Sunday, December 6, 2009

Puerility and Pedantry

From Burke and Kant, we're used to seeing the sublime opposed to the beautiful. But Longinus writes (in this 1698 translation of On the Sublime):
A Boyish, or Pedantick Style is contrary to it. For there is nothing so low as this latter, so mean, so oppos'd to true gallantry of Discourse. What is Pedantry then? 'Tis nothing else but the thought of a great Scholar, which is made cold, and non-sense, by endeavouring to be too refin'd and affected. And this is a fault into which those fall, who aim at saying something uncommon, and surprizing; who endeavour to make a Thought extreamly taking and charming: for they, by dressing their language in too many Figures, fall into a ridiculous Affectation.
What undoes the sublime, for Longinus, is too eager an attempt to describe it adequately, or to approximate it by being "uncommon, and surprizing."

It's interesting to me that Longinus collapses pedantry with puerility: teacher and pupil alike may partake of this intellectual fruitlessness. It seems to me that there's a difference between the two, on which more later perhaps.

I've been thinking a lot about puerility lately. For Longinus it's clearly a pejorative, but I think that a certain pedantry has its appeal for many modernists. The cognitive act of slogging through irrelevancies can amount to, I think, an ascetic quest for the real.

Michael North's recent book Machine-Age Comedy takes up what I think of as a puerile streak in modernism--the amusement in rigidity and mechanicity that, North argues, is peculiarly modern. Though North is more interested in Chaplin and, much later, David Foster Wallace, it's impossible not to see the same impulse in 'pataphysical and Oulipian writing. Puerility enables a certain kind of play that is regenerative for the modernists. In a Foreword to Machine-Age Comedy, the series editors, Mark Wollaeger and Kevin Dettmar, astutely wonder whether "whether comedy in the machine age was a boys-only playground" (vi). I rather think that it is -- not that only the XY-chromosomed were interested in it, but that puerility is a masculine formation--a way of performing boyhood, in fact. The simultaneous triviality and momentousness of childhood play is a source of vitality in modern literature, and problematic in the way that primitivism is problematic.

In I Capture the Castle, which I've just been teaching, Dodie Smith imagines Mortmain's modernist breakthrough as a return to origins, as he mimics "a child learning to read and write" (335). His teenaged daughter Cassandra, the narrator, has just undergone a series of experiences that have made her definitively and somewhat painfully leave childhood behind, and she finds his reappropriation of childhood as a figure trivial and confusing at once--as, perhaps, "dressing [his] language in too many Figures." "I feel so resentful!" she says to the novel's exemplary literary critic, Simon. "Why should father make things so difficult?"

The problem with Mortmain's childish, riddling poetics is that its cleverness runs roughshod over actual childhood, and in particular the experiences of his own children, whom he's neglected and failed to provide for for years. Cassandra, the realist, wants to "capture the castle"; in attempting to do so she writes a coming-of-age novel about herself. Mortmain's modernist novel, in contrast, regresses to the scene of learning to read. One can imagine why his daughter might resent his puerilities. She might say to her father, as William Carlos Williams imagines his critics saying to him at the beginning of Spring and All, "I do not like your poems; you have no faith whatever. You seem neither to have suffered nor, in fact, to have felt anything very deeply" (88).

Indeed, Williams positions himself as immature, as one who has not yet suffered. "[T]hey mean that when I have suffered," Williams writes, "I too shall run for cover; that I too shall seek refuge in fantasy. And mind you, I do not say that I will not. To decorate my age. But today it is different." A childish callousness is required for Williams to engage in the literary violence of his poetics. The fantasies of destruction that ensue are straight out of Winnicott. I think that Smith, in imagining the most exciting modernist gesture as one of (male) regression, is onto something, something that Michael North calls machine-age comedy and that Longinus* calls puerility, a delight in and a commitment to the trivial, gimmicky game and ritual repetition, the embrace of travesty so long as the travesty is fun.

This sounds judgmental, but I mean it as descriptive. If puerility is a counter to the sublime, perhaps it is also a needed corrective. It is generative as well as problematic, transgressive as well as regressive. It has much to do with what constitutes modern boyhood. American literature in particular has always loved the "bad boy," but modernist puerility is something more than a rebellion against "petticoat government." What that something is, I intend to find out.

*Longinus very likely didn't write On the Sublime. You know how it goes.

My thoughts on puerility are, of course, related to the meditations of my previous post on gendering Twitter.

Longinus (attrib.). An Essay upon Sublime. Oxford: Leon. Litchfield, 1698. Electronic reproduction. Ann Arbor, Mich. : UMI, 1999- (Early English books, 1641-1700 ; 1705:22).

North, Michael. Machine-Age Comedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. 1948. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998. Print.

Williams, William Carlos. Spring and All. 1923. Imaginations. New York: New Directions, 1971. Print.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. 1971. New York: Routledge, 1992.

No comments: