Saturday, December 20, 2014

Peter Mendelsund's What We See When We Read: The Short Story as Quintessential Narrative Art

I ran across Peter Mendelsund's What We See When We Read recently while doing the research for my blog post on Best Books for 2014. Always interested in the nature of the reading process, I ordered it, especially when I saw the subtitle was A Phenomenology, for I have long been interested in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty; furthermore, I could not see how anyone writing a popular book would risk subtitling it A Phenomenology.  And that's what What We See When We Read  is–a popular book intended for a general audience.
Written by the associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf and art director of Pantheon Books, this is an entertaining graphic treatment of concepts that have been around a long time among philosophers and literary theorists, but which may not be familiar to the general reader, although any reader may find the ideas compelling, and cleverly presented.
The range of Mendelsund's references can be seen in the first two headnote quotations—one from Wittgenstein—"A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it"--and the other from Agatha Christie about her first imagined image of Hercule Poirot—that he was like something on the stage. Although the range of cites is fairly extensive, there are no footnotes and no list of sources at the end—just as well, for the general reader will probably not want to follow up on the originators of these ideas.  With lots and lots of graphics—more graphics than text really—it is a book to enjoy for itself.  I read it in about three hours, but you can spend more time just flipping through the images.
Mendelsund confronts his basic question—what do we see when we read—immediately in the book by challenging us to describe Anna Karenina. He concludes that we cannot do this—that we will come up with a body type or a vague image, for characters in fiction are not so much physical beings as they are choreographic figures who have only those few features that "signify" something.  The implication of this—that characters are ciphers or sets of rules and that narratives are made richer by omission—is particularly relevant to the short story—although Mendelsund, as might be expected, primarily uses novels for his illustrations.
Indeed, I find that much of what Mendelsund says about narrative is directly applicable to the short story because—no surprise to my readers—I think the short story is the primal mode of narrative—the mode closest to a basic human need and impulse to tell stories and respond to them.  I also think, of course, that the short story is the most "artistic" narrative form; consequently, what Mendelsund says about "artistic" narrative is directly applicable to the short story.
Mendelsund reminds us that when we read we withdraw from the phenomenal world, turning our attention inward.  Rather than looking through a clear glass to some world outside, we look at the book as if it were a mirror and we are looking inward.  I won't clutter up my comments here by referring the reader to the origins of Mendelsund's remarks, but one of the philosophic sources of this one is Jose Ortega y Gasset, who notes that when we read we have the choke of looking through a glass or looking at the glass itself to see what it reflects. I have always argued that the short story is more a matter of form than content.  James Lasdun's remark, which I quoted in my blog on Hilary Mantel, emphasizes this also.
Mendelsund says that the openings of such novels as To the Lighthouse and Moby Dick are confusing to us because we have not been given enough information to begin processing the narrative, "But we are used to such confusion.  All books open in doubt and dislocation."  True enough, which is one of the reasons folks don't like short stories, for they don't give us enough time to get oriented to the language-created world we have entered.
Mendelsund says words are like musical notes in that the significance of a word is contingent on the words that surround it. Furthermore, in order to make sense of a book's words and phrases, he says we must think ahead, anticipate. "Reading is not a sequence of experienced 'now's…Past, present, and future are interwoven in each conscious moment—and in the performative reading moment as well." He cites Merleau-Ponty here: "With the arrival of every moment, its predecessor undergoes a change: I still have it in hand and it is still there, but already it is sinking away below the level of presents..." One of the aspects of Alice Munro's stories that makes them so compelling to read is her manipulation of time to remind us that our reading experience is not a "sequence" of nows.  In the past, I have commented at some length on the short story's being structured like music, dependent more on rhythm and form than on content.
"All good books are, at heart, mysteries," says Mendelsund. Indeed, I have argued in other places that the short story focuses on mystery.  For the most provocative considerations of this aspect of the form, see Flanner O'Connor's Mystery and Manners.
Writers not only tell us stories, they tell us how to read stories; when we read we put together a set of rules—a method for reading this particular work, a manner of thinking about this particular work. "The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much." One of the problem readers have with reading short stories is trying to figure out the rules for reading the short story as a form, and this particular short story they are reading before the short story has ended.  That's why short stories have to be read more than once.
Mendelsund uses the detective mystery as the model for this process, with the characters as archetypes acting like players on a game board. Characters are mostly seen in action, Mendelsund reminds us, not as physical entities. I have posted earlier on why I think the short story began in America with the detective story by Edgar Allan Poe and how the short story is like a detective story in its structure and sense of mystery and order.
