Start over. Forget everything that's been said about saying things about literature. What happens when we start with a blank slate? Stop thinking the way people right now think. Stop thinking what people think. Could we get outside it? Can we look at this mess we're in with no bias, no preexisting judgment? Can we--I, you, the community of readers and writers--build and communicate a system of techniques and values relevant to the conversation about literature, from scratch, from nothing but logic and instinct, for no other purpose than to understand what we've got, and what we might want?
After all, it worked for Descartes.
Might be too violent, though. Too much. Non-starter issue, in any case: if I had such ambitious energy and focus, I'd probably be too busy using it to have the time to dream such things up.
But, maybe, I can, at least, learn how to let go. To loosen up, and to forget.
Herewith the continuation of your previously commenced chaos.
Julio Cortázar's The Winners is one of several TBR pile books I've recently started reading only to set back down after about fifty pages. Some of these books, I've found that my mind was elsewhere, and I wasn't pulling out ideas the way I would like. Other times it's been the books that have been been some other place, somewhere I realized I wasn't interested in learning how to visit. The Winners was one of the former. I enjoyed what I read. There's a lot going on in that book. Too much for me, right now. I'll come back to it, after I regenerate my powers of concentration and interpretation. After I settle down.
The book presents an intriguing premise: through a government-sponsored lottery, a group of Argentines win an expenses-paid cruise vacation. Some of the winners are friends, and some bring family and friends as guests, but many of the people are strangers to each other. In the prologue, the winners assemble at a cafe, where they begin to meet and are then shuttled to their ship. The lottery and the cruise seem surrounded by a vague cloud of mystery. On the page, the proceedings have a remarkable sense of flow and motion. I enjoyed feeling the group forming out of the multiple identities of the winners, who individually are not extraordinary people but become complex through the conversations and actions that lay the groundwork for social intrigues and tensions that I assume will play out through the remainder of the book.
I had to bail before the ship left shore. (Pure trivia: the prologue is about 100 pages. Just under a quarter of the book's length. Are there longer prologues out there? By page count, or percentage?) The book isn't a hard read at all. I'm sad the timing's off. Not the sort of book you want to try to focus on when you can't focus on it. When you can't fully go into it. I think I've decided that what I'm in the mood for literarily is to make one new friend, someone who can tell me a good life story over endless coffee in the corner booth of an empty diner. Starting Cortázar's book is like being introduced to a crowded in-progress party just before the host disappears into the kitchen and right after you've taken an extra dose of being socially inept. I can't even begin to ask where the bathroom is, let alone what these people are doing here, and why they matter to me.
Though I jumped ship, I didn't leave empty-handed. Here's a quote:
"...Well, Persio, here we are. What's going to happen?"
"Ah, that...I haven't had much time to study the question, but I'm already preparing the offensive."
"Yes. A thing or a fact has to be attacked in many ways. People usually select one tactic and only get halfway results. I always prepare my offensive and afterward synchronize the results."
"I understand," said Claudia in a tone of voice which revealed her lack of understanding.
"A kind of push-pull has to be in operation," said Persio. "I don't know if I'm making myself clear. Occasionally, it's as if there were things blocking the way, then they have to be pushed aside for one to make out what's happening further on. Women, for instance, and pardon my mentioning them in front of a child. But there are other things you have to grab by the handle and pull. That chap Dali knows what he's doing (maybe he doesn't, but it's all the same) when he paints a body full of drawers. It seems to me many things have handles. For example, poetic images. If one sees them from the outside, only the outer and obvious meaning can be grasped, even if it's sometimes well concealed. Are you satisfied with the exterior, the obvious meaning? No, you're not. You have to pull the handle and fall into the drawer. To pull is to appropriate, to approach, and even to go too far."
Setting aside the results-coordinating relevance to modern political practice, and setting aside the push-your-way-through relevance to my own in-need-of-a-push life situation, this passage presents an interesting metaphor for literary interpretation. It suggests that literary criticism--or at least, the best literary criticism, the stuff that really satisfies--is an act upon the object of study. You change the object of study in the process of extracting meaning from it. And you accomplish that, of course, by letting the thing change you: to discuss a work is to both bring it into yourself while putting yourself into it.
It was that closing clause that did it for me when I first read this passage. It's a long set-up to get there but those last six words open up, for me, something interesting: the possibility of damage. To study meaning is--possibly, if not necessarily--"to go too far." To overextend yourself, to cause harm. Taken in the context of the approach/appropriation bi-directional act of interpretation, might going too far mean swapping reality for fiction? The void becoming the person who peers into it?
The passage doesn't say all that, of course. The meaning is vague, but rings ominous. And yet, while this isn't a particularly tab-a-into-slot-b technical level of instruction about how to functionally work with literature, it does offer some comfort and encouragement to someone like me, who is, right here, right now, trying to figure out how to do what he is trying to do. Don't worry about fucking it up, Persio (Cortázar?) suggests: you should fuck it up. You're supposed to.
Not that we ought to go about things blindly. Deconstruction for fun and profit is a dangerous thing, as we see when Persio immediately reverses himself:
"Ah," said Claudia, making a discreet sign for Jorge to blow his nose.
"This place, for instance, is thick with significant elements: every table, every necktie. I see an underlying order within this awful disorder. I wonder what the outcome will be."
"So do I. But it's amusing."
"Amusement is always a spectacle: but let's not delve too deeply, for some foul trap is bound to come open at our feet. It's not that I'm against amusement, but every time I want to enjoy myself I must first lock up the laboratory and throw out all the acids and alkalines. I mean that I must surrender and give in to the appearance of things. You know very well how dramatic the humorous can be..."
It's hard to have fun when you're going too far all the time.