Re: franny and zooey [authorial intent, etc.]

From: L. Manning Vines <>
Date: Mon Jan 20 2003 - 00:43:03 EST

Jim said:
<< Ach, Robbie, of all the things to respond to, you choose that :). >>

I also said why I chose that, I believe. I responded to that because that
was the part that was, in your words, "something like a direct attack on
[my] character."

<< I think it went in more productive directions in your absence (not that
your absence allowed that to happen, but that a different thread came
up)...but I don't know that you had the chance to follow all the threads.

I never stopped reading the digest, and I never stopped carefully reading
the threads in question. Composing responses, of course, requires much more
time and much more interest.

<< About Idiosyncrasy: It doesn't have to be entirely personal *in this
case.* It can have social elements as well. >>

It did occur to me after I sent the message calling it "slightly
inflammatory" that this was a possibility, and this was reflected in my last
post when I said such things as that you might have meant something
different, but that's how I read it before. It was probably inappropriate
of me to respond as I originally did without clearing up exactly what you
meant, though your language (I "happen" to identify things "quite
idiosyncratically") still sounds to me like an attempt to marginalize me.
The alternative is possible, and if you assert it I will take your word, but
your language lead me originally to see that only as an improbable

<< I asked a number of direct, specific questions that could serve as
qualifications upon Great Ideas that you chose to ignore, instead dwelling
on the validity of you "taking offense" at my use of the word
"idiosyncrasy." >>

First, I was never quite actually offended, since I never quite actually
cared so much (I've thought you've been saying similar things to me at
various times for a long time, and don't get too worked up about it). In
order to be more clear about that I even started writing the post with some
effort to make it light-hearted and playful in tone (at first I referred to
"false and unholy" accusations, which I meant to sound silly), although I
think I forgot about that in the writing and didn't do much to maintain it.

Second, I was not "dwelling on the validity" of my reading of what you
wrote -- I was defending myself. I was not trying to insist that I had been
correct, only that, as worded, what you said could be taken by one as I took
it -- rightly or not -- without it being a result of pretension.

If you'll remember, you accused me of reading it as I did "purely" as a
matter of pretension. You yourself called it "something like a direct
attack on [my] character." It was that attack that I was defending against,
nothing else. This was, as I stated at the beginning of my post, virtually
the entire motive for writing the response at all.

And I only ignored the questions you mention because I ignored everything
but the one paragraph, which was the direct attack on my character. I did
not believe that anything else in your post (and going back over it now, I
haven't changed my mind) pertained to that paragraph, and if my only aim was
to respond to that paragraph I had no cause to include anything else. I
ignored the rest because I did not want (and do not want) to continue the
conversation because I came to think of it as a bad conversation, and
because I thought it ridiculous of me to respond to a post that was more
than a month old with the expectation of reviving something dead.

You said:
<< You addressed the narrow section of my post that you could choose to take
as a personal attack but really ignored the meat of my contention where I
developed it. >>

This sentence, I am forced to admit, baffles me. This is for two reasons:
first, that you say that "I could choose" to take that narrow section as a
personal attack; and second, that you went on to develop something that was
in any way related to that section.

For the latter, I can guess that you are just working with an imperfect
memory of what you wrote. The statement is false, and I'll send you a copy
of your original post if you're interested in disagreeing with this. You
said things and argued things, every line of which I had originally intended
to respond to (but changed my mind after failing to find the time for more
than a month), but after the close of the paragraph of the direct attack on
my character, you didn't return to anything pertaining directly to it. You
effectively called me pretentious, verified in no uncertain terms that it
was a direct attack on my character, and moved on to separate matters in the

For the former point -- that you said that I "could choose" to take the
given section of your message as a personal attack -- I can think of no
explanation so simple as that for the previous point. I can only suppose
that you are working with an imperfect memory of the original post, and that
you either did not read or read but did not pay attention to where I quoted
you in my last post. After you said that I read your prior words as
slightly inflammatory only because of [my] own pretension," and going on for
a bit, you said, and I quoted you as saying in my last post, "This part of
my post is the only part, so far, that I consider something like a direct
attack on your character, but you've earned it."

I stated explicitly in my last post that what I was arguing against was that
last point, that "[I]'ve earned it."

It is not merely the case that I "could choose" to take this as a personal
attack: it WAS a personal attack, and YOU said so. I was not especially
upset that you said so, but planned to defend myself in my full response to
your message. When a month and half had passed, I decided not to write such
a full response but that defending myself was still worth the effort.

I sense that you might be under the impression that I wrote the last message
in order, and might still want, to defend my original reading when I thought
you were trying to marginalize me. I did not write the last post to defend
that point, and I am not desirous or even willing to defend it now. I am
open to the possibility that you never meant any such thing, and I do not
especially care. The entire purpose of that post was to defend myself from
what YOU YOURSELF called a direct attack on my character.

