Lovecraft on stage

Because I realize it’s sort of dumb for me to keep links to neat articles in a pen until Friday, why don’t you all saunter over to The Economist, where there’s a great little article about Lovecraft, theater, and the nature of horror:

These theatre artists appreciate what Lovecraft understood: that the essence of horror is mystery and an actively wandering mind. No film director has made monsters with as much creativity and innovation as Del Toro, but if he directed “At the Mountains of Madness” he would give shape to its creatures, which would in turn domesticate them. As horrible as they looked, they could not approach the terror of what they might have been. Dormant, the project will receive an arguably happier fate, as fans can only imagine what they missed. The perfect cult film is the one never made. Lovecraft would surely understand.

Here.

You precious winners, all

OBVIOUSLY I have dropped the ball the past few weeks in blogging, but there has been infinitely good reason for this!

Well perhaps not infinitely.

Anyway, the last three weeks or so have been super crazy for me because I have had to deal with Spring Break (woooooooo) and a convergence of schoolwork that I hadn’t really scheduled out in any meaningful way.  This PREDICTABLY came back to bite me in the ass.  The title of this post comes from The Winter’s Tale, which I’ve been teaching lately in position as a TA for the college’s Shakespeare class, and it’s been a good time.  I have a very strange relationship to this play, I think, in that I’ve read it a few times now and seen a few productions, and I can never quite get it to gel, but there are little hints in it of something greater.  Perhaps someday I will be able to articulate at length exactly what those hints are????

But also there has been good news.  I’ve mentioned somewhere before that I plan on going to grad school.  The good news is that this is probably happening?  I got a really generous offer from a good program, and they invited me down to check the place.  I spent last weekend slumming around the campus, which at the time was hosting a pretty neat research conference.  I really liked the atmosphere of the English department there, and the faculty were all quite nice, and so I accepted their offer of admission earlier this week.  Once all the paperwork gets hammered out, I’ll move and etc.

Soon I will be able to rant about Shakespeare and I’ll get to say I’m a GRADUATE STUDENT, which makes it totally more plausible that the things I am saying are not bullshit.  Isn’t this exciting, guys?!

Other reasons I have been busy: preparing for a speech I have to give next week and a research conference I’m presenting at halfway through the month, and also another research conference at the end of May.  Oh and I suppose I have to find time to do some classwork and graduate at the end of April.  Needless to say my life is crowded currently, but I am developing a writing itch, by which I mean I haven’t actually written fiction in a while and there are enough ideas bouncing around in my head that one of them will have to be put down pretty soon.  This might (might) be the blog project I mentioned a few entries ago, but that depends on whether or not I can get the specifics to come together.  The beginning is there, and there’s sort of a middle, but nothing like a feasible wrap-up.

And speaking of fiction: I have another story appearing somewhere soon!  I’ll have the link for you here when it drops.  Hopefully it is a story you like!

I will leave you with this video about black metal:

HP Lovecraft: August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937

For Lovecraft, scientific materialism is the ultimate Faustian bargain, not because it hands us Promethean technology (a man for the eighteenth century, Lovecraft had no interest in gadgetry), but because it leads us beyond the horizon of what our minds can withstand. “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the mind to correlate all its contents,” goes the famous opening line of “Call of Cthulhu.” By correlating those contents, empiricism opens up “terrifying vistas of reality” – what Lovecraft elsewhere calls “the blind cosmos [that] grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness”.

From here.  If you’re off-put by the half-credible occultism in the article, know that I linked it just for insight and information.  I personally don’t truck with such ridiculousness, and besides, Garl Glittergold in my homeboy.

We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites.

I promised a Comedy of Errors review last week, but honestly I really don’t have much to say about the production I saw.  There is not much to say about Comedy of Errors at all, anyway, and so in one way this isn’t surprising.  Needlessly to say it was a good production, it succeeded as a farce, and the actors I met at the talk-back were nice.  It was a repertory company, incidentally, which is the first of those I believe I’ve ever seen.

This repertory business led to some strange decisions, mostly w/r/t blocking, that I’m not sure would carry to all traveling actors or what: but like, the characters would just line up during crowd scenes and step forward to speak.  I can understand if you’re on a different stage every week and can’t manage to keep your blocking consistent why this would happen, and really, in something as flimsy as Comedy you’re not going to break suspension of disbelief by lining up.  It makes me wonder what these guys do when they perform tragedies, though.

