Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 21

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Wk 11 - Mon (13/10), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB1

Ian McEwan: Atonement (2001) -

Thatcher Means Death

Critical Methodologies

What is a "reading" (so-called)?

Perhaps the best analogy is with modelling (in scientific terms). A reading is a kind of computer model of a work of art, not incorporating everything that's in the original -- since if it did it would simply be that original -- but accouting for as many aspects as possible.

We can therefore talk about rich readings, or reductionist readings, or ideological readings without committing ourselves to a belief in the truth and/or falsity of any reading of, say, a novel. It's a good reading insofar as we find it useful in accounting for the individual features and oddities of that particular work of art.

Another prevalent distinction is between clean readings and dirty readings.

A "clean" reading (and the term is, intentionally, a loaded one) is - for the purposes of this argument - one which confines itself to the formal features of a work of art, without straying outside it into the fields of biography, history or cultural politics. New Critics, Structuralists (and even certain post-structuralists) have an ideological predisposition for this type of reading. It's principal practical device is the "Close reading," pioneered by I. A Richards in England and the Southern Agrarian critics in the United States. Many teachers still find this intentional self-limiting a useful pedagogical aid, particularly in junior classes.

A "dirty" reading, by contrast, is one which concerns itself with historical and cultural agency. It depends on a certain amount of knowledge of a number of fields on teh part of the critic, and is therefore a somewhat less popular means of instruction at undergraduate level.

You'll perceive, on my part, a tendency to prefer dirty readings over clean readings throughout the body of this course. This is not so much because I like showing off the fact that I've read some history, as because I have certain difficulties with the basic postulates of the confined, ahistorical reading.

Take the simple matter of textual integrity, for instance. One of the early critical reading of Herman Melville's novel White-Jacket (1850) made great play with a scene where the hero falls from the mast of a ship at sea and, as he sinks beneath the waves, is touched by "some soiled fish of the deep."

But then it turned out that "soiled" was in fact a misprint for the far less resonant "coiled."

What can you do about things like that? Misprints, errors of punctuation or spacing, editorial intrusions on the author's original intentions? You have to get dirty, I'm afraid. There's no choice but to enter the complex and vexed arena of textual criticism.

Some texts are (relatively) stable and reliable. Does one really have to know which are which before beginning to scrutinise their more minute and telling details? I can't myself see much alternative, I'm afraid.

But of course it doesn't stop there. Can one read (say) Ian McEwan's fiction of the eighties and nineties with no knowledge of the cultural history of that era? Quite likely so - at present. Because we're not really conscious of the weight of cultural baggage which enables us to make sense of his cabinet ministers and Academics and their less respectable contemporaries.

But such information recedes, inexorably, with the passage of time. I was in the UK in the late 1980s. Some of what I read or hear about that epoch makes sense to me because I was there. I remember, shortly after arriving, seeing written on a wall: "Thatcher means Death."

Who was Margaret Thatcher? Why was she being apostrophized in this way in 1986? Does it matter? It's up to me (of course) to prove that it does - but I'm afraid I generally find the arguments in favour of ignorance less compelling than the ones in favour of acquiring some more knowledge - of whatever kind.

The UK in the 1980s

Margaret Thatcher became Leader of the British Conservative Party in 1975, and was elected Prime Minister in 1979, after Labour's so-called "Winter of Discontent." She was finally toppled in 1990 by John Major, her own choice of successor (though her support for him would evaporate over time).

She was a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan's aggressive foreign policy, an opponent of Trade Unions and what she saw as a bloated, inefficient Civil Service. The Thatcher era was associated with laissez-faire, Monetarist economics, and a get-rich-quick, entrepreneurial mentality in business (somewhat undercut by the 1987 stock market crash.

A characteristic quote [from an interview in Woman's Own magazine, 23 September 1987]:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations...

Such views understandably attracted some cultural commentary. On the one hand there was the portrayal of the grasping young ignoramuses of the Thatcher era in novels such as Martin AmisMoney (1984) and London Fields (1989), or films such as Mike Leigh's High Hopes (1988) or (retrospectively) Ken Loach's The Navigators (2001). Then there's the fascinating, multilayered complexity of Salman Rushdie's examination of the racial politics of the era, The Satanic Verses (1988).

But before any of those there was Ian McEwan's The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983)


So what’s McEwan's fiction really about?

"Ian Macabre," as he was called after his first few titles, has gradually developed more of a political consciousness as his prestige and reputation grows.

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