Anne Notations

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Once upon a time... or, adventures in narrative and theory

Yesterday Michael and I were talking about our daughter's and nephew's college majors (the first unknown as yet, the second sociology and criminal theory), and I recalled that I had thought as a pre-freshman that I might major in political science – never having sampled a single course in it. Then I actually took the introductory political science course, and while the lectures were lively, the readings lost me fairly early on. I had long considered this a defect of my character, but now I realize what dampened my interest 39 years ago: theory.

You don't have to go too deeply into an academic discipline before theory rears its head. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but I now know it's not my thing. I'm all about stories. Narratives. What happened to whom, why, how – and what resulted.

I came very close to majoring in art history at Brown, mostly thanks to the brilliant teacher Kermit Champa who taught the four courses in 19th- and 20th-century European and American art that I took after being smitten with the introductory art history survey course, brilliantly team-taught by Champa, Anna Schultz, and others. My dear friend Laurie Hormel and I devoured these courses, side by side, our notebooks filled with descriptions using arcane Champa terms such as "scumbled".

I have rarely worked as hard at anything as I did at memorizing the slides we had to know for our exams. Perhaps most thrilling of all, I read and re-read our two primary texts by John Rewald, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, which to this day hold places of honor on our bookshelves. Rewald told the vivid, thrilling stories of painters in France who broke free of the academy's rigid technical and subject strictures and began painting light in thick brushstrokes, dots of color, patterns that resolved into shimmering images of landscapes, people, and flowers. Manet, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso. And the women! Yes, women painted among these giants. I was enthralled by the work and the personal stories of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, to the extent that I wished I could be them.

Eventually, in studying modern European and American art, we plunged deeper into theory – inevitable as the student seeks to understand just what the heck those abstract artists were up to. Laurie and I traded copies of ArtForum magazine, reading them cover-to-cover. We studied critical theorists and bowed at the altar of the eminent Clement Greenberg.

It was only as I began to entertain the thought that art history might be my chosen major that I realized that the thrill was ebbing. My head was becoming filled with theoretical jargon. On personal field trips to museums and galleries in Boston and New York, I pondered towering canvases by Newman, Motherwell, and Louis and analyzed their place within the color field movement, considered the tension between surface and edge. Some of the wow of seeing these beautiful, innovative works seemed to seep away. Instead of my heart, art increasingly engaged my brain. I knew more about what critics thought about Jackson Pollock's scribbled masterpieces than I did about Pollock's journey as an artist – the very narrative sweep that had engaged me in art history in the first place.

And that's when I chose the other fork in the road. Instead of art history, and in spite of my love for it, I majored in American civilization with an emphasis on literature and ideas – the stories of this nation and its people. (In retrospect, I was probably lucky that I graduated in 1973 just ahead of the English department's wholesale embrace of critical theory and deconstruction.)

Graffiti from a university restroom stall, posted by an anonymous faculty blogger.

I had similar experiences as I explored sociology, psychology, and religious studies at Brown. Topics that initially excited me quickly devolved into studies of theory. The Old Testament course I'd eagerly signed up for, although well taught by a respected professor, was not, as I'd hoped, a guided tour of Biblical characters and stories and their foreshadowing of New Testament themes, but rather a long digression into how various scholars dissected those stories. At midsemester I changed my grading option from letter grades to satisfactory/no credit, reflecting my disenchantment.

"What did you like about sociology?" I asked Michael, who majored in that discipline at Brown.

"Statistics and theory," he answered. What floated his academic boat were theories and the design of studies that proved or disproved them, the gathering and analysis of numbers to produce insights into how societies defined and sustained themselves, how groups of people behaved.

"The opposite of me," I noted. My take-away from my intro Soc course was: It's amazing how organic societies are, how they act communally to define behavioral norms, status, and boundaries. I still mentally reference much of that rudimentary knowledge when I read the newspaper and watch the news on television; it helps me understand ethnic conflicts around the world, urban violence in the U.S., the trend toward adults living with their parents, and so on. But spare me the drudgery of designing studies and crunching numbers; call me when the sausage is cooked. I want to read the completed narrative. What do we humans do, and why? That's the good stuff!

I work in a university among brilliant theorists of every stripe, and I assure you that I respect what they do – I am awed by it. I learn bits of disciplinary and interdisciplinary theory in the course of my work, and I feel privileged to visit what are essentially alien lands far from my parochial mental landscape.

And still I remain all about the story. Why is this scholar inspired to juggle molecules in his laboratory, that woman to explicate the evolution of an ancient religion? Who are these amazing minds, why are they doing this, what have they learned, where will it lead us all? It's no surprise that I became a feature writer. Stories are my bread and butter.

As a child I sat spellbound as Grandma Poenack told little stories. She was a masterful and dramatic teller of both fiction and first-person experiences, punctuating sentences with breathless prompts – "And what do you think happened next?" Really, I haven't strayed far from that stance in 50 years: I'm still the wide-eyed kid waiting for the twist of plot, a character's transformation or epiphany, the crescendo of the narrative, the fright, the resolution of conflict by story's end.

What do I dread most about my own death? Aside from the potential for physical agony, I dread not knowing what happens next. I read once that certain documents relating to the assassination of JFK would not be released until a certain date in this 21st century, and I was aghast to realize I likely would not be alive to learn what they contain. Unbearable not to know how the story ends!

Dare I hope that some essential consciousness survives my physical being, enabling me to see how our children's and grandchildren's stories turn out? How American society looks in 100 years? Probably not. And even if it did, I suspect my insatiable hunger for narrative arcs will prove to be a figment of my mortal existence.

Once upon a time ... people loved, fought, mourned, created, built great civilizations, made beautiful songs, devised plots, reaped riches or poverty, died horribly or well. Stories carry me like cresting waves, keep me alert and startled and moved. Alive. The heck with theory, with discipline; I just want to race ahead and find out, over and over, what's next. What happens. The end.


  • I have such a stubborn resistance to theory that I managed to dodge it fairly well all through college and even graduate school. (It's the "S - Sensing" in my ISFP personality -- my mind focuses on the concrete.)

    But it's interesting to watch my stepdaughter as she takes in various approaches to society and art that she is learning in college. She's growing in sophistication very quickly.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Dec 28, 03:16:00 PM EST  

  • My aunt and I are film geeks to the point of making a running joke out of the edited-for-TV version of Highlander, and the first thing that sprang to mind reading your post was when some TV station in the '80s cut Highlander so bad that the cop in the begining says, "I have a theory," and Connor MacLeod instantly lunges across the desk at him. Now I realize it wasn't that the theory wasn't safe for younger viewers, it's just that Connor MacLeod isn't into theory either. ;)

    By Blogger BrideOfPorkins, at Tue Dec 30, 07:04:00 PM EST  

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