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.