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The Rediscovery of Anti-Form in Renaissance Drama Jackson I. Cope Let us begin with a few truisms. First, we must admit that we distrust form. Rather, we seek everywhere forms that defy definition, that turn the mind’s subterfuge upon the eye in an art of optical illusions or of objects so pure in their isolation from context that they paradoxically cease to be imitations of “reality” -embedded materials and become pure symbols. The very “ thingness” of pop art is the cause of its transcendence of things, its metamorphosis of matter into idea or ideal. Again, in the nouveau roman the insistence upon a world of things, objects painstakingly objectified, leads improb­ ably to the most eerily evanescent world within the novel, a world as starkly outlined as Robbe-Grillet’s plate upon a table, and yet so limitless that the plate seems an infinite circle with its center every­ where. The theatre has revived in Europe and America, but that revival has been carried upon the wave of anti-theatre. What began as a movement toward freer rapport in the arena houses became the “ happening.” Playwrights themselves have been forward in making their medium its own strident message and end, until Pirandello’s explorations into the independent life of art sometimes appear to be museum pieces from a gentler time when contrasted with the con­ temporary theatre’s frequent proposal that, not only are life and drama near allied, but life, like this particular theatre, has as its final cause only theatricality. These are truisms about recent art to which any reader can sug­ gest analogues in contemporary criticism. The theoretical limitations of the New Criticism which found its end in the explication of in­ dividual poems by means of a loose formalism is no longer in question. The discovery is being made on every hand, with the same wide spec­ trum of silliness and sophistication that characterised the explicators of a generation ago, that poems are embedded in being. Whether one calls them sociologie, phenomenology, Robertsonianism or mythic criticism, the most widely practiced current methods insist that litera­ ture is not at all an objective form, but a paradoxical “ structure” continuously reforming itself in interplay with author and reader, with the society from which it comes and into which it flows. Such moments of taste-shaping cohesion in the temperament of a 155 156 Comparative Drama culture can be interpreted as evidence of a breakthrough, of a new vision made possible when the scales of the past dramatically drop from the aesthetic eye. Our moment has not chosen to advertise its supposed uniqueness, however. Perhaps because it follows upon a period of critical atomisation, it seeks to discern similarities, continu­ ities; it is, in short, at root historical. Since its rich variety of methods, both in making and rediscovering art, are cohesively focused upon the exploration of anti-form, and since its impulse is historical, we are in the process of coming to a new understanding of tradition. For where tradition was formerly defined (and therefore discerned) generically , thematically, iconographically, we are now coming to redefine it in the broadest terms available to aesthetic discussion. We are slowly shaping the materials for a new history of literature which will recognize that art is its own best subject, that it has returned obsessively to frame itself as a discussion of the possibility of aesthetic form, drawing attention to the nucleus of the artistic transaction where process and product turn inside out to offer a style of illusion opposite to what we customarily understand when speaking of the illusion of reality created in mimetic art. Rather, continuously inter­ changing function, process and product fuse to create an effect stylistically more analogous to the artifice of the simple optical illusion, which demands as much from the process of the seeing eye as from the patterns of the object with its spurious, ironic claim to a formal independence. Put another way, we have begun to question, for much of the literary tradition, the efficacy of postulating a correspondence between the literary artifact and an extra-literary dimension which the letter translates into verbal form, a postulation which leads to theories of...


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pp. 155-171
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