Shall I compare thee...? ~ theatre notes

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Shall I compare thee...?

Sunday afternoon, and back from a pleasant amble in the sunshine with the mutt before heading to an early session of The Hayloft Project's Chekhov Recut: Platonov. Of which more in due course. However, during my wanderings I found myself musing, in Coleridgean fashion*, on some recent arguments on - or even off - this blog, and this led me to pondering some occasions where people have taken exception to comparisons I have made. I am always happy if people argue with me - if they are arguing with what I say rather than traducing my character, that is - but it occurred to me that some of these arguments might stem from a misunderstanding.

Comparison may be odious, but if you're a critic, it is also inevitable. Just as no man is entire of itself, neither is any work: it is part of the complex ecology of culture. One of the things I seek to do here is to sketch a map of relationship, with which I might speculatively trace the genealogy and context of a work. And a misunderstanding might follow from mistaking this kind of comparison for a qualitative rather than a descriptive claim. Of course, it may be both; but usually I am primarily attempting to be descriptive.

One example: I got some friendly schtick recently when I compared a short film to Tarkovsky, Malick and Herzog. Put baldly like that, it might seem over the top. But I actually said: "It's not hyperbole to say that this genuinely poetic film recalls Werner Herzog (it bears affinities with Aguirre: The Wrath of God, but lacks Herzog's Eurocentric shonkiness), or that in its poetic rhythms, particularly in how it makes landscape a character in the film, it has qualities you see in the work of Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick." After the poking, I read over my comments carefully, wondering if I had been having one of those "best actor of his generation" moments (yes, such statements make me blush in retrospect, however richly deserved they might be) and I remained unswayed. The film does bear affinities with Aguirre, and it does have those qualities. And that is what I meant.

Still, very few people will read with the same care as the anxious writer. I remember, chastened, the colleague who taxed me with the claim that I had said TS Eliot was a "minor poet". This was such a complete misreading of a complex and carefully qualified argument that I could only blink: where does one begin? Is it worth chastising myself if I lapse into windy generalisation or unsupported claim-staking, if nobody notices the difference when I don't? The answer goes both ways: if I wish only to avoid public censure, then of course it isn't worth it. But in the end, I guess I have to earn my own respect as well.

* Many a man, who has contrived to hide his ruling passion or predominant defect from himself, will betray the same to dispassionate observers, by his proneness on all occasions to suspect or accuse others of it. ...As long therefore as I obtrude no unsupported assertions on my Readers; and as long as I state my opinions and the evidence which induced or compelled me to adopt them, with calmness and that diffidence in myself, which is by no means incompatible with a firm belief in the justness of the opinions themselves; while I attack no man's private life from any cause, and detract from no man's honors in his public character, from the truth of his doctrines, or the merits of his compositions, without detailing all my reasons and resting the result solely on the arguments adduced; while I moreover explain fully the motives of duty, which influenced me in resolving to institute such investigation; while I confine all asperity of censure, and all expressions of contempt, to gross violations of truth, honor, and decency, to the base corruptor and the detected slanderer; while I write on no subject, which I have not studied with my best attention, on no subject which my education and acquirements have incompacitated me from properly understanding; and above all while I approve myself, alike in praise and in blame, in close reasoning and in impassioned declamation, a steady FRIEND to the two best and surest friends of all men, TRUTH and HONESTY; I will not fear an accusation of either Presumption or Arrogance from the good and the wise, I shall pity it from the weak, and welcome it from the wicked.

- from The Friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Chris Boyd said...

I do love it when little Miss Alison comes over all "butter wouldn't melt in my mouth"!! But sometimes, m'dear, while you're telling the world how much like butter this new margarine is, you (willfully!) fail to acknowledge that you're cookin' with ghee. And the difference is what makes it interesting, not the similarity.

Failing to notice that the yellow goo it's not spread-for-bread at all smacks of, well, ideology. You're imposing a taxonomy not distilling one from what's in front of you.

Alison Croggon said...

Are you not reading me again, Chris? I'm quoting Coleridge as a war banner!!! How is that butterish or prim or coy or whatever I'm supposed to be being?

And - ideology? Ploise exploin. What do you mean by ideology here? A constellation of ideational references, as Robert Musil defines it? In that case, guilty as charged. A narrow and rigid grid of preconceived ideas jammed over all my perceptions? I absolutely reject that. Otherwise, I wave my hand towards Coleridge again: the Man says it all very well.