From Mortalterror on this thread: http://www.online-literature.com/for...t=39806&page=7
In order to stop sidetracking the thread, I decided to post my response in a new one, to continue the discussion:
JBI wants literature to be words and symbols without meaning because it allows him to dismiss content out of hand. He's probably reading a lot of Saussure, Chomsky, Derrida and guys like that right now for a modern criticism class, and in contemporary criticism there's a large movement to make meaning plastic or reinterpretable. If he wants to get good grades then his opinions naturally have to be aligned with those of the people he's reading. He has to minimize the universal, downplay all previous theories, and make a big deal about signifiers and signified. Ceci n'est pas un critique.
By focusing our primary value upon the particular rather than the general attributes we are actually privileging an interpretation or point of view. In this case, the position is very clearly an elitist view of art as it seeks to minimize the importance of less finely executed works of art which happen to share the same themes as great works or art. It may not be intentional, but the emphasis of language to the exclusion of content has that effect. It discredits less polished, more popular forms of art. It delegitimizes the masses experience, monopolizes the power (who gets to interpret, or create), brands less crafted works as different, other, alien, pretends various people are not enjoying the same thing. This bastardization of the popular experience is disenfranchisement, a negation of the pleasures regular people experience from reading, framing aesthetics as either right or wrong. The populace says, “Look here, we like the same things. What we read is more or less the same.” But the elitist says, “No, it is our differences which matter. There is no common bond. We do not enjoy the same things. Our enjoyment is different. Our books are different. We are different.”
If we admit that content is primary and language secondary, or if they were equal, or if perhaps there were such a thing as a universal then that would mean that the popular would share a common ground with the elite and would have to be judged on a gradient rather than a good/bad mutually exlusive dichotomy. Back in March we had this discussion on the Byron, Shelley, or Keats? Thread, and there also I made the case for theme, subject, and content. StLukesGuild and Petrarch's Love illustrated their position with the example of Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet. They claimed that what made Shakespeare's version better was his skillful handling of language. What they failed to address, and what I was too tired to point out, was that although Brooke's Romeus and Juliet was inferior to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the content probably raised it above the main of Brooke's own oeuvre.
JBI's stand has a second effect in that it allows him to raise works of art with unworthy themes, minimal content, obscure application, and oblique language, which wallow in narcisistic eccentricity to the level of greatness by virtue of their individual diction. Case in point, his mention of Finnegans Wake. There is no subject more frivolous than that of sophistry, the splitting of hairs, and disection of language. Authors who make words their subject are prone to the worst abuses of language and self-conscious navel gazing. The authors he would raise from oblivion to the heights of Mount Parnassus are the ignoble pygmies who would gild a lily, polish a turd, and pen beautiful words in a cause for which it would be waste of breath to speak. “These same people also think themselves clever if one has to be clever to understand them, as Diomedes wittily remarked, and prefer to write something that will result in amazement rather than comprehension(Erasmus, De Copia).”
Finally, JBI and StLukesGuild are fond of saying that literature is not translatable. They quote Frost and say that “Poetry is what get's lost in translation.” This is one more view that can be extrapolated from their position. If the phonemes are more important to you than the enthymemes, then of course you are going to say that nothing is translatable.
Language isn't translatable, and the more complex it is, the more it relies on rhetorical devices, the less translatable it seems to be. The reason is not that language has no meaning, as you insist in stating that I got from Derrida, but it is that it has no meaning unless someone knows the meaning. The meaning is brought by the reader, not by anyone else. Depending on what the reader brings, the result of the read will be different.
That is why we notice things on rereads that we missed the first time - because we know more. That is why we read something and get different reactions. It's the fact that the text contains things within it that challenge our memories, and what we know about a) the world, and the author and his world, b) ourselves, and c) the text.
I personally see no problem with judging literature without acknowledging that it is on the grounds of a universal truth. The concept of a universal truth, or a fundamental value to a text is perhaps the most rhetoric, elitist enterprise there is. Just look at all the Alan Blooms of this world, and the whole neo-con group, who preach watered down F. R. Leavis about the "moral" being the center of the text, or some other junk.
Language is clearly the fundamental facet about literature. It is what literature literally is, a written form of language.
