Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's a pack of nonsense - misreading with heart and energy

“Creative misreading” is a polite term for what I was trying to do with The Immoralist yesterday.  I succeeded at misreading, and will defer to others regarding the creativity.  I was following a train of references that are in the novel, right there on the page, but that seem to lead somewhere that fits strangely with the rest of the book.  With its surface, at least.  I do not really believe that The Immoralist is a spy novel.  Yet Gide scattered these scraps throughout his own book.  He meant something by it.

My favorite act of creative misreading, an all-time great, is Maurice Morgann’s An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), in which Morgann brilliantly defends Falstaff, the greatest coward in literature, from the charge of cowardice.  He uses nothing but the evidence of Shakespeare’s own words, and his own crackpot ingenuity, to demonstrate Falstaff’s great bravery.   Samuel Johnson laughingly suggested that “as he has proved Falstaff to be no coward, he may prove Iago to be a very good character” (Boswell, Life of Johnson, somewhere in 1783).  Yes, that’s the spirit, exactly!

I unfortunately do not have a copy of Morgann’s book, so I will advance to my second favorite pack of nonsense, “A Little Look into Chaos” (1975) by Robert M. Adams, which I know from the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost (2nd edition).   Milton’s poem shifts between Heaven, Hell, and Earth, but Adams investigates the fourth location, Chaos, which is both between and outside of the realm of devils, angels, and men.

In Book II, Satan pays a visit to the ruler, or anti-ruler, of Chaos, the Anarch and his court.  The Anarch complains that the recently created Earth, and Hell, and, weirdest of all, even Heaven have been created from, taken from, his domain.  Adams discovers a second war concealed under the war between Heaven and Hell, a battle between God and Chaos.  Satan appears to be an ally of God in this conflict, although he might not realize it.  Or Chaos is cleverly using Satan as his own weapon.  Or, or, or - keep 'em coming.

Veterans of Dungeons & Dragons will understand all of this immediately; more orthodox readers may invoke the pack of nonsense in my title.  That line is from the essay (p. 629); Adams is also one of the orthodox readers:

“I’ve overstated the case for his [Chaos’s] presence, and traced out the implications of his logic as vigorously as I could – too vigorously for the good of the poem.  We must suppress Chaos a little bit, mute him, sit (maybe) on his head, so that the poem as a whole may maintain its intended balance.” (630)

But Adams, a true scholar, is not simply playing with ideas.  Every reference to Chaos is there in the text.  The interpreter of Milton needs to find his own way through the material, but not brush it aside as inconsequential simply because its fit with received ideas of the meaning of the poem is askew.

Adams begins his article with a uniquely modest preface: his paper is “poor, sparse, speculative”; he would like to “inscribe a spectacular and gigantic question mark” over it “[b]ut as we don’t know what a question can do till we put some heart and energy into asking it, I’ve chosen to take my chances.” (617)

Now, that right there could be the motto of Wuthering Expectations (and I take the giant question mark as given).  I recommend it to other amateur critics.  We have less to lose than the professionals.  Read well, but also misread well, with heart and energy.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. If one misreads then one must do it creatively and forthrightly.

    Sometimes I wonder if a creative and affectionate misreading says more about a book than a straightforward reading that stays solidly (predictably?) with the text.

  2. Fascinating-I will def. be checking out Maurice Morgann. I think that all interesting questions and enquiries-regardless of discipline-begin with asking a question and then following it unto the ends of the earth. I was looking for a motto or maxim as I begin my next writing project, and I think I may have found it.

  3. The Morgann book is amazing. It is so strangely convincing. An out-of-nowhere tour de force.

    The motto has more than one use, doesn't it?

    I'm with you, Fred - a good misreading is still about the book. And is not so dang boring. No offense meant to any boring bloggers who wander by. It's a self-criticism.

  4. Read well, but also misread well, with heart and energy.

    Another one here to say this is a grand motto. There's so much to learn from a good misreading.

  5. There's so much to mislearn from a good misreading.

    Someone will tell me when my misreading leaps right off the flat edge of the earth, yes?