Rowan Williams on Fairy Tales

Rowan Williams on Why Adults Don’t Outgrow Fairy Tales

In our day, it is adults who seem most to need and use them [fairy tales], because they are just about the only stories we have in common with which to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded. …

One way of understanding the fairy tale is to see it as dramatizing the human confrontation with nature and “the impenetrability of destiny”. Our environment, the fairy tale says, is unpredictably hostile and destructive; it is also unpredictably full of resource. Family members may turn out to be murderous and treacherous, ordeals may face us in which our life is at stake, horror and suffering may bear no relation to merit or innocence. At the same time, animals turn out to be saviors, winds and waves mobilize to rescue us, lost parents speak to us through trees in the garden and forgotten patrons (“fairy godmothers”) turn up to support. The amoral scheme of the world can work in our favor; we never know when help is at hand, even when we have gone astray.

The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. [Rather, the message is based] on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .

From “Why We Need Fairy Tales Now More than Ever,” New Statesmen (19 Dec 2014)

Wayne Booth on a complicated pronoun

Wayne Booth on appealing to the authority of “WE”

CON: Against the use of “WE”

Something is wrong in these confident “we’s,” something worse than a mere stylistic tic. I am shocked at the confidence my younger self sometimes shows in reporting how “we” respond. Who are we, here? “We” flesh-and-blood readers are unpredictable, and no one can speak with high reliability about us.

The book [The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1st ed.] often sounds as if its author did not know about that. Yet every classroom and every staffroom debate had taught me differently, as had my own readings when they proved unstable over time. I had noted — and perhaps should have mentioned — the changes the years had produced in my reading of Anna Karenina. At eighteen I had found the courtship and marriage of the thirty-two-year-old Levin and that lovely teenager, Kitty (just my age!), a rather regrettable matching of January and June. Why should she throw herself away on a fussy old man? When I reread and taught the book at thirty-two, the marriage seemed, in contrast, a rather fortunate break for Kitty: “He’ll help her mature!” (And now, at sixty-one: “What are those two children doing, behaving like that?”) Yet I allowed myself frequently to talk as if “we” — the flesh-and-blood readers — do have or ought to have only one response, “ours.”

from “Afterword to the Second Edition,” In The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd Ed., (UChicago Pr, 1983), 420.

PRO: In defense of a different sense of “WE”

The author makes his readers. If he makes them badly – that is, if he simply waits, in all purity, for the occasional reader whose perceptions and norms happen to match his own, then his conception must be lofty indeed if we are to forgive him for his bad craftsmanship. But if he makes them well—that is, makes them see what they have never seen before, moves them into a new order of perception and experience altogether—he finds his reward in the peers he has created.

from Ibid, 397-8.

George Steiner on hermeneutics and classics

George Steiner on …

1. Hermeneutics

A master-reader (or viewer or listener) equipped, in the case of literature, with linguist-historical knowledge, ideally sensitive to the polysemic, metamorphic lives of language, inspiredly intuitive in his or her empathy – a Coleridge reading Wordsworth, a Karl Barth glossing Romans, a Mandelstam responding to Dante – will come only ‘so near.’ The ultimate life-force of the poem or prose being elucidated, its power against time, will remain integral. No hermeneutic is equivalent to its object. No restatement, via analytic ‘dissection,’ paraphrase or emotive description, can replace the original (in the ephemeral, in the functional, such substitution lies to hand).

The proof is with music. The sum of understanding resides in further performance. Thus interpretation and criticism are, at their most honest, more or less suggestive, enriching narrations of personal, always provisional encounters. It is this provisional subjectivity, this persistent need for reconsideration and amendment, which does give a certain legitimacy to the deconstructionalist project. […]

I repeat: all understanding falls short. It is as if the poem, the painting, the sonata drew around itself a last circle, a space for inviolate autonomy. I define the classic as that around which this space is perennially fruitful. It questions us. It demands that we try again. It makes of our misprisions, of our partialities and disagreements not a relativistic chaos, an ‘anything goes,’ but a deepening. Worthwhile interpretations, criticism to be taken seriously, are those which make their limitations, their defeats visible. In turn, this visibility helps make manifest the inexhaustibility of the object. The Bush burned brighter because its interpreter was not allowed too near.

from Errata: An Examined Life, (Phoenix, 1998),21-22.

