Criticism and the Arts

English 208S.01

TuTh 11:45AM - 1:00PM
Thomas Ferraro

Leslie A. Fiedler once wrote that “American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon--and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact.” Lordie, Fiedler’s claim from 1960 remains true enough, if it is strictly academic criticism one has in mind. But it is not true, perhaps not even remotely true, of America’s greatest scholar-critics, including Fiedler himself--who are themselves artists of the word and who in their critical appreciations unleash the dangers and disturbances of the works they treat.

In deft hands, then, Pandora’s boxes galore. Which means even the critic herself better duck!

But, say what? What could possibly be so dangerous--in our era of racial genocides, apocalyptic weather, viral plagues, “invincible” nuclear missiles, slaughters at schools or in sanctuaries, #MeToo histories, and government-by-twitter--about a story or a song or a movie? Nine pages of Hawthorne, or a 12-line Dickinson poem? David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, well at least that’s a horror flick; but Elle King’s latest, or Billie Holiday’s earliest? And yet, from works such as these, “all that we reckoned settled shakes and rattles,” says Emerson, “cities, climates, religions, leave their foundations and dance before our eyes.” So I ask you: what idea, what way of reading and thinking, what way of saying or showing, what construction of the relation of self to nature, self to other, self to society--self to art, art to planet!--could be that powerful, that upsetting?

Let’s find out. In this trial run of English 209, we are going to study the major books of several of American’s formidable guerilla critics, no more than five and possibly three; we will test their claims in turn against the literature and art most capable of “talking back”; and we will move, separately and together, from meta-theory to close analysis and back again--as we pursue that long-dreamed yet still-wondrous thing: each to his own, critical voice.

You want a hint or two? (After all you are course shopping, ours is the society of transparency, and film trailers prescreen all the good stuff.) If we start flat-footedly, as I always recommend, and take the idea of danger first in its literal sense, then ponder these: Why is aethetic beauty, which we think of as a graceful accompaniment to a full life, so often a function of violence? When is sexual intimacy not also an expression of violence, no matter how sweet and no matter what we tell ourselves? And where does the Abrahamic God get off, like the Pagan deities before Him, demanding the sacrifice of the young, beginning (Isaac, anyone?) in His own house? These remain big questions, so I am grateful that have both theories and stories, our American holy texts, to help.

This is by design an introductory course. All are welcome. There are no prerequisites of any kind beyond curiosity, and we will benefit from varied interests and expertise.

But beware, no comfort zone here. And that’s by definition, beyond professorial intent: For “every benevolent remark by an artist is a fog to cover his tracks,” Camille Paglia insists, “the bloody trail of his assault against reality and others.” Or, as Dorothy and her guys once put it, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

Major critical works to be drawn from: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays; D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature; William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain; Leslie A. Fiedler, Love & Death in the American Novel; Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues; Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae; Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark.

Likely counter-texts include: Stories by Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe; poetry by Whitman and Dickinson; novels such as Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy; films such as The Wizard of Oz, Pal Joey, Blue Velvet, and Pulp Fiction; blues music, Madonna videos; and a mess of song-and-dance break-outs from musicals.