In my last post (link), I argued that if you want to accurately understand what a text means, you need to acknowledge that it will mean multiple things; I also observed that that “if” was not a given. In this post, I am going to elaborate on that conditional. Now, I have written about it before in my discussion of taking someone to account for their tweets (link) and in my discussion of three kinds of reading (link). To further explain my argument to Jon, this post will mostly be a synthesis and summary of those two, reviewing why exactly a person might want to understand what a text means independent of particular authors and readers.
Source: Kennedy Library at flic.kr/p/gc8Ufs
I have identified and named three kinds of reading; I do not pretend that I am the first to identify these things, but I’m going to use my system because I think it is a good one. I laid these out in “Headcanons, Singer-Songwriters, and J. K. Rowling’s Tweets” on this blog (linked above), in order to update and improve my work in “A Theory of Reading 1.0.” I’ll block-quote these kinds of reading below:
Transitive interpretation attempts to understand something beyond the text object itself, something which the text communicates according to the conditions of its creation: the author’s state of mind, information which the text conveys, and so on. This is, as I said, a vexed process; no absolute understanding of that information is possible through the text (or out of the text, but that’s another story), yet the text is still evidence for better and worse arguments about the author, the text’s topic, and so on.
I stole the transitive-intransitive distinction from Roland Barthes, though it should be noted that Barthes denies that texts are transitive at all.
Jon was talking to me about what he wanted to teach his students in the coming year, and he remembered that, years ago, I had argued that complex readings are preferable to simple ones.1 He asked me why that was; he couldn’t recall the argument, only the claim.
I believe he was referring to the series I wrote about literary criticism, or perhaps just literary interpretation, where I tried to lay out what I took to be the lowest common denominators of most people working in literature departments (link). That series does, by way of its central argument, explain why I prefer a complex reading to a simple one; however, that central argument is spread out over several posts, and my series does not answer this question easily or directly, so for simplicity’s sake I will make the case here.
One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market,” a poem often read as containing lesbian subtext.
My friend Jon asked to guest post at Accidental Shelf-Browsing as his own blog is basically defunct; what he wanted to publish was his Top 10 ranking of Taylor Swift songs. This is considerably off-brand for this space (perhaps I am a fool for worrying about such things, but I do), so I said I would be interested in something that was very reflective about the aesthetic standards by which he made his judgements; I keep meaning to write a post about aesthetic standards and choosing between them, which his piece would then complement. The following is what he gave me. The usual disclaimers apply: Jon’s opinions do not represent my own, nor do I take responsibility for them. The only changes I have made are in converting formatting to something compatible with WordPress and in light copy editing.
“Taylor Swift Speak Now – Pittsburgh,” by Ronald Woan. Source: flic.kr/p/9UX1U1
Because of its length, his post will come in two parts, which I have split arbitrarily in the approximate middle. This is Part 2. Part 1 can be found here (link).
If I recall correctly, I am the one mentioned below who observed Jon has strong deontological instincts.
An Objective and Unbiased Ranking of Taylor Swift’s Best Songs
I admit that when I first drafted this list, I was inclined to leave Mine, the opening track to Speak Now, off the top 10 entirely. Then I listened to all the songs again in order to be fair to them. It only took one listen for me to realize I had erred in my original supposition that this song was not among her 10 best. My guess is that it has to do with Mine not standing out on a musical level, which speaks again to how important it is for *songs* to sound good. That seems like it would be self evident, but my years spent among indie-music elitists have shown me otherwise.
Mine is plenty catchy enough to listen to, but the standout qualities of this song lie in its lyrics. Taylor Swift is particularly good at writing ballads—an art that is perhaps a little rarer in pop music than in other genres, and this story of two partners taking on the world together is both cute and clever. It contains one of Taylor Swift’s very best lines: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter,” as well as a chorus that changes with the context of the song with each revisit, which is something that artists frankly do not do often enough. Continue reading
While he was driving me to Toronto a few months ago, Jon and I were talking about YA fiction. Somehow in the course of that conversation I mentioned that I understood the Hunger Games films as containing a libertarian subtext, and that I had read an article about how many YA dystopia books have such a subtext. After Jon pressed me for further explanation, I interpreted The Hunger Games as a libertarian film for him; I was certainly not the first to notice its ideological commitments, and you can see some examples linked in my combative annotated bibliography on libertarianism. But part of my explanation is rooted in how The Hunger Games and its sequels depict the wealthy people of the Capitol as both gender-non-conforming and decadent. The luxury and sophistication of the Capitol citizens are intrinsic markers of their moral corruption above and beyond those pleasures’ costs to the poorer Districts, I said, and I went on to allude to a history of anti-luxury and anti-sophisticated-pleasures sentiment in Protestant and American conservatism. Jon has since asked me to write this up further for use in a high school classroom, but it might also be useful to others too.
