Coming to terms with BS.

March 11, 2011 Comments Off on Coming to terms with BS.

For a long time I struggled with the concept of literary analysis. I would write pages and pages on Shakespeare’s use of moon imagery in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and as I wrote I couldn’t help dwelling on how much of it Shakespeare actually did on purpose. The problem is, in school they present great writers to you as if what made them great was their ability to come up with exceedingly complex symbolic journeys and convey them in bits and pieces over the course of a large work like a novel or a play. That is sometimes true, but what they don’t teach you as they’re forcing you to write these papers is that it doesn’t always matter what the author intended.

Okay, so Milton is maybe the worst example of what I’m talking about. His writing is inextricable from his home country, political system, and time period, and all this is extremely important to understand because he actually does write prodigiously symbolic things that are difficult enough to decipher even if you have the background down cold.

But Shakespeare is different. (Not always, but in general.) He wrote really rich stuff, period. It doesn’t matter what themes he had in his head at the time because you can read into it practically whatever you want. What they don’t tell you is that literary analysis—even though they call it analysis—is a creative endeavor all its own. It takes a certain amount of skill and creativity to trace an image through a large work and spin a conclusion from it. The problem is that when you try to present it, the only way it sounds like something that should be taken seriously is if you phrase it thus: “Therefore, by constantly drawing parallels between the female characters in the play and the ‘cold, chaste orb’ (I.iii.47), Shakespeare is casting doubt on women’s inherent ability to add constructively to society.” You have to pretend it was something Shakespeare had in mind even before he was writing the play, even before he came up with the idea for the play. You have to pretend like it was a major theme in Shakespeare’s work, blaringly obvious, if only the peons could see it as clearly as you can. Which is nonsense, of course.

What needs to happen is that teachers and professors and scholars need to become comfortable with the idea of papers that say, “I can construct an internally consistent theme out of moon imagery in this play. It’s way cool! I wonder if Shakespeare did it on purpose.” Because, except in the most blatant cases, most of these things you can come up with are hard to attribute definitively to Shakespeare’s intent. And really all you’re doing is making something up for fun, to be creative and pay homage to a writer you love or at least respect. The more convoluted and unorthodox your interpretation, the less you should be allowed to attribute it to the author. When people find radical feminist themes in Chaucer—and attribute that attitude to him—I get very, very upset.

Sure, it’s a fine line. Because if all literature ever meant was what you, personally, found in it, it would be a divisive, ridiculously personal, obscure topic, like religion. There are things you can actually analyze in literature, but the kinds of yarns they make you spin into papers for English 162: Introduction to Shakespeare are kind of excessive, and they should warn you about being aware of the line between literary analysis and literary wanking, which is just as fun, but perhaps should be taken just a little less seriously.


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