Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Did Diana Hsieh Shumthin'?

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Here are some examples of meteoric out-gassings on the Randroid Belt site known as Noodle Food, authored and administered by Diana Hsieh (http://blog.dianahsieh.com/):

A questioner admits to reading Atlas Shrugged; then admits that, though enjoying the novel, he finds the characters "flat". He does not say "boring" or "uninteresting"; he says "flat." He wishes to know why these characters are constructed the way they are (e.g., could it be because they represent abstract ideas?). 

A "flat" character does not mean a "boring" character. It's a technical term in literary theory popularized by the novelist E. M. Forster in his monograph on writing titled "Aspects of the Novel." According to Forster, a "flat" character is a kind of token: his or her psychology and values do not grow, change, evolve, or come to any kind of crisis during the course of the narrative because characters — like plot points — have functions within the story; it is simply not the function of a flat character to steal attention away from the main character(s) — the protagonist(s) and the antagonist(s) — by growing, changing, evolving, or reaching any sort of "crisis" within the story in which they must exercise his or her will, and come to a decision — or initiate an action — that would be surprising, i.e., a new pattern of behavior inconsistent with their previous pattern. "Flat" characters remain who they were throughout the entire course of the story, because they are there simply to provide a particular kind of obstacle (or point of affinity) for the main characters. They are part of the stock-in-trade of every playwright, screenwriter, short-story writer, and novelist. They are a particular kind of narrative tool.

All of this is utterly lost to Hsieh, who mistakenly thinks that to call a character "flat" is an insult. It might be technically incorrect to call a character "flat" from the standpoint of craft in a given context; but it's not a put-down. If a music student incorrectly identifies a chord as a diminished 7th when, in fact, it is a Neapolitan 6th, the identification is simply mistaken as a matter of musical craft; it's not an insult. 

As an offscreen sidekick named Greg Perkins reads the question aloud to Hsieh, they both begin to laugh, roll their eyes, and snort with embarrassment, as if to to say "Really!! How COULD anyone be so stupid as to think THAT!" As someone who earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Hsieh surely must have been tasked with teaching graduates or undergraduates. Remember those rare teachers who began their Q&A sessions after a lecture by saying "Don't be afraid to ask questions. There's no such thing as a stupid question in this class. Ask anything you wish." Well Hsieh ain't one of those kinds of teachers! Apparently, there are stupid questions in her class, and she will let the questioner and everyone else know it by laughing, snorting, and rolling her eyes.

As if that weren't enough, she then asserts a vicious ad hominem argument by impugning the honesty of anyone who could possibly think such a thing as what the questioner is asking. In this instance, she claims that those who think the characters in Atlas Shrugged are "flat" are simply dishonest; they dislike Ayn Rand; ergo, they're not giving the novel "an honest reading." See for yourself, O Noble Randroid Belt Watchers. It's on her video at 1:24, and again at 2:18, at which time she asserts that to claim the characters in Atlas Shrugged are "flat" is nothing but the reader giving voice to his prejudices. 

Then she moves from insulting the questioner (who, just in case you were wondering, was not I), to being completely irrelevant by replying to a question that wasn't asked: she waxes enthusiastic about all the "good but ordinary people" in Rand's major novels, such as the character of Mike in The Fountainhead, or Cherryl in Atlas Shrugged, in order to dispel any nasty rumors that Rand writes only about mega-wealthy industrialists. Good. But that has nothing to do with whether or not the characters are "flat" or "round". 

So far, she's managed not to reply to what the questioner actually asked, having opted instead for dismissive chortles and insulting ad hominems.

A bit later, in response to a follow-up question read offscreen by Greg Perkins regarding the idea that the story-line in Atlas Shrugged is simply propaganda for the sake of "getting across an idea," she repeats her ad hominem argument, asserting that whoever thinks such a thing is simply "dishonest." 

The truth is this:

All stories, by their very nature, are propaganda; either explicitly or implicitly.

