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Archive for October, 2008

Characters Who Write Themselves

with 2 comments

And books that write themselves, too.   Sort of.

A couple of posts back, Cheryl commented:

>>>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.  >>>>

I was sort of taken aback by this, because in all my years of giving writing workshops, sitting on conference panels, and, yes, writing, I’ve never had this sort of comment about what is really a fairly common claim among writers of fiction.

But it’s a good comment, and it addresses an issue that deserves as good an explanation as I can give it, so I’m going to try.   I’m going to try even though I’m likely to be incoherent. 

Let’s start with the contetion:  when I say characters write themselves, that they have wills of their own, I’m not simply using a metaphor.  Oh, I know that, realistically, that can’t be what’s actually happening.  It is, however, what feels as if it’s happening. 

Planning has nothing to do with it.  The worst books I’ve ever written are the ones that I not only planned–I plan all of them, in the beginning–but that have gone according to plan.  And that characteristic, that feeling that the novel has been planned and the author has stuck to that plan, is one of the hallmarks of bad fiction writing to me.  The result feels too mechanical, and the people feel false, even if they’re accurate depictions of human types.

As close as I can explain it is this:  it’s sort of like slotting yourself into a groove and letting yourself go.   You let your mind be taken over by this other person, and then you let it think. 

I  knew, when I started this, that it was going to sound like blithering.

When  I was first writing fiction as an adult–as a child, I just imitated the hell out of any writer I admired–I used to have to prime myself to make this work.  I would start out the night before, thinking of a single sentence my character might think or say, and repeat it over and over to myself until  I fell asleep.  When I woke  up, I would go straight to the typewriter (it was a typewriter then; I’m an old person) and just start typing.  Without thinking.  Without knowing, when  I started, what was going to come out.

As I got over, this process got easier, and I didn’t have to  prime the pump at sleep.  I still, however, try very hard to write stream-of-consciousness for first drafts.  I try not to think about it too much.  I try not to plan. 

Even my grand plans for the mystery don’t always work out the way I thought they would.   I’m not quite in the position of Lawrence Block, who once said that if he didn’t know who the murderer was, the reader wouldn’t either, but the fact is that the murderer often turns out to be a different person than the one I’ve “planned.”

And my first drafts are enormously long.  For some of the more recent books, they’ve gotten close to a thousand pages in WordPerfect.   My biggest problem is always cutting them, and being careful about the cut.  But in those thousand pages of draft are a great many revelations of character that never make it to the book, and that I  never suspected when I first conceived of the character.

I am not a supernaturalist.  I do not think that some outside force takes control of my mind and uses me to channel whatever.  I only know that this is how it works, and almost every other writer of fiction I’ve ever talked to has experienced something similar.  

And when I say that when I try to make the characters say or do something they don’t want to say or do, they just refuse–I mean it literally.  Or, again, I mean that that’s what it feels like.  Something just stops.  I can’t continue the day.  The prose all sounds bad.  The scene reads like something phony. 

Please note what I said before:  the fact that a character is writing himself this way does not actually mean that what comes out will be true to human experience.  I can point to hundreds of organically written characters across the broad range of fiction who are completely crap and have no relation at all to the way real people feel or think.

Still, organically written characters are perceived by the reader to be authentic, even if they’re false, and deliberately written characters are perceived by the reader to be false, even if they’re true.  And as I said before, I don’t understand why that works, I just know it does.  What’s more,  I know that  the “truth” of the narrative voice–or the multiplicity of narrative voices in a third person multiple viewpoint novel–is the single most important distinguishing fact in the quality of a work of fiction as fiction.

It’s also true that an ability to do this, and do it well, is no guarantee that a writer is insightful, compassionate or even on average decent in his orginary life.  In fact, the stories of the infantile behavior, acting out, and emotional abusiveness of some of the world’s most famous and intelligent writers is legendary.  It’s hard to understand how Faulkner could have written what he did and spent so much of his time drunk, or how Mailer could have written what he did and spent so much of his time–well, what was that, exactly?  Fighting with people.   Staging scenes.  Throwing tantrums.  And I’m not even going to go in to Truman Capote.

In my own case, I find that when I am writing from Father  Tibor’s point of view, his unwavering commitment to God, his feelings of always being in the presence of God, make perfect sense.  I understand absolutely how that works.  Then I come out of it and I’m just wandering around the house as me, and I don’t get it at all.

Unlike a lot of nonbelievers, I am not a convert to atheism.  I don’t believe because I just don’t believe.  I have no experience of believing.   I don’t know what it would feel like if I felt it myself.  I don’t actually see how it’s possible to get there from here.  And Father Tibor’s experience, and my experience of  Father Tibor, doesn’t help me.  That is something that exists in that place, in that little bubble where Father Tibor lives.  It has nothing to do with me.

Well, of course, it has something to do with me.  In some part of me must be those feelings, or a path of access to those feelings, and to those ideas.  It’s just that I have no conscious access to any of it.  When I am not “being” Father Tibor, or Sister Beata Maria, I’m unable to understand any of that on any level at all.

One of the things that strikes me about writers who do this well, too, is that the moral foundations of their works of fiction often contradict the moral foundations of their everyday lives, or at least their behavior.  Take  Jose Saramago, at the moment my favorite writer of fiction, a Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel Prize a few years back and whose most famous book, Blindness, was out as a movie this fall.

Saramago’s novels–with the exception of the last one, which is a whole other story–are spectacular works of genius.  The moral universe he creates and makes us live in is enormously illuminating of the issues in our own lives.  His characters are more than real.  They have more substance to them than most actually existing people seem to.

In real life, however, Saramago is an old Communist and the kind of reflexive anti-American who cherishes his anti-Americanism so much, he doesn’t want to be confused with facts.  Reading the few essays of his that have been published in  English is excruciatingly painful.  He seems never to have gotten the memo that Communism is bad for people, and his hatred of the United States is the intellectual equivalent of declaring that you hate Jessica Simpson because she dyes her hair brunette.  

There was a poster on one of the discussion groups I’ve participated in who spent a lot of time talking about his writing projects, and the talking was always about planning.   He was planning not only his plots but his characters, and in such a way that no organic growth would be possible–should I make my character divorced?  should I give him a drinking problem?  do readers like characters who are trouble or feisty?  maybe my main character should be a woman?

I don’t know if there’s anybody in the entire history of fiction who has ever successfully written a novel this way.  I only know I couldn’t.  I start with something–a name, or a basic situation–I slot into the groove, and then I let it take me where it wants to go.  Often characters I expect to be villains turn out not to be, and characters I expect to be admirable turn out to be less so.  And when books don’t work, it’s because I haven’t been able to get into that kind of groove, or I’ve tried to force the development instead of letting it happen.

