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abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence

10.10.05

The Antinomy of Criticism

... or should that be antimony?

Pale Fire's satirical take on the critic's expropriation of the artist's creation is high comedy. Which is to say that underneath the slapstick of Kinbote's misprision of "Pale Fire", of his relationship to Shade, of his cultural confusions, lurks a much more complex assessment of literary criticism of the time (and leading up to it; as noted earlier, many of the poets alluded to were also critics and theorists). An archetypal example governs both Charles II's escape from Zembla and Shade's glimpse of afterlife at the Crashaw Club, which I fortuitously stumbled upon, only to find myself anticipated by UMich Russian philologist Omry Ronen: "The fallacy of the Jungian psychology as applied to literary criticism by Maud Bodkin in her once popular book [Archetypal Patterns in Poetry] appears to be spoofed in Pale Fire, especially in the “white fountain/white mountain” episode, as well as in the names of characters (aunt Maud, Dr. Botkin)." As Kinbote has written a book on surnames (C894, a rock upon which many critical interpretations break -- if it does not falsify, must it be false? and if so, what else is? or isn't? -- but nonetheless rich in allusion), it seems fair for me to say that Abbazia, along with the Bera range that Chas II traverses in C149, puts me in mind of the magic of place names that Bodkin delineates in her "Heaven and Hell" chapter:

There is more to be said concerning the significance of the mountain and cavern image, as illustrated by the comparison between Colerige's poem [Kubla Khan] and Plato's myth [Phaedra, upper/underworld]; but let us first return to those lines in which the poem passes from impersonal description to an expression of the poet's own ecstasy:
A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw: / It was an Abyssinian maid, / And on her dulcimer she played, / Singing of Mount Abora / Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song, / To such a deep delight 'twould win me, / That with music loud and long, / I would build that dome in air,
I would ask the reader who has achieved any vivid and satisfying experience of these lines in their place in the poem to ask himself what, if anything, is suggested to his mind by the name Mount Abora -- placed as it is where there converges on it all the emotion pertaining to the previous description, and the mention of the mysterious damsel; while also there appears to spring from it a sudden passion of desire for the return of poetic ecstasy.
Lowes, as we saw, traces the name, Abora, to a confluence of 'the hill Amara', of which Milton also had read in Purchas'
Pilgrimage, and the names of two rivers, tributaries of the Nile, 'Abola' and 'Astaboras' [...]

I spare the reader Bodkin's digression into Proust on place-names to pick up, briefly, where Bodkin rejects the latter associations:

... But these names are probably far from constituting all the emotional determinants behind the name Abora.
When I questioned my own experience, why it was that in responding to Coleridge's line, I could not think of Abora as a Paradisal mount -- the associations which the name gathered from the description preceding it were rather of caverns, of subterranean winds and tumult -- an answer came in the form of a dim memory of some mountain named by Milton and associated with such fierce winds. I found the reference in the passage describing the soil of hell that
Such appeared in hue, as when the force / Of subterranean wind transports a hill / Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter'd side / Of thundering Aetna ...
The
er sound was the link that led to the recall of Milton's wind-vexed Pelorus, helped by the converging associations of the contexts of the two names. The name of Boreas, the north wind, and the word 'to bore' were also associated with the sound 'Abora', and helped to determine the image it awakened [...]

More in this vein I shall not impose on the reader; the flavor of argumentation is clear enough (and, for a poem originating in a dream, dim memory may be critically valid; in fact, Bodkin's own dreams are sourced later on). This is followed by a discussion of fountain symbolism (turbulent in KK, source of the Alph, in turn source for King Alfin), culminating (back in Milton) in the 'white fountain' (in "Pale Fire", Canto III) reference:

The rills that flowed from the fountian of Milton's Paradise 'ran nectar'. Eve, to her angel guest, offered 'nectarous draughts' 'from milky stream'. In Samson Agonistes this latter epithet occurs with curious significance. Since seeing the drama produced many years ago I have often recalled the lines, which then arrested me by their beauty:
Wherever fountain or fresh current flowed / Against the eastern ray, translucent, pure / With touch ethereal of Heaven's fiery rod, / I drank, from the clear milky juice allaying / Thirst ...


