CV-19 Week 3 Day 2

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CV-19 Week 3 Day 2
Reading in Multiples

Legend tells us that Francisco de Quevedo possessed a revolving book stand-cum-lectern. He placed this on his table at meal times and he would have four books open at the same time, moving rapidly in his reading from one to another. I have always liked this idea. As a result, I am now doing something similar.

I began by taking out Don Quixote, which I am once again reading in Spanish. The adventures of our Ingenious Gentleman are a delight and this time, the slowness of my 28th reading of the 1605 text allows me to taste every word, to roll the syllables round the tongue, and to savor every word. With CV-19 on the loose, there are no deadlines, no use by dates, and nothing to prevent me from delaying the full enjoyment of each word of the text. Equally important, there is no class preparation, no waiting audience, just me, an old man now, following the thoughts and adventures of an old man as written by an old man, Miguel de Cervantes, way back when.

I have the Collected Poems of Phillip Larkin on the table beside me. What a different world. What depth of insight and observation. What a bearing of witness to the follies and foibles of an England that I left behind so long ago, much of it vanished now, along with the old choir stalls and the hedgerows, the cuckoos and the skylarks. I read and re-read The Old Fools and realize just how close I am to that cliff edge, that precipice, that Alpine peak, beneath which I shelter and seek succour. Then I turn to This be the Verse and I start to laugh at this portrayal of middle-class parental pretensions. This is Larkin’s open wit, but his sly wit, like that of Cervantes, but more bitter, creeps up on you and catches you unawares, unless you know how and where to look for it.

At my left elbow, Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero y yo awaits my attention. No children’s book this, but a wonderfully poetic recounting of a poet’s observations of Moguer, a small seaside town in Andalusia. This too is a book to read slowly, to savour, to taste each word, each story. This too is prose poetry at its best. Cervantes wrote that ‘epic poetry can be written in prose’ / la épica también puede escribirse en prosa‘. JRJ might equally well have written that ‘poetry can also be written in prose’ … an edict that I have tried to follow in my own writing.

For my more serious reading, I am dipping into the late Roger Scruton’s A Short History of Modern Philosophy (from Descartes to Wittgenstein). This is heavier reading, in some senses, yet the parallels between Descartes philosophical observations and Cervantes’s literary ones are well worth considering, for Cervantes often offers the practical where Descartes puts forward the theoretical.

I will be adding more titles to my reading as I progress. Needless to say, I am also wandering through the labyrinth of my own earlier writings, and they are so much fun to revisit too. I will add more on this topic, as our enforced enclosure progresses.

Comment: These visitors came to my garden last summer. It is a delight to offer my photographs of them as a counter to CV-19 for these butterflies symbolize the brevity and the beauty of our lives. Butterflies on a rock: poetry and literature in Canada, and even more fragile in these times of utmost fragility. Keep well, keep safe, and keep in touch with your loved ones by telephone, Skype, Messenger, e-mail, and keep everything safe.

Intertextuality

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Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the dialog that takes place between texts or as Merriam-Webster explains it: “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as a basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.”

Often we write from an intertextual perspective when we respond to other writers and their thoughts and imagery. This is why, in the creative process, reading can be as important as writing. Reading expands our vocabulary. It reinforces some of our own opinions and challenges others. Without reading, we are lonely rocks in sunless seas.

To be creative, we need to be aware of what others are writing and how they view the world we inhabit. When we read creatively we read with an eye to improving our creativity and our structures. We look for new ideas, new images, new words, new ways of expressing our thoughts.

Often we think we are being original when in fact we are re-processing, just as I am now, the ideas of other people. Given the nature of modern media, we are not always aware of all the multiple sources of our material: telephone, twitter, blogs, radio, television, newspapers (less and less), books, chapbooks, magazines, e-sources, lectures, chat groups, Facebook, and general conversations with other people who are also unaware of their sources. Thus ideas abound, float in the air, circulate and recirculate, submerge and resurface, shift their shapes and colors.

