Saturday, April 12, 2008

Watching, Reading, and the Aesthetic

I like plot. When I watch a TV show or a movie, I want something to be happening. There are two genres from which I don't demand plot; because horror and comedy attempt to elicit a specific audience reaction (fear or laughter), whether these genres use plot or not to elicit this reaction doesn't matter to me as much as whether or not they do in fact elicit the intended reaction. But generally, if I'm spending time watching something, I would like some sort of story.

But this post isn't about plot; when I'm watching, I don't just want plot. I have a very keen appreciation for the beautiful image. In visual art and entertainment, the aesthetic means a great deal to me. In film and television, what sticks in my memory are not necessarily the ideas, but the aesthetic of the work. I remember the sounds--the music and the way actors speak. I remember the way characters move or hold themselves (when I think of The Sopranos, I see Tony brooding about. I often associate other characters with their visual representations: Janice's distinct plodding walk, or the way Johnny Sac holds and smokes a cigarette, or Silvio's hunched shoulders. Ah, and the sounds! In The Sopranos all of the characters have such unique, distinct voices and speech patterns: when I think of Christopher, of Paulie, of Silvio, of Dr. Melfi, of Uncle Junior, what will stick out to me is the way they talk). In all I watch, I remember the movements of the camera, the way the frame captures the action, the color and movement and tone. Catching parts of Peter Jackson's King Kong on TNT this weekend, I'm struck not just by how much that movie captures beautiful images, but how much that movie is about capturing beautiful images.

Do I read differently than I watch? Perhaps, since I've said for a long time I read for ideas. One of my favorite films is Moulin Rouge, not for any great ideas, but precisely because of the brilliant aesthetic: the music, the movement, the colors, the constantly shifting camera, the distinct speech patterns, the dancing, the gorgeous sets, the costumes, the actors, the beauty of it all. It is the aesthetic of the Red Curtain Trilogy that has enthralled me, not any ideas.

But perhaps it is worth pointing out that while I read for ideas, I am most certainly also reading for aesthetic. When I reject Aestheticism for myself, it is a rejection of "art for art's sake" and a primary or total focus on the aesthetic at the expense of the content. But I most certainly appreciate and recognize the aesthetic originality and power in literature.

Now here's an odd shift: I'm not sure how I read different types of writing differently. I'm not sure my mind is operating differently whether I'm reading literature (poetry, drama, or fiction), history, theology, philosophy, criticism, essays, any remotely serious writing: I'm not entirely sure there's a difference in the way I read.

Ah, but indeed there seem to be different ways my mind is working that I'm not even consciously registering. Actually, I feel rather different when I'm reading a play: it is somehow seems distinct from any other type of writing, and I think I am examining it in a different way (for one thing, my mind is picturing it both on a stage and in a "real" setting that I might picture from reading a novel). I think too I read a poem differently than a novel; in fact, I'm sure I do. And so too must there be a difference in the way I read anything else. But what I'm saying is that I'm not sure what that difference is, and that the similarities in the way I approach any form of serious writing may be greater than the differences. Maybe.

And again I come to Reader-response. I recognize what I respond to in film/television (plot and the aesthetic of sight and sound). Perhaps I ought to become more conscious of precisely how I am reading what I read. I say I read for ideas, but I certainly consider the aesthetic: I don't ignore one for the other. But is the relationship between ideas and the aesthetic in my reading completely understood to me? Just what is it I love about Ted Hughes' Crow so much? If I really had to define it, I'd probably say it is some of my favorite poetry because of the aesthetic, not for any ideas that may be pulled out of these myth-like poems (or is it neither, but rather entertainment? The poems are quite amusing). I respond to Ted Hughes in a way that transcends content and probably resides somewhere in the aesthetic. And even when it is the content I respond to, how would I divorce it from the work's aesthetic? I adore Paradise Lost. I love the content and I love the ideas. But I also love the imagery Milton conjures. I love his poetry. I could spend a long time analyzing and discussing his art in the epic poem. It's a poem beautifully structured and containing many beautiful lines of poetry. It's a poem so rich in both art and content that I rather think it transcends any meaningful separation between the art and the ideas.

So I do in fact read different things differently. My brain pictures different things while I read drama. I respond to poetry in ways that I might not respond to other types of writing. Perhaps what I should say is that when I read history or philosophy or theology, I'm not reading those things that differently from the way I read literature. I've a rather big interest in both history and theology, yet I was an English major and now I'm an English teacher: I started with literature, and I've taken my modes of reading for literature to other types of writing, not vice versa. I might also recognize that in all of my reading, I'm reading for my personal education. At some level, I am reading to learn and to grow, no matter what I'm reading. Perhaps this is another reason that while I do appreciate the aesthetic of literature, I don't accept Aestheticism: I do approach literature for such things as education and edification, concepts that, if I understand it correctly, Aestheticism would reject as morality that doesn't belong in art.

This exploration (navel gazing, certainly, but I hope to a larger purpose) is an attempt to understand the manner in which I watch and read. Harold Bloom wrote a book called How to Read and Why; as a blogger about literature, perhaps my subtitle should be "How I read and why." But blogging about literature probably always contains that as a subtext: it's a rather personal, intimate medium in which to discuss experience with literature.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:36 PM

    This from a guy who four years ago said of literature: "Who cares how it's written." Glad to see you're coming around. Soon you'll be dressing like Oscar Wilde.