Monday, February 22, 2016

Character Talk vs Theme Talk, Round 2


Character Talk vs Theme Talk, Round 2


I very much appreciate your very thorough response and at one point reading your Wiseman essay I did think, wow, awfully good for a student.

So.  We agree completely that plot and character are one, and at some point I think I say "characters and their fates."  Taking them outside of that and meaning by "character" some static thing that one is or has, is a mistake.  No character outside the story.  That responds to 1st and second paragraphs.  

The pattern in stories is the unfolding story.  The basic patterns are called tragedy and comedy.  Things turn out well or badly (or mixed, etc. but we really resist that).  The pattern is made by the choices of word and deed that the characters make.  They are, like us, free and shape their fates, in response of course to inner and outer imperatives.  Themes make the pattern static.  Say the theme is order vs disorder, then one looks for various manifestaions of the theme and the logic and import of the words and deeds are lost.  

There are of course themes built into books by the author, and those are unavoidable, but no-one has ever persuaded us that there is such a theme in Othello.  Or there are many, but those are artifacts of one kind of pattern making (repetition of elements with variation) that we are familiar with in visual art. The word theme comes from music where there really are themes that are repeated with variation but that does not apply when the action is shaped by the decisions of the characters, where what matters is our understanding and assessment of what they say and do.  When there is repetition (as in side plots) that serves to emphasize what I would call the basic concerns of the work.  

In James The Bostonians, the heroine is exploited first by her father, the a feminist, and the her love and husband, all at the cost of her freedom (she is compliant).  Here the drama of exploitation is repeated and if you want to say exploutatin is the theme, OK, but is just three stories about the same thing rather (to my mind) comically repeated because the victim is so compliant and she kind of comes off OK, i.e. married.  But to push it and start to look for exploiutation in other things (unless they are manifestly there, as if there was some insect imagery of one animals exploiting (eating) another) distract from the drama in favour of a mere (in this context) idea.  

There is a continuum from heavily themed works (Wiseman) to non-themed works (Othello).  My view is that the major works in our tradition are non-themed.  Stories are like arguments, they are to be followed, not summed up, the end being the "summary."  Once a plot summary was called "the argument" (e.g. in paradise Lost).  
So the world of the work is successful because the words and deeds and thoughts make sense, the characters matter to us (we boo and cheer, we worry and are relieved, etc.) and in the end are made to feel that we grasp just what has gone on and why.  That is possible only in fiction and why I believe it is so pleasurable at all level of sophistication.  The basic questions are therefore, what happened and why and is what happened good or bad.  No themes needed. 

It seems to me that in music themes are the "characters." They are introduced, vanish, come back changed, and then exit in force or quietly, etc.  (I say this not because I actually hear it, since I don't, but from what others say.)  So in lit the characters are the "themes," from my perspective.  The equivalent in music of themes in lit are those accounts of abstract music that invent a plot and turn it into program music. In lit the themes make conceptual what was mimetic.  


This won't necessarily be unified. I'm going to take your points one at a time. (Forgive mistakes. I don't have the strength or will now to proof read this.)

The oneness of character and fate has to be qualified. So while fiction is largely the art of psychological particularity, bad things happen incommensurately to good people; sometimes no good deed goes unpunished; and sometimes good things happen to bad people. Fictional worlds are often constituted by these home truths. Those works are the are the literary art of those worlds.

Aren't there many patterns in a work, not one "master" pattern, including patterns in language, metaphors, imagery, symbols, recurrent events, and any number of things distinctly comprising the literary? And while, as just noted, what happens to characters often results from their choices, often is doesn't. In this sense, characters may or may not have been the representation of agency by their creators.

It seems misconceived to say that themes make the pattern static. That formulation, it seems to me, starts with an unworkable  desire to impose on literature certain prescriptive forms--"basic patterns," and it gets theme, in the way I argue for it, wrong. Theme doesn't impose anything; and it's hardly static. What it may be in any work is the reader's most acute understanding of the nature of the literary world he's encountered, of what the work is about, what, as I've quoted Frye saying, "world view holding the poem together in a simultaneous structure." (rough paraphrase) So it seems to me, here, respectfully, you've got things backwards. As I see it, your notion of "basic pattern," recurrent invariable forms, makes my notion of theme, an informing idea, static.

Not to quibble, but "building themes into books" sounds like for writers who do it, though, of course, not necessarily, a kind of literary didacticism. There is, it's trite to say, no one way a good book gets written. Some may want to tell of  a certain experience or sequence of them, or a certain character or a group of them, or sweeping historically rooted events, or imagined worlds and beings, or certain human qualities, or impersonal forces, or a love story, or a hate story, or a quest story, or even exemplify a moral : the possibilities are endless. 

But if the writer is good, if the work is good, underlying all else will be coherence, our ability, if we wish to put the work together for ourselves, to say, not in a philistinic or reductively vulgar way, what the work is about, what the author, forgive me, is saying. Restricting our talk about works to what characters, even within their worlds, are doing at every step of the way is either ultimately a disproportionate emphasis attenuating the fullness of the whole, or, as I noted, if we ask why characters do what they do and why what happens to them does happen, then we are at the crossroads of character and theme meeting and at the very ventricles of literature. For how do think, talk, teach, discuss or write about a work in any essential way but by trying to say what the work is about and, again, what the writer is trying to say. 

Then I come to the end of your comment:

...The basic questions are therefore, what happened and why and is what happened good or bad.  No themes needed. ..

which, save for "No themes needed..." seems like:

...if we ask why characters do what they do and why what happens to them does happen, then we are at the crossroads of character and theme meeting and at the very ventricles of literature...

And it will be the case as noted that impersonal forces overwhelm agency, so that character is a necessary but not a sufficient account of the whole.

Addendum, and a bit more: in my limited understanding, and without looking for given definition, themes in music are recurrent melodies or other musical structures, chords, modal variations within chords, patterned dissonances, musical caesuras and so on whose repetition singularly or in combination give the work musical coherence or coherences. Since music is sound moving in time, theme for it isn't apt for literature, structures of words held together, if together, by a unifier, an informing idea or ideas, which is, I think, which forms the structure. 

So when Sontag inveighed against splitting form or, for her, style from meaning test results in seeing works as incidental packages for ideas, she noted for one example, Sartre having noted the "white style" of The Stranger, short, flat sentences, as expressing Mersault's image of the world' all  inherent to tnr depiction of a certain kind of world. That exemplified seeing form or style and theme as one, and that's what I'm talking about.

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