Tuesday, March 04, 2008

III. The Element of Play in Reading, Creating, and Understanding Literature

Literature is a game in which each writer both abides by already existing rules and creates his own rules, which each reader has to accept upon picking up any particular poem or work of fiction in order to understand and enjoy that particular work. When a professor of literature hears a student say Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is stupid because who ever heard of a man turning into a bug, that may be less a problem of a lack of imagination on the part of the student than a refusal to play by the rules Kafka has set up in his story. If there is no agreement by the reader to the writer’s rules at the outset, no game can be played – if a reader does not agree to the implicit rules any given author gives him, he cannot enjoy, perhaps cannot even understand, the author’s work. This is undoubtedly why so many of those novelists we consider great – those we consider literary, because they are continually creating their own rules – often tell their readers how to read their novels through the very way the novels are written. Such self-referentiality is not unique to postmodernist novelists – it is found throughout the history of the novel, from Cervantes, Rabelais, and Laurence Sterne to Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, and Thomas Pynchon.

The statement that creative writers use rules in the construction of their works may at first appear to suggest that creative writing is completely conscious, that such writers “know” what they are doing at all times – but as anyone who writes fiction or poetry knows, much of what comes out and turns out to be the best work is not fully conscious, and some is surprising to the writer himself. But writers nonetheless do follow the rules of their craft, whether it be the most basic rules of syntax and grammar, the understood needs of any particular genre, ranging from lyric poetry to the novel, or even self-made rules, where the author decides (s)he is going to include certain words, have a certain rhythm, or have a certain rhyme scheme (or lack of a rhyme scheme). Once those rules are decided upon, the author soon finds himself abiding by those rules,
even when the story or poem seems to be writing itself. This way of writing resembles the way soccer is played. Soccer has particular rules, which all the players are aware of and abide by, though any particular soccer player may not be consciously aware of all the rules when the ball is coming toward him and he needs to pass the ball while keeping it on sides so one of his teammates can shoot for goal. For a good soccer player, the rules are so well-known that he can play without having to continually think of the rules he nonetheless plays by at all times. A writer writes using his rules of writing in the same way.

Anyone familiar with Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto” and the idea of automatic writing may be tempted to see the surrealists as proof against this idea. But the surrealists were not really that good at being surrealists, if the idea of automatic writing is to be taken as the ideal. Aside from the fact that they all wrote grammatically, which is the most basic rule by which writers write, the surrealists are particularly famous for using puns. A pun is one of the most purposeful, conscious uses of words one can think of. It is a conscious play on words, and, as anyone knows who has either used or knows someone who uses puns, it requires some effort to come up with one. Any surrealist who used a pun automatically broke out of his “automatic writing” (which, by the way, could also be seen as a rule – a rule that required you to not edit and to write whatever came into your head, no matter what it was, but a rule nonetheless), and thus turned it into conscious play that abided by the rules of pun-making. The analysis I made of the placement of the pictures and the effort that had to have gone into the intricate metaphors Breton created in Mad Love further suggests that, whatever the writing was, it was hardly “automatic.” The surrealists, as with any literary writers, used what Huizinga identified as the various play-rules of literature, “metrical and strophical patterns, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, stress, etc. and forms (genres)” (132), a “range of ideas and symbols to be used,” as well as “special terms, images, figures,” and “image-making or figurative word(s)” (133). The surrealists, like the literary writers they were supposedly trying to break from, used every one of these rules, just as their predecessors had before them. Had they not, the surrealists would not be given the respect we now hold for them.

Surrealism was one of the many attacks on what was seen as the basic flaw of literature (and of the world in general): the existence of rules. Rules were seen by the surrealists and other anarchists as restrictive, preventing freedom of expression, and oppressive. But rules, while restrictive, create, through that restriction, greater freedom. Rules per se are not oppressive – they are necessary elements of freedom. Imagine driving without rules. You can drive on either the right or left side of the road. You do not have to drive in a straight line, and stop signs and stop lights are ignored or no longer exist. No one would want to drive under such conditions, but these are the conditions literary anarchists claim to want us to read and write by (the fact that this is not how surrealist literature turned out is further proof they worked by rules). This may seem an extreme example, but could anyone imagine playing chess without rules? What would you have? You would have complete randomness, and complete randomness has a tendency to look remarkably identical to other instances of complete randomness. This is undoubtedly why so much surrealist literature – and all bad surrealist literature, which typically comes from writers unfamiliar with the actual works of the surrealist literary movement – sounds so much the same.

