Friday, June 12, 2009

There's fools enoo, an' rogues enoo, wi'out lookin' i' books for 'em - also, why blog? - also, read Villette!

"Nay, nay, I aren't goin' to bother mysen about Dutchmen. There's fools enoo, an' rogues enoo, wi'out lookin' i' books for 'em." The Mill on the Floss, Ch I.4.

I actually prefer fools and rogues to be in books, rather than real life. Let's hold that thought.

A few months ago a new button showed up whenever I logged into Wuthering Expectations. The new one, perched beside "Edit" and "View" and "Settings," was "Monetize." I'm glad my host added that button, because it gave me a good laugh every day, for weeks. I think the effect has finally worn off. Monetize! Ha ha ha ha! No, it's still funny.

I've seen several good blog posts recently about The Point of It All, why all of these amateur and pro-am and pro blockheads* bother. Dorothy W. turned Montaigne's "On Practice" into an Apology for Blogging: "if I play the fool it is at my own expense and does no harm to anybody." Patrick Kurp has been reading selections from the notebooks of poet Donald Justice: a notebook is "for jotting down unfinished ideas" that "seldom go any further, perhaps for the best." Prof. Myers defends "writing done in a hurry," in the process saying nice things about me and revealing one of my open secrets, which is that each post I write is an experiment, a try, an essay. That each post is a failure is incidental. Let's see what this does, I think.

For me, the comments are the great improvement on a notebook. This notebook is out in public, where kind and knowledgeable strangers jot improvements in the margins. A commenter now has me puzzling over why I care so little about the idea of sympathetic characters. Maybe I should care more. The more I think about the issue, the less well I understand it.

I've turned to Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988) for help. It's a big book, accessible but far from easy. The book has some of my own ideas, so now I guess I have to read it. Before I knew what was in the book, if I copied Booth's ideas it would be inadvertent, and I would just be naïve. If I do it now, I'm a plagiarist. Books are corrupting. Stay away from books.

This project may be a bit too close to real work. Again, any assistance regarding sources is appreciated. Surely someone has put some argumentative weight behind the words of Luke the miller, up there at the top of the post. Why do I spend so much time with fictional fools and rogues, with imaginary people I don't like, or who, perhaps worse, I am tricked into liking?

On another note, Rohan Maitzen and The Valve will be hosting a Villette book club this summer. See the link for the schedule. I found previous runs at Adam Bede and The Chimes to be useful, and plan to read along this time, too. Ma femme has told me that this is her favorite C. Brontë novel, and that it features all sorts of thoroughly unlikable characters.

* Per Dr. Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." No offense!


  1. I gather that, quite simply, you are doing this for love, not money. I commend you for that.

    Interestingly, the practice of pursuing things that involve labor just out of a love for the activity, without any remuneration, comes us incessantly in 19th Century literature. I read a great deal of that literature in my youth and I loved reading about all that disinterested (in the older sense) activity. Of course, most of the upper class English characters who engaged in such unpaid activities had "$xx,xxx Pounds per year" coming in from their estates, and could afford to work for love!

    Still, it's a noble thing to do.

  2. I'd like to add the caveat that I think Villette is the best of Charlottle Bronte's novels in the same way that another person might say that the fried dough is the best fried thing at the county fair.

    Which reminds me, when are we launching "Cooking the Canon" (featuring Bronte Beignets, Hawthorn & Arugula salad, Golem Goulash, Gerard de Nerval Lobster Thermidor, Barnaby Fudge, and many more scrumptious literary dishes for only $32.00 plus shipping and handling)?

  3. Had Montaigne been around to blog, I'd read his daily.

    "This project may be a bit too close to real work... Why do I spend so much time with fictional fools and rogues, with imaginary people I don't like, or who, perhaps worse, I am tricked into liking?"

    ^That about sums IT ALL up.

  4. So, I've been doing some thinking about the whole sympathetic characters thing. I actually started thinking about this a lot when I was first reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments (to be finished someday soon, I hope). And I know you've mentioned your fear of philosophy, but on reflection, I think this might be a good if unexpected place to start. Keep in mind that I am still only through parts I-III.

    Sympathy, in its very basic sense, undergirds the whole project. I think part I especially (a mere 60 or so pages in my edition). And I think getting back to the basics of sympathy might be helpful in creating a framework for the very idea of sympathetic and antipathetic characters.

    A thought I've been developing is that we're treating the idea of "sympathy" all wrong. Sympathy is a form of fellow-feeling, and I can be sympathetic for both likeable and unlikeable characters. You'll often find readers sympathizing with a Bad Guy, like Humbert Humbert or Freddy Montgomery, and they're made uncomfortable by that. It's likeability that's important to these readers. But for me it's comprehensibility--that is to say, sympathy in this basic sense.

