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Cases in Point

Understanding the rules of law and the laws of rhetoric.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By JAMES SEATON
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On Posner’s presentation, both seem more artificial constructs than real traditions. Posner himself seems to be the only member of the first group; he says he aligns himself with Oscar Wilde—“I accept Wilde’s dictum—the creed of aestheticism, of art for art’s sake”—but concedes that Wilde himself wasn’t a true believer. (The narrator of Wilde’s most famous book makes it clear that literature can and often does have a powerful moral impact for good or ill when he declares that “Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book.”)

Posner lists “Plato, Tolstoy, Bentham, and the Puritans” in the second group, an incongruous band with little in common beyond a suspicion of literature and a certainty that the social good required the promotion of their views, and preferably only their views. Although Posner doesn’t believe in “edifying,” he seems to think this group has good grounds for their suspicions. In his view, “the classics .  .  .are brimful of moral atrocities .  .  . the world of literature is a moral anarchy.”

Posner is thus at odds with a tradition of criticism he fails to mention, the central humanistic tradition of Western literary criticism which, despite sharp differences of philosophy and taste, has consistently affirmed that great literature unites literary or aesthetic quality with insight into human life. This tradition begins with Aristotle (“poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history”) and continues through Horace (“usefulness with pleasure”), Longinus (“sublimity in all its truth and beauty exists in such works as please all men at all times”), Sir Philip Sidney (“the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher”), and Samuel Johnson (“Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature”) down to Lionel Trilling (“literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”).

Posner suggests that his formalist view of literature aligns him with New Critics, such as Cleanth Brooks, whom he rightly admires both for their analytic skills and ability to write for a general audience. The New Critics, like Posner, recognized that the paraphrasable “message” of even the greatest works is likely to be a banality. Brooks was even willing to accept with pride the charge of “formalism” made against the New Critics—with the all-important qualification that he rejected any notion of form as somehow divorced from content. 

For Brooks, the task of the poet “is finally to unify experience” and a successful poem “triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern.” Thus the “form” important for Brooks and the New Critics is nothing mechanical or external, not a rhyme scheme or a verse form, but a “unification of attitudes into a hierarchy subordinated to a total and governing attitude.” Literary works, the New Criticism suggested, are valuable in large part because they help us to make sense of our lives, to achieve an overall point of view in a world in which life often seems to be just one damn thing after another. 

Brooks and others followed T. S. Eliot, who observed that, in ordinary experience, one “falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking,” but “in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

The New Critics were thus part of the humanistic tradition. They believed that poetry and literature not only do provide aesthetic pleasure but also offer insight into human life by dramatizing ways to achieve a coherent outlook while honestly confronting the most disparate experiences. Brooks and the others argued that, for literature, “content” and “form” are inseparable; the “unification of attitudes” achieved in successful poems, plays, and novels is something far different and far more valuable than any paraphrasable “message” that could be extracted by divorcing content from form. 

Posner, however, thinks differently. For him the “moral content” of a literary work “is merely the writer’s raw material,” no more relevant to the writer’s achievement “than the value of the sculptor’s clay as a building material is relevant to the artistic value of the completed sculpture.” In arguing that literature has nothing interesting to say about human life, Posner disagrees not only with the humanistic tradition but with himself. He cannot help noticing in his discussions of particular works that great poems, plays, and stories do somehow manage to offer important insights into human life. Even the Iliad, an epic celebrating a patriarchal culture in which the most admirable quality is physical bravery in war, turns out to have an important lesson for our time, according to Posner.

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