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Pacifist Viking

Actually, the ideas that stick out for me in "Paradise Lost" are not the overtly Christian ones, but a sort of existential individualism and freedom. Milton doesn't merely use the poem to promote his Puritan theology (as the Romantics surely realized), but explores the nature of freedom itself. I'm not sure an exploration of Free Will constitutes a new idea, since it's been an issue hammered out for most of Western Civilization, but it's certainly been put forth as an important idea.

I wrote that post (and much of what I write on my blog) as an honest self-assessment; I'm interested in Reader-Response Theory, and as such I wish to constantly explore my own mode of reading. After writing a few posts rejecting Aestheticism, I wanted to recognize that I don't entirely reject aesthetic appreciation.

And yes, I do believe literature (including but not limited to prose fiction) does have value of "education and edification"; these are uses of reading that many readers recognized for centuries--it was primarily in the 19th century when Aestheticists rejected these purposes. Hence I don't see any reason I should "let go" of this belief; we can be fundamentally changed by what we read. I don't reject appreciation of the aesthetic of literature when I say so, but I don't want it to be "just" appreciation of the aesthetic; for me, that would make it more of an exercise, not a direct engagement.

But I also believe all literature is useful for (wait for it) entertainment. We read for some of the same reasons we watch TV and film: for passing the time, for amusement, for diversion. Hopefully we also read seriously and well, but I don't want to forget that we also read for fun.

One more note: in the very paragraph after questioning whether I read different things differently, I did recognize that I almost surely do, but I'm not fully aware of how I do.

But this is an enjoyable subject: discussing how we read, why we read, and how we ought to read (I'm a little more leery of the latter).

Steven Augustine

"We read for some of the same reasons we watch TV and film: for passing the time, for amusement, for diversion."

Careful with that "we". I read for the very reasons I *don't* watch TV (and find the vast majority of films made in recent decades offensively simple-minded). For me, the one activity is a pleasure, and the other is a time-waster, and never the twain shall meet.

Pacifist Viking


You're right: I should be careful with the "we." But actually you're using the word I should have used: "pleasure." We may read for the same reason we do a lot of other things: for pleasure. Certainly reading is a more difficult pleasure than our other pleasures, but then that's why some of us enjoy it more (I certainly find more pleasure in a crossword puzzle than I would find in a word search precisely because it is more difficult ).

Luther Blissett

I have to side with the Viking here. To say that *Paradise Lost* is nothing more, at the level of theme, than a spouting of Puritan theology, is like saying that *MacBeth* is nothing more than a celebration of the Stuarts.

My problem with Dan's arguments on these issues tends to come with my own inability to separate form and content. I don't understand Dan's demand to analyze and appreciate aesthetics apart from the thematic currents of art; nor do I understand his version of his opponents, who somehow stripmine "ideas" out of aesthetic constructs.

A poet like Pope -- a giant in the artform -- alerts us immediately to the undeniable fact that poetry can make arguments, can attempt to sway a reader to hold believe certain beliefs and take certain actions. I do nothing different -- physically speaking -- when I read Pope or I read the NYT. It's the language itself, the choices made by the writers, what we might simply call the rhetoric, that forces us to perform different cognitive functions when reading different genres. And this occurs across a spectrum: no poet uses techniques we cannot find, to varying degrees, in other genres of writing.

After Derrida, I thought we'd all stop thinking that philosophy somehow gives off kernels of "ideas," letting us dispose of the useless shell of prose. To paraphrase is to rewrite, to produce a new and different text.

Finally, I'd argue that one of the pleasures of literature is in the types of messages it constructs and conveys. The power of *King Lear* is not only in its language but in the ideas it forces us to face. If *Lear* were about putting together an IKEA table, it wouldn't have the same pleasures. This is less about "being right" -- sure, Milton was wrong about certain things, just as Dante got the entire physical world wrong -- and more about the intensity of the writer's interaction with serious issues.

Dan Green

"A poet like Pope -- a giant in the artform -- alerts us immediately to the undeniable fact that poetry can make arguments, can attempt to sway a reader to hold certain beliefs and take certain actions."

