The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Literary Criticism’ Category

Hurray for statistics and psychology!

As a science and humanities student I find this article rather quaint (this person is hardly the first to suggest this). (Oh and are any of the theories he so manfully takes down en vogue anymore?) As one specializing in neuroscience (bioethics) I’m sighing at yet someone else rushing to the infant field (comparative to all other sciences) to provide all the answers. No doubt he’ll want to study brain images of a men and women reading Jane Eyre and then come to some farcical conclusion. I just e-mailed it to my biology professor (who loves fiction) and I think I still hear him laughing through my computer speakers…

Anyway, you tell me what you think about this delightful man’s attempts to humble the humanities before the great Science Gaze while retaining “what makes literature special”. (You will find no mention of what that is, btw.)

Measure for Measure by Jonathan Gottschall

Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.


The alternative is to let literary study keep withering away, and that would be a tragedy. Homo sapiens is a bizarre literary ape – one that, outside of working and sleeping, may well spend most of its remaining hours lost in landscapes of make-believe. Across the breadth of human history, across the wide mosaic of world cultures, there has never been a society in which people don’t devote great gobs of time to seeing, creating, and hearing fictions – from folktales to film, from theater to television. Stories represent our biggest and most preciously varied repository of information about human nature. Without a robust study of literature there can be no adequate reckoning of the human condition – no full understanding of art, culture, psychology, or even of biology. As Binghamton University biologist David Sloan Wilson says, “the natural history of our species” is written in love poems, adventure stories, fables, myths, tales, and novels.

Don’t they do this sort of thing in “Culture Studies” already?

The most terrible irony in all the Idylls is that there is no real cause for this loss of humanity. As Northrop Frye says, “Tragedy’s ‘this must be’ becomes irony’s ‘this at least is’ ” (p. 285). Jacob Korg also argues that there is no real cause, that the kingdom “unaccountably” (p. 10) dissolves. He goes on, however, to ascribe this causelessness to an overriding “fatalism,” a tragic principle, I would suggest, that is unrelated to ironic action. Instead of the convincing reasons given in tragedy we have a multiplicity of reasons, all inadequate. There are no resounding causes for the fall and no important forces at work against Arthur; he is defeated by triviality. His greatest enemy, in fact, is the natural process of oversimplification, The balance he tries to maintain between the physical and the spiritual, for instance, is destroyed on one side by Tristram and the naturalists, and on the other by the well-meaning search for the Grail. The failure is not one of morality but a pathetic failure of understanding; the world is lost not because it is evil but because it is stupid. [154/155]

Arthur is magnificently heroic, but there is about him the ironic shadow of the relentless and ludicrously ineffective pedagogue whose star pupils misunderstand: the king’s grandest and simplest words are presented by a good-hearted reporter, Percivale, whose only comment is, “So spake the King: I knew not all he meant” (“The Holy Grail,” l. 916). The entire poem mixes the heroic and the preposterous, the grand and the trivial. The final effect is not to deny the importance of Arthur and Camelot, but rather to insist on both the greatness and the impossibility – even the absurdity – of this dream. The dream is shattered for no particular, or at least no important, reason; most men did not even realize what it was: “the wholesome madness of an hour,” according to Tristram (“The Last Tournament,” l. 670).

Kincaid, James R. “Introduction to Idylls of the King.” Tennyson’s Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns. 1975 Yale University Press. 28 Mar. 2001

See, that’s exactly what I was getting at with far less eloquence.

On a completely unrelated note I think I finally got rid of a pesky undergrad who’d picked up the annoying habit of following me everywhere since early February. He was ok looking with a great German accent and all but he was always hanging around my regular haunting spots all the time and we always had to meet up every day and even when I was sick he kept texting me with soup-making offers which was sweet but I can’t even escape you when I’m locked in my room, jesus, am I your first real live girl or what? And now when I was in the middle of juggling work and personal interests in about a million Firefox tabs he couldn’t seem to get that I was busy and would make the most pathetic attempts to subtly get my attention and write stupid notes in garbled Jamaican patois. So I gave him the glare and ignored him for 2 hours (that’s right! that’s how long he sat there idling–doesn’t he have work to do?). I think he finally got it.

