Thursday, September 6, 2012

nonstop subjectivity

Earlier this week (or late last week; I forget when precisely) Terry Teachout said, and I paraphrase, "Tragedy is a drag, man. Comedy is hella better." And then he wrote a thousand more words that reveal the hidden truth: what Teachout really meant was, "I'm getting older and because tragedy points out that I'm going to die--because for all the points of the compass, there is in the end only one direction, etc--I prefer the comic perspective to life because I can still think about serious stuff but I don't have to consider the one absolute fact of my own death. You should, too." Or something like that. He attempted to illustrate his point with Shakespeare's plays, claiming that "Twelth Night" is superior to "Lear." At that point, I had to wonder about Teachout's mental state. Shakespeare never wrote a comedy that is more revealing and honest in portrayal of the existential problems than any of his tragedies are. I'm not sure about the construction of that last sentence but I move on. Besides, this is not a post about Terry Teachout hiding from his own mortality. This isn't a post about Terry Teachout at all. Forget I said any of this.

I just wanted to quickly rap out a list of the sorts of ideas that are going through my head these days in re the creation of new works of fiction. None of this adds up to anything in particular, because there is nothing towards which these ideas point except the unknown, which is just as it should be, right? Praivilnu.

In the introduction to the edition of Woolf's To The Lighthouse that I'm reading, Eudora Welty points out how the entire world of Woolf's novel is subjective. There are a million little details of scene and setting, and each of these details is presented through the point of view of a character. The narrator doesn't point out the scissors, the cups and saucers, the visitor's hateful necktie; the characters see them and we know these details through the effect they have on the characters, which means that through these details we know the characters. I am thinking that this way of describing the world--entirely through the characters even in a third-person narrative--is a powerful tool so I might play with that. Certainly the way Woolf's narratives close the distance between the reader and the characters is a good idea if that's what you want to do as a writer.

Teachout (remember him?) did make me think a bit more about comedy versus tragedy, but only to stiffen my resolve about it. I'd already been thinking a lot of late about the old saw where comedy is tragedy after all, and that what makes comedy comic is tone, not subject matter. "And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I shall not weep," as Byron said unless that's just another of my paraphrases but it feels right and me, I don't Google to check my quotes. But I digress, you observe correctly. The point is, maybe, that writers who came well before me with names like Beckett, Chekhov, Burgess, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare have already seen that life is a tragic comedy, a comic tragedy, that there's no difference, that there's no either/or at all. The comedy is how we attempt to ignore the tragedy. The tragedy is how we attempt to cling to the comedy. And other, more complex and insightful comments I don't pause to make. All of Shakespeare's tragedies include brilliant comic moments, which serve a greater dramatic function than merely lightening the mood, especially just before the bloodbaths in the fifth acts. And all of Shakespeare's comedies include death and violence and cruelty and not just because the Elizabethans liked to laugh at people in pain or under humiliation. Anyway, I am considering the uses of comedy in explorations of the existential questions.

It's also interesting to note that the more I bend my immense powers of concentration upon the creation of a realistic world within my fictions, the more I am struck by the absolute artifice of the whole project, which means, at least in part, that some of my attempts to get at the truth of experience (or whatever you want to call it) lead me to write passages that are far from "realist" narrative. The more I pursue feel, the less I am able to employ fact, which is an interesting thing. See also: the entire Modernist movement. I'm always hot on the heels of movements that have already begun to gather dust. Anyway, I observe that my narratives are becoming more and less real at the same time, and so Welty's comments about the nonstop subjectivity of Woolf's novel was a welcome sight.

The idea that all of our experiences are entirely subjective strikes me as pretty much true, despite my empiricist bent. It also means that the only proper response to things like Reality Hunger is, of course, mockery. A novelist who can't see the point of fiction, Mr Shields, is not someone who's stumbled onto a new truth about fiction. He is merely a failed novelist. I seem to be cranky.


  1. "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

    - Mel Brooks

  2. That Brooks line crossed my mind when I was writing this. Mel had it right, too. It's all a matter of tone, and the dichotomy is a false one anyway. Things can be both tragic and comic. I think of the scene in "Schindler's List" where Ralph Feinnes as the camp commandant is trying to shoot the Jewish armaments worker in the head but his pistol jams. It becomes a slapstick routine, and I'm sure it's deliberate on Spielberg's part. Here's the Big Nazi Hate Machine, acting like a big fucking incompetent dope.

  3. I'm explosively happy that you are reading To The Lighthouse. Tell me when you get to part II.

    Also, your post made me connect comedy and religion in my mind. They help us cope.

  4. Davin, I think tragedy can help us cope as well, though probably more through long term exposure and not as a balm to immediate suffering. Or something. I'm still a bit strung out from travel (we spent the last three days on a whirlwind visit to Vancouver).

    I'm enjoying the Woolf immensely, though some of her transitions are a bit jarring. But it's great stuff. For some reason it makes me want to re-read Joyce's Ulysses. I'll let you know when I get to part II. Is that the section where time flows in a bunch of directions at once?

    I wrote some good stuff for the new novel on the train; I'm filling the book with literary references. There's an upcoming discussion of Joseph Conrad's treatment of female characters. When I reach the halfway point in the MS (which will be soon, I think), I'll need to sit down and read through what I've written and make a list of all the loose ends and open parentheses I've created. I also need to rewrite most of the first chapter. &cet &cet &cet.

  5. Yes, Part II is about time and it's beautiful. I really like the structure of To The Lighthouse, even though structure is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Woolf. Really, she is so good at everything.

    Hope you recover from your trip!

  6. And so she went down and said to her husband, Why must they grow up and lose it all? Never will they be so happy again. And he was angry. Why take such a gloomy view of life? he said. It is not sensible. For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, than she was. Less exposed to human worries — perhaps that was it. He had always his work to fall back on. Not that she herself was “pessimistic,” as he accused her of being. Only she thought life — and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes — her fifty years. There it was before her — life. Life, she thought — but she did not finish her thought. She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance. There were eternal problems: suffering; death; the poor. There was always a woman dying of cancer even here. And yet she had said to all these children, You shall go through it all. To eight people she had said relentlessly that (and the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds). For that reason, knowing what was before them — love and ambition and being wretched alone in dreary places — she had often the feeling, Why must they grow up and lose it all? And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, Nonsense. They will be perfectly happy.

    That's absolutely brilliant.

  7. I'm so excited that you are reading this. There's also the scene where she is mending a sock--my favorite part of the book.

  8. Do you mean the scene where Mrs Ramsey sits alone knitting and watching the beam from the lighthouse? I read that yesterday afternoon and it was amazing. Right now I'm reading the long chapter with everyone sitting down together for a formal dinner, and it's truly a virtuoso performance on Woolf's part. It's staged almost like a battle scene. Clearly I should read all of Woolf's other novels.