Blog Post

Present Tense

In my house live a literary critic and a historian. They do not always get along. Aside from differing views on paint colors, dinner choices, and departure times, a regular dispute erupts concerning verb tenses: present tense or past tense? When you write about a book, do you describe its action in the present tense (Hamlet whines) or in the past tense (Hamlet whined)? Donne writes or Donne wrote? Milton screams or screamed? Is literature art, or is it history? How, exactly, do you tell the difference?

Undergraduates regularly have a lot of trouble with verb tenses in papers. I spend a lot of time correcting verbs. But I think undergraduates are on to something—or at least, the same thing happens to me all the time. The historian inevitably writes on the drafts of the literary critic: “there is something weird going on with verb tenses in this paragraph.” The question of verb tense in critical writing is also a question of disciplinarity: what, exactly, is it that you are writing? Criticism or historical analysis? How exactly do you move between “back then people thought Puritans were hypocrites” to “Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy acts like a hypocrite”? When do you deploy the present tense of the literary critic, and when do you deploy the past tense of the historian? It is a difficult question to answer, and, really, I am not going to answer it here. I can’t imagine a way in which it could be answered. Instead, I want to suggest that there is a way for the literary critic to have his present tense and some historicism too: that is, to think of literature, and art, as historical when it tries not to be. The now of art authorizes, eventually, the past tense; the commitment to the discipline of literary analysis makes possible historical judgment.

There are a lot of versions of this argument, which usually filter through Kant and Hegel in a dizzying range of possibilities. But I am especially fond of Adorno’s version, briefly put forth here in his short essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society”:

Goethe’s statement in his Maxims and Reflections that what you do not understand you do not possess holds not only for the aesthetic attitude to works of art but for aesthetic theory as well; nothing that is not in the works, not part of their own form, can legitimate a determination of what their substance, that which has entered into their poetry, represents in social terms. To determine that, of course, requires both knowledge of the interior of the works of art and knowledge of the society outside. But this knowledge is binding only if it is rediscovered through complete submission to the matter at hand. (On Lyric Poetry and Society)

“Rediscovered”: what does that mean? Part of it is an old idea. In his famous letter to Francesco Vettori, in which he announces his “small work On Principalities,” Machiavelli remembers Dante’s Paradiso 5.41-42, which “says that what has been learned does not become knowledge unless it is retained.” Knowledge must be retained on the inside (“e fermalvi entro,” writes Dante), and Machiavelli says that in order to retain it he has written The Prince “in which I immerse myself as much as I can in the understandings of this subject.” The notion of rediscover likewise plays a crucial role in Vico’s verum et factum principle: history (what Vico called the world of nations) was (is?) comprehensible to humankind because the human mind was (is?) itself a product of the history it had made (makes?). Erich Auerbach, who does as good a job as anyone of balancing his verb tenses, closely follows Vico: “the investigation of historical processes in the broadest sense…still depends very largely on the investigator’s judgment, that is, on his faculty for ‘rediscovering’ them in his own mind.” (Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 8).

Adorno revises these arguments for the post-Hegelian world. Retained becomes rediscovered. The historical knowledge promised by the past tense (“rediscovered”) only happens in the present tense (“complete submission to the matter at hand”). And that temporal argument complicates the spatial metaphor in which these sorts of arguments are usually made. To know the inside, you have to know the inside and the outside; retaining is always a repetition. You have to know that there is an inside and an outside, that works of art are “works of art” because they try to follow their own logic: they exist in their own present tense, so to speak. Adorno is no naïve New Critic (were there naïve New Critics?). The line between inside and outside is exactly the problem he is posing for himself; he sounds much like Derrida’s reading of the “parergon” in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Adorno is posing the question of the inside and the outside, the question of the system and its limit, by insisting that the social—the outside, the world of production, the world of divisions of labor, the world of class, the world of history—only becomes apparent through the inside, through the work of art, as the work (here, the lyric poem) tries to pursue its own logic, its own totality, its own present tense. What a work “represents in social terms” is only legitimately apparent in its form, in the now of the work. If you do not understand the work, if you do not carefully read it, if you do not stay in its present tense, you do not possess what is historical, what is in the past tense.

Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.