Sunday, 9 March 2014

Magical Thinking, Reading Magically

These then, though unbeheld in deep of night,
Shine not in vain, nor think, though men were none,
That heaven would want spectators, God want praise;
Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep:
All these with ceaseless praise his works behold
Both day and night: how often from the steep
Of echoing hill or thicket have we heard
Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to other’s note
Singing their great creator: oft in bands
While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk
With heavenly touch of instrumental sounds
In full harmonic number joined, their songs
Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to heaven.
                                          (John Milton, Paradise Lost, 6. 674–88)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much history I do in my degree as opposed to more literary work and whether, overall, this is good for my soul. I’m currently researching the performativity of the dead in sixteenth-century burial rites and have, inevitably, been reading historical accounts of funerals, historical essays on the development of ecclesiastical doctrine and some rather dry fare on liturgical exegesis. Not exactly Leavis approved (not that I seek his approval); but interesting and thought-provoking nonetheless. Yet, I cannot help wondering that whilst this literary history stuff is all well and good thank-you-very-much, am I sacrificing something else in the process? Friends and tutors working in other areas of literary endeavour don’t seem to have this trouble—although someone did point out that there’s a worrying ‘historicist turn’ in modernist studies currently, something I’m going to have to take his word for—and it doesn’t seem to bother most early modernists (note the time-bound, period epithet). But for me, it raises profound questions about the kinds of work I’m doing and, perhaps more importantly, about how and why I do it.

Doing an MA in Renaissance literature, I knew I’d be reading historically; I wanted to be. Situated into a period of (broadly) defined length, you gain a level of expertise centred on particular interests and obsessions. But every limit is a constraint by another name: by focussing on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature, you’re obliged to leave other things out. It becomes ‘Horizontal Literature’: I realised there was a concern when I found more in common with early-modern archaeologists than I did with contemporary literature students. De-historicize, cross over your date range, or draw cross-temporal comparisons at your peril. If it didn’t happen when a Tudor or a Stuart was on the throne—don’t even mention the (civil) war!—it didn’t happen at all, and certainly not for you.

Well, I don’t think so. A number of moments, or, I could be dramatic and call them ‘events’, have occurred over the last few months that have led me to think seriously (something, no doubt, I should never have ceased doing) about what it is we do with literature, and, more specifically, want it is I want to do with it in the context of my academic work. I am very aware that my degree course is bound to historical principles: ‘Renaissance literature, 1500–1700’ inevitably leads you into a temporal zone, delineated as it is historically (1500–1700) and culturally (‘Renaissance’). ‘Early Modern literature’ isn’t any less problematic, but the time period, and the cultural referent are at least an attempt—veiled, convoluted and problematic as it is—to have one’s cake and eat it too.

What I worry about, exacerbated by talking to friends and tutors concerned with other literary periods, is that literary early modernists are fast becoming back-door historians: using literature as an excuse to write history, without admitting that’s what they’re doing or without having to assume responsibility for the History (N.B. the capital) they write. As one tutor recently put it, ‘I avoid calling myself a book historian, mainly because I want people to talk to me at parties’.

What about the literary, the poetic, the musical? What about the aesthetic value these texts have for us now? Is it wrong to read Milton’s Paradise Lost and discuss what effects it has on us as readers today, or must we always discuss it in relation to Milton’s particular political, theological and personal contexts? I admit part of the poem’s power (what does that even mean?) comes from knowing that Milton composed it blind, with an amanuensis, during a turbulent period in England’s history; the same is even truer of Samson Agonistes. Knowing Milton is experiencing the same fear, and it is fear like no other I’ve ever read, as Samson, the poem does things to you it otherwise couldn’t do. Milton’s blindness mixes up with Samson’s, the poet becomes part of the poem, and we can’t help but feel wholly moved reading (watching) someone come to terms with their blindness: their loss of vision, loss of faith, loss of God.

Literary criticism has come a long way from those days when it was enough for a critic to point out the ‘beautiful’ passages in a poem and describe how it’s moving, or pretty, or profound. Close-reading is only one tool in our arsenal. Abstract concepts such as these (I think of them as dead adjectives) don’t mean much; they can’t, because—ironically thanks to historicism and theory—we know that reading experiences are not the same for everybody and that one person’s beauty is another person’s quaint or tawdry. Beauty is no longer truth, if it ever was.

And yet. I don’t want to live in a world where Milton can be ‘sorted out’ in footnotes; where, so long as we can find the right archive, everything can be known and understood and historically inflected. I want to be able to say Milton moves me in ways I can’t fathom or articulate. That’s partly (and I stress partly) why we read poetry in the first place, isn’t it? Because it says things we can’t say but that we feel or think.

Recently, I attended a lecture on Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ in which the lecturer proceeded to take his students (it was a third-year undergraduate lecture; I hid in the shadows) through a close reading of various passages of the text. I don’t know how successful an approach this was—although it seemed the students enjoyed it, judging from what some of them said afterwards—but what was revealing was just how much you can get out of the poem if you read it historically blind. The lecturer suggested that by thinking of pathetic fallacy, for example, and other such devices as magical thinking, we can put the poetic back into the poem. I think there’s something in this; particularly for Milton, who, as a poet, is so attuned to the power of words: the real, visceral power language has on us and on our bodies, to excite, upset, cause laughter or tears.

I’m not for a moment suggesting we need to throw away all the work that’s gone on over the last half a century or so since theory, and in particular New Historicism, have altered the way we think about and approach literature. I’m still reading history for these essays. But, I suppose I’m saying that I want there to be enough room left for the poetry to breathe as poetry, not merely as historical record or even as poetry of the past. We need to understand and write about these texts both as artefacts and as living things. Like Milton, we need to be prepared to read the ‘Millions of spiritual creatures’ that walk the earth ‘Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep’ back into the poems we read. We need, that is, to animate as well as reanimate the literature of the past and see it, as Seamus Heaney sees the settle bed left by a late-departed relative in his poem ‘The Settle Bed’, as
                                                an inhereitance—
Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked
In the long ago, yet willable forward

Again and again and again.