Many People, Few Ideas 5

Language and the Literary Text

The thing about text is that it is essentially language at a distance. That is, writing something down is a more focused and intentional act than simply speaking. Because all the informational and interpretive codes which surround speech (facial expression, gesture, intonation and the like) are absent, writing something down requires that we take greater care to ensure that our meaning is as clear as possible – the to-and-fro of conversation which allows us constantly to refine what we say in the light of others’ responses or lack of response is unavailable to text. So text has to internalise these clues – these informational and interpretive codes – and present them through such things as sentence structures, paragraphing, use of italicised or bold font, capitalisation, a range of punctuation marks and so on. This in turn means that written language has to be more precise than its spoken counterpart because it stands alone: once written down and sent or published, it cannot be modified. It is, in that sense, static where spoken language is dynamic; and this helps us to recognise more clearly aspects of language which might not be so accessible if we had only the spoken form to work with.

For example, Walter Benjamin’s argument about the distinction between what is communicated through language and what is communicated within language, that language communicates at levels beyond simple word meanings however accurate they may be, and that because every language is embedded within and demonstrates different cultural significance the difference between cultures corresponds to the way they use language might be difficult to illustrate through spoken language alone. However, a written text might provide an instant and memorable example of that argument, such as this extract from a brochure about a motoring event on the French Riviera which has obviously been translated from French into English by someone whose use of English, while formally correct, is far from embedded in English culture and therefore not idiomatic, producing technically correct information and accurate use of vocabulary – but nonetheless saying to native English speakers something far beyond what is obviously meant:

“Competitors will defile themselves on the promenade at 11 a.m., and each car will have two drivers who will relieve themselves at each other’s convenience.”

Now, if I am correct in my assertion that ‘language is a means of expressing between individuals subjective mental representations of the otherness of the world arising from the stimuli which that external world produces – and finding common ground’ then one of the more developed forms of that function has to be works of fiction, where authors’ presentation of ideas about the potentiality of the world is embedded in their representations of the common ground of what they and their readers agree is, from everyday experience, its reality.

In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera expresses this as follows:

“Staring impotently across the courtyard, at a loss for what to do; hearing the pertinacious rumbling of one’s own stomach during a moment of love; betraying, yet lacking the will to abandon the glamorous path of betrayal; raising one’s fist with the crowds in the Grand March; displaying one’s wit before hidden microphones – I have known all these situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my unrealized possibilities …. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own ‘I’ ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.”

Commenting on this passage Wolfgang Iser observes:

“In the novel, then, the real and the possible coexist, for it is only the author’s selection from and textual representation of the real world that can create a matrix for the possible to emerge, whose ephemeral character would remain shapeless if it were not the transformation of something already existing. But it would also remain meaningless if it did not serve to bring out the hidden areas of given realities. Having both the real and the possible and yet, at the same time, maintaining the difference between them – this is a process denied us in real life; it can only be staged in the form of the ‘as if’. Otherwise, whoever is caught up in reality, cannot experience possibility, and vice versa.”

Now this is serious stuff – we are obviously talking about serious literary works, novels as opposed to what Graham Greene called entertainments. But we should perhaps remember that Greene also said that the difference between a novel and an entertainment was about twenty thousand words. All effective stories share the quality of persuading the audience to believe in the worlds they represent even though we know they don’t exist.

As Henry James put it in The Theory of Fiction:

“The success of a work of art … may be measured by the degree to which it produces a certain illusion; that illusion makes it appear to us for the time that we have lived another life – that we have had a miraculous enlargement of our experience.”

Of course, it is impossible to know the exact mix of conscious and unconscious factors at play when writing anything, even a recipe, so it is even more complex a process when it comes to writing fiction. That said, Iser is surely right that the literary text evidences a particular attitude through which the author directs himself or herself to the world, and that every literary text inevitably contains a selection from a variety of social, historical, cultural and literary systems that exist as referential fields outside the text – these are part of the root of the impulse to start writing at all as well as key factors in helping establish the psychological reality of the imagined world. But we should also be aware that just as the author selects from this variety of social, historical, cultural and literary systems that exist as referential fields outside the text so the author is himself or herself embedded within and more or less constructed by those systems and their discourses – and that this too is represented in their texts.

