Is There a Message? Does it Matter? No

If you are looking for a Yes, click here and here.

Story #1

I'm eight years old, driving back from seeing The Black Stallion with members of my family. I can no longer remember my opinion of the movie (I'm a girl; I was 8; it was about a horse: I'm sure I adored it).

My family members are dissecting the movie piece by piece, line by line, scene by scene, which I find all very puzzling. 

Story #2

I'm in England as part of a Theatre in London college program. We all go to see Uncle Vanya, starring Ian McKellan in the eponymous role (that summer, he was starring simultaneously in Richard III, which I also saw--no, he never confused his lines!). London playhouses are rather informal: playgoers can buy standing room when the seats run out. During the interval, I switch with my roommate, giving up my seat to stand at the rail overlooking the thrust stage.

Over an hour later, I straighten up from hanging over the rail and realize I've forgotten where I am. I have no idea even now whether the play was good or bad. Ian McKellan was in it, so I'm sure it was beautifully acted, but as for the direction, scenery, dialog . . .

No idea. For over 90 minutes, I was completely caught up in Chehov's play.

Story #3

Same program, same summer, the group goes down to Brighton to see Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench in Coriolanus. Afterwards on the bus, the other students complain about how bored they were and how they fell asleep.

I have to admit, I still don't have the slightest idea what that play is about. But bored? Crystallized in my brain is an image of Kenneth Branagh walking out on stage in his bare feet, then he and Judi Dench roaring beautiful language at each other in beautiful voices. Much later, I'll remember that he wasn't much taller than Judi Dench, but at the time, all that struck me was the powerful delivery.

Literary Criticism

The sad truth about criticism, especially for those of us English graduates trained in the stuff, is that it gets easier as we get older. I have seen The Black Stallion since I was 8; it is beautifully, stunningly photographed. It is also entirely too long and monotonously paced in parts.

For good and for bad, criticism has its place, especially if you believe, as I do, that some things are better than others. Comparisons are rather inevitable.

And (if I'm honest) criticism can be fun to write.

Still, despite the importance, inevitability, and power of criticism, I ultimately side with C.S. Lewis on this issue: the best way to enjoy a piece of art is to get swept up in it. This is why excessive praise as well as excessive criticism can be detrimental to viewing a movie or reading a book. We are already prepared for perfection or for flaws (I find the former more problematic than the latter: regarding excessive criticism, I can always like something anyway; regarding excessive praise, the human brain has the detrimental capacity to imagine perfection--far beyond the actual possibility of its performance).

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis argues that the best way to learn about a piece of art is to talk to the people who love it and find out why. He looks specifically at how people imbibe a piece of art--whether as users (what does this do to me or for me?) or as receivers (what is the author doing?).

For my thesis, I added a third or compromise position. To me, allowing the artist's work to sweep over me (receiver) also involves a creative component (user). I join the work, so much so that I reside in the artist's world while I am reading or watching it (one reason I only read short scary books by Stephen King, never long ones).

The Message

With this approach in mind (creative enjoyment), hunting for a message in fiction--or, contrawise, evaluating such works by their good, clean, appropriate, profound, insightful, important (take your pick) messages--creates a problem.

Academic and business compositions (should) tell you what their message is upfront. However, although fiction writers often start (or at least end) with a vision, the communication of that vision, message, or theme is usually (1) not primary since story or imagery or style comes first; (2) not fully acknowledged, even by the writer. 

It might be more accurate to say that a fiction writer communicates a worldview, rather than a message of theme, but even that is too precise. Stephen King states that after he finished the first draft of Carrie, he noticed the recurrence of blood as an image. During the next edit, he emphasized its symbolic value but not so much so that it got in the way of the story. Speaking of myself, I wrote a full novel-size first draft of my current novella Aubrey before I realized the story was about rape and abuse.

Courtesy: Mike Cherniske
Insisting on a message (first) and then using the message as the determiner of value (second) ignores that fiction writers--just like painters and sculptors and musicians--have chosen a medium that deliberately bypasses the (valuable in other contexts) convention of "I tell you what I want to prove; I prove it; I told you what I proved."

