Monday, January 18, 2021

Notes From an Unliterary Reader

The knowledge I gained from reading "An Experiment in Criticism" (Well, That Stung, 1/11/21) has provided me with further insights, which is what self-knowledge is supposed to do.  I will state again that I think Lewis is correct in what he calls an unliterary reader, and after an initial feeling of being miffed, have decided it is rather humorous and has significant explanatory power for my reading and appreciation of the arts in general. I am an unliterary reader, because I am almost entirely something else, a reader for information. More evidence that it's rather a disease, really.

I don't want to oversell this.  It isn't as if I have no understanding of poetry, description, atmosphere, or myth.  I likely have more than the average citizen.  It's just that I have a lot less than most people who have read a lot of literature and are trained in the arts. I like poetry well enough once I have read even a bit of analysis or explanation of it.  I certainly like a good deal of music beyond just the tune, and admire a good lyric - likely because those are more straightforward than poetry. Yet I have always skimmed the description even in novels I adore, such as Tolkien or Lewis. Get on with it, will you? When I would read these aloud to my sons I would see things I had not before, which was interesting.  To make it interesting to them I would concentrate on the expression of each sentence, applying emphasis and phrasing on the fly.  When I was first reading Watership Down to my oldest son I mentioned somewhat apologetically that Adams seems to describe every plant on the landscape. "But Dad," he said "That's how it would look to rabbits."  He was less bothered by this than I, even as a child.  Entering into the world of rabbits, rather than just getting a whopping good narrative about them, was fine with him. 

This lack also explains to me why I have never been impressed by the evaluation of a movie or a book that raves about how well it was done, even though the critic disapproves of the message. He's a wonderful prose stylist. Well, so what? My son who is a filmmaker, unsurprisingly, finds it easy to admire the craft of a director even while disliking the theme. I can only do this in a limited sense.  I can certainly admire technique and skill in a musician or a painter, and even more can be irritated by something that is not well done, even if its purpose and theme are to my liking.  Not for nothing have I always approved of Goethe's Three Questions and its order, but only today did I notice that I  "approved of the order" only in the sense that #3 is last. What is the artist trying to do? is a foundational question for the second, How well did he do it? But for me, the answer to the first question also tells me whether I want to even bother with the other two. Philip Pullman wrote His Dark Materials as an anti-Lewis, anti-Narnia fantasy.  I don't want to read it, then. I don't care how well he did it.  I don't find that "interesting" in any way. That's what it means to be an unliterary reader, and I'm fine with that. I want to soak up information that I can keep and use somewhere, or race along with a narrative. I can sometimes savor music, as in the Pachelbel Canon in Dmaj, listening to it as an expression of the Trinity (even though it is written for four instruments).  I can go back and reread favorite books, not so much to learn something new every time, as literary people always say, but to re-experience the narrative and hear the conversation.  I am very big on conversation in literature, as I love conversation in real life.* Hmm. I can hear and savor nuance better than see it.  I just concluded that as I wrote it.  I may revise later.

My younger brother has always made his living in technical theater, particularly lighting, but has mentioned that he believes he understands and interprets scripts well. Certainly, one must be able to appreciate mood, movement, and atmosphere to do this, so I have to conclude he has this literary ability in greater measure than I. We inherited differently from our parents, likely. I was the one more interested in the stage at first, and he tagged along as younger brothers do.  But he was enchanted on his own, and made theater connections on his own in a new town after I left for college. Then he stuck with it, even when it didn't pay well enough or people treated him badly. I think my wife and two natural sons have more literary sensibility as well.

I am listening to an interview with Holly Ordway who has a book coming out in a week Tolkien's Modern Reading: Middle-Earth Beyond the Middle Ages. She set out to knock down a myth about Tolkien, that he thought literature ended with Chaucer and had little approval or appetite for modern writers, because in her academic research she kept finding counterexamples. Tolkien loved Dylan Thomas, bought Finnegan's Wake as soon as it came out because he was so impressed with Joyce's earlier work, he nominated E.M.Forster for a Nobel Prize. He praised ERR Eddison's creativity and style, even as he found the underlying values evil. Clearly, he had this ability to draw from and savor works that he might disapprove of in some other way. Unsurprising in a literary man, I suppose. A further explanation why this was never the career for me.

As an aside, Ordway wondered where this myth had grown up, as it had so little support in the factual events of Tolkien's life and writing. She attributes it to his first biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. 

