Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 21, 2011

DELMORE SCHWARTZ: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities 2011

Let’s deal with a very basic question first. Does this story belong in an anthology with writers like Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Locke and Sophocles? The answer may depend on the taste of the reader answering the question. This set of readings also includes more modern writers like John Dewey, Mary Lavin, and Virginia Woolf. Readers who dislike modern literature will definitely prefer Plato and Sophocles over John Dewey and Virginia Woolf. But readers who tend to like modern literature will be drawn into this story immediately: I think it is the year 1909… It is Sunday afternoon, June 12th, 1909… It is obviously Sunday. We’re plunged into the middle of a specific time and a specific place. This would be a satisfactory start for a story even according to an ancient classic dramatist like Sophocles. But in this story we’re also plunged right into the middle of a film. Actually the narrator is telling us a STORY about watching a film about his parents. No, he’s actually telling us a story that he’s DREAMING about watching a film about his parents. So we’re twice-removed from the subject itself: the narrator’s parents. Or, is the subject of this story really the narrator himself? This kind of wavering back and forth would make Sophocles frown. The theme about his parents is fine. Sophocles himself once wrote a play called Oedipus the King about parents and children and a dysfunctional family. But the film part would probably make Sophocles uneasy. He would wonder: where does the film end and reality begin? It’s precisely what we should ask ourselves when we read modern fiction. In a nutshell this is the question for modern literature and film: where’s the boundary between the writer’s consciousness and the real world? The narrator in this story says I am anonymous, and I have forgotten myself. It is always so when one goes to the movies, it is, as they say, a drug. But the narrator has certainly NOT forgotten himself. In a certain sense this story is ONLY about the narrator. The scenes with the mother and father courting are merely reflections of the writer’s own consciousness. This is the way he perceives the characters. But we have no way of knowing if this is the way the characters perceive themselves. When we see Oedipus on stage we feel as if we understand what Oedipus himself is thinking. We don’t have a third party or narrator interpreting Oedipus for us. Oedipus speaks for himself. But in this story it’s the storyteller describing his family: My father thinks of my mother, of how nice it will be to introduce her to his family. But he is not yet sure that he wants to marry her…. My grandfather is worried; he is afraid that my father will not make a good husband for his oldest daughter… My mother feels satisfied by the interest which she has awakened; she is showing my father how intelligent she is, and how interesting. We want to take him at his word. It’s his family, he should know. And yet we have to remember that he’s only telling us about a dream about watching a film about his family. It might not be true at all. It might not be what he really thinks at all. It’s only a film. It’s only a dream. Or it might be the way things really are. Take your pick. This is the kind of plot that would drive Sophocles crazy. He was a Greek: say what you mean so the audience can understand you. Be a reliable storyteller. In this story the narrator may not be a very reliable storyteller. When he’s not reciting “factual” anecdotes he says things like this: I stare at the terrible sun which breaks up the sight, and the fatal, merciless, passionless ocean, I forget my parents. I stare fascinated and finally, shocked by the indifference of my father and mother, I burst out weeping once more. The old lady next to me pats me on the shoulder and says “There, there, all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie.” For the old lady and the young man it may be a movie but for the parents it was reality. And for the reader it’s just a story. This is clever literature. But is it great literature? Time will tell. The classics last; cleverness isn’t enough. Sophocles may ask modern writers the same thing this narrator asked about his parents: What are they doing? Don’t they know what they’re doing?


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