We’ve talked about a few things on our quest to reading well. The front door keys (if you will) of looking at beginnings, (which also applies to endings, by the way) are central to getting a good start. We also talked about the idea of movement from literal to figurative and the importance of individual words in the “Why This Rather than That?” section.
Now we make a jump to the bigger picture. This is perhaps the one I use the most, not just in framing an understanding of a particular story, but in terms of movement in creating. This key, directly dubbed, “From What - Through What - To What” is a lovely place to start, with understanding a difficult piece or passage, or with writing yourself if you’re stuck at all.
The basic idea is that any progression in story, in a novel, a play, a movie or even an argument will have a basic structure of movement: a beginning, middle and end as it were. Identifying those clearly can give us a frame to reference and to dig more deeply into reading well. As our literary foil, let’s talk about Hamlet.
Hamlet is considering by most scholars to be the best of Shakespeare’s plays, and Shakespeare is pretty much universally considered the best author to ever put pen to paper. Yet even with the best of the best, the “From What - Through What - To What” is actually really simple and you’ll find this to be true in most works. Don’t worry about getting this exactly right, you can always adjust your frame later as needed.
But for Hamlet, we might say something like this:
From What - Hamlet’s Father was killed and it looks like the killer will get away with it.
Through What - Hamlet’s struggle with what to do, or not do, in response.
To What - The decision to seek revenge and the consequences that follow.
From there we have an artificial separation that allows us to take a closer look at individual pieces in a logical way. For our purposes here, let’s dive into the Through What with the beginning of one of the most famous speeches of all time:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
What’s fun about this is that even here we could start with a “From What - Through What - To What” frame:
From What: The question of “to be or not to be…”
Through What: The consideration of decision being linked with death… the idea, in part, here is that deciding / not deciding has a sense of inexorability. And what meaning comes from an action that is likely to be final?
To What: The idea that even after death meaning and significance have their way “in what dreams may come.”
This is only the beginning of his deliberation… but an interesting thing here in the Through What of Hamlet’s internal back and forth is the very final and binary way he frames the question to begin with. The reality is, there are 17 options he could pursue. He could forgive and leave justice, beyond what society brings, to God. He could gather evidence and make his case to other powerful people in court. He could take some time, gather support and attempt a military coup that isn’t dependent on his individual action. He could move to another country and start over.
The “be or not be” is tying the action of revenge, or “not revenge” to his very existence. That is, if he doesn’t take revenge, he feels like he will cease. The choice then, is death and meaninglessness in his inaction, or the swift and strong action of direct revenge.
When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem like much of a choice.
So, in digging in to Hamlet’s Through What, we find that Hamlet has already made his decision, and the back and forth he makes internally is more connected to him overcoming his fear in personal consequences and uncertainty that he is justified than in truly deciding to act or not act.
Where do we turn for meaning in our From What - Through What - To What in regards to Hamlet?
Dr. Velie used to joke that Shakespeare was deceptively simple in his message and that we’re captured and mesmerized by how good the language is along the way. His recommendation was to step back from how powerfully he says it, to simply look at what happens in the end. In that light, you could frame Hamlet this way:
From What: Hamlet’s father being murdered and replaced by his own killer.
Through What: Hamlet deciding to “be or not to be” as it were.
To What: Hamlet, his friends, his remaining family, and his enemies all dying rather horribly.
So things like, “does everyone die at the end?” becomes a clue as to what Shakespeare really thinks about the decisions in the Through What.
In this case, we have a winner, and everybody dies. Like Romeo and Juliet the outcome of our main characters just isn’t a good one. At the macro level of From What - Through What - To What, it is fair to say that Hamlet chose poorly.
In the Through What, with Shakespeare’s unparalleled genius, we see clearly why Hamlet feels trapped. It’s very easy to see ourselves in his shoes and finding courage in action, even though that action is ultimately misguided and doesn’t bring justice to the situation.
In this way, From What - Through What - To What becomes a useful frame as starting point, a useful reference from breaking down movement within a plot and a useful tool for seeing the bigger picture.
