Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen."

Directed by Neil Burger
(Image from Wikipedia)

Stanley Kauffmann, longtime film critic for The New Republic, made an interesting point in his recent, very positive review of The Illusionist (which I've not seen but would like to):

The people who made The Illusionist presumably did not set out to jog contemporary judgment, but in a very pleasant way they have done it. For several centuries a prime critical criterion has been appraisal of a work's theme. Narrative or drama might be sound enough as such; but, we asked, what was the work's underlying theme?

Certainly that criterion still opens the most deeply rewarding aspects of many works, but The Illusionist reminds us that it is not always essential--that a good story, without much thematic resonance, can be enough. Legend tells us that when the crowd gathered at the New York dock in 1840 to greet the ship bringing the next magazine installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, they didn't call to the crew, "Is the theme developing?" They called, "Is Little Nell dead?" The Illusionist has been made for the crowd on that dock, of whom in this case I am one.

So ... is Kauffmann correct? Is it true "that a good story, without much thematic resonance, can be enough"?

I tell a lot of stories on this blog, some of them personal, but because I call myself Gypsy Scholar, I feel called to make the stories more than just stories. I don't like to do so in an annoyingly obtrusive manner, which would ruin the story, but I try to work into a story some way of making a point ... such as in the title.

For instance, to the story that I told of myself and my father, I provided the title "Self-Reliance" and also made my anecdote a story about my son and my expectations for him, which I illustrated by bringing in a quote from Emerson's essay on self-reliance.

In short, I made a point.

Would the point have been made by the story alone? Let's see:

[When I was o]nly five years old, I was playing barefoot outside with other boys while my father stood talking to some neighbors who were laying concrete for their patio. A dump truck parked in their driveway contained sand for the cement mix, and as the day grew progressively hotter with the sun climbing ever higher in the sky, heating the streets, the sidewalks, the driveway, the ground, and the sand in the dump truck where I happened to be playing, the soles of my feet started to burn.

I climbed down from the truck, burning my feet even more on its hot metal, and ran to my father, asking him to pick me up. He refused.

"But my feet are burning," I told him, hopping first on one foot and then on the other.

"Go home, put some shoes on," he retorted, not offering to help.

I went, running alone from shade to shade, until I reached our empty house, where I rinsed my feet with cold water to quench the fire...

Now, this might have stood alone, but I'm not sure that its point would have been made. In fact, I think that people would have wondered why I chose to tell such a story. The anecdote needs at least a title to guide the reader. Hence "Self-Reliance." People might still have wondered if the story was meant to allude to my father's intention or to my learned lesson. Not that this would have been bad, but the story could be made better, which I achieved, I think, by seguing into a story about myself and my own son, to whom I also want to teach the value of self-reliance.

The connection, of course, is not pure artifice, for my own son's feet were getting hot -- which occasioned my carrying him and telling him the above story.

That segued into a further anecdote, of how I fell silent but later spoke, which allowed me to make the story make my point:

"Ironically," I remarked [to my wife] after we had discussed my father, "his refusal to help me did have the effect that he wanted, in part. It toughened me up and made me more self-reliant ... but it left him without much positive influence on me. I wouldn't recommend his approach."

The theme becomes naturally expressed in the story's artifice.

But it doesn't end there, for I add:

My son can become self-reliant when he's grown old enough to understand what self-reliance truly means, namely, when he's old enough to read and understand Emerson: "Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet."

Although this remark is extrinsic to the story's narrative, I think that it flows naturally enough from the events to feel like part of the story. But what really makes it fit is my concluding remark:

Even if the ground does get a bit hot sometimes...

This line, which one might take as just a bit of verbal wit, achieves more than merely that because it not only follows from Emerson's remark about a man keeping things under his feet but also resonates with the broader theme of self-reliance, through which the story of the little boy's hot feet is not just about one experience of one little boy, though it is at least, concretely that.

But still, is Kauffmann correct to maintain "that a good story, without much thematic resonance, can be enough"?

Thematic resonance can invite overanalysis that ruins the story ... and maybe I've done that above. Kauffmann might think so, for he sounds concerned about such a possibility in his review of The Illusionist:

Much is being said about this picture's thematic investigation of credulity, of the exercise of power. These comments seem to me possibly tolerable but superfluous. What Burger and his colleagues have done is to entrance us with a richly acted, beautifully produced story.
Kauffmann's expression "possibly tolerable" hints at the danger. But it also acknowledges that thematic resonances are there in the story and possibly enrich it even if one shouldn't notice, or say, too much:
Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.
Perhaps, then, like Wittgenstein in his seventh proposition, or even the Elohist on his seventh day, I should simply fall silent...



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