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« Turbokitty on "The Dreamers" | Main | Rewind -- The Economics of Mozart »

February 22, 2004

Rewind -- Journalism and Fantasy

Note -- FvBlowhard and I are pleased with some of our very earliest blogwriting, and we're pained that nearly all of it went unread. It takes a serious while to find a reader or two in the blogosphere. So we've decided to unearth some of that early writing and give it a fresh chance; now and then we're going to indulge ourselves and re-run some of our earliest postings. Here's hoping a few readers get a kick out of them. Given that I'm simply copying and pasting into a new posting, comments will be left behind. Apologies for that -- I don't know how to work around the problem. But don't let that stop anyone from commenting this time around. We're as eager as ever to yak about this stuff.

Today -- MBlowhard responds to a question FvB asked about the role of fantasy and journalism in art and lit.

Friedrich --

Journalism vs. fantasy? I suppose that I view "the journalistic" as one element a given work of art or entertainment might be selling, nothing more or less. I don't live for it, per se, but I'm sometimes glad when it's present. I thought the fiction (is that what you mean by "fantasy"?) side of "Bonfire of the Vanities," for instance, was weak, though I enjoyed the book's journalistic side.

I recently watched a movie on DVD called "Perfume," and one of the things it too was selling was "journalism" -- in this case, the look and feel of the fashion-and-media industry. The movie (worth seeing for a variety of reasons) was dead-on, and very enjoyable, in that department. Starved as this spectator usually is for something, anything, I'm not about to turn down some decent journalism if and when it comes along. The "Yeah! That's what it's like!" response is perfectly enjoyable for me.

But that's just a mature and impersonal response. Yawnsville.

Personally, the fulcrum I'm more drawn to contemplating is realism vs. symbolism. (The strictly fantastic -- sci-fi, fantasy, etc -- doesn't attract me as much as it does you. I tend to be happiest when I can feel the imagination stirring beneath a cloak of something recognizable.) I seem to have a bigger-than-usual appetite for the symbolic -- Colette, for instance, or turn- of-the-century erotic painting. People can talk all they want about Klimt's superficiality, about how he's more a poster designer than a real artist, but they'll never persuade me to stop enjoying his paintings.

I suspect that my taste for the symbolic helps explain my attraction to crime fiction, too. Its basic structure (a crime is committed, an investigation follows) resonates for me. I walk around thinking thoughts about how wrong literature goes when it tries to model the (supposed) quantum uncertainty and existential formlessness of existence.

What's the point of doing that, or even attempting to do it? (People can do as they please, especially in the arts. I'm just chugging along my own tracks right now...) People are storytelling creatures. We impose explanations and stories (ie., cause and effect) wherever possible, and whether or not our cause-and-effect stories can hold up in some ultimate sense. (His acceptance of the human inevitability of cause-and-effect thinking, even as he debunks its validity, is the main reason I love Hume so much.) Why not run with, rather than fight, that tendency? Particularly given that art isn't science. Which is a rant I'm rarin' to go on any time now -- about how wrong I think artists go when they picture what they're doing as something akin to science or philosophy. (Oakeshott is terrific on the way people get themselves in trouble when they impose on one field the thinking that's appropriate to another.)

Ie., why not assert form in the face of it all? The effort can, at the least, give the artist a chance to bring a few aspects of experience into passing focus.

I'll argue -- not that anyone's eager for me to do this -- that the various crime-story structures (psychological suspense, whodunnit, procedural, etc.) are analogous to poetic forms, and that it's because of the field's devotion to form that crime novels so often have poetic qualities. (While whatever "poetry" is there to be gotten from most contempo lit writing is purely a matter of fancy or intense language.) Which qualities are accessible to a reader, I ought to point out, only once the reader has gotten past the Eng-lit-major conviction that literature is all about the Writin', as in smashing sentences and dazzling word choices. Crime fiction by and large is about story and character, and (generally speaking) its poetic components aren't words, they're narrative, character, and atmosphere. Maybe there's a little Writin' here and there -- sure, why not?

