Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dickens, Conan-Doyle and the Personality of Architecture

Architecture provides a potential visual and atmospheric feast for the literary artist; the buildings themselves are often representative of the broader environment in which they reside as well as the individuals who occupy them. The historical utilization of space had a direct and most particular correlation with wealth and social status:  spacious residences, with intricate masonry embellishments, surrounding terraces, and associated garden space were the provenance of the rich, whereas the impoverished had comparatively scarce and uneasy access to a much smaller terrestrial allotment.

There is a poignancy, however, in the crumbling decrepitude of a wealthy estate; Satis House in Dickens' Great Expectations serves as a superlative metaphor of the corruption, decay and fate of it's owner Miss Havisham. Upon learning of her lover's betrayal she lays waste to the estate, and upon Pip's arrival the dismal structure is comprised of "old bricks" with  "some of the windows...walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred." The once splendid mansion is now shuttered and dull, declining, along with it's inhabitants, into the dust and ashes of silent neglect. Residential abodes reflect the dispositions of their owners in Bleak House where the rural estate of Lady Dedlock is muffled, dreary and beset by rain; like it's mistress Chesney Wold is "very brilliant in season and very dismal out of it."

It was in black dilapidated streets, however, where Dickensian prose flourished;  where "crazy houses  were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings." As on the "ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters  have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in..." Within the Dickensian landscape the buildings become living components in the narrative: as blackened by years of neglect and plagued by pestilential irritants as the unfortunate humans who dwell beneath their shingles. Just as individuals who aspire to economic or social prestige, Krook's rag and bottle shop  (Bleak House) had "the air of being  in a legal neighborhood, and of being, as it were, a dirty hanger-on and disowned relation of the law."

Charles Dickens harnessed architecture to his vehicle of social reform, eschewing the early eighteenth-century Metropolitan Improvements of John Nash, for the dark and narrow labyrinths of old London town. True to the Victorian expectation that literature should instruct as well as amuse, Dickens details the slums, narrow alleys and back courts, secluded nooks and crannies where "there is little stir or movement after dark" where the ominous action of resident thieves and cutthroats is prefigured in the "dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together." The "cluster of wretched hovels...with pig sties close to the broken windows...and miserable gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools." Dickens depicts the ubiquitous filth and disease of the urban poor in unsparing detail, effectively utilizing fiction to criticize economic, social and moral abuses of the Victorian era.

In nineteenth-century Paris the price of residential lots was defined by footprint, and houses as a result were narrow and high. With the quest for paying lodgers owners had every incentive to divide the available space as much as was possible. As a result these establishments were extended in every possible way, with additional floors erected in upper storeys, and carved out beneath the floor in subterranean basements. Rented rooms were created in recesses and annexes, linked by narrow staircases or ladders. Generally the social condition of the lodger deteriorated the higher they climbed, with poverty being the general rule on the top floors in attics and garrets. From The Goodwin Agenda: "By all accounts the dark-timbered lodging house that leaned precariously out over the cobblestones of Rue des Mauvais Garcons was a dismal place. The ground floor served as the store for the resident wigmaker and owner of this establishment, the sagging timbers of the second supported the single room occupied by an impoverished family of four, and the tiny streetside room on the third floor had very recently been vacated."

The Goodwin Agenda, set in post-Revolutionary Paris, utilized the decrepit mansions of guillotined aristocrats to convey the newly-found disaffection for social hierarchy, the years of embattled politics, and the perpetual warfare that drained financial ability to repair and rebuild. Napoleon's reconstruction of the Louvre, his chiseling of bees in the historic facade, was symbolic of his own determination to legitimize his reign; not a 'Corsican upstart' but another in a long line of venerable Frankish kings commensurate with the ancient lineages of the European monarchies who opposed him.

Within the fictional context architecture can provide a tantalizing precursor to dramatic action, a promise of what is to come, or function as a dramatic contrast to unanticipated action. In A Study in Scarlet Sherlock Holmes arrives at 3 Lauiston Gardens, a derelict building that wore "an ill-omened and minatory look" and "looked out with three tiers of vacant melancholy windows, which were blank and dreary, save that here and there a "To Let" card had developed like a cataract upon the bleared panes." A small garden fronted the property "sprinkled over with the scattered eruption of sickly plants." While Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle has not Dickens' focused literary intensity on urban slums as an instigator for social reform, he utilizes architecture to similar dramatic effect: evoking an associated foreboding with the dark, the dreary and the dilapidated. The corpse discovered within this dismal locale was "of malignant and terrible contortion...on his rigid face there stood an expression of horror such as I have never seen upon human features...I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment." As a preventative against over-simplistic literary associations however, Conan-Doyle points out, that "the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." Rural beauty can form an equally dramatic frame for violent literary action; the juxtaposition being one of heightened incongruity.

