Aug 8, 2008

On Theory

In a reply to a blog post by Lucia Perillo over at Harriet, I made a statement regarding writing from Theory vs. writing from Necessity, and John Shaw left a comment pointing out that my statement itself constituted a theory. I replied that I'd think about it and post further thoughts on the question later. Well, now is later, and here are my thoughts.

Let me begin by attempting to define the word theory. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something." I think there is broad agreement on this idea. But what does it mean? In essence it means that a theory fourth-order thinking. By that I mean that all theories are arrived at through the following stages:

1. the original experience
2. an analysis of the original experience
3. a comparison of the original experience with other original experiences
4. a theory that attempts to explain the common patterns among the original experiences

This is rough, approximate—but basically inarguable, I think. The point being that however creative and useful it may be, Theory is derivative. It is fourth-order thinking.

If we apply these notions to the realm of literature, stage one is the reading of the original work; stage two is an analysis of the original work on its own terms; stage three involves a comparison of the original with other originals in the reader's experience; and stage four is the development of a Theory that seeks to explain common characteristics among certain kinds of originals.

ALERT: A professor of mine in undergraduate school liked to assert, with a straight face, that criticism is more important than the original work. If you agree, there is no point in your reading on.

Obviously, a useful theory has to be based on broad experience. Darwin, for example, before coming to the Galapagos islands, "had been exposed to a wider range of phenomena than any previous scientist," according to the excellent overview of his career on the Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) Web site. Surely the greatness of Darwin's theory derives from that breadth of experience. Great literary theorists display a similar breadth of experience. Great literary theorists also share another quality the GCT sees in Darwin: "innate qualities of enquiring critically with an open mind into the why and wherefore of every one of his observations."

Having laid a groundwork, I want to erect a single idea upon it: Literary Theory, being derivative, is designed in one way or another to illuminate the reader, but no theory can help a writer create illuminated originals.

This is not to deny that some writers self-select themselves into groups or schools based on shared ideas that amount to theories, and that these writers sometimes base their writing on these theories. But the history of any literary school shows that their strongest writers feel compelled by expressive necessity to go beyond the school's theories. Writers have even been known to violate their own theories with impunity. This is because all theories are derivative, and any work of art must cleave to originality or it has no reason to exist (as art, I mean: it may very well satisfy limitedly personal or social group needs). Moreover, every theory distorts by blurring the distinctiveness of original experience: certain features are exaggerated, others played down or ignored. If a creator of originals comes under the sway of a theory, he runs the risk of producing work without distinction—without those qualities that make originals attractive to theorizers in the first place.

Now that I've recorded my thoughts on this I realize why I can never be a good theorist. My terms—"original," "necessity," even "theory" (as applied to literature)—are fuzzy, and my "stages of theory" are overly simple. The fact is that I'm a poet and a reader of poetry; I write and read to savor the original experience. "The rest is dross," as Pound put it in Canto LXXXI—an insight which could not save him from an addiction to theories of money, history, and race that finally destroyed his efforts to "write Paradise". It's a lesson working poets should avoid learning too late.

1 comment:

  1. Came here to let you know beneath your Darwish post that I took the link you provided and read the article, and also to let you know about a May conversation with Fady Joudah that Daisy Fried had and is at PF's Harriet; but my eyes caught the the beginning of this post and I decided I wanted to read it. I'm with you on this, although I prefer using "aesthetic" or "manifesto" rather than "theory". To me, theory implies less certainty.

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