Jacques Barzun Rescues Me From Charges of Artistic Relativism

February 10, 2009

“This verdict is a good example of a common critical error: different periods conceive differently and each must be granted its premise before one judges its conclusions, in art or any other form of expression.  This fair play does not exclude preferring the products of one age to those of another, but it does avoid blindness.”  — From Dawn To Decadence, p.  336, in defense of the Baroque.

Which is to say: to judge a work of art — particularly its successes and failures — one needs to consider the moment in which it was composed.  (I’m lenient toward As I Lay Dying because without it, The Sound and the Fury would have made the same mistakes.  Or, as an album review I once read put it, A mediocre Beatles record is a career album for most other artists.)  Even if Nabokov is right and Finnegans Wake is a disaster, there will always be that brave few who read it because it was fantastically, ground-breakingly so.  Or the importance of Aeschylus’ characterization or Flaubert’s narrative style evaporate when they’re considered in relation to the works of this century.

Doing so is, at times, remarkably similar to what Hans Robert Jauss calls for in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (I’m not going to look it up because reading German theory in translation is like being hit over the head with a two-by-four: not what’s being said, but that prose feels like its used as a weapon!), which, while decidedly not Stanley Fish and all ensuing relativistic craziness, helps lay the groundwork for him.  In fact, I’ve taken the example of Flaubert’s narrative style directly from Jauss — it’s perfect for the purpose.  Still, starting from a similar place as Fish isn’t where I generally want to find myself in theoretical discussions, since I think he is spectacularly (dangerously?) wrong about reader-response, etc.  The difference is all in the intent of that consideration.

Hence my wariness to impose modern conceptions of literary irony on Homer, or to judge those works inferior because of the lack of it.  (My reason for choosing this example will hopefully become clear in future posts — suffice it to say, it affects my understanding of that borderline undefinable Homeric epithet in the title of this blog.)

I feel like this may have been disjointed — if so, I apologize.  I’m a little out of sorts as of late, if you can’t tell.  (“Over-worked and under-paid?” a friend asked me yesterday afternoon, jokingly, to which I responded, “Yeah, and I’ve realized that’s going to described the next six, seven, eight, however many years of my life it takes before I’m done with school, too.”)

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