Stanley Fish Pleasures Himself, Yet Again

Fish returned again today to his continued probing of the rationale for the humanities, concluding—surprise!—there is no such rationale, at least not one that anyone will bother to pay for. Fish’s arguments change, somewhat, this time around but he’s mostly sticking to familiar territory, unconvinced by the hundreds of readers who mustered the energy to respond before the Times cut off the opportunity to comment.

Fish begins with an interesting and powerful disquisition on the nature of humanistic investigations.

“In a poem titled ‘Matins,’ the 17th century Anglican poet George Herbert says to God, If you will ‘teach me thy love to know . . . Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.’ But the dynamics of the proffered bargain – if you do X, I’ll do Y – are undercut by the line that proposes it, and especially by the double pun in ‘sunbeam.’

“‘Sun’ is a standard pun on Son; it refers to Jesus Christ; ‘beam’ means not only ray of light, but a piece of wood large enough to support a structure; it refers to the cross on which a crucified Christ by dying takes upon himself and redeems (pays the price for) the sins of those who believe in him. So while ‘by a sunbeam’ seems to specify the means by which the poem’s speaker will perform a certain act – ‘I will climb to thee’ – the phrase undercut his claim to be able to do so by reminding us (not him) that Christ has already done the climbing and thereby prevented (in the sense of anticipating) any positive act man mistakenly thinks to be his own. If the speaker climbs to God, he does so by means of God, and cannot take any personal credit for what he ‘does.’ If he truly knows God’s love, he will know that as an unconditional and all-sufficing gift it has disabled him as an agent.

“This brief analysis of a line of poetry that simultaneously reports a resolution and undermines it is an example of the kind of work and teaching I have done for almost five decades. It is the work of a humanist, that is, someone employed in a college to teach literary, philosophical and historical texts. The questions raised in my previous column and in the responses to it are: what is the value of such work, why should anyone fund it, and why (for what reasons) does anyone do it?”

This is Fish the quintessential close reader, to my mind demonstrating once again that whatever the peregrinations he and we may have made through high theory, our debt as a discipline to the New Critics remains in some sense unexceedable. What we do, he rightly says, what we always return to, what we inevitably affirm whatever our allegiances to history or whatever our convictions about the possibility and impossibility of meaning, is this activity, the simple and yet difficult act of attending, of reading what the flow of language tempts us always to miss.
For Fish, again, this is its own pleasure and its own rationale. It serves no larger purpose. And, as he now comes out frankly in his final paragraphs and asserts, it’s not clear that there is any justification in being paid for it.

“One final point. Nguyen Chau Giao asks, ‘Dr. Fish, when was the last time you read a poem . . . that so moved you to take certain actions to improve your lot or others?’ To tell the truth, I can’t remember a single time. But I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s “Matins”) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’ That’s more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study, but I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”

To some degree I’ve already argued with Fish’s position here in my post last Thursday. However, I want to point out today that there’s a very long distance between his opening disquisition and his late affirmation of aesthetic wonderment. In between, Fish again makes the case that the study of literature does absolutely nothing in the world. However, I think his own example may suggest otherwise.

Fish continues to imagine the bases of the discipline in the triumph of literature, he is stuck in noting the division between the production—and perhaps usefulness—of great art and the uselessness of studying it. However although this self-substantive view of literature has been at the center of English studies for the past century, it seems to me that we need not be captive to this particular image of what it is we do and why.

Fish the rhetorician surely knows that an older rationale for study of literature is that it teaches us about how language works and how it can be used. Literature is not an icon that exists apart from the world in a separate sphere; Literature subsists in language, and by studying literature seriously we come to understand better how language works in the world, no small thing to accomplish. Indeed, the skill that Fish ably demonstrates in his opening is not a natural but a learned skill, one that requires substantial practice and study.

I have suggested with some colleagues for some time now that English studies needs to return to or reemphasize it’s roots in rhetoric and philology. The study of literature is only one, but one very good way to study how language has worked in the past and what its possibilities might be for the future. As a corollary, writing studies needs to be rescued from it’s marginal status in most English departments. Unless one believes that imitation is useless, the study of how works of literature achieve their effects in the present—or how they achieved similar or different effects in the past—can be a doorway in to understanding how the written word can function effectively in the present.

I realize this only applies to English studies; the rest of the humanities will have to fend for themselves. However would my suggestions satisfy Fish even as to the study of literature. I doubt it. But that’s because he has narrowly defined his pleasures over and against utility. Perhaps Fish has studied a bit too much of the Milton the Puritan. It is, perhaps, one of the great blessings of literary study, that pleasure and utility can be achieved in the same fertile moment, rather than existing in futile opposition.

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