Still thinking about what makes great literature? [#2]
I have— and here’s what I’ve come up with.
[But, if you’d like to read the first post first here it is http://maryemartintrilogies.com/whats-great-literature/ ]
Joseph Campbell, mythologist, lecturer and thinker is one of my favourite writers. He dedicated his career to the study of myth—story which comes from deep within human beings. Frequently I’ve turned to his work in studying what makes for great writing and more importantly–great story-telling. And his work really explores why we tell such tales.
His book, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, contains much reflection upon the novels of James Joyce. Confession time again! I have read only the first fifty pages [or so] of Ulysses by Joyce and certainly have never attempted Finnegan’s Wake. Why not? For me, it is simply just too difficult to follow. I know that the “flow” is the subconscious or rather the stream of consciousness. Perhaps if I had greater patience, I could do it—or maybe not.
But in no way does my reaction detract from its “greatness.” That’s an important point. Just because a painting or a play or a ceramic vase—any form of art— does not appeal to me on a personal level, that does not mean it fails as a fine work of art. That suggests that yes—there are objective “standards” by which we can judge art. And that, of course, is the study of aesthetics. However many artists, who flaunt aesthetics or popular taste, often turn out to be ahead of their time. Just think of Van Gogh or Les Fauvres [wild beasts] or even the Impressionists. Once they were considered “mad” but now they are “great”.
But no matter that I have not read the whole of Ulysses. Joseph Campbell has written some brilliant essays to guide me through in a very understandable fashion– at least for my purposes–story-telling in relation to myth.
Here the story begins. In fact, Campbell had the same trouble when he started to read Ulysses, which he bought at Shakespeare and Co. 12 Rue Odéon, Paris. This site was closed down during the Nazis occupation of Paris and never re-opened in the same location. But the book shop did re-open right along the Seine in the 1960’s.
Unable to make head or tail of the book, he was back at the store the very next day to speak with the owner, Sylvia Beach, wanting an explanation of the writing. Fortunately, Beach had worked closely with Joyce and had published Ulysses. That was certainly a brave act at the time.
Authors who have struggled to find a publisher may take heart because Joyce was in the same predicament. Without Sylvia Beach, Ulysses might never have seen the light of day. As a footnote to the history of book publishing, Beach invested all necessary money to publish Ulysses. It was banned in the United States as it was considered pornographic.
She was of invaluable assistance to both the author, James Joyce and his “interpreter” Joseph Campbell. With her help, the young Joseph Campbell began his years of scholarship of Joyce’s work. I’d like to think that if I had been able to sit down with Beach, I might actually have read and begun to understand Ulysses. In any event, I have Campbell’s book to consult.
But it all started with long hours spent by Joyce and Beach at Shakespeare and Company editing.
In preparation for publication of Ulysses, James Joyce had a lot of ideas about what makes great art whether in writing or painting or musical composition. He speaks of wholeness and integrity, harmony/rhythm and radiance.
In order for a painting to be a work of art, it must be one whole thing. It’s easy to think about putting a frame around a painting or a photograph and deciding whether it is one unified whole, not a disorganized bunch of stuff tossed in without any order. [Composition! That’s where the artistic talent comes in].
Certainly lots of artists would argue with this. For example, conceptual artists frequently strain at any notion of aesthetics. Beauty or prettiness is a bourgeois conceit. In art, it’s the idea or the concept which is significant. I have a lot of fun in my own novel writing [The Trilogy of Remembrance and Alexander Wainwright and Rinaldo] with the clash of these ideas about art.]
How does this requirement of wholeness apply to—say the writing of a novel. My guess is that your plot structure is a big factor in achieving this wholeness. After all, like a frame, it contains all the characters, events and dialogue. It’s up to the novelist to create the best whole form possible.
What about harmony and rhythm? Regardless of the form of the art, it seems that a satisfying, artistic harmony is achieved by the particular arrangements of the sentences, paragraphs and chapters which give the story its structure. If the prose “clunks” along, leaving you scratching your head, it won’t be very artistic. The artist tries to choose just the right words, sounds and cadences which hit the “ear” with the desired artistic effects.
The third requirement is the most interesting and hardest to define and achieve. It’s the ingredient which separates truly great literature from mere good writing. Radiance, I think, is that extra quality, which shines through the work to such an extent that it overwhelms you. It is the artist’s vision. For some readers, it may be radiant and for others not so much.
As Campbell says, it’s that quality which transcends the ego. In short, something in the work literally tears you out of yourself and onto another plane of perception. You stand [or read] in awe. Goosebumps form and the words swim before your eyes.
You are overcome with something the writer was trying very hard to convey. It’s a character, a phrase or event which burrows into your mind and stays there—perhaps for a lifetime—because it has struck a chord. But not just any chord! It’s one so deep and strange, yet familiar, which you probably didn’t realize it was there until now. How often have you read something like that? A Jungian might say you’ve touched on the collective unconscious. You’ve reached that universal.
So, I’d venture to say that good writing must have wholeness, integrity and harmony. Great literature also has that elusive quality called radiance where something of the artist shines through the work and pierces you to the core. Easy to talk about but very hard to do! So hard, in fact, that only a few artists really ever achieve that even after long years of work.
Great literature also has that elusive quality I like to call radiance plus where something of the artist shines through the work and pierces you to the core. Easy to talk about but very hard to do! So hard, in fact, that only a few artists really ever achieve that even after long years of work.
These are the novels we read time and again. We dip back into great literature down the ages because our returning always rewards us with some new and subtle insight. Perhaps what Joyce calls radiance is similar to Harold Bloom’s sublime which I wrote about in the first in this series.
What do you think of Joyce’s ideas about art? Do they still pertain to today? Why not make a comment? It occurs to me that everything Joyce has said about wholeness etc seems hard to apply to Ulysses!
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
So, what do you think? Have you ever read a novel or listened to music which gives you that kind of thrill? Why not tell us about it down in the comments section?