Karen Roe’s “The Making of Harry Potter 29-05-2012”
I have attempted to write this post a few times with little luck. A large part of the problem is that I do not remember how I came to understand this history of opposition to sophisticated pleasures and its relationship to American-style libertarianism. I do know of a few bits and pieces. There is a passage in H P Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness which used “decadence” in a way then unfamiliar to me which only afterwards made sense. There was an academic article I read about the characters of Falstaff and Prince John in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV which referred to competing economic theories of luxury goods (especially “sack,” meaning a fortified wine) in Elizabethan England. There have been perhaps a half-dozen posts on the blogs of Roman Catholics like Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry which observe that Catholic countries have better food than Protestant countries because the former know how to enjoy life’s physical pleasures. I remember less well the dozens of broad generalizations of the effects Protestantism has had on the Low Countries, England, and North America I must have read between high school history classes, undergraduate courses at Queen’s, and graduate courses as UBC, or the lectures on the history of belief in the rise and fall of civilizations, or the articles about the effects all these have American culture today. Moreover there is the pattern of observations I have had in my own rural working-class childhood and in the time I spent in Fort McMurray.1 I cannot begin to summarize all of this. And if I cannot marshal all of these sources appropriately, I cannot make an argument, exactly; I do not expect anyone to just take my word for all of this, and yet I don’t even really know what my own sources are. What I can do is sketch out my position, and gesture toward some related material, and hope that I can supplement this with a better-researched piece later.
I have spent enough time in academia and then in a museum to be leery of making broad claims without substantiating them, but this is a blog post after all; if I cannot do this provisional kind of writing here, I cannot do it anywhere.
A Second Possible Consistency
In Part One of this discussion, I introduced the problem of appreciating different kinds of consistency in fantasy literature and then I elaborated the planetary correspondences of The Chronicles of Narnia as an example of a fantasy series which uses a different kind of consistency than a logical one. Now, I am not going to argue that L. F. Baum also had planetary correspondences in his work, or that the Harry Potter franchise has some hidden theological depths. What I want to suggest, though, is that each might have something more like a thematic or atmospheric consistency in place of a logical one.
Carol Smith, “Harry Potter-47”
I think it is worth making a distinction between two ways in which that might be true. First, it might have achieved such a consistency which is easy to overlook if you aren’t primed for it; Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, according to Ward, Are an example of this. Second, it might attempt such a consistency but not have achieved it. What I mean by this is that various markers in the text suggest a sort of consistency which it aims at but a careful examination of the text will nonetheless reveal it was not successful. In that case logical consistency of the sort at which G. R. R. Martin excels would not necessarily be the best standard by which to judge the text; however, the best standard by which to judge the text is some other kind of consistency at which it also fails.1 In such a way it might be analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which really doesn’t work in the sense of logical consistency: the population distributions and the modes of agriculture, resource extraction, and economics are all impossible or at least seriously implausible. However, Tolkien does a sufficiently good job of making all of the cultural aspects look coherent that this is easy to overlook. So it might be more accurate to say that these other texts might be better judged by different standards of consistency than it is to say they are consistent in different ways, because they may have failed to meet those different standards of consistency.
A Problem with Harry Potter
Due to the news that in the latest Harry Potter film the snake Nagini is revealed to be a human woman transformed, there has been a recent popular re-evaluation of the seven novels which originated the franchise. Many of the observations that I’ve seen on Twitter have focused on Rowling’s troubling use of racist stereotypes and her very Anglocentric errors. I have little to add as far as that goes because anything I’d have to say has been said already by others; the most relevant Twitter threads are Alexandra Erin’s and Shivam Batt’s. There is an assumption in some of these threads, however, that the world of Harry Potter could be or ought to be logically consistent in much the same way that our own is, which I consider to be mistaken. Take, for instance, questions of scale: of course it is logical nonsense that a school the size of Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in Britain given what the population of wizards in Britain seems to be in the books. And by the standards of something like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series or G. R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, which have admirably plausible, intricate, and well-developed worlds, that’s a problem. The assumption that fantasy worlds must be built on some sort of logical or plausible structure is very characteristic of how mainstream fantasy1 does often operate, but I think it is worth observing that there have always been other kinds of fantasy which do not share this assumption: Barrie’s Peter Pan books, Carrol’s Alice books, and Baum’s Oz books come most readily to mind. These books’ lack of logical consistency does not mean that they lack any internal consistency; rather, they may have consistency of a wholly different kind. I think the best way to begin exploring this other kind of consistency is by examining Michael Ward’s interpretation of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which I will spend the rest of this post doing. In a subsequent post I will speculate about possible consistencies in Harry Potter and other fantasy.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA are in the public domain in Canada, and my understanding of Canadian copyright law is that the original illustrations therefore would be as well. Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong in this.
Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom, in the comments of my second to last post, “A Partial Apology for Liberalism,” recommended that I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Though I was skeptical for the first few chapters and I found some of the prose unclear, I wound up quite enjoying it. I’m not convinced of the demonstrative half of his argument, but I will discuss that in greater length later. Right now I want to focus on his discussion of Sophoclean tragedies.
Source: UCI UC Irvine at flic.kr/p/dp67Vf
Not only the most fascinating play of the period, but its greatest prose work (in England), has melancholy for its theme. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is an exhaustive analysis of the causes, symptoms, treatment and cure of melancholy, with two enormous appendices on love melancholy and religious melancholy. Burton was an Oxford don, and his chief amusement is said to have been going down to the Isis river and listening to the bargemen swear. The story may be true, or it may have been invented by someone who noticed that the qualities of Burton’s prose, with its vast catalogues, piled-up epithets, Latin tags, allusiveness and exhaustive knowledge of theology and personal hygiene, are essentially the qualities of good swearing. Burton assumes rather than discusses the connexion of melancholy with creative power: being a scholar himself, like Hamlet, he associates it rather with the scholarly temperament, and includes a long digression on the miseries of scholars. On religious melancholy his position is simple: one can best avoid it by sticking to the reasonable middle way of the Church of England, avoiding the neurotic extremes of papist and puritan on either side. But in love there is no reasonable ground to take, for its very essence is illusion.
This comes from Northrop Frye’s “The Imaginative and the Imaginary” in his Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. Frye is considered obsolete in the discipline, but as with almost any critic who has had any popularity or respect in the field at all, he has excellent observations. I rather like the ones above.
Source: Kaysha at flic.kr/p/sK8Pe3
Watching Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller 2015), which I very much enjoyed, I was struck by how existentialist the film was; indeed, it made me realize that all post-apocalyptic fiction has an existentialist seed. But then, there is also something post-apocalyptic about existentialism. God is dead, spake Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. God remains dead. And we have killed him. If that doesn’t announce an apocalypse, I don’t know what does.
When Nietzsche declared God dead, he was not making a metaphysical claim but rather a moral and psychological claim: at one point, humanity relied on the authority of God to guarantee moral questions. In order to decide what to do, what kind of decision to make, they appealed to God; moreover, this appeal was beyond question. But as Nietzsche pointed out, by the end of the seventeenth century God no longer had ultimate moral authority. People might well still believe in God and derive their morality from that belief, but it was no longer the case that any moral code, any moral prescript, was unquestionable. God as a figure for absolute norms was dead. This was not a physical apocalypse but it was, at least, a social and ethical one. And as with so many apocalypses, some of us survived it (though, as Dallas Hunt might point out, the question is not so much “did we survive?” but “who is the ‘we’ that survived?”).
In what I called A Theory of Reading 1.0, a series at The Thinking Grounds, I tried to articulate and justify what seemed to me to be the underlying assumptions and approach of literary interpretation in the English discipline. In its supplementary materials, I tried to tie up some loose ends, especially shoring up my explanation against authorial intent and reader-centred interpretations. I’m glad I did that work, because it led to my writing about Twitterary Theory, which I’m pretty happy with.
However, there are some outstanding problems with that version. I say “version” because I understood it as an initial attempt. One day I am going to attempt a 2.0, maybe a 3.0, as needed. I expect that I will need to update my understanding of interpretation as I learn more. Even as I wrote it, I knew that I was weak in the area of what Foucault calls the “author function.” I still do not feel equipped to deal with that problem. Since writing the series, a few more problems have come up, too.
First, what about singer-songwriters? My friend Jon Wong insists that listeners understand songs in relation to the real biography of singer-songwriters. For the most part I would say that my explanation of the problems of reading are universally binding; whether or not listeners attempt to understand songs in relation to their singers is utterly irrelevant to the dynamics of interpretation in the same way it is irrelevant with readers, books, and writers or viewers, paintings, and artists. I do want to bookmark Jon’s concern, though, because it will come up later.
Source: InSapphoWeTrust at flic.kr/p/ahSdHz