Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When I Hear the Word "Pistol" I Reach For My Culture

Alan Sinfield is one of my favorite academic critics, and I'm currently reading his Cultural Politics - Queer Reading (Minnesota, 1994, though there's apparently a second edition out, which includes these words in its new foreword:
"The reader" is a coercive construct, designed to disqualify rival views. Its menu of exclusions is familiar. Othello should not be played by a black actor, A. C. Bradley remarks [in 1960], almost in passing. "Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower our imagination" ... "We" in the audience may or may not be racist; in any event, Bradley assumes, we are all going to be white. ...

The assumed "we" is necessary for the conduct of literary criticism, because it embodies the supposition that the text simply yields its meaning to the (right) reader. Actually, I believe, it is the other way around: the literary is not a property of texts, but a way of reading. The text appears literary when it is read with literary criteria in view. Once it is admitted that different reading positions will produce different readings, easy claims for canonicity, the universal and essential qualities of literature, and the authority of the academy, become unsustainable, indeed embarrassing [xiv].
I had already come on my own to the conclusion that the literary is a way of reading, but it is pleasant to find that Sinfield agrees with me. I don't always agree with him, but he always has interesting things to say, including his reversal of the aphorism commonly attributed to Goering, which I borrowed for the title of this post. Or this, on the open secret in reviews of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which was originally staged in 1955:
Walter Kerr, in the New York Herald Tribune, acknowledged "the implication" of "an unnatural relationship" but complained that Cat exhibits "a tantalizing reluctance" to "blurt out its promised secret." In fact, the play is plain enough; Kerr needs there to be a secret. A standard tabloid story in the U.K. is the shock-discovery of the gayness of someone who has not in fact been hiding it. The need is to insist that it is the kind of thing anyone would conceal if they could [53-54].