Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
In the Flickering Light of Theories
by Graeme Wend-Walker
What I keep coming back to is this: that the most important thing to know is how magnificent are the dimensions of one's ignorance. There may be no knowledge as important as that which is on the very cusp of emergence, and it emerges not from the light alone, but from the place where this meets the immensity of the dark.
Theories are wonderful tools for exploring consciousness. They give shape to thought and perception. Torches borne into the darkness -- the light they cast also flickers and distorts. It is always colored one way or another; it makes shadows of its own and makes yet darker the places it does not reach; it can obscure, even obliterate. The best theories know this: they have this knowledge of the shadow built into them. They are not static; they are outlines for a practice. They are frameworks not for a conclusion but for a question.
In literary criticism we reach into these shadows for the meaning of texts, the light of our theories guiding the way. It is in the nature of the rhetoric of criticism, though, that when we speak about these texts, we tend sometimes to do so as if they simply lay before us already illumined. To speak of the process by which one reaches this place -- all the stumbling over rocks in the dark -- is to risk seeming as if one somehow weren't bright enough to map the thing more brilliantly. Yet, I find myself increasingly drawn toward believing that the most important thing about the books we study is not what they say, but what they do: which is to make for us environments within which to explore, and even to question the very light we hold up to them. A novel is not a document, nor the set of statements to which it may be reduced. It is a space within which things happen, and these things happen not at once but in time. In the end, there is only practice.
The painter and printmaker Odilon Redon once wrote, "Black is the most essential of all colours. ... It draws its excitement and vitality from secret sources of health." I endeavour in the work I do with texts to find in them their places of darkness, and to see what happens to them under different sources of light. Some kinds of torch feel right for me; they seem to light a clearer way, and when I keep them near at hand, what might otherwise have been mere wandering in the dark finds instead the contours of an emerging path -- though one that is hopefully always open to a remapping of the terrain. This is what tikkun means to me: asking who else is out there in the dark and what they are finding in their own pool of light, and how their torches are working for them.
Graeme Wend-Walker teaches children's literature and critical theory at Texas State University, San Marcos. His scholarly interest is in the way spiritualized literature speaks back to an academic interest in it.
Source Citation: Wend-Walker, Graeme. 2011. In the Flickering Light of Theories. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.