Re: “Beyond Suspicion”


Responding to Joe Adamson’s post:

Joe, That was a really helpful post. You state that “it may be difficult to separate an author’s anxieties or ’secondary concerns’ about race, sexuality, or class, for example, from his imaginative vision. It is precisely the job of criticism to make that separation, and to do so means the critic should have and show an awareness of all aspects of an author’s work. It is a murky job for criticism in the case of a writer like Celine or Sade–and there may indeed be writers where it just doesn’t seem possible or worth the candle.” I think the point I was trying to make earlier is that to make that separation there has to be what Gadamer calls a fusion of horizons, a meeting of the world of the text and of the reader. In some situations, that will be difficult if not impossible. Some readers and some texts just don’t work together.

I think the main point where we differ is really one of emphasis. Sometimes Frye seems to me to downplay the difficulty of achieving this fusion of horizons. What he calls anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside. To clarify the point about Shakespeare, it’s not that people are likely to be infected by sexist attitudes as a result of  The Taming of the Shrew, so much as the fact that if that play, or many other works of English literature, were presented for example by a professor unconscious of his own sexist assumptions, then young women in the class may well not be able to get past the ideology of the play. I am old enough to remember classes where things like that happened routinely. (Just as professors used to smoke in class, a fact which usually amazes my students!) But, of course, to allude to a point Michael made, one can imagine a great production of The Taming resisting that sexist ideology by emphasizing the aspects of the play that Michael pointed to. And for different readers or audiences different texts will be unrewarding, not “worth the candle.” For instance, I once read enough of American Psycho to know that I didn’t want to read the whole book.

I agree with you about the excessive privilege granted to the critic in much ideological criticism. And also with what you say about the student not being accorded an independent role. Gerald Graff touches on this in his MLA Presidential address, in the recent PMLA. When professors of literature talk of “training” their students I always suspect that their idea of education is closer to Mao’s than to anything one could describe as liberal.

For an example of a critic who can write about literature in its historical and ideological context and at the same time as literature, I would suggest Geoffrey Hill (pictured above). He is acutely aware of power and history, in both his poetry and his prose , but also of the power of poetry and the imagination. Apparently he is a lifelong Labour voter, but he has been accused of nostalgic conservatism and “kitsch feudalism.” He is for me a major figure, though he seems known mainly to specialists in modern poetry and people who have an affinity for his view of literature. And he does seem to me to be doing the kinds of things you are talking about in your post.

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2 thoughts on “Re: “Beyond Suspicion”

  1. Joe Adamson

    Thank you for this, Russell. Excellent. I will definitely take a look at Geoffrey Hill, who has been recommended to me before.

    And you are right: we are obliged to be conscious of how we present certain problematic texts when we are teaching (there you go: I am using the word “problematic” myself). This is often enough to make the difference, but not always. It is sometimes just too daunting a task when we feel that the potential offense may outweigh the hoped-for outcome.

    This is a constant problem in American literature, with its racist legacy. It is often painful and difficult to get beyond the racist assumptions that affect even essentially liberal writers like Mark Twain, who was contradictorily a great admirer of Frederick Douglass and an aficionado of minstrel shows and their caricatures of African Americans. This would not be a problem if these caricatures never made their way into his work. I think I may have given up on Huckleberry Finn altogether, for all its other very imaginative qualities. What I have called the “wince” factor in literature is not always something that is an easy matter to overcome.

    I was watching TV Ontario’s Saturday Night at the Movies last night and there was a clip from an interview with Pauline Kael, who mentioned a Cary Grant film I have never seen, a romantic comedy, I believe, that features some particularly obnoxious racist slurs and attitudes, a minor part of the film, but enough to have taken the film almost completely out of circulation.

  2. Peter StirFrye Yan

    The Fusion of Text and Reader and Guilty Pleasures:

    Fascinating that in all your posts and responses about ideology and anxiety, what gets revealed clearer is ideology and anxiety, the ones in the text and the ones in the reader.

    As for the fusion of text and reader, Frye speaks of this fusion in Words with Power: to paraphrase, just by reading, we are resurrecting from the past into the present, the work, the speaking voice, in the site of the reader. The centre of the logos is in the reader, not under the text, and changes place with the Logos at the circumference which encloses both.

    Existential Projection: Frye noted in The Practical Imagination that it is difficult to read from the point of view of an evil character. Put another way, our reading habits/personal ideology, will not allow us to become in Iser’s phrase, the ideal reader in a work like American Psycho, to walk in that character’s shoes so to speak. Coming from the other direction, one of my guilty pleasures is a song by 9 Inch Nails which I enjoy, but then my ideology/reading habits and superego come in to censor my id, to cancel that enjoyment. It’s a cognitive dissonance not unlike eating something you are not suppose to.

    Should we just trust the imagination when we merge with the text to protect us and pull us out after our reading?


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