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Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Tragedy: A Mythic Hermeneutic

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The last of my Arts Degree essays. This is not so much about Greek tragedy as about all of ancient Greek culture reflected in what it is not. It is a fitting conclusion to my myth theoretic work over the last few years.

What can the history of world mythology tell us about the meaning of death for the ancient Greeks as represented in tragedies featuring human sacrifice?

greek-tragedy-chorusWhile the ancient Greeks are not believed to have practiced human sacrifice,[1] it features in a number of their tragedies from   the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. This raises the question as to the meaning of human sacrifice for the ancient Greeks, its function in dramatic performance, and what it demonstrates about the ancient Greek view of death. While death is always considered a grave and serious issue, a distinct feature of the representation of human sacrifice in ancient Greek tragedy is its overall ambiguity: sacrifice is never wholeheartedly advocated nor fully condemned, is neither entirely good nor bad. I argue that this is like much else in Greek myth and tragedy, but that this level of ambiguity is relatively unique for a post-Neolithic civilisation at this time, which may reveal something about the ancient Greek ethos, particularly regarding religious experience.

There are a number of elements common to most of the extant tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles featuring human sacrifice. The call for human sacrifice usually comes from the gods, whether through an oracle, sage, prophecy or request from the dead.[2] The victim is always a young unmarried[3] person, usually a female virgin. The prospect of human sacrifice always evokes horror, pity, sadness and aggressive protest from the victim, his or her family, and/or the observing chorus. A more elderly relative often pleads to be substituted (Euripides, Hecuba 386-90; Euripides, Children of Heracles 453-67; Euripides, Phoenician Women 967-71),[4] to no avail. In most cases,[5] after much pathos, the victim courageously comes to accept his or her sacrifice[6] for the sake of the greater social good – to ensure a victory in war and/or to uphold the family name.[7] An easy way to escape is offered (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1426-30; Euripides, Children of Heracles 540-3; Euripides, Phoenician Women 970-4), which the victim always refuses, with an explicit (Euripides, Children of Heracles 588-9) or implied[8] exoneration of responsibility for the executioners. As is usual for ancient Greek tragedy,[9] the victim is killed offstage, usually with a messenger figure reporting the event.

It is undeniable that these are common elements in the plays. However, their meaning and interpretation among scholars has varied considerably, so much so that there is virtually no consensus as to what sacrificial death means for the ancient Greeks, as represented by the plays. Consider, for example, the most common interpretations and contrary opinions: Scodel argues that human sacrifice is presented as morally evil, cruel, and impious[10] – characters always protest against it; it is never presented comically – while Rabinowitz claims that the ancient playwrights romanticise victimisation and eroticise sacrifice[11] – victims are referred to as youthful beauties, executed in a public way, often for apparently noble causes. Sacrifice is chosen as subject apparently to reinforce the status quo,[12] to advocate the self-sacrifice of the hoplite soldier fighting in the Peloponnesian War,[13] and/or as an outlet for internalised violence.[14] These differing viewpoints are all effected by (a) the interpreter’s exclusive focus upon positive or negative aspects of sacrifice as presented in the plays (more on this later), and (b) the degree to which textual evidence is seen as reflecting (even promulgating) social, cultural, religious, broader historical, or human psychological norms (i.e. the degree to which the text is ‘read into’). Since my interest is in how the presentation of human sacrifice reflects the ancient Greek cultural perspective of death, we must first pause here to consider how the ancient Greeks might have reacted to and interpreted tragedy themselves.

masksThe plays are not obviously primarily political speeches (like those of Lycurgus), nor are they histories (like the work of Herodotus). The fact that the Greeks did not, as far as we know, perform human sacrifice alerts us to the fictional (or at least mythological) nature of tragedy – not only human sacrifice but long-dead, legendary/mythological persons, supernatural events, and gods were portrayed in the theatre by actors wearing stylised masks during a religious festival.[15] Hence we must consider the plays, particularly regarding human sacrifice, as myth. In this regard, as per Rudolf Otto, Joseph Campbell and others,[16] we can expect mythology to primarily promulgate a numinous emotionality, and as per Clifford Geertz,[17] reflect and support a cultural ethos related to and vitiated by the worldview presented in myth.

But while religion reflects the highest, most primary source of meaning, particularly in ancient societies, the peculiar language and dialectic of myth has its own hermeneutic difficulties. The interpretation of a non-mythological source, such as a legal document, is relatively straightforward; provided there are no concerns about sincerity or authenticity, words can be taken at face value, and compared with and/or generalised into contemporary cultural norms, customs and beliefs. Mythological material cannot be reliably extrapolated and generalised into historical data in the same way. Herein lies the value of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’.[18] The revelation in relation to Campbell’s exposition of the more-or-less universal ‘stages of myth’ – such as ‘the call to adventure’, ‘the road of trials’, ‘apotheosis with the father’, etc. – lies not in the fundamental sameness and therefore hermeneutic equivalence of all mythologies worldwide, but in their differences: the divergences, omissions, transformations, and unique realisations of the mythological stages in each particular cultural nexus.[19] In other words, Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ can be used as the yardstick, with the cultural ethos revealed in the manner in which a particular culture arranges and realises the stages, or how a particular element loses or gains value by its position within the schema.

Sadly, the history of human sacrifice as a motif in myth is sketchy but, according to Campbell and others, it seems to make its appearance in early sedentary agricultural village cultures, generally on a ‘complex hunter-gatherer’[20] or Neolithic level of human society, apparently extending into early prehistoric ‘Bronze Age’ societies.[21] The apparent religious attitude accompanying human sacrifice, as attested by our scant sources,[22] is not primarily aggressive, but ecstatic or ascetic; sacrifice appears as a voluntary act of the mythic hero, committed as a means of identification (‘becoming one’) with a god or transcendent principle.[23] Campbell has postulated that cultures to the east of modern-day Iran exhibit more features of this Neolithic sacrificial mythic worldview than those to the west.[24] The ideas of ascetic self-denial or ecstatic absorption in a ritual-religious role are fundamental religious principles of eastern myth.[25] For example, the Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist schools of India all encourage the individual to realise a state of ‘no-self’ or ‘annihilation’,[26] and the Confusion, Daoist, and Shinto religions of China and Japan advocate an absorption in a social-natural order.[27] As a result, myths of the east frequently present human sacrifice as an ascetic or ecstatic calling – death is fundamentally an escape from a sorrowful or deceitful world or a mere playful illusion (cf. reincarnation).[28]

In opposition to this, in mythologies to the west of Iran, the self is not denied; instead, “[it] is … treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics.”[29] One does not ‘deny ego’; one develops it.[30] Campbell has observed that this emphasis on individuality has separated god from man in western myth; connection to the deity is one of relationship, rather than identity, hence human sacrifice is frowned upon, and other forms of relationship to the deity are established.[31] Add to this a further division: in the Near East, god is generally more righteous than man; he is a mighty warrior god with moralistic concerns.[32] Relationship is established via a warrior code, a covenant, sacrament, or koran; Job submits to God with the words: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 46:6).[33] Whereas in ancient Greece, god and man are separate but more equally matched. Humans may coerce other humans, even other gods, to oppose the will of Zeus; “I care less than nothing for Zeus,” cries Prometheus. “Let him do what he likes” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 937).[34] These differing relationships with god may also reflect the respective political systems: autocratic rule, mandated by god (Yahweh, Allah, Marduk) in the Near East, and a huge variety of political systems, democracy among them, in ancient Greece.

Thus we return to Greek tragedy, itself a form of mythmaking that is essentially unique to Europe in its quality of acknowledging “the human sufferer.”[35] Suffering in eastern myth is either dismissed as an illusion (e.g. Hinduism) or presented as a weakness to be overcome in transcendence (e.g. Buddhism); in the Near East, it is essentially punishment for sin (cf. the Fall in the Garden). In Greek tragedy, suffering is apparently presented for its own sake, as an acknowledgement of the way the world is, but also as something to be surmounted – but in worldly, not other-worldly, action, such as war, vengeance, or even (unavoidable) human sacrifice, committed for one of these worldly ends. The unpredictability and diversity of Greek tragedy is a result of multifarious conflicts – between god and man, man and man, god and god, god and man and Fate. The ‘message’ of the myth is difficult to pin down because it is not, as per Near Eastern myth, moral/political ideology in disguise, nor is it transcendental psychology or ‘sympathetic magic’, as it is in the east, and in earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic myth.[36] In fact, a Greek tragedy may closely approximate what we mean today by a work of art, a creative work presented primarily for the story itself and the emotional effect it generates. It is as if the numinous emotional quality has managed to separate itself from the metaphysics, psychology, morality, or ideological strands of myth and religion proper – producing, on one hand, art (the theatre, etc.), and on the other, early science and democracy (philosophy, rhetoric, etc.).[37] Yet the fact that Greek tragedies were presented within a religious festival suggests that the break between religion and art had not fully occurred.

