Monday, November 04, 2002

Threes in Rumplestiltskin

In a fairytale poem one would expect the writer to operate in threes; Sexton does not fail to do this in "Rumplestiltskin." There are of course the mentioned threes: the three times the dwarf spins straw into gold, the three rewards, three days to guess his name. The poem is also triple in construction, made up in many parts of groups of three lines: "Inside many of us/ is a small old man/ who wants to get out," "I am your dwarf./ I am the enemy within./ I am the boss of your dreams." The dwarf also repeats three magic times, "and no child will ever call me Papa."

There is another, binary construction to the poem. It is built in two sections of threes, split along the axis of the heroine's marriage. There are many couplets in the poem-- "And then the dwarf appeared/ to claim his prize." And while the fairy tale tells in threes, its characters are binary. Its two active characters, the girl and the dwarf, are presented as halves one of the other. From the start this poems villain is "[i]nside many of us," who says "I am the enemy within." That the dwarf appears to the girl in the outside is an anomaly; right at the beginning Sexton states that dwarves are Doppelgängers-- apparitions of the self. "Beware... Beware..."

And the internal conflict is conducted in twos. The dwarf pops in in a couplet (39-40), but identifies himself by the triple chant of impotency and turns his straw-weaving task in three successive shifts. His final demand is a couplet: "Give me your first-born/ and I will spin." (79-80) The couplet enacts the schizophrenic binary; the triplet a more measured ternary. A ternary is more comfortable than twos: it is the fairy tale's magic means of redemption. Two failures and then one success; two variations on a single theme. By uttering the same thing three times, a character is damned or liberated. Duality is much more problematic. There is no room for the necessary imbalance of thirds. Good and evil are given equal weight, and no third party is able to intervene and liberate.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

