Friday, December 11, 2009

Reality of the Imagination

BBC News - Rare words 'author's fingerprints'

French surrealist painter, poet, and critic Max Jacob observed, “What is called a sincere work is one that is endowed with enough strength to give reality to an illusion.” Media circuses in the past few years have given us plenty of reason to doubt the veracity of appearances; I think of the Kobe Bryant scandal a few years back and the recent Tiger Woods imbroglio—multiple women scrambling from the woodwork to have their say—as examples of how clean images and massive media campaigns can crumble in seconds. Or—since I’m sticking with athletes this morning, apparently—consider Andre Agassi’s recent revelation that he abused crystal meth and lied about his drug use during his competitive days.

So what endows a work or a human life with that sincerity, that strength, as opposed to merely plating it with glass? Language is involved, obviously: multi-million dollar campaigns, advertising contracts, public appearances, and prize money contribute to putting these superstars in the limelight. But these appearances are mirrors; these clean images reflect back at us exactly what we want to see, and the smallest things—a crash into a fire hydrant outside your home, for instance—can split that fragile surface, send cracks rippling across the whole infrastructure.

I, for one, believe that what imbues a narrative with strength is precisely the perception that it is real, that although it is something imagined (it’s a story, made out of words strung into phrases linked together into sentences blocked together in paragraphs, constructed from the letter level on up) it nonetheless has the full essence of something lived, something real. Propaganda and cover-ups are just ruses. Feints. Distractions from the actual narrative, something layered under photo-ops and press conferences and advertising your recent breach of the White House on your StalkerBook page.

I originally intended to write about something else today—film adaptations of stories, actually—but I decided to bring up this idea—what makes the reality of a story—after reading a BBC article that claimed that authors have stylistic fingerprints. Sebastian Bernhardsson, the leader of the research, claims that we all possess a “meta-book,” the theoretical text that contains all of our uses of particular words. He said to the BBC’s writer that “That story you’re writing right now is a piece of that big book and that is what you’re pulling out.” They catalogued the words in the works of Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, and D.H. Lawrence.

I can’t help but feel that this diminishes what a work of art is. It’s more than simply the words—there’s the obvious manner of arranging them. Perhaps there is a “meta-book” on some theoretical level, some way for us to catalogue an author’s use of language. But it stops at this brand of textual fingerprinting. This reduces narrative to being just a matter of words—and then we ignore the poetry of language. Hardy, Melville, and Lawrence aren’t remembered because of the words they used but because of how their words were used. And literature is adaptable, alterable even across the career of a single writer. I would love to see them do this sort of fingerprinting based off the career of modernist experimental writers—a Woolf or a Joyce or a Faulkner—and then compare it to contemporary modern novelists—a McEwan or a Byatt, perhaps—whose styles have evolved and finessed over their careers.

In short, what I wanted to get across this time around is that there’s more to a story than simply language and the choice of words. Philip Roth said in an interview in The New Yorker about his novel Exit Ghost a few years back that the novel is “language in service of a surmise,” and that’s what this fingerprinting overlooks: the way the words accrue significance upon the page, induce in our imaginations something realer than the sight of ink on an off-white page.


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