Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Heresy of Paraphrase

I read the first 13 issues of 52 and was bored so I dropped it. Ping33 kept telling me how great it was -- and Ping got me on board with Casanova and All Star Batman. Then Matt Fraction had a long post on his blog about how he also read the first dozen or so issues, got bored, came back and it got brilliant. That convinced me -- someone else who was bored by the first issues but then found out it got better beats Ping, who liked it from the beginning when I didn't. So I have been reading the trades, and am now at week 30.

I have discussed this before, but I want to come back again to the Heresy of Paraphrase. Cleanth Brooks discusses the Heresy of Paraphrase in his book The Well Wrought Urn. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia entry (I am being lazy today):

The book is a polemic against the tendency for critics to reduce a poem to a single narrative or didactic message. He describes summative [that's not a word, Wikipedia...], reductionist reading of poetry with a phrase still popular today: "the heresy of paraphrase." In fact, he argued poetry serves no didactic purpose because producing some kind of statement would be counter to a poem’s purpose. Brooks argues "through irony, paradox, ambiguity and other rhetorical and poetic devices of his or her art, the poet works constantly to resist any reduction of the poem to a paraphrasable core, favoring the presentation of conflicting facets of theme and patterns of resolved stresses."

I keep coming back to this again and again, reading 52. 52, at least as far as I have read (and Fraction says the turning point comes later, and I am not done reading yet), fails to resist the reduction of the comic book to a paraphrasable core. I think a detailed summary of the issues so far would be exactly as good as the comic book itself.

You can summarize Casanova all you want, but Ruby Berserko has to be seen in the comic book itself. You have to experience the density of ideas. In 52 you are not missing much if you miss what Infinity Incorporated actually look like. The meanwhile-somewhere else-the next day structure is really kind of a non-structure, so you are not missing much there. Would the comic book really be worse if you heard each thread (the space thread, the Booster Gold thread) summarized separately?

The Heresy of Paraphrase could also be a great blow to people who are ok with merely serviceable art if the story is good -- art like Quitely's prison panels in All Star Superman 5 cannot be paraphrased. The art for the first eight issues of the Invisibles on the other hand -- I think I might like them better just reading the paraphrase, or just reading the script.

Is the heresy of paraphrase a good test for distinguishing a good comic book or movie or poem from a bad one? I suppose this will only tell good stuff from mediocre stuff, though I do not think life is long enough to read mediocre stuff. There are things so bad they have to been seen to be believed, like I Know Who Killed Me.

I don't want to talk about I Know Who Killed Me.


na said...

52 is that bad eh? Sheesh. I won't even bother picking up the trade then. But I HOPE it doesn't screw up the entire DC Universe continuity. I know Superman's due for a reboot..

Marc Caputo said...

52 (as well as Countdown) are what they are. By virtue of how they are produced, they could never hope to attain the level of comics like a Casanova, which is a true work of art because it uses an artistic medium to reflect Fraction's world view; Fraction loves comics and has things to say - he writes comics. You love comics and have things to say - you wrote a book. I love get the picture.

I saw a quote today (can't find the author right now) about the difference between having something to say and having to say something. The writing by committee, the art that never rises above noble attempts at solid draftsmanship (except the issue and a half by Jimenez, which is so jarring, it's like Beethoven playing with the Sex Pistols) and other aspects damn the book to throwaway status. It's actually not fair to expect much from the stuff beyond a little escapism. You wouldn't expect much from your nightly newscast or your morning paper, would you? That's what these books are.
That you have Morrison, Johns, Waid and Rucka writing it, though, guarantees that they'll fill it with lots of goodies and will attempt to build a DCU that will serve us for years to come. It's not quite having to say something as much as it's having to build something.

Ultimately, I appreciated what 52 was trying to accomplish and I think that it did (I blogged on this back in May - check it out.) and Countdown is doing the same. True, I could just get someone to paraphrase it (they do that for you on the 'Rama) - but I enjoy the ride. It was always the first thing I read each week and continue to do so with CD - it just gets me in a mood for reading comics.

Just my $0.02, anyway.

Ping33 said...

Casanova V2 can easily be summarized thus far: Cas is missing, Evil-doers use mystery fuel to do evil.