As writers we dip into that enormous moving mass of current and past culture and creativity and we choose our narrative lines, our characters, our structures, our images, our metaphors. As Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, once wrote, “Mes idées? Je les prends où je les trouve.” My ideas? I take them from wherever I find them.

Imitation is the best form of flattery. Indeed it is. We cannot, however, borrow wholesale and just copy. Miguel de Cervantes borrowed the first five chapters of Don Quixote (the first sortie) from an earlier entremés entitled El Entremés de los romances. For a very long time, critics thought that Cervantes was the author of both pieces: they are very similar. However, even a quick analysis also shows that they are very different. The language of the entremés is much older while the conversion of theatre into narrative distinguishes them at a very basic level. Cervantes borrowed: but in borrowing, he adapted, he changed, he took the old form and converted it into something new and completely original. Nevertheless, we are still aware of the origins of the great novel that has many other borrowings woven into its fabric.

So, we indulge in intertextuality when we engage in a dialog with other texts and ‘borrow’ from other authors. To be original, we have to take that borrowing and turn it into something entirely different, something that becomes a part of ourselves and no longer exists as a part of that other text. Intertextuality is not copying. If we take a text in its entirety, if we ‘copy’, then we must acknowledge the source. However, when we indulge in a dialog with a text, when we transform a text, when we are ourselves transformed by a text, then that is a totally different situation. Think of the links between Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, and its offspring, the 1960 western entitled The Magnificent Seven. They are very similar in so many ways … and yet they are so very different.

While intertextuality refers more to the larger elements of character and narrative structure, it also exists at the level of metaphor and image. Sometimes, without thinking, we use metaphors that we have heard before. Often we like the sound of a group of words, shuffle them around, and come up with a new meaning for them, a new metaphoric reality. This too is intertextuality.

At its best it is a very valuable addition to our creative tool kit.

While on the topic of creativity, let us spare a thought for our needs for creative time and space. We cannot create when we lack the blessings of time and space. Creativity is greatly hindered when we go hungry and need to complete back-breaking work just to sustain our lives and feed our families. Our relative wealth and leisure is a blessing: without them, we would be floundering in the pre-industrial world of subsistence farming, working at manual labor from dawn to dusk.

Let us spare a thought too for those oral societies that existed when people could not write. Or those early societies in which only the few, the happy few, were educated to the level at which they could actually read and write.

Intertextuality is a blessing, not a curse. Use it wisely, use it well.

Comment: I would like to thank Meg Sorick who suggested that I expand an earlier conversation that we had on the topic of Intertextuality.

Footsteps

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Footsteps
(23 April, 1616 AD)

rain fills the sky
mizzle and mist
low clouds
raindrops

a touch of snow
on trees grass
steady this
accumulation

where now
their warm hearts
their word-wealth

memories wrap
a warm scarf
around your neck

books beckon
let us now
talk with our eyes
to writers

Cevantes Shakespeare
El Inca Garcilaso
and many others
long since dead
though thought and word
their footsteps linger on

Comment:

Today, 23 April 2019, is international book day. We celebrate the works of Cervantes, Shakespeare, and El Inca Garcilasso, all of whom died on this date in 1616. Given the two different calendars, Gregorian and Julian, they actually died ten days apart, but the date was the same. We also support and celebrate all other others on this date, so Happy International Book Day, everyone, and keep writing.

Twits, Tweets, and Twitter

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Twits, Tweets, and Twitter
aka
Bits and Bytes

After a very cold and snowy December, with low temperatures, way below average and dropping at times to -24C, with snow on the ground almost all month, and all this in the fall, aka autumn, since winter didn’t officially begin until 6 pm yesterday, December 21, it was a real shock and surprise to listen to the rain fall and high winds batter the windows all night as the overnight temperature rose to +14C and we received 40 mms of rain. As a result, we awoke to warnings of flash floods from melting snow and an influx of rain as winter has begun with a more of a whimper and a watery splash rather than with a flash freeze and a bang as your bottom hits the ice. I wonder what the deer think as they paddle through the puddles on their way to and fro from the water-logged feeders. I know what I’m thinking: ‘thank heavens we don’t have to shovel it’, but it will be a totally different story when it all freezes over, the road are like bottles, and we descend the hill in first gear with an ever-present fear of a much too welcoming ditch.

