Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gone Girls: Amy Dunne, Francesca Woodman, and Vivian Maier

Note: Spoilers for David Fincher's Gone Girl begin in the first paragraph and continue throughout, and it's not a movie that you want spoilered.

In an atmosphere on the left where it often feels like one is walking on eggshells to avoid giving offence, David Fincher's Gone Girl, based on the novel (and screenplay) by Gillian Flynn, is less a breath of fresh air than a bull in a hatchery. A movie that has the capacity to seriously offend both feminists (a heroine who is highly skilled at faking that she's been raped) and MRAs (the same heroine gets away with brutally murdering a man), Gone Girl is probably the most controversial movie about gender roles and relations since Paul Verhoeven's 1992 Basic Instinct, which also featured a psychopathic blonde as an uncomfortable figure of female empowerment. But whereas Sharon Stone's Catherine was an independent career woman, Rosamund Pike's Amy Dunne is a throwback, a woman who is obsessively concerned with her marriage.

Our new concern with marriage and wife roles can be traced back to Mad Men and its retro premise. It showed that while TV viewers could become deeply attached to a male throwback and his reassuring masculinity, with all of the flaws that entails, and to a flawed female character who showed all the proper “modern” characteristics of women, all of our disavowal and disapproval of those former times was directed towards “the wife,” whom we sneer at as passive, pampered, parasitic, and puerile. Then Breaking Bad proved that the show doesn't have to be set in the past in order to generate viewer contempt for “the wife”: just make her blonde (it's part of every man's American dream) and make her the stay-at-home mom to the protagonist's breadwinner. Skyler got on fanboys' nerves even more than Betty did because she stood up to her husband. “The wife” doesn't know how to be assertive, unlike the independent career woman, so if she's strong-willed she just comes off as “shrill” and “shrewish.” If she's not, but doesn't succeed in pretending to be nice, either, then she's manipulative and passive-aggressive.




Either way, she's a “bitch,” as Flynn's screenplay insistently reiterates in Gone Girl. It's not really all wives that we hate, though. It's the privileged woman who is the “princess” that parents are supposed to raise and men are supposed to desire, but whom, at the same time, we consider a waste of space. Hence the anger and resentment toward Girls, and the use of that character in Orange is the New Black, where she's still hated but the show more obviously examines her privilege.

The banality of the Hitchcock blonde that is not captured by the character of Catherine in Basic Instinct, who owes a lot to her but also to the femme fatale of film noir. Originally representing nothing more than Hitchcock's own sexual fetish, the Hitchcock blonde was a reserved, ladylike, empty-headed socialite, ideally realized by Grace Kelly in Rear Window and Tippi Hedren in The Birds. Vertigo got meta about the Hitchcock blonde, who's shown to be nothing more than a fiction, while Jimmy Stewart victimizes a real woman due to his obsession with the fiction. Psycho made the Hitchcock blonde (downsized to an outwardly demure secretary) the victim of a serial killer, and in doing so spawned the slasher genre.

Sometimes a victim, the Hitchcock blonde becomes a victimizer as well in Marnie (1964), in which Tippi Hedren's heroine is a psychologically damaged frigid woman who serially exploits men by robbing the places where she works as a secretary. Sean Connery's Mark becomes obsessed with her apparently due to her exploitation of him, offers her marriage or jail, and rapes her on their honeymoon. He also helps her to discover the roots of her trauma and deal with some Mommy issues. At the end of the movie she reiterates her choice of him over jail, but still does not seem overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the marriage.



In Repulsion (1966), Roman Polanski wedded blonde, frigid Marnie to Norman Bates in the person of Catherine Deneuve's heroine, who has a psychotic break when her sister goes on vacation and leaves her alone in their apartment, alternating between murdering men she deems sexually threatening and fantasizing about sexual violation. Deneuve is repelled by men and sex because of the cultural script that requires women to be innocent, which is the same reason she can only imagine sex as men forcing themselves on her against her will. Her murders of the men are treated as black comedy: one is a lecherous landlord who thinks he's found an easy victim, the other a monologuing boyfriend who's so oblivious to her reality as a person that he doesn't even realize she's completely insane. Likewise, Marnie's thefts, as we see in the case of Strutt, a portly businessman in his 50s, are clearly depicted as evening the score not only for her bosses' objectification of her but also for their greater socioeconomic power.



Unlike Marnie, who's from the lowest socioeconomic stratum and who, as a single woman in the 1960s, must struggle to get by as a secretary, Amy in Gone Girl doesn't just look and act like the WASP dream girl: she's the real thing, Harvard-educated, with a trust fund. Like Marnie, she's the archetype of the woman-as-actress, lacking any fixed identity or sense of self. Marnie changes her hair colour and name as she goes from job to job; in one shot we see that she keeps her different identity cards behind her compact mirror. But she's no mastermind manipulator of appearances like Amy.

As many critics have noted, Gone Girl is all about Amy's relationship to roles and narratives. Her parents let her know that she was supposed to be perfect by writing a better version of her in their Amazing Amy children's stories, while the world didn't know that she couldn't live up to her fictional self. In her Vertigo-like midway point voice-over monologue, we learn that she pretended to be a certain kind of woman for her husband so that he'd love her; we know that she felt he cast her in the nagging wife role after they lost their money in the recession and he lost the will to make an effort. By staging her husband's murder of her, she invents another, better Amy. Missing Amy, the victimized woman, like Amazing Amy, the perfect woman, has great popular appeal: they are both things that women are supposed to be.

Going into hiding, Amy dresses in a slovenly manner and pretends to be poor. She's not as good at that role, and her companions see through her act. The Hitchcock blonde can be a working-class woman pretending to be upper class, but it doesn't work as well the other way around. After she's robbed, she has to take refuge with her first great love, who's still writing her, and who she claims has stalked her in the past. In another Vertigo reference (thematic this time instead of structural), he continually, unsubtly prods her to get to work on herself so that she'll look like the woman he remembers – “like yourself,” he tells her. He has an idea of who she really is or ought to be, just like her parents did and her husband does. She may think she's her “real self” now: no makeup, with weight put on from the snacks she's been gorging on since leaving her husband and becoming “dead.” But that, too, is just another woman written about in a faux-empowerment magazine article, a Bridget Jones idea of “real womanhood.”

Gone Girl is so postmodern that it's hard to know when its satire is supposed to be directed at the news media, when it's supposed to be directed at movie narratives, and when it's aimed at our actual relationships. Is Gone Girl about the narrative device of the murdered woman, as Todd VanDerWerff suggests when he says that the movie “takes a character who would just be a corpse in so many other stories and turns the entire movie over to her” – the Marion Crane or Laura Palmer? Instead of presenting us with a corpse wrapped in plastic around whose absence the narrative turns, or killing the heroine part of the way through the movie, Fincher and Flynn let the corpse speak and act.

What's fascinating, however, is that at first all Amy can foresee for herself is turning herself into that corpse. She briefly imagines her corpse floating under the water, which reminded me of that greatest of all movie images of an aestheticized dead woman, after Shelley Winters, responding rapturously to her preacher husband's patriarchal misogyny, takes the submissiveness of the Christian wife to its logical extreme by pretty much acquiescing in her husband's (eroticized) murder of her.







