Literary Analysis and the Theory of Literature

Literary Analysis and the Theory of Literature

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One of my favorite stories about the days of literary High Theory is told by the feminist critic Sandra Gilbert. In the late '80s, Gilbert was interviewing a candidate for a job in Princeton University's English department. "What would your dream course be?" she asked. "My dream course," the candidate responded, "would be theory and nontheory." "What's nontheory?" asked a committee member. "You know," the candidate replied. "Poems, stories, plays."...Elaine Showwalter, Professor Emeritus, Princeton University

A very short introduction: "When Aretha Franklin sings 'You make me feel like a natural woman,' she seems happy to be confirmed in a 'natural' sexuality identity, prior to culture, by a man's treatment of her. But her formulation, 'you make me feel like a natural woman,' suggests that the supposedly natural or given identity is a cultural role, an effect that has been produced within culture; she isn't a 'natural woman' but has to be made to feel like one. The natural woman is a cultural product...the main thrust of recent theory has been the critique of whatever is taken as natural, the demonstration that what has been thought or declared natural is in fact a historical, cultural product..."(1)—so says theorist Jonathan Culler.

Depending upon which school of theory, meaning could stem from the author, the text, the reader, or two or three of these loci combined—couched as immanent, historical, or utterly objective. But wherever theory stakes its next center, it will still be some prescribed model for how to think about concepts that come to us "naturally." Do I really need theory to 'get' Franklin's lyrics as they jangle my mind, vibrate my bones, and move me "body and soul"? If I do (if you say so), then let it be some auspicious convergence of evolutionary theory with the use of language, the calling card of my species. I hold a gestalt sense that what I write or read reflects what I am as a member of a population, and also extends who I am as one of its individuals; that pair of notions feels correct for a number of reasons.

Happily, we can make a case for Darwin displacing Lacan and Foucault. Suc-cessful literature, by virtue of inherent, transmittable 'truths,' seems to spawn new works in the same sense that adaptation and exaptation lead to fit variations and new, improved species. I imagine nouveau-shaped nooks opening around an organic, Gaudi-esque library, ready to accommodate the next iteration of new books with new thoughts—and so on to the next and the next generation.

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This neatly parallels Ernst Mayr's concept of an evolutionary niche: "that constellation of properties of the envi-ronment making it suitable for occupation by a species" (2).

Furthermore, it seems that a sort of natural selection is in play. Some literature continues to apply while other works sooner or later become irrelevant as times change. Still others never emerge. Those that remain relevant continue to be read and discussed; as such, they continue to spark ideas that hold the promise of new literary works that will fit and shape the next peopled environments. Interestingly, the half-life of a story depends upon readers, most of whom have never heard of literary theory. Postmodernist Terry Eagleton notes that, "The reader has always been the most underprivileged of this trio [author, text, reader]—strangely, since without him or her there would be no literary texts at all" (3).

How readers interpret stories also finds its analog in how they 'write' their own, the self being its own autobiographer, as Dennett explains: "[W]e are virtuoso novelists who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behavior... We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography" (4). What Dennett proposes about the self is relevant to how texts are interpreted, more so than abstract theory, although Dennett says that the self is an abstract object, a theorist's fiction. The difference, he says, between a fictional character and the self is that a fictional character is encountered as a fait accompli—what can be known is known and nothing more—whereas, "our selves are constantly being made more determinate as we go along in response to the way the world impinges on us" (4).

Furthermore, it is possible for people to rethink memories of their pasts and rewrite them: "This process does change the 'fictional' character, the character that you are," Dennett says, just as if we were to ask a novelist to write more stories to flesh out some fictional character about whom we had curiosities and questions. Actually, "That is the way we treat each other, that is the way we are"(4). And that is the way I imagine that we interpret literature—as readers who fill in the gaps from points of view we design.

