English 300 - Fall 2004

This is my class journal for Professor Sexson's Critical Theory class.


Responses to LitCrit Presentations

I found all of your presentations so far outstanding, really! So I want to take a moment (or however long it takes me) to just respond briefly to each of you! Good work, everyone :)

ZAK: You talked about how truth must exist. Nietzsche would have to disagree with you, but he's dead. I believe, as you do, that truth does exist. Example: No matter how much you believe that gravity does not exist, if you step off a cliff you will fall and die. So there must be some overall master reality--truth--to which we are all bound. I think you said that poets create the standard by which we judge truth. Really, art (writing, etc.) is the only realm in which we can defy these master truths and create our own reality and thereby our own set of truths. While we cannot CHANGE truth, we certainly can change how others perceive it--or erase their belief therein entirely. Your presentation was right on. :)

ANDREA: I really liked how you used the can of Pepsi to tie into Derrida and education! If someone had asked me at the beginning of the year what Derrida, a can of soda, and the illiteracy rate have in common, I would have said: a) who is Derrida? and b) I have no clue.
Since everything is a text, it is so true when you say there are millions of people that cannot interpret life! I mean, when I think back even to elementary school, we were certainly literate, but did how much of a grasp of meaning and interpretation did we have? Through further education and LITERARY CRITICISM we learn how to find the real meaning in life and everything around us. By reading we learn to discover the world around us, and by writing we edify others and incite change. I wonder then, which school of criticism you prefer, Derrida's or something more like Reader Response (because of the reader's connection with his world)?

MATT: You talked about getting the wisdom and insight from literature that can help you through hardship. Also you talked about finding strength in what remains behind. I think this is one of the most important things in life. We encounter, throughout life, what seem to be persistant "removals"--but instead of focusing solely on the loss, there is something left behind, or some growth resulting therefrom. It's easy to overlook. I think by literary criticism we begin to find this in literature, and sometime after, in our own lives. Sure, our lives may not be filled with unified symbolism (or are they?), but there is meaning behind everything.
Suffering is such a common element in literature because it is so frequent in life. "Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich staerker" comes to mind: "What does not bring me to demise makes me stronger." I think this is a truth that is manifested in literature to help us deal with it in life more.
And, as the Phoenix, sometimes the greatest rebirth of all comes from total destruction.

DEBBIE: If I understood correctly, you said something to the extent that poetry allows us to have an emotional discussion in a rational sense. Do you think this is the origin of allegory and symbolism? When things are too emotional, people want to distance themselves to be able to process them. For example, it may be too painful to talk about the death of a loved one, but to describe the destruction of your fortress or encountering an Angel that must return to Heaven (bear with me, i'm trying to pull something off the top of my head) makes for a great story, with the meaning and emotion of the loved one's death at the root of the story. I don't know if I'm very clear. But maybe the author cannot POSSIBLY be dead, and all literature stems from emotions--conscious or otherwise--of the author.

KATIE W: You talked about giving each moment the highest possible value and the quote by Walter Pater. I definitely agree with you about this. Really, it's just the energy, passion, and total conscious presence that makes life worth living. A question that might arise then could be, "why would you want to read literature then, instead of going out and experiencing the world for yourself?" Does it matter if your enjoyment of life comes from life itself or through proxy--through a mimesis of life?

ED: Poor Thomas Love Peacock. :) Anyway. You talked about how the best writing is that which is fueled by energy--that energy/passion is the most important aspect of life and people can intuitively find reality for themselves. Minus the reality part, Nietzsche would give you a thumbs-up. By energy and passion you know you're really alive. In the song "Always Know Where You Are," there's a line that goes "Sometimes it's gotta hurt before you feel." And have you noticed that even when you're suffering, even if it's deep down inside, you feel more alive than when you're stuck in a dull everyday routine with no highs or lows?
Just as life without emotion is mere existence, writing without passion is only an empty framework of grammar and words.

KELLY: "Reader-Response influences all criticisms" -- Initial response: What? No, that can't be right. -- Two seconds later: Wow, of COURSE it's right! Maybe this was obvious for some people, but I never thought about it this way until you said it. And it's so true. You CAN NOT totally erase yourself when delving into a piece. I don't think man is capable of 100% objectivity, though he may be able to be close. But every critic is influenced by something inside himself--it's inevitable.
When you said not to let critics influence us as writers, I think that's very important as well, though the world of critics is certainly intimidating. But take Chuck Palahniuk for example. He wrote Fight Club basically to piss off his editors after they trashed his first work. It became a modern classic and a movie. Taking the risk is definitely worth it, even if you gotta fail first.

