Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Easier to Talk About
In Exit Ghost, Philip Roth includes a letter putatively written by “Amy Bellette” but, as it turns out, mostly written (she claims) by her lover, E.I. Lonoff, the perfectionist writer whose portrayal in The Ghost Writer initiated Roth’s series of Zuckerman novels. Bellette/Lonoff write:
Hemingway’s early stories are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so your cultural journalist goes to the Upper Peninsula and finds out the names of the locals who are said to have been models for the characters in the early stories. Surprise of surprises, they or their descendants feel badly served by Ernest Hemingway. These feelings, unwarranted or childish or downright imaginary as they may be, are taken more seriously than the fiction because they’re easier for your cultural journalist to talk about than the fiction.
I was reminded of this passage when reading Brian Boyd’s “The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature," not because Boyd himself really finds external issues easier “to talk about than the fiction,” certainly not because Boyd values such issues more than “the fiction,” but because even in his attempt to retrieve the “art of literature” as the central subject of literary criticism he seemingly can’t help but underscore the value of fiction as the gateway to something else.
Boyd correctly observes that
For the last few decades. . .scholars have been reluctant to deal with literature as an art—with the imaginative accomplishment of a work or the imaginative feast of responding to it—as if to do so meant privileging elite capacities and pandering to indulgent inclinations. Many critics have sought to keep literary criticism well away from the literary and instead to arraign literature as largely a product of social oppression, complicit in it or at best offering a resistance already contained.
In order to demonstrate that to ignore the “imaginative accomplishment of a work” is to totally misunderstand the claims that art makes on us, Boyd further correctly observes that “For both artists and audiences, art’s capacity to ensnare attention is crucial” and concludes from this that “attention—engagement in the activity—matters before meaning.”
Yet if we normally engage in art simply because it can command our attention, meaning, in academic contexts, elbows its way to the fore, because the propositional nature of meaning makes it so much easier to expound, circulate, regurgitate, or challenge than the fluid dynamics of attention.
Boyd devotes the largest part of his essay to an analysis of the play with “patterns” in Nabokov’s Lolita that shows, for Boyd, that “A writer can capture our attention before, in some cases long before, we reach what academic critics would accept as the ‘meaning’ or ‘meanings’ of works. The high density of multiple patterns holds our attention and elicits our response—especially through patterns of biological importance, like those surrounding character and event, which arouse attention and emotion and feed powerful, dedicated, evolved information-processing subroutines in the mind.”
Boyd’s reading of Lolita is impeccable, and I couldn’t agree more with his essential insight that attention precedes meaning and that the implications of this for our “appreciation” of literature are profound. Indeed, up to this point Boyd’s account of the nature of art and the reception of art is entirely consistent with that given in John Dewey’s Art as Experience, a book that stands as the foundation of my own philosophy of art and the claims of which I have tried to integrate with a more purely literary interest in formalist aesthetics (substituting for New Critical notions such as “organic unity” Dewey’s emphasis on the unity of experience). Dewey similarly underscores the value of attentiveness and the process by which the reader or the viewer comes to be aware of patterns.
But in my opinion Boyd more or less gives back what he has taken away from those preoccupied with “meaning” in literature, with extracting from literature an analysis that services an extra- or even anti-literary agenda, when he declares that “The pleasure art’s intense play with patterns affords compels our engagement again and again and helps shape our capacity to create and process pattern more swiftly. Perhaps it even helps explain the so-called Flynn effect, the fact—and it seems to be one—that IQs have risen with each of the last few generations. . . .” Dewey would never have “justified” the experience of art by invoking this capacity to “process pattern more swiftly.” Dewey’s account emphasizes art’s capacity to enlarge experience, to make us more appreciative of experience, not its utilitarian potential to speed up our recognition of patterns. Indeed, such speeding-up probably cuts off the full experience of art as Dewey describes it. Art may or may not contribute to a “Flynn effect,” but that it might do so is hardly the most important reason to attend to art’s patterns in the first place. The attention we pay to art is its own compensation.
Thus I also don’t see why Boyd needs to appeal to “science” as a way of invoking the immediacy of art. The Darwinian/biological analysis of art itself brings along its own anti-art baggage, and finally the appeal to Science as the all-encompassing context in which art is to be understood is no more helpful to art than the appeal to History or to Culture. That “works of art should provide ideal controlled replicable experiments for the study of both rapid and gradual pattern recognition in the mind” or that “Literature and other arts have helped extend our command of information patterns” seem to me conclusions that are just as extra-literary in their attempts to use art and literature for that “something else” as the idea that works of art and literature disclose cultural symptoms or that they capture the elusive forces of history. (Or that they reveal the flaws of their creators.) Finally they also seem topics that might be more convenient to talk about than the fiction.
Ultimately the problem may be that Boyd’s brief is not so much on behalf of a more profitable way of reading literature as it is an attempt to reintroduce “literature as an art” back into the university curriculum. But “the fluid dynamics of attention,” however much they do govern our response to works of art or literature when we are freely encountering them, are not really “replicable” in the college classroom unless you want to spend most of it simply reading a novel, poem, or story and directing your students to be very dynamic in their attention. Teaching literature because it brings out many of the imperatives of human evolution doesn’t seem any more faithful to the “imaginative accomplishments” of literature than any of the other methods of literary study that have been tried. It may be that the “indulgent inclinations” really do need to be indulged outside the classroom and elsewhere than in scholarly journals.
I can certainly second Boyd’s assertion that literature is replete with interesting and patterns and that we, as critics, need to attend to those patterns. I’ll even go so far as to say that now, more than ever, we need to attend to them and to describe them. A problem, of course, is that the mind is so very good at seeking patterns that we often find patterns that aren’t there - canals on Mars, a face on the moon, or on a grilled cheese sandwich. Of the patterns we see in a text, which are there and which aren’t?
This is an old problem, of course. In some sense, it’s the problem that pitched us into theory 40 or 50 years ago. I even think the newer psychologies can give us some little help and, in time, more and more. I believe, however, that his skepticism about meaning is salutary. I suspect that if we bracket the search for meaning, if we set it aside, it may be easier to come to terms with patterns. But that’s a long argument, not one I’m going to attempt here.
Beyond this I note that his reading of Lolita depends on close reading skills that have been variously cultivated for decades. It owes little or nothing to evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology can serve as a rationale for tossing certain things out, e.g. psychoanalysis, but it doesn’t tell us much about just what patterns we, as critics, should attend to. Or, rather, what it has us attend to is pretty much what common-sense folk psychology would have us attend to; and that’s been around for a long time.
FWIW, Steven Pinker has reviewed The Literary Animal, an anthology of “Darwinian” approaches to narrative, in Philosophy and Literature. He tries hard to put a good face on it, but ends up cautioning us not to expect too much from first efforts in the field.