Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Unreliable Author and the Reliable Critic

Thesis: The most intractable problem with the retreat of literary criticism as an academic discipline into theory is that it has failed to argue for the utility of its methods and insights in other disciplines, preferring instead the sterility of its isolation and pride.

So now let me ignore that thesis, though I will give it a passing shout at the bottom of this piece.

I am much impressed with Robert Bartlett's The Making of Europe, a social history of the high middle ages. But it was a little extra thrilling to read his take on what we can learn from the Expugnatio Hibernica of Gerald of Wales, the 12th-century story of the conquest of Ireland by the Normans and their allies. He writes:

The Expugnatio Hibernica of Gerald of Wales similarly answers the questions, who were the first Anglo-Normans in this island, and what are the roots of our colony? His partisanship is very specific, however, and not all invaders are heroes. He is the champion of a group within the conquering √©lite, the first wave, who came mostly from south Wales, and, in particular, of course, his own family. The text itself reveals the strain between this predilection for the fitzGeralds and the need to keep a wary eye on the changes of royal patronage the work was dedicated to Richard the Lionheart of English and contains a eulogy of Henry II in a passage with the rubric 'Praise of his family' ... Gerald writes: 'O family, O race! Always suspect for your numbers and inborn energy (innata strenuitas). O family, O race! Capable by yourself alone of conquering any kingdom, if envy, begrudging them their vigour (strenuitas) had not descended from on high.' We can hear in this passage the grating discontent of a conquest aristocracy which felt itself bridled by the less than whole-hearted support it received from the English Crown. Despite — or because of — the tensions it expresses, the Expugnatio was a successful work.

The thrill for me was that this argument, in particular its last sentence, pretty much matches what I wrote in my dissertation about authorial/rulership tensions as expressed in the Malay chronicles of ca the 15th century. But even more so, this is an inadvertent, even casual, demonstration of what literary criticism can bring to the study of history.

It is a commonplace to accept literary works as "reflecting" their times. But reflection in this sense is non-dialectical ... uni-directional such as to imply that the observer ought to be able to reliably infer a set of social circumstances by simple reflection upon what its chroniclers wrote about it. There is more than a little too much of this sort of thinking about, and it is such a simple idea to fall back on that one can hardly be surprised. But in fact, the most "reliable" texts are precisely those in which the tensions obscure or fracture intention, where the depiction of "reality" is unreliable because the narrator is pointedly, even openly, unreliable. Then you have a living text and the observer can engage with it as a living text and by teasing it extract from it not the facts of life, but the modalities of life.

So in the broadest sense what literary studies can bring to other disciplines is a deep investigation of the contradictions of unreliability in texts. But to do so, literary scholars have to remain involved with the texts, and I think that is where we have tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

(Took the day off work today to clean house in preparation for the return of my oldest friend who lives upstairs ... so I had better post this bloody thing and get back home to clean the kitchen floor.)

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