9 oct. 2010

What Context Ain't

The guy you writes the program notes for the St Louis Symphony always has an italicized part where he talks about context, by merely listing historical events that occurred contemporaneously with the composing of the music. Edison recorded sound or Berlin Wall Fell. I'm sorry, but this is not context. Context is not mere historical simultaneity. Contextualizing is not laying down an irrelevant backdrop of historical event, but relating the text to something else relevant to it, and in a meaningful way to boot.

There are always many contexts to choose from. What is the context of Lorca's poetry? European modernism? Spanish poetry? Poetry written in the Spanish language? Spanish modernism. Lorca's own life? Andalusia? All of the above, yes, but in what proportion? Finding and defining the proper contextual frame can be a thing of genius, because we always read in within some frame. Even a formalist criticism defines a context: in this case, the history of genres and their structural development.

I hate biographical criticism more than the next guy, but when my graduate students say that the proper context is everything historical except for the author's life, that seems rather bizarre. It's like they are New Critics only in that small respect (leaving biography to the side), but otherwise, historicize away!

1 comentario:

Thomas dijo...

What a weird position: history - biography = context.

But it gets me thinking about the weirdness of mainstream historical writing in general. What historians "know" about, say, a presidency or a war always seems to move back and fourth between "biographical" and "historical" moments. The only criterion sometimes seems to be what they happened to find documentation for.

My view is still that a poem's "poesie" lies in the way it extricates itself from history, which is to say, its political context (and, yes, "the personal" is here political). That's why I had to grant that Kasey was about the "stickiness" of poems (we were talking about flarf). A good poem gets itself out of "the situation" but not without a bit of gore on it. So much as I think we have to look at the "work itself", we can't ignore some of the messy context it's got, as it were, on it.

I'm imagining that's what you mean by "relevant" context.