Academic journal article The Comparatist

Ben Jonson and His Reader: An Aesthetics of Antagonism

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Ben Jonson and His Reader: An Aesthetics of Antagonism

Article excerpt

   But thou hast squared thy rules, by what is good;    And art, three ages yet, from understood:    And (I dare say) in it there lies much wit    Lost, till thy readers can grow up to it.        (Francis Beaumont, "Upon Catiline") 

"--neque, me ut miretur turba./laboro:/Contentus paucis lectoribus" [I do not work so that I will be admired by the crowd, but am content with a few readers]

(Sermones, 1.10.73-74)

The Master said, "Look at what he uses, observe what he comes from, examine what he finds peace in. Can a man hide? Can a man hide?"

(Analects 2.10)

Antagonism is not about the clash of opposites but a kind of refusal to accept the existence of opposites. It is negotiation and debate over contraries in a space which does not isolate one from the other; rather, it makes room for progress by acknowledging opposition as friendship. Antagonism in the transcultural poetics of understanding literature speaks of "world-making" which discounts a "false universalism" usually set up through absolute standards of thought and reductive norms of acceptability. By relying on our abilities to appreciate simultaneously the relational and the disrelational, antagonism in the transcultural poetics of meaning-generation places us in continuous prospects of diverse figurative circulations. It becomes a way of overcoming incommensurability in cultural negotiations, most often the product of inveterate essentialism and monadic nativism. Antagonism is about finding the "unpeace" amidst competing territories of power, domination, obscurity, obfuscation and elision. This unpeace renders "strangeness" to our transgeneric experiences of literature so that we cannot ignore certain things that stay undocumented and quaintly fragmentary, thereby avoiding both serious historicist embeddings and "historical efficacy." Cultural specificity, then, is not alienation; rather, it is a part of a process where circulation and comparison consort antagonistically without ignoring certain "irreducible" differences. It, thus, intensifies and complicates the "exchange value." So, moving beyond bland cosmopolitanization, this studious curiosity--critical inclusiveness--challenges limitations of thought to admit a chance of connection. In this inclusive engagement time collapses, historical distances are fused, and liberties are taken with historical contexts--transcontextualization emerges. Borders become "mending walls" and the acts of returning in certain modes and thoughts to the past and traditions allow us to project texts into the future. Didier Coste points out that "we should move away from the priority of any single origin and consider the one-and-whole both as origin and goal, and thus itself bi-centered. Comparative thinking, as it moves away from that one-and-wholeness in order to make sense, creates its own bipolarities, around which it is up to our anthropological self-consciousness to move-- elliptically also in the sense of an omission, an abbreviation, an encryption and a forgetting" (43). These "moves," as Coste suggests, import a "radical openness," a liminality and simultaneously a new-found familiarity among correspondences of ideas, paradigms, and literary meaning-generation which are widely separated in time, context, and culture. Not embedded in resolutions of paradigm conflicts, these transcultural negotiations in literary studies contribute to the extension of the world-comprehension. There is exchange and play, borrowing and bartering, trade and profit, deficit and loss.

In what follows, I try to place Ben Jonson's relationship with his readers and the consequent modes of reception generated by his works against the concurrent ideas emerging from certain traditions of Chinese, Sanskrit and Arabic literary criticism. The argument unfolds at two levels: one, it shows the antagonism with which Ben Jonson is inflicted in his negotiations with his readers, both in his performance as a poet-man and a poet-artist; and, second, Jonson's idea of the reader is then transculturized agonistically with the ancient and medieval Chinese notion of the reader and the text, the ideal reader in the Abbasid period in Arabic literary history and the philosophy of sahridaya drawn from Sanskrit aesthetic theories. …

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