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How Literary Criticism Arises

November 17, 2012

From an interview Noam Chomsky lately gave to The Atlantic (the interviewer is Yarden Katz):

If you ask neuroscientists why understanding the brain is so difficult, they give you very intellectually unsatisfying answers, like that the brain has billions of cells, and we can’t record from all of them, and so on.

Chomsky: There’s something to that. If you take a look at the progress of science, the sciences are kind of a continuum, but they’re broken up into fields. The greatest progress is in the sciences that study the simplest systems. So take, say physics — greatest progress there. But one of the reasons is that the physicists have an advantage that no other branch of sciences has. If something gets too complicated, they hand it to someone else.

Like the chemists?

Chomsky: If a molecule is too big, you give it to the chemists. The chemists, for them, if the molecule is too big or the system gets too big, you give it to the biologists. And if it gets too big for them, they give it to the psychologists, and finally it ends up in the hands of the literary critic, and so on.

As my friend Mark Scott puts it: “The bigger the system, the more literary.”

I wonder what lies beyond literary criticism in Chomsky’s charming “and so on.” Surely we’ve already passed through the social sciences before we ever set our iambic feet—dimeter: accent on the metatarsal ball—in the English Department (whose corridors lead to an un-alarmed door marked “Exit”).

But whom do literary critics hand their systems off to? Follow that line out far enough and you may wind up in politics. In a 1938 letter to R.P.T. Coffin, Robert Frost says: “A real artist delights in roughness for what he can do to it. He’s the brute who can knock the corners off the marble block and drag the unbedded beauty out of bed. The statesman (politician) is no different except that he works in a protean mass of material that hardly holds the shape he gives it long enough for him to get credit for it. His material is the rolling mob.”

So. There we have it. From the physicist’s Higgs Boson up to (or is it down to?) the statesman’s rolling mob. Good to know, now, where The Era of Casual Fridays stands along that continuum.

Noam Chomsky (photograph by Graham Gordon Ramsay).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 20, 2013 1:15 PM

    Hi, Mark. Came across this really pretty lovely account of John Barth’s only conversation with Robert Frost & thought you might enjoy. Leaving it here, at the top of the roll, apropos nothing but the Frost quote supra.

    All the best,

    http://books.google.com/books?id=k4H4xfCiUd0C&pg=PA211&dq=final+fridays+conversation+frost&hl=en&sa=X&ei=I91JUaiMGZfk4AOF94HgAQ&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=final%20fridays%20conversation%20frost&f=false

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