Saturday, July 14, 2007

Dimock on "deep time"

In Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time, Wai Chee Dimock encourages a reading of American Literature that is simultaneously close and distant, deep and wide, a reading that extends beyond national borders and relatively recent chronology to explore what she calls "deep time": "I have in mind a form of indebtedness: what we call 'American' literature is quite often a shorthand, a simplified name for a much more complex tangle of relations. Rather than being a discrete entity, it is better seen as a criscrossing set of pathways, open-ended and ever multiplying, weaving in and out of other geographies, other languages and cultures."

Dimock provides a thorough theoretical underpinning for "deep time" and then, through a series of illuminating readings, demonstrates how the concept might inform literary analysis. The book is an important and thought-provoking contribution to the current debate on the status of comparative literature and world literature, and it provides a forecast of what's next in literary theory.

My favorite part, though, looks to the past. In "Transnational Beauty," a chapter on Ezra Pound, Dimock reminds readers of a time when close reading was considered downright un-American. After Pound received the Bollingen prize for poetry in 1949, Robert Hillyer led a chorus of voices condemning Pound and the poets and authors promoting the New Criticism, now considered a very old-fashioned form of criticism indeed. Dimock explains:

The idea that poetry might be written (or read) with an evaluative criterion other than its American-ness was treasonable in itself....Hillyer found it ominous that these 'new esthetes' had gone so far as to compile a taxonomy of their own, with this title, 'A Glossary of the New Criticism.' Not finding words such as 'traitor' and 'treason' in that glossary, Hillyer hurled at these delinquent judges a charge they were to receive again and again: 'To a world eager for the clearest vision of poets they offer only the analysis of disillusioned irony, word by word. Close reading was downright unpatriotic. What made it even worse was that the practice seemed to be quite common; college professors and even high-school teachers were addicted to it...'

Everything new is old again--or vice versa. Dimock's "deep time" considers "America" a fluid, permeable concept deeply rooted in the past but imagined anew by each generation, an idea as revolutionary as the New Criticism was in its day and therefore just as likely to be alternately applauded and condemned, adopted and rejected, lauded and forgotten, someday to return as a footnote in a future text reminding us of a time when those old fuddy-duddy ideas splashed upon the scene with all the freshness of spring rain.

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