Thursday, July 31, 2008

Where to find forest? Am lost in trees.

Frank Kermode at The New Republic reviews a recent book on literature, a modern answer to E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel, James Wood's How Fiction Works. For Kermode, one example of Wood's clarity of insight regards the "indirect free discourse" represented in Henry James' What Maisie Knew:

Maisie meditates on the status of the dead girl, Clara Matilda, "who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green," a London cemetery, which she had visited with the dead girl's mother to see her "little huddled grave." "James's genius," we are told, "gathers in one word: 'embarrassingly,'" and Wood asks whose word it is.

He argues that it is Maisie's, embarrassed to witness adult grief, a little afraid of it; and he develops this theme with his usual resource. And yet the embarrassment surely arises less from the confusion that Wood identifies than from a much more obvious childish puzzle, of a sort that adults rather than children can find words for. ...Maisie's reaction arises from ambiguities in the cultural code that Wood inherits from Barthes. He rightly comments that "huddled" must be James's own word, but he thinks that Maisie might, by a stroke of Jamesian genius, have used the word "embarrassingly" to describe her own confusion. Yet it seems virtually impossible for it to be anything but an adult's way of describing a child's commonplace eschatological difficulty.

Now, it seems to me (from an admittedly ignorant standpoint: I'm working only from what was provided in the review) that "embarrassingly" could mean:

+ Maisie is embarrassed (confused, flustered) by the incongruity of what she is told to believe and what is physically presented to her, and by her own inability to reconcile the two;
+ Maisie assumes the adults should be embarrassed by their failure to reconcile that incongruity;
+ Maisie, as children are wont to do, projects feelings even upon inanimate things or dead creatures and people - assuming that the dead girl's situation is embarrassing for herself (or even that the dead girl is embarrassed) to be expected in heaven but found in the ground.

I'm willing believe that Henry James meant for the word to capture all those varying meanings, and that he may have crafted it through a combination of an instinctive sense for the words' rhythm as well as a preconceived logical notion that he wished to communicate.

Kermode's review is titled "The Art of Noticing." And it's a very rewarding, instructive, enriching art - the problem comes when the noticing is so minute that, in the end, it is only the critic noticing his own navel. Scrutiny on this level seems to override all the joys and potential of noticing - it leaps over the fine line between artful observation and wringing meaning from as few syllables as possible in order to say something unique. The "critic's critic" continues:

Yet Wood is right to say we should read "musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why a metaphor is successful and another is not."

But that seems to contradict Wood's hyperbolic claim James' genius "gathers" in the word "embarrassing," that perfect meeting of meaning and ambiguity - possibly just because Wood himself was clever enough to spot it. The details matter, and they're thrilling to discover and learn about, but taken individually they don't completely explain the allure of the whole.

Even music experts don't listen to music with an ear to parse every single note - the beauty of music is in the course and pulse of the intangible whole. I know music students who rave about this beautiful interval or that stunning modal change - but these are incidents that contribute to the flow; the example of those few notes doesn't describe the whole, nor do my musical friends believe those few notes alone summarize the entire genius of the composer, they're simply signs of the genius that dwells in the whole. In similar terms, it seems inane to claim that James' genius can be described in that clever use of "embarrassingly," even if it was meant to be propounded as an example rather than a culmination of his cleverness. It misses the point of the context, the acts of noticing that James himself compiled before even setting pen to paper.

Take this example. Assign a creative writing class to draft a story that incorporates a sentence that uses a word in a similar manner to James' "embarrassingly" - something ambiguous, with shades of meaning that apply to all possible points of view. The sentence cannot be the turning point or conclusion of the story; it simply must be incorporated naturally into the rhythm of description.

Now take that sentence out of each story, and the result will probably be a heap of insipid stories. Because a writer who focuses all his cleverness on little literary zingers like that will tend to indulge his love of words (not a bad trait at all) but at the cost of his love of noticing. And it shows, in the hollowness of the piece as a whole, even if it's strewn with what my mom once called "Oooh, here comes my MFA!" moments.

This isn't to say that close reading is inappropriate. I simply mean that close reading is not really the best material for a satisfying survey of "how fiction works" - and like Barthes, it sounds like Woods can't see the forest for the tropes.

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