There is a palpable tension in the depiction of dark and gloomy narrow streets where dread and desperation seeps up from the cobblestones, wraps around dank stone, and suffuses narrow alleys; these were, after all, premises historically occupied by a motley variety of thieves, prostitutes, debtors, beggars, outlaws and revolutionaries. Crumbling edifices have a narrative all of their own which can be used to compelling suggestive effect within literature. Whether it be urban tenements or sprawling country estates, the utilization of space, the mode and method of construction and maintenance are indicative of  cultural and political values and ascribe a certain identity to the buildings themselves; a distinctiveness that portends and extends to those which dwell within.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Hippocrates, Humorism and the Literary Search for Balance

American novelist Herman Wouk regarded "the writing of humor as a supreme artistic challenge." There came a point in the penning of The Goodwin Agenda when I was in complete concurrence: being particularly attentive to the humor element within the narrative - or the lack thereof. Not that I wanted a stock Falstaff caricature, a comedic fool of ridiculous wit, but it implied a matter of balance.

Upon reflection the novel seemed a dark one: juxtaposed against the political instability of the French Revolution and the brutality of the Terror that followed, the plot moves through a harsh winter landscape where the frozen corpses of the Parisian poor are surreptitiously removed at night, where war-weariness is expressed in the self-severance of limbs to avoid conscription; in short a suspicious and mutually estranged populace suffering a dearth of fundamental necessities. The London landscape is similarly enshrouded by winter, political disaffection, and the fear of imminent French invasion. Within this grim milieu the protagonists themselves are scarred in numerous ways: one dying, another consumed by combat-guilt, a third enduring the perpetual tension of covert operations beneath the gendarme radar. In the formation of these characters I was particularly interested in examining their angst, their agony, their afflictions. However, I entertained some misgivings that the resultant narrative somehow lacked a certain balance: an alleviating humor if you will.

The term 'humor' (from Latin humor meaning 'bodily fluid') derives from the medical discourse of Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks, comprising essentially the notion that the appropriate balance of fluids in the human body (blood, phlegm or bile) were essential for the maintenance of human health and emotional balance. Typical eighteenth-century medical practices such as bloodletting, emetics, and purges were intended to expel a deleterious surplus of one particular humor and thus restore balance to the physical anatomical scale. While dominating medical thought for thousands of years, this theory of humoral types also infiltrated dramatic production and literature, creating choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic character archetypes. The quintessential point here, for modern authors as well as the ancient Greeks, is one of balance. In my various encounters with human nature it was that ability to rise above circumstance that was particularly engaging - to retain a sense of perspective, a certain levity or facetiousness when confronted by the most dire of adversities. For the hero to be able to stagger to his feet despite broken ribs and skin split to the bone; to blink back the blood and grin as he crooked one finger in wicked invitation: "Is that all ye got?"  Because it is this interjection of humor, in often what seems the most inappropriate of contexts, that defines a certain resilience, an undeniable fortitude. A character demonstrating this ability will doubtless resonate, paricularly with an American readership and others who find their heroes in underdogs and dark horses.

The interjection of a lighter vein highlights and juxtaposes the moments of tension and fear, provides necessary respite for the reader, and augments and three-dimensionalizes the personalities of the characters. Like all literary elements it requires deft and meticulous application; the particular brand of jocularity must be context and character-appropriate and threaded into the narrative with a subtlety that eludes precise instruction or indeed definition: the American writer E.B. White once said "humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind." A delicate matter - for one man's amusement is another man's boredom.

A primary protagonist in my novel, Wolfe Trant, is brooding and bitter, and to alleviate his darkness and still be true to the nature of the man I used a dog.  Like his new master, this particular mutt had suffered the horrors of Newgate Prison and emerged wounded physically (lost a leg) and pyschically. However, the natural playfulness of the canine breed (liberated and heartily fed) restores and evokes some of the same in his human counterpart. For who can resist a drooled-stick gift, the tail an ecstatic blur of motion, haunches high in the air, the backward scamper and lolling tongue of a grinning pup who wants to play? In this respect, the dog was a useful literary tool to illuminate lighter aspects of Wolfe's personality that might have predominated in easier times.

