I’m not really sure why I am writing this now, as I’m at work and should probably be doing something…different.
But I’ve been thinking about this integral literary theory business for some time, and wanted to throw it out there, to see if anything sticks, or if anyone else is interested in this.
I started thinking about this because there has long been a simmering and out-in-the-open animosity between a critic like Harold Bloom, who is a devout Romantic and “aesthetic critic,” and various other critics, historicists, “symptomatic critics” (Wilber phrase), formalists, etc.
I suppose in some ways my interest in integral theory is personal - I have been a sort of student of Bloom’s for many years, and I’ve accepted many of his criticisms of historicism and Foucault as…commonplace? But after reading Integral Spirituality, I am wondering if Bloom is actually first and foremost a phenomenologist, interested in the UL, in consciousness (zone 1) and aesthetics, and that he is critical of the structuralists (zone 2) because he can’t in some ways see their arguments, he can’t see the outside of his own zone 1 view.
While I was thinking about this, I took out a book by M.H. Abrams from the 1950’s (though it’s been reissued I think a few times) called The Mirror and the Lamp. Abrams was interested in exploring the evolution of aesthetic theory, from the use of the mirror as the dominant metaphor (mimesis, emphasis on the external in some sense, whether actual or ideal), to the use of the lamp as the dominant metaphor (Romanticism, emphasis on the poet and the internal, expressivism). Abrams even came up with a handy chart, which locates what he considers to be the four main aesthetic theories, which focus respectively on 1. the Work, 2. the Poet, 3. the Audience, and 4. the Universe.
This is where things get interesting (and somewhat confusing?). Because don’t these four emphases/theories fit into Wilber’s quadrants? The poet would clearly fit the UL (expressivism, ethos, Romanticism, lamp). The audience could then be located in the LL (didacticism, moralism, pragmatic theories, pathos, much of Samuel Johnson, say). The work itself could be considered an aspect of the UR, i.e. the logos, the It, the dharma, formalism). And the universe (great vague term) would then be the LR, which is to say, empiricism, in some ways mimesis (although the concept of mimesis was created before the “cultural value spheres” differentiated, a la Wilber, so seems to take part in many aspects of the pre-differentiated quadrants).
Does this make sense? It’s kind of confusing, because we are talking about “aesthetic theories,” which you’d think would be primarily UL stuff, and yet when you consider the dominant academic mode of interpreting literature today, it’s primarily symptomatic theories, which seem to fall in the LL. So what does this mean - i.e. are we just saying that there are four quadrants to everything, and therefore four quadrants to aesthetic theory? (Maybe “aesthetic theory” is a misnomer).
One last thing - then I started thinking about how to think about POETRY within the context of Wilber stuff. Because I really do think that some poets, like Ashbery, write from a high level of consciousness, and this explains why their work can be so absorbing. It’s almost like his poems transmit something, an expansive awareness, which then makes the world itself seem different, deeper somehow. (Bloom always says that literature has the power to “augment the self.”) I’m pretty sure this argument for literature as a form of consciousness has been written about extensively by the Belgian literary critic Georges Poulet, so it’s really nothing new. Anyways, am I just falling into the trap of prioritizing the UL in literary theory and literature? Wasn’t Poulet interested more in consciousness (zone 1) than structuralism (zone 2)?
For my entire adult life, I have believed strongly that literature is primarily an aesthetic matter. Today I’m not sure this is true - at least, that other theories (ethical, formal, what have you) are valid - as long as they don’t collapse aesthetics into ethics or claim that symptomatic literary theory is the only answer, which seems to be what has happened. No one in academia reads or talks about Bloom anymore (alas). And while some critics, like Cleveland’s own Michael Clune, seems interested in thinking in new ways about aesthetics, these voices are probably today in the minority. Food for thought.