Mythologies. I’m trying.

Really, I am.

It started off with such magic. The wonderful world of wrestling as Aristotelian tragedy! Performance as catharsis! Relief from our own pain in a chaotic world that provides no clear reason for suffering–relief brought by the portrayal of simple stories of pain, caused by simple reasons (i.e., evildoers), and the subsequent execution of simple justice. Wrestling is life writ small and dumbed down until everything that confuses us is brought within our grasp. Everything makes sense.

But I jump ahead.  Let me tell you about a man who was killed by a laundry truck.

Roland Barthes drank whatever was in the water in France in the mid-to-late-20th-century.  French philosophers and theorists in this time period were mental gymnasts. They could think backwards and upside down while patting their head and rubbing their stomachs. All the major thinkers behind structuralism, post-structuralism, rhizomatic thinking–these, to me, are philosophical giants because they see the world in through lenses I would have never found by myself. I think Barthes especially is an amazing thinker. Some of his predecessors along the line of structuralist thinking were psychologists and linguists, and they were awesome. But Barthes is the literary guy, so I’ve always been partial to him. Barthes began as a structuralist thinker, believing that there were signs (signifiers) pointing toward universal concepts (signified). He moved toward post-structuralism later in life, tearing down the idea of universal absolutes instead of building them up. To this later version of him, for instance, a book’s content is not determined by the author at all. The reader is free to create what they like of the book instead of struggling to understand the single meaning the author intended to convey.

Oh, and then Barthes gets hit by a laundry truck and dies. For a life filled with such glorious thoughts, it’s a pretty inglorious end.

Oversimplified, Mythologies is a series of essays that aim to draw symbolic meaning from things in Barthes’ contemporary culture. Structuralism is a little more complicated than I just made it sound, but that definition will probably suffice for our purposes. For instance, in “The World of Wrestling,” wrestling becomes a drama that helps people feel that there is clarity in the world. They can cheer for the justice they can’t see clearly and simply played out in their own lives.

There’s also one on toys in which Barthes poses a rather luddite-smelling argument–that toys today just aren’t the same as they used to be. I’m not inclined to take most hell-in-a-handbasket speeches seriously, but the digging Barthes does is admirable.  He talks about how plastic, a chemical substance, replaced wood as the compositional material of toys, and he describes how the sort of toys made in his present were prefabricated and don’t encourage invention or construction the way they used to. Like I said, a familiar argument in general: “Man, they sure don’t make ’em like they used to. Kids today are going to grow up all scrambled.” But it’s an interesting argument in specifics–that the actual materials of toys act as signifiers. It’s fascinating to watch someone take Saussure’s ideas that words are signposts for concepts and then make the argument that actual things in this world–like plastic toys–also act as signposts.

So far, so good. Barthes has a lot of brilliant things to say.

But then,  there’s the section called “It’s Cute When Women Try, But They Better Not Forget Their True Calling as Human Incubators for My Genetic Material.” Oh, I’m sorry, I think it’s actually called “Novels and Children.” I’m going to just assume my objections to this section are obvious.

Since reading that chapter, I just haven’t been able to pick Mythologies back up. I got past “Novels and Children” and I only have a few chapters left, but it is just so, so hard for me to not feel sour on the book now. I pick it up and feel disgusted. I’m sure I’ll get over it, because don’t misunderstand–there’s a ton of value here.  A chapter out of a bygone era shows betrays what are now pretty unsavory convictions. You see it all the time. I’ll finish it one day. Probably even soon.  But meanwhile, I’m going to go read The Handmaid’s Tale (with great purpose) instead.

On Difficulty and The Name of the Rose

I have not been busy.  It’s just taken me this long to get through The Name of the Rose.

This book was difficult for me to get through.  Surface observations are these: when I would pick up the book, I would frequently find myself trimming cuticles, picking up my phone to play Candy Crush in the middle of a chapter, reading the same sentence over and over, skipping over pages and scanning for where the action picks up again, falling asleep–you know, the usual signs that the book you’re reading just isn’t really your cup of tea.