TRISTAN: After using A Modest Proposal as an example, you said it would be a morbid world without literary criticism (or something to that extent). I think you're totally right. It's criticism that lets us distinguish truth from fable and intelligence from mere opinions in literature--and why not in life as well? People reading the Proposal with no sense of literary criticism would a) not understand that it is a mockery, and b) probably be highly offended.
I truly believe that you have to CHOOSE to be offended by something. With so many contradicting ideas and thoughts in our world, if one felt threatened by whatever he did not agree with, he probably would give himself some kind of complex. With criticism even attacking itself (different schools of thought, etc.), it's easy to see that an opposing viewpoint must not necessarily be a threat to yours. So how do you see past all the controversy to what is real? You probably can't, 100%, but learning to take things in an intelligent, educated manner instead of personally will definitely clear the path.

NANCY: What? Nietzsche would not inspire you to volunteer in a Romanian orphanage?? What about the presence of so much SUFFERING and ENERGY of those crying out for aid in that orphanage? Experiencing and sharing that suffering is the highest emotional level we can attain, therefore bringing the most value to life! What about, seeing that our existence is meaningless, trying to establish meaning in ANOTHER PERSON instead of in the metaphor-plagued world?
:) I'm just kidding, mostly.
Anyway, intent versus action. You said that criticism is more of the "intent." I agree; in itself it is only a thing of intent. But it most likely inspires other people to a) write "good" literature by their critic's formula or b) write criticism of that other criticism.... If we get in a cycle of intents (so, taking route b)), then all of it is meaningless.
So would you say that literature is an act of intention or action? I'm probably not being very clear. Basically, is literature something useful because it can inspire action? Or is it not useful because, by writing, we have DONE nothing (eg. fed the Romanians).

LINDSAY: The three main points of your paper, you said, were that Literary Criticism: 1. Helps one to solve problems in the text
2. Helps the reader to choose from many interpretations
3. Allows the reader to judge the work.
I agree with you on all of these points. But when you choose which school of critical thought you're going to use, aren't you ultimately influencing what meaning you're going to get out of the piece? In other words, do you agree with Kelly in that all criticisms are ultimately influenced by reader-response?

AMANDA: You said both literary criticism and the well-lived life are based on a person's attitude. I agree with you, so a well-lived life for one may not be well-lived for another. A life spent communing with nature and reading thoughtful poetry might be ideal for Emerson, but Hell for Thomas Love Peacock. So do you think there are any universal standards in life or literary criticism?

BRIAN: ...Who's to say Hitler WASN'T a demon? :)
Anyway. The vast realm of influence. It's really fascinating to think, not only how the important leaders might have changed history with different influences in life, but what about the seemingly insignificant people as well? One could think endlessly about it: how different would we be with even one different influence? To what extent do WE influence the influences we come across? Once upon a time, I was a computer science major--would my life have a different meaning had I stayed in that field? (I'm glad I didn't...most of the time :) ) As soon as I finish typing this, I'm going to go read your whole play.

DAN: Amen to doing without math!
Anyway, you talked about taking the pieces of criticism you like and blending them into your own theory. I think that's the best way to go. It seems to me that the most interesting pieces of literature are not always the hardcore extreme one-way-or-the-other pieces, but the ones that are a perfect blend of elements from all sides. Take Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a hero trapped between a shame and a guilt culture, torn between traditional paganism and quickly-spreading Christianity. You'll find elements of each side in the poem. It's mixing together the best of what already exists that allows us to come up with something new and, perhaps, purer than its predecessors, don't you think?

NIKOLE: "Words, Caravaggio. They have power." (Forgive me if i slaughtered the spelling of that name.)
People reallly don't seem to understand the power of words. You'll hear a lot "I'm just saying that" etc., when someone tries to dismiss something he said as mere words, a neutral idea.
Do you think you can really strip a word of its power and force? Its implications?
As much as Nietzsche would insist words are just sounds we make or scribbles we draw to convey our metaphors, I believe words have power. Think to the origins of most religions: the deity speaks or sings the universe into existence. Gods cannot break any vow they utter. Men are cursed by their tongue, or saved by it--and later, by their pen as well.
Which reminds me: "the pen is mightier than the sword." Now, what do you think is more powerful: the spoken word or the written?

KATIE SP.: Objectivity and Immersement. You seem to have discovered another Hermeneutic Circle! You cannot objectively analyse the piece without totally getting into it (immersing yourself), and you cannot immerse yourself fully in the text without considering the objective aspect as well. So where do you think one should start? With the objective aspect, or simply immersing oneself in the text? I found your topic very interesting.

LISA: You said a well-lived life is well-informed, and the text brings us experiences that enrich life. Also, more standards are involved in good literature than just reader-response. I think you're right about that. All too often, judging a book only by your own feelings about it can lead to "I like this book" or "I don't like this book" with little appreciation for the intricacies and artistic qualities.
This is especially important in real life, then. Instead of a plain response: "I feel sad" -- one can find meaning in his emotions and experiences. Why sadness? To what degree? What will come from this situation? And so on. By being well informed, one better understand life, is able to better interpret and appreciate the meaning therein, and thereby lives better. Great topic. :)


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