April 12, 2007

The Question Mark Is There For A Reason

In the reading I am proposing, the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" enacts a complex process, stemming from Keats's initial failure to read the urn. ne consequence of this failure is an "affirmation of aesthetic categories" which, however, remains tentative - for it "succeeds" or "works" only by expressing, at the same time, the "negative knowledge about the reliability of linguistic utterance" which de Man calls "literary."
Barbara Jones Guetti, "Resisting the Aesthetic"

Barbara Jones Guetti leads off her critical analysis of John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with a statement from Paul de Man's essay, about the crucial differences between "grammar and rhetoric, which implicitly raise questions about competing kinds of verbal authority." This not only serves as an admirable introduction, but sets up the tone for the entire essay; one long set of partially agreeing quotes from de Man.

The driving point of Guetti's essay, "Resisting the Aesthetic," is the interpretation of the question mark. As she puts it, "Virtually no critics have thought of reading the questions Keats addresses to the urn literally." Instead the questions have been viewed as rhetorical, not as "sincere and urgent demands for information." Guetti is looking for a more literal interpretation on the part of Keats, although not necessarily his readers. She saw the poem in its most basic form - a plea to the urn from a Keats desperate for information from an artifact that couldn't respond through any medium but its aesthetics. In Guetti's eyes,

the poem, far from being an assertion of the eternal values of art regardless of time or history, is a meditation on how the loss of meaning in the course of history creates aesthetic masterworks, such as the urn.

Not only does Guetti look at punctuation as a method for reading the text; she also looks at it in terms of the style of the text, "readers of Keats's poem, who are however, being instructed at this point not to "read" the poem, but rather to permit its language to evoke for them something that is not susceptible to "reading"at all. The words of the poem, in other words - in Keats's words- tease us."

Guetti's translation of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" ends with a power observation; one that only works if you buy into Guetti's theory of the poem,

far from containing the ashes of the dead, it instructs us to forget, to remain ignorant of its meanings, referents, or origins. What it offers us does not even "belong," properly, to the Greeks or to any particular culture: the same poem could have been written about any human artifact whose historical identity has been erased, so that we could no longer know the answer to the questions Keats keeps asking about it.

Looking at Guetti's essay critically is not an act restricted to the confines of the second floor of the Administration building at Seton Hill University (or the bed-chambers of those that meeting there each Thursday night.) The University of Maryland has its own "Critical Methods for the Study of Literature" class studying, and more importantly blogging, on the essay. I found particular insight from one student's entry, "The Ageless Urn." Her approach to the essay was slightly different then I had seen in the Seton Hill community, "[Guetti] does not stop at claiming that the poem itself has become canonized in our culture, but takes her examination to another level by asserting that the urn is “canonized within the poem,” making it aloof and difficult to approach critically (Guetti 386)." (Oh, the convenience of using the same book . . . ;) I found this look at the text inspiring. Not only has society become obsessed with the poem as a "sacred cow" but the poem is doing the very same thing - perhaps making this interpretation a more understandable one?

Speaking of this more common interpretation, Kevin did a wonderful job questioning the reasons behind the necessity of questioning its validity,

Guetti claims that the problem with our readings is because of the fact that we are not reading the urn. This question therefore I pose:
Can we really learn more from the urn if we answer the questions?
He is exactly right. Reading Guetti's essay was an interesting experience of a variant reading of the poem - but she seems to be arguing that her reading is the "correct" way of thought. What Kevin reminds readers of Guetti's essay is: it isn't the only way to look at it. Karissa noticed a similar fact, "meaning is relative and based entirely on subjectivity of an individual upon an issue, work, or topic. 'Meaning' is derived from how the thing means not WHAT it means, since there cannot exist one true meaning." Rhetorical questions or not, Guetti's interpretation does what it set out to do - a raw reading of Keats's poem looking at where the reader should fit in.

Posted by Diana Geleskie at April 12, 2007 10:22 AM | TrackBack
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