Literary Criticism & Philosophy

Good workout at the gym. Gorgeous woman with shapely legs on stair machine. Sunny day, warm, going shirtless on my balcony and no chill at all. The Road to Zucchabar plays and I am lost in thought. Homemade hazelnut cappucino, purring cat, open windows. Trimmed hair with clippers. Laundry in drier. Open Eugene Weekly and see that Socrates Cafe club meets tonight at 7pm at Borders. I’ll be there.

So now I sit here, my open balcony an arm’s reach away. Open windows, and I look at trees around me for signs of spring. An black oak nearby has fat, light green buds on it. The trees near my window (I’ve got to name them sometime) still look about two weeks out. They should be budding when I get back home from home (back to Oregon from Arkansas).

Glancing at my desk for a moment I see the stacks of books, the one on top being Don Quixote. I laugh to myself, thinking of the absurdities of Don Quixote of La Mancha and the thoughts of those dealing with him (currently a group of goat herders) who think him mad (which he is). And I’ve read the introduction, realizing that this is a satire by the author against chivalry and nobility and such. But I give pause to myself and reflect. Don Quixote is an older man… and what would he be doing if not the duties of a knight-errant? Would he make his rounds in his small village, read books, sit at home? What is he doing currently? Sitting in the sunshine on a horse (frail though it is), pursuing in body the ideals in his mind. The thought that comes to mind is that in the former he would simply be living (if it can be called that) and with the latter he is living for something. A grand difference.

I recall a book by Nancy Watson, Practical Solitary Magick, one of the few books in matters of magic and the occult that I actually respect and do not deem to be less than romance novels. She was discussing the idea of elementals, actual elemental entities that live in things like springs, wind gusts, flames, rock…. and how she hesitated in telling her psychiatrist about them, thinking he would lock her up in the looney bin. Yet his response was that they are real, even if only in her mind, they have a life and reality of their own. Makes sense if you think of it this way, a man who is afraid of a tiger standing before him has the same reactions of a man who is standing in the dark, afraid, who believes there is a tiger in the dark watching him. Both experience very real fear, though the reality of the tiger external to the man differs in each case, the reality within the mind is similar.

So I admired Don Quixote for living his life, though others might make him out to be mad (and with the hallucinations being real).

In thinking of this, I then wondered what literary criticism might have said about Don Quixote’s adventures. I’m sure there has been reams of essays on the subject. And I also wonder if perhaps one of those essays might not echo a bit of the sentiment that I’ve just described, that Don Quixote is an example of boldly living one’s life, instead of meekly letting the currents take you wherever. But in thinking of such about literary citicisms I wondered at what the literary part was. Wasn’t this really in the realm of philosophy and psychology? The literary part was the tool used to convey the message, the novel itself. Perhaps an analogy… when one talks about cars, one can get into a wide range of topics and philosophical inquiries. From freedom of movement to environmental ethics and so on, yet if one were to discuss the automotive aspect of, lets say… the environmental ethics of driving a Hummer, the discussion would revolve around gas mileage and soil disruption as it passed overland and emissions and so forth. As to whether or not these things mattered or to what degree, this would be a matter of environmental ethics, itself part of a larger topic of philosophy. Wouldn’t discussing literary criticism revolve around the styles used and the tools employed to convey an idea? Foreshadowing, pacing, narrative, and so forth? When ideas outside of this are discussed, this leaves the realm of literary criticism and into philosophy.

This was my big sticking point while taking a ecoliterature class at University of Houston. We were to write papers, literary criticism, on the books we’ve read dealing with environmental issues and the idea of “place”. I remember the professor throwing out Ed Abbey’s argument that all writing is political, and he wanted me to counter that in a literary critical manner. I had a hard time doing so, because I saw the statement not as a literary argument, but a philosophical one. Abbey has lots of little philosophical tid-bits in his Desert Solitaire. When we discussed Graves Goodbye to a River, it was said that he was giving a voice to the river because it could not speak for itself. Really? I don’t recall seeing this in the book. The voice that I read was the voice of contemplation and adoration by Graves while he floated down a river in Texas. Nowhere did the river say anything in the book, nor did any of the animals. Isn’t it wrong to term his style “voice”? And isn’t the question here really one of identification of self?

To be sure, we did discuss literary elements used, amid a backdrop of nature writing. Such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, and Joseph Meeker’s The Comic Mode. These discussed approaches used in writing to convey an idea. Yet we often got sidetracked from investigating the literary aspect of the essays and into class squabbles along the philosophical aspects of the essay. Nobody ever debated the carrier bag theory, but everyone had things to say about the feminine philosophy within the essay.

I am not well read in literary theory. I’ve come across some names and movements through various readings, but I know more about how to adjust the timing on the alternator on a Mustang than I do on post-industrial writing (which is to say, not much). It seems to me that if what Ed Abbey says is true, that all writing is political, then when you give literary criticism on an essay, discuss the literary aspects of it. But do not assume that your literary guidelines are the breadth of the matter when discussing the ideas within the essay. Conversely, what literary citicisms have been written about the writings of the philosophers I wonder. Philosophers will rant and rave and argue and fight over what they think Nietzshe really meant, but what would a literary critic say? And this takes me to yet another thought… because our ideas are structured the way they are, are passed on the way they are, is it truly possible to seperate the philosopher from the literary critic and vice versus?

Hmmm…. my laundry should be done now.


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