Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Note To Adelle Waldman On The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P.

March 28, 2016

Dear Ms Waldman:

So I'm *trying* to tie my thoughts together on just finishing your terrifically acute novel, The Love Affairs.... To do that, I'm trying to fit what I make of its ending into my sense of the whole book. 

Where I am is here: Nate rationalizes his sad-making intuition that he's lost something great in Hannah by trying to drown it in process, his life as moving along, with the busyness of later things making almost invisible what's troubling him at any particular time:

...In a few days, it would be as if this night never happened, the only evidence of it an unsent e-mail....

"As if" suggests what he hopes for won't be 100% successful. His "drafts folder" is sort of like his unconscious where as well everything is saved. So I see a relation between this rationalizing and his always obsessively living in his head, in which he can sort out most issues, say his treatment of women, to his moral or simply personal satisfaction by working them out till he's comfortably off the hook of his own concern:

...What he had with Greer was pretty fucking good...he liked his life...he was pleased with the progress on the new book; perhaps that was, for him, more important than  anything  else. He was, whether or not he deserved to be, happy...

The "perhaps" tells me that his preceding "then he knew" is not the the typical revelatory insight that in so many novels brings "truth and reconciliation." Rather, it and the doubt-nibbling of "whether he deserved it or not" say to me that Nate's "then he knew" is part of the constant flux of his mind and emotions, there for now, prey to change with further thoughts and feelings. 

The "Dear Hannah" is a momentary attempt at reconnection with something he intuits is deeply worthwhile. But he can't follow through, just as he couldn't answer her heart felt, totally-letting-her-guard-down long note to him. That inability and all the previous times he cruelly mistreats her but doesn't have the balls to be tactfully honest--he needn't be brutal in that honesty even as he rationalizes that sparing her brutality excuses his cowardice-- with her when she repeatedly pleads with him to be are unforgivable lapses of decency. His unfinished note to Hannah, now a saved draft, is his lapse in an attempt  at what might still be great and worthwhile in his life.

Nate shines in his work. He's admirable in his single minded devotion to it, brave in having suffered the precariousness of his free lance life, having lived on so little, having courted insecurity, but pushing ahead regardless. There's been exhilaration in that too, "the exact scent of the air from his bedroom window at dawn, after he'd been up all night working." But that's gone now too, it seems, in the compromised resolution he's found for now in Greer as part of his moving along, buffering "pain--or the pleasure" with a series of new moments and moods making "this sense of loss, of longing...fade, pass from him like any other mood." 

Therefore, I see a meant relation between the loss of the exhilaration of what his work has meant to him, a great thing in his life, and his "sense of loss, of longing" for Hannah, seemingly now gone from him. These losses and longings connect to what is of real underlying value. The "pretty fucking good" "happiness" Nate at novel's end thinks himself into feeling is less, I read the intimation to be, than what he's lost and would make him more whole, the emphatic "pretty fucking good" sounding like he's selling himself on something. 


Itzik Basman

Sent from my iPad

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? 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Obama's Red Line: A Second Thought


I had fallen into thinking that once Assad had crossed the red line, O had to act militarily and his failure to was a failure.

But no longer since reading The Obama Doctrine by Jeffrey Goldberg. The mistake was pronouncing the red line. And I'm not saying military action wasn't in order. That can be argued both ways. But if Obama in good conscience and on analysis concluded that such action wasn't on balance a good thing, surely he was right not to act. Better to face the criticism and to understand the mistake of his less than circumspect pronouncement than take, to his mind, unwarranted and worsening-the-situation action.

The logic of that seems impeccable to me.

Goldberg talks about how Obama talks about how comfortable he is with his ultimate decision and how proud-not in a before the fall way--he is to have made it. He finally did what was contrary to the conventional thinking that had been carrying him along, contrary to his own inner conviction, until he liberated himself from convention and acted according to his deepest instincts and reasoning. 

And how common is it that we're on the brink of doing something that just doesn't feel right, and we force ourselves out of a kind of reflexive lethargy and do or not do what accords with our deepest sense of ourselves and with what we most deeply think and feel? It's an absolutely liberating experience when it happens.

Rave On Buddy Holly


Listen to Florence + The Machine's Not Fade Away, the fourth track on Rave On Buddy Holly. It's the most compelling track on this not-uniformly good but overall very good tribute record. 

