Wednesday 13 December 2017

Do we need 'grammar' to tell us what 'Where the Wild Things Are' is about?

Literary criticism is like an old footballer facing opponents who are schooled in the latest techniques of fitness and tactics. In my lifetime, it has faced the challenge of many new ways of describing and analysing literature and yet, at heart, it is what it's always been, human beings reading, listening, wondering, reflecting. 

Anyone who's read the last few blogs here, will know that I'm a fan of such disciplines as narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality. I believe that if these schools of theory are broken down into 'trigger questions' that books can be explored in enjoyable ways, which both show how texts are put together but also reveal how the person reading is engaging with that text. Anyone who's been round the houses on this matter over the last 50 years will remember that one challenge the old footballer faced was 'semiology'. Various critics 'discovered' this theory of the sign and believed that some kind of objective route could be found to reveal the final truth about literature. Semiology hasn't disappeared but its challenge to 'lit.crit' seems to have faded. I've argued in an earlier blog, for example, that the categories of 'syntax' and 'paradigm' are useful ways of working 'variation' into writing and that this is what Hollywood does in reworking genres like the Even so, semiology hasn't knocked our old footballer out the game. 

The latest challenge facing lit.crit. is an old one: it's 'grammar'. Ironically, this challenge hasn't come from young critics wielding theory. It's come from the bastion of power, the government, informed by such people as the Tory journalist, Simon Heffer, whose book, 'Strictly English' seems to have delighted Michael Gove. The book resolutely turned its back on anything linguistics had to say about language over the last 50 years, reproduced the 'latinate' model of sentence analysis. This was then translated into a glossary, curriculum guidelines, tests at Key Stage 1 and 2, and, incredibly and absurdly, extended into ways of demanding that children should write. The whole thing was based on the false premise that children's 'grammar' is either 'right or wrong'. 

Where does our old 'lit.crit' come into this? Flushed with success over the introduction of 'grammar' into primary schools, there are clear signals coming from government that they want this carried through into the secondary curriculum. Experienced English teachers and advisers, sensing that this is on the agenda are hoping to outflank this by producing documents and books which adopt more enlightened and nuanced ways of 'using grammar' to critique texts, than the Simon Heffer-Michael Gove model. I fear that the reason for doing this is not because there has been a long discussion by linguists, English teachers and advisers about what are the best and most suitable ways of discussing literature. It is, instead, as I've described it, an attempt to outflank the government, cut them off at the pass by showing that it's possible to do this stuff in a better way. My suggestion, as I've written on my last few blogs here, is that if we take a 'holistic' approach to the exploration of literature, then 'grammar' is only one of many approaches and that the approaches I've described will offer up richer responses than the ones offered by 'grammar'. I would also add that if you read the literary criticism offered by, let's say, the broadsheet newspapers, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, their fascinating and highly readable articles hardly ever refer to 'grammar' as a means of exploring books. It is more often than not as I've described it, the old footballer using the wiles of experience to engage readers. 

One text that has come up for grammatical analysis by the new footballers on the scene is 'Where the Wild Things Are' ('Wild Things')This is a book that is of huge interest to me. I've made radio programmes about it, done what I've called a 'marxist criticism' of it on this blog and used it as an example of a three year old's 'interpretation' many, many times on this blog and elsewhere by way of critiquing the crude 'retrieval and inference' model foisted on primary school teachers for the last ten years or so. 

On this occasion I want to look at one sentence (the one that my then 3-year old son drew my attention to) and give it some close scrutiny, without using 'grammar'. 

(By they way, the reason I keep putting 'grammar' in inverted commas is that the grammar applied by the government is one very narrow, limited, inflexible form, which, I argue, is one of the reasons for it offering so little in helping us explore literary texts. It claims to be a grammar based on structure and function, but my argument is that the 'function' here is merely a function deduced from the supposed logic of sentence and paragraph construction, mostly in 'ideal' circumstances rather than actual usage. Again, I would argue that 'function' needs to be widened to social purpose for 'grammar' to be useful. Otherwise, it keeps returning to being not more than a list of instructions on what should be said and written according to the 'rules' of one usage only: written, formal, continuous prose. I'm writing according to these instructions now, but I'm under no illusion that its reach is highly limited, partly as a consequence that it is this form of language!) 

Back to 'Wild Things'. Our three year old drew my attention to what I call the 'elbow' of the story. This is the moment when the accumulated challenges and dilemmas of the story reach their peak, the main protagonist now has the biggest decisions to make. (These moments are 'intertextual' in that the history of story determines that we, as readers, demand that 'story' mostly delivers up this 'crunch' moment. Hollywood has formulas for them and demand that scriptwriters deliver them at a certain exact time in movies. (If ever you want to shred the mystique of literary criticism then look at film script manuals on how to manipulate writing and audience responses!) 

The 3 year old's pointer to the crux of the story is the moment after the 'rumpus'. You'll remember that Max has tamed the Wild Things and they spend several text-free pages dancing. Those who hope that grammar will reveal all about 'Wild Things' will have some difficulty with the text-free pages. However, according to people like William Moebius, Margaret Meek and others who have suggested that the picture book is a remarkable piece of 'multimodal' literature then the 'relay' between text and picture doesn't stop when there is no text. Indeed, it's part of the 'syntax' of the book as a whole, and a key moment in the way in which the book is often read by parents, carers, teachers and children. The rumpus is often 'rumpussed'! The fear of the Wild Things is dissipated in the rave. Aristotle, who invented a syntax of drama and tragedy, would have things to say about this. 

So, the rumpus comes to an end and the text has the famous line:

'And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.'  

