Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Two thoughts on John Donne's Divine Meditations
1.Donne's religious poetry includes serious doubt and questioning. Divine Meditation #7 begins: "At the round earth's imagined corners..." Immediately there is the recognition that a scientific model of the earth does not match the biblical model of the earth. And #7 ends with "Teach me how to repent; for that's as good/ As if thou hadst sealed my pardon, with thy blood." If? In Christian theology, forgiveness of sins was sealed with the blood of Christ, yet here Donne suggests some doubt of that. In #9, Donne questions religious doctrine on sin/reason and on forgiveness/wrath, then takes a pose of humility...but leaves the questions hanging there. And in #13, he says of the image of Christ on the cross, "And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,/ Which prayed forgiveness for his foes' fierce spite?"
2. Donne has two poetic careers: the early songs which were often rather bawdy, and the later religious poems. But he never really left the sexual imagery behind, did he? Divine Meditation #14, perhaps the best one, contains some powerful imagery of God overtaking the poet, and ends with the request for God to "ravish" the speaker. #18 deals with finding the Church on earth, and suggests that the true bride of Christ would be "open to most men."
I realized something absurd: in the past ten months, the only novels I've read in their entirety were by Dostoevsky. I've encountered no novelists but Dostoevsky since I finished Gregory Maguire's Son of a Witch last May. None! Now I've certainly read a good deal of drama, poetry, and non-fiction in that time, and Dostoevsky does write rather long novels, so it's not like I haven't been reading a lot. But that's still a little weird to me. So from now until September, I'll only read novels that are around 200-300 pages long, and each novel I read has to be by a different author (I'm starting with Graham Greene's The Quiet American). And of course I'll continue to read drama, poetry, and non-fiction.
The preparations are happening: on April 1st, I'm again going vegan. I'm not going to make a public deal about it (most of my friends and family don't read this blog), but I'm taking the step. I'm "mostly vegan" because I might take it easy with honey, and because on special occasions that are a bit outside my control, I may be a mere vegetarian (like my sister's wedding). But starting April 1st, I'll mostly be consuming fruits and vegetables. I'm very excited.
Theory and Reading
Reader-Response Theory, in my opinion, essentially allows me to read a work of literature in any way I choose. How can I limit my modes of reading to one? I read any work as a Humanist, as a Marxist, as a Feminist, or as a devotee of any other theory I've ever encountered. We can hold multiple thoughts, multiple frameworks, multiple ideas in our heads. I can read a book both as Harold Bloom would want me to and as a Marxist would want me to at the very same time.
The only theory I have little time for is Aestheticism (as I've suggested before). The work must mean more to me than appreciation of art for its own sake; I'm not nearly so interesting in exploring the aesthetics of any work as the ideas of the work. Perhaps I'm a bit of a Moralist as a reader. But that, too, is what Reader-Response is about: recognizing our own subjective modes of reading. My lack of interest in an Aesthetic approach to literature is my own, and I recognize that others do not, need not, should not read literature just the way I do. One of my great frustrations is when people universalize their personal modes of reading, claiming everybody should read literature the same way they do, turning their subjective preferences into literary rules.