Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Journal #9: Sidney, Jameson, and Bakhtin: A Chimæric Idea

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #9
Sidney, Jameson, and Bahktin: A Chimæric Idea[1]
I propose, in utter unfairness to the initial subjects, to create a chimæra of Sidney, Jameson, and Bakhtin--or more accurately, of their ideas.

First, from Sidney: "to teach and delight," and that the poet teaches the lessons of the moralist through examples (like the historian), but unlike the historian does not need to bend to real events. Instead, the poet creates examples specifically designed to teach those lessons--and delight while doing it.

Second, from Jameson: that aesthetic acts--pieces of art--solve social problems that are, in real life, unsolvable. (Jameson can keep his horizons; I don't want them.)

Third, from Bakhtin: that a text can hold many bickering voices within it, and that the critic shouldn't pick one and make it represent the work.

Already I suspect that Bakhtin and Sidney will disagree with one another, as one asserts a clear meaning from the author and the other asserts tha the reader will detect no direction at all--but then one was a poet and the other a novelist, one was on the defensive and the other on the offensive, and Bakhtin predicts disagreement anyway.

We learn from Sidney that a text ought to teach us, and to delight us in the process. The second may argue for aesthetics' inherent value but, practically speaking, we're more likely to remember the lessons of an enjoyable book than a boring one. Jameson builds one Sidney's ideas that fiction need not conform to historical events; instead, it can propose impossible solutions to unsolvable social problems. Finally, Bakhtin enters and makes things difficult. His voices debate; these may be the contradictions Jameson was talking about, but, unlike Jameson, he suggests that even within a text not all of the contradictions can be resolved. And thus we have the resulting text: intended to teach us and to offer idealistic solutions, but instead leaving us with a compilation of different and ultimately unreconciable viewpoints (after all, when one heteroglossic language is swallowed by the unitary language, another springs up to replace it--this situation a synthesis of Hercules' Hydra and Star Trek's Borg: both resistance and assimilation are futile). And how, the skeptic will argue, can such a mess of quarreling moral systems teach us anything?

I, for one, am not convinced that, because no single presented viewpoint is reliably truer than the others, there is nothing to learn from a text. The reader has a unique ability that the characters of each language in the text do not have, and that is to change perspective to a different language. We can hop from one to another; we can see from, or speak from, each voice. To a certain extent, we can learn from each voice, but we can also learn how to reconcile contradictions...but for this we turn to John Donne and to a new set of symbols, and so this topic must rest until the next entry.


[1] I know that these names may mean nothing to a casual reader; I apologize for this. I think, though, that I summarize each sufficiently in the first four-five paragraphs that you should follow it easily enough. Sir Philip Sidney, "An Apology for Poetry." Fredric Jameson, "The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act." Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Discourse in the Novel.

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