For a moment, Amy is confused about whether she wants to be part of the “gone girl” narrative or to manipulate it for her own ends. Although she chooses the latter course, her masochistic streak does not go away, whether she's hitting herself in the eye with a hammer to look like a battered woman or penetrating herself with a champagne bottle to fake her rape. Like Marnie and Repulsion, Gone Girl juxtaposes the ideas of woman as victim and woman as victimizer. Amy is as fascinated by the idea of her victimhood as anyone else.

In one of the most extraordinary scenes, Amy learns that her ex is monitoring her every movement using the security cameras at his lake house. If this is a metaphor for filmmaking, Amy is both star and director; I also like it as a metaphor for the scrutiny under which women exist turning into megalomania. There's a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street (a movie I loved) that seems to be a direct allusion to Basic Instinct, in which Leonardo DiCaprio's trophy wife tries to punish him for already cheating on her by denying him sex and parting her legs to show him what he's missing. We then learn that he's had the upper hand all along when he reveals that she's exposed herself to a hidden security camera – and the security guy watching the screen. It's a curious and uncomfortable little scene that made me ponder double standards. Was what he did to her a sexual violation? If a man were to accidentally expose himself, the audience would surely just find it funny – as DiCaprio apparently finds his prank on his wife. If a man were to accidentally expose himself to a member of the opposite sex, we'd probably think it was a violation of her faster than we thought it was a violation of him. Our views of female sexuality are often still shrouded in an unexamined Victorianism, which feminist discourse too often reinforces.




What Amy does is – of course – immediately size up how she can gain the upper hand on her creepy ex by faking her rape for the cameras. She gets power not by using her sexuality – which, as the Wolf of Wall Street scene shows, and as we saw in the recent furor over the online theft and distribution of female celebrities' nude photos, is also a source of vulnerability for women. Instead, she understands that her vulnerability is her greatest source of power, because the world just can't get enough victimized women. We construct lurid cultural narratives in which women, because they're vulnerable, are victims, and, because they're victims, are pure. To be a gone girl is to give everyone what they want. As your husband's murder victim, you will finally achieve perfection, the narcissistic goal toward which middle-class, high-achieving girls are prodded.

Gone Girl wears its influences (discussed by Flynn in interviews) on its sleeve: I caught the reference to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also alluded to in another strange and dark recent film about marriage, The One I Love) and saw the influence of Notes on a Scandal and the tonal nod of the ending to Rosemary's Baby (as in The One I Love). In Richard Eyre's film version of Notes on a Scandal, Cate Blanchett's WASP wife and mother is manipulated by Judi Dench's psychopath, who has contempt for her and her banal life but also desires her. In Gone Girl, it's the wife who's the psychopath and who has contempt for the women who are actually the way she's supposed to be. Fine as long as she's part of a New York City power couple, she's too sophisticated for the small-town wife role when they move to Missouri, yet her problem doesn't seem to be the Hedda Gabler one of ennui.

The fact that she goes psycho on her husband's ass when she discovers that he's having an affair with a younger woman doesn't make a lot of sense, either. Traditionally we have given our sympathy to women whose husbands throw them over because they are economically dependent on the men and devoted many years of their lives to raising children. But Amy has no children, she's only been married for five years, and she owns the bar that her husband runs. Contra VanDerWerff, there's no reason we should give any greater sympathy to her decision to get revenge on her husband than we would to a male character's decision to get revenge on his wife for cheating on him – which I'm pretty sure we would consider a misogynous impulse originating in a desire to control female sexuality.

But of course no man would choose this way to get revenge. Okay – no woman would either. But no man could get revenge this way if he did choose to. The Gothic plot of the misogynous bastard who disposes of his wife after he's found a younger woman is a narrative to which our culture subscribes, although admittedly I think it's one that we find in movies and books more often than in news stories. But even in a movie, we'd never buy a man framing his wife for murdering him. Well, unless she's Courtney Love.

My point is that it's not about getting revenge on your husband for cheating and symbolically on all men for their cheating ways. Richard Brody mentions Medea in his review, but although Medea's punishment of Jason far outweighs the crime, a savage retribution (by an actual witch) for all of the wrongs men had done to women up to that point in history, the fact is that Jason has done some serious dirt to his wife. By agreeing to help Jason out of love for him, Medea gave up her family, her homeland, and her status as a priestess. Jason agreed to take her home with him and marry her in return for her help, without which he could never have acquired the Golden Fleece. He has children with her, but then agrees to a political marriage to another woman, leaving Medea, a “barbarian,” without any status at all. The moral of this story is: don't promise to marry a priestess of Hecate to get what you want and then piss her off.

Amy is no Medea, made desperate by a man. Furthermore, if she's angry enough at her husband for cheating on her to murder him, why doesn't she go ahead and do it herself? Women attacking or killing their unfaithful husbands isn't unheard of. It's less that Amy has to fake her murder to get revenge on her husband than that she uses the excuse of her failed marriage to arrange her disappearance and fictional death. Amy, I would contend, has always wanted to be a gone girl; she has always been tempted by the desire to disappear. Disappearing is the ultimate act of exhibitionism.

A Real Gone Girl: Francesca Woodman

And no one knew this better than Francesca Woodman, the precociously talented photographer who took her own life when she was 22 years old. Woodman's work is indescribable if you haven't seen it (which fortunately you easily can, because internet): unique, haunting, theatrical, disturbing, sensual, irreducibly strange. She usually used herself as her subject, sometimes nude.

Woodman's photographs often show her disappearing into her environment – often a decaying house, sometimes the outdoors. (The haunted house as a metaphor for a woman's body, as in Kate Bush's “Get Out of My House.”) She camouflages herself, for instance by pulling wallpaper over her nude body, but the act of concealment makes her extremely conspicuous, although it's impossible to know whether that effect is intentional. It almost seems as though it must be in photos like the one where she's “hiding” behind a mantel that has seemingly become detached from a bricked-up fireplace, looking less like she's becoming part of the architecture than that she's the mantel come to life, or a genius loci. Her photographs visualize Keats's notion of the identity-less poet who wants to know what it “feels” like to be not only other people but even inanimate objects.

In my favourite of the photos I've seen online, called It Must Be Time For Lunch Now, Woodman's blurry, androgynous face (her flowing, Victorian hair, an important feature of many other photos, is in shadow) floats into view under a windowsill and a piece of cloth. There are utensils on the windowsill, and what seem to be painted utensils on the cloth, and a fork rests on the upturned palm of Woodman's hand, as though she and the cloth and the windowsill are imitating a table. But why – any of it? Windowsill imitates table, cloth imitates windowsill imitating table, Woodman imitates cloth imitating windowsill. Her face is unsettling, animation in the midst of the inanimate, as if your lunch looked back at you, or as if she waited there forever, calm and serene, for you to discover her and be startled out of your wits. She offers herself up for consumption, everything turns into and pretends to be everything else, and she is a liminal being, a creature of thresholds.



