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On Poetry

Yesterday, the New York Times offered a nice surprise: an eloquent little essay by Matthew Zapruder on learning how to read poetry. It begins in the classroom, with Zapruder describing a problem that any teacher of literature will be familiar with:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? … [I]n school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this.

“But,” Zapruder goes on, “it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal. As a teacher, I’ve found that regardless of how open or resistant my literature students initially are to poetry, real progress begins when they get literal with the words on the page.” That’s my experience too, and it’s refreshing to find someone else saying it. The lion’s share of helping students to read poetry involves dragging them back down to earth, away from the abstract dimensions of literature, and getting them to read the poem as a literal text. That’s usually impossible, of course, since it’s a rare poem that works wholly and solely on a literal level, but this is exactly the point: you find your springboard into the substance of the poem in the places where it begins to resist a literal reading, where it becomes difficult to appreciate the words in their literal sense, where the words carry a hint or a whiff of something more than their literal definitions.

Zapruder calls the search for these places an “exercise” in “getting as deeply into the words as possible.” It’s basically an exercise in considering the diction and syntax of a poem from the inside of the creative process, through the eyes of the writer, rather than as a reader approaching the poem as a thing already written and awaiting meaningful interpretation. It involves assessing the precision of each word on the basis of its innate prosodic qualities, the prosodic effects it generates in conjunction with the words around it, its register, its tone, its connotations, its associative qualities, and so on. The result of reading a poem in this way is, as Zapruder writes, a keener sense of “[o]ne of the great pleasures of reading poetry,” namely:

to feel words mean what they usually do in everyday life, and also start to move into a more charged, activated realm. In poetry our familiar language can start to feel resonant with significance, more alive, even noble. The words we use in our everyday lives carry along with them deep reservoirs of history (personal and collective) that can, through a poem, be activated.

But in my experience, the real difficulties that students encounter come from the need to become and remain attuned to those “deep reservoirs of history” beneath the surfaces of words. Even if students are able to adjust their approach to poetry and maintain their focus on the granular elements of a poem, there’s no way to teach them, via direct instruction, the history of each and every word in the language; no way to help them understand the process by which words become invested with multiple meanings, suggestive capabilities, and evocative powers. The only way to develop a sense of such things is to read — closely, widely, and often. That’s where the real learning begins, I think: totally outside the classroom and out of the teacher’s hands.

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Emerson’s Tricks and Sparks

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Essential Writings"I’ve been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collected essays over the last couple of months, two or three each week, never more than one in a day. I’ve been familiar with the more famous essays for a long time now — I remember teaching “Self-Reliance” and my favourite essay, “Experience,” almost a decade ago — but at the start of this year it occurred to me that there were a number of essays I hadn’t read, so I decided to take a look at them all.

More than anything else, more than the quality of Emerson’s ideas, what I admire most about the essays is the incomparable rhetoric, the sheer extravagant beauty of the expression. Happily, I read them in the Modern Library’s collection of Essential Writings, edited by Brooks Atkinson and with an introduction by Mary Oliver. Even more happily, Oliver’s superb essay was made freely available online last year, so you can see for yourself how precisely she nails the essence of the Emersonian aesthetic:

Emerson’ s trick — I use the word in no belittling sense — was to fill his essays with “things” at the same time that his subject was conceptual, invisible, no more than a glimmer, but a glimmer of immeasurable sharpness inside the eye. So he attached the common word to the startling idea. … [In addition,] his writing is made up of the nineteenth-century sentence, so nimble with commas. The sparks of his expression move forward softly and reasonably, in their shapely phrases — then they leap.

That’s it exactly. Think of the words Emerson uses, words of extraordinary visibility and palpability: “pith and marrow,” “pinnacle,” “trench,” “wavelet,” “chain,” “knot,” “roots,” “fruitage,” “throb.” Look at how he tethers each of them to some sort of ineffable concept, not quite as if attempting to convey the concept by way of a metaphor but rather as if the concept had assumed a physical form, as if it could be understood almost by producing a sensation on the skin. It’s one-of-a-kind prose, and it’s invigorating to see Oliver do it justice in her own distinctly poetic way.

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The Effects of The End of the Tour

I haven’t yet had a chance to see The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, but I’ve found a lot to like about the responses it has drawn from critics so far — or, rather, the breadth and variety of those responses. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Tom LeClair lamenting that even though The End of the Tour “offers itself as a respectful homage to and elegy for David Foster Wallace,” “exploitation mars the film from its origin through its casting to the final product.” The result, writes LeClair, is “a movie that Wallace’s widow and his editors said Wallace would have hated” and, worse, “the kind of commercial entertainment that Wallace’s best work critiqued.” But then you’ve got Christopher Schaberg taking a more generous view of things — “the movie is perfectly okay!” — and pointing out that, far from downplaying or bypassing its treatment of Wallace’s major critical concerns, The End of the Tour gives consideration to most of them. “Nothing in the movie breaks from the overt themes of Wallace’s actual writings,” Schaberg insists, “unless you want to go meta and insist that the movie itself is everything Wallace would have hated — but then, the joke is on us, too.”

