(The) ‘Texture’ of texts

John Crowe Ransom was an American poet and critic whose contributions to the scholarship of letters are of monumental proportions.  A Rhodes Scholar who read classics in Oxford, Ransom propounded that literary criticism should adopt more scientific approaches that would be “more precise and systematic”. The approach and modality which Ransom adopted in literary criticism was to give birth to what is termed as “New criticism”. Amongst what New criticism has produced to the world of literary studies and criticism is the concept of ‘Texture’. Ransom’s concept of ‘texture’ in relation to literary analysis and criticism was primarily in application to poetry. It was meant as an approach that would seek to study the ‘organic’ essence of the poem, devoid of the ‘politics’ of subject content, as well as plot narrative. The ‘organic’ elements can be found mainly in relation to imagery and probably even metaphor and simile a poem would carry. One may even venture to suggest that devices for literary expression such as quotes or phrases too may be part of the elemental core that gives the poem a particular aesthetic form. Ransom argued in his book The New Criticism that the focus of criticism, tends to take moralistic approaches when analyzing a poem which relates to the ideological tenants in the work that relate to the larger context of the outside world. Such analysis may look into ‘theme’ and thereby the ‘content’ of the poem. The interpretations along such lines would take on a discussion of the ‘politics’ that may be identifiable in the composition.

Ransom identified two camps of moralistic critics; one the neo-humanists and the other the Marxists critics. The Marxists in particular would have a marked tendency to interpret a poem purely in terms of the elements’ in relation to its socio-economic determinants, and would do so by studying how the poem has been affected by social and historical factors. Therefore the critique would be essentially an interpretation on the lines of Marxist interests. It is ‘content’ and how such content came into the poem that is the focus and concern of moralistic critics as opposed to the poem’s form and/or structure. What Ransom proposes is to study the poem for what it is about and how it has been put together. In other words both ‘content’ and ‘form’. It is thereby seen as a ‘structural understanding of poetry’.

In his propounding as an approach to analyze poetry, what Ransom suggests may be divided into two parts as a ‘logical core’ and ‘local texture’. The former of the two aspects would be what the poem is about, the situation, event, object, idea, feeling etc, about which the poem is written. It could be more as to ‘what’ the poem narrates, as opposed to ‘how’ it is narrated. The latter aspect takes focus upon how the ‘object’ of the poem is presented and what elements have given ‘form’ to the work. In this regard stylistic features are of great significance. Diction, imagery, metaphor, rhyme and meter and elements which shape the aesthetic nature of the work come in to this scope. ‘Local texture’ in Ransom’s view cannot be discussed as mere ‘padding’ or ‘fillers’ in a poem since a poet’s choice of imagery, metaphor etc would have an impact on how the object (generally speaking what the poem is about) is perceived by the reader and inflects the ‘logical core’. Ransom’s theorem expounds how a poem may be studied for its ‘form’ and ‘content’, thereby providing a fair idea of how ideological and aesthetic elements may be differentiated. In this regard the reader may wonder whether ‘form’ is merely a vehicle or a ‘casing’ for ‘content’. Ransom believes that form and content have strong linkage and greatly affect each other.

‘Texture’ has become an approach by which the form/structure of a text is analyzed and interpreted since Ransom propounded it through The New Criticism. And today studies in letters have adopted Ransom’s method for texts other than poetry and have expanded significantly as framework for study and analysis of textual-structure(s). The word ‘texture’ originates from the Latin word ‘texere’ which means ‘to weave’. The stem of the word’s meaning therefore gives the impression that ‘texture’ looks at how a text is ‘woven’; as in ‘how’ and ‘what’ make up the text if viewed as a ‘fabric.’ One may suggest that a ‘textural’ analysis of a work looks into the elemental composite of a text and adopts a focus on the ‘form’ of a text as opposed to only on the ‘content’. The study of a work’s textual-structure could focus on the ‘assemblage’ of the text and place attention upon the ‘stylistic’ and ‘characteristic’. For example a textural study/analysis of a particular work (short story, novel, haiku, etc) may reveal how its aesthetic base is formed. And it may also reveal how the work has (or for that matter has not) characteristic which evince it as belonging (or not) to a certain genre.

