Hola, theoretical reader! Have been all tied up with work I’d asked for, so had hardly the time or inclination to sit down for a bit of chai/cha/tea and blog/blog/blog. For starters, would like to share some online bits I’ve encountered:
- A nice reminder of how I enjoyed Dil Se, regardless of inevitable ending — I hope to watch Roja and Bombay soon
- The UN’s worst nightmare — and hence our world’s — have you done your part to help yet? If not, what are you waiting for, while your fellow beings languish in hell?
- Fear is not often relieved in the world today, but more often realised, thanks to the hostage industry in Iraq and other parts of the world — what a fricking mess we’ve made
- Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi’s beloved passed away — the sadness of a departed spouse seemed to burst through the newspaper today, and belied the instrumental music that all Malaysian radio stations put on rotation to show their respect — our PM said the loss of a spouse can be hard to bear, and I remembered that he knew such pain too — being human, being able to feel can be fatal, but then there is love and laughter as well, a language to articulate and share these experiences, thank God
Finished Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination. Yet another title that would have done me a world of good should I have encountered it years ago. But it is still not too late. Some lovely points to celebrate, though there are many more hidden within its pages — it’s all about how the study of literature is relevant today (yesterday and tomorrow too):
The writer is neither a watcher nor a dreamer. Literature does not reflect life, but it doesn’t escape or withdraw from life either: it swallows it. And the imagination won’t stop until it’s swallowed everything. No matter what direction we start off in, the signposts of literature always keep pointing the same way, to a world where nothing is outside the human imagination. If even time, the enemy of all living things, and to poets, at least, the most hated and feared of all tyrants, can be broken down by the imagination, anything can be. We come back to the limit of the imagination that I referred to in my first talk, a universe entirely possessed and occupied by human life, a city of which the stars are suburbs. Nobody can believe in any such universe: literature is not religion, and it doesn’t address itself to belief. But if we shut the vision of it completely out of our minds, or insist on its being limited in various ways, something goes dead inside us, perhaps the one thing that is really important to keep alive.
Literature keeps presenting the most vicious things to us as entertainment, but what it appeals to is not any pleasure in these things, but the exhilaration of standing apart from them and being able to see them for what they are because they aren’t really happening. The more exposed we are to this, the less likely we are to find an unthinking pleasure in cruel or evil things. As the eighteenth century said in a fine mouth-filling phrase, literature refines the sensibilities.
In all our literary experience there are two kinds of response. There is the direct experience of the work itself, while we’re reading a book or seeing a play, especially for the first time. This experience is uncritical, or rather pre-critical, so it’s not infallible. If our experience is limited, we can be roused to enthusiasm or carried away by something that we can later see to have been second-rate or even phony. Then there is the conscious, critical response we make after we’ve finished reading or left the theatre, where we compare what we’ve experienced with other things of the same kind, and form a judgement of the value and proportion on it. This critical response, with practice, gradually makes our pre-critical responses more sensitive and accurate, or improves our taste, as we say.
The critic’s function is to interpret every work of literature in the light of all the literature he knows, to keep constantly struggling to understand what literature as a whole is about. Literature as a whole is not about an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached to them, like a cat-show, but the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depths of imaginative hell. Literature is a human apocalypse, man’s revelation to man, and criticism is not a body of adjudications, but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgement of mankind.
(pages 115 to 116)
It’s important to get into the habit of standing back and looking at the total structure of every literary work studied. A student who acquires this habit will see how the comedy of Shakespeare he’s studying has the same general structure as the battered old movie he saw on television the night before … To see these resemblances in structure will not, by itself, give any sense of comparative value, any notion why Shakespeare is better than the television movie. In my opinion value-judgements in literature should not be hurried. It does a student little good to be told that A is better than B, especially if he prefers B at the time. He has to feel values for himself, and should follow his individual rhythm in doing so. In the meantime, he can read almost anything in any order … A sensible teacher or librarian can soon learn how to give guidance to a youth’s reading that allows for undeveloped taste and still doesn’t turn him into a gourmet or a dyspeptic before his time.
(pages 116 to 117)
It’s important too that everything that has a story, such as a myth, should be read or listened to purely as a story. Many people grow up without really understanding the difference between imaginative and discursive writing. On the rare occasions when they encounter poems, or even pictures, they treat them exactly as though they were intended to be pieces of more or less disguised information. Their questions are all based on this assumption. What is he trying to get across? What am I supposed to get out of it? Why doesn’t somebody explain it to me? Why couldn’t he have written it in a different way so I could understand him? The art of listening to stories is a basic training for the imagination. You don’t start arguing with the writer: you accept his postulates, even if he tells you that the cow jumped over the moon, and you don’t react until you’ve taken in all of what he has to say.
In a society which changes rapidly, many things happen that frighten us or make us feel threatened. People who can do nothing but accept their social mythology can only try to huddle more closely together when they feel frightened or threatened, and in that situation their cliches turn hysterical. Naturally that doesn’t make them feel any less mechanical. Some years ago, in a town in the United States, I heard somebody say “those yellow bastards”, meaning the Japanese. More recently, in another town, I heard somebody else use the phrase, but meaning the Chinese. There are many reasons, not connected with literary criticism, why nobody should use a phrase like that about anybody. But the literary reason is that the phrase is pure reflex: it’s no more a product of a conscious mind than the bark of a dog is.
(pages 153 to 154)
I spoke in my first talk of three levels of the mind, which we have now seen to be also three forms of society and three ways of using words. The first is the level of ordinary experience and of self-expression. On this level we use words to say the right thing at the right time, to keep the social machinery running, faces saved, self-respect preserved, and social situations intact. It’s not the noblest thing that words can do, but it’s essential, and it creates and diffuses a social mythology, which is a structure of words developed by the imagination. For we find that to use words properly even in this way we have to use our imaginations, otherwise they become mechanical cliches, and get further and further away from any kind of reality. There’s something in all of us that wants to drift towards a mob, where we can all say the same thing without having to think about it, because everybody is all alike except people that we can hate or persecute. Every time we use words, we’re either fighting against this tendency or giving in to it. When we fight against it, we’re taking the side of genuine and permanent human civilisation.