But by far the best assessment of the film comes from James Ley in the Sydney Review of Books. Paying careful attention to the technicalities of how The End of the Tour portrays Wallace scene by scene, rather than simply in sum or on the whole, Ley finds that “the film both relies on and participates in the construction of Wallace as a cultural symbol. It is very much about him as an object of fascination rather than as an artist” and, more than that, it works hard to make its viewers aware that they, too, “are no less complicit in [its] process of objectification.” “The End of the Tour is a film that is aware of the delicacy of its task,” Ley writes:

It does not presume to know its subject beyond his outward manifestations. Wallace lives alone in a small house on the edge of a large snowy field and speaks to Lipsky of loneliness, but we never see him alone. The film preserves the basic interviewer-interviewee structure of [Lipsky’s] book, such that our sense of Wallace is always framed by Lipsky’s observation of him. …

This interest in the tension between the man and his public persona — the way that the film implies Wallace’s success has made his isolation more acute — is the most obvious way in which its themes resonate with his writing. The tendency for a media-saturated, visual culture to engender a self-consciousness that sharpens the conflict between the part of us that is seen and the infinitely more complicated part of us that remains hidden is one of Wallace’s defining themes. The difference is that The End of the Tour is itself a part of that visual culture.

“This is an irony of which the film is aware,” Ley contends, “and which it negotiates with understated intelligence” by appropriating and reconceiving Wallace’s own techniques for “satiris[ing] the terminal involutions of self-referential postmodern art,” “turning [them] around in order to reinforce our sense of Wallace’s objectification.” What I find particularly striking about these words — aside from how respectfully they treat a film that a good number of Wallace devotees have shown no hesitation in trashing — is how in tune they seem with Wallace’s own writings on films and filmmaking. They do him the sort of posthumous honour that the filmmakers were likely aiming for, capturing very acutely the analytical spirit in which Wallace himself approached the artifice of the cinema and picked apart its effects on its audience.

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All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph:

More sophisticated students usually have in mind some version of what might be called the Wikipedia test. If a book has a point, and the point can be briefly summarized, why not just read the summary? If a teacher cannot give a coherent reason why such a shortcut simply won’t do, then why should the student assume anything important is left out?

Good questions, no doubt, to which I’d answer that the “point” of a book is the word-by-word experience of the particular effects it generates in the act of reading it, not some post hoc claim or statement to be extracted from having read it. This means, for teachers of literature, the focus of a literature class has to be the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature as an artform, with any analysis of things like narrative momentum and character development and thematic concerns taking place in an aesthetic context. But then, a few paragraphs later, Morson rails against taking an aesthetic approach to the study of literature:

Time and again, students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.

The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. … At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle?

As someone who actively discourages his students from leaning on the rickety old crutch of symbolism when undertaking literary analysis, it’s mystifying to me to see that my preferred approach to the study of literature involves hunting out symbolism “[a]bove all.” Putting that aside, however, I have to say that I really don’t understand what a teacher of literature is actually teaching if he or she isn’t teaching students how to pay attention to the words on the page. I don’t believe that Dickens set out to create some sort of unsolvable puzzle, or that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving one. But an appreciation and understanding of that experience is quite distinct from the experience itself, involving as it does a reflective intellectualisation of an affective encounter with a text, and one cannot thoroughly appreciate or understand how the experience has come into being without paying close attention to the words from which it arises. At the end of the day, the words on the page are all we really have.

Morson’s general point is that “the real literary work” has less to do with authorial technique than with “the reader’s experience,” and this means that “the first thing a teacher needs to do is help students have the experience the author is trying to create. There is no point in analyzing the techniques for creating an experience the students have not had.” He ends his essay, bizarrely, by basically adopting Martha Nussbaum’s view of the importance of literature as a cultural force that expands one’s capacity for empathy, and his conclusion is just flat-out embarrassing:

[G]reat literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

Because literature is about diverse points of view, I teach by impersonation. I never tell students what I think about the issues the book raises, but what the author thinks. If I comment on some recent event or issue, students will be hearing what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not I, would say about it. One can also impersonate the novel’s characters. What would Ivan Karamazov say about our moral arguments? How could we profit from the wisdom Dorothea Brooke acquires? Can one translate their wisdom into a real dialogue about moral questions that concern us — or about moral questions that we were unaware are important but in light of what we have learned turn out to be so? Authors and characters offer a diversity of voices and points of view on the world from which we can benefit.

