Thursday, November 28, 2013

Art as Experience: An Archive

I could begin this post on art and experience in many, many places. Were I talking to a creative writing class, I could remind them that one of a fiction writer's most powerful strategies is to create scenes; moreover, that if they want to move a reader they need to fill these scenes with details that will appeal to a reader's senses: what is the light like in the room where the two people are talking?  What colour of orange are the girl's sneakers--bright orange or a softer peach?  How does the air coming through the window smell?  Is there a breeze that ruffles his hair, or is the night perfectly still?  But most importantly, what are they doing?  Is this an argument?  The negotiation of grief?  What are they saying and how do their bodies react to those words? Anyone who has read the single-day novels of the early twentieth century--Ulysses or To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway, knows that these authors mine something quite powerful because they give us an experience of other people's lives.

Or I could be more philosophical.  On the one hand, I could tell you (not again!) that in the last decade of the twentieth century, philosophers turned from the question "What is art?" to the question "What is beauty?"  In part, this is a turning away from a question that yielded no clear answers--an embarrassment to aesthetics.  It is much more acceptable to say that you can't define beauty, and then to run with that wonderful fact and recognize that beauty is undefinable, that we have to talk about it, that our sense of beauty tells us something about who we are.  But it also brings "the aesthetic" and the conversation about the aesthetic within the realm of people's everyday lives, into their everyday experience.

Or I could get philosophical in quite a different way and ask you to think about your experience of a work of art.  This week, my wonderfully keen group of students in my class on Britain in the Sixties has been reading poems by Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, and song lyrics by the Beatles. We spent nearly 75 minutes on Larkin's "Whitsun Weddings," which is full of exactly the kind of sensual detail about the heat and the landscape and the groups dressed to celebrate weddings that we look for in an effective piece of writing.  We know so much about those couples when Larkin tells us about the girls' nylon gloves or when he imagines that "A dozen marriages got under way" as the newlyweds took the short train ride into London, in a "time [that] would seem / Just long enough, to settle hats and say / I nearly died."  "Whitsun Weddings" repays all kinds of attention to form, sound, rhyme scheme, the subtle shifts in the speaker's attitudes, that toward the end of class I used the hackneyed metaphor of Dr. Spock's mind-meld:  it's simply remarkable to have spent time with the mind of someone who isn't even there.  This is one of the things that makes me feel most human:  that a work of art urges me toward the understanding of someone who is not even standing in the same room as I am--indeed toward an understanding of someone who might well be dead.  Or another thing that makes me feel human:  that I'm urged to ask questions I know will never be answered.  What did Ted Hughes mean by the shorter and shorter lines of "Crow Blacker than Ever"?  We were all affected by those single words that were isolated in their own stanzas.  We spent quite a bit of time attempting to articulate just how they made us feel, trying to articulate their effects, and mostly failing.  But we were left with important questions.

Or I could go off on a sad, political tangent and talk about the fact that even SSHRCC is hoping that the research I do can benefit a business somewhere, that enrolment in the Faculty of Arts is down, that parents don't want their children taking "useless" Arts degrees:  business and engineering are much more useful, they've been told, in spite of the fact that employers in the business world, as well as wearied faculty members, talk about the fact that arts degrees give students a whole toolbox full of transferable skills.  They can solve problems, do research, see the bigger picture, synthesize, respond to a rhetorical situation, think critically.  Well-educated people, we are wont to say, are crucial to any democracy:  who else is better prepared to consider whether to focus our foreign policy in places where we can gain trade for businesses is a good thing?  Who can better consider how we frame or make long-term decisions?