When the film version of "The Grapes of Wrath" was released, the censors in the Soviet Union refused to permit the movie to be exhibited in the USSR. That's rather strange, given that the story of the suffering of the Joad family at the hands of greedy bankers and insensitive capitalists should resonate very well with the Marxist worldview. It turns out, however, that the reason the film was banned in the USSR is that there are a number of scenes in which the Joads load up their car — (ahem!) their personalprivate-property car — and move to a different location of the United States, without need of any sort of internal passport, or without asking any bureaucrat's permission. Is this not propagandistic on the part of the American filmmakers, given that no one in the Soviet Union at the time owned a personal car (except party elites); no one could move about freely without obtaining the proper permission from some bureaucracy, and without official papers permitting relocation; and the masses had generally been indoctrinated into believing that capitalism would make it impossible for a poor family like the Joads to obtain such luxuries as a personal automobile for their own private use? 

In other words, even "The Grapes of Wrath" implicitly propagandized on behalf of a certain political viewpoint (and probably not the one the American filmmakers intended, either). 

A Russian film student once told me that when he lived in the former Soviet Union, occasional American movies would be permitted to be exhibited, and Russian audiences would gape in wonderment at certain things in the movie, concluding that the whole thing must be a simple exercise in American propaganda for capitalism. For example, there might be a perfectly innocuous scene in which a "typical American family" has dinner together at their dining room table. Then the phone rings. The son runs up from the table to answer the phone located in the foyer. It's his friend. He runs upstairs to chat privately with his friend on another phone in his bedroom. The mother, suspicious of this new friend's unexpected phone call, runs downstairs, into the basement, and secretly listens to the son's conversation on another phone. Good grief, Comrades! How many phones does a "typical" American family have? Are we, a typical Russian audience watching this movie, expected to believe that even a typical American family nonchalantly owns three telephones? Many Russians don't even own one!"

You see? Even a B movie about suburban family life in the USA has implicit, unintended propaganda in it that will easily be noticed by a Russian audience bringing a very different set of life experiences to their viewing of it. 

Clearly, none of this has anything to do with impugning anyone's honesty.

Enough about Noodle Food. Its authoress is merely one among many know-nothings in that vast chasm called the Randroid Belt. 

Whoever asked the question on Diana Hsieh's blog deserves a much better, much fuller, and more relevant reply. Here to provide one is none other than E. M. Forster himself, quoted at length, from his monograph on literary technique entitled "Aspects of the Novel" (1927): 
"We may divide characters into flat and round. Flat characters were called 'humorous' in the 17th century, and are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form, they are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round. The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as 'I never will desert Mr. Micawber.' There is Mrs. Micawber—she says she won't desert Mr. Micawber, she doesn't, and there she is. Or: 'I must conceal, even by subterfuges, the poverty of my master's house.' There is Caleb Balderstone in The Bride of Lammamoor [by Sir Walter Scott]. He does not use the actual phrase, but it completely describes him; he has no existence outside of it, no pleasures, none of the private lusts and aches that must complicate the most consistent of servitors. Whatever he does, wherever he goes, whatever lies he tells or plates he breaks, it is to conceal the poverty of his master's house . . . Or take Proust. There are numerous flat characters in Proust, such as the Princess of Parma, or Legrandin. Each can be expressed in a single sentence, the Princess's sentence being 'I must be particularly careful to be kind.' She does nothing except to be particularly careful, and those of the other characters who are more complex than herself easily see through the kindness, since it is only a by-product of the carefulness."
"One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in— recognized by the reader's emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a proper name. In Russian novels, where they so seldom occur, they would be a decided help. It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere — little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory."
There follows an extended and brilliant analysis of several Jane Austen novels. Forster then wraps up the discussion of characterization with a brief summary of "round characters": 
"The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round."
If it never surprises, it is flat. Now ask yourself: does James Taggart ever surprise? What about Lillian Rearden? Wesley Mouch? Orrin Boyle? John Galt? I think not. I think all of these characters — and many more in Atlas Shrugged — are truly flat characters; something Rand fully intended, in order to set in high relief the roundness of Dagny and Hank Rearden. 

Whoever posed that question to Diana Hsieh: I hope the above was a more satisfactory reply.

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