Monday, February 29, 2016

Character Talk vs Theme Talk, Round 3


I don't think fictions are constituted by how things go, but they go many many other ways, people find love, lose love, and on and on.  Those are not themes but very bare descriptions of the story, what happens.  And fine so far as they go.  Aristotle says somewhere that the rest is sort of embellishment, a truly dumb idea  for the most part.  

Many patterns?  People "find" them but I am dubious that they are there.  Most people who follow and are moved by the story don't notice them, and when people say they are what makes the work valuable I think they are wrong.  No-one ever thought that until aesthetic formalism came along.  I believe that Johnson knew as well as we do what makes Sh, great, i.e., the eloquence of his characters and their interesting responses to the occasions that confront them.  Which just add up to a compellign story.  That then makes us want to connect it to our lives and there are myriad good ways to do that.  I call that informal integration and finding a theme is one way to do it.  I prefer the word "concern" as it does not  have the formalist baggage and also is what we have in the actual world that the work imitates.  

Doesn't "simultaneous structure" explicitly contrast to the temporal structure of the story (plot being a pale way to talk about the whole thing) and thus is static?  The mental work getting there is not static, but that should not be confused with the result.  Poetry as "well-wrought urn."  But I think the story on the urn, to which the poet addresses his urgent questions, is more like what we should teach students to ask.

What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape 

       Of deities or mortals, or of both, 
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? 
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? 
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? 
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? 

Of course since the image on the urn is static, and part of a static design, (which has its own kind of life though), so they cannot be answered. 

Yes, there are many kinds of good books, and giving my interest, they exist on a spectrum from the purely didactic--short fables, through say Shaw's plays and The Plague, where the message is supported with considerable detail and one should be able to tie details to the message (and that one can without violating the integrity of the characters as imitation people supports the message, which distinguishes good didacticism from bad).  

That both Camus and Dostoyevsky wrote great didactic works suggests that life is more complex than either writer can encompass.  Then there are (to make a long contnuum short) works that I claim are shaped by didactic purpose supported by plausible psychology, but by the actions of the characters who are free like us,  and we must decide how to understand what we have experienced.  Have we seen in Othello a good and powerful man brought low by a cunning and cruel villain, or have we seen racism undermine even a great man's mind, or have we seen how vulnerable a man can be when it comes to sexual matters and how he can even kill a woman he loves in response.  In other words we have to say what story we experience.  Nothing general about humanity is "said" here, except that such actions are possible, which is what makes the play so terrible.  

As I heard Margaretta say to someone who asked her what a scene symbolized or meant or something, and she said, brilliantly I think,, sometimes life is like that (i but what the that is is the question, ii what have we seen?) 

Mersault is a great case.  The sentences express his character, as do those of Holden and Huck.  Style is the man (or boy), as was once said.  There is no world depicted in The Stranger, just the story of a very complex man, who is emotionaly dulled (see mother's funeral) and finally in the end funds a passion in his rejection of religion and embrace of a meaningless, indifferent universe.  Good for him, it is a kind of triumph in defeat,  a heroic way to face death, but it is not meant to be seen as true or false, it is not an idea for its own sake but an idea as the final expression of one person's existence, which rang other people's bells.  What that signifies about the age is a good question but one does not have to answer it, but what does have to know how one understands the tale not the alleged ideas it advances through parable or a mouthpiece for the author.

I was going to use The Great Gatsby as my example but that will do.  


Ok, a few thoughts.

To my mind theme is the idea or set of them binding a fiction into a whole, what makes it a structure, which has something to do with what makes its fictional world a particular world distinguishable from other worlds, something to do with what characterizes that world, with why characters do what they do, with how what they do adds up to something consonant with that world. When I say bad things sometimes happen to good people and the obverse, and that sometimes contingency is all, I'm saying that these, albeit very prosaically put, point to the nature of a particular world in a particular fiction. Don't you say this yourself, to repeat:

....The basic questions are therefore, what happened and why and is what happened good or bad....?

