Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Poetry, Art, and Experts

We live in a technocratic age of specialization where the voice of experts carries a kind of sacred currency, so we are hesitant to take seriously the ideas of anyone who we do not perceive to be a specialist of some kind. And while this elitism has been particularly marked in the areas of science and economics, technocracy has also gradually colonized the humanities so that fewer and fewer non-academics have been prepared to venture into regions of intellectual endeavor such as literary theory. This exclusivity has been magnified by the increasing influence of linguistics in all areas of the humanities. In recent years many studies in the humanities have imported concepts and terminology from linguistics that are pseudo-scientific and nearly impossible for the uninitiated to understand. One can quite easily find essays on, say, William Blake that are so turgid and complex that even a graduate degree in the subject is no guarantee of understanding let alone appreciation. In the end I believe that one’s experience of a poet such as Blake will not be enhanced, and may even be hindered, by such complex ideas as ‘performative language’ or ‘speech-act theory.’ But within a culture where such specialists’ ideas are fast becoming the prevailing wisdom, how is a non-specialist to justify swimming in the depths of poetic waters?

Michael Schmidt is a non-academic who discussed this problem in the opening pages of his book, Lives of the Poets. In an imagined conversation, Schmidt hears the words of his practically minded father telling him that the experts will 'have his guts for garters," and asking him what hope he has of "escaping unscathed." The answer to such a question is, of course, that Schmidt had no hope of escaping anything. In fact, any non-expert who steps into this kind of arena expects the slings and arrows of professional criticism to rain down upon him.

But why should a growing technocracy and the threat of professional ridicule stop anyone who is determined to speak his or her mind on a matter of importance? And if someone does decide to undertake such a journey, I am not certain that they should feel compelled to justify themselves to the barking dogs of specialization or any of the members of the public who happen to support them. After all, the most important thing to remember is that art and poetry belong equally to all of us. And, far from having a monopoly on knowledge, I believe that academics develop such specialized viewpoints concerning all of the arts that they often lack the passionate engagement necessary for true aesthetic insight. For example, while every professor of Art History may teach her students of Van Gogh and his place in post-impressionism, few seem concerned with his plea to human compassion. And most professors, stable members of the bourgeoisie that they are, would be unable to see a man such as Van Gogh, if they actually met him, as anything more than a drunkard and a madman.
But if, after having considered all of this, there are still readers who question the wisdom of such an undertaking, I point them to the great essayist Michel de Montaigne. While Montaigne’s only professional accreditation was a law degree, he single-handedly invented a literary genre and the dozens of essays that he wrote are full of insights that span the spectrum of human endeavor. Montaigne, one of history’s great skeptics, made no pretence of specialized knowledge and readily offered himself up to ridicule in the hope that while studying himself and his own opinions, he was really studying humankind.

“I have no doubt,” Montaigne once wrote, “that I often happen to speak of things that are better treated by masters of the craft... and whoever shall catch me in ignorance will do nothing against me.” I deeply sympathize with such a sentiment because I believe that passion for a subject such as poetry is, in the final analysis, more important than learning and offers the opportunity for knowledge that is more universal. And keeping in mind that universalism, in any form, has gone distinctly out of fashion amongst philosophers; I do not seek to speak of universal truth but only for the opportunity for universal appreciation.

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