Once I had determined to interject an element of lightheartedness and laughter, it was specifically a question of where and with whom it belonged. Some characters lend themselves to moments of mirth more easily than others, and only then under the most particular of circumstances. Like Herman Wouk, I found the task a precise and demanding one, and like E.B White, I concluded that humor was an elusively ethereal thing, a subtle interplay of personality and circumstance that would not be coerced or contrived.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Pragmatic Critic: Across the Literary Divide

The latest transient traveler knocking on the door of my mind is the Pragmatic Critic. Being one who prides himself on being impeccably dressed (indeed is the epitome of dapper fastidiousness) he is slightly disheveled from the road and already irritated. Finding himself in company with a begrimed Golem who glares balefully at the newly-arrived does not improve the situation. Sliding reluctantly through the doorjamb Pragmatic Critic surveys the immediate environment, mouth pinched with distaste, taking note of all resident deficiencies: odds and ends of things, clutter and accumulation, a medley of littered details, tarnished with neglect and gathered beneath a coat of dust. He re-situates the glasses on the bridge of his nose and gives a supercilious sniff of disapproval. "So this is it, is it?"

He finds a chair on which to perch and retrieves a notepad from his satchel. "I took the liberty of making notes, and thought we might review them together." Pragmatic Critic looks down at me across the expanse of a protuberant nose, one eyebrow raised in a slightly skeptical manner as if personally ambivalent of the merits of this entire endeavor.

"Now, let us begin." He clears his throat, peering down at the meticulous jottings on his pad. "Humble Musings of a Literary Kind? That is what you call it? Literary would you say?" Pragmatic Critic snorts, the sound a curious combination of sardonic amusement and scoffing disbelief. I squirm on my chair. "I perused your...what did you call them?..ah yes...your musings..." A tight smile that more closely resembles a grimace crosses his lips. "And I must say I found them wanting. So much fluff. Romantic dither-dather. What is this nonsense about sepia-toned images coming alive?" He scrutinizes me with a narrowed gaze over the rim of glinting glasses; his tone, when he spoke again, was heavy with haughty disdain: "I daresay you might have some potential..." Pragmatic Critic waves one long-fingered pale hand in languid dismissal. "But you do insist upon these long-winded fanciful notions...who do you presume is interested in reading such drivel?" He shakes his head dubiously as he unwinds his lanky frame from the chair. He has retrieved his satchel, redeposited his notes, and stands, obviously eager to be gone. "What you need to do...." Pragmatic Critic pauses for maximum effect, "is pursue serious writing."

With his hand on the door, he turns to look over his shoulder. "One last word of advice, my dear. Dispense with these utterly irrelevant musings...and for goodness sake reevaluate your choice of roommate." And with a final scowl in the Golem's direction, who issues a guttural growl in response, Pragmatic Critic is gone, the door slamming heavily behind him...leaving the Golem and I together in the darkness.

So I am ruminating on Pragmatic Critic's advice, and a marvelous quote by Ezra Pound springs to mind: "I consider criticism merely a preliminary excitement, a statement of things a writer has to clear up in his own head sometime or other, probably antecedent to writing: of no value unless it come to fruit in the created work later." A preliminary excitement - what a gorgeously optimistic assessment! Of little account unless it contributes to the fundamental improvement of one's final narrative. So upon my next encounter with Pragmatic Critic I will keep Pound's wisdom firmly in mind,  extract any useful elements and mentally discard the rest, all the while offering a seat, a smile and a cup of tea to my most fastidious of guests.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Historical Context and the Art of Exclusion

Books pile up on my bedside table, stack on the floor, spill from the confines of bookcase, jostle other house-related sundries, and in short encroach into adjacent spaces where they have no business being. Books have the trump card privilege in my cluttered home; all other items will readily be dispensed with but the books are accorded exceptional status. At the rate of current accumulation archaeologists will be excavating the bones of me from beneath a mountain of much-beloved tattered pages.

Embroiled as I am in non-fictional treatises ranging from political, social, medical, and technological histories of  mid-nineteenth American history, I am perpetually finding more books to add to my collection. Unashamedly esoteric and regionally specific as they are: The Transformation of the Medical Profession from 1815-1860,  Frontiers of Change: Early American Industrialization....books on the rise of women's suffrage, on slaves and cotton, on communication and technology, on homesteads and evangelists...the multitude of factors that may have influenced and comprised past lives of the San Franciscan coast residents.

