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"Talking does not make the world or even pictures, but talking and pictures participate in making each other and the world as we know them." Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols has pointed correctly in this statement to the inevitable association between works of art and the language used to talk about those works. In the last century, it was believed that the exclusion of subject matter (landscapes, people, family scenes) from painting would disentangle the image on the canvas (or the words of a poem) from literary associations and clear the way for a direct response of the eye to optical data. The hope was to reduce art to speechlessness. An "Art of the Real" exhibition recently at the Museum of Modern Art described its selection as chunks of raw reality totally liberated from language. "Modern art," writes one recent critic "has eliminated the verbal correlative from the canvas." Perhaps. But if a work of today no longer has a verbal correlative, it is because its particular character has been dissolved in a sea of words.
At no time in history have more words been written in defence of art, in explanation of what it "really is," in defence of its "uniqueness," in the production of manifestoes of explanation and genesis. To describe a striped canvas and a striped tablecloth in the same terms is to commit an artistic faux pas of great proportion much like the child who, because he didn't understand the rules of the game, remarked that the emperor was naked. The language of art criticism today is a subtle and abstract means to create the idea of art works in conceptual framework of theories instead of in the perceptual framework of the senses. Recently two young artists in Latin America contrived a Happening that was reported in detail in the press but never took place, so their "work of art" consisted of their own news releases and the resulting interviews, accounts,, and comments. Here the "work of art" was only what was said about it. There was no "picture" only "talking".
Other "artists" are using nature as a canvas. By rearranging rocks (or grinding up bottles to cover a B.C. Island) and making trenches in the dirt, they hope to show that there is no real distinction between a work of art and natural objects. But, like the child in the "Emperor's Clothes" this is to function without knowing the rules of the game. "Art" implies artifact. Its Indo European base is from "ar " which means to join, fit together. Certainly Goodman is right when he says that talking does not make pictures (or by extension any work of art, except, of course, in the obvious way that talking makes, e.g. oral poetry, where the act of talking is the art form) but participates in making them. One need only look at any history of art book to note the way in which words about pictures are used to classify and categorize those pictures. But the pictures are real. The works of art are there in time and space, have an existence of their own carved out of the flux of that time and space. Talking and pictures are married, but form allows the marriage.
In literature, the art form closest to me in terms of training and interest, one finds not only the primacy of words, but also words about words.
"I got to use words when I talk to you". Perhaps, at least on this point, all literary critics would agree. A simple statement. Yet implicit within it are the very problems about which the critics storm and rave. "I",, "talk", "you" or poet, poem and audience these three parts of the poetic experience are the basis of all critical arguments. Where does one place the emphasis? Which is to be considered most carefully? Is each of equal import in the communicative process referred to as the poetic experience? Do we study a poem to investigate the complex maze of the creative mind, or to discern its philosophical statement and place it in the history of ideas, or do we concern ourselves with the emotional impact of the poem on the reader, or are all of these ingredients of the poetic experience?
Most all critical differences of agreement dealt with by our critics come about as a result of shifting the emphasis from or changing the relation among the three: poet, poem and audience. The formalist critics insist upon concentrating on the poem itself, convinced that knowledge of the poet (his life, letters, philosophy, etc.) is of no value in the evaluation and judgment of his poem. The psychoanalytic critics would have us concentrate on the poet in an attempt to probe his psyche to discover what makes him different from the rest of the world of non-poets. And of course the political critic is interested in examining the poem as a rhetorical device for the control and/or education of the audience. Aristotle,, for example, would have us believe that art serves simply a social function in that through purgation (a purging of emotions as if by an overdose of laxative) or catharsis the human audience will be trained to the higher ideals of the perfect state. Following this notion we find the state subsidized plays where the theaters become hospitals to cure the ills of the tribe. Or in somewhat less pejorative terms the emphasis is on the spiritual regenerative function of tragedy and comedy.
Can we ever really deny this function of art? Something does happen to a person as the result of experiencing Hamlet or The Seventh Seal, somehow one is different as result of the experience, one has been impressed, purged, changed as a result of the intellectual, emotional power of the experience; has achieved a new insight into the nature of man and his relationship with the universe, with whatever gods there may be, has come closer to an awareness of what it means to be a mortal human being filled with passions, desires, ego, and overwhelming self-concern, who is attempting to carve some meaning out of life as he continues his walk toward the grave. Poetry and fiction helps to supply this much sought meaning, this non-scientific truth concerning the nature of things which helps to bind humans together in an appreciation of the wonder of life. One must never forget the importance of life itself, however, as teacher, as a force which shapes and changes the human sensibility.
In any event, to appreciate poetry and fiction as an integral part of life, one must become a part of the creative poetic/narrative experience. In a sense every reader, insomuch as he is creative, recreates the work of art which he is perusing. To the creative reader, the moment of insight has value insofar as he is able to relate it to the body of his previous experience, his previous attitudes, his perception of reality and his outlook on life. Integrating what one reads with one's beliefs about self, about humans, about the world values is a process that must be unique to each individual, and is, therefore, a creative act.
Robin Molineux's Changes is a collection of stories that requires such a creative response. The stories require a creative and intelligent reading to fully appreciate the complexity and power of the characters and of the changes those varied characters undergo in these powerful stories of restlessness, alienation, and acceptance. The locations of the stories ranges from England, to Australia to St. Petersburg and on to Vancouver Island. The first, and in many ways the most interesting story, "Animula Vagula Blandula" begins, "'I think I like it here' said Erich." Here. But just where is here? We are provided a clue in the head quote:
Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos…
--Emperor Hadrian (138)
Hadrian's paean to his departing soul is followed by Lord Byron's translation:
Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.
--Lord Byron (1806)
We learn that the five characters we will meet are in the vicinity of the Griboyedov Canal which starts from the Moyka River near the Field of Mars. It flows into the Fontanka RiverBefore 1923 it was called Catherine Canal, after the empress Catherine the Great, during whose rule it was deepened. The Communist authorities renamed it after the Russian playwright and diplomat Alexandr Griboyedov.
We learn the five are dead. They are similar in that they have been forgotten- bodies never recovered by loved ones. They are conversing together and in the conversations we learn of their lives and deaths. At peace now they no longer are restless or alienated.
As the title suggest all of the stories have to do with change. Change brought about by contingencies in the world or simply by acts of will (Don't worry, says one character to his wife, I'll be back in a year.)
The journey through these stories is, like life, full of many emotions and the idea that change is inevitable and necessary in our trip from spermatorium to crematorium. Each of these stories will provide you with enjoyment and with a clearer idea of the way toward peace, contentment, and a kind of joy.
© 2014 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.