Thursday, October 14, 2010

Uncertainty & Parataxis

My online acquaintance Elizabeth, from Oz, has run afoul of the expectations of readers. Namely, that she writes sometimes a kind of memoir that veers from purely factual and autobiographical to the imaginative and speculative, and does so without warning. Her offense to some readers seems to have been not that she interpolated "fact" and "fiction"—a creative nonfiction technique, after all, as familiar as the New Journalism written by Tom Wolfe and others since the 1970s—but that she did not give prior warning as to what she was doing.

I haven't got a lot of sympathy for such complaints. Anyone who reads anything other than ostensibly purely factual reporting should be aware that fact and non-fact interpolate often in writing, and that this is as old as Homer's Odyssey, which after all is a mythic retelling of probably historical incidents. (And the book to read on the subject of Homer remains Alfred Lord's The Singer of Tales, which definitively argued that epic storytelling both ancient and modern is a blend of historical elements framed and connected with literary-fictional devices.)

I read and write a lot of creative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction. I guess what I mean is that I'm not a purist. "Fact" and "fiction" are not pure categories, nor are they completely isolatable. (For that matter, neither are "poetry" and "prose.") All writing is in some way creative writing, is artifice, is invented.

With some fiction writers you come to expect an unreliable narrator, or other levels of not deception but trust: trusting to wherever you're being led, even if it turns fantastical at the hinge of the story. That's one of the pleasures of reading Borges: you never quite know what's going on. It's a delightful puzzle, and you cannot assume that any source the author cites is a real book—although the surprise is that it might be. You know with Borges, though, that where you're being led is worth the reward.

I've had arguments with some "straight fiction" writers who don't like Borges because they don't always know what's going on. I even know one writer-critic who thinks Borges is a "bad" short story writer, but that's because the writer-critic in question has completely missed the point. He has attempted to apply the laws of ordinary "realistic" fiction (think Raymond Carver, John Updike, etc.) to Borges, where Borges is meta-fiction, not "fiction" at all. It's like saying that apples are crabapples: a category error.

So I look at the complaint this way: Some readers need to have absolute logical, rational knowledge of what's going on. They need a clear, linear narrative in which everything is clear or explained. A must follow B in linear, logical narrative. Effect must follow cause. Most literature does indeed progress this way, and does typically follow these rules. (Borges rarely does.)

I can and do appreciate this attitude towards linear narrative, and cause and effect, in a mystery novel, but I also like to be led by the writer into surprises and the pleasure of not knowing where I'm going. There is no suspense where there is no mystery, no uncertainty. As has been said before, the pleasure of reading Raymond Chandler is because of his writing's mood, his characters, and his descriptions: Chandler was always rather weak on strictly linear plot. Right now I'm reading a series of SF novels by British writer Peter F. Hamilton set in his Commonwealth universe (from Pandora's Star through the Dreaming Void trilogy) and the writing is so pyrotechnically inventive and vivid that I have no clue where he's going next, but I certainly am enjoying the ride.

Life doesn't have simple beginnings, middles, and endings. Life is full of mystery. Life is chaotic—as those of us who have suffered chronic illness, personal calamity, and family deaths and sufferings in recent months all know on a very visceral level. One thing very clear to me right now, after having been very ill all this past summer, is my own mortality.

Virginia Woolf will always be one of the writers that I return to, time and again, in novels such as To the Lighthouse because she understands this. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. —Virginia Woolf

Woolf's biggest influence on me as a writer has been that I want to represent consciousness in my writing. I want to record the way the attention, the mind, the awareness, all operate. Diffuse or focused, consciousness is at the center of writing, and writing becomes too blatantly artifice if it tries too hard to fix consciousness within the borders of logical and linear statement. If I can see the scaffolding too clearly, and predict every plot twist and turn, then much of the pleasure is gone from the reading.

The pleasure of a great mystery novel is that you can't foresee the ending, can't predict the plot twists. The underlying logic of mystery novels is that crime is a disruption of the natural order, and in discovering and punishing the criminal, Order is restored to the universe—or at least to civilization. But this is hardly realistic. Such endings, with all the loose threads neatly tied together, are rare in real life. Disruptions are not always healed, or in the miracle of life's mystery, are healed in completely unpredicted ways.

I sometimes think that the demand for clarity and order in our reading is because people are trying to construct a universe in which they can feel safe and secure, an orderly universe in which they know the rules, and which doesn't surprise them. I find that dull, personally, but I understand the psychology behind it. As in a mystery novel, we want Order to be restored to our lives, and we want to know all the reasons why, and have a good ending. The alternatives are just too scary.

