1.19.2004

Horse and Carriage, Love and Marriage

It's great to see Matt onboard!

Unfortunately, I'll probably look like an old stick in the mud to Matt and perhaps a flying carpet to Gabe. Hopefully, eventually, I'll look like a union (the harness that connects the horse to carriage) between what appears to be two different, disparate parts--the practical and the lofty--for what good is one without the other?

Take a cake. Without frosting, it's functional but rather uninteresting; without cake, it's stimulating but too sugary/buttery. Together, they're irresistible.

The title goes a little further: we cannot put the carriage before the horse. Literary theorists do important work, but as Baudrillard might say: as we become more of an end in itself, we're getting further from the original and begin describing a phenomenon entirely other than such a name implies (i.e. literary theory).

Academic literary theory is the thematic frosting or carriage. Indispensable to cake, indispensable to getting a number of thoughtful readers from here to there. But this analogy also implies it's incomplete. Good literature provides satisfactions that theory leaves undescribed, especially plot and character except in how they relate to theme but also it has yet to describe what Gabe is calling sense of wonder among other aspects that makes science fiction appealing.

Jung's unconscious symbolism might come close by creating an analogous set of wonders, but is it really describing the thing or setting up another sense of wonder? After all, we could probably use Jung to describe The Scorpion King far better than Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God" but Sturgeon's story is far more stimulating intellectually.

This example introduces the two-fold problem: 1) inferior literature can be made to look superior with theory, 2) literary theory hasn't yet defined what makes sense of wonder more appealing in an original work than in one that's derivative. In theory, The Scorpion King should be more wonderful, but it isn't.

So literary theory is somewhat incomplete and needs to be more than just itself to describe literature.

Another issue I have is that some literary theorists think their theory is a complete picture of a work. They plow through literature applying one set of rules to all works that may be guided by wholly different principles. They might be attempting to explain the horse and carriage by examining the carriage wheel so that we walk away from the analysis with the idea that a horse and carriage is a round thing with spokes radiating out from a hub. So that examining one aspect distorts what the whole truly is.

For example, when I read various articles on John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, I read a feminist article which failed to comprehend that the one woman in the story was not the center of the story. She was one of a set of wheels whose dream was destroyed by wanting the dream of success too badly. One might also examine the text as a look at racism. But the woman, the old man, the wandering laborer, and the black man all share the same kind of dream manifested in the body of Lennie. Single character examinations fail to take in the whole picture, fail to grapple with the true text. The characters could conceivably work together to create the dream a reality, but they don’t: they allow greed for the dream to kill us or others. So the dream has to be killed.

(Arguably, one might conclude that only the woman dies at the hands of the dream but hasn’t everyone died with the death of the dream? For could not Candy and George still buy a couple of acres on their own? Moreover, in a comparative dramatic sense, nobody gives a damn if a man dies at the hands of a man, but a woman! The death of a woman will always be more significant than a man’s because she is less expendable by virtue of owning a womb rather than owning innumerable sperm. Even outside of drama, I believe statistically, more men commit suicide over the death of their spouse than women.)

In examining the text with one set of rules without looking at what the text does as a whole, we distort what the true picture is, like blind men feeling the elephant (the trunk is a snake, no the leg is obviously a tree stump, and so on).

Yet another problem is that theorists often use the entirely wrong set of interpretive tools. For example, we condemn Tolkien for being racist and anti-technological when a far more obvious and reliable interpretation is close at hand. In a sense, Tolkien brought it on himself for saying it wasn’t about the big War looming. But consider: who was the biggest threat to the peaceful pipe-smoking hobbits of London--I mean, Hobbiton: Africa or Germany? Hmm. Which was destroyed in a previous war and was building new weapons of destruction: Africa or Germany? Hmm. Tolkien simply didn’t want to condemn all Germans as orcs. He’d oversimplified the scenario in order to make a point, so he hid from the most obvious and best interpretation: historical. When technology is used solely to destroy, who wouldn’t be anti-technological?

And so we have to be careful in which interpretative tools we employ, lest we condemn men for crimes they did not commit.

We do need theory, and I applaud the appeal. But we also need to examine literature as a complete product and as a whole interpretation and as a potentially new object presently outside the purview of literary theory to describe it at its best, without (at least as much as possible and not giving up for its incomplete possibility) personal bias of our vision.

At the risk of quoting the Smiths too much:

"Shoplifters of the world, unite and take over!"

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