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Eugene Paul Nassar. Essays Critical and Metacritical. Madison, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press; London & Toronto: Associated Univ. Presses, 1983. 204 pp. $22.50 As its title impUes, this book consists of a series of seven connected essays, framed by an introduction and conclusion. The early essays focus on a number of literary writers and texts, while the later essays attempt to apply to social contexts those principles of uterary criticism estabUshed in the early chapters. Nassar's posture throughout the essays is that of a moral critic whose primary, perhaps exclusive, concern is with values. The "critical" and "metacritical" to which the title refers carry somewhat special and unique meanings; by "criticism" Nassar intends "the close analysis and articulation of 'tone'—the dominant attitudes —and continuity of tone of a unique context," whether uterary or social. "Metacriticism" refers to the act of "comparing . . . one unique context with another or with any other outside (i.e., not intrinsic to the given context) standard of valuation ." Because Nassar's own metacritical assumptions inform his discussions of particular Uterary figures as weU as his later discussions of such important thinkers as Freud and Marx, they are worth deUneating briefly. Nassar begins with the idea that a desire for continuity in life is perhaps fundamental and that therefore it is a "first principle of evaluation" in the criticism of a poem or of a culture. Because the hunger for continuity—by which Nassar also intends value and meaning—has survived the dead systems of beUef and cohesion that once nourished it, human beings in the twentieth century have come to embrace "the idea of iUusion as value." Wallace Stevens is of course the foremost example Nassar cites here, but he also points to poets such as Crane, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Pound, and others to support his contention that what "makes modern poetry modern" is this beUef in the supreme value of fictions. These premises constitute the underpinnings of Nassar's metacritics. Both a culture and a poem are to be judged on the bases of how weU they recognize "(1) a fundamental, irreducible tragedy in man's [sic] experience of life; (2) a fundamental, irreducible desire in man for permanence, beUef, and value; (3) a fundamental, irreducible need in man for ideas, myths, assumptions , illusions ... to satisfy these desires, no matter how transiently." The critical evaluation of the poem wiU consider the "depth and quality, coherence and continuity" of these three recognitions. To his credit, Nassar makes his assumptions and values quite expUcit, though they might weU seem to some readers to be as restrictive as they are prescriptive. Having established his critical and metacritical principles in the first two essays, Nassar turns in the next four essays to a consideration of writers and texts that, evaluated by those principles, prove aestheticaUy unsuccessful. The first of these essays, "On the Posture of Exultant Dualism ," deUneates a weakness found by Nassar in many poets, a weakness that he defines as the "pretence ... of having exhaled the contraries of existence into some sort of cosmic Unity whUe in reaUty succeeding only in dramatizing or avoiding them." The arrogant tone accompanying this "pretence" or "posture" results, Nassar argues, from a "'categorical' cast of mind, the penchant in the mind for the organizing of systems, archetypes, topologies, paradigms, that are not answers, but only new groupings, pigeonhoUngs, pretending to be answers." The poets suffering either fitfully or continuaUy from this cast of mind are diverse , though, interestingly, they are aU within the romantic tradition: Blake, SheUey, Whitman, Thomas. Nassar singles out Thomas's "And Death ShaU Have No Dominion" as an archetype of "the fraudulent tone endemic in the posture of exultant dualism, the dependence on abstract categories and the cultivation of a deceptive rhetoric." The chief complaint against the poem is that its affirmation is "obUterative Volume VI 144 Number 2 The Henry James Review Winter, 1985 of the individual human spirit." By contrast , Nassar finds praise for Thomas when he reveals, "with tortured acuity," dualistic human experience without trying to resolve it, as in the early Unes of "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower"; here, Nassar asserts, "is the true Thomas...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 144-147
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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