This can be illustrated using something that would be generally regarded as one of Greene’s entertainments – a short extract from Dorothy L Sayers’ first detective fiction to feature Lord Peter Wimsey:

Lord Peter finished a Scarlatti sonata, and sat looking thoughtfully at his own hands. The fingers were long and muscular, with wide, flat joints and square tips. When he was playing his rather hard grey eyes softened, and his long, indeterminate mouth hardened in compensation. At no other time had he any pretentions to good looks, and at all times he was spoilt by a long, narrow chin, and a long, receding forehead, accentuated by the brushed-back sleekness of his tow-coloured hair. Labour papers, softening down the chin, caricatured him as a typical aristocrat.
‘That’s a wonderful instrument,’ said Parker.
‘It ain’t so bad,’ said Lord Peter, ‘but Scarlatti wants a harpsichord. Piano’s too modern – all thrills and overtones. No good for our job, Parker. Have you come to any conclusion?’

It is clear that the Lord Peter presented here is a product both in appearance and behaviour of Dorothy L Sayers’ observation and knowledge of an individual or individuals she has encountered in her own life, and that this invests the fictional character with greater power than if she had just invented him out of her imagination. It also helps explain why over the course of the novels the author increasingly idealises him, especially in his relationship with Harriet Vane, which is not only the story of his courtship of her but also, one feels, the story of Dorothy L Sayers’ courtship of him – for the author, like all of us, has been nurtured on stories of romantic love and this feeds through into her fiction.

We can explore this question in a slightly more serious way, even though the one hundred and thirty odd words that form the opening paragraphs to the third chapter of Sayers’ first book (in what was to become one of the great English detective series) were written as part of the general narrative flow moving the story forward rather than as significant authorial arguments waiting to be deconstructed. Like all of us, she was subliminally immersed in the zeitgeist of her age – particularly in the new ideas and critical theories about the craft of writing and the uses of language that emerged after the First World War. She herself chose a more mainstream and populist path in the Wimsey books than such writers as D H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf or E M Forster in the English tradition or Hemingway, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald and Dos Passos in the American.

That said, even in such a short extract as this Dorothy L Sayers demonstrates the validity of Iser’s insight as well as her own gifts as a writer, and illustrates what Benjamin called the magical nature of language in its ability to carry several layers of meaning at once.

So what does the extract tell us? Well, even the casual reader might well infer that Lord Peter is a pretty serious and accomplished musician – Scarlatti is not exactly everyday fare around the family piano, and the man has played a whole sonata. He’s obviously something of an intellectual – none of your popular music hall stuff here – and maybe a bit of a recluse, what with all this self-conscious gazing at his hands and the like. He’s clearly one of those effete products of inbreeding, all chin and forehead; and that carries into the way he speaks, the upper-class idiolect of incomplete sentences and definite statements that brook no argument. All in all, a competent piece of characterisation that helps to build up a picture of an educated, mannered and privileged individual.

A reader more interested in the how and why of that competence might well consider the skilful use of subtle variations in voice. If we were reading the piece aloud to an audience, of course, we would develop a range of pitches, speeds of delivery, accents and intonations to indicate who was speaking at any given moment – essentially, the author or narrator and the different characters. The situation with written text seems much the same, in that punctuation indicates when the characters speak – but third person story-telling requires that the narrative voice is also the creative voice. Setting a scene might seem to involve only the narrator-as-observer – but what is being observed is simultaneously being created, which is effortful; and successful texts generally appear effortless. Keeping those two functions in balance is a major factor in making the material attractive and readable, as in the opening sentences:

“Lord Peter finished a Scarlatti sonata, and sat looking thoughtfully at his own hands. The fingers were long and muscular, with wide, flat joints and square tips.”

