Testing literary hypotheses

I would say that this year there has been a big improvement in my writing technique, both from the point of view of gaming material and from the point of view of academic writing. An improvement that hasn’t been without its retrograde moments – my Kim essay for example – but which has sharpened my writing focus and technique immeasurably; perhaps only my Great Gatsby & Richard III essays from undergrad can now be read without a remorseful shudder. There are two very important ideas lurking behind this improvement, which manifested unconsciously in both those essays.

The first is the idea that literary-critical endeavour is not value-based. I think that we get used to the idea of “criticism” shading into “review”, wherein there must be a large component of personal taste and history. This idea is reinforced at undergraduate level by the format of teaching: lectures, wherein some boffin “explains” a work to the heaving mass of students. This has a certain validity: the succinct and powerful explanation by Peter Gainsford of kleos and Anna Jackson’s illumination of the origins of modernist poetry, are a pair of lecture series which exploded the relevant works for me, making them accessible and interesting in a way they previously hadn’t been. But in some ways, their clarity obscured what I can now see was a principle of design in those lecture series: the testable hypothesis.

If instead of mythologising literature we tackle it as we would regard any technical problem, our approach changes dramatically. When encountering a work of myth, we expect an almost spiritual experience, based on faith in a commonality of experience. We expect to treat it in vague terms of reader-response, and for a work to spontaneously express fundamental truths to which we can relate. Which only gets you so far: the awed response to your first reading of Homer or Tolkien probably tells you more about yourself than it does about the work in question and its meaning.

A technical problem is quite different. You resort not to ephemeral and esoteric matters, but to the scientific method. You form a hypothesis about the problem, and apply as many different tests as you can manage, winnowing down results to speak meaningfully to your hypothesis: is it false? And that is the only question science can answer, because science is about eliminating the wrong, not about finding the truth. In literary terms you can’t be quite so literal: literature in some ways is always about explaining a fundamental truth. But you can create hypotheses and test them against the work.

For kleos in Homer, you can form a hypothesis about the characters’ behaviour: it is predicated principally on the idea of kleos, without which a lot of the action, particularly the main action of not returning Helen, makes little sense. You form a theory: that X action is based around the acquisition of kleos.

Some actions clearly are based on this principle: when Hector fights Ajax, there is nothing at stake except kleos: indeed, its importance is made crystal clear by the contra stakes. If Hector falls, Troy falls, and yet he risks everything on single combat in pursuit of kleos. And conversely, the slaughter of Dolon by Odysseus and Diomedes in book 10 is not explained by kleos: there is little honour in murder, and nor is the feat itself impressive.

Yet, because we have this hypothesis, that difference tells us some key things about Odysseus. We see that Achilles is mastered by his craving for honour, we see that Odysseus operates on a far more practical level. And this too helps us understand why the action in The Odyssey is so different in tone from The Iliad: the focus is no longer on kleos, but on oikos (family) and its continuity. oikos rather than kleos becomes the central preoccupation in Homer part 2.

Without this key method, we could get lost in the pageantry of the single combat. We feel instinctively that it is important, but we become fixated on some notion of heroism that is fluid: simply larger than life. We would make moral judgements about Odysseus and Diomedes based on irrelevant modern standards, without understanding the significance of the act at all.

The second key methodological difference relates to critical material. Just as in undergrad you are effectively trained to regard the lecturer’s word as truth, you are trained to regard critical material uncritically. It is enough at undergraduate level to have read them, and be able to repeat what they say. Simply citing a mass of references is necessary and sufficient for a passable grade in many courses.

This becomes complicated when the sources do not directly talk about your specific work of literature. For example, it is quite easy to cite as relevant, Chinua Achebe’s dismissal of Heart of Darkness when discussing either that work or Achebe’s own Things Fall Apart; and Joy Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood deconstructs the absence of female power in both narratives. What about when you are asked to consider something interesting but apparently esoteric like The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin, which doesn’t directly even talk about literature?

Well, the answer is that no critical material is “truth”. The cycle of Conrad-Achebe-Emecheta provides the key to what it is: dialogue. Over the course of nearly a century, those three authors are involved in a discussion about the origin of authenticity. Conrad implicitly argues that it is inherent in the colonists. Achebe that actually the black natives are more authentic. Emecheta asks: “what about the women”? Someone writing on Emecheta must naturally pick up the conversation and proceed with that background.

Which is the concept underpinning Dr Jackson’s lecture that I failed to understand. She explained that the principle of design was key to modernist construction: it was a reaction against the formal and over-explained Victorian literature which preceded it, and its literary allusions gently bleed into the break-down of referrants which Baudrillard would take as the central motif of modern society.

What I failed to assimilate was the principle in operation for her schema: that poetry was involved in an ongoing discussion. The modern poet is engaged in a dialogue with the previous generation of poetic endeavour, perpetually back in time presumably all the way to Homer.

Picking up something like Baudrillard or Benjamin then, and looking at a literary work combines these two ideas. You are using them to create a hypothesis that you can use to test the properties of a work of art. But this hypothesis does not exist in isolation: you are entering into a dialogue both with other hypotheses for that work, and also recursively testing the construction of that hypothesis. I have a theory about X work of art: what does this tell me compared to other theories? What does that tell me about my hypothesis?

Sadly, this means letting go of the idea that there is a “truth” that can be found in literature. Truth implies knowledge, but all you can do is eliminate different sorts of folly. Yet, I think it does not point the other way to a formless relativism in which everything is equally true. Instead, it allows you to say that knowledge is out there, provided you can use it.

[Edit: I must really offer credit where it’s due to Dr Brian Opie, who showed me all the pieces for these insights but let me put the final picture together myself]

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5 Responses to Testing literary hypotheses

  1. A year and one day ago, when I was thinking about open textuality, I wrote a little note in my blog post document to the effect of “Can one apply the scientific method to the humanities?”. I very much like your answer to that question.

  2. I didn’t use so many words, but I think I made this observation to Sam about a recent change in the way you discussed RPG ideas yesterday. No joke. šŸ™‚

    • Btw, in case that sounded negative, it wasn’t intended to be šŸ™‚

      • mashugenah says:

        It didn’t particularly.

        I think that recently I’ve been starting to feel like I’m getting the hang of the whole thing. There’s going to be more on this, but really, starting with A World of Possibilities, I have ended up feeling like after 20 years at this hobby, I’ve really had to tear down everything I thought I knew and start again.

      • That’s a healthy thing to do every 5-10 years IMO šŸ™‚

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