Marxism and a Renaissance poem. The scene described in this one poem included a feudal manor, with its outbuildings of barns and houses, livestock, crops in the field, peasants, and the lord of the manor and his family.
I read that poem in the 1980s during a Renaissance literature class. Sociological interpretations of literature were hot topics. Critics highlighted cultural, economic and political issues found either implicitly or explicitly. A twentieth-century view applied to a different time.
The professor asked us to read the poem with a Marxist point of view. The peasants performed the actual work on the farm and reaped little benefit. The lord sat back and drew in rent from the farmers along with ample supply of foodstuff for his sustenance and pleasure. Even the lord’s wife and daughters worked on a decorative embroidery project outside the manor house. The manor lord was the only one without the need to perform labor and just oversaw the wealth the real workers brought to him.
A Marxist lens can be used to critique any piece of literature in this way. A feminist lens? Of course also possible. The women peasants on the feudal manor received less recognition for their work on the farm and the home. The women were not only under the control of the lord of the manor, but also under the control of their fathers and husbands. Even the lord’s wife and daughters owned nothing of their own since they themselves were possessions of the manor lord.
So how about a capitalistic lens? The farm yields are thriving, the animals look well fed, the peasants look healthy, busy, happy enough, the buildings are sturdy and maintained. The lord of the manor must be a superior administrator to handle the business of running this small economy. Would any college student consider this point of view today?
Fast forward to my son, born in 1980s with straight, blond hair. As he grew older his hair grew darker and curlier. He also grew up to be tall and slender. Whenever he went to the local mall and entered the Abercrombie and Finch store, the staff tried to recruit him to work at the store. He never once asked for a job. Later on Abercrombie and Finch received brutal criticism for an advertising campaign that favored good-looking, young white people and excluded the diverse American population. So at the mall, a lens of white privilege.
A few years later when he was in college, his hair grew even darker and curlier. On a bet he and his friend vowed to stop cutting their hair and the first one to get a haircut would lose the bet. His friend’s hair grew past his shoulders. My son’s super curly hair grew up and out into an afro by the time he cut it and won the bet.
In the meantime, the police stopped him repeatedly while driving. Most times he ended up with a ticket for a small driving infraction. For years I have heard that the racist police consider “driving while black” a crime. Just recently I began to wonder if my son’s frequent run-ins with the cops may have been partly due to his driving around the suburbs looking like a young, black man from a rear view. Same kid, another lens.
Can diverse ideas exist side by side? In quantum theory choices are random. Something becomes “real” when people look at it. The location of a particle is fixed only when someone observes it. As soon as someone finds a new observation point, the particle may appear elsewhere. This holds true for the infinitely small particles. But science also finds large patterns reflect smaller ones.
Maybe we see what we want to see in literature and life. Truth and quantum theory seem to contradict each other. Point of view is literally ever-changing. A single-lens view limits a landscape with no limits. Can we take a huge leap and apply quantum theory to literary criticism?
With each remarkable scientific discovery we realize how little we actually know. The suns, planets, life; all the stuff we know about makes up only 4% of the universe. We know nothing about the other 96%.
I walked into a Philosophy club meeting at the same university I had studied that Renaissance poem. The club allowed alumni as well as current students to attend meetings or so the website blurb advertised. I have never felt more unwelcome in my life. My generation didn’t trust people over the age of 30. That mistrust of the old must be doubly true today. Before I left my one and only club meeting, one young woman quietly and with some frustration said that truth must exist somewhere.
Truth is a scattershot experience. If your eyewear only sees a sociological point of view, what is the rest of the story? The where and the when of truth. In the incomprehensibly ancient sky, we really don’t know stars at all. The universe is spinning too wildly out of control to anchor it to a new center. Although science is paramount in truth-finding missions today, it does not prevent us from longing for other epistemological methods to search out truth.