“A dwarf who brings a standard along with him to measure
his own size, take my word, is a dwarf in more articles than one.”
Not many magazines deal exclusively with literature. And it’s easy to understand why. Literature’s impractical, and it’s been that way for a while (maybe from its very beginning). Originally an option, an inter-disciplinary approach is now mandatory (under penalty of ostracism). Then why are we doing it?
Because we can’t help ourselves. Because someone must put up a fight. Because if literary critics can’t be bothered to study literature, who will? Because if we don’t, what will we teach our students?
Cultural studies started as an act of rebellion. And we like rebellions: they lead to new discoveries and new perspectives. But what happens when they become institutionalized, the only way to operate?
We would gladly support a permanent revolution, the constant change that characterizes the work of art. And perhaps this was the original idea: to replicate in critical writing the same effervescence of meaning found in great literature. But if these were the intentions, reality proved rather disappointing.
It all began by widening the field of study. The main assumption, if we understand correctly, was that literary texts are, after all, texts, documents, and as such can be studied in relation to the culture that produced them. Conversely, all texts produced by a given culture, and organized according to rhetorical strategies, could be analyzed using the tools of literary criticism.
The worst consequence of this approach is that of having lost sight of what makes literature different from other forms of communication. Everything can be called literature. Everything is fair game for the literary critic. Texts of different kinds and origins are arranged according to external criteria, for reasons that have to do more with culture in general than literature.
This approach occasionally produced magnificent results. Many masters in this field shed light on unforeseen aspects of our culture, improving our understanding of its way of functioning. The work of these pioneers was then scleroticized, hardened into a paradigm, and used for various textual raids that are neither critical investigations nor verifications of interpretive hypotheses, but simple confirmations of what was already known before engaging the text. This led to what some call theory’s empire: “tell me your theory and I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll say about any work of literature, especially those you haven’t read.”
The question we’re asking is simple: cui prodest? What’s the point of these repetitive confirmations of ideas that precede the encounter with the text, where texts merely serve as a sanity check, to prove the validity of something already taken for granted. In any other discipline, this type of circular reasoning would disqualify those who practice it. Obviously, this isn’t the case with literature. Hence the reason for this journal: is there another way of reading a literary text? Can one still focus on literature alone?
The typical (and legitimate) objection raised every time too much attention is called to an excess of theory in literary criticism is as follows: it’s impossible to approach a text without a theory, without a series of prejudices and a set of calculations that determine how a text is read. Those who condemn the excess of theory, then, expose themselves to a duplicitous criticism: naivety and hypocrisy. It’s naive to think a text can be approached without prejudices; it’s hypocritical to condemn an excess of theory in others while (secretly) indulging in the same sin. For this very reason, we believe it necessary to expose our own prejudices, the starting point of our analysis:
1. Literary texts are qualitatively different in respect to other texts produced by a given culture. They contain something more. In the words of Pound: “literature is news that stays news.
2. Such a qualitative difference resides in the particular attention dedicated to language. And we’ll quote Pound again: “great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
3. The problem of method in the analysis of a text cannot be solved in the abstract and once and for all, but rather it’s an issue that must be tailored to the specific text, depending on the opportunities and the necessities presented by the text itself, and not by its interpreters. In other words, it’s a matter of developing a non-method, a receptive attitude, conducive to careful investigation. Pound, once more: “the proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand investigation of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one ‘slide’ or specimen with another.”
4. In all investigations of literary matters, we insist on starting from the text. It is imperative to listen to what IT has to say, discover how IT wants to be read; only after that is done, one should go outside of IT, to culture/context/history/society, and take what is necessary for ITS interpretation. The rest is textual harassment, an exercise in thumb twiddling, a dwarf advertising his own height. We agree with Pagliarani when he writes: “one always needs to arrive at a technique, an intellectualization of form. However, one should reach it only at the end, and never begin with it. To devise a technique is to create something original: the fulfillment of a formal need, the ultimate achievement of imagination. To begin with it is the exact opposite: [...] an imitation, an inhibition of the imagination.”
Besides the general principles just stated, we don’t believe we could provide a more precise research plan, nor do we think that such a plan would be useful: “if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”
However, we think we showed quite clearly “ciò che non siamo, ciò che non vogliamo” [what we are not, what we don’t want, to use Montale’s words].
The only thing left to do is to extend an invitation to those who are interested in devising a different way of approaching literary texts, a way that is open and receptive, capable of finding surprise and enjoyment in all those works worth investigating. This is why we adopted the blog format for this magazine: it’s our way of encouraging collaboration and discussion. Once a year, the results (naturally, partial and temporary) of such discussions will be collected in a printed volume. Finally, to complete the blog and the paper magazine we hope to start a series of “quaderni,” presenting translations and original essays we deem necessary for the advancement of the study of Italian literature in the English speaking world.
The invitation we offer is sincere, open. We can only hope it will be received with the same sentiment with which it was extended.
The epigraph is from Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen. All Pound’s quotes are from The ABC of Reading. Pagliarani’s quote is from his introduction to Il fiato dello spettatore.