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Critical Inquiry, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Sep., 1974)


  • Dancing with Tears in My EyesAuthor(s): Kenneth BurkeSource: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Sep., 1974), pp. 23-31Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: 04/10/2010 10:06

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  • Dancing with Tears in My Eyes

    Kenneth Burke


    One might conceivably begin an essay on Burke by taking as point of departure his theory of form as first presented in Counter-Statement, or his "Definition of Man" in Language as Symbolic Action, or his summing- up of what, in The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, he calls "Dramatism."' Or there is a roundabout but far more salient route, as suggested by a frankly adverse piece of Rene Wellek's in which, while incidentally including Burke among "men of great gifts, nimble powers of combination and association, and fertile imagination," the special job is frankly to present Burke as an "impasse." Or there could be a some- what confusing approach via Ronald Crane, who was understandably more interested in presenting his method than in telling the world about the ins and outs of Burke's. Or, as Wayne Booth puts it, Crane's purpose "is to defend one special way of dealing with poetic structure, and he does not pretend to do justice to any other."

    The opening section of Booth's article chooses the Wellek-Crane route, along with a kind of "double bind" whereby, while adding to Wellek's list of Burke's "outrageous" moments, and again setting up Crane's stance, Booth shows that he intends to do better by me, in sympathetically undertaking "that seemingly impossible task," as viewed from the standpoint of pluralism, namely, "view Burke in his own terms."

    1. The comments that follow refer to Booth, pp. 6 ff.


  • 24 Kenneth Burke Dancing with Tears in My Eyes

    On one point, Wellek got me as I deserved. My trick bit in "joycing," whereby a very solemn line in a great poem got analyzed for outlaw possibilities, should have been reserved for fun at a drunk party. But I do feel that, if Booth chose to begin thus, he should at least have done what Wellek couldn't do: he should have discussed the steps involved in my answer to Wellek. However, I don't think I should write them all over again here. If any reader is interested, the discussion is to be found in an article, "As I Was Saying," published in the Winter 1972 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review. I contend: Owing to the fact that words can resemble one another tonally even when their literal meanings may be miles apart, various kinds of trick affinities can develop between them. Though I affirm absolutely that anyone who doesn't agree with this proposition lacks a feel for the sound of words, there is still plenty of room for disagreement as to its application in particular cases. The issue becomes especially risky when (thinking along psychoanalytic lines) one tinkers with the possibility that a term on its face sublime may secretly resonate with a term quite ridiculous; and thereby the kinds of "body- thinking" explicitly manifest in, say, writers like Aristophanes or Swift can figure implicitly in solemn works (particularly when one is dealing with such images as a funeral urn).

    It is also an unfortunate fact that, as I found with my first draft of these comments, other items Booth mentions in passing would require pages by way of answer. And such disproportions would be too inefficient for present purposes. But I should mention one reference that can be treated quickly. Booth is disrembering: I didn't say "that 'bombs' and 'poems' are 'the same word.' " Actually, owing to the sugges- tive similarity of sound linking the two words, I coquetted with the difference between dropping bombs and "dropping poems."

    The approach via Crane seems to miss one of the major concerns I have been working on for years-namely, how to find ways of dealing both with the poem in particular and with language in general. Ironically enough, my efforts to deal with that problem were largely sharpened by the vigorous and friendly hagglings I had with "that Chicago crowd."

    As for the tiresome old saw about my ways being "as useful in looking at bad poems as at good ones," when a critic celebrates a work's "unity" have you ever heard him being called to task because many inferior

    Kenneth Burke's numerous writings include The Complete White Oxen (stories), Towards a Better Life (novel), Collected Poems, and among his critical works, A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives, Language as Symbolic Action, and The Philosophy of Literary Form.

  • Critical Inquiry September 1974 25

    works also possess "unity"? Or do you hear complaints because a book on prosody can illustrate its points even by sheer designs, such as "short- long" or "abba"? The abstractive nature of critical nomenclature is such that nearly any term, taken alone, can be applied to works otherwise both good and bad in other respects. Or what of terms like "novel," "drama," "lyric"?

    Booth says, "Burke seems to be claiming to know better than Keats himself some of what the poem 'means,' and the meaning he finds is antithetical not just to the poet's intentions but to any intentions he might conceivably have entertained!" The notion underlying my analysis is this: Formal social norms of "propriety" are related to poetic "propri- ety" as Emily Post's Book of Etiquette is to the depths of what goes on in the poet's search "for what feels just right." Wellek stops with Emily Post. The official aesthetic isn't likely to cover the ground. If I may offer a perhaps "outrageously" honorific example, on pages 329-30 of my Language as Symbolic Action, when discussing a sonnet of mine, "Atlantis," I indicate how one can both know and not know when one's imagination is working at a level of "propriety" not reducible to the official code. My lines had a Swiftian, Aristophanic dimension; and though they were not "programmatically" so designed, my experience with them both ab intra and ab extra indicates how such things can operate.


