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Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

A POLEMIC

On the Origins of Post-Modern Criticism

For David Hume

David Hume

(The radical Empiricism of the Endarkenment entails treating the Good as an abstraction, rejecting Truth for fact, and reducing the Beautiful to a subjective response.  Thus it undercuts the docere of Literature, leaving us only with a truncated diligere.  This epistemology applied to Art can only lead to Aestheticism, which inevitably degenerates into Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Deconstruction.  Once the actual Values of the Sages have thus been destroyed, they can now be replaced with Marxism, Feminism, Freudianism, or whatever other Ism we wish to impose on Texts left defenseless by the death of Truth.  To get beyond this impasse, we must abandon the skeptical philosophy that produced it as question-begging Nonsense.)

 

That skeptic, David Hume,

Gained philosophic fame

Committing to the fume

Of metaphoric flame

Whole libraries of pages

By metaphysic sages.

 

Unless it could be measured

By his empiric wit,

It never could be treasured,

And so, away with it!

Mere sophistry, illusion,

Divinity ( ! ), confusion.

 

Augustine and Aquinas,

Isaiah, Moses, Paul,

Nothing but a minus;

Better burn them all:

The penalty for treason

Against enlightened “Reason.”

 

Erasmus, Calvin, Luther,

Dante, Milton, Spenser:

What could be uncouther,

More worthy of a censor?

Life seen through the prism

Of rank empiricism.

 

To keep them as purveyors

Of just imagination

Is but to be betrayers

Of all their conversation:

Dead, white, oppressive pigs

For mere aesthetic prigs.

 

Good critics can’t arise

From bad philosophy.

It should be no surprise

That we have come to be

Despisers of the True—

Of Goodness, Beauty, too.

 

If only what the senses

Can see or smell or feel

Is able to convince us

That it is really real,

How’d the sensation grow

That tells us this is so?

 

We’d really like to know.

Dr. Williams being unimpressed by Hume’s arguments.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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Best of LHP – On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability

Hello everyone! For the months of December and January, we would like to reintroduce some of our best posts that you may not have seen yet. This week will be Stephen Parish’s reflections on how reading Stephen King’s book On Writing impacted his own process. Without further ado, here’s On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability.

 

Stephen King On Writing coverFor my fiction writing class this semester, my professor asked for us to read Stephen King’s book On Writing, the famous author’s personal reflection on writing. Toward the end of his book, he discusses revision and its importance to the art of writing. But King implies something about revision, especially peer editing, that I have seen as a theme in my own writing, both academic and fictional. By giving his story to a peer, King exposes his flaws to the world, but he does so willingly so he can become a better writer and the story can become a better work of art. In a sense, King had to embrace vulnerability and correction to ensure the quality of his craft.

I too have learned to embrace vulnerability as a writer. Like King, I had to allow others to look at my work and comment on it with the understanding that they want to help me make it better. At first, I was angry that some people were so cynical toward my writing, especially the professors on my thesis committee or my peers in my fiction writing class; however, they truly wanted to make it better and help me improve by pointing out the flaws in my thesis and stories. So, I manned up and made the corrections. Now my thesis is a published work, and my stories are significantly improving.

Most people have an aversion to correction, no matter the capacity. Nobody really wants to hear he or she is wrong. But sometimes the best instruction we can receive from others is constructive criticism. Proverbs 12:1 states, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid” (NIV). “Stupid” here means brutish, foolish, irrational—essentially inhuman. I am not saying that anyone that does not take correction easily is foolish. No, taking criticism is hard sometimes, even by the wisest and most humble of people. But by opening up to others and accepting their correction, we show we love others by seeking improvement through a suppression of our own impulsive and prideful desire to grow in a vacuum. Through love, we put “childish things away,” as the Apostle Paul states, for children eschew correction and vulnerability, and transform into men and women ready to serve our Lord through our writing and our lives.

On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability

For my fiction writing class this semester, my professor asked for us to read Stephen King’s book On Writing, the famous author’s personal reflection on writing. Toward the end of his book, he discusses revision and its importance to the art of writing. But King implies something about revision, especially peer editing, that I have seen as a theme in my own writing, both academic and fictional. By giving his story to a peer, King exposes his flaws to the world, but he does so willingly so he can become a better writer and the story can become a better work of art. In a sense, King had to embrace vulnerability and correction to ensure the quality of his craft.

