This is the beginning of things, the Ur-essay, the thought-lode out of which most everything else I have written about literature has evolved. It was written in the late 1980s and so, to an ever so slight extent, is a period piece. It forms the centre piece of my book of essays and memoir Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (Oberon Press, 1999). The ideas here expressed evolved out of my philosophical background, long reading, and the lessons I learned during my time at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I mention specifically the novelist Robert Day (who now contributes mightily to NC), but I would be remiss if I didn’t also recall the influence of the late Claude Richard, who was a visiting professor from the University of Montpellier at the time.
I reprint the essay here because the book and the essay were both published long ago; such is the nature of readership that older things fall out of the line of vision. But in fact this essay (and Notes Home from a Prodigal Son), along with The Enamoured Knight and Attack of the Copula Spiders and my long essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought” form a consistent, coherent and elaborated system of thought about writing, criticism and philosophy.
…there is an other [irony] besides the irony of the learned man; there is the poem, in the sense that it is rhythm, death and future.
— Julia Kristeva
The best writing teacher I ever had was a Kansas cowboy named Robert Day who showed up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a last minute, one-semester replacement for a sick colleague in January, 1981. The first day of classes he strode into the room wearing Fry boots, jeans and a checked shirt. Without saying a word, he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote across the full length of the blackboard in huge looping letters: REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM.
At the time, Day had only published one novel, a book called The Last Cattle Drive. He was a tenured English professor at Washington College in Maryland. He was a past president of the Associated Writing Programs. As a young man, he had worked at G. P. Putnam’s in New York and could recall for us the excitement over the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Summers he went back to western Kansas where friends ran a borderline ranch. He kept a horse there, a horse which at various times had eaten loaves of bread through the kitchen window, or Day’s hat. All summer long he would hand out with his friends, their cattle and his horse.
That semester we read Queneau, Musil, Rulfo, Achebe, Nabokov, Tutuola, Abe and Marquez. Day did not tell us what he meant — REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. Maybe he forgot. Half-way through the semester he read the second draft of my novel Precious, three hundred typed pages of plot, dialogue and scene that stubbornly refused to come alive. I still have the notes I made during our conference, fifty-four words. It took less than fifteen minutes. But like a skilled surgeon he had opened the novel up for me and shown me its heart still beating, its bones, nerves and veins.
He taught me four basic devices. The first was what he called the language overlay. My first person narrator was a newspaperman, he had printer’s ink in his blood. Day said I ought to go through the novel, splicing in words and images, a discourse, in other words, that reflected my hero’s passion for the newspaper world. So, for example, Precious now begins: “Jerry Menenga’s bar hid like an overlooked misprint amid a block of jutting bank towers…” Or, in moments of excitement, the narrator will spout a series of headlines in lieu of thoughts.
Second, Day taught me about sub-plots. The main plot of a novel, he said, is like a pioneer wagon train moving across the prairie. The sub-plot is like the Indians coming in out of the hills to attack from time to time. The pattern of the sub-plot must reflect or parallel the pattern of the main plot, Day said, just as the gene inside a cell contains the pattern for the whole body.
Third, he showed me how to use background and revery. My protagonist must have been somewhere before the novel began, he must have a story to tell that will give texture and depth to his thoughts and, by extension, to the narrative. In Day’s words, he wanted me to “give the novel a memory.” Once again, the background must reflect or parallel or bear the seeds of the main action. A revery that does not bear a relation, in pattern, to the main plot is wasted. It diffuses the reader’s attention. It makes the book foggy and boring.
What this means in practice is that far from being “loose and baggy monsters,” to use Henry James’s phrase, in which the author has room to digress, expand or linger, a good novel is a tight, formal production with very few wasted words.
Finally, Day told me how James used the confidante device to modulate the weight of a given speech. In Precious, I had two secondary characters who were both close to the hero. What if I created a pattern of giving and withholding information? What if I made one of the secondary characters the hero’s confidante, the person to whom he told his secrets? He could then maintain an ironic distance from the other, giving opportunities for lightness and humor. The reader would sit up and pay attention when the confidante was on the scene.
