Friday, 11 November 2011

Double plotting

Some Versions of Pastoral is one of those books of criticism (the Biographia Literaria is another) that I read breezily as a student, thinking 'yeah, yeah, cool, I get that', only to re-read as a grown-up to think 'gracious, I've really no idea what's going on here ...' Not that I want to overstate it.  Some of the chapters are more lucid than others, and I grasp (I think) some of the core ideas: putting the complex into the simple; the ironies of class; the relationship between heroic and pastoral modes. And re-reading it recently, the 'myth'-criticism stuff comes clearer to me than once it did; and the way Empson's pastoral is much more a temporal than a geographical location ('the child as swain' -- the Alice chapter was a revelation to me, actually; in my memory it was a straightforward Freudian decoding of Carroll's books. In reality, it's nothing of the sort, despite the fact that Empson, tricksily, insists that it is ('the books are so frankly about growing up that there is no great discovery in translating them into Freudian terms', 253). In fact the stress of the chapter is, on the contrary, on the way the (sexual) world of adulthood becomes nonsensical when it is, in E.'s rather brilliant phrase, 'seen through the clear but blank eyes of sexlessness.')

Anyway, the chapter that puzzled me the most on re-reading is the second: 'Double Plots'. I've read it twice now; and it starts out making what seem like quite modest points about the relationship between main plots and subsidiary plots in Renaissance drama -- the way Henry IV juxtaposes Hal's narrative and Falstaff's narrative in order to bring out the tension between heroic/tragic and pastoral vision; the way Lear's troubles with his children is mirrored, in a sort of ratio inferior, by Gloster's troubles with his children ('the effect of having two old men with ungrateful children, of different sorts, is to make us generalise the theme of Lear and feel that whole classes of children have become unfaithful, all nature is breaking up, as in the storm', 54). I see, I think; although that second example is perhaps a jump. But the chapter then spirals off into discussions of the one and the many, the relationship between individuals and God, love and madness, monarchy as a spiritual as against a mundane political phenomenon. It's hard to see how all these different things embroider the same point, or even the same group of points.

In a rather clotted essay, ‘Figural narrative and plot construction: Empson and pastoral’ (in Christopher Norris, William Empson: the critical achievement (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 196-97), Pamela McCallum takes the double plot to be a distinction ‘between the manifest content of texts and their hidden deep structures’:
His complex theory of double plot always and everywhere stresses the inner-textual or deep structural elements of a given dramatic work. As Paul de Man points out, Empson’s pastoral convention is based on an opposition between “the mind that distinguishes, negates, legislates, and the originary simplicity of the natural’.
I can see the latter as a rather cumbersome gloss on E.’s ‘putting the complex into the simple’; but I don’t see that the double plot, as E elaborates it in this chapter, is hidden in the way Norris implies here. It’s in plain sight – isn’t it?
By an insistence on the primacy of double plots he is able to articulate the essential mechanisms or deep structures which are buried somewhere within the dramatic form itself. [198]
Again—‘hidden’? In what sense is Henry IV's Falstaff element (for instance) hidden? Clearer is Nick Hubble, (in David James, Philip Tew (eds) New versions of pastoral: post-romantic, modern, and contemporary responses to the tradition (Associated University Presse, 2009), 125):
‘In the double plot … there appears to be a division between high-born, heroic, tragic strands on the one hand and lowborn, common, comic strands on the other. Empson points out that these two “halves”—which he calls “heroic” and “pastoral”—naturally belong together, demonstrating “a proper or beautiful relation between rich and poor”. This form was ambiguously poised: on the one hand, it decayed into allegorical pastoral, which “describes the lives ‘simple’ low people to an audience of refined wealthy people, so as to make them think first ‘this is true about everyone’ and then ‘this is specially true about us’”; while on the other, it also gave rise to mock pastoral in its fully developed form, exemplified for Empson by John Gay's The Beggar’s Opera (1728)

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