On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia)

As I worked on my final paper for this semester’s class on Animals and Ecology in the Middle Ages, I had to read up on Reader Response Theory and more recent developments in the field of what allows readers to connect with the characters they read about, even knowing full well that they’re fictional.

On my Young Adult book review blog, I use the voice of a teenager to write my analyses, since that’s the general demographic who reads the blog. And while I of course address the aspects I find intriguing and possibly useful to my academic work, I also “gush” about characters. I “ache” for heroines, I “fall in love with” heroes, I feel hate, I feel shame, I feel guilt for and with the characters. At least once, I caught myself within the review and reflected on it. I had this to say about Robyn Schneider’s The Beginning of Everything:

“I love both Ezra and Cassidy, I love their relationship, I love their friends. And in a weird sort of way because they are completely fictional characters (though why this is any weirder than loving them, I’m not sure) I admire them.”

Why do we feel such an affective response when we read about people we know don’t exist, never have, and never will? How can we love and hate these people so strongly?

My own research was geared more towards applying these ideas to readers’ interactions with animal characters. I’m still working on that, and I hope to have clearer ideas about that as I revise this seminar paper. But more generally, the ideas behind what happens when we read intrigue me.

I still don’t have very clear ideas about any of it, though my work this past semester and now, as well as the work I’m doing as a research assistant, is letting me explore that a bit more. But for now, just a few related thoughts.

Susan L. Feagin’s book Reading with Feeling: The Aesthetics of Appreciation makes some points that I found really intriguing. One of them is that each reader will react differently to any particular passage, which of course creates problems with Reader Response approaches altogether.

Here’s a part in the intro I marked emphatically:

“[W]hat warrants or justifies one’s responding in the particular way one does, to what one does? Rosamond makes some readers angry but leaves others cold. The pretty angle at which she tilts her head strikes some readers as endearing but makes others go ballistic. It is crucial to the whole structure of this book that affective responses can be assessed. As I hope will be apparent from Part Two, assessing emotions and affects makes assessing beliefs look like child’s play. The bulk of my discussion is directed toward showing how it is possible to make such assessments at all, that is, what it is about emotions and other affects that occur as part of appreciating a literary work which enables us to make assessments of them.” (4)

She goes on further to explain how each individual reader brings his or her own personal baggage to the book, and that is what enables each reader’s experience to be so different. She describes the way reading a certain passage will activate certain memories or associations for a reader, who then applies those personal elements to the characters in the fiction.

“[W]hen the reader empathizes with fictional characters, the initial stage of the simulation does not have to consist of mental states having the same content of the protagonist’s…”

and instead the reader summons his or her own subjective experiences and feelings and can then

“use the feelings generated to understand how [the character] felt, supplementing them, as it were, with the relevant content” (98)

The way I understand that, what we’re responding to then is basically our own experiences, our own worldviews and perceptions, filtered out of ourselves into the characters and then back into us.

Maybe that’s why some of us gravitate toward books that don’t tell us anything new about the world or about any kind of situation but instead books about characters in situations almost identical to our own. What readers like that are looking for is affirmation of their own ideas and feelings.

But even for those of us actively looking for books that will broaden our personal worlds, does this application of our own experiences cripple that goal? If the only way we can interact with a book, with characters, is filtered through what we already “know,” how effective is the reading in changing what we know? Enriching, yes, but changing?

I do believe, though, that books, fiction especially, do have that capability of changing us. So I need to find out more about this idea, find out if there are any opinions arguing against this one about reading experience being limited and bounded by an individual’s subjective reality. (Remember, though, that this is my interpretation of what Feagin says. I’m not sure she would agree with me either.)

Another, shorter point. I realized that I have stronger affective reactions to fictional characters in movies than in books. Horror films are simply out of the question for me, but I can read most horror and only be sleeping with the light on for a few days instead of a few weeks. I sniffled when I read The Fault in Our Stars, but I cried, real crying, when I saw the movie.

