Saturday, December 26, 2015

Birth of a Hack

Christopher J. Scalia, a "writer in Washington, D.C."*, reviewing Leo Damrosch's 2015 biography Eternity's Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake for The Weekly Standard, mostly sticks to discussing the book, but ventures at one point into a little analysis of the poetry of the book's notoriously gnarly subject, sticking with the Songs of Innocence to play it safe:
The poems are deceptively simple. Consider this stanza from "The Shepherd."
How sweet is the Shepherd's sweet lot!

From the morn to the evening he strays:

He shall follow his sheep all the day,

And his tongue shall be filled with praise

The light rhythm and idyllic setting are subtly undercut by the diction. Why is the shepherd following his sheep? A good shepherd might walk behind them—but to direct, not follow, them. Nor should shepherds "stray." The collection teems with such ironizing details.
Not so, in fact. "Any man may make a shepherd," Sidney's Emigrant's Journal advised its readers thinking of possible careers in Australia in 1848, "the duty is so light.... The shepherd follows the sheep all day, just keeping within sight and no more, letting them go wherever they please, except into thick scrubs. When they try to go into these places, he then heads them back, by walking round them if they are old sheep, or he whistles, and they face right about like soldiers; but if they are lambs, he is obliged to send his dog round them..."

From Sidney's Emigrant's journal: Information, advice, and amusement for emigrants and colonizers, by Samuel and John Sidney, London, 1849.
Nor can he be said to be "straying" in any negative sense as long as he is doing his job; rather the word conveys a sense of liberation, as in the OED definition 2a:
To wander up and down free from control, to roam about.
1789   W. L. Bowles Sonn. Cherwell   Cherwell, how pleas'd along thy willow'd edge Erewhile I stray'd.
Instead, he is doing what is commanded, as seen in the repetition of "shall", straying with the sheep as they list, and singing praises; the poem (the first in the collection) is a direct answer to the summons of the Introduction ("On a cloud I saw a Child,/And he laughing said to me,/'Pipe a song about a Lamb!'/So I piped with merry cheer..."), in which the poet identifies as a shepherd in the first place.

Not that there isn't any "ironizing" in the poem, but where you want to look is somewhere else, starting with the bizarre repetition of "sweet" in the first line, and encompassing the issue of pastoral theology, which is clearly an aspect of what the poem is about, when the free will of the flock is so emphasized, and the shepherd has hardly any function beyond being present  ("He is watchful while they are in peace,/For they know when their shepherd is nigh"). And above all see where the themes go in other parts of the collection, as in "Night", where the shepherd is transformed into the lion who lies down with the lamb ("For washed in life's river,/My bright mane forever/Shall shine like the gold,/As I guard o'er the fold"). And what the hell is a "light rhythm" in this context? As opposed to what?

I'm really only going on like this because there's something so familiar in that attempt to analyze on the basis not of the work in its context but the isolated meanings of particular single words, or rather what the critic thinks the meanings are, because what kind of dork uses a dictionary anyway, reminding of—ah—whom? Scalia's more famous father, the Supreme Court justice.

(I beg your pardon, are you trying to suggest some kind of nepotic influence right there in the home of noted nepotism opponent Dr. William Kristol and his pal John Podhoretz? Certainly not!)

Also amusing is the way he hastens to assure his readers at The Weekly Standard that there was nothing radical about Blake:
Damrosch challenges E. P. Thompson's influential claim that Blake was deeply involved in radical politics. Although he sympathized with his radical contemporaries, Blake was not part of any underground political movement
Apparently not quite getting that there weren't any underground movements quite radical enough for Blake (Dr. Google thinks we ought to wait for the forthcoming Blake and the Terror by Michael Philips before we come to any firm conclusions, but a quick glance suggests he was an active, though partyless, Jacobin).

There's a touch of Jonah in Christopher Scalia's critique of the treatment of Antonin Scalia by the character played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the television program Scream Queens:
the character’s righteous indignation comes off as particularly strange given that she hasn’t exactly been a beacon of morality. She has affairs with students; she decapitated her husband; and she framed her husband’s mistress for the murder. But hey, at least she’s not an originalist. 
In which he denounces this fictional character for her false allegations against Antonin Scalia, that he ever said, "The homosexual lifestyle is destructive to American society" or "The Affordable Care Act requires people to eat broccoli!"

This is quite true, although Scalia did say
Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children's schools, or as boarders in their home.... They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.
(in a dissent in Lawrence vs. Texas, 2003, whereas Christopher Scalia's Googling ability or parental assistance only takes him back as far as this year's Obergefell dissent). It is very wrong for fictional persons to make unsubstantiated accusations against real people, and if they persist they ought to be in some danger of having their poetic licenses revoked.

Anyway, in the Blake piece, I guess there's some real unself-conscious charm in the way he acknowledges that the subject of the review is not going to be of any interest to the Standard's readers or, as far as he knows, anybody; though "appealing" in some sense, Blake remains unwanted:
The same unconventional ideas and abstract prophecies that baffled his contemporaries are appealing now. This does not mean that Blake is a poet for our times: His work is still startling and strange...
And we certainly wouldn't want that. Startling and strange poetry? For somebody else's times, perhaps, but we prefer the predictable and unremarkable kind, thanks very much. And besides, the only part of his poetry anybody could possibly be interested in is the poetic part:
...and his allure relies less on the coherence or persuasiveness of his ideas than on the intensity and originality of his execution.
But what I think I'm seeing here in the appearance of someone equally willing to write, badly, about late 18th-century English poetry, early 20th-century pop television drama, and Supreme Court jurisprudence, a new and sublimely pedigreed hack.

*He's also an associate professor in the English department of the University of Virginia at Wise, or was at last notice.

No comments:

Post a Comment