So now that A Serious Game has wrapped I find myself without my weekly guaranteed blog entry. The upshot is that this semester I am nowhere near as busy as I was last semester, so in theory I should have more time to do write-ups about various things that occur to me. The problem, then, becomes getting these things to occur to me.
I saw a production of Hamlet last Sunday that was billed as “Young Hamlet” — because it was based off the first quarto (Q1) text of the play, rather than the First Folio text we all are generally familiar with. The thing about Q1 Hamlet is that it is very, very different from the Folio Hamlet. To give you an idea: the character of Polonius is, in Q1, called Corambis, and two silly courtiers are Rosencroft and Guilderstone, and so on. The play is half the length as well, with the production I saw running in at a brisk two hours — this isn’t just because whole speeches aren’t there, but that when they are they are, they’re often shortened or paraphrased versions of the speeches we know. The most pertinent example here is “To be or not to be — ay, there’s the point!”
Anyway, there are two reasons why this version is called Young Hamlet. One theory is that this text written by Shakespeare early in his London career — he would have been in his 20s — and it was revised later in life to make the more popular Folio version. The second reason is that you can figure out Hamlet’s age from some things said by the gravedigger near the end of the play, and if you listen to him in the Folio, Hamlet is about 30 while in Q1 he’s 16-19. Though I like the Folio text more, I actually prefer a younger Hamlet, because the play just makes more sense. I mean, the guy is a college student, and even in Shakespeare’s day, if you’re 30 and in college and living at home (and dating a teenaged girl?) there is something wrong with you.
So there are some good things about the Q1 text despite its omissions, and seeing it in performance actually opened up the text for me more. I don’t know if this speaks to the integrity of Hamlet as a piece of drama or to the obvious care and enthusiasm put forth by the production team, but it was really fun to watch. There’s a delicious tension in Hamlet for me, at about the point right after he meets with the Ghost. Here all of the machinery of the play seems to lock into place and I can only watch astounded from the sidelines as the play rockets toward its conclusion, when everything spectacularly goes to shit.
This production — and this text — had that same inertia, it seems. It was really great to see this similar-but-different take on a story I know very well, and to see some very clever staging decisions the production made. If there was one big disappointment, it was that the play’s pace in this earlier version was probably too fast — the ending came about very abruptly, and suddenly everyone was dead. As I said, the feeling towards the end of the play — especially during the fencing scene — when every character’s plans suddenly go off-track is wonderfully complicated and chaotic in the Folio text. Here everything was comparatively simple and very brief, and the abrupt entrance of Fortinbras (or Fortinbrasse) with little expository dialogue from either him or Horatio made the ending seem like a bit of a slump.
This might be something that could be fixed with staging decisions, since the text doesn’t seem to allow that sense of madcap tension, but at this point for me it’s all speculation. In short, I’m glad I got the chance to see this production, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked. There’s been an academic move to reclaim Q1 in the past few years, but this is the first I’ve heard of steps being taken in actual performance, so it should be interesting to see how moves like this change our perception of Hamlet in the future.
MacIntyre points out that the good we receive from ethical practice “can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners” (191). This is why I study literature: to become more aware of myself as one person in the context of many others, and more conscientious in my ethical evaluations. This comes about through my reading of diverse texts, but also through my relationships with other practitioners: reading a wide selection of criticism on those texts, and my individual interactions with professors and fellow students. I have played a game throughout this essay, at varying levels, with texts that I enjoy for myriad reasons, and in writing about it I have invited you to play the game with me.
Wayne Booth offers the metaphor of a book-as-friend, with some books being more worthy of our company than others, but with all of them, generally, deserving of at least minimal attention to determine that. I think this is workable, but for my part I would like to combine it with a notion implied by my Borges epigraph, the idea of the author-as-chessmaster. In ethical reading we are playing a friendly game of chess — but we must remain alert whenever we are in danger of being drawn into check, or sometimes cheated. In a game of chess between friends, or potential friends, victory is not important. Getting to know one another is: spotting your opponents’ gambits and strategies, their strengths and weaknesses, and learning how they think. Above all, we must recognize that any bad turn is not indicative of some inherent, all-consuming malevolence on our opponents’ part, but rather due to the fact that texts are the products — us in our act of reading, and the author in his or her act of writing, and the cultures that gives rise to our expectations in either case — and therefore capable of every prejudice and imperfection we are heir to. Just as chessmasters are not angels, they are by no means demons.
Interacting with stories is a game insofar as doing so is quite selfish: I read the texts because I enjoy them, though my reasons are slightly different in each case. My approach to stories is not that reading them is at the forefront practical, in the same way washing the car or buying groceries is practical. But I am also aware of the serious ethical dimension of this game; texts may invite me to think some things that I know to be wrong, or in subtler instances, not think about something that I would recognize as wrong. I can anticipate and block these moves because my life, both everyday and scholastic, has trained me otherwise. MacIntyre claims that inherent to the future of virtue is “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained” (263).
The reliance on a community is what makes ethics problematic; differences between communities will engender different ethical approaches. But while the hope of an ideal ethical communal space is probably just as much of a pipedream as true ethical universality, some grasp at that community is why I believe the study of literature is important. Academic study initiates the student into a practice of thinking and acting where both aesthetic and practical considerations of texts matter, a community where concerns about a text’s stance on class, gender, race, or economic policy can be discussed alongside a text’s language, form or genre. These modes of reading are not exclusive, and this is where the possibility of ethical reading flourishes. A morally bankrupt work, like The Jew of Malta, may be immensely entertaining, while a formally clumsy and sometimes boring work such as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World may have a vibrant ethical core. An ethical reader, active in a civil, intellectual and moral community, should have the power to appraise both of these works, enjoy them for the reasons they are enjoyable, and allow that enjoyment to be tempered by the ways in which they falter.
Ethical reading is a serious game, and it is through a wide-ranging and conscientious study of literature and criticism that we learn how to play it. I did not always read ethically; it was a gradual process, lasting many years and only becoming a conscious issue as my college courses exposed me to the many natures and schools of criticism and interpretation available. I had to learn understand that literature did something. I had to learn, first, how stories could shape my world and the life I lived in it. If literature is a force that contributes to making us who we are, it follows that our assent to stories can make us better or worse people. In the case of my childhood encounters with Old Hickory, it seemed incredibly easy to assent to a story entirely, to just believe. As this dawned on me, I began to wonder: how likely was it that I unthinkingly accepted or applied patently untrue or unhealthy narratives? How many of them, instead of teaching me to tread very softly on hardwood floors, were teaching me to demonize, discount, or oppress? How many of them were convincing me to harm myself or others? And how would I deal with stories that did this, but were still beautiful or elegant or clever in some other way? Booth makes a poignant analogy of this dilemma: “…[Stories] offer every opportunity to miseducate ourselves, and therein lies the task of ethical criticism: to help us avoid that miseducation. The trick is always to find ways of doing that without tearing the butterfly apart in our hands” (477).