    I often say that character likeability isn't a problem for me, but that doesn't mean there aren't some characters I don't like and that sometimes they don't ruin books for me. On the contrary. The characters I don't like are the ones I can't relate to at all--not because they are murderers or rapists or ephebophiles, but because I simply can't understand their thoughts and actions. If a character goes from idea A to idea B where I would go from idea A to idea C, I end up feeling divorced from the psychology of the character and confused about whether the author is living a life completely foreign to me. And this level of "making sense" or not is a lot more important to me.

    Take The Corrections, for example, widely disliked among Oprah fans for its "unsympathetic" characters. Chip is kind of a jerk, but I can sympathize with him without wanting to be like him or be friends with him. His selfishness doesn't bother me, while I find selfishness is what gets in the way (or seems to) for a lot of readers. For me, what might get in the way is (perceived) stupidity--the character has some goal or problem, I would resolve it one way, and the character chooses another which I consider inferior in its consequences. That way frustration lies.

    Of course, a lot of this has roots in readers trying to impose their own morality on characters and/or authors, and I'm certainly guilty of this too. That seems like a closely related problem.

    I think I'll close this long and somewhat rambling comment here...hope it makes at least a bit of sense.

  5. I should also note that, to get back to my original point, one thing that kept coming back to me as I read the Adam Smith was the idea of Dickens, and how he was just so perceptive of all of this, in a very natural way. And so much of what Smith thinks works and doesn't work in terms of sympathy in the real world has its counterpart in fiction, varying based largely on the talent of the writer, I think.

  6. nightman1, thanks for the kind words. But noble? Let's not go nuts.

    All weekend I had a hankering for fried dough.

    Dorothy, Becca - would we recognize Montaigne-the-blogger as Montagine?

    nicole, I hope you don't mind if I mostly file away what you wrote. For Later Use. I appreciate the ideas. Three things here:

    1. Adam Smith is a good place to start, I agree. But then who, logically, inevitably, irresistibly, comes next? K**t, right? So no way.

    2. What do you do when the author is in fact living a life completely foreign to you? I.e., the book in question is Egil's Saga or The Tale of Genji or The Ramayana? Or say the author or character is Harpo Marx. Don't I want him to do the thing I don't expect or understand?

    3. My favorite section of The Corrections, by far, is Gary's. I think it's the best written part, the most insightful. Maybe I unconsciously sympathize with him the most, but that's not what I tell myself. Boy, anyone who rejects The Corrections on sympathy grounds had better steer clear of 20th century American literay fiction. Faulkner will make 'em apoplectic.

  7. 1. Yes, it's a vortex. I will not say you are unwise to steer well clear of it.

    2. Last night I watched "The Story of Qiu Ju," about a Chinese peasant woman seeking an apology from the village chief who kicked her husband in the groin. Bureaucrats determine they are owed compensation for medical expenses and lost productivity, but not an apology--and the chief won't apologize because he doesn't want to lose face (especially to a woman). But the apology is the only thing Qiu Ju cares about, refusing the money.

    With something like this, I have to suspend more than just my disbelief--Qiu Ju should care more than she does about financial compensation, and the chief should care less than he does about losing face, but I know going into it enough about Chinese culture that none of this seems unnatural, weird, or wrong. Am I really sympathizing with Qiu Ju? I don't think so; I like her, but I think she makes some mistakes. But it doesn't affect my enjoyment.

    On the other hand, take a contemporary American book I really didn't hit it off with, Songs for the Missing. Mom of missing girl devotes her entire life to getting back the daughter who, at this point, is clearly dead and not about to return. She obsesses to the point of ruining the lives of the family members that still exist, and then feels some sort of inexplicable "closure" at the end. Yeah, sure, grief and all that, and I couldn't possibly understand--but it's just way too irrational for me. I wanted to slap the woman and tell her to get on with her life and stop making her non-insane family members miserable. People with kids would probably react differently, but the divide of maternal vs. non-maternal feelings is a harder one for me to bridge than American vs. Chinese culture, at least sometimes.

    So maybe, instead, it only becomes a problem if I can sympathize with the situation but not the actions. I think that may be it.

    3. Gary was my favorite too, I loved him. But that horrible wife! Get rid of her!

  8. "The Story of Qiu Ju" - what a movie. Have you seen "Not One Less," from a few years later? It's even better, I think. With "The Road Home" (sweet, beautiful, less interesting), the three movies form a "stubborn Chinese women" trilogy.

  9. Added to the queue...and I had a feeling you would have seen Qiu Ju!