I have just read an interesting article on how, accustomed as we are to Twits and Tweets, many of us are no longer capable of unravelling a long interesting sentence that rambles on and on and refuses to make an immediate Twitter Point, usually underlined by the use of CAPITAL letters for KEY WORDS and all of this for a sound byte audience that is becoming less and less literate as social media proliferates and news is telescoped into tiny jam jars of meaning that are spread around with an illiterate spoon and many exclamation marks. There: you have just read a 96 word sentence. I wonder how you did with it? Did you persevere? Did you give up half way through?

In my former life, when I encouraged young people to read Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote from cover to cover (and they did), I was surprised to discover the difficulties they had with his long sentences, some so long that they continued for a whole paragraph or a full page. I was also surprised to discover that many Spanish speaking people are now incapable of reading Don Quixote in the original Spanish as it is too complicated for them and too difficult in meaning and structure. I have cartoon versions of Cervantes’s master-piece, but have always found them to be simplistic and undignified. I have read the original, in Spanish, twenty-seven times, usually in the Martin de Riquer edition, and have never found the language to be a problem. Indeed, it is refreshing to enter the labyrinth of a long sentence and to struggle for a little while with the exact meaning of a complicated structure that offers so many multiple readings that no single meaning can easily be extricated, if at all, and so the mind wanders on and on in the Cervantine maze spun by a spider-web pen and a brilliant mind, now no longer accessible to the multitudes: a paradise now closed to so many, a garden open to a only a select few / Paraíso cerrado para muchos, jardines abiertos para pocos.

The spirit of Cervantes, the creator, appeared to me last night in a dream. ‘Rogelio,’ the master said. ‘Spare me and spare my creation.’ ‘Don Miguel,’ I mumbled sleepily, ‘here sit beside me on my bed. Welcome to my humble home.’ ‘I am not don Miguel,’ Cervantes replied. ‘I never was a don and I never will be one. I am humble Miguel, writer, poet, and son of a vagabond surgeon who, like father, like son, often entered the debtor’s prison’. ‘That same debtor’s prison where the history of your hero was engendered,’ I replied. ‘So they say, but I am not here for that. I have come for you to save me.’ ‘How, my Lord, how can I save you?’ ‘Rogelio, I am not a Lord, but a rumor has reached me in my after-life, that they have modernized my knight, given him a car, not a horse, set the Civil Guard against him, ridiculed him with condoms that he blows up like balloons, sent him to Salamanca, and Galicia, where he never went, continued his adventures, reborn, in a foreign language that I loathed …’ ‘That is bad, my Lord, I mean don Miguel, I mean Miguel …’ ‘Worse is to come.’ ‘Worse? How can it get worse?’ ‘Indeed, it arrived at my ears, you might say a little bird told me, that they are releasing my book in a series of 240 word tweets on a thing called Twitter that speaks like a Jesuit with false flickering words.’ ‘But you were brought up by the Jesuits …’ ‘That’s how I know of what I speak. This cannot be, the history of my knight reduced to episodes of 240 words, the whole 124 chapters, 1000 pus pages of finely scrawled ink, reduced to tweets on twitter by some poor twit … you must stop this nonsense. I and my knight depend upon you.’ ‘How can I stop it, don Miguel?’ ‘Charge the windmills of Twitter. Attack the falsehoods of Tweets. Stand up for the long, soulful sentence that will withstand the winds of time …’ ‘As your book has withstood, until now, the literary storm that is about to engulf it in an Alfred Hitchcock swarm of wild birds that is poised to twitter and tweet you to your doom?’

