Friday, October 7, 2011

For Credit: Promiscuously Describing the World (UPDATED!)

On Thursday in class we discussed Samuel Johnson's Rambler No. 4, which you can find here and over there in the sidebar.  On the whole the responses to the attendance question showed that everyone is pretty comfortable with Johnson's prose style, but there was some general puzzlement about what means for "the world [to] be promiscuously described" (177).

What does it mean to promiscuously describe the world?  Do you agree with Johnson that such promiscuous descriptions are not worth reading?  What sorts of literary productions might qualify as erring in this way?

UPDATE: There are a lot of great responses so far, but a lot of people seem to be defining "promiscuous" is the narrow sense of "sexually promiscuous." Have a look at the definition of promiscuous in the OED*, and think about how a broader definition of the term might change your understanding of the passage.

Deadline: Tuesday (10/11), start of class.  Responses before Saturday midnight count toward Week 7; after Saturday midnight they count toward Week 8.

*that link will only work for three days. If it doesn't take you to the OED definition you can look up promiscuous in the online OED by going to the UIUC library website and searching "OED," which should give you a direct link to the online source (though you will need to login).

14 comments:

  1. Johnson indicates that it is an authors duty to write about individuals who can be idolized and stand as a good example for what is right. Promiscuously describing the world is describing it in a way that does not represent good moral values. He suggests that there is enough promiscuousness in the real world and if thats what authors write about then their works are not reading. Shamela would be guilty of this way of writing. However, I do not agree that such works are worthless to read. They do what they are suppose to do, provide entertainment for the reader. Not every work of fiction need provide some great moral guide.

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  2. From the rest of that paragraph, I think that what Johnson means to promiscuously describe the world is, like MG says, to write about people that are not acting in a moral way. Johnson is suggesting that people only write stories about people who act in a socially acceptable fashion. I disagree with Johnson, I think that just like people have a variety of different personalities, novels also need to have some sort of plot that people can relate to. I think that many romances would be seen by Johnson as describing the world promiscuously , including Pamela and Fantomina.

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  3. I would have to agree with Krista. I think that Johnson is stating that people only write novels in the views and morals of the society rather that writing it in their own manner with their own beliefs when he talks about the world being promiscuously being described. This is continued when he makes the comparison of looking into a mirror and how all "presents itself without discrimination." This is what needs to happen. I disagree with him because I do feel that writing needs to be presented without discrimination rather than simply making a copy of what is being seen within society. WIthout writers taking their own outlooks on issues and writing about them I don't think many of the classics we have in exsistence today would be present.

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  4. I agree with the previous posters that it seems like Johnson wants novels to serve as examples for proper morality rather than stories for entertainment. Therefore, by promiscuous descriptions, Johnson is referring to any novel that depicts characters acting in manners other than those deemed "proper" by society. He thinks that they are unworthy of attention because they will teach people to act improperly. Shamela is one such novel; its main characters are morally reprehensible. I don't agree, however, that such stories are not worth reading. Sometimes reading about taboo or reprehensible acts is what makes us realize how we want to act or what kind of people we want to be. Besides, no one wants to read a novel that sounds more like homework at a charm school. Flawed characters are more interesting and more true to life. Whether or not their decisions affect those of the readers says more about the reader than the quality of the novel.

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  5. I reread the passage just now and realized I read it too fast for the attendance quick write. Haha! The passage seems to be saying that "diamonds" or perhaps people who are outstanding... before they are buried among "common stones" (those that don't shine) should be idolized in literature as an example for society to emulate... because life is tainted by passion and wickedness. So it's the duty of the writer to represent the "diamond" in its whole light.... ...... ???

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  6. In this specific passage, Johnson uses a lot of complicated language to communicate a rather uncomplicated point. Basically, he is arguing that art ought to present the world within an organized framework that allows the reader to clearly identify what aspects of life ought to be emulated, and which aspects ought to be scorned. True, Johnson is surely using the word 'promiscuous' to refer to immoral sexual behaviors, but the word itself also refers to a general disorder and randomness, meaning that his intention was probably a bit farther reaching than we may initially conclude. I, and presumably many of my peers, would disagree with Johnson because we have come to appreciate art that accurately reflects the human experience. That being said, I am personally not a fan of intense violence or explicit sexuality, however, I do appreciate the efforts of authors to not sugar coat life. I think Johnson would have considered both Pamela and Shamela to be examples of promiscuous literature. Even though Richardson attempted to make Pamela a moral novel, there is too much room within that form to misread his intention; simillarly, in Shamela, Fielding was pointing out the disarray in Pamela, and was himself, if not glorifying, then edifying 'naughty' behavior on the part of Shamela herself.

