Saturday, May 11, 2013
On Theme In Literature: A Response To A Friend
First of all, for Aristotle plot, the causality among events, which I previously suggested is, as causality, an aspect of my conception of theme as world view--theme NOT BEING a moral or homily to be ascribed, tacked on, simple-mindedly to a text, as in an Aesop fable-- is more important than character. That's against you saying: ... I follow the fortunes of characters, sympathizing, mocking, admiring, puzzling over motives, but with the expectation that it will lead somewhere significant.... And what you say, now that I've considered it, seems in fact inconsistent with an Aristotelean notion of plot.
I think Aristotle is right that plot is more important than character. I may not understand what he meant, only having in my mind what has been said commonly about him, but it makes sense in the context of what I mean.
Character doesn't exist outside world. It is a function of world. It is in a good book an effective representation of people so that we are interested, affected, aroused, moved, sometimes overjoyed, sometimes distraught and so on. That's what responding to literature involves. But moving from response to critical response means to think through one's feelings, which itself involves necessarily asking what it all means. That involves understanding character in light of what it all means. For that, what you "follow," which is of course fine, is inadequate to critical understanding, I'd respectfully argue.
And it is in the context of this understanding that "Trust the teller..." Is to be understood. The issue is of course the tale itself as contra-distinct from some external stated intention. But that trust needs a refinement beyond what you say you follow. The tale itself in its literary properties, in all its complexities, in understanding why sometimes just what you feel about say one character is insufficient when seen against the whole, is what engenders resolutionary meaning, even if ambiguous and paradoxical--those qualities part of the essence of good literature.
Not to cavil, but saying stories are different from life, to escape truism, must mean that stories represent a vision life. For a God based writer, that representation may be of a universe determined by a God. His fiction may cleave to that. If the author wants to project a world of chance, of contingency, he will represent that. And one more point, your distinction between life--as chance, "no coherent pattern"-and literary art--as presumably constituted by "coherent patterns," my very argument in fact--needs the addition of the complicating fact that we in life see the world in coherent patterns, however things impinge on us, and literary art is of a piece with us in the nature of things seeing what's around us as world, as coherent pattern.
It's in these terms that I'd speak about the theme of Lear, or, more to immediate hand, Gatsby. For Lear, I'd have to give it some thought. For Gatsby, which I've been thinking about lately for obvious reasons, I'd conceptualize it as a matter of intellectual shorthand as something like irretrievably blackened idealism.
I don't agree at all with your notion of theme, needless to say.