Biopoetics II

In his argument for biopoetics and against the old guard, Brian Boyd begins with what may seem a truism, if not in some English departments: “We love stories, and we will continue to love them. But for more than 30 years. . . university literature departments in the English-speaking world have often done their best to stifle this thoroughly human emotion.” Our desire to form patterns, to weave a net that has a structure we can sense if not always see, is central to our human understanding. We love plots and characters, we love them in gossip and in great literature, in soppy romances and classic drama. We loved them as children in fairy tales and we love them as adults whether we read history or literature.

We love them with a biological passion; I suspect most of us can explain this great universal in sensible ways, but the feeling goes deep. Of course, narratives help us make sense of our own experience, because they are, in some ways, congruent with reality as we know it or believe it or feel it to be.

I don’t think we can overestimate that importance. Our need to do this is important; our ways of doing it can be trivial or profound; but this way of organizing our world is an attempt (one we recognize as incomplete, perhaps wrong, perhaps profoundly right) to make sense of our lives. It is not surprising, of course, that criticism that saw plot as unimportant was criticism that doubted the importance of beauty. Freeing us from our biological desires for order and proportionality, they quite successfully freed us from much desire to read them.

(Our love of narrative, our need for it is one I’ve come back to time and again on this blog: my own need, in a tv series like Perry Mason, or as part of Gunter Grass’s attempt to shape his own.  Yes, this is shameful puffery.)

14 thoughts on “Biopoetics II”

  1. There is a line in Stephen Kings epic novel “The Stand” which I think sums up this idea. He says that a creator is

    “a person with an urge to stretch out his hand and shape the world into some kind of rational pattern.”

  2. I have been writing little historical nibbles and bits on The Daily Brief; just interesting and dramatic tidbits that intriegued me, about people and events that I have run across in my research on the next “Great American Adventure Story”, and someone wrote in comments that they wished they had read such interesting stuff in college… then they might be more interested in history.
    And I thought it was so sad, because it is all really about people, living in interesting times. The study of political movements, and great theories of economics…that is all kind of boring and sterile, considered strictly on it’s own. It is the story of people who draw us in: what they experienced and saw, what they felt about it, and how they coped. We need that sort of personal history. I think that is what draws people to re-enactment groups, rather than history departments.

  3. I read a remarkable article a few months ago about the intent of the post-modernists, esp. as it relates to art and music. The idea is to strip out the elements of a discipline, such as rhythm from music, and see if what is left is still “music”.

    The alleged intent is to reduce the art form to some fundamental element that constitutes its essence, but I think it’s pretty clear that the true result is the destruction (not deconstruction) of not only the specific form, but the concept of art or music or literature as well.

    It is a painful commentary on the results of this campaign across the various disciplines that used to constitute an actual intellectual, academic culture, that we are now reduced to trying to find the “artistry” in a string of diconnected notes without form or content, vague shapes and conglomerations of material that are alleged to be sculpture, meandering “stream of consciousness” collections of words without plot or character development masquerading as literature, and random dabs of paint, or some other material, splattered across a wall or canvas and described as painting.

    In its most grievous excess, even these minor concessions to convention are abandoned, and “art” is asserted to consist of a toilet, or a pile of dust and sticks, or some poor, cut up animal suspended in preservatives. I imagine the next step is to “strip out” the presence of the preservative. The advantage of that might be that the piece would finally smell as putrid physically as it does intellectually and emotiionally.

    I have often heard the arts described as the highest expressions of a culture, the symbolic expression of its true inner essences. I shudder to think what the current state of art in this deconstructed era says about what is left of our essences.

    What can one say about anyone who would tell an innocent child that a pile of dung arranged on a paper plate is “art”? Doesn’t the good book mention “millstones around the neck” for those who would lead our young astray in such a fashion?

    Sounds appropriate to me.

  4. Relax. We are getting on in years. The post post people care more about theory than art, and before those people, there was the New Critics and prior to that the historicists and biographers. Now we are beginning to find attempts by the arts to use evolutionary thought to convince us that the latest rage is scientific. All things change. Scholars need new and different approaches because the journals get filled with same old stuff after a time…Make it new, said Ezra Nutter Pound.

    What you don’t like (toop) iare the filsm, the art, the music of today. Oh so much better when you were growing up, right?

    If you dislike this or that, ignore it, unless it will shatter the lives of those you love and identify with–wars based on lies, for example.

    Secure tenure. All else will take care of itself.
    go forth and sin no more
    and be of good cheer

  5. Alex—that was a great parody on the nonsensical ravings of the post-modern mind, right down to the incomprehensible spelling. Congrats.

  6. I think alex has a point buried in there. Journals fill up, perish or publish, quantity not quality, etc… We’d be alot better off with more artists and less academics: the over-education of America and all that.

  7. Gringo…the tremendous growth of academia over recent decades has probably sucked a lot of people into professorial positions who are really not suited for them, and who go through the motions by following current fads and methodologies.

    Someone observed that it is people who are highly intelligent–but not at all creative–who tend to be the most committed believers in doctrines and methodologies.

  8. I loved your comment, Sgt. Mom. History is full of great stories and fascinating people – so is literature. The purpose of gossip through the ages has been to help us define the customs and values of our society, to give us models of what to do and what not to do, what works and what doesn’t. History and lit make that discussion less subjective, but it is really kind of the same thing. For a while (maybe still) serious lit – authors who were kind of proud of the fact that they weren’t “popular” – tried to get rid of plot and character. Of course they weren’t popular but that didn’t make them good.

  9. ‘Of course they weren’t popular but that didn’t make them good”…C S Lewis remarked that when an artist isn’t accepted by the public, it is always assumed that the fault lies with the public.

    “I have never run across the great work in which this important doctrine is proved,” he continued.

  10. David Foster, Some of this is due to the general ideas of the romantics, but probably the most pernicious has been Emily Dickinson’s example – or at least how people see her. I would say that she is a great poet, but a) she pulled away from the public rather than they from her and b) she might have been better if she had actually wanted to communicate with real people instead of some idealized reader.

  11. The funny thing, Ginny, is that a lot of writers, and composers who are now percieved as very high-brow and somewhat of an esoteric taste these days… were in their own day very popular with the masses. Think of Shakespeare, Dickens and Mozart as being the Tarantino, Stephen King and Springsteen of their respective times, something that “everybody” was familiar with…

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