(Reading back over it now, it occurs to me that in the quoted bit above you
might not have been talking about my last message, but rather of the one I
wrote a month and a half ago. If this is true, then what I say above does
not apply -- but the form and wording of what you wrote makes it appear more
likely to me that you were, as I thought at first, talking about my last
post. If this isn't so, I apologize for the confusion. In that case, I
haven't read that original post just now, but from what I remember I did not
spend much time focusing on what I thought was an attempt to marginalize
me -- though I would not have called that a personal attack -- and I
certainly doubt that I ignored the meat of your contention since I am in the
practice of responding to your posts virtually line-by-line, greatly to the
burden of everyone's mailbox space. If I answered something insufficiently
in that post, I suspect that it was a result of my own confusion of the

<< I could say this was pretension on your part as well -- the easily
wounded ego is the surest sign of vanity -- and somewhat dishonest, as it
avoids the real topic of discussion to personalize something that's really
irrelevant. >>

I was not being wily or underhanded or dishonest, deviously avoiding the
real topic of discussion. I deliberately and explicitly dropped it. I
regretted to do so, but I did out of some degree of necessity and was quite
forthcoming about it.

I was not personalizing anything. YOU called it an attack on my character.
That's already personal. It was irrelevant, which is why I thought it still
appropriate to drop the rest of the conversation while defending myself
against the one point.

(Again, the above is written on the assumption -- which may be incorrect --
that you're talking about my last post. If that assumption is wrong, my
response in the above parentheses concerning my alleged failure to answer
the "meat" of your contention goes for a response here, as well.)

<< It's amazing how much time and energy you devote to making sure that
*every individual word* spoken to you treats you with the *proper* respect.

This is patently absurd, Jim. It is not conceivable that I spend even 1/4
of the time writing to this list per month that you do, and if you look back
over the last year I'm sure you'll find that what I've written in my own
defense (or insisting upon any sort of respect, or asserting that it was
absent) will be inappreciable in quantity when seen in light of the rest.

<< But it's not worth it to really pursue this, and only _might_ be true. >>

I'm glad that you hedged, but like with so many of your similes, your
language just above makes me doubt the sincerity of the hedge.

You are not right that it might be true. You are right, however, that it's
not worth pursuing.

<< I can see you getting more and more impossible to live with the more
educated you get...I hope that doesn't happen to you. >>

That's touching, Jim. I already know what you think of me (you've been
saying things to the same effect for a very long time), and this sort of
thing becomes gratuitous. Thankfully, you've never lived with me; and
thankfully, the people who have and who do live with me have never indicated
similar sentiments.

What change you've seen in me is not a move toward becoming impossible to
live with, but rather a move toward becoming much less diplomatic with you,
personally. For the purposes of an off-list conversation I was involved in
I recently spent a couple of hours going back through the archives, reading
parts of certain conversations I've been involved with on the list over the
past several years. Among other things, I read parts of arguments you and I
have had where I remember thinking that you said inappropriate things or
were disrespectful of me (and in several cases, of other people) and my
responses to them, and the responses of a few others. One thing that I did
notice was how diplomatic I was with you then, sometimes to such a degree
that it now surprises me, and several times other members of the list said
things in my defense -- in one case in one argument that I found, someone
did so somewhat angrily, commenting on the surprising degree of my diplomacy
and saying mean things about you on my behalf. What has changed since then,
I think, is that I've stopped being diplomatic with you. I have had
recently, I do admit, virtually nothing of diplomacy when talking with you.
Looking back at those old conversations, I came to think that it would
probably be best if I brought to conversations with you something more of
that diplomacy, and I will try to do that; I do not believe that it is just,
however, for me to take quite all of the blame for the recent lack of it.

And I am quite happy to report that, despite the aforementioned change that
has pertained exclusively to my exchanges with you, and despite your
friendly premonition, none of the people I live with report, suggest, or
imply any such difficulties.

<< I'm willing to admit I missed your intent -- my reading theory allows me
to do that. Yours, unfortunately, does not... >>

I humbly assert that this is wholly erroneous. I do, of course, admit the
possibility and even the great frequency of mistaken readings, of bad
interpretations, of readings that miss the intent (even of words that belie
their intent). I can't imagine that I ever said something to the contrary,
and I am certain that I've said things that would be absurd if I believed
what you here attribute to me.

<< I'm debating whether or not I should bother to repeat my argument. The
substance of it tends to get consistently ignored. >>

Regarding the first sentence: You should not. (Of course, you did.)

Regarding the second sentence: Taking this with other inaccuracies you've
said above, I can only surmise that your memory of what I said in the
discussion in question is, understandably, very, very shaky, or that we've
been defining our terms so differently that we've essentially been talking
about different things.

