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WIM 7: Ack, Ack Ack Ack, Ack…

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Okay.  That’s a sound I make when I’m feeling especially frustrated.  At least, it’s the way I write the sound I make.

If you don’t usually read comments,  I’d like to suggest that you make an exception this time and read the two that  Robert made on the last post, because I  want to address the issues in those directly.

But before I start,  I’d like to point out that there are a number of assumptions in them that do not fit what I’ve been saying.

First is the implication that to an approach to literature (and in particular poetry) such as the one I’m taking will bring us to think that rhyme, rhythm and meter are somehow, if not “bad,” then at least less than free verse.

But I never said anything of the kind.  Rhyme, rhythm and meter do not make a poem bad, nor do they make a poem somehow “less” than one written without them.  Most free verse is boring as hell, if not downright negligible.  Lots of people are better poets than e.e. cummings, including Shakespeare, Donne, and  Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The second assumption is that I will somehow naturally assume that the work of  Raymond Chandler is “art.”  But I never said that, either.  Kipling is often a better writer than Raymond Chandler, but then, so is my cat.  I don’t think Chandler’s work is even good, never mind great, and I think the question of why it became fashionable in certain  English Departments to pretend that he was some kind of a genius is an interesting one.  Eventually, I even mean to go into it, because we’re going to come to talking about the genres eventually.

But  Chandler is a bad writer in a different way, and for different reasons, than Kipling is.   The issue isn’t even Kipling’s didactism, per se.  It’s not about what Kipling says, or even how he says it–and that, in spite of the fact that he often says it badly. 

The issue is how he goes about saying it.

To reiterate something you’re probably all getting bored to death hearing:  literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it.

But it’s a moral universe, not a sermon.

Certainly we can, with Robert, declare (postulate) that literature is supposed to be didactic, and that therefore all the standards of merit are to be changed to what fits that purpose.  This was the underlying assumption of  Socialist Realism, too, and it’s the underlying assumption of all that preachy “young adult” literature meant to instruct the young about the evils of smoking, drinking, drugs and racial prejudice.

But literature, like human life, has an internal logic all its own.  Standards of greatness and awfulness in literature are dependant on recognizing and understanding that internal logic, and applying the standards it throws up to the works at hand.

People who declare that what is good and bad in literature is anything we decide we want it to be are doing what certain modern secular thinkers do when they declare that all human morality is subjective.  What we consider moral or immoral is just a matter of what we decide we want to apply those terms to.

At some point of the other, I’m going to get back to the people who declare that “man is just another animal” (and don’t mean it), and this is going to come up again, but for the moment I want to point out what should be obvious.

Just because we can conceive of something and make ourselves believe it doesn’t mean it is true.  The vast majority of mankind throughout the history of this planet has been convinced that the world is flat.  They’ve been wrong.  It doesn’t matter how many people have believed that it is good and morally proper to sacrifice virgins to Baal, and gone about doing so convinced of their sanctity, does not mean that whether or not to sacrifice virgins to Baal is just a matter of opinion.   It’s an opinion, all right, it’s just wrong.  Human beings can be wrong about a lot of things.  That doesn’t change the nature of the things.  

Literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it.  Let’s look at some very good literature, for a moment, and literature that was certainly intended to instruct its readers and listeners and that was definitely attempting to put across a very distinct and  passionately felt moral view:  the Gospels of Matthew,  Mark, Luke and John.

For what it’s worth, if it were up to me, when we read the Bible as literatur in English, we would read the King James Version and nothing else.  I do understand that, for religious believers, newer translations that are both easier to read and more faithful to older editions of the Bible are essential, since the issue is not the beauty of the language but the accuracy of the message.

For the purposes of studying English literature as literature, however, the King James is not only one of the most beautifully wrought collections of prose ever put on the planet, but it so thoroughly informed the English language writers of the next four centuries that it’s scarcely possible to understand English literature in that period without it.   Dozens of English, American, Canadian, Australian–and, yes, Indian and West Indian and African–writers first encountered the fact and concept of literature by reading this version of the Bible, and it shows. 