I've never been alerted to this. Reading Pope's poetry produces so much pain and so little pleasure that I've never gotten to his "arguments."

"The power of *King Lear* is not only in its language but in the ideas it forces us to face."

I'm sure I don't know what ideas those would be. It forces us to face the miseries and the pain life produces, but I've never thought of Lear as confronting "ideas" rather than the ghastliness of his fate.

"more about the intensity of the writer's interaction with serious issues."

I don't know why I should be interested in such a thing at all. I'm not sure I even know what it means. I am interested in the intensity of the writer's interaction with his medium, but I'd prefer to leave the "serious issues" alone.

Pacifist Viking


King Lear is, for many of us, full of ideas. It is a confrontation with the meaning of old age, with the meaning of loyalty (and loyal disobedience), with the meaning of fate and free will, a confrontation with the possibilities that there is no benevolent God in the universe, with the recognition of the indifferent nature. There are so many beautiful passages whose beauty is not just in the language or the poetry, but in the power of thought conveyed in the language and poetry.

The point is, a lot of people read King Lear and confront these ideas. I agree with Luther Blissett: if all that mattered were the aesthetic, King Lear could just as easily be about something meaningless and stupid. But it's not: it's full of ideas.

I also agree with Luther when asking why, exactly, you require people to divorce form from content? Is it necessary or useful?

I've seen you deny that there is any meaningful content in Paradise Lost and King Lear. Many of us see great content in those works. If for you the pleasure of these works is an examination of the aesthetic, that's great. But if for me the pleasure of these works is a confrontation of the ideas, why is that a problem? I understand if you'd like to focus on the aesthetic; I don't understand why that means an outright denial that there is any meaningful content. I also don't understand why you are so bothered if other people don't read precisely as you do. Reading is the great individual activity, and we all read for our own purposes. If for me the greatest meaning and greatest pleasure in reading is an exploration of ideas (without ignoring the aesthetic), why is that a problem? Why should I deny myself pleasure or meaning in the reading experience? For those of us that see in Milton or Shakespeare ideas that we must confront, what's it to you?

Dan Green

"It is a confrontation with the meaning of old age"

What is the difference between this and actually confronting old age? It seems to me that this is what Lear does confront, not "meanings" about it.

"why, exactly, you require people to divorce form from content?"

I don't require anyone to do anything, but as far as I can tell, there is no "content" in works of literature. There's language, the way the language is arranged and expressed, but "content" is something readers extract from literature for their own purposes. I don't object to this per se, but I do wish that readers insisting on content acknowledge that this is what they're doing.

Lear is not full of ideas. It's full of imagined characters coping with their world in collapse. If "free will" appears to be involved in the portrayal of this process, it's because life ultimately strips us of that. But it's not some kind of debate about whether free will exists or not.


I'm with you, Dan (except for Pope, whom I adore and derive great pleasure from--and who was used so deftly in _Pale Fire_). Can you imagine if the only reason one might read _Lear_ is for wind-baggy and banal "ideas" about the meanings of old age, God, Nature, fate and free will? There are of course some books whose ideas are the point, and these are usually bad (_Atlas Shrugged_, anyone?). In something like _Lear_ or _Paradise Lose_, it is useful to think of any propositional content in the same way as one would consider its formal content (structure, rhyme, etc.), that is, as elements whose combinations can result in a complex of interactions where it is the "ideas" that provide the ground for the "aesthetic," where the ideas are excuses for good poetry (or more broadly, where language becomes a material artifact, like sound in music or bronze in sculpture), rather than the point of the exercise. Poetry and "literature" are not necessarily merely other means of communicating ideas; they are rather a kind of music made out of discursive and material effects. The ideas in the lovely books mentioned so far are actually side-effects of a different kind of thinking altogether, a kind of thinking as much like making music or painting as it is of talking.

Luther Blissett

Brian, you're missing the point. No one is arguing that one should -- or even *could* -- read *King Lear* just for the ideas.

The point is that what Dan calls "ideas" is what the formalists called theme, and themes are developed out of patterns of language. These patterns have a sensual and aesthetic component, but the nature of language is also ideational.