My initial idea about why that might be is that when I’m watching the movie, I see the characters and action as imagined by the filmmakers, and there’s no room for me to ignore certain aspects or change them, mold them to fit a shape more easily dealt with, less affective. But when I read, the images I see are being created in my own mind. am in charge of what those images look like. And it looks like I’m taking the easy way out and, without even realizing it, shaping those images to be as easily digestible as they can for me.

That’s not a good thing necessarily.

In my Intro Creative Writing class as a freshman, I had to write a “blurb” for a classmate’s play as an introduction before other classmates acted the play. I wrote something about the “deceptively simple” dialogue, and the professor’s comments were puzzled – there was nothing simple about the dialogue, deceptive or otherwise. The dialogue was explosive and inflammatory. And after I saw those comments, I reread the play and it dawned on me that I tend to read in a mind-monotone.

I read aloud for a while after that, to try to train myself to see the characters in action, maybe not exactly as the author intended (because I have major problems with that assumption) but at least so they’re not two-dimensional, that they come to life more fully.

And that brings us back to the question: how can I even think in those terms – that the characters are being “brought to life?” They never lived and never will. Part of Feagin’s explanation is that the ability to empathize with a fictional character is a desire to understand and feel what another is feeling combined with an ability to simulate a psychological state to match that. She does raise the question of the impossibility of that idea, because we can never feel what a character felt – the character never felt that and never will.

But I’m not quite satisfied by her treatment of this problem. I still want to know more about it.

Pieter van Houten (yes, The Fault in Our Stars was released only a short while ago and I’m obsessed with it, because the movie is a perfect adaptation of the book and because John Green is a genius) gets angry when Hazel wants to know what happens to the characters at the end of the book. “Nothing happens to them! The book ends!”

In a style of meta-ness genius typical of John Green, this is what begins the book:

“This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.”

Why do made-up stories matter? Well, scholars and philosophers have been exploring that since time immemorial. Catharsis is one reason. But how does that even work? How can reading about a fictional character experiencing something the way some author dreamed it up be relatable and cathartic? That’s the question I’m reading about now.

Historia Calamitatum

Most of the time, when someone first finds out I study Arthurian literature, they mention Monty Python. I smile and nod and move the conversation on as quickly as I can, because – I’d never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Until today. As I’ve been putting together material for the Indiegogo campaign, inevitably Monty Python came up in discussions with friends who were offering help and encouragement. I reacted the way I usually do, saying that “that’s not real Arthurian stuff.” And then I realized I can’t possibly say that without ever having seen more than a few clips of it. Besides, it’s supposed to be funny, right? So worst that can happen is I have a fun, mindless couple of hours. It was definitely fun. But it was far from mindless. See, part of my fascination with Arthurian legend – most of my fascination with Arthurian legend – is rooted in its adaptability. I love modern retellings of Arthurian tales, including YA books like Meg Cabot’s Avalon High series, which is set completely in the twenty-first century and yet I still consider it Arthurian! And I’ve been saying for a long time that I love A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court because of the way Mark Twain plays with the legend – but that’s exactly what Monty Python does, albeit in a decidedly different manner. I also resisted watching it because I thought it was untrue to the “Arthurian spirit.” I still think that. It is. But it departs from the Arthurian spirit with obvious thought and deliberation as to how and why to do so. In the end, what Monty Python does with the legend is exactly what I’ve been saying I admire about how the legend lives on. Every new retelling, every variation, puts its own spin on it, molds the legend to fit its own purposes. The modern re-enactors I saw who do call themselves knights – they use the Arthurian legend unironically, and I think it’s amazing the way they use centuries-old traditions of honor and chivalry to inform their daily lives. Monty Python uses the Arthurian legend ironically in order to comment on absurdities and inconsistencies in both the legend itself and in contemporary times (if you consider 1975 contemporary). And both of these are valid and important uses of the legend and tradition, and both of these should be studied. I consider myself suitably chastened and have adjusted my view to encompass more of that “everything” I thought it already did.

