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Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Flannery O'Connor disses theory

[slightly revised] Backward somewhere in time's abysmal darkness, one of my favorite logobloggers, Maud Newton, under the rubric "The Limitations of Theory," posted (without comment, via Terry Teachout) this passage:
If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

Flannery O'Connor, letter to an unnamed teacher (1961)
I captured the links at the time, intending to post something, but characteristicaly haven't gotten around to it until now.

First, I should say I want to leap onto this bandwagon too (isn't that a vehicle of convenience for instrumentalists too lazy to march, like me?). I second and third and ten millionth the general sentiment behind this admonition. Forget the academic articles, read the author's work first, respond directly to its geisha ministrations.

A couple of times already I've posted my view that literature is nothing if not a medium whereby we give to, and get from, others pleasure. So with all the arts. (Personally, I think so with all the sciences and social sciences and every Foucauldian discourse and Wittgensteinian language-game or form of life. But I don't want to dilute my point here.) I take the view that it's the fundamental pleasure-giving and -getting aspect of literary practice that makes it impossible to establish any enduring hierarchy of literary value outside some narrowly drawn frame of reference. This poem is good 'cause it has these sorts of features; these sort of features are what we're looking for in a good poem.*

I (re-re)post O'Connor's admonition here, however, less to subscribe to it than to draw attention to some implications I believe don't follow from it. [Um, but are they still technically implications then? False implications, maybe? Bad implications (wag finger, stern)? des implications manqués? Limplications?]

If Maud and Terry take O'Connor to be asserting literary theory's inutility generally (more than just its inutility in introductory literature courses), then they take her someplace I'd like to resist going. I get worried when I read anything that seems to sanction the view that literary critics and scholars are parasites on real creators and that the former's efforts misconstrue, when they don't positively impede, the experience of literature. I want to underscore my view that the scholarly study of literature differs from the creation of it as botany differs from horticulture. Some creators do have a scholar's knowledge of literary periods, styles, genres, say, and some scholars a creator's sensibility and word-worlding skills. Some botanists can grow prize roses and some gardeners can discourse on the nitrogen cycle or outline the classification of rhizomes. Nevertheless, the one cares most about knowing that and the other about knowing how.

In the context of advice for a teacher of those yet to "learn to enjoy fiction," "[t]oo much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it." The teacher's goal must be first to inculcate the desire for the text, to model enjoyment not just of reading it but also of reflecting about it and articulating one's reflections. If heavy theory inhibits such enjoyment, by all means give heavy theory the heave.

But O'Connor's aiming not only at theory. She conflates it in her admonition with another enemy, theory's lubricious facilitator, the doctrine that any "believable" interpretation goes. (Actually O'Connor is attacking the fatuous straw notion "All sufficiently non-obvious theories can be considered believable"; I'm just assuming that what really galls her is the illegimacy, and indeed the falseness, of the interpretations she contemns.) Now, while I agree the teacher should avoid overloading neophytes with theory lest forever in their minds poetry and fiction recall sense memories of wearisome ponderousness, I must counter, based on my own experience, that you snatch away (assuming you even can) from raw literary recruits the notion that the poem means whatever you can find in it at your and their peril. If there's one thing uninitiated students hate more than having to slog through a morass of theory it's being told their interpretation of poem won't hold water. It always shows up on the evaluation forms.

I'm not saying any reading of a text is equal to any other. But O'Connor uses the world "believable." For me, a believable interpretation is one that relies on argument and evidence, as much argument and evidence as what's dragoonable into the service of any other hermeneutical claimant. Tautologically speaking, in my book any believable interpretation does go. Its going is precisely what makes it believable (and vice versa).

One last point and I'll go away. O'Connor seems to assume that if you can't learn to enjoy literature directly, then all the theory in world's not going to do you a bit of good. But I would counter that for many (tragic though the O'Connors of this world may deem it) it's precisely learning about theory, learning methods of interpretation, that makes literature seem interesting.

And I think they should be allowed to play, too.

* For Nietzsche's amiably cynical take on this see my recent post quoting from "On Truth or Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense":
If somebody hides a thing behind a bush, seeks it again and finds it in the self-same place, then there is not much to boast of, respecting this seeking and finding; thus, however, matters stand with the seeking and finding of "truth" within the realm of reason. If I make the definition of the mammal and then declare after inspecting a camel, "Behold a mammal," then no doubt a truth is brought to light thereby, but it is of very limited value . . . ."

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