Monday, December 04, 2006

Rejoice in the Lamb?

To historicize our little quarrel over pleasure--to get back past Freud, at least in terms of primary texts, if not in our reading thereof--we might consider the anxieties over pleasure and poetry in Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry.

I've often returned to an essay on Sidney by Mary Ellen Lamb: "Apologizing for Pleasure in Sidney's Apology for Poetry," which turns out to be available on line now, here.
To Sir Phillip Sidney, Lamb writes, "delight must be justified by instruction, by the way pleasure moves us to virtue," and more specifically to manly virtue. Like many in the English Renaissance, Sidney fears that poetry's appeal to pleasure tout court renders it (as an art), and its readers, and most of all its makers either effeminate or infantile, and possibly both. The roots of this anxiety lie, for Lamb, in the child‑rearing and educational practices of Sidney's cultural moment. Writing at a time when the indulgent, breechless care of upper class boys by female nurses ended when they were 7 to 10 years old, at which point they were abruptly thrust into a world of pants, Latin, self‑control, virility, and thrashings, Sidney links the "simple, sensual pleasures of early childhood" with the "dangerously effeminizing power" of "vernacular fictions or nursery rhymes" (Lamb 501). Such oral, mother‑tongue poetics leave us, write Sidney, "lulled asleep in shady idleness" (123): a state of either child‑like or post‑coital softness that stands opposed, in either case, to the guarded and active stance of "manly accomplishment." Sidney's Apology for Poetry thus marks, the critic concludes, a crucial turning point in "the history of the bourgeois subject": a point at which "anxiety became installed in the very experience of pleasure" for the privileged literate male (515), and where the focus of that anxiety was first located, alas, in the art of poetry.
I wonder whether there are comparable moments of initiation, anxious or otherwise, to be teased out of the partisans of modern and postmodern difficulty. Just a thought.

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