2. Classics

I define a ‘classic,’ in literature, in music, in the arts, in philosophic argument, as a signifying form which ‘reads’ us. It reads us more than we read (listen to, perceive) it. There is nothing paradoxical, let alone mystical, in this definition. Each time we engage with it, the classic will question us. It will challenge our resources of consciousness and intellect, of mind and body (so much of primary aesthetic and even intellectual response is bodily). The classic will ask of us: ‘have you understood?’; ‘have you re-imagined responsibly?’; ‘are you prepared to act upon the questions, upon the potentialities of transformed, enriched being which I have posed?’ […]

The major text, work of art, musical composition, the ‘news that stays new’ (Ezra Pound), asks not only for understanding reception. It demands reaction. We are meant to act ‘anew,’ to translate echoing response and interpretation into conduct. Hermeneutics share a common border with ethics. To read Plato or Pascal or Tolstoy ‘classically’ is to attempt a new and different life. It is, as Dante postulates explicitly, to enter on a vita nuova. In most art and literature, this summons is non-systematic. […] The play, the fiction, the Cezanne still-life so complicates, so dislocates from banality, so quickens our movements inwards […] and our turn to the world, that we differ from before.

Such dislocation can be unsettling, even painful. Hence the exasperated resistance to much of modern art, music, poetry; to the atonal and the non-representational. Or it can prove exultant […]. Normally, the process is gradual. […]

The bidding of the archaic torso of Apollo in Rilke’s famous poem, ‘Change your life,’ has been for me at the heart of meaning.

from Errata: An Examined Life, (Phoenix, 1998), 18, 24-25.

Stanley Fish on humanism

Stanley Fish on humanism

The idea – the core idea of humanism – is that the act of reading about great deeds will lead you to imitate them, a sequence the young John Milton experiences when he reads Dante and Petrarch, finds himself moved by them to “more love of virtue,” and comes to see that before he can presume to write of virtuous things, he must himself be virtuous: “He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true Poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and practice of all that which is praise-worthy.” (An Apology, 1641) This sentence, a mini-essay on the relation between ethics and aesthetics, enacts what it describes. It argues implicitly against the commonsense assumption that the craft of writing is one thing, the moral worth of the writer another. Milton insists that the two are one, and that without the latter, the former is impossible. The somewhat clotted opening of the sentence — “He who would not be” — holds us up until the sentence opens up with the word “hope” and the briskly audacious, smoothly flowing declaration that if you want to write a good poem about good things, you must yourself be the thing you write about, “a true Poem.” The question raised — what exactly is a true poem? — is acknowledged by Milton when he promises, with the professorial “that is,” a clarifying definition. But by the logic of his message, no definition will be sufficient, because the state of true poem-hood cannot be described from the outside. It is a feature of one’s inside, and if it isn’t, no amount of words will explain it. So what follows the “that is” is a series of words and phrases that are themselves in need of an explanation no discursive elaboration could possibly provide. The words “composition” and “pattern” nicely join the perspectives of writing craft and moral probity: what you can compose depends on what you are composed of. The words that follow — “best” and “honourablest” — raise the same questions as “true Poem”: What exactly is the best and the most honorable? And a bit later, what is heroic? Again, the answer will be found, if it is found, “within himself”; that is where the “experience and practice of all that which is praise-worthy” reside. The objects of the sentence’s high praise — heroic men, good poems, honorable deeds — never acquire explicit and visible shape in the course of its unfolding, for if they did, the sentence — itself a true poem because of its reticence — would betray itself. The sentence refuses to give up its contents.

from How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, (HarperCollins, 2011), 137-8.

Hardy’s Oxen

The Oxen

by Thomas Hardy (1915)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.  /  “Now they are all on their knees,”  /  An elder said as we sat in a flock  /  By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where  /  They dwelt in their strawy pen,  /  Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years! Yet, I feel,  /  If someone said on Christmas Eve,  /  “Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb  /  Our childhood used to know,”  /  I should go with him in the gloom,  /  Hoping it might be so.