A Terrible Blogger is Born!

January 11, 2010

Trust the Tale, Pt. 2

Filed under: Literature,Philosophy — rmangum @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , ,

Following up on what I said previously about The Wire, I found this post by Zunguzungu from early last year. While he takes a quite different (quasi-marxist critical theory) approach to the material than I do, he similarly concludes that there is a disconnect between what David Simon says to interviewers about the show he created, and the way the show actually presents itself. Some artists may have more insight into their own creations than others, but the old truism is the same nevertheless. There may be two reasons why, in the case of The Wire, the show presents itself in a more complex and articulate way than its creators can convey on their own. First, much as Simon fits the mold of television auteur, this is a highly collaborative work involving the comparatively taciturn co-creator Ed Burns, as well as several novelists, including George P. Pelacanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane. Second, while the Simon/Burns team do have a singular vision and a political mission of sorts with The Wire, they are conscientious enough artists to draw from their long experience with the professions they depict (cops, journalists, teachers), life in the city of Baltimore more generally, and their instincts as storytellers. But once the artist is finished with the creation and is asked to play the role of critic and interpreter, they are in no better position than the rest of us, and possibly a worse one sense they have an obvious conflict of interest.

Flannery O’Connor, a writer who had a great deal of insight into her own work, was quite insistent on the fact that fiction is not made out of abstract ideas, the stuff of political reform (and political criticism). From “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are most loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make the actual mystery of our position on earth. . . .

But the amazing thing about The Wire is how aware it is of problems and people, of questions and issues that are embedded in the “texture of existence”. O’Connor too, had certain aims which could have been expressed in abstract terms ( a devout Catholic, hers were theological rather than political). But in both cases verisimilitude came first and foremost.

I began writing this post wanting to show that critics are necessary, and not simply parasitic upon artists and their creations (and probably bitter, spiteful failed artists themselves to boot), that where the artist starts with his or her own unique perception of life, the critic starts with his or her own unique perception of art, and therefore must deal in more abstraction than the artist (if they want to do quality work) is allowed. But O’Connor has me wondering if  ideas as such have any meaningful place in the world of fiction. Why do we ask a television critic or David Simon about the meaning of The Wire? O’Connor again, from “Writing Short Stories” (both excerpts are from Mystery and Manners):

The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what the story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not about abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

Here I think O’Connor takes her polemic against abstraction a bit too far. Much value may be lost in summarization just as in translation, but she comes dangerously close to insisting that a story is only about itself. Why not go further and insist that if stories are made out of the same materials as existence , why go in for even that level of imitation and just live life rather than read stories about it? On similar grounds Plato and followers such as Plotinus rejected art wholesale as a nearly worthless copy of a copy. (Also because poets were politically disruptive, which is not irrelevant to this case either.) But she does point to what is worthwhile about making critical statements. A critic helps “experience that meaning [of the work of art] more fully” just as art helps you experience life more fully.

With that though in mind, you should also read Zunguzungu’s essay, “In Withdrawal from Modernity: The Western and the West Side in The Wire”.

1 Comment »

  1. Some writers use commentary about their own work to develop theories and hypotheses that they otherwise wouldn’t have a public space for–in other words, they are impatient critics because they don’t know when they might get the chance to play that role to their own work again. Even if they have the kind of access to media that Simon does, they worry and tend to range over larger areas than their present work commands, so that much of what they say concerns the future even when they are talking about something present.

    They don’t mean anything by it, but critics tend to read too much into it in relation to the work. There is some aspect of the ‘fallacy of intentionality’ creeping around deep inside this assumption, too. This has hardly been banished despite urbane claims to the contrary. Not only does it continue to exercise a great deal of influence over more developed theory, it shapes many of the premises on which pre-theoretical reasoning is based, like a sticky, fluid essence lending its influence to many objects at once. I am not accusing you of anything except being a diligent, thoughtful critic, which, as you point out, is crime enough for some commentators. And like you, I don’t believe the critic is a parasite. He is more of a sidekick in an absurdist dumbshow: more Lucky than Pozzo.

    Comment by theothergardener — January 12, 2010 @ 3:42 am | Reply

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