Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Impatience with Allegory

While listening to Conrad's 'Typhoon', the other day, I found myself getting quite annoyed by the carefully placed 'subtexts' of the story. I used to view all literature as a puzzle to be solved, and gradually worked up to more and more cryptic puzzles. T.S. Eliot's 'Wasteland' was an early favourite, with all of its hints and references. I should be grateful - it got me into the source material that Eliot drew from. The problem was, I started preferring the source material to the 'more compex' works sitting on their shoulders.
Take Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Forget how these works are dressed up in 'culture': they are great romping tales of adventure, love, war, death, tragedy, comedy, the whole rich tapestry of life. All the author was trying to do was tell a story that entertained his readers (or as was most likely the case, his listeners), even though they knew the plot backwards, having heard it since childhood. The fact that these works are still read and loved 25-odd centuries later suggest that he was on to something.
But, to a modern author, it is not enough to let me find my own meaning in a story: he has made a secret meaning for me to tease out, which, with enough background research, I might just arrive at.
I could forgive this, in fact, I enjoyed it, until I read the poetry of Sappho, a contemporary of Homer's, whose fragments of poetry has retained a power like dynamite, and is as easy to read as it is to understand:

"Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth
is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers,
and others again a fleet of ships,
but for me, it is the one I love most."

The elitists will try to make stories as difficult and forbidding as befits a desire to keep the best for oneself. The greatest authors wrote for everyone (Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Homer etc etc), and took pains that they be understood by their audience. To willfully mislead them seems perverse. And, being a human, I consider myself a 'meaning finding machine' - we even find familiar faces in tortillas - and can be trusted to draw my own meanings from what I read.


Kristin said...

You're on to something! I generally agree with you, but subtlety and me don't sit well together.

Anonymous said...

quite right!! give me heart aching romance or a spine tingling thriller.. give me an amazing adventure romp or a dark story of true life struggle, just don't give me a high brow quiz for swots and academics. In short I'll take Dubliners over Ulysses anyday.

mackinaw said...

well, there are two types of writing, good writing and bad writing. i've not read much of typhoon (just my part of it), so i can't comment on that work. i guess it's a matter of preference though, but still, postmodern tomfoolery needn't be exclusive of a good yarn ... you can have some of both. or like both independently.

i'm a big fan of Pynchon's "easy" books - Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland - but i couldn't, try as i might, read Gravity's Rainbow. Still, Lot 49, for instance, is filled with puzzles and layers - but at the end of the day is a great wacky slapstick satirical thriller.

i think in all art, though, the most important thing is that elusive "truthfulness" ... a writing writing a story which is true to itself - whatever that be. often you can "hear" the writer working away at a story - being clever, trying to fool you, being impressed with his own stylishness. that kills a book for me anyway. ditto watching some singer trying to be bob dylan or sid viscious.

so: to allegory or not to allegory? i won't lose much sleep, but do whatever it is *well* and with honesty, and you're going in the right direction...

mes deux centimes!

mackinaw said...

also, just another note: i *think* people mostly write to try to please themselves (well, there must be exceptions, but ...). so writers of annoying dense books probably like those kinds of books. writers of straight narratives like them.

i fall in the middle on this, I guess. but give me a good well-written story, with some depth, and I am happy as a clam.

ChrisHughes said...

Ah... but 'depth', as you put it, is rather hard to define, isn't it? Is it the author's job to provide the depth, or the readers? I say the reader - besides, telling stories is hard enough, without feeling you have to impart trenchant insights.

I suppose I just hate the elitism of the modernists, who felt story telling was trivial, and they had to go one better with a philosophical layer for the clever people.

I would argue that any sufficiently well told story is by definition full of insight and philosophical interest - The Iliad formed basically the entire education system of early greece - memorise the Iliad and you graduate! (The Iliad! Again! Must read more stuff!)

PS I am aware that 'well told story' is a vague and unhelpful term. Sorry.

ChrisHughes said...

I should add I really hate how the elitism of the modernists became the way literature was taught - 'don't read shakespeare for himself - go in quest of deeper meanings!'.

hugh said...

sure, everything is hard to define! but that's our job. so: depth ... is significance. and it comes not from the writer, or the reader, but the interplay between the two.

if a "well told story is by definition full of insight and philosophical interest" - say the illiad - then that's at least part of why the illiad is so great. and that is depth.

but don't execute the writers for the crimes of university English departments.

as for "telling stories is hard enough, without feeling you have to impart trenchant insights," i would say rather "telling good stories is hard enough" full stop.

trenchant insights may or may not have a "good" impact on the quality of a story/book or whatever. but for my money i would prefer to measure the goodness by my reaction to a book, and not by the number of trenchant insights i get. though again, i personally am much more satisfied with books that DO give me trenchant insights.

but there are no shortage of books - with or without good stories or insights.

so: yes: get mad a uni profs who ruin shakespeare for their students. but don't get mad at the poor starving experimental writers who'll never make more than a few thousand bucks for books they can spend years on. they may be stupid, or bad financial planners, but they hardly constitute a threat to anyone except themselves.

for the best defense of obscure writing I've read recently, see:

(PS I am also mackinaw above).

hugh said...

oh, and obviously "significance" is just a replacement for "depth," so i haven't got anywhere to defining it yet. but let's say, something like: "makes the reader reflect on the world and his/her place in it in new ways" as a rough definition for "depth"/"significance."

ChrisHughes said...

OK. Yes.
But I am not coming down hard on the starving writer - rather the impression conveyed by the arbiters of taste that good art requires him/her to create an allegorical framework for the work to have any worth.
Even non-fiction seems to want to get in on the act, by forcing true stories to fit a 'lesson'...
That's the word I've been looking for: 'lesson'. I don't like an author to lecture me on, say, how awful war is, by using a bad marriage as an allegory. 'Just say no to war, kids - it's bad!'
I want to know what is wrong with the marriage - to understand to characters, and recognise elements of my own behaviour, etc etc. Make the character's real, and the work gets a life of its own, and creates its own meanings in the minds of its readers.
Great art seems to be like a mirror (see - now I'm doing it - an allegory!) which reflects back to the observer whatever he or she brings to it. And great artists can distort the mirror a little bit, to show back a version of reality, without it becoming unrecognisable.

But - rereading all this, I am probably just annoyed with Joseph Conrad for ruining a fine book about a storm with a clinky allegory. If the allegory had worked, I would have not even have noticed it as such, because I would have felt that I had found it, without the author putting it there.
I am convinced authors leave far more of themselves and their ideas in a work by accident than by design. Perhaps that suits me better.

And also annoyed with fashionable artistic critisism, which seizes on works with allegorical meanings that support the fashionable world view, and advocate those, because they want all the rest of us to be taught the 'lessons' they contain. So, a work is worth seeing, if, in their opinion, the subtext attacks, say, climate change. Forget whether the work has any real value - 'save the whale!'
Perhaps I should just stop believing newspaper art critics? Then I'd stop being annoyed with everything.