How do those questions get answered without reference to fictions' worlds?

As for patterns, I'm dubious about your dubiety. You don't think that all manner of literary type things recur, imagery, certain metaphors, symbols, conscious contrasts; you don't think poetry is essentially comprised by relations and repetitive connection among sound, images, language, rhythms, metre? It's no answer to this line of question to say people who are moved by the story or the poem don't notice them. I think some confusion abounds in your not distinguishing between the first raw experience of a story or a poem and the study of them. One is one thing, reading for the pleasure of it; the other is another thing, reading qua critic, student, academic, whomever. The aim of the latter, in one way of putting it, is to get some intellectual purchase on one's raw  response. The assumption is, and I think it's right, that paying attention to the particularities of a work, for example making sense of recurring patterns, yields a better understanding of it as a whole.

Too, it doesn't answer that line of question to pose an unhelpful opposition between one thing and another as to what makes a work a great. For example, what does in Shakespeare the eloquence of the characters even mean? Seeing the plays performed offers us a particular experience in which some sizable portion of what's said is hard to follow though one will get the general thrust. So is eloquence half understood fine sounding words? But when one reads the plays slowly, drinking in the beauty and complexity of the poetry, one has a different experience and appreciation of the beauty, intricacy, complexity of the language, and one has an insight into Shakespeare's genius that seeing a performance can't elicit. But somehow your view is that the former is what's important not so much  the latter. That rests on an unnecessary opposition between the two. They're not in contest; they complement each other.

Similarly, how does one connect the characters to the situations that confront them? A stage audience simply cannot *understand* either the situation or the responses to them as well someone who sits down with the play and reads it slowly and carefully, puzzling it out as much as possible, and tries to put it all together. The first is particularly and invaluably experiential; the second is particularly and invaluably intellectual. They, again, complement each other. 

I sense you're picking a fight with no thing in trying to defend an incomplete account of these matters. 

The same mish mashing of pleasurable reading and critical reading is loudly evident in your contrasting "simultaneous structure" and the temporality of a story. I think, in fact, there is a contrast between the two, but not the one you formulate, at least as I read your question. I see the contrast being between the experience of moving through the work from beginning to end as against trying to put one's thoughts about the work together. For when you speak of temporal structure, the plot, that is an aspect of simultaneous structure: plot is a putting together;  it's an intellectual exercise in synopsizing the particularities of the story into a proposition of a kind, just as is the exercise in trying to understand theme, which is to say, the binding idea or set of ideas.

Of course the conclusions are in a sense "static" but not in the pejorative sense your use of that word suggests. They are a view of something that conceptualizes a mass of material. Every conclusion in that sense is "static." So what? The conclusion is different from the dynamic experience of reading as such. So what? The intellectual exercise of trying to get to a synthesizing conclusion is dynamic in a way different from the dynamism of the experience of reading. So what? Why would anyone confuse any of these things?

Of course in any work, nothing is said about humanity as such; nothing is said that should be taken as a generalizable proposition about the world. But equally of course something is said about the humanity, the world, that is treated in any particular work. And one interpreting the work, in the Sontagian sense of interpretation, ought to want to get to a generalizable and encompassing proposition about that particular work. That's what interpretation is, or, at least, ought to be. That some works are more didactic than other works, have more an explicit moral or message or theme is both self evident and distant from my argument, I think, because in the nature of things, and in the way consciousness operates, as I first said, we inexorably drive towards coherence. Always. Absent coherence, we're left with incoherence.

So if your wife's student had asked me "What does this scene stand for or mean?" I'd want to discuss with her the terms of her question, how it's wrong ask what does a scene symbolize as such, that one first needs to understand literal meaning, what's going on and why, before worrying about symbolizing; and I'd want to persuade her that once one has a grasp of the literal specifics of the scene, what the meaning of it means is how does it relate to other scenes, to all other scenes, which is to say, the play as a whole. Too, whether life is like *that* seems to be rather beside the point. It may or may not be. But worrying about *that* doesn't get one into the what and why and how of the scene, what exactly is going on there, and how all that relates to other scenes and the whole. 