It is Carpenter who popularized the idea that Tolkien was a reactionary old medievalist, uninterested in contemporary literature: “The major names in twentieth-century writing meant little or nothing to [Tolkien]. He read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.” (Michael Ward The Catholic World Report, Jan 16, 2021 [good article, hot off the presses])

Carpenter, the son of the Anglican Bishop of Oxford,  who became an atheist at age 21 didn't like Tolkien, didn't like the Inklings, didn't like Oxford scholarship, and didn't like Christians. Christopher Tolkien was incensed at the first draft of the biography. Carpenter removed a few sections and no more was said about it. But there are apparently other myths about Tolkien, such as not approving of women scholars and avoiding them, or being a Luddite who disliked modern technology, that also stem from HC's biography. It is testament to a sort of founder's effect in information, that whoever gets in first can dominate the thinking for a long time to come. We like to believe that the truth will eventually out, but I doubt that.

*Well, sometimes.  Sometimes you bore me, nearly all of you, and I can't wait to get away and soak up some information somewhere, or daydream about some interactive lecture that I might give to a Sunday School class or a Grand Rounds. I like the radio station that plays in my head.


Donna B. said...

At the intersection of poetry and music, I'd rather read Leonard Cohen's lyrics than listen to him (or anyone else) sing them. I didn't like Robert Frost because my first introduction to him was his poetry set to abominably over-dramatic music as a freshman in high school choir.

I too skim description in novels, and occasionally I've had to go back and read it because the description had bearing on the plot. This does not happen often and it almost never happens in a description that is more than a few paragraphs. However, I find that if the description is of something that I have knowledge of, I will pay attention. It's probable that this attention is to find errors. I almost threw my Kindle at the wall when an author had his characters traveling I-40 through Colorado, but decided deleting the book was the wiser choice. Not quite as satisfying.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Only off by a hundred miles. The comp in NH is someone on West Wing saying he couldn't wait to get back to NH, get on his motorcycle and roar along the Daniel Webster Highway. There is a DW Highway - actually, there are lots of them, as only certain sections of Rte 3 are named that. It's a stop and go with multiple traffic lights. Up above Lincoln you might be able to get up some speed because frankly, population is sparse Above The Notch, but it's not always good road and there's not always as much shoulder as you might like. I imagine some folks up there do roar on motorcycles a bit, but spring comes late and winter comes early even by our standards, so not a lot of folks make that investment. Snow machines attract the dollars, and a lot of bikers find those to be a hoot.

The original script likely said Kancamagus Highway, an East-West Route in the mountains beloved by hikers and leaf-peepers. It winds nastily, so it's an adventure to drive at much speed. But the editors likely nixed that in favor of something more historical sounding. It's pronounced variously, but Kain-ka-MAH-gus is considered best. Or to be safe, just say "The Kanc."

Donna B. said...

A mention of 'Kancamagus Highway' would likely have caused me to google some images or a map as I just did. Beautiful! 'Daniel Webster Highway' might not have triggered that impulse because the name is historically familiar.

Texan99 said...

TV shows and films supposedly set in Texas invariably have mountains in the background, often in East Texas. There are some modest mountains in the Big Bend area in far West Texas, generally about 700 miles from where the action is supposed to be set.

Donna B. said...

@Texan99 -- one of my virtual friends was continuity staff on Walker, Texas Ranger. AYyyeee... we're no longer 'friends' because... well, I lived in the area. (This virtual friendship began in the 90s on AOL in the Mercury News Trivia game chat room. I miss those days. The fun was worth the $0.06/minute dial-up cost.)

RichardJohnson said...

I can go back and reread favorite books, not so much to learn something new every time, as literary people always say, but to re-experience the narrative and hear the conversation.

My response is, yes and no.

I often go back to a book recently read and reread certain passages. More than once. And yes, it is conversation that I go back to. Which points out an advantage of e-books- those passages are readily located via keyword searches. No need to remember the page or chapter.

I don't reread in entirety that often- there are already so many books on my "to read" list. Regarding re-reading in entirety, my take is that you become more familiar with the whole book, and as such you do learn something new- or at least you can more readily discuss the details. In rereading, the book becomes more a part of you. In my book club, we read Willa Cather's My Antonia, which I had already read several years ago. It was one of my favorite books, for some instances in which her dialogue was similar to dialogue I heard during my life. As such, the book spoke to my experience. After the book club discussion on My Antonia, a fellow member complimented me on my knowledge of the book.

I heard that a classmate in my English Literature class in high school had Aced our Shakespeare exams, courtesy of having read our assigned Shakespeare plays twice. As the tests involved knowledge of certain arcane details, that probably helped her. In response to students objecting to being tested on certain details, our teacher's response was that such questions tested our knowledge of the text. If you don't know the details, how can you discuss the great ideas? He later got a doctorate - thesis topic on Shakespeare- so his reply, in retrospect, had some authority.

I later took a college course in Shakespeare. In imitation of my high school classmate, I read each assigned play twice. Instead of being tested on arcane details, the professor assigned us take-home essays on the great ideas. I got the only semester grade A that I ever got in an English class after 8th grade. I imagine that my greater familiarity acquired from rereading enabled me to better write essays on the great ideas.