It occurs to me that this post has been less than helpful.   I haven’t been able to come up with an explanation, because I don’t have one.  I don’t know why this works.  I just know that it does.  And that when writers talk about it like this, they aren’t using metaphors.  They’re describing the experience as they experience it, or at least as close as they can get.

Written by janeh

October 20th, 2008 at 5:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

WIM 7: Ack, Ack Ack Ack, Ack…

with 2 comments

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

WIM 6: The Kipling Problem

with 2 comments

I got an e-mail yesterday that made me realize that I had been less than clear.  The example in the post before this one, about how various people read Clifford Pyncheon in The House of the Seven  Gables, is about left wing criticism.  Only the left finds gay people in books from eras whose authors would not have imagined putting them there.  The right, when it indulges in bad reading, tends to complain about moral force.  The big complaint about one of the Judy Blume books, for instance, was that the heroine, who had sex with her boyfriend while they were in high school, walked away unscathed, or at least unpunished.

But both bad readers of the right and bad readers of the left have the same problem:  they’re not looking for fiction, they’re looking for sermons.  They want a controlling idea, cleanly executed, like Jonathan Edwards delivering his Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God, or the Marx and Engels of The Communist Manifesto. 

It’s that very fact, that what they’re looking for is a sermon, that they don’t like art unless it is essentially another way of declaring a moral position, that makes them bad readers.   Literature and sermons are not the same thing.  Neither are literature and political tracts.  If fiction is to work well, it has to do what Trollope asked it to do, to show us The Way We Live Now, and if it is to do that, it has to have at least some stake in ambiguity.  The real world is an ambiguous place.

I said, a couple of posts ago, that literature can lie.  The way in which literature most often lies is in cleaning up the characters so that they seem to be coherent in a way real people never are.  The heroes of novels and epics and plays and didactic poetry are one thing, through and through.  Any attempt to “round out” the character by giving him a few flaws are entirely superficial.  The brave hero of your latest techno thriller, who puts his life on the line to bring a whole kindergarten full of kidnapping victims out of the drug lord’s den,  may be an ex-alcoholic who smokes too much, but he will not be a racist bigot. 

If you want to see this problem in action, read the book A Beautiful Mind, and then watch the movie.  The book, being straight biography and not intended as a narrative, is fairly upfront about John Nash’s somewhat less than pretty private traits.  He was, after all, a Southern white male of his generation.  He may have been a genius, and his struggle and victory over schizophrenia was certainly heroic, but as with most of us, that was only part of the story.  The book hands you John Nash whole and lets you decide for yourself if the struggle with schizophrenia makes up for the rest of it.

The movie, on the other hand, takes no chances.   Anything the audience might not like about John Nash is erased.  Schizophrenia is flaw enough, coupled with maybe a little arrogrance, which isn’t exactly a flaw, because the man is a math genius. We see Nash’s brilliant arc through his profession, his love for his wife, his descent into madness, his incredible strength of mind turned to managing an illness he cannot escape from.   We are meant to admire him, and we do.

The problem with this, however, is that it gives us the impression that our heroes need to be all of a piece.  They must not have flaws beyond the minor and superficial.  In the real world, however, heroes are never like this.  The fireman who rushes in to a burning building and saves five children may cheat on his wife and his taxes.  The civil rights leader who advances the cause of justice for a nation may plagarize his dissertation.

Not to recognize this–not to realize that heroism is just as heroic and a hero is just as much of a hero no matter how foul the rest of his life is–is an incredibly destructive thing.   In the long run, it will destroy your faith in everything on earth, from democratic institutions to the holy stae of matrimony.  Heroism lies in the deed, not the person.  And heroism is hard.   Most of us never rise to that level.   The few of us who do often do so in contradiction to a lot of the rest of our lives.

Bad readers of the ideological variety want a false reality.   They want their literature to reflect how the world should be, not how it is.  Not only must their heroes be all of one piece, but the events of the narrative must be all of one piece, too.  A teen-aged girl who sleeps with her boyfriend must get pregnant and see her life ruined–even though that’s only seldom the case in real life.  The nast bully who torments smaller kids and never studies cannot get straight As and perfect scores on his SATS, even though that kind of thing happens all the time.

Literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it, and bad readers want that universe to have as few kinks–and as little relation to reality–as possible.   The problem is that this kind of writing is almost always incredibly bad.  Think of all those preachy children’s books that were forced down your throat in grade school, or the saccharine “Billy learns a lesson” endings to all those sitcoms.  

Or think, for a minute, about  Rudyard Kipling.

Readers on the right think that “academics” reject Kipling’s work–drum it out of the canon of high art, at any rate–because of what it says, that is, because it is “conservative.”  And that may even be true of some academics.  Getting a PhD, even a good one, does not guarantee that you won’t be a Really Bad Reader, especially these days.

But most “academics,” most literary critics in the scholarly sense, have no problem accepting Henry James, who was definitely a conservative, or T.S. Eliot.  Nathaniel  Hawthorne supported slavery.  Ezra Pound collaborated with Mussolini and only escaped being executed by being declared insane.  There are plenty of conservatives in the canon.  There are even plenty of apologists for Western empire.

The problem with Kipling is not what he says, but the fact that he made up his mind to say it, that he manipulated his material in order to produce work that supported his controlling idea, and it shows.  In fact, it may be that the reason his work is less than that of a James or a Donne or a Dylan Thomas is  precisely that he was successful in keeping that work in ideological line.  The problem with Kipling’s work is the same as the problem with Socialist Realism.   Even when the sentiment is true enough, the exposition is not just wrong, but false.

Note that I haven’t said anything about the content of Kipling’s ideas.  Some of that content is remarkably insightful.  Think of The Gods of the Copybook Headings.  It’s still a remarkably bad poem, as a poem, although maybe not so bad a poem as If.  In neither case is the lack of quality a matter of what Kipling is saying. 

Some readers like Kipling–and want him declared “high art”–for the same reason that some readers like Socialist Realism and want it declared high art:  because they like what the writer says and want that point of view validated by the culture at large.  And it’s certainly true that Kipling, like Lloyd C. Douglas, say, or Edward Bellamy, leaves no space in which confusion can grow.   You know what they’re all thinking.  You know what side they’re on.   You never find yourself–as you do with  Milton, in Paradise Lost–wondering if the writer himself knew what side he was on.  If every writer wrote like Kipling, we would have no Bad Readers, because everything would be entirely clear, all the time.

i like much of what Kipling says.  I don’t much like how he says it. 

And great literature, like all great art, arises organically from the artist’s engagement with the world.  It is not dictated by his political opinions, no matter what they are. 

Which explains why Wilfred Owen was no better a poet than Kipling, in spite of the fact that they would probably disagreed on just about everything political.

Written by janeh

October 17th, 2008 at 5:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

WIM 5: Really Bad Readers, Nutcase Division

without comments

I think we left off, the other day, talking about sex–about censorship as a way to target what one group or another thinks of as “deviant” forms of sexuality, on the assumption that if we can absolutely forbid anybody from mentioning them, we can also stop people from engaging in them.