Sometimes the photo doesn't seem to record much more than the simultaneous, contradictory impulses of concealment and exhibitionism, as in one photo where she crouches in front of a wall and puts a hand over the lower part of her face, covering most of her mouth, while using the other to raise her shirt, revealing some skin and a bit of a breast. Sometimes she used long exposures to show her in the process of disappearing, her presence in the photo speaking of her absence. In a series called “Angels,” she leaps around in a white Victorian-looking costume in what looks like a warehouse, with a large, theatrical-looking pair of wings looming over the scene, or simply hangs from a doorway, from her hands, with her face concealed. In one photo she lies limply on the ground, off to the side of the frame, vulnerable to attack or perhaps already dead. A small snake (responsible for her condition, like Blake's invisible worm?) slithers over her arm, incongruous against the elaborately patterned carpet and given that Woodman is wearing a party dress.


About the only thing that's clear from her photographs is that Woodman obsessively imagined, staged, and rehearsed her death, or disappearance, or transfiguration, for years before she committed suicide. She was also, more broadly, obsessed with herself, her body, and her sexuality. Like other female photographers and filmmakers who have taken themselves as subjects (e.g. Maya Deren and Chantal Akerman), she has been accused of narcissism. I don't see why anyone should feel the need to defend Woodman against that charge, since narcissism is as likely a basis for great art as anything else. We should recall, however, that since men have made women such an important subject of Western visual art, it's hardly surprising that some women, when they enter that tradition, should take up that subject, using themselves and viewing themselves as object and Other. Male artists are often autobiographical to the point of narcissism, but they do not typically consider or present themselves as sex objects or play dress-up to explore alternative identities. Robert Mapplethorpe springs to mind as an exception, and I imagine his homosexuality had something to do with his willingness to see himself as “feminine,” and therefore objectified.

The Woodmans is C. Scott Willis's 2010 documentary about the impact this gone girl's absence continues to have on her family – her parents and brother, all artists. Her father was a high WASP, her mother of Eastern European Jewish extraction. They came together over their devotion to art and are obviously still extremely close. One gets the feeling of a close-knit family full of intense, brilliant personalities, like the Jameses, say; a family where ambition developed early and from which one might never entirely escape, psychologically, because the rest of the world is fatally less interesting. A family where one's parents were at least as interested in each other and in their work as they were in you – unless you could prove yourself brilliant too.

The father seems more emotional, more vulnerable, and more taken with his lost daughter, whose “sparkle” he describes. The mother gives off a whiff of harshness, reserve, rejection; probably just a different personality type, trying, with the best intentions, to correct for Daddy's besotted indulgence of their weird, charismatic daughter, although ultimately she is just as in awe of the girl. After Francesca killed herself, her father imploded much more obviously than her mother did. Later he switched from painting to photography, using a style whose resemblance to his late daughter's is even more marked than he seems to know. It's as if he's trying to understand Francesca and to keep her with him even as he acknowledges her far greater ability; as if she has possessed her father, the weaker artist and personality.

More than one blogger has speculated that Francesca Woodman was the victim of sexual abuse. It's sheer speculation; when it occurred to me, from hearing about her suicide and contemplating her imagery and themes, I googled it and found no corroboration, only blogging. It would conveniently account not only for her suicide and many aspects of her imagery, but also for the teenage promiscuity mentioned in the documentary. However, we have no way of knowing. Without that speculation, we have the story of a young woman who developed early, sexually and artistically; who took her sexuality as one of the main subjects of her art; a young woman whose intensity and fragility are obvious in her art; and who killed herself when she was barely out of her teens because a relationship ended and her career was not advancing as quickly as she wanted it to.

The Francesca Woodman whose oddities are not explained by something a man did to her is a total mystery in every aspect. How could someone have developed their own, wholly original, artistic language and be so single-mindedly committed to their vision at such an early age? Why was this artist's dream life dominated by the idea of her own disappearance – as well as her appearance? Why would she need recognition so fast – as if her premature artistic development was something she'd brought on through impatience?

Victim and Victimizer: Vivian Maier

Speculation about abuse also comes up in the course of the documentary about Vivian Maier, a “spinster” nanny who obsessively took photographs but seems to have never seriously tried to get attention for them, and who is now seemingly in the process of slowly becoming part of the canon of 20th century street photographers. Abuse is called upon to account for Maier's solitariness, as well as the expressions of disgust with male sexuality recalled by her former charges. We do know, from one of those former charges, that Maier herself had a terrible temper and could be physically abusive.

In a piece on the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, in the New Yorker, Rose Lichter-Marck argues that iconoclastic “difficult women” are treated by biographers as “problems that need solving,” writing, “The unconventional choices of women are explained in the language of mental illness, trauma, or sexual repression, as symptoms of pathology rather than as an active response to structural challenges or mere preference.” It's true that unconventional people are often treated this way, but men are hardly exempt. Writing about biographies of Joseph Cornell and Samuel Steward, I noted that the sexuality of each man was pathologized by their biographers (a woman, in Cornell's case) for opposite reasons: Steward was too sexual, while Cornell wasn't sexual enough. Reactions to Woodman and Maier can be divided along these same lines, although there is one gendered difference: when a woman is a sexual outlier, we assume she was made that way by a man, whereas when a man is a sexual outlier, we at least grant him the dignity of getting that way himself. (Well, maybe with a little help from mom.)

Joseph Cornell seems like the closest temperamental parallel to Maier among well-known 20th century artists. Cornell never married and had no relationships until late in life. He worked at low-paying jobs for most of his life and lived at home with his mother and his brother, who had cerebral palsy and whom Cornell helped care for. He was a self-taught artist who made only a small effort to be part of the art world, but by the end of his life he had developed a reputation. Like Maier, he was a hoarder, although he used his hoarded magazines and junk to create his collages, shadowboxes, and experimental films.

Cornell and Maier are the artist as intensely private ascetic with a vivid mental life that occupies them to the exclusion of relationships. The opposite of Woodman in this regard as well, Maier continued to make art prolifically throughout a long life despite having no recognition at all; what makes her as much of an enigma as Woodman is the fact that she seemingly never attempted to make herself known as an artist. Her activity wasn't even known to her family and friends, because she had no close friends and the last of her family was in Europe. She didn't hide the fact that she obsessively took photos, but she didn't show those photos to her few friends and family members, or discuss her intentions with them. In fact she was more interested in taking the photos than in even developing them and looking at them herself.




Even if simply the fantasy of being an artist was enough to keep her going all those years, what did she think about her life's work towards the end? (And what do I mean, “the fantasy of being an artist”? Are you not an artist if no one sees the art you make?) Was she too poor and senile to reflect on it? Did she hope that somehow her work would be discovered rather than discarded after she was gone? But how could she have anticipated what happened – or how the internet would make her instantly famous, without waiting for the slow process of canonization?

To me it's important to look at the lives and think about personalities of artists like Cornell, Woodman, and Maier, and colourful minor historical figures like Steward, who show us very different ways in which people can live their lives than the narrow choices we're presented with in the media, as well as in the more familiar narratives of the lives of artists who were famous in their lifetimes. It's not that any of these people were content; on the contrary, they all seem to have been demon-haunted. But is contentment the most important thing in life? Or is it more important to have the courage, or foolishness, to live the way you want to live, unhaunted by conventional notions of importance and success? 

What Lichter-Marck says of Maier is equally true of Cornell and Steward: “To suggest that her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain. But this shoehorns her into the very conventions of capitalism and bourgeois values that she eschewed so aggressively.” That also goes for assuming that Cornell and Steward chose the lives they did because they were damaged somehow – Cornell, his biographer speculates, by repressed homosexuality; the extremely unrepressed Steward by societal disapprobation of his homosexuality.

