On Re-Evaluation

First, some personal matters: I find “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel to be the most beautiful record ever; it’s a kaleidoscope of tenderly raw acoustic indie poured straight from the soul and psychedelic marching band noise, 40 minutes of somber aural lust. But I didn’t see things this way on a first listening. In fact, I disliked this CD and found it to be noisy lo-fi gibberish, its lyrics cryptic and indecipherable, and Jeff Mangum’s vocals just short of Billy Corgan-annoying. (though Mr. Corgan has also come to grace the list of “favorites” I occasionally devise to remind myself of the vast changes one makes throughout a college career). But something in my head just clicked one day while I was giving the CD another try and instead of grating lo-fi fuzz I heard a stream of audible poetry flood my headphones. Once my ears learned to accept (and even like) his emotive crooning voice, I was able to look at the lyrics closer and what I found was raw poetry, equal amounts ecstasy and anguish, being spilled over layers of horns and guitars; what I heard was a sonic parade. Was it maturity maybe setting in, and a new-found ability to look at the importance of lyrics in songs? This musical epiphany came when I was emerging from my long greasy hair-sporting Hot Topic-loving Guns N’ Roses-admiring teenage years, a time I guess most teenage males go through (at least I hope most of them do and I’m not the only one).  Maybe it was my learning the guitar in that time and finding an appreciation for chord progressions instead of an adoration for wah-peddle addled guitar solos and lyrics about booze and rock n’ roll. Maybe it was just a natural progression that paralleled the patience that one grows into as he sheds his teenage years.

Similarly, I consider Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections to be one of my absolute favorite novels, a work of literature whose hyperbolic narration serves as commentary on the selfish navel-gazing so many of us are prone to. I found most of its 576 pages to be full of sharp-social satire skewering both right and left-leaning Americans, city-dwelling elitists, our ever-growing reliance on technology, sexuality, and suburban purgatory. Any of these targets would make for fine satire in the hands of a good novelist but Franzen, perhaps a great novelist, has managed to peel away the thick layers of paint in which we coat our flaws in vain attempts to conceal the truth and has turned navel-gazing and self-righteousness into a bitter (and hilarious) art. My reaction on first reading of The Corrections? Hated it. Found it to be crap; overwritten pretentious loathsome crap that aimed to make you, the reader, hate yourself as much as Franzen hates you. Again, something happened in the year between readings. The college years have done something to me—to all of us, I guess. Here, education is a major contributor to my new appreciation for Franzen. Instead of rebelling against “literature” like I—we—all did in high school and ragging on The Grapes of Wrath and finding Hemmingway boring I learned to look deeper into the text. I probably read slower now than I did in high school because I’ve learned to take my time and see things that may not be explicitly printed but are hinted at, either through close readings of the text or understanding theories and criticisms that open the mind to so many ideas and themes. I learned more about postmodern literature and hysterical realism (James Wood’s favorite) and suddenly the humor and irony began to show. Franzen wasn’t just rambling and indulging his own self-righteous needs, he’s turning tragedy into farce by satirizing modern and post-modern depictions of suburban hell. The book now sits on my shelf beside Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—a book in which Chabon uses comics (low art) to explore themes such as escape, individuality, and the Holocaust, not very childish themes, and ends up with a Pulitzer-winning work of high art—and Stephen King’s On Writing—the horror-master’s claim for credibility, a book that landed on Entertainment Weekly’s top books in the last quarter century and earned praises from writers everywhere—as a book I can turn to whenever I need inspiration in my writing, whether it be creative or critical. All three of these books, as a matter of fact, have been books that elevated their writer’s career and reestablished him as a formidable master of letters. Don’t believe me? Check out their reviews online. Or, better yet, give ‘em a read yourself.

The same holds true for Citizen Kane, unfairly considered by many to be simple critic’s fodder and a real snore-fest. I think it is a tremendous achievement for cinema, showing how one man—the first great post-Chaplin/Keaton auteur, perhaps—could accomplish so much if he really truly worked his ass off. The film was not considered to be “great” for many years after it came out, due in no small part to the real-life model for Kane, the almost too-perfectly villainous newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who is portrayed as a greedy selfish old miser who longs for his lost innocence, more Fagin than Scrooge. Hearst used his immense power as the man who essentially controlled the news to deny all advertisements for Kane and post negative reviews of the film. The power of yellow journalism crushed Welles’ magnum opus for many years. But now it is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time (it ranked #1 in both of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Film surveys). Like so many of my friends, I fell asleep the first time I saw it. In fact, I fell asleep the first two times I saw it. But, as you probably have guessed, something clicked when I watched it (against my will) in yet another film class showing the same films as the previous two I had taken. Perhaps it was the growth of my own personal maturity, or maybe new theories I had been taught, or maybe my own tastes had just changed, but I actually enjoyed Citizen Kane, something I had never thought I’d say.

Such is the value of re-evaluation. We’ve all seen it towards the bottom of various Wikipedia pages, usually between Release and Reception and In Popular Culture, but have we actually ever thought about it? We’ve all experienced it for ourselves. Our tastes change. We don’t all still listen to The Backstreet Boys (I certainly don’t) and we don’t all still read Goosebumps (well, I still do, actually) because we change—we update like a computer, you can say; our hardware is upgraded and we are capable of learning more and handling more difficult tasks, such as evaluating a postmodern novel or making it through Citizen Kane without falling asleep. It is not a bad thing to change your mind. Even professional critics do it, and they’re supposed to be the smart decisive people in this crazy world. Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo rose over forty places to break the top-twenty in AFI’s second Top 100 poll, whereas Costner’s Dances With Wolves was fittingly dropped completely. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—a book I’ve never managed to get through but still have hope for when I am not plagued with undergraduate school work—had its Pulitzer Prize taken away because some people on the panel did not understand it and overruled the rest of the board. It now graces just about every list of great American novels ever. Led Zeppelin was panned by Rolling Stone magazine. But who has multiple albums in Rolling Stone’s best album list? (Not that Rolling Stone has been relevant or credible in the last decade anyway.)

I could go on, and I almost want to, but you get the idea. We all change our opinions about things, and that’s fine. What we have to be careful of is why we do it. If we closely examine works of art upon second, or third, or fourth viewings and begin to understand why it makes us feel the way it does or what makes it such an important work of art— how its pieces fit together and how the artist has carefully crafted something of social and artistic value—then we’re doing fine. Re-evaluation is an important tool for any critic or scholar, and the way our society views works of art is going to change as the years go on and our understanding of theories and criticisms progress. Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford (the “It was a dark and stormy night” book) was considered to be a good book during its time and actually sold well. Does anyone today actually think (without being ironic or satirical or meta) that “It was a dark and stormy night” is a good first line?

There are works of literature I hated in high school. There are still works of literature I hate. These lists are not mutually exclusive, though, and they’ve changed and will continue to change because we progress as critics, as scholars, and as humans. Hey, maybe this blog will be considered a monumental achievement one day and I’ll have my own Legacy section on a Wikipedia page. Here’s to wishful thinking and to re-evaluation.

11/19/2010

Greg Cwik, Editor

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One thought on “On Re-Evaluation

  1. Vertigo is a masterpiece. Dances with wolves too. Yep. And so are Rose’s lyrics on more than a few Use your illusions songs. Yep! And Chinese democracy IS a masterpiece. Yep!

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