Thinking about the record forces thinking about Buddy Holly himself, the nature of his genius, especially considering his death at 22. Isn't the essence of him the consummate marriage between romantic teenage innocence and the driving beat of rock and roll inflected by fast Texas country picking. The descriptor that comes through most about him given that marriage is "purity." He's a poet of young love, Romeo and Juliet, not Antony and Cleopatra, and decidedly not, heaven help us, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf love. So not for nothing his songs work off teenage idioms of his time and place: "Rave On," "Maybe Baby," "Oh Boy," "That'll Be The Day," "Everyday," "Well All Right," "It's So Easy" and maybe, just maybe, the more challenging "Not Fade Away." The themes of these songs are love wanted, love granted, love exisiting, love hurting and, generally, love that knows what it is, and, so, love simple.

If this is a fair assessment of the heart of Holly's art, surely an art bathed in romantic, uncomplicated teenage innocence, then it's a good standard by which to judge the tribute tracks for their fidelity to his art, for good variations on it, failure on either score, or, finally, as tunes in themselves.

So, Not Fade Away is an amazing track. The mainly unvarying backbeat drumming forming the spine of the tune suggests the enduring steadiness, the confident presence and the urgency of what won't fade away. Florence, who has a great voice, uses dynamics from quietly intoning the lyrics to a gospel like, loud, ecstatic insistence to give voice to this love's ebbs and flows within what won't fade away. In this she + the Machine depart from Buddy Holly's more plaintive:

....I'm a-gonna tell you how it's gonna be
You're gonna give your love to me...

to dramatic vocal enactment of love's ups and downs even as it's so real and so enduring. Simply a fantastic track. 

On the other hand, the worst track is Paul McCartney's "It's So Easy," an unaccountably ghoulish, lecherous, growling-sounding assurance of a sure thing. So, by my criteria, McCartney foolishly distorts and muddies Buddy Holly's purity and innocence for no artful gain; it sounds awful, a lot of meaningless growling and some raspy black-wanna- be speaking that give no reason for themselves; and, kind of saying the same thing twice, McCartney's cover itself is ugly and purposeless.

Fiona Apple and Jon Brion, duetting, do a nice version of "Everyday" in trying to remain pretty faithful to the original. The only thing is, by my last criterion, in the duetting Apple has a strong, supple, musical voice and Brion not evidently so much, at least going by this track. So while the singing is pleasant and infused with Holly's spirit, Brion brings her singing down some, providing a constant check against it being what it could be. Better it would've been to let Apple have some time to herself. 

Justin Townes Earle has a beautifully musical voice that lends itself well to his glorious version of Maybe Baby, giving it a lyricism, the poignancy of teenage hope, that does Holly one better. This is a variation on the original to great effect. Same comment more or less for True Love Ways by My Morning Jacket. 

Similarly, Kid Rock in his raspy essence-of-rock and roll way rocks on in Well All Right and gives it a driving exuberance not there in Buddy Holly's version. Here Kid Rock is doing perfectly what McCartney may have shot for but missed by a wide mile. (I'd argue that syrupy McCartney doesn't have it in him to sing the way Kid Rock does as his, Kid Rock's, second nature. But that's for another day.) 

Another failed track is Lou Reed's cover of Peggy Sue. In Holly's singing, that song is pure teenage wanting, teenage romantic obsession that crowds in on itself and crowds all else out--"Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue"--to the point of hiccuping excitement. Reed loses all that in his flattened out, too cool for school, hip version. By my criteria, he's lost the spirit of Holly's art, has varied it downwards and that variation is in its own right a pretty draggy monotone tune.

The maker of this tribute record has done something smart. He ends it with John Doe singing Peggy Sue Got Married and finally with a great version of Raining In My Heart by Graham Nash. Bob Dylan said that when he was a kid he saw Buddy Holly perform in Hibbing Minnesota. Dylan says he watched him perform and, mesmerized, just went "Wow!" So it's a nice symmetry that Peggy Sue Got Married has something of the "Dylanesque" in its more wistful, complex lyrics, and even in, forgive me, its bit of intertextuality as the song refers to previous songs mostly about a girl named Peggy Sue. And then the capper, the last track on the record, Graham Nash's Raining In My Heart, with more mature sadness by way of more complex lyrics than in any other song on the record, and sung with the most accomplished channeling of Buddy Holly. Graham Nash loved him. 

All to my ears anyway.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Short Trump Trialogue


A short Trump trialogue:

The note:

L: As far as it goes, I think it's spot on, except for this sentence: "But surely an awful lot of our establishments must be smart enough to have figured this out", where "this" refers to the idea that "all this tone-deaf sanctimonious lecturing will not actually help reduce interest in Trump, and may instead increase it" -- I don't think our establishments have the foggiest. Hanson identifies the reason for this blindness himself a bit further on: "people typically care more about making sure they are seen to take a particular moral stance than they care about the net effect of their lectures on behavior". 

