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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What's wrong with a great deal of contemporary literary criticism

 I am repeatedly asked a very sensible question whenever I speak or write about my discovering significant thematic and textual meanings in the novels of Jane Austen, which somehow remained undiscovered for 200 years, despite her novels having been read by millions of readers, and also having been subjected to intense critical scrutiny over the last half-century, once her novels began to be accepted as part of "the canon" of the greatest literature.

And my answer is complicated--in part, it's because (I believe) Jane Austen was so discreet and careful in concealing her allusive subtexts and shadow stories in the text of her novels, that it was just a bit too difficult for enough readers to catch entirely on their own, especially if they read the novels only once.

And in part as well, it's surely the mythology that the Austen family propagated to the world even before Jane Austen was cold in her crypt at Winchester Cathedral, with particular emphasis on the "fact" that she never alluded to any real people, and that she really did work on "two inches of ivory", with no aspirations to literary greatness or erudition.

But....the third horseman of this unfortunate apocalypse is surely the attitude of many in the academic literary criticism field, which is extremely hostile to any suggestions of shadow stories or covert allusive subtexts.

Fortunately for me, among the few responses I have received to my recent posts about As You Like It in Emma, there is one that epitomizes that sort of clueless hostility, and describes it better than I could have in my own words.

It is in the post a few moments ago by Ellen Moody in Austen-L, and I reproduce the relevant part in toto:

 "There's no reason to believe As You Like It is a source [for Emma] either. For a work to be a source there must be a specific allusion, a specific set of parallels found in no other work quite like it. So The Birthday by Dibdin is a source (Kotzebue), and also Barett's The Heroine, and Genlis's Adele and Theodore (precisely stated by Austen). Any pastoral could be cited. Sidney's Arcadia was in print. AYLI can be an analogue, not a source. It's more likely to be a pastoral novel of the era of which there were some: Marmontel's Contes Moraux were popular; they were produced with illustrations and Englished too. "


There you have it, a smoking gun straight from the mouth of academic literary criticism--if you don't have something painfully explicit in the text of the novel, or in a letter written by the author about the novel, then it's just not there!


So...in analyzing works of imaginative literature, the foundation of which are metaphors and subtle hints at meaning, and where rich ambiguity reigns, we have a literary critical standard that treats novels as if they were legal briefs or machine manuals, where ambiguity is a no-no. Talk about a total mismatch!


At least for the past 50 years, that's why nobody in academia has seen the stuff that i find all over the place in my research--because they're working with blinders on, blinders which they've willingly donned, in order not to see anything in the shadows.


By the way, I replied to Ellen as follows:

Wow, Ellen, I guess I should just say "never mind" about the detailed _textual_ argument that I just made in support of my claim that Jane Austen alluded to As You Like It in Emma.

After all, as you make quite clear once again, you are the ultimate authority on all aspects of literary criticism, in particular what constitutes legitimate claims in regard to alleged allusions.

Or maybe you didn't even bother to read what i wrote, because....in addition to Trilling's (often-quoted favorably) thematic argument in favor of Austen's allusion to As You Like It in Emma, maybe you are still blissfully unaware that there is a humongous and very specific
allusion to As You Like It in the very passage that Trilling quoted from Emma:


[Mrs. Elton] “That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day: -- but AS YOU LIKE. IT is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing...."

Ellen if _that's_ not a specific allusion, I wonder, what is? Did Mrs. Elton have to also talk about shaking a spear at the strawberry bushes in order to satisfy your rigorous standards?


Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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