Le Conte du Graal

I’ve been drawn to Arthurian legend for as long as I can remember.

When I realized a few years ago that I didn’t have an answer as to why I’m interested in the tradition, I thought about it and figured it must have started with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain), which I read an abridged version of when I was about 10 or 11.

connecticut yankee

One of my favorite scenes from that book: when Hank smokes through his helmet and they all think he’s a fire-belching dragon. Also the pigs/princesses, especially because the book I read (above) had an illustration there with actual pigs and not princesses. I can’t find an image of that online, but  interestingly, I found this:


What’s interesting is that I liked the illustrations in the edition I read because it showed reality while everyone was hallucinating or making things up, and here the illustration shows Hank as a fire-belching dragon. In fact, I found this image as part of “centaur alternatives.” How does an editor/illustrator choose to show reality or the fantasy? Now there’s something fun to think about…

As an undergrad, I tried a few times to take a course on Arthurian literature, but every time I registered or almost registered for a class, something came up and I couldn’t take it.

I wrote my senior thesis on Arthurian literature without ever having formally studied the tradition itself. I had an amazing thesis director who guided me in reading texts that could help me get the basics in addition to the scholarship needed specifically for my paper.

But I never gave up on the dream of systematic study of Arthurian literature and legend.

Now that might be happening…

The University of Exeter is offering a summer course on Arthurian legend this year, and I was so excited when I found out about it, I just applied right away.

But it’s kind of expensive, what with airfare on top of tuition.

The program offered me a partial scholarship, which helps tremendously, and I’m working on applying for academic grants. I also set up an Indiegogo campaign to supplement that.

I desperately want to get to this program. The syllabus touches on so many aspects of Arthurian legend that interest me: history, kingship, chivalry, court life, magic, and the continuation of the legend in contemporary media.

Besides, I’ve been dreaming of traveling in the UK for so many years. Maybe even since I read The Secret Garden and heard the sound of the wind on the moors.

I was also always interested in accents, which made me want to visit the UK even more. There are some really bad movies I watched just because they were set in Scotland or Wales or somewhere with a recognizable accent.

This is my Grail, and I’m chasing it!

The Wanderer

Hey there! I’m starting this blog partly as a way for me to share my excitement about all the great things I’m learning about, and partly as a way for me to keep track of the things I’m thinking about.

I’m a bit of a wanderer when it comes to the texts I read and approaches I use, but it always comes back around to the same thing(s).

I started out focusing on Arthurian texts and wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on Old Welsh and Old French Arthurian tales with a New Historicist/Reception Theory approach.

Before starting grad school, I took a graduate course on the French of England and realized I wanted to work on romance more generally, and I narrowed my main focus to Middle English and Anglo-Norman. I started dabbling in theoretical approaches new to me as I wrote a paper about Boeve de Hamtoun’s relationship with the Saracens via his horse and the Saracen princess who becomes his wife.

Once I started grad school, I read a lot more theory – and I mean a lot – and started taking classes that leave me breathless after each session and continue with animated discussions with my colleagues in the lounge and on social media for the rest of the week (and sometimes longer).

Now there are so many angles and entryways into so many different texts that I’ve revised my “one-liner” about what I want to work on so that it could encompass just about everything:

  • I study medieval literature, particularly Middle English and Anglo-Norman romance, looking at the construction, maintenance, and fluidity of boundaries, and the translations, transformations, conversions, and adaptations that occur across those boundaries.

I do want to stay in medieval literature, and I do want to focus on romance during this time period, but I also want to work on Anglo-Saxon literature and literatures of other languages such as French, Welsh, Norse, Irish – I’m writing a paper this semester on the Middle Scots Morall Fabillis of Robert Henryson – and I want to learn more about animal studies, postcolonialism, posthumanism, affect theory, disability theory, and textual studies – among others.

There are so many little tidbits that get me all fired up but won’t necessarily make it into a paper or presentation, so this will be my space to share those!