Maier and Woodman are two very different kinds of gone girl. Maier was invisible in plain sight, not considered an artist by anyone despite her constant picture-taking because of her low economic status. She spent her life as a servant, the favourite persona of Robert Walser, a writer so consumed with the idea of disappearing that he was only able to trick himself into writing by writing in microscript. Woodman's art revolved around making her proleptic absence visible and dramatizing her relationship to visibility.

How To Be a Gone Girl

Just because Gone Girl has gender on its mind doesn't mean it has anything coherent to say about it. As I already indicated, if this is a blackly comic feminist revenge-on-men movie in a fine tradition that stretches from Medea in the 5th century BCE to Hedda Gabler at the end of the 19th century, and in the film era includes Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (Medea as a screwball comedy), Repulsion, and Basic Instinct, Amy's angst lacks what T. S. Eliot called, critiquing Hamlet, an “objective correlative.” There is no real difference in power between her and her husband. If anything, the balance is in her favour. 

This gap between Amy's situation and her actions has allowed critics to read into the film what they will, depending on how they feel about such loaded things as marriage and gender. In the New Yorker piece “Marriage Is an Abduction,” Elif Batuman argues that the film is about the tragedy of still raising women to think that marriage and motherhood will be the most important events in their lives even when those women are well-educated and have career aspirations. When that happens, says Batuman, marriage – and men – are sure to disappoint. Again – is finding out that your husband has been socially constructed to be a useless slob (which you could have learned from watching The Simpsons) enough of a reason to frame him for your murder?

I also think it's a mistake to simply say that this is a movie about women's victimhood when it goes out of its way to call that notion into question. Batuman has to really fudge facts to fit Amy into the victim role, claiming of her bizarre masochistic tendencies that she “doesn't invent abuse so much as anticipate it,” and recounting the plot like so: “At one point she hits herself in the face [actually, she takes a hammer to her eye!], to look like a battered wife – and a few scenes later a couple gangs up on her, beats her, flings her onto a motel bed, and steals the money she wears under her dress, leaving her howling into a pillow.” Actually, it's made pointedly explicit that the woman has orchestrated the robbery (she tells Amy so), and it's also the woman who beats her, smashing her head into the wall, apparently in retribution for her faked abuse (she declares, “I bet you've never really been hit”).

It's true that despite mocking the Gothic narrative of the murdered wife, the movie seems to partake of the Gothic genre itself. The world is portrayed as an extremely dangerous place for women – at least for pampered middle-class women who can't avail themselves of their socioeconomic power because they're hiding out in grubby motels. After being exploited by the robbers, she's forced to turn to the only person in the world who'll always help her – her stalker ex-boyfriend. And that, of course, turns out to be another situation of peril, as he makes it clear that he intends to keep her a prisoner and badger her into sex (and working out and wearing makeup). (Are Neil Patrick Harris's Scottie Fergusonesque demands parallel to the bit of effort to be a better person that Amy demands of her husband?) The logic of the movie is not that she anticipates abuse, rather than inventing it, but that she can only get out of situations of victimization by staging a much more elaborate, camera-friendly victimization.

What is a gone girl? There's the wife of Gothic fiction, shoved into an attic so her husband can marry someone less “difficult” or murdered for her fortune. Sometimes – or okay, just in Lolita – the less difficult “woman” is her own pubescent daughter. There's the dead, blonde, victimized woman, whose death perfects her “feminine” passivity, beauty, and purity. Vertigo is the ultimate meta-examination of the “falling in love with a dead woman” plot. Laura Palmer was an updating with more of a sleazy, ripped-from-the-tabloids vibe: the universally beloved homecoming queen who was secretly a bad girl because of even-more-secret abuse.




Layered on top of these tropes is feminism's idea of the silenced woman, which we (ironically) hear a lot about: the women whose voices were removed from history, and still aren't fully represented in public life; the women who are apparently afraid to speak up in class (my professors had to actually tell me to stop talking so that someone else could have a chance, but anyway); the women whom men interrupt or talk over all the time (apparently, again); whose online harassment is not like men's online harassment, because it represents a concerted effort by men to force women offline so that they can no longer air their opinions. Mingled with those ideas is, again, the notion of abuse: of the abuse victim who is afraid to speak out, who has been peremptorily silenced by the patriarchy. Surprisingly, it's a trope that predates second-wave feminism, present in the 1942 melodrama Kings Row. Maybe the ur-example is the fate of Philomela, although to call Philomela a "silenced woman" is to forget that she finds a way to speak out even after her rapist cuts out her tongue.

Just as there are many sources of the gone girl, there are many reasons to long to be one. Internalized misogyny combined with received notions of femininity are a great recipe for masochism; add to that an ambivalent attitude toward being looked at, which is the surest source of your power and also a huge source of vulnerability. You want to be looked at and know that the surest way to get people to pay attention to you is to act the part of a victim, so you perform your masochism (and may even observe your own victimhood with the excitement of an onlooker). It all makes sense in the feminine id, which is on fascinating display in Woodman's photographs – and in Fincher and Flynn's Gone Girl


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why You Can Never Go Back to the Future: Time Travel Logic and Narrative Perspective

Note: This essay was written for the Facebook page of Another Kind of Distance, my time travel podcast with David Fiore. If you want to quibble with our theories or interpretations or offer completely different ones of your own, please comment there or contact us at anotherkindofdistance@gmail.com. Our Back to the Future series episode isn't up yet, but this essay may help you get your bearings in our Timecrimes/Primer episode.

EDIT: the epic 3-hour podcast stroll through the BTTF trilogy is now available

I bet when you were ten or eleven or in your early teens, or however old you were when you first saw the Back to the Future series, you followed the movies without any problem and didn't find anything confusing or problematic about the way they handled time travel. That's in stark contrast to Primer, where the time travel is probably internally consistent but the narrative is hellishly confusing. But if you actually lay out the time travel plot in the BTTF series, suddenly it starts sounding just as complicated as the time travel in Primer. And when you then try to figure out how

Ever since Episode 6, The Elements of Time Travel, I've been developing a theory of how narrative perspective relates to the time travel genres that Dave is fond of referring to, and how it can either fix or fuck a time travel narrative. So buckle your seat belts and prepare for a front-seat roller-coaster ride as I describe the time travel plot of the BTTF series; what's wrong with it and how it ought to work (according to how your hosts currently understand time travel narratives); and how thinking about narrative perspective can help make everything clearer.

But only after things get really confusing first. Obviously – spoilers, right?

The Time Travel Plot of Back to the Future

Marty goes back in time and alters the past, creating a Fixed (as in “corrected”) Future.

Marty, Doc, and Jennifer go to the future from the Fixed Future. Future!Future!Biff uses the machine to go back in time, altering the past and therefore changing the future. Then he comes back – although weirdly, nothing has changed yet. There's some kind of delay between changing the past and the changes taking effect?

The original three time travellers go back and find the changed world. Marty and Doc go back in time again, leaving Jennifer in the Alternate Future. They end up in the most recently created past, the one that causes the Fixed Future. Except that F!F!Biff has already been to this past, because it's the past of the timeline that he comes from. (The post-time travel timeline, that is, at the end of the first movie, which goes: Altered Past, Fixed Future, Future Future.) So it's not the Original Altered Past, which we saw in the first movie, but rather the Alternate Future Past, which is the same as the OAP, but with F!F!Biff in it.