Consider the following poem I wrote. For the longest time, I wrote poems “as they came to me” – I took the surrealist ideal of automatic writing seriously. In recent years I have been writing poems using more formal rules. One day, I returned to automatic writing in starting the following poem:

Without Rules

Im bored
floored, soared
seeming sailing high on winded sky
stupid, stupid, stupid
It all sounds the same every time I write
whatever comes to mind
continual rhyming – internal, alliterative,
same sounds over and over,
S and I
Poe’s long O for sorrow –
even the sentence above sounds sorrowful –
But why my S and I?
S is slippery, serpentine,
I lifts the soul high –
how can high and slippery serpentine
possibly come together? –
a formalist problem –
the postmodernists know
even if I don’t.

It took only three lines for me to realize what I was doing and stop it. One can see that once I slipped out of my revery of automatic writing and started really thinking about what I was writing that I stuck with the same rules – but this time, I used them consciously, and the poem really began to speak. Undoubtedly there are also other unconscious rules in the poem, but I would argue that whatever they are, they work better in combination with the conscious rules. One could argue that such rules are only superficial – surface decoration. But one must have a surface if one is going to have any depth.

It seems the surrealists tried to sell the world a set of goods they did (and could) not use themselves. Before Breton developed the idea of automatic writing, most of the surrealists were already writers who well understood their craft. So we should not be surprised when their version of automatic writing comes out sounding remarkably like literature. They were writing by rules they had accepted so completely it became unconscious. Their idea becomes a problem when people who have not learned enough rules of writing use it. That is when surrealist writing really begins to all sound the same. Instead of creating a great proliferation of great writing, it created, after a while, a stagnant soup of identical-sounding works. This is why surrealism as an automatic writing movement has been mostly abandoned, except by those undergraduate writing students who consider themselves to be more radical than the “typical” writer, and just end up creating works that sound like all other undergraduate neo-surrealist writing. Rather than sounding different, all they end up doing is sounding exactly the same as all other “ruleless” writers.

Rules are found at all levels of society. They are what help different aspects of society work well together. This is not a defense of all the rules of society, or of all rules of literature. It was very healthy for poets to ask why it was necessary for a poem to rhyme or have a steady, regular rhythm in order to be a poem. Why could there not be other forms of poetry? Why not Dickinson’s slant-rhyme? Or Whitman’s free-verse? But even Whitman’s free-verse has its rules. He abided by the rules of poetry in deciding that what he was writing should have line breaks. He decided on various other rules in word choice or in particular rhythms or use of metaphors. So even when it does not appear that a given author is using rules, we are oftentimes surprised to find he is. And this questioning of rules is, I believe, one of the hallmarks of a great writer, whether it be the questioning of rhyme in poetry (or the current prejudice against it), how characters or situations or reality are portrayed, the use of alliteration, the use of metaphors, the choice of words, or any number of other things writers use. We consider Baudelaire a great poet mostly because he challenged the rules of appropriate topics for poems in the romantic style. He maintained the romantic structure, the rhythm and end-rhyme, and many of their turns of phrases, then twisted them with the topics he used, which challenged the rule of what was an appropriate topic for a great poem. Baudelaire is a great poet in part because he was able to write a romanticist poem about a rotting deer corpse.

The necessity for rules to create literature is not the only thing that makes literature a game or play. Among the functions play performs, Johan Huizinga has identified “training for the demands of life,” and “compensating for unfulfilled longings” (3), which one could argue (and Richard Rorty, among others, has) are indeed functions of literature, especially fiction. Play makes use of an “imitative instinct,” a ““need” for relaxation,” and acts as an “outlet for harmful impulses,” or as “wish fulfillment” (2). What does fiction do but imitate? Why else do we read literature except to relax? (There are other reasons, like intellectual stimulation, but this does not preclude play, since chess is played for this very reason too.) In the confines of his writing a writer can do or say things he otherwise would not. He can be smarter, braver, a bigger villain, more attractive, less attractive, etc. He turns himself into what Milan Kundera calls “experimental selves,” in order to try out various scenarios. If pretending you are someone else is not play, I do not know what is (this is precluding you do not have mental problems that make you think you really are this other person).

