Tag Archives: interpretation

Literary links: ‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’ and a definition of postmodern novel

1. William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” —

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

— may be a scene the poet witnessed, as described in this Times article:

On July 18, in a moment of belated poetic justice, a stone will be laid on the otherwise unmarked grave of Thaddeus Marshall, an African-American street vendor from Rutherford, N.J., noting his unsung contribution to American literature.

“When we read this poem in an anthology, we tend not to think of the chickens as real chickens, but as platonic chickens, some ideal thing,” William Logan, the scholar who recently discovered Mr. Marshall’s identity, said in an interview.

The discovery doesn’t change the meaning, he said, but “knowing there was a man with a particular wheelbarrow and some chickens does help us understand the world the poem was embedded in.”

Williams’s 16-word poem, first published in 1923, was hailed as a manifesto of plain-spoken American modernism. Williams himself declared it “quite perfect.” A staple of classrooms and anthologies, it has inspired endless debates about its deeper meaning — how much of what, exactly, depends on the red wheelbarrow? — not to mention provided the name of an English-language bookstore in Paris, a craft beer from Maine and an episode of “Homeland.”

But Mr. Logan, a professor at the University of Florida who has contributed to The New York Times Book Review, may have taken the poem’s fullest measure yet. His roughly 10,000-word essay on the poem, published in the most recent issue of the literary journal Parnassus and titled simply “The Red Wheelbarrow,” considers the poem from seemingly every conceivable angle.

There are discussions of Williams’s aesthetic influences and composition habits. (Williams, a medical doctor by profession, sometimes wrote poems on prescription forms.) Mr. Logan also considers the history of hyphenation in the word “rainwater,” previous literary references to painted wheelbarrows, New Jersey ordinances concerning handcarts, and early-20th-century poultry trends.

“Who knew there was a fad for white chickens?” he said.

2. In a New Yorker article discussing “Fran Ross’s hilarious, badass novel, ‘Oreo,'” Danzy Senna writes this definition of the postmodern novel:

Aesthetically, “Oreo” has all the hallmarks of a postmodern novel in its avoidance of profundity and its utterly playful spirit. It draws no conclusions, and the quest leads to no giant, revelatory payoffs. [my emphasis] The father and his secret about her birth constitute, in the end—and without giving anything away—as absurdist a feminist send-up of the patriarchal myth as one could hope to find. At every turn, the novel embraces ambiguity. Its quest-driven plot is diverted by wordplay and meta-references to itself. In many ways, it feels more in line stylistically and aesthetically with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange, to name two other black female writers of Ross’s time.

Oreo never becomes a fully believable character, and this feels appropriate to the work’s spirit. The novel does not strive for realism; Ross is not trying to construct a seamless, plot-driven narrative or a sympathetic, three-dimensional main character. We are always aware of Oreo as a construct, and of her story as a construct. Puns, wordplay, standup-comedy riffs, menus, charts, tangents: the journey to find the father is just a chance for Ross to meander through her wicked and free imagination, and to push us toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. “Christine,” Ross writes, and she could be writing of herself, “was no ordinary child … she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry.”

3. A definition of literary interpretation, and a warning about finding patterns, from a New Yorker piece about love-song lyrics by Adam Gopnik:

One should always be wary of a book by a scholar insisting that there is a pattern where before none has been seen, since scholars have an overwhelmingly strong confirmation bias in favor of patterns—finding patterns is what scholars do. The great art historian Leo Steinberg found the “line of fate” in the Sistine Chapel, which skewered figures from separate scenes into occult sentences, with the same excitement with which Percival Lowell had once found canals on the surface of Mars. These were illusory—but, more important, irrelevant. Interpretation is the teasing out into articulate words of a complicated sensation or experience. It’s not often the discovery of some other, completely different experience that the surface of the work was hiding. [my emphasis]

A mental tourist: Visiting others’ minds through their texts

2013_07_31_mh (6)_cropA text by Mark Edmundson explains well an idea I’ve heard before, that English majors read

not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of reading, similar to Edmundson’s description, as sharing in the mind, the mental activity, of the writer.