And it really is all about sex.  Even censorship battles that seem not to be about sex are about sex, to an extent that’s really rather hard to fathom.

Maybe the point here is this:  from the very beginning of human society, from the moment human beings tried to form themselves into groups with common cultures, the impetus has always been not just to define what it means to be human, but to define it in such a way that it distinguishes the human from the “merely animal.”

This is as true of people and societies claiming to define the human as “MERELY animal” as it is of those who see human beings as children of God, or not much lower than Gods.  We’ll go in to why people who claim they see the human being as “just another animal” are always lying later.  At the moment, I want to note that the biggest issue in distinguishing the human from the animal is, and has to be, sex.

Let’s face it–I don’t expect my cats to control their sexuality.  I figure I’ve done a pretty good job if I can stop Creamsicle from breaking down the screen door in his determination to get to the cat in heat on the other side of our road.  Animals engage in sex when the opportunity offers itself.  They don’t know kinship degrees from the Eiffel Tower, and they don’t care.  A tomcat will screw anything in heat that presents itself, and if nothing of that kind is availble and he has he urge, he’ll screw Teddy bears.

I’m not making that up.

It’s only human beings who expect to be able to determine codes of sexual behavior and then get themselves to follow them.  A tomcat can screw anything in heat, but a forty-year-old man damned will better not screw his fifteen year old student, even if she comes on to him like a house afire.  What’s more, even if he’s dealing with a forty-year-old woman, he’d damned well better get permission.  If he doesn’t, we’ll lock him up, label him a sex offender, and make his life a complete hell forever afterwards.

What’s  more, human beings develop complicated ideas about sex and sexuality,  It’s not just what we do, but what we think about what we do that matters.

And the further fact is that the one sure way to destroy the prestige of anybody, no matter how important, is to have that person caught in a shameful sexual act.  What constitutes “shameful” is not as elastic as we like to think it is, either.  I have no conscious objection to mastrubation.  My head tends to think that I’d rather teen-agers engaged in that than risk getting AIDS or making a baby when they’re not ready for either.  But a while back I read the autobiography of a literary critic I have always admired greatly, and there, in the middle of it all, was a short chapter on his forays into various masturbatory adventures.  I’d seen this man speak, which meant the image in my mind was very clear.  And the only way I can still read him is to consciously push that image out of my mind, to deliberately try to blank out the space in my head where I have a picture of this man doing really odd things with oranges.

Maybe because sex is the activity in which we are least differentiated from our animal nature, it has the power to diminish us.  Making sex something other than diminishing takes a lot of work:  poetry, art, the theology of the body.  And, people being people, most of us have sexual impulses that lie outside the respectable outlets of sexuality.

It doesn’t matter that what constitutes “respectable” or “elevated” sex, that what comes under the heading of “making love” instead of “screwing,” changes from society to society and even generation to generation.  The fact is that every society and every generation feels the need to make such distinctions and then police the borders of them. 

It is making such distinctions and policing such borders that Bad Readers, Nutcase Division, always take out on literature–on art, of all kinds.  One side wants to assign Heather Has Two Mommies and ban excerpts from Leviticus.  The other side wants to assign Leviticus and ban Heather Has Two Mommies.  Both sides are trying to construct a barrier that will keep “good” sexuality in and hold “bad” sexuality out.

And that means that Bad Readers, Nutcase Division, often can’t see anything else in a work of literature except the sex, even if they don’t call it sex. 

On the left you get sillinesses like the speculations about the sexuality of Clifford Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables.  I think I mentioned, a couple of posts back, that I’m rereading that.  I’m rereading it as part of the run-up to writing an essay about the literature of New England.  Clifford Pyncheon is an interesting character, at the very heart of the novel, and a literary and social type that pretty much died out after the Victorians.  The House of the Seven Gables was published in 1851.

Clifford is “artistic,” without actually being an artist.  His health is “delicate.”  His constitution is “weak.”  And he is nearly supernaturally senstive to beauty and ugliness in the world around him.  This makes the fact that he has just been released after spending thirty years in prison for a murder he did not commit all the more horrible.

It’s also the case that any modern writer who presented us with a character like Clifford would have presented him as gay.  Hell, I’ll go farther than that.  My guess is that such personalities, when they appeared in the society of the time, actually were gay.  Male homosexuality wasn’t invented at Stonewall, or even by Oscar Wilde.

To claim, however, that Hawthorne knew that such a man would be gay, or that he subconsciously or unconsciously must have harbored tendencies towards homosexuality himself (or he wouldn’t have done such a good job on the character), isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive of any attempt to understand the book.

Hawthorne had a lot of obsessions, and especially an obsession with the legacy of Puritanism in New England, but if you had asked him about Clifford’s relationship to sex, he would have said that Clifford had no relationship to sex, that Clifford’s constitution was so delicate, and ethereal, he had nothing corresponding to a human sex drive in any part of his nature.

If Hawthorne had thoought that Clifford was gay, it would have been a big deal.  For a man of Hawthorne’s era, even a “liberal” man, with friends among the Transcendalists, such sexuality would have been nothing but absolute proof of irredeemable moral corruption.  In Hawthorne’s era, homosexuality wasn’t just “bad,” it was unthinkable, and a homosexual Clifford would not have been an injured innocent, a lamb sacrified on the altar of Pyncheon greed, but a foul and loathsome thing barely able to lay claim to the title of “human.” 

I doubt if Hawthorne would even have been able to see homosexuality as redeemable.  For most men of his generation, even Thoreau, if the subject came up at all, it would simply have been alluded to as the very depths of depravity, from which no one ever returns.

The point about Clifford Pyncheon is exactly that he is disembodied, ethereal, “too fine” for the vigorous give and take of ordinary human life–and not necessarily to be applauded for that.  A lot of The House of the Seven Gables, like a lot of Hawthorne’s other work, is taken up with examining the difference between the old aristocratic society and the new republican one.  Hawthorne is a very committed republican.  One of the sins of the Pyncheon family is precisely that they have ambitions to become aristocracy, that they have pretentions to being more than equal to the men and women around them.   The kind of man Clifford is is essentially aristocratic.  This is not the kind of man the new republic can, or wants to, produce. 

Injecting sex into The House of the Seven Gables is like injecting a car chase into Sleeping Beauty.  It’s not possible to know what you’re reading when you read through a prism that distorts so much.  Really bad readers of the second variety, the ideologically fanatical, as I called them at first, are always reading through distorting lenses of one kind or another. 

They also need something that literature cannot, and should not, give them:  the proper little moral at the end of the tale, upholding Right or rejecting Wrong.  There’s a reason why we tend to think of stories written in this way as being for children.  It is children’t literature, and only children’s literature, that exists to teach moral lessons directtly.