Such impersonation demands absorbing the author’s perspective so thoroughly that one can think from within it, and then “draw dotted lines” from her concerns to ours. Students hear the author’s voice and sense the rhythms of her thought, and then, when they go back to the book, read it from that perspective. Instead of just seeing words, they hear a voice.

I don’t think you have to be a teacher of literature, or even an experienced reader of literature, to see that this is crazy talk. I’d defy Morson to put Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside for a term and try using those techniques to teach something like Gravity’s Rainbow or Lolita. Those are just two novels, among many, that are clearly artistically ambitious and yet make a problem of the very possibility of empathy. I doubt that Morson’s students would get anything of much value out of their attempts to use empathy alone to fully experience those sorts of novels, but experience tells me that students who receive guidance in approaching them aesthetically develop a real love for the extraordinary capabilities of the written word that is, after all, their lifeblood.

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Why Tenth of December?

Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth of December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something like conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?

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Minor Notes on Much Ado About Nothing

This year has been for me, in a sense, the year of Much Ado About Nothing. Back in November, I began helping a couple of colleagues to direct our students in a performance of the play. We spent November and December closely reading the text, then we spent January and February intensively preparing for the stage. We also paid careful attention to both Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation and the 2011 West End production starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. And although we pulled the trigger too soon to catch Joss Whedon’s more recent take on Shakespeare’s material, I saw his Much Ado when it hit cinemas this summer and I’m convinced that it is the best of all those I have seen. It could have just as easily gone the other way. Whedon shot the film in only twelve days, while in the middle of post-production on The Avengers, using his own house as the set and restricting himself to a grainy monochrome palette. It could have been a sloppy, rushed, underdeveloped mess. But it isn’t. Why not?

Fran Kranz as Claudio in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Fran Kranz as Claudio in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Part of the film’s success resides in the minor changes Whedon makes to Shakespeare’s original text and in the talents of some first-rate cast members who do full justice to those parts of the play that Whedon doesn’t tinker with. Most notably, I think, Whedon’s decision to transform the ancillary character of Conrade from a female role into a male role works wonders not only for that character but also for the more crucial character of Don John. Whereas Shakespeare’s pages render Don John a “plain-dealing” villain who turns out to be so pathetic and paper-thin that he barely warrants the stage time allotted to him, Whedon’s film shows he and Conrade involved in a sexual relationship which subtly reconstrues his motivation for manipulating the other characters and kickstarting the plot. Now, rather than having no stronger basis for his villainy than bitterness over the bastardy that keeps him in his brother’s shadow, his cruel machinations appear to be more the result of a purely opportunistic and misguided attempt to live up to his lover’s perceptions of his masculinity. Whedon also does a skilful job of eliding the character of Balthasar and reworking Balthasar’s into pop songs that better suit the film’s contemporary setting, and his decision to allow Nathan Fillion free reign as the bumbling Dogberry has produced not only the best available performance of that character but, perhaps, the best conceivable performance as well. I don’t see what any other actor can do with Dogberry from here on out except imitate Fillion’s line delivery and physical buffoonery as accurately as possible. Only the excision of the character of Antonio seems to me to be a misstep on Whedon’s part, particularly since Antonio’s absence prohibits the staging of one of Shakespeare’s best and most dynamic scenes, equal parts hilarious and devastating, when Antonio and the aggrieved Leonato confront and threaten Don Pedro and Claudio over their accusations against Leonato’s daughter, Hero.

Most of the film’s success, however, seems to me to reside in something less immediately identifiable, something that sets Whedon apart from the other film directors who have been drawn to Shakespeare since the 1990s. The films of Kenneth Branagh present lavish stagings of Shakespeare’s plays with the ultimate aim of clearly conveying the dramas that Shakespeare orchestrates by way of enunciating and thus foregrounding his language, which basically involves Branagh pointing a camera at a group of accomplished actors and simply letting them do their work. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet takes the opposite approach, forcing flashy camera movements and ritzy editing to convey the drama while the actors enunciate monologues and soliloquies but employ more physical techniques for communicating the content of minor dialogue, and the films of Julie Taymor offer some compromise between, or combination of, Branagh’s and Luhrmann’s approaches to Shakespeare. In each case, though, the result is an admixture of three languages: the language of Shakespeare, comprising the dialogue; the language of the staging, comprising setting and set design, props, and costuming; and the language of cinema, comprising camera movements, editing, and soundtrack scoring. In each case, too, the language of Shakespeare is the dominant element whose occasional weaknesses or infelicities, as the directors perceive them, determine when and how much compensation should be made using the languages of staging and cinema. Whedon, however, does not let the language of Shakespeare dominate Much Ado About Nothing. His film allows the language of staging to dominate while the language of cinema that supplements the staging and the language of Shakespeare follows on from, and is at the mercy of, the other two.

