An Epiphany of Footnotes
- Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work by Jerome McGann
Harvard, 279 pp, £21.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 674 81495 9
According to Jerome McGann, poetry became desocialised as a result of Kant’s definition of the aesthetic experience as wholly and essentially subjective. A consequence for criticism ever since has been that ‘poetry’s historical and social relations are regarded as peripheral (“extrinsic”) concerns.’ Coleridge’s declaration that a poem proposes ‘for its immediate object pleasure not truth’, and his particular conception of Imagination as an internal and self-enclosed harmonisation, ‘extends and elaborates the Kantian analyses of the aesthetic experience’. McGann favours poets with a more activist or ‘illocutionary’ conception of their art: Blake rather than Wordsworth, or the Language poets rather than some more traditionalist poets now writing in America. But his overriding concern is to insist on a critical method which recognises that all poems, not just activist ones, are ‘social acts’ which cannot be understood in separation from the circumstances which attended their composition, publication, reception and subsequent transmission. Bibliography and textual criticism, whose importance to literary studies he has always seen as central rather than peripheral or ancillary, are here again brought into play in a series of eloquent and sophisticated analyses of particular literary texts, though these disciplines are always and properly treated as forming part of a larger historical and biographical matrix. The essays in this book range from the Old Testament to recent American poetry, but the main topics of investigation fall within the Romantic and Early Modern periods.
Like some of McGann’s earlier books, this is a collection of essays rather than a single developing argument proceeding in linear form. It is broadly unified by a number of common concerns but retains a rather miscellaneous character, not itself objectionable but inevitably entailing the double and opposite awkwardnesses of discontinuity and repetition. Less easy to swallow is a penchant for portentous self-justification that leads McGann to ‘theorise’ his method: the more heterogeneous pieces ‘execute shifts in the formal continuities of the book, they re-open its subjects from a set of slightly altered perspectives. Indeed, the critical virtue of certain disciplined discontinuities in literary work is a recurrent concern here and is specifically developed in several of the chapters.’ The defence sounds like an academic version of Wallace Stevens’s poetic project of arriving at insights through circularities rather than continuities of exploration, repeated affrays from various angles which precede the homing-in. McGann himself looks to Blake, whose ‘habit of returning to the same topics from slightly altered perspectives seems to me one of his most impressive rhetorical moves’. Other models are said to be Plato, Montaigne and Adorno. In fact, most of the individual essays seem organised in traditionally-structured ways, as academic exercises in precisely the format which is disavowed in the book as a whole.
McGann’s mission to re-establish the ‘performative’ character of poetry has been pursued in a series of volumes of which this is described as the fourth but not the last, and his view of poems as ‘social acts’ is one of which we are reminded in most of the chapters of most of them. The feeling that such reminders are called for just now is understandable, though his repetitions will, I suspect, be found wearisome by the converted and unconverted alike. He is particularly determined to oppose all conceptions of the poem as an autonomous closed system, a mode of thought which, in his view, brings together the otherwise very disparate New Criticisms, old and new. One of the variations on this theme, which I shall dwell on in this review as representative of what seem to me McGann’s strengths and weaknesses, occurs in a chapter which takes issue with the subtitle of the famous essay on Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn: ‘History without Footnotes’. McGann sees in this subtitle ‘a coded declaration about the nature of poetry and criticism: that poetry is important precisely by virtue of its ahistoricality, its divorce from everything factive and circumstantial. Just as for later critics like de Man and Stanley Fish, for Brooks poetry is an intertextual system.’
McGann writes with a courtesy to opponents unusual in books as forthright and combative as his are. But most informed readers would, I think, recognise in these words a simplication of Brooks’s specific position, of the imputed links between old and new New Critics, and of the alleged common ground between closed systems of the well wrought urn variety and those governing an ‘intertextual field’. The idea that an intertextual system implies a self-enclosed ‘ahistoricality’ is tendentious to the point of large-scale inaccuracy, since intertextual relations are themselves historical facts, transactions across time and space, and since many of McGann’s own reconstructions of the meaning of poems, including the discussion of ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ in this book, are heavily concerned with the intertextual recovery of literary echoes and allusions. So for that matter are many footnotes, the genre in whose defence McGann is writing.
McGann writes as a distinguished textual editor and annotator and is honourably committed to a high idea of these activities, traditionally the Cinderellas of literary studies. Here as in his earlier books he properly insists that textual and bibliographical knowledge is to be valued not merely in the specialised operations of editorial backroom boys, providing the pre-critical and preferably concealed foundations for the act of reading, but that it is an immediate and radical constituent of the historical recovery on which all accurate reading depends. His defence of footnotes, therefore, should be assumed to take in the textual apparatus along with its less lowly brethren of the explanatory or historical commentary. This is valuable at a time when the fashionable modes of reading are more than usually free-wheeling, when reading is replaced by what are sometimes coyly referred to as ‘readings’, and when an exacerbated predisposition to literary theory sometimes dislodges the reading process altogether.
