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.

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