I think this is the key: the butterfly is in our hands. We are not powerless, but in fact are given a very important task as readers. Barthes’s idea of a mediator applies just as well to readers as authors, for as Eco suggests, the reader is a “fundamental ingredient not only of the process of storytelling but also of the tale itself. …[A text] cannot say everything about the world. It hints at and then asks the reader to fill in a whole series of gaps” (Walks 1, 3). The text has the power to shape us, yes, but it is not an autocrat; we canresist and to some degree shape the text. To believe, though, that people and literature should be good — or should be made good — for all times and places is fallacious. In understanding how narratives do make us who we are, we must also be aware of the ways in which narratives could shape us but do not or should not, because they probably have shaped others in those ways, and we could just as easily have been shaped.
We must play our games cautiously and wisely, we must maintain intellectual and moral civility, for the things at our disposal — our literature, our narratives, the building blocks of ourselves and those around us, the butterflies and the chess-pieces — are fragile.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image — Music — Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. NY: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-148.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Labyrinths. 1962. Trans. James E. Irby. New York: Modern Library, 1983.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-61. Ed. Charlotte Mitchell. London: Penguin, 2003.
Eco, Umberto. Five Moral Pieces. 1997. Trans. Alastair McEwen. New York: Harcourt, 2001.
—. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. 1994. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Ellison, Harlan. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.” The Essential Ellison. Ed. Terry Dowling, et al. 1987. New York: Morpheus International, 2001. 877-886.
Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. 1978. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Gregory, Marshall. Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.
Johnson, Samuel. “Rambler No. 4”. 1750.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 1981. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defense of Poetry.” 1821
Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” 1891.
Wallace, David Foster. “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky.” Consider the Lobster. 2005. New York: Black Bay Books, 2007.
Ethical criticism is difficult because, in addition to the far easier task of dissenting from those narratives which prove faulty, we must also, as Booth said, “open ourselves to ‘others’ who seem initially dangerous or worthless, and yet prepare ourselves to cast them off whenever … we must conclude they are potentially harmful” (488) while still coming to understand those others on their own terms. It is highly idealistic to even think we might stumble across a narrative completely devoid of some objectionable implications, but ethical reading as I’ve described it allows us to take the good with the bad. John Gardner, despite his intentions, makes the mistake of every censor and party-line aesthete in history: supposing there is a universally applicable syllogism to ethical criticism that can be used to declare whether or not, in all instances and for all readers, a given work will be harmful. The irony, of course, is that to determine this to be the case, the censor must review the work firsthand. This idea makes about as much sense as me saying to you, as you lift a glass of a mysterious beverage to your lips, “Don’t drink that, it’s poison!” After I slap the glass to the floor you turn to me, bewildered, and say, “Thank you, I suppose, but how did you know it was poison?” I reply with a healthy grin: “Simple enough! I drank some before you.”
For a moment, then, let’s try to pick up the glass I so rudely knocked down, rinse it off, and have another drink. We can return to a story I have done a disservice. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” is not a perfect tale; it is not ethically flawless. But it also does not deserve the thrashing that I, in my John Gardner persona, gave it. I’ve already mentioned that the ironic humor of “Harlequin” might be its saving grace, and it is the also the largest aspect of the text Gardner does not give us tools to deal with. So taken for what it is, “Harlequin” is a comedic story. The very premise — a society so overcome by punctuality that timeliness becomes a matter of public execution — is ridiculous enough to indicate that we are not meant to take everything in this dystopia so seriously.
But I went to great lengths to establish early on that, silly or not, the reader will come to a story with a desire to transfer something from reading onto his or her own life. My Gardner reading was caught up in the plausibility of the Harlequin’s revolution — since the story doesn’t allow deep delving into matters of sympathy, I was instead concerned with the example it sets and its lack of seriousness, realism, and gravity. But now that I’m willing to laugh a bit, I can instead think about other things. I can rest easily with believing the Harlequin has done something good, first of all. If the authoritarianism of his society is so absurd, then I can also forgive the method of its eventual overthrow for being absurd as well — and this ironic distance also allows me to think of the more elliptical ways the story speaks of our own lives.
Like the people of the story, we may find ourselves enmeshed in worlds not entirely of our own devising, at the mercy of systems and institutions we cannot control and which can, in instances, be heinously unjust. But simply because the world is the way it is, and simply because we’ve allowed it to become that way, doesn’t mean things have to stay that way. Revolutions, as the story suggests, aren’t always large-scale actions, but tiny acts of disobedience that, though they may not seem significant or may even appear to be failures, can have profound consequences within larger contexts. Ellison’s choice to quote Thoreau in this regard does not appear to be ironic at all. Another benefit of the new approach is that I am also now free to appreciate the way the story itself is written, without fear that it will necessarily lead to my inevitable, tragic doom. For instance, the disordered chronology is a clever mirror to the story’s themes of timeliness, and the conversational, almost breathless narrative voice seems very handy for making the story both exciting and amusing, and its linguistic playfulness actually results in a few memorable lines.
But for all these goods intentions, to paraphrase Thoreau, people are as likely to serve the Devil as they are to serve God, even when they don’t mean it. So of course “Harlequin” has its flaws, but they are largely not the ones my Gardner reading focused on. The more point of concern is the repeated demonstration of negative female characters. In one interlude “the wife” of a man named Marshall Delahanty receives a notice that someone in the family is to be ‘switched off’ by the Ticktockman; an inner monologue relates her desperate wish for it to be her husband instead of her, and her relief when this turns out to be the case (883-884). The Harlequin himself has an exasperated lady-friend of ambiguous intimacy named (of all things) Pretty Alice, who eventually turns him in because “she wants to conform” (886).
Female characters are repeatedly shown as secondary to male characters, and their roles are insidiously negative. They are portrayed as weak and selfish, unable to shore themselves against the forces men like the Harlequin and the Ticktockman represent. On the story’s own terms, this misogyny is probably its biggest issue. But the ethical reader can recognize the appealing and repelling parts of the story, and is willing to listen to the text for the duration of the former, while still objecting to the latter. The instinctual move is to attribute this misogyny to Ellison, and while a cursory glance at his oeuvre and biography shows it is unfortunately a recurring element, I am in this essay dealing only with this story itself. Even if Ellison were a first-rate feminist save for this one slip-up, the ethical reader is obligated to call “Harlequin” on its misogyny. I will admit that my esteem for the story is devalued by the tale’s ethical flaws. But I find it worthwhile enough in that it is funny and well written that I can bring myself to read it even in spite of that, just as the generally misogynistic and juvenile nature of Ellison’s output does not stop me from liking this particular story.
