Thursday, September 06, 2007

Of mice and postmodernists

On the advice of Ian Hocking (who is now, I trust, happily ensconced in Canterbury), I've been reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and it's very good, as he declared. I won't bother to review it, as Ian's done a fine job of that already, but two points suggest themselves.

First, dear God, the title. Before Ian began hymning the book's praises, I'd noticed it on the shelves of my second favourite second-hand bookshop in Bangkok, and walked past, simply because the title seems to suggest some sub-Wildean soft-porn potboiler about golden-haired youths fumbling each other into manhood behind the bikesheds of Eton in about 1905. When a movie version was made in 1968 (of Keyes's novel, not of my imaginary posh gay smut), they retitled it Charly. I normally object to that sort of thing as inane d***ing d**n that insults the intelligence of the audience and the integrity of the author, but in this case I think it was a good call.

The other thing is that some aspects of the novel (or, more specifically my reading of it - hold that thought, I'll come back to it in a moment) provide a neat clarification of Roland Barthes's 'Death of the Author' theory. This is something I touched on in Welcome to the Machine (available at a half-decent bookshop near you, if such a thing still exists), but hell, why not give it another run round the digital paddock?

Essentially, Barthes argues that it's pointless to second-guess the intentions of an author of a piece of writing, whether by reference to his or her biography, or to the words themselves. A book is 'created' not by the author, but by the reader, whose own experiences, opinions, prejudices, previous readings, etc all have an influence on the meaning derived from the reading. By extension, it's quite feasible to argue that Book B is an influence on Book A, even if B was written after A, and even if the author of A never read it. If the reader of A has already read B, it can influence the reading of that text.

In WTTM, my example was the perceived influence of a book by Philip K Dick on the themes of OK Computer, even though Thom Yorke protested that he'd never read the book in question. As I read Flowers for Algernon, elements of the book triggered thoughts of books I'd read before. Parts of the book are written in a deliberately primitive first-person voice, suggesting the intellectual and social 'otherness' of the narrator, as in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (This does raise an unrelated issue, one that's been niggling me for some time: if we're getting to the stage when the majority of people communicate in sub-literate txtspk, how does an author convey the notion that a character is sub-literate? Or will the concept of sub-literacy cease to exist?)

Also, a white mouse plays a more significant role than you might expect (see Zadie Smith's White Teeth and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams); and the moral ramifications of using medical intervention to take someone to a state of intellectual 'normality' have their echoes in Awakenings by Oliver Sacks. Now, all five of those books were published well after Flowers for Algernon first saw the light of day. But, according to Barthes, they all influenced it, because they affected my reading of it.

By pure serendipity, I just found a quotation from Marcel Duchamp on the Radiohead site Pulk-Pull*:

"All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."

Now, I don't know whether Duchamp had read 'Death of the Author'; he died just a year after it was published, so the chances are that he didn't. But of course, according to both Barthes and Duchamp, that's a very minor detail.

17 comments:

Billy said...

I don't know if I'd like the book or not, but that is a splendid title. Damn dumbing down!

Robert Swipe said...

Or as Brecht put it:

"Where do the holes go when you eat Swiss Cheese?"

I agree with a lot of the "audience decides whether or not it's art or not" stuff that Duchamp set in motion when he nailed a urinal to the wall and signed it R. Mutt, but I'm afraid that what you might loosely call structuralism makes for a rather blunt critical tool as far as I'm concerned.

While I don't see any harm, as such, in the argument that - for want of a better example - Blue are every bit as important as The Beach Boys if that's the way it seems in the (in my view deranged) mind of the listener, it doesn't really help us understand the work much better, does it?

It is useful to bring whatever you can to a piece and, yes, works do rebound off and answer back to one another regardless of their place in time, but I think when you start attributing influence to people where the facts of time plainly contradict such an occurence, it's just a form of critical political correctness...there, another buzz-phrase for you, Tim: Critical correctness gone mad!

I think criticism doesn't have to be 'right'; just honest. You have to stick your neck on the line and interrogate it, but you do so accepting that your version is just a finite approximation of something that is practically infinite. I also object to something which is essentially moral in purpose (writing, singing, making films) being reduced to an intellectual exercise, with the sort of jerk-off cleverness that seems to charachterise so much of the more pedantically anti-humanist stuff.


Anyroad, lecture over and, lads - use your noddles, eh? Let's just have a bit of common sense out there, shall we?

p.s. have a listen to the Guillemots: first rate stuff.

Robert Swipe said...

I never could spell character...

patroclus said...

Bob said:

>>While I don't see any harm, as such, in the argument that - for want of a better example - Blue are every bit as important as The Beach Boys if that's the way it seems in the (in my view deranged) mind of the listener, it doesn't really help us understand the work much better, does it?<<

True, but surely it helps us to understand the audience better, and understanding audiences better is critical to e.g. making decent telly. Otherwise you get a situation where people making telly assume their entire audience is composed of idiots who think Blue and the Beach Boys are interchangeable, and are minded to make programmes accordingly.

