Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Where do we draw the line between literary/poetic texts and philosophical/scientific texts?
Is the difference between fiction and philosophy that one "beckons" us to read it as fiction and one "beckons" us to read it as philosophy? But where does fictional autobiography or fictional journaling passed off as reality fit into that definition? For instance, is James Frey's book a novel just because it turns out that some of the passages didn't actually come from his experience? Or is it nonfiction because that's how it wants to be read?

My professor (of the aforementioned literary studies discussion) said yesterday that willful misunderstanding is our business. I don't really know what that means, except that it seems a coy little definition of what we do. (According to the Russian Formalists, incidentally, "The literariness or artfulness of a work of literature, that which makes it an aesthetic object, resides entirely in its devices, which should also form the sole object of literary studies." Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism: "Russian Formalism.")

In my classes here, there has been a lot of talk about estrangement without a very clear definition of that concept or an etymology of its development.

According to Wikipedia, it comes from Russian Formalism -- Eichenbaum, Jakobsen, Schklovsky and co. Shklovsky apparently came up with the idea of ostraneniye - defamiliarization or, more literally, estrangement, meaning "one of the crucial ways in which literary language distinguishes itself from ordinary, communicative language, and is a feature of how art in general works, namely by presenting the world in a strange and new way that allows us to see things differently." (my emphasis)

Using the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism as my guide, I compiled the following thoughts: The Russian Formalists suggested that familiar things that we may take for granted be modified with the goal of making them novel and unfamiliar again. This is the goal of all literary devices. Additionally, this should have the effect of slowing the reader and drawing her attention to the form of the work and its devices.

(I did have much richer material collected from the JHU guide, but became paranoid about copyright law.)

Phenomenology of Reading is another phrase that's been tossed around a lot lately and about which I've been too embarassed to ask.

After careful consultation with the OED and Wikipedia, what I've gathered about phenomenology is that it has several sources:
  1. Hegel: phenomenology is an approach to philosophy that begins with an exploration of phenomena (what presents itself to us in conscious experience) as a means to finally grasp the absolute, logical, ontological and metaphysical Spirit that is behind phenomena.
  2. Husserl: phenomenology is an approach to philosophy that takes the intuitive experience of phenomena (what presents itself to us in phenomenological reflexion) as its starting point and tries to extract from it the essential features of experiences and the essence of what we experience.
  3. Heidegger: the phenomenological vision of a world of beings must be bypassed toward the apprehension of the Being behind all beings, that is, as an introduction to ontology, albeit an ontology that remains critical of metaphysics.
Unrelatedly, in reference to the essay on Goethe's "Willkommen und Abschied" by David Wellbery we read for one of my classes, the words "muscular" and "powerful" were used to describe his reading of the poem, meaning that his argument seems implausible on some levels, but that it's so convincingly and confidently crafted that you can almost not argue with it. There seems to be implicit in this a glorification of "Burly Scholars." I guess another instance of a "muscular" reading would be Freud's reading of "Der Sandmann." He was cocky enough about his reading and formulated it so convincingly that no one has been able to read "Der Sandmann" since Freud without thinking about the Uncanny. I can't decide if this kind of forceful criticism is a good thing or not. We say there are thousands of plausible readings for any work, so should we want these excessively burly readers to make it difficult for us to find our own readings? They are usually pretty good, though. There's no denying it.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Fictional autobiography is great. (Philosophical point - I'm sure I'm not on a particularly high level of criticism here, but...). You should read Max Frisch's 'Montauk', which is a fictional autobiography - apparently a lot like Michel deMontaigne, whom I want to read about, as he pretty much invented fictional autobiography as a genre. Frisch also does the old 1st/3rd person switches for Verfremdung's sake.

Zadie Smith wrote a good article in the Guardian about writing, which made me think that the 'devices' of any fiction should really grow organically out of the need for the fiction to express as well as possible the individual nature of the voice telling the story. But then people who write are gorged on the whole history of literature, so they can't help but imitate others before finding individual characteristics. And personal philosophy/ethos will always be part of the style.

Quite interesting, though I still don't know if I understand what phenomenology (if that was the word) is...