Marty intervenes and gets the almanac from F!F!Biff, thereby preventing the Alternate Future. However, when the Doc goes back to what is now again the Fixed Future, he leaves Marty stranded in the altered Alternate Future Past. We are given to understand that the Doc ends up in the Wild West and leaves a letter to be delivered to Marty right after he disappears.

Marty (actually Marty 2) enlists the help of 1955!Doc (who just sent Marty 1 back to the future) to send him to where 1985!Doc is, in the Wild West. Stuff happens in the Wild West with no relevance to time travel, and Marty 2 makes it back to Fixed Future, where he finds Jennifer on the porch where he left her in Alternate Future. Does that seem wrong? Hold that thought.

The timeline is now: Altered Past with Doubly!Thwarted!Biff, Fixed Future – and Future Future. Jennifer has a document from Future Future showing the bad things that we know will happen to Marty as the result of a character flaw. However, based on his experience in the Wild West, he's able to overcome that flaw – and the document changes (in accordance with the rules of this movie). So the final timeline is: Altered Past with Doubly!Thwarted!Biff, Fixed Future, and Fixed Future Future.

Here Come the Problems

How can Future!Future!Biff travel to 1955 then back to the Future Future? In perfectly consistent time travel, from the perspective of Marty and Doc, Biff would disappear forever from their timeline when he went back to 1955 – and they'd also be stranded in the Future Future, because he would have the machine. If we followed Biff's perspective, on the other hand, he would travel back to an Alternate Future Future that follows from the alternate 1985 we saw. And once he's created the Alternate Future,
Marty 1 doesn't time travel in the first place (1985!Doc of this timeline is in an insane asylum), so no Biff would have any reason to worry about Marty 2 coming after him: Marty 2 doesn't exist in this universe.

Imagine, on the other hand, that the Doc builds another time machine so they can go back to 1955 and stop Biff from giving himself the almanac. Now, that doesn't make sense, does it? As soon as Biff has time travelled, he's given himself the almanac: there's no time delay. They should now be in an alternate reality. Except in an alternate reality, they'd be different people or may not even exist. By the movies' logic, maybe their bodies would start disappearing and text would start altering around them.
By strict multiple-timelines logic, on the other hand – F!F!Biff has started his own AU and disappeared permanently from theirs. When they get in the new time machine and go back to 1985, then, it will still be the Fixed Future.

As long as we follow the perspective of one time traveller (or more if they use the same machine at the same time), everything works. When Marty 2 returns to 1985 from his original trip to 1955, he's actually in a new timeline to which he's not native – Marty 1 is. So if he intervened and somehow stopped Marty 1 from going into the past – there would now be two of them in this new timeline. This is the problem faced by the protagonist and the scientist in Timecrimes. Or they think it is – although since that's a loop movie, everything is foreordained anyway. Whereas the problem when Marty 2 watches AU!Marty 1 get into the time machine and go back to 1955 is that BTTF briefly thinks it's a loop movie. In fact, even if this universe's Marty 1 somehow did go back in time at the same moment, in the same way – he would not have been motivated to fix things in 1955, because he already grew up with the fixed family. Which is fine, because he didn't fix his family – Marty 2 did.

Remember: one perspective=one timeline. Marty grew up with the original family. Marty travels into the past – where he meets earlier new-timeline versions of that family that are identical to the original-timeline versions – unless he changes things. Marty (the same Marty, the one we're following!) then goes into the future, where he meets identical new-timeline versions of the family he's altered. If they have a son, and that son is “him,” that son grew up with them, not the original timeline family.

The perspective problem is illustrated again by the events at the end of BTTF 2. When Doc is zapped back to 1885, from his perspective, he arrives in the Wild West, prepares the letter for Marty, and dies. You could film this as consistent time travel by showing him arriving in 1885, then doing a “70 Years Later” ellipsis, where we see Marty watching him disappear and then getting the letter a moment later. Of course that would ruin the pretty awesome timey-wimey, mindy-bendy surprise of how Marty gets the letter, which depends on being limited to his perspective. But the fact is that perspective interruptus occurs throughout the movie. 

Perspective and the Two Kinds of Time Travel

In alternate-universe/multiple-timeline time travel, your time-travel is paradox-free because every act of time travel creates a new timeline. That timeline is identical to the one you just left – until you change something. So, at 40 you could travel back to when you're 20 years old. If you never do anything to affect the life of Me 1, Me 1 will grow up to be you and “become” you by time travelling – but “you” in a different timeline. If, on the other hand, you give yourself some stock market tips and then travel back to the future, there will be two versions of you: Me 1, who is rich, and you.

The only thing that's consistent in all of this is you. You keep creating different timelines, and everyone around you is from these alternate timelines, but you are the same self, from the original timeline. Movies start running into trouble with this when there are multiple time travellers and the filmmakers think they can adopt the multiple-character/omniscient perspective of an ordinary movie.

Because multiple-timeline time travel gets enormously confusing, and movies seem to have a haphazard approach to it, I don't think we've seen any clean, consistent example of it, although both Butterfly Effect and the BTTF movies partake of it. Primer might be the cleanest example we've seen, although that didn't make it any clearer.

In “loop”/single-timeline time travel (major examples we've seen: Somewhere in Time, Time Traveller's Wife, Timecrimes), your time travel is paradox-free because everything has already happened the same way. For this, see Time Traveler's Wife and Timecrimes. If at 40 you visit your 20-year-old self, you already have a memory of that visit from the 20-year-old self's perspective. You can't visit your past self bringing new information, because the visit already occurred and you already have all of the information from it.

Although in this type of time travel you have memories of your visits from the earlier self's perspective, what you don't have are memories of people whom you will encounter in your future and their past – when in the future you travel into the past and meet them for the first time from their perspective. They remember your future; and when you do travel back in time, you experience their past.

Initially I found this kind of time travel hardest to understand, but once you get it, it's actually much easier than figuring out all of the permutations of multiple-perspective time travel – especially when you add separate acts of time travel by different people. Since I'm one who prefers clear, uncluttered storytelling so that the viewer can focus on the interesting stuff, like the characters and issues, rather than the plot (or, alternatively, no plot at all, as in late Lynch), I think the storytelling challenge is to keep the possibilities under strict control. Which is easiest when you stick to a single perspective, as our own David Fiore does in his soon-to-be-published Hypocritic Days....

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Partially Examined Life (As A Perplexed English Student), Part 2

Part 1 on this topic was one of those things where I didn't figure out what my subject was until I had finished writing the post (and didn't want to rewrite it to incorporate the new ideas). (That's what Part 2s are for.)

In Part 1 I outlined several threats to traditional (humanistic) literary studies, both within literary studies and external: postmodernism, pop culture, new media, cultural/media/communications studies, and the scientific and capitalist values of our culture. I gave Northrop Frye's idea of making literary criticism into a human science as one alternative to both traditional humanism and postmodern theory.

Frye wanted to get away from the kind of fuzzy-wuzzy, willy-nilly teaching of literature that was making his discipline a laughingstock in our new science-oriented culture. But unlike the postmodernists, Frye (writing in 1957, just before the mass media explosion) assumed that no matter how we studied it, what we would be studying was the literary canon.

