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12/15/2008

Comments

Christopher

I agree that awareness of a writer's context and tradition can be an aid to understanding, but I think it depends on the individual writer what that "tradition" is.

For example, Borges seems to be a writer who was more heavily influenced by non-Spanish NON-contemporaries than by his own native tradition. He read everything and everyone, and Edgar Allan Poe, Kafka, and Thomas DeQuincey appear to have influenced him as much as any Spanish-language writer.

I also think it matters what the author in question is trying to do in the first place. For example, Dostoyevsky's NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND is, amongst other things, a critique of various philosophical strains in Western thought. There's an implicit critique of Socrates' injunction to "Know Oneself" (the Underground Man knows himself all too well, he never stops reflecting upon himself), and the exaltation of reason. There's an implicit parody of Rousseau, who is mentioned derisively at one point (and yet the Underground Man himself can't stop scribbling away his own version of LES CONFESSIONS). Kantian aesthetics also appear to be a target (a lot of caustic, barbed references to "The good and the beautiful").

The novel becomes much more interesting and thought-provoking once you know something about the various traditions and schools of Western thought that are being subjected to satirical scrutiny. Reading Plato's Socratic dialogues, and reading some Rousseau and Kant, would probably aid your understanding more than reading WAR AND PEACE, ANNA KARENINA, THE THREE SISTERS, or EUGENE ONEGIN.

Because so much of his work was an attempt to either refute or come to terms with various influential schools of thought, various intellectual traditions, Dostoyevsky is an exemplar of the sort of writer who probably would be enhanced by familiarity with a multitude of other writers as well. With someone like Balzac or Dickens, on the other hand, it might not be so important. They probably could be read with full enjoyment as "stand-alones". A lot of it depends on whether the writer in question was MOTIVATED to produce the work in question by engaging and grappling in a direct way with the work of contemporaries and precursors. I get the feeling that Dostoyevsky and Borges (and Creeley) were, and someone like Dickens, for the most part, was not. The former fill their work with overt and covert allusions to other writers, Dickens for the most part doesn't.

Dan Green

Dickens was most immediately trying to write novels that were as good as those of his immediate precursors, and most important influences as a novelist, Fielding and Smollett. His novels would not have existed, and would certainly not have taken the form they did, without these writers and the picaresque tradition Dickens was attempting to extend. The very structure of his novels, particularly the early ones, is as overt an "allusion" to this tradition as you could find.

Christopher

Dan, I think you've somewhat misunderstood my point. I was talking mainly about the perspective of the reader, not the writer. Is it necessary to have read Smollett to appreciate and comprehend what's going on in BLEAK HOUSE? I say no, not at all, based on the fact I've never read any Smollett but have read almost all of Dickens. Of course Dickens didn't write in a vacuum, of course he had crucial influences - everyone does. But there's a qualitative difference between BLEAK HOUSE or OLIVER TWIST on the one hand, and NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND or PIERRE MENARD, AUTHOR OF THE QUIXOTE or Nietzsche's TWILIGHT OF THE IDOLS or Eliot's THE WASTE LAND on the other. There's very little that can be gleaned from these works, little insight or illumination, unless YOU THE READER have familiarized yourself with a great number of the AUTHOR's sources as well. With Dickens, that familiarization is not essential, whereas with T.S. Eliot, I believe that it is.

I'm thinking back to my youth. The first time I read THE WASTE LAND, I didn't "get" anything out of it. I didn't know what the heck this guy was on about. The reason is, I first read it before I'd read any of the works he alludes to in the poem. By contrast, Dickens is a writer with enormous appeal for young readers. Most people fall in love with Dickens at a very young age. That simply couldn't happen if Dickens approached the writing process the same way Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot or Robert Creeley did. Therefore I'd reject your claim that Dickens "is as overt an allusion to this tradition as you will find." It's not, because young readers often fall in love with his work without any awareness of that tradition whatsoever.

Another way to put it is: if I were trying to encourage a love of verse in a non-reader or novice reader of poetry, I would never START with someone like Wallace Stevens or Eliot or Pound. I'd feel comfortable using someone like Dickinson or Tennyson, but definitely not the overtly allusive Wallace Stevens. Later on, sure, but not to encourage a new reader. And that has to do with the manner in which the authors themselves apprehend and acknowledge their relation to tradition.

Dan Green

"Is it necessary to have read Smollett to appreciate and comprehend what's going on in BLEAK HOUSE?"

Necessary, no, but ultimately very helpful, yes. At least as helpful as it is to know Eliot's influences.

That some readers don't "get" Dickens's allusion does not mean they aren't overt. That such readers prefer their allusions be to Rousseau or Kant rather than Smollet doesn't at all moot my point that "getting" Dickens amounts to understanding his relation to his native language and its precursors writers. If anything, it strengthens it.

Christopher

"Necessary, no, but ultimately very helpful, yes. At least as helpful as it is to know Eliot's influences."

How so? How does knowing OLIVER TWIST was influenced by Smollett aid the reader in interpreting the novel or understanding the themes? OLIVER TWIST is perfectly comprehensible without having read a word of the author's influences, whereas THE WASTE LAND simply isn't.

