Friday, January 21, 2011

False Dichotomies: Plot vs. Lyricism (Part Three)

A recent reader post reminded me I never finished this series, and ought to, since I’ve only incompletely explained what I mean. You can look at the first two installments here (Part One) and here (Part Two), but the gist is this:
I’m trying (for kicks) to bridge the gap between readers who say they “read for the story” and readers who say they read for “the language.” On the one hand, I want to suggest that those “story” readers ought to read for more than just characters and events. On the other hand, I want to suggest that those “language” readers don’t really mean what they’re saying: we don’t actually read for the words on the page, per say, no matter how beautiful or lyrical they are (and despite the fact that evocative, lyrical language, if done right, makes the reading experience more fulfilling).
We’re all reading more or less for the same thing: the sensual experience that elicits an emotional response. We read to feel—strongly, subtly, deeply. Some of that comes from plot and character, but that’s what’s on the surface. A lot more of it comes from a mixed bag of tricks that some folk—erroneously, I think, call language. Evocation might be a better word. Voice is good, but limited. Sensuality—maybe, but that sounds a little dirty.
Language is a means to an end that is not, itself, language.
This issue is at the crux of John Gardner’s “vivid and continuous dream.” More recently, Robert Olen Butler argued a hard-line version in his series of lectures, From Where You Dream. Paraphrasing Butler: creative writing is the only artistic medium that posits a middle-man between the art and the audience. A movie does not make you imagine something else. You watch a movie and you imagine the movie—you imagine that it’s “real.” A sculpture is a sculpture, and a painting is a painting. They are about themselves. The Thinker doesn’t make you think about how people think; it makes you think about that particular rendition of a man thinking.
Fiction, however, is not itself. At its most concrete, it’s ink on a page. At one level of abstraction, it’s letters in an alphabet, strung together. Next, its words in a language. Then it’s the sound those words make—but the sound happens in your mind, not on the page. Then it’s syntax, etc. Finally, at the furthest level of abstraction, fiction becomes what it really intends to be: an evocation of sensual experience inside the reader’s mind. But the book—the language—is merely a middleman, the one who provides the tools the reader will use to complete the artwork.
This is Butler’s argument. A fiction isn’t a fiction until it happens in somebody’s imagination. Which is why, Butler argues, fiction should be as sensually evocative as possible—why it should show instead of tell, why the writer should remember what he’s really doing is painting a picture or making a movie, not impressing the reader with his pretty language (except insofar as said language is serving the reader’s sensory/imaginative process).
Butler’s position is not watertight. For one thing, I’m not sure he’s right that creative writing is the only art with a middleman. Music makes us think about itself, but inevitably it puts images in our mind. Admittedly, these images are much more arbitrary than the ones a piece of fiction would evoke. Then there’s sheet music. For those who can read it, sheet music functions like fiction: it evokes sound in the reader’s imagination. When Beethoven wrote his 9th Symphony, he didn’t set down any actual sounds, no more than a writer makes his fiction actually happen in the world. He transcribed musical notes that the right mind, or instruments, could turn into music. My argument here is bolstered by the fact that poor Beethoven never even heard his own 9th Symphony.
Butler’s also not quite right because he rather militantly privileges language that evokes sensory experience over all other kinds of language, when we know that sometimes a great writer can blow our minds with an abstract idea, an intellectual argument, a pithy observation about life. Take the very beginning of Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory, for instance:
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is headed for...”
Years ago, when I first read this, it struck me as one of the most profound, yet blissfully simple arguments I’ve ever heard against the fear of death. Death, for you, will be exactly the same as things were before you were born, and since you aren’t scared of what existence was like before you were born, why be scared of death? Of course it’s not that simple, especially if what you fear is the death of people you love, but Nabokov provides a momentary balm, and that’s about all we can ask for.
The point is: this is a pleasing idea, not a sensory experience. It’s an abstraction from which we’re meant to extrapolate. It doesn’t ask us to imagine anything in particular, except of course the ominous picture of the cradle rocking on the edge of a very high cliff.
And, yes, the way Nabokov says this is a large part of its effect. That’s why great poetry and fiction is un-paraphrasable, why every “modernized” version of a Shakespeare play can’t begin to capture the nuances, particularities and multiple meanings of the original. My explanation of Nabokov pales in comparison to his original, in part because I made explicit what he was only suggesting, and took away the reader’s thrill of analysis, realization and understanding (one of the main reasons we read: to feel smart that we “get” what we’re reading).
My explanation also pales because it was written in utilitarian prose, without any attempt to match sound to sense. Not so with Nabokov. Note, for instance, Nabokov’s: “common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The sentence itself evokes three distinct stages: “Common sense tells us that our existence,” has an abundance of unstressed syllables and soft s sounds, so it “flows” (as my students love to say). “Two eternities of darkness” does quite the same: lots of s sounds, lots of flow. Parts one and three of the sentences match in their elongated, loose way. However, part two is a brief interruption full of hard sound and a rough, stress-filled cadence: “brief crack of light between.” You see, then, that Nabokov has made us feel the stages of human existence in the structure and sounds of his sentences. The easy/lucky/free openness of pre-birth and death, and the strange brevity of that thing in the middle that we call “life.”
Hey, blame Nabokov, not me!
It might seem that I’m arguing against my own conviction that no sane person reads for language alone, but I’m not. The sound is servant to the sense here, as in almost all cases. Nobody likes “common sense tells us that our existence” because it has lots of s’s and few stresses. We like it because its s’s and unstressed syllables evoke a sonic metaphor of what the sentence means. It’s not the language: it’s what the language is working for.

