Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Uncertainty of Literature

Last week, I posted some gibberish in which I suggested that art was a dialectic, a conversation between writer and reader (or, more generally, between artist and audience).  Well, most of it was gibberish, but that part was pretty decent.  If you are willing to accept that premise, we can extrapolate a few even more interesting bits of philosophical remains if we carry it through to some logical conclusions.

First allow me a couple of tangents.  In Stephen King’s novel It, there is a character named Bill Denbrough, who is, like King himself, a horror writer.  King is fond of putting writers in his stories, presumably as a concrete manifestation of the age-old writer’s dictum to “write what you know.” And, while of course these are fictional characters, it’s not unreasonable to assume that King takes advantage of them to insert some of his own views on writing.  I was particularly struck by one passage that describes an English class that Bill takes in college, and I’ve never forgotten it.

... he says, “I don’t understand this at all.  I don’t understand any of this.  Why does a story have to be socio-anything?  Politics ... culture ... history ... aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well?  I mean ...” He looks around, sees hostile eyes, and realizes dimly that they see this as some sort of attack.  Maybe it even is.  They are thinking, he realizes, that maybe there is a sexist death merchant in their midst.  “I mean ... can’t you guys just let a story be a story?”

No one replies.  Silence spins out.  He stands there looking from one cool set of eyes to the next.  The sallow girl chuffs out smoke and snubs her cigarette in an ashtray she has brought along in her backpack.

Finally the instructor says softly, as if to a child having an inexplicable tantrum, “Do you believe William Faulkner was just telling stories?  Do you believe Shakespeare was just interested in making a buck?  Come now, Bill.  Tell us what you think.”

“I think that’s pretty close to the truth,” Bill says after a long moment in which he honestly considers the question, and in their eyes he reads a kind of damnation.

“I suggest,” the instructor says, toying with his pen and smiling at Bill with half-lidded eyes, “that you have a great deal to learn.”


I can imagine this, or something strikingly similar to it, actually happening to King himself, especially given his long-standing attitude that he is “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” What he seems to be exploring, both in the passage and in the quote, is the dichotomy between literary-as-a-quality, and popularity: that is, the difference between what is truly superior writing and what’s just cool to read.  Indeed, Bill Denbrough’s response in the novel is to go out and write a pulp story which he promptly sells for $200, thus proving to himself that he doesn’t need the pretentious approval of soi-disant academics to validate his self-worth.  It seems, on some level, to be cheering on the popular over the literary.

But, as a baladocian, I reject this choice.  There’s no reason it can’t be both.  Let’s take Mr. Shakespeare as an excellent example.  The man was wildly popular in his time; there is every reason to believe that he really did work to maintain that.  That he may have been, if not just out to make a buck, at least telling stories for the sheer joy of it.  Now, does that invalidate the centuries of literary analysis that have been done on his plays?

But let’s make the question more concrete.  In any class on English literature in the country—most likely in the world—you’re bound to hear many statements that start thus: “In this instance, Shakespeare was trying to say ...” Indeed, much modern literary criticism is bound up in authorial intent: either desperate to determine it, or desperate to ignore it.  But my question is this: if you had a time machine, and you could go back and visit Shakespeare, and you could ask him: did you really intend this interpretation? were you actually trying to say thus and so?  And, if Shakespeare were to respond, “why, no, not at all” ... would that invalidate the interpretation?

I attended George Mason University, which is one of the few colleges (or at least it was at the time) to offer an English degree with a concentration in writing (most Bachelors of Arts in English concentrate on literature by default).  I took five courses in writing, above and beyond the two in composition that are required of all B.A. candidates.  In my very first one, I had the great fortune to be taught by Ellen Nunnally.  She was a fantastic teacher on the craft of writing, and one of the two people who probably most influenced my development as a writer (the other being Mark Farrington).  I learned many things in that first class.  Here’s the one I remember most clearly:

All my writing, throughout my life, has been influenced by what I think of as my literary pentagram of idols: Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman (in order of my discovery of them).  So naturally most of my short stories have fallen into the category of horror fiction, and that’s mostly what I wrote for this class.  Ellen didn’t care for it, but she always looked beyond that to comment on the writing itself.  Now, when I wrote a story back in those days (and not a whole lot has changed, to be honest), I just sort of wrote whatever came into my head: I got an idea which was hopefully a decent one, then I just ran with it, expanded on it, let it flow, wrestled it down, formulated it into a story.  There wasn’t a lot of thinking involved: just writing.  I turned in one such story and Ellen apparently liked it, and wanted to read it aloud to the class (she often did this with students’ work).  I can’t recall if she read it or I did, but I remember what she said afterward.

She pointed out to the class all the elements of my story: the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the denouement.  She pointed out how the main character changed (for the protagonist must always grow or change in some way).  She pointed out several other things about my story and its structure and its themes and what it had to say, and I had one simple reaction: Wow, who knew all that stuff was in there?  What a genius I must be!

This is when I realized what the passage from It really meant.  Because I knew that I had not intended all those things that Professor Nunnally found in my story.  Perhaps I put them in through some sort of instinct, or perhaps it really was just a bizarre fluke, but the important thing was that it didn’t matter.  Because, once she pointed them out, I could see them too.  They were there; they were valid.  I had never intended them, and yet there they were.

And ever since then I’ve been very careful not to assume that I know everything there is to know about what I write.