    Things are going to ease up, praise God; yet I'm still facing trouble.2 Apparently I said something mean about Occam's razor, but I don't remember where or what. I hope it may have been in connection with some such notion as Freud's concept of "overdetermination." Didn't Santayana somewhere say something like, "If Nature had abided by Occam's rule that 'Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,' where would you be?" As for "circular reasoning," I think of a dictionary as "circular"; and I remember hearing tell that the philosopher Morris Cohen was willing to defend circular reasoning in case the circle was big enough. But in a discussion of "contextual definition" (Grammar of Motives, pp. 24-25), built around distinctions between Aristotelian and Spinozistic notions of "substance," and comparing Aristotle's kath auto with Spinoza's id quod per se concipitur, along with Spinoza's statement that "all determination is negation," I end on a bit of relaxing to this effect: "Since determined things are 'positive,' we might point up the paradox as harshly as possible by translating it, 'Every positive is negative.' " I had in mind the twist whereby, though we might ordinarily term things like

    2. See Booth, pp. 12 ff.

  • 26 Kenneth Burke Dancing with Tears in My Eyes

    tables and chairs "positive," within Spinoza's nomenclature they would be "negative" (as later was to be the case with Hegel on Negativitiit). As Booth reduces the report, it cuts too many corners. Then he follows with a whole list of such items, each treated by omitting the qualifiers whereby we might in effect be saying, "In one sense it's this way, but in another sense it's that way." As to the place where he credits me (sans quote) with avowing "everything equals everything else," I can't figure out what was involved there. I have, however, discussed the notion that, in one sense, we're all parts of one universal context; but in another sense, owing to the "centrality of the nervous system," there is a "principle of individua- tion" whereby, after parturition, each of us in a way is separate from everything else. All the other items on Booth's list I might account for similarly-but there again, I found that to do so would involve me in endlessly rehashing things I had already done.

    I wish that, when referring to my remarks on the appeal of form (Counter-Statement, pp. 146-47), he had given the exact sentence, thus: "Form, having to do with the creation and gratification of needs, is 'correct' insofar as it gratifies the needs which it creates." And then had also given the passage and place he felt to be at odds. As things stand, I can't answer because I don't quite know what got out of line.

    As for Booth's reference to my theory of comedy, perhaps I should straighten out a matter that I left unclear. I had been working on a book of "Devices" that I have not yet published, except for occasional bits and an article reprinted in New Rhetorics (edited by Martin Steinmann, Jr., 1967), a piece originally published in Journal of General Education (April 1951); also I have used the material in connection with my teaching. I delayed publishing this volume because (I now think mistakenly) I thought that the manuscript needed a preparatory grounding in the sort of work I did in my Grammar of Motives and Rhetoric of Motives.

    I guess the truth is that, even more urgently than trying to help people "get along with people," I was trying to get along with myself. Since I was too pigheaded (or possibly too arrogant despite my timidities) to seek the guidance of any psychologist, and I couldn't fold up in the Church despite my great love of theology, I worked out a way of getting along by dodges, the main one being a concern with tricks whereby I could trans- late my self-involvements into speculations about "people" in general. Pedagogically, as per my essay on Modern Philosophies and Education (edited by Nelson B. Henry, 1955), I reduced the whole enterprise to three academic principles, or ideals: the teaching of skills (the pragmatic dimension); the teaching of appreciation (the aesthetic dimension); the teaching of admonitions (the ethical dimension).

  • Critical Inquiry September 1974 27

    Though I have worked much with tragedy, I always tend to suspect that, in a cult of tragedy, one is asking for it. So I still try, as far as possible, to keep at least remotely under the sign of comedy (with satire as afaute de mieux).

    Along those lines, where Booth says that my test is not "Is it true?" or "Is it beautiful?" but "Is it curative?" I would say that "in one sense" yes, "in another sense" no. Above all, I guess, I am engrossed by the great range of ingenuities which the study of symbolic action allows us to contemplate-and many of my far-out speculations (my notions about a possible outlaw dimension in the "Grecian Urn," for instance) are prob- ably motivated most of all by an interest of that sort. Our whole great clutter of civilization, for instance, sometimes strikes me as an astound- ing wealth of ways whereby genius will dig its own grave (even down to the thought that some earnest priest of "creativity" may end up in an asylum just through ardent efforts to produce artistic results that pro- vide a conversation piece for "elite" vulgarians to skim the mere head- lines about, at cocktail hour).

    As for the numbered paragraphs:

    1. Yes, I'd say that any piece of symbolic action, finished on the page, can be analyzed as a poem, as rhetoric, as science, as self-portraiture (including the kinds of self-portraiture we encounter in the analysis of a work as representing a given historic era, or a given social class, or a psychological type, etc.). But some things lend themselves more profitably to one such "terministic screen" than to the others. However, all is grist to the mill, so use as your appetite prompts. And, at times, put some terms in, turn the crank-and out will come other terms. Why not?

    2. I've already talked about this one, out of turn. And again I'd say: Yes, let's add the further question, "Is it ingenious?" That, I guess, would belong in my "aesthetic dimension."

    3. Yes. Wayne, come home! All is forgiven. Yet we still work with "forms," too. After all, "Dramatism" is based on the basic scholastic formula: "act equals form." See, for instance (Kenyon Review, Spring 1951), my "Three Definitions" of lyric, Platonic dialogue, and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (viewed as a kind sui generis). Or, in Language as Symbolic Action, my definitions in connection with Coriolanus as a tragedy, and Passage to India as a novel. Or, more recently, my speculations on "Dramatistic" definition in connection with a longish poem of mine (Directions in Literary Criticism, edited by Stanley Weintraub and Philip Young, 1973). And there's my "Definition of Man" which, if

  • 28 Kenneth Burke Dancing with Tears in My Eyes

    you had but started with, alas! could have kept me from feeling tearful at the thought of how, despite your great friendliness in my behalf, you worked into things so roundabout. (Incidentally, please note that, in my Encyclopedia article, I fight valiantly for the claim that "Dramatism," as a model, is not a metaphor, but literal; and Behaviorism, with its view of man as in essence a machine rather than as a symbol-using animal subject to mechanistic frailties, is the figurative approach to things concerned with human motivation.) Hence:

    4. Note that in my comments on Dennis Wrong's comments (referred to in the Encyclopedia article) I distinguish between some terministic screens and others. I try to indicate methodological reasons why scientifically specialized terminologies for the study of man are necessarily...