Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Ideology of form"

In what sense might one promote a politics when choosing to write, say, a sonnet rather than a blank-verse poem on the same subject, or when making decisions about diction in that poem? Or when a novelist chooses odd, a-chronological arrangements of material, or multiple narrators who speak on behalf of a character who never speaks directly to the reader on his/her own behalf, instead of a conventional, single-voiced narrator relating the story's action in chronological order? Or, for that matter, choosing to write a novel at all?

Reading Hosam Aboul-Ela's intriguing book Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition raises these questions for me--or, rather, reminds me of them--via his discussion of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Along the same lines as Edouard Glissant in his book, Faulkner, Mississippi (which I first posted about here), Aboul-Ela makes the case that Faulkner might be usefully read from what he calls an Other South (roughly, a Third-World) perspective, in that, following historian C. Vann Woodward's argument, the South during Reconstruction and, depending on one's politics, maybe even beyond 1964, was in essence colonized by the United States government, economically as well as politically. Thus, Aboul-Ela argues, perhaps Faulkner's interests and agendas diverge from those of the other "high Modernist" and, for that matter, other American writers he's commonly associated with. He specifically claims that Faulkner's tendency toward novels with multiple narrators seeking to retell, from different perspectives, tales that they themselves know only piecemeal or through hearsay, is at odds with the usual Modernist stance re History but seems to have caused real resonance in later writers of the Other South--not just the Latin American writers Faulkner is usually associated with, but also Arab writers from North Africa and the Middle East, as well as writers from the Indian subcontinent. Further, some of these writers claim not to have read Faulkner before they produced their own works which seem, nevertheless, to bear certain resemblances; this presents us with the possibility that people growing up in different cultures that share broad similarities but who otherwise don't know each other may as a result of those similarities create similar sorts of (narrative) art.

Over at Domestic Issue I'll have up a wonkier post that heads in a different direction from the above; but it struck me, as I thought over that phrase "ideology of form" that most of us may wonder why a writer adopts the structure s/he does, but that we wonder, I'd assume, for broadly aesthetic reasons: What does the author gain with this approach? We're all comfortable with the idea that a work's content implies, however indirectly, some sort of politics, but I found myself wondering if those of you out there who are readers have ever wondered whether the form a work takes--the structure the writer gives it--reflects an ideology; that is, a choice of form made for a reasons other than the material presented in the work or for thematic reasons.

Some examples of what I mean:

In the early decades of the novel-as-genre's emergence in English, the cultural élite were extremely dismissive of novels. Who, after all, couldn't write prose narrative? Where was the skill in that? (Consider as well that then, as now, women soon became the primary writers and consumers of novels.) Poetry, because of its long respected tradition and elaborate rules (not just for the various closed forms but for things like the diction deemed appropriate for poetry), was regarded as the king of the literary arts.

During the Harlem Renaissance, writers had lengthy debates among themselves and in print about what form(s) African-American art should take so as to be most faithful to the experience of black people and attract and hold an audience (in those days, mostly white) without pandering to that audience. Some advocated adopting the forms and language of mainstream European poetic tradition; others argued in favor of adapting and inventing poetic forms and language to reflect African-American art forms such as the blues and jazz.

Georg Lukács, a Marxist critic, very much disliked modern novels' stylistic innovations because they represented to him the chief problem of the modern era generally: the dissolution of contemporary society and the growing isolation and even alienation of the individual from society--which, of course, Marxism sought in part to address. Lukács preferred so-called Realist novels, arguing that they adhere most closely to objective reality. On the other hand, Mikhail Bakhtin's critical writings celebrated precisely that multivoiced quality of the novel, and for the same reason Lukács disliked it: its faithful depiction of life lived in the Here and Now.

Anyway. Some stuff to chew on.


R. Sherman said...

My dial-up at home is messed up so I hope this comment doesn't vanish into the ether.

I meant to mention, the EMBLOS dug out her collection of Faulkner short stories the other day in order help our elder son, now in the seventh grade, pick a story about which to do a project. Her suggestion, of course, was A Rose For Emily. (He hated it -- until the last two paragraphs.)

Anyway, it's been so long since I've read Faulkner, I decided to work my way through the stories, in part because of these recent posts. (I hasten to add, I shall not have the audacity to do any posts, lest I be be on the receiving end of some "John B" criticism.



John B. said...

You have nothing to fear from me--you're an excellent reader. I hope you enjoy your reading.

I don't know what collection the EMBLOS has--Collected Stories is the must-have--but I can recommend some others that your son might like: "That Evening Sun," "Spotted Horses" and, if you think he'd like hunting stories, "The Old People" and the short story version (not the version in Go Down, Moses) of "The Bear." Also, I like The Unvanquished, which, though read as a novel, is a linked collection of stories set during the Civil War and focusing, mostly, on the friendship of two young boys, one white and one black.