Just wanted to get that off my chest.

What is the cause of the sea storm? It is the anger of the god Poseidon. How wrong this is, but yet, how understandable! It is wrong as an answer to the question asked, and wrong in a radically uncorrectable way. We know this now. Animistic explanation of natural phenomena, the extension to nature at large of the kind of purposive causality man is familiar with in the case of his own actions, will not work. Yet it is an easily understood mode of explanation, for if one were a sea god and were angry one would create precisely this turbulence. The immediate intelligibility of the explanation counts for it, and makes it resistant to falsification. Nor need we wonder why the recognition of the inadequacy of the explanation was delayed. The action prompted by the explanation is some ceremony of propitiation: make sacrifice of appropriate animals or cast treasure into depths. This ceremony will not work but, given the kind of explanation, nonefficacy in particular cases can always be explained. The sacrifice was inadequate, the ritual was wrongly performed, the anger was too great, and, as a final resort, who can read the mind of a god? But there is more to it than this. The animistic view is appropriate to the human experience of undergoing a sea storm.

We can bring this about by changing the question from: What is the cause of the sea storm? to: What might the human experience of undergoing a sea storm be like? Now we speak mostly aptly when we say: “The sea is angry.” Anger, threat, menace are apprehended as phenomenally objecting, “out there” in the sea. The struggle of the mariner with the storm is experiences as combat. The force opposing him is felt as similar in kind to the force with which he battles it. The ship itself is now a live thing that leaps and shudders and labors in the waves. Now we feel the power of the god, and this is why Poseidon is still relevant even in an age of science.

Although it is a matter of historical record that literary artists and lovers of literature have, from time to time, nourished and voiced resentment against natural science, seen as “the destroyer of rainbows,” yet it appears by now to be generally recognized that the scientific and the literary approach to natural phenomena cannot possibly be rivals. Rivals must go battle on common ground and there is here too little common ground for genuine contention. The poem that tells us that the moon is a goddess, or love-sick, or lunatic, is as intelligible and valid as it ever was. Natural science cannot be direct help or hindrance to the literary artist although, of course, the artist who happens to take an interest in it may derive from that interest the stimulus of new perspectives, above all, perhaps, material for metaphor. Lunar landscape, understood in terms of contemporary astronomical theory, may well provide the raw material out of which reanimated metaphor might be forced. The literary importance will, of course, reside in the reanimation, not in the fact that what has been used for this purpose is something more scientifically “up to date”. Any branch of natural science, biology, crystallography, or whatever, may stir the imagination of the literary artist, and anything that stirs his imagination is potential raw material for artistic exploitation. “Raw material” and “exploitation” are the operative words. If you wish to receive the best account to date of the structure and operation of natural phenomena, you must turn to the scientist. It is useless to expect that the literary artist will submit himself to the discipline necessary for science. As private person he might do this, but as literary artist he will not. As artist he has, of course, his own discipline, but this is something other than the discipline of science.

From Literature and Knowledge (1969) by Dorothy Walsh.

Lately, I’ve had a renewed interest in books about literature. Last year it started (and ended) with The Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. What impact that text has had on my reading is unclear. I don’t remember the definition of a sicilian tercet but I have a stronger grip on poetry metres because of Beowulf and other Old English poems. Yes, the formalist chapter probably made the most impact on my poetry readings but less on novels. The theories that the writers most emphatically applied to novels, and about which I did recall a thing or two, were the ones I had little use for — feminist (All that Lacan semiotic vs symbolic, what?), psychoanalysis (still flogging Freud?) — and the others tested my patience so much that I did not complete the relevant chapters (some cultural rebels wanting to analyse literature as one would a chair or a bloody restaurant menu). Mikhail Bakhtin was a flickering glimmer in that land of nonsense but the writers did not spend much time with him and I did not follow up because the libraries either had one or two of his books in translation (and always on loan).