Ritual, art, and literature are all forms of play. Just replace the word “play” with either “reading” or “writing literature” or “viewing art” or “creating art” in any of Huizinga’s definitions of play (such as those already stated above), and the connection, the synonymity among them becomes clear. Huizinga says play has a “profoundly aesthetic quality” (2),that “is based on the manipulation of certain images, on a certain “imagination” of reality (i.e. its conversion into images)” (4), that “all play is a voluntary activity” (7), “we play because we enjoy playing” (8), “play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. It is rather a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all its own” (8), that “the consciousness of play being “only a pretend” does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture” (8) such as Roland Barthes argues literature does in The Pleasure of the Text, that “play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness behind” (Huizinga, 8), that play “adorns life, amplifies it and is to that extent a necessity both for the individual – as a life function – and for society by the reason of the meaning it contains, its significance, its expressive value, its spiritual and social associations, in short, as a culture function” (9), which are, again, things Rorty argues literature does in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Huizinga goes on to identify play as “distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. . . . It is “played out” within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning” (9). Further, “while (play) is in progress all is movement, change, alternation, succession, association, separation” (9), it is either “a contest for something or a representation of something” (13) (and literature certainly does fit this definition of play), and that “in nearly all the higher forms of play the elements of repetition and alternation (as in the refrain), are like the warp and woof of fabric” (10). This latter idea is seen in the repetitive elements, or motifs, of any work of great art, and in the repetitions of words and phrases Kundera identifies as “theme-words,” which is necessary for a work of fiction to succeed and which convey information to the reader regarding the importance of a certain image or idea, but which the writer plays with in the construction of his work of literature. Finally, Huizinga says of play what could easily be said of great art and literature, that it

creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game,” robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play . . . seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play tends to be beautiful. (10)

He also points out that the words used to describe play are the same words we use to describe the effects of beauty: “tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc.” and that play “is invested with the noblest qualitites we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony” (10). Any work of art or literature with tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, rhythm, and harmony could be identified as being a great work of art or literature. These may even be the very minimum requirements of great art or literature. If they are, and if they are elements of play, then, again, we cannot separate art or literature from play.

To sum up Huizinga’s definition of play and how he himself relates it to literature:

Let us enumerate once more the characteristics we deemed proper to play. It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow.
Now it can hardly be denied that these qualities are also proper to poetic creation. The definition we have just given play might serve as a definition of poetry (132).

Or, indeed, of literature in general. “The rhythmical or symmetrical arrangement of language, the hitting of the mark by rhyme or assonance, the deliberate disguising of the sense, the artificial and artful construction of phrases – all might be so many utterances of the play spirit” (132). That is, “the creative function we call poetry is rooted in a function even more primordial than culture itself, namely play” (132).

“The writer’s aim, conscious or unconscious, is to create a tension that will “enchant” the reader and hold him spellbound” and “underlying all creative writing is some human or emotional situation potent enough to convey this tension to others” (132), and “such situations rise either from conflict or love, or both together” (133). Is this latter not an accurate summation of all of literature in all cultures from all times? If this is the case, the very subject of all literature is play, since “conflict and love imply rivalry or competition, and competition implies play” (133). Love and conflict, sex and violence, passion and tension – the very subject of literature is human play.

If we recall the connection both Nietzsche and Huizinga make between words and metaphors, we can understand Huizinga’s statement that “poetry continues to cultivate the figurative, i.e. image-bearing, qualities of language, with deliberate intent” (137). Literature is not only playing with words, but, through literature “what poetic language does with images is to play with them” (134). Literature plays with images through using language that makes reference to actual things (remembering an idea is a thing), actions, or qualities. Great literature has this play element – there is as much playing with words and sentence structures as with images, form, ideas, and, in fiction especially, plot (which involves some element of human play) and character. While humans are in a continual state of play in regards to language – certain sounds are playfully associated with ideas, actions, objects we perceive, as well as with each other – literature is the play of language made more stylized and, therefore, made into a more complex game. Any book or poem where the element of play is minimized – such as the formulae of romance novels, where all an author is really doing is plugging new names into already-created slots, with the first sex scene on a certain page number, etc., thus preventing true creativity, since a recipe is not the same thing as rules – which is to say, any work that cannot be seen as having evolved from that which has come before, can be considered outside the realm of great literature. This could be considered a good working definition of literature: literature is any text in which the writer of the text has maximized the elements of play in that particular text, which means he has set up rules for himself (and accepted other rules necessary for the text to be the particular form in question), and played with language and images and, for fiction, characters and plot, within those rules.

