Thursday, December 07, 2006

Camille Paglia: Break, Blow, Burn

I recently picked up a copy of Camille Paglia's new book, Break, Blow, Burn, on Matthew Dallman's recommendation -- and I'm glad I did. I was a big fan of her first book, Sexual Personae, back when I was in college. When the ensuing books came out -- Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays and Vamps & Tramps: New Essays -- I was both excited and frustrated by the uneven essays.

Still, as much as I often disagree with her on details, I admire her vision and I am grateful that she can make me think in ways that few other authors can.

Thus, my excitement with her new book, which is a collection of 43 essays on important poems from the English tradition. She purposely excluded translations due to her sense that English is the ideal language for poetry:
The dazzling multiplicity of sounds and word choices in English makes it brilliantly suited to be a language of poetry. It's why the pragmatic Anglo-American tradition (unlike the effete French rationalism) doesn't need poststructuralism: in English, usage depends upon context; the words jostle and provoke one another and mischievously shift their meanings over time.
See how I snuck in that part about postructuralism? She abhors it as an approach to poetry, and that informs how she reads each poem. In the end, she upholds the sanctity of the text.

She came of age during the supremacy of the New Criticism, as did I, strangely enough. Many of my college English teachers were brought up in that tradition and passed it on to us students. As weird as it may sound, it was a big deal on campus in 1991 when one of the faculty went to a conference on post-modernism and came back to lecture on what he had learned -- especially Derrida and Deconstruction. By this time, post-modernism had already taken control of academia. I guess there are some advantages to having attended a small college.

Like Paglia, I was not a fan of the sterile approach to reading that the New Criticism supported. Here is her take on it:
The foundation of my literary education in college and graduate school in the 1960s was a technique known as the New Criticism, which studied the internal or formal qualities of poetry. I was impatient with what I regarded as its genteel sentimentality, its prim evasion of the sex and aggression in artistic creativity. Urgent supplementation was needed by psychology as well as history, toward which I had been oriented since adolescence, when I began exploring books about Greco-Roman and Near Eastern archeology. The New Critics' admirable reaction against a prior era of bibliographic pedantry had eventually resulted in an annihilation of context, an orphaning of the text. New Criticism was also hostile or oblivious to popular culture, the master mythology of my postwar generation. For that I had to look to bohemian artists like Andy Warhol or dissident academics like Marshall McLuhan and Leslie Fielder.

But the New Criticism, attuned to paradox and ambiguity, was a sophisticated system of interpretation that has never been surpassed as a pedagogical tool for helping novice as well as veteran readers to understand poetry. Its destruction by the influx of European poststructuralism into American universities in the 1970s was a cultural disaster from which higher education has yet to recover. With its clotted jargon, circular reasoning, and smug, debunking cynicism, poststructuralism works only on narrative -- on the longer genres of story and novel. It is helpless with lyric poems, where the individual word has enormous power and mystery and where the senses are played upon by rhythm, mood, and dreamlike metaphors.
I agree with her completely, although I would never use words like "genteel" and "prim." I also tend toward Jung while she tends toward Freud, but that's a minor quibble.

I was taking the same approach in my lit classes that she advocates -- a deep reading of the text, but within a cultural context including psychology, history, and sociology. When I did my master's degree, I had to do it in the humanities department because I wanted to include comparative religion and psychology as an integral part of my thesis.

All of this is to say that I am excited about getting into this book. She has included several of my favorite poems, as well as a few more recent poems that I have never seen -- she will have to convince me that each poem is "strong enough, as an artifact, to stand up to all the great poems that precede it."

Among the fine poems she looks at:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Kubla Khan"
Emily Dickinson, "The Soul Selects Her Own Society"
William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"
Wallace Stevens, "Anecdote of the Jar"
William Carlos Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow"
Theodore Roethke, "Root Cellar"
Sylvia Plath, "Daddy"
Gary Snyder, "Old Pond"


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