So, I can debate with a critic, or apply a theory to a work of literature. best thing to do, i suppose, is go back through my notes.
i think that i can argue against Matthew Arnold pretty well. "see the object as it really is?" ha!
808 the function of criticism: to inform a mind, however bad criticism may also deform a mind.
my emphasis will be the function of criticism on the mind of a poetÑthis is to say, what happens between the time that a poet reads literature and writes s/th new. Ðthat is the moment of criticismÑthe poet interprets the work and implies the interpretation to his own work.
soÑall poets do criticism; tis merely whether the poet takes the time to formulate the criticism in writing, or jumps directly to new creation. a poet reads for the sake of the impact that the text will have on his mind and his work. a critic reads for the sake of describing/analysing the impact that the text has on his own mind, for the sake of cataloguing impacts. thus the critic serves two functions for the poetÑ1)presents an impact of a text alternate to the impact in the poetÕs own mind, thus expanding the impact of that text to the poet, or 2)if the poet has yet to read a text criticised, the criticism suggests what kind of impact the text is likely to have on the poetÕs mind; the poet can then decide whether this impact will be worthy, worthless, or even dangerous.
so the purpose of the critic is not to see the object as it really is, but to catalogue the impact as precisely as possibleÑthis would support my later argument that subjectivity is not only inevitable, but desirable. ie impact is necessarily subjective.
"Creative genius does not principally show itself in discovering new ideas, that is rather the business of the philosopher." --that is to say, the writer is a product of his epoch; the philosopher creates new epochs.
hereÕs the problemÑwhat is the source of the philosopherÕs discovery? where does the philosopher find the new ideas? in texts, naturally. and who writes the texts? ...there ya go
so, the poet has the new ideaÑdoes not formulate or catalogue it; merely the idea springs into the poetÕs mind (as a product of the epoch, no doubt)Ñand what the poet writes is then permeated with the idea. this is totally different from the theme, subject, or even philosophy of the work. these things are largely conscious. the idea is something new, something as yet undescribed which bubbles up as a product of the poetÕs surroundings. The poet himself is so immersed in the idea that he cannot recogvnise or describe it; rather, the poet has the idea.
The critic/philosopher then reads the text, discovers the idea, and catalogues it.
exÑMarx cataloguing the use of religion to oppress the people. This is largely unconscious. The religion was not cynically designed for oppression and control, and those who oppress and control do not deliberately, cynically (for the most part) manipulate the religion to oppress and control. Rather, a religion, by virtue of its being universally accepted, becomes the cog that holds a society togetherÑso the mechanism of an oppressive society runs on the structures of that societyÕs religion.
[a marxist analysis of the book of acts? or one of the gospels?]
A writer who uses religious metaphorÑor whose ideas are permeated with the religion of his societyÑdoes not then consciously employ religion to propagate a philosophy. However, there exists in the writerÕs mind the idea that religion is a controlling tool, and the writing reflects that. Writers as early as Homer described characters controlled by their religion, and in the case of the Iliad and Odyssey, divine intervention can be read as mere fantasy, or as metaphor for the ways belief systems were used to control the epicsÕ actors. The oath to protect Helen is a religious action; the kingsÕ deep belief in the divine implications of their oath allows them to be manipulated by Agamemnon into coming together to attack Troy. Agamemnon uses religion to control the kings of Greece.
Whether Homer was deliberately commenting on the uses of religion to exploit and destroy, the idea exists in the text and can be discovered by the Marxist critic. Homer had the idea, and wrote it; the philosopher/critic discovers the idea. So the poet is the source of all treasures (and garbage) dug up by the philosophers/critics.
or betterÑitÕs not hard to do a postcolonial analysis of Tolkien. To the modern critic, it takes little work to notice the Aryan purity of Middle EarthÕs "High" peoples, nor that the "foul" races/tribes tend to have dark hair and skin (the usually-accurate film gives dreadlocks, for examples, to the orcs), speak in gutteral tongues, and hail from the "South" or the "East."
It is doubtful that Tolkien bought into the notions of inherent racial superiority, but the idea permeates his myths (any myth, to be fair), to be noticed by later critics more sensitive to such judgments. The critic/theorist/philosopher does not invent the idea, but rather finds it, defends it, and annotates it.
Arnold never really explains what he means by "seeing the object in itself as it really is."
ConflictÑobject as it really is, v. function in the present eraÑie to see not the function of the object but its "true" self.
problem w/ objectivenessÑhow choose what to criticise? on what basis will one criticise? if one is to eat, how will one make sure that one is not subjectively influenced?
It is perhaps unfair to accuse a writer of making false predictions; however if a prediction is based on a theory, then it is certainly possible to find flaws with a theory by virtue of the fact that its predictions did not come true. Arnold suggests that the poets of the early nineteenth century, while splendidly creative, were so lacking in theoretical backbone that their works will hardly be remembered in the future. Yet today Romanticism is seen as perhaps the defining movement in English nineteenth-century literature, and the likes of Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Coleridge are read far more widely than the poetry of Arnold and his contemporaries.
ArnoldÕs argument is principally with Wordsworth, who he is clever enough to admire. This mock admiration strengthens ArnoldÕs criticism; it is much easier to argue against someone who says "heÕs a bad poet" than against the critic who claims "HeÕs a genius! And if only heÕd read Goethe, he would be even better!" Arnold criticises Wordsworth for disparaging Goethe (and books in general) whithout reading much of him(/them). While "donÕt knock it until youÕve tried it" isnÕt a bad argument, WordsworthÕs rebuttal would have been effective: "I only have so many hours in a day; I should hardly waste my time doing something I consider worthless or even detrimental, when there is so much to be done!" Arnold replies that Wordsworth spent much time writing things of little value like "The Ecclesiastical Sonnets;" he would have been better off spending that energy to read more widely and write criticism.
Many writers will agree that every good line is built on the bones of a thousand failures. Writing bad poetry is not futile; it is a necessary background to good creation. It is the exercise which sharpens the writer in preparation for greater works. Often a writerÕs "greatest" works are those which sneak out unexpectedly. The poet spends so much time honing his skill on inferior verse that his instincts develop to the point where, one day on a seeming whim he jots down something brilliant as if instinctual (not to say there arenÕt innumerable drafts of even a halfway-great poem)Ñand itÕs the practice, the churning out of "Ecclesiastical Sonnets," which sharpens the instinct. Had Wordsworth spent the bulk of his time reading Goethe and writing criticism, and reserved poetry only for those moments when he was reasonably certain of resounding success, he would have penned few verses worth reading, if any at all. And possibly have become the worldÕs greatest critic, but thatÕs still our loss.
Reading always changes a person. It is impossible to encounter new ideas without being influenced (and not all influence is beneficial). WordsworthÕs ideal was for something of a raw, original poetry steeped in no tradition and influenced as little as possible by anything other than "nature." Whether he actually approached this ideal, and what influences he neglected to acknowledge, could be a matter of deep study, but at any rate if Wordsworth read some Goethe and found his ideas unimpressive (or worse, detrimental to WordsworthÕs own writing), then he was fully right to turn his energies away from the German author, and from any books which did not aid in his development of an original style, which served to constrain his worldview rather than develop it.