While this does allow us to make some sort of determination of what constitutes great literature without the worries created by complete subjectivity, this does not mean that any given reader has to like the particular rules an author has chosen to use. A writer invites his reader into the game he has played with the words and rules he has used, but a reader has to agree to the rules of the game the author has constructed. This brings us to the idea of an implied reader for any given work, since one could easily see agreement to the authors’ rules as the reader essentially having the same taste as the author (as well as other implied readers). Naturally, if you refuse to agree to the authors’ rules, you will dislike the work. Readers also bring their own rules to the game of reading. These rules are historically, socially, and personally determined (formed in part by the reader), and include their own definition(s) of literature. The role of the professor of literature, then, could be seen as one of helping students to learn to play by as many new rules as possible, expanding their definition(s) of literature and the ability to appreciate more forms of literature. Further, for the serious student of literature, literary theory could be seen as acquiring a new set of rules to take to the game of reading, such as the rules of reading historically, socially, postcolonially, and using formalism, New Criticism, postmodernism, evolutionary theory, etc. Or even through the understanding that authors play in order to create literature.

By understanding that (and what) the author is playing, we can look for places where such play is obvious, where the language is tweaked, where the author has set up rules, etc. There are authors for whom this is fairly obvious. It would be almost too easy to talk about the play element in the works of Cervantes, Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, or even, as I have done, Milan Kundera. If understanding literature as a form of play will help us better understand literature as a whole, it should work on unobvious as well as obvious texts – the less obvious, the better. Further, I want to discuss an English-language writer, so the play with the language itself would be obvious. This is why I have chosen to discuss one of the great works of the Naturalist movement in England: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

Hardy is particularly fond of allusions – he is continually playing with references to and fragments from other works. In Jude, Hardy makes several allusions to Bible verses. He makes an allusion to Luke 23:49 – when Christ was crucified, “all his acquaintances . . . stood afar off, beholding these things” – when he says “The regular scholars, if the truth must be told, stood at the moment afar off, like certain historic disciples” (10). Hardy is telling us these scholars will, as Peter did with Jesus, deny Jude, as Jude is directly denied in a letter from one of the college Masters (95). Hardy is already playing with the reader, telling his reader as early as page 10 that Jude is going to be shunned by what he loves most just as Jesus was shunned by those who followed Him. Intertextuality is a form of play – and references to other well-known games help us better understand the new game.

When Hardy says “In the glow he [Jude] seemed to see Phillotson promenading at ease, like one of the forms in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace” (20), he creates a very powerful image of Phillotson. But what else does this allusion do? It tells us a great deal about Phillotson. It tells us Phillotson, like the three brothers who were thrown into the furnace, is accepting of his fate and, because of that, will be in a way rewarded. What would have hurt him (as the flames for anyone other than the three brothers) does not appear to hurt him because of his love. Naturally, we can see this looking back, but what this allusion does is give us a hint regarding Phillotson’s character. Here the play of intertextuality helped Hardy develop one of his characters in a particularly powerful way.

Another way Hardy plays with language in this novel is in his use of rhyme and rhythm. I was very much surprised to find Hardy playing with rhyme and rhythm in this novel, which seemed for the most part very prosaic. A change from a-rhythmic prose to rhythmic, rhyming patters breaks us out of our prose reading pattern and draws our attention to the new rhythmic pattern. For example, Hardy uses rhyme to emphasize things that are strongly noticed by Jude. Talking of the picturesque English countryside, he says it is “being as sudden a surprise to the unexpectant traveler’s eyes as the medicinal air is to his lungs” (158). There is an alliteration with “sudden” and “surprise” and a rhyme between “surprise” and “eyes,” and the line itself is very rhythmical. It catches us by surprise just as much as the scenery is supposed to take the traveler’s eyes by surprise. Next the scholars Jude wants to join are emphasized again by rhyme when Hardy says Jude saw their “black, brown, and flaxen crowns” over the sills (159). The lyricism here helps convey the romantic way Jude thinks of scholarship. Later, Hardy uses end-rhyme to emphasize a particular theme-statement: “. . . there used to arise among wheeled travelers, before railway days, endless questions of choice between the respective ways” (227). The quote is in a passage that is literally about travel in England, but the lyricism and end-rhyme put particular emphasis on this line. Why? Hardy appears to have done this to draw attention to this particular phrase because the novel is in great part a commentary on the “endless questions of choice between the respective ways” in which people can chose to believe the world exists, as an Idealist or a Materialist world, since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle.