It isn't a question of "preferring" one set of allusion to another. Geesh. Where did I say I "preferred" an allusion to Rousseau? Nowhere. What I said was, Dostoyevsky went about constructing his novel, and his relation to a precursor like Rousseau, in a substantially different fashion than Dickens did.

NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND is a direct, quite conscious and calculated response to certain ideas present in Rousseau, Socrates, and Kant. That is, there are aspects of their perspectives that Dostoyevsky finds disquieting and he wrote that particular novel partly to answer what, from his perspective, is a harmful philosophy of life. The novel itself would never have been written unless Dostoyevsky found those ideas disquieting. By contrast, Dickens had no score to settle with Smollett, he simply adapted some literary techniques found in other authors to his own ends. He took the picaresque and put it to his own use.

"That some readers don't "get" Dickens's allusion does not mean they aren't overt."

It's fair to say, Dan, that the vast majority of Dickens' readers, throughout history, did not catch those allusions, whatever they were, and were able to read his novels without difficulty, without any effort or stumbling blocks, without needing to be cognizant of the Smollett connection at all. By contrast, much of Pound's, Eliot's, or Steven's verse is extremely hard to read, at times almost incomprehensible, without the "key" that unlocks the door: namely, familiarity with some of the precursor writers these poets are alluding to in their work. When Pound starts tossing in partial quotations from Greek literature, in the original Greek no less, he's obviously not trying to be as accessible as Balzac or Dickens are for the common reader. He's demanding the reader be very literate, very well-read already, before they even come to him.

Some writers simply make more demands on their readers than others, in terms of what they expect their readers to have already read. There is a qualitative difference between Dickens and a writer like Nietzsche, who tells his reader point-blank that Plato was a big old bore, and wrong about just about everything to boot, and you should read Heraclitus and Thucydides instead, because they were way more in tune with reality than Plato. To understand most of his references to Heraclitus or Plato, to perceive why Nietzsche feels the way he feels, it's necessary to have some familiarity with Plato and Heraclitus' ideas. If you don't know what Plato wrote, you won't know why Nietzsche dislikes him so much, or why he has set himself up in opposition to so much of the philosophical tradition.

The same familiarity with Smollett is not necessary in order to interpret OLIVER TWIST or NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. What exactly is it about the themes, the social satire, the character relationships in BLEAK HOUSE that depends on a familiarity with Smollett to analyse, appreciate, and interpret? (Especially since Dickens was not simply an epigone of Smollett, but a great, individualized, idiosyncratic artist in his own right.) These novels are not primarily "commentaries" or "critiques" of Smollett, they are novels that happen to have been influenced by Smollett (and presumably DON QUIXOTE as well). Any intent on Dickens to offer a commentary on his precursors is a secondary or tertiary intent, whereas with Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche, the intent is primary and central.

Christopher

Are Dickens' novels perfectly comprehensible without knowing Smollett, or Ben Jonson? Yes.

Might having read Smollett also add to one's appreciation of Dickens? Yes, quite possibly, but it isn't crucial.

Is Nietzsche's TWILIGHT OF THE IDOLS perfectly comprehnsible without knowing any Plato or anything about Socrates? No.

Is it crucial to know something of what Plato and Socrates stood for in order to understand and assess what Nietzsche was attempting in that particular book? Yes, it is.

Are the various references to leaves in Wallace Stevens' poems (e.g. "Domination of Black") perfectly comprehensible without having read the precursors from which he took this image of leaves (Whitman and Shelley, mainly)? No, not really - perhaps the odd, rare reader intuits Stevens' meaning, more or less, without knowing any Shelley or Whitman, but it's not exactly an accident Stevens baffles so many first-time readers (even Stevens' biggest fan, Harold Bloom, admits he could barely understand Stevens' poems the first time he read them) and was only belatedly recognized as a major poet.

"That such readers prefer their allusions be to Rousseau or Kant rather than Smollet doesn't at all moot my point that "getting" Dickens amounts to understanding his relation to his native language and its precursors writers. If anything, it strengthens it."

No, I'm afraid it doesn't. Millions of readers have "gotten" Dickens, have read him with profit and pleasure, without having read a word of Smollett. Dickens is one of the best-selling "classic" writers of all time. That's a fact. The large majority of Dickens' fans, past and present, have not read Smollett. And yet they have still profited from their reading of Dickens. By contrast, people who read Nietzsche without having any familiarity with the philosophical tradition he is critiquing and modifying, often end up either feeling extremely perplexed, or they interpret him to be a Fascist, a Nazi, or just plain crazy (if they're a teenager at the time, they may approve of these things).

That's because there's a qualitative difference between what Nietzsche was doing, and his motives for writing, and what Dickens did as a writer.

Vance Maverick

- "Are Dickens' novels perfectly comprehensible without knowing Smollett, or Ben Jonson? Yes."