I too have learned to embrace vulnerability as a writer. Like King, I had to allow others to look at my work and comment on it with the understanding that they want to help me make it better. At first, I was angry that some people were so cynical toward my writing, especially the professors on my thesis committee or my peers in my fiction writing class; however, they truly wanted to make it better and help me improve by pointing out the flaws in my thesis and stories. So, I manned up and made the corrections. Now my thesis is a published work, and my stories are significantly improving.

Most people have an aversion to correction, no matter the capacity. Nobody really wants to hear he or she is wrong. But sometimes the best instruction we can receive from others is constructive criticism. Proverbs 12:1 states, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid” (NIV). “Stupid” here means brutish, foolish, irrational—essentially inhuman. I am not saying that anyone that does not take correction easily is foolish. No, taking criticism is hard sometimes, even by the wisest and most humble of people. But by opening up to others and accepting their correction, we show we love others by seeking improvement through a suppression of our own impulsive and prideful desire to grow in a vacuum. Through love, we put “childish things away,” as the Apostle Paul states, for children eschew correction and vulnerability, and transform into men and women ready to serve our Lord through our writing and our lives.

Value in the Difference of Media: A Primer on Poetics

Hello again, everyone! So last week was a bit of a break from the ruminating on media and adaptations, but as this is my last week for posts this month, I wanted to add some thoughts to my post, Value in the Difference of Media: The Hobbit, hopefully giving some answers to the questions I raised, mainly:

  • How can we most objectively evaluate adaptations from novel to film (or at least not feel so lousy when someone butchers our favorite book)?
  • Are there elements that transcend media, or are books and film completely different?

My answer (I don’t presume to call it the answer) revolves around a literary concept: Poetics, or as I describe it, the aesthetics of literature.

We’ve Got More Than Poems Now…

Note: I’m not an authority on the subject of poetics, which is a heavily academic subject; I’m merely attempting to show how this concept is important in evaluating cross-media literature. This is a very complicated subject, so if you have more to add or think that I missed something, feel free to comment below.

This stuff get complicated, yo.
This stuff get complicated, yo.

Everyone has their own idea about what makes art beautiful. Is it the colors? The shapes? The use of materials? The subject matter? Even if you’ve never stopped and consciously asked yourself why you like a painting or a sculpture (or more informatively, why you didn’t), you have underlying assumptions about what art should be, or do. This is called aesthetics – “a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight” (Merriam-Webster.com, definition 2). This term deals almost exclusively with visual arts, but the idea of aesthetics can also be narrowed further to address literature specifically.

Have you ever wondered what exactly makes people enjoy some books, but not others?

I know, I know. The thought of Twihards even accidentally doing something literary makes my head spin too.
I know, I know. The thought of Twihards even accidentally doing something literary makes my head spin too.

What’s the deal with that Twilight craze? I read the first two (before they became the spastic teen girl favorite) and they’re not too bad, but certainly not good enough, in my opinion, to elicit mass hysteria. While psychological and sociological explanations are probably more useful here (marketing, hype, peer pressure, etc.), there was obviously something about these books that really connected with what these readers view as good literature.

We all have these inclinations (although perhaps not as zealously), to respond to what we conceive of as good literature. Even when we recognize that what we’re reading or watching isn’t well executed, sometimes a book or movie just does something for us. This is what happens when a story approximates our idea of poetics – “a particular theory of poetry or sometimes other literary forms,” in this case, novels and film (Merriam-Webster.com, definition 1b). However, a more useful definition for me, as I stated above is: “the aesthetics of literature,” or to attempt to combine these definitions:

Poetics: a particular theory or conception of beauty or art in literature: a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and stimulates the mind.

aristotle bustThe word “poetics” comes from the title of a collection of Aristotle’s lecture notes about how his students should classify, discuss, and write poetry in ancient Greece. It is considered the first organized attempt to create a framework of analysis for poetry (which would include Homer‘s epics, the tragedies, and comedies, which are much closer to stories and films than, say, a poem like “The Red Wheelbarrow”). When Aristotle was discussing these concepts, it’s important to note that novels and film did not exist, and therefore his concepts of how to evaluate literature cannot always be directly applied to these relatively new forms of media.

