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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, March 25, 2017


In order to explain why I'm choosing to devote a lot of space to one essay in Raymond Durgnat's 1967 collection in FILMS AND FEELINGS, as I said that I would in this essay, some personal reflections by an amateur literary theorist may provide some context.

I'm not certain as to when I read the Durgnat book, but since I was exposed to a lot of esoteric materials while working for a college library in the early 1980s, that's as likely a time as ever. I already had quite a bit of grounding in Jung and Campbell, and I probably discovered Frye around the same time as Durgnat. Durgnat didn't offer a lot of heavy theory in his essays, but in one essay, "Tales Versus Novels," he propounded a theory with which I both agreed and disagreed.

I lacked a certain amount of context to Durgnat's argument when I first read it, for the essay was in part a response to a type of literary elitism the writer found in a 1884 Henry James essay, "The Art of Fiction."  To my consternation Durgnat did not cite the source of James' remarks, which I later tracked down thanks to the wonders of the Internet. "Art of Fiction" itself was written in response to a diatribe by a more obscure writer of James' time, whom I chose not to seek out. In brief, James sought to set forth his parameters for excellence in literary fiction, and in the excerpt from "Tales Versus Novels" I'll print below, it should be evident that Durgnat is arguing that James' standards are based purely upon the art of the novel, not of fiction generally. Thus, Durgnat contrasts the virtues of "tales," meaning not only bonafide folktales but also pop-fictional creations like "Li'l Abner and James Bond," with the more celebrated virtues of largely naturalistic novels.

To the aesthetic of the "tale" academic culture has, by and large, turned a blind eye. As recently as my grammar school days, English masters instructed us all in the necessity for realistic and deep characterization, logically consistent behavior, penetrating studies of motive, and that proliferation of vivid detail suggested by Henry James' phrase, "density of specification." We were besought to insist upon the "texture of lived experience," and many of the exegeses we studied had strained to detect such "density" in such improbable places as folk ballads, or Chaucer's tale of Patient Griselda. Yet it was curious that, rich and complex as was the showpiece of the "complexity" school, HAMLET, each critic struggled to isolate its hero's "real" motives, to simplify, to synopsize, him into a figure almost as systematic and simple as another famous procrastinator, Li'l Abner. For, as Erich Auerbach remarked in his study of the development of European literary realism, "To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend."

A minor point first: in the essay to which I linked, James actually speaks of "solidity of specification" when he extols the ability of modern fiction to bring forth that texture of lived experience.  However, Durgnat's inaccurate memory is more inspired than the original, for the ideal of literary realism is based not so much in how "solid" things are-- which is "not at all" since fiction is not real-- but rather, in how "densely" an author provides all the details that produce the illusion of reality.

Now to a more substantial point: Durgnat is suggesting is that academic culture ought to appreciate not just the aesthetic of complex specification, but also the aesthetic of simplicity that one finds in folktales and popular fiction, and even in "high art" (like HAMLET), whose complexities ultimately reduce down into many of the same simple oppositions one finds in "low art." Here's Durgnat celebrating the symbolic oppositions one finds in Mary Shelley's famous creation:

The Frankenstein Monster is brutal but pathetic; he's a creature who masters his creator; he's brute material capable of a lofty idealism that, turning sour, makes him a devil-- but a sympathetic one.

I agree with Durgnat's readings of folk-lit and pop-lit in general, but the "disagreement" I mentioned above comes in when he tries to make these rather Levi-Straussian oppositions emblematic of his "aesthetic of simplicity." I don't think that, say, his Frankensteinian oppositions are simple; I think that they're just as "dense" as all the verisimilitude that Henry James ladles into his novels. I think I understand fairly well why Durgnat sought to create a contrast between his notion of tale-like simplicity versus academia's received opinion that "proliferation of vivid detail" was the defining virtue of all fiction, with the prose novel standing in as the best representation of that aesthetic. But I also think it was a mistake, because the academic community flourishes on the demonstration of hidden complexity beneath the surface of any narrative. As far as I can tell, Durgnat's aesthetic of simplicity had little effect on academia, be it concerned with the critique of prose or of cinema. In contrast, while the influence of Carl Jung's analytical psychology proves less popular than the pseudo-scientific formulations of Freud and Marx, there are still assorted critics who advocate the exploration of symbols through a Jungian lens-- in large part because Jung, like literary critics, was all about finding complexity amid apparent simplicity.

In future essays within this series, "density" will prove useful in further identifying the virtues of what I've termed, with due reference to Jung, the four potentialities.

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