The books in my head(er image) 2: The Limits of Critique

This is the second in a series of posts about the books that have helped to get me to where I am today, namely starting a DPhil in theology. The first covered J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, an unusual book by the writer who has had perhaps the most influence on my imagination of anyone. Other books, less well-rooted in my heart, indeed encountered by chance and bought on a whim, have nonetheless had a profound effect on my thinking.

Critique proves to be a remarkably efficient and smooth-running machine for registering the limits and insufficiencies of texts… It is conspicuously silent, however, on the many other reasons why we are drawn to works of art: aesthetic pleasure, increased self-understanding, moral reflection, perceptual reinvigoration, ecstatic self-loss, emotional consolation, or heightened sensation — to name just a few. (The Limits of Critique, p.188)

The Limits of Critique, by Rita Felski

If there is one book that is directly responsible for getting me on the road back to graduate school it is The Limits of Critique. At the end of my undergraduate degree in English, I found myself disappointed by the literary conversation in academia. I had settled on an English major because of a lifelong fascination (OK, obsession) with stories: how they work, why some take root in the public imagination and others don’t, how they move us, how they show us parts of ourselves that we didn’t know about before. By the end of my four years at Dartmouth, however, I had discovered that for the most part, these questions were not being asked in English departments.  Instead, literary studies had expanded into cultural studies, using literature as the medium of investigation, and the methods employed were what Felski and others have called “symptomatic reading.”

The concern in this mode of literary analysis is to demonstrate how the text manifests symptoms of a variety of cultural and societal distresses our dysfunctions.  Symptomatic readings are engaged to show how a text undercuts itself and undermines, legitimates, or otherwise manifests a particular set of concerns. Such concerns include the economic (championed by Marxist readings), gendered (pioneered by feminist readings), and specifically oppressive (addressed by schools such as queer and postcolonial studies). Being made to study these modes of analysis in my undergraduate courses went lightyears towards breaking me out of the white, upper-middle class, bourgeois life that had led me to those very classrooms. I continue to be challenged by scholars in all of these traditions.

These discourses are vital to the welfare of society and offer a needed corrective to generations of straight, white men dictating the terms of literary discourse. They continue to form and inform my work. But they did not go very far in helping me to answer the questions that continued to burn in my imagination: how do stories work? Why do people read some books and not others? What makes a book great? Disheartened, I gave up on literary studies and followed my other passion into seminary. At the very least, theologians seemed to be taking stories seriously on their own terms because many theologians are interested in how stories work on readers and participants in the narratives certain stories describe. Thank goodness I did, or I wouldn’t be here now. Indeed in the great web of serendipity, coming to seminary in Berkeley introduced me to one of the country’s finest bookstores. Years after turning my back on a dream of doctoral work in literature, I found myself browsing the shelves of City Lights Books in San Francisco, and I happened upon The Limits of Critique and my heart was strangely warmed.

In this short book, Felski aims directly at the state of literary studies in the academy. In the end, The Limits of Critique is a plea for sanity in the study of literature and an argument in the vital battle to advance the value of the study of the humanities.

Most pointedly, Felski aims her analysis at symptomatic reading. A published feminist literary critic and professor of English at the University of Virginia, Felski had begun to find herself dissatisfied with the state of literary studies and offers The Limits of Critique as the beginning of a conversation about what is keeping the study of literature so bound up in its own internal conversation and why such privilege has been conferred on a style of reading that seems to treat the work under consideration with such disdain. The concern of symptomatic reading is always to get “under” or “behind” or “beyond” a text in order to see what it is “really up to.” Borrowing from another of my favorite thinkers on language and meaning, Paul Ricoeur, Felski begins to experiment with leaving behind the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that characterizes symptomatic reading, and adopting a “hermeneutic of generosity” that is interested in what the text is trying to do and concerns itself with the dynamics of the text itself and the text’s relationship to its history, context, and readership.

That anyone in the world of literary studies was taking these ideas seriously struck me as profoundly exciting: serious scholars are asking questions not unlike my own! It was around this time that I began to have some sense that there might be a place for me in the academic study of literature, meaning, imagination, and narrative. It is no secret that the academy has its own trends and fashions. Perhaps The Limits of Critique heralds a shift in fashion, back toward narrative and the power of fiction on its own terms.

Felski concludes Limits with a gesture towards the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) of Bruno Latour which attempts to situate art (among other things) within a series or web of relationships. I am looking forward to learning more about Latour’s thought as it might help me understand how imagination and works of fiction relate to people of faith and help them to interpret their experience and make sense of the world and their faith.

Books in my head(er image) 1: Tree & Leaf

Getting a graduate degree in the humanities mostly means reading. A lot of reading. One of the purposes of a doctoral degree is to get some kind of mastery of a particular field, which means reading a great deal, and reading a great deal that may or may not be helpful, but is nonetheless part of the literature and so must be read, even if just to be intelligently disagreed with.

There are also books that you keep coming back to. Some turn of phrase or useful perspective or ever-plumbable depth calls you back again and again. In my MDiv and MA work, there were one or two books or articles that I referenced or cited many, many times: History of the World Christian Movement by Dale Ivrin and Scott Sunquist, was one; Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning by Paul Ricoeur was another. One of the reasons I decided finally to give in and go back to study for a doctorate is that the books to which I have kept returning, even after finishing my MA, seem to be trending toward a coherent interest and set of questions that just wouldn’t stop being asked.