The writer takes something from its context in the real world, where it exists in a state of flux, and holds it fast in language, making it an immobile wave, no longer fluid.  Yes, indeed, this is what poetry does, of course. And the short story is closer to poetry than it is to the novel.
When we examine something the author has immobilized through the lens he has given us, what we observe is not so much the thing itself, but the tools the work has made us construct in order to observe the thing. When we praise finely observed prose, we praise the efficacy of the ideas and the beauty of the equipment both at once.  The inability to separate the language and the content in a short story is what makes the form so challenging—that is, if one is not sensitive to the language.
Mendelsund quotes Italo Calvino, whose collection The Uses of Literature have just started rereading as a Christmas present to myself:  "For me, the main thing in a narrative is…the order of things…the pattern; the symmetry; the network of images deposited around it…"  No comment necessary; see everything I have ever said about the short story.
Mendelsund speaks of the book as a sort of musical score which we perform and attend the performance at once. See above on short story and music.
When we read we co-create.  "We would rather have sketches than verisimilitude—because the sketches, at least, are ours. And yet, readers still contend that they want to 'lose themselves' in a story." Good books incite us to fill in an author's suggestions in a co-creative act. "Some things we do not wish to be shown." Mendelsund cites the familiar example of Kafka's insisting to his publisher not to provide a likeness of his famous dung beetle on the cover of "Metamorphosis." Very nice:  Who the hell wants verisimilitude? If I wanted reality, I would go out in the world.  And I don't want to lose myself in a work; I want to be aware of what the story is doing. 
Mendelsund says we do not refer to Hamlet as a character, but rather as a role, one who is meant to be played. I used to argue with my students, to no avail, that Hamlet's famous inability to act was because he was aware that he was always acting.
Mendelsund quotes Moses Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed: "There is no real unity without incorporeality." That which exists in time has nothing to do with the sacred, don't you think? And unity has nothing to do with the seemingly real.
Mendelsund's central point is that we do not have pictures in our minds when we read; rather, we read for the intermingling of abstract relationships, which may sound like an unenjoyable experience, but in truth is what happens when we listen to music. "This relational, nonrepresentational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found. Not in mental pictures of things, but in the play of elements."  Yes, indeed.  Please read that quote again; then read a great short story.
"When I'm reading a novel or story, the contents—places, people, things—of the drama recede and are supplanted by significance.  The vision of a flowerpot, say, is replaced by my readerly calculation of the meaning and importance of this flowerpot. We are ever gauging these significances in texts, and much of what we 'see' when we read is this 'significance.'"  The problem many readers have with short stories is that they just read for the content and not the meaning of the content.
Mendelsund quotes a passage from Wharton's House of Mirth" in which a man thinks of the hair and eye lashes of a young woman he is walking with, but it is not the physical image we sense, rather a "rhythm" of the words that convey the young man's elation.  In other words, it is the rhythm of the language we feel, not the merely physical object.
He quotes Beckett on Joyce's Finnegan's Wake: "His writing is not about something; it is that something itself."  No comment necessary.
"Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read. The brain itself is built to reduce, replace, emblemize. Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal.  So we reduce… Picturing stories is making reductions. Through reduction, we create meaning." See Levis Strauss on reduction as an aesthetic act.
"Maybe the reading imagination is a fundamentally mystical experience—irreducible by logic.  These visions are like revelations.  They hail from transcendental sources, and are not of us—they are visited upon  us. Perhaps the visions are due to a metaphysical union of reader and author.  Perhaps the author taps the universal and becomes a medium for it."
In some way, Mendelsund says, readers are "see-ers" and the reading experience derives from the tradition of visitation, annunciation, dream vision, prophecy, and other manifestations of religious or mystical epiphany." He asks whether the visions of literature are like religious epiphanies or Platonic verities, more real than phenomenal reality. "Do they point toward some deeper manner of authenticity? (Or: by mimicking the real world, do they point toward its inauthenticity."  
Flannery O'Connor would have loved these two paragraphs.  Alice Munro would also.  As would have Chekhov.   And, believe it or not, so would have James Joyce.  Why else would he call his short stories epiphanies? This is why I titled my recent book on the short story I Am Your Brother.


Tim Love said...

I've used What Happens When Our Students Read,
and What Can We Do About It?
(by Russell A. Hunt) in workshops. It's interesting how readers vary in [the urgency of] their need to create/judge characters, or make guesses about mysteries.

Ann Graham said...

Gosh, I'm so glad you write this blog. Interesting and enlightening. Thanks!

Josh Townley said...

Fascinating read. Got me thinking about the art of writing and the short story in a way I don't think I ever have before. The comparison between words and music notes, in particular, struck a chord with me...