This almost ‘artistic’ expressive-ambiguity pervades tragedies involving human sacrifice particularly. As per above, ambiguity is acknowledged by many commentators.[38] It is difficult to conclude exactly why a virgin such a Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Auris must die. Why tell such a story? It makes no logical sense; there is no clear ‘moral’. However, it certainly is emotionally powerful. As per Wilkins, “The principle rhetorical force of the [sacrifice situation] … is the great desire of the victim to die, against the wishes of the … relatives and friends.”[39] The perverse emotional force of this scenario is actually not ambiguous – ‘ambiguous’ is too flat and unemotional a term. This comes back to tragedy’s proper status as myth. Again, Greek tragedies are not discourse treatises, presentations of arguments as might occur in a law court or philosophical treatise. We cannot arrive at Euripides’ opinion on human sacrifice by merely ‘adding up’ the number of ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments presented in his plays, as many commentators have done to much confusion.[40] Rhetoric in tragedy is primarily emotional, as is appropriate for a mythological (or artistic) presentation of an argument concerning an obviously fictional event. Tragedy is not ambiguous; it is numinous, beyond the bounds of logic and reason.

Epidauros.07The marvel of Greek tragedy is that it manages to be numinous, or, at least, emotionally powerful, without recourse to an explicit and corroborating political ideology, psychological literature, metaphysical revelation, or divine mandate. It is this desire to create a powerful, logically ambiguous, emotionally transcendent experience – an experience which these ancient people might designate ‘an experience of the gods’ – which explains many of the perverse events in tragedy. We see this messy emotional power in the contradictory arguments offered, the strange, seemingly unmotivated prophecies and omens, the ironic fusing of opposites[41] – death with marriage,[42] sacrifice as objectification,[43] as patriotic duty and familial obligation,[44] as horrendous waste.[45] The most courageous motivation for sacrifice is thoroughly complicated by the powerful protests against it.[46] Significantly, the acknowledgement of human uniqueness occurs simultaneously with that of human frailty. The result is a particularly capricious worldview full of powerful conflicts:[47]

… differing fortunes
Follow close upon one another.
Fate brings low those that were high;
The unhonoured Fate makes prosperous.

(Euripides, Children of Heracles 639-42).

To summarise, human sacrifice in Greek tragedy is, I argue, primarily not just ambiguous but perversely powerful and numinous, especially in the mythological context of a kaleidoscopically varied and complex order of gods, humans and fateful powers which forms the ancient Greek mythic worldview. Just as the issue of human sacrifice is grim and complex in Greek tragedy, so too is the ancient Greek view of death. It is clear that death is not spiritually welcomed like in many of the Neolithic and Asian mythic systems. The ancient Greeks’ greater emphasis on worldly, social, and individualistic values meant that death was viewed with more reality and finality. Its necessity for a greater social good was recognised, but not unambiguously advocated. When characters die willingly in Greek tragedy, their sacrifice is linked to worldly ends – dying for the particular institutions of family and city-state. In fact, it is probably the inability of Greek myth to allow the individual to spiritually stand completely separately from these institutions[48] that makes Greek tragedy still appear somewhat alien to modern readers, who, inheriting more recent ideas from the European Renaissance, have a greater, or at least different, sense of the value of human life, of the individual, and his or her relation to society.[49]


Primary Texts[50]
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound trans. H. W. Smyth (Cambridge, MA, 1926).
Aristotle Poetics trans. P. Murray and T. S. Dorsch (London, 1965).
Euripides Children of Heracles trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Hecuba trans. W. Arrowsmith (Chicago, 1958).
Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Phoenician Women trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
* Due to the layout of this translation, the line references for these titles are approximate only.

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Burkert, W. Homo Necans: the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth trans. P. Bing (Berkeley, CA, 1987).
Campbell, J. The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1949).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York, 1959).
Campbell, J. Myths to Live By (New York, 1971).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Csapo, E. ‘Theatrical Production, Greek’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 18/04/14).
Donner, Susan E. ‘Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context,’ Smith College Studies in Social Work 80 (2010), 215-27.
Garrison, E. P. Groaning Tears: ethical and dramatic aspects of suicide in Greek tragedy (Leide; New York; Koln; Brill, 1995).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2012).
Murnaghan, S. ‘Sophocles’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 21/04/14).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pollard, E. A. ‘Sacrifice’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 18/04/14).
Rabinowitz, N. S. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women (Ithaca, NY, 1993).
Rehm, R. Marriage to Death: the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy (Princeton, 1994).
Scodel, R. ‘Virgin Sacrifice and Aesthetic Object’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 126 (1996), 111-28.
Seaford, R. ‘The Tragic Wedding,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), 106-30.
Wilkins, J. ‘The State and the Individual: Euripides’ plays of voluntary self-sacrifice’ in A. Powell (ed.) Euripides, Women, and Sexuality (London and New York, 1990), 177-94.

[1] At least, not as normal practice, see Pollard (2010); Wilkins (1990), 178.

[2] Wilkins (1990), 177.

[3] Or not betrothed (Euripides, Phoenician Women 943-4).

[4] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[5] It is probably best to exclude Sophocles’ Antigone from this study as her death resembles more of a murder/suicide than a sacrifice to the gods.

[6] Rabinowitz (1993), 35, 39, 42-43, 55; Wilkins (1990), 183.

[7] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179, 190; Roselli (2007), 111.

[8] Rabinowitz (1993), 38.

[9] Murnaghan (2010).

[10] Scodel (1996), 111, 119.

[11] Rabinowitz (1993), 39.

[12] Rabinowitz (1993), 37-8, 56; Roselli (2007), 110, 126.

[13] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179; Roselli (2007), 111.

[14] Girard, referenced in Rabinowitz (1993), 33; Burkert (1987), 62.

[15] Csapo (2010).

[16] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[17] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[18] See Campbell (1949).

[19] Note: in this respect, the key Campbell text is not The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), but The Masks of God (1959-68), a work five times as long.

[20] See Hayden (2003), 122-7.

[21] Campbell (1959), 171-3; Hayden (2003), 200-1.

[22] E.g. the myths of Polynesian head-hunters, the stories of the astonished Christian friars in pre-colonial Mexico, and particularly the accounts of more recent human sacrifices in 19th century C.E. India (the ritual of sati, for instance).

[23] Campbell (1959), 179-83; Campbell (1962), 64-9.

[24] Campbell (1962), 3-9; Campbell (1964), 3-5.

[25] Campbell (1959), 176-83; Campbell (1962), 23-30; Campbell (1971), 65-6, 71-3.

[26] For example, nirvana means literally ‘extinguished’; see Koller (2012), 47.

[27] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[28] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[29] Donner (2010), 217.

[30] Campbell (1962), 14-5, 21-3.

[31] Campbell (1962), 30-33; Campbell (1968), 346.

[32] Campbell (1971), 175-80.

[33] Campbell (1971), 81.

[34] Campbell (1971), 81.

[35] Joyce in Campbell (1968), 354; cf. “… since no suffering is involved, it is not tragic” (Aristotle, Poetics 14.5).

[36] See Campbell above.

[37] See Cassirer (1946), 97-8 for this idea.

[38] Scodel (1996), 111; Roselli (2007), 124; Rabinowitz (1993), 42.

[39] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[40] This is approach (a) above.

[41] Rehm (1994), 136-40.

[42] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 38, 55; Scodel (1996), 111; Seaford (1987), 108-9, 112.

[43] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 34, 39, 55; Scodel (1996), 111-2, 114, 115; Roselli (2007), 87-8, 130.

[44] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 36, 38, 56; Wilkins (1990), 185; Scodel (1996), 111.

[45] Rabinowitz (1993), 55; Scodel (1996), 118-20, 125.

[46] Garrison (1995), 129.

[47] One is reminded of the difficult, tumultuous and unrelenting business of maintaining a healthy democracy.

[48] As, for example, in the later mythic/artistic developments of individualistic romantic love, and political-personal ‘freedom’.

[49] See Campbell (1968), 304-8 for a revealing comparison of the Greek ‘Theseus/Phaedra’ story to the Celtic-Medieval ‘Tristan/Isolt’ story.

[50] The book of Job from the Bible was referenced in Campbell (1971), 81.

The ‘Music’ of Cinematic Silence

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It’s cinema studies time! as part of my Film Music subject. (I managed to slip a bit of Susanne Langer into this one. Indeed, you could extrapolate from this essay an entire theory about the holistic/relativistic (rather than atomistic/absolute) nature of art.)

How is silence or, more specifically, the contrast between music and absence of music used in cinema as reflected in the cinematic output of a specific composer/director?

It may seem curious to examine the use of silence, or, more specifically, scenes without music, in the study of film music. However, such an examination explores not only how music affects the drama in particular film scenes, but also how film and music can stand in for each other in their expressive effects. As film music properly serves the expressive purposes of the film, we shall explore how film too can be ‘musically structured’. To this end, I will examine the use of music versus ‘dramatic silence’ in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, particularly in Psycho (1960), and how this reflects on Hitchcock’s auteur theory of ‘pure film’. We will find that the aesthetic effect of music in dramatic film scenes is more complex than usually acknowledged.

Movies are rarely devoid of sound, of course. By examining silence in film, I do not mean ‘silence’ in a literal sense.[1] I mean, firstly, silence in the sense of the absence of diegetic music, but also, more broadly, silence as ‘dramatic silence’: a relative reduction or absence of sound on the film soundtrack which has a powerful effect upon the viewer. Walker and Daniel-Richard speak of certain moments or scenes in film in which this musicless silence may be “deafening”,[2] yet clearly such dramatic moments are not achieved by simply removing all music from the soundtrack at whim.