Some of my problems with books in the past is that they’re poorly written, unconvincing, or have flat characters.  None of this applied to The Name of the Rose. It was well written, other than some minor squabbles I might have with the readability of longer sentences. The book was utterly convincing: I never read a word that took me out of the pre-Renaissance setting, and I’d assert with confidence that the book was a product of plenty of research (at least language-wise, I’ve not enough knowledge to attest to its historical accuracy).  And I thought all the characters were marvelously developed.  From the material-wealth-loving abbot to the subtly snarky, deadpan William to the obsequious narrator, there was no one I didn’t think had their own personality.  And those personalities were developed skillfully and never presented in a way that seemed over the top.  So what made this book so hard for me?

George Steiner wrote an essay called “On Difficulty” which outlines problems readers might have with a text.  I think two of those apply here.  One of those difficulties is called “contingent.”  These are problems that arise when you don’t understand the material discussed in the text due to language or time gaps.  I recently bought my first property, and the difficulties I had with the closing documents were contingent ones–it’s all in lawyer-speak or referred to financial matters that I, up until now, didn’t know the first thing about.  Those were all challenges I could overcome with research and education (though I must confess that I prefer to let the legal-ese translators present at the closing spell it out for me).

One of the major things that made The Name of the Rose difficult for me was the Latin. The more learned reader can probably decipher plenty through knowledge of etymology.  That’s not really my specialty, so a lot of the dialogue went over my head.  Also, a substantial portion of the book was devoted to describing the warring religious sects’ tenets and interactions with one another.  It was impossible to keep up with, and even more impossible to keep up with which people belonged to which sect (and was mad at which other sects).  The religious history laid out was so layered and complex that I had no hope of following it unless I started taking notes.  And frankly, I am out of school and I am tired of taking notes.  So maybe chalk that up to reader error. At any rate, these are difficulties I could have overcome with research and work.  But this brings me to my second difficulty.

Steiner also outlined a difficulty he called “modal,” and this is the kind of difficulty that is a matter of personality conflict between author and reader.  Sometimes the objection might be moral. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste. And I think this is really where my struggles with The Name of the Rose began and ended.  I could have looked up the Latin, took notes on the characters, tried to understand the religious history and theological  complexity being described.  But I didn’t care; the book didn’t make me care.

That isn’t to say I believe the book has some obligation to make me care.  I don’t know what Eco’s belief about the reader’s role in literature is, but I’m not of the opinion that an author is some performer here to entertain me.  I’m just saying that I wasn’t interested enough in the plot and the subject material to do the work.  And that–the difference between my and Eco’s interests–was the modal difficulty that made the contingent difficulty impossible to overcome.

Writing vs. Speaking: Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners

I’m wandering my way through Donald Palmer’s Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners.  (And even the beginner-oriented explanation of this theory/school of criticism/worldview is tremendously hard to comprehend, but this book does a decent job of at least making you able to speak the language of the theorists.)  In section on Jacques Derrida, Palmer talks about the precedence set by past thinkers for shunning written language and favoring spoken language.  This pretty much blew my mind, for a reason I’ll get to later.

Palmer begins with Socrates, who believed that “true philosophy had to be a living, conversational exchange of ideas.” This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s studied philosophy, since it’s well known that Plato, speaking for Socrates, wrote in dialogue.  The tradition of seeing writing as an empty version or hollow imitation of speaking continues.  Palmer lists a series of people who felt the same way: Aristotle, Paul the apostle, Rousseau, Saussure.  For theorists coming from a tradition of Freudian thinking, this makes sense to me. Spoken language can reveal underlying beliefs and motivations, providing information about people and society that written language cannot as easily show.  (Think Freudian slips.) That’s because written communication (minus the infamous 2AM drunken text message, of course) is a more self-censored, deliberate form of expression.