‘Theory’ isn’t what McGann is against, however. He seems uncomfortable at the idea that his empiricism might be thought empirical, and his desire to see his own position ‘theorised’ (a favourite phrase) inevitably leads to some of the reductiveness or slippage that often besets theoretical pronouncements when they confront particular textual realities. As is usually the case, the generalising assertions are less interesting than the discussions of particular works which are ostensibly offered as illustrations. When the slippage sometimes extends to these also, it is likely to be at moments when McGann strains to integrate his local and specific perceptions of a work or author within the larger frame of his argument.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 11 No. 9 · 4 May 1989
Claude Rawson (LRB, 16 March) argues that in his Social Values and Poetic Acts, Jerome McGann ‘simplistically attributes’ ‘referential functions’ to Ezra Pound’s ‘footnote style’. The case at issue is this passage near the end of Canto I:
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, out of Homer.
McGann comments in a passage Rawson cites:
the lines represent a kind of footnote in Pound’s text … Pound supplies us with an introductory or preliminary gloss. He means – among other things – to identify the text of Homer he is using. It is the Renaissance Latin translation done by the scholar Andreas Divus. The actual book he is using is also identified: the edition from the Paris printing house of Christian Wechel. And Pound might have added, as he tells us elsewhere, that he acquired the volume in a bookstall in Paris in the early years of the century, probably in 1908.
Rawson responds to this: ‘In fact, Pound’s “gloss” cannot act as a gloss unless it is itself glossed in some such manner as McGann’s. Few readers would be able to decode from Pound’s text the information about the Homeric translation used, or the identity of Divus or the officina Wecheli, and none would be able to deduce that Pound had bought a copy of Paris circa 1908. On such matters, Pound’s “kind of footnote” is no kind of footnote, just another difficult passage inaccessible without the help of professors like McGann.’ But as McGann’s own footnote following the quotation above (which Rawson omits) reminds us, the ‘elsewhere’ where Pound tells us all about Divus and the book he bought in Paris in c. 1908 is Pound’s own essay, ‘Translations of Greek: Early Translators of Homer’, which appeared, first in serial form (five parts) in the Egoist during 1918, then in Instigations (1920), and then in the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (1954), from which McGann cites it.
In the essay in question, Pound has a separate section on Andreas Divus, which begins: ‘In the year of grace 1906, 1908 or 1910 I picked from the Paris quais a Latin version of the Odyssey by Andreas Divus Justinopolitanus (Parisiis, In officina Christiani Wecheli, MDXXXVIII), the volume containing also the Batrachomyomachia by Aldus Manutius, and the Hymni Deorum rendered by Georgius Dartona Cretensis. I lost a Latin Iliads for the economy of four francs, these coins being at that time scarcer with me than they ever should be with any man of my tastes and abilities.’ And Pound goes on to cite the Nekuia (Odyssey XI) passage he used in Latin, following it with his translation, which was to become Canto I. The poetic text is in turn followed by a few pages of commentary, in which, among other things, Pound praises the ‘constant suggestions of … poetic motion’ in Divus’s Latin.
Thus the ‘just another difficult passage inaccessible without the help of professors like McGann’ was in fact quite accessible, not to those in the despised ‘beaneries’ (Pound’s word for universities), but to those literary people who had kept up with Pound’s writing from its beginnings to the publication of the first Cantos. Indeed, those who would have been able to ‘deduce’ that Pound had bought a copy of Divus in Paris would presumably include not only poets like William Carlos Williams and publishers like James Laughlin, but a good portion of the readership of the Egoist and of course of Instigations. Just as later, those who know the literary Essays, which is, after all, one of Pound’s best-known books, would presumably recognise the reference in Canto I.
Why does this matter? Because – and this, I think, was Jerome McGann’s point about the ‘factive’ intervention of Pound’s footnotes – the sort of self-quotation Pound uses here and everywhere in the Cantos has a very different status from, say, the footnotes Eliot added (and later regretted adding) to The Waste Land. Such ‘footnotes’, or rather cross-references, are Pound’s way of saying, look, if you want to understand my work you’ll have to read it, all of it. This is, of course, a large and, some would say, presumptuous demand to make on one’s reader, but it is not at all untypical of Modernist writers. Joyce and Proust, to name two, consistently demanded of their readers that they would give up all else and follow the Artist. Thus the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of Finnegans Wake has echoes of the laundry scene in Joyce’s early short story ‘Clay’, and the Saint-Loup of Le Temps Retrouvé makes no sense unless we have been following Saint-Loup’s curious evolution through the preceding six parts of A la recherche du temps perdu.
