Book group literary theory

I love Faulkner and I love Merton. I learned recently that Merton loved Faulkner and said this about him:

His novels and stories are far more prophetic in the Biblical sense than the writings of any theologian writing today (at least, any that I know!).

Merton was contemplating writing a book on Faulkner’s work, but he died instead.  Merton loved to write about literature, and thirteen years after his death New Directions put a lot of this writing into a five-hundred-plus-page book entitled The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. In an appendix, this book also contains transcripts of informal talks Merton gave to his brothers at the Abbey of Gethsemani concerning The Sound and the Fury, Go Down, Moses, and The Wild Palms.

[Louise Rosenblatt]Go Down, Moses is my favorite Faulkner novel, and The Sound and the Fury ranks up there, too.  I wanted to read The Wild Palms this summer because Merton had read it and loved it and wrote about it, and I wanted to read what Merton wrote about it but not before I had read the novel myself.

I read The Wild Palms this week like I used to read books during those years when my Great Books book group was hot.  I couldn’t wait to share with Merton my impressions and read about his.  If I ever become Orthodox, I thought, I can talk to Merton because he’s not dead because God is not the God of the dead but of the living, thank you.  If I don’t become Orthodox, I could just scrawl margin notes in the appendix as usual, and that’s pretty satisfying.  Because I know Merton and I know Faulkner, and I’m so happy that they were friends, or at least that Faulkner was Merton’s friend the way Faulkner and Merton are my friends.

{book]Merton says that The Wild Palms is a meditation.  “Yes, a meditation!”  (Merton is animated.  The Literary Essays editor does little editing so as not to detract from the talk’s informality.)  Merton thinks The Wild Palms is a meditation because of the depths of the truths it gets across through a kind of counterpoint (I’ll explain at the end); I think it’s a meditation, too, but I say it’s because of Faulkner’s high-wire prose that unites thought and action through epic similes and movie-director detail and repetition, through non-sequential time and fraying syntax, a union that seems to thin out under a reader’s feet at a vertiginous height above a truth where she fears that she or the character one will fall and die in contact with that truth.  The prose is like a meditation, a spell, a dull spell (no matter how much you like Faulkner); it affects you like a dream, not a vivid dream but like your last, evaporating dream as you wake up: precisely the imprecise mood and the seemingly random images or words that stick with you not because they are the dream’s best moods or images or words but because they are the slowest moods or images or words to head out, the last bats, the ones that fly home in the orange sunrise; truth’s dull, pervasive, dawning impression.

Like this, Tom, this interaction between Wilbourne (lover) and McCord (husband) as McCord sees the couple off:

Wilbourne and McCord shook hands.  “Maybe I’ll write you,” Wilbourne said.  “Charlotte probably will, anyway.  She’s a better gentlemen than I am, too.”  He stepped into the vestibule and turned, the porter behind him, his hand on the door knob, waiting; he and McCord looked at one another, the two speeches unspoken between them, each knowing they would not be spoken: I won’t see you and No.  You won’t see us again.  “Because crows and sparrows get shot out of trees or drowned by floods or killed by hurricanes and fires, but not hawks.  And maybe I can be the consort of a falcon, even if I am a sparrow.”  The train gathered itself, the first, the beginning of motion, departure came back car by car and passed under his feet.  “And something I told myself up there at the lake,” he said.  “That there is something in me she is not mistress to but mother.  Well, I have gone a step further.”  The train moved, he leaned out, McCord moving too to keep pace with him.  “That there is something in me you and she parented between you, that you are father of.  Give me your blessing.”

“Take my curse,” McCord said.

On we go, our little book club, tonight, and when Tom left I thought again about The Wild Palms and about Bill, Tom, and me.

What would Louise Rosenblatt say about us tonight?  Her transactional theory of reading accounts for only two of us.  She puts everyone and everything but me on her stage in the preface to The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work: the writer (that’s Bill), the text, and the reader (Tom).  I’m a reader, too, but I’m also the reader’s reader, the reader of Merton’s secondary writing.  Where would I fit in?

[book]Rosenblatt’s transactional theory, which I like very much, emphasizes the reader’s role in the transaction among writer, text, and reader.  She says that classicism and neoclassicism seek to mirror accepted reality, that Romanticism emphasizes the author, that New Criticism emphasizes the text, and that her transactional theory strikes the best balance by emphasizing the reader and the text (1-3).  I’m never on stage, never part of the big theory, but I do get a shout-out later in the book as the reader of criticism.

So what am I doing reading Tom reading Bill?  As a reader of criticism, am I being shortchanged or enriched?  Is this metacognition or metaestrus?

Valid literary criticism must come from a reader as a reader, Rosenblatt would say, and it must be about “the web of feelings, sensations, images, ideas, that [the reviewer or critic as reader] weaves between himself and the text.”  The text is important, too, but only as “the external pole in the process” (137).  “Objective” literary criticism (i.e., criticism focused only on this external pole) – no matter how good (and she likes the New Criticism’s brand of objective theory) – cuts readers off “from their own aesthetic roots” and so (ironically) drives them from the subject of the criticism: the text (140).

Merton does a good job avoiding that. “Yes, a meditation!” means that he has processed the novel, and his meditation exclamation gives way in his talk to some experiences he had as a reader along with some insightful takes on the text.

But even more than Merton’s personal approach, my perceived friendship with Merton, dead or alive, makes his criticism fruitful.  I know where he’s coming from, and, more importantly, I don’t know where he’s going.  This is also why I like to read book posts on blogs I’m familiar with – well, that and the comment fields, which sometimes amount to interactive marginalia.

I can even enjoy what Rosenblatt calls “objective” criticism if I have some dirt on the critic.  I started to enjoy Cleanth Brooks’s essays more once he got roughed up a bit, once Rosenblatt and Harold Bloom pointed out New Criticism’s shortcomings to me.  A biography on Brooks helped me, too.

For me, the best literary criticism is like a good book discussion group or like a marriage of true minds, impediments and all, in which the author is the celebrant and his text is the covenant we choose to honor or contravene.

[book](Here’s a little about The Wild Palms, which Faulkner originally named If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem before his publisher had its way.  Faulkner wrote it mid-career in 1938.  In it, he examines love, sexual and otherwise, by interweaving two stories, each about a man and a woman.  I never knew that Faulkner had it in him to examine sexual love so well, and Charlotte may be his most interesting and most human female character.  The stories, one about a modern couple who live only for their mutual love and the other about a convict stuck on a skiff with a pregnant woman he rescues during a flood, balance each other out thematically and emotionally (the “counterpoint”). The modern couple story is a psychodrama, probably kind of shrill as a stand-alone, and the flood story is action and comedy, so the stories in The Wild Palms mix a bit like the stories comprising Go Down, Moses.  Noel Polk, the editor of the current Vintage edition of The Wild Palms, says that the original manuscripts demonstrate that Faulkner wrote the novel in the order it appears – in “alternating stints” and not one story at a time.  I knew that if Merton liked the novel then I would like it, too, and I did.)

Posted August 10, 2008.

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