Lear is not a person. No one confronts old age in the play. Instead, signs coalesce around other signs, in patterns of likeness and difference, and some of these signs have to do with the entanglement of concepts of family, aging, power, authority, etc.

Which is to say: Lear represents someone confronting old age. The difference between that and actually doing it is the difference between talking about a car crash and actually being in one. (More abstractly put, we could say that in *Lear*, certain proper nouns are associated with certain other nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., such that these associations cross paths, create tension, and change in nature over the course of the text.)

Brian's point about music falls apart as we begin to compare Shakespeare's verse to the pure music of Clark Coolidge's poetry. If Dan really believes that art is experience, as Dewey writes, then we have to face the vastly different experiences of any audience familiar with these two poets.

Dan Green

If Lear is about signs coalescing around other signs, then you're going to have to do a lot more work to get me from there to "family, aging, power, and authority." If there is no Lear in the play, there are also no families, no authorities, etc. Also no "concepts."

Luther Blissett

Uh, those are all signs as well. And signs represent the world. But they aren't the same thing as the world.


In a discussion of literature as art vs. literature as a congealing of signs, I must respectfully side with art. That theory kills literature is selfevident here.

Luther Blissett

Brewdog, could you explain what a work of literature is *besides* signs? Fairy dust? Magic energy? Ley lines?

Or is it a Golem theory of literature you're working on? Words are words are words, until the artist breathes the life of art into them, and o altitude! it's alive!

Dan Green

"Words are words are words"

This is indeed what works of literature are: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, artfully arranged. They're not "signs." This is again a critical construction whereby we find in literary works what we want to find there, but it is indeed a "concept" that no more gets at the essence of literature than any other way of mining "ideas."

Luther Blissett

Dan, whether you like the word "sign" or not, words have meanings. It is the rare act of speech or writing that has no meaning.

If you think *Lear* has nothing to say about authority; if you think *Antigone* has nothing to say about duty; if you think *Inferno* has nothing to say about sin; if you think *Waverley* has nothing to say about political relations between Scotland and England; if you think *Dubliners* has nothing to say about moral paralysis; if you think "The Lady with the Pet Dog" says nothing about fidelity--

then I suppose we have nothing to talk about.

Then again, in your own essay on Pamuk, you write: "My Name is Red is probably the most genuinely "postmodern" of Pamuk's novels, even if it is most immediately an exploration of Ottoman/Islamic history. With its cast of multiple narrators (including the color red and various dead people) and its thematic focus on art and the nature of artistic creation, it is also the most lively of Pamuk's books, its kaleidoscopic narration, relatively short chapters, and mystery plot (who killed the master illuminator Elegant Effendi?) at its center keeping the novel moving at an engaging pace. What emerges is less an historical recreation of the Ottoman Empire than a convincing aesthetic creation that allows both author and reader to meditate on the human need to create art in the first place, even in circumstances that put restrictions on the artist's ability to give full expression to that need and even in the midst of those mundane struggles and squabbles that afflict everyone, including the artist, in our efforts simply to find some sort of happiness in a world that constantly threatens to undermine it."

All that sounds like theme, meaning, idea, whatever you want to call it. I'd like to know how Pamuk's work can meditate on the human need to create art without expressing ideas.

That your own critical writing "mines for content" suggests to me that this whole interminable argument is just a stubborn, all-or-nothing attempt to make straw-men of critics with whom you disagree.

Dan Green

"If you think *Lear* has nothing to say about authority; if you think *Antigone* has nothing to say about duty," etc.

We can read Antigone for what it has to "say" about duty, but that makes it a very boring play indeed. I'd prefer to read it for the way Sophocles takes this particular situation and makes it into an *aesthetically* powerful play, which makes its "message" not irrelevant but secondary. If all it had to offer was some nostrums about "duty," few people would bother with it. I certainly wouldn't.

Inferno and Waverly probably do want to "say" those things you name, but this is the reason I've always found Dante tedious and Scott virtually unreadable. Some works of literature do want to present "ideas." Usually the ideas are trite--or worse: I find the ideas in Inferno repulsive--and the presentation eye-glazing.

If you think Dubliners is interesting mostly because it's about moral paralysis, then we probably don't have much to talk about.

