Introductions

I’d like to do something a little different today. Rather than discuss a specific book, I’d like to talk about Introductions, and why I hate them.

Let me begin, as usual, with a qualifier: I don’t mean all introductions. Specifically, I’d like to exempt authorial introductions, i.e. introductions written by the author, say on some anniversary of the original publication of the work. I actually often love introductions of this kind – it’s almost always interesting to hear an author discuss their relationship to their own previous work. Usually, they contain some clarifying context: ‘I started this book the day the Berlin Wall fell‘; ‘At the time I wrote this, I did not yet know that Rock Hudson was gay‘. They also contain the author’s current perspective: ‘In retrospect, Y2K was a less urgent problem than we supposed at the time‘. At their very best, they integrate feedback: ‘A number of readers have told me that the main character is desperately annoying – if I was writing him today, I probably wouldn’t have made him a Gemini‘.

I love authorial introductions because I always, always learn something about what the author wanted the book to be, and I think that that is useful information to have. I feel that they give me better insight into what the author expected to happen when I read the book. In some cases, the authorial introduction has had such a profound impact on how I understand the book that I cannot think about one without thinking about the other. An example is Arthur Miller’s essay on ‘The Crucible’, in which he writes, of Danforth the judge:

“In my play, Danforth seems about to conceive of the truth, and surely there is a disposition in him at least to listen to arguments that go counter to the line of prosecution. There is no such swerving in the record, and I think now, almost four years after the writing of it, that I was wrong in mitigating the evil of this man and the judges he represents…I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example we should not know the good. Evil is not a mistake but a fact in itself…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil and loving it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal. I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact-to conceive, in effect, of Iago.’ (p. 167, ‘The Crucible: Text and Criticism’)

I could write essays on that quote alone; it is not an understatement at all to say that it has changed how I think about the world and that it means more to me than ‘The Crucible’ itself (which I love, deeply) could ever have meant to me without it. It is an integral part of my experience of the work.

But I am not talking about that kind of introduction today. Today, I’d like to talk about the critical introduction, written by someone other than the author, which so often appears in front of esteemed works of literature. These introductions offend me deeply, because they almost always tell me what to think, and, in doing so, they spoil the work in some way.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, crack open the Introduction of any major work of fiction. You will inevitably find sentences giving the game away, or framing the relationships of the book for you. Sentences like these:

“Prince Myshkin has two loves, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya, one belonging to each “world” of the novel. He also has two doubles: Rogozhin and Ippolit. There is a deep bond between the dying consumptive nihilistic thinker and the impulsive, unreflecting, passionate merchant’s son, between the suicide, and the murderer.” ‘The Idiot’, Dostoyevsky)

“One of the most touching scenes in the novel is the transformation of Sir Leicester near the end. He has been severely humbled by the discovery of his wife’s secret and her flight, jeered at by a servant, and crippled by a stroke. Society expects him to renounce his wife, but instead, before his household, he declares his loyalty to her with the pomp and bravado that have, until now, made him the novel’s chief stooge.” (‘Bleak House’, Dickens)

Or how about one of the introductions that has most offended me over the years, from ‘The End of the Affair’, by Graham Greene:

“We can entertain the possibility that a miracle has occurred so long – and only so long – as the novel also leaves us free to entertain the possibility that it hasn’t…The last chapters of ‘The End of the Affair’ do not allow us that freedom…It is as though the novelists “technical ability” had failed him just this once, and left him caught with his finger on the scale. And Greene has since admitted that the way in which this “cheating” harmed the novel…The story he wanted to tell was that of a man “driven and overwhelmed by the accumulation of natural coincidences, until he broke and began to accept the incredible.” But Greene found that after describing Sarah’s death he “had no great appetite to continue,” and rather than allowing Bendrix to grow into a “reluctant doubt of his own atheism,” he began to “hurry” onto the end.”

Ok, so you’re not just going to ruin the ending for me, you’re also going to tell me that the ending isn’t successful? This is just rude, frankly. It is rude to roll up on a great novel, slide in front with your measly little opinion and tell naive readers not only what is going to happen, but how they are supposed to feel about it.

‘Ok’, you might be saying to yourself, ‘Fine, you’ve got a defensible opinion here, if perhaps a little hysterical. But the solution is clear: just don’t read the Introduction. They aren’t mandatory; just skip by them and take in the work with a fresh eye.’

It’s a reasonable point, but, unfortunately, it gets right to thing that most offends me about them: we are supposed to read them. We are pressured, by their location and nomenclature (they are Introductions), to read them. That’s why they come before the book: they are meant to be a subtle gatekeeper, a sort of orientation to the book you actually wanted to read.

It is true, we are absolutely capable of sailing right by the Introduction; in fact, most people probably do. But it is clear to me that we are meant to feel bad for skipping past it. If we simply ignore that prefacing section, we are meant to feel philistinic, unliterary. ‘Oh,’ those pages seem to say to us, ‘Someone’s in a hurry. Not a real Reader, are you? I guess you don’t really care about understanding the book you’re reading, huh? Just trying to put a notch in the bedpost – fine. Not everyone can be a real intellectual, I guess’.