I am increasingly of the opinion that the fine art which must be employed is that of systematic exclusion. The vast compendium of reading provides a visceral feel for a different place and time -  characters appear in my mind as stilted figures in sepia-toned photos of old: posed and staring fixedly. It is only as I become more acquainted with their time, with their cares, concerns and politics that they start to acquire the three-dimensional vitality necessary to transcend the page. With painstaking progress small elements of personality are ascribed to them, their history is incrementally fleshed out, their motivations determined. It is then that my sepia-toned figures start to move languidly within their frames: an almost imperceptible turn of head, a blink of eye, the clattering movement of street-side wagon, and then, if you have read enough, they will whisper to you. Diaries, travelogues, those indispensable first-hand accounts where unfiltered voices relate the quotidian angst and pleasures of a previous age. One begins to garner a sense of their reality, the blank slate of an unknown era becomes gradually inscribed with accumulated knowledge.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, attested that "men who wish to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details." I am a most avid collector of seemingly insignificant details: these sepia-toned photographs from the nineteenth-century were produced by adding a pigment (sepia) made from the Sepia officinalis cuttlefish found in the English Channel.  Mass production of watches in America dates from the late-1840's when Dennison and Howard established the Boston Watch Company. Of the multitude of acquired minutiae only a selective few will be utilized in the final manuscript, and even those obliquely: the large-scale manufacture of watches suggests, particularly as a corollary to burgeoning industrialization, an emerging preoccupation with timeliness.

The art of exclusion, particularly critical in historical fiction, is the process of determining which threads are utilized and which are discarded. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry declared that "perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away." And from the stacks and stacks of books perused, from the notes compiled and scrawled on paper and laptop, very little of the gathered lore makes it through the bottleneck of final edits. It is our own internal slush pile; only the particulars that directly propel storyline and characters proceed. Despite a majority-discard, this compilation of browsed knowledge is indispensable for environmental nuance. A writer's expansive understanding of a period shades the narrative, interweaving through character attitude and circumstance, and contributes to a broad believability of plot-line.  

So with eager anticipation I select another book from the shelf and wonder what insight I might glean from between the pages, how my characters (immobilized in sepia-tone within the confines of my mind) might, based on this particular work, come gradually and fluidly to life.





Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Literary Evocativeness of Weather


Friedrich Schiller's drama opens with a tempest on Lake Lucerne as Wilhem Tell braves the watery onslaught to row a peasant to safety: "The storm is master. Man, as a ball, is tossed twixt winds and billows." Within the literary sweep of a novel weather can play an evocative role in the support of dramatic action. Perhaps it is because atmospheric tumult often parallels and accentuates the tensions and anxieties of the characters themselves; perhaps it serves as an immediate connective thread between narrative and reader: the experience of powerful climatic conditions one that all are viscerally acquainted with; perhaps because it serves to highlight human frailty beneath the broader expanse of open sky. It reminds the humble inhabitants of this third planet from the sun that even the most powerful of us are not invulnerable to the tirades of tornado or the devastation wrought by hurricanes.

Shakespeare utilized the storm motif  not only to portend ferocity but to epitomize political and moral corruption, a physical manifestation of fishiness in the state of Denmark or the anatomy of the body politic gone somehow awry. Thunder and lightning accompany the witches’ appearances in MacBeth: "When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightening or in rain?" and terrible storms rage on the night of Duncan's murder. Violent tempests lash King Lear as he wanders the desolate heath, the physical turbulence mirroring his internal confusion and evoking a newfound humility in which he finally recognizes his own mortality. Meteorological chaos is a prevalent theme in The Tempest and exemplifies the suffering Prospero has endured as well as the potentially malevolent magic at his command.

The dramatic potential of weather systems is well-known to novelists, and one utilized to full effect in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. In the opening chapter Mr. Lockwood refers to the impact of stormy weather on Wuthering Heights: "Indeed, one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun." Wind literally brings change within the confines of the novel: When Mr. Earnshaw dies there is a 'high wind,' and the weather is described as 'wild and stormy.' Turbulent weather accompanies Heathcliff on the night he leaves Wuthering Heights, and heralds his death: wind and rain coming in through the window and beating his lattice back and forth. The wild and desolate moors full of pits, depressions, rises and deep swamps provide the perfect terrestrial counterpart to the brooding clouds overhead that buffet the landscape in a tumultuous fury; a ferocity that is echoed in Catherine's tempestuous relationship with Heathcliff.

In The Goodwin Agenda, the initial meeting between longtime political foes is accentuated by the electric weather beyond the weathered castle walls: "The afternoon winds had brought evening storms and the panes streamed with rain; the courtyard he looked down into lay wet and empty and the flickering flames of the gas-lamps behind him seemed to dissolve in a watery atmosphere. The sky was dark and foreboding, swollen black clouds were barely visible in the fading light of dusk. Thunder grumbled discontentedly in the distance as a sudden streak of lightening spiked and flared illuminating the base of a nearby cloudbank before sinking again into blackness." Later in the novel the severity of an early Parisian winter accentuates the suffering of the poor, the frozen corpses evincing the growing disaffection between the people and their self-aggrandizing, warmongering Emperor.

