Sunday, March 13, 2016

Theme Talk vs Character Talk Round 5


Theme Talk vs Character Talk Round 5


I taught my students to begin with a generalization about life, such as those below, and then start talking about details, and we would talk about the latter, e.g., whether Othello's final speech is a heroic coming to terms with what he has done or an effort to evade responsibility, whether Isabel Archer's decision not to marry Caspar Goodwood and take care of a child is a noble sacrifice or a way out of what she never wanted, a full sexual relationship with a man? 


Any generalization from those below will work, they simply announce that the essayist like the author, will take the fictional life seriously (even if being serious means laughing at the silliness of the characters.)  And the essay can begin with any of them.  But the action is in following the fate in detail and understanding it in sequence.  In other words, just about any theme will do for any book, but what matters is how one understands it bit by bit, especially the end.  What matters is how we describe each word and deed (comically selfish, tragically blind).   

And it is not these ideas about  the human condition that matter finally but how we understand particular individuals (characters) and their fates.  These generalizations are not what one finds out by reading the book, one knows them from the start, true and ordinary as they are, what one finds out is how Isabel affronted her fate, how Stavrogin fucked up others and himself, etc.  

1. The invisible centerpiece of every great novel is the protagonist’s rebellion or coming to terms with his or her place in the scheme of things.

 2.  Lit. is a celebration not of life but of awareness, an awareness of the human condition. 

 3. Each of us, then, is a fulcrum where the private and the public meet, where inner and other-directed yearnings sometimes clash. Literature gets written because of this.

4. what we understand and love in it, as Erich Auerbach wrote, "is a human existence, a possibility of ‘modification’ within ourselves."

5. If it works, if it’s serious, the narrative — whatever form it takes — edges ineluctably toward a realism in which individual destiny has meaning (even when it’s represented to have none).

6. It charts our changing relationship to the issues that intrigue us: "Whence and whither, birth and death, fate, free will, and immortality," which Trilling believed "were never far from systematic thought." 

7. Literature is where we go to identify ourselves, where we shake off outmoded attitudes and beliefs, where we pause to evaluate our progress.


think we're on a fair bit common ground here and, or,  I'm losing sight, based on what you now say, where we have a *huge* principled difference. 

I've always maintained that, finally, and abstracted, the heretically paraphrased theme or idea or set of ideas binding a work will be pretty banal just to state. And them as such, as abstracted, aren't the point. To think of them, abstracted statements, as the point is interpretation as a kind of cowardice, argues Sontag, who I keep coming back to. 

So when you speak about the "details," "sequences," "bit by bit," "each word," and so on, what are you saying? Aren't you saying the same thing I've been saying? If not, why not? And isn't it so that there's no prescriptivity in how these specifics get talked about? And isn't it so that the ways peculiar to literary art (just as there are ways peculiar to visual or musical art, any art really) will form these specifics into patterns such as East Egg and West Egg, Huck saying bookish words like "commence," the short flat sentences of The Stranger, Faulkner's stream of consciousness interiority, his landscape as agitated interiority, the predominant interrogative mode in Hamlet, all the "nos" and "nothings" in Lear, Hemingway's loving attention to concrete physical setting, moving so often from starting points to containing vistas, his characters' blunt way of talking, his narrators the same, and so on endlessly--will drive to a whole, which finally will be a theme, which in all fiction will be what makes worlds meaningful, which casts its meaning back over the whole made up by and but bigger than the specifics, and bigger than the patterns in the specifics? 

So we wouldn't want to, in studying, do criticisms of, or teaching works, dwell in extrapolated thematic abstractions, just as we wouldn't want simply to bean count light and dark images or the recurrent use of r sounding consonance or whatever. Wouldn't we we rather, want to with artful proportion see how the specifics build into patterns which build into a whole and see how the whole illuminates the specifics?

So not any theme or generalization will do unless it so so long, wide and thin as to say not very much, which is how I read Krystal's not so unhelpful, high sounding a priori generalizations, which you quote. 

Rather, we'll come to a generalization rooted in the work and approximately encapsulating. So we don't, I don't think, start with a generalization we all know is true and then see how it gets worked out or implemented, a deductive process. We, instead, gather up the particulars--we must; how could we not?--and move our minds from them to the whole they form.

So given what I've just said: where is our big divide? What do you fundamentally disagree with?

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