Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"Thought counts."

--for those who stay up late at night leaving coffee stains on unfinished manuscripts...
(be kind as I did not make time to edit / spellcheck)

The above title references my favorite sentence by Annie Dillard. Others have noted that one could live a lifetime and not write a sentence as well as she, but I am merely noting content--not style.

Dillard's thoughts are wrapped in blankets of wisdom--evidence she has done her homework. While she may not be remembered as an academic philosophe, she should be hailed as one of the great intellects of our age. Her ideas are presented with such lucidity she makes complex concepts seem relatively simple. What is important about Dillard, however, is not her contribution, but her technique (ok, maybe that's confusing) which embraces an audience skeptical to her subject matter. This is the case especially in Living By Fiction.

Here, she argues that contemporary modernist (i. e. post-modern) fiction requires responsible readers willing to look at a work's structure, device, technique as an end in itself. She argues for more serious criticism from such readers--yet, at least her audience is an educated, curious reader familiar with her pious Emersonian philosophical works; at best it is those who have read both modernist and post-modernist works and have well-formed judgements on both. She combats the reader whose final comment on post-modernist writers is, "So what, it's still meaningless art. Where's the story? the characterization." Leaving her answers to these questions aside (which are intelligent and convincing), Living By Fiction is not so much a work of literary criticism, but an argument for the purpose, significance, and place of art itself.

Art mirrors thought (not Nature)--and literature does this better than any of the arts. This is not to create a hierarchy within the arts (which even in 1982 when Living was published was passe)--it is merely to solidify a place and purpose for a branch of the humanities that seems to have fallen into disarray as a result of the l'art pour l'art movement. The artist has turned inward, not psychologically, but into art itself--into the techniques that present data. Thus, experiencing art is experiencing and learning about how the mind creates and organizes its passions, impressions, and memories. Here, there is a place for Mondrian, Duchamp, Cezanne and the like. For those who tuned out the third section of their Humanities core class--Dillard reminds us that art begins when social criticism, psychological realism, and religious dogma ends.

In this sense, real, true artists are not those of the past where a learned technique such as portaiture, landscape, or realism, but those who have mastered new techniques. "Anyone can learn how to paint like Michelangelo with enough time," one could argue. This is not to say that random techniques are applied in post-modernist art--quite the opposite--in fact, much of modernist contemporary fiction employs complex structures that stretch the reader's intellectual membrane to new configurations.

Dillard builds up to her point that science and art are not all that dissimilar. That is, pragmatists have been arguing against the legitamacy of the arts for centuries. With science there may be, in fact, more doubt that the atom or the theoretical endless "universe" even exists. With literature, we can agree, at least that there is a text that is trying to say something and that something is usually comprehendible to those who are trained to understand.

One last comment. While I usually object to writers who try to tie in the meaning of life in to their argument about fiction or Kant or Bergman--having not the skill nor wit to pull it off--Dillard has license to do so based on the fact that all of her writing takes this turn, or perhaps her writing never ceases to contemplate this mystery. At this point in the book we know where she is going because we have been there with her. She searches for a governing principle by which we can live by that is not reductive, dogmatic, and exclusive.

...the purpose of people on earth is to counteract the tide of entropy described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics [note: she does not reduce the argument to the Bible and The Fall]. Physical things are falling apart at a terrific rate; people on the other hand, put things together....the universe as it were needs somebody or something to keep it from falling apart....Thoughts count. A completed novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe's order.

This is why we create.


Blogger mattreed said...

I wonder if reducing the argument to the Fall isn't more helpful than reducing the argument to Physics.

7:00 PM  
Blogger mickrect said...

not sure. Perhaps she's reducing Physics to say, "look even the physicists are proving the Bible," but I hope not.

Nonetheless, I think it was an interesting choice. Have you read the book?

8:34 PM  
Blogger mattreed said...

I've read bits, but I only just recently bought the book and I haven't gotten to it yet.

9:42 AM  
Blogger mickrect said...

I really just wrote the review more to inspire Lucas to keep writing / editing. "Coffee Stains" looks good as far as I can tell--but I can't envision things as film / drama very well. Maybe Johanna has some insight.

2:30 PM  
Blogger johanna said...

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10:40 AM  

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