Story-telling demands a smooth narrative flow, locking the reader into a different world which is nonetheless recognisable; but the author also needs to make as much use of space as possible – simple description would be dead ground if it didn’t develop either the plot or character. So here we see the apparently straightforward narrator-as-observer meld gently with the character’s viewpoint: the information about the fingers could come equally from either – although the significance for each would be different, of course, in that the author is trying to help the reader develop a clearer picture of someone who actually exists only in her head whereas for Lord Peter the fingers relate directly to the quality of the performance he has just given and which the reader has not heard – because, of course, that performance also exists only in the author’s head. And though the flow of observation seems a natural progression from (to use the language of cinema) a mid-shot of Lord Peter at the keyboard through a head-and-shoulders shot of him looking down at his hands to the close-up of his fingers, it is not natural but part of the author’s carefully constructed vision. A story, like any other work, is a made thing, an artefact – just like the Scarlatti sonata “finished” by Lord Peter’s craftsman’s fingers.

The reader with a passing acquaintance with critical theories about the positioning of reader and text might well seize on the verb choice of “finished” and claim significance because it suggests that Sayers (and Lord Peter himself) recognise that the sonata needs to be performed in order to fulfil its purpose – the performance actualises Scarlatti’s vision and in a very important sense completes it. Lord Peter really does “finish” the sonata, but as an equal partner in the ongoing conversation between composer, text and performer. Or put another way, the text remains in a limbo of potentiality and incompleteness until the performer (the active reader) engages with it. This is the realm of Umberto Eco’s three ‘Intentions’, of course: the intentio auctoris, the intentio lectoris and, acting as a bridge between them, the intentio operis – for though the work itself, as text, may seem static in its written state its meaning-potential (which is almost the same as Benjamin’s “latent potency”) is merely dormant: over time the text, by being forever redefined and created anew in every performance or reading, slowly accumulates its own presence and identity in direct proportion to the passing years widening the distance between composer and performer until there is no longer any immediate instinctive connection between them – only the text as it has survived over time and across technological innovation.

When Lord Peter “sat looking thoughtfully at his own hands” this reader might also feel reminded of the fact that performance is a product of directed attention expressed through action – the text is actualised through an intentional functionality, in this case mind and fingers working together as one in what we might term muscular memory, in other cases (such as reading or speaking or writing) through the exercise of concentration and sensitivity to and appreciation of language.

Now as we have noted, one measure of an author’s achievement is the ability to persuade us that what we are reading is somehow simple natural progression – so Sayers moves from the focus on the hands to the apparently logical more general comment that

“When he was playing his rather hard grey eyes softened, and his long, indeterminate mouth hardened in compensation.”

thus introducing a subtly different note in the quiet inclusion of the modifiers “rather hard” and “long, indeterminate”, neither set being necessary for the information to make sense – the subtly different note being the shift into evaluative comment so that, almost unnoticed, the simple author-as-observer becomes the not quite so simple author-as-observer-guiding-judgement. Again, verb choice is significant as Sayers plays with the notions of softness and hardness, anticipating the description to follow and pointing up the specific way most people misread Lord Peter. For the reader on the scent of literary theory the significance is not so much in the qualities of softness and hardness but in the fact that performance effects change – as expressed by the alteration in Lord Peter’s appearance described in terms of a shifting balance of energies between perception (the eyes) and expression (the mouth) created by the intensity of the interaction with the text and, through the text, with the composer. Performance (of whatever kind) is transformational for all concerned.

The passage of description ends as follows, before the conversation between the characters begins:

“At no other time had he any pretentions to good looks, and at all times he was spoilt by a long, narrow chin, and a long, receding forehead, accentuated by the brushed-back sleekness of his tow-coloured hair. Labour papers, softening down the chin, caricatured him as a typical aristocrat.”