Real literature teaches moral lessons indirectly, and sometimes at variance with the moral codes of the writers who produce it.  It does so by giving us a picture, as Trollope put it, of The Way We Live Now.

Written by janeh

October 16th, 2008 at 11:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Another Interlude

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I don’t know.  I’m all distracted today, or at any rate Im not thinking about good and evil and censorship.  Maybe it’s because I had to send out tax stuff, or just that I’m really stoked on caffeine, which happens.  And I’ve been reading The House of the Seven Gables, for the first time in a really long time.  I didn’t concentrate on American fiction when I was in gradaute school, but I’ve been more and more interested in it, and especially in that segment of it just before and around the Civil War, recently.

I think it does me good to remember that there was a time when classical learning was considered a plus for just about anybody in this country, when men and women without the benefit of much in the way of education went out of their way to teach themselves.

Or maybe I’m just depressed about the election again.  I’ve begun to feel very sorry for John McCain.  For better or worse, the mere fact of Obama in this race has meant that the real nutcases have come out of the woodwork and a lot of them seem to end up at McCain and Palin rallies, declaring Obama to be an Arab and screaming that somebody ought to kill them.  McCain looks pained and sometimes even intervenes when that stuff happens, but it isn’t going to start happening.

Whatever.  The last debate is tonight, the actual election is in less than three weeks. 

I promise to go back to thinking about sex and the single censor tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 15th, 2008 at 10:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Note

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Okay, I know, I know.  This is the second post in one day.

The REAL post for today is the one called WIM 4.

But I needed to clarify something, re Robert’s last comment:  when I’m talking about censorship here, I’m talking about censorship:  banning the production and distribution of written material.

I’m NOT talking about exhibits in publicly funded art galleries, etc–the issue of the public support for the arts is something different than the issue of censorship proper.

And Really Bad Readers, Ideological Fanatics Department, or however I’ve been putting it lately, although they do want to mess with the public funding of some books, poems, plays and articles (as in what gets placed on public school reading lists and in public school libraries) also simply want some work to be banned outright.

Censors on the right tend to be straightforward about this.  Censors on the left tend to resort to speech codes and “hate crimes” legislation, but it’s censorship I’m talking about, not public funding.

Which ought to make what I’m saying somewhat easier.

Anyway, the ACTUAL post for today is WIM 4, right below this, probably.

Written by janeh

October 14th, 2008 at 10:20 am

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WIM 4: The Sticky Part

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If there was no case to be made for censorship at all, on any level, at any time, dealing with Really Bad Readers, Ideological Division, would be a lot easier.   But the problem of censorship–of the urge to censor; and the need to censor; and the collateral damage from even the most rationally based form of censorship–is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Let’s take, for a moment, the one form of censorship that engenders the least discussion and protest:  child pornography.

The US courts, exquisitely wary of the reach effects of their decisions–whatever rationale they might give for banning something, it will be applied to something else they don’t really want to ban–have pretty much come down on the side of defining the harm from child pornography as the physical, mental and emotional harm done to the minors forced to participate in it.

In practice, that has meant court decisions that uphold bans on videos and pictures of real minors engaged in sexual acts, but strike down bans on text-only stories, drawings, or digitally animated productions where no real minors have ever been involved.   That way, the courts manage to skirt the censorship issue entirely.   They do no put themselves in the position of banning or regulating speech.   They stand behind laws that forbid adults to use minors for sexual purposes, whatever those purposes may be.

But the real problem with child pornography is not the effect it has on the minors used in it, but the effect it has on the consumers of it, and the effect that effect has on society at large.

And actual child pornography–pornography about pre-pubescent minors–is the least of it.   True pedophilia, the sexual desire for children under the age of about eleven or so, is very rare.   The stats I’ve seen on it have been less than one or two percent in the population at large and less than six percent in child-intensive environments like schools and children’t groups.  (The incidence is higher in these venues because pedophiles gravitate to places where they will have access to children.)

True pedophilia is objectively a perversion–it is virtually never found in non-humans in nature; it serves no biological purpose; its entire long-term effect is destructive of the perpetrator, his victim, and just about anybody else that comes in contact with it. 

To the extent that the existence of pedophiliac pornography is a danger in and of itself–not because it causes harm to children actually used in it, but even as it exists in forms that use no actual children at all (like all-text stories)–the problem is normalization and stimulus.  If you’re on a diet, it’s not a great idea for you to look at pictures of Beef  Wellington and Baked Alaska all day.  It’s destructive to your willpower.  If you have strong sexual urges for small children, it’s not a good idea to stoke your fanatasies with stories about getting your itch scratched.  It’s likely to make it hard for you not to scratch it.

Normalization is a little more complicated, but it runs along the same lines.  The judgment of this society, and of every other society  now on the planet, is that this behavior is inexcusable.  Internet child porn, especially, tends to create an alternate universe where no such condemnation exists, and where the wider society’s condemnation looks like nothing better than bigotry, a matter of opinion. something that might one day be changed.   That doesn’t help you resist scratching that itch, either.

But no matter how, um, yucky all that is, it isn’t really the major problem with child porn.   Most of child porn is not about pre-pubescent children.  Most pedophiles aren’t technically pedophiles, they’re older men who are strongly sexually attracted to young adolescents, and unlike true pedophiles, there have always been lots and lots and lots of them.

Hell, for most of the history of this planet, it has been the norm, not the exception, to get a girl married by the time she was fifteen, and usually to a much older man, somebody established in a profession or materially successful, a financial sure thing, not a risk. 

In Western societies, where a great deal of emphasis has always been placed on the education of women (at least, relatively to others) and where there have arisen good reasons to postpone girls’ sexual initiation until adulthood (or near adulthood), a complicated set of taboos and customs grew up to protect girls from older men, who were seen as barely able to control themselves in the presence of thirteen and fourteen year olds.

There was clothing, for one thing–the clothes worn by a girl still to be considered a “child” and therefore off-limits were significantly different from the clothes she would wear when she was old enough to signal availability.  So were the ways she was allowed to wear her hair.  Having finished school–high school, in the US, mostly–she would let her skirts down and put her hair up and “come out.”  After that, it was socially acceptable for men to pay attention to her in a sexualized way.  Before that,  not.

But mothers did not rely entirely on cues like clothing and hair to protect their daughters.  They worked overtime to limit the contact those daughters had to men who might be dangerous.  Nikos Kazantzakis talks about the custom on Crete in the last century to remove a girl who had entered puberty even from the company of her fathers and brothers.  In Anglophone societies, there was never this much paranoia, and in America especially there was a fair amount of open contact between the ages and the sexes.  But girls, especially, were still hemmed in by rules and regulation meant to keep older men away from them as much as possible.

