Two Narratives about English Literature

My Ph.D. is an interdisciplinary degree in Religion and Literature.  When I was in school, there were only two Religion and Literature departments in universities: U Chicago, and U Virginia.  Religion and Literature is a strange major that neither discipline wants.  Religion departments don’t understand why one of their students would study literature.  And I have been called an “interloper” by a professor in the English department.  The reason I wanted to study Religion and Literature is due to my conviction that literature conveys meaning.  Most sacred literature, including the Bible, is written in literary forms (also the Rig Veda, the Koran, and the Songs of Milarepa).  Many of the prophets use poetry and metaphor, the Psalms are lyric poems, and much of the other books are stories.  It was, and is, my belief that Hemingway says something about life, about reality, and about meaning or the lack thereof in existence.  So did T.  S. Eliot.  So did Samuel Taylor Coleridge–especially in his famous poem, THE EOLIAN HARP.  And Coleridge certainly said something about existence and thinly disguised religion in THE RHYME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.  But I need to be clear, I was not interested in religious literature.  Rather, I sought statements about life in all literature.  I suppose I was making a Swedenborgian connection not everybody would make.  Swedenborg writes, “All religion relates to life, and the religious life is to do good.”  So for me, statements about life are religious statements.

Unfortunately for me then, and now, the keepers of English literature do not think that literary art is about meaning-making.  I’m not at all sure what English literature does or is for them.  But two narratives point to what literature does or is, today.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, where the University of Virginia is located, I ran into a fellow student from the English department in a bar.  I asked him what he was writing about in his dissertation.  He said he was writing about the process by which the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  He alluded to T.S. Eliot’s remark that Hamlet “is the Mona Lisa of literature.”  He said that in his dissertation he makes a lot of that remark by Eliot.  We were on friendly terms, and I was interested in his doctoral work.  But I wondered why someone in the English department was writing about how the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  I think that my colleague was writing critical theory.  Making judgments about the value of art is something critics do.  But I thought that what he was writing on would be more appropriate in the art department than in the English department.  This was due to my presuppositions about English literature.  You see how out of sync I was, and am still?

My second narrative isn’t direct personal experience.  It is a conversation I had with an English professor at a charming coffee shop where I live now.  She has a friend who won an award, she thought, for a poem her friend wrote.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop related her recollection of the process her friend went through in writing the poem.  She said that her friend wrote out in prose a narrative about her parents’ murder-suicide.  She may have also included the guilt she felt as their child.  Then, the poet either physically or conceptually cut up the narrative into phrases and segments.  Then she rearranged the parts out of sequence, out of grammatical order, and the final product is unintelligible.  The final product is called a poem.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop said she was unable to read the poem.  And she believes that her friend won an award.

I think that these two narratives show what is going on in humane letters.  Criticism plays a prominent role in English literature.  That’s what my first narrative says.  Although criticism didn’t really come of age until the 17th Century, it seems to be alive and well, today.  Deconstruction, which I thought was a passe brand of philosophy, dominates contemporary literature.  That’s what my second narrative says–I think.  For I think that disassembling and reassembling a story is a form of deconstruction.  I’m guessing here, I I may be wrong.  But what I do think, is that the poem in question is a lie.  If a narrative is first written out in prose, that is the truth being expressed.  Cutting it up and rearranging the parts into an incomprehensible word salad is a lie.  Why rearrange the sentence fragments?  Or, more importantly, why write out the story in plain English first?  Isn’t the plain English story the reality and the cut-up poem a falsification of the story?  And I don’t think that rearranging words into salad is art at all.

Finally, the subject matter of the so-called poem is also telling about the direction in which contemporary art is going.  Of course her art would be about something horrible.  Contemporary art is not allowed to be about happy, pretty, joyful subjects–especially about the glory of God and God’s works.  Only a few years back a movie called No Country for Old Men won several Academy Awards.  That movie is about a serial killer.  The movie narrated him murdering people.  He got away with his killing as Woody Harrelson, the sheriff, was also murdered.  (A generation ago The Sound of Music cleaned up at the Academy Awards.)  Another acquaintance of mine at the same charming coffee shop told me about her experiences in art school.  She said that someone made a painting of an animal torn open.  Then, the artist covered the frame in pig’s blood.  I went to the art gallery in the city I live in now.  There was a display composed of about 20 speakers on stands, with folding chairs set among them.  I sat on a chair, and there was an audio loop of a woman describing a dream of crows dying.  No eagles soaring upward into the sky.  No baby crows hatching into life.  No hummingbirds and flowers.  Crows dying.

I come up with these ideas about art because I still believe that art makes statements about life.  I believe, too, that my view of art is disjunct from how the contemporary keepers of art view it.  I have already expressed my inability to appreciate contemporary art.  And, indeed, my disinclination even to try.  I have made a decision, though, that in my artistic endeavors, I will express my own vision of art.  I will not attempt to assimilate contemporary trends.  And whether there is an audience or receptivity for what I do is not of my concern.  I think that artists who matter, held similar positions about creativity.  Critics debated Frost’s value all his life.  Andrew Wyeth never was considered a real artist.  And Hemingway’s mother never liked his fiction, nor did Gertrude Stein.  Of course, I’m not situating myself in such august company.  I’m just saying.

