Sunday, April 30, 2006
La vita nuova e nuova e nuova
Ah, the old critical exercise: Does a hard science fiction story become unreadable once the science is invalidated? Is a historical novel worthless once the evidence refutes it?
Not being a Whig historian, what interests me more than those questions are the contextual nuances around them. For example, it seems to matter whether the invalidation took place prior to or after the writing's writing — there's a visceral difference between Troilus & Cressida and The Da Vinci Code. It also strikes me that both high-risk species developed in tandem with safer alternatives: fantasy and realism. Realism's deployment of contemporary setting and free indirect discourse block any charges of perjury: "You weren't there! And besides you never saw me do it!" And it also strikes me that in this, as in so much of what's exercised the twentieth century and the century that remains, Flaubert got there firstest and mostest with an onion-skin-fictional account of serial invalidation.
Most of all it strikes me, every hour on the hour for nigh on thirty years, that the very idea of "literature" presupposes the uncomfortable indigestible unjustifiable pseudo-experience of experiences which are not ours. Experiences of lust, anger, greed, delight, and, of course, certainty — what experience could be more human than certainty? — which don't squeeze into our newest still-pinching off-the-rack suit of self.
There, at that point — a very precarious and contingent point topping an edifice of widespread literacy, fixed canon, and shifting culture — that decadent liberal nervously Monie-in-the-Middle point — there is where "literature" and "philosophy" (as opposed to advancing the right and burning the wrong) begin. Where we gain the opportunity to inhabit convictions (or truths, insofar as humans can determine truths) we don't share for reasons besides refutation.
For my own historically contingent reasons, I find the experience immeasurably because incommensurably valuable. This time is my time, I admit; and what's more I like it here.
Maybe I'm a Whig after all?
I'm sure not a Tory.
They’ve disproved the science of Troilus and Cressida? What? Venereal disease isn’t serious after all? (That’s a relief.)
On a more serious note, I think it IS possible for hard SF to be - well, maybe not ruined, but characteristically deformed - by advancing science, more or less in the way that the Lone Ranger pretty much rides roughshod over Rossini. You just can’t filter out certain things, once they get in your head. When reading Jules Verne, Autour de la Lune, it’s pretty much impossible NOT to notice that it’s only about a whisker away from Wallace and Gromit, realism-wise.
But I wouldn’t say that this is true of Dante. That is, I find it easy not to find it ridiculous, despite scientific and moral problems.
Getting back to “Troilus and Cressida” (which I do appreciate is supposed to line up with Dante along the Great Chain of Being axis): one interesting difference is that it is comparatively rare for flat absolute moral claims about a fictional universe to be made by an apparently omniscient narrator/whatever. Narrators don’t usually have occasion to say ‘and murder is absolutely worse than theft’. But Dante is an exception that way. In the case of T&C the audience is left to take Ulysses’ great speeches as they see fit. They can take them straight, or regard them as ironic commentary, or as mere reflections of Ulysses’ point of view. There is more freedom. In Dante, things a a bit more locked down. No one looks at the order of the circles and says: well, that’s just God’s opinion.
On the other hand, lots of people still like Rossini fine. So this is obviously all wrong.
Come to think of it, you’re right—Wallace and Grommit totally screwed up on the physical composition of the moon.
And straightway the owner of the book cried out, and said with tears, Professor, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
it is comparatively rare for flat absolute moral claims about a fictional universe to be made by an apparently omniscient narrator/whatever. . . . But Dante is an exception that way.
When I was very young, I’d drink coffee after dinner with family on the cool night of a long summer’s day, with cream. Now I am older, and when I drink coffee in such a situation, I do not use cream, but I use Bailey’s.
Does the fact that authors of medieval dream visions like their books with narrated morals, while we like them with other things make their books unpalatable?
I still, on occasion when the hot sun has gone down, and I am with the ones I love, enjoy the taste of mellow cream in my coffee.
There is another little noticed aspect of this question. Usually we forgive a novel its factual mistakes (say, in the case of historical fiction which takes liberties with facts) on the grounds that it delivers a psychological truth (people really do think/feel/act that way). I wonder, though, if some human feelings, thoughts and actions represented in novels are not false—either fantasies or intentional (usually ideologically driven) misrepresentations.