I would say that the most interesting thing about 52 is that which is less tangible. The inter-relationships BETWEEN the different arcs and how they play out within the larger universe and what that says about the nature and methodology of said universe.

Roger Whitson said...

I find it ironic that you are using a category usually reserved to categorically distinguish the poetic from the nonpoetic (Brooks's Heresy claim) on comic books. Despite the fact that you think comic books can and are, in some instances, literary, why focus on the "poetic" specifically in relation to comic books rather than comparing them to the novel genre--for instance? I would argue that Brooks's argument can only work (and in a very limited way) on poetry whose very existence is predicated upon the experience of reading the exact word printed on the page. One can usually summarize novels more easily than poetry, not because the latter is better but because novels give you a different experience than poetry--one that is less tied to individual words and phrases and more tied to character, plot, etc. There are obvious exceptions to this very loose rule, but I think it generally describes a difference between the experience of reading a poem and reading a novel.

NOW--moving to 52. I would agree with ping33 but add that most of the beauty of 52 is novelistic in character rather than poetic. Ralph Dibny's evolution as a character, the sheer number of weirdo concepts forced into the DC Universe by Grant Morrison, the horribly touching story of Sobek and Osiris, the interrelationship between the stories, etc. If you look for the poetic, for the individual panel or the individual line, you will obviously not get the same pleasure you will if you focus on the large frames of the story. The fact that these authors came together and produced a weekly story is pretty amazing in itself, if not as unique as they claimed when starting the project (Superman in the 90s, anyone?)

James said...

You make some good arguments in favour of 52 roger, but I wouldn't be so hasty to throw out Geoff's premise of using the Heresy of Paraphrase on anything other than poetry. We're not talking about work that cannot be summarised, but work whose central value is immediately lost in doing so. This applies to Casanova and All-Star Superman, and it may or may not apply to 52 (I haven't read it). But I think the Heresy of Paraphrase is useful in the analysis of comics and even novels - having spent far longer than is reasonable reading about superhero storylines on Wikipedia, and then reading the stories themselves, I can attest to there being plenty of comics that are just as (if not more) entertaining in summary form. Hence my strong identification with Geoff's original post on the subject.

neilshyminsky said...

Roger wrote:
"Brooks's argument can only work (and in a very limited way) on poetry whose very existence is predicated upon the experience of reading the exact word printed on the page"

Given that comics feature text in concert with image, the best comics also depend on a rather particular presentation that can't possibly be recreated in a textual summary.

Anonymous said...

52 gets WAY too much credit just for "not sucking" it seems.

Geoff Klock said...

NR: its not THAT bad, it is just mediocre, in a very dramatic way, if that makes sense.

MC: you wrote "It's actually not fair to expect much from the stuff beyond a little escapism. You wouldn't expect much from your nightly newscast or your morning paper, would you? That's what these books are." Maybe the problem is that I do not watch nightly news or read a morning paper. Maybe I avoid all these things on the same principle...

Ping: I do not deny you can give a summary of casanova. I just deny you can capture the reading experience of Casanova with a summary -- Ruby B for example. I think you can capture the reading experience of 52 (at least the issues I have read) with a summary -- I don't need to see Infinity Inc, for example.

I would LOVE LOVE LOVE it if you could be more specific about the relationships between arcs in 52. Because I cannot see what you mean, but you have been right about Studio 60 and All Star Batman and I had to catch up to you. The problem is you (and others) keep saying things like "it is less than tangible" so it becomes like describing a religous experience to someone who does not believe in god -- only convincing to those who already argee.

Roger: the juxtaposition of poetry and comics is kinda my thing; I wrote a whole book on it. Poetry is what I know for one thing. But I think poetry and comics go together well -- better than poetry and novels -- because both poetry and the novel have a coterie readership, a small dedicated fan base who know EVERYTHING. You either read a lot of poetry or you read none. Same for comics. This means that both can be equally dense with information because the audience has the background knowledge to pick up on every little detail.

I think Heresy of Paraphrase works great on the novel, though. If the cliffs notes are just as good as the novel, or better, just skip the novel. I think that is a perfectly good rule of thumb. Otherwise why not just hand out cliffs notes in High School English instead of books? If 52 is novelistic -- and I agree that it is -- I still expect it to be better than a summary.

That is an important point about Superman in the 90's. thanks.