The poetic line, Wordsworth's, is, more or less, "the boy is the father of the man." And that line seems inapposite here. (Or maybe I'm being too literal.) in Wordsworth's sense what was in youth generates, in a sense raises--"father"-- what is in adulthood. The relation roughly is of seed to something different but related, the fully mature plant. In contrast, the words and sentences constituting a character and a world  are the immediate and innate components of the whole.

I disagree with the view you take of The Stranger. In fact, paradoxically, it's a didactic novel and errs, I'd assert, on my side of the argument. It's meant to express an absurd world, a world in which nothing matters shown through the example of Mersualt. He's the vehicle for Camus's "philosophy." As such it distorts the novel's meaning, its theme, that is to say, to reduce to the book to being only a kind of character study of a particular kind of man. (Camus makes what I'm saying clear, if I'm remembering correctly, in his Afterword or Aftercomment on his novel.)  His view of the world as manifest in The Stranger is meant to be true, meant to be the case, the way of the world; it's meant to show how he sees the world, just as Sartre's literary works do. 

(As a side note, in my view of the novel, Camus can't sustain the consistency of its thematic argument. It's to my mind an incoherence that at the very end, Mersault almost spitefully wishes some revenge or comeuppance or some such on the crowd--I'm not remembering exactly what that is but do remember being struck about how thematically anomalous that final spiteful type wish is.)

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.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Character Talk Against Theme Talk In Teaching Literature


Elementary on my part, best I can do, but here's part of an exchange with my friend R on "character talk" against "theme talk" in teaching literature to high school and first and second year students. He starts by referring to an essay I wrote as a graduate student. My reply isn't specific to his comment but it picks up the general terms of our discussion.

Him: ....Itzik,

Wonderful essay.  However, I didn't see much of my character talk, i.e., a kind of moment by moment attention to the words and deeds of characters.  Here is a comment by Eliot on this speech:
Soft you; a word or two before you go. 
I have done the state some service, and they 
    know ‘t. 
No more of that, I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate. 
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate. 
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak 
Of one that loved not wisely but too well; 
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, 
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away 
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdu’d eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this; 
And say besides, that in Aleppo once, 
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state, 
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog, 
And smote him, thus.   

the speech “is usually taken on its face value, as expressing the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring nature,” whereas what Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona and is thinking about himself.  Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.  Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an ├Žsthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatizing himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.  Elliot then quotes the Bible. “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).   

This is a mixture of character talk and thematizing. When Eliot says "nothing dies harder, etc." he moralizes what he has observed in the previous sentence, whereas character talk would wonder whether that sentence is a good account of what he is doing.  Someone might say, for example, that thinking well of one's self when one is about to commit suicide for killing the person one loved is hardly something to be looked down on.  One is not setting an example for humanity at that moment, but trying to maintain a shred of dignity.  in the same vein, "turning himself into a pathetic figure" (if that means making himself an object of pity not loathing) seems something if not heroic at least evidence that he retains some humanity, is not merely a vicious man.  After that Eliot uses Othello illustrate the Christian. Well, sure, but that is themtizing a moment and thus removing it from how what Othello says fits into what has happened before, which keeps it at the non-thematic level, and presumably what he says here makes perfect sense given what he has said and done and what has been done to him (which Eliot seems to have forgotten).  

Of course the book you write so wonderfully about builds in the thematizing as Othello (quant a moi) does not, so you are rightly taking it on its own terms, but I didn't see much "actuality."  But it seems to me that the greatest literary achievemnts in our tradition are pretty much only actual.  The Iliad has no theme or moral that anyone has ever agreed on, contra I assume :"The Sacrifice."  Ditto most Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and of course mainly the novel.   I have almost finished Dostoyevsky's Demons (once The Possessed).  Most of it is thematic, so only  once in a while does actuality pushes its way through.  


