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nerds only.

Posted by , 02 August 2012 · 458 views

After an entire summer spent poring over books, I finally have my thesis puzzled out, I believe. Now I just have to execute it.

This entire entry is just going to be my plans for it. I'm just clearing my head. This will be boring and self-indulgent.

I wasn't really made aware of it at the time, but as an undergraduate, my professors kind of trained me as a structuralist. Structuralism is a now outmoded approach to literature (and other humanities) where the critic tries to identify the structures (big surprise) operating in a text. For a structuralist, the individual elements of a text assume meaning only in their relationship to other elements. A useful example might be to think about how the idea of daughter is inconceivable without the idea of parent.

The structuralist approach to literature involved a kind of hyper-attention to detail. It assumed every text was a self-contained unity containing all the answers required for its interpretation. It's easy to imagine why this approach took off after World War II: the kind of novel that was popular then usually didn't offer everything it had at first glance; decoding often rewarded the careful reader.

As I said, this approach has fallen out of style, and it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out why. First of all, the idea that a text forms a self-contained unity seems now like a fantasy created by people desperate to stabilize a method of reading that didn't have to be re-established with every new text. (As it happens: the best critics in my opinion do typically approach texts with as few principles as possible, and instead adapt their reading strategy to every new piece of work.) Second of all, that extreme attention to detail produced a lot of paranoid readings. You can see a vestige of this kind of reading in the YouTube videos today posted by people who have somehow determined that pop music videos have illuminati symbolism designed to communicate some malevolent message to fellow conspirators. Lastly: the truth is, this method took off in the first place largely because after World War II and the Vietnam War, many soliders came back to the United States and attended college. The government was financing them, since they had served, so a lot of young men who hadn't been bred for college found themselves going anyway. They didn't have the education the students from wealthier families had, which meant that they brought very little to their reading experience (no historical or cultural understanding, no background in systems of thought). A reading methodology that taught that any given text was complete in itself obviously made it easier to teach literature to these students. (In the United States, you hear of this approach being called New Criticism, but it shares affinities with structuralism and arose out of a similar intellectual breeding ground.)

Although it fell out of style, structuralism did leave an impact on literary study. Because students couldn't refer to anything outside of the text, they had to build their arguments around specific and abundant textual evidence. Before then, in literature classes, many scholars got away with saying vague things about novels, especially when it came to Christianity. The attention to detail made literary study almost like a scientific endeavor instead of an excuse for rich kids to say vacuous things about books.

So: I was raised this way as an undergraduate because many of my professors were trained and did most of their big work during the reign of structuralism. When I got to graduate school, it became clear that the conversation had long since moved on. What's in vogue now, for better or worse, is cultural studies and what they call New Historicism. Gone are the days of the text's autonomy from society. Now we've gone to almost the other extreme: nothing is special about literature, say the New Historicists, it's just one type of language among others, and by reading literature, we can gain valuable insights into the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of a culture. Criticism that reveals how a text works and stops there has no value. Everything needs a "so-what" factor: how does the text function politically? what groups does it represent? what affordances does it make for oppressed groups?

It's easy to see how this is both useful and horrible. The structuralist mistake was turning the text into an object of consumption, something for men in ivy towers to play with in order to earn tenure. Now we've gone the other way: the text hardly has value in itself. It acts as a supplement to culture and history.

So: I've been playing catch-up, but also asking myself some important questions. I readily concede the problems with structuralism, but I don't want to abandon something I was kind of awesome at. If you want to get high and somehow determine that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet actually have everyone else in the play under mind control, then I'm your guy. Part of me hates that all literature has to justify itself now in the name of some greater cause, especially because I think literature does its work best when you don't approach it with any expectations, but I'm willing to play the New Historicist game because I see some use in it, I want a career, and the history of literary methodology makes it clear that change typically comes from the inside. When New Historicism finally dies, it'll have been the New Historicists themselves who put it to rest.

