As a first year graduate student, I took a course in literary criticism and theory. We got an overview of various contemporary trends: formalism, the so-called “new” criticism, structuralism, deconstruction, reader-response, psychoanalytic, Marxist, new historicism, feminist, queer theory, and multiculturalism. It made for heavy reading by scholars who take themselves too seriously, in my opinion; but the class was lively, thanks to the professor’s wisecracks. Serious thoughts disguised as humor: we joked it was Dr. Neff’s Comedy Hour.
One night, my husband looked at my notes for Russian formalism. Dr. Neff had photocopied pages from Morphology of a Folktale by Vladimir Propp, a Russian scholar. The handout included an analysis of a folk story. The scholar had broken down each element of the story (such as characters, individual actions, dialogue, etc.), assigned it a number and letter, and created this:
My husband of one year laughed. “That’s not even a real equation!” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything. It wouldn’t work.”
Secretly, I agreed, but was too proud of my newfound scholarly knowledge to let him know. And who was he to assess Propp’s scheme? He was just an engineer. A mere rocket scientist!
Now we joke about the “equation” for a story. He was right: trying to reduce a story to a series of numbers and letters strips away the meaning (not to mention the pleasure of reading.)
But isn’t that how we often view others? People, some we know, some we don’t, are placed in a demographic category. Race. Gender. Clothing. Job. Marital status. Socio-economic class. We define others in broad terms and draw conclusions about them based on those categorical terms.
It’s not just other people, though. Often, we define ourselves by those terms. I’ve been in Bible studies where women are asked to introduce themselves to the group. (I cringe.) The first woman says, “I’m (name) and I’m married to (name) and we have (number) of children.” The next woman follows her example. When a single woman is reached, she says, “I’m (name) and I don’t have a husband or children, but I do (job title).”
And I cringe even more.
The first woman defines herself in categorical terms of who she is related to (husband and children).
What if your husband dies? I want to ask. What if he leaves you or you leave him or your kids die or rebel and refuse to speak to you ever again? Who are you then, when that’s all stripped away?
The last woman defines herself in categorical terms describing what she does not have (husband and child) and her job (which seems tacked on, as if it’s a consolation prize for not “winning” the jackpot of the husband-and-child combo.)
Oh, so your job’s just a piddly little thing. It doesn’t mean anything to you? Why did you take it? What’s your passion? Who are you, really, when you stop thinking of yourself as you-as-person-who-lacks and start thinking of you-as-person-who-has?
In both cases, there’s no truly significant thing conveyed about her. Just her. Not her in relation to others, but simply her.
Granted, this is easy to do. My description of myself on this blog includes the husband-and-kid factors. [See the upper right corner, under my photo.] It’s not completely without value as a shorthand way of conveying important information for, say, a dating website.
But wait, that phony mathematical equation (or whatever Propp called it) wasn’t about individual elements, was it?
It was about a story, and a story is more than its individual elements of characters or plot. Think of the story’s elements (those letters and numbers in the equation) as individual people. What does that make the story-equation as a whole? Relationships between people.
Can I possibly analyze my relationship with another person this way? Think of your closest relationship and how complex it is. (Anyone who isn’t a hermit in a desert has some point in her life where her existence touches others.)
I could try to turn my marriage into a scheme à la Propp, but there are fifteen years of shared jokes, fights, memories, children, high points, low points, passion, sadness, joy, words spoken, actions taken . . . I can’t do it. I could try with friends, parents, kids, doctors. Those would all fail, too.
Yet sometimes I try. Not on paper, but in my mind and how I think about those individuals and our relationship. I reduce our interactions to simplistic terms that fail to capture the multilayered, sometimes contradictory feelings we carry toward another person. I do this because I can’t fully understand all the ways I, as a complex individual, relate to another complex individual. So I focus on one aspect to the exclusion of others: she drives me crazy, he’s so sweet, I hate that she’s so snobby, eww that homeless guy smells bad . . .
This impoverishes our spirits. It hurts our relationships with others.
It rips away an opportunity to understand the depths of our individuality and our relation to the world around us.
If relationships were stories, then we would be more of a sprawling, epic War and Peace-sized tome than familiar fairytale-length stories like “Princess and the Pea.”
Defining ourselves or others only in terms of certain elements of our lives is like taking a novel of Tolstoyian proportions and reducing it to a mathematical equation. It doesn’t work.