Monday, October 26, 2009

Extra-textual knowledge

In a comment to my post on difficulty, Jonathan confesses that he is puzzled by what seem to be contradictory claims that I have advanced recently about extra-textual knowledge.

In discussing the stories originally written by Raymond Carver and later mucked-up by Gordon Lish—and published in book form in the mucked-up versions—I held that the meanings of the stories were damaged or destroyed, because “semantic meaning is null” where intentionality is “composite” and where the knowledge of what mind composed what words is lacking.

But then, in praising Thom Gunn’s poem “Still Life,” I said that the poem does not achieve it enormous power “through the extra-textual knowledge that Larry Hoyt, whose struggles for breath are being described [in the poem], later died of AIDS.”

In the first case, I suggest that extra-textual knowledge is necessary if the meaning of the text is to be fully understood. In the second case, I suggest that it is not necessary. Which one is it, hotshot?

I suppose that I could weasel out of the contradiction by protesting that I was talking about the meaning of the first text and the power of the second, but I am already on record holding that the second is subordinate to the first.

The truth is that I see no contradiction. Here is what I was thinking when I said that Gunn’s poem does not require its biographical background to succeed in its emotional effect, to operate smoothly as a meaning-making machine, to work as a poem.

Despite Francine Prose’s claims for it in her new book Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, I have long suspected that The Diary of a Young Girl owes much of its power to the extra-textual knowledge—the knowledge that was not possibly available to Frank herself—that the reader is holding in his hands a ghost.

Compare Gunn’s, for example, to the following poem by Babette Deutsch:

The Look

Beneath the gay bandeau the shaven head
Showed. The eyes, huger in the wasted face,
Wandered like wild things dulled by narrow pacing.
The hand was tethered to a pain, that fed
On a spreading horror. Light revived the pain,
Reminding it how it had gorged before;
While off the brightness of the corridor
Some rooms were dark now where the dead had lain.
Talk fluttered heavily toward the neighbor bed,
In vain, moved toward the pain again, then tried
Circling some public topic, turned and eyed
The heart’s homeliest charges, and fell dead.
The living stood beside the bed and waited
For nothing in the nowhere of appall,
And smiled at her, as if there were no wall
Between them and the dying. Her fate
Stood near them with eyes larger than her own,
That would not close, not even when she slept.
Its look followed after as they lightly crept
Off, waving, leaving her alone.
The two poems belong to the same family of subject-matter. Here too, apparently, is a dying patient in a hospital (there is corridor and a “neighbor bed”). Deutsch’s is not doggerel, but compared to Gunn’s poem it is decidely inferior. It is prolix where “Still Life” is brief; its locutions are forced where Gunn’s achieves an ease of expression; it inflates its language (“the nowhere of appall”) where Gunn’s flattens it to seek a similar effect (as when a dying man’s breathing is called an “obscure knack”); it relies upon limp abstractions (“as if there was no wall/ Between them and the dying”) where Gunn’s is able to bestow haunting significance to a concrete detail like the breathing tube in the patient’s mouth.

But something else the poems have in common. They may both be samples of “atrocity” verse. Deutsch’s twenty-line poem, originally published in the April 1949 issue of Commentary, could well be about the death of a Holocaust survivor, someone who outlived the “spreading horror” and the dark rooms “where the dead had lain” only to die painfully soon after the defeat of the German Nazis.

I have no direct knowledge, but the evidence is suggestive. Deutsch was a Jewish poet publishing in a Jewish magazine—the magazine, indeed, that did more than any other to bring knowledge of the Holocaust to a wider Jewish public. A charter member of John Dewey’s Committee for Cultural Freedom, which organized in 1939 “to defend individuals and groups victimized by totalitarian practices” in Europe, she sent at least one son to fight with the U.S. Army there. Four years later she published The Welcome, a young adult novel about a young German Jewish refugee in a new school in America. And Take Them, Stranger (1944), a collection issued a year before V-E Day, included several poems on the theme of the worldwide dislocation caused by the war.

Although it cannot be established with any degree of certainty, the supposition is interesting, because it adds a dimension of meaning and power that is otherwise missing from “The Look.” Gunn’s poem, however, needs no additional dimension. In neither case, however, is the knowledge necessary for interpretation or evaluation. At most it contributes to an involuntary extra-textual shudder, which belongs rightfully to the world of pain, not poetry.

There are some texts, however, that require extra-textual knowledge if they are to make any sense at all (or if their nonsense is at least to be recognized as nonsense). It is also entirely possible that, in time, both “Still Life” and “The Look” will require extra-textual learning—footnotes or research—to restore the sense that time has robbed them of. Breathing tubes may be replaced by some other medical technology, hospitals may no longer have corridors. Even then, however, the distinction will be between extra-textual knowledge that is necessary to interpretation and evaluation—knowledge that may or may not be possible to supply—and extra-textual knowledge that merely adds gossip value.


Anonymous said...

On inter=textual knowledge from a different perspective, readers might take a look at the recent post and comments at

Unknown said...

The Library of America has just published the stories of Raymond Carver and they have printed the stories as written by Carver and the stories edited and wrecked by Lish.

Worth reading.