Textural analysis of a work may provide insight on how a writer devises his craft, and what features form and style. It must be noted that the concept of texture is not limited only to fiction and other creative writing but it is adopted in relation to non-fiction writing as well. The academic article “Not Text but Texture: Cortazar and the New essay” by Martin S. Stabb, published in Hispanic Review (1984), is a lengthy discussion on elements that compose the texture of the essays of Spanish-American essayist Julio Cortazar. The scope of what elements, devices, and textual components can be viewed as ‘textural’ is diversified in Stabb’s article to encompass authorial voice(s) as well as graphics (diagrams etc). Therefore even ‘tone’ could be a textural element in a text, while visual elements such as photographs and drawings too are considered as part of the text’s structure. In this sense of studying ‘structure’ (where ‘tonality’ could also be a focus area) of a text, its sentential features/characteristics may also be looked at to analyze the ‘texture’ of a text. Length, as well as ‘tense’ of sentences, and even sentential breakage can be taken to account to assess the nature of a work’s textual structure and assemblage.

Looking at what this article has discussed one may ask whether it has any relation to the analysis of ‘content’. And furthermore whether a textural approach does not include the narrative style/mode of a work (particularly fiction). In terms of ‘content’ of a work, it may be focused on without intricate study of what elements or threading has formed the text. Therefore the study of structure and assemblage of a text and thereby even its narrative devices does not necessitate or impose a focus on the ‘content’ of the work in terms of its ideology or what it is supposed to mean or convey to the reader. For example a textural study of a novel may reveal that the author had constructed the text mainly of prose but includes verse and song lyrics interspersed in the course of the narrative. And the prose, are in present tense as well as past tense. These observations can take the nature of a study of ‘form’ of a work without being concerned about what the prose are about, and what the verse and song lyrics are about and what ‘plot function’ they perform in a work of prose. The focus need not be on how the switches between tenses in the prose present the idea(s) of the story or its meaning(s) and how such a variation of tense carries the ideas of the plot.

The doctoral dissertation The Poems of James Joyce and the use of Poems in his Novels by Selwyn Jackson (1978) is a remarkable academic work which looks into both content and form, locating how textural devices in the form of poems are found in Joyce’s novels, and also looks into the plot function they perform. Therefore one may locate elements that compose ‘form’ of a work and then also study it in terms of its ‘content’ or for that matter vice versa. Along this line of study another noteworthy essay is “The Poetic Texture of Doktor Zivago” by Rimvydas Silbajoris (1965). It presents a scholarly discussion on Pasternak’s monumental contribution to the world of literature and the genre of the ‘Novel’. It looks into the numerous devices that form the imagery schema in the novel as well as how verse/poetry is build into the novel’s narrative.

This theorem of ‘form’ as a separate structure (distanced from ‘content’), could be illustrated thus- a house or building may be observed and studied for its physical features, the kinds of timber used and density of glass panes for example. The numerous aspects and intricacies involved in its overall architecture could be made focal. Yet one may venture to contend as to what the building may house, whether it is an institution or a place of residence or worship and so on. However one may deduce that by the architectural features observed, the building evinces as to the nature of what it ‘contains’, whether it is a residence or institution. Venturing further one may argue that in the case of the former what ‘sort of’ people may reside is another deducible factor. If the architecture and the ‘form’ of the structure denotes that it is an institution which it contains, one may further scrutinize as to what category it would belong to. The features and elements of the building may or may not have ‘function’ value. While windows and porticos may present evident functions, the carvings in a lattice or brass fixtures on the main door may be purely ornate and not be ‘functional’. Similarly in a text, when studying its elements, there are bound to be an array of devices from metaphors, imagery to tonal distinctions and a great many more. And what must be noted is that every single such device may not necessarily perform a function. (In this regard, ‘function value’ relates to the aspect of ‘plot narrative’). Elements which are devoid of functional purpose may be found in texts as embellishments that are meant to beautify or ornate the text. And what is noteworthy of such elements is that they are part of the text’s ‘texture,’ and enrich the aesthetic form of the work.

‘Texture’ as a method of textual-structure analysis has had far reaching developments in the scholarship of letters in the west. Frameworks to study works of writers from a vantage of creative writing interests may be formulated by taking to account the approach of ‘texture’. Academic advancements in letters in Sri Lanka may benefit significantly if studies in to texture were designed into university curricula. At a point when interests in Sri Lankan English studies are growing amongst academia and appreciation for creative writing in English by Sri Lankans is gaining ground in the world, a lacuna of sorts is detectable in the folds of local universities which do not offer courses in creative writing. Many new studies could begin to unfold in the interests of academic and aesthetic pursuits in relation to (studies of) English in Sri Lanka if studies on ‘texture’ are incorporated into the local university circuits departments of English.

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