A Pedigree of Fragments

I took down a recent post, not so much because of sudden change of view than because I am trying to make an effort to frame problems constructively and do not want to identify with my thoughts where they stray into old patterns. The question raised in the post was one of "pedigree" and whether it can be claimed in the humanities when so many, if not all, departments are "crossed." So much freedom - and responsibility. Also, so many schools and factions of thought, so many differences between departments that deal with language. Rather than write an apologia, I will simply share how I see the study of literature at this time.
The average composition handbook teaching essay types is a shabby second to considering the broadened vocabulary of rhetoric, which teaches one how to approach a subject from different paths (the topics); express supporting ideas in a variety of figures according to the situation or audience at hand; sharpen reasoning; enhance the subtleties of sentiment and articulate the depths of character and believability. What is more, logic can be the maths of language - it is very easy to slip into the quicksand of narrative. I often dream as so many before me of finding the permanent key to a more symbolic language - this is something I want so much to write about 'after hours'.
Reading comprehension, the inverse of composition (e.g., they both involve outlines), though very hard to manage with larger classes and if there is even one troublesome student, is sometimes incredibly neglected. It teaches the basic questions surrounding a text, such the subject and the views the author brings to said subject. It is important because sometimes, and especially in the laziness of private thinking, the views from a text are conflated with a person's opinions, and it ends up a jumbled mess. It is my view that one can make any comment one likes upon a text - providing that one makes it clear where rephrasing of the text ends and one's opinion begins and that one can show the validity of the new analysis. An explicit transition is to be made with a good argument. This I consider the ideal.
We know that as the content of what we read gets more complex, we need background knowledge. I think of this as our mnemonic palace: the richer our storehouse is, the more likely we are to recognise what Gadamer figuratively calls the tesserae hospitalis (having half the object to be matched up at its next 'encounter' to make a whole in the mind). Perceiving references in texts, however, is an uncertain exercise not least because authors are not explicitly borrowing or may have come up with a 'similar looking' idea in the same way that inventors separated by distance and sometimes time come up with similar discoveries. Making note of earlier examples of a turn of phrase or an idea may be like the wayward bastard cousin of critical apparatus. Not always legitimate because there is not a direct lineage of text but of thought. Yet part of the family, when, say, it is possible to recognise a Horatian commonplace. The border of such literary criticism can blur as it approaches culture, history, and, where meaning is addressed, philosophy.

The border is only shunned by the purist. I appreciate the purist's concerns and think that I myself have presumptuous tendencies, except experience repeatedly shows me wrong, or, at least in need of modification. Time and again I think of Herman Randall's observation:
There is the constant attempt to live in the vision, rather than by the vision: to want to go to Heaven ... or to bring Heaven here to America, like the moderns, instead of living well a human life with vision. There is the temptation to demand perfection, and to condemn all existence because it falls short of what it might be, as it naturally must, instead of using the vision of perfection to discriminate between what is better and what is worse in our relatively and inevitably imperfect world ... This, it may be, is the truth that lies behind Plato's ironical warning that the effect of poets is often bad: because men are apt to be too stupid to realise that they are poets, and to take them literally instead of seriously.
What I mean by citing that passage in this context is that I understand (at this time) traditions/schools/methodologies as approaches: some more tried and sure than others, for example, the existence of several authoritative translations can mean that one's study of said books can be reasonably certain, if one is receptive to their critical apparatus. Where modern intellectual tendencies are not extreme (so much departure from the golden mean!) it may be because of this tendency to not take things so literally but to consider afresh. Except, as I just pointed out, it is hard to do this without going to extremes. An illustration of this is going from a literal understanding of utopia to denying the intellectual exercise of considering ideals altogether.
Perhaps some modern thinkers came to this conclusion later in life: consider Paul de Man's "The Return to Philology" and Barthes' The Preparation of the Novel. In Truth and Method, Gadamer explains that the "essence of the authority" is a prejudice that rests on "good reasons" with claims not "irrational and arbitrary, but can ... be discovered to be true." We continue to be addressed by the great achievements in human sciences, which almost never become outdated, he writes.
They may not be outdated, but we may not be able to 'read' them if certain fields or practices are not continued. Over at Language Log, the question was raised as to what Paul de Man's "return to philology" might entail particularly with variance about what philology means (far clearer to the student of Church Slavonic). Log commenter Johnson observes the trend in continental philosophy to consider the Greek roots of philosophical terms, de rigeur since Heidegger. I have noticed this trend also in literary studies. This is the only fragment of the larger umbrella of classical studies to survive in some institutions. It is strange how our words are littered with ruins - sometimes willfully, akin to the archaic fragments, hodgepodge, constituting Picasso paintings recalling the Fayum portraits; Brancusi, Cycladic sculpture and more explicitly, the lone,decontextualised busts in de Chirico. Contexts are crossed - may we at least not go to extremes in our studies and begin them with good knowledge of at least the basics that I have tried to outline here.


  1. Just a link, for what it's worth: Some readers of this interesting post might be pleased to have a link to the de Man piece entitled "The Return to Philology."


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