Caption unnecessary here, surely.

Music is generally considered an important even vital element in film expressivity. The power of the shower murder scene in Psycho, for example, is immeasurably enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s music cue with its shrieking, stabbing string glissandi. This musical cue is so effective and iconic that the prospect that Hitchcock had envisaged the scene as not having music can seem surprising to many.[3] Without the music, the shower scene is still powerful, but one senses a greater objectivity or grim ‘realism’, an enhanced aesthetic distance.[4] With the music, it is decidedly more involving, more painful, more shocking; we feel a greater sense of identification with our murdered heroine. Similar effects can be observed in many other famous film scenes featuring iconic film scores – the shark attacks in Jaws, the space battles in The Empire Strikes Back, the journeys across the desert sands in Lawrence of Arabia.

However, there are also many powerful film scenes which are not accompanied by music – the battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan, the initial Tyrannosaurus attack in Jurassic Park, the famous crop-duster chase in North by Northwest. Hitchcock and Herrmann famously had a falling out over the non-inclusion of music in another dramatic murder scene in Torn Curtain; indeed, the musical cue in this context does seem somewhat overbearing.[5] Yet one might wonder why an added musical emotive or subjective intensity was not called for in this and other dramatically silent scenes. Hitchcock continuously presented such dynamic visual sequences without music in many of his earlier films.[6] Examples include the knife murders in Blackmail and Sabotage, and the statue of liberty scene in Saboteur.[7] Indeed, a number of his early British thrillers have very little non-diegetic music at all.[8]

These two contrasting effects of non-musical versus musical accompaniment – of distance, flat ‘realism’, and objectivity versus character-identity, interpretative force, emotive involvement and subjectivity – are commonly averred by viewers and film critics alike,[9] yet contradictions abound. Gary Rydstrom, sound designer of Saving Private Ryan, argued that putting music under the film’s battle sequences would “take away the subjective feeling of it”,[10] which is a total contradiction in light of the usual association between musical accompaniment and enhanced subjectivity. John Williams’ famous alternating-semitone motif orchestrates the shark attack sequences in the first half of Jaws, the music contributing to the suspense through its pulsating rhythm and primitivity. But Williams remains silent for a number of shark appearances in the second half (for example at 1:17:51), which could be said to be even more terrifying since the music does not foreshadow and essentially warn us that the shark is there.


A non-musical shark appearance in Jaws

It seems that the presence or absence of music in a dramatic film scene does not totally guarantee any particular dramatic effect, or even whether such will be particularly effective. An equation such as ‘music equals subjectivity’ or ‘dramatic silence equals heightened intensity’ is too simplistic. Aesthetic philosopher Susanne K. Langer argued that the overall created completeness of a work of art is perceived as something other than the totality of the materials and effects that make it up, yet, counter-intuitively, is not separate from these elements.[11] This may explain our musical conundrum here because, according to Langer’s insight, in the context of cinema, the numerous elements that comprise a movie – the actors, their performance, the lighting, the music, etc. – are, in an effective work, not perceived by the viewer as separate elements, independent ‘indicators’ of content or feeling, which must be logically ‘added up’ to produce the experience of the film. Instead, in an effective film, these film ‘materials’ are perceived by the viewer as blended into something resembling a single experience – of the film’s ‘world’ or mise-en-scene. By abstracting one element, such as music or dramatic silence, and analysing its function on its own, we overlook the illusion of totality which the viewer experiences.

Another way of putting this is that the effect of music and dramatic silence is better revealed through the interaction of contrast and similarity, elemental transformation (rather than ‘indication’) in the overall mise-en-scene.[12] It is the building up of this aesthetic ‘context’ and form (the mise-en-scene) through variation and contrast among myriad elements which constructs and expresses dramatic effects throughout a work. In fact, it is only through variation and contrast that a dramatic silence can be perceived by the viewer at all. This is because, as stated above, it is only a relative silence. Dramatic silence relies upon the noticeable absence of sound or music, and such an ‘absence’ would only be perceived when the expectation of sound or music is thwarted or deferred – a perceived absence is, after all, the noticeable non-occurrence of a presence.[13] There is clearly a complementary but oppositional relationship between music and silence;[14] Alwyn even goes so far as to declare that, “Music depends for its maximum effect on the absence of music.”[15]


Marion reflects on her life predicaments in Psycho.

Hitchcock clearly understood that effective use of music in film relies on this idea of contrast. He believed that every film should have a complete musical score: “Though by ‘complete’,” he added, “I do not mean continuous. That would be monotonous.”[16] In employing dramatic silence, Hitchcock understood that, “its effect is heightened by the proper handling of the music before and after.”[17] As an example, we note that this is particularly pertinent to Herrmann’s use of music in Psycho. Sullivan observes, for example, that, despite its reputation as a suspenseful film score, the music in Psycho appears, at times, to “relax rather than tighten dramatic suspense.”[18] I think what Sullivan means is that Herrmann often uses slow, quiet, even delicate phrases and motifs as underscoring to various scenes throughout the film. This is music that does not appear on its own to be particularly shocking or even suspenseful. In fact, Herrmann’s score is astoundingly delicate and sensitive throughout much of the movie, something that is totally overlooked by film analysis which focuses more or less exclusively on his shower scene cue – which is a pity as I suspect that it is Herrmann’s almost psychological sensitivity that is actually where the real depth and effectiveness of his score resides. Consider the quiet and slow underscoring throughout much of the film, characterized by the cue entitled “Marion” in the opening scene (at 04:27). The music is eerie certainly, but it also expresses Marion’s depression with her current life and her troubling predicament. A similar very moving identification is conveyed by Herrmann’s “Madhouse” cue which appears when Norman explains to Marion his own sadness and frustration with life.[19] This music does not “relax rather than tighten dramatic suspense,”[20] it tightens the dramatic suspense by relaxing the viewer, or at least, by producing more contrasting effects so that the murder music, when it occurs, is all the more devastating.

When it comes to dramatic silence, the use of music throughout Psycho also contrasts pointedly with the dramatic silence of the almost rhythmically-spaced musically unaccompanied scenes. This is best characterized by the dynamic “Prelude” music used beneath the Saul Bass title sequence. This music reappears almost mechanically whenever Marion is shown travelling on to the next destination in her misguided, ultimately tragic adventure, but it always emerges out of an ominous musical silence on the soundtrack – the dialogue scenes in between the travelling sequences are mostly starkly unaccompanied. The effect is almost musical in the alternation between travelling music and unaccompanied musical silence, almost as if the dialogue scenes are ‘verses’ to the travelling ‘chorus’ music.[21] This creates a feeling of inevitable drive,[22] culminating in the extremely ominous almost terrifying silence as the ‘Bate’s Motel’ sign appears through the rain and Marion’s windscreen wipers at 28:12. This contrasting silence is vital in the shower scene too, the horror of which is also enhanced by the music’s sudden emergence out of the musical silence (the quiet diegetic sound) that pre- and pro-cedes it: the sound of running water is almost as memorable as the musical cue itself.


Hitchcock expounds the virtues of remaining silent.

Such diegetic sound represents another factor influencing the power of non-musical silence: the capacity for other cinematic elements to ‘speak up’, as it were, and fill the musical void expressively.[23] As observed by Hemmeter, this is particularly relevant to Hitchcock and his theory of ‘pure film’.[24] Briefly stated, Hitchcock’s style evolved from silent cinema with its focus upon the visual rather than on spoken dialogue[25] with stylistic techniques influenced by the Russian Formalists and their theory of montage.[26] The result was a kind of cinema in which shot size and progression have dynamic effects. As Kulezic-Wilson observes, Hollywood had (still has) a fear of silence, expecting lack of music to guarantee an inert lifelessness onscreen which would hurt its box office takings.[27] Composers and directors often complain about their unsuccessful attempts to convince producers to reduce the amount of unnecessary musical cues in their films.[28] That Hitchcock could get away with dramatic silence in his climactic scenes not only speaks to the effectiveness of his technique but, I argue, to the virtually musical nature of his visuals. Hitchcock even describes his use of radically changing shot sizes as a kind of ‘orchestration’: “There is a bursting impact of images, like a change in orchestration.”[29] “The effect is best illustrated by a parallel from music, namely in the sudden transition from a simple melody played on the piano to a sudden burst of music by the brass section of the orchestra.”[30] “Indeed, orchestration is perhaps the best simile for film, even to the parallel of recurrent themes and rhythms. And the director is, as it were, the conductor.”[31] I argue that Hitchcock does not need music for these scenes, because the effect of music is amply provided by his cinema techniques; music would, in many instances, simply duplicate the effects, perhaps muddying the expression, maybe looking silly with an inappropriate mickey-mousing effect. However, this extremely visual focus of Hitchcock’s style also resulted in a noticeable ‘void’ on the soundtrack which needed to be filled – with music or a form of dramatic silence.

