Cloudstreet and Other Readings :
A Treatise about the Reading of Tim Winton
A Note from the Composer
I am a composer. However, after I write these words, they are no longer my own. They are for you, as the responder to do with as you please. Take your own meaning from them. I may have a purpose, my words may have a moral centre that I have taken to the page, but they are still flown to you. This is the contention of Roland Barthes, one of the writers who has had a large influence over the composition of the new English syllabus. He contends that The Author is indeed dead, replaced by a person who is merely writing received words onto a page.
While I have no influence over the interpretation of these words, I wish to assert an explicit purpose in writing them. The HSC is a process involving numbers and other concrete, empirical things. Something both Barthes and Jacques Derrida, another theorist, were seeking to eliminate from the interpretation of text. As a result of this concrete imperative, you must write about other readings of Cloudstreet in your HSC extended response. That phrase other readings is creating heartburn across the state, because it has created a number of problems. It has resulted in, amongst others, three main approaches.
1. Educated Guesses at Broad Theoretical Readings.
Many people interpret the other readings as involving general historical / theoretical approaches to the individual text (ie. Cloudstreet). These involve the highly influential Freudian, Marxist and Feminist interpretations. The difficulty here is that students should have a detailed knowledge of these theories, and make some educated guesses at how the texts might be seen through these approaches. This is especially the case with Cloudstreet, because it is not something that has been extensively studied, unlike others in Module C, such as King Lear and Jane Eyre. This practice was undertaken by Inaburra students last year, who were influenced by one article that sought to analyse Cloudstreet via Marxist and Feminist theoretical frameworks. The problem with this approach is outlined by Dr Wendy Michaels in a recent Independent Education article:
"Many students appear to have stumbled at this point, and grabbed at predigested, commodified readings in categories such as The Feminist, The Marxist, The Existential and, The personal growth reading.
The idiocy of this last apparently escaped the writer of a document circulated to teachers and absorbed, without a skerrick of real comprehension, by students. In reality, there is no such thing as The Feminist Reading. There are many feminisms and as many readings as there are feminisms and feminists. The oversimplification in this categorising approach has resulted in students ingesting some horrible howlers. One student told me about how Aristotle had interpreted catharsis in King Lear - oblivious to the fact that Aristotle had long since departed this life before Shakespeare penned his play. Another explained how to do The Marxist reading: You look at the scene where the servants throw the tables over and that's class revolution. When I asked him which Act that was in, his reply was informative: I don't know which Act. We don't have to read the play, just know two readings, so I watched two videos".
2. Using Existing Readings of the Actual Text
This is a more conservative, empirical road. This involves finding reviews of the actual text and comparing their responses to the text with your own response. This approach means that you can have an active participation with the material, as opposed to a one sided guess at what a Marxist might say about the text. It is also easier to use in an extended response, because there are concrete quotes made by Cloudstreet in those reviews.
The limitations with this process is the lack of reviews of the text, as well as being intellectually limiting. This latter limitation leads to the third approach, which is the one being handled in this treatise.
3. Reading Individual Theorists on Text and relating their theories to Cloudstreet.
This approach is emerging as probably the best, due to the relationship between literary theorists and the construction of the syllabus. Unlike the supposed Marxist and Feminist readings, it is possible to make concrete links between the writings of individual theorists and texts. However, this approach is not widely known, mostly because of the history of English study over the past decades, the canonical approach, which saw texts studied because they were seen to be great. This explains the continued teaching of texts like To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies and countless Shakespeare plays. This approach was summarised by Dr Michaels in the same article:
"This conception of the subject English - sometimes referred to as the cultural heritage model - with its pedagogy based on the close study of canonical or classical English works, dominated the syllabuses of Australian schools for the best part of last century.
It was underpinned by an ideology that saw the study of such literature as morally and spiritually transformative, both for the individual, since it would heal and restore the soul, and for society at large, since it would bring light to the darkling plain inhabited by popular culture and the mass media".
During this time, theorists in Europe especially France, Italy and Russia were forwarding no such idea of literature being great and being worthy or unworthy. These theorists were largely unread in Australia, and are still marginalised. We can no longer afford to do that when their influence is stamped across the new syllabus.
A European Theory of Text and its Relationship with Cloudstreet
Cloudstreet has been seen as a uniquely Australian text, due to its use of Australian vernacular, landscapes and themes. Thus, it could be seen as odd that this paper seeks to analyse it using European theorists. However, the theorists covered in the paper do not limit their theories to the texts of their own nations. They do not have such a narrow view of text and its interpretation. Theirs is an attempt to place text into a context, or indeed rip it away from pre existing contexts altogether. This paper will cover the theories of Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin and Umberto Eco in order to give an understanding of how they see text, and how these views can be applied to Cloudstreet.
Roland Barthes: The death of the author
Roland Barthes was a post- modernist who wrote in 1968 that the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author. This statement can be coupled with the idea that every text is eternally written here and now by the people who read it (ie. you, the responder is constantly rewriting the text when you are reading it and responding to it).
