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.)

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