Violent skies do not necessarily presage brutality below, a clear and quiet morning can be used to dramatic effect as a foil to the struggle that follows. A passage read, from which novel I now have difficulty recalling, details the ride through the tumbrel en route to the guillotine, or perhaps the hangman's noose...but the prisoner, very soon to be deprived of light and life, is poignantly and heartbreakingly reminded of the beauty of the world and the potential joys of life by the blinding clarity of blue sky, of sunlight igniting dew in a cascade of brilliance...in short the weather serves to heighten the character's yearning to prolong life and his poignant awareness of the beauty he will soon be leaving behind. The serenity of the morning frames the savagery which is to come, further elevating the gruesome aspect of the deed; a discordant association of natural tranquility and the manifest brutality of man.

It is not an easy thing: to capture in words the dance of sunlight and cloud-cast shade on the cresting waves of a gray sea, or to depict the multitude of cumulus in their various brooding dispositions, or the fleecy frivolous kind that stretch in fuzzy expanse across the bluest of skies. The subtle interplay of light and shadow, the infusion of deeper hues as the sun dips or rises, the various types of rain and sleet, how it falls and how it accumulates; how the buildings respond: timbers darkened by rivulets, mortar crumbling  into dust in the arid heat of an unrelenting sun, how they seem to hunker down under a mantle of snow, and how people walk differently in different types of weather (from The Goodwin Agenda): "She walked as all of the Paris poor did at this time of year, in a curiously half-hunched scurrying motion intended, above all, to conserve what little body heat remained beneath thin ragged attire. She tucked in upon herself, elbows tight against her torso, head bent down towards her chest, back and shoulders hunched and rounded against the cold."

I often think of  the physical terrain as the setting and the accompanying weather as environmental mood - as if the panorama itself was a character within the novel and the changing skies an emotional manifestation of the landscape. They belong together - two halves of the whole. For if terra firma is defined (or aqua not so firma for that matter) then one does wonder: what of the sky  and how does that interact with the world beneath? The weather is an integral extension of the landscape, and critical for establishing sensory immersion; the reader is figuratively encouraged to close their eyes and imagine the sharp pinprick of sleet, the icy wind howling with agitated frenzy, whipping clothes and snatching away voice... 

For the reader, as well as the characters within the narrative, the climactic conditions evoke a preparatory emotional response suggestive of imminent dramatic events.There is the sense of exposure and vulnerability, where secrets are finally revealed, where, like Lear, in a crucible of sound and fury we come to terms with our mortality "tossed twixt winds and billows."


Friday, December 7, 2012

Rembrandt and the Literary Sleight of Hand



"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean."  Robert Louis Stevenson succinctly summarizes what is, to my mind, a central literary challenge. In some fashion we serve as our own translators: the nebulous shape of plot and place are formulated within our own imaginative expanse; we ruminate upon scenes in the quiet of predawn hours, gnawing on the bones of the narrative, savoring the confluence of character attributes that elevate the persona from page to proto-breath.

Rembrandt is a Dutch master much admired, his portraits imbued with light and life. His work might represent an immobilized literary scene depicted in oils, for like the writer he applies hue and vibrancy with a deft hand; or, better yet, a character-study of an individual passing through the narrative of life. Few other contemporaries devoted comparable attention to the human face; his sitters are frequently depicted partially eclipsed with the nose, unequivocally bright, thrusting into the mystery of halftones. It serves to focus the viewer's attention upon, and to dramatize, the division between a flood of light—an overwhelming clarity—and a brooding duskiness. Flesh-tones are comprised of a wide range colors, from carmine reds to dense yellow ochers and even shades of green, each laid down with marvelous sensitivity to differential wear and tear of age on various parts of the face.

 Like the writer, Rembrandt was a compulsive peeler, itching to open the casing of things and people, to discern the content concealed within.  He like to toy with poignant discrepancies between outsides and insides, the brittle husk and the vulnerable core; being particularly drawn to the ruined, the underbelly of life, the poetry of imperfections. Rembrandt's most vivid depictions, like Hugo's Thénardiers in Les Misérables, are of the poor and bedraggled; with meticulous attention to the pits and pockmarks, red-rimmed eyes and scabby skin, the mottled blemishes of the human countenance. The piebald, the scrofulous, the stained and encrusted were a matter for close and loving inspection; furrows on the brows of old men and women, sagging timbers of decrepit barns, lichenous masonry of derelict buildings, the mangy fur of a haggard lion - all came under the close scrutiny of eye and brush.