To conclude, we have seen how musical cues in film are enhanced and made effective through the holistic effect of contrast – not only musical contrast, but contrast with other similarly expressive elements within the film mise-en-scene. The element of dramatic silence in film is often unrecognised in film theory and criticism,[32] along with its important role as a structuring element within the context of both the film score and the overall mise-en-scene. An appreciation of dramatic silence and its aesthetic dynamics may help to enhance future films, and not only their musical scores, but their overall dramatic power. I want to finish with an anecdote. For his final film Family Plot, Hitchcock chose to work with John Williams, a composer best known today for his enormous score for Star Wars (1977), a film which seems, what with its distinct lack of musical silences, to work on the opposite principle to the musical minimalism of Hitchcock’s cinema. Revealingly, Hitchcock and Williams had something of a disagreement over a particular music cue in Family Plot at 50:32. The scene involves a meeting between Adamson and his henchman Maloney. Adamson leaves the room as the police call on him. When Adamson returns to the room, Hitchcock cuts to a shot of the open window to indicate that Maloney has done a runner. Williams says he orchestrated a quiet musical build-up to Adamson returning to the room, then a brooding baseline after the reveal on the window. Hitchcock suggested he should drop the music altogether on the shot of the window because “the silence will tell us it’s empty, he’s gone, more emphatically, more powerfully, than any musical phrase.”[33] This, I think, illustrates beautifully the effect of music and silence in film: not only ‘less is more’ but cinematic effects can ‘stand in for’ musical ones; the filmed image with silent soundtrack has itself become a musical player.



Brown, Royal S. “Herrmann, Hitchcock, and the Music of the Irrational.” Cinema Journal 2 (1982): 14-49.
Daniel-Richard, Debra. “The Dance of Suspense: Sound and Silence in North by Northwest.” Journal of Film and Video 62 (2010): 53-60.
Film Music Notes. “Comparing Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Score and Sinfonietta (1936).” Accessed 29 May 2014.
Hemmeter, Thomas. “Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence.” Journal of Film and Video 48 (1996): 32-40.
Hitchcock, Alfred. “Film Production.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 210-26. London: Faber and Faber, 1995. Originally published in Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 15 (1965), 907-11.
Kulezic-Wilson, Danijela. “The Music of Film Silence.” Music and the Moving Image 2 (2009): 1-10.
Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.
Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy In A New Key. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1942.
Lissa, Zofia. “Aesthetic Functions of Silence and Rests in Music.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 22 (1964): 443-54.
Mamet, David. On Directing Film. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Margulis, Elizabeth H. “Moved by Nothing: Listening to Musical Silence.” Journal of Music Theory 51 (2007): 245-76.
Sullivan, Jack. Hitchcock’s Music. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.
Sullivan, Jack. “The Music of Terror.” Cinéaste 32 (2006): 20-28.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock/Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Walker, Elsie. “Hearing the Silences (as well as the music) in Michael Haneke’s films.” Music and the Moving Image 3 (2010): 15-30.
Watts, Stephen. “On Music In Films.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 241-45. London: Faber and Faber, 1995. Originally published in Cinema Quarterly 2 (1933-1934): 80-83.
Winters, Ben. “The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space.” Music & Letters 91 (2010): 224-44.


[1] See Elizabeth H. Margulis, “Moved by Nothing: Listening to Musical Silence,” Journal of Music Theory 51: 245; Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” Music and the Moving Image 2 (2009): 2; Thomas Hemmeter, “Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence,” Journal of Film and Video 48 (1996): 40 (footnote 1); Zofia Lissa, “Aesthetic Functions of Silence and Rests in Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 22 (1964): 443.

[2] Elsie Walker, “Hearing the Silences (as well as the music) in Michael Haneke’s films,” Music and the Moving Image 3 (2010): 17; Debra Daniel-Richard, “The Dance of Suspense: Sound and Silence in North by Northwest,” Journal of Film and Video 62 (2010): 59.

[3] Jack Sullivan, “The Music of Terror,” Cinéaste 32 (2006): 22, 23; Royal S. Brown, “Herrmann, Hitchcock, and the Music of the Irrational,” Cinema Journal 2 (1982): 15.

[4] Brown, “Music of the Irrational,” 15.

[5] Note that I am not necessarily suggesting that Herrmann’s music was rejected because it fails to be effective in this scene, or in the movie in general. It seems more likely that Hitchcock rejected the score because he was being pressured by the studio to adopt a lighter ‘popular style’ score which Herrmann was not able or willing to provide (Brown, “Music of the Irrational,” 44). I am not concerned with such historical, biographical or economic explanations for aesthetic decisions in this essay as I am primarily concerned with the function of the music as presented.

[6] Hemmeter, “Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence,” 32.

[7] Sullivan, “The Music of Terror,” 23.

[8] Sullivan discusses these in a chapter entitled “Musical Minimalism: British Hitchcock” (39-57) in Jack Sullivan, Hitchcock’s Music (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006).

[9] Walker, “Hearing the Silences,” 18-19; Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” 1; Brown, “Music of the Irrational,” 15; Claudia Gorbman, “Narrative Film Music,” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 193.

[10] Rydstrom in Gianluca Sergi, The Dolby Era: Film Sound in Contemporary Hollywood (Manchester, 2004), 178, quoted in Ben Winters, “The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space,” Music & Letters 91 (2010): 230.

[11] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 47-48.

[12] Langer’s aesthetics leans heavily upon traditional music theory and analysis as reflected in the title of her most famous work, Philosophy In A New Key (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1942).

[13] Walker, “Hearing the Silences,” 18.

[14] Margulis has shown how this is the case even in music outside of the cinema context: see Margulis, “Moved by Nothing,” 273, and Lissa, “Aesthetic Functions of Silence.”

[15] William Alwyn in Ian Johnson, William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music (London: Boydell Press, 2005), quoted in Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” 5.

[16] Hitchcock quoted in Stephen Watts, “On Music In Films,” in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 242.

[17] Watts, “On Music In Films,” 242 (my italics). Silence in non-film music also has this function, as noted by Lissa, “Aesthetic Functions of Silence,” 445: “[Silence] changes its mode of functioning depending on the sound structures surrounding it.”

[18] Sullivan, “The Music of Terror,” 25.

[19] See Psycho, 38:58. The extraordinary depth of this theme is, I suspect, the principle source of psychological depth in the film and possibly the greatest contributor to the effectiveness of Psycho. Herrmann virtually lifted the entire theme from his 1936 Sinfonietta for Strings, suggesting this music was both dear to him and probably not easy to whip up quickly for a film score. See also “Comparing Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Score and Sinfonietta (1936)”, Film Music Notes, accessed 29 May 2014,

[20] Sullivan, “The Music of Terror,” 25.

[21] Or, if you like, a kind of rondo form is implied.

[22] Pun intended.

[23] Walker, “Hearing the Silences,” 18.

[24] Hemmeter, “Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence,” 32.

[25] Hitchcock denigrated early sound cinema arguing that films had degenerated into poorly expressive ‘pictures of people talking’ (David Mamet, On Directing Film (New York: Penguin, 1991), 22).

[26] See Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 214-16.

[27] Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” 1.

[28] Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” 3.

[29] Alfred Hitchcock, “Film Production,” in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 216.

[30] Hitchcock, “Film Production,” 215.

[31] Hitchcock, “Film Production,” 216.

[32] Gorbman, “Narrative Film Music,” 193.

[33] John Williams speaking in the documentary Plotting Family Plot, dir. Laurent Bouzereau, 2000: 40:50-41:53.

Some Troublesome Art Terms

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Susanne K. Langer

Here are some troublesome art words and clarifying explanations of them I learned from reading philosopher Susanne K. Langer (Philosophy In A New Key (1941), Feeling and Form (1953), Problems of Art (1957)). Langer argues that all art (from pictorial art, to sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, literature, and theatre) functions in a way that is fundamentally not expressible using words.[1] This is generally the problem lying behind these troublesome art terms. Since verbal expression is difficult, there is a tendency to use words impressionistically or metaphorically but then become confused with any number of literal meanings.



– often used to mean ‘art that aims to superficially distract the viewer, or to avoid unpleasant realities’.

“Escapist” tends to be incorrectly applied merely to artworks which have no obvious verbal content or message.

This misuse has to do with the modern assumption that if a meaning cannot be expressed in words in must be “emotional”, “mystical,” “irrational,” “unscientific,” “sensational,” “fantastical” or “delusional”. Langer points out that the ‘fantasy’ or ‘faery world’ experienced in childhood is not an attempt by the child to escape the ‘real world’ (as in “escapism”) but is a non-verbal way of conceiving reality when other methods have not developed yet – it is a “thinking in shades of feeling.” Similarly, an artist may use non-verbal means to communicate certain expressive or emotional effects which cannot be properly articulated verbally.


“artistic truth”

– has nothing necessarily to do with truth in relation to reality (“the way things really are”, “the existence of things”) or historical fact (“what really happened”) or logical processes (“this conclusion follows from these premises”).

Yinka_Shonibare_MBE.77213521_stdLanger argues that “artistic truth” is the degree to which an artistic work reminds the viewer of the feeling patterns of organic life. Such patterns might be the approximate feeling-impression of organic growth (like a plant growing or a young person maturing), of natural processes (like the heart beating, water flowing or vines curling), or of natural emotional patterns (such as fear or desire or horror or passion). Langer emphasizes that this is only an impression of these feelings and consequently there is no necessity for the artwork itself, or the subject it seems to be portraying, to actually be organic or alive (or, in particular, to reflect factual or social-political reality – art is not a newspaper article or scientific paper). It is merely ‘an impression of organic life’. (This is also often inexpressible in words.) Thus, a work that “has no artistic truth” seems inorganic, flat, ho-hum.



