Monday, June 8, 2009

There Is No Boot Stamping on the Human Face Forever (But It Doesn't Scan!)

I love reading criticism and academic studies of literature because I love to see new perspectives on books. It is, unsurprisingly, enjoyable to read other people's views on books you yourself loved. However, it's almost even more enjoyable to read criticism about books you didn't feel so positively about. Sometimes, hearing an informed perspective on a book can help you understand what's valuable about the book; particularly in the case of classics that are part of The Canon [nb: I must always capitalize it that way. It demonstrates the tongue in my cheek.] and therefore clearly valued by a decent number of other people. Thus, I found My Antonia somewhat dull but really enjoyed being prompted by a professor to think about the role of gender and nostalgia in the text and was underwhelmed by The Return of the Native but ended up being able to write a really awesome and exciting paper about it after reading some helpful criticism.

But there are some cases of helpful criticism that are a little more weird - cases where I like a particular critical viewpoint because it suggests that I can align my personal reaction and my understanding of what a sympathetic reading would be better than I was previously able to. One notable memory I have of such an experience is that I was always disappointed by Heart of Darkness until I heard a professor talking about it in the UK university where I was studying abroad during college. Although I'd already discussed Heart of Darkness once in high school and once in a college seminar, it wasn't until I got to the UK that I heard someone suggest that the narrative sympathies didn't entirely lie with Marlow and that all of the heavy portentuousness that always irritated me about the novella could in fact be sympathetically read as over-the-top - the narrative itself was showing up Marlow's pretentious nature. I liked that reading - but why did I like it? Mainly because I had trouble taking Marlow seriously but had always felt that the narrative supported Marlow's opinion - to suddenly hear that maybe this wasn't because the book wasn't working for me but was in fact at least one interpretation explicitly welcomed by the narrative made me feel more at home with it.

I'm finding, in my reading of criticism of 1984, that much of what I'm reading has a similar effect. My initial reading of 1984 - and not just when I first read it in high school, either, but also when I re-read it this past year - tends to be that the narrative is in fact tightly constructed to show us that Oceania is a plausible society that might actually happen, that it functions as a warning - if we don't watch out, we will in fact all have to live in Oceania, and the future will be a boot stamping on the human face forever. I think a lot of the earlier responses to the novel tended to take this attitude, as well - so at least I'm not alone in my response. But, the fact is, I fundamentally don't believe that Oceania is a plausible society, and so my reaction to the book tends to be very worried and bothered - to point out all sorts of holes that prove that the narrative is wrong and I am right. A lot of the more recent responses I've been reading, however, start from the viewpoint that the text really is fundamentally a satire, and that the narrative itself, even if read sympathetically, demonstrates the unrealistic nature of Oceania. In other words, Oceania is not what the actual totalitarian governments that have existed in the world could have became or might yet still become - instead, it provides a reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate how utterly ridiculous these governments actually are. Just because O'Brien manages ultimately to convince Winston that Oceania's government will last forever does not mean that this is actually true in the narrative world - just look at how much O'Brien and the party lie elsewhere! In fact, O'Brien's very torture of Winston relies intrinsically on doublethink - as Laurence Lerner points out in his essay "Totaliarianism: A New Story? An Old Story?," O'Brien says both: "The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again" (215) and ". . .you are the last man. Your kind is extinct. . ." (217) (ref. from Lerner 80). Thus, nothing that O'Brien says should be taken as the firm assertion of the narrative as to what is plausible for the future of Oceania.

I find this reading makes the book a lot easier to take - it provides a way to match my personal reactions of protest with a plausible sympathetic reading of the narrative. And I suppose that there's nothing wrong with that - regardless of whether or not this was the interpretation that Orwell intended, taking this stance improves the book for me and makes it easier for me to react to it. And yet, I wonder what the possibility of opening up such sympathetic readings does to my personal reactions to books. If I dislike a book, does that always mean that I am functioning as a bad reader and need to be more creative in order to find the sympathetic reading that works for me? And if it doesn't always mean that, then what's the difference between the cases where it does and the cases where it doesn't?


Anonymous said...

Food for thought. thanks.

Grace Mulligan said...

You're welcome! Let me know if it inspires you to any interesting thoughts of your own.