RARA-AVIS: My definition is...

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 15 Nov 2005

Vickie writes:
"My definition of literary is character driven, whether good or bad."

My definition of literature is it has compassion. Literary writing has this
"virtue" missing as much as pulp fiction.

Aristotle in his "Poetics" said the audience should feel fear and pity for the inevitable plight of the tragic hero. We should feel pity because we can see ourselves in his shoes. We should feel fear because we can see ourselves in his shoes.

There but for the grace of God . . .

That's compassion. Compassion isn't sentimentality, either. It's not a Hallmark card, or a Kodak moment. It's not namby-pamby, or loaded with saccharine. It's cold and remorseless and detached, like a wife-beater or the freeway. It knows the world for what it is. Its eyes are wide-open like an owl's at midnight, and it knows what it's watching is brutally pragmatic, and it sees its own face and features staring back at it.

Compassion soaks all of literature, yes, even noir.

When I read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," for instance, I see Marlowe suddenly sharing a soda cracker with a starving black man. It's a tiny act of compassion, a single sentence, but it's also the only act of compassion in the entire novella. To me, that's the horror within the story, not Kurtz' dying. Kurtz is a buffoon. Fuck Kurtz.

I feel for Cora and Frank in the Postman, as much as I think they're stupid people. Cain, while he may be slumming, does let their hearts get shown. Hey, I could be that stupid for lust/love.

There's compassion in Voltaire's ferocious writings, when Candide and his companion are leaving Eldorado and meet a handless, legless black man in the dust in the road, and he tells them that he (and all the other slaves he represents) is the reason behind the price of sugar in Europe.

Ebenezer Scrooge looks out his window at the end of Chapter One. Outside the air is filled by hordes of bankers' ghosts, all neatly tied in chains to their ledgers and account books. (Fuck bankers, too, by the way.) The one closest to Ebenezer and me is plaintively trying to capture the attention of the homeless woman with her child in the doorway to give her money. He so desperately wants to help her, that Madonna of the Streets. Too bad, Mister Banker, you had your chance. On the other hand, Scrooge gets it.

Ulysses is horrified in Hades, when his mother steps forward out of the mist to drink the blood he has poured in the trough. The greatest hero in Western literature didn't know his mother had died while he was forced to wander the wine-dark sea for all those years. She hung herself, she tells him, out of grief for him. What mother doesn't worry about her children?

Kafka said a book was an axe to chop the ice from our hearts. And Gregor Samsa died from a lack of compassion from his own family.

Noir means "screwed." But, when I read it, or when I read something some critic calls "literary," do I feel fear and pity? To me, that's the key.

Best wishes....and back to grading 120 quizzes on The Maltese Falcon.

Frederick Zackel

"We do not measure the classics. They, rather, measure us." ~ Arnold Bennett

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 15 Nov 2005 EST