You're pushing a tendentious notion of "perfectly comprehensible" -- maybe you mean something like "satisfactorily comprehensible". It's not just pedantry to respond that no comprehension is perfect, that there's always more that can be learned with sensible profit, and that looking back from the position of greater knowledge, the former state of "comprehension" will seem unsatisfactory.

Daniel E. Pritchard

With the resources the internet provides, reading guides for translations (I think that for poetry guides are especially useful) generated by scholars, editors, or translators, is entirely possible. It will just take some pushing on the publishers by interested readers, such as yourselves.

Dan Green

I found "The Waste Land" satisfactorily comprehensible the first time I read it. Learning more about the allusions since then has added something to my appreciation of the poem, but no more than learning about the picaresque narrative has added to my appreciation of Oliver Twist. Actually less.

Christopher

Even if you found that to be true of "The Waste Land," I doubt the same could be said of all the writers on my list.

When you claim, "The very structure of [Dickens'] novels, particularly the early ones, is as overt an "allusion" to this tradition as you could find," you are using the word "allusion" in a sense other than its ordinary meaning. By your standard, absolutely all literature, ever, is "overtly allusive," since all writers have influences.

By your standard, a Ruth Rendell novel published today is "overtly allusive" to Christie and Conan Doyle, simply by virtue of the fact she's utilizing a format and procedure they pioneered. In a very broad sense that's true, since all authors are influenced by other others - nobody writes in a vacuum - but it isn't the normal meaning of the word "allusion." Every mystery novelist who ever lived would then be filling their work with allusions to the early practioners of the genre (Christie, Wilkie Collins etc) every time they sat down to write. The term "allusive" becomes pragmatically meaningless if we apply it so broadly.

When you write, "Dickens was most immediately trying to write novels that were as good as those of his immediate precursors, and most important influences as a novelist, Fielding and Smollett," well, who would ever claim otherwise, about any author of note? This is a non sequitur to what I wrote.

In science, we don't think of James Watson's book THE DOUBLE HELIX or Carl Sagan's COSMOS or Lewis Thomas' THE LIVES OF THE CELL the same way we think about Einstein's original paper on Special Relativity or Rutherford's paper on the nucleus of the atom. The former group were written to be accessible to laymen, the latter group presuppose a readership of specialists. OF COURSE both sets of texts can be enhanced by a greater understanding of technical literature (the scientific equivalent of "tradition and context"), but the latter group DEMAND this knowledge on the part of the reader as a precondition of understanding, the former do not. The technical papers are written with a different sort of readership in mind than the popular science books. And that is also true of Pound or Nietzsche vis-a-vis Dickens. Nietzsche starts with the assumption that his reader has already read Plato, Dickens does not demand that his readers have all read Smollett or Fielding.

At any rate, Dan, there's no point in continuing this conversation ay further. Despite the fact that my initial post was substantially in agreement with what you'd posted, rather than engage with what I wrote, you immediately misread it, and in a series of posts bristling with hostility proceeded to knock down a straw man. It's glaringly apparent to me that you aren't interested in my actual opinion ("That such readers prefer their allusions be to Rousseau or Kant rather than Smollet doesn't at all moot my point" is a total misreading: if that's what you think I was saying, it's obvious I'm wasting my time here.) You've inaccurately paraphrased my position several times already, and I can only conclude that James Wood was right to complain when he accused you of turning his arguments upside down, attributing positions to him that he nowhere actually professed. Since you've done the exact same thing to me, there's probably more than a kernel of truth to Wood's accusation. But this blog's your party, and you can misquote if you want to. Good day.

Christopher

A quick P.S. to Vance Maverick:

"You're pushing a tendentious notion of "perfectly comprehensible" -- maybe you mean something like "satisfactorily comprehensible". It's not just pedantry to respond that no comprehension is perfect...."

That's a fair criticism. Writing "perfectly comprehensible" I meant something colloquial like "it's a perfectly nice day outside," or "it's perfectly clear what she meant," not "perfect" in a literal sense. But I suppose I should have used "satisfactorily" comprehensible. At any rate, my distinction holds regardless of terminology.

Dan Green

"absolutely all literature, ever, is "overtly allusive," since all writers have influences."

Exactly so. This is what writing within "context and tradition" means.

I don't know why you would say my comments were "bristling with hostility." I simply picked out a couple of comments--leaving the rest as criticism of my post for other readers to judge--that seemed to me to highlight the point of my post: To say that Dickens is "perfectly comprehensible" without attention to his influences and contexts is to say he could, for example, be "comprehended" in translation without any thought about that context. But this isn't so. Anyone who reads Dickens without eventually getting around to Fielding and Smollett--in English--isn't comprehending Dickens as fully as he could be.

Jonathan Mayhew

On the other hand, when I read Rilke, I read him out of context. And part of my own context of reading is the fact that I have read many things that Rilke has not... the poetry of Robert Creeley, for example. Nobody would argue that you have to read Creeley in order to understand Rilke, but my other readings affect my view of Rilke.

dhyan

mabye it is too short for your truely deep talk. but i find that it is impossable to translate poetry. it loses all its subtle lines, even when the auther itself translate it cannot be the same.
or am i wrong?

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