Barthes, in the essay, criticises the modern idea that a texts meaning is centred on the author, and his/her life, tastes and passions. Thus, the constant interviews of authors, or the stream of writing about Shakespeare the man. Barthes is trying to break us away from this idea, freeing us as readers to gain meaning from a text without worrying about what the author of the text eats for breakfast, or indeed thinks about the text. Barthes goes on to say that authors can lay no claim to what they write because they are not writing anything original. Their texts are therefore a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. They are scriptors who use the dictionary that is culture (otherwise, what we now know as composers).
Critics and their analysis of texts arent spared by Barthes, who says that without an author, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. Critics would like an author, because then the author can be found behind the work, this author can be revealed and thus the text can be explained, showing the critic to be very clever. This is why classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader, for it, the writer is the only person in literature.
Barthes is telling readers to take texts away from authors and critics and take whatever meaning they like from the text, to remember that a texts unity lies not in its origin but in its destination and that the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.
Applying Barthes to Cloudstreet
Studies of Cloudstreet have always been linked to the figure of Tim Winton. This is why book publishing companies produce interviews with Winton about the book. Readers, too, often like to find out the history of the author, so they can feel like they understand more about the book. So, we have heard about Wintons view on spirituality, Australia and the role of Fish in the story. However, Barthes is telling us to stop this pursuit of understanding through consulting and investigating the author. He is encouraging us to read the text however we like to, bringing a lack of biographical, historical and psychological knowledge to a text.
Barthes is also encouraging us to examine the text as a tissue of signs, of quotations from the various strains of culture. In Cloudstreet, we can see many quotations from previously composed strains of Australian and world culture, such as:
- The hopeless gambler (Sam Pickles)
- The Protestant Work Ethic (through the Lambs)
- The Wistful, Studious Girl Makes Good (Rose)
- The strong, stoic worker (Quick)
- The Growing Suburb after WWII
- The Family Epic
- The Rape Drama
- The All Seeing Spiritual Indigenous Man
Thus, the text can be seen as a cobbled together repetition of the past, there to give whatever meaning to the reader/responder.
Mikhail Bakhtin: From the prehistory of novelistic discourse
Bakhtin was a theorist from the Soviet Union who has been categorised a structuralist, or modernist. He wrote at the same time as Barthes, but was not as keen to throw away the rights and position of an author. He is radical in other ways, however, especially in suggesting how a novel should be seen. He isolates the various strains of novel study as having 5 characteristics that he does not like.
1. A focus on the authors sections in a novel. There is a school of analysis that focuses on the authors words, looking for metaphors, adjectives and other poetic devices.
2. A dependence on neutral linguistic description of the language that excludes a stylistic analysis of the artistic whole (this can be seen as a comment on the concept of textual integrity).
3. A focus on the elements in an authors style that can be categorised (eg. Romanticism, Impressionism).
4. The expression of the authors individual personality is a crucial part of novel study (a dislike he shares with Barthes).
5. The novel viewed as a rhetorical device, and thus analysed in order to see how effective it is in delivering rhetoric / political views.
To Bakhtin, these methods are to a greater or lesser degree remote from the peculiarities that define the novel as a [unique] genre. He suggests that these methods of analysis are fine for poetry, but not for the novel. He believes the novel is a genre formed of many styles and many images and therefore cant be analysed in the same way as poetry. The novel is a product of the historical text form called the parodic travestying genre. That is, the novel is often sending itself up, as well as other texts. In other words novelistic discourse is always criticizing itself because it was formed and matured in the genres of familiar speech found in conversational folk language. This places the novel with the secular (non-religious) tradition, as opposed to direct forms of expression, such as epics and poetry, which came from the sacred tradition in society (the religious, serious people).
This concept is linked to the theory of polyglossia. This theory states that there are several voices and world views expressed in a novel (language levels) which are also expressed through characters in different character zones. This term refers to the different way a novel reads, depending on which character is being quoted or written about (eg. the Fish character zone, Quick character zone). To Bakhtin, the competing dialogues in a text are not only a representation of something in the world, but also a representation of another speech act about that thing. Thus, a representation of a representation. Here there is a similarity with Barthes and his tissue of previously written repetition.
However, there are crucial differences. First of all to Bakhtin the different world views are anchored to their time the characters act and talk in a setting that is social and historically concrete and therefore grounded in their times. This means that while Barthes wants us to forget any thought of psychology or historical context with the text, Bakhtin says the text is inseparable from its time. Thus, by implication a reader/responder is also bringing her/his historical background and understanding to the reading of a text. This brings limits to the interpretation of the text something supported by a Bakhtinian approach, but opposed by Barthes.
Cloudstreet can be seen in the light of a Bakhtinian approach. Winton is writing of an era he did not live in, and thus can be seen as a construction of an idealised past, before the serial rapist took the innocence away from the country town that was Perth. The novel can be seen as a collision of historical discourses, such as Oriels views on hard work as opposed to Sams laid back attitude to life, with Lester as the man standing between their world views. The children, too, represent differing world views, with Roses self-effacing suburban student clashing with the fashionable Toby Raven but falling for the stoic Quick. These are representations of many archetypal Australian themes and characters. Indeed, Cloudstreet can be seen as a contemporary representation of texts such as My Brother Jack, We of the Never Never and My Brilliant Career.
