Austin M. Wright has written a rare work of literary theory, a readable and entertaining study of a major theoretical problem that can be understood by a thoughtful reader who is generally unfamiliar with literary theory. The key to his success is his use of the dialectical approach which he adopts from Plato. Wright discusses this method at the end of the book, when he has two of his characters, Charlie Mercer and Eve Birdsong, discuss how their experience of a four-day roundtable can be written up most effectively. There are good theoretical and practical reasons for presenting the ideas they have discovered in the way they discovered them rather than as conclusions based on discussions, but Charlie acknowledges that such an approach will be less efficient than a direct presentation. This approach, however, is what makes the book accessible perhaps even to undergraduates.
In Arthur Birdsong’s ideal English department, a disturbing rivalry has developed between Bill Tuttle and Jake Jackson. Because they are friendly in public, this rivalry is not easily apparent, but their students notice it in the classroom, because what they learn from Tuttle is contradicted and scorned by Jackson and vice versa. Student Eve Birdsong takes this problem to her friendly junior professoi; Charlie. Both go to her father, and the result is one of his favorite activities, a department round-table. The interested parties gather and agree that Tuttle and Jackson will present their positions and defend them in debate. They will use William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) as an exemplary text, because all the participants are familiar with it. Eve is to decide the winner; his prize will be her hand in marriage.
The conflict between Tuttle and Jackson is one of the ancient problems of literary studies as well as of philosophy. William Blake embodies this conflict when he characterizes the two impulses of the poetic imagination as the prolific and the devourer in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793). In Die Geburt der Thagodie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, 1909), Friedrich Nietzsche describes the two great opposing forces of culture as Dionysian and Apollonian. Continuing this perennial debate, Jackson speaks for the forces of indeterminacy and for the joys of tearing down ideas of order to find contradictions and plurality of meaning. He argues that wholeness is not a characteristic of literary works and that attempts to describe their wholeness are wrong on multiple grounds. (One of the more important objections to formalism is that it imposes the critic’s view upon the work and attempts to silence other points of view.) On the other side, Tuttle speaks for the primacy of order and wholeness in literary works, and protests against the notion that literary works are without determinate forms and meanings. He argues that novels cannot be made or read without some governing idea or plot to guide the writer and the reader.
The roundtable at Phil’s Pub lasts four days and moves through twelve chapters. People prepare for the debate by reading a set of student papers from Charlie Mercer’s class on As I Lay Dying. Acknowledging that the novel presents reading problems, Charlie asks his students to write about one or more of the problems they have. These papers help to expose a number of ways in which the novel resists any easy description of how it works, in its parts and in its possible wholeness.
In chapters 2 through 4, which cover the first evening, the two senior professors present their papers. Tuttle argues that As I Lay Dying, despite the oddity of its narration by multiple narrators (many of whom do not speak their parts in their own normal voices), is nevertheless unified by a comic plot in which the rural Bundren family, as a multiple protagonist, is tested and found wanting by the quest imposed upon them by their dead mother’s wish to be buried in town. Jackson’s reply begins by searching for the failures in Thttle’s analysis. Jackson denies and argues against the validity of a number of Tuttle’s critical concepts such as implied reader, plot, and wholeness. This exchange illustrates the value of the dialectic method, for it helps ensure that the few specialized terms in the book receive fairly clear definitions. Jackson distrusts what he sees as an authoritarian purpose behind Tuttle’s approach, and he suggests there is a kind of moral cowardice there as well, a wish to gloss over the difficulties of art and life with pretty pictures of the way Tuttle wants things to be. Jackson then states his own position. The force of a work, he believes, depends on its resistance to attempts to make it fit into a form, or a description of wholeness. The reader’s job is to resist whatever in the work leads one to desire a final resolution. He sees potentially dozens of meanings in As I Lay Dying, and chooses one to share, an allegory in which Addie Bundren, the dead mother, represents the novel, a dead genre that continues to live as long as it can hold readers’ attention. These two papers are followed by a discussion that questions the assumptions and intentions of both sides. Afterward, as Charlie visits with Eve about the debate, he decides he may have a paper of his own to give, a way of reconciling the two points of view they...
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