"The Dream of the Text" and Literary Analysis
What do I want students to know about reading and writing about literature? First, they should understand "the dream of the text," my way of describing what happens to us when we read. Second, they should understand what authors are attempting to do as they strive to harness the power of "the dream of the text." That second step, itself, has at least two levels, but both require readers to abandon (reluctantly!) "the dream of the text" and to reread with full consciousness to analyze how the text is constructed and why the author might have made it that way. We are looking for the literary elements of the work which create the dream-reading so that we can better understand how the author's dreams become our own.
The Dream of the Text:
Reading is hypnotic. Who has not lost track of time and the activities surrounding one when deeply engrossed in reading a good book? Even the ordinary attention we pay to traffic signs and chance bits of text we encounter in the street can cause accidents because we neglect other mental operations while we process text. During that period, we are trapped, by our minds' reading and interpretive mechanisms, in a place we might call "the dream of the text." When a powerful author takes charge of constructing that text, s/he can use many strategies to deepen and lengthen our experience of that dream. However, literary analysis requires that we awaken from that dream, as completely as we can, and analyze the strategies that made it happen. Readings that remain in "the dream of the text" are to literary analysis as drinking wine is to a successful attempt to control fermentation. One produces a lovely intoxication, at best, and it may not be repeatable, but the other allows us to understand the mechanism and to produce infinitely graduated states of the text's dream, or to comprehend the layers of that dream in their most profound formations. Readers who still have not emerged fully from the dream will tend to write papers that recount their dream, much like a newly awakened person might retell a dream s/he had the night before. This does not produce successful college-level literary analysis. Readers who have had their own successful dream-of-the-text do not need summaries of the plot, and scholarly writing rarely spends any time writing plot summary, though sometimes it helps before pre-writing to get the facts of the text in one's own words.
Re-Presentation of a Culture to Itself:
From the earliest surviving examples of literature, writing has been used to mirror (or asserts that it mirrors) the culture's exterior and interior forms to itself. The "dream of the text"'s first level is the illusion readers perceive that they watch and listen to themselves or others saying and doing real things that actually happened somewhere that matters to them ("Adam" and "Eve" in "Eden" or "King Lear" and "Cordelia" in "England"). Those creatures are phantoms, and the places they "inhabit" are illusions, but readers caught in the "dream of the text" should not notice that. These illusions are necessary to social identity. People active within a culture, those who "do things," often have no ready way to represent what they have done to others, or to put those deeds into context with the culture's past and future. Though it smacks somewhat of mere "historiography" (history-writing), poets' earliest self-proclaimed social roles included mirroring the culture back upon itself. Techniques like orderly organization, rhythm, rhyme, thematic repetition, and dramatic structures like anticipation and remembrance were used to increase the re-presentation's initial effect, and to improve its "memorability." Especially in pre-literate cultures, and in cultures where literacy was a rare achievement mainly assigned to accounting and law, poetic formulations of real events often were considered important cultural functions. In entirely oral cultures, where poetry offered the only mnemonic devices for fixing social memory, even such fundamental facts as ancestry and property rights were fluid and might change significantly within two or three generations (see M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record [Oxford: Cambridge UP, 1993]).
Recognizing and explaining poets' re-presentation of their historical context to the culture, itself, constitutes one of the important tasks a literary analyst can perform for the non-specialist reader. The goal is to understand the culture's values based upon what the poet notices (and what the poet omits to notice), and to grasp what kinds of changes from their time to ours account for what we see in that mirror. No explanation can completely "recuperate" or recover that lost image, but we can hypothetically restore some pieces of it, slowly, until we have a reasonably good approximation of the mentality and world-surround that the poem moved in. What does the poet notice, how does the poet represent it, and what responses appear to be demanded of the audience? Those are basic first-level analytic questions.
In addition to keeping ordinary events in memory, the poet also embellished those facts with praise for the good and blame for the evil, becoming a kind of judge over the historical record. Because knowledge of the past was a good ground for estimations of the future, and because prophecies also tended to require poetic technique for preservation, poets also became the guardians of the future as well as of the past. By re-presenting the future and the past, poets grasped the power to alter their audiences' attitudes and plans.
Doing Cultural Work:
Once poets begin to function within a culture as memoirists and prophets, they acquire some powers to shape the culture they live within. Only exceptionally well-positioned poets had uncontested control over their cultural materials, but the wisest of them learned quickly how to direct their efforts toward contested points within the culture on the side that was most in need of their efforts and most likely to win. The former guaranteed them some satisfaction of H. P. Grice's second and third maxims of communication, quality (it was true) and relation (it was timely). This tends to make even more memorably the particular author of the communication, and further enhances the durability of everything the author wrote on the author's behalf, as well as on its own. This is when the poet becomes more than Plato's mere imitator of imitations of imitations, a third-order copyist. Unlike Marlowe's Faustus, who famously claimed "A sound magician is a mighty god" (1: 62), the poet doing cultural work is more like a darned good engineer who hopes her project won't be spiked by the forces of history or under-funded by cheap-skate readers hoping for an easy ride or hijacked by fools seeking mere power. A great evocation of the price of admission for this stage of poetic analysis occurs in T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (The Sacred Wood). There Eliot describes how the poet who seeks long-term success for her work must find a way to attach her new poem to the long-lived works which constitute the poetic tradition, which even powerful temporary fads have failed to kill off. Once the work has been inserted into the tradition, it can work its magic gradually, reader by reader, audience by audience, until its creative force has been absorbed or until it becomes an essential irritant to the recurrent norms of the culture. Either way, as an empty tomb of a work more honored by reputation than in active reading, or as a subversive cult-object that thrives upon suppression, the poet's vision outlives her and continues to construct some essential part of the culture.
If you can catch a poet doing that kind of cultural work, you are on your way to an important thesis in an excellent paper. These events happen far more often than most of us realize in early literature. Any oaf can detect a best-seller that is spawning imitators in all the creative writing seminars in the country, but who can see the pervasive effects of a work hundreds of years old but still being read, still entrancing and altering its audiences. Remember the Sirens in the Odyssey. They were powerful singers, impossible to resist, but capable of destroying the greatest heroes. Poets doing cultural work are sirens who also can create heroes. As Sidney reminds us, a teacher who educates a great leader does a great thing, but the poet who tells us the story of how a great leader was educated will educate generations of great leaders. Such poets might be called "prophet-poets" because they help create the future they prophecy.