....I'm in a coffee shop and don't have your physical paper, which I downloaded, at hand. So now's not the moment for a considered response to it, with it right before my eyes. So I'm going to wing it for a couple of minutes. Your nice adjective about my essay got me to rereading it. (It's not too bad for a 22 year old kid, even as 22 then is like 32 now and 22 now is like 17 then.)

My point is that the opposition between theme and character is unnecessary and that extreme "thematic talk"--an abstraction that finally turns works into exemplum and sees their "surface" as like a shell carrying a message, the "interpretation" Susan Sontag is so against--and extreme character talk--worrying critically "minute by minute" what characters say and do and taking their existence beyond the work--are not good starting premises for responding to, criticizing and thinking about literature. 

Of course, essentially, we read fiction for the story and the characters---and aren't the two but functions of each other, but aspects of one coherent thing, character being destiny or fate. Sure, sometimes a character is so vivid he leaps off the page, transcends the page really, and becomes outsized in our reading experience of the whole: I instantly think of Mercutio, Shylock, Huck Finn, Paddy Clarke, even Holden Caulfield, to be disparate about it. But in my experience that's rare, a kind of literary lightning in a bottle. So I don't think we can derive a prescriptive critical principle from that rarity. 

To be first principled about it, we perceive reality in patterns that build to a whole, for as much as there are tensions, fissures, gaps, ambiguities, paradoxes, contradictions, riddles and mysteries in that whole, which we are negatively capable of commanding. That negative capability can range from comic to tragic to absurd. So perforce literature in its very inhering structure, as a matter of how consciousness works, replicates that whole built on patterns, and so is both mirror  and lamp to it. Therefore, while characters may occasionally leap past the whole, their iron rule is that they exist within the whole, are a function of it, are a pattern in it. 

In these terms, theme isn't a Fox And Grapes moral or message or psycho-social truth buried beneath the story, which in relation to theme may wrongly be seen as ultimately incidental; it is meaning, the deepest meaning we can discern. And it's as unavoidable as is our being compelled by a good story and deeply involved with well created characters. In one way, the wrong way, asking, "What's the writer really saying?" betrays the kind of wrong headedness apparent in your granddaughter's literature primer. But in another way, the way in which world view is the metaphysics binding literary structure, the true meaning of "form," it's the inhering question--"What's the writer really saying?"--our minds naturally want to go to.

These first principles can be seen concretely in teaching literature to older high school kids and to beginning university students say those in their first and second years.  There's no reason to diminish the first, usually the most experiential, reading of the work, when responses are most raw, most unmediated. They are an ineradicable foundation for anything that comes after, including being impressions we may measure our later departures from. But now we're talking about teaching literature to pretty intelligent kids, or even not so intelligent. Teaching means there's something within a discipline to be imparted, understood, mastered. 

The assumption is that there's educational value in that, that students learn something worthwhile in that, become better in certain ways for it. So it's not a law course: no one's studying cases, deriving and applying rules and building on them. But, while it's not systematic unless you're a certain kind of teacher with a certain theory of literature, informing what's taught are principles derived from a theory, and to be one it must be internally coherent. And that theory at least in big part is born of our understanding of what literature is. 

So extreme character talk is a disproportion, for as much as it's rich to dwell on the story, dwell on characters as the representation of agency. For their agency is circumscribed, their circumstances and conditions are a given, given by their worlds, worlds made coherent by theme. And at a certain point, character talk outside of world is aimless, and, worse, wrong, unprincipled really, gossip per Eagleton, while character talk inside world is theme talk and is talk at the juncture of theme and character. Too, as noted, extreme theme talk simply misconceives theme save, to a point, for literature intentionally modeled on allegory. And even that's not black and white. 

I think, having reread my essay, that I talked about character and theme in the way I'm arguing they're, finally, deeply interrelated aspects of whole.

Where to lay emphasis in teaching and so on, these are pedagogic and technique questions apart from the substance of my argument. Probably, as Frye said, emphasis should bear relation to the emphasis in the poem.