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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Literature That Speaks, Characters Who Live

Monday, March 10, 2008

Any university teacher will grumble about the bad grammar and stylistic infelicities of first-year university students (see The Kids Aren't All Write from the Time's Higher). As I have noted before, since these are in many respects capable and intelligent students, and grammar as a technical procedure is not particularly demanding to learn, the blame for their mistakes must lie neither with them, nor with their previous teachers, but with an education system that does not reward the ability to write accurately. I gather that marks for spelling, grammar and presentation in language-based A-levels now comprise a maximum of just 3 percent of total marks, down from 5 percent when I was in their shoes a decade ago.

But if my students' linguistic errors reflect the bias of the amorphous system in which they have been raised, there is perhaps something altogether more sinister in the grammatical error I have noticed recurring in my most recent batch of marking essays on drama. This is the tendency to talk of "people that." People or characters that occupy the stage; people that suffer tragedy; dramatists that critique society. In the semantic shift from "who" to "that," people are deprived of agency, mutated from whole subjects into objects, from individuals who live, breathe and die into things that simply are. Whenever I correct a "that" which should read "who," I get a chill as there seems something cold, steely - even scientific - in the slip, as if the students presume characters to have been presented for the sole, didactic benefit of their analysis, rather than existing as rounded beings viewable in many dimensions and with many significances.

There is something of the surveillance society about this, as if we can view drama only through a grainy lens as a prurient snippet of Big Brother gossip that happens to pass the time. But we should experience drama not top-down, but live it through the characters, the fully-rounded embodiments of complex ideas that - if we sympathise correctly - we suddenly apprehend clearly, and in the instant of the drama's movements. It is to the idea that passes through the character, not to the character or person directly, that we should respond with the epiphany (as expressed by Fay Weldon), "yes, yes, that is exactly how it is. Life is like that." Only once we appreciate that characters are beings like ourselves, have lives of their own rather than existing solely for the purposes of polemic or entertainment, can we legitimately move from "characters who" to "characters that": characters that show in their realism that this is how life is.

Or, if not surveillance, in talking of "characters that," it is as if my students are playing a computer game, the first-person shooter, in which the actors are mere sprites (echoes of E.M. Forster's flat characters here), things presented to which we can do things - usually violent - to score points. But the drama is not like that. It does not demand we do anything other than gently hear the play; and if we listen hard enough, we will realise with a start that the thing being objectified is not the tragic hero or comic fool, but our own comfortable systems of beliefs.

Or, if not the computer game, the "character that" is a translation from contemporary media reporting of the War on Terror. The depersonalising effect by which the language of Western anti-terrorism turns subjects into objects was explored recently in an exemplary essay by Yonatan Mendel:
An Israeli journalist can say that IDF soldiers hit Palestinians, or killed them, or killed them by mistake, and that Palestinians were hit, or were killed or even found their death (as if they were looking for it), but murder is out of the question.
The Palestinians are passive objects, recipients that have things done to them; the Israeli IDF are the agents who are swift, purposive, judicial. Is it really a leap too far of my sinister imagination, if I suggest that the move in the drama from "characters who" do things to "characters that" exemplify the view of the dramatist is the reflection of the journalism of terror?

Of course, the consequences of reading literature with the wrong sort of perspective are not directly as great as those of reading the Muslim Other as an objective incarnation of an absolutely Evil ideology. But there is something of a parallel, for if we cannot know literature as being inhabited by other lives that are in their own way as purposive as our own - lives presented to us in the best possible, because artificial, framework in which our sympathy can be encouraged - what hope for the real world in all its interwoven web of moral meanings through which it is always difficult to cut, more so done with the bent knife of Western reportage?

George Eliot is perhaps the exemplary novelist, for she is not - at least not directly - a moralist, presenting characters as analogues for criticism. She instead allows her characters to inhabit the stage of the novel as fully and from as many different perspectives as possible. Most famous is the moment in Middlemarch when, having spent so long representing the world through the eyes of the young heroine Dorothea, she suddenly turns to the reader and demands:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea - but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us.
Eliot's contemporary, Arthur Sedgwick, observed that the consequence of the web of relationships between the rounded characters who Eliot presents in her novels, is that:
If George Eliot has real dramatic power, and has imagined real characters, there is no doubt that it is folly to say that she is primarily a critic. But we think she has not. What she has done has been to describe, with such wonderful minuteness and ironical force, the thoughts and feelings which, under given circumstances, a certain kind of person might have, that we are forced to admit the possibility of the picture, or, to speak more accurately, the reality of the report.
Or, as A.S. Byatt notes of Eliot, she "saw her work as making incarnate certain ideas that she apprehended in the flesh, i.e., sensuously, materially, through feeling." It is this view of ideas "apprehended in the flesh," emerging through characters and their emotions rather than layered upon them like a simple costume, that is shown as having been lost by the the thought of "characters that." But if we are to avoid becoming morally autistic in drama and in life, we must be capable of occupying the world as if through the eyes of another, even those who seem (as Casaubon, or as the terrorist) unlikeable, or who seem (as dramatic figures are) exemplars of some moral position we could get at through objective rather than subjective means (for example, through placing Chekhov in the context of Russian history, or through a misreading of what the Koran definitively says).

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Posted by Alistair at 8:57 am


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is increased reliance on computerized grammar checks; MS Word will often identify "characters who" as grammatically incorrect, and it will suggest "characters that" as the correction.

6:38 pm  

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