Thursday, March 01, 2007

Rorschach Art

I found this marvelous summary by Terry Eagleton of the anti-meaning approach to art as it was practiced by the poet T.S. Eliot:

Raine, then, is certain that he has the “meaning” of The Waste Land under his belt. He does not understand that Eliot’s poetry is not a question of meaning in the first place. The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said—in the resonance of the signifier, the echoes of its archetypes, the ghostly associations haunting its grains and textures, the stealthy, subliminal workings of its unconscious. Meaning was for the birds, or perhaps for the petit bourgeoisie. Eliot was a primitivist as well as a sophisticate, a writer who made guerrilla raids on the collective unconscious. For all his intellectualism, he was averse to rationality. Meaning in his poetry is like the mysterious figure who walks beside you in The Waste Land, vanishing when you look at it straight. When Raine enquires of a couple of lines in one of Eliot’s poems whether we are supposed to be in a brothel, the only answer which would be true to Eliot’s own aesthetic is that we are in a poem.


Call me a petit-bourgeoisie, but I still insist that a writer make at least some attempt at structuring his work by some overarching theme or rationale, no matter how tangential. I think it is an important insight, largely ascribed to Freud but which went beyond him and found expression across all disciplines in the modern zeitgeist, that there is a deep, instinctive and irrational core to the human psyche that haunts and frustrates our claim to rational thought and action. It is one thing to recognize it, quite another to wallow in it.

But artists and writhers have plumbed those depths, hoping to unearth some key insights to explain the human condition. At least that is what the ordinary reader or viewer of this art assumed the artist was about. More often than not he was only after artistic baubles, like some tomb raider digging up primitive artifacts for sale to collectors.

There are some people who have a genius for this kind of thing: disturbing images that trigger strong, primal emotional reactions of both wonder and repulsion. David Lynch comes to mind. And I admit that as an occasional lark such indulgences of the subconscious are a refreshing detour from the routine monotony of the rational world.

But in the end such expressions of the irrational are little more than fetishes. The mind craves rational meaning, and it will insist on applying its template of meaning to art. This is not something to be freed from. It is the most human of all impulses. To use a tired, hackneyed cliche, it is what separates us from the beasts.

I remember getting halfway through "The Waste Land" once, trying naively to discern the underlying meaning. I'll give it another try, this time with the meaning detector turned off. Hopefully I'll get through it this time.

4 Comments:

Blogger David said...

Isn't it all about his cats?

March 01, 2007 3:41 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Poetry must be something more than, or different to, stating a point of view, or they could just be essays instead.

Poems allow the author to convey several different ideas simultaneously, and they are designed to allow the reader to give his own responses. There is obviously a continuum between the straightforward and the very obscure, and where you're comfortable on that continuum is a matter of personal taste. I'm actually quite comfortable not knowing what something 'means'.

March 02, 2007 4:42 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Well, it would be nice if they let us know up front. You know, like with food labels. "Meaning-Lite", "Meaning-Free", or "now with 120% USPA reccomended daily allowance for Meaning".

March 02, 2007 6:38 AM  
Blogger David said...

I'm not sure that I buy that poetry, or any writing, can be without meaning although either can be inane. I do find that I can tolerate poetry in which the meaning is not the primary purpose much better than I can tolerate inane fiction. Well written prose in which nothing happens is intolerable, while the rhythms and wit of a well-written poem make up for the inane subject-matter.

March 03, 2007 9:51 AM  

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