– Langer argues that “self-expression” has no necessary connection to art if you use “self-expression” to refer to:

  1. the feelings that the artist feels when creating the artwork
  2. the raw visceral emotions a viewer might feel when reacting to real-life events (such as vigorous exercise, or hearing that a close friend has died, or winning the lottery)

Langer argues that it is unnecessary to be in an emotional state to create an artwork that has an expressive effect.[2] In fact, being in a highly emotional state does not allow for much concentration. Also, in the case of the performing arts, an emotional state cannot easily be produced on the spur of the moment when it is time for a performance.

Similarly, when, as viewers, we feel ‘the anguish of the holocaust’ or ‘hunted by a monster’ on the cinema screen, we do not actually undergo the same or even similar emotions as we would if we believed these events were actually taking place. (Going to see a horror film would be traumatic and physically painful.)

berensonLanger argues that art does not produce or vent emotions, and the artist is not making us feel emotion.[3] Instead, the artist is arranging artistic materials so that they signify expressive effects to us – though we should take note that Langer is essentially using ‘signify’ here in an unconventional way; to mean indicate and sense, get an impression of, understand non-verbally. There isn’t actually an adequate word to describe something that is felt but isn’t a feeling. The best that Langer can do is to describe it as a feeling that is not a reaction but a form of comprehension – ‘you ‘know’ that feeling’.

The whole difficulty of “self-expression” in art resides in the fact that artworks seem to express something without telling us anything in the usual practical non-artistic way. A painting is not a person so it cannot “speak” to us. A poem does not deliver information in the same way that a newspaper article or instruction manual does. How is it “expressing itself” without bluntly “saying what it means”? The artwork appears to be “alive”, to be “telling” us something, “making us feel” something, but in some non-conventional way. This again is difficult to describe in words – a feeling of subjectivity (the expression) with apparent objectivity (the artwork is apparently just a ‘thing’, and ‘things’ aren’t alive in order to express things to us).

All of this is related to:


“aesthetic distance”

– this term is often used in relation to expressive effects which are muted: “it stands at some aesthetic distance”.

Langer points out that “aesthetic distance” is essential to art (otherwise you wouldn’t recognize it as art) and that the distance can be near as well as far.

The confusion surrounding this term has to do with non-verbal expression again. “Aesthetic distance” refers to the process of making something into (or, from the viewer’s perspective, considering something as) a work of art. The artistic materials must be sort of ‘set back’, or mentally ‘marked off’ from not just their surroundings but the ‘everyday’ ‘normal’ way of thinking that we employ for non-art objects. This may involve ignoring an object’s practical function or usual context. Importantly, this is not necessarily about impersonality or lack of expressive effect – in fact, the very act of considering something aesthetically tends to enhance its expressive effect. Once again, we have a tricky conception which does not lend itself to words – this is rendering something ‘distant’ or ‘formalised’ but not ‘typical’, ‘general’ or ‘unemotional’.escaping_criticism_by_caso

Something that is at too great an “aesthetic distance” (“too far away” as it were) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing), which does not strike a viewer as being expressive at all – it is usually ignored or merely ‘used’ to some purpose. A sign in a supermarket would not usually be experienced as art for this reason.

Something that is at too little an “aesthetic distance” (“too close to us”) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing) which is reacted to violently by the viewer or ‘shatters the illusion’ (the aesthetic situation). Suddenly talking to the audience during a naturalistic play can have this effect if not properly prepared. So can graphic sex or violence in a movie (we stop caring about the story and start marveling at how fake or real it looks, and whether that is really the actor’s private parts).

(Alfred Hitchcock mentions a “house of horror” amusement at a carnival in which the patrons sat down before a cinema screen, thinking a horror movie would start, but the real horror is caused by the roof seeming to suddenly collapse upon them. Hitchcock reports that the ride was really unpopular because the fear was too real to be enjoyable. This is another example of being at too close an “aesthetic” distance – the experience was certainly terrifying but it was not “aesthetic”.)

Langer suggests that this is why we should really talk of art as engendering a ‘disengagement with belief’ (belief being far “too close” a conception) rather than “make believe” (we are disengaging belief not engaging or ‘making’ it).[4]


“form versus content”

– People talk about an artistic work being ‘more formalistic’ or ‘more about the content’.

Langer points out that in an artistic work, form and content are always the same thing. This is because the formal qualities of a work are only perceived by the viewer through the positioning of the elements, which is the content. Hence if there were no elements or the artistic elements were different, the form perceived would be absent or different, hence form and content are always necessarily intertwined.

Often “form versus content” is raised when the speaker is actually talking about the use of conventional or clichéd structural devices (“it is too/very formal”) or clear verbal messages (“it is more about the content”). Neither of these elements necessarily harm the expressive effect of an art work.

A work which is mainly about conveying information – for example, a public service announcement – could have an impact on an audience, if, for example, the information itself is distressing or interesting. Since its impact is more a result of an emotional reaction to certain facts or ideas (= the artistic materials themselves rather than their status as artistic elements), we might refer to such a work as “non-” or “less aesthetic” and the other kind of work as more “formalistic”. However, such wording is misleading as the “more aesthetic”, “formalistic” variety is actually not “formalistic” but equal parts “content” and “form” (so much so that the difference between these things is indistinguishable). When discussing literature, Langer points out that even in an essay (in which information conveyed is of paramount importance), the structuring of the argument (along the lines of introduction, first point, counter proof, second point, examples, conclusion, etc.) is aesthetic. This is art being used in the service of ideas. We might more accurately say that ‘information’ art is “more content” while the other variety is “equal parts content and form” but we are still being terribly vague and simplistic.


“beauty” “value” “culture”iberens001p1

– do not have set descriptions; they have no definite units and cannot be combined in clear proportions. Langer points out that describing these as if they form part of a systematic quantitative order is either poetry or nonsense, but certainly not art criticism. We might as well describe medicine using the medieval theory of the four bodily “humors” – it is a form of poetic expression which is masquerading as a graded system.


“imitation of reality”

– art isn’t an imitation of reality (see “artistic truth” above). The concept of imitation doesn’t actually apply to whole areas of art: What is a building or a melody imitating? As we discussed above, the expressive power of an artwork does not come from its literally life-like imitation but from its “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

This is why we use the word “creation” for the making of an artwork but not for the making of a cake. We say “She has constructed an artistic creation”, “He is creative”; we do not say, “He has created a cake”, “My plumber has created a downpipe for my roofing”. What is “created” is the “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

Langer suggests that the reason we want to touch “realistic” sculptures is not because we are amazed that they are so precise an imitation, but because we are astounded that this mere thing can be so expressive (see again “self-expression”).[5]

The idea of imitation leads to the following 2 perverse questions:

–       “What is the artist trying to say?” and

–       “What is the artist trying to make us feel?”

That is, “how has the artwork imitated or indicated things or concepts extraneous to itself?” But, Langer argues, this is studying the associations generated by the artwork rather than studying the work itself. Artworks don’t imitate; they “expressively-indicate” or “present aesthetically” non-verbal organic “lived experience” to our comprehension/”feeling-understanding”.

Both of these questions are also based upon a theory of art founded on verbal language, which can either convey information or stimulate feelings. But, as we have seen, art fundamentally is not verbally expressive. It does not “tell” us things, nor does it “stimulate” feelings in the same way that real-life does.

The valid question, for Langer, is “What has the artist made, and how did the artist achieve this effect?” The poet has not created a mere arrangement of words, for words are only her materials, out of which she makes her poetic elements, which are deployed, balanced, spread out, or built up to create a recognizable “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.


[1] Yes, poetry and literature use words as their artistic materials, but the way these materials function as art is not easily expressible in words.

[2] This is kind of like how it is not necessary to be happy to use the word “happy”, or to actually be in the presence of a cow to say the word “cow” and be understood.

[3] All of these could happen but they are not indicators of art itself, which can occur without these effects.

[4] It is more accurately, “make expressive-indication” or “make aesthetic”.

[5] It’s almost like an optical illusion.

Written by tomtomrant

18 June 2014 at 6:01 pm

‘Sir Gawain’ and the green girdle

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This is another short essay from my medieval literature subject – if anything I really recommend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a very readable medieval English text. There’s a good version by J.R.R. Tolkien even.

The green girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, like the poem itself, evokes a wide range of symbolic connotations for both the reader and its characters. It can be considered a magic talisman, a symbol of shame, a token of courage and nobility, or an emblem of courtly brotherhood.[1] Something of the depth and complexity of the poem is revealed in that the green girdle is properly any and all of these things and much more besides. Interpretation of the girdle is important for reading the sense of Gawain’s physical and ontological quests, and for gauging the nature of his ‘fault’. I will explore the complex nexus of meaning surrounding the girdle and, in so doing, suggest that a deeper understanding of its significance is elicited from the secular and Christian religious traditions reflected, intentionally or otherwise, in the poem.