James: it was reading stuff like that that made me realize I wanted to talk about this again; last time I talked about this I put it in with a few other things and the point got a bit lost.

Neil: "the best comics also depend on a rather particular presentation" while lesser comics do not depend on a particular presentation -- they are just information dumps a long the lines of "and then this happened, and then this happened..."

Anon: I KNOW! WOW, RIGHT? I agree that given the self imposed constraints 52 came out pretty good but so many people think I should not be arguing with the existance of self imposed constraints in the first place. I mean I think my first year comp students write pretty good essays at the end of the semester. Pretty good essays FOR FIRST YEAR STUDENTS. But I would not read them for fun, if I was looking for something to read.

Geoff Klock said...

ACK! For "poetry and the novel have a coterie readership" read "poetry and comics have a coterie readership"

I got like four hours sleep last night and am about to take a nap.

Geoff Klock said...

That first year comp example is a bad example because those contstaints are not self-imposed. How about this -- Gadsby is a pretty good novel considering that it does not use the letter E, but that does not make it a pretty good novel.

Roger Whitson said...

Geoff et al., Good points, but I feel that they don't recognize the history of poetry (or perhaps comics). And Geoff, I recognize your expertise, I just want to follow the argument because I'd like to hear what you have to say about it. Now that I think about it, it is entirely possible to analyze certain comics in terms of poetry--I have a publication that looks at Alan Moore's Watchmen in terms of William Blake's poetry. However, I think that there are important similarities between comic books and the novel that could complicate the application of Brooks's theory to a more general understanding of how to appreciate comic books. I simply think such a move is limited because of its lack of historical awareness:

I don't buy the "limited fan base" argument because it doesn't recognize the fact that in the late 18th through the 19th century there was a large audience for poetry--this audience eventually diminished as the bourgeois decided to read novels in the late part of the Victorian period. However, for a good part of the 19th century, poetry was quite popular (especially the poetry of Scott and Byron, later on Tennyson was pretty popular, but I don't think he was as popular as his Romantic predecessors).

The novel became popular during the latter half of the Victorian period because it was serialized in magazines. It was only later that novels were published as stand-alone stories. This publishing history is very similar to the evolution of comics which started as strips that were serialized, and only later--after the evolution of the serialized strip into the monthly publication--was the stand-alone story (in the form of the 1980s graphic novel) even possible. Even today, a large part of the comic industry is based on serialization. And 52 is, itself, an experiment in serialization: to see if four writers can create a weekly publication. The trade you have in your hand is merely the collected version of that story--and doesn't have the same episodic feel of receiving the comic week after week. I heard someone say that they believe 52 was designed as a weekly serial, and that those who read the trade for the first time don't appreciate the temporality of a story that was presented episodically week after week. Perhaps this aspect keeps us, too, from properly appreciating the work of serialized novelists.

Roger Whitson said...

neil--Yes, you are absolutely right. I think I forgot mid-sentence that I was talking about comic books and not poetry.

james--I do think you have a good point, but my contention is that Brooks's argument hinges upon his (New Critical and Modernist) valorization of poetry over the novel. Therefore, focusing only on the non-paraphraseable is not sufficient (for me) in appreciating more serial comics like 52. You may be able to use Brooks's arugment to appreciate certain novels, but I would argue you also cut out alot of what the novel IS--mainly the narrative, the characters, the plot: all of which are (in Brooks's terminology) content and not form. Now, you can argue that there is no difference between form and content (which would take us into a very interesting Derridean dimension and out of Brooks's), but I think that is a whole other argument.

Geoff Klock said...

Roger: Does the fact that comics had a much bigger fan base before Wertham help or hurt the connection between poetry and comics? On the one hand, same progression, but maybe not close enough.

You are talking very broadly, and making good points. But I don't want to take EVERY poetic theory and apply it to comics, just some of them, like Bloom's poetics of influence, and Brook's Heresy of Paraphrase. Those seem to work just fine to me because, on the specific points those theories work on, poetry and comics are similar. You make a fair point about serialization, but it is not like I did not read more than 25% of the project the way it was intended week by week -- I did not think it worked like that, and I do not think it works in trade that well either. I get very frustrated with people, like you refer to, who defend a work with something that cannot be put into words, a vague gesture to "if you did not read it the way it came out you will never get it properly." It is just a way of insisting that most people cannot disagree with you, on principle.