Bakhtin differs from Barthes as well in that he is not dispensing with the author. To Bakhtin, the author is at the centre of the text. There is a time when the language levels intersect, and that is where the author sits. This means that the author has written the text for a purpose there is a reason for the polyglossia, the competing world views. Bakhtin gives the example of Pushkins Evgeny Onegin as being a living encyclopedia of Russian life that allows Russian life to speak in all its voices and in the languages and styles of the era. Literary language is not represented in the novel as a unitary, completely finished-off and indisputable language it is represented precisely as a living mix of varied and opposing voices, developing and renewing itself.
Winton himself claims this intersection exists in his novel- he calls it eurhythmy. To Winton, eurhythmy refers to the time when everyone is happy and the events are in harmony Winton wanting a happy place in amongst the torment and clashing of world views that permeate the novel.
Bakhtins approach calls for a repudiation of classical interpretation of novel-as-poetry, as well as an examination of the novel as time capsule for the beliefs and actions of the folk of the day. In this way, there are meanings that can be sought along the lines of historical research, as well as individual responses that are a part of the living, infinitely renewing language mix that is the novel.
Umberto Eco: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage
Umberto Eco is an Italian philosopher who has written many long and complex philosophical books, as well as novels that explore the world of philosophy. This essay on the success of the film Casablanca takes traditional criticism and turns it upside down in order to show how it does not adequately address why particular texts are treasured in society.
Eco starts his essay by stating that traditional film critics would call Casablanca a very modest aesthetic achievement, which means its not considered by them to be a well made film. Instead, Eco uses their aesthetic analytical language in order to show that it is a hodgepodge of sensational (not subtle or mature) scenes strung together implausibly, its characters are psychologically incredible (not convincing or real), its actors act in a mannered way (not in a natural fashion). However, it is still popular and widely loved.
Eco theorises that it is popular because it is flawed and disorganised. He states a perfect movie cannot be reread as we want, and that an unhinged movies survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness. Many critics of Cloudstreet make a criticism that it too is incoherent and a hodgepodge of different ideas jostling for attention, which may explain why the novel was so popular with audiences.
Another claim made by Eco is that Casablanca works because the composers mixed a little of everything chose[n] from a repertoire that had stood the test of time. Eco here is referring to well worn archetypal themes. He then states that "when only a few of these formulas are used, the result is simply kitsch. But when the repertoire of stock formulas are used wholesale, then the result is [a] stroke of genius".
What Eco is saying is that when a composer uses a large number of filmic archetypes (known by some as cliches), then they don't stand out and ruin the film. Instead, they comfort the responder with images and techniques that everybody yearns to see again. Here, Eco is explicitly saying what Bakhtin says implicitly that responders bring their psychology and history to a text. This theory can easily be applied to successful films such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Forrest Gump and Titanic. They all use many archetypes that can be easily seen and derided when isolated from each other, but when they are slammed together as a whole, they made four of the most viewed films in history.
The same can be said for Cloudstreet. It has a number of well worn Australian archetypes, such as a the gambler, the hard working honest battler, the rising against tragedy and adversity, the spiritual Aborigine, the stoic man winning the girl over the fancy pants city intellectual. It is easy enough to deride these cliches and a perceived lack of cohesion. However, it would be dangerous to write his work off as failing to have textual integrity due to these flaws. By studying Eco's reading of Casablanca, it is possible to see that the flaws make Cloudstreet into a popular unhinged and uneven text and thus helping it appeal to an audience familiar with past Australian writings.
It is possible to see similarities with these three approaches to Cloudstreet. All have the view that texts have a type of polyglossia that is, multiple voices speaking at once, at odds with each other. The three readings also give power to the reader. However, the nature of this power is different and lays at the heart of their approach to texts like Cloudstreet.
Barthes wants the reader to have total power, to exclude people like Winton. This way, Fish can be anything you want him to be the omnipresent, multi voiced narrator, or just the imbecile with the inner voice still with him. The novel is just a collection from the past in this interpretation, and you can throw away the cribs.
Bakhtin wants the reader to depart from treating prose like poetry, and stop looking for metaphors and the like. He wants people to see novels as a part of the parodic, depracating culture human society, not serious, direct texts. He wants the reader to also understand that there is an historical and political background for such texts, as well as a centre being controlled by the author. However, he is warning against being bound in the cult of the author, through seeking truths by analysing his personal life and passions.
Eco wants the reader to look past the supposed flaws of a text and look at why readers might like an imperfect text. He wants the reader to revel in cliché and other unhinged forms, as to understand why readers everywhere buy novels like Cloudstreet.
In the end, there are flaws with each argument. However, that is for you to sort out. This is a highly flawed potted view of theorists looking at text as a concept. Have fun sorting it all out.