Monday, April 12, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Part I)

Means and Ends

When a close friend of mine—pictured top-left—read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as an undergraduate, it left little impression. But when she re-read it recently, while working at a large law firm, the impression was made. What struck her this time were the novel's passionate defences of the importance of art and literature. For example, at the opening,
'Little Girls,' said Miss Brodie, 'come and observe this.'
They clustered around the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man's big face. Underneath were the words 'Safety First.'
'This is Stanley Baldwin who in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,' said Miss Brodie. 'Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan "Safety First." But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.'
As an undergraduate, studying literature, my friend had no sense that Goodness, Truth, or Beauty were under any sort of threat—from Safety or Stanley Baldwin or anything else. But working in her law firm, with her hateful office mate—pictured bottom-right—for company, their imperilled state was evident. She found in Muriel Spark an ally against the Philistines.

This particular Philistine—this office mate of hers—made sport of ridiculing her for her literary interests. The Philistine only read books in order to ingratiate herself to the partners at the firm; this meant being conversant with The Book of Negroes, which they were reading, and having a book of selections from Dante on her shelf. Even with these useful books she read the last pages first—not out of any "quirky" reflections on her morality, but because she didn't want to delay the supposed "payoff" that would come in the conclusion.

My friend values means over ends. She studied literature and she reads the books that interest her. Her office mate values ends over means. She prefers massive dollar bills.

Teleology and Wandering

Just as there are two types of people in the world—my friend and the Philistine—so too are there two types of narratives: ones that are concerned with ends, and ones that are concerned with means. This is visible in the plots of the first two works in the Western Tradition.

Above is a diagram of the plot of The Iliad. It begins in Ithaca and heads straight for Troy. It is "telological": it proceeds toward the conquest of the Trojans and then stops. The Philistine would get her "payoff" from the concluding pages of The Iliad, for it is there that the conquest finally happens.

Compare this with a spatial plotting of the the action in The Odyssey:

Odysseus's journey is much more complicated. He wanders all the way from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, and in fact even makes a brief visit to the unplottable Underworld. Though he does have a goal in mind (home and Ithaca), he is easily and repeatedly diverted from it. To read the last pages is to learn nothing of the plot and experience none of its charm, which comes not from the "nostos" or homecoming but from the disconnected episodes that Odysseus related.

The narrative structure of The Odyssey reflects the wandering of the protagonist: it is mostly narrated retrospectively through embedded stories. The chronology is much more complicated than in the straightforward Iliad.

One might think that since the Iliad came first and The Odyssey second, that Homer preferred "wandering" as a principle to "teleology." Perhaps he did. But for Miss Brodie's much-beloved Romans, the order was clearly the reverse. Consider the plot of their epic, the Aeneid:

The first half of Virgil's epic is concerned with Aeneas's (much less wayward) wanderings. He pauses here and there at various places in Greece. Then the next six books are concerned with a very specific "end" or telos: the founding of Rome. Unlike Homer's epic cycle, Virgil starts with wandering and proceeds to teleology. In space he wanders for a while at sea and then proceeds directly for land and Rome. In time he proceeds toward the period of Roman domination—an early "end of history."

Here are some other examples of wandering and teleology in various things.

Philosophies of History:

Classical cyclical history wanders: it just goes around and around, again and again, without ever reaching "Troy" or "Rome." Christian history is more concerned with teleology than anything in Homer or Virgil. It begins at the "end"—Paradise—and then descends into the fallen world whose sole purpose is its own extinction into the Millennium and the Apocalypse. Yeats's "grye" is a sort of a mix.

(I'm sure if I told my pagan friend she could live a day in her life again and again, reading books and playing with her cat, she'd be pretty happy; her office mate would surely perish without thoughts of advancement to keep her going.)

Political Philosophies: 

Liberal Democracy, with its idea of "progress," is also a bit of a hybrid. It says we're advancing, but doesn't say what to exactly. Things just go on and on, getting better. Marxism (perhaps I should have labelled the diagram that way) has everything in common with Christian history and is tremendously teleological. There are revolutions, which push things forward discontinuously, until eventually the Worker's Paradise is reached, and we all live in millennial conditions, presumably forever. Hitler may have had something similar but less well-thought-out in mind: there is the war, and then there is the Thousand Year Reich—which only resembles the Millennium numerically, of course.