For the header image of this site (at least for now), I stacked up some of these books, since they seem like a good summary of what this is all about. I can recommend all of them heartily. I had initially thought to write about all eight of them in one post but things got long, and I’ve split them up into one post apiece. For each, I have included my thoughts on how this book has impacted my thought and how it has pointed me down this road. If you’ve read any of them, I would love your thoughts, and if any of them seem interesting, I encourage you to pick them up and give them a read.

Tree and Leaf, by J. R. R. Tolkien

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fugitive’… it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat.

Tree and Leaf is not Tolkien’s best-known book, but it should be better known than it is. Published in t 1964, it is a peculiar piece of publishing: it contains an essay and a story, both complementary works on the theme of the fairy-story.

“On Fairy-Stories” is a seminal study of both traditional fairy tales and later Victorian fairy-stories. It not only offered some of the first critical and theoretical treatment of the fairy-story as a legitimate form of literature, but it also laid the groundwork for much subsequent study of not only fairy-stories , but also the study of fantastic literature more generally. The essay covers a broad survey of the sorts and dynamics of fairy-stories as opposed to other kinds of narrative, but the most compelling insights the he offers on the subject of fairy-stories are the notion of “eucatastrophe” and his rebuttal to accusations of escapism.

On the one hand, “eucatastrophe” is a word of his own coinage that points in approving terms to that aspect of fairy tales sometimes derided by critics, namely, the happy ending. For Tolkien, the collapse of the danger, trauma, and suffering of the tale into the re-making of the world in the form of graced and miraculous salvation is critical to the work of the fairy-story. Like the Gospel, the fairy-story offers a window out of the compromised and sometimes unrelenting violence of the world as it is, to a sense of what could be, and it serves as a reminder or a signpost towards hop.

On the other hand, Tolkien’s rebuttal to the perennial critique of fairy-stories and fantastic literature more broadly is that it is “mere escapism.” To which critique, he offers the observation that a condemnation of escape is generally the sort of sentiment expressed by those running the jails. To be sure,  seeking escape at all points, refusing to engage with the world as it is, does not well serve the individual or the common good. However, never to seek a broader view, never to look out the window is to miss the beauty and the hope for which we are working. Even better, for those who are truly imprisoned in a life from which they cannot find escape, the fairy-story can offer a healthful dream in which to escape, at least for a time, the constraints of an intolerable life.

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he things and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.

The view to which Tolkien believes fairy stories can point us is the view “as we are (or were) meant to see them – as things apart from ourselves.” The fairy story has the special magic ops making the familiar strange so that it can be returned to with fresh eyes. This power of estrangement and recovery makes the fantastic an invaluable tool in reading the world.

Tolkien originally worked on the material of “On Fairy-Stories” for the 1939 lecture at the University of St. Andrews in honor of Andrew Lang, compiler of the variously colored “Fairy Books” of the Victorian age. As such, it retains much of the oral and even conversational style one would expect from a well-delivered lecture rather than the dry, dense prose of an academic essay.

“Leaf by Niggle,” the story that accompanies “On Fairy-Stories” is a fairy-story of Tolkien’s own devising. It is a beautiful tale in which Tolkien shows rather than telling some of what he means when he talks about fairy-stories. It is a contemplation of Tolkien’s own creative process and his own fascination with what he called “sub-creation,” the work of the fantasy writer reaching beyond himself to fashion something new and recognizable. Or, out another way, the work of cutting a new window through which to see what is and what might yet be.


Always we begin again

I am an in-order completist. When I watch a TV show, I want to watch it from the beginning all the way to the end. The gods of media have been kind to me in this age of binge-watching and streaming video. Sometimes I will get a hankering to watch some specific episode from a show that I have already seen, and after it’s done, I inevitably begin the series again, sometimes from the beginning, sometimes from where I had re-entered the season. What can I say? I like a good story well-told.

With lapels wider than his goofy smile, Kenneth brings us to the end of an excellent series.


The hard part always comes at the end of the series. A good series finale is a powerful thing. Great ones leave you satisfied (30 Rock, for instance), and bad ones leave you wanting to punch a wall (How I Met Your Mother, for example). Sometimes they just leave you wanting more, because the series didn’t actually get to finish (I’m looking at you Firefly…). But however things end, they always leave room for the next thing: a new show, maybe, or maybe just going outside for once, you lazy schlub!

But the most potent endings leave something like an echo or a reverberation that stays with you into whatever it is that’s coming next. So it is as I begin again, leaving the US and the Episcopal Church (at least for a time) to start a DPhil at Oxford this coming fall (or autumn, as I guess I have to start calling it now). One thing ends and another begins.

I began again when I left home for college. Then I began anew when I started my life in the church, going to seminary and into parish life. I began again when I was married, and I begin again now, leaving friends and relationships and the plans that I had had for my future. It would appear that that series is done and a new show is ready to begin.

Perhaps it’s significant that this is starting in Eastertide. It’s the Easter way. Death and endings try to have the final word, but God says, “No. Only life, please,” and begins again undaunted. As we who would follow Christ along the cross’s way face endings that seem final, we are given the assurance that God is not finished yet: there is always more to come. Always we begin again.