Language, Behavior, History | Harper's Magazine

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Language, Behavior, History

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Imaginative literature traffics in selves. The statement can be read variously. The selves can be the creatures in the writing—narrators and characters who present or appear in a novel or a poem. Equally, though, the selves can be the writer, veiled, fed and fitted into the work’s people. William Gaddis was asked which of his characters in The Recognitions was based most on himself. He replied, effectively, that he was all of them.

It is a natural question, I think, when reading a story, to wonder if it is true. Of course, the story itself will tell us if what it tells us is true. A friend read a novel set in the 1860s. When he reached the word “relationship” he threw the book across the room. No one in 1860, was his sense of things, would use that word to describe love between a man in a woman. The book’s language argued against the book’s truth.

That definition of truth, from the point of view of literary criticism, is the more interesting one. We can have an interesting conversation about the truthfulness of an aesthetic enterprise: it is open to argument. Whereas truth as fact is a more limited discussion. The facts are that Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite; the facts are that anti-Semitism is a bald example of anti-humanism; the truth is that Ezra Pound produced many examples (quantitatively and qualitatively) of highly humanistic endeavor. That the self can be both humane and inhumane, that human behavior admits of both, is a complicating feature of language, behavior, history.

Listening to writers explain themselves can be disconcerting. Often, what is said about their work is not very illuminating. Elvis Costello said in concert many years ago, as he strummed the introductory chords to a song, that he had been asked by a reporter what the lyrics in that song meant. Costello said he told the reporter that if he had meant for the song to mean anything other than the words he had written for it, he would have written a different song. Less a stance than a pose, Costello’s answer only goes so far. What I do like about it, though, is its idea that the questions we might ask of poetry, or of prose, are better directed at the made thing than its maker.

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