Since Aristotle, however, writers, playwrights, philosophers, and whoever else had a mind to, have discussed and framed new forms of poetics, spanning every artistic period to our current day. Many literary critics base their approaches to literature on a specific poetics (although there can be a very distinct difference between literary criticism and poetics, but I won’t get into that here). The point of all this is to demonstrate that there is actually such a thing as a structured approach to opinions to novels and film, and, depending on how that structured approach evaluates literature, different media can be held to the same standards. But on the other hand, depending on how finely tuned your approach is for individual forms of media, you may not be able to apply those standards to others.

So, if we’re going to be fair to these movies, we need to use a poetics that can include both film and novels so that we can compare apples to apples, and then we further need a way to compare one adaptation to another; in short, we need a poetics for adaptations.

What Does All of This, I Don’t Even…

“Adaptations” of novels to film are supposed, by marketing and consensus opinion, to take what’s great about the book and faithfully translate that to film with as much accuracy as possible. First, we need to identify some key elements that exist in both film and novels in equal degree. Some examples would be:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Pacing
  • Tension
  • Scene

If you wanted a poetics for adaptations, your framework for evaluating whether or not a film like The Hobbit or Harry Potter is successful as an adaptation would look something like:

  • Do aspects of characters in the film match those of their analogue (if it exists) in the film?
  • Is the literal manifestation of setting in the film an adequate representation of the descriptions in the text?
  • Compared relatively to the pacing of the book, does the film take enough time where required to adequately represent important parts of the story?
  • Is the tension of the narrative from the novel translated to the film?
  • Are scenes from the book represented adequately, and given enough time and development so as to capture their importance to the story?

You might have noticed from these examples that while this would be a good way to tell if a film was a good adaptation, it doesn’t leave much room for the film-maker to be original or creative. While you might argue that the point of an adaptation is exactly not to be original, you might see the rub when it comes to changes made between media that actually improve the narrative (e.g. Dr. William’s example of the Aragorn not carrying The Shards of Narsil, or changing the tone of The Hobbit to better fit with the trilogy).

It is also very different in intent from deciding if the adaptation is itself a good film.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

It leaves us with a choice: to decide if we should come to movies like The Hobbit and judge them by a poetics of adaptations, or if we should just let them be movies instead. Personally, I’m ok with doing both. I can look at The Lord of the Rings and call it a “bad” adaptation, and then look at something like Life of Pi and call it a “good” adaptation, but then turn around and say the first is a good movie and the second isn’t. But I’m doing so based on two separate systems of poetics, and that’s an important thing to remember.

I hope this discussion has been useful to you, and helped you to see how this isn’t such a simple issue. There’s a lot of room for debate here, but that’s only because it’s part of a larger discussion. If you have any questions about my approach, or just plain disagree with me on something, let me know in the comments below!

To Be the Critic

We all hate the critics.  Those persons…dare we even say “persons?”  They are more like vultures, who take our favorite book, movie, or TV show and rip it to shreds, leaving it (and us) holding onto the bleeding threads of our dignity as we cry out, “You lie!”

Ok…a bit dramatic, but I don’t think the feeling is too far off.

However, we all like to be critics. (Wait, what?)

Yup.  You and I like to sit around and discuss our favorite books, movies, or TV shows like we actually know what we are taking about. I’ll go ahead and make a mickey out of my superhero loving friends.  Want to see a heated argument about silly and inconsequential things?  Listen to them debate the nuances of the new Avengers movie.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I am thrilled about the movie.  I see trailers for it and I squeal with glee and do a happy dance.  But the critiquing, the superior knowledge, the banter!  I’ll be honest, I am part of the crowd.  I love it.  I think that is why I love studying English literature.

However, I found a “new” old word that got me thinking…

Criticaster – a petty or inferior critic, used in contempt. (Sir James Murray’s New English Dictionary, 1893)*

How often am I so quick to criticize that I become the criticaster?  It is a frightening thought really.  I want what I have to say, my opinions and thoughts regarding topics I am interested in, to be taken seriously.  What if they aren’t?  What if what I have to say really isn’t that important or novel?  What if I come across as a criticaster? This is where learning to be articulate, doing research and practicing the art of listening will come in handy.

It is not simply a matter of having something to say, it is about having something to say that is worth while.

*Jeffrey Kacirk, Forgotten English, 2011