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  7. I agree with what the class has said so far in that Johnson wants the readers to be impacted by novels. He feels that novels should portray good examples of how to act and not promiscuous acts. Pamela falls into the latter of the two categories, however Pamela is still an important novel that should be read because it does tell a story about struggles and the realism of lifes' events. Readers from the eighteenth century were able to relate to Pamela's struggles and oppositely readers from the twenty-first century are able to read through Pamela's act and realize that we do not want to learn any lessons from her. Regardless, we all took away important messages from this novel and also from Shamela. Regardless if Johnson feels they are "promiscuous" or not, these novels have taught readers of the past along with the present certain messages.

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  8. To promiscuously describe the world is to not refine your writing. If descriptions use a lot of passion and emotion, then it disguises reality. According to Johnson, it should be the author's intention to be true to nature, and by restricting your language, you are able to give a more accurate picture for all mankind, rather than the author's limited view of the world.

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  9. From the OED definition, I think that Johnson is more worried about authors who write indiscriminately and without really purpose rather than our modern day definition of promiscuous. I think that he was worried that authors were writing without any moral message or intent on educating their readers. While as Nathan said author must "restrict" their language, they must focus, according to Johnson, on matters that reflect the "good" aspects of mankind. I think Johnson is missing out a large part of human nature with this focus on the "good" parts. I think in order to get an "accurate" view of mankind you need to write about all aspects including the less morally sound parts.

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  10. I agree with Taylor and Cara that Johnson is not simply deterred by Sterne's explicit content; rather, he is put off by the seemingly random and hodgepodge structure of the narrative. The OED defines 'promiscuous' as "Done or applied with no regard for method, order, etc.; random, indiscriminate, unsystematic." Reading Tristram Shandy, I certainly felt, initially, that the text had no structure and I was frustrated, but I soon began to enjoy the "promiscuous" nature of the narrative. Then, when we were assigned to read Volume I Chapter XX, Tristram repeatedly asked, "How could you, Madam, be so inattentive in reading the last chapter?" (51). Reading this, I felt as though Tristram were chastising me directly for not having read the previous chapter, as it was not assigned, and I felt so guilty that I went back to the previous chapter and read it. Maybe it is because of the way the readings have been assigned, but I have felt like I am on a scavenger hunt to figure out the mysteries of Tristram's life.

    I disagree with Johnson that "promiscuous" readings are not worth reading. I think that, as humans, we think and view the world "promiscuously." To write a narrative such as Sterne's is to tap into the way the human mind works...at least my mind. It does not cheapen the experience of art...it reflects reality.

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  11. Although the message of The Rambler No. 4 appears extremely complicated, it is simply presenting the idea that "promiscuous" works are works that, leave too much space for "false suggestion" and that they are not organized in a way that leads to a clear train of thought. A promiscuous description of the world leaves too many aspects of true and realistic life open for interpretation, and not just a partial interpretation, but a full subjectivity about moral or earthly truths. Johnson mentions that a good work should be "fixed by principles", I think this is what he means by preventing promiscuity; having clear and definite moral lessons or worldly ideas being formed from a piece of literature. Like most students in the class, I also disagree that these readings he critiques are a waste of our time. I think we, as a literary audience, should be exposed to a variety of principles and ideas; nothing should be "fixed". The enjoyment that comes from reading is the ability to distinguish right from wrong and your thoughts from the thoughts of others. Everything we experience is based on perception; and there is no "fixed perception". Opinions and experiences vary from person to person, so it is expected that each piece of literature we read will be received in a different way, depending on the reader. Readings that offer no clear and definite understanding of the world are the key to thinking outside the box and discovering our own creativity.

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  12. Much like others have said, "promiscuously" describing the world in my opinion means a sense of freedom. In this sense, it is a freedom from some forms of morality rather than just sexual freedom.

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  13. Even "promiscuous descriptions" that apparently are not worth reading enriches the readers' literary experience by simply; some of the works may not influence the reader in a vertical sense intellectually but they could still have effects in a horizontally when it comes to readership, giving more accounts of the reality and others' relationships with this world.
    p.s. I had the same reaction as Megan with Chapter XX.

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  14. To promiscuously describe the world means basically to describe the world in a way that is not as conventional or possibly acceptable. I would not call it promiscuous because more people need to talk about the world through a real world lens, rather than flowered and fluffed in censored language. These types of readings are definitely worth reading because it gives an outlet to people who perhaps think this way or would like to express themselves or their thoughts and beliefs this way, but because of convention or the way they were brought up are unable to.

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