Now take a look at some other things!  Hayley Campbell, world-famous twitter enthusiast, has a blog up on fear (the best emotion) and The Woman in Black, a play I saw in London and reviewed here.  I imagine Campbell seeing it at what was probably not a matinee filled with shrieking schoolgirls helped her dig it slightly more than I did, and I admit that though my opinion of the play in that review is slightly critical, in retrospect I’ve grown rather fond of it.  Especially now that a film version with Harry Potter is in danger of destroying everything I find compelling about the original play.

On the front of Lovecraft news, I want to take a moment to point out Cthulhu Chick, who knits Cthulhus, but also has put together a version of HPL’s complete works for your ereader of choice.  And it’s  free!  I should point out that this isn’t technically complete, because it has only his short stories and novels but not his oodles and oodles of terrible poetry.  But that’s me being a pedant.  Something else of note Cthulhu Chick did was this list of Lovecraft’s favorite words, just in case reading them each a good couple dozen times in every story was too subtle for you to figure out how to write your next pastiche.

Hey cats and kittens

Not much exciting news to relay this week, other than my pal and yours Mr. JOEL GOLBY has finally got off his bum and put up a website for his comics, and you can see it right here.  Super cool!  I’ve known Joel for a while but we met up in person for the first time when I was in London and he bought me Earl Grey.  That’s how you know someone is truly worthy of being your friend and also British!

Also once he drew a picture of me, and it looked like this (I did the colors):

he was! he was RAD!

That is really pretty accurate, just so you know.  Joel is very honest and true-to-life in all his artistic endeavors.

ALSO: I am going to see a production of Comedy of Errors tomorrow night, which will probably be reviewed next Friday.  After that I’m on Spring Break and I maybe will try to initiate a little short fiction project here!  Super exciting, but it depends on how well I can get things to hang together.

BE EVER VIGILANT

Young Hamlet

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.

A Serious Game Part 6: The Only Way to Lose Is Not to Play

It’s been a long, crazy journey through A Serious Game, but with this entry the series draws to a close.  Just think back on what we’ve learned about the way fiction and reality mingle and and what this means for us. After that I did my best to make Harlan Ellison into the biggest bogeyman of 20th century speculative fiction.  I allowed myself a digression into ethical action and postmodern disillusionment, and then more or less took back almost everything I said before about Harlan Ellison.  Today the essay draws to a close, and I offer a few reflections and some tentative suggestions about how we can be better — more ethical — readers in the future, and affirm what I think is my purpose in the study of literature.

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 can resist 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.

Works Cited

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.

A Serious Game Part 5: Harlequinagain

A Serious Game continues!  If you’re just tuning in, then you should know that we’ve already discussed how stories influence our lives and seen the reality of fiction in action, then I said a lot of really melodramatic things about Harlan Ellison.  After a brief sojourn into the problem of postmodern ethics, today I return to Mr. Ellison to make amends for the many wrongs I have perpetrated against his text.

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.[1]

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,[2] 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.[3] 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.


[1] 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!

[2] 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.”

[3] 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.

Should have gotten on that bus

Today let’s look at some links, guys!

First off, my friend and yours Ross “Japanese Literature” Henderson has translated a few amusing Haruki Murakami parodies over at his blog.

Secondly, my friend Anna who does good poetry and is awesome has pointed me toward these poems by Mark Leidner, who also does good poetry and is awesome but I don’t know him personally so Anna is cooler in that regard.  You may also notice that Anna, like a good college student, is now ABROAD, much like I was last year.  She is currently blogging her experiences in Jordan!  As always she is by turns hilarious and capable of an emotional honesty that will forever elude me in my writing, autobiographical or otherwise.

What are you waiting for GO GO GO READ READ READ

A Serious Game Part 4: Ethics, chiptunes, and DFW

Now we pass the midway point in A Serious Game, my senior essay on the study of literature.  If you’re just tuning in, then you should know that we’ve already discussed how stories influence our lives and seen the reality of fiction in action, then I said a lot of really melodramatic things about Harlan Ellison. Today, I’m going to talk out of my ass about ethics!  To make up for it listen to the following song for a while.

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,[1] 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.[2] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] And depending who we are, an unsavory part of our cultural past we’d best not forget, I think.

the peace and safety of a new dark age