An Epiphany of Footnotes

Claude Rawson

  • 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.

In the chapter on footnotes, the texts are from Pound, the Old Testament and Herodotus, and it is in the case of Pound’s Cantos that the matter of footnotes is most prominently and arrestingly at issue. McGann describes the Cantos eloquently and, I think, accurately as seeking to ‘erect a monumental synthesis of human history and human knowledge’ but ending up in ‘bits and pieces’. Pound’s ‘conviction ... that this order must be unearthed’ is on a par with the efforts ‘of the synthetic mythographers of the late 18th century’: the failure is evidently seen as a noble one, a defeat of the totalising impulse in a world of centrifugal factualities. Pound’s attempts at ‘totalisation’ are perceptively contrasted with those of Wordsworth’s Prelude, which are ‘established through a visionary experience generated in the so-called spots of time’, whereas in the Cantos ‘totalisation is the goal of research and work, and its emblem is not the spot of time but the footnote. The Cantos is a poem replete with glosses, footnotes, found material of every sort.’ This is finely put, and ‘found material’ (evoking both objet trouvé and trouvaille in its high Stevensian sense of poetic find) aptly captures the Cantos’ ‘factive’ miscellaneity, vitalised by imaginative fervour, as well as its dimension of learned bric-à-brac.

Later in the book, in the course of another perceptive comparison (this time with Byron’s Don Juan), Pound’s ‘idea of Total Form’ is set against the background of cultural fragmentation evoked in Canto VIII: ‘These fragments you have shelved (shored).’ By this time, a reader who has been through McGann’s main discussion might be forgiven for supposing that ‘fragment’ had become ‘footnote’, with something of the same literalising mystification with which it used to be said that the medium was the message. What isn’t mentioned at this point, though it’s matter for a footnote in a more literally literal way, is the relation of Pound’s line to The Waste Land’s ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins,’ which Eliot said Pound would have seen in manuscript in January 1922, before Canto VIII was written, and to which he thought Pound was making ‘a deliberate reference ... which the reader was intended to appreciate’. This surely has a bearing on Pound’s ‘conviction’ that there is an order to be ‘unearthed’, whether the allusion to Eliot is taken as a collaborative reinforcement or as an ironic glance at Eliot’s defeatism. It also bears on the question of how optimistically Pound held his ‘conviction’ at various times: his feelings were not altogether stable over the long history of the Cantos’ composition, and McGann has himself observed in Pound an opposite mood on the subject of his own poem. On such matters, allusion to The Waste Land, and probably the whole record of Pound’s attitude to Eliot’s poem, are of fundamental significance. No one knows such things better in principle than McGann does, and no one is normally readier to assemble the evidence. The inadvertent blockage of an item of intertextual information here seems ironically appropriate in a context where the ‘Poundian footnote’ is being celebrated as the antithesis of reading ‘literary works as intertextual fields’.

McGann’s chief exhibit of Pound’s footnote style comes from Canto I:

Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,

In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

This is a passage which won’t tell most readers much unless it is itself glossed by a real footnote, and which, even if it did, would act, not as an energising factual intervention of the kind McGann envisages for footnotes, but as part of the poem’s continuous and somewhat clotted flow. When a ‘footnote’ isn’t a footnote, its impact will be different from that of a footnote. Slippage becomes evident when we begin to realise how literally McGann purports to use the word ‘footnote’ in such contexts, the valuation he places on the genre, and his equation of that with what he takes to be Pound’s own best purposes. Literary theories frequently lay claim to literalnesses which uninitiated readers are likely to want to resist, but McGann is especially assertive: ‘Such are the fundamental characteristics of the Cantos, and the Poundean footnote is its epitome.’ The ‘literalness’ which this rhetoric persistently enforces is necessarily less complete than it sounds. McGann knows perfectly well that the Cantos have no footnotes in the strictly typographical sense to whose importance, as a matter of format which crucially influences meaning, he might be expected to be especially attentive (he writes interestingly elsewhere, in the book on the typographical aspects of Pound’s work and the problems of producing a composite text of the Cantos comparable to Gabler’s ill-starred ‘critical and synoptic edition’ of Ulysses). It’s an incidental oddity of this book that it doesn’t have much to say on poems like the Dunciad or The Waste Land whose footnotes are an integral part of the structure as finally delivered by the author, even though their first versions included few or no notes: itself a phenomenon germane to McGann’s interest in the transformational character of successive versions.