My office door is papered with articles written by people who defend the arts, particularly English degrees.  Adam Gopnik in August wrote quite a compelling piece in The New Yorker about the way reading literature made us human.  Psychologists and philosophers can get firmly behind that argument and suggest that reading makes us more compassionate; it gives us a chance to rehearse situations and choices that we will later face; it has a profound effect on our brains.  Nevertheless, my colleague Craig Melhoff pointed out another essay in The New Criterion by Mark Bauerlein that makes a slightly different argument.  Just as the creative writer doesn't move readers with abstractions, so those of us attempting to keep the arts alive perhaps ought not to put all our eggs in the abstraction basket by talking about critical thinking and transferable skills and humanity.  Bauerlein observes that "People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days.... Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty. The humanities defenders, mistakenly, try to persuade and coerce when they should intrigue, excite, fascinate, and inspire."

In that vein, I could tell you about standing in front of a late Monet painting of water lilies; in his later years, Monet wasn't seeing colour accurately, but he didn't make any attempt to correct for his eyes' misperception.  The resulting paintings are wine-coloured and dark in a way that makes them mysterious.  I was at the Musee Marmottan in Paris, lonely and isolated, travelling in a city with only the most appalling and embarrassing French to work with.  But an older woman was standing next to me in front of the paintings, and turned to me to speak.  When her French only puzzled me, she got out her rusty English and we negotiated a conversation about beauty--one of the few conversations I'd had in ten days--because we could not resist talking about it.

Or I could say how I always feel when I am reading To the Lighthouse, trying to keep track of the contradictory characters' contradictory experiences, when I read young James's revelation about the lighthouse and about his father:  "For nothing was simply one thing."  I have to see the world all over again, without judgment, in all its complexity, with my sense of wonder intact.  Or when I listen to Shostakovich's militant, mournful, and disturbing 9th symphony, I can't help but think about how he spent his nights sleeping in the hallway of his apartment building because he didn't want Stalin's henchmen to wake his family when they came for him.  You can hear the horrible fear in those movements, as well as the jack boots of censorship and murder.

So let's create our own archive of experience:  there's all kinds of room for your comments at the end of the blog.  What moves you so much that you know that savouring and saving it makes our lives fuller, more human?

Here's the link to Mark Bauerlein's essay.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


I don't know about you, but inside the contradictory complexity that is me, I have one simple mechanism.  Perhaps it's too simple.  It's a switch that has two positions, like "on" and "off," except my switch is marked with the words "I can do this!" and (written in a kind of groan or sigh) "I can't do this."  Thursday, I woke up with the switch clearly in the "I can't do this" position.  First, I couldn't wake up.  I had put in a very long day on Wednesday, marking and reading a complicated essay on "The New Formalism" until well after my bedtime.  So neither my body nor my mind was interested in waking up.  The seductive smell of coffee was no help.  Then when my car slid out back lane right into the street, my inner voice groaned some more.  The season of falls has begun.  I can drive in this weather; I can't seem to learn to walk in it.  I felt instantly vulnerable:  in previous winters, I've broken an ankle and a hand.  After I fractured my hand (quite neatly, apparently; by the time I was convinced I had done something horrible and got x-rays, they couldn't tell whether they were seeing an old fracture or a new one), I became much more careful, but took two tumbles last spring when I stepped into puddles that had ice in the bottom.  

The mood continued throughout the day, getting noisier just before each of my classes.  Intriguingly, once each class got under way, something curious happened.  First, I was no longer aware of that vulnerable, bone-tired feeling.  Second, I had wonderful classes.  I don't know whether my students collectively realized that I wasn't quite myself, and so decided to pitch in to make my day easier, or whether a less intense persona gave them permission to participate.  In my "Reading Fiction" class, we had reached the chapter of Carol Shields' novel The Stone Diaries called "Work," which consists of other people's letters to Daisy Flett.  A couple of weeks ago, the morale of this class seemed to be struggling; they had reported that their professors are "cranky," so I'd given them some creative assignments for their essay, one of which was to write Daisy's half of the correspondence for some of the letters.  So perhaps their creative engagement in the text did make them more attentive to the novel, and this was reflected in the spirited, insightful discussion.  "What a thing to learn in your last year of teaching!" moaned my vulnerable I-can't-do-this voice. 

