Daily Archives: December 3, 2006

The Augustan Period as a Rethinking of Traditions

Thanks, Carrie, for setting up this reading and providing us with a very lucid introduction to BP’s book and its aims.

Since I’ll be posting tomorrow morning on chapter 1, the Samuel Butler chapter, I’ll just take up a few issues from yours and Matt’s posts. Nonetheless, I think these issues will probably recur in discussion:

For me, the most useful thing about the Triumph is its ability to serve as a case study in the opposing literary-historical problems of periodicity and the persistence of traditions. Even more helpfully, this book really does have the generic breadth that enables BP to view these developments in the broadest possible light.

Here, the key question seems to involve the exact relation of Augustan “neo-classicism” to two forms of inherited or “traditional” (this is BP’s term, I think) authority: historical Christianity and classical antiquity. So we have the period-specific uses of Horace or biblical sources, but the sometime puzzling persistence of genres like the epic

In this instance, Parker focuses upon the transition out of the “Baroque” and into the “Augustan” to fashion a larger-scale argument about the birth of modernity, which is treated here as yet another narrative of disenchantment, flattening, loss of collective and sacred meaning, etc. etc. The goal, as far as I can see, is some kind of historicist reanimation of the Baroque, so that its true breadth and depth can be seen from the inside rather than outside.

Carrie’s description nicely encapsulates this aspect of the argument:

While the critical history of the Augustan period has always marked the move away from metaphor, flights of imaginative fancy, “superstition” and “enthusiasm,” and the shift toward a commitment to empiricism and mimetic description, Parker specifically notes that this shift comes, first, as a total rejection of the aesthetics of traditional Christianity, not necessarily, as the writers of the age would style it, as a “return” to classical values. The only way to get to the aesthetic values of Addison, Pope, and Johnson is by first actively destroying the dominant modes of representation.

I agree with this characterization of the period’s novelty, though it doesn’t seem at all counter-intuitive to me, or even that surprising, in the wake of, say, Raymond Williams’ discussion of the dominant and the residual in Marxism and Literature, or the reception studies of the classical past done by the followers of Warburg, or the recent critics of Swift who have emphasized his affiliations with the Moderns rather than the Ancients. In fact, I would be interested to hear more specifically from Parker who his specific targets were when he wrote this book, or at least what forms of criticism he was writing against. I do agree wholeheartedly, though, with the book’s argument that “neo-classicism” nowadays seems a whole lot more “neo” than “classical.”

What I am not sure about is whether BP has really gotten beyond the “dissociation of sensibility” thesis of Eliot, since he seems to be arguing for a similarly broad and irrevocable estrangement of poets and poetry from the sacred (or is it from a holistic culture that embraces the sacred?) around the mid-seventeenth century. The anti-rhetorical, anti-figurative, anti-analogical thought of the Augustans was first given memorable expression by Samuel Butler, the poet who invented a form, Hudibrastics, ugly enough to suit his era’s political behavior. And as I’ll elaborate tomorrow, I find this reading of Butler very convincing.

Nonetheless, what I really wanted from this introduction, and what I didn’t quite receive, was a fuller explanation of what BP meant by “the literal” in writing, and what relation this term had to the still-emergent empiricism of the mid-seventeenth century. Here I would second Matt in his questions about the causal relations of literature to philosophy.

What’s more, I kept wondering about the exact contours of the big historical break we keep hearing about, and whether it happens fast or slowly, or in a number of places or all at once. But it is nice to hear that Samuel Butler and his writing stand as one of the causes of these momentous changes.


Parker’s Intro, Follow-up: The Pace and Dating of Cultural Change

Carrie, thank you for arranging this event and getting us all started. I’m looking forward to the discussion. Thank you also for your careful account of Blanford Parker’s argument. I appreciate the time you have taken to summarize the complex and wide-ranging argument of the introduction and the ease with which you seem to have done so. My only quarrel with your reading is your claim that Parker details a “slow conceptual divorce of art from the traditional Christian imagination.” In fact, I don’t think the discursive and imaginative changes described arrive gradually in Parker’s literary history at all, but rather arrive suddenly and violently. At various moments, Parker describes the shift from Baroque to Augustan aesthetics as a “rupture,” “irruption” and “interruption.”

It is not uncommon for scholars of the late 17th century to locate shifts of all kinds in this period, but Parker’s attempts to explain the changes are, as Carrie Shanafelt rightly points out, quite radical. What is perhaps unique about Parker’s account of the period is that he makes aesthetic shifts primary (as opposed to, say, philosophical shifts). According to Parker, by the end of the 17th century, not only had the conceptual framework of the scholastics been destroyed, but so too had the imaginative foundation upon which it stood. The rhetorical moves made by Hobbes, and Butler in particular, are the necessary precondition not only for the tropes and argumentative structures in Swift and the later Augustans, but also for the emergence of a secular modernity. Parker’s implicit argument seems to be that changes in philosophy and religion are predicated upon changes in imaginative associations. The later logics of science, literalism, and positivism depend upon lateral, metonymic, and spatial associations rather than upon analogy, and this shift occurs first in Butler and his contemporaries. Once the change has occurred in poetry, every aspect of culture, literary and intellectual, must come into ideological alignment (despite, of course, the persistence, as Parker quickly points out, of figures like Bunyan, Wesley and Whitefield — but their rhetoric, too, is sharpened by the need to respond to the changed imaginative landscape, post-Butler).

