home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

how to do things with fictions

5 january 2014

How to Do Things with Fictions is wide-ranging, audacious, ambitious – and at least partially successful. But a literary theorist's reach should exceed his grasp.

I learned that sentiment from Robert Browning, but Joshua Landy argues that we don't really learn anything from a work of literature if we didn't know it going in. Like Cristina Vischer Bruns, he is skeptical of the notion that literary works communicate directly to us by means of their content, or any prose paraphrase of their content. Literature doesn't make points or send messages. (As one of my old New Critic mentors used to say, "messages are for Western Union." Wow, that really is an old-fashioned sentiment.)

Landy, after rejecting the "message" notion of literature out of hand, launches into an amazingly compressed summary of just about every non-message theory of literature describable, from Hegel to Martha Nussbaum. A vast range of theorists have asserted that literature helps one recognize models to follow, empathize with (or become detached from) the experiences of others, or deliver various kinds of non-propositional knowledge: of the world, of the times, of other people, of yourself. Landy rejects all of those too, but not snarkily. In fact, one of the admirable things about How to Do Things with Fictions is Landy's continual insistence that his own preferred role for literary works – the "formative" mode – comes to the fore in certain texts more than others. He doesn't offer a unified field theory. He is interested in using what works to read specific, distinctive literary fictions.

These specific texts include Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, some parables from the Gospel according to Mark, a sonnet by Mallarmé, some of Plato's dialogues, and three novels by Samuel Beckett. That's an impressive range of genres and languages (Landy uses, and translates for the reader, quite a bit of French and Greek). His argument throughout is that these texts don't directly argue positions or teach us valuable knowledge. Instead, they train us in thinking. (Landy seems sympathetic towards "cognitive humanities" approaches which attempt to look into the mind via brainscan and observe that thinking, but blessedly, for my money, he doesn't print any pictures of glowing brains reading Mallarmé.)

In each chapter, Landy advances some provocative reading of the text under consideration. He isn't shy about letting you know that nobody's thought of these brilliant readings before, even given the millennia-long critical traditions on Plato and the Gospels. Now, when a critic claims to revolutionize study of both Western philosophy and Christian theology in a 146-page book, you're right to be wary of the claims.

Landy's perhaps unrevolutionary point about his preferred literary works is that they give us mental workouts in evaluating texts like them. The Gospel of Mark turns out to offer training in how to think about parables; the Gorgias in how to think about logical arguments. Chaucer trains us how to evaluate instructive fables. Literary works (at their best) thus turn out to be about their own methods. Landy has little good to say about deconstruction, dismissing it as an exercise in claiming that works "mean their own meaninglessness" (8). But his own method may be more deconstructive than he'd allow. Time and again we see a literary work turned inside out in his ingenious readings and made to be "about" the process of its own interpretation. The key to Plato, for instance, turns out to be an appreciation of Platonic irony: not just a deconstructive insight, but positively a New Critical one.

"The method," says Landy of Plato, "gives us a principled way to justify our beliefs" (119). What method? It seems to me it's the Socratic method, which Landy claims to be the first to identify in Plato's dialogues. What the heck? I'm being snarky, and I don't really mean to be. I was taught, decades ago, that the Socratic method was a means of arriving at truth. Keep asking questions, and you'll arrive at knowledge even if you start at ignorance. The trouble was that, in the little Plato I ever read, Socrates always knew the truth going in. He just kept asking leading questions till he got you to agree with him. Exactly, says Landy. Plato's Socrates is a bogus questioner, and not a very good logician, at that. Instead of reading a Socratic dialogue as a means of conveying the truth, Landy reads it as an ironic exploration of the nature of dialogue itself.

That's ingenious, but ultimately, it's just another "reading" of ambiguous texts. And just as other readings (psychoanalytic, deconstructive) always lead us to the same conclusion no matter what the text, so do Landy's: though again, I admire him for saying that his methods work best, or work only, on texts like those he chooses. He says little about aesthetics and little about ethics except in the broadest of terms. But, again like Bruns, Landy is eager to extol the benefit of reading literature. For Bruns, that benefit lies in finding transitional objects to help us cope with the world. For Landy, that benefit lies in mental calisthenics that make us better consumers of discourse.

How to Do Things with Fictions isn't entirely about being ingenious for the sake of developing greater ingenuity, however. Its best section isn't about literature at all, but about the 19th-century illusionist Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Robert-Houdin was the kind of performer who hated the word "magic" and insisted that his feats were prosaic; he even hoked them up as "scientific." At the same time, they were your basic cool magic tricks. For Robert-Houdin, the ideal spectator was someone who shared the illusionist's skepticism, and didn't worry about outsmarting – or being outsmarted by – the conjurer.

So it should be with poetry. Landy doesn't make this "re-enchantment" of the world as easy as Robert-Houdin, of course. His literary analogue is Mallarmé's exceptionally difficult sonnet "Ses purs ongles," which Landy proceeds to submit to a bravura interpretation that would have made the heads of even the most thorough structuralist critics, Roman Jakobson or Roland Barthes, start spinning. The reader comes away less enchanted than bewildered. But you can sort of see what Landy wants literature to do, which is of course exactly what he wants you to see. The point is not to read "Ses purs ongles" the way Joshua Landy does, which is frankly impossible, but to be ready to read other poems with the same spirit and openness to aesthetic wonder.

Landy is even more humanist in his approach to Beckett's novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. Landy sees these as works that (in the words of T.S. Eliot) "teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still." (Or rather, since Landy hates the word "teach," they "train" us to do so.) Landy reads Beckett as therapy for those in need of ataraxia. I didn't know I needed ataraxia till I read Landy; frankly, I didn't know what the hell ataraxia was. It is the condition of being at ease in an uncertain world – I imagine much the same as Keats's "negative capability." Landy admits that not all readers may need this therapy, which is a good thing, because I can't imagine ever reading Beckett's novels. I know where to go if I feel anataraxic, though.

My one actual quibble with Landy's methods is that he very often employs the standard literary-critical trick of seizing on a tangential detail, inside or outside a given text, as the key to all mythologies. For instance, the Syrophoenician woman's reply to Jesus in Mark 7:28 ("the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs") turns out to be the master decoder that gives access to everything else in the book of Mark. An allusion to Ovid not even perceptible in Mallarmé's sonnet turns out to be the blueprint to its mysteries, etc. I was reminded of Seth Lerer's contention that everything in Robinson Crusoe is really about canoes. Weed is still illegal in Texas, so it may be a while before I can follow some of these hermeneutic suggestions.

Finally, a complaint about endnotes. No, this is not my usual beef about how they're not coded to the pages that reference them. Oxford University Press has done a bang-up job in this regard. No, I'll complain instead that they aren't footnotes. I said that How to Do Things with Fictions runs 146 pages, but in fact you have to read 224 if you want to follow it: there are 78 pages of (small-font) footnotes that elaborate the text. I don't really mind the turning back and forth – I own a lot of bookmarks, and can devote two of them per book if needed – but books like this always make me wonder why the footnotes aren't incorporated into the main text, or at any rate on the same page. Academic books need documentation; they don't need companion commentaries to themselves in what amounts to a separate volume.

Landy, Joshua. How to Do Things with Fictions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.