What’s more, the world of the child herself was carefully and ruthlessly desexualized.  Entertainment meant to be brought into the home–whether popular novels or television shows–was Lloyd C. Douglas and Leave It To Beaver.  The merest hint that “something” might be going on between men and women rendered novels and television shows off-limits for anyone under at least sixteen, and often older.  What’s more, popular entertainment maintained the position that real, grown up men were not interested in teen-agers.  Watch some of the movies from the thirties and forties sometime.  When the teen-aged girl gets a crush on the older man, the older man is either disgusted or amused.  He doesn’t leap at his chance and get the girl pregnant.  Nor does he stalk her until she gives in to his advances.

A lot has changed since 1958, a year when teen-aged girls were still expected to be treated like children (and to look like children), and the year that saw Lolita published for the first time in the United States.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition.  Lolita is the third rail of censorship discussions.  For one thing, there has never been a solid consensus about what it means, that is, what Nabokov meant to say.   And Nabokov was no help.  Everything he said about the novel was mush.  More than that, though, Lolita is quite defnitely art, not trash, on a technical level.  Nabokov was a lot of things, but one thing he never was was a tenth rate hack of a porno writer producing the text equivalent of bump and grind. 

The  US Supreme Court used to ask if a novel that contained highly explicity sex scenes had “redeeming social value,” but how are we supposed to define “redeeming social value”?  Would Lolita have redeeming social value if we could be sure that it is the portrait of a “sexual predator” and how he thinks?  What if it is a sympathetic portrayal of an older man’s attraction to a teen-aged girl, meant to make such relationships look acceptable and bring down the prejudice (and now the significant legal ediface) raised against them?  What if it is meant to be the portrait of a teen-aged girl as predator, a portrait meant to absolve the older man from all guilt, to show him as the victim and not the assailant?

And what do we make of Lolita now, fifty years after its publication, when all the carefully built walls between teen-aged girls and older men seem to have come down, when sixth-graders go to school in midriff-baring t-shirts, mini skirts short enough to flash their underwear, and fuck-me pumps?  Turn on the television these days and you’ll find enough sex to have kept an “adult” theater busy in the fifties.  Even women who are clearly “adult” in the sense that we know how old they are are often deliberately starved and surgically refashioned to look like teen-age girls.  There’s exactly one age when a woman naturally has narrow hips and relatively large breasts:  at puberty.  After that, they get “parts,” as Mary Lou Retton put it, explaining why most successful female Olympic gymnasts are very young.

We no longer want our movie stars and models to have “parts.”  We want them to look fourteen.   And they do.

When they don’t, we hire actual fourteen year olds.  Open the pages of the New York Times any day of the week, and of dozens of other newspapers across the country, and you’ll find fashion advertisements without number: girls crouched on their hands and knees, girls in tight and minimal dresses posed to maximize the exposure of their breasts and legs, girls in sheer blouses with their nipples clearly visible through the net.

The chances are good that most of the girls you see in those photographs will be fifteen years old or younger, made-up and posed to be more sexy than Ava Gardner on her best day.  If those photographs had shown up on a porn site instead of in a fashion ad, if they’d shown up on somebody’s digital camera, the photographer would have gone to jail and spent the rest of his life as a registered sex offender.   The fashion photographer will just put those in his portfolio and get more work.

Think about that for a minute.

Written by janeh

October 14th, 2008 at 5:43 am

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WIM 3: The Children of Rousseau

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I’ve never understood people who try to defend the world against censorship by saying things like “no girl was ever ruined by a book.”  That was Clarence Darrow,  I think, and his comment had the same problem then as similar ones do now:  it assumed that if  it was possible for a girl to be ruined by a book, then censorship would be justifiable.  It might even be mandatory.

The problem is that it is possible for a girl to be ruined by a book, and if it wasn’t, there’d be no point in protesting against censorship.  It’s precisely because ideas are powerful and have consequences that books are worth defending, and paintings, too, and comics, and television sitcoms.  Will and Grace was a silly little show, but it changed the public face of homosexuality for millions of people across the United States and made the possibility of government recognition of gay marriages much more likely.  There was a reason George Orwell chose to portray that Communist overlords of his Animal Farm as pigs, and it wasn’t because he was hoping people would imagine he’d written a children’t story.

Ideas have consequences, and books deal in ideas, all of them, even the ones that pretend they don’t.   That is why censorship is always wrong.  It does not kill the ideas.  It only distorts them.  And in distorting them, it always distorts human life in one aspect or another.  We don’t any of us really know what’s best for the world.  When we act as if we do, we wreck it.

Of course, lots of people think they really do know what’s best for the world, and they’re perfectly willing to do what they have to do to make it come about.  These people occupy all points on the political compass, and they all share the same delusion:  that it is possible to perfect human beings; that if we only provide the right environment and education and influences, we can eradicate whatever mortal sins they see as now being evident in the world.

Lately,  the people who write and talk about this sort of thing tend to locate the attempts to perfect the world, through censorship and otherwise, on the left, usually in breathtakingly boneheaded attempts to eliminate “racism” and “ethnocentrism” on college campuses.  And those people certainly do exist, and there are lots of them, but they’re hardly alone.  Complaints to the  FCC about expletives on cop shows and  Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, organized attempts to get Catcher in the Rye out of eighth grade English class and Lord of the Flies out of the school library–the right has a mountain of censors at work, too, even as we speak.

And all these censors share two ideas, both of which are wrong.

The first of these ideas is that it is the one I mentioned above, usually attributed to Jean Jacques Rousseau, but actually going back all the way to Plato.  That is that it is possile to raise and educate human beings in such a way that they will be purely and unambiguously “good,” with “good” meaning whatever our class of censors has decided it should mean.

For al the howls of denial from the religious right wing in the US, all of us in Western democracies are children of the Enlightenment, and in being children of the Enlightenment, we are children of  Rousseau.

That’s true even though the real, historical Enlightenment had two branches, and the English branch specifically rejected the idea that man was  perfectible.  In fact, to put it the way my older son did when he first read Locke, the idea for the English in this period was that man was not only not perfectible, but that he “sucked,” and that the sucking was impervious to any influences at all.   For the English Enlightenment, progress resulted from accepting this fact and so ordering society that we could use it.  A few  thousand selfish jerks making selfish decisions for their own selfish best interests might, if the institutions of society were organized correctly, produce policies that worked to the common good in spite of themselves.

Rousseau, on the other hand, was the first Romantic as well as the intellectual cornerstone of the French Enlightenment.   He saw human evil as the product of human civilization.   Once upon a time, in Eden, we had all been good and generous and kind.  It was only with the coming of cities and laws that we were changed into evil, selfish, grubbing, brutal things.

What’s important is not that Rousseau invented the idea of the Noble Savage, but that he talked himself into believing it.  Then he talked most of Europe into believing it along with him.  It was civilization that had ruined us.  If we could smash civilization, if we could cast of the chains of erudition and sophistication and order and laws, we would find ourselves back in Eden again.