David Foster Wallace made the claim that “some art is worth the extra work of getting past all the impediments to its appreciation” (263), like the complex and bewildering social context needed to make total sense of Dostoevsky’s Russia. I venture that this applies equally well to our ethical evaluations of literature. Ellison’s story, for instance, is worth appreciating for some reasons, but we must also come to terms with what is not worth appreciating about it. It may now seem like I’m saying everything should be read, and everything should be taught. I would qualify my enthusiasm for an open literature with the idea that things should be free to be taught, but not compulsory. I certainly do not think everyone should be forced to read The Jew of Malta, and I’d object to someone telling me it was in my best interest to read de Sade or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.
To make such a claim would require a perfect universality contrary to the situational nature of ethics as conceived in this paper; a text really cannot be right for all people at all times. Criticism is a good way of addressing this. Recall the multitude of readings of Paradise Lost I was subjected to; each geared the text toward and made it accessible to holders of that worldview, or members of that critical community. Ethical reading, like situational ethics, is a cooperative act, and if you (or, I suppose, the text) don’t feel like going along with things for the sake of it, or even with a critical angle in mind, then there’s probably no good reason to. Perhaps someday I will be in a situation where reading de Sade is, in fact, necessary for my continued growth as a person — but for now I’ve attempted it, and I didn’t like what I read, and felt no reason to finish.
What should be read is situational. Middle school children may benefit from reading Huckleberry Finn, and at the same time learn to deal with the ethical paradox of how currents of racist thought still underlie what is intentionally and quite overtly, I think, a story about the absurdity of racism. But this is not the only way this lesson could be learned, and a teacher or administration uncomfortable with assigning the text should not have any obligation to teaching it. Ethical reading is difficult, and we need to practice it; we will be assailed numberless times throughout our lives to read or understand a narrative; in these situations we are implicitly being asked to play along with the text. In many cases we will have no choice but to do so, and ethical reading allows us to maintain greater degrees of control. Hopefully, like athletes, we become better practitioners with time.
 One particular phrase which currently floats around in the mental pool of favorite sentences I’ve read is “Timewise, it was jangle” (879). Almost Joycean!
 Though I echoed Dr. Johnson’s adage about writing and living back when discussing Dostoevsky, Ellison certainly pushes the limits sometimes. He is notoriously officious, and in his heyday often openly groped women during social functions. One anecdote passed around the speculative fiction community describes his encounter at a party with a particularly tall woman, whom he boldly propositioned: “What would you say to a little fuck?” The woman, a smile on her lips, leaned down to him and said: “Hello, little fuck.”
 Unless you’re a student with assigned reading. Telling your professor you just aren’t getting along with a book might gain you a look of consternation or an appointment with a therapist, depending on how genuinely you seem to think the book is being stubborn.
Let me take this opportunity to extend the tiniest olive branch to Gardner; I think he is wrong, but I also think he means well. The greatest schism in his argument is one I don’t think we can heal, but we can work with it. Ethical reading should take into account the question of imitation versus understanding, especially the fact that people can and will do both, and above all, that these are actions that lie with the reader. Gardner’s folly is that he places too much emphasis on the individual writer of fiction — for him, it is the writer’s responsibility to pick the correct morals, the correct sympathies, and the appropriate understandings. To a degree that’s hopefully true; we’d like to believe that every writer is at heart David Foster Wallace’s Dostoevsky, who
wrote fiction about stuff that’s really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being — that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal. (265)
Unfortunately not every writer is Dostoevsky, who may have indeed been a great and rare intellect, but what we have here is Wallace’s reading of Dostoevsky. It is in the reader, I suggest, that the true responsibility for an ethical literature may reside; this does not immediately solve my problems, though. For every reader who responds as enthusiastically as Wallace, there is probably another reader who finds Dostoevsky absolutely depraved, or worse, so boring as to not even merit reading. I can give Dostoevsky a benefit of a doubt, though: surely he wrestled with ethics and the meaning of being a person when writing, and I can commend him for it. But what do I say about Dostoevsky’s readers, who could have such disparate views?
This confusion mirrors the trouble we may have with moral criticism in and of itself. As Alasdair MacIntyre says, in our current culture, the problem with ethical debates is that our “rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighting the claims of one as against another” (8). We believe all moral outlooks are matters of individual choice or persuasion, essentially incomparable, and simultaneously we assert that the only ‘valid’ sort of moral outlook would be one that is demonstrably universal. The confusion holds true for ethical appraisal of literature; if John Gardner looks at “Harlequin” he wants to see an indication that Harlan Ellison is in some way an individual moral human being, and at the same time confirmation that these personal morals are in fact aspects of a universally applicable ethos. MacIntyre’s assertion is that our ethical maps have been scrambled because we think of morals in terms of individual judgment; the individualist stance assumes that “the self is detachable from its social and historical roles and stauses” (MacIntyre 221).
Morality, MacIntyre argues, is only intelligible in a context. Human beings are only moral agents when they are embedded in social and historical networks and traditions, which can and do vary, and so any grasp at a flawless moral universality is a snipe hunt. MacIntyre ties this notion of tradition with that of narrative:
…man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters — roles into which we have been drafted — and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. (216)
In focusing on moral actions as matters of only individual agency, we are denying ourselves the scripts that tell us how we should act within context as one human being among many, and at the same time we deny ourselves the very mechanism by which — like Pip, finding himself drafted into many roles by others — we even come to understand ourselves as individuals. Ethics in this sense is always relational or situational, and cannot be extracted from its contexts. It takes a different kind of courage to stand up to an unjust friend than it does to stand up to an unjust family member, teacher, or political leader.
To phrase it succinctly: ethical action is cooperative, so how I treat you is dependent on how you treat me, and vice-versa. If I am grouchy and irritable with you, I have no good reason to expect you to be kind and open with me, but if you are, then I may be inclined to not be so grouchy anymore. (If I remain grouchy, however, I shouldn’t be surprised when you stop talking to me.) Eco, who we have also seen speak of the narrative networks we use to constitute identity, takes a similar approach to ethics: “The ethical dimension begins when the other appears on the scene. Every law, moral or juridical as it may be, regulates interpersonal relationships, including those with an other who imposes the law” (MP 22). The other is necessary for any thought of ethics, but also for any thought of ourselves: “[I]t is the other, it is his look, that defines and forms us. Just as we cannot live without eating or sleeping, we cannot understand who we are without the look and the response of the other” (MP 22).
The author — or if you like, the text, or the implied author, what Eco calls the “[narrative] voice that speaks to us affectionately … that wants us beside it” (Walks 15) — serves the function of the other in any act of reading. In reading, we are not only asked to listen to the fiction, but to listen openly and politely, to give ourselves over; recall Booth’s comments about all narrative being rhetoric. Readers are invited to change in some way how they think and by that token, to some extent who they are. This change occurs in relation to the implied author, who “foresees as a collaborator” (Walks 9) a certain type of reader willing to notice the text’s cues and clues, pick up the story’s hints, and follow along with the narrative until the end. It is human instinct, perhaps, to assent to this narrative voice, as Gregory Marshall supposes:
Our impulse for stories is, in fact, the desire to give up mastery and to let the story direct and shape our attention, feelings, judgments, and ideas, at least for the time that we and the story are interacting. For the most part we go to story because we desire to assent. (68-69, italics in original)
So it might seem that to some degree we are all like me at age five, and every implied author is my grandfather. We want to believe what stories tell us is true; we are quite willing to give assent, and when we do, we may end up seeing a leering face in every whorl and knot of a hardwood floor.