Realism, on the other hand, has never attracted me, even in crime fiction. P.D. James, for instance, bores me. She's great; she delivers the closest contempo equivalent to a full-bodied 19th century multi-volume novel of any living writer I'm aware of. But (and I know this is my failing) I was never a fan of the sprawling 19th century novel. The 18th (and its descendents -- Stendhal, Machado de Assis) is the century for me. When a character of P.D. James' enters a room, you get a complete description of that room. I suspect that I could let myself become fascinated by the perversity and obsessiveness of that kind of thing. Instead I think, Sheesh.

That said... Specifics, details, perceptions, concrete little things -- where would the arts be without them? Partly as a consequence of observing the literary world watch its navel (even while puffing out its chest) for many years, I'm sympathetic to Tom Wolfe's argument that fiction writers would do well to revive themselves by opening their eyes to the world around them. A little fresh air from time to time, please!

And, also speaking from experience, I've noticed that writers who have worked as journalists usually benefit from it. They turn out harder-headed, more professional, and more respectful of audiences' needs and desires, than those who do nothing but cultivate their self-expression. They grow up a bit -- ah, the virtues of writing to space, and of making deadlines, and of getting out of your own head. (And Lord knows I find the self-righteous, self-seriousness childishness of the lit world pretty hard to take.)

So my perhaps lame-o Larger Reflection is to muse on the way surface details and surface specifics can be used to trigger off deeper (and perhaps more abstract) currents of feeling and thought. That movement back and forth between the instantly recognizable and the personal/symbolic/mythological.... It makes me think: Ain't art great? And: Yeah, mama!

I spend too much time wondering: how does this sense of "the symbolic," which I seem to have such an appetite for, get created? Gassings-on about crime fiction aside, my current theory boils down to this: that "the symbolic" tends to spring, when it does spring at all, from the tension between observed detail and inspiration on the one hand, and classic form on the other. When the magic happens, something like "the ideal" shines through.

Swimming amongst and between those layers is what it's all about for me -- religious and erotic all at once, a crystallization of our fate and condition as humans...Yeah, mama!

But I'm over-caffeinated, and rhapsodizing.

By the way, what are your thoughts these days, former art student that you are, about abstract painting? The conviction of many abstact painters, and their intellectual supporters, seems to be that you can simply put the deepest levels of existence and experience right up on a surface. That you can do away with the middleman, so to speak -- the representational content -- and cut directly to the abstract goodies. (Ie., that you can will the totemic or symbolic , or some such important something, into being.) Which has always seemed like the naivest kind of Platonism to me, and akin to the way much modern and postmodern high-lit has gone wrong. It also seems, from a practical point of view, silly: an attempt to defy what seems to be the inborn tendency people have to read imagery and story into any and all visual presentations. (I take this tendency to be one aspect of the tendency people have to read story and cause-and-effect into factual material.) Your reflections?

But it may just be that my tastes run in a different direction. It may just be that I'm happiest when the art experience takes place in me, and the art work itself serves as a trigger (not a substitute) for my subjective experience.

Which leads to one of my larger quarrels with much current art-and-entertainment product: the way so much of it seems to be having all the reactions and responses for me. Nothing inside me is being triggered off, while the page or canvas or screen is hyper and convulsive. Much more about this later, I promise (or threaten, as the case may be)....

But I suspect that I'm missing your point, and that you're building up to a terrific rant. Journalism vs. fantasy -- go wild, dude!



posted by Michael at February 22, 2004


W. H. Auden was a mystery fan, and he wrote about it in "The Guilty Vicarage," collected in his The Dyer's Hand. I looked for it online, but can't find it. There are references in David Lehman's The Mysterious Romance of Murder, which almost gets it right, especially in the first part of his conlusion: "But I would go further and argue that the murder mystery with its sturdy conventions is itself a form. It has affinities with poetic form: one reason poets are attracted to noir movies is that they repeat themselves like the end words of a sestina or the lines in a pantoum. Finally, murder mysteries and thrillers are modern in exactly the sense that 'modern' means 'of the twentieth century': they are already a bit dated, glamorous and seedy at once, fit vehicles of nostalgia as well as of the more violent and passionate desire that culminates in murder in these pages. "

Posted by: Mike Snider on February 26, 2004 11:02 AM

yeah! i too would like to read a copy of auden's 'the guity vicarage'
and edmund wilson's 'who cares who killed roger ackroyd?'
but i cant find either of them online.
can anyone please tell me where i can find either essay online.

Posted by: krishna on May 28, 2004 12:21 PM

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