Art is defined by Noel Carroll in his recent book On Criticism as ‘the intentional production of the artist,’ with the artist as an individual creator of value. Criticism, he says, is the discovery of value, not the clinical dissection and interpretation of various codes, or signifying systems or regimes of power. Description, contextualization, classification, elucidation, interpretation and analysis all contribute to the articulation of what is most important in criticism: the reasons upon which evaluation is based.
Several posts ago I wrote that great works of literature encountered by a curious mind chart near infinite courses of interpretation and meaning. Blinkered schools of thought rob great writing of its diversity and richness. Much that passes for criticism is in fact thievery, where ‘meaning’ is hijacked and re-cast in light of: Foucault, Marx, feminism, Derrida, Queer Theory, whatever the cheer might be. Each may reveal valuable truths, but often at the expense of author intent.
Edmond Caldwell at Contra James Wood hijacks meaning and willfully misreads the intent of James Wood’s criticism.
Here’s Fredric Jameson at the conclusion of Marxism and Form:
“…it has been said that literary criticism was a privileged instrument in the struggle against nineteenth-century despotism (particularly in Czarist Russia) because it was the only way one could smuggle ideas and covert political commentary past the censor. This is now to be understood, not in an external, but in an internal and allegorical sense. The works of culture comet o us as signs in an all-but-forgotten code, as symptoms of diseases no longer even recognized as such, as fragments of a totality we have long since lost the organs to see. In the older culture, the kinds of works which a Lukacs called realistic were essentially those which carried their own interpretation built into them, which were at one and the same time a fact and commentary on the fact. Now the two are once again sundered from each other, and the literary fact, like the other objects that make up our social reality, cries out for commentary, for interpretation, for decipherment, for diagnosis.”
Mr. Caldwell, hearing this rallying call, has cleverly chosen to attack leading ‘establishment lackey’ James Wood, in an effort to help us all ‘see’ again. In so doing, he picks over Wood’s oeuvre each week, seeking at every turn to diminish and discredit; to paint him as stodgy reactionary- defender of the status quo – stooge for mass consumer culture and those who rule it, in hopes of undermining Wood’s credibility as an arbiter of literary merit, and, I assume, in so doing, to incite revolution.
Caldwell’s criticism is not free-range; it’s hatched all from the same template. There is no objectivity. Reasoning is hostage to an ulterior motive, the servant of a larger purpose. It is propaganda; predictable cant; which, because it engages with Wood, makes for interesting, if troubling, fare. Troubling because his pickings while insulting, also border on the calumnious. For example:
“Those who encounter “Toni Morrison’s False Magic” in its place towards the end of The Broken Estate may become aware of an odd contradiction. So many of the earlier essays find Wood going into raptures about how good (realist) fiction conjures our belief, how it plumbs the mysteries of the human “soul,” etc. In one essay he lauds Virginia Woolf as a fundamentally “mystical” writer; in the next essay he calls D.H. Lawrence one of the greatest “mystics” writing in English. Suddenly, however, when it comes to Paradise, he is on the side of skepticism and reason against the seductions of “magic” and “superstition.”
Why is this?
“…when Morrison appears (to Wood, anyway) to be handling the “necessary superstitions” of African-American history in a suitably detached manner, her prose is “dignified” and “distinguished” – i.e., it has the bearing of a Negro you can bring home to meet your parents, like Sidney Poitier or Joe Biden’s “clean, articulate” Barack Obama. But when Morrison appears uncritically to embrace this history and participate in it, she is rolling in the aisles of a superstitious “choir.” Woolf and Lawrence come out of a Judeo-Christian and European tradition; their magic is a limpid, beautiful “mysticism.” Toni Morrison’s magic brokenly traces its lineage to Africa; it is “superstition” which must be treated with distance and skepticism. It should come as no surprise that the magazine James Wood worked for when he wrote these words was the same one which, a few years earlier, had published the initial installment of The Bell Curve.”
The implication is clear. Wood is a racist. Why? According to Caldwell’s willful misreading, it hinges on Wood’s use of the word ‘dignified,’ which supposedly means the opposite of ‘uncritical embracing and participating in history.’ I read it differently. Here’s the sentence that contains ‘dignified.’ prior to the one Caldwell uses to commence the first quote:
“Morrison’s talent- and she certainly has great novelistic talent – has been to combine magic, myth and history, and to make of this a dignified superstition.”
Several sentences later Wood clarifies:
“…superstition – a myth, made of oral telling and retellings.”
‘Dignified’ thus refers to writing. Superstition is dignified because of the talented manner in which Morrison has written about it.
I highly doubt that James Wood’s (conscious or unconscious) intention in writing this review was to denigrate the African American experience. I’d suggest that it was simply to provide reasoned argument in support of his opinion that Paradise lacks the same level of literary merit that some of Toni Morrison’s earlier works possess; works which in fact Wood included years ago, when in his mid-twenties, among those he loved the most.