Of course, this says something about the Trump supporters too, and it would certainly be easy -- and tempting for his detractors -- to blindly continue the sanctimony by labelling them all childish or emotional adolescents. But that just stays fixed within the limits of a role or posture. Better would be to think about what it is that makes people of any age react to such sanctimony, whether it comes from parents or teachers, or from holier-than-thou preachers, or from comfortable elites....

R: This trivializes the whole business.  His defiance of PC, which is well worth doing, is not the basic issue, but a mark of his willingness to violate other limits, as in torture in defense of America, which claim does little for defense but a lot to bolster the spirit of dispirited people...

L:  No, I'd say his defiance of "PC" is the basic issue, for his supporters and detractors alike. The problem, though, is that the term "PC" doesn't get at the nature and scope of the underlying issues driving both sides, and of course, those who defend one version or another of PC will always want to say that their particular issue is not it...

I (me):  I don't think Hanson adds much to our understanding of why and wherefore Trump. Nor do I think there's much to her/his idea that the critics of Trump, all manner of them, are more interested in moral posturing than anything else. It may be that PC, understood in a particular way, as a kind of proxy for virtually whatever is conventional, is an apt approximation of what underlies Trumpism. But that doesn't seem to me to say much. 

My own vague sense is that with rising globalization we're in the midst of massive creative destruction that overtakes policy solutions to it, if there are any, for that, so far, roughly 1/3 of the R primary electorate. In Trump, this group has a repository for its anger, which is at root economic frustration and with that the loss of an American way of life now in the midst of transformation, and enhanced by demographic change. These conditions have been well diagnosed by many going back the last couple of decades, including by Robert Putnam, Charles Murray and Deirdre McCloskey, and these three from different ideological angles. 

As for moral posturing, how to distinguish from agonized moral concern, especially when the case against Trump ought to be primarily a moral one? Moral preening, no doubt there's some, is that amount of preening typically present whenever a morally provocative issue confronts us. One can't reason from lack of solutions to Trump to preening. He's a pretty good marriage between ripe conditions and his charismatic, telegenic ability to channel them. I mean, as microcosm for him, he was a lunatic birther on O's citizenship. Solutions for him and the conditions he exploits are necessary but not sufficient for his political success are elusive to say the least....

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?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Character Talk vs. Theme Talk Round 4

Theme Talk vs Character Talk Round 4  


....You think there is a design that can be discerned by study in contrast to the experience of the story which, I agree, when we study it, we should learn retell under a certain description, which is not the elucidation of a pattern.  But that is what new criticisn typically did, showng how all the elements can be connected to, say, sickness and health (as was done to Hamlet so we have a repetitive battle between two things and we lose ourselves in the temporally insificant details (images etc) in favour of a pattern that obscures the story.  

And I don't think you reveal a pattern in your essay on Hamlet, you retell under a descriptioon.   Here is a typical statement.  "He pits the expanses of his mind and the depths of his soul against his world as he strives to understand himself in relation to it so that he can try to find and fulfill himself in taking revenge."  No pattern there but a way of talking about the story. Great, but that just characterizes what he says and does in a certain way. EG, he "pits."  That implies passion and deep commitment.   "expanses of his mind, etc." tells us that you like many others see him as a brilliant and serious person and that this means he must oppose his world by thinking about it.  

That is not the revelation of a pattern but a way of articulating your experience of the story as it unfolds.  There is no other pattern.   Other works show us what it is like for one person to succeed in attaining his ends, sometimes revenge (Odyssey), sometimes marriage (Pride and Prejudice) and any description must convey the pleasure in the revenge and marriage (for them and us) as well as all the experiences that got the person from beginning to end.  

Here are two examples of what I mean by not finding a pattern but re-telling under a description.  The first is from a routine review.  

Pandora Halfdanarson, a guiltily contented 20lb overweight, lives an apparently tranquil life as a successful businesswoman in Iowa with her “nutritional Nazi” husband and stepchildren, until the arrival of her glamorous jazz pianist brother Edison. Edison has grown fat: appallingly, stinkingly, suicidally, repellently so. The brother and sister are uniquely bonded by their shared past as the children of a faded celebrity who mined their lives as material for his long-running sitcom, leaving the siblings with the “schizoid psyches of a double agent”. Pandora believes she has turned her back on the show business world, but she must decide whether she is prepared to sacrifice her family to save her brother. . . . in a merciless conclusion to this brave and disturbing novel, her heroism is ultimately revealed as yet one more form of self-indulgence.