There is, however, nothing intrinsic to his vision of the science of criticism that entails that you have to study masterpieces – or, for that matter, in most cases, that you have to study literature, since many of the generic elements Frye identifies are found in all narrative arts (as anyone user of TV Tropes knows). We could agree to study the canon because it's convenient, but then there'd be no obvious reason ever to allow a new work into it, because ancient literature plus five or six centuries of modern literature surely gives us enough to work on.

So we'd have to add to Frye that we are not only studying the masterpieces of literature to give us a theory of criticism; we are also developing a theory of criticism in order to be able to better understand the masterpieces of literature. With that proviso, a science of literary criticism could very well provide a compromise between the humanists and the theorists. It would not, however, look anything like the traditional humanist study of literature, and there remains no obvious link between the lover of literature, or man/woman of taste (to use Frye's terminology), and the scientific critic. That is, it's not obvious why the man/woman of taste would want to do what the scientific critic does; or, if they do (as I do), whether there's any connection between the two things.

The music student doesn't complain that “The point is that this music is so beautiful and moving! Why do I have to study this theory junk? Why can't we just study the music itself?” Although a music lover, the music student realizes that she will understand music, and be able to appreciate it more, when she understands music theory. Should literary studies move in this direction? Or is there something to be said for its remarkable resistance to being turned into a science?

The Books Themselves

Perhaps the notorious weakness of literary studies as a university subject is also, from another perspective, its greatest strength. While most of the humanities are in fact human sciences, and 20th century Anglo-American philosophy has aped math and science, and the historical method follows scientific principles in its treatment of evidence – then there's English, where the true humanists go to weep and wail (myself included), “Why are we talking about Derrida, or Lyotard, or Girard, or Insert French Guy's Name Here? When are we going to talk about the books themselves?”

Of course, as we saw in Part 1, it's not possible to talk about The Books Themselves. We can talk about their form (language, structure, imagery), their content (psychological, social, philosophical), their historical context, their sociological interest. We can also talk about the ideas of various theorists. None of this, however, makes up a systematic study of literature. Humanist professors are the most mute of all. In the classroom, their enthusiasm for their subject is infectious; they can inspire students to also become people of taste. Their teaching is creative in nature: they observe closely, make inspired connections, stimulate students' thought. They do not, however, teach students about anything, as though there were a body of knowledge at issue, or how to do anything. Whereas history or philosophy students learn both: they learn information or ideas, and they learn how to practice history or philosophy.

Reading a work of literature is an experience, like listening to a piece of music: neither, in themselves, involve learning anything. Yet we get confused about this when it comes to literature, because, as Frye points out, we have such trouble distinguishing between literary and non-literary uses of language.

Based on what I've written, there are only so many outcomes possible for literary studies:

Humanism wins

By far the least likely. In this scenario, science relinquishes its hubris and we realize that humanism and science are two distinct and complementary orientations towards the world, each with its areas of strength. Science is great at getting things done, but the humanities help us to understand certain things in a different and more satisfying way that can never be replaced, let alone improved upon, by science. Literary studies ought to be allowed to be what it is and to be taught non-systematically; the emphasis should be on teaching, not research; and the teaching, like any research that is done, should be directed towards facilitating the student's encounter with the text. The teacher (like Frye's public critic, which he or she may also be) will model the man or woman of taste for the student. The student will continue to muddle along, guided only by his or her native intelligence.

It still leaves the problem that students will be faced with a canon made up of almost entirely of white men. There's not much we can do except teach the problem. As Graff points out in Professing Literature, criticism of humanism is a humanistic enterprise, which is probably just as much of a reason for the flourishing of this criticism in literary studies as the subject-vacuum of which Frye complains. Never was the glory of the Western tradition more trumpeted than by literary humanists, and so never would it be more harshly criticized than in literary studies.

Cultural studies wins

This is what Harold Bloom predicted, predictably gloomily, in either The Western Canon or that Shakespeare book, I can't remember which: English departments would become what classical studies departments are now, tiny and irrelevant; the study of literature would become an antiquarian enterprise; and cultural studies would take its place, with the unruly mob studying TV shows, comic books, maybe even movies, and other unspeakable trash guaranteed to send a shudder down the Bardolator's spine.

For a while I thought it might happen, too, and couldn't quite decide whether it was an apocalypse of the human spirit or the natural order of things (or both). But let's face it, from the perspective of capitalism, cultural studies and literary studies are equally useless.

We teach the controversy

That's Graff's suggestion with regard to the eternal battle between humanists and theorists. Sort of a “let the students decide” solution. Certainly postmodernism is a tendency in 20th century thought with a lot to offer, and even students who find themselves falling more on the humanist side would benefit from knowing about the postmodern critique of humanism. However, personally I'd prefer for things to go all the way, one way or the other: I'd like us to choose either a non-scientific humanism (with the postmodern critique incorporated) or a scientific criticism. Or else I'd like to divide literary studies up between them and get a little of the best of both worlds.

Capitalism wins

Currently the most likely scenario. At present the war on the universities, and the humanities in particular, is taking the form of the degradation of undergraduate education by overworking and underpaying part-time professors who have no benefits or job security but do have massive student loans. Support for the arts, education, and arts education has to come from governments committed to not only reflecting but actually creating public interest in the arts, because they give more than zero fucks about their citizens being smart and happy people, that is, flourishing. In North American right now, however, our governments don't seem to give more than zero fucks about anything except big business.

Everybody wins! Yay! 

Sometimes I think that making literary criticism into a human science would be a disaster akin to the rise of analytic philosophy. (It seems to be in absolutely no danger of happening, though. Frye's own delightfully abstruse, esoteric, and eccentric system sure didn't found it.) Yet what draws me to Frye is the tantalizing realization that it's true – we haven't even begun to understand what this extraordinary thing, literature, is. We've barely started asking the questions. It's not work that has anything to do with reading literary masterpieces, necessarily, but it is work that could reasonably be expected to excite someone of a particular character who loves literature.

Rather than giving literary studies a scientific makeover, however, I don't see why we can't admit that the study of literature actually serves many functions. Undergraduates should be exposed to the humanist experience of reading the masterpieces of literature and studying them in non-systematic fashion with enthusiastic teachers. Since it seems to have been left to literary studies to embody humanist values, students should also be taught the controversy within humanism in the 20th century. If students were made to understand how this controversy relates to their subject of study, rather than just having ideas and names thrown at them willy-nilly all the time, it might all fit together a bit better.

Other seemingly useful courses would include hermeneutics (most useful if interdisciplinary) and approaches to criticism from close to reading to deconstruction. Students can't be either responsible or creative interpreters (and we want them to be both) if they lack knowledge of the theory of interpretation and of a range of interpretive practices. Personally I'd also advocate a course (possibly interdisciplinary) on canon formation, to make students aware of the politics, contingencies, and utility of canons, as well as of the fact that they are not formed by universities; that universities are not the only institutions that can lend their authority to them; and that they are always in flux and always contested. (I'm aware, of course, that many of these things are actually happening in various universities, even if not all of them are happening in any one university.)

