Seeing Words: Does Verisimilitude Matter?

Peter Mendelsund, a pretty sick polymath who also happens to be the associate art director at Knopf, has a lengthy, thought-provoking post on how our visual imagination works when we read, whether we can visualize characters or things in a work of fiction with reliable specificity, but more crucially: whether it really matters at all that we do so.

I’m at work right now, quote-unquote slogging through regulatory material which needs to be reviewed, so can’t summarize Peter’s post in finer detail. But in quick essence (Peter, don’t hate me for rushing through this!), Peter goes through a series of examples from Anna Karenina, The Sound and the Fury, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse, etc., and notes various instances in which he cannot picture at all what a character or a place looks like.

Via contemplations on Wittgenstein and Barthes, among other things, Peter determines the following -

Good books incite us towards imagining - towards filling in an author’s suggestions.

But there is an important distinction: that this imagination on the part of the reader is not at all a striving to recreate an author’s ideals or original intentions, but instead a striving toward an opposite aim, if you will - not toward a recreation but toward a reduction -

Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read. The brain itself is built to reduce. Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal…

Picturing stories is making reductions.

My quick thoughts before hopping back to my spreadsheet: it’s interesting that Peter applies a passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Grammar to his thoughts -

We do sometimes see memory pictures in our minds: but commonly they are only scattered through the memory like illustrations in a story book.

I also thought about Wittgenstein while reading Peter’s post, especially about the foreword from Philosophical Investigations, which in essence says that one can only make sense of the “scattered memory pictures” mentioned in the quote above, not through looking for a determined identity or essence, but through -

a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing… as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre.

It’s an intentional point of fact that Wittgenstein describes his Philosophical Investigations in pictorial terms when he calls it “an album” which should not cohere into “any single direction.”

Funny how Peter thinks about Wittgenstein while providing a litany of literary examples in which he cannot pictorially imagine what the character looks like: this is how Sebald’s narrator in Austerlitz describes what Austerlitz looks like -

Whenever I see a photograph of Wittgenstein somewhere or other, I feel more and more as if Austerlitz were gazing at me out of it, and when I look at Austerlitz it is as if I see in him the disconsolate philosopher…

Notice that Sebald’s description of Austerlitz is not really a description of a verisimilitude? But of Schwindelgefühle. (Okay, my conviction in that last statement aside, that was a pun obviously for the Sebald nerds: the German title for Sebald’s Vertigo is indeed Schwindel. Gefühle.)

I have to run now, but a few of you may recall my post about the photographer William Gedney I wrote a couple of years ago, about Gedney trying to paint - totally from his memory - a posterior view of a woman in a Vuillard painting he saw at an exhibition. Obviously, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence in likeness between Vuillard’s woman and Gedney’s representation of her. But it’s funny how I discover Peter’s conclusion in his post - that verisimilitude in representation/imagination doesn’t matter - in my Gedney post, as well -

it wouldn’t make much of a difference to know which exact Vuillard he saw: we know that Gedney’s girl, painted from memory, can only be an approximation, at best, of the girl in the actual Vuillard painting he saw. However, if we did have the opportunity to compare Gedney’s girl next to Vuillard’s girl, we would no doubt recognize that Gedney’s girl is indeed the girl from the Vuillard, not as much from the verisimilitude of physical details, but from the same infinite care and compassion with which both men looked at the small, lovely busy-ness of the woman turned away: their sights on the same point on the same axis, as if they share a common nexus of memory.

Uncanny, right? But again, Wittgenstein says it better and more succinctly than either of us in Philosophical Investigations -

What makes my image of him into an image of him?

Not its looking like him.

(The first image is stolen from Peter’s post, the second is by Mikka Rantanen, the third is by Nicolas de Crecy, the fourth is taken from Austerlitz, and the last is from William Gedney’s sketchbook)

26 June 2012 ·

The MFA Octopus by Mark McGurl

Last year, Elif Batuman wrote a pungent and entertaining smackdown of MFA programs and the “programme fiction” it engenders in a piece called "Get a Real Degree" for LRB. She had the opportunity to do so, namely because the book she was reviewing was Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era. Batuman had plenty of things to critique about McGurl’s book, as well - most were genuinely placed, some were indeed snark-infested, as McGurl claims in his piece reblogged below (although the snarkiness only adds to the reason why Batuman’s article was fun to read, gotta admit).

