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Ravens, Writing Desks, Cattle Chutes, and Literary Theory

On another page I raised the question: What is the point of literary theory? Said page is a transcript of a posting that appeared in the rec.arts.books newsgroup. Silke-Maria Weineck, a hermeneut, and I had a little discussion based on that article. The substance of that discussion (according to me – I expect she has own version) was that she wasn’t interested in that question and had other issues that she felt should have been addressed instead whereas I felt that what I put on the table should be disposed of first. After a couple of go arounds I was moved to write:

I suppose everybody is familiar with Lewis Carrol’s little conundrum, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” A friend of mine, when she first heard it, mistakenly misunderstood the question by taking the question as it actually reads, rather than as everybody takes it. You see, the question is ambiguous. There are two possible meanings:

(1) In what way is a raven like a writing desk?
(2) Given that a raven is like a writing desk, why is that so?

The first reading is just a puzzle. The second reading, ah, now that is a question of philosophy. “Why” can be an accounting of factuality as in the first reading. But “why” also addresses motivation and intent as in “why did the chicken cross the road”, either directly or in anthropomorphized form.

I have never come up with an entirely satisfactory answer to the second reading. We are given an unspecified similarity, the origin of which we are to account for. The best I could come up with is: Because all things are alike in some way or another.

What does this have to do with anything? Not much. It’s not an important question – just an interesting, sort of off beat question. I like to bend my mind with off-beat questions now and then. I’ve been doing it for a long time now and my mind is pretty bent.

A while back, someone came up with another interesting question, “What is the point of literary theory?” Being a romantic idealist who considers Machiavelli to be a flaming liberal I posed the question in terms of “What are the explanatory and justifying stories associated with literary theory?” I don’t suppose it’s a profound question or an important question – it’s just one of those interesting things. like “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” So I posed my formulation and something quite remarkable happened on the road to Gehenna.

When I was a younger I worked a fair bit of cattle. Now you may seen in the movies how cowboys rope a critter, throw it on the ground, and brand it. It’s a way of doing things but, all things considered, it’s not a very good way. What you do is use a cattle chute.

You have a lot, an area surrounded by fence, and in one corner of that lot is your cattle chute which is a steer wide enclosure surrounded by high fences with gates at the back and the front. Once you get the steer in there and the gates closed the steer is boxed in and can’t rightly move much atall. You can brand him, or dehorn him, or dope him with medicine just as needed.

But, don’t you see, you’ve got to get your steer into the cattle chute. Now there’s tricks to working cattle. You’ve got to get them to move in the direction you want them to go. You’ve got to drive them and at the same time you can’t panic them because, when they get spooked, the thing they want to do is go anywhere but where you’re heading them.

Now critters are like people. Some of them just naturally go where you want them to go and some of them are just naturally contrary and mostly go anywhere you don’t want them to go. And some, some of them have some place they want to be regardless of where you want them to go. Down right stubborn they can be about it.

Our cattle chute was in a feed lot. This was good; eating kept the cattle from getting excited when the cattle chute was being used. A steer, he don’t think about nothing much except eating. Cows and bulls, now they’ve got other things to think about too. But with steers, it’s mostly just eating. Or so it seems to me. Never been a steer, leastwise not that I can recall, so I can’t say for sure. But it sure do look that way.

Now some of those stubborn steers I was talking about, they really wanted to get back to that hay and they didn’t want nothing to do with that cattle chute no how. And you’d work them and they’d break away and get back to that hay. And you’d work them again and they’d break away again. But eventually you’d get them in that there cattle chute and be done with it. Every one of them. Now with people it’s a different proposition. You can work them and work them and they ain’t never gonna go in that people chute.

As I say, a while back I put up this proposition, this question. Now I’m just a dumb farm boy and I ain’t too good with fancy words and all that, but I thought it was pretty clear. As it turns out Silke-Maria jumped the fence right into this here feed lot and I proceeded to try to work her into my people chute.

Silke-Maria, she sure is one fine lady, but she’s like one of them steers that is powerful attached to one pile of hay. Her “hay” is a bunch of fightin’ that’s been going on off over in the corner. She wants to concern herself with objections to literary theory and political fights and I don’t know what all. Don’t much care either, least wise not at the moment. Got a people chute to attend to. And I work her and she just breaks away and heads back to her “pile of hay”. And I works her again and she just breaks away again and goes back to feeding on that good fight stuff.

Now Silke, can’t I just entice you to go over to this corner of the lot where I’ve been trying to get you and go in that there people chute. It ain’t gonna hurt a bit, I swear it, at least not hardly, and it’ll all be over soon and you can head out to the pasture again.

This page was last updated January 6, 1997.