Our 3 year old, had 'used' this book many times for deep study and reflection, hardly making any comments, said one day, in response to this line, 'Mummy!' I've written about this as an example of 'interpretation' not 'retrieval' or 'inference' because it is neither a correct or incorrect response.  The text is very open (I'll come back to this) in how we might respond to its suggestions. There is no 'Mummy' in the text. There is a 'mother' whose sole action at the beginning of the book is to send Max to his room and whose 'experience' is to receive Max's threat to 'eat her up'. There is no internal explanation of reason to think that 'Mummy!' is the 'someone' who would love Max (or the reader) 'best of all'. Repeat: 'there is no internal reason'. In other words, the main way you can arrive at 'Mummy!' as a response is through bringing your own experience to bear. It's not 'textual' or 'grammatical' analysis that reveals this truth to you. By the way, at the end of the story when Max is seemingly rewarded with a plate of hot food, again the text doesn't say who has provided this. It is an 'open' text. It invited the reader to interpret the 'gaps'. It repeatedly uses the device of 'reveal-conceal' in order to invite these interpretations. This is not 'grammatical'. It is a literary device that can be expressed using any number of grammatical methods and yet it is the key way in which we are 'dragged' though a story, wanting to know what happens next.

Back to the line. What is going on in this sentence? Can we ask important questions without necessarily going to 'grammar'? 

'And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.'  

One of the instruments of 'intertextuality' is 'rhetoric' - literary devices which grew up originally as techniques for orators to use in ancient Greece because, it was thought, they had 'effects'. Let's apply rhetoric (not grammar) to the sentence. Max is elevated in the sentence as 'the king of all wild things'. It's a reminder of his status as achieved by his cunning plan to stare at the Wild Things straight in the eyes. It tamed them. Phew! Now the text is reminding us of this achievement. Immediately following this elevation, though, Max is lowered: he is 'lonely'. This is a form of 'bathos', from high to low, (ideally as swiftly as possible). Lovers of 'Macbeth' will remember that the famous gatekeeper scene is often cited as 'bathos' across from scene to scene. This is what's going on here too, from 'King of all wild things' to being a 'lonely' little boy. 

Now, without invoking any particular theory, let's look at the rest of the sentence: 'where someone loved him best of all'. Let's ask ourselves a human question: why does it say 'someone'?  Why doesn't it say, and he 'wanted to go home', or 'he wanted to go back to his mother', or any other formula you could come up with which would be 'specific'? I have no final answer for this other than that our 3 year old's response tells us something. I suspect that Sendak wanted readers to ask themselves 'who is that someone?' He wanted the text to be 'open to interpretation'. He wanted active reading. This kind of active reading also invites readers to think about their own lives. As I've said, the response 'Mummy' is not from the text alone. It comes from our three year old's life. It is him saying, 'If I was Max, I would miss my Mummy'. The text doesn't say that though. He does the intellectual work to get to that. 

Another advantage of saying 'someone' is that invites readers to not just think of a specific 'someone' but also of the general feeling of wanting to be loved 'best of all'. It opens the text out to the general. I notice that online, where this line sits amongst 'great lines' from books, someone has added, 'don't we all!' By saying 'someone', Sendak opens up the possibility that this book is not just about Max but has general significance about such things as 'anger', what we now call 'anger management' (!) and resolution. The suggestion here is that there is a loneliness that needs, (demands?) love from 'someone' to help us arrive at a resolution. The book, then, might also apply to us as adults? Possibly. 

What I've done here, then, is not look at the sentence grammatically. I've applied 'rhetoric' (one kind of 'intertextuality'), 'reader-response' by listening to our 3-year old, text-syntax (in my talk about an 'elbow' - again triggered by our 3-year old) and a general speculation about the word 'someone' and what it might reveal. I should add here that again, the 'someone' is part of that literary technique (also 'intertextual') of 'reveal-conceal'. Even as it declared a new idea in the plot (Max wanting to be loved), it 'concealed' who this might be. We might find ourselves wondering, will he find someone who will love him best of all? We turn the page to find out.

I've also drawn attention (through 'narratology') to the way in which texts show how people think. They do this in very different ways. On this occasion the narrator tells us through the word 'want'. '...wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.' 

But there's something odd here, isn't there? If this part of the sentence is telling us 'what Max was thinking' then it's highly unlikely he just wanted to be where a 'someone'  loved him best of all, isn't it? Wouldn't he have wanted to be with a particular person? Or perhaps not? Perhaps all he did want was a general, inchoate sense of wanting to be loved. Is the text saying, 'anyone would do'? All he wanted was a great big chunk of personalised love? Or is this the narrator/author saying that what we (humans, not just Max) need and want, is for anyone, saying to us, 'you're the 'one'  I love'? This is a highly particular and ideological view of how we as humans operate. That is that our means of emotional and psychic survival depends on the specific love of one person. Ironically, the vehicle for this world view is the general word 'someone'! As I say, 'anyone will do'. 

Sendak was informed by Freudian analysis. The book is a playing out of the story of how the 'ego' can conquer the 'id', but in so doing sets up a crisis. (The elbow of the book in this line.) The Freudian model of need is very personalised focussing on the prime relationships of boys with mothers and girls with fathers. It suggests that the rest of life is determined by this 'prime' relationship and how it played out in our lives when we are under five. 

This one sentence reveals how Sendak used Freudian theory and it gave him 'someone' rather than 'go home' or 'go back to his Mother' so that he can open up our response to this highly ideological view that we all need one person to love us 'best of all'. (I'm not saying here whether this is right, wrong, or any other value judgement). The text at the very least asks us to think about whether that is what I, you, he, she, we (any of these) really do want or need.