In a few ways my governing metaphor is, of course, imperfect; I don’t mean to accuse my grandfather of being an immoral storyteller, and I don’t mean to accuse all readers of being equivalent to five-year-old children. The sort of ethical reading practice I will describe is something generally beyond the capabilities of children. To return to the schism I noted in Gardner’s argument, ethical reading consists of both imitation and understanding — but while a child’s reading habit tends toward the former, a mature ethical reading practice must tend toward the latter. This does not happen naturally, though; we grow older and more aware, we are only more inclined not to believe everything we are told (most of us, anyway), but it is very rare that we come to understand what we are told but reject.
The communitarian view I’ve so far described, particularly in relation to MacIntyre, does indeed have its dangers. Our reliance on preexisting discourses and narratives to come into our senses of both self and ethical practice have not necessarily been laid out in our interest. This is when imitation does us harm; if I am a member of a particular ethnicity and the narratives of my culture lead me to believe that it is true and good for me to enslave, murder, or even simply cheat members of another ethnicity, this is not for the best. In this scenario the “self” offered me is that of a member of a particular group, defined in opposition to another group. I am allowed to find my sense of identity only in my group; the second group is understood insofar as they are not and cannot be me — with the implication that they are not people like me, for they are not drawn from the same traditions and narratives and webs of meaning that constitute me and those around me. In this case, it is best not to assent to the narrative handed me — for while I must always come to understand myself through the existence of the other, that process has here gone awry. In assenting to one narrative of self, I have unequivocally turned down another, and not only that, refused to comprehend that the other is even truly a self at all.
It almost goes without saying that a culture’s literature can serve the racist purpose I’ve just described — I will hearken back to The Jew of Malta, which portrays Jews as outlandish and inhuman. But if ethical reading and criticism were as simple as seeing this, then it probably wouldn’t be worth writing a paper on it. And if, for instance, we simply decide we should never read Marlowe’s play again, because it is racist (or sexist, or anti-Catholic), then we’ve again made a mistake. We do not assent to the text’s invitation to take its worldview as our own, but we’ve also rejected anyone who is constituted in part by that worldview. We’ve again cast aside the other. Knowing who we can be does not by necessity directly effect who we are. Though I don’t like to think of myself as an anti-Semite, the play invites me into that position, and even if I do not like it, it reminds me that I, as a human being, am to some degree capable.
When I read the play I do not personally think to myself, “Barabas is selfish and evil because he is a Jew,” but I know that is, in fact, the play’s internal logic, and would have been the logic of most of the play’s audience at the time of its writing. I know that it would be very easy for me to read the play and deduce from it the moral that all Jews are selfish and evil; what has prevented this is my existence within a historical, cultural, and personal context where anti-Semitism is clearly ethically wrong. Do I run some sort of risk in exposing myself to texts where this is not a self-evident conclusion? Perhaps, but as Gregory points out, we risk things all the time just by living, and “if we try to protect ourselves from life’s dangers by withdrawing from life, we give up more than we gain” (70) — we have denied ourselves the recognition of others that ultimately figures into our self-recognition. The moment of contact between me and the other — the text, the implied author, that strange and mysterious and possibly dangerous voice asking me to think and feel something — is the core of ethical reading. Ethical reading allows us to see “our real selves in relation to other selves,” not in the sense that we are defined simply by who we are not and should not be, but with the understanding that each other we encounter is one of many “alternate selves” (Gregory 69). As in interactions with real people, I am not required to follow every suggestion a textual other gives me, but before I know whether or not to follow that suggestion I first must listen to it, do my best to understand it, and if necessary, decline it.
Understanding and declining has the added benefit of allowing us to recognize what parts of a narrative are, though marred by their context or content, still worth thinking about. In reading Malta we can understand, though we do not assent to, the way its contemporary readers saw the world, notice the unhealthy myths it perpetuated, and perhaps caution ourselves when those thoughts processes recur. If we are secure in our moral standing in relation to the text, we can also afford to study Marlowe’s work within the genre of revenge tragedy, the qualities of the blank verse, or its narrative structure. In Great Expectations, we can recognize that Pip’s narrative construction of himself may simplify or oppress the others who have helped make him who he is, but in recognizing that, we can consider how we might do the same thing in the narratives of our own lives.
 And as the biographers have it, a hopeless gambling addict and constant source of frustration to his wife. It may do well to paraphrase Samuel Johnson and keep in mind that most people write better than they live.
 And depending who we are, an unsavory part of our cultural past we’d best not forget, I think.
In case you’re not into A Serious Game, Samehat‘s tumblr recently brought to my attention Tokyo Scum Brigade’s fantastic writeup on the history of Lovecraft in Japanese literature and pop culture.
…June 2010 saw the stars quake in ecstasy with the dual release of My Maid is an Amorphous Blob, the tale of a boy and his blob cosplaying Shoggoth, and The Magickal Girl R’lyeh Lulu, a return to form for tentacle rape and youth erotica.
The question now becomes: how is anyone qualified to make a moral or ethical judgment, especially in regards to literature? One of the most public attempts to tackle such a question was that of author John Gardner, in his book On Moral Fiction. Taking a look at Gardner’s effort may underscore some of the difficulties of ethical criticism. His basic stance is that anything that is art is necessarily moral; to call something that is immoral “art” would be an ontological mistake, and a symptom of either a sick artistic or critical culture. Wilde, for his part, claimed morality to be only a possible subject of art, but Gardner alleges his view is the longstanding one: “The traditional view is that true art is moral. It seeks to improve life, not debase it, it seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us” (5).
By gods Gardner does not mean divine entities literally, rather that gods and religious figures historically are abstractions or personifications of human values. Gods are values, which are life-affirming ideals; the majority of these ideals, Gardner claims, are unchanging. We need these values in order to stand against a basically unfavorable existence: “Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose” (6). Gardner’s bleak existentialist humanism is actually quite romantic, despite this emphasis on inevitable tragedy; he says it is the job of the writer to idealize an imperfect world and present works of art that are either “a vision of how things ought to be or what has gone wrong” (16). In the past, the author presented this vision by way of the protagonist or hero: “Every hero’s function is to provide a noble image for men to be inspired and guided by in their own actions” (Gardner 29).
