The Rhapsodic Critic

A response to Jonathan Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth

Elaine Scarry

From a folio of responses to Jonathan Kramnick's Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies. To read the entire folio, click here.

a key observation of Jonathan Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies is the identification of the practice of quoting, along with its analogy to certain craft practices: weaving, spinning, stitching, embroidering, bricklaying, sculpting, welding, gardening. Kramnick emphasizes crafts that are material and require the use of the hands, in part because writing entails the use of the hands and in part because he is describing the act of getting traction on an artwork. But there is also an oral craft, a speaking craft, that seems close to the constant vocalization of passages he describes, and that is the craft of the rhapsode.

At the ancient Greek festival Panathenaia—as we know from Gregory Nagy and other classicists—rhapsodes recited the whole of the Iliad and the Odyssey. One rhapsode would begin to recite, and wherever he broke off the next rhapsode had to immediately pick up. If the first rhapsode abruptly stopped at book 2, line 63, the next rhapsode had to start with book 2, line 64.

Kramnick puts in front of us a series of analogous crafts (as weaving and bricklaying and welding are analogous crafts). But the craft of the rhapsode, rather than being analogous to what we do, may instead actually be the craft that we carry out when we undertake this rich practice of quotation. Rhapsody is not analogous but rather is the craft we are practicing.

Plato’s Ion analyzes the work of the rhapsode. And—is this just a coincidence?—the text of the Ion looks on the page amazingly similar to what we call literary criticism. Prose sentences are often interrupted by lines of poetry, sometimes two lines, sometimes seven lines followed by discussion and then more quotation. The “horserace in honor of Patroclus,” the passage where Nestor’s concubine “gave the wounded Machaon the broth to drink,” and a passage about “the art of fishing” are among the lines cited. Of the scholars whose writing Kramnick celebrates, Socrates’ practice in the Ion seems to be closest to that of Paul Alpers on pastoral, since Socrates, like Alpers, uses block quotations. In addition to exact quotation, Socrates in his account of the Iliad also uses what Kramnick calls “critical mimicry,” or free indirect style of recapitulating the plot.

The Ion, like Kramnick’s book, is all about craft skill. As Kramnick invokes various crafts to clarify the craft of literary criticism, Socrates cites from the Iliad passages illustrating the art of fishing, the art of the charioteer, the art of the healer, and the art of divination to illuminate the art of the rhapsode. Socrates nominally intends to show his titular interlocutor, who is himself a rhapsode, that the rhapsode does not practice a craft. He seems to work from divine inspiration alone and not from rules of expertise because Ion does not know any of these rules. But as the dialogue unfolds, we see that there are rules, and Socrates himself certainly does know them. The Ion therefore shows that the rhapsode works by inspiration and by craft rules while also showing that Socrates is the true rhapsode.

But—again—what is relevant for us is that he proves himself to be the better rhapsode precisely by carrying out acts of recitation that look a lot like what we call literary criticism. Among the rules disclosed in the dialogue: You must be able to recite lines from memory (Socrates quotes Homer from memory more times than Ion does); you must also be able to understand the lines; you must know and understand the lines of more than one poet (Socrates quotes Hesiod, but Ion cannot); you must understand metrics; and you must make judgments about the lines (including judgments about your own and the poet’s ignorance).

In considering the consequences of Kramnick’s book, I call attention to the immaterial oral craft of recitation to supplement his list of weaving, spinning, grouting, and welding because if the work of the literary critic so centrally relies on quotation, perhaps we and our students should memorize many more passages, not just lines of poetry but paragraphs of prose.

In addition, I call attention to the rhapsode because this form of work foregrounds the modesty and generosity of literary criticism, which always requires us to stand in lateral relation to the poet or to the artwork. Technically, in the Ion one is not lateral but beneath—beneath the poet, beneath the great magnet, beneath the gods. This is an important and sometimes uncomfortable feature of the discipline. You lend your mind to be the surface on which someone else’s elaborate construction gets made—a sequence of thousands of images in any of the poems or novels Kramnick touches on—but now in addition you let your own voice be usurped by the artist’s voice. One could say that in quoting, the literary critic appropriates or steals the artist’s voice. But I think it is the reverse: like the rhapsode, the literary critic lets the artist speak through her.

This lateralness might seem to be put in peril by the kinship Kramnick foregrounds between the creativity of the author and the creativity of the literary critic. I am not certain about this magnified claim because the pervasive idiom of “craft” and “skill” preserves the self-imposed constraints of modesty for the literary critic. Kramnick’s claim of “artistry” becomes most explicit with his citations from Friedrich Schleiermacher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Geoffrey Hartman, where literary critics are presented as equal, not lateral, to the artist. The book repeatedly invites us to contemplate the way the literary critic participates in a shared work of creativity. What, if true, is the nature of this creativity?

Like the rhapsode, the literary critic lets the artist speak through her.

I think it may be something like this: Ordinarily a novel or a poem unfolds in time (as the scholar Nicholas Dames eloquently shows in his compelling recent study The Chapter). Literary criticism, more often than not, sidesteps the temporal and lets its object exist as a spatial phenomenon. In fact, I caution young students that if the page numbers of the book they are writing about are going up as the page numbers of their papers are going up, they are probably not writing a good essay. The temporal sequence of the book is usually best replaced by the spatial.