I haven’t read McGurl’s book, so can’t much say about the disagreements between Batuman and McGurl regarding the substantive content of McGurl’s book; but both make claims for and against the MFA programme fiction, and about each other’s arguments. No doubt these are fun to read every once in a while. But.

Why do these arguments always take on this Biggie-vs.-Tupac posture? I’m thinking about the Franzen-Marcus thing which played out in the pages of Harper’s Magazine a few years ago, too. Entertaining, but pettily unreal (which became all the more unreal when Cynthia Ozick swooped in the argument at the end, as though she were Gandalf on a white horse of Literature). McGurl’s LARB piece, too, becomes a kind of a possessed rebuttal of Batuman’s LRB piece, and it really obscures some cogent arguments he makes.

What I would have personally liked to see McGurl address is Batuman’s central charge against the programme fiction (which I see as valid) -

[I] was disappointed to find in The Programme Era traces of the quality I find most exasperating about programme writing itself: oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition…

… this sense of writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum, is what turned me off the programme to begin with…

I haven’t read McGurl’s book, so I’ll just ignore the criticism that Batuman makes against The Programme Era (although it seems peculiar to me why Batuman should demand that McGurl should invoke pre-Henry James writers in his book? I’m sure McGurl, as a literary scholar, probably knows who Cervantes is and may have heard of Don Quixote. But if he didn’t feel compelled to include such a tradition of literature in this book, why not accept the author’s scope of engagement, as is, before trying to shoehorn one’s own affinities onto someone else’s view, his book? Seems belligerent and a little ad hominem-y).

Still, Batuman’s main charge against the programme fiction remains valid, because I have noticed this disturbing tendency in some MFA programs, too - not only in the students, but in some of its teachers. And it’s the very reason why I distrust MFA as a system, too, and can’t help but view it as some kind of a craft factory/networking center. Perhaps McGurl can follow?

A particularly punchy rebuttal by McGurl to Batuman’s claims, excerpted below -


Mark McGurl

Frank Conroy  © Bruce Davidson
From the richly flowing realism of Franzen or Russo or Eugenides on the one hand, to the compact strangeness of Saunders or Lydia Davis on the other, and everything in between, the forms of literary lameness are apparently very many. More likely, though, is that blanket naysayers like Batuman don’t really know what they’re talking about. They have built their assessment of contemporary fiction not from any systematic survey of the field, but from the inchoate emotions they feel upon entering a bookshop. It’s so much easier to dismiss all of the literature of our time with one dramatic wave of the arm than to accept your fate as yet another minor writer, a small part of an interesting new configuration in literary history.

But more broadly, I think what is going on in these indictments of the mediocrity of contemporary fiction is a kind of unacknowledged mourning. What is mourned is not good new novels, of which there are still plenty—of which there may be more than ever—but the passing of a culture in which the novel was more central than it is now, when it has to compete for our attention with so many other forms of storytelling, with movies and television, and now also with that great engulfing time-suck, the internet. It may be that these new media, in sync with the advance of technology on all fronts, are better equipped (literally) to bear witness to the essential qualities of our point in history. The mistake—but mourning is so often irrational—is in blaming novelists for this state of affairs, as though there was something they could or should have done to stop The Wire from being so unbelievably good.

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(Source: lareviewofbooks)

11 May 2011 ·

Sebald on “Fiction”

In a TV interview (which is transcribed in this book), the Dutch writer Michael Zeeman asks Max Sebald on what exactly is true or fictional in his work. Here’s Sebald -

Most of them are true but there are several which I made up so the reader must be constantly asking, “Is this so or isn’t it so?” Of course, this is one of the central problems in fiction. Nineteenth-century authors are always at pains to point out that they found this manuscript in a bedroom in Husum and that therefore it is true. They’re not telling a story they’ve made up; they’re recording real life. Of course, in a sense, we still have that problem as narrators. Many writers fudge it or obscure it and it is still a crucial problem to deal with, this legitimisation.

Sebald then mentions that this is one of the reasons why he uses photographs in his work. Interesting that he was so concerned with “legitimisation,” as one of the reasons why his work seems so elliptically beguiling to me is that I can’t reliably decipher the demarcation between truth and fiction even when the evidence is there. The trails of his documentations and “legitimisation” never quite lead where you expect them to.

