"Once a book is fathomed," D.H. Lawrence wrote, "once it is known and its meaning fixed or established, it is dead." Tim Parks, whose new book I reviewed earlier this week, agreed with Lawrence in an essay and saw this as a paradox, saying that "the greatest pleasure we can get from a story only comes when the smaller satisfaction of having explained it away is thwarted."
This is accurate but incomplete; it doesn't tell the whole story. The masters of our literature speak to the human universals which transcend fads and fashions and politics and personal perspectives. Their literature is timeless because it speaks to all times.
One of the best scenes in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is where the Judge tells a story, a parable, around the campfire. The men listen intently and at the end of the parable, each man claims the story to be his own story, but with the details altered here and there.
To tell one man's story is to tell the stories of many men, the Judge says. And McCarthy expresses this idea again later in The Crossing: The task of the storyteller is to make one of the many, for all stories are one story, rightly told and rightly heard.
"Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book." ---Marcel Proust
My own feeling is that classic authors get in touch with something, call it the collective unconscious or the mythic muse or whatever. Something that speaks to them in images. This seems verified by what many authors reported in Naomi Epel's Writers Dreaming, which I discussed here in January.
A book containing the universals speaks to all times and reflects back at all of us. As we change, the book changes too, which is why when we reread classics, the book always says new things to us, things we hadn't seen before.
Wendy Lesser, in her eloquent book, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, quotes Henry James and Mark Twain about this as epigraphs, and her book contains many examples from her own experience. She devotes a chapter to comparing her early reading of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina at twenty-two to the rereading she gives it as a middle-aged woman:
"I was amazed to see the once-disdained Levin parts--the parts I had skimmed through rapidly, as I had the battle scenes of War and Peace, so as to get back to the engrossing love story--taking over the book. The chapters devoted to Levin and his love for Kitty...are fully half of the book, it turns out, and to me, now, they are the far more interesting half."
"And I was equally amazed to see Anna herself dwindle from a tremendously romantic heroine, an idol of my youth, to a rather dislikable, idiosyncratically neurotic woman."
The classics don't change, but we do. This goes for stories in all forms, in films as well as in books. Wendy Lesser devotes an eye-opening chapter to her interpretation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Vertigo, now a classic but a failure when it first came out, before the days of video recordings.
Many years later, when Lesser watched Vertigo again, she knew how it was going to end, so she could relax and study the movie from a different perspective. The first time, she had seen it through the eyes of Scotty, Jimmy Stewart's character, skeptical but with some part of her believing in the ghost story. The impossible love story, which she had thought ridiculous and melodramatic, now seemed emotionally true: "This was what love was like."
And what was she learning from this second viewing of the movie?
"Well, all of the usual things that those of us who have ever had their hearts broken learn. That you temporarily lose yourself when you lose somebody you love. . .that you go looking for your former self as much as for your missing half. . .That love is mysterious and archaic, with something almost ghostly about it, so that being powerfully in love seems to take you back to some point of origin, back beyond your childhood to a past you couldn't actually have known."
"We are soul mates, we say. I seemed to have known him forever, we say. These are the banal, colloquial expressions of a feeling that Vertigo, with all of its dramatic excess, subtly and skillfully captures."
We know that the Madeline he lost and the Judy he has found are the same person, but we can see the emotional turmoil here much better, in Judy as well as Scotty. Lesser says,
"Like Judy, we in the audience continue to hold on to something from the Carlotta plot even though it has been proven a fake. This particular Hitchcock device is the very opposite of a MacGuffin: it is a story element so powerful that even after it has ceased to function in the mystery it persists in ghostly form in our imaginations."
"It is bigger than Gavin Elster, who created it, and much bigger than Judy, who embodied it. When we think about Kim Novak in this movie, it is Madeleine we remember, not Judy. . .And because Madeleine exerts this powerful hold on us--from beyond the grave, as it were--we understand not just why Jimmy Stewart can't love Judy for her down-to-earth self, but also why Madeleine herself can't let go of Carlotta."Our minds want them just to let go, to find a life, to be happy. We realize that this is not only fiction, it is fiction within fiction, yet we find ourselves caring for these characters. Like many of us, they are caught in the web of their past which will not let them go.
"At the heart of the movie is a ghost story that doesn't really exist, not in the obvious sense, but because it has largely been made up by a character in the movie. Galvin Elster constructs the tale of Carlotta Valdes, a long-dead woman whose spirit is now haunting Madeleine Elster, driving her toward madness and suicide."
The second time we watch this movie, we know that Scotty is being led through a maze of clues which have their own reality but are false in context. It is fascinating to watch, even though from your new perspective, you know what is going to happen. Lesser says:
"The longing to be haunted by something richer and more mystical than one's own daily existence--that is what Vertigo so cunningly enables us to feel. You can call it romantic love, or the movies, or fiction, or ghosts, or history (Vertigo at various times calls it all of these), but whatever you decide to call it, you will not be able to rationalize it away by pointing to its invisibility, its patent nonpalpability. Whatever it is, it is there even when it is not there."