Talk of heroism seems clear enough given the logic so far. I have established that people are given to imitating stories, or applying stories to their lives; therefore, the writer should only present positive, moral ideals to be imitated or applied. This line of thought goes back at least to Samuel Johnson, who commented that art, in its great ability to imitate nature, “should also distinguish those parts of nature … most proper for imitation” (2874). But who, exactly, decides the morals in a piece of literature? The author, presumably, but how should we expect moral perfection from an author? Well, maybe it is the true artist who “can distinguish between conventional morality and the morality that tends to work for all people throughout the ages” (Gardner 50). But regardless of that, wouldn’t art thus directed inevitably fall into didacticism? Yet Gardner similarly argues against didacticism, saying “morality is infinitely complex, too complex to be knowable, and far too complex to be reduced to any code,” and this “is why [morality] is suitable matter for fiction, which deals in understanding, not knowledge” (135).
So maybe literature allows the reader to imagine an intimate relationship with the consciousness of someone else, inspiring sympathy, what Shelley claimed to be “the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man” (844). Gardner argues that “the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience, modify prejudice, humanize” (114), asserting that literature is “a conceptual abstraction of our actual experiences of moments of good in human life” (136). In other words, the issue is not whether a reader can and should imitate what happens in a story, but how well a reader can understand the human motivations implicit in the narrative. When I read a story I do so not because there is a hero for me to emulate successfully, but because the story presents me with another personality — regardless of the status of the character — whose life I am invited to consider, evaluate, and most importantly, understand. But that thought seems to conflict in some profound ways with what Gardner said earlier, and it raises the question of which moral function — imitation or understanding — is correct, or at least the more operant mode for any ethical reading.
To clarify some of these questions, both for myself and for rhetorical effect, I will attempt to put Gardner’s ideas into practice. To start: what sort of story is immoral, by Gardner’s terms? What sort of fiction “tends toward destruction … [and] is not properly art at all” (6)? So as not to make the conversation too grim, I can choose something light for my study — Harlan Ellison’s short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.” This is quite an immoral story, though superficially it may seem moral; “Harlequin” appears to be concerned with a sickness of a culture and a desire to rehabilitate it. But it is superficial; reading the story as a moral critic indicates its message to be cynical posturing. Ellison begins the story by telling us the “point,” breaking the narrative structure to provide us with an excerpt from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to satisfy “those who ask, what is it all about?” (877). So even before we can get to the end of the story, before we can even begin to have a question, we are given an answer. “That is the heart of it,” Ellison says, initiating what will be one of the story’s recurring themes — and problems: “Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself” (877).
“Harlequin” takes place in a future world where a totalitarian government lethally enforces a rigid time schedule, led by the Master Timekeeper or Ticktockman. Being chronically late results in execution; the Harlequin is a freedom fighter who sets out to thwart the Ticktockman’s regime. There is nothing too reprehensible here on first glance. Such an authoritarian society would hardly be considered moral, and overturning it would indeed be a moral act. And the story itself is quite amusing; it’s absurd and knows it (a major plot point involves a rain of one hundred-fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jelly beans). Like the Harlequin of the title, the story is a motley assortment of vignettes from various chronologies, stitched together and presented with a knowing smirk by a manic third-person narrator. But investigating Ellison’s presentation of this world unmasks the Harlequin, showing the story to be juvenile and nihilistic. Behind that knowing smirk there is only an abyss.
The world the story takes place in is “the very world it was, the very world they had allowed it to become” (877-878). The middle part of the story, which is chronologically the beginning, dramatizes the absurd way in which the story’s society becomes increasingly dependent on punctuality, from train schedules to voting times, eventually resulting in the creation of the Ticktockman and his power over life and death: “And so by this simple scientific expedient … the System was maintained. It was the only expedient thing to do. It was, after all, patriotic. The schedules had to be met. After all, there was a war on!” (882). Society becomes the System only bit by bit, gradually; authoritarianism works on a ratchet, gaining power while being rationalized into the current situation and ideology. The story alleges that “they” (the people) allowed this to happen through their own inaction and conformity.
The Harlequin is the ultimate individual nonconformist, the man who is habitually late in a society where punctuality means life or death. His crusade to bring down the Ticktockman ends ultimately in his capture and brainwashing. However, the implication at the end of the story is that the Harlequin is truly triumphant over the Ticktockman — because the Ticktockman shows up late to work. The narrator tells us “that’s the way it happens, and if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile” (886). The story is obsessed with these tiny changes — the Harlequin’s tiny changes to the System’s schedule end up causing monstrous tangles as each instance of lateness causes more problems. “He had tapped the first domino in the line,” the narrator says of the jellybean incident, “and one after another, like chik chik chik, the others had fallen” (880).
Too often the story presents us with this attitude: that small actions matter, which is not untrue in and of itself, but there is an implication that these small actions often end up being all that matter. It doesn’t matter if the Harlequin is captured because he’s already won; so what if the System is still in place, for the Harlequin has already cracked the Ticktockman himself, apparently by just existing. Sidestepping of the real matter of societal change to give the reader its result recalls the story’s structure, which tells us its “point” before it even begins. Nothing has to truly be “done” and accomplished. As revolutionary agitprop that thought may be comforting, but it’s troubling in that it is also the way in which the authoritarian System comes to be: through the stacking of tiny actions, or rather, widespread inactions and acceptances. Oppression rises amid human apathy, so does revolution, and it does not matter. The end, as Ellison tells us, will take care of itself; both defeat and victory are so easily obtainable as to be meaningless. This is to say nothing of the didactic simplicity with which Ellison draws his world. Conformity is bad and nonconformity is good; conformists are boring and pitiable, noncomformists daring and noble. We like the Harlequin and want to imitate him, so we should be noncomformists; we noncomformists should also pity the conformists for not being so enlightened, for it’s not their fault they’re boring.
If everything is starting to sound a bit ridiculous, I think that’s because it is. Gardner’s terms, in application, do not become any less troublesome. Wayne C. Booth called Gardner’s book “courageous but careless” (7n.2), and that is probably the best way to describe it. Gardner’s framework fails to address its basis in two opposing views — do we imitate art, or do we merely understand it? “Harlequin” obviously invites me to imitate the titular clown — he is the hero, by Gardner’s framework, and also the most colorful figure in a drab and authoritarian future. But exactly how should I imitate him? What values does he represent? Nonconformity and habitual lateness, I suppose; but his nonconformity is extreme and implausible, and since when has being untimely been any sort of virtue? If anything, imitating the Harlequin would make me a rather unpleasant person to associate with. If the story is attempting to humanize — to garner sympathy and understanding — who is it humanizing? Not the Ticktockman or his lackies, since they remain one-dimensional; the Harlequin, perhaps, but he is similarly never a very “human” character. This is not a story that is interested in probing the depths of human emotional capacity, it seems, and in that regard it leaves Gardner treading water.
