“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

My New Appreciation for No Country for Old Men, Curtesy of a Theory about Storytelling

On first viewing No Country for Old Men, I was surprised by how suspenseful this supposedly literary movie was. I found myself pulling for the Josh Brolin character, Llewelyn Moss, just as I would for the hero in a really good action flick. When (spoiler alert) the cameras find him dead in a hotel room, I felt like I'd been had. Here was another perfectly good story ruined by the author's compulsion to preach to us about something every seven-year-old knows: this is just a movie and real life doesn't work like this.

But if this was supposed to be a movie to upset our notions about what movies are and to sabotage narrative's influence on how we view reality it was a really bad decision to have the story feature a villain right out of a comic book. And Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, really does play a comic-book villain--as Tommy Lee Jones ought to know. He's supposed to symbolize death and randomness, and on first glance it seemed to me the role was created pretty heavy-handedly. After Moss's death, which was built up to brilliantly but for that very reason comes as woefully disappointing, I lost interest in the rest of the movie. Chigurh shows up to kill Moss's wife after the main conflict is over just rub in how evil he is and how horrible it is that the good guy lost. But,then, as if it was supposed to be some revelation, he gets t-boned while driving away from her house--death personified suffers from the whims of chance too. I walked out wishing I'd left twenty minutes earlier.
Watching it again was different. I'd been reading William Flesch's Comeuppance for a paper on James Joyce's story "The Dead." This time the reason why Moss is a sympathetic character was more clear. He could have absconded with the money he finds at the scene of a drug deal that went bad, but he returns later that night to bring water to a man who begged him for some earlier. Moss is doomed because he was acting in his rational self-interest when he took the money. But we want to see him get away with it because he's also profoundly altruistic.
Everything about Chigurh says selfish actor, so we want to see him thwarted and punished.
But the main character in the movie isn't Moss. The narration begins and ends with Jones's character Sheriff Bell. The struggle framed in the opening scene is not between Moss and Chigurh but between the salvation and loss of Bell's soul, which is threatened by all the violence and senseless death he's made to witness. Moss's off-screen death isn't designed to cast us out of the narrative frame (though the Cohen brothers might not have realized this) but because that's just how it happens for Bell. Soon after Moss's shooting, there's even a tense near-confrontation between Chigurh and Bell, like a proxy for the confrontation we were expecting to see. Ultimately, Bell has to quit his post as Sheriff to save his soul--meaning he's not responsible for the murder scene after the death of Moss's wife.
The costly signaling in this story is not of McCarthy's recognition and volunteered affect for his character's altruism, but of the author's willingness to concentrate so long and so intently on the darkest corners of human nature. His proxy character is Bell, not Moss.
And Chigurh does something interesting at the end--something which echoes Moss's behavior at the beginning of the story. He has the money. He could easily take off. But he'd tried to make a deal with Moss for the life of his wife and Moss turned it down. On principle, Chigurh fulfills his promise and returns to kill her--and he pays the price for it when he gets in the wreck. This, oddly enough, is an example of costly punishment. It even has a tinge of altruism: if people don't keep their ends of deals, how can a cooperative society function? So we're not looking at purely rational self-interest--what we're used to rooting against in stories--but rather altruism turned inside out. The second time watching the movie I actually felt slightly sympathetic toward him after the wreck. Hadn't he killed the selfish bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harlson) and the drug lord (Stephen Root) who hired them both? He'd even killed two other bad guys at the outset of his search for Moss. True he kills good guys too. But he's something different, something more interesting than the run-of-the-mill killers for hire. And he's more than what his character is supposed to symbolize.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How you mean, "Wrong"?

The conventional wisdom is that when someone claims a reading of a piece of literature is wrong what is meant is that it goes against the claimants own reading. The reading isn't wrong per se; it's just a case of clashing theories. Really though, it's remarkable how much room there is for competing theories when it comes to what a text means--they aren't really competing at all. Instead, it's like a utopia for theories. They are all safe from everything save the fickleness of fashion.

