H. L. Hix: I keep coming back to the passage that ends the fifth chapter of your book. “Thus, the individual tales that pull us toward, and away from, clear resolutions also push us centrifugally outward to other tales, which, I think, is one of the reasons appreciative readers often describe Fables as comprehensive or capacious. In the universe of Fables, Dryden continually invites us to search beyond our powers to know” (141).
Your book reminds readers of the rewards available to us from the Fables, of ways in which that work exemplifies the best of Dryden. But this passage seems to me also to note a way in which Fables exemplifies the best of literature. Am I right to see in your book not only an apology for a particular work by a particular poet, in relation to the rest of his work, but also an apology for literature at large, an exposition of one (some?) of the gifts it makes available to us?
Ric Reverand: In response to your query: insofar as the sentence you quoted stresses the comprehensive and the capacious, then yes, it could describe what I think makes literature good. And I would have to confess that for me, the aesthetic value, complexity, and richness count a great deal. By ‘richness,’ I mean richness of allusion: when a work includes a range of references to history, tradition, mythology, art, literature, religion, philosophy, and so on, then it becomes rich because it contains many elements of a culture. In selecting what to teach, we sometimes look for works that are influential, or that should be privileged for political reasons (works by women, by minorities). Or we focus on works that are inaccessible and fiendishly difficult—Ulysses, Paradise Lost, The Dunciad, Finnegans Wake, The Waste Land, Pound’s Cantos, Gravity’s Rainbow—because we can show off to hapless students how smart we are, and how much we know. Would such works have such a cachet if just anybody could read them? I suppose that, in figuring out what to teach, I’ve selected things using all of these principles, but primarily, I choose works that I regard as aesthetically complex and rich, works that avoid simple, clear answers and instead deal with complex issues as if they’re complex issues. I have taught Hamlet. I won’t teach Harry Potter.
However, when I was talking about Fables, I was trying to get at something specific about the way Dryden’s collection worked. When you confront Macbeth, you’ve got a pretty good idea that Shakespeare is surveying violence and its devastating consequences, in disrupting succession, destroying political stability, undermining character; you could say the theme is violence, and the play itself is a series of variations. And you’re pretty sure, in reading Paradise Lost, that Milton is advocating Christianity, that, whatever ironies his work may contain, not the least of which is that Satan is more attractive than God, still, the goal and value system are pretty clear. In reading virtually anything by Dickens, you’re pretty sure that he’s fighting against child exploitation, poverty, pollution, disease, crime, prostitution, and inveighing against the political incompetence, indifference, and inhuman theorizing (Utilitarianism, Malthusian economics) that permits social problems to persist. And one could make a case that all of Jane Austen is about women seeking self-fulfillment in marriage. Most of the time, works of literature suggest some sort of value system, some set of standards against which actions and characters are judged. And these works, clearly, can be complex and rich.
But then there are other works, generally late works, such as Fables, where the value systems seem to dissolve even as you find yourself committing to them. There’s no closure, and, as I apparently said in the sentence you quoted, you find yourself searching beyond your powers to know. This may be comprehensiveness and richness, but of a particular kind. I think one of the things that kept scholars from tackling Fables, despite their conviction that this was a great work, was that they couldn’t grasp it, couldn’t say of it anything like what I said about Macbeth or Paradise Lost. And I struggled like everybody else, until it dawned on me that perhaps that’s exactly what the work was about, about the process of trying to grasp what was ungraspable.
I did make an argument in the last chapter about why Dryden, at this stage in his life, might have done this. Having discovered that all of his cherished beliefs were no longer sustainable, he didn’t despair or retreat, but rather depicted a universe where beliefs and values kept dissolving. In a way, beset by huge political and cultural changes that should have made old Dryden obsolete, the kinds of changes that make so many older people bitter, he ended up celebrating change, and trying to take the reader along with him.
I’m coming to think, however, that this strange kind of open-ended ‘organizing’ characterizes many late works of literature and art. Consider late Beethoven; Pope’s Dunciad; late Brahms; late Monet. In their late works, we see the unmistakable imprint of Beethoven, Pope, and Brahms, and yet the works are completely different than anything they had previously done, and the late works that could not have been predicted from what had come before. Who would know from the 8th symphony that we’d encounter a chorus in the 9th symphony? Who would know after hundreds of water lilies, that the final ones would be thirty-five feet wide? Who would know from “Rape of the Locke” or his numerous Horatian imitations, that Pope would write a satirical anti-epic, with footnotes and a pedantic scholar-editor, no less? Late Beethoven is still Beethoven, but at a different order of magnitude. And all of these works, I think, resist closure and remain elusive because of that. We might call this “open-ended richness.”