Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Critics, Clerks, and Other Cryptkeepers

What are some of unconscious determinations of literary criticism?  Let's start with religion, the clerical origins of commentary on sacred texts and the secularization of these texts as memorials such as statues of the writer along with quotations as well as the tombs of the writer in sacred spaces like Poets' Corner in Westminister Abbey.  The literary text is metaphorically a crypt.  Some critics restrict themselves to diplomatic transcriptions, editions of the text the tremens in the crypt (otherwise known as an archive in the narrow sense of a named building with an address).  They may read the text aloud, as if it were liturgical.  Others may go further and paste to comment on a word or a line.  But these comments remain this side of interpretation.  To actually interrupt the text would be to endanger it.  It would be like grave robbing.  Priestly recitation and clerical commentary are both willing to be exceedingly boring because both forms of non-reading appear to save the text, keep it in stable condition though the life support of the critic.  Hence the fierce resistance to theory, to critical questions of any sort about the text's form.  The model critic is Borges' Pierre Menard (author of Don Quixote).  Criticism is simply a word by word, line by line transcription of the original.  Hence the tendency to demonize critics like Paul de Man.  You can't have a secular sacred text unless you have a demon who's trying to possess it.
  It is easy to dismiss this kind of childish, anti-intellectual clerical criticism, which demands a non-reading celebratory moment as closure--go in peace, via con Dios, my children. However, read as a reaction formation to unconscious forces, its often ugly kinds of resistance to reading can be made productive, can help us to understand something about the the uncanny relation between theology and demonology in literature.  Here is Zeitblom, the narrator of Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus: "I have already said that by its very nature theology tends--and under certain conditions must always tend--to
become demonology."  The tendency that is more than a tendency (and hence almost but not quite dialectical or dialogical) contaminates without collapsing opposite terms.   Mann writes similarly about German nationalism and the Enlightenment.  Mann's narrator is both biographer and critic of the main character, whose burial the narrator attends in the last two pages.  Clerks are right to think that reading is dangerous.  Attempts to sublimate or save what is buried can turn the dead into the undead and the worshippers into feeders off the corpse and drinkers of the blood of the living dead.  Reading with resistance has its own tropes--statues, marionettes, the reanimation of feet or hands, mutilations of the body.  There is no way to avoid a certain tendency in criticism.

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