In Which I Get Way Over My Head in Literary Theory

Last night I finished writing a paper on a novel in which I suggested that a lot of the textual evidence weaved throughout the book undermined its basic thesis (yup, it was one of those novels; the kind that has an easily spelled out thesis in the first place). I think I did a pretty good job on it, but really it’s hard to say. The problem is that I found the aforementioned thesis to be deeply objectionable,* and so it’s hard to say how much of my rebuttal was based on textual evidence, and how much of it is based on the fact that I think the book is just wrong.

On the one hand, my inability to engage with that book, or any book, purely on its own terms can be kind of frustrating. But it’s also why I love reading; when you read, you’re not passively absorbing information but actively grafting terms and concepts from your prior experience onto the words of the author to give the ink on the page texture and meaning. There’s an intimacy to it that I haven’t quite found in any other artistic medium. What I’m absorbing isn’t the thoughts of Lewisohn the author, or me, the reader, but a third entity that the two of us created together.**

*The book was Ludwig Lewisohn’s The Island Within, which concludes by repeatedly bludgeoning the reader with the assertion that Jews will only cause themselves pain if they consort with non-Jews and try to be full and equal members of society outside of their community.

**Further reading on that note: Borges’ “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald.”


One Response

  1. I think you have touched on an essential piece of the definition of art: art engages the viewer/listener/reader in a new act of creation with each encounter.

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