Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Problems of Literature (Part 3)

When one follows this line of reasoning, even to a minimal degree, you are soon overcome with a queasy feeling that is rooted in the nagging sense that one is inevitably going to be faced with the problem of quality; the very problem that drove the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to the edge of madness. While the individual aspect of aesthetic experience drives one away from universal or objective notions of quality, such an idea is deeply unsettling as well as counter intuitive. On the other hand, the idea of fixed meanings and interpretations which tie us to a possible universal, albeit subtextual , experiences which are represented in literature. However, a felling of nausea grips you either way. Perhaps it is simply rooted in the vagaries of the ego, but the question nags one’s mind because how are we comprehend the idea that there is no qualitative distinction to be made between Coleridge and Rod McKuen, or Velazquez and Leroy Neiman? Is this just too disturbing to contemplate? There is no doubt something profoundly disturbing about the idea that there is no conceptual hook on which to hang the idea of aesthetic quality. On the other hand it is very clear that much of art or literary theory has been little more than an elaborate practice of elitism, intentional obfuscated theoretical constructs designed to promote certain values and agendas. This opinion was famously taken up by George Orwell who suggested that works of art were really “judged on political ground which are then given an aesthetic disguise.” Such a notion was made blatant and more refined by Fredric Jameson in his remarkable book The Political Unconscious. Here Jameson suggests that lying behind all acts of artistic creation as well as interpretation are fundamental political assumptions that serve to make them meaningful to their producers. It is, perhaps, a particularly tricky way of introducing an erstwhile universalism but makes no issue out of the thorny problem of quality. There is no question of the liberatory aspects of a non-qualitative approach to literature which doesn’t look at a literary document as a fixed object with correct and incorrect possible interpretations, but rather an object of utility which can serve whatever function we chose. This reminds me of Michael Radford’s film Il Postino where the shy but lovable postman uses one of Pablo Neruda’s poems in a love letter to the woman who he has been wooing. Neruda is upset that the man has used his poem, but the Postman suggest that poems don’t belong anyone in particular but to anyone who needs them. Indeed! At a more prosaic level I think of comedian Mitch Hedberg’s funny observation in which he says he just bought a three-bedroom house, but then he thought “Wait a minute, isn’t it up to me how many bedrooms it has. The kitchen is a bedroom that happens to have a refrigerator in it.

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