Look, I love a good critical explication as much as the next guy. Critical essays help us deepen our relation to the work in question; they make us better readers. But they should not be placed, like a toll booth, at the front of the work. Fiction should be read fresh, without preconceived notions of meaning. Meaning should come later – experience should come first. To present readers with a pre-masticated point of view about the work which they are about to encounter is, in my opinion, wicked. It does violence to the spirit of thing, to the relationship between a reader and a new book.

I’ll put it another way: the novel should frame the criticism. The criticism exists contingent on the novel; the novel is its context. However, when you put the Introduction in front of the novel, the Introduction frames the novel. It’s ass-backwards. It spoils the book for new readers; it’s patronizing and contaminating. Stop it.

The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

By M.R. James

I’m sorry to tell you, but the title of this post is misleading: I am not going to talk about ‘The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James’ today. Instead, I’m going to talk about the introduction to the 2011 Oxford World’s Classics edition of the ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’, written by one Darryl Jones.

M.R. James

Remembered best as a horror writer, Montague Rhodes James was also an accomplished medieval scholar and antiquarian. Accordingly, he was a master of what is sometimes called “antiquarian horror”, namely horror that centers around items or students of antiquity (think cursed artifacts, ancient manuscripts with terrible secrets, stuff like that).  Importantly, he seems to have led a largely hermetic and unisex existence: in 1905, he became the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and he served until 1918, when he left to become the provost of Eton College, a position he held until his death in 1936.

Despite being backwards-looking, the creepiness of James’ stories holds up beautifully, and it’s difficult to overstate the influence he has had on the genre. Take, as one example, ‘A School Story’, in which two men compare the ghost stories of their school days.  Here is an image that should be familiar to anyone who saw ‘The Blair Witch Project’:

“First there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, ‘I’ve seen it,’ and died.”

Like Lovecraft (writing around the same time), James is at his creepiest at moments like this, when he leaves things unsaid.  The most grisly action, the terrible spectre, always appears offscreen, and is more unsettling because you have to imagine it yourself. James is very deft in this space, in the gesturing to horror, in inviting the reader to participate in designing the frightening thing.

Of course, the danger with leaving too much to your readers’ imagination is that some readers will bring their own, strange baggage to the encounter.  Enter Darryl Jones, Professor of Modern British Literature and Culture at Trinity College Dublin, who wrote the (otherwise) very good introduction to the 2011 ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’.

My complaint with Jones is a small, but important, one. At one point in his (really very good and helpful) introduction, Jones spends a while dissecting James’ resistance to marriage and preference for male relationships before turning to this passage, from ‘Casting the Runes’:

“…he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”

Jones then calmly makes the following statement: “…this image of the hairy, fanged mouth…is a powerful symbol of sexual terror, a vagina dentata.”

Is it, Darryl? Is it really?

Jones didn’t invent the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth; it appears in Jungian literature, and in several South American, Ainu, and Hindu folk tales (as well as in the memorably bad horror movie ‘Teeth’).  It’s hardly a common trope, though, and while most of Jones’ analysis seems straightforward and sound, this abrupt veer into genitalia seems more his problem than James’.  Surely, other perfectly normal and astute readers might have read and reread James’ passage without thinking, ‘Oh, yes, that’s clearly a toothed vagina”.

Indeed, Jones finds vaginas all over the place.  In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, the antiquarian Somerton is exploring a ‘dark cavity’ inside a well when he meets “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”.  He is “conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.” This story, explains Jones, “is ultimately a tale of uncontrollable sexual terror, a quest which leads Mr. Somerton to this nightmare vagina, and an encounter which he barely survives.”

Jones’ argument, namely that James’ cloistered and all-male life might have indicated a fear of female company, is not unreasonable on its face. Nor is it unreasonable to ask whether that fear may have found its way into James’ writing as, to quote Jones, “a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine”.

However, I’m not persuaded by the examples Jones gives. I’ll put it more plainly: it’s not obvious to me that every menacing crevice must necessarily be a vagina.

James may well have eschewed female company, and it may be the case that “the lifelong appeal of institutions for James was that they provided the security of all-male environments”.  He may have been a homosexual, but does that really mean that there lurked in every dark corner of his expansive imagination…a vagina? 

I don’t want to make this all about me, but, as a person with a vagina, it’s difficult not to take this a tiny bit personally. I would certainly have hoped that nothing on my body could be described as eliciting “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”. The trouble is that Jones seems to assume that every dank environment, every toothed oriface, every bad smell, must be a vagina. Worse, that he assumes it’s obvious. Reading his introduction, one starts to wonder whether, for a certain class of man, all monsters are really just vaginas. Some of Jones’ examples are real stretches, too – I don’t want to speak for other women, but I’ve never heard of a vagina with tentacles.

It’s a minor complaint, in the grand scheme of things, but I would like make this small point: the world is a large place, full of terrible things, and not all of them have to be vaginas. We can imagine other monsters, can we not? Sometimes, a cave is just a cave.