The Cantos needs footnotes in the strictly functional sense that no reader can identify or fully enter into its huge network of allusion and quotation. But that’s another matter, not unrelated to McGann’s argument in its way, but not the way he suggests, since the absence of notes of the Waste Land kind is conspicuous and, given the particular texture of the Cantos, suggestive of a deliberate and almost wilful withholding. Pound was cantankerously preoccupied for over thirty years with the problem of whether the reader needed explanations, even as he refused to supply them, as can be seen in repeated statements conveniently collected in the preamble to Cookson’s Guide to the ‘Cantos’. Eliot, who supplied his allusive or intertextual references at an early stage, came to profess a dismissive attitude towards them. Both poets thus displayed, in almost symmetrically opposite ways, a similar ambivalence about the propriety of offering ‘footnotes’, a fact which would itself be pertinent to McGann’s discussion of Pound’s footnote style and the referential functions which he simplistically attributes to it. It’s arguable that this ambivalence, and the general reluctance of most of the great Modernist poets to provide ‘meanings’, should it-self have been fully taken into account in McGann’s examination of the whole question. What can be salvaged as ‘literal’ in McGann’s view of the footnote as the Cantos’ ‘epitome’ is the residual contention that many lines in the poem offer a ‘factive’ intervention in our reading of the poem which is analogous to the effect of an editor’s footnote. Even this reduced claim would not, I think, entirely survive detailed scrutiny.

McGann’s gloss on Pound’s two lines reads as follows:

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.

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 in 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: a fact which demonstrates, if it needs demonstrating, McGann’s proposition about the helpfulness of footnotes, but not the comment he is making about the nature of Pound’s poem. This does not mean Pound’s lines bear no relation to footnotes. They evoke the genre without enacting it. There is a suggestion of the scholarly reference, without its substance; a suggestion, too, of pedantry or mock-pedantry, with something perhaps of the oblique or ironic relationship to learned notes that we find in older poems of the mock-learned tradition, like Pope’s Dunciad. ‘In officina Wecheli’ is not in so many words what any scholarly footnote would tell you, except in the highly specialised context of a verbatim bibliographical transcription, in practice unusual in mainly informational glosses. In the context of Pound’s play of polyglot allusiveness, the Latin phrase acts less as explanation or as documentary authentication than as a mildly exoticising antiquarianism, not unconnected with a general predilection of Pound, as of other American poets, for adorning their works with snatches from foreign languages, old and new.

Pound shares this predilection with Eliot, but in other respects he is travestying rather than enacting the footnote’s functional purposes and has more in common with the oblique and satirical exploitation of footnotes in Pope than with the strictly informative quality of Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land: there’s an irony here, since Pound had recently been instructing Eliot to remove from that poem some attempts to imitate Popeian style. On the other hand, Pound and other Modernists, including Eliot, do display a tendency which is perhaps new, and certainly not so specifically evident among older practitioners of learned gesturing, to mannerisms which more or less flauntingly suggest the professional pedagogue in his modern university incarnation, and which, whatever their ironic colouring, are not proffered in any simple parodic sense. The lines about Wechel’s printshop are a case in point. But they are no more a ‘footnote’ than Wallace Stevens’s ‘Academic Discourse at Havana’ is an academic discourse, or than the ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ are either notes or the kind of scholarly disquisition which their title purports to announce. Pound’s self-conscious approximation to footnote style is not a sign of his historicisation of the poem but of some impish impulse to academicise it: itself an epiphenomenon of Modernism and Post-Modernism alike, and a very different thing from what is envisaged in McGann’s reading.

That reading is itself caught up in the same academicisation, though without the playful self-awareness: caught up, that is, in a way that returns poetry to the professors even more fundamentally than was envisaged by William Carlos Williams when he complained that The Waste Land ‘gave the poem back to the academics’. Despite some scoring against the ‘academic’ character of poets like John Ashbery (whose work is described as the ‘epitome’ of the academic in a derogatory phrase which oddly echoes the celebrative description of the footnote as the ‘epitome’ of Pound’s work), McGann has so thoroughly assimilated the phenomenon to his own perspective that it comes naturally to him to project it on to Pound in its most simplified and most literally professorial form: whereas in the poets, from Pound himself and Stevens to the lecturese of Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, the professorial note is offered as a fictive flourish, an allusive and ‘intertextual’ tease. This is itself a feature to be pointed out, calling for glosses which McGann (writing from within a professorial predicament that is neither fiction nor flourish) does nothing to provide.