Let’s say (using Kramnick’s grout-and-mortar vocabulary) that literary criticism reimagines the artwork as a small brick house that has an inside and an outside. What literary critics do each time they quote is cross through to the interior of the artwork, through a door or a window or the roof or the chimney, each time coming back out after going in. So all the other statements they make (those that do not enact this kind of portal crossing)—about, say, the moral stature of the characters or the political situation of the novel—are anchored to the house, grounded in the recognition that this is a made thing, joined to the moment of its making when compositional choices about words were being decided. The temporal sequence of the book or poem, insofar as it survives, has been replaced with the temporal sequence of composition. The felt experience will be more familiar if we shift to the craft Kramnick most often invokes, weaving. Picture the same small house now woven of silken threads but still with its beckoning windows and doorways and, in fact, infinitely many more portals of entry since any two threads can be parted.

This practice of breaking and entering or opening and disclosing is entirely different from conversations we have about books with reading groups or friends who may love literature every bit as much as we do but who absolutely do not keep interrupting their thoughts about the fictional persons and events to climb in and out the windows or fissures or threads of composition, and in whose descriptions everything about the book just seems to float. This floating quality is a key attribute of such discussions.

Are there some signs or hints that the two—the authorial act of making an artwork and the literary-critical act—may be related? One hint is the fact that quite often great poets are great literary critics. One thinks of T. S. Eliot on the metaphysical poets; or Seamus Heaney’s tour-de-force essays on Wordsworth or Robert Frost; or John Donne, whose sermons carry out astonishing acts of literary criticism; or Gerard Manley Hopkins writing his essay “On the Origin of Beauty” or his many letters.

Perhaps a more persuasive hint is the fact that poets—not in their literary criticism but in their poems themselves—often carry out something that looks very close to literary criticism. An extreme instance of this is Dante’s Vita Nuova. Most of its forty-two sections contain both poetry and prose. The prose often provides what Kramnick calls a critical mimicking of what the poem says: Dante tells us he is going to write a poem, and he tells us what the poem is going to say. Further, the prose always or almost always gives us a structural analysis. For example, in section 3 he writes, “This sonnet is divided into two parts. In the first part I extend greetings and ask for an answer, while in the second I signify what requires an answer. The second part begins: ‘The first three hours.’” He also gives interpretive and stylistic glosses, as when he writes in section 8, “This sonnet is divided into four parts. In the first part I address Death by certain appropriate names,” or when in section 13 he tells us that a word he uses in the final line of the sonnet we have just read has a particular tone: “I say ‘Lady’ in an almost scornful manner of speaking.”

In my memory, I had thought of Dante as outgrowing this process as he matures in the Divine Comedy. But actually he does exactly the same thing only more subtly. He tells us in canto 4 of the Inferno—that is, inside the poetic lines themselves—that we are entering “Circle One, which skirts the emptiness,” just as canto 5 opens, “And so from Circle One I now went down / deeper, to Circle Two, which bounds a lesser space /and therefore greater suffering.” This is more extreme than Vita Nuova. It is as though in that earlier work he did not simply tell you that a new part would begin at the sonnet’s fifth line; instead in the fifth line itself he said, “We are now entering the fifth line, and I’m here going to pronounce the word ‘LADY’ sarcastically.” In Vita Nuova the creative act and the literary critical act accompany one another but sound separable; in the Divine Comedy they are “melded” together, to use Kramnick’s word. Of course, this merging of literature and literary criticism is particularly easy to recognize in the modern period, when most literature seems metafictional. But it occurs in every century. Nicholas Dames, for instance, shows us the way chapter divisions in novels were even at the earliest moment metafictional.

In summary, then, Kramnick’s book makes us see a practice that has been invisible to us because it is omnipresent, lets us see the kinship between that practice and various crafts (both the ones he names, such as weaving and bricklaying, and others that he provokes us to see, such as rhapsodizing), and pushes us to think about the continuity between our own writing and the literature we write about.

Is that continuity better understood as lateral or equal? Conceivably literary criticism can be simultaneously lateral and equal to artworks because the lateralness of literary criticism is to a large extent shared by literature itself—as when Shelley speaks of poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”—and it is that lateralness or unacknowledgedness that lets literary works and literary critics bring about (and get away with) the very large world changes we bring about, even if at the present moment our lateralness and unacknowledgedness have been pushed to an uncomfortable extreme. (In my Boston Review essay “Poetry Changed the World,” I provide elaborate evidence for the asserted claim that literature and the study of literature are legislative and changed the world.)

Before I read Kramnick’s book, it had not occurred to me that the central value of our work resides in the practices he identifies. I had assumed that our work resides primarily in oral teaching, not in writing; quotations are important when they provide evidence for the large claims at the heart of literary criticism, claims such as those made by Sianne Ngai, Lisa Zunshine, Yi-Ping Ong; our public lectures (I had often counseled my Ph.D. students) should be orally delivered, not read; our goal as literary critics is to raise the level of perceptual acuity and, equally important, to raise the level of counterfactual acuity. Time will tell whether Kramnick’s revelations will replace all my earlier beliefs or, as appears now, will accompany and richly supplement them, but in either case I have benefited greatly by reading his book.

Elaine Scarry Elaine Scarry teaches at Harvard, where she is the Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. Her writings include The Body in Pain, On Beauty and Being Just, Thermonuclear Monarchy, and Naming thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Originally published:
June 17, 2024

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