Thursday, 15 September 2016

Literature, Form & Meaning

Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.
- Ezra Pound

We all know why we value a newspaper or a textbook or an atlas, but why do we value a verbal work that doesn't give us the latest news or important information about business cycles or the names of the capitals of nations? About a thousand years ago a Japanese woman, Lady Murasaki, offered an answer in The Tale of Genji, a book often called the world’s first novel. During a discussion about reading fiction, one of the characters offers an opinion as to why a writer tells a story.

Again and again something in one’s own life, or in the life around one, will seem so important that one cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion. There must never come a time, the writer feels, when people do not know about this.

Literature is about human experiences, but the experiences embodied in literature are not simply the shapeless experiences-the chaotic passing scene – captured by a mindless, unselective camcorder. Poets, dramatists, storytellers find or impose a shape on scenes (for instance, the history of two lovers), giving readers things to value – written or spoken accounts that are memorable not only for their content but also for their form-the shape of the speeches, of the scenes, of the plots.  (In a little while, we will see that form and content are inseparable, but for the moment, we can talk about them separately.)

Ezra Pound said that ‘literature is news that stays news’. Now, ‘John loves Mary’ written on a wall, or on the front page of a newspaper, is news, but it is not news that stays news. It may be of momentary interest to the friends of John and Mary, but it’s not much more than simple information, and there is no particular reason to value it.

Literature is something else. The Johns and Marys in poems, plays, and stories – even though they usually are fairly ordinary individuals, in many ways often rather like us – somehow become significant as we perceive them through the writer’s eye and ear. The writer selects what is essential, and makes us care about the characters. Their doings stay in our minds.

 To say that their doings stay in our minds is not to deny that works of literature show signs of being the products of particular ages and environments. It is only to say that these works are not exclusively about those ages and environments; they speak to later readers. The love affairs that we read about in the newspaper are of little or no interest a day later, but the love of Romeo and Juliet, with its joys and sorrows, has interested people for 400 years. Those who know the play may feel, with Lady Murasaki’s spokesman, that there must never come a time when these things are not known. It should be mentioned too, that readers find, on rereading a work, that the works are still of great interest but often for new reasons. That is, when as adolescents we read Romeo and Juliet we may value it for certain reasons, and when in maturity we reread it we may see it differently and value it for new reasons. It is news that remains news.

As the example of Romeo and Juliet indicates, literature need not be rooted in historical fact. Although guides in Verona find it profitable to point out Juliet’s house, the play is not based on historical characters. Literature is about life, but it may be fictional, dealing with invented characters. In fact, almost all of the characters in literature are imaginary – although they seem real.

One reason that literary works endure (whether they show us what we are or what we long for) is that their form makes their content memorable. Because this discussion of literature is brief, we will illustrate the point by looking at one of the briefest literary forms, the proverb. (Our definition of literature is not limited to the grand forms of the novel, tragedy, and so on. It is wide enough, and democratic enough, to include brief, popular, spoken texts.) Consider this statement -

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Now let’s compare it with a paraphrase (a restatement, a translation into other words):

If a stone is always moving around, vegetation won’t have a chance to grow on it.

What makes the original version more powerful, more memorable? Surely much of the answer is that the original is more concrete and its form is more shapely. At the risk of being heavy-handed, we can analyse the shapeliness thus: Stone and moss (the two nouns in the sentence) each contain one syllable; rolling and gathers (the two words of motion) each contain two syllables, each with the accent on the first of the two syllables. Notice, too, the nice contrast between stone (hard) and moss (soft).

The reader probably feels this shapeliness unconsciously, rather than perceives it consciously. That is, these connections become apparent when one starts to analyse, but the literary work can make its effect on a reader even before the reader analyses. As T. S. Eliot said in his essay on Dante (1929), ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ Indeed, our first reading of a work, when we are all eyes and ears (and the mind is highly receptive rather than sifting for evidence), is sometimes the most important reading. Experience proves that we can feel the effects of a work without yet understanding how the effects are achieved.

To be contd …

Thanks to Sylvan Barnet and William E. Cain
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