Still, I prefer writing that reflects life, that gives me an experience of life, that re-creates in me the reader an experience of living, even if it's chaotic and unpredictable. Not always knowing what's going on, or which narrator to believe, doesn't bother me. I am able to follow on, and maybe even figure it out.

Sometimes we just have to trust that the reader is smart enough to figure it out fro themselves, and doesn't need footnotes. Clarity in expression is usually a positive attribute in writing, but what we're writing about doesn't necessarily have to be clear.

I am reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist principle of learning to become comfortable with uncertainty. In this universe, the only certainty is change: everything will change, everything will decay and die, and we have no certainty about how or where or when. The usual, habitual response is to fight back by creating certainty wherever we can. Fear of uncertainty lies at the root of many social and political promises and over-reactions. The question for the individual remains, how much uncertainty can we bear in our lives? For some, no doubt they can bear more in their personal lives than they can in their intellectual and ideological lives; which is often just a matter of necessity. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty, in the long run, means letting go of clinging to certainty wherever we find it, in our lives, in our work, in our relationships. It also means to let go of expectations, and just deal with what's really there, right in front of us. It means to start where you are, and not just where you are comfortable.

I think the bottom line is that people only complain when their expectations aren't being met. Or when they think they've been deceived. Literary history is full of such moments.

But in the end, what survives is the writing.

In discussing these complaints, or reader's failures of expectation, with Elizabeth, she made the comment:

The writer Gail Jones, another not so well known Australian, talks about 'parataxis', the way two seemingly disparate pieces of information can be placed together, one after the other, and the human mind, with its tendency to make links will find connections, however obscure.

I suspect the same thing occurs when we combine the so called factual with the fictional - new links become possible. But it's not to everyone's taste as you say for example with Borges's work.

Parataxis is, in some ways, the very root of all my more "experimental" poetry, which I've sometimes described as cinematic in style: a sequence of images placed side by side, often without verbs—often in fact without any kind of normative syntax or grammar—which like a filmstrip or film collage might create meaning in the mind of the reader. For example, my poem "a shaman's critique of pure poetry." Or many of the Book of Silence poem sequences, in a form I invented. Some of the poetic forms I have invented are strongly influenced by haiku, but haiku itself can be considered a poetic form that uses paratactic juxtaposition of imagery to create meaning, wherein the reader is required to fill in the remaining gaps from their own life-experience. Poems I occasionally write in a post-haibun form I invented are further examples of this.

Simply because we put things side by side, meaning is created, because our minds tend to find patterns and meanings even when they're not intended. In many ways or very cognition is based on pattern-making and pattern-finding. I rely on this in my poetry a great deal. Sometimes a poem, or even an essay, proceeds by using parataxis to create connections, which after all is how consciousness often operates. As both Borges and Woolf would embrace and emulate in some of their writings.

I know that I am an associative thinker, with an associative memory, often creating linkages unforeseen, and my art often reflects or recreates my consciousness. What might be unusual in my style of thinking/consciousness, that is, what makes me an artist rather than an accountant, is precisely that I think in gestalts, in puns, always making connections, always seeing things from multiple angles. Is that so extraordinary? I've been told that it is, but I think that's because our culture tells us it is, and our educational style is designed to make us think in logical, linear, rational order. (Not to mention that education in our culture is dominated by visual teaching, as opposed to kinesthetic or aural.) I don't think this style of thinking is exceptional, I think rather that it is typical of many artists. Putting things together in new ways, in ways no one had thought of or presented before, is one practical definition of art-making: revealing the world in new ways, often in ways that upset the familiar. In other words, art that changes consciousness while reflecting it.

Parataxis doesn't guarantee meanings and connections will be made, nor does it guarantee the familiar (dare one say, clichéd) connections will be made via what is juxtaposed. Sometimes uncertainty is everywhere. The question the reader must ask herself or himself at that point is, how much uncertainty are they comfortable living with? (The answer can be quite revealing of one's personal psychology. In Tibetan Buddhist practice, finding a point of mental resistance is a clue towards where one needs to work next, in one's practice of moving towards greater awakening awareness.)

Strictly speaking, according to various dictionaries, parataxis is the juxtaposition of phrases, words, or sentences placed side by side without the use of a conjunction. The word's origin is from the ancient Greek: to arrange side by side, with the connotation of arranging the troops for battle order. I appreciate the creative possibilities of this connotation of arrangement in battle order, since it often seems that writing anything "experimental" automatically makes one a target. Line up the words and the troops, and fire all torpedoes. I don't really mind when some reader objects that one of my more "experimental" poems has blown their mind; I don't view that as a negative. If something I have made blows your mind, or changes your consciousness some other way, I am pleased; it's one indicator, in my personal artistic lexicon, of the success of any given work of art, to succeed in changing how one perceives the world, even if only for a moment.

