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Parabolic Criticism

I was also, to be perfectly honest, metaphorically (I cannot stress this enough?I am not speaking of literal actions here!) dancing naked on the table. It was a goofy performance calculated to evoke laughter first and perhaps as an added bonus ?at no extra charge!?elicit some thoughtful comments. I have not continued the explication partly because I do want to take this idea seriously, and I had to think about it more. Making up a superhero is, by comparison, rather easy. So, although I will probably fly off in linguistic ecstasies from time to time and say something very strange, I do want to present, for the first time ever in cyberspace or anywhere else, my thoughts on literary criticism.

I think that I made it clear in one of my posts on Snow White that the existing modes of literary criticism work fine, and I do have to say that I was rather proud of that off-the-cuff interpretation of Snow White and the apple that I attributed to Heureux-Pantalons. That type of literary criticism does reveal something interesting and unusual about the story, and it does allow us to enter the narrative from a different point, or think about it in a new way. The problem, as I see it, is the game is rigged. There is the expectation that lit crit must first pay homage to those who have gone before (footnotes, reviews of lit, etc.) before saying something slightly new. Thus we have a criticism of increments?we must repave the road behind us before we can even look at the direction the road is possibly going.

The other problem with some (but certainly not all) lit crit is that it is deadly cold. Where is the passion? In grad school I once wrote a paper about Whitman and I got a little too enthusiastic about my reading; the prof promptly cut me down and made me see that there is no place for (gasp!) enthusiasm or (god forbid!) passion or (heavens help us!) excitement in our calm, clear, rational approaches to literary studies. I blame this on a deeply hidden inferiority complex that the humanities have in relation to the other side of campus where the ?hard? sciences work their magic?humanities studies must emphasize the rigidly, coldly logical or they will look ?soft,? ?weak,? ?effeminate,? or worse. Because the passionate response to literature is the only real reason to read (go ahead and disagree with me if you must), the responses must be personal.

In my American lit class, I teach excerpts from Benjamin Franklin?s autobiography, and the students respond to it surprisingly well. I like his ridiculous but apparently heartfelt optimism and even his narcissism. In his self-improvement plan, he determines to make himself more humble by, as he puts it, imitating Socrates and Jesus. That just kills me. ?I am going to be more humble. Notice how I am acting like Jesus.? Humble! I mean, it really kills me, I?m laughing so hard. But anyway. I will follow Ben?s advice for a moment and begin my explanation of my new critical stance with a parable.

You go out into a field at dusk. It is not a baseball field or a football field or any other sort of formal field. It might be a large open area in a park or a meadow or the hilltop where the farmer grows hay for winter forage. The field is surrounded by tall trees but they are in the distance. You stand with your back to the setting sun and you can see your shadow stretch out so far it almost looks like it might touch the trees at the far end of the field. The grasses at your feet are glowing gold and pink in the fading sunlight. Off to the left a swallow flits, snapping up the last of the day?s mosquitoes. There are a few wispy clouds in the sky, but it is mostly clear, and you can see the ghost of a moon rising ahead of you. The dark craters of the moon show as blue-gray shadows, and the cool scent of the moist grass rising to your nose makes you think that the moon should smell like damp earth and clover. In your hand (left or right) you hold a ball. What kind of ball? Perhaps a softball, maybe a baseball. If it is a tennis ball, it is an old one, scuffed white, from the long ago days before manufacturers made them in day-glo colors. Your dog sits tensely, a perfect picture of potential energy waiting urgently to be transformed into kinetic energy. His ears perk up attentively and his eyes focus relentlessly on the ball in your hand. You take a deep breath and pull your arm back to make the throw, and the dog takes off in an explosion of hot slobber and flying fur. Twigs and clumps of grass leap from his feet as he runs toward the moon, but you do not notice this?you are focused on the ball in your hand. You spin your arm in a perfect arc, releasing the ball to the air, where it soars up and seems to hang, suspended for an incredible moment of stopped time next to the moon before it plummets to the waiting, drooling jaws below. As the ball made its arc, you noticed that the ball and the moon, for that one infinitesimal but frozen moment, appeared the same size, and the sun?s dying rays played the same light and shadow on each orb.

Now let us explicate. Nearly everything in my parable is symbolic, which is what makes it a parable instead of a vignette. The field you are standing in, the trees in the distance, the contours of the land, the pattern of the grasses and flowers all combine to represent the work of literature you are reading. You are going to play in the poem or story. Your dog is the unbridled energy and enthusiasm you bring to your work. The sun is the light of knowledge at your back that allows you to see well enough to play your game. The ball is your interpretation. And the moon? The moon is that mysterious Platonic ideal of meaning. When you throw the ball up, it reaches for that ideal (which must by its very nature be unattainable) and for that single moment resembles it exactly.

There is more to this, though. When you throw the ball, it describes a perfect parabola in the air, a mathematically precise curve that can be easily predicted with a simple formula. That precision is the language you use to write?if you write truly, your language will have that perfectly graceful arc, and if you write falsely, it will slice erratically into the bushes, where you will have to spend the rest of the waning daylight looking for it. But notice something else about that parabola: it starts and ends at ground level. Before it can take its flights of imagination and dreams of ideal perfection, it must start with you. Your life, your energy, your motion has sent this object into its flight.

This is my way of saying that Parabolic Criticism is grounded in that field that is both the literary work and your experience. In practical terms, this means that you can enter that essay. If the book made you cry, then you not only can say that in your essay, you must. It is utterly false if you do not. It is a lie. Tear into it. Roll in the grass and dirt of that field. Scream at the top of your lungs if that is what the story or the poem made you feel like doing. Reading is not separate from life, something meant to be put up in a collector?s jar where it will gather dust and turn itself to dust. Reading is vital and bloody and hot and insane with energy, and your approach to interpreting it should be as well.

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