Interpretation of the green girdle, along with much else in Gawain, depends upon the discernment of a number of different layers of meaning. I wish to focus on the contrasting ideas of a religious test against that of a secular quest. A religious test, at least in the Christian tradition, involves the challenging of a person’s conduct specifically according to a moral framework, while a secular quest is not so ethically or morally focused. The secular quest concerns more humanistic preoccupations such as romantic love, overcoming physical obstacles, or even just raw survival.[2] There is some overlap between these paradigms – these are not rigid dividers but broad thematic models. Importantly they intersect in the concept of medieval chivalry, where the Christian sense of agape overlaps with that of the secular individualistic amor.[3] Furthermore, both concern an exploration of selfhood for the questing knight, namely, an ontological quest; the secular idea of natural self-development or maturity overlaps with the more ethically focused self-judgment of the religious paradigm.[4] These thematic strands are extremely tightly bound in Gawain but also play off of each other on countless occasions, tying both Sir Gawain and the reader into interpretative knots as to the best and most appropriate way of reading such moments. Arguably the most important of such difficult moments, also marking a turning point in the plot, involves the ‘temptation’ or ‘magic’ of the green girdle.

The Lady offers the green girdle to Sir Gawain ostensively claiming that any courtier wearing it “could not be slain through any strategy on earth” (1854).[5] In other words, she implies it is a magic talisman. The idea of magic here is certainly not a conventional Christian notion, hence the green girdle could be considered an idolatrous fetish, set to deceive the Christian knight and violate his moral code. But the Gawain poet never makes explicit mention of this interpretation. In his declaration of shame Sir Gawain calls the girdle “falssyng” (2378), roughly, a treachery, but there is no suggestion that it has caused him to sin in the religious sense. In Celtic myth, a magic talisman often has the effect of revealing or engendering powerful emotions in the mythic hero, inadvertently revealing unrealized aspects of his character.[6] The love potion consumed by Tristan and Isolde in the Tristan myth has just this effect,[7] and, mysteriously, so does the green girdle, which occasions the revelation of Gawain’s imperfect nature. Gawain’s taking of the girdle is the sole reason for the slight cut to the neck bestowed by the Green Knight later in the story. Perhaps engendering this revelation is the true ‘magic power’ of the Lady’s girdle as talisman.

Sir Gawain himself interprets the green girdle negatively, as “a sign of [his] shame [or, surfet, trangression]” (2433). However, exactly what he has to be ashamed of is multifaceted and open to interpretation. We have seen that his transgression is probably not religious sin exactly.[8] It is possible to read the acceptance of a gift from a married woman as symbolically committing adultery, but, once again, this does not seem well supported by the text.[9] Gawain’s transgression appears to be mostly on the secular level of the poem, the level of courteous social conduct. Indeed, the adventure of the entire middle section of the poem, in which Gawain is forced to distribute kisses to a strange lord while engaging in alluring bedroom scenes with his wife, has distinctly unchristian undertones. (It seems almost indecent for the poet to have placed Gawain in this situation in the first place.[10]) However, as titillating as some of these scenes are, the Gawain author seems only concerned with testing Gawain’s secular strength of character, in particular his resolve to act courteously to both the Lord and the Lady. Gawain must hand over all his ‘winnings’ to the Lord, and yet he must also treat the Lady courteously despite her many suggestive requests. By accepting the girdle, Gawain also must abide by the Lady’s request that he keep the girdle hidden from her husband (1862-3). This results in a contradiction for Gawain, who is now in a ‘Catch-22’ situation.[11] Whatever course of action he chooses, whether he hides or declares the girdle, he violates someone’s trust. By this thinking, he should not have accepted the girdle.

230px-Gawain_and_the_Green_KnightHowever, if we bring the Lady’s interpretation of the girdle as magic talisman back into our considerations here, we discover yet another possible justification for Gawain’s ‘shame’, a reason he explicitly mentions as “cowarddyse and couetyse [covetousness]” (2374). The implication is that Gawain took the girdle because he was afraid. Indeed, this seems to be the justification that appears in the text, when Gawain considers that, “It [the girdle] certainly would be splendid to forestall being slain” (1858). (This could also imply that on some level he actually believes in the protective quality of the girdle as magic talisman.) However, one senses that he should also be ashamed of breaking his pact in not declaring the girdle to the Lord even though such a declaration would have nothing to do with fear exactly – only with courteous impropriety. Perhaps it is both.[12]

For all Gawain’s myriad ‘faults’, Bercilak de Hautdesert declares the girdle a token of purity (2398). In this interpretation, Bercilak seems to appeal to Christian notions of sin and forgiveness, considering Gawain absolved of guilt because: “You have confessed so cleanly, proclaiming your faults, / And openly have the penance from the point of my weapon” (2391-2393). Yet he then gives Gawain the girdle to keep, ostensively as a proud symbol of his bravery in meeting the challenge at the Green Chapel (2399). But how has the girdle revealed Gawain’s bravery? If anything, it reveals his weakness, particularly if he took it out of fear and desire for its magical protection. The answer to this question resides again in the secular tradition and not the Christian. Conventionally, the Christian moral code does not celebrate flaws inherent in human nature. The concept of original sin is a negative reality to be condemned and overcome through the grace of God, not something to be celebrated with conspicuous tokens.[13] Yet, Bercilak is quite explicit about this, declaring that Gawain “lacked a little … / not from wild wickedness, nor wooing either, / But because you loved your life” (2366-68). One senses here the affirmation of natural order (as per the secular paradigm), recognized using the language of supernatural grace (as per the Christian).[14]

King Arthur’s court reinterprets the green girdle again, this time seeing it as an emblem of courtly brotherhood, adopted by all the knights in honour of Gawain (2515-2518). Exactly how to interpret this deference towards Gawain is also multifaceted. Some modern interpretations see Arthur’s court as naïve and childish, not without some textual justification.[15] In this view, the green girdles worn by the court represent a mockery, an inauthentic replication of Gawain’s distressing adventure. Yet other commentators consider the court as exhibiting a youthful innocence rather than a deluded naivety. In this reading, the laughter of the court is not a mockery but an affirmation of Gawain’s nobility and courage, and an acknowledgement of the small size of his fault.[16] In this view, the girdle as emblem of courtly brotherhood expresses a sentiment similar to Bercilak’s interpretation of the girdle as a token of natural purity. The wearing of girdles by the whole court would then symbolize the spreading of a humanistic (predominantly secular) courage and nobility among the knights.

This study thus reveals the greater significance of the secular rather than Christian paradigm for interpreting meaning in Gawain. The acceptance of the girdle by Sir Gawain seems to explicitly reveal his fear rather than his lust or his disloyalty to courteous social agreements. The interpretation of the girdle as protective talisman also satisfyingly links the ‘exchange of winnings’ agreement with the ‘beheading’ game – it is Gawain’s fear of the latter than leads to his violation of the former through acceptance of the girdle.[17] The Christian paradigm appears to have little significance until Gawain’s confession of shame. However, the Gawain author and Medieval readers probably would have distinguished no difference between these two aspects of the tale.[18] Gerald Morgan has convincingly argued that what modern critics often see as Gawain’s angry and traumatic self-castigations are more likely conventional medieval penitential practices, considered the more genuine through their dramatic expression.[19] On this interpretation, Gawain graciously admits the girdle as token of shame and ultimately comes to accept it as a token of purity, courage and brotherhood too[20] in the spirit of Christian atonement and in the spirit of secular chivalry (a spirit suggested aptly by the playful tone of the poem).[21] However, while this reading may more accurately reflect historical conventions and authorial intentions, it must be said that it is a comparatively bland and straightforward reading. The complexity and depth of Gawain to modern readers is likely to reside in its elusive, multifaceted interpretative possibilities,[22] even if these are partly the result of historical misunderstandings or unintentionally subversive readings.


Bowers, John M. An Introduction to the Gawain poet. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012.

Brewer, Elisabeth, ed. From Cuchulainn to Gawain. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1973.

Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. 1968. Reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001.

Cooper, Helen. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Keith Harrison, ix-xxxviii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Morgan, Gerald. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991.

Silverstein, Theodore. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1-34. 1974. Reprint, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited & translated by William Vantuono, revised ed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Stanbury, Sarah. Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1-15. 1975. Reprint, London: HarperCollins, 2006.

Zimmer, Heinrich. The King and the Corpse, edited by Joseph Campbell. 1948. Reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[1] Sarah Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 110.

[2] Note that what I am calling a secular quest may in fact pertain to non-Christian religious traditions such as, in Northern Europe, the vestigial Celtic or Germanic traditions, but I wish to make no historical conjectures here. I use terms like ‘Christian’ and ‘Celtic’ throughout this essay in a purely thematic sense, in reference to the moral test and secular quest paradigms only. These are aids to exploring meaning in the text from our modern standpoint and should not be construed as making judgments about historical precedence or authorial intention. See Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, ed. Joseph Campbell (1948; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 34-51 for a complex discussion and interpretation of pagan mythic elements.

[3] For a discussion of agape versus amor, see Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (1968; reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 175-178.

[4] See John M. Bowers, An Introduction to the Gawain poet (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012), 40, for a discussion of the ways in which Sir Gawain’s identity is annihilated in the poem.