Because this change must necessarily occur first in the imagination and be made manifest in poetry, it might make sense to argue for the slow growth of a newly organized set of imaginative relationships and associations, their gradual deployment by writers, and a slow seepage of a new ideology into the broader culture. While we might imagine changes in poetic style to be gradual, Parker makes it clear that these changes in style and the attendant intellectual modes they imply are quite sudden. “The process whereby English culture moved from the acrobatic credulity of Browne to the cool and abject skepticism of Hume in less than eighty years was neither automatic nor inevitable… The suddenness and severity of this moment of Augustan interruption is still of the greatest significance in our endless struggle to explain modernity” (24). Here, in addition to arguing for the speed of these changes, he also insists that their occurrence is far from inevitable. I understand this to mean that these changes seem to grow out of acts of imaginative will, deliberate interventions — both rhetorical and stylistic — on the level of representation. It is the collective effort of writers and thinkers overthrowing the tyranny of scholasticism, and challenging all at once, through a reordered set of imaginative relationships, the four traditions of Christian theology that Parker argues the Baroque world inherited.

The question remains, and I think it may (still and always) be the central question for students of the Early Modern Period (and of the Enlightenment): how radical is the break and how sudden? What is entirely new, and what remains either transformed, or perhaps fully intact, from one period to the next? Parker is careful to distinguish the changed set of imaginative relationships from what others might call “Zeitgeist.” He also challenges Foucault’s assumption that the episteme of one period is unknowable to people of another. Furthermore, he argues for a continuity of imagination — here called modernity — from the age of Butler to our own age (the age of Colbert? — Colbert seems to use similar satirical techniques of exclusion and leveling, especially in his efforts to collapse differences between liberals and conservatives). But, despite Parker’s efforts to argue that history is not marked by divides across which one generation may fail to recognize another, Parker argues for a pretty sudden and severe shift. No doubt, the Civil War is the great traumatic event allowing for such a compressed period of intellectual change. I am inclined to agree with Parker on this point, but I also try to be cautiously skeptical about such arguments (the most recent being the contemporary tendency to locate in 9/11 the spontaneous birth of an entirely new world).

In the discussion of McKeon’s book, Carrie Hintz wrote in one of her comments, “I have medieval colleagues who regularly chastise me (however gently & affectionately) for assuming that the epistomelogical/ cultural/ literary changes which congealed into modernity all emerged in the early modern period.” Indeed, I think there is always a danger of arguing too forcefully that everything or most things changed all at once, and in a few years. In a later post, Hintz referred to “habits of mind” as an explanation for such shifts in culture. It seems that Parker is suggesting a transformation in deeply rooted habits of mind in this period. He makes a compelling case for this kind of reading of history, and in locating the changes in style, rhetoric and associative figures makes their seeming suddenness hard to ignore. This, of course, raises one further question, perhaps the hardest of all to work out, and that is whether the associative structures of imaginative literature cause changes in intellectual history, or if they instead register changes already underway.

Introduction: The Christian imagination vs. the critical history

Welcome to the collaborative reading of Blanford Parker’s The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson! We look forward to a great conversation over the next week as we move through this text, with responses to Parker, Parker’s responses to us, and our dialogue with one another. Please feel free to jump in at any point in the comments and/or with posts on the front page. Keep in mind that comments over 10,000 characters will be truncated, so if you have something very lengthy to say, consider posting it to the front page (if you are already on our contributors’ roster) or emailing it to me and I’ll put it up for you. I will begin with a short response to the introduction, and we’ll proceed roughly sequentially from there.

Parker’s introduction begins with a reframing of the discourse surrounding Augustan aesthetics as a process of rejecting the Baroque, which he describes as a set of aesthetic responses to four traditions of Christian theology, the mystical, logist, fideist, and analogical. The Augustan, for Parker, is not, as has been assumed by most critics, a return to classical, or even the creation of a “neoclassical,” aesthetic, but a slow conceptual divorce of art from the traditional Christian imagination.

This divorce begins with the leveling satires of Boileau, Butler, Rochester, Dryden, and Swift, which mock not Christianity itself, but the imaginative excesses of Christian thought, “the ‘acrostic land’ of the logist; the maddened, inward ‘aeolist’ imagination of the fideist; the self-lacerating obsessions of the mystic; and most of all the empty conceits of the analogists” (2). While the critical history of the Augustan period has always marked the move away from metaphor, flights of imaginative fancy, “superstition” and “enthusiasm,” and the shift toward a commitment to empiricism and mimetic description, Parker specifically notes that this shift comes, first, as a total rejection of the aesthetics of traditional Christianity, not necessarily, as the writers of the age would style it, as a “return” to classical values. The only way to get to the aesthetic values of Addison, Pope, and Johnson is by first actively destroying the dominant modes of representation.