There are lots of other examples. Think of the difference between movies and TV shows. The former usually proceed toward some climactic moment—the explosion of the Death Star springs to mind. TV shows generally do not (and cannot) advance: Seinfeld is "about nothing"; Bart and Lisa don't age.

And think once again of my friend and her nemesis, and the divergent "paths" they took toward their employment. My friend did a BA and MA in English before going to law school—a most uncertain route indeed! The Philistine did two years of Commerce and went straight to law school. When they worked together, my friend was 28 and her office mate 20. It boggles the mind.

In my next post I will start thinking about whether The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie wanders or is teleological. Until then, I will proceed to diversions of my own...


Anonymous said...

"Above is a diagram of the plot of The Iliad. It begins in Ithaca and heads straight for Troy."

well I don't know

as the Iliad opens they are already totally there and yeah Homer goes back and tells you how they got there (kind of, a little) and who all is there (more famously) but Ithica is but one of many places all these guys are from (not at all the most important) and it definitely doesn't "begin" there for anyone but Odysseus who is at times almost impossibly awesome in the Iliad but clearly secondary (tertiary at best actually)

but I think more to the point is that in the Iliad the thereness is a given but within that thereness there is a moment of crisis and, so, ladies and gentlemen, the Iliad

"It is 'telological': it proceeds toward the conquest of the Trojans and then stops. The Philistine would get her 'payoff' from the concluding pages of The Iliad, for it is there that the conquest finally happens."

here you err only slightly in detail but because of that, you might be mistaken significantly I think in other respects

the conquest of the Trojans is completely inevitable at every stage (because the gods say so), at the beginning as much as the end, but the Iliad doesn't actually give you the fall of Troy -- there is telos in the sense of purpose and direction but there is no telos in the sense of an ending, not an ending that we find in these pages

the conquest of Troy isn't itself narrated in the Iliad, which ends really with Hector's death and the struggle for his body and leaves the fall completely outside the text (though, again, inevitable)

so the conquest itself can't really be the point; it isn't even there

so what then is the point?

Northrop Frye knows:

"It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for Western literature of the Iliad's demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic. With the Iliad, once and for all, an objective and disinterested element enters into the poet's vision of human life. Without this element, poetry is merely instrumental to various social aims, to propaganda, to amusement, to devotion, to instruction: with it, it acquires authority that since the Iliad it has never lost, an authority based, like the authority of science, on the vision of nature as an impersonal order."

I don't know if the larger claims there are all true (in fact I'm pretty sure they're not) but the insight into the text itself is not only true but profoundly moving: the concluding pages of the Iliad aren't about the conquest of Troy but about the genuine tragedy of Hector's death, and as Frye argues, we have to perceive it as striking that Hector's death is rendered as tragic and not a site of triumphalism or indiscriminate dick swinging; Homer, it turns out, is not a homer, and because of that, as Frye sees it at least, literature is possible and even worth paying attention to

it is a tremendously human thing, the way the Iliad ends, "human" in that weird sense we give the word when we actually mean way way better than any of us

none of this has anything to do with anything really but I love Homer and want to talk about him with everyone all the time

your pal,


ps love the blog

Adam Swick said...

I think what you just did is expose me as an instrumentalist and a teleological thinker and a bit of a philistine. For I was only using the Iliad to illustrate a crude contrast and set up an argument, and wasn't really paying it any genuine attention. Touché!

That said, I really do prefer the Odyssey to the Iliad, which never did touch me in the way it did you, Frye's interesting points notwithstanding. Perhaps I shall give it another try...

Anonymous said...

there are times that I think I might like the Odyssey better, too, but those are mainly the parts when Telemakhos is visiting old Nestor or Menelaus and Helen and everybody is telling stories about how raw it was in Troy, so that might actually be cheating

the best moment in all of Homer though might be when Odysseus talks to the shade of Achilles and Achilles eventually asks him about his son and Odysseus is like "you would seriously be so proud of your son, he ended up being AWESOME" and Achilles doesn't even really say goodbye he just wanders away lost in pride and love and drifts back to the underworld

also if you have not had the experience of Ian McKellen reading you the Odyssey then it is one you should seek out