Hmm..."ideologically driven misrepresentations.” Which reminds me: they’re finally making Atlas Shrugged into a movie! How cool is that?
Updike’s faith that I’ll recognize Updike’s characters as fellow human beings seems no less weird to me than Dante’s faith that I’ll recognize the perfection of God’s plan.
Atlas Shrugged, eh. Somebody should write a post Contra Rand. But where to start? (The awkward-looking-ness of her first name, maybe?)
Ray: “the very idea of ‘literature’ presupposes the uncomfortable indigestible unjustifiable pseudo-experience of experiences which are not ours ... which don’t squeeze into our newest still-pinching off-the-rack suit of self.”
Don’t they squeeze, though? I’d say they do, mostly. Who was it (some skeptical scientist) who refuted telepathy as not so much impossible as redundant; since we already possess a means of reaching into the minds of other people, and the ability to effect changes therein, from the subtle to the spectacular. The means being, of course, words. It may be my peculiarity that I tend to find the pseudo-experiences offered me by fiction neither uncomfortable nor indigestible, but on the contrary often to connect elegantly and eloquently with my own qualia.
Full-immersion telepathy sounds cozy, Adam, but if the coziness excludes all but a narrow range of post-nineteenth century novels I think I prefer scratching. Literature is more than fiction whose background assumptions I share, just as philosophy is more than arguments I agree with.
Plato and Propertius, Augustine and Dante, Hume and Fielding, James and James all wanted their work in various ways to convince. Like us, they were all doomed to failure sooner (usually immediately) or later. But I can still engage with their work, and the required suspension of disbelief doesn’t seem insurmountably harder between genres. It’s true that the rules of engagement differ, but they also differ between George Eliot and Elmore Leonard.
It could be that you’re just asking readers to engage sincerely, to avoid the easy out of condescension or the harder out of cultism. But in that case wouldn’t your piece have been titled “Contra Musa”? As it is, it sounds more like “A Connecticut Yankee Staying on the Tour Bus in High Medieval Florence”—a different way of condescending, but condescending all the same.
I’ve probably missed your point, though. It seems well established by now that I’m the wrong audience for the Valve’s more negational moods. I’m not even sure Madame Bovary‘s narrator wasn’t a forty foot giant breathing fire: he disappeared magically enough, and Flaubert was no stranger to monsters. Come to think of it, maybe the motive behind your series of Wrongs is less like Bouvard & Pecuchet than like The Temptation of St. Anthony—in which case I’ve badly misread you.
Ray: “Like us, they were all doomed to failure sooner (usually immediately) or later.”
I write a little bit about this Romanticizing gesture as aid to reading in the other thread.
"I’m not even sure Madame Bovary‘s narrator wasn’t a forty foot giant breathing fire: he disappeared magically enough, and Flaubert was no stranger to monsters”
I think I said Madame Bovary’s neighbour, not narrator. Or did I just think I said that? Still, the narrator was definitely at school with Charles (which is about the only definite thing we can say about him, I suppose). And if it was anything like my school then the last thing he’d want to do would be to stick out by, for instance, being forty foot tall. Or breathing fire. Or, you know, reading books.
“ ...it sounds more like “A Connecticut Yankee Staying on the Tour Bus in High Medieval Florence”
A fair point ("A Middlesex Limey Staying on the Tour Bus ... or the Three Things An Englishman Needs for a Good Holiday: Something to See, A Nice Sit Down, and a Nice Cup of Tea"). I suppose I’m assuming that the disparity between lofty Dante on the one hand and me on the other rules out the possibility of my condescension. If I boil the post down it’s not so much a Contra, as a Banal Truth that everybody else ‘got’ long ago, namely that Fiction is actually a better way of telling the truth than eg history, true-narratives etc. And that Dante occupies this interesting and possibly unique place halfway between Holy Writ and Robert-Jordan-esque Fantasy. But, as you might reply, so what?
You did say “neighbor”, Adam—I thought about adding italics or a “however” to indicate that I was purposely changing the subject to Bovary’s schoolmate, but then thought, screw it, no one’s ever going to read this anyway.