But Palmer even discusses the fact that Claude Levi-Strauss felt guilty about introducing a written language to a tribe in South America that, presumably, only communicated via spoken word. What confuses me most about this point of view is that people lump spoken and written communication under a general umbrella so unquestioningly.  It’s as if the communication forms are washing machines, and people need to check consumer reports to see if the Maytag or the Kenmore unit is superior.    In my mind, the spoken word and the written word are completely different, and they give us opportunities to do completely different things.  Spoken word allows us to give multiple meanings to what we say through intonation and facial expression.  The wonderful addition of sarcasm to our communication arsenal is a purely conversation-based development. (I’d argue that any writing that is sarcastic can only be identified as such from our experience of it in interpersonal interactions.) Banter and repertoires are  more easily established from spoken communication.  We also get immediate feedback on what we say, on which we can base our next word choices. But writing allows us, as I said before, to be deliberate.  It allows us to craft an entire intricate story spanning thousands of pages, with every detail worked out. It lets us think carefully about our sentence structure without the jarring choppiness of long pauses.  It gives us the opportunity to go on the record as saying something a certain way, which (ideally) is a documented defense against people reshaping your words.  This is why it’s amazing to me that Levi-Strauss felt guilty for introducing writing to the Amazonian tribe.  Their oral communication wasn’t being watered down; they, instead, were gaining a whole new method of communication in addition to the one they had.

For me, the difference between writing and speaking is so great, the two forms are barely comparable.  At no time has this been more apparent to me than in the last few months as I’ve been interviewing. I’ve been applying for editing and writing jobs–in essence, jobs where I’d be paid to be a wordsmith.  On paper–where it counts, in this case–the right way to say things comes naturally.  I imagine authors often feel the same way. I’m thinking of reclusive, awkward novelists who struggle with real world relationships but are somehow masters of human interactions in their stories. In person, I struggle mightily for the right words, I draw blanks, and I put my foot in my mouth so often I’m surprised it isn’t stuck there.  Now, over the course of the last few months, interviewing has been a kind of boot camp for me. I’ve managed to develop an in-person professionalism that is no longer feels stilted and like a mask.  But the difference between my spoken communication and my written communication is still so vast that I hardly consider them comparable.    And it isn’t just that I’m better at one than the other anymore–they just aren’t the same thing.  They serve different purposes, and they add different things to our communication.

What gets really interesting is when these two communications come together.  The journal I interned for just had its release party, and I was asked to do a reading of one of my poems.  I had written a poem that I absolutely intended to be read aloud, so I was excited for the opportunity to share it.  It’s ugly on paper, frankly.  But, when performed,  it has a flow that it lacks on paper, and it becomes a kind of hip-hop song (which is appropriate, because the poem’s setting is a club). This piece can’t live or breathe without both forms of communication.

So, is speaking vs. writing a battle worth having?  Is one better than the other?  Simple answer–in my world, it’s not even a question to be asking.

What is Literature? Part Three: What Isn’t?

Before we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming of discussing specific works (I’m currently snail’s pacing my way through Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose), I’d like to do one last exploration for my “What is Literature?” series.

In the first part of the series, I talked about how those most immersed in lit are sometimes the worst people to ask.  In the second post of the series, I unsuccessfully tried to dream up literary criteria using examples. Today, I wanted to see if I could at least decide what literature isn’t. Maybe I can come up with a woefully oversimplified definition through opposing qualities.  It’s sure to be as flawed as any invented and imposed binary system, but at least it’d be something to work with.

Once, when I was at O’Hare getting ready to fly, I thought I’d stop and look at a Hudson News for a crossword puzzle. I stared at the rows and rows of Sudoku, which I despise. No crosswords in sight.  Fine, a book then.  Here are shelves teeming with mystery and crime behemoths, sure to reward the buyer with a cardboard cutout detective who meets a sassy and attractive problem-solving partner.  Each cliffhanging chapter will leave our cavernous, undeveloped characters in some kind of peril which momentarily distracts them from the stilted and formulaic sexual tension between them.  As I looked up and down the rows, finding exactly zero things I thought I could stomach, I decided that Sky Mall had more appeal–at least it has a sense of humor about itself.

Airport bookstores are where you go to find examples of “not literature,” in my opinion.  Like I said in my last post, it isn’t that I hate contemporary lit–or even that I hate popular lit.  I just hate bad books with bad characters and tired plots.  Most authors have a decent idea or two.  But those ideas are smothered by predictable, cheap engagement tactics and–the worst–empty shells in lieu of characters. The primary offender here is someone like Dan Brown.

