Talking Movies

September 27, 2019

What the Hell is … An Objective Correlative?

I’m interested both in the origin of the term and its usage now, both actual and potential, and the difference between the two…

TS Eliot coined the term ‘objective correlative’ in his infamous critical essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’ to describe an ideal objectivity that the artist would achieve between the impulse to create and the finished work of art.

More specifically, suppose that a dramatist wishes to write a play about war, having served in a war. Eliot would instantly insist that the dramatist distance themselves from what they’re proposing to create, for the play to have any value it must speak to people who have not been in a war, the playwright must find an objective correlative that converts their personal experience into universally accessible art. Eliot’s essay is infamous because in it he denied Hamlet masterpiece status because he claimed Shakespeare had been too close to the raw emotion of the loss of his son, to properly explore the theme of father-son grief, and so his play did not find an objective correlative of that emotional state, but was intensely subjective.

Eliot’s audacity is amazing but the same sentiment is found self-reflexively in John McGahern’s preface to the second edition of The Leavetaking: “I had been too close to the ‘Idea’, and the work lacked that distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess.” McGahern thus rewrote the entire first half of his novel because he felt he had been too close emotionally to his subject and that it had been subjective more than it had been objective as art.

I think that objective correlative went from being used by people who’d read Eliot’s essay to other critics who’d only read it in the context of critical writings by those people, to eventually leaping from academia into popular criticism where it was used by people who hadn’t read any of the essays that came before them.

Barack Obama, in his discussion of religion and politics in The Audacity of Hope, invokes an equivalent of TS Eliot’s objective correlative, demonstrating its application not just to art but to any intellectual pursuit in which the subjective and the objective collide. Obama’s argument is that no argument on an emotive issue involving religion and politics can get anywhere if people merely quote Scripture or Thomas Jefferson at each other. What must be done to take the emotive heat out of the argument is to convert subjective religious values into their objective correlative – arguments invoking universal values, which can be accommodated in political discourse without everyone losing their minds.

December 31, 2015

‘Camus’s Philosophy of Revolt in The Leavetaking and The Pornographer’ published in John McGahern: Critical Essays

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘Camus’s Philosophy of Revolt in The Leavetaking and The Pornographer’ has been published as a chapter in the Peter Lang Re-imagining Ireland series book John McGahern: Critical Essays edited by Raymond Mullen, Adam Bargroff and Jennifer Mullen. My essay is based on the paper I read at the 2013 Queen’s University Belfast conference ‘John McGahern: A Way of Seeing’ which celebrated 50 years since the publication of McGahern’s debut The Barracks.photo (1)

A collaborative reassessment of John McGahern, this volume provides provocative readings of his major works and also examines his lesser-known short stories, essays, and unpublished archival materials which have not yet received due critical attention. The book also has a focus on topics and issues in McGahern’s writing that have been hitherto overlooked, thus extending the critical discourse on this important Irish author. The contributors to the volume range from emerging voices in Irish literary criticism to established scholars in comparative and postcolonial literature.

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