It did not have a chapter on postcolonial criticism but if it did it’s likely I’d have skipped it. No matter, though, since Adrian Hunt’s introduction to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner gave a detailed analysis of how some characters’ use of Scottish dialect not only helped to establish a Scottish identity, individuality, and complexity in opposition to English condescension and simple prejudice but how in certain scenes, it was used to tell entirely different versions or give particular point of views to the same story an English character attempted to analyse. That seemed to feasibly fall within postcolonial theory, as I imagine it, despite the novel’s publication date and Scotland’s present political status.

Claude McKay’s used Jamaican patois far more frequently in Banana Bottom and in a purer form, than Roger Mais did in his novels and Andrew Salkey in A Quality of Violence, which tended to a more creolised English. It made me hesitate when I began to write my post on the McKay because I wondered how difficult the lines would be for a non-Jamaican reader, knowing that people read my blog for recommendations and that my audience isn’t predominantly Caribbean. Did this impede its universality? Yet, there was a glossary in the back, as there was in the Hogg’s, and I’ve become more and more distrustful of this “universal” quality used as a criteria for great literature. Too often I find that it is used to erase the local qualities of non-Western text, probably to save a poor critic/academic from doing more research and forcing students to look beyond Greek archetypes. Anyway, that’s another post.

I was too hard on my feminists. I did appreciate the various theories about whether any female characteristics are inherent (biological) or acquired from socialization, and the argument as to whether there was such a thing as a female text ie novels written by women have certain particularities that would not be produced by a male. I just never think like this when I read a novel and so have no use for it. Jane Elizabeth Lavery’s feminist analysis of Desire and Its Shadow by Ana Clavel made me hastily scan for what information I needed before beating a hasty retreat in the face of Lacan’s mirror stages.

Recently, I noted a brief resurgence in online discussion on why litbloggers supposedly hate James Wood and why they are hopelessly wrong to do so in such an inflammatory, pathetically argued manner. Wood is awesome; their critical skills quail before his awesomeness. I felt I possessed insufficient knowledge (and interest) to judge the matter so I read only to see what others had to say. I had not read much from Wood beyond his London Review of Books contributions which I found persuasive enough that I acquired books by the authors reviewed (Edward St. Aubyn and E.P. Jones) but at no time then did I feel as if I were in the presence of a critical god (or misguided nincompoop).

Nigel Beale led me to Wood’s New Republic review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth which partly acted as a manifesto on hysterical realism, a term which I often came across without having much of a clue about what it referred to. I’m somewhat clearer now. Some authors’ fictions that are identified as magic realism — Thomas Pynchon (oh? had no idea), Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith (for White Teeth) — should be properly called “hysterical realism” because of their inauthenticity and internal disunity. Working in the service of ideas rather than literary expression they throw in a lot of wacky and weird characters in multiple zany stories without making the effort to convince the reader of their plausibility in the novel’s world.

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character…By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion.


Near the end of White Teeth, one of the characters, Irie Jones, has sex with one of the twins, called Millat; but then rushes round to see the other twin, called Magid, to have sex with him only moments after. She becomes pregnant; and she will never know which twin impregnated her. But it is really Smith’s hot plot which has had its way with her.

I’m not sure that I agree with him, partly because I’ve not read the authors under scrutiny and intend to read only one (Pynchon). It certainly pushed me one step closer to Mason & Dixon. I have ever been reluctant to boo a book because it does not contain psychologically realistic characters. I acknowledge that there are books to which such characters help to create a marvellous text, and that though an author may have written his book in such a way that such characters would be necessary to make it convincing (even if he did not think so), I don’t look to it as a standard. The examples he gave made me think that he could be right or he could be wrong. I believe that novels, by nature, must deal with some aspect of human experience but I do not think a great one’s defining aspect should be how well it probes human consciousness as Wood has conveyed it.