This move is, of course, never separate from the historical relationship of the seventeenth century succession to the rise of religious faction. No aesthetic movement is ahistorical. “Augustan literature,” Parker writes, “was the first great victory over the culture of analogy, memorial authority, and traditional theology, and their classicism is no more backward-looking or authentic than that of Shelley or even Joyce” (7). Parker argues against the twentieth century critical history that has compressed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century aesthetics so that “Leavis […] and Brooks […] began to see the same virtues of figural compression and even conceit in Pope and Gray that Eliot had discovered in Donne” (9). That is, the distinctions that were so self-consciously made across a hundred and fifty years of poetry, that moved from the theological and aesthetic excesses of the “metaphysicals” to the empirically descriptive poets of the high Augustan, have been minimized from the great distance of the New Critical era, and that compression has, to some extent, not been remedied in the intervening years.

The poverty of criticism in the period is partially to blame. Parker notes that the poetry between the late Renaissance and the Romantic eras are not well read even in primary texts, much less in critical ones. He also faults the “too rigorous distinction between the prose and poetic genres of the period” (12) for the lack of criticism on Augustan aesthetics. It has been easy for criticism like T.S. Eliot’s to become ascendant and remain, always, on the table when so few have offered to correct it. Parker’s extended criticism of Eliot’s misrepresentation of the Augustan as a “revolt against the ‘descriptive'” (18) demonstrates the intrusion of Eliot’s own aesthetic commitments into his treatment of the era.

But while Parker faults Eliot for compressing the Augustan into a modern fantasy of historicized poetic difference, he criticizes Foucault for the opposite—removing the Augustan from its Baroque roots and setting it alongside the undeniably modern. That is, Parker feels Foucault is guilty of being duped by the rhetoric of the Augustan, which self-consciously attempts to erase its own history for the sake of innovation, while, as Parker shows in the first chapters of the Triumph, tendrils of surviving Baroque “excesses” still spring up everywhere in transitional Augustan poetry.

This seems to me to be a book that has the potential to radically reconfigure our understanding of the Augustan era, and to allow both for historical attention to the origins of eighteenth-century aesthetics and for the innovations of the era. I look forward to seeing how you feel this approach could be applied to criticsm and even pedagogy, and I will respond further in the comments.

The Price of Innovation

Commenting on the “Blogs and Wikis” thread below, Carrie Shanafelt wrote,

Every time I try to introduce innovative methods and texts that my English majors don’t expect, it ends up benefitting those who work hard and are curious and penalizing those who are just trying to get a C. That is, I feel the more pedagogically sound my teaching is, the more my classes’ grades split into As and Fs.

Do others attempting innovative teaching methods encounter this phenomenon? When we try to get students to interact with difficult course material in new ways, does it inevitably punish the students with lackluster academic skills and reward those who come to the class with better preparation for success?

I was struck by Carrie’s comment because her wiki assignment strikes me as an excellent way to meet the learning needs of a certain kind of “C” student: the ones who are willing to make an effort but who (for whatever reason) write poorly and have trouble figuring out how to do the interpretive close reading that gets rewarded in the literature classroom. Asking all students to produce a chunk of information on schedule seems like a great way to use and reward the skills that these “C” students bring to the course. It also seems like an entirely appropriate way to punish the other kind of “C” student—the ones who could do better but choose not to as they run down the clock on their degrees. The expectations and requirements for success are clearly spelled out, as are the consequences for not meeting them. It’s not the instructor’s responsibility to translate students’ willful mediocrity into precisely the mediocre grades they think they deserve. But perhaps in the context of a variety of writing assignments that go against the grain of lit-class practice, weaker students don’t perceive the distinctions between the skills that are being drawn on and just get generally discouraged?

I guess I’m wondering if the A/F bifurcation Carrie is observing just polarizes the range that would be there in a more traditional incarnation of this class, or if innovative methods rearrange the categories of excellence such that talented students who coast get punished more than they would by less innovative methods, and hardworking but intellectually limited students get rewarded more?

My own efforts at innovation in my Enlightenment class seem to have produced a different kind of dynamic. A higher percentage of the class than in the past seems to be engaged with the material and willing to make an effort to understand, interpret, and contextualize it, but the remainder that hasn’t been bought on board (though smaller) seems much more resistant and entrenched than in the past. It’s as if the more I make C18 material accessible and comprehensible to students, the more room I give the ones who dislike it to really hate it, and to assert their inability to shake the assumptions they came in with. It’s gratifying that this semester this hostility seems focused on the material and not me, but otherwise I’m not sure if this phenomenon counts as progress or not.

Anyone else care to take a break from end-of-semester grading to reflect on the price of innovation?