On Apophatic Criticism

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner, is an accessible introduction to a kind of literary criticism that beguiles and frightens me. I think of it as “apophatic” criticism: the literary analogue to apophatic theology. Apophatic criticism rejects facile approaches to literature, and locates its highest values in the failure of texts. But we’ll get there. First, The Hatred of Poetry.

This excellent, short book is — surprise! — about hating poetry. Paradoxically, Lerner is a good poet and a lover of poetry, who hates poetry: “I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable”. His thesis? That hating actual poems is loving the idea of poetry. To hate existing poems, or the limits of actual poetry, is to love virtual poetry, the poetry that cannot exist but seems to linger as a dream behind actual poems. With admirable dialectical tenacity, Lerner ropes in every variety of poem-hating, theoretical, emotional, and practical, to support his thesis:

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did.

All these variants of the hatred of poetry are negative testimonies to the value of true Poetry. Given the impossibility of approaching Poetry in mere poems, “great poets as different as Keats and Dickinson express their contempt for merely actual poems by developing techniques for virtualizing their own compositions — by dissolving the actual poem into an image of the Poem literary form cannot achieve.” And great critics, we might add, express their commitment to Poetry by pointing out where merely actual poems fall short and highlighting the places where great poets virtualize their own compositions.

This is what I call the apophatic criticism of poetry. Whence the word “apophatic”?

Apophatic theology is a logical development of the idea of monotheism. Back when I was any sort of Christian, I became obsessed with it for this reason. If god is not a creature, a created thing, and is, in fact, the author of existence itself, then that presents a major problem for theology, the study of god, the attempt to describe god. There appear to be only two possibilities: analogical language, saying what god is “like,” or negation, saying what god is not. All the well-known language of worship and devotion in actual religious traditions is basically analogical, the attribution of creaturely qualitites to the uncreated solely as comparisons, not as real and therefore contradictory predication. But what kind of analogy makes any sense if there is no basis for comparison? If I say Donald Trump reminds me of a badger being eaten by a smaller, hairier badger, either I mean that they, such a badger and Donald Trump, share some feature, or else I’m talking nonsense. But in the case of an analogy between the uncreated and a creature, there is no possible feature they could share. So how is analogical language anything but the purest fabulism? The other way to talk about the uncreated is through negation. Saying what the uncreated is not involves no claim, explicit or implicit, about some shared ground between the created and the uncreated. Given the danger of misattribution involved in any analogy, perhaps the negative way of theology, apophatic theology, is the most accurate way to speak about the uncreated.

It should be obvious by now why I want to borrow the word “apophatic” for the kind of criticism exemplified by Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry.

Now this kind of criticism can seem very austere and limiting at first. How boring would it be if poetry critics did nothing but talk about the failure of poetry? Lerner leaves himself an out at the end of his book:

[P]oems can fulfill any number of ambitions other than the ones I’m describing. They can actually be funny, or lovely, or offer solace, or courage, or inspiration to certain audiences at certain times; they can play a role in constituting a community; and so on. The admitted weakness in the story I’m telling about Poetry is that it doesn’t have much to say about good poems in all their variety; it’s much better at dealing with great or horrible instances of the art. (And I didn’t pretend to know where the art beings or ends: Another essay might look at how hip-hop, or spoken word, or other creative linguistic practices take up or by-pass the contradictions I’ve been describing.) But the story is illuminating because it helps account for the persistent if mutable feeling that our moment’s poems are always already failing us — whether our moment is 380 B.C. or 731, or 1579, of 1819, or 2016.

Thus The Hatred of Poetry is an exploration, for Lerner, merely of one very important feature of the poetic experience. What would a more uncompromising apophatic criticism look like?

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An uncompromising apophatic criticism would look like the writing of Steve Mitchelmore. He does something like what Lerner does with poetry, but he does it with literature in general, and he doesn’t, well, compromise on the validity of his method.

You may have heard of Mitchelmore from his blog This Space. Not so long ago, he made the excellent decision to turn a number of posts from that blog into a book, entitled This Space of Writing, published by Zero Press. When I found out about this book, I purchased it with glee.

