Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Words, words, words

"I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works."

    ~Oscar Wilde

This week, Jenna was good enough to respond to my questions with kindness and clarity. I was thrilled. There is so much in her response I want to discuss, but I'm attempting not to get hung up on the details. I've realized, especially in this time full of family visitors, that when I respond to people, I have a tendency to try to explain all the minutia - circling around and around until, long after I've begun, the point is acutally reached. So I'm trying to lay off the small things and focus on the broader ideas behind her answers. Mr. Pond will have to forgive me for leaving his post behind at the moment. I want to address the idea that being and non-being are the same, but I really don't have any idea how to incorporate that into my response. I wonder if we can divide up some of this issues again to allow for fuller discussion, I think we might be at that place again, though "being and non-being" might be a little outside our theme.

I'm begining to understand our differences. It seems that when I write: "This book is entertainment, that book is art." Jenna has been reading " This book is merely entertainment - it has no power to effect the lives of its readers. It is banal, unimportant."  But there are high and low forms of entertainment, and some are both Art and entertainment. High forms are not only capable of producing a respose, they insist on and pull forth from the audience a response. I would put in this catagory some t.v. - like the Firefly series, many of Bruce Springsteen's songs (some of which can cross over into "Art".), and other creative works that aren't art, and aren't trying to be art, but still influence the lives and thoughts of their audience in an active way. Low entertainment: bad sitcoms, reality tv, professional wrestling, and bad romance novels do fit with Jenna's understanding, and I can understand why, with that interpretation she would reject the idea that a book she found meaningful, like Little Women would be called "entertainment" - it would be like she finds "Jersey Shore" meaningful. Which is not at all my intent.

In response to my question on substance, Jenna writes:

I suspect here that we're defining outward and substance differently. When I say outward, I mean the prose, the surface beauty that makes Hemingway an objectively better writer than Alcott. When I say substance, I'm referring to the vision coming through the text, the outlook on life and death and what it means to be human. Substantially, I put Alcott higher than Hemingway. Alcott infuses faith and hope and charity into her work, letting them walk with the reader through every curve of life and up to the deathbed. Hemingway was a brilliant man who lived a tragic life; he brushes up against Alcott's virtues only by accident, if at all.

We are actually defining outward and substance the same. Substantially, Hemingway is superior despite his failiure to live well, because his writing is continually in pursuit of those virtues. In Hemingway we see man in all his flaws, stumbling toward redemption. Alcott preaches her virtues, they are displayed well, but predictably. Hemingway - probably in part because of his tragic life - portrays them as they often appear in reality, half hidden behind the flaws of fallen man. I can see why you prefer Alcott, but its Hemingway's substantial superiority - the depth and richness within the writing, as well as the ability to express himself well and beautifully that make him an artist. He isn't so much brushing against them accidentally, but discovering in art what he fails to find in life. This might seem like minutia but what applies to Hemingway applies to all artists, both with and without tragic lives. The substance is as important as how the substance is presented, beauty is never "only skin deep"- it always goes deeper.

Regarding critical acclaim. I do understand Jenna's frustration with the response of critics.

"Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism; they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstanding." (Rainer Maria Rilke).

Critics tend to misunderstand, misread, or misrepresent in response to their own interests or desires for the work. There are trends in criticism that dismiss quality work due to prejudices, but equally problematic is the dismissal of acclaimed works out of a sense that the Literary elite are only interested in despair and post-modern rejection of joy. Being driven only by the feelings that a work produces is flawed way choosing reading, like any choice based only on feeling, it stagnates the reader and damages the reader's ability to grow through what is read. I'm not accusing Jenna of using reading to produce an emotional high, but her pursuit of "moving, encouraging, pleasant" books could lead to avoiding "otherwise beneficial" books that are not so moving or pleasant. I'm not arguing here for darkness and despair, which I know Jenna doesn't need or want, but books of substance that don't seem so pleasant at first.

But Jenna, I know is continually pursuing goodness and beauty in all its forms. She longs to be uplifted, and strengthened, as we all do. I'm thrilled to share and discuss with her - to learn from her and (hopefully) encourage her as we both attempt beauty in our lives and work.


  1. I understand the Alcott vs. Hemingway. And I won't say anything else on the matter, because I couldn't say it any better than you already have.