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December 30, 2011 10:16 pm
When you are at university reading English literature and it’s all going well, after a few terms you will probably develop your own signature literary critical aperçu. You will winkle out some blindingly impressive insight into one of your preferred set texts, which is so pleasing to you that afterwards you will sit back in your chair, smile smugly to yourself and do whatever your equivalent of smoking a pipe might be. (It could be devouring a peppermint Aero. It might be jigging about vaguely to “I Will Survive”.)
Your tutor may cover your page with ticks or offer you some warm sherry in a dusty cut-glass goblet. There follows a sense of somehow having arrived. You sit up straighter in your chair. Your life, you feel and hope, will never quite be the same again. You make a note in your mind about the slubby texture of the tweed of the chair you were sitting on when you made the breakthrough. You remember to remember the faint arc of steam emerging, cloudily, from the kettle; you commit to memory the glow of the gasworks yonder, the soup stain on your blouse and its faint beefy aroma.
This point might be, oh I don’t know, that Henry James is interested in how to be good in the world without taking on any of the taint that the word “worldly” carries. The point might be that Tennyson is not an intellectual poet because, although he did have some ideas, he wasn’t analytical in the way he reacted to them. The point might be that Jane Austen’s prose goes against the grain of itself by seeming to invite a response that is much simpler than the one it truly seeks or deserves.
Or it may be that your author is obsessed with doppelgängers. Or images of open windows. Or instances of division.
This is when a warning bell should sound. This is when a caution should be delivered by the earnest dean with the terrible breath, complete with PowerPoint or at least microfiche. This is when you should be dumped in the wilds of Scotland from a helicopter and left to forage for berries and nuts for a week or two, to get back your sense of perspective.
For, left to your own devices, especially if there is a library close to hand, in a flash your little idea will swamp your brain and threaten to take over your life. In every book you read thereafter, you will lose all interest in character development, ignore plot twists, skip stark or beautiful imagery, looking solely for evidence of your signature idea. You will fillet books brutally in search of something that will prove your inkling is right. You will eat, drink and sleep your little conviction. Soon all books by your author will seem to cling to the centrality of your idea, even the diaries and juvenilia.
. . .
Next, all books by your writers’ contemporaries will prove your idea too. Suddenly every book in existence will seem to be written with your darling conundrum at its heart. How can it be true? But it is, O happy day! It’s as though the whole world throbs with your own particular point of view.
And then it seems to you when you meet new folk or old ones, when you are in odd situations or ordinary ones, that – and this really is extraordinary – your aperçu holds true in real life as well. For there it is, being acted out before your very eyes, time after time, and before long it is utterly clear that your little realisation catches firmly at the heart of how we all live. You can scarcely believe it!
If you are very hardcore you may spend four years completing a PhD and then publish your thesis to try to convert the world to your way of thinking. You may even go the whole hog and become a novelist and write books in which your characters and the books your characters read (in your books) spend each page proving that your student signature aperçu not only lies at the heart of the human condition, it is its very essence.
You may find yourself devoting your life to making the world appear to you as you once glimpsed it. Thus, an observation made about a character in a book when you are 19 and green as a little gem may define your environment for the rest of your life. All I am really asking is: is this a good idea?
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt
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