<< I'm going return to a previous question that you never properly answered.
Take this as a sign of my faith in you. I asked, "What do you do with texts
that don't represent these Great Ideas?" You answered, "I enjoy them."

That misses the point of the question within the context of this discussion,
though. You say the presence of great ideas in ancient texts serve as
anchors of meaning, of sorts. They "resonate" with you even today, so you
assume they "resonated" with Homer (for example) in a similar manner, and as
a result, you assume you're getting Homer's intent directly.

Let me rephrase my question, then -- make it a bit clearer: "How do you
determine the meaning of literary texts that don't 'resonate' with great
ideas?" Most texts don't, you know, especially fiction written in the 20th
century. Some are about the mean particulars of everyday life and the
feelings they produce in the protagonist and those around him/her. I don't
see A Great Truth "resonating" from "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes." I
don't feel I need recourse to Great Truths to get what's going on in the
story. >>

As I have already said, I'm not interested in continuing with this
conversation. I don't have the time for it, and after both of us had
repeated ourselves several times and I began to think you were getting nasty
and insulting with me, I came to think that this had become a Bad
Conversation. I remain under that impression.

I didn't want to respond over my break because I was exhausted and enjoying
other things and worried that I'd get pulled back into this to spoil my
vacation. I tried to avoid electrical machines and to spend most of my time
out of doors and with people I care about. I'm now back in school, and of
necessity cannot be pulled back into this. It's now impossible.

I will try here to respond to what you said above, since you went to the
trouble of writing it and I'm already here with a few minutes writing to the
list, but I will try to be somewhat brief. By this I am trying only to
state with some finality where I'm coming from and what I'm given to
believe, succinctly and without inviting argument. You are of course free
to continue believing everything that you currently believe, to continue
believing in whatever position you take on any and all philosophical and
theoretical issues, to continue believing that I am wrong, to continue
believing that my mistakes on the matter are obvious ones and that you're
not the one making them, to continue believing that I am a smart but
pretentious little bastard who is in all important respects your inferior.
It all amounts to very little to me. My goal here is not to change your
mind, and it is no longer even (though it used to be) to try with sincerity
to get at good and true things with you. I am only trying to answer some of
your questions to me, assuage your accusations of my being unfairly
selective in what I've answered or of ignoring important matters, and to say
where I currently am with this stuff; though you can trust that I will
continue to wrestle with them, as honestly as I can, in other more
productive avenues, since there's hardly a thing -- perhaps nothing -- that
I take myself (or anybody) to be absolutely sure of. But I've lost interest
in continuing to wrestle with them here.

Classes begin tomorrow. If you insist upon responding and arguing with what
I say here, there stands a great possibility that I will never respond to
it, for lack of time far more than anything else.

You said (and I quoted already above):
<< You say the presence of great ideas in ancient texts serve as anchors of
meaning, of sorts. They "resonate" with you even today, so you assume they
"resonated" with Homer (for example) in a similar manner, and as a result,
you assume you're getting Homer's intent directly. >>

That is an accurate summary of something that I do believe is true, but it
alone is not sufficient (summaries hardly are). Aspects of, say, a poem of
Homer, do resonate profoundly with me and the very structure of the poem
often highlights, centralizes, elevates, and emphasizes them. It seems
clear that they were in some way important to Homer, too. Then I can read
commentaries and criticism of Homer, written in half a dozen languages in
many countries over 2,500 years, and they overwhelmingly talk about those
same things, consistently saying things about them that I agree with and
discussing the very same "resonances" that I had. I can then read other
poems, ancient and modern, written on clay tablets in Mesopotamia or with
ink in feudal Japan, that have similar histories of commentary and criticism
and that often have different takes on the same manner of things.

This suggests to me -- it does not constitute a rigorous demonstration, I
admit, but it strongly suggests to me -- that it resonates with me in a
fundamentally similar way as it resonates with others from other places.

Beyond this, I as a liberal artist think of myself as just as much a
scientist as a literary critic (although I know in many ways that this is
not strictly true, I strive to make it more true), and as one striving to be
something of a competent scientist I believe that we individuals have more
in common that we have uniquely. I believe that very many of the things
that define us are determined and immutable, intrinsic to the species,
evolutionarily adapted; and even where they are not as determined as having
blue eyes or ten fingers they nevertheless have some very influential seed
in our biology. I also know that there is no indication (and some powerful
evidence to the contrary) that such biology has changed appreciably during
recorded history (or even a very long time prior to recorded history). I
believe that we share enormously with chimpanzees (I enthusiastically
recommend Chimpanzee Politics by Frans de Waal and anything by Desmond
Morris) -- so much more then! that we share with other humans in different
cultures or millennia.