Thanks for suffering through the indignity of explaining your motives. Given my own obliqueness and love of “difficult” literature, I feel like a real stupe about it, but I do seem to have a hard time getting through certain types of criticism without that help.
I get what you mean about “How can little ol’ me be in a position to damage Big Name?” as a liberating departure point. That’s always my excuse when I attack critically-acclaimed Hollywood successes. I guess it depends on personal context, though; I’ve met many more people who’d prefer not to have a reason to read Dante’s work, even in translation, than people who take it for granted as a worthwhile thing.
I certainly wouldn’t reply “So what?” On the contrary, I have a ridiculously lengthy follow-up to Rich to type in once daylight is available. (Yes, my work schedule has reduced me to writing coment drafts in longhand.) But more briefly our disagreement might just come down to how unique Dante’s “place halfway” is. To me, all of literary reading fits there: there are limits to the irresponsibility claimable by fiction and limits to the truth claimable by dream vision and lyric poetry (and despite Dante’s hooky disclaimers, those were clearly his genres), or, for that matter, history and philosophy, and when I look past those limits I see an overlap which interests me.
”...a liberating departure point.” Liberating, yes; but more than that, maybe. I think what I’ve always tried to do in criticism is take the notion of the dialectic seriously. Which is to say, I’m not trying to get everybody to agree with me, but rather to disagree creatively. Robert Nozick (of all people) somewhere riffs on the notion of a philosopher’s argument so strong, so powerful, so well made that it compels all who hear it to agree, whether they like it or not. It’s a two or three second thinking-about-that to come to the conclusion that such a tyrannous argument, if it could ever exist, would be a monstrous and deplorable thing. But there are plenty of critics and writers who aspire to it, nonetheless. Not (with all my heart) me.
I’m with you on not wanting to convince everyone, Adam. (I sometimes don’t want to convince anyone, including myself—I just have an argumentative structure stuck in my head and need to write it down.) But as a matter of personal taste I do tend to prefer disagreement with critics to disagreement with primary texts. I enjoyed your essay when it pointed out how celebrators of Dante have sometimes strayed into very peculiar assertions. Not so much when it claimed that this was “a problem for Dante” (as opposed to a problem for Dante critics or teachers).
I find the “demiurge” idea congenial, Rich, with a couple of additions.
First, that this flawed character is not a static given but a collaboration between reader and writer and their varying contexts. We read literary writers not so much for chronicles of events as for the sound of the voices describing them. This is part of the writer’s desire as well, to be (or construct) the one who tells us. (Hans Christian Andersen: “When father or mother reads aloud, I am there standing in the room, but I have my white stick in my mouth and am invisible.") But it’s the reader, not the writer, who decides what the voice reveals: that Jane Austen’s comes from an ethically sensible wit or from a quiescent oppressor, that Charlotte Bronte’s torture is affectation, that Henry James is closeted, that Andersen’s a creepy old pervert.... And the reader has to accept some responsibility for those decisions. Adam’s courtroom scenario, confronting Dante with c. 2006 educated-Anglo-American standards of science and morality and then charging him with—what? perjury? contributing to the delinquency of a don?—seemed unfruitful to me as a critical approach (although in a fine tradition of bookish humor) partly because it puts the prosecutor outside the reach of the law.
My other caveat is that trying to drag this shadowy figure into the light can become an unprofitable distraction.
Both these warnings are informed by the position of the Narrator in Joyce studies. The Narrator was invented—I forget who by—to deal with the stylistic shifts in Ulysses by adding a layer of indirection to free indirect discourse. In this account, Ulysses isn’t just, or even primarily, the story of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly told by the single author “James Joyce”; Joyce has created a fourth character, “the Narrator”, unnameable, shape-shifting, near-omnipotent, and pathologically malevolent towards the protagonists and the reader. (A Gnostic view, right?) And the mysterious emotional force of the novel comes from our (protagonists’ and reader’s) shared survival of the Narrator’s attacks.