I think I  was about fourteen when  I first read Rousseau, and the question that occurred to me then is the one that has occurred to me over and over again ever since: if the state of nature was as blissful and  Edenic as Rousseau said it was, why had it ever changed?  What could have possessed people who were perfectly happy to give that up in favor of a social structure bound to make the vast majority of them miserable? 

There is the devil in the garden of Eden, slithering along on his belly, his tongue forked, offering the apple–and with it, the chance to be like Gods, the chance to know good and evil. 

The story of Eden at least offered some rational for the  Fall.  In Rousseau’s version of the  Fall, the reason for abandoning paradise is not clear.  The devil in Eden is a fallen angel whose history stretches back to a war in  Heaven.   In Rousseau’s Eden, some people just became warped and wanted to control and harm other people, except we can’t know how, because this being Eden, there was nothing to make them that way.

Actually, if  Rousseau had thought through the implications of that last bit–of what it meant that even in his own narrative some people just were warped–he might have saved the world, and himself, a lot of trouble.

Instead, he sent his ideas out into the world, and they had consequences.  It’s worth remembering what those consequences were.  The English Enlightenment, with its vision of man as essentially flaed, if not downright awful, gave us the  American Revolution.  The  French Enlightenment, with its vision of man as inherently good, gave us the Terror. 

And anybody who thinks that the Terror wasn’t the logical conclusion of that set of ideas, isn’t paying attention.

The other wrong idea that censors of the right and the left share is this:  that the presentation of bad ideas in literature causes bad behavior in human beings, and the presentation of good ideas in literature causes good behavior.

I know, I know.  Up there, I said that a girl could be ruined by a book.  But it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface.  A girl can only be ruined by a book if she’s inclined to be ruined to begin with.

There was that Eagles song, some years ago–okay, decades ago–about how a woman can’t “take you anywhere/you don’t already know how to go.”  Or something like that.

Some of what human beings are, some of what human nature is, is hardwired into us.   This does not mean that we can’t modify it, or–more likely–channel it in directions we like better than the ones it would have gone if we’d have left it on its own.  And it doesn’t mean that every individual human being is exactly like every other.   There seems to be a continuum in most traits, with some very few people having very little of it and some very few others have way too much and everybody else being in between.

The usual illustration of this is the phyiscal competitiveness of adolescent males.   Of course, some few adolescent males are not competitive at all, physically or otherwise, and some are so physically competitive that there’s no way to control them at all. 

Most adolescent males, though, are phsycially competitive to a degree, and they tend to interpret that physical competitiveness as proof of their “manhood.”  Absent any outside control at all,  they will form themselves into competitive groups that spend a lot of time fighting and chewing up the landscape, thereby making life hell on earth for the people around them.   Ask any inhabitant of any gang-infested neighborhood in Los Angeles.  

Most societies do things to control this behavior.  In older societies, that tended to mean the formation of armies.   The guys want to fight?  Fine, let them go fight to expand our territory and make use safe from predatores.

In more modern societies, the answer tends to be contact sports:  football, soccer, Rugby, ice hockey.  If they have to fight, let’s convince them it’s only okay out on a field someplace with a referee watching them and a bunch of rules.  And the guys who are not in good enough shape to play can be routed to cheering on the team, although we have to watch them.  When we don’t, we get soccer riots, a la Wembley. 

But the thing we can’t do, the thing that won’t work at all, is eliminate physical competitiveness in adolescent males entirely.  Even if we remove every single influence in their environment that even suggests the possibility of competing, even if we monitor what they read and see and hear and sing and say, their families and their school, everything, even if we punish even the smallest sign of competitiveness from day one, even if they’ve never seen or heard of a war or a fight or a football game–

When the testosterone kicks in at twelve or fourteen, they’ll just reinvent the wheel, all on their own.  

That was a left wing example of social engineering I gave you up there, so let’s try a right wing one:  teen-aged sex.

Remove all mention of sex from the environment, shut down MTV and every single sex ed course in the country (or the world), enforce “covenant marraiges,” restrict the reading list of every course in every school so that it has no more sexual content than Mary Poppins–and when the hormones kick in at puberty, trust me, they’ll figure it out for themselves.

“Children” aren’t “having children” because Britney Spears and their sex ed teachers are urging them to.  They’re doing it because they’ve just been hit by a tidal wave of hormones developed over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, all with one purpose–make babies!  make babies now!  continue the species!  make babies!

The left isn’t going to stop adolscent males from being physically competitive, and the right isn’t going to stop teen-agers from having sex.  Neither phenomenon is fundamentally a result of what the culture “teaches” us.  Both would exist with no culture at all.

Censorhip is not only wrong, it’s stupid.  It doesn’t save us from human nature, because it can’t.  It does prevent us from envisioning effect ways of dealing with that nature.

Sometimes, it so distorts the conversation, it sends us down a rabbit hole of harm we can’t even think straight enough to face.

Written by janeh

October 13th, 2008 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

WIM 2: What Literature Is For, Sort Of

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Robert complains that he didn’t actually mean to say that any reader’s interpretation is as good as any other’s, and I knew that.   And I agree that his points in defense are well taken, and that I did mean to get them them eventually.   The problem of readers–of good readers–is even more complicated than he suggests.

For the moment, though, I’m on a roll, and bad readers are not only a big problem, they are the primary problem in literature as an art form.  In some very fundamental ways, it doesn’t really matter what the viewers of paintings know, or what the listening audience thinks the music means.  Painting and music and sculpture go into the world in their self-contained little packages. We think of them what we will.  They remain what they are.  The closest thing these forms have to the interactive, relational role of literature in the life of a culture is the way conductors and musicians interpret music in performance, and that tends to have only minor ripple effects across the culture at large.

Which is not to say that we don’t misinterpret what the artist meant to convey in his paintings, or what the composer meant to convey in his music.  It’s just that the ways in which we do this with literature, and the uses to which we put our misunderstandings, are vastly more significant for society at large.

I want to point out something about the next class of bad readers, the ideologicall fanatical, before we start:  it’s almost impossible to be a bad reader of this kind without also being a stupid reader.  A stubborn inability to actually understand what the work is saying is practically a prerequisite for trying to use it to further your ideological ends, or for condemning it as “bad art” when you think it doesn’t.

That said, though, unlike the simply stupid reader, the ideologically fanatical reader is actually an extension of a legitimate response to literature, rather than a complete denial of any legitimate response to it.  

We started all this by talking about morality, and I think I mentioned, back there somewhere, that although we are used to morality being derived from and delivered through religion, it was not always that way, and it was never only that way.   The Greeks and Romans approached morality philosophically, not religiously.  To the extent that they allowed religion into their moral discussions and their moral codes, it was to ratify what their philosophers were already teaching them.  Aristotle, then, thought there was something called “the gods,” which watched over the moral architecture of the universe, but the content of that architecture was the morality he had discovered by philosophical reasoning, and not the pronouncements of Zeus on  Olympus.  Nobody sane ever looked to the Greek Gods for moral example.

