“The poem, if it be a true poem, is a simulacrum of reality…an experience rather than any mere statement about experience or any mere abstraction from experience”
That’s a quote from his chapter on “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” in The Well Wrought Urn in which Brooks puts forward an idea of art as a thing which has to be actively experienced. He’s working to combat the sense that criticism’s job is just to reduce a work of art to its meaning, its essential core, the kind of reading where Heart of Darkness becomes Racism, Moby Dick becomes Obsession, and The Scarlet Letter becomes Puritanical Prudery. Repeat ad infinitum.
I’m switching from poetry to novels, here, for no better reason that because I’m a novel kind of guy. But I think the point remains: the problem with reducing a massively complex novel to a few words, Brooks might suggest, isn’t simply the scale of complexity that’s being lost, but the experiential structure of both its composition and the active way we render that complexity meaningful. However much there might be a kernel of truth to each of those one-word summaries, they erase something vital about the works they purport to describe, and less because they summarize badly than because they summarize at all, thereby misplacing the thing that’s important about the aesthetic object, which, as Brooks, might say is not what we abstract from or paraphrase a poem, but how we experience it. Here’s how he does say it, in fact:
The essential structure of a poem (as distinguished from the rational or logical structure of the ‘statement’ which we abstract from it) resembles that of architecture or painting: it is a pattern of resolved stresses. Or, to move closer still to poetry by considering the temporal arts, the structure of a poem resembles that of a ballet or musical composition. It is a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme.
It’s interesting how close this comes to the definition my friend Dan offered for a sense of video games as Art (though he admitted to being uninterested in actually making that claim). As he quite nicely suggested, we could put video games
“…in roughly the same category as sculptures that are about modifying the space of display and conceptual pieces that expose or distort the ecology of spectatorship. The core artistry in game-design lies in building complex interactions out of relatively simple rules and behaviors, in establishing spaces that carry some kind of genre-specific decorum. When they are a vehicle for narrative, the story itself becomes secondary to the way that it conditions the gameplay.”
They’re not quite the same, of course; being the kind of critic he was, Brooks was interested in one particular form of poetry — harmony and balance being key terms — while Dan, being a Melville and media guy, seems more interested in the kinds of video games and sculpture that work to make easy distinctions like text-and-reader or game-and-player more and more difficult to sustain. Just as sculpture is something you experience in space, the kinds of video games he was talking about insert you into the space they produce, producing an experience, perhaps, not completely dissimilar from what Marina Abramovic was doing with her “Imponderabilia”.
Anyway, I’m saying all of this to call attention to the tension that I think we find, in all of this, between, on the one hand, the idea that an art form’s reality is its experience (and, thus, a thing irreducible and resistant to paraphrase, or maybe even commentary) and, on the other, the idea that art requires or benefits from some kind of discursive supplement, whether that be explanation, criticism, or interpretation. A video game is something you play, in a way that makes video-game commentary seem sort of stupid or perverse (though also oddly fascinating; watch some Starcraft 2 youtube videos to see what I mean). At the same time, if you think of a movie as an immersive experience, it starts to make sense why we would talk about “spoiler alerts” in the way we do (while “spoiling” a novel or poem seems, to me, sort of counterintuitive); as Nate Freeman nicely describes, we understand, on some level, that talking about a movie ruins something central and important about the experience. Which, of course, tempts me to irresponsibly speculate that part of Ebert’s stake in this debate might be that it’s a version of a debate within cinema-discourse that sort of strikes at the heart of what he more or less defines himself by doing: if we were to privilege the immersive and unmediated experience of a movie — rather than the kind of experience one has when the canon of film history is seen as a necessary contextualizing frame — then what need do we have for film critics?
I’ll resist that temptation, though; Ebert’s tendency to note that he’s seen a lot more films than you have is actually pretty muted compared to his more general attitude of it’s-good-if-you-like-it. And I’m less interested in Ebert and his argument anyway than in the kinds of questions the example helps us think about. Which brings me to the thing I started writing this post thinking about, the kind of film criticism that proceeds not by consuming, digesting, and re-processing but by replicating, in real time, the experience of the viewing itself. I’m thinking, for example, of Jezebel’s live-tweeting of Sex and the City 2, or, to put it even more broadly, a review composed like Millicent reading The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Subabat’s series of tweets about Inception:
I’m not sure what to say about Inception. Great visuals. Nice gravity-less fighting scene. Cillian Murphy troubled, pouty, and wet.
Ellen Page with three facial expressions: stunned, concerned, stunned concern. All appear the same.
The premise is disturbingly rudimentary and clinical in its conception of dreams and memories vis a vis reality. And!
The only subconscious worth exploring was the tortured subconscious of a male. The ideal woman is quite naturally beautiful and dead.
Also, being dead, she is a blank slate of loveliness; tortured male can thereby project EVERY DAMN FUCKING THING onto her. Excellent.
I find something really attractive about the way a particular critical burden is quite pointedly not being taken up here, the way these responses to the movie don’t try to contain, within themselves, the movie itself. Traditional criticism, after all, often has a problem of voice; too much of the critic’s own voice and you feel like you’re getting Ebert rather than the movie (which, with some critics, is what you want), but too much of the movie and you feel like you‘re just reading a synopsis, or being “spoiled.” In contrast, each of these three twitter and twitter-esque responses to the experience of watching those films outlines a kind of framework of questioning without imposing it on you; to the extent that they are simply subjective, the opposite of authoritative claims to objective analysis, they offer an approach into the film that is simply available if you need it, something much more like tools for experiencing. They produce certain blinders too, of course. But by refusing to paraphrase the actual movie itself, there’s an interesting way in which they manage to retain (and reinforce) the experience as the central thing.