I discovered Mitchelmore’s blog when I was a college student. Without going too deeply into it, I was a miserable person then: I was cooped up in a terrible university I had chosen for religious reasons, and those religious reasons were beginning to get complicated, to slip away, and I was waking up to the profound intellectual poverty of my surroundings. I felt alone in my enthusiasm for books and philosophy and history, despite a lively social life and intense involvement in all kinds of curricular and extracurricular activities. So I spent a lot of time holed up in quiet corners, desperately reading, or looking for real live intellectual models and virtual friends on the internet. I stumbled onto This Space and encountered a way of talking about books that seemed as far above me in intellectual seriousness as I felt I was above my fellow students. Mitchelmore clearly valued books more than anyone I’d ever met. But he had some secret technique or method of approach that guided everything he said while evading all my attempts to isolate it. He’d developed a kind of discourse that seemed to turn every story into a text about reading and writing itself.

Mitchelmore’s essays have none of the fat that characterizes commercial criticism or the different kind of fat that characterizes book blogging. He writes with an intensity of focus that either sucks you in or makes you scornful. Those seem to be the two responses his blog draws: and the critical response to his book has been no different.

In a blog post called “Mehr Nichts” (it’s also included in the book), he asks at the end: “What does it mean to acknowledge the limits of writing?” And it was only after I had read Mitchelmore for many months, as a teenager, that I realized this was the question, or the kind of question, guiding his work. He prefers fiction that raises the question; and he reads all fiction, the good and the bad, with the question in mind.

Before I clued into this apophatic method, I found Mitchelmore’s writing difficult for a very specific reason: it rebuffed my desire to imitate it. I was deeply impressed by his irascibility toward other reviewers and by the way he seemed to dive into a text, causing it to disappear by becoming more intensely itself. But when I tried to read that way myself, or to discriminate between the critics and novels who offered or allowed for that way of reading and those who didn’t, I continually arrived at the “wrong” conclusions. Like Churchill, who supposedly taught himself politics while he was stationed in India by reading volumes of the debates of parliament, determining his own views and reasons about each issue, and then measuring them against the reported outcome of the actual debates, I essentially taught myself to read like an apophatic critic (or tried to) by seeing what book Mitchelmore had written about, trying to read that book as I imagined he would, and then comparing my experience to what he wrote.

It sounds more slavish than it was. I’ll write more on some other occasion about Mitchelmore, his book, and what his blog meant to me in college, because he deserves the attention, and I owe it to the role he played in my self-education. His book also requires its own post because to really show what he’s up to would require zeroing in on how he talks about specific texts, and I can sense this post will already be rather long without a digression of that kind.

In fact, that is the very the feature of an apophatic criticism that most appeals to me: despite the way it might seem abstract or predictable from an outside description, in practice it is more deeply focused on the real (or virtual?) object in front of the critic than any other form of criticism.

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I approach the question of criticism from a practical standpoint. It interests me as a writer of criticism who needs a method rather than as a scholar in pursuit of the most defensible theory. From that perspective, and ignoring all the subtle distinctions of scholars, I see basically five varieties of criticism.

(1) Consumer advice. It measures a book against what it imagines readers want, and passes judgment on whether you, the consumer, ought to buy it. Is it a beach read? An aspirational read? A good read to give someone for Christmas? (The language of “reads” rather than “books” is symptomatic of consumer advice criticism.)

(2) Reader response. This kind of criticism is essentially a self-report. I liked the book or I didn’t, and this is what I liked or didn’t like about it. Nothing wrong with reader response, but it’s fundamentally autobiography, and therefore inevitably about the reader more than the book. The vast majority of book blogging is reader response.

(3) Textual-rhetorical criticism. Here the reviewer attempts to determine what the author was trying to do, and judges whether they succeeded or not, based purely on an appraisal of the text. In the hands of a perceptive and knowledgeable critic, it can be quite illuminating. It’s where you turn when you’ve been puzzled by a book and want a hand thinking about it. It can also very easily shade over either into disagreeable arrogance, when the critic ventures ex cathedra mind-reading of an author, or else into boring apologetics, when the critic reads an author’s goals out of their text without separating vision from actuality.

(4) Contextual-rhetorical criticism. This kind of criticism also attempts to judge an author’s intended act of communication and whether they achieved it, but relies upon all kind of sources (textual or not) beyond the book. Much of what I write in my formal book reviews for places like Open Letters Monthly and The Los Angeles Review of Books could be classified this way. I tend to use biographical events, intellectual history, letters, genre considerations, and so forth, in my attempt to figure out what a given book is up to. I make no pretense of ginning up the author’s vision from the text alone. Some of my favorite critics, like Fredric Jameson and Walter Benjamin, practiced this variety of criticism. Obviously it lends itself to political and materialist interpretations, but don’t let my list of critics or my own example limit the range of the method. I’d say a blog like Wuthering Expectations is contextual-rhetorical criticism too, even though the context drawn upon is primarily literary history. Obviously I love this kind of criticism. It has one serious disadvantage, though: it melts the specificity of a text into its context. The book becomes a node whose meaning arises from a conjuncture of other things. Perhaps that’s fine and we should reject the consideration of uniquely “literary” dimension of experience. (I’m not accusing the critics I mentioned of harboring that opinion; I just think it’s a practical implication of only writing contextual-rhetorical criticism.)

