Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A not-completely-comics-related post about my own critical biases

Brad Curran's angry anti-indy-fans rant over at Comics Should Be Good struck a chord with me in regards to my troubles with school this semester, but I don't want to come off like I'm either starting a cross-blog argument with Brad or heralding his views, because I'm not. If I'm responding to him at all, I'm doing it tangentially, as his post reminded me of something I've been wrestling with the past few weeks.

I fucking hate T.S. Eliot.

I'll explain.

A few semesters ago, a writing professor nagged at me to hand in an essay that I hadn't written. I hadn't written it because I didn't like it. The assignment was to write a manifesto about poetry, and I don't like manifestos about poetry or literature or any other creative medium. I've been exposed to phone books full of such arguments by various writers since returning to school, and the result is usually a drop in respect, on my part, for the writers in question. Each writer has his or her way of writing, and in their diatribes they always do the same thing: each writer reviews how he or she writes, describes how he or she writes, and heralds the idea that everyone should write that way. Since I have a nagging suspicion that at least at this point in history, most professional creative writers would value the idea that people write differently from them, if for no other reason than the fact that it renders that individual writer's work unique; I suspect that this act of writing manifestos on art, poetry, literature, whatever, has become more of a rite of passage than anything else. In other words, if Bartleby Shitfarm becomes a well-respected author, he figures he has to write a manifesto because Matthew Arnold did it and Oscar Wilde did it and T.S. Eliot did it and Mr. Shitfarm's place among the canon will somehow falter if he doesn't do it, too.

But it was close to the end of the semester, and I had to fill the gap in my grades. So, I did what I usually try to do when I have absolutely no idea what to write for an undesirable assignment: I turned to comic books. I wrote an essay called "Nobody Likes A Smart Ass." I talked about The Riddler. I said The Riddler was a lame super-villain because he didn't commit crimes for money, for power, or even out of pure psychosis. He commits crimes to prove he's smarter than everyone else.

And that last sentence should, for those who have read T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, give a hint as to where I'm going with this.

As a writer who constantly struggles to convey sometimes complex subjects, ideas, arguments, etc., in ways that, hopefully, anyone could understand, I have to question the motivation of writers and other artists who create things with the goal to confuse.

My edition of The Waste Land is close to 300 pages long. The poem itself, accompanied by extensive footnotes which sometimes take up over half the page, is 21 pages long. The 40 pages directly following the poem are filled with Eliot's own notes to individual lines of the poem and, mostly; with excerpts from the 19 poems, songs, novels, plays, religious texts, and academic texts directly alluded to in The Waste Land, each of whose overt and covert significances must be understood in order to unravel the enigma that is The Waste Land.

What kind of runny piece of shit writes a poem you need footnotes for; not only 80-plus years after the fact, but the fucking day it's fucking published?

I realize that there is worth to texts whose meanings are not obvious, and that there is worth to the learning that must take place in order to find the meaning. But, as a writer, I have a very specific opinion on this subject. If you create something that has some kind of covert message that you hope the readers and the critics will figure out on their own, fine. But if you create something that can ONLY be appreciated if that covert meaning is extracted, you're just being a smart-ass.

For example, when I first watched Dr. Strangelove, I didn't really get a lot of the statements Kubrick was making about the connections between sex and violence (though on my second viewing, I was surprised because they were kind of glaring). But, I still loved the film. I was still able to appreciate it purely as a war satire. And I might add that my enjoyment of the film on that level is exactly what inspired me to look deeper into the images Kubrick was giving me. Likewise, bringing the conversation back to the comic book world, I'd be a lying bastard if I claimed that I absorbed all or even most (or maybe even any) of the subjects Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were exploring with Watchmen the first time I read it, but I was still able to appreciate and enjoy it simply as an alternative history/super-hero conspiracy thriller. And, on a bit of a tangent, it was the first comic book I ever read in which prose was used to accompany the sequential art, I loved it, and still wish it was something I saw more. The only other examples I can think of off the top of my head are Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules and Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor.

Back on topic, with something like The Waste Land, there's nothing else to appreciate. You either get it, or you slave through a library's worth of literary allusions in order to get it. And if you don't make me at least enjoy, on any level, what you're creating without that grand message, I'm not going to be interested enough to go any further (unless, of course, my GPA is on the line).

Tomorrow, I'm going to regretfully tell my professor that I will accept any deserved grade reduction he gives me for turning in my paper next Monday instead of tomorrow. I HATE this poem. I HATE T.S. Eliot's approach to writing, and I haven't been able to get over my hatred enough to write a 4-5 page paper on it. Believe me, I'm usually a-okay at this literary stuff, even if it's literature I don't particularly like. But you can't give me a rubics cube and expect me to be enthralled. If I wanted riddles I had to unravel, I'd dig out my old Infocom text adventure games (and I always needed the hint books for those things anyway).

P.S. The fact that I've been blogging more probably has something to do with my enduring hatred for The Waste Land, since it's helped me feel productive while avoiding the paper I have to write on this useless, canonical piece of ape-shit.