One of the commonest blind spots in academic readings of modern texts is indeed an unawareness by academics of the extent to which novels and poems nowadays not only indulge academic or pedagogic mannerisms but often seem designed to be read only by past or present university students of literature. It has even been suggested that publishers abet this process, since this particular group, perhaps the only large-scale reading-public left for serious literature, provides an at least partly captive audience whose reading habits are or have been set by classroom explication and by literary styles which invite or require this. The scenario envisages novelists and poets being encouraged, tacitly or otherwise, to produce teacherly texts which can be assigned to large classes by instructors ambitious to display their explicating skills. A secondary cycle ensures that the novels and poems receive renewed promotion in learned journals and monographs, establishing in turn a personal incentive for the instructor to reassign them, or other works by the same authors or of a similar kind, in subsequent years. Such economic or cultural pressures presumably operate most strongly in the more affluent regions of the Anglophone world, where the size and number of university literature departments create a uniquely favourable market. But these pressures are, in a historical view, more product than cause. If they have any influence, overt or covert, on the writings of Barth or Pynchon or Ashbery, they are unlikely in the same way to have affected the styles of Pound or Eliot or Stevens or Joyce.

These authors did not write for the classroom and were not, initially, much read within it, though Pound began life as a college instructor, and a university career was an active option for Eliot. These early Modernist masters are part of the line of transmission. Their academicising routines derive partly from traditions of learned wit that are as old as learning, and may also be seen as self-conscious adaptations, in a narrowed context, of the ancient ideal of the learned poet: an ideal shrunk to classroom dimensions but not yet appropriated by the classroom itself, attracting residual celebration in lowered terms, insistent and sometimes mincing. The classroom readily fed on the manner, and naturalised it for the Post-Modern heirs.

It seems inflated as well as misguided to see in such oblique academic gesturing a demonstration that ‘Pound’s text is arguing not merely that there are no histories without footnotes, but that poems are historical artifacts, and that when poems lose their footnotes they are threatened with extinction.’ Pound’s text is arguing nothing of the sort, and in attributing such beliefs to Pound even more than in holding them himself, McGann strikes a note of Dunciadic sobriety. His contention that poems are the products of ‘the local, the topical, the circumstantial ... the biographical’ deserves urgent restatement, but the pretence that it can derive support from ringing declarations of Pound’s attachment to history is a rhetorical self-deception. The remarks about the Cantos, even if they were true, would be no more and no less pertinent to the case for footnotes than an account of any poem written on opposite principles: if that were not so, McGann’s theoretical position would be correspondingly impaired. Similar problems occur elsewhere in the book. The Language poets are praised for their overtly political and performative conception of their work, ‘not meaning-referential but meaning-constitutive. Writing is an event, a praxis.’ This makes them sound especially appealing within the rhetorical frame of McGann’s own performative theory of poetry, though within the definitional terms, poems which don’t claim to be events are themselves events in no less a sense than poems which do. McGann’s discussion sometimes seems awkwardly poised between his rhetorical predilections and the logic of his principles. When he comes to illustrate the ‘meaning-constitutive’ or anti-referential character of their poems, the passages cited seem to require decoding in much the same way as other difficult poems. And despite the allegedly non-academic or anti-academic position of these poets in American culture, the decoding is likely to require the services of academics like McGann.

McGann’s discussions frequently slide from poetic practice to critical procedure, or vice-versa, in ways which imply fallaciously simple correlations between distinct levels of activity (a form of slippage more often found in older generations of literary theorist, the kind who used to read poems and sometimes felt poetical enthusiasms about them, as McGann obviously does). In the case of Pound’s passage about Divus’s translation and Wechel’s print-shop, the process is initiated by the bald assertion that the lines are ‘a kind of footnote’. McGann’s conviction that Pound tells us what we need McGann to tell us he tells us is, for the most part, operationally innocuous in the domain of explication. He is roughly right in his reconstruction of what the lines mean, and you could say that by the time he asserts that Pound’s text is ‘arguing ... that when poems lose their footnotes they are threatened with extinction,’ he has eased himself into the more permissive domain of theory. The slippage might then seem to belong to that subspecies of poetic licence to which casual theorising sometimes inclines, and which can be seen as one of the more venial indisciplines of the love of letters. The meaning would be that ‘Pound’s text’ gives us from within the information that footnotes supply from without. Pound sometimes said this himself as a reason for not supplying more explanations, though he also said: ‘Skip anything you don’t understand and go on till you pick it up again.’ As a view of how the poem works, McGann’s point is not untenable, though it has its limits. The rhetoric which insinuates it somewhat questionably as an ideological position of Pound’s, however, is also a manoeuvre for enforcing McGann’s, not Pound’s, view of footnotes, and the language is so insistent as to claim an unacceptably literal force as a theoretical principle.