But I’ve been thinking of this sharing in a slightly different way — that a person  reading a text is like a computer running software that simulates something (like flight) or maybe a person reading a text is like a player piano recreating music from paper.

And while this analogy is as imperfect and arbitrary as any, considering it has given me some other ideas. For one, thinking of a text as a program for a human mind to run makes it clear that the text is representing the writer’s mind-activity (the voice that the writer thinks in) rather than representing whatever the text is about. For example, when I read a biography of Lincoln, I’m recreating in my mind the thoughts that the biographer’s mind had about Lincoln, rather than recreating Lincoln himself. [And against Edmundson, I’d argue that it’s not just literary texts that do this — but that any text — nonfiction, instruction manuals, etc. — is the product of a writerly consciousness and so conveys that consciousness as it conceives those words.]

And so, we don’t have to ask whether a text accurately represents reality — as if such a thing were possible or even desirable. I don’t really know what’s happening physically when I see a rainbow, but I can use words to describe what I’m seeing and thinking, how I’m interpreting what I see, and that human interpretation is something others can share by recreating my ideas from my words. [Yes, I know scientists have an explanation of light refracting and whatnot, but that doesn’t suffice to explain my mind’s experience. Also, the science explanation, too, is just another, different kind of interpretation-by-human text.]

A photo of a rainbow can show, in a limited (two-dimensional) way, another person what the photographer could see from his/her perspective. A person who wasn’t present can view the photo image and construct one’s own interpretation from that visual data. A text cannot quite capture or convey sensory reality that way. To look at a page of text is to see ink-shapes on paper (or screen). To read the word “rainbow” is not to see colors in an arc in the sky, but one can interpret the word (using one’s own prior experiences) and imagine the visuals. And of course, through our senses, we live in a world in which there are sights, smells, touches, sounds, tastes, and we use these senses simultaneously — smelling, tasting, and seeing a raspberry, say.

We can’t do that in text. We’re down to one linear direction (sequence in time) in text, one sense at a time. And yet, there’s something about this that may match how our minds process the world — yes, our minds can take in senses simultaneously, but we don’t seem to be able to talk about our senses except one at a time. And this way that our conscious, abstracting minds think is, I’m suggesting, pretty close to how we say or write our experiences, and then this linearly described experience is what we can hear or read and share.

So, no, reading a description of someone in a cafe in Venice isn’t quite like being there; and yet, reading what someone else thinks about being there (being a mental tourist?) can be, perhaps, more of a travel-experience than being a physical tourist might be. I can drag my body to other places on the Earth, but still, it’s just me seeing these new-to-me places with my familiar-to-me mind. Wherever I go, there I am. But reading can really allow me to get outside my own mind.

And at times when I’ve been reading too much, or taking in too much other media (which “mediates” the world for me — which processes the world through others’ minds before it gets to me), I’ve felt like I haven’t had enough time to be, or to think as, myself. I often drive with my radio off for this reason. So I don’t mean to say that it’s always a good thing to let others’ ideas and experiences into our heads, but it’s not always a bad thing, either. For instance, sometimes I’ll read when I feel tired or stressed — reading lets me escape my own worries, my own familiar mindset, for a while.

So we may not be experiencing what Venice the place is, but we’re experiencing what the writer experiences in Venice, and this can be tedious if, say, the writer tells us only about the reputation and myths of Venice. So much of journalistic-type writing seems to invoke the expectations and stereotypical ideas we may have of a place — Venice: Canals! Glorious history! Art! — as a way of inducing readers to relate, but of course, no one actually experiences the myths or generalities about a place. We instead experience particularities, and the longer we live in a place, the harder it may feel to form genuine generalities about the place. I’ve lived in Ogle County, Illinois, most of my life, and it’d be harder for me to describe this place than it is a new place — of course, I have a shallow view of the new place, but I don’t know enough to feel bad about my shallow view.