But what about books I wouldn’t call bad but still can’t think of as literature? To me, Stephen King fits into this category. Most of what I’ve read from him is recent, and fans tell me that I’d change my mind if I read The Stand or The Dark Tower. So I qualify what I’m saying by admitting I haven’t read what most consider his best stuff.  But, to me, King is a plotsmith and nothing more.  He writes forgettable characters and has very forgettable prose. But the plots captivate, especially in the moment, and sometimes haunt the reader well after the book is finished. Is this enough to make it literature? My personal feeling is that, no, it’s not.  And it’s really, really difficult for me to pin down why.

What’s the difference between a King book and, say, Wuthering Heights? I like one more than the other, but I’m taking an extra step in calling something “literature” or “not literature.”  Even coming from someone who thinks the standards for literature are subjective, I simply feel that I’m appealing to something more universal when I talk about literature versus personal taste.

Is it the prose?  Is it the characters? Is that really the difference between “literature” and “not literature” to me?

As I’m contemplating this, I’m tossing around the idea that insecurity is buried underneath mountains of snobbery.  Do I define “not literature” according to ideas of purpose: specifically, edification as opposed to entertainment?  In other words, do I let the question “is this book amusing me or elevating me?” dictate my definition, making sure I only consider those books that make me feel serious, classy, and educated as literature?  In trying to find an honest answer, I just can’t think it’s so.  I read Dickens more for entertainment than any feeling of self-satisfied refinement I might get from being a person who reads the classics.   But on a subconscious level I do wonder how much of my definition of literature is tied in with self image.  I’ve seen plenty egos forged in the fires of classics-immersion.  (Glasses pushed down the nose, tea in hand, pinkie extended–all optional but desirable.)  I don’t think I’m in that club.  But it’s hard to say, being so unable to define literature clearly to myself.

But enough waxing philosophic! Next on the agenda comes thoughts on The Name of the Rose, or at the very least this copy of The Elements of Style that’s been sitting by my bed.  Slow reading these days.  Looking for a job really is a full-time job.


What is Literature? Part Two: Bottom-Up Logic

In the first post of this series, I discussed a few of the complications that come up when you ask a Lit major the question “what is literature?”  Here, I’ll work inductively toward an answer of what, to me, qualifies a work as literature.  In the next post, I’ll try to understand why I don’t classify some books as literature.

Disclaimer: this is just an attempt to figure out what makes something literature or not to me personally.  This is not what I believe to be universal, cosmically-verified fact.  I don’t think anyone can give a definition of literature on which everyone can agree, and some people will hate even my very first premise. Which is this.

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is the absolute epitome of literature.  When I think of why I love books, what I love about Crime and Punishment specifically comes to mind first.  And what is it that so draws me to Crime and Punishment? It’s a combination of elegance and rawness–elegance in the form of language and  treatment of characters, rawness in the form of portraying human vulnerability and suffering.  It’s character development. Dostoyevsky’s main characters are fully formed and have all the complexity and contradictory elements that can be found in real human psychology. (This is especially true of the male ones–the females have a bit of Ophelia/Hero/Desdemona syndrome in which self-sacrifice, purity, and helplessness are the only defining characteristics. But this is another discussion.) Crime and Punishment has done something to me in my most misanthropic moments.  If I read it, I feel a connection with my fellow humans again. I remember what it’s like to feel compassion.

So how can I go from this, my favorite book, to defining literature? Well, I thought I’d base it on what I think qualifies Crime and Punishment as its paragon.  When I thought about this a few days ago, I came up with a list  from Crime and Punishment of what I thought might act as a defining point for a general literature definition.  But every potential defining point forced consideration of a literary outlier for which I couldn’t account.

For example, let’s say I wanted to make some kind of moral argument.  That’s not really my style, but it’s worth investigating.  Crime and Punishment makes me more compassionate in real life, so maybe we can say that literature will have the effect of making a person or society better.  Well, there’s several problems with that.  Number one (and this is a big question), better how? Who defines better? Number two, several works I think qualify as literature, without really even knowing yet what I think that means, don’t make me or anyone else better.  They might exist mostly for the sake of form play, like Ulysses.  Or they might exist as art for art’s sake: every play from Wilde is like literary sugar with virtually no effect on the soul.  They might be simple celebrations of language’s power to sculpt a scene.  I remember a four-page description of a feast laid out on a table in A Christmas Carol (which I haven’t picked up since I was fourteen, so I hope I’m remembering this right), and it was delightful. Isolated from the rest of the novel, which certainly has a moral component, the description alone would make these pages literature, in my mind.  So the moral angle is out.  With it goes the idea that literature must have an effect on your everyday life or change you in some way.  Wilde’s witty romances and Dickens’ talk of cranberry sauce didn’t change my life or my outlook on it.

