Thursday, 31 January 2008

Pinning down Godot

We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
Mean something! You and I, mean something!
(Brief laugh.)
Ah that's a good one!
Endgame by Samuel Beckett
While in negotiations to take the part of Pozzo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ralph Richardson asked the writer if Godot, the absent figure for whom Estragon and Vladimir perpetually wait, was a symbol for God. Beckett replied ‘that if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly.’ Beckett was exasperated throughout his life by his commentators’ attempts to attribute symbols and meanings to his plays. Despite Beckett’s (often vociferous) denials, the trend continues: the Wikipedia entry for the play includes a section devoted to different interpretations, including everything from political allegories to homosexual subtexts.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

A Holiday from Ourselves: literature and emotional well-being

Is the purpose of fiction to offer escape into a world of fantasy, or to confront harsh realities? This is a pretty shop-worn question. The traditional Manichean assumption is that light, disposable, low entertainments offer the former; while serious, important, high art does the latter. Obviously the truth must be more complex, but how does one prove it, and what is the function of escapism or harsh reality in literature in the first place? A fascinating article by Blake Morrison in Saturday’s Guardian sheds new light on the issue. In fact, ‘The Reading Cure’ doesn’t exactly focus on this issue at all: instead, it’s about ‘bibliotherapy,’ the experimental use of books and book groups to alleviate pain and mental distress. The programme, underway in Merseyside in the north of England, has apparently met with great success, with patients reporting a reduced experience of pain and psychiatric patients showing noticeable improvement.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 3

[Click for Part One]
Today’s literary culture—especially, it seems, on the Internet—parallels the culture at large in placing a high value on the mere act of having an opinion. To have an opinion—on anything—and to be free to express it seems to symbolise for many the fundamental freedoms of a liberal society. But to be a scholar takes more than being opinionated. Anyone can form an opinion; a book was recently released that promises to teach readers how to form opinions about books they haven’t read. It is the ability to defend one’s opinion—both to define it and to justify it—that separates the critic from the reader, the professional from the Amazon customer who scrawls, ‘Great read! 4 stars!!’ The inability to approach one’s opinion analytically leaves critics with only two options: relativism (the black hole of rational thought), or internecine war. In Internet discussions one sees plenty of both. Thus critical debate is replaced with the occasional skirmish between opposing fan clubs.

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 2

[Click for Part One]
A few months ago, the literary site The Quarterly Conversation (edited by Esposito) published an article entitled ‘The One That Got Away: Why James Wood is Wrong About Underworld,’ by Garth Risk Hallberg of The Millions. On the one hand, it must be said that this essay is another fine example of the James Wood Neurosis at work (it would be hard to imagine a more pointed title); but Hallberg has composed something quite different from the hectoring clamour of his peers. The most immediately apparent change is one of style: Hallberg writes well, entertainingly, and above all, calmly. What a relief after the antagonistic rhetoric of like-minded bloggers, to read something so polished and so reasonable. But more important is Hallberg’s choice of subject: not the flaws of Wood’s personality, but the virtues of DeLillo’s novel. Hallberg evidently has a deep familiarity with Underworld, and he communicates his enthusiasm for the work with charm and conviction.