 Rembrandt paid detailed attention to the topography of the middle-aged upper eyelid, the oiliness of a prosperous nose, the overlapping folds of a jowl or wattle, the wateriness of the eye's vitreous membrane, the shiny tightness of forehead pulled back into linen cap. Despite this painstaking face-mapping, despite this vital veracity to form, Rembrandt's work is seldom described literally by sharp-edged lines and contours. There is a freedom and versatility of brushwork: some places defined by short dabbing marks, others long fluent curves. While his subjects are depicted with a forceful clarity, Rembrandt's technique is audaciously loose and suggestive. The sketchier and more suggestive the hand, the more potent its invitation to sympathetic projection.

There are writers who have perfected a comparable literary technique of suggestive character sketch. Constrained by the forward momentum of plot and the patience of our reader, the writer supplies a daub of detail here and there; a character deftly sketched in hunched posture and heavy-lidded gaze, defined, perhaps, by indolence and dressed in grime. Fortunately for the writer language is a flexible medium, growing and breathing much as a living thing, expanding to meet need and circumstance. While we cannot convey the breadth and complexity of Rembrandt's portraiture we choose words with specific intent. The resultant image is necessarily one of many, a diversity of impressions in minds of different readers; a linguistic fluidity in the interpretation of visualized form. The essential nature of the character might be brilliantly defined in a minute detail; the languorous heaviness with which they recline, the narrowed silvery-bright gaze that pinions, the elaborate fussiness with which they attire themselves, or perhaps their distinguishing feature is an oily complexion perpetually mopped by anxious hand. I am reminded of Dickens’ Smallweed in Bleak House who is, in some measure, defined by his insistence on being ‘shaken up’ or the exquisite Lady Dedlock who is languidly and elegantly bored. By casting a specific attribute into bright relief, the writer can leave the rest in dusky halftones, allowing each reader to project their own particular imaginings.

Like Rembrandt, I find myself most engaged by what lies beneath. Within the confines of a novel this might be represented by hidden agendas and unrevealed motivations. There is a particular fascination with the dilapidated and the impoverished; the story of decline is an irresistible one – the character tested in adversity, deprived of fundamental comforts; in this furnace of penury all extraneous affectations are stripped away until the essential truth of a character is revealed. Masks are utilized to self-advantage just as they are with the prosperous, but there is an edge there, a certain poignant desperation, a clawing survival instinct. I admit also to an unadulterated deliciousness in writing the historical grime of gloomy backalleys. Perhaps it is a sense that the denizens of these narrow half-forgotten streets might startle me with a furtive deviousness…with a sly sideways glance that sends the plot moving in an altogether unexpected direction. Perhaps they more readily commune with my internal Golem who conspires in their fabrication.

Rembrandt conveys both polarities of society with consummate skill, the wealthy as well as the impoverished are captured beneath the sable of his brush: the gentle luminescence of faces in candle-glow, the improbable perfection of cascading lace rendered in shades of white, gray and yellow, the rich sheen of rippled satin, and the warm darkness of velvet; the impression of art is a static one, a moment captured in the perfection of paint. The writer, however, is responsible not only for a single visual depiction but must combine a means of dynamic locomotion to move the character through the narrative.  Like the great Dutch Master a novelist must illuminate salient attributes of his personages, a telling detail that helps define personality, and then leave the rest to dusky obscurity, allowing their reader to project the rest - to vividly imagine a construct whose tendencies have been outlined but whose flesh and outward appearance remain to be seen. The reader is the painter, filling in the details suggested but not utterly defined by the narrative. This is the power of literature, enthralling and engaging the reader as the characters become a part of their own imaginative landscape in a literary union of souls.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard and the Literary Search for Variable Truths

Writers sit in the quiet of self-imposed solitude, eye and mind inextricably fixed upon one point: the examination of humanity in all its glorious imperfections. Under the figurative microscope, gaze sharpened by literary intent, we examine the minutest element of human life, scrutinizing its most fleeting movement, its innermost fluctuations; we seek anomalies, wry moments of truth that like a black hole singularity appear densely impenetrable. They sit small and dark, closed in upon themselves, but like their celestial cousins they exert a powerful gravitational pull. These are the barely discernible hiccups in the human narrative that, when examined with studied attention, reveal something more, an insight that illuminates some broader aspect of human behavior. The secrets, the whys, the wherefores: the elements that transform this inconspicuous moment of truth into a fireworks-cascade of literary imagining take some work. The writer must pry them loose.