The ghost of Miguel de Cervantes vanished with a howl, only to be replaced by that of Pierre Menard, Borgian author of the renewed Quixotic page. ‘To tweet,” the ghost whispered in a thin, shrill voice, ‘or not to tweet, that is the question, and therein lies the Cervantine rub.’

Wednesday Workshop: Reading

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Wednesday Workshop
11 April 2018
Reading for Writers

Miguel de Cervantes once wrote that he was so fond of reading he would pick up even the scraps of paper he found in the street to read them if anything was written on them. This is well-known. What is less known is that Don Quixote, his immortal novel (DQI, 1605, DQII, 1615) is a masterpiece, not only of writing, but also of reading.

From the initial sortie, a prose transcription of an earlier short play, to the Scrutiny of the Library, Cervantes demonstrates right from the start his awareness of current trends in poetry, theatre and prose. In addition, he shows (especially DQI, chapter 47) his acquaintance with contemporary literary theory, as E. C. Riley has so ably established in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel.

Cervantes begins with the traditional Renaissance novel (DQI, 1605) in which he experiments with plays and poetry turned into prose, oral and written histories, pseudo-autobiographical episodes, the picaresque novel, the pastoral novel, the Italianate Novel, the picaresque novel (briefly), his own versions of the realistic Spanish short story, and then, after a ten year gap during which he receives all kinds of reader feedback, he invents (DQII, 1615), the self-referring modern novel. DQII refers back to DQI as if it were true history. Don Quixote on his ravels meets with people who recognize him, for they have read his story and know all about him. The fictitious character establishes himself as an almost flesh-and-blood living person.

What can we, as writers, learn from this? Above all, we must learn to read copiously, not just once in a while, but all the time. Not only must we read, but we must learn how to read. Yes, we can read for knowledge and information; yes, we can read for pleasure and enjoyment; yes, we can read to lose ourselves and wash away the cares of the world. However, as writers we must learn to read in a different fashion. We must read in search of the narrative structures that inspire other good writers. We must read in search of the iterative thematic imagery that binds a text with meaningful, repeated images. We must read in search of the poetry that sates the soul’s constant thirst for beauty. We must read in search of the dialog that cuts to the bone and reveals the hidden character of the protagonists. We must read in search of the layering that allows us to give extra meaning at all levels of the narrative. We must read in search of the secret that allows us to trim all unnecessary material in order that our stories may be spare and sparse with not an extra word or thought.

Reading: I have just finished taking an eight-week online course with the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. In the course of those eight weeks, I read the following books.

  1. 3 short stories a week, recommended by the instructor, the wonderful novelist Kerry Lee Powell, to illustrate each week’s lesson. [24 stories]
  2. 14 first drafts, one from each of the magnificent students in the course (I had the honor of being the fifteenth student). [38 stories]
  3. 14 revised stories. [52 stories]
  4. 14 first drafts of a second story. The course asked for two stories to be written by each participant over the duration of the course. [66 stories]
  5. 14 revised drafts of this second story. [80 stories]
  6. My own voluntary reading included Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about love (17 stories), Cathedral (12 stories), and my own short story collection, Bistro (35 very short stories). Recognizing the errors, weaknesses, and inaccuracies in my own collection reduced me to tears. [144 stories]

I have spent eight wonderful weeks exploring creativity and the art of short story writing.  Am I a better writer for all that work? Undoubtedly. I can see and think much more clearly and I am beginning to gain a better understanding of how short narratives work. I am a better writer, but I am not yet a good one. There is still a long way to go.

I am retired. A long, cold, icy New Brunswick winter has kept me in the house, close to the fire. I have been gifted the time and mental energy to make the most of this course I have taken. I attended the University of Toronto, as a graduate student, back in the sixties. I was amazed at the quantity of work handed out by the professors in the School of Graduate Studies. My first decision, made very early on in my graduate career, was to take a speed reading course. Accelerating my reading speed and capacity for understanding was the only way I would be able to compete. I am still a fast reader, though not as fast as I was. This speed reading has left me time for long thought and slow writing.