When my students write narratives, they have to have a thesis because the narrative is evidence, not a story for its own sake. But I still discuss with them the power of using story: "Why tell a story rather than deliver facts and figures?"

"Stories connect better," they tell me. "Stories can show us more. Stories can speak to us in different ways."

Figuring out what they connect with and how they speak is the best type of criticism.

In my posts on turning books into movies, I separate THE MESSAGE from the movie-maker's vision. A film based on a book might have a message. It must have a vision.


Joe said...

When I was in high school, I was asked to analyze a poem involving a beach, a shell and the narrator. My analysis was that it was a pleasant poem about a beach, a shell and the narrator. Needless to say, the teacher wasn't pleased. I wondered why it mattered and still do.

We are sensual creatures--we experience life through our senses. Even things which are primarily intellectual often have a strong sensual component. Putting that, and the purely utilitarian, aside, I don't understand why the sensual is so distrusted and even denigrated.

Why must a beautiful sunset be more than just a beautiful sunset which stirs something within? Why is it deemed wrong to see a beautiful woman (or handsome man) and think, what a beautiful woman (or handsome man) and leave it at that? Why must there be more? And why can't a poem be just a poem and a story be just a story?

A well done story is sensual in that it hits us at a visceral level that is ultimately pleasing in a way difficult to describe. So, why insist on describing it?

In film school, the dean used to say "if you want to preach, become a preacher." If you want to put your philosophy in your work, do so, but not at the expense of the sensual. I often find that the more subtle the philosophy/intellectual the more powerful it is (in part because it forces the artist to refine it to its essence.)

(Ironically, preachers have become just as annoying in the entire deconstruction and over-intellectualizing things which are pretty simple schtick. "Treat others as you would like to be treated" is pretty self-explanatory. [But doesn't fill up a five minute talk.])

Unfortunately, the drive for meaning all too often destroys the sensual to the point where the simple pleasures no longer have an impact and that seems like a sad life to live. (Then again, how else would PBS raise any money?)

Katherine Woodbury said...

I agree! That is, while the whole search-for-meaning aspect of reading and viewing has its own fun-factor, it amazes me how often the art of a book/movie is seen as “merely” the medium for something else rather than as a cause for enjoyment in its own right.

Even something that should have a message—like an essay—gives me a bone-deep sense of satisfaction when it is put together well. Often, I'll find myself reading a story or watching a movie just to catch the impact of a single well-described/well-delivered image, laugh myself silly over a great piece of dialog, or feel that overwhelming “a-ha” moment when a plot point is paid-off cleanly and cleverly. I remember watching Taming of the Shrew (with Burton and Taylor) in college; afterwards, the students I was with mocked the sexism of Kate’s final speech. I guess I knew what they meant: I could parse that speech as well as anyone in the English Department. But all I could think about at the time was Elizabeth Taylor’s non-Shakespearean but powerhouse of a voice bringing the roof down. Doesn’t that count for anything?

Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” wallops me like that. Sure, I love the meaning it’s given in House, but whenever I hear it, the actual thing itself makes the top of my head (figuratively) explode a mile high. (And I can't deconstruct it because I don't understand music the way I understand texts.)

I’m currently reading a non-fiction book about abstract art; it is quite interesting since it explains the move from Impressionism to pure Constructivism. And I do think that abstract art has a place in the cosmos—it can be enjoyed for the sake of enjoyment! But the philosophy of the folks who came up with the stuff is off-putting: the whole idea that art is not about communication but, rather, about carrying out a theory that "true" art lovers must open themselves up to before they can appreciate the actual work. (“This will puzzle them!” “Good!”) Good grief. What about creating something lovely or passionate or mind-blowing or neat or funny or heart-breaking for the sake of being struck by its loveliness or passion or neatness or funniness or heart-breaking and mind-blowing qualities? Why is being carried away by and into the artist's creation supposed to be less valuable than being forced to contemplate a profound, outside-the-experience concept?

In general, I don’t mind the profound concept. I just wish the wholistic wow-ness of the thing itself wasn’t dismissed so often as a negligible means to an end.