Sayers’ manipulation of language (the rhetorical construction of “At no other time … and at all times” – shades of Churchill – and the continued rhythm of repeated sets of double modifiers from the “rather hard” and “long, indeterminate” of the previous sentence through the rapid succession of “long, narrow”, “long, receding”, “brushed-back sleekness” and “tow-coloured” here) and her playing with the narrative voice both lead towards the conclusion – literally, in that it ends the passage – that Lord Peter is “a typical aristocrat” whilst simultaneously revealing the superficiality of such judgements when all the Labour press need do to caricature him is slightly to change the shape of his chin. Without having to explain why, Sayers establishes that Lord Peter, despite appearances to the contrary, is most definitely not “typical”, guiding us towards this awareness by what she chooses to describe and how she chooses to describe it – the apparently seamless and logical flow into her extended description disguises the fact that this extended description focuses only on appearance whereas she began by describing behaviour – he plays the piano well enough to tackle Scarlatti, and he gazes “thoughtfully” at his hands (and, one presumes, at everything else). This is to say, then, that our choices modify and possibly mislead our interpretation, as with the preconceptions of the Labour newspapers, and that accurate and successful understanding or performance emerges out of careful precise attention – by all parties.

The conversation between the characters is the culmination of Sayers’ fusion of narrator and creator in that even in this brief exchange she not only establishes quite different voices for the two men:

“‘That’s a wonderful instrument,’ said Parker.
‘It ain’t so bad,’ said Lord Peter, ‘but Scarlatti wants a harpsichord. Piano’s too modern – all thrills and overtones. No good for our job, Parker. Have you come to any conclusion?’”

but also demonstrates the ability of language to carry several layers of meaning at the same time. On the narrative level Lord Peter’s comments continue her delineation of his character, revealing him to be confidently decisive and knowledgeable, capable of serious humour in the easy linking of the “thrills and overtones” of the modern piano to the task of detection, and brisk and business-like in his final question. On the plot level Parker’s decision to praise the instrument rather than the composer or the performer is a device to set up Lord Peter’s reply with its mix of the literal and metaphorical. And in terms of our deconstruction of how the extract acts as a primer on modern reading and language theory, the focus on the “instrument” relates to the complexities of interpretation and how it is constructed out of the mix of accommodating Eco’s three intentions – the original vision of the composer, the resources the performer or reader brings to bear (such as technical skill and understanding, cultural awareness, educated sensibility, historical appreciation, instinctive discrimination, and so on), and the changes that time has wrought upon the text and our ability to understand it because of the shifts in how human beings experience the world and think about it. On this level, the comment about the inappropriateness of the modern piano’s “thrills and overtones” is not just a throwaway clever remark but an awareness that Lord Peter (however wonderful his instrument) inhabits a different world and different sound world (or sensory experience) from Scarlatti; it is not just that the piano is too modern an instrument, it is the fact that it did not exist as an instrument when Scarlatti wrote his sonata; and further, that Scarlatti’s vision (Eco’s intentio auctoris) was constructed by and within the limits of the technology – the instruments – he knew and worked with. “Scarlatti wants a harpsichord” is a recognition of the inevitable imperfections of interpreting (Eco’s intentio lectoris) a text distanced by several hundred years of technological development. In short, we are back with Nicholas Humphrey’s reminder that the phenomenology of sensory experiences comes first.

So where does all this leave us? I want to finish by suggesting that in a very fundamental way we are all characters in the work in progress which is our life, constructed out of the experiences which existence arranges for us, fascinatingly and infinitely different one from another yet profoundly similar and awesomely finite in that we all fight to keep our balance as best we can on the slippery tightrope that leads from birth to death. And in our own ways and with our limited resources, however imperfectly and imprecisely, we tell our story from day to day, talking ourselves into being at each and every moment through the phenomenon of language, proving over and over again how right Henry James was about the miraculous enlargement of our experience.

And why did I choose to plunder Milan Kundera’s Immortality for my working title? Simply because – apart from the fact it’s an interesting ambition – he actually says:

“Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another.”

which is, perhaps, as good a definition of language (whatever it is) in action as I can offer.

© 2019 Mike Liddell