Random neuron firing, lame philosophy, literary pontificating, movies, sex, clothes & other femme stuff

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Mika: Pleasure equals Value. Are they commutative? Discuss.
Hiatus due to weekend of son's birthday festivities. Much interpersonal confusion and complication. My daughter is mad at me.

I started writing this a couple of days ago. I might as well post it now. But my (Leigh's) battery is dying, so I'll have to hook up the links tomorrow.

Since I got back I've been thinking off and on about Chris Lott's discussion of literary values, about readers who strongly affiliate along literary-value lines, about not knowing what to do with your delight in (and even admiration for) writing judged poor or uncool by respected peers or with your disdain towards those who enthuse over patently awful writers; but I haven't found time to blog my thoughts. Now that I have a moment, I can't get through to Chris's site for some reason, to review his points. I hope he didn't kill it out of despair [yay! it turns out he didn't!]. His is definitely one of my favorites out there--no, make that one of the best.

I've always adored the name of Stanley Cavell's old chair at Harvard: The Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. Wouldn't it be completely fab to be a professor of "the General Theory of Value"?
You're a professor? What do you teach? I'm a professor of Value, the Theory of Value. Values--like William Bennett? Evildoers and stuff? No, just Value, generally; the General Theory, you know, not the Special one.

Well, here's my general theory. I should probably state up front that my critical views were very significantly influenced by an ad campaign during the seventies and early eighties for Newport cigarettes: "Alive with pleasure! [insert photo of one or more toothy heterosexual couples having hilarious sexually charged vaguely female-masochistic "fun" at the beach, camping, or with a hose (sometimes all three)] If smoking isn't a pleasure, why bother?"

And so with reading, I say. And so with writing. I painfully drill into my students (I didn't say, "And so with taking a course from me") that the main question to ask when approaching a work of literature (or, well, anything . . . life) is not "What does it mean?" or "How good is it?" but rather "What sorts of pleasures can be found here?"

I counter the inevitable wag's "None" with "What sorts of pleasures do you think the poet hoped a reader would find here? What sorts of pleasures can you imagine the poet taking in writing the poem? What sorts of pleasures does the poem imply are worthy ones? What sort of pleasures do you think readers who do like this poem experience? Can you unearth pleasures in the poem that the poet might not have been consciously aware of putting there?"

This way of looking at criticism may not be exactly what Susan Sontag had in mind when calling for "an erotics of reading," but it think it nevertheless fits the bill ["fits"? "fills"?]. I do think it pretty much amounts to Barthes' plaisir du texte.

The point of reading everything through pleasure-spectacles rather than through literary-quality- or meaning-spectacles is that people seem to have an easier time accepting others' differences regarding tastes (chaqu'un a son de gustibus and so forth) than others' differences regarding facts-- into which gravity inevitably pulls disputes about quality and meaning. The important thing is that appreciators try sincerely to identify the pleasures each work offers for consumption. If I really understand the pleasures you see in, say, New Brutalist poetry, but still can't get excited about it, then we must agree to disagree. You probably'll never understand the ecstasies into which I'm transported by Sephora [OK, fine. An out-of-fashion poet, then. Swinburne.]. And anyone with the sensibility to title a book "Picnic, Lightning" is my perfect soulmate and a genius. Those words detonate my favorite sentence in all of English literature. From my vantage, it's therefore the best sentence in all of English literature (the second-best, "Exit, pursued by a bear," being a stage direction, might be disputed). But if you don't see it that way, I don't think I'll ever convince you.

Of course, it's hard if peers you respect are openly jeering at your intellectual pleasures. I don't readily admit (except to you in the Desert of the Real, Outer Blogolia, who would never inform those I deal with daily in the Matrix [doesn't the epigraph to "Prufrock" say pretty much that in Italian?]) that I still love Jethro Tull. When I was in high school, they were for me the apex of lyrical and musical invention and intelligence. On the other hand, I've never replaced my Jethro Tull LPs with CDs. I think of Ian Anderson as an adolescent taste and give myself no opportunity to indulge it.

I really adore the film The Ploughman's Lunch, but for twenty years I've sought in vain for someone who after having a couple of drinks can sit through the whole thing without snoring once. My Ex, with whom I tried to watch it a couple of times, bursts into howls of hilarity whenever I mention the film at all.

I forget if I've said this before, but for some years I regularly taught a course in contemporary (post 1960) British cinema. I really like the Brit way of serious aesthetic and narratorial envelope-pushing (e.g. Richardson, Roeg, Greenaway).

Nevertheless, if you asked me what my favorite film is, I would probably say either Desperate Living or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls or Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill. Well, maybe Dr. Strangelove or Spinal Tap. Or Dawn of the Dead. Maybe Liquid Sky. Performance and Rocky Horror would be up there. Fargo. Trainspotting. Alright, yes, I do absolutely worship some films not frothing with pomo irony. Cries & Whispers, for instance. I wanted to say Vertigo and Strangers on a Train but then I considered I owe so much of my appreciation for them (and for Psycho) to John Waters. I have to say I've rarely enjoyed a film as much as The Lonely Lady or Tough Guys Don't Dance, but it would probably be wrong to say I admire them.

What would I say are the best films? Do I have to care?

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