An open thread on Arcadia. What do you make of its representations of the relationships between writers and literary critics? Of its representations of reading? What else interests you here?
I really love this play, I think it’s truly brilliant. Going back and reading it again in the context of the class made me notice a lot of other themes that I hadn’t fully understood the first time I read it. For example, the way Stoppard plays with time is self-evident in his choice to jump back and forth between 1809 and the present day, but there were so many other elements of time that I hadn’t noticed before. To name one, Stoppard waits until Act II to give the background information about time and space that would ordinarily come before the ‘beginning’ of the play itself, which is his way of making the ‘beginning’ of the play less significant (and it already seems very insignificant to begin with, because the play opens with a seemingly arbitrary discussion of carnal embrace). I love the way he ties themes (the accuracy of history, order vs. disorder, the role of the reader, etc.) together throughout the play. I think it’s also interesting to read Arcadia in conjunction with this class on literary criticism because our reading is inherently a meta-analysis, a meta-reading, since the first/original reading is going on in the play itself among the present-day characters. We are left to analyze their actions and re-analyze (meta-analyze) the actions of the 1809 characters.
For me, the most interesting part of this book was the way that the division between past and present slowly disappeared as the book went on. This is perhaps because the stories of the past and present paralleled each other. It seemed as though the same story happened in different periods of time.
I also thought that perhaps that the story occuring in the past could represent the writing of a story, whereas the modern time story could represent reading and literary criticism. Just as in writing and literary criticism, a story is produced by both. Also, I found it interesting the way that reading was portrayed. The present day characters were reading a the history of what happened to their past counterparts. Each character had a different theory about what actually happened. This happens commonly in reading because different readers will read a text in a different way.
This is the third time I’ve read this play and it still strikes me as absolutely brilliant. I’m constantly amazed at Stoppard’s deft handling of each of his characters as individuals.
On a slightly different note, re-reading the play again in the context of this class was really interesting. Bernard and Hannah’s struggles to add a new twist to a literary past that’s been analyzed the hell out of. Honestly, the modern aspect of the play intrigued me more in terms of the class. I kept thinking back to structuralists, post-structuralism, the new historians and the like. It’s interesting that so much of Byron’s actual writing has been so analyzed that brilliant new literary analysis has more to do with his life than with what he was writing. It all seems to be another effort to contextualize an author’s writing with what was happening within said author’s life.
I can’t help but wonder how literary critic’s analysis of Byron would change if what Bernard postulated had turned out to be true. I’d like to think that analysis of the writing would be uninfluenced by new historical context in terms of author, but I know that would never happen. Still, an interesting thought.
There are so many great lines in this play, but what stood out to me was when Bernard talks about his friend who analyzed a story on his computer: “Well, by comparing sentence structures and so forth, this chap showed that there was a ninety per cent chance that the story had indeed been written by the same person as Women in Love. To my inexpressible joy, one of your maths mob was able to show that on the same statistical basis there was a ninety per cent chance that Lawrence also wrote the Just William books and much of the previous day’s Brighton and Hove Argus” (19). This line reminded me of the Lockwood essay on Milton that we read at the beginning of the semester. The Lockwood essay pulled so many examples from Milton’s works, but I’m not sure I ever fully subscribed to what Lockwood was arguing. I felt like the essay over analyzed everything and that all we were left with were these pieces of Milton, that even when put together in this essay, could not really capture the completeness of his work, when ironically that is what Lockwood intended to do. I really like Valentine’s line when he says: “She saw why. You can put back the bits of glass but you can’t collect the heat of the smash. It’s gone” (93). I feel like this line just reveals some of the gaps critics encounter when trying to analyze literature.
In part, Arcadia represented the changes in writing over two hundred years. In 1809, the characters’ writing has a more material meaning. For example, Chater challenges Septimus to a duel not because Septimus had an affair with his wife, but because he wrote multiple bad reviews of Chater’s works. In the present, Bernard’s writing fails to exert the same force on Hannah or Valentine. As Hannah says “It’s all trivial–your grouse, my hermit, Bernard’s Byron… It’s wanting to know that makes us matter… Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final (75-76).” In the present, it isn’t the grand scheme, but the process, the small things. Valentine explains that a theory of everything “only explained the very big and the very small. The universe, the elementary particles. The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about–clouds–daffodils–waterfalls–and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in–these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks… The future is disorder… It’s the best possible time to be alive when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong” (47-48).
I too, saw a great deal within the book relating to the ideas of poststructuralism. Although there was a great deal of stressing how people have changed over time, I noticed a lot of elements that seemed to express the opposite. The characters Gus and Augustus, for example, existed as identical people minus the difference that one spoke and one did not. Thus there is a certain aspect of fluctuation between the ages, but at the same time people have seemed to remain more or less the same in their overall makeup. Culture changes, the world advances, but people can retain their qualities through this change.