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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The literary critic as clueless poseur

I read Joseph Kestner’s 1978 article “The Letters of Jane Austen: The Writer as Emetteur/Recepteur” (which has been praised recently in Janeites and Austen L) a few years ago, and what struck me most, in addition to the pretension of his title, was his total tone-deafness to JA’s irony.

The best (or worst) moment came when Kestner drew a parallel between JA's famous deprecation of her novelistic scope in her letter to James Stanier Clarke, on the one hand, and Horace's referring to himself as a bee, in relation to Pindar's being a swan, on the other! What was amazing was that he failed to realize that both JA _and_ Horace had written _mock_ panegyrics, not sincere ones!

I knew this because I had only recently before reading his article discovered the 1988 Persuasions article by Mary DeForest...

...(whom I contacted and became friends with), in which Mary had independently also detected the distinct parallel between Horace and Jan Austen, but in which Mary, who was not tone-deaf to irony, understood that JA was very consciously and learnedly emulating Horace’s _satire_ of _his_ emperor “Augustus”.

Here is how Mary put it:

“…Although Horace was not primarily a love-poet, the following poem illustrates the Callimachean recusatio as it was reshaped by the Roman elegists; the same themes permeate the poems of Propertius and Ovid. Here, Horace apologizes for his inability to write epic poetry, whether about Octavian, Achilles, or Ulysses:

“Varius, a bird of Homeric song, will write a poem about you that you are the mighty victor over the enemy, in whatever enterprise the fierce soldier under your command will undertake on horse or on ship. We, Agrippa, neither try to tell these things nor the grave wrath of Achilles who knew not how to yield nor the voyages over the sea of the duplicitous Ulysses, (we are too delicate for such great themes) so long as modesty and the Muse in charge of the peaceful lyre forbid me to mar your praises and those of glorious Caesar with the lack of talent … We sing of dinner parties, we sing of the battles of fierce girls whose nails are cut to scratch young men, whether we are on fire somewhat or whether, as normally, frivolous.” [Horace, Odes 1.6.]

Varius is recommended as the epic poet who could do justice to Octavian’s victories because Horace is too delicate to write of any engagements save amatory ones. But we can discern that Horace is not serious in his self-criticism….The poet who renders the massiveness of epic poetry as fat has the comic spirit, as he says in the last line of the poem. It is tempting to imagine that Jane Austen had this poem in mind when she wrote letters of a similar nature to James Stanier Clarke…Like Horace, she refused on the grounds that her genius was comic. Moreover, she seems to allude to the recusatio directly by saying that she could no more attempt this than she could write an epic poem….” END QUOTE

To which I add that JA’s “default setting” was that of satire, irony and parody, and that this was only one example among hundreds to be found lurking in all her writings, whether fiction or nonfiction, poem or charade, novel or playlet, or letter.

Cheers, ARNIE

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