Over the last eight weeks, in addition to the reading, as described above, I have written five new short stories, including two for the course. I have also revised and re-written a series of short stories for my next collection. As a good friend keeps telling me, we are not writers, we are re-writers. After eight very intense weeks, the acts of re-writing, re-reading, re-vising, and re-editing have become much, much easier.

Carpe diem, seize the day: pick up a book and start reading. Pick up your pen and start writing. No excuses. Participaction: don’t think about it, do it.

Picaresque Novels

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The Picaresque Novel
Wednesday Workshop
3 May 2017

The Picaresque Novel

             Think of a pendulum: at one end of the swing, we have the pastoral novel and the novel of chivalry. The knights errant meet shepherds and shepherdesses on their travels, and all are cultured and can read and write. The main characters, heroes and heroines, if you wish, express high ideals and maintain a cultured standard of thought and living. The knights, in particular, follow the path of chivalry and defend the poor and maidens in distress. The ladies, especially the shepherdesses, are all ‘as pure as driven snow’ and they go to their graves, in the immortal words of Miguel de Cervantes, ‘as virgin as the mothers who bore them’.

            At the other end of the pendulum swing and positioned there partly in contrast to the ‘perfect society’ of knights, shepherds, and shepherdesses, we find the picaresque novel. Most pícaros are men, though female pícaras do exist (la pícara Justina, for example), and the pícaro is an anti-hero. He writes in the first person singular and tells the story of his survival in the lower ranks of a corrupt and impoverished society.

            Wikipedia phrases it this way: “The picaresque novel (Spanish “picaresca,” from “pícaro,” for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish hero or heroine of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire. This style of novel originated in 16th-century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It continues to influence modern literature.”

            Lazarillo de Tormes, considered by many to be the first picaresque novel, was written in Spain and three editions appeared in 1554. Lazarillo is given by his mother to a blind man who agrees to look after the young boy in return for the boy’s services as a guide. Even today, a person who guides a blind man is still called a lazarillo in some places. The book describes the life of Lazarillo as he moves from master to master until he eventually establishes himself ‘at the peak of all happiness and the height of his career’ as the local town-crier, married to a cast-off woman with whom the celibate village priest has created three children.

             Lazarillo de Tormes, a book that never uses the term pícaro, establishes the basic rules for the genre. (1) It is an autobiography, or pseudo-autobiography, of the main character. (2) That character leads a peripatetic life, wandering from master to master, usually at the bottom end of society, but sometimes working in the kitchen or lower service of the great. (3) The picaresque novel also contains elements of humor and satire and in some cases, Guzmán de Alfarache, for example, has a moralizing purpose that is used to justify the immorality of the book.

            The church did not receive the picaresque novel well, especially when the satire and humor were aimed at the church. In the Lazarillo, for example, Lazarillo works for a seller of Papal Bulls who sets up an elaborate and deceitful charade in order to increase his sales. This charade involves a friend who poses as a doubter, is then cursed and goes into a fit, but recovers almost immediately with the blessing of the Papal Bull. Lazarillo de Tormes was censored by the Inquisition and appeared in an even shorter version that was called El Lazarillo Castigado, Lazarillo Punished, with all unwholesome references to the church removed.

            Perhaps the most famous picaresque novel, after Lazarillo, was El Buscón / The Swindler. It was written by Francisco de Quevedo in 1601 and circulated in manuscript form until it was published, illegally I should add, in 1627. The novel was so scandalous that it was denounced to the Inquisition and Quevedo often denied writing it. His intricate and heavily conceited style is inimitable, however, and the book contains several references to his own life. It is difficult imagining any other person as author.