5 comments:

Ingwit said...

"Each writer has his or her way of writing, and in their diatribes they always do the same thing: each writer reviews how he or she writes, describes how he or she writes, and heralds the idea that everyone should write that way. Since I have a nagging suspicion that at least at this point in history, most professional creative writers would value the idea that people write differently from them, if for no other reason than the fact that it renders that individual writer's work unique; I suspect that this act of writing manifestos on art, poetry, literature, whatever, has become more of a rite of passage than anything else."

TIME PASSES . . .

"I realize that there is worth to texts whose meanings are not obvious, and that there is worth to the learning that must take place in order to find the meaning. But, as a writer, I have a very specific opinion on this subject. If you create something that has some kind of covert message that you hope the readers and the critics will figure out on their own, fine. But if you create something that can ONLY be appreciated if that covert meaning is extracted, you're just being a smart-ass."

Two things confuse me. The first is why you're so convinced that Eliot's motivation in writing The Wasteland (hereafter henceforth therefore referred to as TWL) was to confuse his reader. The second is your conviction that there's a covert meaning to the poem that has to be decoded in order to appreciate/enjoy it.

I think that second part is key to your aversion to the poem, the paper, and the poet. I remember when I first read TWL, my initial reaction was "Argh my brain! It is rejecting the notion that T.S. Eliot mentally rubbing one out onto so many sheets of paper is one of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th Century! Also the print is really tiny!" I think that, and the variations on that, are perfectly reasonable, understandable reactions.

But when I began to appreciate TWL was when I relaxed and just read it for what it was, mainly, a bunch of words. My second read-through, I didn't even attempt the footnotes. I just read the poem and enjoyed the poetics of it, particularly Part IV. Death By Water. Eliot may have been a pretentious anti-semetic froggish prick, I will not argue that, but he did have some writing chops. My third read-through I dipped into the footnotes a little. I found that the footnotes could be fun, because they led to other things I could read, some I enjoyed, some I didn't. They also gave light into pieces of Eliot's thought processes; perhaps not the most reliable insights, since he wrote them with public consumption in mind, but still, flickers and illuminations. Each successive read-through I took more and more from it, just as you took more and more from Dr. Strangelove or Watchmen each time. It's a lot of work, but if you have to write a paper on it, you may as well devour your subject.

And I don't necessarily think it's all that horrible to have to do some extra work when reading. I wasn't just being snide with those two opening quotes. If I'm reading you correctly, you're basing your reaction to TWL on your status as a writer. That's okay. I write too. But I'm also a reader and as a reader I take great pleasure from puzzles that the writer puts in my way. It's part of why I'm a big fan of Vladimir Nabokov. He wrote in such a way that the reader would take out of his book exactly what he or she put into it. I would argue he did it with much more style and skill than Eliot. VN, after all, had the habit of adopting anagrammatic pseudonyms and writing sarcastic footnotes to his own work. And he didn't like Eliot at all.

So I'm not taking issue with your dislike of Eliot. He was pretentious and he wasn't very pleasant and, yes, he may have even been a runny piece of shit. But I am taking some issue with your hostile approach to TWL. TWL is not T.S. Eliot. TWL is something he wrote and there are many reasons why it's so widely praised. There are just as many (more?) reasons to criticize it. Kenneth Koch was fond of saying that Eliot became useful as someone to "write against". What did he mean? Well in much the same vein as Watchmen, other writers read TWL and then imitated only the worst aspects of it, so you had an entire generation of poets after Eliot writing nihilistic dour solemn slop without any core to it, just like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are often credited with the wave of weak imitators that spawned the extreme gritty 90s. Just an interesting parallel.

Getting back to the point, I don't see why Watchmen gets a pass and TWL doesn't. If you can enjoy Watchmen "simply as an alternative history/super-hero conspiracy thriller" why can't you enjoy TWL simply as a big poem talking about 20th Century London? I think there's plenty in it to appreciate without all the allusions. I can't make you enjoy it, but I can't try to help you get to that point.

Michileen Martin said...

Huh, those two quotes do contradict each other a little bit, don't they? Point noted.

First, and I'm not trying to brush off your arguments by saying this and I intend to address them, I will admit that a lot of my problems with TWL (thanks for that) are personal. Not in the sense that I hate Eliot, but because I'm reading the poem from the point of view of someone who is reading only because he has to produce a paper on it. Add to that the simple fact that I am at a point in my college career where I'm absolutely sick and tired of analyzing literature and want to get down to the business of creating it. So, I went into TWL with a bad attitude, and it was worse by the time I was finished reading it for the fifth time and getting absolutely nowhere with it.

That said, I still think, even without my personal baggage, I would feel the same way about TWL.