In all periods and all places that we know of, however,  including ancient Israel, which had a moral code that was distinctly and unequivocably grounded in religion, there has been literature as well as scripture, stories as well as parables.  And in all periods and places that we know of, these stories have had at least some moral content.   They have been attempts to teach moral law, or to illustrate the dangers of violating moral law.

Sometimes this relationship to morality has been direct, as in Aesop’s fables, or Medieval morality plays.  More often, literature–stories, narratives, outside scripture–has tried to teach us something about morality by teaching us something about the nature of human beings.  

And as literature expanded its scope, as it reached the nearly unlimited range of the nineteenth century novel, it was able to introduce more and more of us to more and more of us.  We all live limited lifetimes.  We can only know so many people, and only so well.  We can only go so many places.  We can only absorb so much knowledge, and some we can’t absorb at all.

What literature does is to introduce us to the people we could never meet, the circumstances we could never encounter, if we had to set out into the world and learn about people first hand.  Really good literature tells us not only that people unlike ourselves exist, but what goes on in their heads, the way they think, the way they understand the world.   It does that by letting us get inside them and watch them be.

And this is not inconsequential information.  Robert complains that he doesn’t understand what Colonel Brandon sees in that little idiot Marianne, but  I think Jane Austen saw it, and I think I see it too:  the need of the strong man who has looked the reality of the world in the face and yet not abandoned his ideals for his counterpart, the idealistic and the innocent and the pure.  No matter what their quarrels with each other, down to this day, the Enlightenment needed the Romantics who rebelled against it, but made it whole again.  And without the Enlightenment, the Romantics were a one-way ticket to the Terror.

I read an essay on the web once, an essay I can’t find my link to, of course, that said that literature provides us with the full range of human possibilities, from good and great to the worst kind of depravity.  And although that’s true,  I think it’s more important that literature exposes the moral foundations, and consequences, underneath the small things we do day to day. 

Most of us will never get a chance to storm the walls of Troy or hide Jews behind a bookcase on the third floor of our house in Amsterdam.  Who and what we are will be made up of small decisions in seemingly trivial matters:  what we do when we find that the grocery store cashier has forgotten to ring up the container of ice cream we still have in our grocery cart as we unload into the car; how we feel about our cousin Melissa who gets straight As and a scholarship to the Ivy League; the way we treat our children and spouses and pets when we come in after a long, hard day.

What’s more, literature introduces us to the reality behind the facade:  the dark corruption that is the truth about Colonel  Pyncheon behind the magnificence of his countenance, his wealth and his position; the moral greatness, unbowed and untarnished, under the fumbling silly facade of his fussy old maid descendant Hepzibah.   God looks into the hearts of men, the scripture says, but so did Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Even literature that was not written with any moral intent performs this function, and even readers who have no interest in anything but “entertainment” become involved in this function when they read.  I used to go crazy when people would say to me–looking at the books I have all over my house, which do not tend towards the printed equivalent of sitcoms–“Oh, I don’t read any of that heavy stuff.  I read for entertainment.”

I read for entertainment, too, I wanted to say.  I just don’t find crap entertaining. 

I know what they meant, though, just as I know what Cynathia Ozick meant when she said once in Esquire (in one of the most flamingly obtuse essays on detective fiction ever written), “I am not entertained by entertainment.” Some readers do not want to have to think when they read.  They want to read the way some people watch television, passively, lying back and “enjoying” whatever the book shoves at them in the way of “surprises” and “action,” until the last corpse falls to the floor and the last building explodes.  At that point, they’ll wander away and do something else and forget they ever read the book to begin with.

Except, of course, they won’t.   They won’t really forget the book any more than they’ll really forget the sitcom, or the movie, or the music video.  Narrative creates a moral universe and makes you live in it for a while.  It creates boundaries and assumptions, about your behavior, about the behavior of other people, about what happens to human beings who behave in certain ways.  The moral universe you live in is different if every book you read and television show you see portrays thieves as thuggish low lifes with no redeeming social value, than it is if you enjoy George Clooney’s Danny Ocean movies.

It’s not that enjoying Ocean’s Thirteen will turn you into a thief,  or even make you more accepting of theft.  It’s that it will expand your definition of “thief,” and that definition will include good, decent, civilized, educated people with high levels of competence and pride in their work.  Whether there are any such people in the real world is another question, and one that brings us back into the territory I started in.

Literature constructs a moral universe and makes us live in it for a while.  Literature tries to give us the full range of human possibility, both internal and external. 

And literature can lie. 

Ken Kesey said that something is literature if “it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”  The reality, however, is that literature is successful if it draws readers in and makes them believe, and some of the most successful literature makes us believe things that are absolutely, flamingly, unquestionably untrue.

It is the confluence of these two things–that literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it, and that the moral universe it creates can be false to reality–that lands us with the second kind of Bad Reader, the Ideologically fanatical. 

Which was what I was going to write about today, and then I got off on this stuff.

I’ll write about it tomorrow, because, wonder of wonders, I actually have the day off.  My son’s private school hasn’t ever given Columbus Day before, and neither has the place where I teach, but here we are, and I have nothing to do tomorrow but drink tea, read The House of the Seven Gables and try to get various articles of clothing away from my cats.

But no alarm clock.

Written by janeh

October 12th, 2008 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What It Means

with 2 comments

I know I said I was going to talk about the way various cultures/religions/philosophies/Sunday afternoon bridge clubs deined what it means to be “human,” and how that affects everything from moral codes to murder mysteries to chocolate cake, but I want to backtrack a little yet again and address something brought up by Robert and applauded by Nancy back in the comments there somewhere.

I’m beginning to think that the entire life of a blog is backtracing, but that’s something else.

Anyway, Robert said, and Nancy concurred, that the meaning of a literary text will be at least largely determined by the person reading it, that we all bring our experiences and personalities and historical times and whatever to what we read, and those things change what we perceive the work to “mean.”

I think we could expand this to include all kinds of art, and not just literature, good or bad.  When we hear music, or look at paintings, we bring all our baggage with us.   It’s like we wear filters over all five of our sense.

The reason  I’m not jumping on the bandwagon here is that I’m a prisoner of my own historical times and personal experiences, and these include a far too close acquaintance with deconstruction and structualism as literary theories.

If you’re reading this and have no idea what these are, good for you.  You’ve saved yourself a lot of entirely useless trouble.  The rest of you probably have at least a vague idea that university departments of literature have, over the last couple of decades, indulged in a positive orgy of “unpacking” “texts.”   It doesn’t matter what the author wanted to say.   It doesn’t even matter what it looks like he did say.   Reader response is everything, and a “text” means whatever the reader perceives it to mean.