It is a very good point about serialized novels, though -- hardly everyone reads those they way they were intended. My friend Brad, by the way, does by trades and puts it down for days between issues. Someone should do that with Sherlock Holmes or whatever.

Geoff Klock said...

Roger: I agree that the Heresy of Paraphrase loses a lot of what the novel IS, but I was never saying it will tell you everything you need to know about a novel -- or a poem or a comic for that matter. I only meant to suggest -- and maybe I did this badly -- that it is a pretty good first-pass measure of good from bad in a work of art. After you figure that out, you can then go in and look at plot and character and things that might (might!) safely survive a summary (surely a good character will not survive a summary though).

Geoff Klock said...

A plot could survive summary, but if you are reading only for the plot -- just get a summary, it is faster.

Everyone who disagrees with me here is making me sure that the Heresy of Paraphrase is an awesome tool for telling good from bad.

Stephen said...

I recall reading an excerpt of Brooks in college (sometime back in the Precambrian, I think), but don't remember it all that well.

But I remember vividly Stanley Cavell's skewering (probably not a word he'd use) of it:

[The heresy of paraphrase] has the gait of a false issue -- by which I do not mean that it will be easy to straighten out. One clear symptom of this is Brooks' recurrent concessions that, of course, a paraphrase is all right -- if you know what you're doing.... how, in particular, are we to asses a critics reading the opening stanza of Wordsworth's "Intimations" Ode and writing: "...the poet begins by saying that he has lost something" (Brooks, p. 116)? We can ransack that stanza and never find the expression "lost something" in it. Then the critic will be offended -- rightly -- and he may reply: Well, it does not actually say this, but it means it implies it: do you suggest that it does not mean that? And of course we do not. (Must We Mean What We Say?, p. 75)

...and so forth.

Perhaps not quite OT, but I couldn't resist...


Geoff Klock said...

Stephen -- No, I am glad you posted that. Cavell is right -- I would not disagree that "the poet begins by saying that he has lost something" is what is going on at the opening of the Ode. But surely we can all agree that the ode makes for better reading than the summary? My point is I am much less sure that is true for 52.

Stephen said...

Meanwhile, I don't mean to get into this again, but I think this claim:
Gadsby is a pretty good novel considering that it does not use the letter E
was destroyed by Perec's novel La disparition (A Void in translation). Which is to say: Gadsby -- which its author admitted was a bad novel -- might have been "a pretty good novel considering that it does not use the letter E", if one believes that one can't write an actual good novel without E. Once Perec proved you could (by doing it), then the minimum for "a pretty good novel considering that it does not use the letter E" becomes, at least, "a pretty good novel" -- which, at least according to Wright's own report (I haven't read it!), Gadsby is not.


Stephen said...

surely we can all agree that the ode makes for better reading than the summary

Oh, sure. And I think that, in general, I'd agree that that's a pretty good test for artistic worth: if a paraphrase is just as good as an artistic experience, then the artistic experience itself isn't up to snuff.

It's just that you can't do criticism without paraphrase -- as Brooks knows very well, as Cavell shows -- and criticism is also a worthwhile thing to do. Just not a substitute for reading the work.


Geoff Klock said...

Stephen -- yeah, I forgot about that perec thing.

Ping33 said...

I'm going to step back for a moment. I do believe that at one point I said, Geoff: That I thought 52 might not be for you.
The "intangible" qualities I speak of tend to involve the deep hooks into 80 years of continuity which 52 plugs into. I guess it's not as much that they are intangible than that they require a background and a frame of reference to see why it's so fucking bad ass that the 10-eyed men and Mr. Mind and Akopolips and Rann can all be bulled together into a cohesive whole. I accept the fact that if these are new concepts that the connections created by 52 might be tenuous at best... but when these ideas are part of your consciousness and on your radar, it's amazing to see them pulled together as much and as well as 52 manages to do.
You CAN summorize the PLOT of 52 but what it does best is to form a connection between the disparate ideas which formed a 'universe' over 80 years.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping -- thats fair. Hey -- I feel like I maybe forgot you already told me that. Sorry if this post has been to similar to stuff already said.

Berk@y said...