Wrapping up Theme Week here on Ditchwalk I want to shine a little light on the dark side of theme. The problem, as we’ve discovered, is that theme in any instance can never truly be known except by the person who originally employed it, and in some instances not even then.
Because of our innate human tendency to create narratives out of any and all events, we tend to believe we can determine a person’s motivations by looking at the choices they make. This leads to the unsupported conclusion that mucking around in a literary work will tell us something about the person who wrote it, and why they wrote it.
In those instances where we admit uncertainty we still assume that people understand their own motivations, but even this is not necessarily true. Think of an erratic act or crime, and a fair portion of the unease you feel will be attributable not to the act itself, but to your inability to make sense of what happened, or the even-more-frightening thought that the person who acted has no idea why they did what they did. Human beings do not like things that do not make sense, at times to such an extent that a theoretical answer (even a wrong one) is better than no answer at all.
As we’ve seen this week, theme is really only useful when it’s employed during the creative process. As an analytical tool it is terrible, and does considerable damage to students who are forced to use it. But even if we posit a master storyteller using theme to maximum artistic benefit, and even if that author reliably expresses the theme employed and the way in which it was used to shape the resulting work, we have no way to say for certain that the author’s testimony is factually true and complete.
I’m not saying the author would be lying, and I’m not advocating that we dismiss what authors tell us about their choices. I’m simply making the point that it would be difficult for a writer to fully and exhaustively document the causal connections that led them to make any one thematic decision, let alone a novel’s worth.
As I’ve previously noted relative to interactive storytelling, it is not possible to reduce specific authorial choices to logical rules that are valid in all instances. Ultimately it is human sensibility, not rationality, that is in charge of creation, yet even as we know this to be true we expect rationality to explain choices that were dictated by sensibility.
To the extent that we can say anything even remotely accurate about authorial motives (or any motives), it’s usually only because of the blatant obviousness of those motives or the narrowness of the particular example. Beyond that we are necessarily guessing, and that holds for authors commenting on their own work as well. And that’s assuming the best of all possible cases. If an author is under stress or abusing alcohol or drugs the likelihood diminishes that they will be able to explain the thematic choices they made, or what their theme was, or why they chose it. It’s also possible that an author may not embrace a theme at all, which means our thematic spelunking would be even more theoretical.
Given this pervasive uncertainty, what is there, really, that’s useful about theme as an analytical tool? Well, as it turns out…everything.
Like nature, human beings abhor a vacuum. Not sure where we all came from? Pow: religion! Not sure how to properly value a corporation? Pow: economics! Not sure who’s the all-time best baseball player? Pow: sports talk radio! Not sure why somebody wrote something, or what it means? Pow: theme!
Name any subject that cannot be proven absolutely and you will find people rushing in to provide (and sell) answers. Theme meets this attractive-nuisance test. Precisely because it’s impossible to be sure about the origins and extent of theme in any context, theme provides literally endless possibilities for discussion. Better yet, because theme is inherently impossible to prove, no theory (or theorist) can ever be proven wrong.
In my initial post on theme I talked about how theme is badly taught, and introduced you to a devastating critique by Thomas McCormack that originally proved that point to me. However, if the only academic objective in introducing theme was to teach students something insightful about literature, I think the study of theme would have been abandoned long ago.* To see why, consider this quote from Mr. McCormack:
The more dedicated the student already is to reading, the more devoted he is to the idea of studying under the great professor, the man who sees, and knows, and who will convey the keys to appreciating great writers and great books. Because the professor is both lofty and wrong, the result is either sore disillusionment and withdrawal, or a kind of lobotomy, the disconnection of sensibility, replacing it with a soulless response and printout acquired from an insensate microchip.
From the point of view of appreciation of literature, or understanding storytelling as a craft, I think Mr. McCormack is right. As noted in a previous post, I went the disillusionment-and-withdrawal route myself.
There is another choice afforded students, however, provided their interest lies not in understanding literature but in using stories as fodder for their own achievements. In that event students need only grasp the basic idea that the very nebulousness of theme also provides them with an intellectual blank check.
