Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Structuralism

Email 2:

While I believe that Angela articulated her argument well, I have to disagree with her on Structuralism's validity. I think that Structuralism gives voice to a phenomenon that I have encountered many times when reading a text: I read something, and it reminds me of something else you've read. This becomes Structuralism when the text is meant to point to that "something else."

For example, last semester I took Later Victorian Lit and studied the poems of Dante Rossetti. Rossetti's poems often have a common theme of the continuum of time and refers forwards and backwards to different poems in the time frame of a particular poetic situation. While my professor taught this theme, he drew a diagram on the board of an X with two lines pointing horizontally out of either side. At the time, I was also taking Early Italian Humanism taught in the Italian department and had just studied how Italians view Rome as the Eternal City because the Empire to them has never fallen; it has just been moved. Empires, that is, are always the same just moving from different locations: Persian to Egyptian to Greek to Roman to Byzantine to Holy Roman, ie Christendom. Therefore, Italians view history as being on a continuum where the past points to the future and the future points to the past per the theological study of typology.

Obviously, this view of history is very much engrained in Italians and Italian Humanist scholarship. Rossetti's father was a Dante Alighieri scholar (he loved Dante so much that he named his son after him) who moved from Italy to England. Rossetti's father was an Italian and a scholar and would have raised his son in a similar fashion with a similar literary background. In fact, the diagram of the X with two arrows that my English prof drew was the exact same diagram that my Italian prof had drawn! Thus, Rossetti's poem and it's theme were playing on an Italian literary and historical tradition of viewing time/history as a continuum where previous events are prefigurations of future events. I found further evidence of Rossetti's Italian Humanist scholarship by reading his sonnet sequence, which takes almost verbatim elements of Petrarch's Canzoniere, as does his sister Christina Rossetti's sonnet sequence. Hers is more interesting because it is a sequence told from the perspective of Laura and Beatrice, the object of Petrarch and Dante's sonnets, respectively.

OK, so what does this have to do with Structuralism? My professor had little to no awareness of the Italian literary tradition. When I explained the tradition to him, he was very happy to learn about it because it provided a label for the unity and common themes of Rossetti's poetry that he had not been quite able to put his finger on. Without this knowledge of other works, he lacked a basic understanding of Rossetti's purpose in writing the poems and the deliciousness of his application of Italian ideals to English poetry. Rossetti was Italian-English, and he was able to express his own duality by combining the two sides of himself intellectually and aesthetically in his painting and poetry. If we are not aware of the tradition behind his works, we cannot fully appreciate Rossetti's poetry. We are missing a vital piece of information that Structuralism encourages us to pursue. Instead of staying closed-minded and focusing solely on the one poem, we can look at it as a part of an entire literary tradition that goes back centuries. This is crucial to fully appreciating a work from every angle. This form of literary criticism is not a "dissection" that kills the work. It is instead a vivisection that allows us to see the poem's beating heart and read it's genetic code to see where it came from and where it is going. We do not "murder to dissect" the poem; we instead use Structuralism to "see into the life of things."

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I definitely don't have all the answers, but I know that as long as people keep sharing ideas like this, the truth will eventually reveal itself and maybe it can make a difference somewhere.

I think this blog rocks! Keep up the good work, I've bookmarked it and will definitely swing by again soon.

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drhaibane said...

Canada Immigrations?

I do think that you should continue posting your literary theory emails. I find them pretty interesting, especially since I have this idea of English majors sitting in a room reading poems and Shakespeare, then going home and writing about poems and Shakespeare.

Good luck with Mr. Shakespeare. And let me know how the med-school process is going~

I do read your blog, even if I don't always post a comment...sorry about that.

prettydoc said...

I've only read three Shakespeare plays in college: Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It. I've his sonnets in two classes. Shakespeare is most definitely not the bulk of literary studies; it's more like a stereotype. It is, however, one that many people share and maybe my readers will see that there is a lot more complicated processes going on in lit theory than Shakesperian plot sequences. Incidentally, I'm not studying Shakespeare at all this semester.