The Funhouse Mirrors that Ring the Planet

I like to think of literature as a big, unexplored planet; as a world, created bit by bit from the minds and imaginations of hundreds of writers.  Most of us have only peeked at some of this planet – barely an introduction; only a fraction of this world.  And to add to our awe (and sometimes frustration) when contemplating this planet, we have no map.  We wander blindly, not sure what we are seeing, wondering if there is something specific we are supposed to be seeing, and hearing the talk of those exploring along with us and wondering what they can be seeing!  How can they see at all?  It’s so dark on this planet, and we have no map.  How easy it would be to call someone to get us the heck off this weird planet, and, once safely back on the ship heading home, sigh and say, “Well, I have no idea why I even tried to go there.  I kept taking wrong turns and bumping my nose against things.  And if those others didn’t shut up about all the pretty things they were seeing I was going to bop them on the head.”  Or words to that effect.  Not having a map can do that to us.

As for why we venture onto this planet at all, let me quote Sylvan Barnet, a critic and educator: “The most valuable criticism is…that which calls our attention to interesting things going on in the work of art.” There it is: we go and have a look at the planet hoping to see something new; something interesting; something to help us grow and think and change.  We go because it is there, like Mount Everest.  We go because people keep coming back from it and saying, “Oh, the things I saw!”  There are a myriad reasons we turn to literature as part of our pleasures and entertainment: there are a lot of interesting things going on, and, we have been led to believe, many ways to look at them.  The planet, it seems, is open to all, and everybody can have a highly individual “personalized” holiday.  But we have no map.

Reading literature is nothing like reading a map.  We learn early on how to make the best use of maps – remember Map Reading in Social Studies? – and those skills stand us well for our entire lives.  Literature, however, is written for as many reasons as there are writers who have ever written it.  No single set of Map Reading skills is going to assist us to navigate the terrain of the complex World of Literature, that vast and many-faceted thing, and come away with a clear picture of all the interesting things going on in that world.  Even if no one were to ever again write anything which we could consider Literature, it is already a huge place populated by the imaginations of hundreds of men and women of diverse knowledge, opinion, experience, and emotional mindset.  A map?  We need a fifty-volume set of atlases.  And if the size and diversity of our World weren’t enough, there is a strange phenomenon to further confound us: the planet, apparently, is ringed with a set of funhouse mirrors, and when we look into them, trying to peek into literature, we get strange feedback.  Apparently, what we thought we were going to see isn’t there – or it’s there but it’s hidden – or just when we think we see the image clearly it shakes and moves…and if we didn’t know better (narrowing the eyes just a bit here, in suspicious anger) we would say there are some lunatics running around on the surface of the planet, saying that it is their planet, and shaking the mirrors just when we are about to get a clear picture – Darn!  There it goes again!   Ah, the heck with it.  There are plenty of interesting and entertaining things going on here, on good old earth, and at least here, there aren’t any dumb rules and strange pathways and lunatics with mirrors.

But then a day comes when something confounding and troubling and complex happens here on earth, and we struggle to understand it; to make sense of it.  Nothing like this has ever happened before.  No one on earth has even considered what might be the cause, or how we should handle it, or what we can do to prevent it.  It is in this dark hour when one of those lunatics we met on the surface of Literature turns and says, “Well, Plato said the world is like a cave of illusions – of reflections, and that we shouldn’t be distracted by the flickering images, but we should try to see what makes the images.  So let’s stop shouting, and listening to other people shout, and instead try to find out what’s making these troubling events.”  And we stop.  Plato? Cave? Illusions?  What on earth?

Well, that’s just it; it’s not really on earth; it never was.  Plato’s cave is on the same planet with Narnia and The Shire and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.  It’s also the home of frightening totalitarian regimes: places where books are burned on a daily basis; where a sultan kills a new wife every day to prevent betrayal;  where a man can wake up one day as a giant bedbug, or on trial for his life even though he has committed no crime. Things happen there all the time, and the people who spend time there think and talk about “realities” which aren’t anywhere close to real.  And sometimes – just sometimes – the fact that they have seen these things – “seen” them as images flickering on a cave wall – means that they can know better what to do, how to handle, what to choose, where to stand on earth when crazy things happen.

And so we go back, seekers, to the planet Literature – but we still have no good map.

We absolutely hate the maps they give us at first.  These maps are printed IN BIG BLOCK LETTERS AND TALK TO US LIKE WE’RE FIVE YEARS OLD.  They pretend to “teach” us how to get around in Literature.  They say, “There is no single way, no right way, to get around in here,” but then the instant we start heading in a direction on the planet we smack into a wall WHAM! and one of those dotty little lunatics is standing behind it saying, “Un-uh!  Gotcha!” and running off down a path we sort of maybe can see if we squint really hard, and all the time he’s yelling, “I know where I’m going and you-o do-on’t!”  From the echoing darkness, off to our right, we hear people talking about things that don’t seem to actually be anywhere on Planet Literature.

This confusion is partially due to the fact that there is a broad range of ways of looking at literature, and that while some “maps” – critical or theoretical approaches – are helpful as a guideline, they also sometimes cut the edges off, narrow our field of vision.  It’s an unfortunate but necessary paradox – we need to pick a path and follow it because otherwise we’re lost, but if we do follow it, we don’t get to explore the other paths which we can see or imagine.  We could switch over to another critical path, but it’ll be the same story over there.  We can try to learn all of them, but we’re back to the fifty-volume set of atlases.  Help?

The best we can do is familiarize ourselves with as many ways of thinking about literature as possible, and try them all at one time or another.

Critical theory is a broad range of thought. On the far left-hand side of the balance are the funhouse mirrors; the critical approaches which scare us.  They are full of theory and strange rigid words. They are the ones that the lunatics can peer into and come up with mysterious “right” answers, and no matter how hard we try, we don’t see them.  It seems that when we try to imitate what others do there, we are just guessing – and we’re always “wrong.”  There’s that wall again WHAM!

On the far right hand side are the whisperings about things unseen – critical approaches which are based fully on the way the text affects us. We often gravitate towards this side because since it appears that the lunatics on the left side are just making stuff up, why shouldn’t we? – only we’re going to make stuff up that matches what we felt about the work when we explored it.  There’s only one trouble there – now we’re wandering around that dark tunnel again, hollering “Hello?” and there are no signs or indicators that we are going anywhere close to the right direction.

As a matter of respect – respect for the world of Literature which has so much to offer us – we try to stay out of the Far Out ends of the critical spectrum.  This isn’t always easy, especially when it seems that the two Far Out ends are the closest, in their way, to “common sense”: in the Far Left, common sense tells us the author must have meant something; what’s the message?  and on the Far Right, common sense tells us that literature is only as good as the enjoyment we get out of it.  But there are plenty of places on earth to get “right answers” from people – about science and math, for example; and there are plenty of places to express our own feelings – we can even create our own texts, our own literature, if we feel expressive.  But once we have decided to visit Planet Literature we try always to show that respect for the things that have been created already. So no matter where we land on the planet, nor which brand of maps we choose to buy, we try very hard to discover the middle paths, learn as much as we can, and take it all home again with us.

1 thought on “The Funhouse Mirrors that Ring the Planet”

  1. Great piece. I haven’t made up my own mind as to the reasons people go to “planet literature.” There’s obviously a positive effect, or people wouldn’t pursue literature. But it’s hard to actually say what those positive effects are.

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