It’s in this context that theme is its most seductive, because a scholar who can show what someone was thinking when they wrote a given story will be able to read intent into that work. This, in turn, will satisfy any cultural unease about not knowing the causal relationship between actor and specific act: between criminal and aberrant crime; between creator and mysterious creation. (Note that in taking this step the scholar transitions from teacher to priest. Texts are no longer taught, but interpreted.)
Take theme away and pronouncements of meaning are much more difficult to make. With theme in hand an academic with an axe to grind or an ego to feed can do just that, with no possibility of refutation other than disavowal by other academics. In short, the risks are low and the rewards potentially great: tenure, professional acclaim, speaking tours, a reserved parking spot.
To see how theme inherently facilitates this kind of charlatanism, consider the following two playwrights: Arthur “Death of a Salesman” Miller and Tennessee “A Streetcar Named Desire” Williams. Whatever you know about them, or don’t know, how likely do you think it is that they wrote with specific themes in mind? And how much ink do you imagine has been spilled trying to detect and decipher those themes, if indeed the authors used them?
Let’s start with a quote from Miller:
The reason why I have resisted the autobiographical interpretation of the play, as you have put it, is that After the Fall is not an autobiography in the sense that it was not my aim to personify myself on stage as such; it is a play about a theme if ever such a play existed. All my characters in all my works are autobiographical in the sense that, for me to write them, I have to have felt what these people feel. ~Arthur Miller
The reason Miller feels the need to argue against an autobiographical interpretation of After the Fall is that almost anyone who knows anything about Miller would say that it is an autobiographical play. In fact, it’s almost impossible to read the play in any other way, yet here is Miller saying, “No: that’s not right.”
Who do we believe? If I told you that Arthur Miller used to be married to Marilyn Monroe, and that he wrote After the Fall after Monroe’s death, and you knew that one of the main characters in After the Fall was very much like Monroe, would you take Miller at his word? Should you anyway?
These questions define both the slippery slope of theme as an analytical tool and the great boisterous arena in which debates about theme thrive. Persona and celebrity obscure context and text. Authors seem blind to their own intent. And in this case Miller even acknowledges theme as a relevant factor. Could the door be open any wider for speculation?
Now consider this quote from Tennessee Williams:
I have never been able to say what was the theme of my plays and I don’t think I have ever been conscious of writing with a theme in mind….Usually when asked about a theme, I look vague and say, “It is a play about life.” ~Tennessee Williams
Does the fact that Williams never wrote with a theme in mind mean there are no themes in Williams’ plays, or just that he didn’t consciously deploy them? Should this matter? Do we need someone else to come along and explain Williams’ themes in order to understand the plays he wrote? If so, do we learn more about the plays or more about Williams from these insights? (As a footnote, if you’ve only seen Williams’ plays courtesy the Hollywood sausage machine, you haven’t seen Williams’ plays.)
The critical point here is that even if theme is badly taught due to incompetence, its inherent ambiguity can still confer benefits on those who use it. Talk replaces creation as the goal. Ideas and speculation replace knowledge. Soon theme replaces object as a kind of intellectual currency, and in short order a market develops in which themes can be bought and sold. Themes become valued and devalued, rumors swirl, gossip drives panic-selling and bubble-buying. And all the while theme remains as detached from truth as any concept could possibly be.
A celebrated example of debating theme across multiple stories involves the way the Disney corporation appears to treat mothers and motherhood. Needless to say, this subject provides theorists with a great deal of opportunity for social commentary, psychological speculation and even accusations of misogyny. Here’s a sampling:
The heroes and heroines of most Disney movies come from unstable family backgrounds; most are either orphaned or have no mothers. Few, if any, have only single mothers. In other instances, mothers are presented as “bad surrogates” eventually “punished for their misdeeds.” There is much debate about the reasoning behind this phenomenon.
Even allowing for word choice in the above quote, is this commonality in the treatment of motherhood really a phenomenon? If we looked at a cookie manufacturer, and noted that they used a lot of sugar in their cookies, would we see that as a phenomenon, or even something worthy of comment? Or would we simply observe that cookies loaded with sugar taste good?