But aha! After looking at this, a commonality has emerged. Both Dostoyevsky and Dickens have beautiful use of language.  Maybe this can be a working point of definition for literature.  But no–Hemmingway. I’m not overly fond, but I’ve read (for one) The Old Man and the Sea, and it’s literature–no question about it.  For some authors, language nothing but a necessary utility to get a story across.  For Hemmingway, mastering language means figuring out how to make language get the least in the way of plot as possible, and he does a very effective job at it.

But Hemmingway’s old fisherman is fully formed character. Maybe it’s character development that defines literature. I might be on to something here, as far as my own definition of literature goes, because lack of character development is one of my biggest criticisms of modern books. But if I make character development a necessity, I eliminate from the discussion all works without any characters.  The Dickens Christmas Carol passage is out.  The rainwater-glazed, chicken-surrounded red wheelbarrow only can sit in the lobby of the literary hotel–in fact many poems can’t be considered literature if there must be characters in the work. So I can’t say that character depth is a defining aspect, either.  I could say that, if there are characters, they must be fully formed. But how subjective of a criterion is that? I’m sure plenty of people would say that, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is a fully-formed character, and I would argue that she isn’t at all (even her contrariness is predictable and dull as dishwater, in my opinion).

Well, here’s something.  Everything I’ve mentioned as literature is fairly old. I said that lack of great, fleshed-out characters in modern books is something I hate, and all things I’ve mentioned so far are at least pre-1960.  Maybe the pages just have to be yellow.  But even as I type that, I know how ridiculous a criterion that would be.  House of Leaves is absolutely literature.  It belongs more squarely in the category of literature than half the things I read in my Ancient Lit class. It’s much more literary than the Iliad. (Yeah, I said it.)  Cloud Atlas is a literary masterpiece–a whole world and a whole age contained in itself. And, oh, the masterful, unassumingly-titled A Visit From the Goon Squad, an undercover mural of gorgeousness. No way does a work need to be old to be considered literature, and shame on anyone who says so.

So where does this leave me in my bottom-up definition of literature? Well, if there are characters, they should be good ones.  And there isn’t really any objective way to decide whether or not they’re good.

So that wasn’t very productive at all.

Next up–what literature isn’t.  Maybe that will go better. (But since I already know what I’m going to write, here’s a hint: it won’t, really.)

What is Literature? Part One: Why You Shouldn’t Ask a Lit Major

2013-07-11 18.13.42

Lit·er·a·ture. noun. 1. A slippery fish.

This will be the first in a series of posts over the next few days in which I tackle a beast of a question: what is literature?  Before really confronting the subject, I wanted to relay some thoughts I’ve had as a Lit major just recently out of school, surrounded by peers studying the same.

I’ve spent years trying to define literature–not even broadly, just looking for my own personal, working definition.  After all, what literature is and isn’t amounts to individual standards, tastes, and regard for expert opinion/the test of time, which will vary person to person.  As is the case in regards to individual perception of beauty as described by Kant, another inherent (yet oxymoronic) conviction is that my personal decision about what is and isn’t literature should also be everyone else’s personal decision, but I’m going to try to pretend that I’m fine with dissenting opinions in an attempt to make it truly so.  Faking it (non-judgmentalism) till I make it, if you will. So let me take this opportunity to say, with bright smile and gritted teeth, I encourage all disagreement!

It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t actually know how to define literature. In my last semester at my community college, I took an American Lit class with a stand-out teacher who seemed to specialize in challenging ways of thinking.  On the first day, he made each of us articulate our definition of “literature.”  It was a disaster. There was never a doubt, even before I took my first college course, that I would major in Literature, so I was pretty perturbed when my turn came and I had nothing to say about the very subject in which I was aiming to become an expert. But as I went on with my studies, I quickly learned that I wasn’t alone in my inability to nail it down.

