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.

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