That said, however, please note–none of the writers of the  Gospels does what Kipling does, or what Wilfred Owens does.   None of them starts with a premise and then cuts and fits all the material to conform to it.  When we encounter people in the Gospels, they’re people, not slightly buffed up versions of the old stock figures of morality plays. 

Of course, there’s no way to get inside the heads of the Gospel writers at this late stage.  It’s impossible to know what they were thinking, and hard to know even what Kipling was.

But good literature is written from the inside out, and bad literature is written from the outside in.  Kipling creates a moral universe of the kind that some secular critics of Christianity contend that God should have–if God really existed, they say, he could have made a world without pain, he could have created human beings who weren’t even capable of doing evil things to each other!

Well, yes, He could have, but then He would have been a very bad writer.

Never mind.  I don’t believe in God, but some of the standard arguments against His existence make me completely crazy.

Back to the Gospels, and good writing.   Matthew, Mark, Luke and  John each provide us with an overlapping set of characters who are anything but didactically written.  This is especially true of the main characters.  The Christ of the Gospels is anything but a stock figure consistently displaying an approved set of moral ideas.  Someone who came to these works with no prior knowledge of Christianity would not be able to predict Christ’s next move, or Peter’s.  These are living people we are presented with,  not Ideas, and not carefully constructed inventions.  

Go to Acts and look at Saul.  Read Paul’s epistles and then compare them to If.  Robert says the writer of “Recessional” needs to bow to no other poet.  Recessional is here


and it’s certainly better than a lot of Kipling’s other poetry, but I’d say it had to bow to Donne, to Shakespeare, to the Yeats of “The Second Coming”


That would be true on a technical level,  never mind on the one I’ve talking about now. 

But if you want to get out from under technical considerations–it’s not just rhyme and meter that matter, but what kind–compare If or The Gods of the Copybook Headings to I Corinthians.

Literature, to be good literature, must evolve organically.  The world it presents must be a living world, with living people in it.  To do it right, the writer must be out of control of his characters from a very early stage.  They must have wills of their own.  They must not be puppets.

Kipling is a bad writer.  Wilfred  Owen is a bad writer.  Sartre is such a bad writer he can bring on migraines. 

It’s not what they say.  It’s not even how they say it–although there’s enough wrong with that in the three above.

It’s how they go about saying what they’re saying, it’s their own relationship to their own material, that matters.

If they had been God, the world they created would not have included free will.

Written by janeh

October 18th, 2008 at 5:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'WIM 7: Ack, Ack Ack Ack, Ack…'

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  1. I must be missing something. I can see that good literature has ‘real’ characters – ones who act and talk like real people within the world of the book. I’ve read comments from a number of authors saying that their characters do or say things that their authors didn’t expect, which sounds like what you’re talking about near the end (5th paragraph from the end). I’d always put that down to some kind of exaggeration, because I’d assumed that the believability of characters was due to the skill of the author, not to the characters evolving and changing on their own.

    Maybe you mean that good authors when developing their characters are able to develop them properly even when that means going contrary to the way that the author originally expected the character to develop. It seems to me (as a non-author!) that the characters don’t grow themselves (whatever the author says), but are grown through the skill of the author.


    18 Oct 08 at 7:11 am

  2. I am misquoted. I did not say LITERATURE was supposed to be didactic. I said POETRY was–surely a viable distinction, if one puts narrative verse to one side. As to Yeats, surely one test of any literature is that it be intelligible to an educated reader of the language. “Second Coming” flunks the test. The meaning is passed on by the academic priesthood rather than being embedded in the text.

    We’re talking past one another, and I’ve no desire to defend “If” no matter how often if comes up, nor to desparage the KGV. Kipling’s verse certainly has–usually–a point, but then I wouldn’t go to a Donne or Shakespeare sonnet for character development.

    In his adult prose fiction–one novel and maybe three volumes of short stories–Kipling does not seem to me to be unusually poor at building characters, and he’s less prone to manipulating their circumstances than many. And in fact you never mention his adult prose. If I only cited the sonnets, I believe I could show that Shakespeare was incapable of plot. Now, if you were beating up late Heinlein, I’d agree with you. But I sold those volumes years ago.


    18 Oct 08 at 9:14 am

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