All this was a preface so I could make my goal clear: for my thesis, I wanted some kind of synthesis. I wanted to put my close-reading skills to work, but also in a way that wouldn't reduce the novels I'm working with to neat little games that I had beaten, so to speak. I wanted to make my work "useful."

Well, it seems to be common practice amongst these New Historicists to bring their life experience to their work, and again, this both makes sense to me and pisses me off. Gay people show how novels highlight the experience of being gay in a certain culture. Women show how poems "subvert the hegemonic patriarchy." Race, disability, religion, age, ideology, trauma: everyone who experienced any kind of suffering brings it to their work. And don't worry, white straight middle-class men, it appears that that group is starting to speak up because millenia of dominance haven't been enough. Facing the twilight years of their privilege, groups we usually think of as dominant are starting to squawk about how oppressive it is not to be able to claim oppressed status. Yep.

So, I ask myself: what matters to me? I'm crazy. I get frustrated a lot because when I want to hump someone with my boner, no one is available. I manage to make everything I learn a tool to abuse myself with. I'll probably kill myself over melted ice cream when I'm thirty. How can I bring this to my work?

Answer: madness, sexual frustration, suicide, and literature. As it happens, three of my favorite books have narrators who have a lot in common: they're all crazy, they're all sexually frustrated and their sexual frustration makes them introspect obsessively, and at the end of all of these texts, narrator suicide is either explicit or at least highly plausible. (The Sound and the Fury, Pale Fire, and In the Heart of the Country.)

Good job, autism! Way to find that pattern.

As it happens, the story I've been writing is about basically all these things (though I've revised the suicide teleology). As I was writing my story, I got myself to thinking about self-obsession. Pale Fire has a lot of mirror imagery. Mirrors, self-obsession: hmm, I thought, what about Narcissus? He would probably be cool to include in my story.

Well, I added him to my story, but then when I was reading for my thesis, I noticed his name popping up. More excitingly: I noticed his name popping up exactly once in each of the novels I'm studying. Hohoho! There's that structuralism showing itself off!

So I asked myself? Why Narcissus? Then I thought about it more.

The myth is very familiar. The mother of a very beautiful young man consults the blind priest Tiresias about her son's future. He will be fine, says Tiresias, as long as he never knows himself. The mother doesn't really know what that means. Fast forward until when the boy is like sixteen. Everyone wants to fuck him. Narcissus walks down the street: erections swell, vaginas fester, or whatever it is vaginas do. But Narcissus doesn't like anyone. Get out of me, he says. I don't want your slack vaginas or your pesky cocks. The nymph Echo obsesses over him particularly. He spurns her because all she does is repeat him. He becomes thirsty and looks into a stream and finally sees himself. What most people don't know about the Narcissus myth is that, at least in Ovid's version, he did not at first understand that the person he was looking at was himself. He becomes fixated with this person, finally wants to fuck him, but can't access the beautiful face in the water. Only then does he realize that it's himself. Unable to get over the problem, he withers away at side of the stream. His mother and sisters find the flower Narcissus where he died.

Growing up, you don't really think of this myth in terms of sexual frustration, but that's what it is. What's more: the sexual frustration leads to obsession with the self, and then a self-destructive self-knowledge.

That's cool, Billy. How is this useful?

Well, each of these novels was written after Freud changed how we think of mental illness, but before the practice of psychiatry as we know it today. This was a strange time in the history of mental illness when people understood that something was behind behaviors we think of as mad, but before they had any clear idea what it could be. (Even today, neurotransmitter theory is technically still just a theory. Correlative evidence abounds, but you know the cliché about correlation.) What I'm arguing then, is that these novels represent an approximation of how post-Freud society thought about madness. It seems to be almost a punishment, what someone gets for letting their sexual desires reign unchecked, and for letting that desire turn into an obsession with the self that ends in self-destruction.

