Culture Magazine

The Problem with Close Reading: GIGO

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I've bumped this old post (7.31.2011) to the top, as critical methodology is much in the air these days.

And there is no universally agreed standard as to what constitutes garbage


You had to be there.
This (down ⤋ there), or something very like it, was originally published in the News-Letter, the student newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University, on March 7, 1969. It caused a minor scandal and set tongues a-wagging in the faculty dining room the Friday of publication. Other than an aura of sophomoric virtue and some verbal excess, it is hard to see why it was deemed scandalous.
As I said, you had to be there. This was 1969, before the culture wars, before skin mags came out of the backroom and onto the front racks, before porn on the internet. Before the nation had pulled its sorry ass out of Vietnam.
And before post-structuralism had morphed into deconstruction and sired Theory on the various political criticisms that proliferated in the wake of anti-war, civil rights, and feminist protests. Back then the New Criticism was still flying high in the academy and truth was still the earnest object of literary criticism. This little gem made a mockery of that. That, I suspect, was the core of the scandal; the sexually circumspect, but nonetheless obvious, language was merely a convenient foil on which to hang a bit of righteous indignation. The piece was silly and vulgar, so what?
I’ve reprinted it—it was written by my younger self—as a contribution to the discussion of close reading that has sprung up on the web at Arcade and now Crooked Timber. Who’s next? I’ve made a number of changes, some minor, some not so minor. Should you care about such matters, you can check this version against a somewhat tattered and smoke-damaged copy of the original, which I have archived here (PDF).
As a point of information, without which some of the language is likely to seem excessive even for satire, back in those days condoms were routinely called prophylactics. Also, there was a lot of student unrest and doubt about the university’s mission. A lot.
* * * * *
Of Socks, Prophylactics, and Other Matters Sublime and Heroic
by Carl Jakob Joachim Benzon
In view of the growing student unrest concerning the relevance of the real world to the concerns of the university, I thought it might be relevant to show how the real world is indeed relevant to our universal concerns and thus give a point of fixity upon which young and anxious minds can fix their earnest gaze and which will serve as a North Star by whose light they can chart their course through the treacherous seas of life. Accordingly I have decided to give a close textual analysis of a rather well-known piece of popular verse:
In days of old when knights were bold,
And rubbers weren’t invented,
They wrapped a sock around their cock
And babies were prevented.

Our first problem is the matter of textual authenticity. While popular verse of this sort exists primarily in a nonlinear oral tradition, a few texts were available to the intrepid scholar who is willing to gird up his loins and make a sally into various and sundry places for the evacuation of the bowels and emptying of the bladder open to the public. While most of these texts agree with the version published above, in one version the last line read “Thus babies were prevented” and in another version the second line ended in a semicolon rather than a comma, and in still another “He” was used instead of “They” and “his” instead of “their.” However, these differences, while of great interest to the scholar, are of relatively little importance in the proper interpretation of the text and thus I will say little more about them. Any student interested in pursuing this topic further should consult the magnificent thirty-volume study, The Texts and Techniques in the Study of Folk Literature: A Beginners Guide to Ethno-Philology in the Middle Atlantic Region of the United States from 1237 A.D. Until 1957 A.D. with Special Emphasis on the Twenty-Ninth Block of North Calvert Street [which is in Baltimore near the Arts and Sciences campus of The Johns Hopkins University] by my distinguished colleague, Thomas Aquino Benzon, Ph.D., D.Phil, F.R.S., F.O.P.
This poem is a Double Mock Heroic Quatrain on the Odds, for an ordinary Mock Heroic Quatrain lacks the internal rhyme in the odd numbered lines, one and three. Ostensibly it is a comic lyric meant to achieve effect by playing on advances in methods of curtailing the propagation of the species. A close reading, however, will reveal that this little poem deals with great and weighty matters.
Boudoir of Truth
The key that will unlock the door barring our entrance into Truth’s chamber, the thread which will guide us through the labyrinth of multiple readings, is to be found in the word “rubbers,” suggesting, the everyday world of utility in its meaning of gum band or overshoes on the one hand, and, on the other, the meaning obviously intended, suggesting a world of sensual pleasure in its reference to those prophylactic devices invented to prevent the spread of the diseases of Venus. Notice that this duality is implicit in the sock asserted to have been used in days of old. Said sock is normally worn on the foot, just as the overshoe can be (topologically [and tropologically too]) transformed into one of those prophylactic devices pledged in service to Venus.
Thus the poem is an inscription of the transformation of the merely utilitarian into the hedonistic. This transformation is achieved through the elasticity implicit in the notion of rubbers and gum bands; for it is the elasticity of the human mind which sees that a sock can do service as a prophylactic device. That is to say, this transformation of the utilitarian into the hedonistic is effected by the human imagination seeing a new use in an ordinary everyday thing—a sock. It is the call of the hedonistic element in man which prompts the imagination to inventiveness.
New Dimensions
Yet, there is another dimension to “rubbers” which we must explore. Rubber only became practical with the invention of vulcanization. This clear allusion to Vulcan, the workman of the gods, mirrors the allusion to Minerva, the weaver of the gods and therefore responsible for socks. Further, Vulcan was wedded to Venus and cuckolded by Mars, the god of war and the most vainglorious of the gods. This reference to Mars clearly mirrors the opening mention of knighthood. Thus the folk genius has introduced a clear conflict between utility and hedonism through mythical allusion.
Clearly, this folk poem has as its theme the dual nature of creativity and imagination It was an act of imagination which prompted our knightly forefathers to the use of the sock as a prophylactic device; it was an act of imagination which transformed overshoes into condoms; and it was an act of imagination which gave birth to the process of vulcanization which effected an improvement upon older methods of prophylaxis. This magnificent outpouring of imaginative activity was prompted, not by the hard-working utilitarianism of Vulcan, but by the vainglorious hedonism of Mars. The text explicitly says that is babies which were prevented and not disease. The moral is clear: the imagination in service to the vainglorious hedonism of Mars can only lead to strife and the thwarting of the Divinely ordained mode of human creativity, the union of man and woman in the procreative act to the greater glory of God and the continuation of the species.
Thus it is clear that the vulgar world is indeed relevant to the sublime world of the university and that the vulgar poets have in fact seen that most sublime of truths that Man must live in the light of the Lord and according to His laws and render unto Him His due. If this is only now coming to light it is because too few scholars have been willing to place the blubber of folk poetry into the try works of the truth-seeking mind and labor diligently to render forth the pure fat of Divine truth.

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