Day then lied and told me I could splice all these changes into the novel in three weeks. Actually, it took me five months, and I rewrote the thing from beginning to end. I remember those months as being the best time of my life; the woman I lived with then says otherwise. She says she never remembers me being more miserable. What that means, really, was that the work was hard but also amazingly exhilarating.
What I had learned was far more than a collection of four devices. I had learned a secret about writing stories, novels and poems. Also painting pictures and composing symphonies. I had learned that a novel is not a string of seventy-five thousand words, all different, all pressing the plot forward. If you think about it, the stories of most novels can be told in a page or two of summary. Then imagine me trying to stretch that summary over another two hundred and ninety-eight pages.
Or, to use an image I had carried in my head through two earlier failed novels, think of a novel as a bridge thrown across a bottomless gorge with nothing to support it from one end to the other. In my mind I had to get a running start and write fast for fear of not making it across. I wrote my first novel in six weeks in a state of terror. As a bridge it was a shambles.
What I had learned was that besides story, plot and characters, the novel needs patterns. That in fact the story, plot and characters don’t begin to come alive until they are submitted to a pattern. I had made a common mistake. Before Robert Day, I had assumed that a novel’s “aliveness” depended upon its verisimilitude, i.e. how closely it resembled what we call real life, whereas in fact it depends upon patterns. I think this is what Day meant when he wrote REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. He meant for us to notice that, like a poem, the novel should be seen as an arrangement of materials of which one, but only one, is the story. This patterning is the poetic quality of prose.
In a poem it is much easier to see the patterns. We’ve all had to map out sequences of stressed and unstressed syllables, the ABBAs of rhyme, the internal rhymes of alliteration, the surprising anti-patterns of sprung rhythm and free verse. We’ve all dissected extended conceits, noted the effects of diction and imagery. These are the things we focus on in a poem. Narrative, story and verisimilitude are secondary to the poetry of poetry, by which I mean the effect of patterns.
With novels and stories, the reverse is true. We tend to read a novel first for plot and character and the narrative’s relation to reality, what post-Saussurean critics call its “aboutness,” and only secondarily, if at all, for pattern. This is a little like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit argument. You know how you can draw a little circular figure with an elongation here and a dot there. If you squint your eyes one way, you can see it’s a rabbit with long ears. But if you squint another way, it becomes a duck with a protruding beak. With poems and novels, you can read for pattern or you can read for aboutness, depending on how you squint your eyes.
It happens to be the case, though, that we rarely read novels for patterns. One reason for this is that the novel’s very aboutness gets in the way. It is the easiest and most natural thing in the world to read a novel for plot and character. In fact, in most cases you have to read for plot and character in order to situate yourself, as an observer, in the world of the novel. The shift of focus, the new squint, if you will, from plot to pattern only happens on rereading. A good reader, as Nabokov wrote in his essay “How to Read, How to Write,” is a rereader.
When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and the artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have one in regard to the eye in a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy the details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave toward the book as we do toward a painting.
When Nabokov makes a distinction between “what the book is about” and our “artistic appreciation” of the book, he is separating our reading of the subject, story and characters — the book’s aboutness — from our appreciation of the book’s so-called artistic qualities, the details we would notice if we looked at a novel the way we look at a painting.
Nabokov assumes that we all look at paintings for more than the resemblance they bear to old dead people in funny clothes, for more than romantic seascapes and sunsets. He assumes that we see, for example, Whistler’s mother as something other than an elderly lady in a plain black dress and that we know, perhaps, that the painting of Whistler’s mother was originally titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and that when Whistler talked about painting he would say, as he did in a letter to his friend Fantin-Latour:
…it seems to me that color ought to be, as it were, embroidered on the canvas, that is to say, the same color ought to appear in the picture continually here and there, in the same way that a thread appears in an embroidery, and so should all the others, more or less according to their importance; in this way the whole will form a harmony.
Whistler is talking about patterns, patterns of color that exist over and above and through the subject of the picture, its aboutness. And when Nabokov talks about “artistic appreciation,” he is talking about appreciating the patterns of the novel in the same way, the repetition of certain verbal events or structures in a novel like the colors in a painting. This is precisely the way we appreciate poetry, where it is, as I have said, much easier to see that sounds and words are like oil paints or, for that matter, like notes in a piece of music.