(Image of a Chinese amateur trying to out-Richter the Gerhard Richter, by Michael Wolf. See the Chinese doppelgangers of Goya, Chuck Close, Richard Prince, et al., here)

7 January 2011 ·

Robert Walser & Maira Kalman… and Ekphrasis

On top of my to-do list this fall is the Robert Walser/Maira Kalman Exhibition at the Christine Burgin Gallery. Accompanying Walser’s actual microscript “texts” (which were recently translated by Susan Bernofsky - excellent, as always - as Microscripts and published by New Directions) will be Maira Kalman’s paintings depicting Walser’s life. I can’t imagine anyone other than Maira Kalman for such an exhibition; not only is she a well-documented admirer of Walser, her paintings and drawings often seem inseparable complements to the words they accompany (more on Kalman in a future post).

Walser had many admirers, from Kafka to Walter Benjamin in the past, to Coetzee and Sebald in these times (for a good intro to Walser: Coetzee’s NYRB piece). Microscripts consists of prose pieces which were written in a medieval German script called Kurrent. It seems that when Walser reached a creative impasse after his brief initial success as a writer, he resorted to writing in this microscript - a system of tiny flicks and dashes - in pencil. Apparently, on twenty-four sheets of paper no bigger than common napkins, Walser could compose an entire novel. Below is a collage-image of some of the pages from Walser’s microscripts:

I, like some other people, thought Walser had written in a secret code and that no one could decipher what he’d written in microscript. Obviously, that was just a myth; they just needed patient transcribers and translators, and Susan Bernofsky’s translation is remarkably agile and witty, catching Walser’s formalistic turns of phrase sliding into slang-y felicities.

What Microscripts confirms for me: it is a mistake to single-mindedly dwell on the “madness” of Walser’s art because in doing so, it becomes almost too easy to overlook the methodical and rigorous aspect of his craft. A strong theme runs through seemingly disparate pieces in Microscripts, which is Walser’s obsession with the mechanical aspects of the world - objects, physics, technologies - and in turn, with the mechanical process of the words making or unmaking the world. Consider this seemingly hasty ending to the prose piece, “Usually I put on a prose piece jacket” -

And then this little mat. This reality. This treasure trove of in-fact-having-occurred-nesses. This car drove off, and he and she were sitting in the back. How do you like my “trove” and “drove”? Make a note of these words! They’re not my invention. How could such delicate expressions have originated with me? I just snapped them up and am now putting them to use. Don’t you think my “trove” is ben trovato? Please do be so good as to think so. Accept my heartfelt greetings and do not forget the pride of that silly little dog. He was adorable.

Forget about the incidental details for a moment, i.e. pride of the dog, etc. What’s remarkable to me about the passage is Walser’s deliberate manipulation of the reader’s gaze and mind - from the concrete object (“little mat”) to the semantic artifice (“drove” and “trove” etc.), then back to the self-contained world of the fiction.

As a matter of fact, the prose piece begins in the same way; in the opening sentence, Walser says he’s putting on a prose piece jacket to write something (what an odd phrase) - pointing us to the banal, mechanical process of creating something with words - then before the sentence ends, he has our minds somehow trained on the image of “beer coasters as round as plates.” Just like that: we have slipped into his fiction, shedding our disbelief even before the sentence ends. Via beer coasters for godssakes. 

It’s as quick a process of ekphrasis I’ve seen in fiction - worlds and images are created with quiet but rapidly hypnotic strokes. And just as quickly, Walser dismantles those pictures and worlds and exposes the barren structures of words and language. Back and forth, the pendulum swings, throughout Microscripts: words become pictures, then unbuilt to mere words again.

Have I seen other writers do that? Perhaps so, but none that I’ve read had achieved such an effect with such a disarming elegance. Ekphrasis in Walser’s prose is as quick and stealthy as an evening shadow invading a wall lit by the day’s last light… I’ve never read anything like it. 

By the way, below is a photograph of Walser upon which Maira Kalman based her painting above. Walser had wandered from the sanatorium in Waldau; they found him dead in a field of snow on Christmas Day, 1956 -

4 August 2010 ·

About Me

books. baseball. LPs. 45s. 78s. City. alcohol. ghosts.