Survery of Literary Criticism

Monday, December 06, 2004

Term paper - Objectivity and Immersement

The following is my term paper in its entirety. Enjoy!

Objectivity and Immersement: My Theory about Literary Criticims and a Well-Lived Life

The well-lived life and literary criticism have a major theme in common – it’s all up to interpretation. As Nietzsche said, “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors” and therefore what constitutes a well-lived life or a good piece of literature varies by each individual. However, there are limits upon an individual’s freedom for interpretation. There seems to be a social stereotype that says good literature or a well-lived life involves a sense of objectivity. Getting immersed in one style of writing or living is to sentence oneself to never be taken seriously when discussing the very issues that one has gotten immersed in.
While I agree that remaining detached is needed to weigh the pros and cons of some of life’s decisions; I also think that a good way to determine the pros and cons is by getting involved in those very same decisions. Literature can also have this double standard. How can a reviewer ever appreciate or recommend a work if the reviewer him/herself couldn’t get into the work? At the same time, how can a reviewer ever give an enthusiastic review without being accused of being biased and subjective?
Let’s examine objectivity’s role in a well-lived life. In order to be well-lived, you need to be a well-rounded person. In order to be well-rounded, you need to be able to discuss many issues and not have a bias towards a particular view. Anytime there is a personal relationship amidst a professional one, immediately suspicions are aroused about the “fair” treatment of the professional relationship. Attachments are seen as detrimental to business deals. But who is to say that having a vested emotional interest in a professional relationship won’t make things better, rather than worse, for everyone included? Instead, people are expected to remain detached and objective. However, if everyone remains detached from life they are missing the high and lows that come with having an emotional investment. You can really only live life if you get involved, but if you get involved, your opinion about a well-lived life is seen as skewed.
The same is true for literature. We discount fans of a particular author as being biased and non-objective about the author’s work. But shouldn’t we be measuring their enthusiasm to attest to the skill and success of the author? How can an author be good if he/she never reaches out and pulls a reader into his/her story? Yet those readers that are caught are the same ones that give up their respectability as critics because they became involved.
I am one of those readers who likes to get caught occasionally. So in a way, English 300 has “ruined” reading for me. From this point forward I will be reading with the voices of critics past and their impersonators in my mind. I say “ruined” because now a part of me will never get totally into a story. At the back of my mind, I will be looking for Wimsatt’s fallacies or Foucault’s discourse. When I have an emotional response, some small thought will be if De Man was right about language being unstable. I will never again have the pleasure of reading a story purely for enjoyment, with no thoughts as to how or why the author was successful in their writing style. Survey of Literary Criticism has given me a perspective of objectivity, but I’m not sure that I wanted it! Sometimes it’s nice to just get lost in the story.
The last time I got lost in a story was when I was studying abroad at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia last fall semester. I only had classes on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesdays; this gave me plenty of time to tour, sight-see and read. Reading has always been one of my favorite past-times and I considered myself lucky to get a chance to read some of the “classic” novels that everyone seems to talk about as being great literature, but I had never read. Two of the books I read were Crime and Punishment and Jane Eyre.
To be frank, I didn’t enjoy Crime and Punishment at all, but I don’t fault Jamie for liking it and discussing it in class the other day. It just proves that there are all kinds of people and readers in the world. Jane Eyre was an all right book, although it’s certainly not my favorite story in the world. To sum it up, I didn’t quite understand why these particular books, that I didn’t find to be exceptional, were considered “classics”.
Then one day I was walking to the Flinders library and walked right past the campus bookstore. A book cover on display caught my eye and I went in to take a look at it. The book was titled The Nameless Day and the author was Sara Douglass. It was a fiction novel and being promoted because it was written by a South Australian author (Adelaide is in the state of South Australia). It was classified as ‘science-fantasy’. Now I have never really liked the whole Star Wars, science-fiction thing, but the book looked interesting and it was on sale! That clinched it; I bought the book and took it back to my dorm room.