Other ages and times have provided writers with pattern books, with instructions on rhetoric and composition. They put names to commonly used devices: paronomesia, periphrasis, prosopopoeia. Even in the 1920s at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, my aunt was taught to write, to compose sentences, by translating back and forth from Latin to English. But no one teaches composition any more except in remedial programs to students who patently can’t write at all.
Instead we teach creative writing with the emphasis on “creative” (which, I guess, implies that there is “uncreative” writing as well, though I have never seen it). At Iowa, outside of Robert Day, teachers tended to urge us to “write what you know.” If we managed to do that, they said, whatever we wrote would come out all right. Ernest Hemingway, that most brazen of liars, once wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence…,” sending generations of his competitors chasing vainly after a will o’ the wisp reality. Why people choose to believe what he says about writing and not what he says about his manliness is a curious instance of intellectual willfulness and self-deception.
In university English departments, on the other hand, students are taught criticism — Arnoldian, Freudian, New, Structuralist and Post-Structuralist, etc. Archetypes, symbols, influences, foreshadowing, metaphor and theme. Academic critics tend to see a novel as full-blown, not something built; as something found, not constructed. Academics are romantics — they see, or prefer to think they see, romantic intention in a novel as opposed to the bricks and mortar. I tried to tell a friend of mine, a person partway through a PhD. in English, what I meant by a pattern in a novel. She said, “Well, we call that recurring imagery.” A singularly bloodless phrase. But fair enough. Yes, that is sort of what I mean.
But why does it recur? And who made it recur? And is that all there is to it? Does the phrase “recurring imagery” help a writer? Academic critics generally see recurring images as evidence of a point the author is trying to make, part of the aboutness of the work. Deconstructionists, on the other hand, look for recurring images that the author may not have intended so as to “deconstruct” the aboutness of the work. In either case, they are wedded to thematics, to aboutness, to truth. Write what you know, throw in a little recurring imagery, and it’ll come out right. That’s what the creative writing schools and the English departments teach us.
In general it’s not terribly bad advice. Many writers get by with no other. Every writer borrows to a greater or lesser extent from the real world the images which he or she deploys in his or her novel. Every writer who has read significantly has an instinctive feel for rhythm, pacing and the repetition of images. But to go through life believing “Write what you know and throw in recurring imagery” is like going through life believing in God and free enterprise — it leads to a conservative and narrow view of life and art.
Pattern is an ambiguous word and I want to keep it that way. Writing a novel, Faulkner once said, is like a one-armed man nailing together a chicken coop in a hurricane. It helps to be open-minded and undogmatic about the rules of the operation.
Experience itself rests on our ability to recognize patterns — Forms Plato called them — in the sensory flux. A pattern that does not repeat itself is not a pattern, it is chaos, or it is something like God, or it is nothing. And the ability to recognize patterns is tied up with out ability to remember. Pattern, repetition and memory are the foundations of consciousness.
The same happens in a novel. On a very rudimentary level the author depends on pattern, repetition and memory to give the reader confidence in the world of the book, what we call verisimilitude, the quality of seeming to be real. In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna appears on almost every page. Anna is a pattern, a group of words and characteristics that repeat. If Tolstoy had changed Anna’s name, age, hair color and social background every chapter or so, we would throw the book down in disgust.
Pattern can mean a model or design upon which something else is constructed. Or it can mean the systematic repetition of certain design elements as in the pattern in wallpaper.
Pattern can, for example, refer to something large such as a plot. All romances are based on, say, the model boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy gets girl. We also say there are no new plots under the sun. And we refer to coming-of-age novels, which have plots based on myths and rites of passage, or adventure novels, which are based on the quest model. What we call genre is a sort of pattern.
