Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather and The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

I group these two novels together because neither really needs much of an introduction nor much of a recommendation from me. They are both truly masterful novels—extremely compelling storytelling, vividly memorable characters, exceedingly deft at creating themes out of plot.

Yet a more important reason for me to group them is that in both books I found myself reading something very significant into the book that was, I acknowledge, not very well supported by the text, but from which I drew a great deal more enjoyment than a "straight" reading would, I think, have afforded me. These revisionary readings drew me much deeper into the book and made these novels significantly more meaningful to me as reading experiences. Still, there is a trace of doubt that the revisionary manner in which I read them doesn't in some way prevent me from reading them as the texts they "are," that heavily revising them according to my caprices makes available to me not the text, but my own interests.

My question here and my qualms are less about the intellectual validity of reading things into the text that aren't manifestly there than it is about the communicative value of doing so. Am I, in other words, talking to you about the texts, or about myself?

Let me be more concrete. Death Comes for the Archbishop, to me, was an achingly beautiful love story about two men, Bishop LaTour and his vicar Father Vaillant. Yes, I know I'm not the first person to read it this way, and yes, I could cite many passages that don't really require much strain to read them as evidence of this love, and yes, I know that Cather is often assumed to have been queer herself. I think it's completely, 100% intellectually valid to read the novel as a very queer love story. But I also know that the novel doesn't make this reading necessary, and that arguing someone into a queer reading might be a self-defeating proposition: you haven't given them the experience of reading the novel this way, just the idea that it can be read this way. And I think being able to share the experience of reading a novel is sometimes much more important than being able to convince someone that your idea of a novel is possible or valid.

The Color Purple doesn't have that kind of ambiguity about sexuality; the attraction of Celie to Shug is something you'd have to read around, rather than read into. The revision that I made in reading it, however, was more about a persistent intertextual link that I can't really argue is definitely, obviously there, but that I thought made the novel much more interesting.

Doing a little searching for "Samuel Richardson Pamela The Color Purple," there are a handful of other people who have seen this link too, but I read it as being much stronger than I think they allow. I thought about writing a blog post about how The Color Purple is, effectively, a revision of Pamela (Walker's novel could also be subtitled "Or Virtue Rewarded;" like Squire Mr. B, Mr. _____'s surname is emended out of the text; there is at times a comical and unlikely immediateness to the epistolary format of the book, as the need to give the events dramatic weight runs up against the relative cool of the letter form; &c.), but in a sense the post would just be a "hmm… interesting," an intellectual ship passing in the Internet night. What I really want to share was what it was like to read The Color Purple in this manner, and I guess I have some doubts that the specificity of that experience doesn't preempt or preclude such an attempt from being completed satisfactorily. That is, I'm not sure how I can share my experience without it turning into an attempt to convince you that the idea behind the experience is possible or valid.

A novel is a system of signs which can be read in specific (and non-exclusive) ways, but it is also an experience, and while I think that some experiences have better ideas behind them than others, I also think that we often mistake arguing about our ideas for sharing our experiences. And while I'm leery of treating experiences of novels as a realm that doesn't require justification or argument—just sharing!—I also think that we are sorely under-equipped in terms of talking about novels in ways that do not reduce to arguments about the ideas which make our experiences possible.

Basically, it feels kind of weird and a little facile just to say, "reading Death Comes for the Archbishop as a gay love story enriched my experience of the book" or "The Color Purple came alive for me once I started reading it as a revision of Pamela," but that's because I'm so used to going immediately into page-and-paragraph citations of why these readings might be intellectually permissible. Sharing in this manner feels a little shallow, and I wish it didn't.


Bianca Steele said...

I'm not sure how I can share my experience without it turning into an attempt to convince you that the idea behind the experience is possible or valid.

Wow! I've never seen that put so baldly before. What kind of thinking would I be doing if I started out by assuming your idea, much less your experience, was invalid? It would just be rude for me even to think that way.

Seriously, people share all the time, Andrew. There's not some deep subtext to it. We're talking about reading a novel, one of the most open-ended experiences there can be. Of course, if you're talking as a grad student rather than a reader, that's another story altogether.

Andrew Seal said...

"people share all the time"

Well, people share anodyne evaluations and assessments of books all the time, sure, but I'm not exactly talking about "I liked this book because I found the characters interesting" or "this book made me laugh." I think there is something slightly more difficult about sharing a more complex, structured reading of a novel without turning that attempt to share into an attempt to convince or persuade.

Bianca Steele said...

What you describe here is a need to explain and describe, not to "convince or persuade" (and I'd forgotten the abject horror English departments inculcate towards those two). It seems implausible that your readers are unfamiliar with the idea that one novel can be a rereading of another, much less that they are actively hostile to an idea so esoteric.

Andrew Seal said...

I'm not saying that intertextuality is an esoteric concept, but rather that my experience of enjoyment through this particular intertextual link is not only very subjective but also fairly tenuous and as such not one that I can expect to be widely held. I liked a lot of things about the book which I imagine many others did too, but for me this particular facet really made the book for me. That experience is not so much esoteric as just idiosyncratic, and I offered it as such.

I don't know where you're getting this idea about holding convincing and persuading in abject horror; I'm not arguing that those activities have no merit--if I did, I'd pretty much have to delete my blog. I think convincing and persuading others that your reading has value is a necessary and properly ineradicable part of reading. But I also think that there is a gap between arguing "this novel has this idea/theme/argument in it" and offering "this theme/idea/argument made the novel richer for me." I think that quite often those two activities collapse into one another, and I wonder if that's because there just isn't the vocabulary for the second activity when it's carried out on a more complex level than "this novel was funny."

Bianca Steele said...

Okay, I think I might see what you're trying to say now. You have a point. "Richer" is, almost, a technical term, in a way that "funny" is not, and there should be a way to defend its application. Otherwise, I now see I misunderstood you entirely, so I won't comment further.

D. G. Myers said...

Lengthy reply is here.

Andrew Seal said...

You can keep your bait. I'm done arguing with you for entertainment's sake. If I thought you ever might countenance a view that you haven't already accepted, I'd make an effort.

D. G. Myers said...

Mr Seal,

Is it true that my admittedly disagreeable personality absolves you of the intellectual responsibility to defend your views? My answer is here.