April 1, 2008
The just-released Spring 2008 issue of The American Scholar, contains a timely article by the New Zealand scholar Brian Boyd. In the online article The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature, Boyd wants to return literary scholarship to once again studying the “artfulness of literary art,” a topic I discussed in a recent post. But interestingly, Boyd wants to bring concepts from science into play as part of his strategy to reclaim literature for the arts.
Stories can offer so much pleasure that studying them hardly seems like work. Literary scholars have often sought to allay unease at being paid to enjoy the frissons of fiction by investigating literature as a form of history or moral education. And since the late 1960s, academic literature departments have tried especially to stress criticism as critique, as an agent of social transformation.
For the last few decades, indeed, scholars have been reluctant to deal with literature as an art—with the imaginative accomplishment of a work or the imaginative feast of responding to it—as if to do so meant privileging elite capacities and pandering to indulgent inclinations. Many critics have sought to keep literary criticism well away from the literary and instead to arraign literature as largely a product of social oppression, complicit in it or at best offering a resistance already contained.
Literary academics have also been reluctant to deal with science, except to fantasize that they have engulfed and disarmed it by reducing it to “just another narrative,” or to dismiss it with a knowing sneer as presupposing a risibly naïve epistemological realism. They have not only denied the pleasure of art and the power of science, but like others in the humanities and social sciences, they have also denied that human nature exists, insisting against the evidence that culture and convention make us infinitely malleable.
To make a long argument short, Boyd, a Nabokov scholar, contends that “art is a form of cognitive play with pattern,” an idea that can help us better understand how literature works – without digressing from literature. Boyd offers up an extended pattern-recognition analysis of Lolita (sounds worse than it really is). We all know that patterns of every kind exist in literature; but Boyd wants to turn this equation around by suggesting that literature functions because of pattern. Admittedly, one would be hard-pressed to find a book more tailor-made to his thesis than Lolita; nevertheless, Boyd makes a convincing case. His summary:
What do these examples from Lolita suggest? A writer can capture our attention before, in some cases long before, we reach what academic critics would accept as the “meaning” or “meanings” of works. The high density of multiple patterns holds our attention and elicits our response—especially through patterns of biological importance, like those surrounding character and event, which arouse attention and emotion and feed powerful, dedicated, evolved information-processing subroutines in the mind.
Boyd mentions W.G. Sebald in passing and I have a sense that Sebald’s works, with their ever-shifting, constantly recurring patterns, would benefit from the kind of reading Boyd proposes.
Literary studies have no need to feel embarrassed at the art of literature or the pleasure we derive from it. Literature and other arts have helped extend our command of information patterns, and that singular command makes us who we are.
Give it a read.
March 30, 2008
I usually find that Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker pieces resonant on levels that go beyond his ostensible subject. In a recent New Yorker piece (March 17, 2008, to be precise), Gopnik writes about magic and magicians in The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life. Here are a few snippets:
What makes a trick work is not the inherent astoundingness of its effect but the magician’s ability to suggest any number of possible explanations, none of them conclusive, and none of them quite obvious.
…magic works best when the illusions it creates are open-ended enough to invite the viewer into a credibly imperfect world.
people participate in their own illusions.
And here’s the magician Jamy Ian Swiss talking about lessons learned when a cousin begged him to explain the secret of a trick:
She kept begging me and begging me to show her how I did it, and at last I did. And she was furious – absolutely furious! The trick was so simple, even stupid. I learned a huge lesson that day, and not just to not tell civilians the secrets. It was more complicated and ambiguous than that, and it’s taken me years to work out all of its meanings. It was that the trick was not the trick, and that it was the interchange between us that was the source of the effect.
Gopnik writes that one of the common threads that seems to link great magicians is their relationship to their audience; great magicians don’t work on their audiences, they work with them. As I read The Real Work, my mind kept sliding over into literature. Literature works best when it is a collaborative effort between writer and reader, a relationship that begins anew with every reader. This implies, of course, that a significant part of the way we talk about and evaluate literature must remain subjective. The failure to recognize this is one of the chief failures of any form of literary criticism that spends much of its time telling civilians all the “secrets.” Perhaps the ideal form of literary diagnostics would be one that creates a parallel activity, which alludes to and serves as commentary on a text while leaving the literary text intact and inviolate; an exploratory practice that contains possible explanations, none of which are conclusive. Such a practice requires a generous reader/practitioner unconcerned with being right.