But pattern can also refer to something minute, a device such as, say, the list or the epic simile or even the structure of a sentence. Here is Nabokov talking about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:
Gogol called his Dead Souls a prose poem; Flaubert’s novel is also a poem but one that is composed better, with a closer, finer texture. In order to plunge at once into the matter, I want to draw attention first of all to Flaubert’s use of the word and preceded by a semicolon. This semicolon-and comes after an enumeration of actions or states or objects; then the semicolon creates a pause and the and proceeds to round up the paragraph, to introduce a culminating image, or a vivid detail, descriptive, poetic, melancholy, or amusing. This is a peculiar feature of Flaubert’s style.
Now, though the actual number of usable patterns may, for practical purposes, be infinite, we always choose to use a finite number in any given piece of writing. This finite number of further reduced by the fact that many of the patterns are repeated throughout any given work. The more patterns a writer knows, however, the better his or her chances of being published, being read, or of writing a masterpiece that will endure. The way a person learns patterns is by reading; literature is an encyclopedia of patterns and devices.
Though it is possible to invent a pattern that no one has ever used before, originality in a writer generally amounts to an ability to vary the pattern in fresh ways. One might, for example, decide to use Flaubert’s semicolon-and sentence pattern in a contemporary rites-of-passage novel set in Montreal’s Jamaican emigre community. The pattern would be Flaubert’s, but the variation, the unique application, would be the author’s own.
Repetition, as I have said, is also a pattern. But it is a pattern of a different order, perhaps the pattern of patterns. To me, it is the heart of the mystery of art, of novel-writing. Without it, the novel becomes a strung-out plot summary.
I have tried to think out why repetition is appealing, why it is aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing. I think there are two reasons, or sorts of reasons. The first is essentially conservative — repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude.
The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love. This is the sort of thing Lyotard is talking about when he writes about “intensities” or patterns of intensities in his book Économie Libidinal, or what the Spaniard Madariaga meant when he talked about the “waves of energy” in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Seville.
In Anna Karenina there are two sub-plots: Levin’s marriage and Anna’s brother’s marriage. The novel actually begins with a sub-plot scene — Anna’s brother banished to sleep in his study for having an affair with a maid. These subplots are not simply tacked on. They repeat the marriage theme of the main plot, Anna’s marriage. Anna’s brother’s marriage is, like her own, a marriage on the rocks because of infidelity. Levin’s marriage is, by contrast, dutiful and steadfast.
Tolstoy created three identical patterns which twine and leapfrog and reverberate through the novel. Of course, the details, the contents, are different (this is one sort of variation); and, in the case of Levin’s plot, the structure, the pattern, is inverted, a positive to the negative of the other two plots (repetitions of abstract structures such as plots or relationships can vary in three ways — congruence, contrast or inversion, and the tree in the seed).
References to plot and subplot form a kind of rhythm in the novel. This rhythmic repetition of structures has something to do with what we call pace. As each plot comes round again for scrutiny by author and reader, it is like a new wave of energy, a drum beat. Anna’s story is the melody; Levin’s is a kind of booming base note thudding in counterpoint to Anna’s; Anna’s brother’s rhythm is lighter, more frenzied and comic. Or they are like Whistler’s colors, threading through a painting, darker, lighter, heavier, fainter.
There is another sort of repetition in Anna Karenina, one more mysterious yet. Just after Anna meets Vronsky, there is a train accident. A station guard, either drunk or muffled up too much against the cold weather, fails to hear the train approaching and is crushed to death. This station guard returns in Anna’s thoughts over and over again. He begins to inhabit her nightmares. He even migrates into Vronsky’s nightmares — transformed now into a dreadful-looking little man with a bedraggled beard, bending over a sack, groping in it for something and talking in French about having to beat, to pound into a shape a piece of iron. At the end of the novel, Anna sees him again just as she throws herself beneath the wheels of the train: “A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her.”
Obviously train imagery is repeated as well, at the beginning and the end. Why? Coincidence? Or is Tolstoy telling us something about the 19th century Russian transportation system? Of course not. Is it foreshadowing? Well, sort of. But foreshadowing is a word I don’t trust. Does this mean Tolstoy is telling us ahead of time that Anna is going to die in a train accident? I think not. I think there is some other motive at work, that the repetition of trains and bedraggled peasants, this bookending of image and incident, the beginning and the end, has a pleasing quality all its own, symmetry, if you will, a rightness, that is felt and appreciated, not “known.” Overture and coda, rather than prediction. A symmetry that would be lost, say, if Anna drowned herself or beat herself to death with a hatchet.
