Archive for June 1st, 2018

The tingle in the spine

I should stop trying to do irony on this blog. I just can’t do it very well. It could be that my flights of ironic fancy are often taken at face value because readers can’t see my body language, or the expression on my face; or that they can’t hear my tone of voice; and so on. But it’s no good: I might as well accept that my attempts at irony fall down because I am not a terribly good writer. And even if I was, it would make little difference: after all, the irony of even so great a writer as Jane Austen is often misunderstood, so what chance do I have?

(And may I say, incidentally, that there is nothing in the above paragraph that is intended ironically. And, indeed, nothing in that last sentence either. This could go on for ever, couldn’t it?)

Most definitions of irony (and a quick Google search indicates that definitions vary) talk about intentionally saying the opposite of what one really means; but I think irony can be considerably more subtle than that. Irony can also, I think, encompass saying things that one only partially means. The world is, after all, endlessly intricate and complex, and quite frequently, certain things can be merely partially true: certain things one may find oneself agreeing and disagreeing with at the same time. For instance, in my previous post, I had said that great literature should address great themes. I think I stand by this up to a point, but only up to a point. I think, for instance, that the Sherlock Holmes stories are great literature. I think Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories are great literature. I think The Three Musketeers is great literature. Not only do these works not address great themes, they sometimes go out of their way not to address them. But whatever we may mean by “greatness”, I think these books are “great”. And if they’re disqualified because they do not measure up to some pre-defined criterion, then I don’t know that I need worry about it too much.

This does not mean I am willing to jettison my contention: great themes I continue to associate with great literature, and I refuse to accept there is no connection between them. But appreciation and appraisal of literature are far from exact sciences, and rigidly applying pre-determined principles to assess literary value is a pretty fruitless exercise. I think, on the whole, that great literature should address great themes. Except when they don’t.

Perhaps it is best to see thematic seriousness as a criterion of literary merit that is neither necessary, nor sufficient, but which remains all the same an important criterion. And that all other criteria of literary merit one may think of are, similarly, neither necessary, nor sufficient. The entire range of literature is too vast, too unwieldy, too messy, to be bound by any pre-determined criteria.

And in any case, the greatness comes first. If we insist on trying to formulate criteria that determine literary greatness, we do this by examining those works that we already know to be great, and then, and only then, trying to identify what it is about these works that makes them so.

And how do we know without applying pre-determined criteria that a work is great? As that fastidious critic Vladimir Nabokov put it, we know it by that unmistakable tingle in the spine.

This is not the end of the matter, of course. Nothing is ever the end of the matter when it comes to literature: this is why there is always so much to discuss, so much to talk about. What about those works that I strongly sense to be great, but which give me, personally, no spinal tingle at all? Something such as, for me, Middlemarch? Well, let’s leave that for a later post. I have waffled on too long here as it is.

(That last sentence is intended as ironic, by the way: just thought I’d point that out.)