Why do we write? What do we hope to achieve by the endless production of fabricated realities? Another in a long line of paper-milled, ink-stained volumes, another crowded stack of paperbacks categorized and organized by last name, by demographic, by genre? Writers are restless seekers of truth and like all primates have a socialized proclivity for mutual grooming: quid pro quo, a back-and-forth, read and be read; we want to share, to communicate, we want the validation of our own kind, of the human kind. For many writers it is this resultant dialectic that is important; like scientists seeking objective truth we want to understand that we are approaching some greater comprehension of things. We want other writers to re-enact the thought experiment and feel that something has been accomplished; that somehow the collective understanding of humanity has been enriched, in however miniscule a way, by our own humble offering. Individuals write to promote social change, to punish injustice, to celebrate heroism, to lament political oppression, but is not the ultimate common theme a yearning to understand one another? And how else to do that other than in our own individual search for the truths that unite us?


Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, proposed that the objective approach to matters of personal truth cannot illuminate that which is most essential to a person's life. Objective truths (mathematics and science) form a conceptual framework with which to systematically comprehend the laws that govern the universe; they are indubitably relevant and necessary, and possess a particular beauty (cascading fractal sets defined by mathematical constructs for example). But these theories and formula are rigid in application and constrained by prescribed laws of thermodynamics. They do not accelerate the heart or quicken the breath in the back of the throat, they do not pretend to delve into the individual's emotional relationship to existence, the angst and the passion, nor the confrontation with the dark abyss that lies beyond. They are the world in outline; it is the individual visceral interaction with life that provides the rich array of intervening colors. It is this encounter with the world that comprises each writer's subjective truths; borne of curiosity, their perceptions of the world are dynamic, a living intuitive response to life that is always in the process of becoming. They possess the vibrant unpredictability of individual perspective unrestrained by mathematical construct or theoretical expectations. These subjective truths are filtered through a writer's lens of prejudice and perspective, but they are universal insofar as they derive from the human condition and to which each of us react with a start of recognition.

Dostoyevsky's literary works explore human psychology in the troubled political, social and spiritual context of 19th-century Russia. He probed and extrapolated upon issues such as the existence of God, nihilism, the requirements of fraternity, the morality of murder, suicide and poverty. They are familiar themes; while the times have changed, while the setting is different, we, like the brothers Karamazov, like Dostoyevsky himself, struggle to understand what it means to be human. In her essay The Russian Point of View, Virginia Woolfe stated: "The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture." To be an unworthy echo of Ms. Woolfe's eloquent testimonial: "composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul." These are Dostoyevsky's subjective truths that resonate so deeply with contemporary as well as later audiences.

Many postulate one objective truth to all things whether it be a philosophical truth, religious truth, or political truth. However these truths are group-specific and do not necessarily cross county, state or national lines. The truths that unite individuals across the globe are of the variable kind, they are emotional truths spoken from one heart to another, they are an amalgamation of gathered truths, they are a literary truth, spoken without subterfuge or agenda. Each book represents an individual communicator transmitting their own particular blend of veracity. Giambattista Vico argued that verum ipsum factum (truth itself is constructed). Perhaps one might surmise the literary truth to be a constructed one insofar as it is born of much mental labor and is, however inadequately, translated from thought to word. Objective evidence facilitated by science enables further understanding of our physical environment, the subjective analysis of the human condition as evident in literature enables further understanding of the depths of ourselves - a search essential to nourish the delicate yearning that is the human soul.

Through countless dusty tomes we have acquired vague ideas of things that have sharpened and coalesced in the subsequent years of life-immersion, discussion, pondering and musing. Writers attempt to convey their own subjective truths, lessons learned, wisdom accumulated, their own particular insight into the kernel of things. And the utter delight is that, unlike objective truth (Schrodinger's cat nonwithstanding) the individual perspectives are often not only unconventional and quirky, but are limitless in their potential for the exploration of self. These truths, these literary truths, are perpetually in flux; the human outlook alters with time and experience and the truth of youth is oft supplanted by that of maturity. Individuality outruns all classifications, unconstrained and undefined, vibrantly alive with innumerable shades of possible expression.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Shadow Dimensions: Plato's Cave, Wayang Kulit & the Literary Endeavor

Upon completing a fine novel, the last page regretfully turned and closed, the characters and the landscape they inhabited linger in one's mind like a dancing play of shadows, a vague and nebulous interaction of dusky things. I have been pondering the shadow, on the forms created by the casting of light. A writer directs a focused intensity towards a time and place and creates individuals to occupy it; this setting, this landscape, this world (in Shakespeare's immortal words) is "a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances..." The 'players' of this novel are brilliantly lit upon the boards, but it is their shadowed forms, their imagined selves, our own perception of them due to (or despite of) authorial depiction, that continue to dwell in our minds long after the book is restored to the shelves. Captain Ahab never returned to the Pequod, nor did he plunge to his death in the dark depths, but remains still, restless and vengeful, in my imaginative expanse - frozen in that final tableau of rancorous fury, hurling his harpoon at the white whale: "…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."