Also unhelpful is that Gardner often makes judgments or statements without clarifying what he means. For instance, he leaves the door open to an author to be ironic and affirm values indirectly (106), but he fails to describe how any of this would work. I think the largest caveat to the reading of “Harlequin” I’ve set forth lies in this possibility of irony; the story is self-consciously silly, so how far can I take the silliness? How much of Ellison’s tale is irony? If we accept the story as a half-joke, then it suddenly makes sense why the characters are so flat, why their actions are so implausible. But Gardner gives no guidance here. Just as the true artist will know the true morals, I suppose the true reader will recognize the true artist?
Welcome back to A Serious Game, my final senior essay on why I study literature. Last time we talked about Borges. Now we’re going to talk about a book that everyone I know hates! Hooray!
The ways we interact with fiction and reality are more similar than we may be instinctually inclined to believe. We may in fact “read” the real world as if it were a piece of fiction. As Umberto Eco describes it, “the reader maps the fictional model onto reality — in other words, … the reader comes to believe in the actual existence of characters and events” (Walks 125). This can be as silly as five-year-old me believing that Old Hickory is real, as my grandfather’s stories suggested: he told me a monster was trying to pull me into the walls of the house, and the walls of the house had a strange habit of knocking me on the skull whenever I was overexcited and let my guard down, so it seemed safe enough to assume the monster was the reason. Or perhaps it’s as innocuous as someone reading a fudged historical fact in a Dan Brown thriller and, with no reason to question it, spending the rest of his or her days having an inaccurate but generally non-threatening misconception about the nature and content of the Gnostic Gospels. Yet it could also be graver: reading Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta may teach me that Catholics are greedy, lascivious, and hypocritical; that women are emotional and unreliable; that Muslims are treacherous but simple-minded butchers; and that Jews are inhuman, murderous masterminds. The narrator of “Tlön” feels a deep unease about the sudden a full assent of the human race to the new, fictional world it has discovered, and reading presents a similar problem: by forgetting the chessmaster nature of the authors of a fiction, readers run the risk of creating a way of life that may not be beneficial to them personally or for us as a species.
This where the necessity of an ethical reading practice becomes apparent, for despite the possible dangers of fictional mapping we still return to fiction and narrative. The fact is, we need them. Eco says it is in fiction that “we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence. Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived” (Walks 139). A striking example of such a practice in a fictional work itself can be found in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the Victorian bildungsromanof Pip, written as an autobiography chronicling his life, mishaps, and adventures. In writing his story, Pip gives a formula to his life, as Eco postulates, but what is also remarkable is how Pip’s narrative is, in the end, also a noticeable (re)construction of various other narratives that he has encountered.
For instance, Pip’s narrative takes on various veils or tones of multiple generic modes at different points; his visits to Miss Havisham, for instance, are usually Gothic:
…we came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars on it. … The cold wind seemed to blow colder there, than outside the gate; and it made a shrill noise in howling in and out of the open sides of the brewery, like the noise of wind in the rigging of a ship at sea. (Dickens 55-56)
In a similar matter later on, when Mrs. Joe is assaulted by an unknown culprit, Pip’s narration becomes reminiscent to that of a mystery or detective novel, with a full account of the situation prior to and after the incident, gathered from statements of a few witnesses, and the presentation of scattered pieces of specific evidence, such as the “convict’s leg-iron” (120) used to do the deed — though the ‘mystery’ is not solved immediately.
Yet the way in which Pip’s narrative is given to sliding from a psychological account into shades of other literary modes seems to lend credence to Oscar Wilde’s claim — in anticipation of Eco’s thoughts — that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (1991). In a more direct sense, Pip’s tendency to change genres supports the Wildean idea that “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us” (1992, my italics). Pip’s story is most easily related to the reader not as some wholly original tale but as part of several preexisting artistic discourses and traditions, from which Dickens and the reader both draw to complement the narrative. To put it another way, Wilde suggests that the true purpose of nature is to “illustrate quotations from the poets” (1997) — that is, to reflect the qualities of art we enjoy. In Great Expectations, we see a more practical application of this theory in Pip who, as a sort of pseudo-Wildean aesthete, translates his life into the borrowed, communally comprehensible discourses that underscore his story, or rather the telling of it.
For Pip, the telling of his own story is the primary motivator of the autobiography project. He presents himself to us as an author, as the writer of his own narrative, and in addition to the aesthetic discourses in which he operates Pip must contend not only with the actual fictional discourses he uses to color his tale, but with several competing author figures (or perceived author figures) who make their own narrative designs on his life. Most of the principal characters have great expectations (as the phrase goes) for Pip, and in particular the way their plans for his life augment their own lives.
Pip, for his part, has a romantic arc plotted out in which he becomes a gentleman, marries Estella, and claims Miss Havisham’s estate; Joe plans for Pip to be his apprentice blacksmith; Miss Havisham sees Pip as a pawn in her plans for revenge; Estella sees Pip as a means to an end, a heart to break and a way to fulfill her purpose; Magwitch wants to raise Pip as a gentleman to overcome his own unfortunate history as a peasant and criminal. Pumblechook is, in a way, a parody of all of these characters, in that he constantly, falsely, and successfully claims to be one of “them which brought [Pip] up by hand” (Dickens 26), intrinsic to Pip’s success, and thereby passes himself off as a great and powerful authority in Pip’s native village. If, as Wilde and Eco suggest, Pip’s and our understanding of art and fiction is the framework through which Pip’s narrative becomes intelligible, then these great expectations are the raw material from which that narrative is fashioned.
It is profitable now to turn to Barthes, who claims that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost” (142). Pip tells us his story, relating it to the reader through selective representation and preexisting generic discourses, for as Barthes says, “the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relater” (142). Pip’s identity arises from Barthes’s oblique space of writing. The novel also shows ways in which Pip’s own arc for his life intertwines and clashes with the plans of other characters; Pip is articulated as an individual through his mediating and recombining of a web of social narratives pressed onto him.
Pip cannot win Estella and Satis House and achieve his personal heroic dream of doing “all the deeds of the young Knight of romance” (Dickens 231), but crucially neither can he fully separate himself from the various plots others lay. Estella herself shows acquiescence to Havisham’s plans: “We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions” (265). Pip does not give in, instead creating a personal narrative to reconfigure these various influences on his own terms. To return to Barthes, Pip’s narrative is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” so Pip’s story, forged from the great expectations of myriad sources and seen through the lenses of Pip’s digested fictions, is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture” (146). Pip mediates the conflicting narratives of himself and the characters surrounding him in order to make a sensible arc of his life, a plotted autobiography. Late in the novel he describes the horror that overcomes him when he is nearly murdered by Orlick and realizes his story might remain forever ‘unfinished’ and, importantly, untold:
none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through. The death before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death. (425)
Fortunately, Pip survives to tell us his tale: his history, a combination of his expectations, the expectations and histories of those around him, and a healthy sprinkling of generic juggling. Each of us is in a sense like Pip, a Barthesian mediator of the various narratives passed onto us by our family, friends, culture, and literature; it is through the processing of these narratives and their conventions that we shape our own identities, give form to our existences. We reside in what Eco describes as a “tangle of individual and collective memory” that “prolongs our life … by extending it back through time, and appears to us as a promise of immortality” (Walks 131).