(5) Apophatic criticism. I’ve already described it, but to recap: it’s a way of writing about literature that treats it as a commentary on itself, a seeking for its own limits. It searches for a specifically literary dimension of experience, and necessarily it excludes other concerns, including the rhetorical, because its interest is not in the text as an occasion for communication, but in textuality as such.

There is one other way of writing about books — which I call “book chat” — but it’s more of a style than a method, so I won’t include it among my unscientific numbered set. It’s a plummy, belletristic, gossipy way of writing. Though not a text, the extremely enjoyable podcast Backlisted is a great example of book chat. V.S. Pritchett’s reviews were often this way, too. It’s a fine way to write about books; but I’m not sure it’s properly a form of criticism at all. (Surely anything that aspires to be a form of “criticism” must involve measuring something against something.) Really what book chat resembles is fan-centered sports-writing, of the Bill Simmons variety, but without falling into mere reader response. Yes, fundamentally it’s the discourse of fans. Perhaps it bears the same relation to apophatic criticism that popular devotion bears to the apophatic theology in monotheistic religions.

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An important stage in my journey to atheism and irreligion was the way station of apophatic theology. For me, deciding that the negative way of theology was the only logical and appropriate way to speak or think of the uncreated called much of the everyday business of religion into question: the side of religion involved in building a community and living a certain way seemed more and more earthly and political, while the side involving an attempt to contemplate god seemed disconnected from the earthly altogether. Ultimately the tension proved insupportable, and my religious life split and transformed into socialist politics on the one hand and philosophical and aesthetic speculation on the other. But my point here isn’t to narrate my autobiography, it’s to ask whether apophatic criticism doesn’t spell a danger to work as a critic similar to the danger apophatic theology poses to religion.

I think the escape hatch that Lerner gives himself, quoted above, is unrigorous. Having conclusively determined that actual poetry is always inadequate as Poetry, he nevertheless permits himself to discuss the actual value of “good” poetry. And I’m at a loss to understand what he means by “good poetry.” To be a good X is to possess in the highest degree the qualities that make an X an X; and that is precisely what he has decided poetry cannot do. He has argued that poems are endemically imperfect. So what he means is that poems can be good for things other than the poetic. This would be like saying a shiny spoon with a hole in it was a good spoon because you can use its shiny surface as a mirror: in fact, it’s not a good spoon, it’s a bad spoon and a good mirror.

A critic can certainly write actual criticism, valuable criticism, which asks what non-literary things literature is good for. The contextual-rhetorical criticism that I often practice, for example, can, I think, be pleasant to read, instructive, even edifying. But is it literary criticism? Shouldn’t literary criticism involve judgment as to a work’s success as literature? In that endeavor, I think, apophatic criticism has no peer. Which is why I value Steve Mitchelmore’s work so much.

My admiration presents me with a problem, though. Apophatic criticism is difficult to read, and it will never, I suspect, be particularly popular. So does that mean that the professional critic must fall short of properly literary criticism? “Success, in the sense defined by the reviewers,” writes Mitchelmore, “would be failure.”

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My college fascination with Mitchelmore’s This Space ultimately lead me to his sources. To Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici, among others. In the course of reading from and around Blanchot, I lucked onto the brilliant essay “A Phenomenology of Reading,” by Georges Poulet. It’s a bizarre text that begins as an exploration of the experience of reading, ultimately settling on a description of reading as a sort of possession of one’s faculties, and then takes a sharp turn into discussing the various types of literary critic, among whom he singles out several critics contemporary to him, including Maurice Blanchot, the ur-apophatic critic.

I’ll conclude by quoting without commentary a passage from Poulet which touches directly upon apophatic criticism:

[The critic] can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power on the part of the subject, while at the same time accentuating in the object those characteristics which emphasize its infinite distance from the subject […] the maximum lucidity thereby achieved only confirms a separation instead of a union. […] I may […] separate myself so completely from what I am contemplating that the thought thus removed to a distance assumes the aspect of a being with whom I may never establish any relationship whatsoever. […] the act of reading has delivered me from egocentricity: another’s thought inhabits me or haunts me [but I] keep [my] distance and refuse to identify.


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