Sunday, April 12, 2009

Juvenile Pastimes and Patterning Texts

Previously, I quoted Graham Harman saying of Nietzsche that "Many consider him a sort of juvenile pastime that one has to move beyond, and this attitude is understandable. . ." I'd meant to say something more about this aspect of youth and reading, before I got sidetracked. But I've seen this kind of thing said of Nietzsche a lot. You see it said of Dostoevsky too, that he is a young person's writer. It's further said that young readers get animated by ideas in fiction, whereas presumably more mature readers can read with more distance. Maybe. Is this condescending, or simply the wisdom of age and accumulated reading? Surely plenty of good readers have remained faithful to Dostoevsky and plenty of older readers of philosophy have not abandoned Nietzsche to the dustbin of youthful indiscretion. But to look on a body of work, written over the course of a lifetime, serious work, and dismiss it from a position outside and above it as "a juvenile pastime"!

(I remember Martin Amis saying something similar of Graham Greene, that he was a writer one grew out of. Amis would probably not be happy to think that the same might be said of him: I feel I've outgrown his novels, several of which I found enormously entertaining when I was in my 20s, but which in retrospect seem a bit slight, even if the glow of entertainment has not dimmed. Is it wrong that my consignment of Amis to the status of entertainment amuses me, particularly in light of his complaint, in his review of Hannibal, that Thomas Harris was being reviewed as literature? It seems rather important to him that his writing be literature. No doubt I'm being puerile. But surely I digress.)

Linking to the post noted above, blogger friend bdr teases me a little here, and in a comment says this:
I have a friend, a linguistics prof specializing in second language acquisition, who says learning the specialized language of, say, a philosopher, *is* SLA, and like learning, say, Russian, it gets harder for each year you're older.
As I say there, I'm sure his friend is exactly right. This has been a subterranean theme for me here. Much of the anxiety I still have about reading what I want to read is not just that, being older, I fear I lack sufficient time to get to it all, but that the time has literally passed in which I could have most effectively learned to read it. In which my brain was being organized this way, as opposed to that. Bdr's comment gives me space to flesh this idea out a bit. Nearly a year ago, I wrote somewhat vaguely on the topic of "the decline of symbolic language". I was channeling a Thomas Merton essay I'd recently read which had spoken to me, but I didn't elaborate much (nor did I reference him by name). The problem I sense is not just that I lack the time to play catch-up, given my age and the other demands on that time. The problem is that even if I had the time, given my age it's too late. (And part of my frustration now is that when I had the time and was young enough, I was obsessed with baseball and Led Zeppelin, not to cast aspersions on either.)

I wrote even earlier about what Michael Dirda has called the "patterning texts": the Bible, mythology, the Greeks, the Romans, etc. These are patterning texts in the sense that they form the background of literature, the patterns of narrative, of metaphor, that can be seen across the history of literature, writers in dialogue with the past, and so on. But they are also patterning texts in the sense that they form the culture which patterns the way we see the world, which patterns our very brains.

Let's consider the Bible for a moment. In The Book of God, Gabriel Josipovici approaches the Bible from a number of different directions, including how it's presented to us, both how it's physically bound and its chapter divisions, various traditions of interpretation, and especially its narrative mode. He also talks about how we encounter the Bible as children. Usually it's read to us, and we take the stories to be "true", in the way stories are, as we do all stories when we are children. I've had to take Josipovici's word on this, because for me the Bible was never thus. Though my mother went to church semi-regularly at different times in my childhood, the Bible did not live in our house, the stories were never really told. If I heard them at all it was either in the brief period in which I went to Sunday School myself, or more likely, third-hand, as filtered through the thick layers of culture, all confused and distant. And though I've tried to argue here on behalf of Josipovici's conception of the Bible as resistant to meaning, I'm fully aware that the Bible in fact, especially in this country, is seen rather as a repository of meaning, a container of answers. The manner in which it is framed for most is geared towards particular meanings; people usually have study versions of the Bible, with "key" sections bolded or set aside as pull quotes or areas of further consideration. The point is that, though my almost total areligiosity is probably anomalous in the United States over the period of my life, my sense is that even those who are Christian have that Christianity framed for them with particular meanings in view (which, again, to my mind has less to do with faith itself than with configurations of power), and while they are no doubt much more familiar with the broad strokes of the various religious stories than I am--one would hope--I suspect that in general the patterning work that the Bible once did simply as a matter of course is not being done. And even if it is for those who are broadly religious, the point can be extended to include the mythological texts, the Greco-Roman pantheon and the related tragedies and other works, material that my education barely covered at all. What once was simply widely known to a literate or semi-literate population, is now all but lost, replaced by characters from television shows or comic books who are thin, pale descendants of these archetypal myths. (Or maybe I'm overstating the case? Perhaps I'm just describing myself, in isolation? Perhaps, but somehow I get the sense that I'm not alone in this. The generally depressing discussion that arose around Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones tell me otherwise. But it's about the Nazis and the Holocaust, right? And we all think we know enough to be able to talk intelligently about those subjects.)

I'm going to leave off there, except I will repeat some questions I asked in one of those earlier posts: To the extent that a literature is a lived tradition of a people, is such a thing doomed without a common repository of symbolic language? Or a common repository of much of anything? And is such a thing perhaps already dead, with narrative taking place only in that place of solitude, where the reader finds the text? And if we all have our various tastes, so that increasingly few of us can draw on the same body of literature, what then?

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