The context we use to design gap fillings derives from what Dennett calls our "intentional stance," (5) an operational strategy for interpreting and predicting how some rational "other" (fictional or flesh, I would argue) will behave. Just as we assign self-based reasons for how people will act or why they did act a certain way, we project intentions onto fictional characters based upon our own evolving autobiography. Evolution theory is at play, given that our self's interpretation of the doings of others (fictional or flesh) is based upon that which will keep us (our identity as well as our physical being) surviving and thriving. Who better to interpret a story than a storyteller who lives in and because of her own? The only relevant interpretation of narrative is by the reader—whose self/story will be affected as a direct result. What else matters, I would ask the theorists.

Armed with the underpinnings of natural selection, let us interpret Moby-Dick, an inscrutable "novel." Some believe that Moby-Dick reflects Emerson's influence and not Hawthorne's—the former eschewing fiction, the latter adroit at it. In 1850, Melville praised his colleague Hawthorne only for seeding "cunning glimpses" of truth in his tales, not for his fables: "For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, --even though it be covertly, and by snatches" (6). This quest for truth and how to convey it coincides with Melville's reading of Emerson, beginning in earnest in 1849 according to Melville's library records.

Professor Nina Baym finds evidence that "contact with Emerson's thought was the single most significant influence on the shape of Emerson, human language is most literal when it is most figurative or metaphorical... as Emerson would see it, fable testifies to the human intuition of an idea behind fact but does not succeed in expressing it..."(7). According to Emerson, nature functions as language (8); Melville took that message to heart as a mantra throughout Moby-Dick. Perhaps, he fell short of expressing truth (his own assessment), but with Emerson's insights Melville may have stumbled onto some kind of linguistic bridge to his readers' intuitions.

So many plays and movies, quotes and extractions have been generated as a direct or indirect result of this book. How many niches will continue to explode beyond its covers? No "necessary and sufficient conditions," no bipartite categorizations are expected of Moby-Dick's reader. Nothing about it is fundamentalist except for doggedly seeking some means to express truth. It has no rigid structure. To the extent that it is a fable, it contains many fables all trying to explain the whale this way and that, thereby exposing the limits of fiction. Its cohesion seems to come from some catapulting energy—the writer as crusader. In the end, each reader can see in it whatever he or she puts there, as I have just now demonstrated. In that way, it is timeless. In its infinite adaptability, the story survives.

Dennett uses this example: "Pick up Moby-Dick (9) and open it up to page one. It says, 'Call me Ishmael.' Call whom Ishmael? Call Melville Ishmael? No. Call Ishmael Ishmael. Melville has created a fictional character named Ishmael. As you read the book you learn about Ishmael, about his life, about his beliefs and desires, his acts and attitudes. You learn a lot more about Ishmael then Melville ever explicitly tells you. Some of it you can read in by implication. Some of it you can read in by extrapolation. But beyond the limits of such extrapolation fictional worlds are simply indeterminate"(3).

Inevitably then, each of us autobiographers will write as he or she reads. And theories other than Darwin's need not apply.

Works Cited

1. Culler, Jonathan. ((1997) Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. London. Ox-ford University Press.

2. Mayr, Ernst. (2001) What Evolution Is. New York. Perseus Books Group.

3. Eagleton, Terry (1983) Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press.

4. Dennett, Daniel C. (1992) "The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity." In: F. Kessel, P. Cole, and D. Johnson (eds.) Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ. Erlbaum.

5. Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York. Touchstone.

6. Melville, Herman. "Hawthorne and His Mosses." The Literary World, August 17 and 24, 1850.

7. Baym, Nina. (1998) "Melville's Quarrel with Fiction." University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

8. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1836) Nature. New York. Random House, Inc. rpt 1994.

9. Melville, Herman. (1851) Moby Dick or, The Whale. Reprinted New York. Random House, Inc. 1992.

Other Works Considered

1. Eagleton, Terry. (2003) After Theory. New York. Perseus Books Group.

2. Dennett, Daniel C. (1989) Intentional Stance. Cambridge, Mass. Bradford Books/ MIT Press.

3. Dennett, Daniel C. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Boston. Little, Brown & Com-pany.
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