Friday, March 25, 2016

Character Talk vs Theme Talk Round 6


Character Talk vs Theme Talk Round 6


....The feuding isn't mindless, it just leads to, as we now say, collateral damage, or, as is said at the end, "these sad things,” “for never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."   I don't take the Arthur Miller view that tragedy is always protest, in this case against mindlessness.  It just gives us a way of grasping the gravity of each person's fate.  When Miriam Ulrych, your classmate tells me of a recent bad thing that happened to her I listen pretty much as I watch a play, with these differences.  She is eloquent but she doesn't mimic the speeches of the other people in ways that make them stand before my eyes, she has to digress and such to fill me in, whereas the poet expects me to know certain things and then focusses intensely on only what carries the story along, and I always have to wonder if I am getting the true story, whereas with fiction I am getting the fictional truth, the whole fictional truth and only the fictional truth so I can let my imagination go without worrying whether things are omitted or added or changed.  It is that being in total awareness that makes the experience so intense and thus what makes it matter.  

I think we care about fictions because they are like our lives might be or sometimes are.  Children are treated badly by the very people who are supposed to nurture, just as R and J are by the families who should nurture them.  
The way the meanings of a fictional work come about in my view is that a reader treats the words purely as cues to the state of the speaker's soul, or is told the state of the soul by  narrator. 
"As soon as we grasp the grammatical meaning of an expression in a mimetic poem, we begin drawing inferences which we scarcely recognize as inferences, because they are just such as we habitually make in life; inferences from the speech to the character, his situation, his thought, his passion, suddenly set the speaker before us and arouse our emotions in sympathy or antipathy."  Elder Olsen, a neo-aristotelian whose gang lost out to the New Critics and their belief that meanings, not the way we understand the  dramatis personae, were the culmination of critical scrutiny. We are sympathetic to R and J, antipathetic to the feuding families and so are moved by the terrible conclusion of the story.  

I think our disagreement is pretty clear.  

I don;t recall Ginger vividly, but my vague memory is of pure pathetic decline, incredibly sad as his lively spirit comes up against realities which it cannot overcome.  "Luck" is just plain irony.  But about this I may be all wrong, and if what I see as his decline is really prologue to his reaching some better state, I forget it.  But even that better state is just that, a better ending.  Just as the end of The Stranger is happy for Mersault, though I can still make the judgment that his meaningless is an illusion, since the very idea is his "luck" and thus meaningful.  

At the end of What Makes Sammy Run, Sammy, when asked how he feels now he has got all the marbles after battlng his way to the top, says, "I feel, I feel, . . . patriotic."  That strikes me as a brilliant way to dramatize his delighted  expression of his happy narcissism, for a patriot is in love with what he is.  Now, how did Schulberg do that?  Well,  by telling the story and then putting those words in that order.   I am happy, by the way, for you to tell me I have misunderstood Sammy's soul, that it is not narcissism but something else.  But you reached that conclusion on the basis of those words being put in that order at that point in the story, in which incidents were arranged in a certain order.  That is the basic technique, but we don't need to be aware of it as such, it just does its work on us....


.....We might cavil on "mindless" in relation to R&J. That's incidental to our issue, but so what. I respectfully suggest that you underestimate the theme, the meaning, the idea, of the play with "collateral damage." It's not apt. Why the feuding is mindless is because it's lost all sense of itself, just as it has in Huck Finn. Some originating incident lost, forgotten in the mists of time, passing down through generations, propelling itself as a matter of reflex, habit, perverse convention: how is that in that context not mindless;  how is it purposeful, mindful? 

Tragedy always being protest, which proposition I've never considered, seems too prescriptive, particularly if protest means what I take as "Millerian," dramatic fingers pointed at some near to allegorical wrong. I can maybe see some meaning in the idea of protest if it's taken to mean a literary declamation of a kind against the universe. But that's to stretch the anchoring meaning of protest too far. 

But it *is* in this latter sense we can see the R&J as a protest, using protest almost metaphorically, against the play's universe as comprised by mindless, self perpetuating, family feuding hatred and the inevitable toll it exacts. That's why "collateral damage" is inapt and why maybe you, with all due respect, may need to think through the play's foreshadowing, which I meant to offer as a plain and homely example of a meant literary technique forming meaning. 

Collateral damage, as we commonly use it, is a sidebar, an unfortunate incident of more central, usually purposeful action that calculates it as a necessary but accidental cost to achieve a greater good. But R&J's death isn't accidental even as contingencies and misapprehensions lead to it. The play's universe is deterministic in that sense: their deaths are predetermined by their families' hatreds. That's what the foreshadowing tells us as it forms that meaning. Their love is what can never be. And in the play we get a further working out of Shakespeare's great theme of the commingling of fate and contingent circumstance within fate in a complex world view that I to this day haven't fully worked out.

(Btw, and fwiiw, this very commingling structures Richler's first novel The Acrobats.)

When you describe your experience of a play as distinct from someone telling you discursively about a bad thing that happened, we have no argument as such. All the authorial things that, in principle, focus your attention on what the play is telling you and nothing else is the essence of the play, or any other artistic thing, as a work of art. But in your wanting to say this against what I've been trying to argue, you elide my distinction between the experience as such of the work art and the subsequent exercise, and I use exercise advisedly, of studying, analyzing--which is to say, taking apart to reconfigure--interpreting, which may be the reconfiguration, the work, if that's what wants to do. And doing that will, for instance, distinguish the critic from the reviewer.

(Btw, off topic, I say "in principle" as a meant qualifier. The kind of singular immersion you point to seems less than a full account of our experience of art. Not that this is full, but I think of it as a dialectic between our awareness of the world in active exchange with the substance of the work.) 

Of course we care about fiction, literature, because in its genres it variously illuminates aspects of our lives. Why would anything I argue discount that? But I suggest--and you'll know this better than I--that knowing this doesn't get you very far in studying it, criticizing it, and teaching it. In doing all that, a work's "fidelity to life"--ringing true, feeling right, apt, on or off, however it's phrased--within the contours of its own form and meaning is a necessary condition of our studied appreciation of it. But it's not sufficient. We need to bear down on the techniques we with good sense judge as meaningful, take them apart and then put them together somewhat in the way I mentioned.

What you quote from Elder Olsen sounds to me like part of what I much less ably have referred to as a dialectical process. But it points to, I'll argue, is the false binary running through what you keep saying. Why does there have to be an antimony between what he/you say and what I the new critics say? Why can't the New Critics be seen as filling in, as a matter of academic study, the means by which Olsen's inferences arise? Why do the New Critics have to be in effect relegated to bean counters of technique? Is this really what Cleanth Brooks's readings of poems and novels amount to? What in principle precludes these critics from addressing Olsen's inferences by way of how they're formed and by way of what they are and how they move us? 

The only answer to these questions I see from your comments is the flat denial of technique, of technique forming patterns, which are recurrences based on commonality, which then go to form meaning. Which, respectfully, seems an outlandish position. If literature has techniques that are unique to it, that mark it off categorically from inartful prose, then I think that that refutes that denial, if in fact I understand it. Nothing in what I say stops any critic seeing R&J in light of a perversion of parenting, of Ginger as pathetic, or understanding what his luck is, or if it's just Moore's irony, or how to see the ending of the Stranger, or to think, as I do, that it shows that Camus fails to sustain a coherent theme. 

And in relation to What Makes Sammy Run, what is "how did Schulberg do that" limited to? Does it exclude his imagery? Does it exclude certain language he uses over and over? Does it exclude certain symmetries and contrasts between the characters and the relations between them, the play and variations on running throughout the novel? 

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