Or indeed, a situation where a supposedly left-wing intellectual national Sunday newspaper assumes its entire female audience is obsessed with fashion and celebrities, and is minded to produce a monthly supplement accordingly.

Didn't Tim once write a post about the Guillemots?

Chris said...

Literary theory always did bring me out in a rash. Re:

'it's quite feasible to argue that Book B is an influence on Book A, even if B was written after A [...]. If the reader of A has already read B, it can influence the reading of that text.'

The second sentence is quite true, but the first is not proved by it, unless you accept this business about an author and a book's readers being equally important to its identity. While a book read by no-one has no identity (and an audience without a show is not an audience), you do, I think, have to give an author more credit than a readership. I love Dickens, but that doesn't make me Dickens, does it?

The 'Death of the Author' idea also has the rather unpleasant side effect that everyone who comes into contact with a book becomes a part of it, apart from the author. When placing it in terms of other things read / seen / experienced, why not include in this context your own idea of who the author is? Many books demand it.

Tim Footman said...

It's a profoundly silly title, Billy. I can picture a whole series: Trousers for Montmorency; Crumpets for Humphrey; Nipple-clamps for Cuthbert...

But does art have to be "essentially moral in purpose", Bob? And the "Blue are better than the Beach Boys" conundrum is essentially qualitative rather than moral anyway. Amoral, perhaps... Oh, and hooray for jerk-off cleverness anyway, if the only exception is dumb apathy.

I think I mentioned the Guillemots in passing, P. You didn't go for them, I seem to recall. But isn't Observer Woman just an elaborate bit of whimsical pop irony, jerk-off cleverness for the Boden generation? Or do they mean it?

You're right, Chris, it's just the start of a process. Not so much the death of the author, but the beginning of a long tennis match between the author and the reader. And I'm Henri Leconte, so there.

Anyway I think the whole point of these counter-intuitive theories is not that they should be swallowed whole - that we should write the author out of any critical consideration in this case - but that we should use them as a basis for reconsidering our own critical behaviours.

Right, mine's a pint.

St. Anthony said...

There were a couple of not-half-bad film adaptations of Keyes' novel.

As your Duchamp quote illustrates, Marcel often got there first.

Robert Swipe said...

"But does art have to be "essentially moral in purpose", Bob?"

Yes, Tim. Otherwise it has no meaning to us:

"How shall we live, Brian?"

It becomes moral as soon as it addresses that question and, if it doesn't, that's the question we should ask of it. Otherwise you're just pissing in the wind.

That said, I quite liked Blue's last one...The one where she comes out as a raunchy dyke. Or am I getting Blue mixed up with Pink?
Bob

p.s. I'm listening to Led Zep right now; they certainly knew how to live.

Geoff said...

Blue is worth 5. Pink, 6.

I'll get me coat.

Tim Footman said...

I've seen the Cliff Robertson one, Anthony.

I suppose conceptual art is one area that derails Barthes; because it's founded on the initial idea more than the execution, it's the shock of the new that matters. Although maybe there are some art fans who are so dim that, in their eyes, Duchamp is influenced by Tracey Emin...

Sorry, Bob, I still don't think art demands morality. It may benefit from it, but it's not a sine qua non. I mean, where's the morality in Led Zep? Dribbling down Percy's leg, probably.

Tim Footman said...

But what colour's your coat, Geoff?

dh said...

"....if we're getting to the stage when the majority of people communicate in sub-literate txtspk, how does an author convey the notion that a character is sub-literate? Or will the concept of sub-literacy cease to exist?"

By a strange piece of synchronicity I find myself involved in a discussion on that very topic elsewhere. Language evolves....who for instance is to say that rappers are illiterate? Not me. I might get capped. I think it comes down to grammar. What's acceptable may undergo revision but the underlying rules do not. As to how this can be conveyed in a literary context I have no idea. Kingsley Amis probably could have done it but these days nobody wants to be judgmental. cyu.

K.W.Wan said...

i gss sb-ltrrcy wll hv t xst lk hts.

Tim Footman said...

I think the problem with txtspk, as distinct from other developments in language, is that it restricts its variety, rather than offering new avenues. Which links it to Orwell's Newspeak, the purpose of which was to stop people from having unwanted thoughts, by removing the words they had to express them.

patroclus said...

Yes, but 'the majority of people' don't *always* communicate in text speak; they tend to use it only when it's the most convenient method of communication.

People (even young people) who enjoy exploring the wider potential of the English language still can and still do - there's nothing restricting them from doing so.

Tim Footman said...

Oh c'mon, P, I'm nearly 40. I'm entitled to indulge in an occasional bout of reactionary, ill-informed grumbling. It's the law. I'm doing how modern music is all just boom boom boom next, and you can't tell if it's a boy or a girl.

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Interesting post, Tim. Now I remember why I walked out of my English A-level after just one class. H'only kidding. Very interesting. Lots of psychological research, actually, on the way in which the brain essentially produces its reality in an ongoing hallucination that is only mediated by external reality, not actually created by it. And surely this must play a role when the stimulus is as poor as text (in comparison to something high-bandwidth like vision). I shall think on.