How do we create meaning where there is none? Sometimes simply by putting things side by side, and letting the viewer sort them out. That can be enough to change everything.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Since I was the one who started the ball rolling here I’ll just restate, carefully, what my objection was: Lis has been posting a series of updates recently following her accident. The ‘Dog Babies’ post followed on from these and included references to her broken leg and her inability to take her dog for walks. As readers were – rightly or wrongly – expecting another update I don’t think it was unreasonable to read what she had written as straight autobiography. That it turned out to be fictionalised confused people to the point where one woman wondered if Lis had even broken her leg in the first place. If Lis, God forbid, ends up in another accident tomorrow and writes that she’s slipped and broken an arm as well rather than reacting spontaneously with sympathy for a friend my inclination now would be to ask the question: Er, excuse me, have you really broken your arm or is this another story? I exaggerate to make a point but as they say, once bitten, twice shy.

I have no problem with fictionalised autobiography. My issue was with this specific case. I was unprepared for it and felt foolish for overreacting to a story.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Just to be clear, none of what I wrote here was targeted specifically at you personally, and no offense was meant. It just opened the door to an interesting discussion on interesting topics, which led me to think about expectations and uncertainty. I think this individual case was archetypal representative, regardless of whether or not this particular case is unique and non-repeating.

It's an issue that comes up periodically, in many different places, for example I've seen it come up on poetry boards where it led to discussions of whether or not the reader is entitled to a warning label. Obviously I don't think they are ENTITLED to a warning label, although it's nice if an author provides one. But is it necessary? No, I don't think so. On that poetry forum, at that time, the argument was made that poems that aren't pure reporting should be footnoted as such; but almost nobody agreed with that, on that occasion. The general feeling was that in poetry, as in all other writing:

Caveat emptor.

I guess I just don't see any difference between this individual case and any other similar case. The principle doesn't seem to need a special case this time out.

Again, no offense to you or anyone else was intended.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

If this post comes out of any errors in judgement on my part, Art, then I'm glad of it. What a fantastic post.

Of course you and I are sympatico here and therefore all I can do throughout reading this post is nod my head and agree.

On the other hand, I can also appreciate Jim's point and the issue he raises is meaningful for me.

I've been in trouble more than once for the things I have written and presented elsewhere . I have been told that I should issue a warning when I plan to introduce certain autobiographical material that might disturb people.

Whereas, Art, as you suggest one of my aims as a writer is to unsettle people, at least to jolt them out of certain preordained ways of viewing the world.

For this reason I enjoy the notion of parataxis as you describe, here - forward into battle.

And these discussions are so valuable in my view, though interestingly enough not too many people engage in them at the level that you and Jim do, which is a pity.

You both have so much to offer.

3:40 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

As I indicated in the opening quote to my latest blog, Art, “The taking of offence is what rests in the bosom of the stupid ones.” So, no offence taken. I just found that the comments to the two posts had drifted into deeper waters than I had intended and I wanted to restate my specific objection. Like the two of you I’ve found the whole thing fascinating. The bottom line is that my reaction was to the principle of the thing and not to any specific dog being mistreated and that reaction was genuine. I may be a cat person but I still talk to and pet dogs in the street. Hell, if a guy had a goat on a leash I’d go over and talk to it probably.

What I was stuck by was how willing I was to reveal my true feelings when I thought the dog was real whereas I would have expressed myself in more reserved terms were the dog fictional. That was a revelation. I suppose it’s the difference between standing up in a debating society and arguing that war is necessary or going down to the recruitment office and signing on the dotted line. No one knows how they truly feel about war until they’re faced with having to participate in one.

5:01 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Excellent points, all around. That's where I wanted to go with this, anyway: it struck me as a single episode that leads to a larger discussion of a larger phenomenon. So thanks for going in that direction.

I've been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Essays" some this week, just dipping and out. But he makes the point several times that it's the individual's job to evolve and reform oneself, so that one can evolve and reform society. And he sees a special place for the poet (writer) in guiding the way, in inspiring, in "disturbing the universe" when necessary. Naturally, therefore, Emerson praised and supported Walt Whitman when he came along, since Whitman was a disturbing, reforming, rebellious poet who changed everything that came after him.

I've loved and lived with both dogs and cats in my time. One lives with them for different reasons, for different purposes. And I certainly greet any met along the way. Cats tell me that I have good hands for finding the right place to scratch.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Freya Latona said...

Hi. I realise this is an older blog post, but I am chasing a reference for Gail Jones and her work on parataxis. I also recall her mentioning parataxis, but can't find any work on it.

Any help would be much appreciated!

5:00 AM  

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