As a pattern, this terrifying little peasant just seems to pop up. He is just there — and there and there and there. He “means” nothing, except insofar as he is associated by juxtaposition with a larger pattern of trains, death, dreams and Vronsky. Somehow he manages to accrue all the potential horror of that pattern. He reminds us, not of the end to which Anna journeys, but of the beginning; so that when she dies, her end is freighted with a kind of fatedness that makes it all the more horrible and pathetic. The peasant is a tiny thread in the tapestry of the novel, a hint of color in the painting, a grace note in the symphony. Nothing more. Yet without him, how much shallower a book Anna Karenina might be.
It is worth noting that certain kinds of patterning, e.g. the repetition of character traits, enhance verisimilitude, while others, e.g. Anna’s peasant, work against it. We might distinguish between these by calling the one sort patterns of verisimilitude and the other patterns of technique. Every novel uses both, so every novel is a little balancing act between the two, or a war. John Hawkes, the experimental novelist, for example, says that “plot, character, setting and theme” (which are generally what I mean by patterns of verisimilitude) are the real enemies of the novel. “And structure,” he adds, “–verbal and psychological coherence — is still my largest concern as a writer. Related or corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute the essential substance or meaningful density of writing.”
But, oddly, though patterns of technique and patterns of verisimilitude tend to destroy one another, like matter and antimatter, both are necessary to the work. Depending on how heavily the author plays up one or the other, his or her novel will be more or less “realistic” or more or less “experimental.”
Getting the balances right in any given work is part of the art of art and its mystery and is a skill that cannot be taught. It leads to the feeling, a feeling I have had twice, once with each of my novels, of submission, of loss of freedom, of loss of expressiveness. Because there is a point in the process of writing a novel at which you must submit to the strictures of pattern that you have chosen. All of a sudden, there are things you can no longer fit into this novel, things you must cut, and other things that you must put in. And, of course, with something as complicated as a novel, you never get it right. And you end up wanting to slash your wrists.
As Paul Valéry once said, “A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.”
I have already noted that some patterns in novels, those patterns which tend to create verisimilitude, are like the patterns of experience in the world. This is as much as to say that a conventionally realistic novel reflects a certain metaphysics or philosophy of being and knowing. Modern novels of a less conventional sort also reflect a metaphysics, but it is a new metaphysics, a radically new way of talking about the locale of existence.
Vladimir Nabokov, whom I have quoted extensively and who has influenced a whole generation of North American writers (in Canada, at least two Governor-General’s Award winners, Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man and Hubert Aquin’s Trou de Memoire, owe huge debts to the structural and verbal pyrotechnics of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire), was an intellectual heir of the Russian Formalists. Formalism was an aesthetic and critical movement that thrived in St. Petersburg and other eastern European cities early in the twentieth century. The Formalists pegged a whole philosophy of language and literature on the split between meaning and signifiers, between aboutness and pattern.
What they did was put a theory to the things painters like Whistler and, soon after, the French Impressionists, and Surrealist poets like Breton, Eluard and Ponge — all the way back to Mallarme (Nabokov sneaks Mallarme quotations into his novels) — had been doing ten, twenty, thirty or more years before. They simply recognized that aboutness and pattern were two aspects of the things we call art and language, and that you could, in fact, have pattern without aboutness.
Since it seem impossible to have aboutness without pattern, a corollary of this is that aboutness is somehow secondary, a poor cousin, on the aesthetic scale of things, to pattern. Nabokov again:
There are…two varieties of imagination in the reader’s case… First, there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature… A situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we know or knew. Or, again, a reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.
This is what the post-Sausurrean critics, recently so popular in Europe and on American university campuses, are saying. Aboutness is old-fashioned, authoritarian, and patriarchal. Signs — read, pattern, poetry — are playful, subversive, and female. How a thinker can jump from a purely logical incongruence — the fact that, apparently, you can have pattern without aboutness but not vice versa — to these strings of value-loaded predicates is marvelous indeed and evidence that the instinct for narrative and romance has not died behind the ivy-covered walls of academe.
