Subversion Through Transgression

Critics traditionally offer one of two judgments on Doctor Faustus: the play affirms Christian morality or celebrates the Renaissance man. Dollimore argues that the play’s real power is refusing to decide between these two. Ultimately, he affirms the play’s transgression but insists that its criticism of Christianity is much deeper than simple transgression. It is truly subversive. The play makes Faustus a Manichean subject, split between good and evil, between morality and transgression. This division is part of the universe. God and the devil are equally ultimate, heaven and hell both part of the fabric of the universe at its core. By forcing God’s hand, Faustus exposes the contradiction of Christianity: that an omnipotent God is not responsible for evil. We can consider the play transgressive precisely because it does not end with Faustus winning. It strikes a much deeper blow to religious belief by insisting that Faustus’s punishment is the best illustration of how flawed Christianity is.

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Subversion Through Transgression

Article Summaries: Spenser’s FQ, Book I…Prelude to Interpretation

This is a longer summary of Harry Berger’s fantastic analysis of The Faerie Queene Book I. I had to write a summary of this in graduate school (spring of 2004), and I have no idea how I was even close. I’ve probably read this article ten times now, and I’m just now feeling like I’ve understood it. This is a model piece of criticism for me, a wonderful blend of a 30,000 feet above the work insight with some more granular close readings. All of Berger’s secondary sources–both primary (Bacon and Calvin) and critical–are apropos and Berger never worries about trying to defensively situate himself in the “tradition.” It’s masterful. You can find my summary after the jump. Continue reading “Article Summaries: Spenser’s FQ, Book I…Prelude to Interpretation”

Article Summaries: Spenser’s FQ, Book I…Prelude to Interpretation

Article Summary: The Archetypes of Literature

We should be able to study literature like a science, if we accept that when we say we’re studying literature what we’re actually studying is criticism. First, we assume that criticism is structurally coherent. Second, we avoid the pitfall of losing literature either in its “backgrounds” or in its “verbal ambiguities.” Criticism is expansive and demands more from us. A literary work has more than efficient cause (its author). It has a formal and material cause too. Upon further examination, it even has a relationship to a core literary idea, which Frye calls a myth of an archetype. Literary criticism actually radiates out of a kind of center where we begin with editing, move to rhetorical/philological criticism, expand to literary psychology, consider genre and the history of ideas, then finish with a kind of literary anthropology. This last position is where we encounter myths and archetypes, the foundational narratives and meanings that help provide the building blocks for all great literature. These rituals and meanings are aligned with the calendar so that spring = rebirth, summer = marriage, fall = death, and satire = winter. Frye surmises that the great narrative in literature is the hero-quest, so we can go back to all these genres and insert the hero into the pattern of rebirth, triumph, death, or defeat. The great significance or meaning of all literature is freedom, the merging of the ideal and actual. The comic perspective ends with that artistic ideal realized. The tragic perspective ends with it thwarted. Frye ends the chapter by exploring comic and tragic images associated with five levels of characters/objects: humans, animals, vegetables, minerals, and water. All of this was an inductive gesture at the art of criticism rather than a painting itself, but Frye hopes it gives the critic a wide canvas and broad palate with which to work.

Article Summary: The Archetypes of Literature

SUMMARY: The Renaissance Imagination Part 1

Renaissance Art moved along three continuums: external to internal wisdom, distinct to reconciled opposites, and fact to fiction. The last one caused the most problems, and it was only during the Renaissance that theorists began offering a clear argument for why fiction was distinct from history on the one hand and lying on the other. These continuums were tempting in that they all offered ways of moving beyond the actual world, either in a healthier form of working through external reality or in an unhealthier form of trying to escape from external reality. At stake is the reality of the external world: the difference between what is real and what is just a projection of the mind. Poetry emphasized the power of fiction because engaging a self-avowed created world in serious play made the job of distinguishing reality from man-made projections much easier. Artists and audiences never escaped to the world of art for good. First, they would return to the actual world as represented with the work of art, and second, they would return to the actual world and leave the work of art. Poetic theorists of the time could claim that the profit of such an exercise was directly connected to the pleasure that such serious play provided.

It was this emphasis on art as a created space for serious play that was the hallmark of the Renaissance imagination. Classical thinkers did not have a coherent view of art because their epistemology could never adequately distinguish between what was real and what they were projecting. Christianity provided a more solid ground for distinguishing the two in the medieval period but at the expense of art. The humanity-created second world was always inferior to the first world God had made. In the Renaissance, artists and scientists began to believe that the second world was the place not to merely recreate but a space to improve the first world. Artists in the period range from political theorists like Thomas More to playwrights like Shakespeare to poets like Spenser and even scientists like Galileo. The scientific experiment itself was a second world.

Following MH Abrams, Berger labels such second worlds “heterocosms” because they are composed of various worlds that have been combined and held in harmonized tension. Berger calls the tempting and simplified version of the second world that often appears inside the second world “the green world.” Renaissance Art often exploited the difficulty in telling the second world and the green world apart, and the rest of Berger’s article pursues that tension in the period’s painting and Thomas More’s Utopia.

SUMMARY: The Renaissance Imagination Part 1

SUMMARY: Religious Persuasions, c. 1580 – c. 1620

In Lori Anne Ferrell’s survey of English persuasions from 1580-1620, she starts with the new critical commonplace that the English Reformation was a top-down affair. While English was a Protestant nation, it was not comprised of Protestants. Her article attempts to unpack that paradox.

Ferrell marks 1580 as a turning point at Protestantism became more accepted publicly. The reason it took this long? Catholicism was at the heart of English communal life, and its numerous daily practices and rituals were ingrained into the public’s consciousness. Henry was not a particular clear advocate for Protestantism, and his church looked more like a Catholic church that had him as a pope. In 1547, with Edward VI’s accession, Protestantism finally had political power, but the greatest expression of Protestantism from that period is a Book of Common Prayer, a liturgical manual that had a very slow impact. Once Mary took over in 1553, the culture turned back to Catholicism though Mary did spawn John Foxe and his Acts and Monuments. Elizabeth’s government was stocked with Calvinists though her subjects were largely Catholic.

Ferrell claims that the strengths of the Protestant English church were the same as its weaknesses. They were top-down. Cambridge was a clearly Protestant school. Committees and administrative types helped determine proper sermons and church structure. This left the English subjects often unimpressed however. It was only with the emergence of an English national identity and the defeat of the Catholic power Spain in 1588 that England started to self-identify as Protestant. Unfortunately for the “hotter” Protestants, this also meant that the public wanted a more moderate and nationalistic form of religion. Elizabeth in particular was great at consigning items into the adiaphoric category, the bin of things indifferent. Puritans were the Protestants who couldn’t let such matters go, particularly since their form of church government threatened the state relationship with the church. This tension exposed the ways that social and religious structures were integrated in Elizabeth’s England.

For these hotter Protestants, things appeared to be looking up with James, a Scottish king with a Calvinist background. While he worked on theological consensus and was quite moderate, he ended up labeling the Puritans immoderate and fostered a dynamic of Protestant vs. Protestant. When he tried to marry his son to a Spanish princess, all bets were off. The more fiery Protestants perfected the use of print: be it texts for less educated people, more theologically oriented texts, Bibles, and even sermons. These forty years of Protestant continuity finally erupted in the Civil War. To get a handle on what was at stake in that conflict, Ferrell urges us to examine the dense textual record from this forty year period, the most lasting testament to the period’s religious persuasions.

SUMMARY: Religious Persuasions, c. 1580 – c. 1620