Hardy also uses in one particular passage a form of lyricism without end-rhyme that, in the way he ends it, tells the reader exactly what is going to happen in the novel. To see this, one must see the passage in its entirety:

‘It is odd,’ she said, in a voice quite changed, ‘that I should care about that air; because – ’
‘Because what?’
‘I’m not that sort – quite.’
‘Not easily moved?’
‘I didn’t quite mean that.’
‘O, but you are one of that sort, for you are just like me at heart!’
‘But not at head.’
She played on, and suddenly turned round; and by an unpremeditated instinct each clasped the other’s hand again.
She uttered a forced little laugh as she relinquished his quickly. ‘How funny!’ she said. ‘I wonder what we both did that for?’
‘I suppose because we are both alike, as I said before.’
‘Not in our thoughts! Perhaps a little in our feelings.’
‘And they rule thoughts. . . . Isn’t it enough to make one blaspheme that the composer of that hymn is one of the most commonplace men I ever met!”
‘What – you know him?’
‘I went to see him.’
‘O you goose – to do just what I should have done! Why did you?’
‘Because we are not alike,’ he said dryly. (160)

This back-and-forth between Sue and Jude is very lyrical all the way to the end, when Jude finally ends it with his “dryly” said line. And look at the amount of information Hardy gives us in these playfully-rendered lines. First, we see Hardy understands their relationship to be one of play (as was stated above about all human relationships portrayed in literature) when he says Sue “played on” with the back-and-forth. Second, lyricism conveys information to a reader – it tells the reader there is a particular unity occuring in the lyrical lines. And the way Hardy ends it, with what Jude “said dryly,” and the fact that he said it dryly, conveys further information to the reader – Sue and Jude will be in agreement through most of the novel, but this lyrical existence together will come to an end. Thus, beyond the words, which tell us how their relationship will end, the way those words are written, the way Hardy had Sue and Jude speak to one another here, tells us a great deal about how the plot of the novel will unfold – it has fractal self-similarity to the plot of the novel, just on a different scale. By playing with rhythm, Hardy informs us about what to expect as the plot unfolds. It tells us that while Jude and Sue will be in sync through most of the novel, a day will come when they are no longer in sync; and when that happens, their relationship, as the lyricism between them in this passage, will end.

There are many other play elements in Hardy’s novel: He uses irony – which is a very conscious form of play – such when he says “After this exhilarating tradition. . .” (222) after a passage that expressed anything but exhilaration. He uses references to and direct quotes from several poets, particularly when he uses a section of another’s poem to describe something rather than describing it himself. And he uses authorial self-reference to his writing a story (such acknowledgment of writing a story within the story is a form of playing with the reader’s expectations) when Jude says, “‘I may do some good before I am dead – be a sort of success as a rightful example of what not to do; and so illustrate a moral story’” (256), which is perhaps one of Hardy’s intentions in writing this story. And he uses playful repetitions of words, phrases and ideas (he reiterates the idea that no one believes Sue and Jude are married because they get along so well, meaning married people are not supposed to get along, several times in the novel).

What constitutes the formal poetic element is the assonance which, by repeating the same word or a variation of it, links thesis to antithesis. The purely poetic element consists in allusions, the sudden bright idea, the pun or simply in the sound of the words themselves, where sense may be completely lost. Such a form of poetry can only be described in terms of play, though it obeys a nice system of prosodic rules (Huizinga, 122).

Hardy engages in each of these elements Huizinga identifies (though one could suppose that identifying the “sudden bright idea” in a work of art would necessarily be far more difficult to do than any of the rest) with the “purely poetic element.” Hardy plays with ideas in this story by having Sue represent Idealist philosophy, particularly in her views on love, and Jude represent a more evolutionary view of love, representing Materialism. Rather than writing a philosophical work condemning Idealism, Hardy has chosen to write a work of fiction where two characters represent these two ways of viewing the world and having them interact, creating a dialogue between Idealism and Materialism more complex than simple condemnation of Idealism and support of Materialism, no mattter how anti-Idealism we may find Hardy’s work to be in tone. He has chosen the most playful way of presenting these ideas and, in presenting these ideas, has played with the language and the structures of the novel in order to emphasize the themes of his novel. By continually playing with the presentation of his characters and by playing with the language in the novel, Hardy has shown himself to be a great literary writer.

Finding places where Hardy is obviously playing with the language, ideas, or elements of story-telling, such as allusions (which seem to be his favorite element to play with) can help us uncover elements of the story we may have otherwise overlooked. By asking “why does Hardy make this line rhyme, or read so lyrically, or have alliteration here, or make this particular allusion or have this particular quote?” we can uncover the themes, both intended and unintended, in this particular novel. The same is true of any other work of literature. Naturally, this method of literary analysis works best if the work is analyzed in the language it was originally written in, as is true of any form of literary analysis that has such a strong emphasis on the language itself, though there are still play elements that can survive translation, including themes, overall ways of presenting character and plot, and certain metaphors. Also, by understanding the play nature of literature, we can potentially develop more accurate ways of understanding how readers read, how writers write, and how literature, overall, means, as well as, perhaps, the very origins of language and literature itself.

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