A third key in reading well is to understand the literal before moving to the figurative. This works especially well in poetry, but is useful across the board. An important piece of this is to notice when the text "tells you" to make the jump from literal to figurative and it almost always will, quite clearly. Pay careful attention to when the literal / figurative shift happens, as this has meaning and will usually provide insight.
People will engage a text or a passage and ask should we read this literally or figuratively?
The answer is of course, "yes."
Not to be cheeky, but story is rarely the mere recitation of facts. We are intended to see shapes in the fluffy clouds of narrative and to pull meaning from the plotted series of events. The danger is that we often make the jump too quickly to a sense of meaning, or to the message behind the image, without fully understanding the literal implications of the images themselves.
Be patient. Stay and engage the literal until you are confident you have all the "facts" as it were. Then make the jump. Let's consider a lesser known poem by Robert Frost:
A Late Walk
by Robert Frost
When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.
And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words
A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.
I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.
That wasn't just you, Frost has skills. You can recognize a world class poet by their ability to overwhelm you even when you don't quite understand why. He turns the melancholy and sense of "wistful" up to 11 on this one.
I could write the rest of my life and not quite get to the bottom of this one, but to highlight the reading key here... let's make a handful of observations of the literal and let a series of questions open up the figurative.
1. This is a rural area. It's a field of hay, with a garden and one last wildflower, so rural New England or similar, probably not downtown Detroit.
2. It's late fall. That's one of the times hay is "harvested" and the garden has run it's course as even the weeds are "withered." Also, the tree he sees is bare, so most of the leaves have already fallen.
3. This isn't his first rodeo. "To carry again to you" seems to say that this sequence is one that he's experienced before. Also, it's first person, so we are in the shoes of the speaker as we go.
4. Hay has a purpose in rural life. It feeds farm animals through the winter. This part of reading isn't rocket science, but it's still helpful.
5. While wildly descriptive, the only colors here are the brown of the leaf and the "faded blue" of the aster.
Certainly not an exhaustive list, there are lots of things clamoring for notice here. My sense is that Frost is moving us to the figurative when he ties the images of the physical world to his internal thoughts. The musing of his thinking disturbing the last leaf invites the comparison of the actual physical, literal world of late fall to the internal figurative application of these images to the soul of human experience. That idea is playful and carries the idea that not only does nature act on us, but we act on it as well.
When we consciously make that jump, it's perhaps easier to notice that in every stanza our walker is intersecting with nature and it's that intersection that drives home the literal TO the figurative application to ourselves. So it isn't just aspects of the mowing field, it's the writer (and us) going up through the mowing field.
1. What do the mowing field, the garden, the tree / leaf and the picking of the flower have in common?
2. Why use the picture of a walk through farmland here? Why not a stroll through Times Square? Or a busy market bustling with a crowd?
3. How does the idea of "half closes the garden path" and "carry again to you" impact the application of imagery to us as people?
Perhaps the biggest notion behind this tool in the reading toolbox is that we'll catch more nuance if we dig into the literal implications than if we don't.
In this case, my knee jerk would have been to jump to the idea of death. The "headless aftermath", the bare tree, the birds taking flight and slipping away, "sadder than any words" are all laden with a sense of finality and loss.
And that's not quite wrong, there is a strong element of ending here which ties to consideration of our own mortality.
But what Frost is doing is much more complicated, when you take into consideration the idea of hay. While being mown down in the imagery of battle or disaster, the hay harvest is actually a sustaining force for the community in the next season. So this isn't just about ending. The path is only half closed after all.
Further, the gathering of the aster flower and the relationship acknowledged there takes the whole encounter to a sense of ritual, tinged with hope. You get the sense that even in the midst of wistfulness and the powerful sadness at season's end, the faded blue is still blue. It's still beautiful.
There is the idea, sown into the images that things go on and even in moments of melancholy and recognition of mortality, there is hope and and there is something to look forward to.
The affirmation of life and generosity behind giving your girl a flower is a moment filled with contentment, filled with simple pleasure, and hopefully it is a moment that we will carry again and again.
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.