First of all, let me say that I’m at the ARe Cafe today, talking about food, which is one of those things that I both know intimately and know nothing about. (I hate contradictions like that, don’t you?) Anyway, be sure to visit because there’s a chance to win a Kindle Fire, and you get to hear me natter on and generally, is a good time all around. (Plus, they use little coffee cups as their bullet points, and I find that charming.)
Second, Big T and I were having an epic conversation this morning about New Historicism.
What– don’t you talk about schools of literary interpretation over your morning coffee? Well, if you don’t, you’re severely deprived. (I’m joking. I cannot tell you the number of times my poor son has wandered in while I’m trying to cure misanthropy with caffeine and tried to change the subject from irritating dogs to deep schools of thought. Sometimes, it’s like, “If you’re not going to talk about the stupid dog, just go away and leave me to hating mankind.”)
So, when I was making that abortive tour to get my masters degree, I took a semester in Hamlet. Yes. An entire semester on the that one play. Now, on the one hand, it sounds stupid, because eventually you would probably swing from “Oh, poor Hamlet, wasn’t he tortured and sad and tragic and don’t I adore him so!” to “Look, you stupid git, you’re obviously in love with Horatio and have a man-boner for Laertes, so stop dicking around with poor Ophelia, let your uncle have Denmark because it’s about to be invaded, and get over your overbearing daddy who probably would have eaten your liver for being gay anyway.” (And this was long before I wrote Green and Adrian, by the way– I just sort of felt like a lot of Hamlet’s iss-yuus were maybe not as political and revenge driven as he let on.) Anyway, on the plus side, my state college education had left out interpretive schools of thought until that exact class.
That, and Professor Adams was, Goddess love him, one of the most amazing, thought provoking, influential instructors in my past, and I loved him so much, it was one last chance to be inspired by his genius.
Anyway– it was here that I was introduced to the New Historical school of thought.
Which I had a real fucking problem with.
Part of that was that I kept falling asleep during the reading– let’s be real. Kids, work, school, New Historicism and Hamlzzzzzzzz….
So anyway, the quick and simple definition of New Historicism is that it looks at both the historical context of the work as well as the historical context of the reviewer.
I boiled it down to cows.
Let’s say you’re a cow somewhere in Western civilization today. There you are, sitting in a green field in the sun. The following things are going on that you are not aware of:
- You have been injected with antibiotics so you don’t die of something horrible you could pass on to a human.
- Your water has been piped from somewhere else so it is safe to drink.
- Your blue sky is tainted by chemicals that have helped deplete the ozone and make your temperature a little hotter.
- There is a road nearby– you can either A. see it, or B. hear it, or C. actually smell the exhaust from it.
- You can see power lines, whether or not they impact upon your central nervous system or give you cancer.
- Airplanes are leaving white trails in your chemically tainted sky.
- People are actually planning not to eat you and trying to influence other people not to eat you which is a relatively new thing.
- Republicans and vegetarians are both trying to blame the state of the world on your methane emissions. In the case of the vegetarians, they have a point. In the case of the Republicans, they are deluded.
- You have an impressive array of natural antibodies in your bloodstream, providing you have survived this long.
- You are lucky to drink from a mud puddle, and don’t really care if your water is tainted with amoebas or shallow graves.
- Your blue sky is nothing but blue sky, and nobody has ever discussed whether the color blue was caused by the internal combustion engine or your own farts. In fact, cow farts have never, as long as you’ve existed, given anybody anything to think about ever.
- You may or may not have seen a road. Ever.
- If your humans ever did see an airplane, they would probably sacrifice you to old gods to make it go away.
- If you can neither produce milk or other baby cows, you will be eaten. The question is when, not why and how good it is for human digestion. The question is only whether or not you are healthy enough to not spread destruction by your being eaten.
- You are a symbol of prosperity. Stories are written, civilizations are created and destroyed, families thrive or disappear, all for the health of the family cow.
The cow is unaware of any of these things.
The humans who eat the cow are only marginally aware of these things.
The humans who raise the cows, who see them born, raise them to health, and watch/help them die, are very aware of these things. They are not necessarily aware of how these things affect the way they think, eat, raise/kill/birth cattle as they continue their production of cows.
The cows are literature.
The literature is created by the conditions that the time has rendered.
The people reading the literature do not necessarily know why a cow written a thousand years ago tastes different than a cow written today– but they do know it’s different.
The people writing and criticizing the literature are aware of why the cows written a thousand years ago taste different than the cows written today. The don’t know how different, but they are very aware that there is A DIFFERENCE IN TASTE. They can use their knowledge of the differences in environment, health, and cow raising to extrapolate what the differences might be, but they cannot know for sure. All that they can know for sure is that both animals are cows, and that they like steak. (Remember, this is literary steak– this does not mean that critics and writers can’t be vegetarians. Substitute “cows” for “mushrooms” and you could get the same analogy, without the part about the methane.)
So we know the steak tastes different, and we’re aware of why it tastes different, but we can never, not for certain, know what a petrol-free, chemically virginal, power-line ignorant, road-oblivious, pure-blue-sky gazing cow actually tastes like when eaten as a peasant for whom cow is a big fucking deal and who has never had a qualm as to the political leanings of said cow.
Cut we can still appreciate the steak we eat today, even if it was conceived of a thousand years ago, in a different world.
So there you go. Amy has just taken a very complicated literary theory and made you crave steak. And/or mushrooms.
Off to cook dinner!