Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Things That Matter by Edward Mendelson

In the process of applying to graduate school, I have been seized by a fear--perhaps one I should not detail too thoroughly in this, a public forum--a fear that I am entering into a world of obscurism and arcana, the kind of universe that inspired the late Dennis Dutton's yearly bad writing contest. For this reason I have gravitated toward critics like Harold Bloom, James Wood, and Edward Mendelson, a Columbia professor of English who in The Things That Matter writes:

[Novels]were not written to be read objectively or dispassionately, as if by some nonhuman intelligence, and they can be understood most fully if they are interpreted and understood from a personal point of view, not only from historical, thematic, or analytical perspectives. A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naive way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.

Mendelson divides The Things That Matter into seven parts, each corresponding to the Seven Ages of Man. Each age is embodied by a book; for Mendelson, Frankenstein becomes a novel about birth, Wuthering Heights about childhood, Jane Eyre, adolescence; Middlemarch, marriage. Love, parenthood, and "the future" are given to three novels of Virginia Woolf's: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts, respectively.

This works better than it probably should. Mendelson is a thoughtful and--if this is a thing that can be said--a creative reader, seeing in novels what I had not imagined. He has the kind of wisdom that sees wisdom, and I found myself moved by several thoughts. Who would have thought that Frankenstein--which I disliked--had such subtleties as this, in an explanation of Victor's fascination with alchemy:

Magic is different from modern science in two crucial ways. First, magic promises results that are spectacularly vast in comparison with the amount of effort that goes into them, and, second, only exceptional individuals can wield magical powers. The words of a magical spell can be spoken as easily as any ordinary words, but when spoken by the right person, they cause earthquakes and thunders... Part of the appeal of the alchemist's magic is that it claims to give you something for nothing, provided that you are special enough to deserve it. (A similar fantasy of getting something for nothing seems to be behind the idea of "magic" in the realm of human relations: the husband or wife who complains that "the magic has gone out of my marriage" is perhaps disappointed at no longer being given something for nothing.)

Or this, about Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester:

Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester have each endured loneliness and solitude in order to arrive at this point, because in the world perceived by Charlotte Bronte all roads to the gardens of intimacy lead through deserts of solitude, and no one can attain intimacy who has not accepted loneliness.

I certainly do not agree with everything that Mendelson says. He makes a bold claim in his introduction that our foremost novelist of the past two centuries is Virginia Woolf, and that our sacred cows--specifically, Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce--are exalted by the assumption that pattern and myth are superior to human emotion and psychology. It is easy to appreciate the underlying sentiment, which appeals to the non-professional reader and forsakes the academic, but understates the ways in which pattern and myth anchor and organize human spirits and personalities. Nor does Mendelson quite believe it, I think, as he spends quite a bit of the section on Mrs. Dalloway explaining how it is patterned after Ulysses--itself patterned after The Odyssey.

But The Things That Matter rekindles my excitement for graduate work. Writers like Mendelson (and Bloom, and Wood) maintain, like the keeper of the vestal flame, the vitality of literature, and leave good maps for those who might follow them.

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