            Wikipedia translates pícaro as ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’ and this illustrates the pleasant and humorous scallywag style that the character often has. However, the darker, more murderous side of the pícaro emerges more clearly when ‘swindler’ (Penguin Translation) or a stronger term is used. In this fashion, the pícaro (rascal or rogue) can be associated with Tom Jones or Oliver Twist, while his darker, more reprehensible side may be associated with by Bill Sykes or Fagin himself.

            More important, perhaps, is the long life that the picaresque has had in Western Literature as the traveler, the journeyer, the observer, the young man who is ‘down and out’,  works his way across the land, surviving, adventuring and commentating.

Glass Man

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Glass Man

“I am made of glass,” I said.
“You can see right through me.”

But the harder you looked,
the less you saw.
You claimed
there was nothing there,
just empty air.

“Your glass is an illusion,” you said.
“It’s not half full
and it’s not half empty.”

“Glass is fragile,
I break easily.
Drop me, I shatter;
hot and cold will
make me crack.”

“Your fragility is in your mind,
not in the fact of your existence.”

“When light passes through me
I break into a million colors,”
I said.

“You are a prism,
the colors that you cast
change you and rain
rainbow  lights
that change others
too.”

 

World Book Day

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World Book Day
23 April 2017

A word about World Book Day before it is over: April 23 is the death date of William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. While the dates are the same, the days are not. Spain used the Gregorian Calendar, but England used the Julian calendar, with the result that Cervantes died on the same date as Shakespeare, but ten days before him.

The connection between these dates was made in Catalonia in 1925 and it was there that the death of Cervantes was celebrated. Don Quixote, after all, decided to travel to Barcelona, rather than Zaragoza, in the second part of Don Quixote (1615). The link to the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (author of the Comentarios reales) linked two continents and three great, very original authors.  In 1995, UNESCO declared April 23 to be World Book and Copyright Day.

The conflict between the two calendars (Julian and Gregorian) also complicates the dates mentioned in the various ships engaged in the Spanish Armada that sailed for England in 1588. Battles took place on different day and different dates, according to the not always accurate logs of the two navies.

Two complicate things further, time at sea was very difficult to judge and candles, water clocks, sandglasses, and lanterns were all very unreliable and gave great differing times for the different actions that took place during the engagements.

In 1988, for the three hundredth anniversary of the event, instead of days and hours, the ships’ actions were logged into a computer along with the retro-calculated tidal tables. What emerged was a seaman’s account of time and tide in which actions were seen in the light of the actual sea environment. As a result, very different picture of that famous series of sea battles emerged.

Three Unities

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The Three Unities
Wednesday Workshop
19 April 2017

The Three Unities

The Three Classical Unities are those of Time, Place, and Action. They are usually associated with classical theatre. It is worth remembering that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when poetry and theatre ruled the artistic world of the west, the novel was relatively undeveloped and narrative form was concentrated in epic poetry. In fact, one of Cervantes’s greatest innovations was to draw a parallel between the modern narrative, as he developed it, and epic poetry. “También la épica puede escribirse en prosa,” he wrote in Don Quixote, I, 47. ‘Epic poetry may also be written in prose.’ Lyric and epic poetry had a different construct to the theatre, so it is really the classic theatre that we are discussing here, rather than poetry and prose, though all forms of creativity benefit from a knowledge and understanding of the three unities. Let us look at these unities one by one.

Unity of Time: The play should take place within a time frame of a day, twenty-four hours. This concentrates the action at the moment of maximum impact, or crisis, when the major decisions are being taken. In order to fill in the background details of what happened before, a confidant is often used, especially in French theatre, and this confidential person, or adviser, assists the main characters in coming to their decisions by providing missing background information.

Unity of Place: The play should take place in the same house, as a minimum, and preferably in the same room of the house. This limits travel, and the wanderings of Odysseus, for example, would be impossible in the classical theatre. This is a restriction that was blown away by epic poetry. The narrative forms also rejected this type of unity as they developed, and contemporary film, with its total mobility really reduces Unity of Place to the realms of history and the Absurd.

