Monday, May 27, 2019

To Theme Or Not To Theme: That Is The Question.

First is a short statement by R as to the idea of theme in literary criticism is an artificial construct imposed on the work save for those works that explicitly want to make a point.

....Themes do arise, and we do it, and people see different themes, it's one of the ways we assimilate literary works to our own concerns.  The themes are our invention, not the writer's, but of course they relate to the play.  But some works have built-in themes, like Pride and Prejudice, or Animal Farm, the contradiction between Communist talk and walk, etc.  But some don't, and then we assimilate them into our concerns using the story of the writer as a basis....

Second is a longer me, taking issue with his claim and arguing against it.

....Different people seeing seeing different themes is a piece of all individuals’ singular subjectivity. Save for what is quantifiable and/or evidentially replicable, we all see everything differently. Even when we agree on what we see, there must be at a minimum nuances of difference. And just so, every person’s responses to the great sweep of emotions and complications in Shakespeare’s great stories differ. 

On your logic, these differences in response “are our invention” not the writer’s. Well, of course they’re not the writer’s; the emotions come from us, not from him. But if our emotions are responsive to what the writer intends, there is a symbiosis between writer and reader that is more subtle and complex than a a sheer cleft between them. 

If someone is glad that Othello slays Desdemona or does a jig on experiencing Lear finding out that Cordelia is dead or is brought to great sobbing and wailing by Puck and Bottom or Mercutio’s liveliness, then he doesn’t get to form part of that symbiosis. His responses are idiosyncratic and wrong when measured by what the text reveals the author intended. 

And it’s not that, short of theme, there is a sheer cleft between the emotions of our responses and our intellects. Because it’s unthinkable that, albeit in different degrees and levels of understanding and self understanding, we don’t think about our feelings in response. And in that very transition from emotion to intellect, heart to mind if you like, we plant the seeds of interpretating, analyzing for understanding, the work. 

So it doesn’t tell against the argument from theme, that each person’s understanding of the work will differ, will differ even within overarching agreement. And, so, of course, interpretation is our invention and not the writer’s: after all, we’re doing it, not him. But as with our emotional responses, we can enter a symbiosis between what the writer intends, as is manifest in the work, its words, metaphors, symbols, recurrences, allusions and so on, you know the whole schmeer, and our interpretation of the work, our understanding on analysis of what he intended. And we can fail to achieve that symbiosis if our interpretations are simply out of whack with the writer’s intention. 

So your point about themes being our invention simply is an unhelpful truism that doesn’t help the position you take against theme. Good interpretation will accord with intention. Bad interpretation won’t. That there is a discernible difference between the two, I think, knocks the props out from under your claim. 

And this applies of course to the New Criticism properly understood as close reading leading to the ability to say what the work is about as a matter of its meaning...

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