Another corollary of splitting the categories of pattern and aboutness is that there is a sense in which pattern itself creates meaning. Or to put it another way, the novel is about its own form. Or every book is about another book, or books. And every work of art is a message on a string of messages which begins nowhere and ends nowhere, to no one and from no one, and about nothing except the field of pseudo-meaning created by previous and future messages. It is all a game of mirrors and echoes. A little dance of images, words, and patterns. The of the Hindus, or all is vanity, all is dust, sure enough.
Keats wrote, “A man’s life is an allegory.” Nothing else. Or conversely, Korzybski says, “The map (read, the allegory, the pattern, the words) is not the territory.” Which is to say, as Jacques Lacan does, that all utterances are symptomatic and that the real is impossible.
Form (or pattern) and aboutness (or content, or reality) are the binary opposites of thought. The stance of the modern, whether he or she is a novelist, critic, theologian, or psychologist, is that ontology begins and ends with the former, that so-called reality is a highly suspicious article.
We are pressed back to a position of washed-out Cartesianism: I think, therefore, I think; or more precisely, I think, therefore something is thinking. Structuralists like Levi-Strauss say things like, “There is a simultaneous production of myths themselves, by the mind that generates them, and, by the myths, of an image of the world which is already inherent in the structure of the mind.” Linguistic philosophers like Wittgenstein say, “The world is my world: that is shown by the fact that the limits of language stand for the limits of my world…I am my world.” Except that this “I am” is not the body but language itself.
Reality, meaning, aboutness, the good, God and the self are pushed away into the realms of the unconscious, the unknowable, the unspeakable, and the unfathomable. In a very logical sense, they no longer concern us here as we race toward the end of the twentieth century. To say you are writing “realistic novel” is to commit as much of an intellectual solecism as, say, the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart does when he says God spoke with him before breakfast. The words “realistic novel” can only be spoken by a person who is speaking in the discourse of an earlier age or in parody.
Think of yourself in a room with bare plaster walls and no windows or doors. You have an infinite supply of variegated wallpapers. You paper the room with something in blue with a skylark pattern, then you do it over with angels, then an abstract, decorative pattern.
The first thing you notice is that you can’t see the wall anymore. This is the first effect of language, according to the philosophers and critics. As soon as you begin to use language, describe the world, you can no longer see it. You can only see your description. In fact, since we can’t even begin to describe something without language, then the existence of the wall itself becomes moot.
The second thing you notice is that each layer of wallpaper covers the previous layers. They’re lost, though you know they’re under there. In a sense the old wallpaper, the past, becomes part of the reality you are describing with each new layer of wallpaper. And sometimes you wake up in the morning and wish you still had the skylarks. You might even try to scrape some of the new wallpaper off. But that only makes a mess.
All you have is the design of each successive layer of wallpaper, and, just possibly, the shape of the room, its broad outlines, its cubic form. Life and art are a little like this. We only see the current wallpaper, remember bits and pieces of the old in the form of myths and memories of memories and fragments of discourse which no longer “mean” what they once meant. And, if we’re lucky, we intuit, or think we intuit, some vague outline of the something which may or may not be the room or the womb of reality.
To be a writer is to write with this knowledge, that the wallpaper is wallpaper and not the room, walls and plaster. It is to have that quality which Keats said went to form a man of achievement “especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” what he called Negative Capability — “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Negative Capability is the artist’s ability to suspend belief in any particular conceptual system (or wallpaper) or to see the conceptual system as pattern, as opposed to reality, as material in itself to be juggled and juxtaposed. Or, to put this another way, aboutness is illusory. What we see as aboutness the artist sees as just another pattern or part of a pattern. Or again, everything is pattern, infinitely plastic and malleable. A person who believes in a particular conceptual system believes that everything can be explained by reference to that conceptual system. Whereas the artist sees the pattern and feels the mystery that looms beyond the pattern.
The truth of the matter, everything that seems supremely important in life, begins when the talking, writing, painting, sculpting, filming and singing of discourse stop. All talk or art that says it’s telling you the truth about life is second rate. Of course, you can write something second rate that’s very popular, even quite good, for all these categories are relative. But great art is pattern over mystery, it is juggling words over whirlpools of silence.
