What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 1}

I’d always intended to write this series of posts, but kept putting it off.

Until now.

First, let me begin by saying that this topic is the focus of my doctoral research work. I’ve been actively engaged in the historical and critical study of issues surrounding this topic for about seven years now. Therefore, I have a shit ton of stuff to say about it. That said, I don’t want any of these posts to be overwhelming. My goal will be to introduce a brief, digestible amount of information for your consideration. I like what Kyle and Lily have been doing with their Geography Thursdays series: brief but compelling punches of thought. Sadly, I can’t promise to maintain their consistent frequency of publication, but because I like their model I’ll try to emulate the brevity.

I want to be clear: what I have to say is meant to start conversation not conclude conversation. I hope y’all will see that my intention is to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, I will strive to identify tendencies, not truisms. I don’t believe in truth, I believe in interpretation. (God bless Nietzsche.) Thus, I do not pretend to be right; I only pretend to have ideas worth talking/thinking about.

Now then, the focus of my first post arises from a consideration of Lyn Hejinian’s concept of open and closed texts…

Hejinian opens her provocative essay “The Rejection of Closure,” first published in 1985 but originally delivered as a talk in 1983, with an epigraph from Paul Valéry’s Analects:

Two dangers never cease threatening
the world: order and disorder.

Change the word “order” to convention and the word “disorder” to experimentation, and we have the world of literature. These two tendencies, dualistic as they may seem, are indeed at the heart of the heart of the matter; but I think it ill-advised to consider the forces of order and disorder (personally, I like the Greek words better: cosmos and chaos) as binary poles on a literary spectrum. Rather, I like to think of them as haecceities periodically conveying various magnitudes of intensity. In other words, as independent forces that push and pull but never settle at a maximum polarization. This means there’s no such thing as “an experimental text” or “a conventional text,” only texts that tend toward experimentation and texts that tend toward convention.

One way of thinking about this idea of tending toward convention or tending toward experimentation is to think about texts as predominately open or predominately closed. Hejinian offers a nice tentative characterization of these terms:

We can say that a “closed text” is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the “open text,” mean­while, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work.

To help conceptualize what Hejinian is saying, I’ll give two examples. The first is a comparison between two paintings I love by two different 20th century artists.

First, the closed text:

Edward Hopper - "New York Movie"

Notice how the elements of this closed text work to direct your reading. We have a legible setting, an identifiable character, and an implied situation. The scope of ambiguity in the Hopper painting is relatively narrow.

Now consider the open text:

Jackson Pollock - "Number 8"

Here we do not have a legible setting, an identifiable character, nor an implied situation. Instead, the elements of this text are maximally excited and thus the scope of ambiguity is relatively broad.

This comparison shows the contrast between a closed text and an open text, between a text that tends toward cosmos and a text that ends toward chaos, between a conventional text and an experimental text.

Let me close with my second example, this time I’ll use two literary texts I love by two different 20th century writers.

First, the closed text:

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch.

The opening of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is a great example of a closed text. Notice the way in which the elements of the story direct you toward a particular reading. There is a clearly identifiable narrator who situates himself in relation to other clearly identifiable characters. We can also easily identify a setting, as well as an explicit situation. The scope of ambiguity in this text is relatively narrow.

Now consider the open text:

The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there’s no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one, O, we’re knee-deep in this one, you and me, we’re practically puppets, making all sorts of fingers dance above us…

This, the opening passage of Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence, works quite differently than the Carver. Here it’s difficult to identify the narrator, let alone the relationship between the narrator and the person to whom the narrator is speaking. There does not seem to be a legible setting. As well, it’s hard to pinpoint the situation occurring. Instead, the elements of the text are maximally excited and thus the scope of ambiguity is relatively broad.

Hopefully, in this brief post, what I’ve shown is one (of many) ways to think about experimental literature. It’s a complex issue rife with controversy. Folks love to get pissed about how “there’s no such thing as experimental literature” or “the term experimental is outdated or ineffective.” I disagree. I think it’s important to think/talk about the two forces that never cease to threaten the world: convention and experimentation. It’s my goal to come up with tangible, helpful, informative ways to think/talk about this topic. Hopefully you’ll notice I’ve tried my best to omit value judgment from this analysis. I know that on previous occasions I’ve been, how should I say, priggishly vehement about my adoration for experimental texts and my disdain for conventional texts. Let this first post be my honest attempt to reach across the aisle, as they say about politics. I know that if I come across as an asshole no one will be interested in hearing what I have to say. I don’t want that to happen because I do think these things are important and I do want people to be talking/thinking about them. Maybe next time I’ll write a little bit about Aristotle and how the ideas he laid out in Poetics have come to underpin what we recognize as conventional literature today.