POETRY: A LAMENT

A well-turned phrase

Captured sound of sense

Perfect expression of a truth

Wanting to be told

 

Clarity through word choice: diction

Sentence construction arrangement

Of ideas architectural development

Meaning made through artistry

 

Word play alliteration assonance

Rhythm rhyme resonance meter beat and feet

Imagery symbol simile metaphor

Epic, Allegory, Lyric, Ode, Elegy

 

Truth-telling when there was truth

If there ever was truth

Language scripting reality thought

Feeling words substance signification

 

When there was something to say

To grasp, ponder, moved sonorous sentiment emotion

Sad melancholy somber pleasure ecstasy

Pathos passion feeding and watering cultivation content

 

Transmission of wisdom, speculation, ideation of mood

Tradition taught sought lived into

What matters to be a human

Telos of poesis making humanity

 

When capricious arrangement of words

Wasn’t calculated to obfuscate deconstruct plot sequence

Rearranged syntax disjunct

Verbs subjects objects meaningless

Some Cranky Aphorisms

If you have something to say, why not say it clearly?

If you have nothing to say, why are you writing?

A sequence of words, no matter how arranged, doesn’t always justify itself.

Art isn’t the deconstruction of meaning.

Perhaps deconstruction should be applied to itself.

WHAT MATTERS IN THE CHAMBERS OF MY HEART

I played my heart out one sunset flag lowering

Playing taps on trumpet at church camp

How I held that long, lingering note till my breath nearly ran out

It moved everybody—children surrounded me at chapel afterward

Moved me too, I felt it all, feel it still, I’m there, now—44 years later

 

I had played solo trumpet in filled concert halls

Been interviewed on radio about it

But that doesn’t hit me now

Like sunset, flag lowering, at church camp

 

I played trumpet duets that I’d composed

Before and after evening chapel at church camp

44 years ago, and it pleases me now to be there again

 

I played bass at a church Convention worship service

I see the drummer lean forward to look at me

After a drum solo to get in the groove again

I’m there, 5 years ago, even now

 

I played bass in packed bars, jazz clubs, hotel dance floors

Church Convention sits with me more pleasantly, now

 

Then there was Memorial Day at the family trailer campground

Mom and dad and children danced on the cement floor

Mom sang along with the ‘50’s Little Richard song

We played Monkees for a boy who saw them on Nickelodeon TV

And it sits with me like church, 33 years later

 

COVID-19 affords me much time, much occasion to reflect

Success deconstructs in reflecting over a life well-lived

It sits as a matter of what means to me

And meaning is not a matter of acclaim or money

Church and family camping echo pleasantly

Through the chambers of my heart

And sit well with me in reflections of COVID-19

Art and Societal Constraints

I was moderately upset today when the classical music station where I live played only two movements of a Beethoven String Quartet.  The String Quartet is meant to be heard as a whole, not in pieces.  All four movements relate to one another and make a musical whole.  We live in an impatient world, with short attention spans, craving for instant gratification, short cuts in the movies we watch, sound bites, Twitter snippets–everything packaged in tiny packets that take up less and less time.  And our short attention span reflects these tiny packets of data.

How many people have an hour and a half to listen to the whole B-Minor Mass of Bach?  45 minutes to listen to a Beethoven symphony?  Does my classical radio station need to chop up whole pieces to package music in small bites because of today’s short attention span?

Maybe.  Our world is different than the world of Bach and Beethoven.  Imagine a world with no TV.  No radio.  No internet.  No cell-phones.  No electricity.  Can you imagine such a world?  That’s the world of Bach and Beethoven.  Imagine what time, and pass-times would be like then!  I imagine that people in such a world would have a lot of time to kill.  How long could the nobility just chat, who had no job they had to go to to fill up their day?  I imagine they would welcome a 50-minute string quartet they could listen to in someone’s chamber.  On Sundays, everyone had to go to church.  Then what?  No football games to watch.  Why not hang around the church and hear a musical mass for another hour.  Why not a cantata?  Why not a 20-minute prelude and fugue before the preacher?  They had the time.

The fact is, people in the 18th and 19th-century did have an hour and a half to listen to Bach’s B-Minor Mass.  They wanted a 50 minute symphony.  But we need to carve out time specially if we want to listen to a whole string quartet.  I’ve only heard the whole B-Minor Mass once, and it was a live performance.  As it happened, it was on a Sunday afternoon, too.  It was really rewarding.

The social forces today are different than those of Beethoven.  We can wile away time mindlessly glued to the TV, as I often do.  But I do, on occasion, set aside an hour or two in order to live with sublime art.  Art that was generated by a society that time to kill.  Art from a society much different than ours.  This blog could be considered deconstruction, if you like.