In the more particular explications, a related difficulty arises from his determination to make each insight in some way exemplary. No act or observation can remain ‘untheorised’ by hectoring admonitions, and where these are not impossibly literal, they have an opposite tendency to be troublingly unspecific. McGann is doubtless roughly correct, or reasonably entitled to infer, that ‘the book which Pound bought in Paris in 1908 was for him both vortex and epiphany ... an effect registered ... immediately, when he first looked into Wechel’s edition of Homer’ (a bit of intertextual fielding which is completed a few pages later in the comment that ‘ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is Keats’s late Romantic version of Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795),’ and which further insinuates that rapprochement between what poets and what scholars do which it is one of the vested interests of McGann’s book to establish). Having decoded Pound to have said he read his Homer in Divus’s Latin, McGann tells us rightly that it’s important to know this, that ‘it makes a difference if we are reading Homer in a Greek or a Latin text, or some modern vernacular,’ and even that ‘the importance of such things is not an abstract matter,’ but isn’t very precise as to what the ‘difference’ is or what the ‘importance’ might amount to.

‘It makes a difference’ is a recurrent item in McGann’s rhetorical armoury. It may indicate differences which derive from publication of a work by one house rather than another, in one format or another, in a separate volume or an anthology. McGann’s books contain some finely particularised case-histories. Without these, however, such language means everything and nothing, projecting truisms with portentous and oracular knowingness. Oracular truisms are instruments of mystification, and I take it that their message is that once you know the facts McGann has chosen to tell you, an unspecified accuracy of understanding not only befalls you but somehow vindicates a methodology which, in its general principles, quite a lot of people have after all been practising without fuss all along. From time to time, McGann registers that people had before now adduced historical data in explanation of poems but had omitted to ‘theorise’ their activities: on the showing of parts of this book, what the ‘theorising’ seems to amount to is a discovery that one has been talking prose.

McGann, however, is convinced that he has been talking poetry. The definitional blur that he has generated between the ‘Poundian footnote’ and the footnotes of annotators turns into a manoeuvre for treating the latter as a species of poetic event. Footnotes ‘call attention to the poem’s self-estrangement by lifting into prominence some feature which the poem has presented only in a glancing way’, an acute and in its way eloquent formulation modulating with disturbing rapidity into such statements as ‘The inertias of art – as poetry and as philology alike – operate to preserve and illuminate these processes of domination and repression, of the (un) certain fracturings which are the prerequisites of all the (un) certain orderings.’ By the end of the chapter, the ‘scholarly footnote’ has acquired epiphanic potential, drawing ‘our attention to ... moments when, if we are alert, we may begin to glimpse presences ...’ The scenario of footnotes rising at such privileged times to the level of poems can just about be entertained, though the idea seems ghoulish. As to the reverse equation, it would take an unusual reader to guess unaided that a poem described as having the footnote for its epitome was thereby being praised, rather than derided for unseriousness, pedantry, or a mannered minimalism.

I suspect McGann doesn’t really like the Cantos, though I don’t know if he knows it. One senses this in the way he sees its attempts at synthesis ending up in ‘bits and pieces’, in the strenuous awkwardness of his efforts to come to terms with its anti-semitism, and worst of all perhaps in his accesses of book-of-the-month-club hype on its behalf: he is ‘decidedly’, one of those who regard it as ‘the most important English poem of this century’. Later in the book, he describes Ulysses as ‘arguably the most important literary work in English of this century’ (admittedly at a somewhat panicky point where McGann’s praise of the discredited Gabler edition might be felt to be in need of some extraneous bolstering). More recently McGann has upped the ante on the Cantos anyway: it’s now ‘one of the greatest achievements of modern poetry in any language’ (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1988). McGann is oddly error-prone on Poundian detail, thinking that Odysseus is the ‘man of no fortune’, and breaching footnoting proprieties by misspelling the name of D.S. Carne-Ross every time it appears in the book, or misquoting the title of Marjorie Perloff’s The Dance of the Intellect (a quotation from Pound).

But such things are not confined to dealings with Pound. McGann’s books are littered with minor slips of this sort on a scale which is surprising in an editor and textual scholar of his distinction: typos, grammatical oddities and a genius for verbal gaucheness which produced forms like ‘apothogem’ in The Beauty of Inflections and achieves its flowering in ‘the fundament of the aesthetic moment’ on page 74 of the present book.