Unity of Action: All action within the play should be subordinated to the main plot and the main characters. There should be only one plot, but a minor plot is permitted provided it echoes, mirrors, and reflects upon the main plot. Unity of action is interesting in that, to a certain extent, it has remained with us. Television shows, especially police and crime shows, may have multiple actions, but they all link together to form a pattern of events that are linked within a series of unified patterns. It is these patterns of unified action that so often reveal the criminal.

Unity of Theme: Spanish classical theatre, under the watchful eye of Lope de Vega, broke all the unities as established above, but created a new unity: unity of theme. This, too, has demonstrated its longevity and is still with us. Thematic unity is common to all forms of literature and is a binding thread in poetry and prose, theatre, film, and novel. Unity of theme suggests that beneath the surface movement of the art work, there is a thematic unity, a set of deeper ideas, if you like, that provides links to all the action and thought.

Closely linked to these four unities is what I call Unity of Language. Unity of Language is consistent within characters, the way they speak, the way they use language. It is also consistent within a poem or a book. Sometimes it is based on the concept of Associative Fields according to which each word is surrounded by a series of associations (the Associative Field) that links words to each other at one level and to a central theme at another level. The use of Associative Fields is greatest in poetry and those forms of writing that base themselves on poetical repetition. In fact, the Associative Field may be looked upon as a form of repetition that provides emphasis by repeating a theme while avoiding the repetition of the same word within that theme.

I look on the development of art and culture as akin to the movement of a pendulum on a grandfather clock. On one side, let’s call it the right, the pendulum demands rules, immutable rules, and writers that stick to those rules. On the other side, let’s call it the left, there are no rules and chaos reigns in a creative land where the broken rule is the law of the day.

Classicism, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was followed by Neo-Classicism, in the Eighteenth Century, and this was an even more stultified form than classicism itself. The Romantic Movement, on the other hand, broke the rules of Classicism and brought energy and freedom to all forms of art. As Victor Hugo said: “J’ai mis un bonnet rouge sur le vieux dictionnaire.” ‘I have place a red [French revolutionary] bonnet on the old dictionary.”  Romanticism is Revolution. In art, we need regular revolutions. The next major revolution is always just around the corner. Or, as the pendulum theory suggests, maybe the next revolution, waiting just around the corner, is a swing of the pendulum back from freedom (Romanticism) to restraint  (Classicism).

Certainly we modern authors may exercise our choices in a way that older authors could not. We can and should be aware of all that has gone before us. Knowing the traditions from which we write allows us to write better and to choose better, taking or rejecting that which we want and that which suits us best in our own artistic endeavours.

Bakhtin’s Chronotopos

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Bakhtin’s Chronotopos
Thursday Thoughts
13 April 2017

This note is an adjunct to Dr. Margaret Sorick’s piece, The Novelist’s Pen, that I re-blogged yesterday. The author, Dr. Sorick, raises some important issues, upon which I would like to elaborate further. Dr. Sorick begins her article with a quote from the Marquis de Sade in which de Sade states that “The novel … is the ‘picture of the manners of every age.’” Dr. Sorick then adds her own comment to this: “What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach.”

Bakhtin’s Chronotopos may be summarized as “man’s dialog with his time (chronos) and place (topos).” Clearly, man, in this instance, stands for human being / writer / author, and it should be understood in this fashion. By extension, an author’s time and place is clearly the time and place in which an author lives. For me, my time is the early 21st Century and my place is Island View, New Brunswick. Dr. Sorick presents the reader with the question, rephrased in my own words, ‘are we doomed to write from our own time and place or can we insert ourselves into another time and place to write, for example, a historical novel of, let us say, the First World War’? Clearly, we can study ‘another time, another place’ and when we do so our dialog extends from our time and place into another’s time and place, and this second time and place will become one that we will in some way make our own. The exact historical resonance of that time and place and its substantial links with our own, will depend upon the skill and ability of the artist.

