The Pleasures of Narrative

As usual, I’m late to the party and just came across this excellent piece by everyone’s favorite green, be-shortsed film critic on the spoiler conversation following this season’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones (be not afraid, there are no spoilers here). He weaves his discussion of that fallout into a broader argument about the ways in which we consume art, though he is specifically talking about the filmic arts here. To whit, he argues that there are four:

1. THE FIRST GROUP ARE PEOPLE WHO EXPERIENCE MOVIES IN A STATE OF CHILDLIKE NAIVETY.

2.  NOW, THE SECOND GROUP OF MEDIA-CONSUMERS ARE THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE SEEN A LOT OF MEDIA AND THUS MOVED PAST THE FIRST GROUP’S INNATE TRANSFERENCE, BUT THEY STILL SEEK TO RECAPTURE THAT CHILDHOOD NAIVETY.

3. THE THIRD GROUP OF MEDIA-CONSUMERS ARE PEOPLE WHO CAN TRANSCEND THAT DESIRE FOR A PURELY CHILDLIKE EXPERIENCE BY CONTEXTUALIZING THE EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE INTO A CEREBRALLY COHERENT PROCESS.

4. THE FOURTH GROUP OF MEDIA-CONSUMERS ARE THOSE WHO ABSOLUTELY UNDERSTAND THE CRAFT OF MAKING MEDIA.

Spoilerphobia, he argues, comes out of the desire to experience narrative in that “childlike” state of wonder and surprise, and in its most extreme forms–someone for whom spoilers utterly destroy their ability to derive pleasure or enjoyment out of something–suggests that the individual is incapable of or unwilling to experience media in any other way.

I liked this piece very much, but one thought occurred to me by the time I came to the end: I only WISH I could get more of the students in my literature classes to care as much about the fate of Isabel Archer or Ellison’s Invisible Man as they do about the Starks (don’t get me wrong: I love the Starks too). Let’s just say that no one is talking about spoilers in a class discussion of My Antonia. A big reason for this, of course, is that “literary” fiction tends to be character rather than plot-driven. But the bigger reasons, I think, have to do with context and the ways in which works–filmic or literary–that students or other readers deem “difficult” reverses the trajectory that Film Crit Hulk lays out, one in which purely libidinal enjoyment passes over the course of maturation and exposure to a mix of the cerebral and the emotional.

What I find in my class is that students who are very apt at picking apart what they think is going on in a text–identifying symbols and figures of speech, even taking apart the gender, class, and race dynamics underlying the text’s surface meanings–tend to treat these things as if they were pure thought exercises devoid of any kind of human meaning. Ok, I know a lot of people with tenure who fall into this category as well.

The truth is that I find Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to be a perfect novel in almost every possible detail, a work of stunning complexity and nuance both as character study and as a book with a cracking good plot. But I also find it emotionally affecting, shot through with an excruciating sense of the loneliness one feels even in human company written by a woman who saw and experienced the most alienating parts of 19th century upper-class New York society. And it’s a work that speaks powerfully to a present moment in which we both worship and abhor those who are famous purely for being rich and conventionally beautiful.

But to appreciate the pathos of the heroine’s fate, you do have to get past a lot of big words. You have to understand a little bit about Wharton’s historical moment, and you have to know enough to get the jokes (it’s a book that’s as funny as it is sad). I have students who can perform a gorgeous close reading of the opening chapter and explain the clear signs of Henry James’s influence on Wharton’s prose and use of realism, but they seem to experience the text with as much emotional investment as a coroner performing an autopsy.  My goal is to get students to be able to pick apart the techniques of Song of Myself and recognize its contributions to American poetry while also just reveling in it.

When it comes to certain very complex works of art–whether it’s a Terence Malick film or a belletristic novel–the achievement of that third level of consumption, that balance of catharsis and intellectual appreciation, often does mean moving past pure analysis in order recapture the ability to experience a narrative in a state of wonder and curiosity.

This is an attitude that contemporary academic culture doesn’t often encourage, and the staleness of the literary survey may be as much to blame as the recalcitrance of students. But the polarization of emotional and intellectual enjoyment is also, I think, something that has penetrated popular culture and criticism where it is often difficult to carve out a middle ground between adultishly detached snark and, well, 95% of Tumblr. It’s a paradigm that so often pathologizes libidinal enjoyment and transference while at the same time enabling it.

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