Friday, February 19, 2016

The Irreconcilable Difference

Often movies begin well—lay out an intriguing conflict, create tension among interesting characters, complicate a promising situation; however, once they have completed constructing the problem, they deteriorate into a facile resolution. That may be because problems are more satisfying than solutions, or maybe more believable. Since everything, in being alive, is connected and temporary, every resolution of a problem requires a frame of reference, literally something that surrounds problem and crops off all the messy complications. At the end of the classic romantic comedy, in which the boy and girl connect and get married, the assumption is that they will live happily ever after, but such living will take place outside the story’s frame.

C. E. Brock Illustration for 1895 
edition of Pride and Prejudice 
(public domain)
After Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy have been happily united and professed their mutual love, Elizabeth risks opening up the plot that brought them together and look at the clockwork inside. He was attracted to her, she tells him, because, unlike all other women, she did not faun all over him; her behavior had been “bordering on the uncivil.” She notes, “To be sure, you knew no actual good of me -- but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love." But that daring move by both Elizabeth and Jane Austen is a clue to why Pride and Prejudice works so well.

Such deconstruction is consistent with what Austen has done throughout the novel (for example, of all the marriages that Jane and Elizabeth can look to, only one is a happy one), and it is also consistent with Elizabeth’s character. And while Austen implies that their suitability means that Elizabeth and Darcy will live happily together, in the last chapter Austen also makes clear that all the other disagreeable characters in their lives will remain consistently disagreeable, though manageable. Austen steps outside the frame of reference of the happy couple to remind us of some of the open questions, but Austen frames the story’s resolution in terms of family and relationships; she excludes those real threats that could destroy the frame itself: disease, death in childbirth, murder, and, of course, zombies.

Life’s problems usually involve more than one frame of reference, perhaps even overlapping frames of reference that like a carpet of Venn diagrams stretch to the horizon. Even if we go to stories for escape, we must find the resolution convincing. The willing suspension of disbelief can hold off the disruptions of daily life for only so long before they flood our minds again. Perhaps questions are more convincing than answers because they stand up better when hit with a bucket of cold water. It should not surprise us that the interlocked complexity of questions creates a stronger tool for dealing with problems than an answer useful only so long as we don’t move. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Act of Art

Terra, our goldendoodle, and I went out for a walk in the snow this afternoon. We walked not just on the snow but in the snow because it was blowing and falling all around us. Plowed and shoveled snow edged the road in elongated piles that expanded and contracted in diameter. My face felt the moist ping of flakes scooped in by my long-cowled hood, and the curled fur on Terra’s back filtered snow from the wind. Despite the cold—19ºF that felt like 4ºF—since I had multilayers on and Terra was in her element, it would be a while before a deep cold seeped into the ends of my fingers and toes and the snowballs in Terra’s fur would begin to bother her.

We were walking in a built environment, and in a way when we dig out roads and sidewalks we reenact their construction, reasserting the taming of the environment. “Blow your hardest. Weigh us down with your snow. But see, with our machines we can blow it back, push it aside. Look on our works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The snow was light, however, and at that time a thin rime of snow covered even the plowed places. Despite my cold and the cold and the reluctance with which I began the walk, I warmed to being chilled, developed for a short time a mind of winter, and settled into walking.

Now it would have been more exciting if we were almost run down by a rogue snowplow or if the snow was up to our knees (as it had been last year), but as it was, the interest in the passage must depend on the effectiveness of the imagery, the value of its insight, and a touch of irony. If I were writing a fictional paragraph, I could have come upon a burning bush, or a hawk could have landed in our path, challenging us to a staring contest. Because what I write is creative nonfiction, my actual experience puts a limit on what I can say, in addition to the limits imposed by language itself.

In creative nonfiction the writer is expected to use the techniques of creative writing to draw the reader into the world of the writer’s experience. Too many dry facts, and the world is dead; too much creative enhancement and the world is a lie. This sort of writing appeals to me because (as you can tell from the first post in this blog) it reflects our situation in the world and requires balancing along an ambiguous border.

In writing creative nonfiction I am making visible that balancing act. However, too often the product is confused with the creative balancing act; the tombstone is mistaken for the life it commemorates. We use creativity to solve all sorts of problems, but when we make art, the theoretical purpose is to create, to be a creator; the object produced is merely evidence.

In slim book The Tree, John Fowles connects the dynamics of nature and art, showing how they share the act/object problem:

the danger, in both art and nature, is that all emphasis is placed on the created, not the creation. All artifacts, all bits of scientific knowledge, share one thing in common: that is, they come to us from the past . . . . Yet we cannot say that the ‘green’ or creating process does not happen or is not important just because it is largely private and beyond lucid description and rational analysis.

The exciting part about creating something is the experience of creating, what creating does to us, what we become when we create. Life’s excitement lies not in what we have done, but what we are doing. It feels good to create something that others can appreciate, but it is in the act of doing it that we create ourselves and make an art of living.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Scarlet Oak

There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,— not a grain more. The actual objects which one person will see from a particular hilltop are just as different from those which another will see as the persons are different. The scarlet oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, and then we can hardly see anything else.

H. D. Thoreau (Journal, November 4, 1858)

Text Box: 1Engraving, Autobiographical collections of Amos Bronson Alcott. Vol. V. 1840-1844. Concord. England. Concord. Harvard. 328f. (*modbm_am1130_11_4_p4, Houghton Library, Harvard University)From July 1845 to September 1847, Thoreau lived in a shed next to a pond a short walk from the center of a small New England town (Concord, MA; population in 1850: 2249). After building the shed, he took long walks and grew beans and read and wrote. His recounting and reflecting on the unexceptional activities produced a book that still moves and inspires people, despite the difficulty its nineteenth century style and vocabulary create for modern readers.

 The November 4, 1858, passage from his journal suggests a way to understand why he was able to do that. He is certainly a skilled and sophisticated writer, but he is also a skilled seer. The world he sees is animated by the ideas in his head, but equally important, as can be seen in the painstaking records he kept of detailed observations of the dynamic world around him, his ideas were shaped by what he had seen. We live only in the world we perceive. The power of Thoreau’s vision made his small town the site of epic human struggles against forces that would belittle and imprison us.
Groundhog by Clare

But there are limits to how much our thinking can transform what we can see. Just as we can assemble Lego blocks into all sorts of configurations, we can assemble the raw material of our direct and indirect experience into more than one alternative world. But also just as the nature of Lego blocks constrains how accurately we can enact our visions, the nature of our experiences does constrain how far our thoughts can mold those thoughts before we become delusional. At the other extreme, if our imaginations are boxed in, we will be able to think only inside the box.

 “Inside the box” thinking is also dangerous because its image reinforces the idea that our mind is inside us and the world is outside. The situation is more ambiguous than that. The world is not just “out there” and our minds “in here.” The real world—the rich, multidimensional world that we actually live in—is balanced between those two places. We can lose our balance and fall one way or the other, but the challenge means that walking through a new doorway can be an exciting adventure, or even through an old doorway as a new person.