In the extended sense, this view of language, life and art can seem exceedingly austere, if not forbidding and bleak. “The ultimate goal of the human sciences is not constitute, but to dissolve man,” says Levi-Strauss. (Just as Nabokov says that one of the functions of a novel is to prove that the novel in general does not exist.) Few of us can help feeling a nostalgia for the old ways, or what we think are the old ways, of talking. For ancient beliefs. For certainty and immortality. For familiar stories with plots and characters and recognizable locales. For adventure, romance and magic.
A lot of fictional, intellectual and political hay has been made out of this nostalgia, a nostalgia expressed, say, in the phrase “breakdown of values.” When an old way of talking disappears, many people are forced to apply narrative in order to explain it to themselves. They often feel they have a stake in the old way. They invent metaphors and analogies — machine breakdowns, erosion, war, disease — to make themselves feel easier. And to sell books.
You can see where nostalgia led Levi-Strauss in his wonderful autobiographical novel Tristes Tropiques. The annihilation of the self, of meaning and aboutness, by structural anthropology drove him into a quest for theological support, which he may or may not have found wandering amongst the Buddhist temples of the Far East. Or think of Sartre turning from the barrenness of existentialism to the warm, sloppy infantilism of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Or of Michel Foucault leaving his university office every afternoon to pursue a gruesome and self-destructive quest through the bath houses of New York until his death from AIDS.
One can look at people like Sartre, Foucault and Levi-Strauss as contemporary monks whose intellectual vigor and honesty led them to the conclusion that God, man and reality cannot be reached through words. (On December 6, 1273, at the age of fifty, Thomas Aquinas suffered something like a nervous breakdown and never wrote again.) That, by analogy, telling a story is a logically impossible project. That our only recourse (save for silence) is to take a step willy-nilly into narrative, or faith — Keat’s Negative Capability is something like Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith. It can’t be done — all the critics and philosophers tell us — but some of us will jump in anyway and start the story “Once upon a time…”
In this regard, the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy once wrote:
…a novelist these days has to be an ex-suicide. A good novel — and, I imagine, a good poem — is possible only after one has given up and let go. Then, once one realizes that all is lost, the jig is up, that after all nothing is dumber than a grown man sitting down and making up a story to entertain somebody or working in a “tradition” or “school” to maintain his reputation as a practitioner of the nouveau roman or whatever — once one sees that this is a dumb way to live, there are two possibilities: either commit suicide or not commit suicide. If one opts for the former, that is that; it is a letzte Losung and there is nothing more to write or say about it. But if one opts of the latter, one is in a sense dispensed and living on borrowed time. One is not dead! One is alive! One is free! I won’t say that one is like God on the first day, with the chaos before him and a free hand. Rather one feels, What the hell, here I am washed up, it is true, but also cast up, cast up on the beach, alive and in one piece. I can move my toe up and then down and do anything else I choose. The possibilities open to one are infinite. So why not do something Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Faulkner didn’t do, for after all they are nothing more than dead writers, members of this and that tradition, much admired busts on the shelf. A dead writer may be famous but he is also dead as a duck, finished. And I, cast up here on this beach? I am a survivor! Alive! A free man! They’re finished. Possibilities are closed. As for God? That’s his affair. True, he made the beach, which, now that I look at it, is not all that great. As for me, I might try a little something here in the wet sand, a word, a form…”
Doug, I can’t tell you how much this helps me at this moment. I’m working with a wonderful editor who understands this idea fully and a publisher who wants to brainstorm and throw in everything but the kitchen sink. The editor and I will prevail. 🙂
Jeanne, I’m pleased I put it up at a propitious time. 🙂
Doug, I have two essays that I have gone to over the years for courage, solace and inspiration in my pursuit of novel writing. One is the Ted Solotaroff essay “Writing in the Cold” and the other is this essay. “The Novel as a Poem.” Thanks so much for this!
