Monday, December 29, 2008

Massive. Textured. Organic in Its Impudence.

Perhaps the most pleasant of my intellectual activities in this time between semesters is finishing my prep for the Arts Reviewing course I'll be teaching in the spring.

So many interesting questions: What, in fact, shall we review? When I taught a similar course nearly 20 years ago, my choices seemed simple, self-evident. We reviewed what the local newspapers reviewed: books, movies, plays, music, visual art. This time through I'll probably drop books, though I think we'll do a poetry slam. We'll definitely add food and television and, I think, video games though I haven't quite worked out the logistics on that one.

When I taught reviewing so long ago I don't think I wasted 15 minutes on the rationale for why reviews should appear in the popular, the mainstream, press. It was what newspapers did, part of the mosaic. Reviews provided a bit of consumer guidance and a bit of self improvement. I am quite a Babbitt, you know, ever eager (unless I watch myself) for that middle-brow cocktail-party sheen of Philistine sophistication.

Not to be too harsh on myself, but when you are raised working class and don't go in for politics, if you are raised believing the incoherence of religion will save you and then discard that particular salve, it's pretty easy to conclude that you will be saved by the gauzy incoherence of High Culture to which you are exposed piecemeal at a bad high school and a worse college. What is English Romantic poetry but religion run off the rails! So much messy thinking and so irresistible.

And that can make you think that reviews are a kind of sacred writing, in service of the arts, which we now worship as a substitute for what we did worship.

Young fool: fair enough. Middle-aged fool: oh come on.

Well, I am being too harsh on myself. But I certainly did tell my last class of review writers that one of their tasks was to educate their readers, which I still sort of believe if that education is historical and contextual right up to the edge of cultural relativism.

So I work on my checklist of what a nice piece of criticism can do. Personally, I favor a piece that entertains, which leads us down the siren path of hating everything because it's so much easier to entertain when your intent is too scathe.

But what I really want the kids to do is be honest about what the thing to which they expose themselves makes them think and makes them feel and to find words to explain it -- to try to explain it; to search for vocabulary -- no matter how subjective that effort is. And then I will insist they try to get out of their own heads to understand how others might think and feel about the thing in question and to understand the degree to which their thoughts are feelings are (or are not) idiosyncratic, unique and a puzzle to the rest of the world. I'm trying to teach them intellectual modesty!

All this wonderful talk in the Harold Pinter obits about how he didn't shape his characters so that they would "mean." As he said in his Nobel lecture (I tracked it down; I had heard it was worthwhile):

I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is 'What have you done with the scissors?' The first line of Old Times is 'Dark.'

In each case I had no further information.

In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn't give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.


It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

This is quite liberating, isn't it? This is crazy wonderful shit. Loving it doesn't make me a deconstructionist guy who surrenders the text to the critic because for all the talk -- and good talk it is -- about the Intentional Fallacy, your clever ad fellows know how to write a sentence that sells the goods to the thousands and millions.

But what if you decide to set it to music and hang it on the wall because that's not all it says -- to you. Well, there you go. All criticism, like all politics, in the end is local. As soon as you figure out what I mean by that, please let me know.

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