(I was not heartened by this post which claims that Wood chastised Tristram Shandy for being too “lively”, which is just…what? Would it be indulging in mean pooterish blogger speak to say that all through that Green’s post I imagined Wood as an old man on his porch, holding Bleak House, waving his crane at the hyperactive novelists writing about talking cheeses, wheezing, “Get off my damn high quality (realistic!) lawn turf, you’re gonna give me a heart attack!”)

There’s also been some discussion on This Space, Jacob Russel’s Barking Dog and The Reading Experience, too, about “realism”: what the word means precisely and whether current literary fashion over favours it. It was spurred in part by James Tata’s series on…perhaps it was realism in 20th century American fiction. (I’m not sure because he doesn’t allow direct linking to his posts and I could find it nowhere on the first page, so I assume he is that rare breed of bloggers who doesn’t like to be linked to.) I found this one more engaging but again I could find no one definition to hold on to, in part because it was debatable (and that some said it was being confused with naturalism, another term I should know more about, especially since I reviewed Kokoro).

Finally, The Wooden Spoon‘s running commentary last year on NBCC members selections for books every critic should read, and Esposito at Conversational Reading who occasionally ruminates on his quest to become a better, more insightful reader by reading critical works about literature and close reading, made me idly consider picking one or two such books for myself. The problem is that when I weigh the choice of reading about fiction vs. reading fiction 99% of the time I chose the latter. Life’s too short! I think. I’ll pick it up as I go along.

Reading a batch of review on J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year forced me to reconsider. A few were very, very bad. Many were bad or depressingly mediocre. Of the 13 I’ve read so far I would only rate three as being worth your time not because you have a polished and refined taste for the highest tiers of literary criticism, dear reader, but because you are likely a living, breathing human being with a brain; a brain active enough that when a stranger tells you that something is bad or good you wonder why she thinks so, and the stranger’s is active enough to explain. It’s a real shame that the reader who isn’t inclined to read 3 or so pages of Hilary Mantel wax on (and on) is left with 750 words of plot summary + I’d give him a free hand job that’s how great it is!/No, no I didn’t really get into it.

I’ll save most of my ire for the assigned piece. One good thing out of the experience, I guess, is that it made me look harder at how I do things. I was not too worried about my blog reviews, but I scurried to reassess my Quarterly Conversation piece, and I am now more committed to doing better at other future submissions if they do turn up. Still, I was appalled enough at what I read that I’m tempted to put up a page entitled “Spot the difference?” in which I’ll place examples of erudite newspaper reviews beside regular ol’ blog ones. My god, if that’s the drivel these people think is acting as a gateway for quality, if that is the processed baby food they’re serving to adults…I don’t know whether to laugh or…

Anyway. This rather long post was supposed to be a kind of introduction for my thoughts on Dorothy Walsh’s Literature and Knowledge, a book in which she seeks to establish what sort of knowledge literary art can provide separate from other art and more pointedly from scientific inquiry. I’ll put up an excerpt and then save the rest for Sunday Salon.

A link

Posted on: September 1, 2007

Good lord, look what’s happened here, a new Quarterly Conversation issue. I wonder why I’ve linked to it so quickly with no accompanying overview? I also wonder why I cannot spell. Is my brain already sub par at age 23?

Incidentally, I finished part one of Don Quixote! *applause, band plays, confetti falls* It was comical how shocked I was when I finished the sonnets and then there before me was a new title page. I checked twice to make sure. Go team!

Apologies for splitting this excerpt into two posts. I did the first one on a different computer which made the first part look a lot longer.