I can remind myself that wherever one lives, it becomes home, with all its comforts and confines. But this also reminds me of the importance of the particular voice of the writer. And in my own writing, I often don’t want to convey just what I know. Though I may start from something I have already experienced or want to assert, I also try to, as I write, have a new idea — I want to write texts that are not static but show a sense of growth, of exploration, of trying new ideas and being open to new ideas. (For instance, I didn’t know when I started this post that it would become what I am writing now — I don’t want to know the future; I wanna have new ideas.) When I write, I want to have that open-minded, exploratory, even questioning experience (which is one way of defining creative writing?), and perhaps it is that experience that I want to share with readers. I don’t wish to adopt a tone or posture of lecturing in my writings, partly because that’s dull for me to write, and I think it’s also dull for others to read.

Now, I know that when I’m having open-mind writing time, I’m not perhaps very careful with the editing, and certainly the structure is more biological (branching out, recursive, etc.) than rhetorically familiar — which nonstandard writing can be a harder program for a reader to decode and run/follow. For another example, stream of consciousness texts may be attempting to represent a mind’s workings, and yet, stream of consciousness texts can be so hard to read that the reader never gets around to having the experience the writer intends.

That’s an argument for stylistic simplicity, I guess. But I also like the idea of spontaneous writing — giving the reader the sense of the writer’s raw mental-voice. If a writer’s voice is too heavily edited, or tries too hard to stay within the accepted forms, reading the text becomes more like visiting a chain store than going to an unexpected place.

P.S.: Another corollary would be that if one doesn’t like the mental-program one is running (that is, the text one is reading), then one can just stop running the program, stop reading. And perhaps that feeling is why some books drive us away — we just don’t feel like spending time in that person’s mind.

Stanley Fish: We do work we like to do

After reading in his NYT blog that Stanley Fish is retiring, I found this Chronicle of Higher Education profile that contains some ideas that I want to repeat here:

On the purpose of literary interpretation:

What, then, was literary theory for? Not social change, but simply this: “Literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward. I do it because I like the way I feel when I’m doing it.” That was in 1993. Four months ago, he repeated the same point during a lecture on The Fugitive at Princeton. At the end of the event, when the host marveled that Fish’s “brief against commitment does not extend to his own activity,” Fish interjected: “You do this kind of work simply because it’s the kind of work that you like to do, and the moment you think you’re doing it to make either people or the world better, you’ve made a huge mistake. There’s no justification whatsoever for what we do except the pleasure of doing it and the possibility of introducing others to that pleasure. That’s it!”

Note that phrase: “introducing others to that pleasure.” It saves Fish from decadence. He believes in the enterprise as a source of pleasure for others, and he’s committed to sharing it. The pleasure itself deserves respect and support.

On Fish’s literary criticism — seeing meaning as constructed by readers:

Now he set about crafting a new theory of interpretation, one that would undo prevailing principles of meaning. The target was the New Critics, especially W.K. Wimsatt, and their belief in meaning as a fixed composition of ideas and attitudes embedded in the text, waiting for discerning readers to extract it. Fish argued that meaning is, instead, a reader’s experience, and that it unfolds over time—”meaning as an event.” New Critics asked, “What does the poem mean?” Fish asked, “What happens when a reader reads it?”

Knowledge is human-produced, and therefore revisable:

Fish has adjusted his opinion about many things, but one root belief stands firm, which he summarized recently in a conversation with me: “Forms of knowledge are historically produced by men and women like you and me, and are therefore challengeable and revisable.” Moreover, Fish has maintained the historicity of all truths and methods at complicated and crisis-ridden times, taking positions that have alternately inspired and affronted his colleagues. There’s a pattern: Fish championed new ideas and interests at times of ferment and controversy, only to dissent when the profession absorbed those ideas and converted them into dogmas and reflexes. It was the trendiness and sectarianism of literary studies that made him seem ever tactical and adversarial. As theories and missions, at first fresh and creative, congealed into group outlooks, a nonconformist impulse burst through, a habit of mind partly for and partly against the pieties of the moment—which, of course, makes him the pious ones’ most irritating colleague.

And the article concludes by quoting a youthful Fish’s work:

Question yourself… the duty of self-examination