(Decades later, I had a phone conversation with my prof. We had read in book club a book whose author had attended the college where my prof taught and that I attended. I asked if my prof had that future author as a student.Turned out, not. Even so, we had a good conversation about mutual acquaintances.)

Zachriel said...

Donna B: I almost threw my Kindle at the wall when an author had his characters traveling I-40 through Colorado

"Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River"

Assistant Village Idiot: "But Dad," he said "That's how it would look to rabbits."

Your progeny is a genius, of course.

Assistant Village Idiot: He's a wonderful prose stylist. Well, so what?"

There is always a tension between craft and content. Combining the two is the art, but there may be more emphasis one way or the other. Sometimes a stylistic piece may have more influence over other artists than general audiences, but that influence may ultimately change the greater culture. At its best, the style should reveal the message. Consider La Belle Dame sans Merci by Keats:

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

Each stanza has four lines. The first three lines have a conventional four foot meter, but the last line of each stanza has only two feet. It creates an aura of mystery and a sense of detachment from the real world suitable to the theme.

Assistant Village Idiot: Yet I have always skimmed the description even in novels I adore, such as Tolkien or Lewis.

With ordinary prose, sure, but if the artist is first rank, then the exposition may be essential to understanding the overall meaning of the work. Consider the opening paragraphs of Du Maurier's Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Sure, the opening prose is somewhat difficult, but it creates the mood and the essential setting for the remembrances of Mrs. de Winter.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Zachriel - you seem to qualify as a literary reader then. Good on you. It still leaves me cold.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: It still leaves me cold.

That wasn't really our point. Do you get Keats' poem? Does the rhythm enhance the reading for you? You don't have to intellectually recognize metrical feet to feel the beat. Or Du Maurier's exposition: "But moonlight can play strange tricks with the imagination, even with a dreamer’s imagination. As I stood there, I could swear that the house was not an empty shell, but lived and breathed as it had lived before... Then a cloud came over the moon, like a dark hand across a face. The memories left me." Does this set the mood for you? If so, then you are as literate as you need to be.

Sure, an expert in cinematography may be able to explain the use of color in Dr. Zhivago, but you don't have to be an expert to be moved by the effect created.
If you were to skip past all the scenes that reveal Zhivago's poetic view of the world, then what is the meaning of the story? Why would you even care?

In any case, your kid had it right. It's how the rabbit sees the world, and that viewpoint enhances the character, sets the rhythm, and makes us more intimately feel what happens to them when the story turns to the action we all crave.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is nothing to get, says my spirit. I read ten words in and I am bored, so I move on. I don't doubt that there is a lot there that people who like that sort of thing can find, and can feel it, experience it, and analyse it to heighten their experience. To me that would only be a marginal increase in reading enjoyment. I exaggerate for effect, but the point stands. Only in occasional situations does it matter to me.

You are talking about flavor to a man whose taste buds work imperfectly. To stick with that analogy, you are saying Don't you see that basil is a better choice than thyme here? Don't you appreciate the crunch of the thin crust on the chicken versus a thick crust or no crust? Don't you see that the order of the dishes, and the presentation on the plate matter? To which I could have only partial agreement. "I'm with you on the crunch, yes. Super. Yes, I see that this presentation looks better than that one, but it is gone in a moment and I don't really attend. And I can't taste the difference between basil and thyme, so there's no point in savoring it, discussing it, and rhapsodising about its superiority. The rest of you at the table can go on happily talking about it and I don't mind, but I'm going to just order another drink and go out for a smoke now."

You seem to be saying that I could tell the difference between basil and thyme if I'd just give it a chance, or more subtly, that I actually do detect the difference but I am not attending to it. I was a literature major. I think I can say that I've given it a chance. When I am given some explanation about a poem I can enjoy it on some other level, but still not quite the one you are assuring me about. As an example, see my post about Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods." I get something of it, and like the extra bits such things as the continuity of the rhyme scheme and the cadence bring to the poem. But nearly all of it is lost to me. It's mostly just the mood of woods in snow at night alone, which I have experienced myself, plus the wonderful last line, repeated. The poem evokes an experience I have had on my own and it's nice to enter into that, but the poem does not add anything to my experience of it. I entirely believe others when they tell me it adds to theirs. I am the poorer for it.

james said...

Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it IS good.”

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: It's mostly just the mood of woods in snow at night alone, which I have experienced myself, plus the wonderful last line, repeated.

Assistant Village Idiot (from previous post): "the responsible civilised world and the dreamland, even death-and-disappearance-land, even more of a borderland" "They aren't lovely and dark and deep, they are lovely because they are dark and deep." ... "They don't know horses, then."

Then you do seem to get it.