If it is objected that at least Joyce and Proust referred to their earlier fiction, not to essays, and that contemporary readers of the Cantos can’t be expected to be up on Pound’s literary criticism, the answer is – and this, I take it, is what McGann had in mind – that such refusal to observe generic boundaries is precisely what makes Pound so important to Post-Modernist readers, who have become accustomed to the kind of cross-referencing in which he engages. Such self-quotation (with reference to other genres) is common enough in Beckett and Calvino, in Perec and Pinter, and its pleasure is the Aristotelian pleasure of recognition. But recognition of a special kind: it opts for poeisis rather than poema (the Brooksian ‘well-wrought urn’), suggesting that the way to understand a given poetic oeuvre is to look, not outside the text, but in the next line (where Chinese ideograms are often translated) or the next page or the previous Canto or The Spirit of Romance or Instigations. To read the Cantos this way is to watch constellations of meanings as they begin to crystallise. For many of us, this makes reading the Cantos an especially exhilarating and challenging process: to make present what was already there if we had only known how to look for it.
Vol. 11 No. 10 · 18 May 1989
Marjorie Perloff’s eloquent discourse on Modernist self-quotation (Letters, 4 May) is at such a tangent from my argument that I have no difficulty in agreeing with much of it, in the way I would agree that Milton wrote Paradise Lost or that Europe was at war in 1914-1918: unless, that is, she really wants to persuade us that the works of Joyce and Proust (‘to name two’, in addition to naming Beckett, Calvino, Perec and Pinter) are all to be read as congeries of footnotes. It hadn’t escaped my notice that many modern texts, like many older ones, were self-referential, or concerned with the pleasures of ‘recognition’; nor even that the Cantos were not exactly offering themselves to us as a well-wrought urn. I also agree that self-quotation in the Cantos ‘has a very different status from, say, the footnotes Eliot added (and later regretted adding) to The Waste Land’ I even said so, regretting McGann’s failure to go into this question.
This is one of the several instances in which, when Professor Perloff doesn’t altogether miss my point, she has a tendency to make it for me. To find out what McGann rightly or wrongly tells us that Pound’s lines require us to know (in this case, where and when Pound bought his Divus), one needs the footnote by McGann to which she refers (or its equivalent). My point was that the information about Divus and the officina Wecheli could just about be decoded from within by an exceptional reader, but that for the other fact one did, as McGann said in the passage I quoted, have to be directed to what Pound ‘tells us elsewhere’. That seemed sufficient for the point I was making without my having to spell out that the relevant Poundian text was the essay on early translators of Homer. Perloff makes such a production of this essay, its contents and dates of publication, and my not citing it, that I can only suppose she believes I’m unaware of it. This would place me in roughly the same predicament as quite a few other educated readers and would add reinforcement to McGann’s vindication of the value of annotation, which I endorse. On the other hand, while I freely confess that there must be many works by Pound which Professor Perloff has read and I haven’t, it does so happen that I have long been familiar with this particular essay and have at least once discussed it in print in a different connection.
On Perloff’s main argument arising from that essay, I of course agree with her that readers who knew to the point of immediate recall every line of all of Pound’s works would be able to decode the Cantos more easily than those who didn’t, though I suspect that there would even then be plenty of occasions when the ministrations of annotators would be gratefully received. When she goes on to speak of Pound’s ‘ “footnotes”, or rather cross-references’, her ‘or rather’ merely means part of what I meant when I said the footnotes weren’t footnotes, my review being specifically concerned with degrees of literalness and the slippages between them. Her claim that these non-footnotes were Pound’s way of saying, ‘look, if you want to understand my work you’ll have to read it, all of it’, suggests that she’s saying it for him, since if he’d said it she’d be likely to have cited him in his own words. If Pound did entertain this as a tenable proposition in the world in which the rest of us live, it would not be altogether out of character: greater divagations from the reality principle may be found in his life and work. But he said many things, like everyone else, and one of the things he said on the difficulties of the Cantos was ‘skip anything you don’t understand and go on till you pick it up again.’ He went on to say that the ‘foreign’ quotes are clarified in the immediate context, but if you didn’t know Greek you had to go outside to learn it (a principle he seems readier to contemplate than Perloff’s scenario allows for): the realistic alternative nowadays resorted to is the footnote explanation, useful also for those who don’t know what officina means in Latin or who haven’t heard of Christian Wechel-probably a widespread condition among Pound’s readers, then as now.
Lastly, Perloff seems to have misunderstood my argument that McGann’s way of attributing ‘referential functions’ to Pound’s ‘footnote style’ was simplistic to mean instead that I thought it simplistic to attribute referential functions to that style at all. Much of my review was, in fact, concerned with the referential features (and limitations) of the texts in question. I don’t even deny, as Perloff’s selective quotation implies, that there is a footnoting dimension in Pound’s lines: as I said, ‘they evoke the genre without enacting it.’ I went on to argue that such evocations contain self-conscious elements of irony and even parody, to be set beside other well-attested Modernist mock-pretensions to a learned manner: that they were oblique and playful rather than simply informative.