Sometimes the reader is wrong.

I think there are probably three things that a work of art “means,” and I would apply them to all kinds of art, not just literature.

1) First is what the writer/artist/composer actually meant to say, or do.  Most artists have intentions.   Most artists try very hard to realize those intentions in their finished works of art.  Those intentions might be n othing more elaborate than “scare the hell out of the audience” or even “make a BIG pile of money,” but they might also be more elaborate and focussed.  John Milton wasn’t just trying to recreate parts of Genesis and parts of Revelation in Paradise Lost, he was trying to bring his readers closer to God, if they already knew Him, or to God, if they didn’t.  Andre Gide was often trying to bring his readers closer to Communism. 

2) Second is what the writer/artist/composer actually said.  You’d think that this point and the one before it would be the same, but they aren’t always.  There’s that little problem with Paradise Lost, reconized by everybody who reads it, the fact that the most vivid and attractive character in the piece just happens to be Lucifer.  Writers do not always achieve what they sent out to achieve.  Sometimes, they have subconcious motives that take over when they think they’re doing something else.  

3)  And third, there is what the audience–collectively and each as individuals–perceives the artist to mean. 

The thing is, you cannot simply reduce “what it means” to number three.  For one thing, there’s the problem of the audience.  Who is the audience for the work of art?  Byron probably did not perceive his audience to be you and me, and Homer certainly didn’t.

In some eras, for some art forms, the audience is restricted.  Sir Philip Sidney and Ben Jonson thought of their audience as educated members of the British upper class.  Finnegan’s Wake was not written with an eye to what the garage mechanics in  Dubuque would think of it. 

In other eras, for other art forms, the audience is broad.  The Homeroi–if not Homer himself–expected the audience for The Iliad and The Odyssey to be all people who spoke Greek, even those who could not read, because the epics would be recited in public or at private household gatherings, ensuring that even slaves and illiterates (and women!) would “know” them.  The great religious paintings of the late Middle Ages through the High Renaissances were composed under the assumption that they would be viewed by all classes of people, educated and not, and aimed to teach the story of Christianity to anybody who bothered to stop and look at them.

None of this, of course, erases the fact that every member of the audience brings with him a load of baggage that he cannot simply give up because he is engaging with a work of art, and that that baggage will definitely and irrevocably filter his understanding of what the work “means.” 

So why don’t I just give up here and say that only number three, above, matters, that the audience determines what a work of art “means?”

There are two reasons, really, and they come down to two different kinds of not-ideal readers:  the truly stupid and the ideologically fanatical.

When  I say “truly stupid” in reference to the audience–to the reader, in this case, since we’re mostly discussing what people think literature to be–I don’t mean the mentally handicapped.  I mean people who truly seem to have a very difficult time making connections between ideas. 

Before I started teaching, I never believed that there were people who really couldn’t do this, who just could not work with abstractions and concepts in any way whatsoever.  Having now met a few–some of whom have been very nice people otherwise–all I can say is that such people have only a tenuous experience of art of any kind.  They may be momentarily amused by something or the other that they see or hear or read, but it goes no further than that.   And if you ask them what something “means,” they’re as likely to come up with something completely the opposite of what the work was actually saying as to come up with what it said. 

My guess is that 90% of the people who looked up at the Sistine ceiling and saw God stretch out his arm to touch Adam’s finger had no problem at all “getting” the idea that what was being represented was man being created in God’s image.   They’d heard about it in church.  They’d make the connection.

The other 10% would not, however, and furthermore would not understand why the rest of us did make it.  Some people seem simply not to have the capacity to understand, and I can’t see my way to saying that the work of art “means,” in any sense, what they think it to mean.  For one thing, they don’t really think it to mean anything.  The only time you start thinking about meaning is when you ask them about it.

Some of the people who are very stupid about art–or about some particular form of art–are not at all stupid about anything else.   They deal with abstractions and concepts just fine, as long as the abstractions and concepts are presented as quadratic equations or syllogisms.  It’s imagery and alusion they don’t understand.  It’s almost as if they’re tone deaf.  They have no “ear” for story.  El Greco’s magnificient Crucifixion is gory and disproportioned and says nothing about anything or anybody.

Of coure, there is another kind of reader, one who is not stupid about art, who needs to go here as a subset, and that is the reader who is largely ignorant of the allusions and references the work employs.  Both literature and painting (and sculpture) employ many such references, and at least some music employs them, too.

There would be no art of any kind in the world at all if artists could not expect their audiences to “simply know” a whole host of things.   If the artist understands his audience, if he has accurately gauged what they do and do not know, there’s nothing wrong with this.  In fact, such assumptions are indispensible.  A book that had to spel out every single reference would get boring as hell by page three. 

Unfortunately, not every member of an audience with “get” all the references, and some won’t even get the most obvious ones.

Back in the first book I ever had published, I described the crown given to the woman designated Queen of Hearts at a romance writer’s convention, which was made of real roses and their stems, as “looking like the Crown of Thorns would have if it had been subjected to Miracle Gro and a good watering.”

The copyeditor flagged the line and demanded, “Crown of Thorns? Do you mean the plant?”

A reader who doesn’t understand what the Crown of  Thorns is can’t understand the line I wrote, and it wasn’t a difficult line.  And think of my students, from back at the beginning of these posts.  They often have no context at all in any meaningful sense.  If you make reference to anything that happened even a few years ago, they probably won’t understand it.  And even if the reference you make is to something that happened yesterday, they might not understand it, if it happens to be a reference about politics or world affairs or classical music or even science.

Yes, of course, when people limited in this way read literature, they will still have their own interpretations of it, it will still “mean” something to them.  I just have a problem pronouncing their “meanings” to be “just as legitimate” as those of people who read well, who are not tone deaf to story, who “get” the references.

It’s why simple popularity, in and of itself, cannot determine the intrinsic worth of a work of art, literary or otherwise, and why I reject the idea that all judgments of artistic worth are “subjective.”  There will certainly always be a subjective element to them.   We’re not dealing with a Taylor Series or the behavior of E. coli bacteria when they meet with the proper antibiotic (or no antibiotic at all). 

But there’s a big difference between saying that there’s a subjective element to judgments of artistic merit and saying that such judgments are entirely subjective.

And there’s an even bigger difference between saying that every reader brings baggage to a work and that his interpretation of that work will be affected by that baggage, and saying that the work “means” whatever the baggage says it means.

In the end, the writer/artist/composer had an intention, and tried to carry it out.  He produced a work whose elements can be defined and analyzed.  Those things count more than the reader and his baggage in determining what the work “means.”  

That’s especially important when we get to our second class of bad reader, the ideologically fanatical.

But I think I’ll leave that until tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 11th, 2008 at 9:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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