n’est pas l’auteur; écrire, c’est, à travers une impersonnalité préalable […] atteindre ce point où seul le langage agit, ‘performe’ et non ‘moi’”) (Barthes, “La mort de l’auteur”, 62). In summary, much literary theory and criticism over the last century is based on a questionable linguistic paradigm, the terms of which were inverted by its most prominent adherents to allow them to make claims for which there was otherwise no support.

94 W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy”. The Sewanee Review, 54: 3 (July–September 1946), 470.

95 Ibid., 487.

96 “nous savons que, pour rendre à l’écriture son avenir, il faut en renverser le mythe: la naissance du lecteur doit se payer de la mort de l’Auteur” (Roland Barthes. “La mort de l’auteur”. In Le Bruissement de la Langue. Essais Critiques IV [Paris: Seuil, 1984], 67).

97 On peut dire d’abord que l’écriture d’aujourd’hui s’est affranchie du thème de l’expression: elle n’est référée qu’à elle-même, et pourtant, elle n’est pas prise dans la forme de l’intériorité; elle s’identifie à sa propre extériorité déployée. […] l’écriture se déploie comme un jeu […] où le sujet écrivant ne cesse de disparaître. […] le sujet écrivant déroute tous les signes de son individualité particulière; la marque de l’écrivain n’est plus que la singularité de son absence; il lui faut tenir le rôle du mort dans le jeu de l’écriture. Tout cela est connu; et il y a beau temps que la critique et la philosophie ont pris acte de cette disparition ou de cette mort de l’auteur.
Michel Foucault. “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” In his Dits et écrits. Vol. 1, 792–93.

98 L’œuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poëte, qui cède l’initiative aux mots, par le heurt de leur inégalité mobilisés; ils s’allument de reflets réciproques comme une virtuelle traînée de feux sur des pierreries, remplaçant la respiration perceptible en l’ancien souffle lyrique ou la direction personnelle enthousiaste de la phrase. Une ordonnance du livre de vers poind innée ou partout, élimine le hasard; encore la faut-il, pour omettre l’auteur.
Stéphane Mallarmé. “Crise de Vers”. In Divagations (Paris: Bibliothèque-Charpentier, 1897), 246–47, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Divagations/Texte_entier

99 Paul de Man. Blindness and Insight, 12.

100 Geoffrey Hartman. Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 191.

101 Ibid., 202.

102 Deborah Larson, John Donne and Twentieth-Century Criticism (London: Associated University Presses, 1989), 15.

103 Ibid., 14.

104 Ibid.

105 T. S. Eliot. “Donne in Our Time”. A Garland for John Donne, 1631–1931, ed. by Theodore Spencer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931), 10.

106 Larson, 71.

107 Many critics would sign on to half of Barthes’ death-of-the-author formula, while ignoring the part that threatens their own profession: “criticism […] should on this day be shaken off at the same time as the Author” (66) (“la critique […] soit aujourd’hui ébranlée en même temps que l’Auteur”).

108 G. R. F. Ferrari. “Plato and Poetry”. In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 1: Classical Criticism, ed. by George Alexander Kennedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 92. Emphasis added.

109 The most famous example of this is Paul de Man, who in his work Allegories of Reading (1979), rewrote (by the simple insertion of ne) a passage from Rousseau’s Confessions. As first pointed out by Ortwin de Graef, de Man “adds a negation to Rousseau’s sentence, as if this did not make a difference, as if one was entitled to do so on the basis of the main clause” (“Silence to be Observed: A Trial for Paul de Man’s Inexcusable Confessions”. In (Dis)continuities: Essays on Paul de Man, ed. by Luc Herman, Kris Humbeeck, and Geert Lernout [Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989], 61).

110 Noam Chomsky. Online discussion that took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine’s Left On-Line Bulletin Board. Posted at rec.arts.books, 13 November 1995, 03:21:23, http://bactra.org/chomsky-on-postmodernism.html

111 “Willst du etwas über ihn vermögen, so mußt du mehr tun, als ihn blos anreden, du mußt ihn machen, ihn also machen, das er gar nicht anders wollen könne, als du willst, das er wolle” (Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Johann Gottlieb Fichte: Fichtes Reden an die Deutsche Nation, ed. by Samantha Nietz [Hamburg: Severus, 2013], 32). Fichte’s idea is reflected in Spivak’s fairly recent description of Humanities education as an “uncoercive rearrangement of desires” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Righting Wrongs”. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 103: 2/3 [Spring/Summer 2004], 526). The “uncoercive” nature of such “rearrangement” is perhaps best attested by the experience of one of the current authors who had the occasion to observe a discussion of this idea among a group of Ph.D. students. One student noted the possibility that such “uncoercive rearrangement” might be a subtle means of stifling minority opinion. Every other student in the group condemned that idea, and the discussion was quickly dropped.

112 Though Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus claim that “[i] n the last decade or so, we have been drawn to modes of reading that attend to the surfaces of texts rather than plumb their depths” (“Surface Reading: An Introduction”. Representations, 108: 1 [Fall 2009], 1–2), the trends of the last decade and a half seem ephemeral when compared to a style of reading and interpretation that has held sway for over two millennia.

113 “Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, / Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum” (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. Faust, Part I, ed. by Walter Kaufmann [New York: Anchor Books, 1990], 206, ll. 2038–39).

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