Luther Blissett

Here again, it's either-or thinking. I never said I'm interested in Shakespeare mostly for his thematic content.

But the content is there, and it's tied up inextricably with what you seem to suggest are pure, aesthetic pleasures: rhythms, sounds, imagery, etc.

Dan Green

"it's tied up inextricably with what you seem to suggest are pure, aesthetic pleasures: rhythms, sounds, imagery, etc."

But the "rhythms, sounds, imagery" make it problematic, to say to the least, to try to extract the "content" as if it were writing that doesn't contain those things. The "read for ideas" approach always wants to deny this, or just ignore it.

Luther Blissett

But all language use has rhythm and sound, and much language involves images, comparisons, and so on. Part of any interpretation involves negotiating the back and forth tensions between what a language act is trying to do and how it goes about doing it.

So for me, the problem isn't mining for content. There is only a problem when the critic gets the content wrong. This might mean that the critic ignored certain formal aspects of the writing, but it doesn't necessarily mean that.

As the New Critics taught us, theme is one more formal element of literature. Thematic analysis isn't a shift away from form but rather a different emphasis.

Now -- and here's where I think we part ways -- a great deal of literature, especially pre-1900, saw theme as the ultimate formal end of the other formal means. That is to say, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, symbol, imagery, metaphor: all were saw to be in service of the larger meaning of the art work. Which doesn't mean we can ignore them in favor of theme, for the theme is nothing more than the cumulative effect of all the other effects of the art work. But it did mean that, as Pope wrote, the sound should follow the sense, and all that.

Dan Green

"But all language use has rhythm and sound, and much language involves images, comparisons, and so on.'

So you deny that literature does this in a particularly concentrated, intensive, and deliberate way" That in literature the rhythms and the images are in many ways the ends and not the means? That, in effect, works of literature are different than other kinds of writing?

Luther Blissett

I'd say that before writers like Mallarme, many writers employed imagery, rhythm, sound devices, etc. in exactly the way Pope describes in his "Essay on Criticism": when Sisyphus pushes the rock up the mountain, the rhythm should sound like a rock going up a mountain.

This is, in turn, basically how rhetoricians asked all speakers and writers to use language: determine the effect you want, and write to generate that effect in the audience. I agree with you that literary effects aren't always ideational -- many are sensual or emotional.

So I'd argue that no, there's no absolute difference between literature and other kinds of writing. The artist is the person who performs artfully. There are clearly varying levels of artful performance, and the artist who dares more achieves more. For me, the difference between a well-written newspaper article and a great poem is a difference in *how* artful the performances are and how much the artist risked in the undertaking. The Declaration of Independence is a work of art, to me, but it's not essentially different from other political writings. It's simply a more daring, more graceful performance than others.

Likewise, I see Lester Bangs as one of the finest American prose stylists of his time. But his writings on music were only better than common music reviews. And what keeps him from being a truly great artist is that he dared so little.

So I can agree that literature performs in a "particularly concentrated, intensive, and deliberate way," but I see all that on a spectrum from the most common speech act to the more crafted line of poetry. You seem to imply that as we shift to the "artful" end of the spectrum, we are moving away from ideas or messages and toward pure sensual enjoyment in the text. I see the two poles as more about consciousness of means and end, of ideas and effects.

Dan Green

"the difference between a well-written newspaper article and a great poem is a difference in *how* artful the performances are and how much the artist risked in the undertaking."

The differences are of course not absolute but genereric and pragmatic. You may call a newspaper article "artful" but this is just a manner of speaking. The journalist does not observe the conventions generally agreed to be "literary" (unless you just want to define "literary" as well-written, but of course "well-written" means different things in different generic contexts,) just as the poet does not observe the conventions associated with reporting a traffic accident. You may think these are artificial distinctions, which they are, but that does not mean they aren't valuable. We can collapse all these distinctions if we want, but in my opinion it makes for a much less interesting kind of reading. As far as I can see, you're defining "artful" to mean "above average," "well-done." You're welcome to this diminished vision of art, but it certainly doesn't get my blood coursing.

an ovid among the goats

luther you are using that "I" way to seriously to be employing derrida and postmodern/poststructuralism.

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