Loved this, Doug! So glad to have this wonderful to have it all here. I’ve heard you speak of many of these fine points before in our workshops, and loved getting this fuller scope of them. Patterning, yes! One has to commit, and then yikes. I remember Bob Day very well. He was a visiting writer for a conference I organized (late 1970’s) in Kansas at Marymount College. He was a good drinker! Her was also a wonderful writer. I still recall how gorgeous the passage was that he read from Last Cattle Drive. Give him my best if you see him! Must now go read his new book on your site. N
My God, Doug–this essay reaffirms, sanctifies, revivifies, nails down, holds sacred everything I have ever believed about novels or writing–that it all stems from the poetic impulse. A godsend, a gift–thank you, friend. b
Bob, The best praise. Thanks.
This must be the fifth or sixth time I’ve read this essay, and I always have several “aha” moments. More so now, as I write my first novel. Yes, thank you. And everything Viv said.
speaks for me.
Felt wonderful to read this and think of when you were my professor. Thanks for everything.
As a new graduate student on the brink of entering a MFA program this coming fall, I want to thank you for perfectly articulating the necessity of poetry’s influence on prose. As a fiction writer, I purposefully study poetry to learn how I can improve my story-telling. In the least I figured a poem could teach me to make my images count and to be concise. But all the talk about patterns and repetition! Just wonderful. And true. And blew me away. I needed to read someone’s coherent thoughts on a matter that I believe to be so exciting and poignant. I feel inspired, and I needed that in the midst of this major transition in my life. Thank you, thank you. This is brilliant.
Thank you, Kayla. Good luck with that MFA program. dg
I always come back and reread this essay from time to time. It is a wonderful read to inspire and invigorate my passion for creating art and writing. Doug, you have truly helped me think about my writing in new and profound ways.
Thanks, Stefan. Good to see you here.
It was in February 2014 that I had both the misfortune and the good fortune to fail to get onto the VCFA MFA in Writing. It was misfortune, because I wanted to work with you. It was good fortune, because much of it might have gone wasted on a me that was not yet ready. Thankfully, I have this summer commenced my first semester on the NYU Low Residency MFA in Paris, and am now going into high gear with my first novel that was still very much groping in the dark back in 2014.
I’d read you essay, The Novel as a Poem, then, and returned to it at yearly intervals since, every time finding a deeper and more meaningful resonance. So far, it makes more sense to me than anything else I’ve read about writing. Before this essay assumed the meaning that it now has for me (and, no doubt, will deepen still further), it’s place was held for it by my experience as an architect. When considering writing, I’d say to myself, ok, you’ve got the building. It has an attractive and secure door in the right place. It has enough windows to let in enough light. The roof will keep you dry and will not lift in a gale, etc. But so what? I have an excuse here, a perfectly legitimate excuse, to give an occupant an experience that they couldn’t have by being in any other building. Why am I giving them just another building? Why am I just ticking the same old boxes? Where is the architecture?
I have never taken hallucinogenic drugs, but I am sure that people who do, do so not because they want to know how the composition of the particular molecule interacts with this, that or the other receptor in their brains, but for the sheer aesthetic experience of the high. In writing a novel, this is the key question for me. How am I using the excuse of putting words down on paper to give a reader that high that neither needs nor seeks explanation, but is simply experienced, and indeed, might well be ruined by knowing? Your essay helps me articulate these questions for myself.
What would be the point in writing a novel if all I’m going to do is take a number of characters through a series of situations that, at some level, is already predetermined and predictable. Every novel does this. The point is to use that endeavour as an excuse to bring the reader something that has nothing to do with either the story or the characters, an aesthetic experience that, although triggered by the words on the page, gains a life quite independent of those words. I want to go even further with your amazing essay. I want to make patterns of pulsating, interweaving layers forming and dissociating through the work, taking the reader for a ride on a Möbius strip going in both directions at the same time without their even knowing where they started or are going to end. I want them to go back simply because they don’t know what the hell just happened. How did this writer make me experience this?
Then I will have used the writing of the novel as an excuse to give a reader an experience they could not possible have by reading any other book. Your essay, The Novel as a Poem, tells me that every novel has to do this. My experience as an architect tells me that this is right. Thank you for sharing these most inspiring thoughts. I shall return to them many times for as long as I write.