Arnold makes good arguments against himself in several places. He says the problem with the Romantics was that they wanted reading. Then he admits that many of them read heavily, and that many great poets have not. It was the lack of a "national glow of life and thought" and of "a culture and force of learning and criticism" that inherently limits the Romantics. Then he says, strange that the French Revolution did not inspire a generation of great writers, and explains what the Revolution lacked that it couldnÕt have done otherwise.
So the Romantics were not a "great" movement because their era lacked strong literary change and upheaval; the change and upheaval of the Revolution was not "literary" because it was associated with no great movement. (Granted that Arnold may refer here to the lack of a literary movement in France, but he does not deny the impact of FranceÕs experience on English thought, and by juxtaposing his ideas so closely he invites comparison.) The argument is painfully circular; and in our age that gives great importance to the Romantic era, we can use ArnoldÕs reasoning to say that the Revolution does count because it did inspire a generation as influential as the Romantics ultimately were.
Arnold says that the critics create the epoch, and the writer is made by the epoch. His observation that epochs of great writing and those of great criticism do not coincide but are obviously linked is valid and true; to say that one depends on the other, but never the reverse is a little shaky. Arnold seems to give all creative power to the critic/philosopher; the poets merely take great criticism and dress it up in verse. Being both a poet and a critic Arnold certainly benefits from this viewpoint: he is a great thinker and a great versifier. It is the critic/philosopher, he has said, who discovers all the ideas. Interesting that Arnold cares to use the term "discover" rather than "create." Who makes the ideas that the theorist discovers and describes? Where does the philosopher find the ideas? In literature, perhaps? The dialectic between writer and critic is more complex than Arnold perhaps allows, but giving him credit (to which he is amply due) we can perhaps say this: the poet has the idea, in a very undefined, noncerebral way. Why the idea comes to the poet at the time it does is, as Arnold suggests, probably a result of the writerÕs surroundings, of the conditions of the present time. The poet has the idea and is influenced by it in a nonintellectual way, and the poetÕs work is immersed in this as-yet-undefined idea. Other poets read the poetry and feel the idea; they are influenced by it in an ineffable way and their work ends up replicating their forms of this infectious idea. The critic then gets hold of this mass of work that is having such an impact (and often the critic is one of the new movement of writers), and discovers the ideaÑfinds it, identifies and catalogues its appearance, analyses its sources and influences, and adds it to the eraÕs cultural lexiconÑthe idea becomes a theory. New poets then start out with this idea no longer an ineffable spirit moving them to write, but as theoretical underpinnings for the creation of their own ideas.
Whether the critic or the artist then creates the epoch is difficult to say; the two certainly feed one off the other.
"The prescriptions of reason are absolute... to count by tens is the easiest way of counting [italics ArnoldÕs]." What he forgets is the curious existence of a number system based on twelves which, though less obvious than the decimal system, provides the foundation for our way of noting time; this suggests that somewhere, to someone influential, to count by twelves was the easiest way of counting. We can excuse our writer for not foreseeing that computers would count in twos, but the point is that the prescriptions of reason are at least as relative as they may appear absolute.
815 Arnold complains that contemporary English criticism is impure; it subserves interests not its own. Criticism ought to be kept in the pure intellectual sphere. Which intellectual pursuits he feels are pure is not addressed, nor why an intellectual goal is worthier than anything material. Sufficient to respond that as long as a critic has got to eat, he will be influenced by things other than pure theory. The well-to-do theorist, independently wealthy and able to take any stand without risking his livelihood, may feel that he has been afforded free play of the imagination, but the fact that he has few obvious material concerns already intrudes on his freedomÑhe does not know how to take material into consideration in his theorising. The material independence ois of course an illusion and one can effectively argue that one personÕs total freedom is supported by the slavery of a hundred. The point is that, while Arnold says that critics should operate free from interest, why should a disinterested person care enough to write? The things that we are truly disinterested in we ignore, and our judgments in those matters are equally ignorant. The Ugandan peasant is more or less disinterested in the results of a Central Floridian county council election, but we (rightly so) donÕt go to him for advice! The people informed enough to make relevant judgments are the ones who care, who have an interest in the matter at hand. This precludes the lack of bias.
Far better than ArnoldÕs elite who claim to be entirely disinterested, are the critics who admit their biases and are open about the interests they hold in the matter. A critic may not consciously give greater praise to books put out by his publisher, but it should be no surprise if he reads more of his publisherÕs books than others. Likewise, it is naturaly that the English-language canon should include mostly books written in English. It is not that Bengali and Japanese writers are inherently worse, rather we treat them as inferiors because we have less access to their workÑand what we do read is mostly in translation. Our knowledge and interests are biased, understandably, in favor of our native language. As long as we recognise this bias and try to work from within its framework rather than claiming objectivity, we are far more honest than ArnoldÕs supposedly disinterested critic, who refuses to admit that his "pure reason" is swayed by the worldÕs material limitations.
818 "The mass of mankind," claims Arnold, "will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them." This isnÕt the first time that our critic has pushed his silly notion that an idea ought to be seen "as it really is," and his disdain for people who are more interested in surviving than theorising is somewhat distasteful. Certainly there are more and less ludicrous ways of looking at something (the one who calls a hyaena a dog, we would say, is closer to the mark than one who likens the creature to iodized salt or a god) but to say that one is really true and another entirely wrong (hyaena salt is sweaty, and their power to destroy livelihoods by stealing goats is godlike) is to pretend that we can accomplish something super(or sub?)human, and even worse than to be entirely objective is to erroneously think that one even approaches a degree of objectivity, as this claim immediately disregards any opponent who is honest and self-aware enough to admit his bias.
As this paper argues for a self-aware subjectivity, it would be well to admit (briefly) its own biases. Its sociocultural backgrounds are apparent enoughÑthe paper is in English and contains all expected English-language biases, IÕve read the same stuff the rest of the class has readÑbut one other should be brought to light. The paper is written in a language that lacks a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. Rather than engaging in tongue-twisting innovations or awkward plurals, it call the undefined individual "he" because its male author instinctively assumes the "average" person to resemble himself. A ludicrous notion, but, I hope, no falser than any other.