<< Let me rephrase my question, then -- make it a bit clearer: "How do you
determine the meaning of literary texts that don't 'resonate' with great
ideas?" Most texts don't, you know, especially fiction written in the 20th
century. Some are about the mean particulars of everyday life and the
feelings they produce in the protagonist and those around him/her. >>

Literature that fails to speak to the human condition -- and by that I mean
only whatever condition there is that you and I and Shakespeare and Homer
share -- is not very good literature, in my opinion. If it does not seem to
address me, I'm not interested in it; and if it does address me but I expect
that it does so not through a general human condition but by some peculiar
class or culture of mine, I like it, but don't esteem it nearly so highly.

The mean particulars of everyday life for me and a Homeric Achaian could
hardly be more different, but I do expect -- I cannot claim certain or
absolute knowledge, mind you, but do strongly expect -- that the feelings
they produce in us are fundamentally similar. Say what you will about
literary criticism, but on purely scientific and biological grounds, I think
this is a reasonably credible belief.

<< I don't see A Great Truth "resonating" from "Pretty Mouth and Green My
Eyes." I don't feel I need recourse to Great Truths to get what's going on
in the story. >>

But then you said:
<< It worked for me by putting a human face on the one suffering from the
wife's adultery while, at the same time, showing you why she would run away
from him to another man. It represents, it seems, a peculiar emotional
dynamic, but doesn't tell us what to make of it. >>

It sounds like the story showed you some sort of timeless thing (I've said
"truth" for lack of a better word -- I'm not sure that it's even a bad one).
And interestingly, it showed me the same one. And I've discussed this very
story with a friend who grew up in the Middle East and it struck him about
the same way. (I've discussed other books, even modern ones, with an old
friend from Nigeria whom I regrettably have not seen in a long time and an
acquaintance from Uganda who attends my school and I've had similar

You said in another message that the rage whose presence in the Iliad I was
talking about is not a truth, but an emotion. It seems likely that you've
severely misunderstood what I was talking about, but if what you said was
otherwise true then we haven't been talking about a common thing at all.

You said that the Salinger story shows us something, but does not tell us
what to make of it. Yet, it seems to me that it shows us that thing in such
a way that it might, under certain circumstances, change what one thinks
about it. The Iliad does not merely shout the word RAGE: it puts it into a
complex artifice, it depicts it and frames it, it shows us aspects of it and
things about it and challenges us to think about it. I think that good
literature rarely does what you seem to think I'm saying it does -- it
rarely takes a firm stand, boldy and plainly asserts something controversial
and surprising, makes a point that can be stated in a declarative sentence.
If one wanted only to do that, writing an epic poem (or a novel, or a short
story, or. . .) is a bizarre, difficult, and I would venture to say grossly
inefficient if not utterly ineffective way of doing so.

I haven't read "Pretty Mouth" in a rather long time, and since it wasn't my
favorite story in the collection I don't remember the details very well. I
am not confident (even if I could recite every word I would not be entirely
sure) that the story is about the "peculiar emotional dynamic" that you
describe, or anything closely tied to that. But from what I remember, I
suspect that it is. And while, like you, I don't know if that's what
Salinger wanted it to be about, if I'm remembering the story correctly I
expect (DO NOT know, but expect) that it is.

You also said:
<< About Chaos Theory: We're past the 20th century now, Robbie, and that's
the point. Some humanities people are taking a subtle, complex mathematical
idea and, with little to no background in the higher math, are trying to
repeat its insights and apply them to literary texts. >>

Fine. That did not appear to me to be the point when you mentioned it in
your previous post. In your previous post you said that chaos theory --
then qualifying that as at least what you've read of it -- is what one
typically gets when one crosses the sciences with the humanities: a bunch of
junk. You didn't mention its use by "humanities people" or in literary
criticism. Perhaps you had only that, and not all of chaos theory, in mind,
but you didn't specify this. And what I really took issue with was that you
took your negative evaluation of chaos theory and said that it's what one
typically gets when crossing the sciences with the humanities.

I believe that this is a factual statement, and it is false. Again, perhaps
you had more details in your head, and perhaps those details clarify what
you meant and make it perfectly reasonable: but if those details were in
your head, you didn't put them in your post.

You added:
<< This may be another example of me having an opinion based upon my actual
reading and you having an opinion based reading in this
particular topic at all. >>

I don't appreciate the suggestion, and if it's at all reassuring I have very
little doubt that you've neither read nearly as much chaos theory nor had
nearly as much background in higher math as I have. I'm not talking about
whatever literary criticism chaos theory has creeped into (I've actually
read absolutely none of that) -- and you gave no indication that you meant
that either, in your original post about it -- but actual honest-to-gosh

That's it. I'm now off to prepare for tomorrow's classes, and any future
message may or may not ever be responded to. I hope you're not offended.

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Received on Mon Jan 20 00:43:25 2003

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