Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hats off to Philo

This week's Nation includes Stefan Collini's review of John Haffenden's nearly 1500-page two-volume biography of William Empson. First, I want to thank Collini for reminding me of a book whose call I answered when I was an undergraduate, startlingly relevant now because I have just finished teaching (and grading a set of papers on) Paradise Lost. This book is Milton's God (1961), in which Empson "took every opportunity to denounce the savagery and sheer horribleness of ostensibly familiar biblical teachings such as [and here Collini quotes] 'the doctrine that God is a sadist who could be bought off torturing all mankind by having his son tortured to death.'" Strong words, and all the stronger for me as a Freshman, when I had deracinated myself scant years before from Christian Fundamentalism.

Collini quotes--to his credit, disapprovingly--Haffenden's claim that Empson "'invented modern literary criticism in English.'" Let's put aside the questions of the boundaries of modernity (although I'm inclined to think that Haffenden means 'what literary critics do now,' in which case what I have to say would be just even without bracketing off modernity), and let's put aside the distracting specificity of "in English," and let's, as medievalists, give Haffenden the trapdoor. For those of you not in on medievalist slang, "trapdooring" is what happens when someone claims some technology, or mode of thought, or system of life (even including subjectivity itself) as an "invention" of Modernity. Along comes a medievalist (beginning I suppose with Haskins' Renaissance of the Twelfth Century) and points out, no, the "origin" of such things predates Modernity (whatever that is), sometimes by thousands of years, or, better yet, declares that origins (or beginnings or breaks) themselves are far from the most interesting topic of investigation. Hence trapdooring, as the claimant for Modernity's specialness gets dropped into the fifteenth, or twelfth, or ninth centuries, or gets dropped into an abyss where beginnings no longer matter.

Let it be so for Haffenden and his claim, because if I wanted to discover the origins of "modern literary criticism," by which I mean painfully close reading, sometimes tortured interpretation, in an effort to make the text speak its truth, I would locate it not in the twentieth century, not even in the twelfth, but in the first (BCE), with the allegoresis of Philo Judeaus. Here he is on a bit of Genesis's Creation story:
"And all the grass of the field," he proceeds, "before it sprang up." That is to say, before the particular things perceptible by the external senses sprang up, there existed the generic something perceptible by the external senses through the fore-knowledge of the Creator, which he again called "the universe." And very naturally he likened the things perceptible by the external senses to grass. For as grass is the food of irrational animals, so also that which is perceptible by the external senses is assigned to the irrational portion of the soul. For why, when he has previously mentioned "the green herb of the field," does he add also "and all the grass," as if grass were not green at all? But the truth is, that by the green herb of the field, he means that which is perceptible by the intellect only, the budding forth of the mind. But grass means that which is perceptible by the external senses, that being likewise the produce of the irrational part of the soul.
In its general forms and desires--painstakingly reading to justify a claim that the text is speaking itself when in fact you're making the text speak for you--I don't see a fundamental difference between this mode of criticism and what we "modern" literary critics do nowadays. The truth towards which we orient the text is (perhaps) different: class consciousness, for example, rather than God, but in each case, tellingly, there's often a more or less acknowledged desire to make the text speak morally. In this, and in other ways, neither exegesis nor literary criticism are ever only about the text. (He ponderously intones truths everyone already knows)

I like finding the origins of still vibrant Western modes of thought or activity in Judaism (see JJC's comment on the "Jewish sciences" here; and, by the way, what I'm saying isn't anything new, really. For a different, although allied, investigation, see here). But it's only in part because of his Jewishness that I claim Philo for the origin. I claim Philo also because of his hybridity: because he lived in Alexandria, a polyethnic metropolis; because he wrote in Greek, the cosmopolitan language (the "English" of his day, like English, a language with multiple centers); and because he drew on Jewish and Greek philosophy to build up the structures of his thought.

I claim Philo because I want that point of origin for "modern" criticism to be something uncontainable within monadic categories of Christian, Jewish, or "Pagan," Greek or Hebrew. I want the pure beginning always to be irreducibly multiple, irreducibly impure. For exemplifying this, hats off to you, Philo.

(image from here: I'd like to think it's evocative that it's a Pseudo-Philo.)


Jeffrey Cohen said...


I don't know what else to say besides, Wow.

Karl Steel said...

Good wow or bad wow?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Absolutely good wow. I love how you are able to take this fairly neglected figure in the intellectual tradition that leads to what we medievalists study and (1) make something new of it while (2) problematizing origins and (3) opening up multiplicitous possibilities. What more could be asked for in a blog post??

Karl Steel said...

Thanks! The post came out of Joan Ferrante's medieval allegory class, which I took (ages ago) in my first semester at Columbia. In the course of the semester, in addition to the obvious works like the Romance of the Rose, we read Bernard Silvestris' Cosmographia, the Anticlaudianus and De Planctu Naturae of Alan of Lille, and Martianus Capella's Marriage of Mercury and Philology (which was the only one I remember giving me the fits). In other words, it was a marvelous course. She started with Philo, which means I'm indebted to Ferrante for this post (as for so much else). She must have had something similar in mind by starting the course with such a cosmopolitan, heterogeneous figure.

Anonymous said...

How generous and inspiring to see you crediting good teaching. Even if you were clearly an excellent student to command the material in this way.

I add my "wow" to JJC's.