When we call someone a narcissist, we do so usually from a judgmental, moralistic position. We forget that narcissism, in its strict mythological sense, claims victims.

What's important is not to ask: what do these novels say about madness? We can't speak for madness. The good question is: what do these novels say about how people conceived of madness in the historical moment before they could really understand its causes?

It could've gone without saying that my thesis is a narcissistic undertaking.

I am not entirely sure about all the schools of literature (it's not my main discipline), so I may be saying some really stupid responses here. I did read a few WWI to WWII novels and they probably did a bit of share of influence on me. I do like novels that made me really really flip pages back and forth, because all texts are interrelated, and I am one of those obsessive with attention-to-detail type of person, and can spot subtexts between lines (and that's why I am a super slow reader, because I always look out for layers of meanings or possibility of them). The stuff I wrote turned out to be Modernist approach (I only found that out by accident, because I tend to allude things to classic literature), though I am sure my approach is outdated and probably no good compared with yours. But I like small details.

Just to clarify. Is The Catcher in the Rye considered a Structuralist novel? And I am not sure if you read Bell Jar before, but it's a feminist novel, and would that be considered New Historicist novel under the definition? Lots of madness.... I just want to know if I got the definitions right. Like I said, it's not my main discipline, so I probably sound very stupid, but I do like to learn things of this nature.

And I see this blog centered around Narcissus, and in a very structuralistic way also. :) And I do see your Narcissistic tendency, and you even told us "this will be boring and self-indulgent." Certainly a consistent, leit motif to the idea you later reintroduced.

I think you should look beyond Freud, but study Jung instead. Jung's approach is much more scientific. American psychology theories tend to be more judgmental in approach when compared with European ones. I am not sure neuron transmitter is merely a theory.... Hormones are neuron transmitters released in blood stream (no more, no less), and we know they exist for a long time now, and can be seen with electron microscope, IIRC. If you see the Wiki entry on neurontransmitter, you know they are mostly composed with amino acids, amine group, and acetylcholines. These are real chemicals, and the reason why anti-depressants work (they're neurontransmitter inhibitors, basically, fake neurotransmitters. They take up space where a real one would fit, so no message would be sent). So I kept thinking maybe more people are in depression nowadays because we ate too much depressed chicken.... LOL! I know it sounds really funny, but it's something we can create an experiment on. :) If you have seen how our cows and chickens lived before they became our food, you'd know they lived miserable lives, if you can call that life.... Not Kosher at all!

In anyways.... I do love your writings, even if you think of them as musings, but they are very thought-provoking! :)
Ah, it probably wasn't very clear in my entry, but terms like structuralist, new critical, new historicist, etc, all describe approaches to analyzing literature, not producing it. When I bring up the kind of novels written after WWII, I mean to say that it makes sense that structuralism would flourish then because the novels themselves are very receptive to structuralist readings. It is possible, however, to do a structuralist reading of anything written at any time.

The Bell Jar was a good thing to bring up, because feminist can describe both a type of literature and an approach to literature. There is feminist criticism which approaches all texts through the lens of gender relationships. There is also a feminist literature which is the canon of works that are not only receptive to feminist criticism, but also consonant with the goals of feminism. (Contrast Hemingway, whose novels are receptive to feminist criticism because they give feminists a lot to say, but we don't consider Hemingway feminist literature because they don't have good things to say about him typically.)

The term Modernist is a descriptor of literature and art itself, so you used it correctly. I don't think being called a modernist is bad :) That period might end up being my specialty. Wikipedia has some fair pages on all these things, though they present as settled arguments which are still on-going.

As for Freud and Jung: what you bring up is kind of a larger problem I have to settle with myself about how much psych I want to get into. Mostly I want to use Freud as kind of a benchmark to delimit a time period, without really getting into his thought. The time period is characterized by his thought though, so I'm going to run into some problems. This is another historicist problem: working ourselves into areas where we end up talking about things we don't have the qualifications for.
I ignored your instructions, Billy. I'm not a nerd but I read your blog entry anyway. All of it. And all of Ashi's comments too. And all of your response.