When we turned to the next chapter, "Sorrow," I found myself explaining how people who are depressed often do not completely understand their frame of mind, so perhaps for Daisy Flett to imagine how other people saw her experience gave her more insight than she would have had simply ruminating over the same un-answers she rehearsed every morning when she woke up.  This was coming a bit close to home.  For twenty-four years, I had long conversations with depressions, particularly in November and December, though they stopped abruptly when I moved to Regina.  Still, I can be moody as the days grow shorter, though I've learned to do what needs to be done to enjoy the cosiness of the dark (right now I'm composing in front of a fire, for example).   Today's snowy weather has given me permission to stay home most of the day, reading Woolf, working on making Christmas presents.  Still, there may be some stormy days between now and the solstice.

Yet in the midst of worrying about  visits from my depressions, I also found myself eerily observant and grateful for the world around me.  As I walked toward the doors to Campion with my coffee and my briefcase, a young woman in a bright pink hoodie and orange sneakers waited quite a while to hold the door open for me, saying that she'd seen I didn't have any spare hands.  I was struck by the juxtaposition between the ice-covered branches outside the Language Institute, which were shot through with light, and  the intensity of sirens that seemed to come closer and closer.  (It seems someone had fainted in the registrar's office, and since they didn't know why, they called 911.)  I stared at the calligraphy of staples on my bookshelves, where workers fastened plastic over my books so they could safely remove the asbestos from the ceiling.  Walking through the library, I was strangely aware of the corridors made by bookshelves and how they seemed to close in; aware at the same time of the warmth and colours of book covers that invited and beckoned with unknown distances.  I was endlessly grateful.  Grateful for the department secretary, Danielle, who takes such good care of me; grateful for Melanie Schnell, who talked so movingly about dealing with rejection in a way that doesn't shut down one's writing life; grateful for my sweet daughter, whom I'd not had lunch with on Wednesday because I'd been marking, marking, marking, and whom I'd missed; grateful as always for Bill, who is endlessly supportive and unfailingly loving.  

Intriguingly, yesterday's weather, unpleasant as it was--could it be either windy or snowy, but not both?--brought a kind of clarity.  I remembered my father's shirt size and talked to Twig the way my mother used to talk to her dogs: saying whimsical things in the matter-of-fact tone of voice that you would use to talk to a fellow-worker.  I cleaned the snow off the bird feeder, filled it, and leaned on the kitchen counter to drink my coffee and watch the juncos and nuthatches, who swoop in and out as quick as thought.  Later, I put boeuf bourguignon in the crock pot and watched the three squirrels who live under my eaves chase one another through the trees between turns hanging by their toes as they take sunflower seeds out of the bird feeder. Puzzlingly I remembered  reading The Lost Honour of Katerina Blum, prompted perhaps by reading a review of a Swiss author in The Globe and Mail.  I'm back, in short, to being my complicated self, rescued from the startling simplicity of that problematic inner switch.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Life in Quest of Narrative"

I had an "old fart" moment in Thursday's class on Carol Shields' Stone Diaries.  I confessed to my students that when I stand in line at the grocery store, I read the headlines of the tabloids and the celebrity magazines and shake my head because I don't understand why we think that stories about people who are really neither interesting nor gifted nor thoughtful nor particularly kind are more important than our own stories of trying to live our lives the best we can. 

This sense that the stories of our own lives deserve and need to be told and valued has been even more at the forefront of my mind since re-reading Paul Ricoeur's quite moving essay "Life in Quest of Narrative."  Ricoeur proposes that telling our stories, even to ourselves, is one of the important ways that we understand ourselves and make meaning out of our lives.  In a sense, we make these narratives into little works of art.  Life, as you know, doesn't always have meaning.  It doesn't have meaning when you are so preoccupied by your daily round that you are living by rote.  It doesn't mean when you fail to pay attention.  It certainly doesn't have an implicit meaning when you are faced with the death of a child or mental illness or the onslaught of dementia.  That's its difference from art:  the structures of art confer meaning on events that might otherwise seem arbitrary or chaotic, though we must at the same time admit that it's a meaning the maker and the viewer are giving it, not a meaning the rises naturally out of the events themselves.

