Thursday, December 07, 2006

Please Please Me

St. Mark responds at length, God bless him, to my latest post on pleasure. I tried to clarify a couple of things in his comments box, so check them out there; suffice it to say that I think that aesthetic pleasure is more or less morally neutral. I may take a certain moral or ethical pleasure in reading certain kinds of books, say books of "difficult" poetry about Israel and Palestine, but I'm not a better person for enjoying them. I may be a better person for subsequently doing something based on what is found there, but the mere act of reading? That seems self-flattery to me. We can, and do, and no doubt will feel somewhat superior to others because of our taste in poetry, in music, in movies and so on, but I can't see how that superiority is a moral superiority, as a rule.

Anyone with a counter-example? I'm open to persuasion. Am I morally better than someone who likes snuff films? Yes. But am I morally better than someone who likes horror films? War movies? Holiday kitch?

Now, what I meant to get to was Mark's wish list. Sayeth the Preacher:
I think we need a more nuanced, more “thick” description of the experience & the pleasures of anti-absorptive texts than just a foregrounding of language or “speed bumps” in the way of immersion. Those things indeed happen, but a great deal else – varying widely from text to text – happens as well. Josh gestures towards this – & I image he’s doing a lot more than gesturing in his dissertation – but before we can talk intelligently about anti-absorptional writings as being somehow more valuable than something else, we need some sort of encyclopedic tracing of the pleasures of bafflement, allusion both external and internal, dictional shifts, fragmentation, indeterminacy, polysemy, and so forth. (This has probably been written, but hey, I’ve been in a cave writing a biography for last 7 years.)
Has there been such work done? I don't know of it, although I, too, have been "loopless" for a while. If you read this, please tell me, or Mark, where to look! Or, if you'd like to contribute to such an encyclopedic enterprise (you Mark, you Josh, you reading, whoever you are), let me know: we could start a new, collaborative blog of commentary on, what, a single text, teasing out its pleasures, and then move on to another, and another, and another. Let's use this medium, make this happen, and see what develops, shall we?

Back to Mark:
There are fundamental differences between mass market immersive fiction and “difficult” poetry. Yes, we can bring to bear on the former some of the tools useful for the latter, and to interesting effect. But that’s a matter I think of more general literary-critical methodology, rather than things specifically crafted for the sort of poetry Josh is talking about. There are skill sets and there are skill sets, & some of them overlap, & some of them don’t. I may read a romance novel thru the lens of Northrop Frye & Patricia Parker on the classic romance, thru Mulveyan notions of the gaze, & thru various post-Freudian theorizations of the “other” – all ways of resisting “immersion” – but how do those skill sets help me with Susan Howe’s “Bibliography of the King’s Book”?
You're more or less right about this--and, by the way, thanks for the tips (Parker, Mulvey, etc.)! My point, though, was not that the skill sets are identitical, but that they are overlapping and commensurate: both involve active, "creative" reading practices that pursue pleasure not into the book (getting "lost in a good book" by identifying with characters, plot, the dream-world, etc.) but out of the book, by making connections and analogies, searching for patterns, treating the text as a puzzle, and so on. Some of those practices may be at play when I read any text, albeit unconsciously; certain kinds of texts reward them, although they don't require them; others require them in order for us to find any pleasure at all in the reading process. Yes?
I don’t think the pleasure Josh & I (& you too, EMS) take in an anti-absorptive poem really bears much resemblance, aside from the fact that it’s work rewarded – which applies just as well to a crossword puzzle, building a sukkah, or washing the car – to what undergrads in an intro to poetry class feel in working thru the “‘immersive’ first person lyric.”
The first part of this may be true (the lack of resemblance), but I'd object to the idea that every sort of work is the same as every other. A crossword puzzle makes certain demands on me that washing the car does not, and vice-versa. (There's a physical pleasure in the warmth of the day, the stretch of muscles, the shine of the car, with the latter, but none of the mental challenge that the puzzle provides.) Building a sukkah offers a little of both, plus the superadded cultural pleasure of affirming or enacting a Jewish identity: a pleasure sukkah-building shares with reading Norman Finkelstein's Track and teaching my children Jewish jokes, although the mental activities involved are quite different).
Some of the same elements are there (pleasure in the sound of language, pleasure in “decoding” what seems initially unclear, etc.), but there are other faculties being drawn upon, other muscles exercised.
Which are what? Not being snarky there: seriously, I'd love a list, with examples! Mark, Josh, anyone? It's time to get down to cases, methinks.

1 comment:

Laura Vivanco said...

Mark says:

Josh & I say the ethical element of “hard” poetry is there: we feel it in our bones, tho we can’t argue it in a universally convincing fashion.

OK, well, bearing in mind that (a) my background is as a medievalist and (b) I don't read poetry of any sort for fun, I'm wondering what sort of ethics we're talking about here. In scholastic theology there was a distinction made between sins of the flesh (e.g. lust, gluttony) and sins of the mind/soul (e.g. pride). Aquinas says that:

every sin consists in the desire for some mutable good, for which man has an inordinate desire, and the possession of which gives him inordinate pleasure. Now, as explained above (31, 3), pleasure is twofold. One belongs to the soul, and is consummated in the mere apprehension of a thing possessed in accordance with desire; this can also be called spiritual pleasure, e.g. when one takes pleasure in human praise or the like. The other pleasure is bodily or natural, and is realized in bodily touch, and this can also be called carnal pleasure.

Accordingly, those sins which consist in spiritual pleasure, are called spiritual sins; while those which consist in carnal pleasure, are called carnal sins, e.g. gluttony, which consists in the pleasures of the table; and lust, which consists in sexual pleasures.

It seems to me that a similar distinction is being made between poetry which feeds the brain and poetry/texts which are somehow absorbed more viscerally. If one wants to continue this sort of distinction, then I would suggest that the intellectual pleasures are also more likely to lead to the corresponding intellectual sin, i.e. pride. In a way, that's the accusation that Mark denies when he says that 'Eric starts playing the old anti-elitist class card'.

I think there must be some way round all this. There's a big difference between pride/elitism and enjoying texts which the majority of the population do not. Where I think it becomes problematic is when claims of moral superiority are made. Moral superiority is rather a different thing from arguments about aesthetic value, at least, it is according to scholastic theology. Maybe we're working simultaneously with two different sets of ethical values. I'm thinking of ethics in terms of theology, but maybe other people are working with ethics based on something akin to 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty', in which case, the more aesthetically pleasing poem, or the one with the greatest literary value, will also be the most truthful, and therefore most ethical. Is that what's being argued? I'm not sure.

I still think that a work can be complex and morally unhelpful (e.g. a complicated poem could lead someone to Despair or Anger) and, by contrast, a simple work could encourage Hope, Faith and Charity, just as a complex text could be morally uplifting and a simple one morally destructive. I think it's the message of the text that really matters when it comes to ethics, not the level of complexity.

And, to complicate things, there are plenty of works which appear simple and yet are complex (e.g. parables).