Why split hairs? Because when you say, "I read for language," you sound like you're privileging sound and rhythm over actual meaning, and you make us wonder why you don't just listen to music instead. Surely music is much more vividly aural than prose. But, in fact, you don't mean you read words for their aural qualities alone. Instead, you mean what everybody else means when they talk about why they love fiction: you read for the emotional experience it provides you.
In that way, you mean precisely the same thing as the guy who says “I read for story.” He doesn’t really mean he reads to see shit happen. He means he reads to see shit happen to people he’s interested in and whose feelings he feels vicariously. Same thing!
But “I read for language” sounds so damn precious, folks. If that “philistine reader” were made to see what we really mean when we say “language,” to realize how much the subtler qualities of voice and rhythm could enhance the emotional experience of reading, well, then, we might eventually broaden some palates a little.
Here: saying that you read for the language is like saying you watch movies for the soundtrack. Certainly soundtracks are essential, as is the right tone, rhythm, and diction in your fiction. Soundtracks compliment or even generate atmosphere, but they exist to serve the story, not the other way around.
I recently told a student who was struggling with the concept of voice to think of voice as the written equivalent of a movie soundtrack. You use rhythm, beat, tone and sound to evoke mood and atmosphere—to compliment the story. He seemed to understand much better.
Even the most language-y writing I can think of employs language in the service of story. Dr. Seuss’s rhythms and sounds evoke the playful, spry, child-like, off-kilter atmosphere of his fictional worlds. Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is fun to read just to hear yourself read it—but more importantly, its pompous, nonsensical nature is there to satirize the kind of figure Humpty Dumpty represents as he recites and then explicates it: the pretentious English teacher who claims to know what it all means.
I must turn again to the king, Nabokov, for the most pertinent example of language-for-some–other-sake-besides-itself that I’ve ever read. The first paragraph of Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
This passage is all about language, riffing off of Lolita’s name with loads of assonance and consonance. So much that even the regular reader (as opposed to the lit student) would see that there sure are a heck of a lot of l’s and i’s in here. And look at how Humbert Humbert, the speaker of this passage, uses the matching sounds to make a diametric opposite seem all of a piece: “lift of my life, fire of my loins.” The first half is spiritual and the second half is bawdy, but language makes it all sound like one big love-fest. Then, he inverts the spirit and the bawdy in the next sentence, carrying over the “s” sound from “loins.” Snake-like hissing (and that’s an important aspect of H.H.!).
Then, famously, H.H. pulls apart the word Lolita and describes, in sensuous, rhythmic detail, exactly how his tongue moves inside his mouth when he says it. And that, too, is a little naughty, frankly. You can’t fetishize language any more than H.H. is doing it here. This guy’s all about the language.
But that’s the point. Nabokov makes H.H. pull apart Lolita’s name like this because it’s weird to do so. On one level we go along for the ride: try not to test how your tongue moves when you say Lo-lee-ta. We’re drawn into this guy’s obsessions. But they are obsessions, ugly ones, falsely spiritual, honestly sinful. Soon we will learn Lolita is twelve and fascinating old H.H. is not at all a good man. Are we surprised? No: because that first paragraph is a case study of pathology all by itself.
So here again, the pleasures of sound are there to be had, but Nabokov is playing with us, setting us up for a stark realization regarding this speaker, whose words and worldview we’re hanging onto with vested interest. For all its qualities, the most important aspect of this paragraph is that it sets up H.H.’s sick but fascinating character, and our relationship to him. The language serves the story and our sense of it.
It’s no wonder that in just a few more lines H.H. will announce to his confessors in an ironically plain-spoken sentence: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Cheeky Humbert!