Sunday, March 18, 2007

Literary Method: from Comments

The comments thread to the "Douglas Coupland & Cynicism" post shows several responses to the explication in lecture of the four-part structure of the afterlife in relation to Hey Nostradamus! Rather than reply to the common attitude there, I wanted to bring it up to a main post, as important points regarding the method of academic analysis of fiction are in play here. I want to thank greatly the commentators themselves for stimulating this little treatise: if they would stop by an Office Hour, I'll repay them in coffee & (pace my post on Canadian spelling) doughnuts.

The commentators object bluntly to the four-fold structure (Heaven, Purgatory, Limbo, Hell) as, in a repeated phrase, "hogwash." Objection, of course, is admirable and welcome, in principle. I myself object. But scholarly objections require that scholarly conditions be met. There is, as I read the comments in question, an unavoidable sense that Coupland's text is here accomplishing its intended destabilising effect: the fact that the commentators frame their objections against "Roman Catholicism" leads me to wonder whether the real objection might not be coming from an evangelical Protestant position, and is actually directed against the four-part doctrine itself, rather than its use to explain Coupland's art.

So, to put this in terms of the academic method of analysis of fiction. Straightaway, there is a need to correct the objections against historical fact. The four-part afterlife is not Roman Catholic: or, rather, not exclusively Roman Catholic.
  1. The model predated the creation of Protestantism by seveal hundred years. (Cf Dante & The Divine Comedy, below.)
  2. Although the Roman Catholic Church has not abandoned this doctrine, it is also held by some Protestants. For example, scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote of his affirmation of Purgatory and Limbo.

The first step, then, of academic analysis is to research the main historical facts under dispute, rather than take one's assumptions as being correct.

Next, be restrained both in configuring one's opponent's position and in expressing one's counter-analysis. The pejorative "utter hogwash" is perfectly possible -- I have myself experienced utter hogwash in academic settings -- but it is best to consider the strength of the position being objected to. (This is sound Sun Tzu pragmatics, among other things.) Being wrong and being hogwash are two different things. Scholarship almost means presenting one's argument for refutation: that is the nature of the dialectical method stretching back to the Pre-Socratics. Hogwash, on the other hand, denotes statements with neither plausibility nor support.

The requirement in the present case is for the objections to be cast in light of the material and arguments presented in weeks of lecture. I must say that I do not see this as having been done here. So, what is the main case for the four-part afterlife as an explanatory schema for Hey Nostradamus!?

  • The argument from structure. The structure of a work of fiction with literary quality has, lacking clear evidence to the contrary, thematic significance. So, for a four-part novel, one looks for analogues relevant to the theme of the text. Observing that Hey Nostradamus! has a religious theme, as well as a plot centred explicitly on Christianity, one casts about for four-part systems in that religion. Two of the largest were presented in lecture: the afterlife, and the gospels. (Note that this is required just as much when the text seems to be directed against religion as in support of it.) So, objection to the four-part afterlife in this context needs to contend with the force of this academic aspect.
  • The novel opens with the main character actually being in Purgatory: that is, in an ante-state before Heaven but after Earth. Frankly, in context of a four-part novel, this is nearly irrefutable evidence for Coupland having the afterlife structure as part of his artistic design. At the very least, it would be scholarly dereliction to fail to explain why this is not part of the literary design.
  • The text has an aggregation of lexical cues (a.) to the four different states and (b.) concentrated in separate sections (e.g. the word "purgatory" appears in one part, "heaven" repeatedly in another.
  • The four-part afterlife has a potent literary tradition which adds immensely to the plausibility of Coupland having appropriated it. Most powerfully, the great Dante's Divine Comedy (a supreme work of literary genius) is structured according to the levels of afterlife (three-part to resonate the doctrine of the Trinity: Dante was an orthodox Christian, which Coupland is not.) We are drawn to this parallel pointedly by the title of Coupland's text, which invokes another medieval writer.

Short of repeating lecture, then, this is enough to say that the case for the four-part structure in the text is strong. Not, please note, irrefutable. Quite the opposite, in fact. The point here, though, is that in order to object to the explanation, the strengths of the claims in its favour have to dealt with in proportionate strength.

Furthermore, the literary method of analysis takes account of the concept of Imaginative Truth. To speak counter-factually, even were the four-part afterlife exclusively Roman Catholic, non-Catholic, even anti-Catholic, writers could find the concept artistically irresistible. Lecture gave Led Zeppelin and Joss Whedon as examples of anti-Christians who use Christian ontology in their art. To point, Coupland could in principle use Purgatory and Limbo artistically without any Roman Catholic suggestion at all: the artist, indeed, may not even be aware that the ideas have any specifically Roman Catholic denotation.

Likewise, literary art does not require that there be direct correspondence between the use of a concept in a novel and its original formalities, nor need there be, what the American poet Emerson called, "a foolish consistency" in the concept's fictional application. Art uses resonancy, allusion, careful distortion, apposition, contrast, invention and inversion: all tints and shades are on the master's palette. (A major example in this regard is Ulysses by Modernist writer James Joyce, wherein a large part of the appeal for its devotees is finding (and then flaunting the finding of) the presence, shape and fictional purpose of, distorted episodes from Homer's original in the Modernist revision.)

I hope this brief account of one part of the academic analysis of fiction is beneficial. If not, look to my inadequacies as the reason, not the discipline itself, which is all glory. And for any specific questions on the details of Hey Nostradamus!, again, stop by Office Hours.

4 comments:

insanity said...

so thought-provoking that I have been intoxicated for a moment. What I want to say,by all mean,literatures are able to reflect the religious as H.N does because they are applied for the truth.But,by any chance,literatures can not be reflected by any religious because it is too hard to be sure of authenticity of it.

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Indeed, literature can be interpreted from as many approaches as there are dimensions of human life.
Here, I have presented with the dominant and explicit themes, close to the surface, as the most effective way, for me, of "Introducing" fiction.

Imemythisguy said...

Just to clarify, Cheryl experienced all four states of being.She experienced heaven on earth as she "loved the world, its beauty and bigness...[and] The world is a glorious place, and filled with so many unexpected moments" (10). She experienced hell on earth in the confines of the cafeteria and was in limbo and purgatory in the afterlife. Jason experienced hell in the cafeteria as well as a hell of his own creation by his actions and reactions to the event also he is left in a state of limbo lost in the swampy forrests.My questions are as follows; Did Jason experience heaven and purgatory? And which of the four states of being did Heather and Reg inhabit?

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Dear "Imemythisguy:" on your second question, I will refer you back to lecture for the answer. On the first, to my mind, that is asking fiction to be more rigidly true and non-artistic than it rightly (again, that is in my view, following from Lionel Trilling) is.