Ever since high school, literary analysis has both bewitched and baffled me. In English, we’d read through a short story, or a play, or watch a movie, and then our sharp-as-a-tack English teacher Ms. Mosca would give us a one liner that completely blew our minds with its depth and wisdom.
I would get so frustrated when she did that because I didn’t have the same knack for it. Because coming up with pearls of wisdom from every single text you read is really useful in life! She seemed to be extracting from the text some knowledge about how to act, but wasn’t willing to articulate how she did it.
I was looking for something like a scientific method: find the characters, look at them before and after the conflict, and then say that the conflict caused the transformation. But she wouldn’t budge. All she’d do was say something like “you can’t really know until you’ve lived through it.”
Of course, her statement was made even more annoying by the fact that some of my classmates were really talented at it too, even though they didn’t have the same life experience as Ms. Mosca.
Flash forward a couple of years, and I’m taking a literature class in France. I get an 8/20 on my first essay, which is basically a 40%. The issue, which most of my other classmates shared, was that I was “story telling” – instead of saying how the text conveyed a certain thesis, I was instead saying what the text conveyed.
The issue with this view or assignment is that I don’t see what stops you from making “bullshit” arguments. For example, in my essay, I wrote that Salman Rushdie used a lot of ellipses (the ones that look like this: … ) in Midnight’s Children because multiple ellipses form a line, and lines partitioned India and Pakistan, and this partition overshadowed a lot of the conflict which his book aims to process. Thus, Rushdie processes trauma (how?) by using ellipses.
I thought that this was bullshit – like WTF! What kind of argument is this? I’m grasping at straws with my thesis, and there’s absolutely no value in it. And yet, I ended up getting an 85% on my second essay?!
All this to say that now I think that the meaning of a text is in the eyes of the beholder. While there may be limits to interpretation (for eg., I could not make the same ellipses argument for a movie adaptation), I don’t think it’s possible to use an empirical method to extract from a text its meaning. A person merely articulates what he sees, different people see different things, and I was lucky to have a high school teacher who was able to articulate her view.
Then, everything changed when I watched this video reviewing Parasite. It used an ostensibly empirical method to come up with the “moral” of the movie, and I got hopeful once again.
So now I’m reading through the book it referenced, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. If I don’t find a methodology in it, I’ll at least learn how to articulate what I see in a story, and will find a common framework for discussing what a story is about.