Here is Terry Eagleton's noble and eloquent  (but wrong in my view) description of the gist of Richardson's Clarissa:  

Few examples of resplendent virtue have been so cordially detested. Richardson’s heroine is certainly pious, high-minded and mildly self-deluded. Yet all she is really doing is protecting her chastity in a brutally patriarchal world. If she is not the kind of woman one would gladly accompany on a pub crawl, unlike Shakespeare’s Viola or Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, the novel makes it clear enough why she cannot afford to be.

No patterns here, just re-tellings under a description.  


....Your first sentence isn't entirely clear to me. I'm not sure what you're agreeing with and I'm not sure, though I may have a sense of it, what you mean by retelling under a certain description. But whatever that retelling is, it's clear, it's not for you the elucidation of a pattern. You'll understand the New Critics and their project better than I, but your characterization of them and it seems a distortion. To be sure they sought interconnection but they did so "on my terms," so to say, typically being deductive rather then inductive, however they overlap. Which is to say, they saw repetitions and recurrences as having thematic significance. They drove the particulars of connection to something overriding, which is literary wholeness however ambiguous. 

So only foolish critics will lose themselves in insignificant, or even significant, details: they'll in that be bean counters toting up the constituents of patterns. But, contrastingly, how rich it is to follow connections up to a fuller understanding of what a work seems to be about. And why in doing that and transmitting it in teaching a story need one obscure the story? The story is one thing. Enjoying it, being immersed in it, reacting to the characters and their situations are all part of that one thing. Studying the work, asking why the characters do what they do, why do their situations befall them, what do these things mean in and for this literary world, asking how formally what it all means is achieved are all a diverse other thing. You keep saying there's an unbridgeable opposition here. I keep saying you're harboring a false distinction.

I think we're misfocusing ourselves by dwelling overly on "patterns." Pattern to my mind signifies a highlighted emphasis through repetition and recurrence or some other means of telling similarity. One definition of it as a verb

...give a regular or intelligible form to.

"the brain not only receives information, but interprets and patterns it" synonyms:nshape, influence, model, fashion, mold, style, determine, control...

conveys my sense of it here. 

My argument is that when we address a work formally, which is to say, make sense of its literary properties, that, in the nature of things literary, includes elucidating patterns. We see certain images repeated or precisely contrasted, certain phrases repeated or precisely contrasted, qualities shown typical of a character repeated and manifest in how that character is created. All that is a building block of how we teach literature unless something new has happened lately, leaving deconstruction to the side. But, as I just said, noting those patterns isn't sufficient. From a teaching perspective, they must be stood on, built from, in order to speak more fully about what characters are doing and why, how they are what they are, and what that all means about their world. Which is where one wants to get to. 

Take an example of a work of visual art, a painting or a sculpture. When we first look at it and react to it, that has some analogy to reading a story or play, or better, seeing a play. We will have an immediate reaction to, say, a painting. And that can be that. But we might linger over it, noting the play of light and dark, the repetition and contrast of certain images or just shapes, how there is a self conscious use of color and brush stroke. When we, or when someone competent to the technicality involved, can elucidate these patterns, when we can see how the artist has accomplished his art, our experience of it is so much richer. For I've experienced both, in visual art, in music, vocal and instrumental and in literature of all kinds. So, of course, in that studied or taught understanding we have the elucidation of patterns driving, as I keep saying, to a more inclusive understanding of the whole. 

You mischaracterize my position by saying what I'm talking about is the clarification of patterns as an end itself. But I'm not. I'm talking about that, from the perspective of criticism, studying and teaching, as a necessary condition of interpretation in the Against Interpretation of interpretation.

Close to finally, I don't see anything in what I'm saying at loggerheads with your closing two examples save that reviews don't typically undertake study of the work reviewed, which means reviews on one side and academic study and teaching and criticism on the other side are for our purposes different categories. I don't see why Eagleton or anyone else talking about the character and thematic import of Clarissa or 8,000 other characters has to crowd out considerations of form, style, technique. It's a false distinction, as I keep saying.

Finally, I mean Huck, my favorite literary character, is this and that but why does Twain have him use more bookish words like "commenced" instead of the simpler "started" or "begun/began"? Why wouldn't we explore the particulars of how he talks as a way of getting a fuller sense of him, of who he is, and what's impinging on him. After all, character resonates in language, which would be to say, specific words and phrases and kinds of words and phrases used over and over, which would be to say patterns of language. Why wouldn't we in study, teaching and criticism be attentive to that too? And why not elucidate other patterns too? They're the art of the thing.