The speaker, watching their new son sleeping, asks, “When you dream, what do you dream about?”
Reading the Alice books has made us ask a lot of questions about dreaming. Can I know when I’m awake and not dreaming? How do I know that I’m not part of someone else’s dream? Can the person in whose dream I appear be someone who’s also part of my dream? (Alice proposes just that possibility in the final chapter of Through the Looking-Glass.) Do children have a special relationship to dreams and to the fount of dream-creativity, imagination?
But in Tuesday’s class, we also asked some questions about the word about. What does it mean to say that the Alice books are “about changes?” Or “about the special relationship between children and imagination?” Or “about the inevitably fluid and unstable nature of conceptual categories”? Or just “about a little girl named Alice who has adventures in an imaginary Wonderland and on the other side of the looking-glass”?
Looking at the etymology of the word about, we reached a few conclusions. First, in saying that a story is about something, we might either be giving an account of what happens in it or offering an interpretation of its meaning.
Second, the etymology of the word (from Old English onbutan “on the outside of; around the circumference of, enveloping”) suggests that to use this word in talking about a story is to think of the story as somehow circling around the events or meanings at its core. In this conception, a story has a kind of narrative through-line that its incidents, in all their detail, cluster around and elaborate. Or to change the metaphor slightly, all that detail is flesh to the narrative core’s bone, making it possible to give a skeletal representation of the story in far fewer words than the author used.
Similarly, we can think of the story as the elaboration of some idea or set of ideas that lie at the story’s heart. The story is “about” these ideas in the sense of having grown out of and around them to envelope, encase, or give form to them. The ideas are “bodied forth” in the story. The story is still flesh, but the meanings aren’t so much skeleton as they are spirit.
We can see that this way of thinking about a story’s meaning is related to the way of thinking we found in the words implied and explicate. In both cases, meaning lies (or is folded) within, and must be “brought out” (or unfolded) through careful reading.
Whether we’re discussing what a story (or any text, for that matter) is “about” or trying to “explicate” its “implied” meanings, we can see that we’re engaged in that by now familiar activity, abstraction. To give a simplified version of the plot, to find words of our own to express the ideas embodied in the text, is to abstract away from the text’s actual words. We’re offering a representation of the text, building a model of it, constructing a theory of it. In some situations, we might even call this representation/model/theory an abstract.
It’s hard to think of any more basic question we can ask about a text than “What’s it about?” It’s so basic a question that we may have a hard time seeing it as a theoretical or abstract one. But as we’ve just discovered, that’s exactly what it is. In this simple, basic question, perhaps, we find the clearest example of how questions of theory emerge naturally from the practice of reading.
Furthermore, our effort to understand what we’re doing when we use the word about is a perfect example of how reflecting on our critical practice moves us up a level of abstraction to think, now, not about the theory of this or that text but theoretical approaches to literature and criticism in general. We might ask ourselves, for example — in fact we should ask ourselves — whether the way we’ve been speaking about texts leads us down any false pathways. Remember that in “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish rejected the idea that meaning lies “within” a text, likening poems to those objects, such as a casement ledge, that don’t have an inside and an outside. He went farther: a poem shouldn’t “mean” at all, but simply “be.” In other words, it shouldn’t be about anything.
The main narrator of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899) suggests a different alternative to the “meaning inside” conception of a story when he says the following of Marlow, the sailor who recounts most of the novella’s action:
The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
The meaning of Marlow’s stories is on the outside, not the inside, says Conrad’s narrator. In this way, he tells us, Marlow’s stories are unusual. But what if we were to apply this model of the story-meaning relationship to stories in general? How might our understanding of all stories change if, instead of asking, “What (meaning) is this story about?” we asked, “What is the meaning about this story?”