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.)

9 responses to this post.

  1. I once belonged to a book group with a stated mission “to read and discuss great literature.” We could never agree, however, on what great literature was, although we were sometimes pretty sure when a book failed our various personal standards. My own standard is that the book needs to “speak to me” in some way, and this is especially true for books from the past. Middlemarch does give me that tingle you mention — perhaps because I am a woman.


    • I think if I were to try to analyse why I feel so cold about Middlemarch, I’d be analysing myself rather than the book, but I doubt it’s to do with gender. There are a great many women authors whom I love dearly, and a great many books by women that very obviously provide that Nabokovian tingle – Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights, The Age of Innocence, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Golden Apples, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, of Flannery O’Connor, the poems of Marianne Moore, say, or of Elizabeth Bishop, … and so on. Equally, I know many men who rate Middlemarch as their favourite novel. I’d guess that whatever it is in individual readers that allow them to respond so keenly to some books but not to others has more to do with individual receptivities rather than to gender.

      I think, eventually, one has to accept that one’s personal perceptions are not all-encompassing, and when other people of sound aesthetic judgement and discernment profess themselves lovers of certain books one does not get oneself, one should accept that the shortcoming is more likely to lie with the limitations of one’s own perceptions: there is no shame in accepting this.

      I can see very clearly, incidentally, why Middlemarch is so deeply valued and loved. but one’s individual temperament inevitably plays a major role in all this.


    • I’m with you, Silver Season. I agree that Middlemarch is a brilliant book. The fineness of its detail and its psychology are intensely thought out and presented. I recently saw an operatic production of Middlemarch that reduced the book to mere plot and only one plot line. It turned what was a fine psychological study of women in a society favoring male values into a nineteenth-century romance. One of the aspects of Middlemarch’s greatness is its inability to be reduced.


  2. Posted by alan on June 1, 2018 at 10:05 pm

    “Many a true word said in jest”.

    With Austen I have to agree with Auden:

    “You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
    Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
    It makes me most uncomfortable to see
    An English spinster of the middle class
    Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
    Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
    The economic basis of society”

    For me the measure of greatness is not the ‘tingle in the spine’ but the awareness that I will never be able to write something as good, even if I devoted a lifetime to it.


    • You think something is very good when you feel you couldn’t write anything so good. A bit circular, isn’t it?


      • Posted by alan on June 2, 2018 at 7:34 pm

        Circular? No. Self-referential? Yes.
        Better than invoking mysterious tingles, at least in my opinion.
        On the other hand some have suggested that in a mature adult one’s ‘instincts’ are not instincts at all but the unconscious distillation of experience. Perhaps Nabokov’s ‘tingle’ was the response of a greatly experienced writer.
        Back to the suitability of the journalistic ‘we’.

      • Well, let’s define “instincts” as “unconscious distillations was f experience”. We’re all right then, aren’t we?

        And if Nabokov’s tingles are the response of a greatly experienced writer, I think I can claim my tingles are the response of a reasonably experienced reader.

        And the journalistic “we”, in this case, can be taken as a convenient shorthand for “a great many of us experienced readers”.

  3. Posted by Ann on June 2, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Hi Himadri, (it’s Ann here). I wasn’t sure I knew what you meant by a ‘tingle in the spine’ from literature. I react strongly to music that way, but literature? Then you mentioned Wuthering Heights and I remembered this piece “ Be with me always, take any form, drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss where I cannot find you.” I was a young girl when I first read this and the visceral scream of agony still resonates today. So, yes, I do understand now. A great blog – it certainly got me thinking. Keep waffling H.


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