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372Philosophy and Literature Literary Interest: The Limits of Anti-Formalism, by Steven Knapp; ? & 165 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, $29.95. What fundamental difference, if any, lies between poetry and conceptual knowledge, between (to put the matter in a more contemporary idiom) literary discourse and discourse that is not literary. It would be misleading to say that this ancient question, obsessively debated since Plato's time, has never been answered. Rather it has been answered in a myriad of ways according to the intellectual fashions of the age in which the answer is sought. Steven Knapp approaches it in terms not ofliterary form and content, a dichotomy associated with the New Critics, but of "literary interest," the special kind of attention that may distinguish the reading of literary works from that of nonliterary writing. "What does it mean," he sensibly asks, "to be interested in a literary representation?" This general question can be usefully sharpened by asking instead "what it means to be more interested in a representation than in what it represents—more interested in a story than in what the story is about, in a poem than in what it imitates, in a symbol than in what the symbol ostensibly refers to." Although Knapp does not emphasize the point, the same question would apply equally well to a painting (at least a representational painting) and involves the prior assumption that the poem or story is an object in its own right, not merely the product of certain socio-historical forces or a rhetorical device for expressing an ideology. (The story, as he says, is about something; the poem imitates something other than itself.) It is not surprising that much of the book consists of a respectful dialogue with the late William K Wimsatt, the New Critic who referred to poems as verbal icons. Formalism is a dangerous heresy to profess nowadays in American departments ofliterature, and Knapp takes pains to distinguish his own position from Wimsatt's or any other version of formalist criticism. In a meandering but cartographically impressive excursion through this heavily mined landscape, Knapp comes to the cautious conclusion that "literary interest offers an unusually precise and concentrated analogue ofwhat it is like to be an agent in general." Literature may not be a moral teacher in any ofthe traditional senses, but it nonetheless presents a glimpse of "the ideal condition of practical agency"—that is, of what the self is like. Knapp's analysis of the ethical and political effects ofliterature on readers as agents, or on the concept of agency in general, leads him towards a carefully qualified embrace ofliberalism as well as a guarded defense ofthe autonomy of esthetic objects. Although the latter conclusion was at least partly implicit in the framing of his questions, his answers make this book something of a "defense of poetry" in the tradition that stretches from Aristotle through Cleanth Brooks and beyond. "The object of literary interest is a special kind of representational structure," he declares late in the book, "each of whose Reviews373 elements acquires, by virtue of its interconnection with other elements, a network of associations inseparable from the representation itself." No doubt most New Critics would have agreed with that part of the book's conclusions. As Knapp points out in his introduction, those conclusions, both literary and political, run counter to much currendy dominant academic ideology. The book gives a general impression of caution, as though its author were only too aware that any criticism of the revolution must be conducted these days from within the revolution. Thus he emphasizes those features of liberalism (e.g., racial and sexual equality) that are most compatible with present orthodoxies rather than values (e.g., individual liberty and universalism) that the academic left tends to frown on. Amid a technical discussion of collective memory, he adds two lengthy footnotes to make explicit his commitment to affirmative action and opposition to "a philosophical or an ethical or political individualism ." These and other gestures of propitiation seem extraordinarily revealing about the present context of debate in academic criticism. Pennsylvania State UniversityChristopher Clausen Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature, by E. Jane Burns; xvi & 277 pp. Philadelphia...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 372-373
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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