And then, at higher levels, we can move on to trying to understand literature as a whole. We would still have historical periods as one of the ways in which we divide the labour of literary scholarship, since in order to compare literature across periods we have to rely on the scholars of particular periods and figures. Presumably, some scholars will be drawn to particular periods and some will be drawn to theorizing about the whole. As far as I understand Frye's model, however (and I need to read the Anatomy again), you could easily spend your whole career studying one genre, especially if it's Menippean satire.

Those are the next things on my list: re-read the Anatomy, and finish Professing Literature. Perhaps then I can report back with clearer thoughts. Or – from what I remember of the Anatomy – maybe not.  




Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why Study English Lit? A Partial (In Both Senses) Examination

When I started this blog it was going to be my literary blog, but since I prefer to read fiction but only read non-fiction quickly, that wasn't giving me much material. And when I at last finish a novel, it requires far too much thought than I can give to a blog to put my feelings about it into words – unless I hate it, and I prefer to spend as little time reading and thinking about books that I hate as possible. Again – I find it easier not only to read but also to talk about non-fiction, and now that I've decided to shove as many non-fiction audiobooks into my brain as possible (since I really don't care about the sacred act of reading if I'm mainly interested in a book's informational content), I should have more topics for posts.

So it became my movie blog, and then a way to offer my opinion on ephemeral trends and furors, from popular or controversial TV shows to minor internet outbreaks of feminist outrage (and only the minor ones, because I lack the will or energy to get into the major ones). And then I got so sick of doing that, that the blog stopped. I'm the last person who should be writing about TV – I'm not a true believer in the New Golden Age or a big fan of any one particular show, and there are may better writers on TV on the internet.

And yet here I am again. As I've mentioned before, having a “live notebook” where you know that there's an immediate chance of an audience, however tiny, produces a certain kind of thinking and writing that I don't do anywhere else. I don't write like this in private notebooks, and I imagine I wouldn't if I were writing an article. (I imagine because I've sometimes tried to do that, and thought, no, I'd rather be blogging!) The tone I have here is – although it wasn't intentionally cultivated – sort of like me thinking out loud with the idea that someone might be overhearing me. And lately I've been moved to reflection again, this time by listening to podcasts – and particularly the philosophy podcast The Partially Examined Life.

I've also been podcasting myself, with movie and comics blogger David Fiore. We've started a podcast with the aim of watching every time travel movie ever made, Another Kind of Distance (Facebook page here), and we're about to start another on (mainly) classical Hollywood cinema, The Acteur Cast (Facebook page forthcoming). So far we've got two (out of an initial three) eps on Bette Davis in the can, and by can I mean hard drive. (Not toilet.) So that's where my movie criticism/fandom energy is going these days. Other things I've been doing during this break include finishing a 231, 928-word (so, 22, 811 more than Moby-Dicks) Bildungsmemoir about the first 22 year of my life, which you probably won't find on a bookshelf near you, or e-store of your preference, any time soon. 

Embattled English, Within and Without

This blog revival was inspired, specifically, by the Partially Examined Life episode, “Why Do Philosophy? (And What Is It?)” The surprisingly popular podcast is made by several Philosophy Ph.D. dropouts who are now doing it strictly “for fun” (among the other reasons given in that episode). I am currently contemplating obtaining my Ph.D., although the job market is so grim for Ph.D.s that I think I have about as much chance earning a better living at the end of it than I do now, working at an entry-level retail job, as I have of winning the lottery. These bleak late capitalist conditions were the backdrop for the reflections stirred up by the episode.

“Why do English?” is, for me, really two questions: What was the value for me in studying English literature, when it doesn't seem likely that it will ever lead to me crawling above the poverty line – and resulted in me acquiring over $15, 000 worth of debt? (And that was after family help, awards and scholarships, working part-time during the school year, working full time summers and during breaks of months or years, and practicing extreme frugality.) And what is the value of English literature in general, that we could advance against our culture's increasingly blatant exclusive focus on the bottom line?

Humanities or liberal arts subjects deal with the study of human beings (e.g. anthropology, archaeology, history, psychology, sociology) and the cultural activities of human beings that we deem most important (e.g. philosophy, politics, literature, comparative religion). They are not useful to the world, as science is; and they are not useful to the student, giving you the kind of knowledge you need to practice a particular profession. However, the original purpose of a liberal arts education was to equip individuals to become useful citizens who can take part in public life, and presumably even now it's possible to argue that a person with some knowledge of history and the history of ideas is likely to be a more reflective – and liberal – member of society.

Literature and languages were first included in humanities education in the form of classical literature and languages. Not until the end of the 19th century and the rise of the modern research university do we get the idea that our present culture can or should be studied. Literary studies once stood in relation to the classics as pop culture does to literary studies now. Film has already found strong enough advocates for its artistic merits that it has broken away from English departments to form its own field. It remains to be seen if the same thing will happen to new media, or if they will continue to be studied as part of Cultural/Media/Communications Studies.

The difference between the traditional approach to literary studies and the cultural studies approach to pop culture is, as far as I can make out, that cultural studies takes it for granted that pop culture is culturally important while suspending judgement about whether it is culturally valuable. That is, it is descriptive, not prescriptive. While some cultural studies scholars certainly think that the particular kind of pop culture they're studying is culturally valuable, and/or are studying a certain kind of media due to a deep love of it, others are interested in their subject from a purely sociological standpoint.

I think cultural studies is a legitimate and fascinating area of scholarship, and in fact my idea for a Ph.D. dissertation leans more in that direction than in the traditional English direction. Nevertheless, I don't think cultural studies should replace a traditional literary studies education. Canon-formation is not an oppressive activity of authority-wielding professors: every creative field has its ever-evolving canon. There is no such thing (yet) as a Department of Rock 'n' Roll, but part of growing up in the Anglo-American world is learning what the rock canon is. Canons are formed, and challenged, by practitioners (the musicians or writers), critics, and fans. Professors, too, have their influence: they can bring attention to neglected figures by writing a paper or bringing out a biography, starting a trend, occasioning new editions. Mainly, though, their purpose is to keep alive the reputations of long-canonical figures. Would the classics of English lit remain in print? And what would happen to more marginal figures if scholars weren't around to give them revivals? Literature has lost a great deal of its prestige, and who's going to defend it except the few of us left who love it?

What is the Study of Literature?

What we have so far is, on one side of the “study of literature,” the work of the scholar who tries to make it possible, and on the other side the work of the public critic who assumes that it exists. In between is “literature” itself, a game preserve where the student wanders with his native intelligence his only guide.

Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism

There is no obvious connection between being a little kid who got obsessed with novelizations of Disney movies about dogs and growing up to study Shakespeare and Milton at university. But that was my own trajectory. I loved books, knowing nothing of “literature”; when I hit puberty I briefly read horror, true crime, a bit of sci fi and fantasy, and maybe two YA novels (it not being a significant genre at the time), before I learned that there were books that people considered great; so great, in fact, that they were still being read after hundreds of years. Those were definitely the books I wanted to read. Why should I resent people who already knew about this stuff pointing me towards the coolest books ever written?

