The OF Blog: Once upon a time...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time, there was a...

Once. Not now, maybe never to be again (if at all), there was...something. Perhaps it was a little child, or maybe it was a starving peasant, or even a princess pining for something beyond her ken. Or maybe not. Perhaps it was a fearful ogre roaming the woods at night, or a wailing banshee. Once (again, that word!) we see that "once upon a time," our expectations as a reader shift from the mundane to the fantastical; we are conditioned creatures at heart.

I received a copy of Umberto Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods today and after reading through the first couple of chapters, it was as though he were writing to me. Oh, not to me me, since that would be rather arrogant of me to presume such, especially since the "real" me was but finishing his sophomore year of college in 1994 when the book was published. Rather, Eco was talking about the metaphor that Borges used of the fictional woods and the branching paths that stories can take. Not only that, but also about the roles of readers and authors in creating such tales.

No reader reads like another and few, if any, readers ever read the same text exactly the same each time it is read. We embellish a text with symbolic meaning and "purpose." Perhaps we recall feeling a similar mood as the fictional characters we are reading. Or maybe we come at a text at cross-purposes to its presumed intent; reading funny works when sad can either be a palliative or it can serve to diminish the work forever in that reader's opinion. As Eco states, "I am not interpreting a text but rather using it. It is not at all forbidden to use a text for daydreaming, and we do this frequently, but daydreaming is not a public affair; it leads us to move within the narrative wood as if it were our own private garden." (p. 10)

I say this was as if written (spoken, originally) for me because it speaks to an issue I often deal with when I'm writing substantive analytical/interpretative reviews. I don't believe in the older belief of having a "critical distance" - it contains too much of the flavor of Historicism. Rather, I view a text not just as something to interpret and to set aside in a dusty corner with all the other scrolls of arcane knowledge, but as a mutable entity that pushes and pulls upon my own knowledge and inclinations. In other words, engaging with a text is not just a matter of "deciphering," it is wrestling with something, trying to understand oneself in the midst of grappling with the possible textual implications.

I recently began writing a review essay on two 2008 novels based on Vergil's Æneid, Jo Graham's Black Ships and Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia. I thought at first, I would just note how each author seems to interpret Vergil's epic and how well this is presented. However, the more involved I got with the writing, the more thinking and rethinking I had to do. There was something about Vergil's text that moved me at so many levels, that I found myself writing about it as though it were the hidden paratext in both authors' novels. This has delayed my completion of the draft, which now threatens to push 7000 words when complete; I haven't written such a thing since I completed my graduate research in 1997.

Such an entanglement, fruitful as it has been in terms of reviving my half-forgotten love for Vergil (I read the Æneid in Latin for a class 14 years ago) as well as helping me to see more layers to the stories that Graham and Le Guin tell (although neither author's story much resembles the other, itself a fascinating point of discussion to touch upon in my essay), is exhausting. It is indeed like wandering in the fictional woods for hours, not knowing what will occur next. I can't just sit back and relax and react to "once upon a time" - I have to grasp it, probe it, wrestle with it, see my own opinions change or else risk the text disengaging itself from me. And yes, I used the active personification there, because while not living, texts certainly can be "living" entities that spark reaction and thought development on the part of the reader.

With that in mind, pardon me while I continue my walk through a semi-mythical Italy with my three guides.

4 comments:

Dark Wolf said...

I love fictional woods. I love daydreaming too. And I certainly love getting lost in my reading :)

Larry said...

I like it when I can, but I rarely daydream while reading. If anything, my mind is more aware and awake then than ever. But walking in real woods...yep, that can happen :D

Dark Wolf said...

I like the woods too. I've been to Poland a few days and I saw some great landscapes and some houses between the woods that I really liked :)

Larry said...

I'm lucky that there are still a few acres of land on my parents' property that are wooded. Always fun to see squirrels, rabbits, deer, and wild turkeys on occasion from the house :D

 
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