Terry Eagleton, in his book Literary Theory, responds to the complaint that theories get in the way of reading, creating a barricade between the readers and the text, by pointing out the all readings are based on some theory, though it may perhaps be implicit.

But there are people out there who have never been trained to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to a text, or feminist theories, or poststructuralism, or new historicism. Granted, the number of readers who have only passing awareness of these theories but who nonetheless have the education and comprehension to appreciate great works of literature is somewhat smaller than the audience for Tom Clancy or Nicolas Sparks books. But I believe they're out there--primarily because, until recently I was one of them. (Though I had applied Freud's theories to stories before, I gladly fell out of the habit.)

I propose as a definition for a wrong theory of literature, or a wrong reading of a particular work, the following: the reading provided by a theory is wrong if no one not conversant with the theory would experience the work, at any level of consciousness, in the way spelled out by the critic suggesting that reading. And a literary theory is wrong if the readings it inspires are wrong.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Postmodernism and the Commodification of Authenticity

Inspired by poststructuralism’s dropping of the referent—the conviction that language allows for no access to reality—authors, along with editors and publishers, have instigated a trend away from fiction with authoritative third-person narrators. Authority in general is now something of a bugaboo, a tired and transparent disguise for advocates of exclusionary and oppressive ideologies or discourses. The good intention behind this movement is to give voice to hitherto powerless minorities. But what it means to be powerless and what it means to be a minority are complicated matters. A different breed of truth of has taken over. A capturing of, or a representing of, the true experience of this or that minority has become the ascendant pursuit. Authenticity has supplanted authority as the guiding principle of fiction.

One way to achieve authenticity is to be a minority and to tell stories, preferably through first-person narration, that are culled from your actual experiences—or at least figurative representations of those experiences. White guys have a harder time for obvious reasons. To represent their experiences with authenticity usually means portraying their characters as demented. But the biggest problem for attempts at authenticity through first-person narratives is that no human consciously attends to the quantities of detail that make up the most effective, the most vivid scenes in literature. Instead of the voices of real people in real, underrepresented circumstances, readers encounter bizarre, hyper-articulate dialect savants, hybrids of the socially impoverished and the mentally rich, as if liberal documentary filmmakers had been shrunk and surgically implanted into the brains of poor immigrants.

To say that such narrators are like no one you’ll ever meet only addresses the most superficial of the dilemmas inherent in the quest for authenticity. For narrators to tell their stories in obsessive detail they must have some reason to do so; they must be anticipating some effect on their readers. They must have an agenda, which seems to be nothing other than to advertise their own and indirectly the author’s authenticity. Take J. Lo singing “I’m real” as a refrain to one of her songs and a reprisal of the main theme of them all. It begs the question, if you’re so real, why must you so compulsively insist on it? The answer—and J. Lo knows it—is that being real has become a commodity.

Ironically, this emphasis on the experiences of individuals is well in keeping with the so-called western tradition. One of the appeals of postmodernism is that in privileging subjectivity and entirely ruling out objectivity it implies an unbridgeable chasm between one individual and another. In a world of nearly seven billion, this affirmation of uniqueness comes as a welcome assurance. No overlap between individuals means no redundancy, no superfluity. It may also suggest that we can never really know each other, but that’s okay as long as we accept each other as real. But real as opposed to what?

Being real means not being manufactured, artificial, mass produced. It means not being a poseur. Authenticity is our clarion call of resistance to industrialization, commercialism, globalization—even tourism. No wonder so many marketing firms have embraced it. This paradox has placed both writers and readers in an awkward position vis á vis the purpose fiction has traditionally served. We can’t truly understand other people. And our rebel cry against consumerism has long since been packaged and sold back to us. So while reading we’re not learning about others, certainly not learning about ourselves, and at the same time we’re fueling the machine we set out to sabotage.

As poststructuralism’s original case for dropping the referent was pathetic, bringing reality, even the reality of a common humanity, back into the purview of literature suggests itself as a possible escape from this self-defeating solipsism.