. . . but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

11 April 2010

Aesthetic Ruminations

I have developed my own dearly held theories about reading fiction, idiosyncrasies that I have acquired through the years. The most dearly held of these is this. When I read a novel, I consider it no longer to belong to the author. It is mine at that point. It may have belonged to the author as he was conceiving it, laboring over it, and revising it with his editor. However, when he turns the finished product over to the publisher, in a very real sense he is giving it away to his readers, if any.

I say that I consider it mine when I read it because it is obviously my reader's brain that must supply the cognition that gives it form and substance at that point. The images and ideas have to take form in my brain. The same can be said for any artist and art in any other field. This is not some new aesthetic theory. It is the theory of aesthetics. It is as old as Aristotle. Nor is it in any sense intended to demean the effort of the writer, or any other artist for that matter, when I say that it is my brain that brings the work to life however imperfectly my brain may do that. It is just that I am not a writer. I am a reader. As a reader, I am jealous of my own prerogatives as such.

In other words, I do not consider a work a fiction, in this case a novel, to be a communication medium in the sense that we usually think of communication. The author does not communicate with me. Rather, the author has created what he hope is a piece of art and turns it loose. I pick up that piece of art—an object, a book—and give it life with my brain. The author is out of the picture. Long gone. Not to put too fine a point on this, I never give a fuck about what the novelist had in mind when he wrote a novel. The only thing I care about is what I have in my mind when I read it. This is admittedly a perfectly solipsistic regard for fiction.

As a result, I have come to certain conclusions. The work, if it is art, must speak for itself. It must stand alone. This is the very reason that so often good writers are reluctant or impatient with the idea of discussing the “meaning” of their own work. I agree with them in that reluctance. They bust their ass to create a piece of art and hand it over to readers and then they are asked to explain what it “means.” I can imagine that I might be a bit impatient with that, too. And I am fond of writers who decline to invade my reader's province in that way. I do not wish to be told what the damned thing means.

Moreover, “meaning” is a very slippery thing. Meaning resides in the reader's mind, and there can be different meanings in different readers' minds based on those readers' own life experiences that have nothing to do with the author's. Sometimes meaning may not take up residence in a reader's mind at all for any number of reasons. In my own case Finnegan's Wake's secrets remain secret, and I feel not the least bit a deficient reader as a result.

There is some duty, for lack of a better word, to himself or herself on the reader's part to be rational in deriving his or her personal meaning from a novel, but beyond that, who's to say? By "rational" I mean, for example, that Charles Manson's interpretation of the Beatles' composition Helter Skelter was not a valid one. I must say that I do not find Harold Bloom's interpretation of Shakespeare any more cogent than that either, to cite another example.

I become a bit impatient with efforts to paw through the author's biography for clues to his “meaning.” First, that simply ought not be necessary. Second, and just as importantly, I think that one can arrive at interpretations of a work based upon events in the author's life that are too pat, too facile. Lastly, it short changes the part that the reader's own brain and experience play in this whole thing we call “fiction.”

This is not to say that I do not become curious, as everyone does, about the author of a book that I like a lot. That is a different thing and good that it is a different thing. I can admire and enjoy the images I derive from Ernest Hemingway's novels and the ideas they generate while at the same time appreciating that personally he was an asshole and not get the two concepts mixed up.

Where does this leave the idea of “universality” as a measure of good fiction? I do not think that when we use the term “universality” in connection with a work we actually mean that it has exactly the same meaning for a large number of people. Rather, I think that we are saying that it has important meanings for a large number of people. The only thing universal about a good work of fiction is that the individual interpretations of various readers of significant number add some new dimension to their understanding of their own existence, usually their understanding of their own existence vis à vis the existence of others. Is not that what it is all about? In the end?

Many readers in the vicinity have limned their dislike of this novel repeatedly. I certainly understand that. There is not much to “like” about it. I cannot say that I myself “like” the novel. As I have mentioned elsewhere, when the book comes up in conversation, I am careful to recommend that others not read it. 2666 is not an entertainment. While there is not necessarily anything unsatisfactory about novels that are entertainments, this novel is not one of those.

I will say this though. I am utterly fascinated by it. I cannot help but think that Roberto Bolaño undertook something of great magnitude in a very original way. Because I believe that, as a reader I have tried to give it the effort that I think Roberto Bolaño's own great effort deserves.

I have also come to realize that one of the primary reasons for my fascination is that the book has, late in my life, caused me to question and rethink every single thing that I have written above. I have not yet changed my mind about any of these ideas. As yet, I am only rethinking them, and I hope that perhaps, thanks to this novel, I will ultimately be able to clarify further or maybe even refine those ideas in my own mind.

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