File spoon-archives/phillitcrit.archive/phillitcrit_2000/phillitcrit.0010, message 38

Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2000 20:39:34 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: PLC: RE: critical theory

On Tue, 24 Oct 2000, Reg Lilly wrote:

>     Not to be tedious, but could you say a few words about Blackmur, and
> perhaps about this essay.  I have only the whispiest idea of what he's
> up to. 

I have not used the essay in a number of years because our critical theory
course here went off in another direction, but the essay is a useful
staple of New Criticism, and it is particularly good for beginning
students.  It is simple, and yet it opens doors to various other modes of

Blackmur uses the notion of "enabling act" -- which is legislation in a
parliamentary system whereby a legislative measure receives funding
(roughly equivalent to approval by the House Ways and Means Committee, I
suppose) -- to discuss the importance of establishing the text and paying
close attention to it as a necessary condtion in articulating textual
meaning.  His point is that unless criticism pays close attention to the
text at hand, the act of reading will be as useless as legislation without
an enabling act.

I prefer Blackmur's formulation to E. D. Hirsch's "double horizons of
meaning" theory in _Validity_ because Blackmur is, first, less contentious
and, more importantly, because he preserves the insights of philology and
historical context while at the same time allowing for the kind of
hermeneutics Ricoeur or Gadamer might advocate.  (I don't know the Ricoeur
essay you named, but I'm keen now to check it out since I will be teaching
an installment of the critical theory course next term.)

To give a sample illustration, here is a brief snippet, the final
   The real difficulty [with reading] lies further back, and is double
   in character.  It consists, first, in being willing to concentrate
   your maximum attention upon the work which the words and the motions of
   the words -- and by motions I mean all the technical devices of
   literature -- perform upon each other.  Secondly, it consists in
   submitting, at least provisionally, to whatever authority your
   attention brings to light in the words.  In doing this you will be
   following in pretty close parallel the procedure which the writer 
   followed.  Whether your submission is permanent or must be withdrawn
   will be determined by the judgment of all the standards and all the
   interests you can bring to bear.  These will differ with the work in
   hand.  But the act of submission must be made before you can tell; it
   is an act of imagination, not of will; and it the enabling act of
   criticism.  If it does not provide you with another Dante, it will 
   at least provide you with an interest in literature and without
   that you would not know a Dante if he appeared.  (417)

Blackmur published the essay in 1941 in a book called _American Issues_
(Lippincott), but it has been duplicated in various anthologies.  I have
it in Stallman's _Critiques and Essays in Criticism_ (1949).

David Langston

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