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  • The Winnowing Fan: Verse-Essays in Creative Criticism by Christopher Norris
  • Daniel T. O'Hara (bio)
Christopher Norris. The Winnowing Fan: Verse-Essays in Creative Criticism. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. 302 pp.

Clearly, from this brave and fascinating book, the answer Christopher Norris provides to the question is that the philosophical verse-essay of Pope and Dryden is creative criticism, and certainly, it is a traditionally distinguished strain in the literary traditions of several nations, as Norris also notes. My own notion, put forward in the heyday of theory (the late 1970 s and early 1980 s), and enshrined (some might say, entombed) in The Romance of Interpretation: Visionary Criticism from Pater to de Man (1985), is what Jean-Pierre Mileur termed The Critical Romance: The Critic as Reader, Writer, Hero (1990). Specifically, I mean by "romance" the visionary genre of criticism. It is something more akin to the romantic poets gave birth [End Page 543] to in their poetry and criticism, incorporating the major works of Blake through Byron, in English poetry. Harold Bloom's original 1968 essay of creative criticism, "The Internalization of Quest-Romance," is as clearly my inspiration, as much as Pope's "Essay on Poetry" may be Norris'. Although this book, however, begins and ends with Norris emulating Mallarme's own verse-essays, this reader feels even in them more the force of a Pope than the finesse of a Mallarme:

The letting drop of that archaic maskWhose features once took shape in all the modesOf a poetic diction that would ask

The hypocrite lecteur to scan its codesWith ear half-cocked or eye half-turned aslant,So might they credit that Horatian odes

And such like artefacts like a plantFrom the rich culture of some native climeWhich had sole power or wherewithal to grant

That seeming spontaneity of rhymeAnd verse-form that, no matter how remoteFrom customary usage at the time,

Seemed what the genius loci underwroteAs nature's way with words.


Well, I think we get the idea well enough.

All this preliminarily being said, what then does a reader of this new book encounter? He or she encounters fifteen verse-essays on the touchstones of "high" theory of six to forty pages, each framed by Norris' helpful clarifying prefaces and afterwords, so we understand who Walter Benjamin is, or what Saussure had to do with anything, as well as an extended Foreward to the entire volume, which places this book in some of the context—that of post-1970 s moment—while aside from nominating William Empson as his muse (not Geoffrey Hartman or any of the other Yale critics or deconstructionists, nor even Pope or Dryden), manages deftly to side step one mighty predecessor and one contemporaneous rival: viz., Walter Pater and Edward W. Said, respectively. As I have previously argued, most recently in "William V. Spanos is in the Neighborhood," (in boundary 2, 2015, Vol.42[1],139-149), critical evasion is the hallmark of the creative artist. Precisely not to directly confront any of the major issues of life—love, death, suffering, failure, God, etc.)—what Slavoj æ L ç ek and Robert Pfaller call such systemic evasion, "interpassivity," that is modern form of subjectivity par excellence, especially at this moment in the ever-declining history of the West—at least, as æ L ç ek particularly sees it. [End Page 544]

So now what is this "interpassivity?" I call it "drone play," as opposed to drone warfare. It is, as Pfalter first makes clear, the imaginative delegation of enjoyment to others, human and machinic. Here is a sublime example—drawn from Žižek—when Tibetan Buddhist monks pray, they can pray themselves, or they can write down their prayers and attach them to prayer-wheels that spin in the wind as they sit outside in the lotus position, thinking God knows what, this device praying for them. Similarly, as I have shown, Thomas Mann can "enjoy" the pleasures of homoerotic passion and its tragic consequences via Gustave Von Aschenbach in "Death in Venice" (1912). He can also enjoy thereafter berating his hero's exquisite self-destruction, thanks to his...


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pp. 543-545
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