In practice, this means two things. First, it means that Whedon uses the distinct capabilities of cinema as an artform to avoid simply producing a stage version of Much Ado that happens to have been performed in front of a camera. Utterly unlike Kenneth Branagh, for instance, he rarely allows a character to deliver more than a few lines of dialogue — even during monologues and soliloquies — before cutting to reaction shots of other characters and, almost as frequently, intercutting a dialogue delivery with action from another scene that takes place elsewhere and at a different time but nevertheless speaks to the content of the dialogue. Second, it means that, when Whedon sets his Much Ado in a villa in contemporary Los Angeles, he has his actors deliver their Shakespearean lines almost the way they would deliver them if they were performing a role in that setting without any Shakespearean language at all. There is very little showiness and glamour to the delivery of dialogue, and sometimes even a deliberate rebuke to the way we might expect dialogue to be delivered. Eloquent lines are mumbled, pithy lines are drawn out, witty lines are dampened and drained of their buoyancy, and there is often a tinge of emotional equivocation to lines that seem to be, on the page, either outrageously joyful or desperately cruel. These things are particularly true of all the lines delivered by Fran Kranz as the besotted Claudio when in conversation with Jillian Morgese as his lover, Hero, to such an extent that those two actors, solely by way of body language and tone of voice, reconstitute the meaning of words that literally refer to virginity and maidenhood and force upon them new meanings relating more broadly to infidelity, promiscuity, and betrayal. And these things are likewise true of the lines delivered by Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice, between whom there seems to be not so much a “merry war,” a bantering battle of witty words, but a real and deep bitterness over the failure of a bygone romance — so much so that the sparring exchanges which advance a largely intellectual one-upmanship in Shakespeare’s text now obtain an element of malice intended to open emotional wounds. The result, on the whole, is a decidedly different but impressive take on Much Ado About Nothing. By bringing Shakespeare’s characters into a setting that suppresses and attenuates the crackling repartee of their words as written, Whedon harnesses the energy that those words only sporadically release on Shakespeare’s pages and transforms it into an edgy, bristling, abiding susurration that undergirds every frame of his film.

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Not Really a Review of Spurious

Just a quick note to say it is both the funniest and most despairing thing I’ve read all year, and an attempt to sketch out why I found it even funnier and more despairing than the blog from which it developed. I think the difference in quality has something to do with the difference in form, with the sense of claustrophobic compression which defines the novel but which the blog just cannot generate. I won’t go over the narrative, such as it is, since various summaries already appear in good reviews at The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. Instead I’ll pick up on a couple of the remarks John Self made when he read the novel in May:

[I]ts genesis [as a blog] shows: the chapters are short, like blogposts, and the consistency of voice and repetition of themes both emphasises and distracts the reader from the fact that there is not much directional plot.

I agree with that, but what I took away from the movement of Lars and W. through these short, repetitive chapters was the polar opposite of what John Self took away from it:

[W.] is relentlessly critical of Lars. … But the lightness of touch, the artfulness in the repetition, means that it sounds not like bullying but an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.

I’m with Michael Schapira when he writes that “[t]he levels of depravity and viciousness that W. is able to reach through his assessment of Lars and himself truly merit the exalted categories of cosmic, transcendental, and messianic,” and I’m with him on that point because of how the relationship between Lars and W. is warped by the novel lacking the occasional and continually unfolding nature o the blog. The blog, rather than the novel, leaves me feeling as if I’m reading something closer to “an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.” With a brief post here, a long post there, sometimes weeks without any posts and then a few posts in quick succession, the blog suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you about something W. recently said.” Over time, then, the blog amounts to a piecemeal assemblage of W.’s character via Lars’ reports of the conversations he shares with W. The novel is the inverse. Running close to two hundred pages bound together between two covers, detailing a series of past events without a date stamp in sight, containing W.’s continual attacks against Lars in close proximity to one another, the novel suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you some things W. said about me when we were together a while ago.” The novel involves much more definition of Lars’ character by W., whose assessments of Lars are later recorded by Lars himself for reasons only Lars can know.

I don’t mean to deny or downplay the artistry behind the content of the blog; I only mean to suggest that with its occasional posts, date-stamped and dispersed across time, each one a minor piece of a massive project that could potentially last as long as the author lives, the form of the blog serves that content differently, and to my mind less successfully, than the form of the novel serves similar content. Corralling the occasional and dispersed content of the blog into a more concentrated form, the novel forces W. to evolve from a petulant buffoon into a monomaniacal tyrant. This evolution in turn forces Lars’ chronicling of W. to evolve from intermittent acts of reportage into a sustained act of fascinated supplication — and the utter inexplicability of that act is what makes Spurious so funny and so despairing at the same time.