So fiction maps onto my life and helps make me who I am. But I cannot accept this premise without facing the fact that there must be an ethical consciousness in how I should process and appropriate narratives. For instance, it might be observed that the reading of Great Expectations I’ve offered poses some problems. To an extent, it privileges characters’ ability to read and write and even their ability to interpret over other concerns — such as how class or gender seems to implicitly affect how well a person can do any of these things. Magwitch is similar to Pip in that he is an orphan who only knows his name — not because he reads it on a tombstone, as Pip does, but because it is in a manner self-evident for him, he knows it “[m]uch as [he] know’d the birds’ names” (346). His identity is not constructed, as we see Pip’s being constructed, but simply a statement of fact. Joe, likewise, is illiterate for most of the novel, and portrayed in a similarly tautological way: a blacksmith who knows how to be a blacksmith and is happy to be a blacksmith. Estella and Miss Havisham do not face the problem of being illiterate, but still fall into strange spaces within the narrative. Unlike Magwitch, who gets the majority of a whole chapter in his own voice, a similar chapter devoted to Estella is told in Pip’s voice, from Pip’s point of view. Pip himself, though in one way the master mediator of all the novel’s narratives, is also ensconced economically by his debts to Pocket. One may speculate that the writing of Pip’s autobiography is some attempt to provide an illusion of a wider agency in his own life, but in doing so he privileges his own narrative over those of others. It may make him less than ethical as both a reader and a writer, and since the text itself doesn’t seem to take issue with Pip’s practices in this regard, some readers may be inclined to say that Great Expectations itself is unethical. Do we want to follow in Pip’s example? I certainly don’t want to think that in the telling of my own story (should I ever bother) I subjugate or simplify the many people I’ve known. But on the other hand, I really don’t have a choice in my imitation of Pip, for we are all to some degree like him: we must constitute an identity from the narratives and contexts our surroundings provide us. The best we can do is be conscientious about it; our processing of narratives, including literature, must include an ethical critical concern.
Howdy, friends and neighbors! This is the first post in a series of six that will encapsulate A Serious Game, my final senior essay on the power and nature of literature. It’ll be a long read but I hope it will be worth it. Tune in every Friday for the next section — if there have ever been posts I’ve made that deserve the “i hope you like text” and “limitless literary pretension” tags it’s these. I hope you enjoy them!
“Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chessmasters, not of angels.”
- Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
When I was a child there was a monster called Old Hickory that lived in the woodwork of my grandparents’ house. It was not uncommon for this creature on occasion to reach out and attempt to grab me, my siblings, or my cousins. Though Old Hickory never succeeded — each failed attempt to abscond with me or one of the other children simply ended with a solid thump of wood on a head, knee, or elbow, with the related sobbing one might expect — I spent a significant portion of my childhood absolutely and absurdly terrified of my grandparents’ furniture. Old Hickory was described to us many times, though always with the same grotesque humor, by my grandfather, who had imagined the creature as a sort of joke to explain the normal rough-and-tumble bumps and scrapes children acquire when they are playing in a home filled with a few decades’ worth of accumulated furniture. Whenever one of us blundered face-first into the corner of the couch or the wood paneling of the living room during a game of Red Rover, we would fall down bawling, and my grandfather would chuckle to himself and say, “Old Hickory almost got you.”
I offer this story because it serves well as an introductory metaphor for my concerns in this paper. It is appropriate not because it speaks specifically of literature but it at least sheds personal light on why I concern myself with literature’s study; in broader terms, my anecdote about Old Hickory speaks of narrative and storytelling, of which literature is a primary form. Wayne C. Booth argued that all narrative is a form of rhetoric; narratives ask the reader or listener to understand a certain situation in a certain way. They require us to give assent, and by listening to them, we do. We come to narratives expecting an “efferent transaction” — that is, we are motivated by “a search for some practical guidance, or for some special wisdom, or for some useful ‘carry-over’ into non-fictional life” (Booth 13). We approach even acknowledged fiction as if there is some grain of truth to it, some way it speaks — no matter how elliptically — of the world in which we live.
These truths, when we find them or think we find them, can have serious ramifications on the ways we view and interact with the world. Old Hickory certainly wasn’t real, but my thinking about it was; I responded as if it did exist, I believed in it, and so in that sense, Old Hickory was quite real to my five-year-old self. Not until I grew older did the idea of a terrible creature living in the woodwork of a house become obviously impossible; in retrospect it was clear that my grandfather was simply telling a joke. He’d exaggerated reality, personified the furniture I was constantly slamming my elbows and forehead into, to amuse himself. But my reaction — because I was a child, and prone to magical thinking, and because he was my grandfather, and therefore a direct authority on all aspects of life — was not one of amusement, but fear. What was a game for my grandfather was something dreadfully serious to me.
But I think it is this sort of tension that has drawn me to literature. My earliest memories of stories all involve people close to me — my grandfather, my mother, and my older sister — telling me stories about strange or bizarre entities and events. As I grew older it became obvious that a great number of these stories were improbable if not impossible, and yet I still enjoyed them. Learning to read (and of the obsession with reading that soon followed) seem to intensify the feelings I had while listening to people tell me stories — except now I was in control of what stories were told and when. Even though the things that happened in most of the stories I consumed never factually occurred, or in some cases could never occur, there was an innate pleasure in contemplating the possibility of these worlds and how they were or were not like the one I knew. Reading, and by extension literature, was a game, something I did for fun and personal amusement.
My classes at college stressed the capacities in which literature is a social force — the ways it gives or takes voice, the way it implicitly approves or disapproves of social currents, and so on. This critical atmosphere presented a problem for me. On one hand, I wanted to be able to look at a text and merely play my game with it, interrogate its plausibility, its structure and consistency; on the other hand, I was intrigued by the way in which various people found methods to appropriate something wholly imaginary as a tool to speak about the real world in ways much more direct and diverse than I’d ever envisioned. For instance, was Paradise Lost an epic, a religious apology, a liberal political manifesto, a reactionary conservative apologia, a valuable tract in the fight for women’s rights, a tool of patriarchic oppression, or a dramatization of imperialist economics? Somehow my classes managed to present me with theorists and critics who argued all of these points — and all of them seemed, in their own ways, to make sense. How could I reconcile all of these compelling readings of a poem that I, on my own terms, had read as a simple adventure story? More pressingly, how could something so obviously fictional be of so much evident real-world importance? To understand this, I had to comprehend on a more conscious level the efferent nature of reading, and the way stories influence our lives.