The more I heard from fellow English majors, specifically Lit track folk, the more I was (and am) convinced that some of the worst answers to the “what is literature” question come from those who major in it.  These are people who feel so strongly about the subject that they decide to make it their main area of study.  Of course they have convictions about its worth, and there’s a real pressure to justify the choice to invest oneself in literature beyond “Man, I sure dig reading.”

Most majors have pretty pragmatic uses.  Oh, you’re studying medicine?  If we didn’t have people like you, I would have died of pneumonia about seven years ago, so that’s pretty useful. Studying geology?  Cool–please let us know when to evacuate the entire American West because Yellowstone is about to flip its lid.  History major? A tiny bit harder to make the case for, but it teaches us patterns, helps us understand international relations, is of tremendous use in politics, etc. What’s the common thread here?  Use to society.

When most Lit majors try define literature, they simultaneously make an argument for its value. It’s as if the question “what is literature?” implies a begged question, “why is literature worthwhile?”  (Or perhaps, in some people’s cases, “I’m paying for you to major in WHAT? Absolutely not–you’ll become a registered nurse like we discussed”). Maybe it’s because literature, like art, seems so much more like a luxury rather than a necessity when compared to other areas of study.  Therefore, when we talk about what literature is, Lit majors often immediately go on the defensive and try to make a cause for the betterment of society. Elevated minds and culture and all that.  I’m not at all belittling the societal benefits of literature, but I am saying that Lit majors often don’t have clear enough heads to think about the subject critically because they’re too busy jumping to the part where they defend it.

Another real problem of Lit majors is an combination of ego and Protestant work ethic. Most will boldly proclaim their love of Shakespeare or use him as the primary go-to example of what literature is, and often (not always, but often) encoded in this example is a collection of disjointed, unspoken, perhaps unconscious thoughts, such as the following: “Shakespeare has a reputation of being hard to read. I had an awesome teacher once who helped me understand Shakespeare.  Now I understand something hard to read, so I am good at English, or something.” “Shakespeare has a reputation of being hard to read.  He also has a reputation as being amazing. Therefore, literature should be hard to read, but amazing if you work really, really hard at it. If it’s easy to read, it won’t reward the people who had to work to earn the meaning, so it must not be literature.” If something is easy to read, anyone at all can appreciate it and I’m not special, nor are my skills valuable, so Shakespeare is a good example since many people don’t understand him” “Shakespeare has been touted by experts for a few centuries now as the pinnacle of English literature. Therefore, if I am going to be an expert, I should align myself with other experts or else my taste will seem deficient.” “Shakespeare is old.  Old literature is classy. I’m not supposed to like new things, as a Literature major. Only smart, classy people like old books with hard-to-understand language.”

This is, of course, not a tirade against Shakespeare or especially against the people who study him and adore him.  In fact, the majority of the truly brilliant people I’ve met in the field are primarily Shakespeare scholars (probably contributing to the mimicked worship described above–thanks, guys). I’m just bringing to light some of the encoded messages in a Lit major’s discussion of the subject that might not appear in, say, a math student’s definition of literature.

I’m going to try to be the exception to the rule in my discussion of the subject. This shouldn’t be too hard for a few reasons.

1. I’ve been watching and taking note of bad definitions of literature from Lit majors for a few years now.

2. I am fortunate to lack the insecurity of many Lit majors because, as an adult student, I’ve never been required to justify my desire to study books to any funding entity. My only thought was “Man, I sure dig reading” when choosing my major.

3. If anything, I feel a teenage-angsty rebellion toward the experts. A million brilliant people over a long period of time have said this is worth reading? Fine. I’ll read it, and I’ll look for what they found valuable.  That doesn’t mean I will come to the same conclusion. I’m very aware of the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, and–Hume be damned–I think time can fail to expose the truth.

4. Do I think literature adds value to society? Absolutely! Do I think that value can always be concretely defined or empirically verified? Not in the slightest. The value of literature to society should be part of the conversation.  It should not be the whole conversation.