Other novels have also created their own particular shadow dimensions: characters and plot-lines that obstinately refuse to depart from your mind - because they transcend the pages upon which they were transcribed. They speak to a deeper part of ourselves, become anchored in our very flesh and bone, all co-existing in some improbable complicated kinship, adjacent, hovering, there in some hard-to-define fashion, like the literary equivalent of string theory in quantum mechanics. Or an impossibly glittering Gatsby-affair to which all literary 'players' are invited, all taking tea within the confines of your mind! The special books, the ones that speak to your heart, their shadow-world hovers the longest, permeating future thought and speculation, filtering through the porous inter-dimensional membranes to solidify within the familiar world through which we meander. Other books, the ones that came and went, sampled and enjoyed, but did not affect one in a visceral way, their shadowed world dissipates more rapidly like the morning mists after the rising of the sun.

The novelist creates characters (as much as I use the word I do so reluctantly, 'characters' have a two-dimensional aspect that implies archetype devoid of blood and bone) that interact in a dynamic interplay of plot and dialogue. These imagined individuals, for the time of reading, comprise our reality, our alternative vision of things, the story so masterfully woven that it becomes for a time our own internal chronicle. Much like Plato's Allegory of the Cave where the chained prisoners perceive the shadowed projections cast upon the wall and believe it to constitute reality. While writers would hardly liken their readership to those imprisoned and forced to bear witness, their narrative is not unlike the dance of shadows that plays across the walls of our minds.

Novelists create shadow worlds, alternative realities that exist within the cranial confines, which have no material counterpoint in our three-dimensional world. We cast shadows upon the wall for our readers, a reflection of a possible reality, a confluence of imagined people within a particular dynamic. Plato's Cave requires the escapee philosopher to return and educate the prisoners as to the nature of their deception, the shadowed narrative of literature, however, can perhaps be understood with the opposite intent; while the Cave display dupes its viewers, the literary shadowplay ostensibly serves a nobler purpose: to further our understanding of human nature, to examine unacknowledged motivations, to illuminate the deeper elements of ourselves that run like sluggish subterranean rivers through our subconscious.  I say ostensibly because there is a power in print, and has been since Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Access to literature of all kinds has molded and shaped nations as well as the liberties offered or denied their citizens. While books (and by extension their authorial voices) can sway and influence public opinion one must also approach them with a critical eye, and a firm sense of our own morality. I do not assume a nefarious purpose here, but merely bow my head in wary acknowledgement of its potential.

Perhaps another analogy for the literary shadow-dance is the Indonesian Wayang kulit theater: puppets crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks are cast in shadow across a white screen. The puppeteer, or dalang, is the backstage genius, akin to the novelist who deftly pulls the strings of their fictionalized individuals to move them through the narrative. The writer draws upon their vocal lexicon, the dalang his vocal skills as he modulates his voice to create suspense and heighten the drama. These Wayang kulit narratives typically derive from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, with the inclusions of hero/villain and comedic-relief archetypes vividly recognized within humanity's literary compendium from the epic of Gilgamesh to the works of Shakespeare. The dalang, like the writer, seeks to entertain, and his profession is not for the ineffectual or the faint-of-heart: he is an orator of prodigious memory who must be able to repeat lengthy texts verbatim and simultaneously maintain the ability to improvise entire interludes ranging from ribald jokes to philosophical ruminations. He is a scholar of literature, but also of the political and social climate at a national and local level. The novelist today must work equally hard to engage their audience, producing a compelling narrative that resonates on a multitude of levels with innumerable individuals. The dalang is intimately familiar with the nature and symbolic importance of all his hundred-odd characters, and commands the necessary vocal dexterity to give each it's proper tone and pitch. Just as a writer constructs character-specific action, dialogue and context, the dalang presents each of his figures in stances appropriate to their character and situation.

A writer's effort and intent initially is in the production of the material manifestation of an imagined reality - the book itself, a collection of ink-stained pages, a solid three-dimensional construct indubitably a part of the material world (or a combination of bits and binary code for the e-book equivalent); but the writers that are truly great are those whose characters and plots become something more, shadowy inhabitants of our imaginative landscape, with more power in their ethereal immortality within the pulsing crimson warmth of our blood-nourished neurons than they ever possessed as an aggregation of atoms between the covers of a book. Like the dalang, we must seek to cast immortal shadows, not to dupe, deceive, or imprison as served in Plato's Cave, but to elevate and inspire, to scrutinize the human condition in all it's glorious imperfections.