However, if I read the New Criticism correctly, we read and understand only from our own time and place. We must eliminate the author, eliminate the historical time, and read only the text that we have before us. There is no time and place other than our own time and place. I could be wrong about this, but it is my understanding that, for the New Critics of the Chicago School, we must not look beyond the text for the text is everything. In creating a text, we create a world, and that world is the only world. There is nothing beyond it.

I was educated in a rather different fashion. While in Graduate School, at the University of Toronto, there were in the department where I was studying, two opposing sets of ideas. One followed the New Criticism and concentrated on the text, the text, and nothing but the text. The other followed the more traditional idea of the text in context. According to this school of thought, it was necessary to understand the time and place from which the original author was writing. Without that knowledge, the reader or critic was in grave danger of misinterpreting the text by approaching it from a single point of view: that of the modern reader.

Theory is one thing; practice is another. While both points of view stand up in theory, what happens when we see them working in practice? I will, with apologies, take a single example, that of the Adventure with The Galley Slaves, that occurs in Don Quixote, Part One (1605).

If we read this from the point of view of a 21st Century reader, then we see a gentleman adventurer, dressed in out-of-date, old-fashioned armour, meeting a chain gang of criminals walking towards imprisonment in the infamous galleys of the Spanish navy, where they will row for a number of years as part of their prison sentences. Don Quixote stops and politely requests each galley slave to explain why he is going to the galleys. He receives a series of answers that allow him to observe that the slaves are being forced against their will and, in an act of charity, he helps free them. From a 21st century point of view, this episode had been read as an act of social justice, the freeing of the innocent. This act of social justice resonates across the centuries and is a call for more understanding and a better sense of social justice and freedom in our own times.

When we immerse ourselves in Cervantes and the Golden Age of Spain, a very different picture emerges. Cervantes, the author, was always interested in the Spanish picaresque novel and he imitated it on several occasions. One of his artistic experiments in the Don Quixote, was an attempt at writing a picaresque adventure. Cervantes’s chronos is the junction between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His topos is the countryside of Spain where the chain gangs were a relatively common sight. In this instance, the language of the galley slaves is the double talk of thieves’ slang. They are all, in their own minds, innocent and the double meaning of their language shows that this is so. Don Quixote accepts their innocence, as proven by his interpretation of their double-speak, and contributes to freeing them. His act is not, in the mind of the times, an act of social justice, but a crime against the laws of the land. He is pursued by the Santa Hermandad, the equivalent of the country’s police, for a crime against the state. Only his own state of total madness saves him from arrest.

Can we hold both pictures, that of the twenty-first century reader and that of the seventeenth century reader in our minds at one and the same time? I think we can. BUT, and it is a big BUT, hence the capitals, I also think that we must be aware of these two radically different points of view: (1) what we read and understand and (2) what ‘they’ would have read and probably understood. That said, throughout the seventeenth century, with a few notable exceptions, the great playwright Calderón de la Barca being one of them, the Quixote was seen as a work of humor in which a madman created comedy while doing crazy things and breaking all the laws of the land.

Let us return now to Dr. Sorick’s original statement: “What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach.” To seek to find comfort and understanding in another age, on the terms of that age, is a very great and difficult undertaking. That said, an event that is re-created in such a way that the event stands out and on its own is an artistic achievement. We are then entitled, as readers, to interpret that event in whatever way we please, social justice or criminal act, in the case of the Galley Slaves. However, we must also be aware of the biases and distortions that accompany us as we travel back in time and look at their lives through our own eyes. The world has changed, will change, and we will continue to evolve. We must always be aware of that.

In conclusion, I agree with Dr. Meg Sorick, as both readers and artists we bear a great and heavy responsibility indeed. As artists and critics, we must do our research. As readers, we must understand the limitations imposed upon us by our own time and place.