Sunday, October 21, 2007

M-M-M-My Aesthetic

As a teacher of writing, I think I am getting a bit of a reputation for riding one particular hobby horse--the one where I tell students over and over to simplify and clarify their prose, to use as few words as possible to get their point across. One grad student out and out accused me of being totally biased against any kind of "beautiful" or "lyrical" writing.

And given my rhetoric, she had a point. I am generally suspicious of excessive elaboration--it usually has to prove its usefulness to me before I can accept it. If I had to say I had a particular aesthetic, it would be that of simple language expressing complex ideas. By "simple" I don't mean intentionally reductive or minimalist--I just mean no more than is necessary.

I think the exemplar of this aesthetic is probably Shakespeare, whose Comedy of Errors I read yesterday, and discussed today with the book group. It's not a major play, but it is highly entertaining and extraordinarily clever (two sets of twins, separated at birth, endure an afternoon of being mistaken for one another). It's also extremely straightforward in its language--anyone can understand it--yet musical to the ear. Perhaps most importantly, it harbors a lot of darkness and fear: the highly implausible plot has the threat of a beheading hanging over it, and the characters immerse themselves in marital disharmony, mental illness, political intrigue, and Christian philosophy. (Doug, the book group's retired pastor, had a lot to say about the influence on the play of Paul's Letter to the Ephesians.) Shakespeare is like a magician, who uses clear, fluid motions to do incredible and mysterious things.

But the thing about your personal aesthetic is, there's always something lying in wait to contradict it. Ulysses is perhaps the antithesis of my aesthetic--it's sprawling, pretentious, confusing, and stylistically inconsistent; it is the product of a supremely arrogant mind without the slightest concern for the comfort of its audience, in total opposition to Shakespeare's egalitarian appeal. And it ends with a big, gooey, overwritten and underpunctuated flourish involving buttocks ("plump mellow yellow smellow melons," in case you haven't had the pleasure).

And yet, I think Ulysses is freaking awesome. I think about it all the time, and it has surely influenced my work. I regard it as one of my twenty or so favorite novels, if you could even call it one. What's up with that?

Frankly, I have no idea. I could mutter something to you about containing multitudes, but I won't even bother. When it comes to art, it is not possible to appreciate too many different things. You can't stand Schoenberg until some string quartet or other makes you cry. You find pork chops repulsive until finally somebody cooks them right. You tell yourself your whole life that you're not into brunettes until suddenly you're married to one. Like Stephen Dedalus on the beach, taste is protean, and is to be assumed unstable at all times, and it's a good thing, too, because this means the world will never run out of stuff for you to love.

9 comments:

Lori said...

Okay, I'll bite. What are the other nineteen novels in your top twenty?

the individual voice said...

excessive elaboration?

Anonymous said...

This blog entry--shimmering across my multi-colored laptop screen like some antique phoenix--has offended the literary wizard that lurks in the depths of my heart--my heart that beats across 1000 miles of words and phrases, jumbled like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, strewn across the sky.

jrlennon said...

Anonymous: brilliant!! Brilliant!!!!

The other nineteen, eh? I have never actually made a list. A few that would be on it are Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The World As I Found It, The Unconsoled, Moby-Dick, The Magic Mountain (if you got rid of Naphtha and Settembrini it would probably be #1), Pale Fire...there are some that make their way on and off the list from time to time, like Lem's Solaris, or a few great crime novels like The Laughing Policeman.

Interestingly there's no women on that list. For some reason the women I most admire are better at short stories--Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Flannery O'Connor, Ann Beattie.

jrlennon said...

Oh actually The Laughing Policeman is co-written by Maj Sjowall...so there's a woman on there after all...

Kevin said...

re: "no more than is necessary."

Mailman doesn't seem, in my mind, to fit into this simple aesthetic. (I say this as a fan, not as some annoying internet nitpicker.)

Maybe for some stories, excessive elaboration is appropriate, unnecessary prose necessary? Excessive elaboration only seems excessive in the hands of a poor writer. Maybe? I dunno.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, exactly! Mailman doesn't fit at all. Or rather it does fit, because of what you said--excess was in fact the minimal requirement for the job. Of course, I could use this rubbery rationale to justify any old crap writing I happen to do at any time, but there you go.

I think the point of this post was to call into question whether or not I actually have an aesthetic at all.

sif said...

That was a good post. I hope you enjoy this e-pat on the e-back.

aos said...

Though I tend toward the simple as well, overall I like both ends of the spectrum when it suits. The beginning of Under Milk Wood is fabulous excess and Russell Hoban's Lion Of Boaz Jachin and JachinBoaz is a masterpiece of clarity. The one attempts of describe all the world and the other to bring forth something almost archetypal. Having to choose between the two (and this is a very bad analogy) is like the old choice between the Beatles and the Stones, assuming you could only go one way. Give me Faulkner and Hemingway.