A Flare for Criticism

April 16, 2016   •   By Daniel K. Green


S. D. Chrostowska

IN HER BOOK Literature on Trial (2012), S. D. Chrostowska examines how the rise of early modern literary criticism is inseparable from the development of literature itself. Forms of criticism, she argues, echoed and adapted emerging literary forms, such that “significant change in the forms (variety, complexity, or function) of criticism indicates significant change in the praxis, function, and value of literature, and hence also in literary-critical methods and principles.” Although Chrostowska chronicles how certain modes came to be considered more adequate to an authentic critical discourse about literature than others, she also shows how directly the definition of “criticism” tracks the evolving definitions of “literature.” (Chrostowska, a professor at York University in Toronto whose scholarly interest focuses loosely on intellectual history and comparative literature, concentrates on the development of criticism in Germany, Poland, and Russia, where the notion of literature as a secular and a vernacular phenomenon developed later than in England and France.)

When in her new book, Matches: A Light Book, Chrostowska quotes Paul de Man’s reference to literature as a “persistent naming” and then asserts that “The odyssey of naming … is at an end,” we might find this just another lament about the putative death of literature, but in the context of the author’s larger interest in the character of modern literary criticism, it implicitly provides us with an insight into the form and purpose of her book. Matches could variously be described as a miscellany, a commonplace book, a series of meditations. Some might initially regard it as a more or less disconnected collection of pensées (a quite sizable collection at that), although the generally abbreviated prose pieces — a few lines to a few pages — that comprise the book are less undeveloped than highly compressed, and what at first seems simply a fragmentary discourse soon enough coheres, structurally and thematically. But certainly readers expecting conventionally realized critical essays, close readings, or historical analyses, the kind of book Chrostowska describes in her introductory “Proem,” in which “the words, erect, line up in columns and salute from every page,” will have to adjust their assumptions about what “criticism” properly entails.

Chrostowska poses against this sort of text, marshaled in its prescribed formation, one in which words are “laid down in rows, looking up from their cots, sometimes wide, most only half, awake.” Lest we think these words are merely slackers, however, they can spring into life quickly: “The words are matches; those that strike ignite. From time to time, light sweeps across the page like wildfire.” Obviously, Chrostowska aspires that her book be of the second kind, surely not an unfathomable aspiration, but we could ask whether (or why), in the era when the hegemony of Literature has passed, critical writing such as that found in Matches is more sharply attuned to the changes evident in literature and literary culture, better situated to register the reshaping of literary writing in a networked world in which print has been supplanted by pixels. If modern literary criticism originated in a reciprocal relationship with literature as the latter acquires (and attempts to maintain) its conceptual coherence, when that coherence can no longer be taken for granted, does the “odyssey of naming” that is also criticism come to its functional end, or find a different kind of coherence?

Literature on Trial reminds us that the historical interdependence of literature and criticism was thoroughgoing enough that “literature” (as opposed to what previously would simply have been called “poetry”) itself came into being as in part an effect of critical discourse. It could be argued, for example, that at least as important to the ultimate acceptance of the novel as a “serious” literary form as was its acceptance by such writers as Flaubert, James, or George Eliot was the effort made on its behalf by reviewers and critics, to the point that in the 20th century the novel became more or less synonymous with “literature” for many readers. Literature is not whatever readers at a certain time declare it to be — not until some process of critical reflection, rooted in the inherited history of similar such reflection, leads them there.

In the 20th century, of course, criticism’s authority was only made more explicit by the rise of academic criticism along with the spread of the formal study of vernacular literature in colleges and universities. Matches poses its greatest challenge to academic criticism, demonstrating that intellectually rigorous issues can be addressed in an accessible way without diluting or oversimplifying those issues. Chrostowska, an academic critic herself (and also a novelist, the author of the 2009 novel, Permission), replaces argument with aphoristic insight, rhetorical elaboration with concise analysis, a tone of earnest formality with wit and irony. Although many passages could be quoted in their entirety as illustration of Chrostowska’s approach, this one, headed “Art (Theory) Brut” is representative:

Caves containing prehistoric art have opened our eyes not just to the oldest known artwork, but to the Urbild of art: the outline of a human hand in ochre done by firelight. From it leads the long and dark passage to the image as we know it: from this negative of a hand held against a wall, on past the contour of an invisible hand and its silhouette, all the way down (or up) to the articulated figure bursting with colour in broadest daylight. But the primitive stencil, followed by the application of the hand to depiction, followed by the pictorial trace of what’s behind the depicting and tracing — these were, respectively, the view, the technique, and the principle of art from the very beginning.