Let us take three types of men walking through the same landscape. Number One is a city man on a well-deserved vacation. Number Two is a professional botanist. Number Three is a local farmer. Number One, the city man, is what is called a realistic, commonsensical, matter-of-fact type: he sees trees as trees and knows from his map that the road he is following is a nice new road leading to Newton, where there is a nice eating place recommended to him by a friend in his office. The botanist looks around and sees his environment in the very exact terms of plant life, precise biological and classified units such as specific trees and grasses, flowers and ferns, and for him this is reality; to him the world of the stolid tourists (who cannot distinguish an oak from an elm) seems a fantastic, vague, dreamy, never-never world. Finally, the world of the local farmer differs from the two others in that his world is intensely emotional and personal since he has been born and bred there, and knows every trail and individual tree, and every shadow from every tree across every trail, all in warm connection with his everyday work, and his childhood, and a thousand small things and patterns which the other two — the humdrum tourist and the botanical taxonomist — simply cannot know in the given place at the given time. Our farmer will not know the relation of the surrounding vegetation to a botanical conception of the world, and the botanist will know nothing of any importance to him about that barn or that old field or that old house under its cottonwoods, which are afloat, as it were, in a medium of personal memories for one who was born there.

So here we have three different worlds — three men, ordinary men who have different realities — and of course, we could bring in a number of other beings: a blind man with a dog, a hunter with a dog, a dog with his man, a painter cruising in quest of a sunset, a girl out of gas — In every case it would be a world completely different from the rest since the most objective words tree, road, flower, sky, barn, thumb, rain have, in each, totally different subject connotations. Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence. The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality. We may taste in it a particle of madness if a lunatic passed through that locality, or a particle of complete and beautiful nonsense if a man has been looking at a lovely field and imagining upon it a lovely factory producing buttons or bombs; but on the whole these mad particles would be diluted in the drop of objective reality that we hold up to the light in our test tube. Moreover, this objective reality will contain something that transcends optical illusions and lab tests. It will have elements of poetry, of lofty emotion, of energy and endeavour (and even here the button king may find his rightful place — of pity, pride, passion — and the craving for a thick steak at the recommended roadside eating place.

From “The Metamorphosis”, an essay in Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov.

I want to discuss fantasy and reality, and their mutual relationship. If we consider the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” story as an allegory — the struggle between Good and Evil within every man — then this allegory is tasteless and childish. To the type of mind that would see an allegory here, its shadow play would also postulate physical happenings which common sense knows to be impossible; but actually in the setting of the story, as viewed by a commonsensical mind, nothing at first sight seems to run counter to general experience. I want to suggest, however, that a second look shows that the setting of the story does run counter to general human experience, and thatUtterson and the other men around Jekyll are, in a sense, as fantastic as Mr. Hyde. Unless we see them in a fantastic light, there is no enchantment. And if the enchanter leaves and the storyteller and the teacher remain alone together, they make poor company.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde is beautifully constructed, but it is an old one. Its moral is preposterous since neither good nor evil is actually depicted: on the whole, they are taken for granted, and the struggle goes on between two empty outlines. The enchantment lies in the art of Stevenson’s fancywork; but I want to suggest that since art and thought, manner and matter, are inseparable, there must be something of the same kind about the structure of the story, too. Let us be cautious, however. I still think that there is a flaw n the artistic realization of this story — if we consider form and content separately — a flaw which is missing in Gogol’s “TheCarrick” and in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”. The fantastic side of the setting — Utterson, Enfield, Poole, Lanyon, and their London — is not of the same quality as the fantastic side of of Jekyll’s hydization. There is a crack in the picture, a lack of unity.

“The Carrick,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “The Metamorphosis”: all three are commonly called fantasies. From my point of view, any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual. But when people call these three stories fantasies, they merely imply that the stories depart in their subject matter from what is commonly called reality. Let us therefore examine what reality is, in order to discover in what manner and to what extent so-called fantasies depart from so-called reality.

From “The Metamorphosis”, an essay in Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov



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