Saying that Eliot's goal was to confuse the reader was an exaggeration, and certainly I'm sure it can be appreciated simply because of Eliot's writing "chops." My problem is, he doesn't give me a handhold. To answer your question of why Watchmen "gets a pass" and TWL doesn't, it's because Watchmen gives me something that makes me want to dig deeper. Watchmen works as "pure entertainment," and the fact that it entertains me makes me want to see if there's anything more to it. TWL, on the other hand, only entertains me when I'm throwing it against the wall (and I have) or lighting it on fire (not yet).

Eliot just doesn't give me any point of reference in the poem, other than the literary allusions, and I'm unlikely to get most of those without the footnotes.

You actually provided a good example. You asked "why can't you enjoy TWL simply as a big poem talking about 20th Century London?" Because I had no fucking clue it was about 20th century London. In the first stanza he's talking about dessication and death, okay I've kind of got where he's going, then he mentions a river not in London but in Munich, and then, out of fucking nowhere, there's a little girl crying about how she doesn't like snow sledding. I don't know who's speaking, I don't know the setting. As soon as I get a handle on either, it changes.

"Death By Water" is my favorite part too. If I'm remembering the right section, that's because it's the shortest.

Like I said in the post, I realize, as you said, that it isn't "all that horrible to have to do some extra work when reading." I also don't think it's all that horrible to do SOME extra work while reading. But the work required for this poem, at least from my point of view, cannot be adequately described by "some."

And remember that the only reason that anyone is willing to do that extra work with TWL is because it's part of the canon. If I brought a poem into a writing workshop, accompanied with notes that the workshoppers would need to read in order to get a handle on the piece, they'd tell me to fuck off and they'd be right.

Part of my problem is that, as a writer, I stand in direct opposition to Eliot's ideas of literature. You're right in saying that Eliot isn't TWL, or vice versa, but he wrote (I think it was in an essay called "The Study of Poetry") that his writing was an expression of his views on literature. So, I can't really separate my oppositional stance to the man and the poem. Eliot was very concerned with tradition, and in bowing to the canon, and TWL is obviously an example of that. The fact that he wrote poems that assumed an extensive knowledge of the canon on the reader's part renders TWL, in my opinion, a very elitist text.

I'll give you an example. Right now I'm working on a short story that has a lot of very blatant allusions to The Odyssey, and anyone who has ever read The Odyssey is going to spot them right away. There are plenty of people who haven't read it, and know nothing about it, and while it would be great if everyone got the deeper ideas I'm trying to get across with the story, if I can't entertain people who don't know a damn thing about Homer, then in my view I haven't done my job. All I've done is confuse some people. If I do entertain them though, maybe they'll bother to find out the other stuff on their own.

I'm sure there's a lot I can get out of TWL anyway, and I may even find it rewarding once I've finally finished the project. Like I said, a lot of my original post was personal venting. In a lot of ways, this was just the worst text to give me right now. I think when someone's having a lot of serious inner debate about whether or not there is any worth to academic approaches to literature, TWL is the LAST. FUCKING. POEM. you want to give them. The last. "The Man from Nantucket" would've been a lot more appealing.

Michileen Martin said...

Actually, my favorite part of the poem is the rape scene in "The Fire Sermon." Not because I'm a big fan of rape, but because it's a really long stanza and so it's the biggest part of the poem in which I actually have a clue what's happening.

plok said...

Funny, I wrote this same manifesto you just did when I got thumped in the face by Eliot, too. Only, I made the mistake of putting it right into an extremely righteously pissed-off paper.

The mark I received was...interesting.

I have since come to agree with it, though. I don't know if anyone likes TWL. I'd guess not. I've certainly never met anyone whose brain is so immense that they read it because it's the thing they *most* want to do. But, it's canon for a reason; every field has its intensely demanding absolute BASTARD of a work, its academic hazing ritual if you will, that itself represents a massive jump up in the amount of crap you can funnel through your eyes over a weekend. You end up a better reader afterwards, though. You do. Once something like TWL's pummelled the shit out of you for a while, you do figure out how to get it, and that knowledge itself is valuable.

But you've got my sympathy. The best I can tell you is that one day you'll have a significant chunk of the canon right inside your head, all the time. You'll practically *be* the canon, or at least its local representative. But you'll have to choke down a couple big sides of beef to do it. You're damn right when you say it's an elitist text, but then again that's the point: there aren't many higher levels at which you'll ever be asked to read. People not in literature will never be asked to read TWL, and if asked they should refuse. It's like sailing a frickin' boat around the frickin' world, for God's sake: if you're not a sailor there's no reason good enough to do it.

So good luck! It's worth the trouble, once you're done. I'm still drawing on my hard-won knowledge of "Four Quartets" for all kinds of writing purposes, not that I'm claiming that's typical, but for me it was formative even though I never expected or wanted it to be. And I would not take back the time.

Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. The Waste Land is maybe two good ten-line sections the first time you read it, surrounded by something incomprehensible and irritating that I'm just not sure is worth the time to "get". Fleur Adcock has as much to say as Eliot, in my opinion, but she says it very clearly, which is an approach I respect her for.