From my point of view as a storyteller, thinking about how authorial choices create specific effects, and taking into account the corporate nature of Disney’s interest in commercial entertainment, it seems possible that their authorial choices reflect the assembly line nature of Disney’s business, rather than any particular thematic motivation. To a child there are few things more heartbreaking than the death (or loss) of a mother. Because Disney so often focuses on children as protagonists it makes logical sense to repeatedly exploit that kind of tragedy as a means of eliciting audience emotion (sympathy). Disney could be using missing-or-dead mothers for the same reason that cookie manufacturers use sugar: it increases sales.
Because I can’t prove I’m right, however, the floodgates are wide open for anyone who wants to drive a theory into the heart of the Magic Kingdom. Disney hates mothers. Disney hates women. Disney misses mommy. Again, there’s no end to the possibilities. Throw in the corporate angle and the fact that this theory concerns a meta-theme, and you can see why it’s so sexy.
All of these examples, like most examples students confront, concern thematic analysis of the arts. Because of the inherent mysteries of the creative process, it’s easy to forget that theme is not murky and infinitely plastic because it’s being aimed at literature, it’s that way because it’s inept as an analytical tool. If theme were a seeing eye dog it would be a blind seeing eye dog. If theme were a map it would be a blank piece of paper. If theme were a routine physical it would predict your heart rate, IQ, blood pressure and family medical history by rapping you on the knee.
To see the inherent fallacy of theme a bit more clearly, consider what I said in the previous post:
Not surprisingly, it’s possible to inject theme into branding, just as we used it to help organize the product requirements for our grill.
In fact, it could be argued that branding in its purest form equals theme at its most abstract.
While corporate branding may be an art form, it is not literature. We don’t expect branding to provide insights about life, or general statements about the human condition. Yet the same thematic imprecision which provides literary theorists with the freedom to theorize is baldly apparent in branding and leads to the same result.
I’ve been involved with the branding or re-branding of two companies. Had I not had those experiences it would not have occurred to me that choice of color could produce the same kind of debate you might find in a thematic analysis of Moby Dick — but it can. Precisely because colors have no inherent meaning, no consistent cultural meaning, and no means of declaring their meaning, human beings rush in to theorize about what any color means in a given context. Combining colors only exacerbates the frenzy, stimulating reams of commentary about what any color combination means and how it reinforces or undermines other brand objectives.
Here there is no artist, no work of art, no social commentary, no story. There is only color and commerce, and yet theme is both as ambiguous and fertile as ever. You could spend your whole life trying to come up with a less useful way of analyzing anything and never come close to utility theme. And that’s exactly what makes it so perfect for theorizing.
As for me, it’s probably not surprising that I have rarely if ever used theme as an analytical tool, nor do I usually use it in my storytelling. I can see how it’s useful as a technique, but that’s not the kind of storytelling I tend to do, at least consciously. The most I’ve ever said about theme in responding to someone else’s work is that a particular moment in a story — a word, a line, a turn of phrase, a setting, etc. — was thematic. “That’s a nice thematic touch,” I might say, because that’s all that theme really deserves.
Finally, in closing, an apology. In these posts on theme I’ve come down pretty hard on academia. My own life experience has been that most of my professors were fully engaged with me as a student and not at all interested in mucking around with theme. And that includes professors well-seasoned in the criticism of film, theater and fiction. Any teacher or professor reading these posts has every right to feel that I’ve been overly general as an expedient means of making my arguments. I agree, and for that I apologize.
* Anecdotal evidence suggests that theme is no longer taught dogmatically at many (if not most) colleges and universities. As an analytical tool its minimal utility seems to have been grasped. Unfortunately, emphasis on advanced-placement and college-prep classes in high school, which are populated by eager beavers and led by teachers less well grounded in criticism, provides theme a perfect breeding ground for resurgence. Fortunately, a painless visual vaccine is available.
— Mark Barrett