[5] Line numbers and quotations are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. & trans. William Vantuono, revised ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

[6] Compare the original ‘beheading game’ in Elisabeth Brewer, ed., From Cuchulainn to Gawain, (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1973), 9-13, which seems to exist to explicitly demonstrate the supreme courage of the Irish hero Cuchulainn.

[7] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 240-242.

[8] Helen Cooper, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Keith Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xxx. Cooper describes Gawain’s fault as a venial sin. I suggest this equates with what I am calling a ‘secular’ fault, since venial sin means religiously slight or pardonable, not a mortal sin.

[9] J. R. R. Tolkien, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, trans. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien (1975; reprint, London: HarperCollins, 2006), 5. Tolkien suggests that if Gawain has any temptation to adultery, it is absolved through prayer. It is temptation’s blending with the customs of courtesy that trouble Gawain. See also Theodore Silverstein, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1974; reprint, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 11.

[10] For a discussion of the unconventionality of these scenes, see Cooper, introduction, xxiii.

[11] Silverstein, introduction, 14.

[12] Gerald Morgan, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991), 142-3.

[13] Cooper, introduction, xxxii.

[14] For a discussion of natural versus supernatural grace, see Campbell, Creative Mythology, 43, 476.

[15] Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 21-22, 49-51.

[16] Tolkien, introduction, 5; Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 52.

[17] Cooper, introduction, xxv, xxxvi.

[18] See also Zimmer’s argument that the Gawain author does not seem to understand the pagan symbology even as he utilizes it: Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, 80.

[19] Morgan, Gawain and the Idea of Righteousness, 155, 157-8.

[20] Note this could also be seen as part of the transforming ‘magic’ of the girdle as talisman, see Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, 79. Zimmer calls the girdle a ‘talisman of rebirth.’

[21] Bowers makes particular reference of the joyous bob-and-wheel in this respect: Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 15.

[22] It is frequently called ‘ambiguous’ by modern critics: Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-Poet, 111; Morgan, Gawain and the Idea of Righteousness, 129; Silverstein, introduction, 13.

Whither humanities? (Or perhaps ‘wither’…?)

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imagesWhat is the point of studying the humanities in a bottom-line, increasingly utilitarian society?

Utilitarian values are overemphasised in our society which is largely preoccupied with wealth, power, politics, and (dare I say it) science. It is not that these values are unworthy but that they are overemphasised to the exclusion of much else. The point of the humanities, I think, resides in the values of emotional intelligence, social ability, creative expression and psychological development – all these values are generally ignored by the general public, government, educational institutions, and the media. By ignored I mean that these ‘creative’ abilities are treated rather like language in an illiterate culture, that is, something which is *assumed* to be a matter of general knowledge and experience but which is often in a very basic, undeveloped state. When major social problems occur in relation to these neglected areas, we tend to be quick to find utilitarian ’causes’ and propose utilitarian ‘solutions’ (which mysteriously fail to work). For example, alcohol-fuelled violence has to do with the excessively late opening hours of bars or lack of proper police funding and nothing to do with a perceived lack of life meaning or emotional development. Even when advertisements are ‘blamed’ for major mental emotional conditions such as gambling or drug addiction, the ‘solution’ is a public awareness campaign – as if mere rational awareness could counter a strong emotional compulsion.

The humanities can help counter this misplaced focus by encouraging practice in and development of social abilities, emotional intelligence, creative skills etc. However, the utilitarian mindset has infiltrated the humanities as well rendering much of it largely ineffective and rather pointless. Critical writing skills are important but massively overemphasised in universities, where most students learn little else (I often joke that I am doing a ‘Bachelor of Essay-Writing’). Assessment is graded quantitatively and statistically as if arts subjects were in the science or maths faculty. Humanities desperately needs a more qualitative marking scheme and an injection of creative thinking – the very process I argue that it is supposed to be teaching. Essays are very good for encouraging student learning through research, but so would painting a picture (of an historical personage or scene perhaps), writing a poem, running a seminar or making a video. I have virtually never encountered a tutor or lecturer who actively advocated techniques of performance for class presentations, of social interaction when involved in class discussions, or even creative writing techniques in assessments – as usual these are all ‘assumed’ and pass as if invisible. I have never heard a tutor make critical remarks to a student regarding a well-researched but frankly boring and unengaging class presentation. The learning environment is generally sterile with human interaction facilitated largely by accident. Lectures need more open-ended questions and audience interaction; tutorials need a more creative active – even physical – interaction (sitting at desks is creative death no matter how scattered or round the tables are).

There are cultural and ideological problems in modern society which I believe arts education should be resisting or transforming rather than falling prey to. The biggest of these problems is the perceived lack of a sole ideological or religious truth upon which to base emotional values. This perceived lack of a single truth has led to the conviction that there IS no truth, therefore there is no ‘appropriate’ values, judgment, conviction or intuition to be ‘taught’ – hence the almost blanket refusal to discuss such fundamental values. But this is simply another example of utilitarian thinking – of undeveloped creative/emotional skills. The relativity of all values means not that there is a LACK of truth, but that there is a GLUT, a MULTIPLICITY, of truths, all waiting to be explored and developed for the individual, society, culture and the present situation.

We can resist this misplaced utilitarianism in the arts:
1. by focussing on this multiplicity of viewpoints, building up a repertoire of social, creative, individual and aesthetic skills in students which they have the flexibility to apply in varied situations (not just in classrooms or in academic journals or newspapers)
2. by researching and exploring the UNIVERSAL emotions, interactions, and life stages revealed to us by evolutionary psychology and other cultural traits common to all humanity (these are not and cannot be dead – only poorly developed)
3. by recognising and rewarding NOVELTY of expression, ideas, and interaction within a FUNCTIONAL human framework (as outlined by the functions of point 2) – novelty must occur within structure to avoid an ‘anything goes’ mentality
4. by focussing explicitly on the experiential basis of learning and content – avoiding the formulaic, the “rational”, “ideological” and the “moral” approaches to human creativity (these are as misguided as the “irrational”, “emotional”, and “mystic” approaches to science). Understanding that emotion is an ineffable and visceral experience is essential to developing compassion let alone all the other social emotions. It is more important than reason or academic essay-writing. Getting out there and making a presentation, organising a group, exploring an idea is more important, more ‘educational’, than writing yet another dry literary essay, no matter how many obscure footnotes. Many psychologists and neurologists now recognise that the development of moral capabilities in students is not likely to be helped by teaching them a set of precepts unless their emotional capacities are also well nurtured. (In this respect the teaching of the rationality-obsessed Enlightenment philosophers and their ideas is actively HARMFUL to a creative arts endeavour – except as an example of creatively misguided thinking, and I’m not sure that we need more examples of that!)

In sum, I argue that the humanities are generally poorly or ineffectually taught, but desperately needed. Significantly, if you treat the arts in an inappropriately utilitarian way, you find them more and more ineffective and pointless. It is rather like complaining that ballet dancers should be employing the utilitarian skills of walking and then complaining that the ballet is ineffective, rather pointless and uninspiring.

Written by tomtomrant

31 August 2013 at 10:08 pm

Bad Art

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I used the term ‘bad art’ – isn’t it disgraceful?!
Surely ‘art’ cannot be ‘bad’ as this assumes an absolute ‘good’ and an absolute ‘bad’ and as right-thinking post-modern thinkers this is just unacceptable!
Art isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – it all depends on the frame of reference, the critical theory, the person doing the looking.


But don’t stop there.

If the theory stops there, we have a situation like the following:
Danny is a total tool. He is a really hot guy and he goes about seducing girls, using them then dumping them.
“What a dick,” his latest, Janet, reflects. “You are a tool, Danny, and I am breaking up with you. Do you know why?! Because you are a dick. Think about it.” And she dumps him.
Danny, hurt by this unflattering assessment of his character, momentarily reflects: Who is she to call him a dick? These are just words. They are just subjective judgments. Danny is not of course literally a dick (though he may have one), it is simply a matter of opinion – it depends on the frame of reference, the critical theory, the person doing the looking.

Danny stops here. Thus assessing the relativity of judgments, he banishes such thoughts from his mind and continues his womanizing ways. In other words, he fails to learn anything.

It is precisely in this way that “post-modernism”, “post-structuralism”, “deconstruction” suggest we should view the world: fixed and definite meanings are impossible and futile; meanings are always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous; no one is capable of dispassionate judgments.

The result of this is: “You can’t tell me what to think!” and *shrug* indifference. But of course both of these attitudes are only useful against poorly considered, badly thought-out judgments, in situations requiring water to slide of the duck’s back. For example:
Two months later, Danny sees Janet at a party. “Hey,” he says, sidling up, “You still being a bitch?”
Janet reflects: Who is he to call me a bitch? These are just words, etc. It all depends on the person doing the looking – and puts his insults out of her mind.

Such indifference may be a mature response to a dickhead. But applied to all situations, we have a stunting of personal growth, the inability to learn, arrogance and the sense that life is meaningless.

Danny is right that he is not literally a dick. He is also right that the insult is only Janet’s opinion. BUT what is Janet’s opinion worth? 

This is the step the post-modernists seem reluctant to make: all right ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ but is such an opinion RELIABLE? Is the person to be trusted, or, more importantly, what data, what thinking is it based upon?

