Monday, October 11, 2010

Is New Literature Anything More than Repetition?

On 9 October, The New York Times published an op-ed by Maureen Dowd entitled "Lord of the Internet Rings," in which Dowd draws parallels between her experience of seeing Wagner's Ring Cycle for the first time and David Fincher's and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network. Dowd writes:
But as I watched the opera, my mind kept flashing to the "The Social Network," another dazzling drama about quarrels over riches, social hierarchy, envy, theft and the consequences of deceit. A Sony executive called "The Social Network," the David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin movie about Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his circle of ex-friends and partners, "the first really modern movie." Yet the strikingly similar themes in Wagner's feudal "Das Rheingold"--the Ring cycle is based on the medieval German epic poem "Das Nibelungenlied," which some experts say helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings"--underscore how little human drama changes through the ages.
Dowd's critique, twofold in nature, initially highlights a critique that, like a ceremonial canon blast of grapeshot, discharges and is heard around the world every time Hollywood releases a remake: There's nothing new in literature or film; everything has been done already.

On its surface, this may appear true. So how can a film like The Social Network--or any other piece of literature, written or visual or auditory--possibly do anything new? Remember, for starters, that I said Dowd's criticism was twofold. If one side is that there's nothing new, its inverse--the American seal on the back of the quarter, so to speak--is that mythic archetypes are easily recycled; though the narrative structures appear similar, the form is merely a tool we have to understand our world, its advances, and how those most human of emotions can interfere even in a postindustrial, tech-heavy society.

The mythic, then, isn't simply a myth; it's a way for us to reframe what's happening around us, today. T.S. Eliot, in writing his essay "Ulysses, Order and Myth" about James Joyce's Ulysses, praised what he termed the novel's "mythic method": Joyce took the allusions to Homer's Odyssey, and in a novel he employed the mythic figures, the epic narrative arc, and illuminated the unique characters and ideologies of Dublin, Ireland, as it existed on June 16, 1904.

I don't know about genre theory to say definitively (not that anybody can say something definitively when it comes to literature, though they'll try) that there are no new forms or structures extant in film, music, and literature today. But even if there aren't, even if history seems easily categorized by these same forms and structures, there will always be new characters, new psychologies, new circumstances.


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