And being language, literature is subject to the limits of language, being that only someone who can understand the certain language, is able to understand the text.
If I cannot read Arabic, and am not even able to speak it, how am I able to even begin to read texts in it? If I do not understand a culture, how can I understand its art.
Even those who claim to understand cultures usually just absorb them in a watered down form. For instance, I read French Canadian literature, but am I able to understand it? No, not really. First there is the language issue, and second there is the context issue. I try to understand the translations of the texts of course, but am I able to? No. Is someone like Etienne more capable of reading Hubert Aquin than I am? Of course. He understands the French, and lives in French Canada.
But what it really comes down to, is whether or not something "universal" is able to be captured by the text. I think that is a rather silly notion. The texts themselves aren't even able to be read universally, kind of defeating the idea.
But when we get to aesthetics, I don't think it is the "universality" of the text that really makes us enjoy them. After all, we must remember the history of literature. Plato himself accuses poets of being liars. In terms of view, the history of poetry hasn't been to uncover a "truth" but merely to entertain.
The language of metaphor itself isn't a "truth". Anything explained by metaphor isn't actually explained. But one may, for instance, simply take delight in it. One can simply "suspend their disbelieve" as Keats put it, and for a while believe in the fiction, the contradiction.
It is not elitist to say that the concept of a "Fundamental truth" is a) a lie, and b) not the central preoccupation of great literature. When it comes down to it, if something is so universal, why would we even need a writer to tell us about it. And even so, why would we care, seeing as how most people don't enjoy reading about physics facts, even though those contain "truths".
There are things that remain true in our society, as our societies are shaped by traditions, and our pasts. But that doesn't mean works that are truthful, or somehow more truthful are better.
Homer has cyclopes and Gods.
Shakespeare has talking Ghosts.
Would you suggest we remove these things from the texts? Of course not. They are part of the text, and add in one way or another to the enjoyment of the text.
I think one of the ways good literature functions is on its ability to inspire more than one reaction, more than one interpretation. That doesn't mean both are right, or both are wrong, simply that both are within the text's ability. That's why irony is so interesting. It allows us to hear one thing, and think another. That is why there is so much contemporary scholarship on metonymy, and its inconclusiveness. Because quite frankly, these things allow the reader to take them wherever they really want.
But on translation. Find me one translation that can capture, lets say, Homer. There are clear differences between all the major contemporary ones, Fitzgerlad and Fagles or Lattimore, or whichever other. The simple inability to recreate the metre is enough to prove that translation can never accurately recreate a work. But we can stretch it further. Can we recreate idiom? Can we recreate the sound of words, the feel of words, the order of words, or the overall feel of them. Of course not. I cannot recreate even an Esperanto writer into English. You can't even recreate, for instance, Chaucer into modern English. It isn't possible, you can only create an image.
That doesn't mean translations are bad, it means they aren't the original. I think most translators will agree that much of the original is lost in translation. Perhaps that can be good - I personally prefer the King James to the Archaic Hebrew Old Testament. But does it matter? No. The point is, it doesn't translate. Trust me, I've read the original, and it's not quite there in translation.
Do you think Hemingway, for instance, would be Hemingway in Italian? No, he would be an Italian Hemingway.
Actually, lets take it further. Is Hemingway what he was to his original audience what he is now? IS Shakespeare? Is even Thomas Pynchon? Or some other still living writer? No. They are not. In fact, it is the ability of these works to adapt to new visions which contributes to their stature as great. The point though, is that the works are able to change.
But on the notion of elitism. All opinions of good and bad are elitist.
Take this for example:
There is no "universal meaning" to this portrait. It simply looks pleasing. So is with literature. The words sound good, what the responses we have to the words feel good. Would someone from some culture perhaps not like this painting? Possibly.
But the true beauty, I would argue, lies in the form. Raphael was a master of the form - a master of the portrait, the same way Tennyson was a master of the Poem. It is not for their universal appeal that we like them, but for what they can do:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
It is the form of expression - the way that which has been expressed is being expressed. Poetry itself functions, I would argue, as one long question on what it means to be creative - to have a creative impulse.
In that sense, one could argue poems about death deal with a question of expressing the feelings of death, not of death. Death is universal, but the expression is a mere form - a vision.