The Art of Language

I’m beginning to think more and more about politics and its relationship to poetry – not a new subject for me at all, but something I keep returning to. Somewhat late, I opened my copy of the PMLA (Publication of the Modern Language Association) from October and saw an article called “Return to the Political” by Jean-Jacques Lecerde which offers a brief argument, mostly based in French 20th C philosophy, for the inherent political nature of literary art. It ends with a five-point manifesto (ah the art of the beginning of new centuries). I am convinced, and I want to quote his Proposition 5:

“I am proposing not a return to the old Marxist concept of literature as a reflection of the historical, political and linguistic conjectures but an active concept of literature as an intervention in them.”

Perhaps I’m not as well versed in 20th C French philosophy (or any other kind) as I might be, but I’ve long been frustrated with the relegation of the political in literature to identity-politics. Where, I asked in an unconvincing paper of my own a few years ago, were Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators? Williams’s news more vital than news? There didn’t seem to be any room for them in contemporary criticism, and the Marxist approach was polemic and outmoded. I’m thrilled to see the potential for this re-vision of the political in poetry (and literature as a whole, though he does quote a philosopher as preferring poetry for this kind of critique, and I hope to explore that more).

In the first Proposition, though, he writes “Philip Pullman practices the art of language, not so J.K. Rowling.” As someone who read both series, I would perhaps state it differently. Pullman performs the critical imaginary, couching social and political critique in the fantasy story. Rowling (arguably) reinforces without criticism the binary norms of good and evil. But Pullmans language is far inferior to Rowling – reading him is like wading through knee-deep mud, the plot, not the language, is the key. Rowling’s language for the most part is far more inventive, though her story is an amalgam of familiar social tropes. Perhaps that’s what he means, though? The art of language is not about the beauty of it, but about the critical framework it constructs (or fails to)?

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