You see, the reader draws forth the interpretation from the work.  In a certain sense, when you read something, whatever you get out of it, no matter what it is, that’s valid ... for you.  Don’t come ask me if that’s what I meant to say, because it just doesn’t matter.  If you got it, it’s true, in some fundamental sense.  Of course, we have to take the bad with the good: taking this view means that when you have a situation like religious nutjobs lining up to boycott Harry Potter or somesuch, you can’t really tell them they’re wrong—no matter how badly you may want to.  Because it’s valid for them.  (Assuming they’re being sincere; oftentimes people participating in such protests have never even read the work in question, in which case nothing is valid for them, because their interpretations don’t even exist yet.)

And of course this isn’t limited to writing.  I have some friends who have a band, and I really like their music.  They’re hardly punk, or even what you might call hard rock, but they are quite energetic, and they have a few songs that are quite dandy to mosh to (such as ”Jump in the Water,” which, gosh darn it, has “jump” right there in the title).  Now, it has been brought to my attention that Todd (lead singer of the band and, as I say, a friend of mine) doesn’t really dig people moshing to his tunes.  I have been told that I am somehow being disrespectful of his wishes if I choose to express myself in this way.  But, to me, this is the same thing again: he may not have intended his song to instill in me a desire to pogo around and crash into other people, but that’s what I got out of it, and that’s valid for me (and obviously other folks as well, ’cause you can’t really mosh by yourself).

As the artist, you’re the parent, and your work is your child.  You try to mold it, and polish it up and make it presentable, and you hope it reflects well on you, but, at some point, it has to go off on its own and you just have to hope for the best.  The impression that other people get from your children does say something about you, of course, but you can neither take all the credit, nor all the blame.  In the end, each child is its own person.

Werner Heisenberg is the guy who formulated the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  If you’re not familiar with that, it says that certain pairs of measurements (say, position and momentum) of quantum particles can’t be simultaneously known.  Or, to put it another way, you can’t meausure both where a particle is and how fast it’s going, because the very act of measuring its speed impacts its location, and vice versa.  Or, to put it even more simply (and, yes, I’m aware that some pedantic types may find this formulation entirely too simple): when you measure something, it changes.

Now, all the Heisenberg uncertainty principle really talks about is quantum particles.  But it is often extrapolated to much larger contexts.  For instance, I’m a programmer, and sometimes my software has bugs in it (hey, I’m not perfect).  One way I can find a bug is to run my program through a “debugger,” which is a program that modifies my program to have all sorts of hooks and connections in it, so that, for each thing my program does, the debugger can show me exactly where in my source code I told it to do that.  Unfortunately, sometimes the modification that the debugger does to my program causes the bug to move, or disappear entirely, and, when that happens, we call it a “Heisenbug” (this also explains my well-known love/hate relationship with debuggers).  Other cultural references abound.

But note how primly the pedants try to disparage these.  “A lot of people get the Uncertainty Principle confused with the observer effect,” they tell us, but “the two are not actually related.” Why are they unrelated?  Well, it turns out that clever physicists don’t actually have to observe quantum particles in order to measure them.  So the observer effect tells us that we can’t measure things when we observe them, and the uncertainty principle tells us that we can’t measure them even when we don’t.  Nope, those aren’t related at all.

Someone told me once that Heisenberg himself was quite adamant about the uncertainty principle not being applied to anything other than quantum particles.  I don’t know if that’s true, but even if it is we’re back to the same issue: it doesn’t much matter what Heisenberg thought.  He was an artist, in his own way.  He created the uncertainty principle, and he tossed it out into the world for us to chew on, and we’ve run with it.  So, we’ve repurposed it to apply to not only to larger physical things, but to entirely non-physical things ... so, we’ve combined it with the observer effect to make one giant misguided scientific principle ... so what?  I sometimes think the pedagogues believe that by proving that such things don’t logically follow from the original, they are therefore proving those things wrong (which of course would be argumentum ad ignorantiam).  But it is precisely because such things contain a measure of truth that we don’t overly concern ourselves with exact derivations.  The Heisenberg uncertainty principle ceases to be a mathematical proof and just becomes a convenient frame of reference.

So, whether you attribute it to Heisenberg or not, we have this principle that tells us that measuring things changes them (regardless of whether it involves observation or not).  And, to me, this is very similar to what happens when you read a book, or watch a movie, or listen to a song: the act of experiencing the thing changes the thing.  The art is no longer what it once was ... it has become something new, something which only has meaning in the context of you, the audience.  That’s what it means for art to exist only as a dialectic between artist and patron: the artist as sender and the patron as receiver; the noise, the imperfect medium of word or image or melody; and the message constantly changing, constantly evolving as the reader/viewer/listener tries one mental picture, gains new information from the next chapter/scene/verse, then tries another.  The feedback is not in the form of comments made by the audience to the artist: such comments are rarely heard, because the audience is potentially infinite and the artist merely singular.  No, the feedback comes from the art itself, because even after you’ve exhausted the entirety of it, if it was truly inspiring or moving or thought provoking, you will go back and read it/watch it/listen to it again, and perhaps again and again, and each time it will say something new to you, and you will find something new in it, and your understanding will evolve a little more.

Thus literature—all art—is uncertain: we can never know exactly what it means, because it never means only one thing.  What the author intended it to mean is perhaps vaguely interesting, but in the end irrelevant.  What it means to me and what it means to you are always different—sometimes only slightly so, sometimes vastly so.  Even what it means to me today and what it means to me tomorrow are different.  The only thing that is certain is that it will mean something ... if it is truly art.

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