Soon after beginning to read, the story and its characters carried me away. The Nameless Day is set in 1377 A.D. and explores the intricate relationship between the Church and English government. The central character is a man, Thomas Neville, who starts as a warrior of the highest and fiercest caliber, but who doesn’t want to take any more lives with his sword. He joins the strictest order of monks and severs all ties to aristocracy. By the end of the book, it is not clear which group, the brothers of the Church or the knights of the army, is the evil one.
I just ate this story up. I got so into it that I couldn’t put the book down. On a trip to the Outback, I had to force myself to look at the scenery, which I will probably never see again, rather than continue reading. And I found myself wishing the book just went on and on; I wanted to get to the next page but that meant the end was closer! Then I discovered that The Nameless Day was the first of a trilogy, so of course I bought the other two books. Those three books are among my most treasured souvenirs of my time ‘down under’.
I was so excited about these books that I wanted everyone to read them. Mostly because I wanted to share my opinions, but also because I wished other people the enjoyment of what I termed “a good read”. So I told my friend Trish, who was a Canadian exchange student also studying in Australia for a semester, about The Nameless Day and loaned her the book to read. I impatiently waited for her to finish so that we could have a good discussion. She didn’t get back to me right away, so I finally asked her how the book was going. She said, “Oh, I only got to the third chapter. I couldn’t really get into the story, but I’ll get it back to you soon.”
“WHAT??!!!!”, yelled I. “Couldn’t get into it?!! How could you not get into it?!!” I just didn’t understand. I mean, I don’t even like science-fiction, but I got into that book! Obviously Trish, and her urban Vancouver upbringing, just didn’t have the refined sense of literature that my rural Montanan background had blessed me with.
I still have my trilogy of Australian books and I intend to read them again over the Christmas break with eyes that are looking for literary criticism ideas. But English 300 has made me wonder if I’m really a good critic of these books. You see, I got so immersed in the plot that I didn’t notice things like writing style, use of metaphors, clause structure, or even underlying messages. Objectivity is not something I have about these three books. I am either so caught up in the story that I don’t want to tear it apart to examine, or I am prejudiced toward the fact that Sara Douglass is an amazing author.
So which is the correct goal of literature and criticism – objectivity or immersement? If both Trish and I were asked to write literary reviews on The Nameless Day, who’s would be better? On one hand, Trish would have a more objective viewpoint. She could examine the book based on Todorov’s clause structure requirement, Poe’s length requirement, Vico’s four ages of poetry or Schleiermacher’s hermeneutic circle. She could apply the four different approaches – mimetic, pragmatic, expression, and objective – to the book and determine how it measures up to each. Her review would be full of technical terms and her conclusion would come after carefully weighing many aspects.
On the other hand, my review would be passionate and persuasive. I would talk about how real the characters seemed, how I could identify with the obstacles they faced, how I day-dreamed about how handsome the knights were and what my life would be like if I lived back then. My review would be full of adjectives like magnificent, awe-inspiring, emotional, thrilling, exhilarating, glorious, breathtaking, etc. I would write a review that the author and the publisher would surely appreciate because it would sell more books for them, but that academics would denounce as being biased and unusable.
Which literary criticism review is the one that reflects a well-lived life? A life like Trish’s review would be thought-out and planned to make every minute as useful as possible. But a life like my review would involve wasting a few moments for love and laughter; sadness and tears; people, animals, and attachments. Are those immersed moments really wasted, even though they lack objectivity?
In the end, I don’t believe that a well-lived life has an exact equation. Life needs to be mixture of both types of reviews. There are times when a person needs to gain the respect and integrity of his/her business peers and needs to exhibit a practical, objective nature. But then there are the private moments when a person needs to just lose control and immerse themselves in that particular moment of life. While objectivity and immersement appear to be mutually exclusive, a well-lived life or a true appreciation of literature cannot happen without both. My own well-lived life is one where, every so often, I find a book that pulls me in so far that I get immersed and can’t be objective. The rest of the time, I will read articles, books, stories, and other literature and objectively appreciate or condemn it based on the teachings of past critics.


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