Monday, December 29, 2008

Toward Ephemeral Criticism

Reading with the intent to find something worthwhile to say about what I’m reading is unavoidable. What I am aiming to reveal is perhaps ephemeral. It is through this process that I became interested in writing, and this practice naturally led to wanting to write about books. Thus, I became by default, a book critic. Rather, I like to think, a book commentator.

I’ve consciously avoided (sometimes) writing negative criticism.

Critics’ negativity is easy--it’s easier to swing a sledgehammer than it is to dovetail a joint. And if a critic is so desperate to tear a work down, doesn’t that say more about the critic than the work in question? As Roland Barthes says in Mythologies: “[...] if one fears or despises so much the philosophical foundation of a book, why become a critic?”

Criticism derived from a position of what the work in question is not is a sure way to go negative. This is like a demand for more of the marble to be left on the sculpture before Michaelangelo worked it away. Then there is the criticism that is merely comparative. Why draw the baseline so low that even those who can’t expect to be moved by anything unless it flashes on a screen or is operated by a remote won’t be interested?

I think of Joyce’s Ulysses, a work that has probably received more unwarranted criticism for the mere fact of it’s canon-wreaking status, and it’s presumed impenetrability, than from actual, considered, methodical and thoughtful readings.

Art takes time to digest. It’s not easy.

Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” (in the book of the same title) is one of those ground breaking essays that aspire to an ideal approach to criticism. 

Sontag makes the point in the essay that she only seeks to explore works that interest her, thereby largely avoiding the problem of negative criticism, perhaps. But maybe this has led to a lot of not talking about just how poorly written and conceived a work may be (say, a piece of fiction, James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning, for example). Talking about a bad work is unwitting publicity--it seems to be taken for granted that any publicity is good publicity, these days.

Skirting a whole boatload of problematic issues related to literary criticism, however, Sontag holds up film as offering possibilities for critical inquiry that do not follow in the vein of literary criticism, because, “cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms.” Further, “It also owes the happy accident that films for such a long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds.”

I think this has changed somewhat in the forty-five years since this essay was written. I don’t dispute Sontag’s still relevant assessment of interpretive criticism, and in general, I would reason that an x for y translation (what an “interpretation” of a written work is, essentially) is often a logical way to attempt to understand a literary work. I think I understand Sontag is implying that the impulse to explain a written work through exegesis or elaboration is more or less merely a reiteration.

Sontag goes on to talk about form as a source for revealing the variety and character of a written work: “To the extent that novels and plays (in America), unlike poetry and painting and music, don’t reflect any interesting concern with changes in their form, these arts remain prone to assault by interpretation.”

The problem with attempting to discuss and deliberate formal innovation in a work of literature is that it might not be the thing that jumps up and bites you on the ass with its obviousness. Whereas an interpretative tack in criticism allows almost anything in the work to be taken for something else and elucidated into the light. A least common denominator view tends to guide the general and mass view of the work (For example: it’s published. It’s a literary work. It must have merit).

Milan Kundera, in Testaments Betrayed, and an essay on the abuses of Kafka criticism, addresses this pitfall as he discusses how Max Brod promoted a kind of lazy (and popular) critical reading of Kafka which soon became de rigeur for looking at his work, what Kundera calls Kafkology. “Kafkology is not literary criticism (it does not examine the value of the work: the previously unknown aspects of existence that the work reveals, the aesthetic innovations by which it affected the evolution of art, etc.) Kafkology is an exegesis.”

In The Art of the Novel, Kundera says that the “sole raision d’etre of the novel is to discover what only the novel can discover.” Kundera makes an intriguing case for a revolutionary approach to writing a novel, through the examples of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and others—which also address the formal challenges put forth by Sontag, however unlikely it is to be acknowledged by novelists writing today.

Sontag asks, “What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?” The answer is a lofty goal. One that might seek to make every critic be an artist equal to the work they are reviewing. Sontag’s implication is that one needs to create an alternative work on top of the work under scrutiny. Isn’t it enough that the critic can enlighten us about the work in question? This is encapsulated in a remark Clive James wrote in the New York Times on this subject: “When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded.” 

Sontag goes on to say: “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. This is the greatness of, for example the films of Bresson and Ozu and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.” And, furthermore: “In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret”.

In its generally ungraspable ephemerality, isn’t film, rather, too open? Could it be said that because film is a visual medium that attempts to portray a representation of life through characters, that its presentation of this has multiple layers of nuance? Film looks, more or less, like life (or life-like). It is a much more passive medium than a work of literature. Reading a book requires a larger act of willfulness.

Film presents an overload of visual information, still much less than actual life; but in either realm, much is taken for granted, as if it is a priori. There are far too many details to claim the significance of one over another unless it calls attention to itself. It would be ludicrous to try to decipher the symbolism of John’s shirt.

This is clearly viable in literature: the reader is taking in one word at a time, one sentence, one sentence in the context of a paragraph, one paragraph in a chapter, etcetera. From a series of parts the reader extracts a whole, a unity (more or less). The intent is focused. What is brought to the work requires a leap of imagination toward being able to not reduce the story to words on a page—it requires of a reader to reach into their own imagination. Because in order to know that John has a red shirt, the author must tell us John has a red shirt, and therefore, impart a significance to that object through the tag of calling it out.

I think Sontag’s aesthetic brilliance let her get carried away by this notion of film as a kind of stand in for non-interpretive critical inquiry that literature should aspire to. Although I like the ideas she presents, I’m not sure the literary equivalents for what she is talking about are on most critics’ radar. It becomes more difficult when the slightly vague, poetic “luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are” is a goal for criticism.

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