I again omit the segue to a quote from Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven: "Nature, poor Stepdame, cannot slake my drouth; / Let her, if she would owe me, / Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me / The breasts of her tenderness." (all I can say is, WOW). So you see where this is going:

If such an element of organic response, persistent from infancy, be admitted as characterizing the imaged fountains of earthly Paradise in their gentleness, should we recognize any corresponding organic factor in images of more violent uprushes of water, such as that in the lines quoted from Kubla Khan?

But if Maud Bodkin's archetypes govern Zembla's topography and Shade's vision, the selection of poets to whom both Shade and Kinbote allude is governed both by a metaphysical strain that runs through their work and by a more dominant feature of the time's critical landscape, on ground prepared by the criticism of T.S.Eliot. (Relation to the Russian formalism of the Silver Age would make the territory familiar to Nabokov as well.) In particular, the span of poets the Shades draw upon, from Donne to Yeats, matches that of Cleanth Brooks' New Criticism manifesto, The Well-Wrought Urn, Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" being the most explicit point of contact (though Macbeth figures as well). The play of light that runs through many of Brooks' selections is refracted in Pale Fire's iridescences. Brooks' wrap-up in the Yeats chapter, its title drawn from the conclusion of "Among School Children" ("Labour is blossomming or dancing where / The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, / Nor beauty born out of its own despair, / Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil. / O chestnut tree, great rooted blossommer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? / O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?"), seems relevant:

The poem is a dramatization, not a formula; a controlled experience which has to be experienced, not a logical process, the conclusion of which is reached by logical methods and the validity of which can be checked by logical tests. In each case, the unifying principle of the organization which is the poem is an attitude or a complex of attitudes. We can discover, to be sure, propositions which seem to characterize, more or less accurately, the unifying attitude. But if we take such propositions to be the core of the poem we are contenting ourselves with reductions and substitutions. To do this, is to take the root or the blossoms of the tree for the tree itself.
The point is not a very abstruse one. It seems worth repeating here only because many of our professors and popular reviewers continue to act as if it were an esoteric principle. Our staple study of literature consists in investigations of the root system (the study of literary sources) or in sniffing the blossoms (impressionism) or -- not to neglect Yeats's alternative symbol -- in questioning the quondam dancer, no longer a dancer
[the dance interrupted; note for further use], about her life history (the study of the poet's biography).

Is Pale Fire a defense of New Criticism's methods, or a challenge to them? Or, perhaps, both, in the manner in which Brooks was wont to reconcile seemingly opposed dichotomies? Does this then make the authorship question more pertinent? Do the critic and artist merge? (And what of the author and reader?) Worryingly, the New Criticism movement reached its apex (or zenith, to keep that A-Z thang going) in just such a synthesis, with of all things archetypal criticism, in the work of Northrop Frye. Now, After Theory, we seem in some ways to be returning to the old New Criticism. (And my appetite's sorely whetted for the wit and wisdom of Empson's The Structure of Complex Words.)

I have by no means exhausted Pale Fire's potentialities, or what I've seen of them, but I have exhausted myself in this unaccustomed synthesis; a brief blog break seems in order, as does ceding development to future Kinbotes commentators. I trust the reader has enjoyed these notes.

1 Comments:

Anonymous j.mello said...

"A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid..."

The reference to an Abyssinian maid suggests another work that is related to Pale Fire: Samuel Johnson's Prince Rasselas. The lexicographer's description of a "happy valley" situated in Abyssinia and at the "origin of the Nile",surrounded by mountains and underground caves with a lake in the center and completely protected from the outside world
by an iron gate at the mouth and a dense wood at the "outlet", suggests both Kubla-Khan's palace, Bruce's descriptions and Zembla itself. Johnson's depiction of the pleasures of sheltered academic life may extend Zembla to Wordsmith.
The astronomer, in Johnson's fable, is not named Starover Blue, though.

16/8/06 13:24  

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