This paper’s epigraph comes from Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which a cadre of intellectual luminaries conspires throughout the course of human history to imagine and disseminate a fictional world by way of false encyclopedia entries and misprinted history books. I read it at 17 and thought it was a neat piece of speculative fiction; when I read it again at 20, after two years of a serious study of literature, the tale’s actual significance broke through to me. It helped put into perspective the issues I’d been facing, but could not articulate. In the story, the fabrication of the world of Tlön is so extensive and intricate that by the time the conspiracy is discovered, the human race becomes enamored with the uniqueness and complexity of the fiction their brightest minds have imagined. As the story ends antiques from Tlön — clever forgeries, of course, but no one cares — are starting to appear in markets, and the languages of Tlön are being taught in schools. The narrator intimates that, in time, our world will for all practical purposes become Tlön. The game of imagination has enchanted humanity so that they forget they are even playing a game; the creators of Tlön are thought of not as the planners and chessmasters they are, but divine angels.
Before intensive literary study led me to see things otherwise, I had focused chiefly on the ways in which fiction presented worlds that were notthe one I inhabited. In so doing I overlooked the fact that even this was a way in which fiction defined my inhabited reality. The multiplicity of readings my literature courses exposed me to were methods of refining and focusing that definitional power, attempting to draw my attention to a single aspect of the world and the way in which a text invited me to understand or think about that aspect. Though fantastic to the extreme, Borges’s story put this into perspective on my second reading. In the tale, fiction is used to effectively draft a new world. It is a disturbing development, as the narrator seems convinced that nothing good will come of unquestioningly embracing this new reality — or rather this new way of looking at and interpreting the old reality. That was the key for me: fiction is, partially, a device for the interpretation of the real world.
 And maybe he meant to amuse me, too. I am amused now, anyway.
 Highlights include: a nameless monster that kidnapped little boys who caused a fuss when they had to get haircuts, a race of extraterrestrials who traveled through to space via mirrors rather than starships, and a seven-foot-tall Kentucky dentist who used whiskey as anesthetic.
2010 was probably the best year of my life. I say this without exaggeration.
Throughout the last year, for various reasons, I’ve been contemplating the way we devise narratives with our lives. We read our lives, so to speak, in the same way we read stories: we look for beginnings, middles, and ends; we look for progression and change and development. These things are not there, in the objective sense — unless you subscribe to the notion of God as a master author/reader — but things we construct in our own contemplation. We want our lives to be stories; we need stories to give form and order to our existence. This is all stuff you’ll hear more on in the new year, when I begin serializing my final senior essay on literature.
I’ve often thought that my life, as a story, is not one worth telling. This is why blogging as an autobiographical platform holds little appeal for me; the narrative of my life is of interest to pretty much me and, perhaps, those closest to me. Not you, Stranger on the Internet.
But it has become increasingly obvious that if there is, so far, a time in my life worth writing about, it is the year 2010. It was, as I said, the best year of my life.
I mean this in a qualified sense. I don’t mean that nothing but good things happened to me this year; in fact quite a few unfortunate things happened. But it was the best year of my life in that I end it feeling fulfilled, because many things happened, and many of them were exciting or interesting. Most of all, they have made me more like me, if you follow. I am more myself now than I have ever been.
Another way of putting it is that 2010 in the Life of Michael actually makes a pretty good story.
I began this year by moving to London for four months — an adventure in and of itself, a wonderful experience that I’m grateful for having. Then I moved out on my own for the first time, temporarily. I sold and published my first short story. I completed an independent research project and I helped teach a summer literature course. In the fall, I reunited with what I suddenly understood was an extensive and important network of friends. For the first time, I recognized how much I like the people around me. I also realized, quite abruptly, that the cold steel barrel of my senior year was pressed against my forehead. In response, I applied to grad schools. Yesterday morning, I was woken up by an earthquake.
Other things happened, things great and small, things you wouldn’t care about, but they happened and I am glad they did. I made it through, somehow, alive.
I am inclined to say that 2010 was a turning point, that I can definitively say in the future that, after this year, things were different. Things will be different. I am a different person now than I was 12 months ago.
In the sense of Heraclitus, this is true every year. But it’s never been so obviously true.
I can’t say with certainty — Heraclitus again, or maybe Hume! — that 2010 was a turning point, or even really as important in the long run as it seems. But I know that right now, it was one of the most significant years of my life, maybe a defining chapter in the narrative of my life, and here I’d like to take a moment to publicly thank all of you who made it what it was, and made me what I am. I can’t help but cast myself as the protagonist and you all as the supporting characters — the great but necessary lie of autobiography — but I hope that in your own stories, you’re ending the year as fulfilled as I am. And if not, then I hope the next chapter’s better.
Here is the last theory quote I stumbled upon in my senior research. It’s about the intertwining of life and narrative, and of life and fiction I’ve been discussing and will discuss in my senior paper. It comes from the essay “Fictional Protocols” in the collection Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by one of my great heroes and influences, Umberto Eco. I leave you, and 2010, with it:
At any rate we will not stop reading fictional stories, because it is in them that we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence. Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived. Sometimes we look for a cosmic story, the story of the universe, or for our own personal story (which we tell our confessor or our analyst, or which we write in the pages of a diary). Sometimes our personal story coincides with the story of the universe.
It happened to me, as the following piece of natural narrative will attest.
Several months ago I was invited to the Science Museum of La Coruña, in Galicia. At the end of my visit the curator announced that he had a surprise for me and led me to the planetarium. Planetariums are always suggestive places because when the lights are turned off, one has the impression of being in a desert beneath a starlit sky. But that evening something special awaited me.
Suddenly the room was totally dark and I could hear a beautiful lullaby by de Falla. Slowly (though slightly faster than in reality, since the presentation lasted fifteen minutes in all) the sky above me began to rotate. It was the sky that had appeared over my birthplace, Alessandria, Italy, on the night of January 5-6, 1932. Almost hyperrealistically, I experienced the first night of my life.
I experienced it for the first time, since I had not seen that first night. Perhaps not even my mother saw it, exhausted as she was by giving birth; but perhaps my father saw it, after quietly stepping out onto the terrace, a little restless because of the (to him at least) wondrous event which he had witnessed and which he had jointly caused.
The planetarium used a mechanical device that can be found in a great many places. Perhaps others have had a similar experience. But you will forgive me if during those fifteen minutes I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning. I was so happy that I had the feeling — almost the desire — that I could, that I should, die at that very moment, and that any other moment would have been untimely. I would cheerfully have died then, because I had lived through the most beautiful story I had read in my entire life. Perhaps I had found the story that we all look for in the pages of books and on the screens of the movie theaters: it was the story in which the stars and I were protagonists. It was fiction because the story had been reinvented by the curator; it was history because it recounted what had happened in the cosmos at a moment in the past; it was real life because I was real, and not the character of a novel. I was, for a moment, the model reader of the Book of Books.
That was a fictional wood I wish I had never had to leave.
But since life is cruel, for you and for me, here I am.