Janet is not a stranger and Danny knows that Janet is not a moron. In fact, Janet is probably both intellectually and emotionally smarter than him. Furthermore, they were going out for 3 weeks and spending a lot of time together. Janet has both an excellent sense of judgment and plenty of multi-faceted evidence about Danny’s character. Of course this means that what she said is not law, but it is still extremely reliable. Maybe, Danny might consider, maybe I might like to reconsider some of the ways in which I behave…

pollock-paintingSo the sequence goes like this:
1. Judgment
2. Step back from the judgment to realize the relativity and unreliability of all judgments, in an absolute sense.
3. Don’t stop there. Now assess the perspective from which that judgment is valid. Is such a perspective an important one? We must assess the source of the judgment and the basis of the assessment. Is it reliable?
This last, all important step (step 3), seems to have flummoxed the modernists, who seem transfixed by the existential crisis of the non-absoluteness of judgments (step 2). This suggests they secretly miss, cannot cope with, cannot endure a world without such absolutes. At least, it is unendurable to the extent that they stop there.

The modernist laments the directionless fragmentation and disorientation of modern life while the post-modernist celebrates it. Neither of them seems to want to do anything about it (aka., progress to step 3).

So instead:
Post-structuralism: we decide to reject complex structures (clearly all ‘lies’) and study instead the unstructured, the incidental, the plain. This is expressed by Danny when he says: “How dare she be smarter than me! I’m going to stick to dumb, disoriented girls in future who I incidentally meet at parties and never see again.”
Post-modernism: we ignore cohesive ideas and study instead the disordered, meaningless and cynical. For Danny: “How dare she make sense! I’m not going to even attempt a real relationship again – I’m just for the sex and the joy of manipulation.”
Or, we can read everything from a black-and-white political perspective: vis-a-vis Marxist Criticism, Lesbian/Gay Criticism, Cultural Materialism, Post-Colonial Criticism, Ecocriticism, Feminism, etc. Danny: “Well it would be just like a Bourgeois/hetero/old school/exploitative/fossil-fuel-burning woman to say something as totally dumb as that!”

Notice that these attitudes are equally unhealthy even if Janet were to think them about Danny. Janet should be indifferent to Danny’s taunts because she has assessed his claims, and knows them to be nonsense – not because:
Post-structuralism: “All opinions have a merely relative structure, therefore even Danny’s opinion is worthless.”
Post-modernism: “All is meaningless so I am cynical of anything Danny (or anyone else) tells me.”
Or: “Well it would be just like a Bourgeois/hetero/old school/exploitative/fossil-fuel-burning man to say something as totally dumb as that!”

Step 3 (the assessment of the pertinent reading of the situation) is not the reinstatement of a step 1 absolute judgment. It is the making of a judgment from a relative but appropriate point of view. The post-modernist argument seems to be that finding the appropriate point of view is so difficult, it is impossible or at least, not worth even trying. The idea is related to, not just an over-interpreted idea of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but the reality of the modern ‘global’ world, in which many races, cultures, religions, people are all mixing and intermingling to an extent never before experienced in the history of humanity. It is as if we are two alien tribes meeting for the first time, except everywhere and all the time. But what did we do at those earlier meetings, where there was no common language, no common culture or understanding? We tentatively and cautiously took some clumsy mute attempts at communication, at reassurance on a common ground. This seems to me to be the appropriate course of action – not the definitely right one of course, but, as post-modernism keeps insisting, there is no absolute right so, post-modernists, quit your whinging and get a grip.

I agree the situation is not easy and is not ideal, but I think encouraging people to take those tentative steps to communication, not just to find bland ‘new’ hyper-individualistic (“You can’t tell me what to think!”) forms, but to reconstruct and re-use old structures, orders, cohesive systems, old understandings with fresh insight, would be a lot better, a lot more appropriate, than celebrating indifference, inhumanity, fragmentation, disorder and the hopelessness of going on. This is the difference between stepping into the unknown with a shaky confidence versus cowering in a corner and giving up.

Not just literary criticism, but art that does the former and not the latter is truly ‘good’ – ‘good art’ – at least for this moment, in this global situation, but probably (shock! horror!) for all time – for what situation would not require a meaningful, ordered critical but uncynical reflection on life?

Written by tomtomrant

15 June 2013 at 12:40 am

Literary Theory (1) New Criticism Reviewed

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I’m not much interested in literary theory but a recent traumatic university assessment experience has forced me to peer into its bewildering world of arcane verbiage and idiosyncratic intellectuality and attempt to distinguish the proverbial head from tail. The unfashionable schools of Formalism and New Criticism seem to me to make a good deal of sense, although we must overlook some deficiencies of method and update elements of old-school language. My brief comments below were inspired simply by the Wikipedia page, but I thought I would share them.  

New Criticism

Such Formalism looks promising:
New Critics often performed a “close reading” of the text and believed the structure and meaning of the text were intimately connected and should not be analyzed separately rather than analyzing the literary text itself.” = non-separation of content and style.
Content by itself = ‘information’ and everything this could entail (not necessarily having anything to do with the arts), i.e. history, culture, opinion, news, etc.
Style by itself = abstract art (not usually very engaging) or ‘the mode of presentation’: the notepaper, empty stage/screen/Powerpoint slides, etc. In sum, meagre offerings with limited potential.[1]

But Formalism seems less promising in the negative:
“New Critics focused on the text of a work of literature and tried to exclude the reader’s response, the author’s intention, historical and cultural contexts, and moralistic bias from their analysis.”
I would add the words: “unless the text itself, or the method of critical examination, explicitly calls for these.”

“For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the text was considered irrelevant, and potentially distracting.”
This is fair – we are studying literature. To read more into a text than reasonably occurs to one while reading is like neurosis: seeing shadows which are not merited/are based on one’s own personal idiosyncratic character or context.

But we can’t HELP being in a social-political context surely?
This is true but:
1. if the work is contemporary, we are currently IN that context and if the context is relevant it should occur to us naturally when reading. (It is also possible that the cultural character of the current age is not something we can see clearly while living in that age and it is problematic (and off the subject!) to be theorizing about this.)
2. if the work is NOT contemporary, or it is from a context which is strange to us[2] (set in distant lands, concerning a subject we know little about), it is fair to say that the context is then relevant provided it is made explicit that we are interpreting it from a relative standpoint. (It is quite possible to analyze an ancient work as viewed through modern historically-unenlightened eyes.)

This is also a bit of a worry:
Wimsatt and Beardsley also discounted the reader’s personal/emotional reaction to a literary work as a valid means of analyzing a text.
If you discount the reader’s reaction what exactly is the point of art? …I have subsequently done more reading on this and it seems that this sentence is a little misleading. It is not any emotional reaction that is to be discounted but an excessively personalised one (see above). Also, writing about emotion in ‘paint-by-number’ categories, e.g. this bit makes us happy, this bit makes us sad, is not enlightening and over-simplistic.

Criticism of New Criticism:
“Terence Hawkes writes that the fundamental close reading technique is based on the assumption that ‘the subject and the object of study—the reader and the text—are stable and independent forms, rather than products of the unconscious process of signification.’”
1. The subject and object of study ARE stable forms – from a particular perspective. When the particular perspective is ‘white Caucasian academics’ it is true that custom has made it assumed rather than specified. This assumption confers a stability which is merited provided we bear the assumption in mind.
2. The subject and object of study ARE NOT independent forms – I am in agreement with Hawkes here; however are the New Critics really saying the work and reader/context are independent? (See the first and last points on this page.)
3. An unconscious process cannot properly be expressed in words. Not addressing such an area (the unconscious) is usually the practice in other academic criticism: for example, one is not to employ theories of the unconscious when discussing Greek myth or, say, the history of the French Revolution – unless specifically asked to do so. Looking into the unconscious nakedly and constantly creates the kind of morass of messy contradictions and heated debates which is the landscape of current literary theory. Unconscious signification is just that – unconscious. We can hazard vague suggestion of it (and signification methods are illuminated by a greater awareness of the perspective from which we are viewing things) but in the end, digging into the unconscious will only take us off the subject. As per Carl Jung: “Only the material that is clearly and visibly part of a dream should be used in interpreting it.”

“For Hawkes, ideally, a critic ought to be considered to ‘[create] the finished work by his reading of it, and [not to] remain simply an inert consumer of a ‘ready-made’ product.’”
This is the chicken and the egg. A work requires the reader, and a reader requires the work. To assume there is only one side of this is the problem.

A salient point from another New Critic:
“to put meaning and valuation of a literary work at the mercy of any and every individual [reader] would reduce the study of literature to reader psychology and to the history of taste.”
This is largely what indeed has happened.

The idea of target audience is fine if you mean ‘audience from whose perspective it may be beneficial to interpret (or create) this work’. It is problematic if you then suggest that all target audiences are equally sophisticated in their readings, which is no more true than that all people are equally happy, or wise, or intelligent. There is a perspective from which there is no target audience: just me – the personal individual idiosyncratic reading – but this is not usually the vantage point of literary theory which is, if anything, collective to some degree.

[1] Note exception for music where the content is the melody = ‘aural sentence’.

[2] Or we are in a context that is strange to the work

Written by tomtomrant

6 June 2013 at 8:16 pm