It didn't have to go the way it did for me. Some kids get to adolescence and discover that they only, or mainly, like particular genres. Some get to adulthood and join book clubs, looking for challenges within middlebrow parameters. Many women never stop reading YA lit, now, which is probably preferable to reading “chick lit” supposedly aimed at adults. (It may even be better than most “literary fiction.”) A small number of grown-up readers keep their eye on developments in global modernism, and/or worship cult heroes (Murakami, Bolano, DFW). There are lots of different ways to be a reader and a book-lover. But, as much as we (the dwindling number of we) reverence the idea of reading, none of those other ways treats books like secular scripture in quite the same way that a traditional literary studies education does.

The New Critics, with their “close reading” method, were pretty overt about this, but also (as Harold Bloom has complained) tended to project their WASP Christian values onto the texts they studied. Still the way undergrads are taught to read, “close reading” can only be brought to bear on texts that we consider deserving of, and capable of repaying, that scrutiny. Once they are brought into the universities and surrounded by scholars and scholarship, canonical works become sacred texts of inexhaustible meaning and whose function is to generate exegesis.

This tradition was started with the classical texts, whose greatness, confirmed by their antiquity, was unquestionable. There was no doubt on the part of the culture that exposure to them was, in and of itself, good for students. How to teach them was another matter, and for a long time they were used to drill students in grammar and etymology. We have never really known what teaching literature should entail. One reads a philosophy text in order to uncover, and think about, its ideas and arguments. There are any number of things we can talk about when teaching a work of literature: content, language, structure, images, the characters' psychology, the author's ideas, the historical context, or, most popularly, somebody else's ideas altogether.

Northrop Frye pointed out that this confusion results in people not teaching literature at all – or rather, criticism (which is what he thinks our subject actually should be) – but rather using literature as a way to teach whatever actually interests them, which is not the book in front of them at all. Which is how in English you will find yourself exposed to a whole parade of thinkers and schools: Freud, feminism, Marx, the Frankfurt School, Marx, Derrida, Foucault, gender studies, queer theory, postmodernism, all manner of sociological thought – and, not least, humanism itself. These ideas have plenty of intellectual interest and some social utility, but it's hard not to feel in literary studies like you're always off-topic.

I should add that I don't think Frye's archetypal criticism, which is the part of his critical theory that's been widely used pedagogically, is a solution, although it does allow for comparison between all narrative arts. However, everything else he has to say in the “Polemical Introduction” of the Anatomy remains important. Let's just hope that there will be English students in the future to take up the question: am I studying English in order to read great books and find out about postmodernism and feminism (which is pretty cool), or am I here to learn something specific, namely criticism (which maybe makes more sense for an academic subject)?

Is Scholarship Necessary?

Why Do English isn't quite the same question as Why Do Philosophy, because while nobody “does philosophy” outside of universities, people do read outside of universities. Yet “doing English” isn't quite the same thing as reading. So there are two separate questions (different from the two I listed above): why read, and why study literature at the university level. Probably fewer people question the value of reading than question the value of doing philosophy. Philosophy is considered something esoteric; reading is not.

Since Frye hasn't been taken to heart, currently there is only one reason to study literature at the university level, which is to expose yourself to great books. If you want to know what to read, learning what your culture has thought is great is as good a place to start as any; you are free to disagree. I do believe in the autodidact option, and as much as I enjoyed most of my classes as an undergrad and MA student, and as provocative as some of my professors were, I can't say that acquiring over $15, 000 in debt for the two degrees was worth it when I could have studied on my own. That option, however, requires not only the health of public libraries, but, as I suggested above, the whole scholarly apparatus.

As Oscar Wilde argued in the same essay that gives this blog its title, there can be no literature without literary culture – without criticism and scholarship. Wilde may be remembered as a “pure aesthete,” but he didn't think it was possible to understand or, therefore, appreciate a work without scholarship. I have no interesting in fetishizing “unmediated” textual encounters, either. I discovered literary criticism at the same time that I was learning about the literary canon, at the public library, and always liked reading about literature as much as I liked reading literature – maybe more.

Why do English is the question: do we believe that reading and writing literature are among the most valuable of human activities? Our late capitalist, scientific culture holds only two values dear, both material: making/having money, and creating technology. Anything that has to do with the cultivation of one's own subjectivity is strictly immaterial. Science does not give the best explanation of all areas of human life, and should not replace the humanities, but work together with them to give us a complete description of reality. That is not, however, the way that things are going.

As for the war in literary studies between the humanists and the postmodernists, or the one between literary studies and cultural studies – now that late capitalism is destroying the universities, with the humanities being most vulnerable in our materialist culture, those wars are fading into insignificance, or even starting in retrospect to look like attestations to the continued vibrancy and vigor of these areas of the humanities. All we can hope, now, is that they'll be able to continue.

Art: Better Than Science, Money, and Religion (But No Hyperbole)

Technology is helping us to live longer lives, and our affluence in North America should be helping us to build better lives, instead of which making money has become a bizarre end in itself. From the time I was a small child, my idea of the good life was doing nothing but reading; later I realized that what I thought was the most important thing in the world was broader than that, and it was called “art.” I remember a Catholic professor making the pronouncement that the Modernists wanted art to replace Christianity – and saw that it failed. I took his word for it at the time, since it's a common thing to say about both the Modernists and the late 19th century aesthetes, but upon reflection – although that may have been true for the original aesthetes and Modernists, who were nostalgic for religion, the fact is that for me, art is not only as good as religion, but much, much better. And I say this as someone who was raised with religion and accepted it as a child.

In fact, I abandoned religion around the same time that I discovered art, in early adolescence, and I think there was a connection: art was a much better principle around which to organize my life than God was. It was humble, it was modest; it didn't promise you eternal life, but what it did promise – the aesthetic experience – it could deliver on a regular basis. And best of all, as Walter Pater put it, the aesthetic/experiential life didn't require you to subscribe to any externally imposed “facile orthodoxy”: “The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of [our] experience in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.”

We group literature and film with the humanities, but usually not art (only “art history”) or music, I guess because literature and film have human content (characters and events that impact them), and not only when they're “narrative.” Both aesthetes and postmodernists often like to pretend that we don't care about that human content; that it makes no difference to the book's aesthetic quality, or is trying to hoodwink us into believing in a stable subject and other suspect neo-liberal concepts. Focusing on form rather than content was not, of course, intended to stop fiction writers from ever engaging in social criticism. On the contrary, it often served to protect writers from moralists so that fiction could explore unconventional topics – including taking issue with the morality of the day.

You could make a movie with no human beings in it (or characters – in the case of animation, non-human characters, etc.), just landscapes, animals, architecture. But we can't do that with books, because books are made of mind. A film can't simply present the world to us without comment; there will always be comment in the selection of images, the framing of shots, editing. But it makes a difference that a movie is made of images, while a book (or this blog) is made of thoughts. There is always a mind there, although often not much of one.

Science tells us facts. It tells us what things are, and what we are. The humanities tell us who we are. Not in the sense of cultural studies, as though we're anthropologists looking at our own culture. Instead, we look at great thinkers, great writers, who, we think, have had the most interesting things to say about that question. And we think, or some of us do, that great writers are even more interesting on the question than great thinkers, because they create characters who are at once mysterious and convincing in their behavior, like the people in the world around us – or like ourselves.

In Part 2, I'll talk some more about the potential solution to the humanist/theorist impasse offered by Frye, and the problems with it, and fantasize about a university curriculum that would make everyone happy and hug like drunk Care Bears, except for Capitalist Bear, who thinks we're all a bunch of morons.