Stories also have ethical dimensions.  Working from some of Aristotle's premises, Ricoeur concludes that art--literature in particular--"constitutes so many thought experiments by which we learn to link together the ethical aspects of human conduct and happiness and misfortune." Stories allow us the opportunity to consider how various kinds of conduct might lead either to "happiness or misfortune"--which is perhaps one of the reason I hate the whole celebrity machinery:  we somehow manage to believe that celebrities' lives are charmed in ways ours are not, yet at the same time we're shockingly (and perhaps unethically) delighted when those charmed lives go awry.  We assume that their stories have a meaning ours do not--that they are rewarded or punished on a much grander scale than we are in our own pedestrian lives.  But perhaps it's only the journalists and publishers and readers of these magazines that confer meaning on a sequence of events that was probably too complicated to reduce to a two-page spread in Us.

Other philosophers like Noel Carroll and some of the writers of the "On Fiction" blog suggest that literature provides us with a dress rehearsal for our life, largely because our wonderful brains, they discover, do much the same things when we are reading as they do when we are living.  If we are following a character through the labyrinthine streets of London, our brains' spatial centres light up as if we were attempting to follow that route ourselves.  Carroll also suggests that it's literature's complexity--its refusal of simple rewards or punishments, its eschewing of unmixed motives, that allows us to consider life's complications, preparing us empathetically to face similar situations in our own lives.

In my classes, the two works I'm teaching also highlight these ideas of Aristotle, Ricoeur, and Carroll.   In the Sixties class, we are finishing up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, one of Tom Stoppard's early plays.  Stoppard borrows two marginal characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, and follows them as they struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of hanging around the stage waiting to be of use in someone else's story.  Their lives are determined for them by their situation; at the same time, they have, like all of us, a sense that their own choices and narratives should have meaning--a sense that is profoundly frustrated by the fact that their lives have already been written.

In the class on reading fiction, we're looking at Carol Shields' Stone Diaries, with its puzzling and problematic narrator.  In the first chapter, Daisy Goodwill Flett tells the story of her birth, a story she could not possibly have known, since her mother died just as Daisy herself opened her eyes to observe the world around her.  So strong is the need to have a story that launches her into her own narrative in a meaningful way, that Daisy (we suspect) makes up all kinds of details that no one  could have known or shared with her.  (Shields is very careful to eliminate any possible provenance for details like the way her father's fellow workers thought about his relationship with Daisy's portly mother.)  Other chapters--in a powerful and teasing conflict with this opening--silence Daisy, making it impossible for the reader to see Daisy as a teller of her own life.  Of course this is wonderfully frustrating for the reader; it seems to me at least possible that Shields is using some of these strategies to illustrate what happens to our sense of self when we're not allowed to shape the stories of our own lives.

One of the strategies that Ricoeur talks about in his essay describes the way stories take a mere succession of events and turn them into a meaningful configuration.  Intriguingly, giving that much of the time this term I'm living exactly the kind of life that makes me sad, just getting things done and moving on to the next thing that needs doing, I'm seeing configurations pulled out of successions everywhere I look in those moments when I raise my head--like a drive Bill and I took to Lumsden today.  The geese who are rehearsing their migrations are practicing arranging themselves from a messy configuration of honking creatures into a tight, aerodynamic line.  The large power poles that cross highway 11 on the way toward Lumsden seem to organize the space beneath their large legs into a purposeful cadence embodied in the power lines that connect them.  And then there's the knitting that I'm mindlessly doing when I need to shut down my grasshopper mind, which won't let me sleep. Stitch after stitch is simply a succession until I finally bind off and find I've finished a Christmas present.