The Icy Nature of Literary Analysis, and the Loss of Unfettered Dreams

I have always found there to be something undeniably cold about literary analysis. An effective tool for gleaning a deeper understanding of a work of art, it nevertheless will constantly drain that work of, well, whatever makes it art in the first place. When you’re a kid, drooped over the sofa watching an over-produced Disney movie or drifting away under a warm blanket while wondrous tales of adventure calmly brush by, there is no need for thoughts of motifs and political commentary. No need for the murkiness of an intricately mundane and over-thought reality. Details are sparse, and big ideas are beside the point. And yet never again will you get so much out of a story. Never again will a movie or book simultaneously build the world you see around you while providing such a transfixing sense of awe.

I guess it’s only natural for us to move past this phase–to grow up. Like it or not there is a world outside the coziness of a childhood home; a world that must be reckoned with and dealt with accordingly, because it is different than the shimmering fantasies of half-remembered picture books. The real world needs art with motifs and political commentary because it needs people to think. So when you show up for middle school and the teacher asks you to look deeper into To Kill a Mockingbird, to live and breathe Scout’s tragic awakening, relax: that’s natural.

Everyone is Scout eventually. Everyone must be. But then they ask you to break out the post-it-notes. The highlighters. Why is Atticus? What is the Mockingbird? And maybe you’ll get it. You’ll get the sickening core of American society.

Then you’ll read some more. Fwoop, snap, krrrr. Atticus kills the dog. Highlight it. You get the nobility in bravery. The nobility in morality.

Fwoop, snap krrrr. Flip the page and bang! Shot in the back, there’s Tom lying dead–unable to escape his cage. You get it. The Mockingbird. The innocence.

And that’s all important because those are basic principles to carry with you into society. You have to be moral, thoughtful, dignified if you intend to be a functioning adult.

Then, one day, you’re lounging on the couch, book in hand, as you gaze off at the clock slowly ticking blankly on the wall above and suddenly your dad asks if you like the book. Like? Now, what’s that supposed to mean? You understand it. All of it. It’s a commentary on America; a commentary on humanity; a look inside the duality of innocence and tragedy that float hand-in-hand over dirt roads and marble staircases alike. It’s invaluable. It’s incredibly well written. By god, it’s an American classic. But suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you glance it. The case to the movie Finding Nemo. And in an instant the sound of misty waves crashing onto a lonely Sydney Beach echoes around the room.

It’s not that literary analysis is inherently misguided. I want to make that clear. Truly understanding a piece of art often means looking underneath the glaring reflection of the wrapping on the outside. Yet I have found over my time in school (and increasingly so running this website over the past year), that when you take a work of art–a work meant to incite tears and laughs and fears and subdued introspection–and you chop it up like a frog in a high school lab, analyzing its parts like a meticulous biologist, something dies. I would say the heart, but of course the heart lives on, bathing in ammonia next to the scalpel to your right. No, what dies is your ability to connect to the art beyond anything other than a diagnostic standpoint, and that kills because books, movies, songs, paintings–these resonate with humans on an emotional level. That is their purpose. When we take in art we don’t do it as a scientist or a paralegal. We take it in because when it captivates our imagination, art can matter more than anything.

I know this is a weird sentiment to express on a film review website, but of course that’s precisely why I’m writing now. Over the last six months especially, but even for a much longer while now, I have at times felt prisoner to my own instinct of looking at the movies I watch exclusively through the lens of a critic. Shifting and twisting in my seat like a neurotic puppy dog, images and words fly at my face before slicing through my retinas and bouncing around my ears. I hear and see everything. I make note. I adjust my grade accordingly. Up down, up down. A snappy line of dialogue here. An underdeveloped theme there.

And then I make my decision. A film was good.

Bad.

Mediocre.

A disappointment.

A revelation.

In the blink of an eye, I’m back in 9th-grade biology, back in high school English. And it’s not hell, but truthfully, starring up with dried eyes at the stuffy whiteboard crammed full of numbers and details, and observations, truthfully I’d rather be anywhere else. If life is one big balancing act, then I’m struggling to grab hold of anything as I slip over the side. Because watching movies on my laptop with the weariness of an accountant checking spreadsheets is no way to experience the beauty of a good story. I want these films to mean more to me. I want to be carried away like I was in the dreams of my childhood. Shot from a cannon into poetic oblivion where words and techniques, notions of quality and failure do not exist. Where the films I watch grab hold of my soul and never let go.

Sometimes they do. And I hope one day soon, they all will.

B+

 

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