Attempts to diagram the Narrator’s progress in detail have amused more often than convinced me. But the basic idea of a crafted third-person narrative voice which, although not necessarily unreliable, is not exactly admirable—the fictional equivalent of a poetic persona or a dramatic role—is one I’ve found fruitful in other contexts. For example, Flaubert’s and Nabokov’s narrators, like Joyce’s, were more pointedly sadistic than the authors seemed to be. Beckett’s third-person novels disturb us through the implied characteristics of the “author” rather than by the barely-present personalities the “author” describes. In Mercier & Camier, Beckett even paid tribute to Flaubert’s odd flaunting of Bovary‘s narrator.
(As a special thank you to Valve readers during my farewell tour, for a limited time here’s a tragically intelligent demiurge trapped in a hellishly flawed creation. She suffered that we might enjoy. Enjoy!)
Ray, I think it’s the Arranger you are referring to. In Joyce-critic parlance, the narrator is that colorless personage who writes sentences like the opening ones of each of the first two parts ("Stately, plump Buck Mulligan. . .” etc.). The Arranger, by contrast, is the Trickster god of the book, the one who puts the newspaper headlines in the Aeolus episode and crafts the penultimate episode into a version of the Maynooth Catechism. I don’t know that Joyceans think of him as malevolent so much as incorrigibly disruptive.
It was David Hayman who came up with the idea of the Arranger, by the way.
Thanks for the comments, Ray.
“First, that this flawed character is not a static given but a collaboration between reader and writer and their varying contexts.”
Sure, although I don’t know who would be presumed to be able to provide a static given for a reader. The writer, in interviews and so on? A particularly influential critic? I don’t find Adam’s courtroom scenario to be unfruitful, though. You can’t put a text in court, and Dante is out of Adam’s reach. What Adam seemed to be describing was a problem of reading for people who don’t want to compartimentalize their opinions, so that they need to reconcile their various beliefs about the content of the text with each other.
“My other caveat is that trying to drag this shadowy figure into the light can become an unprofitable distraction.”
I only find it profitable in cases 1-3 that I described in my “defence” comment that you linked to above; it’s something that I turn to because of a perceived problem with the text, not as a default for all texts. As to how far to take it, any approach can be taken past the point where it’s no longer useful.
It’s interesting that you bring up the concept of malevolence in addition to unreliability. The basic concept of a demiurgic approach is that the reader, by reading fiction, is venturing into a world that is known to be created by a creator rather than a “natural” process, and that this creator is known to be flawed, with the creation necessarily in some respects a failure. If you were using these terms to describe the real world, you’d be immediately forced to adopt aspects of a Gnostic worldview. However, since we generally think that we know what we’re doing when we venture into a fictional world, the aspect of malevolence is perhaps toned down.
If you view the failure as inevitable, no matter what the intention of the creator, then a demiurgic view is more like the Romantic gesture that I referred to earlier—envisioning the author as Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps, but a Frankenstein who knows from the start that no truly living person is going to stagger off of the operating table. It might take a certain malevolence to go ahead anyway. Or it might be envisioned as a rebellious or despairing act, or simply as the best that could be done in the way of providing another viewpoint on the world. (What if, in The Matrix, the protagonist discovered the nature of the fraud and the machines explained that they *found* people living in jars and decided to broaden their range of experience?) At any rate, the point is to let the reader create a frame for reading that accepts perceived failure in the implied author. The individual preference towards “noble failure” or malevolence is up to what each reader will find most useful for each text.
So, what’s the “farewell tour”?
D’oh! You’re absolutely right, Alan—it’s “the Arranger” I meant. (While typing, I thought, “You know, this term sounds off somehow, not as specific as I remember....” But I didn’t want to turn the light on to rummage around my books, and I didn’t think a web search on “contemporary critical commonplaces ulysses” would do the trick.) Thank you for the correction and attribution. The Arranger’s motives differ depending on the reader, of course; some of us see them as more vicious than others.
Rich, I agree with everything you say there. Thank you for the interesting supplement to the supplement.
I hope to get my last Valve post up today—thus the “farewell tour” remark.
I like to think of the Arranger as a version of Peeves the Poltergeist in the Harry Potter books: utterly malicious untill he starts disrupting something you like to see disrupted. . . .