The deliberate compression of a fragment such as this lends it a kind of oracular quality that is no doubt too transparently subjective to seem altogether “scholarly,” but while of course it can be read in isolation, each fragment interpreted in succession, the book doesn’t finally offer such bite-sized chunks of “meaning.” Instead it links its fragments and mini-essays in strands of thematic rumination, its subjects, once introduced, examined from complementary angles for a few pages before blending into a new subject, usually related, in a very fluid way that gives Matches a theme and variations structure, although many of the themes recur throughout the book, according to changes in context and emphasis.

“Art (Theory) Brut” thus appears as part of a series of entries contemplating the nature and role of art, although the section in which it appears begins with reflections on reading and literature and ultimately considers music and film as well. Similarly, the book’s second section maintains a loose focus on philosophy while weaving in meditations on multifarious issues related to philosophical thinking, as does the section following on topics relevant to political thought. Even while Matches asks us to direct our attention to its sentences as they are “laid down in rows,” this does not mean it can’t also be satisfying as a formally adventurous whole. If it is not a text lined up in columns, marching forward to its appointed rhetorical unity, nevertheless the associations among the subjects Chrostowska treats, across all six sections of the book, are certainly evident enough to make it a “text” in the first place, not a series of random observations.

Matches is not a wholly unprecedented book, of course. In particular, writers such as Schlegel, Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Maurice Blanchot created aphoristic, fragmented, and/or unorthodox works of literary criticism that have been very influential, retaining their intellectual credibility while not classifiable as “academic” per se. In following up on the efforts of such writers, Chrostowska seems implicitly to be contending that the potential of the critical miniature has not been fully realized. However large figures such as Nietzsche and Benjamin loom in modern criticism, it is their ideas that have compelled attention, not the forms in which those ideas were cast, and Chrostowska’s book prompts us to consider the extent to which the ideas proffered by these influential thinkers were conditioned by their mode of presentation. In Matches, the entries that most call attention to their own mediation through form are perhaps those composed of dialogues between “A” and “B” (in a few cases “Q” and “A”). This form inherently puts authorial intent in suspension (is the author A or B?); it seems likely that Chrostowska the novelist has some influence on Chrostowska the critic’s sense of the potentially permeable boundaries between literature and criticism, although Literature on Trial reminds us that this potential has been exploited in criticism all along.

Chrostowska herself exploits it not just in Matches but in her novel Permission as well. A version of an epistolary novel (except that the only correspondent is the novel’s protagonist), structured as a series of emails, the novel ultimately has a story to tell (including the story of its own creation), but in part it is an opportunity for its protagonist to discourse on subjects such as Montaigne and the films of Stan Brakhage, the reality of death and the ritual wooden masks of Pacific Northwest Indians, in some ways not unlike the strategy employed in Matches. Indeed, it would not be wholly implausible to regard Matches as itself a novel of sorts, its authorial voice belonging to a character occupied with the same kind of concerns explored by the narrator of Permission. Ultimately, however, the book covers such a wide range of subjects and is sufficiently reticent about asserting a “thesis” or in some way personalizing the text that, if it is appropriate to call Permission a novel that pursues an essayistic strategy, probably it is most accurate to consider Matches a work of critical nonfiction written by an author displaying a decidedly “literary” sensibility.

Perhaps it would be most fruitful to think of Matches in the context of this aphorism expressed early in the book: “Now that you have lost your faith in Literature — it does nothing for your amour propre these days — you can believe in writing.” Capital-L Literature — the ultimate product of the dialectic between criticism and the forms of what we now think of as literature — imposes a conceptual abstraction, one fraught with issues of reputation and cultural authority, on the aesthetic integrity of “writing” unencumbered by extraneous expectations or ambitions. That we no longer believe in the exalted status of Literature frees the writer to “believe in writing” anew. Matches suggests it can free the critic as well: the academic or scholarly critic can dispense with the burdensome apparatus of citation and elaboration associated with the scholarly article; the book reviewer or general interest literary critic presumably could seek an alternative to the conventional evaluative review or critical essay.

Should literary critics want such an alternative? Certainly Matches demonstrates that an intelligent, informed critic can use the aphorism and the fragment to explore the most serious and substantive critical and philosophical subjects, providing sufficiently radiant illumination to guide us in our own consideration of these subjects. It is a very rewarding book, read either in sequence and in its entirety or in isolated selections, but while Chrostowska has written in Matches a refreshing, consistently thoughtful work that usefully questions entrenched assumptions about the nature of criticism, it is less a specific model of what criticism might become in the digital age than simply a challenge to seriously reflect on what Matthew Arnold called “the function of criticism at the present time.” That function is not the function Arnold advocated for his time, since we no longer believe in such a thing as a “disinterested” perspective. Still, it could be argued that if faith in Literature is to be replaced with trust in writing, criticism could have an even more important function in helping to reconcile confused readers to this real death of literature. Finally this requires critics who come to realize that the passing of Literature and its metaphysical demands allows us to see that a very corporeal writing can then come to life.