I had no idea advanced degrees in English required such detailed analysis of the structure, culture, and history influencing a work. And "all literature has to justify itself"? Are you forbidden to read for pleasure?
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I don't know about MIMR, but to me, this type of intellectual exchange IS very pleasurable.

What's your MBTI personality type, MIMR? (can I call you by your first name? MIMR is so long...) I have a feeling we are both the introverted thinker variety.
Haha i've never done the personality type things. With many personality/thinking type tests, I end up getting like exactly in the middle.
Thanks for the reading tips. Even though I already have enough to read, your suggestions will surely spend their last few days in my meager library.

Haha i've never done the personality type things.

MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) is based on Carl Jung's concept and it's very enlightening and scientific. This is not one of those Internet fun personality type thing that you take just to chat with your friends with, but made from the principal of analytical psychology. Many colleges do this kind of tests in workshops for students who are in question of their major/career choice based on their personality types. Please google it and there are some online tests you can take to figure out your types.

Sorry for the interruption..., MikeL. I think you should answer him, myself_i_must_remake....
hmm... I am enjoying this. I, although am now studying medicine, was once totally enamoured with literature and did a lot of critical reading and reading on styles, figures etc etc. And I, as a poet and writer, am happy to find that they still pay of. An excellent abstract you have here; but, I would rather read the original paper. I am much intrigued by your approach. My tutor always pressurized me with structuralism, and I am quite familiar with it... I found it boring. But, at school we will be given pointers on new historicism approach... I liked it much better. It was rather easy. (Btw, my prime center of study was Bengali as well as English literature.) But, now after all this time, I would rather support a middle way between these two extremes, like you said. I hope your thesis properly justifies such a novel methodology. Word of advice as learnt from the ancients, Ph.D. Thesis is not a place for original things. So, be careful.

Ovid's Metamorphosis is an excellent read. I particularly favour the myth of Amor and Psyche. Carl Jung gave a nice twist to it. I hope one day, I will be able to write something based on that. Although Rabinrdanath Tagore already did it with his play, 'Raja'. If you read closely you will find the same elements in these myths and stories as well. So, that supports more of your hypothesis.

Good Luck btw.
MikeL: unfortunately, yes, there is in some parts of the community, a reluctance to speak of pleasure as a primary function of literature. They call you bourgeois for it XD
Guess I've been called worse. I'm sure you aren't so academic (numbers 5, 7, and 8) that you would deny a GA member of the pleasure of reading here. Of course not; you are an author. Posted Image

Guess I've been called worse. I'm sure you aren't so academic (numbers 5, 7, and 8) that you would deny a GA member of the pleasure of reading here. Of course not; you are an author. Posted Image

MikeL, you're the reader, you can do anything! I am in the school of thought that once the story is written, author's duty as the storytelling ends. I mean, if I wrote a story, however personal it is to me, the reader should still have some freedom to interpret the story (if not too far-fetched) when he reads it, so it's an unique experience to each single reader. In a way, the reader is the new, continuing storyteller, but story the author wrote is a vehicle for provocative thought. If I ever conducted a book reading (I can dream..., I don't think I'll ever be that good to have the honor), I would keep things vague when people asked the question, "What did you mean when you say [...]." I probably would answer the question with even more questions (because I want to know how they use my story). I know.... It probably would drive some people nuts....

So Yeah, just a long fancy explanation that you can read for pleasure if you want.

And LOL at MIMR's comment on bourgeois. Isn't it funny it's always the bourgeois who call others bourgeois, as if it's a dirty word.

And to Asamvav. I love studying literature in the U.S. (and over the Internet), because the intellectual base here is large enough, we can talk about this type of stuff for pleasure.... There is always somebody who could rebut my opinion with some well-supported reason, so I don't feel I am talking to myself at the same time, learning something new.

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