Tag Archives: communication

Song of a Tree

Amabel saw that she would never attract a man again; she would never be loved, for she had not held even the Colonel’s attention (61) 
-Mavis Gallant, New Year’s Eve from Varieties of Exile

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Varieties of Exile is a collection of short stories by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant published in 2003. The stories are told with a perfection of tone. Each protagonist is an isolated voice above the score; Gallant has the ear of a soloist.

 Mrs. Plummer suddenly said clearly to herself or to Amabel, “My mother used to make her children sing. If you sing, you must be happy. That was another idea of happiness” (62).

All of the stories are wonderful, terse and moving, exemplifying the power of the short story. But New Year’s Eve slayed me. It is simply told but deeply discordant. Colonel and Mrs. Plummer, currently residing in Russia, agree to have Amabel, their deceased daughter’s school chum, come to visit over the holiday. Amabel, recently divorced, on a stabbing whim, imagines, hopes, fantasizes that the Plummer’s will take her into their fold and sooth her lonely soul.

They stared at each other, as if they were strangers in a crush somewhere and her earring had caught on his coat. Their looks disentangled (56).

The story transpires over an evening spent at the opera. Amabel, having cut herself free from a desolate marriage is deafened by her now untethered heart; she’s incapable of hearing the contrapuntal recrimination and hostility throbbing between the Plummer’s. She throws herself onto their mercy and they barely notice. Amabel’s lonely awkwardness is wretchedly evinced by Gallant. Her reckless hope that the Plummers will love her is confused by the mutual and in some ways merciful inability to really communicate.

Tears stood in Amabel’s eyes and she had to hold her head as stiffly as Mrs. Plummer did; otherwise the tears might have spilled on her program and thousands of people would have heard them fall. Later, the Plummers would drop her at her hotel, which could have been in Toronto, in Caracas, or Amsterdam; where there was no one to talk to, and she was not loved (61).

A fugue without harmony, Gallant passes the narration around and around, with a slight tragicomic touch. Amabel, rootless, doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone, her human desire to connect is so overwhelming, she can’t hear that the Plummers are reading off an entirely different score. Only the sound of loneliness reverberates. And the song is stuck in my head.

When [Amabel] hinted at her troubles, said something about a wasted life, Mrs. Plummer cut her off with, “Most lives are wasted. All are shortchanged. A few are tragic” (58).

 

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Coenesthesia of Art

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All remarks as to the ways and means by which experiences arise or are brought about are technical, but critical remarks are about the values of experiences and the reasons for regarding them as valuable, or not valuable (23). – I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

The book Principles of Literary Criticism was mentioned in The Story of Ain’t and for some reason, I felt I had to read it. Published in 1924, Richards seems to use perspectives in psychology to try to understand the value of the arts and outline principles with which to appreciate and critique them.

The basis of morality, as Shelley insisted, is laid not by preachers but by poets. Bad taste and crude responses are not mere flaws in an otherwise admirable person. They are actually a root evil from which other defects flow. No life can be excellent in which the elementary responses are disorganised and confused (62).

I came across Andrew Wyeth’s study for his painting Black Velvet the other day in the book Writers on Artists. The writer was John Updike and the focus of his essay was (mostly) on his complaining of the titillating speculation and hype surrounding the relationship between Wyeth and his long time model Helga Testorf (Black Velvet is one of the so-named “Helga Series”). I sent a picture of the finished painting via facebook to my daughter because she loves this series of works (I couldn’t find the above study online, for this post I scanned the image from the book). My oldest son commented on it, “that’s creepy.”

The two pillars upon which a theory of criticism must rest are an account of value and an account of communication. We do not sufficiently realise how great a part of our experience takes the form it does, because we are social beings and accustomed to communication from infancy (25).

I looked at the painting as it must have appeared to him, a woman lying corpse-like, almost being swallowed by a rich black background against which her hair, individually limned with golden light, glimmered intoxicatingly.

There is no kind of mental activity in which memory does not intervene (106).

But it was exactly her pose that had resonated with me. I told him: never mind the obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia, or the beautiful lines and (in the painting) the use of lights and darks – it is her pose! That it happens to be the exact position that I sleep in fascinates me, (as my children have, even a friend once checked to see if I was alive when we once shared a bed, I was so persistent in my odd, still repose).

Tragedy – is still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed (69).

The hands over her chest, wanting to cover her heart, her crossed limp feet, head turned away- it is evocative of a vulnerability, a melancholy and…becalmed spirit that so overwhelms. Quite the opposite of Olympia’s pointed command and assurance.

We rarely change our tastes, we rather find them changed (198).

My son’s two word reaction made me organise my thoughts about my own judgments. What made me stare at it, feel and think so deeply? For Richards, that is the very key – organising the chaos of our thoughts as a direct function of critique. Yes we all have thoughts and/or feelings, but it is the making sense of them and the communication of them with which the artist intuits and the viewer aspires to illume meaningful existence.

To put it briefly the best life is that in which as much as possible of our possible personalities is engaged. And of two personalities that one is the better in which there is more which can be engaged without confusion. We all know people of unusually wide and varied possibilities who pay for their width in disorder, and we know others who pay for their order with narrowness (288).

It doesn’t matter that my son and I had different reactions, only that we have an organized and expansive sense of ourselves with which to understand our reactions – because we always react. Literature and the arts engage sense and sensibility, order and organic harmony, through which we discover we are more than all that we see, hear and read. We are more than all this.

 

*title from Chapter XIII, Emotion and Coenesthesia:  In alluding to the coenesthesia we came very near to giving an account of emotion as an ingredient of consciousness (98). […]  As a rule a process of extraordinary complexity takes place between perceiving the situation and finding a mode of meeting it. This complicated process contributes the rest of its peculiar flavour to an emotional experience (102).

Difficult to Locate, Easy to Distinguish

The contrast between what counts as language and what does not is usually clear enough, once we look for evidence of productivity and duality of structure in communicative behavior.
– David Crytal, How Language Works (11)

IMG_1208How Language Works is a comprehensive book on all aspects of language. How we speak, hear, read, write, communicate and conversate. Hmm, that last one is not a word, but why shouldn’t it be, or why shouldn’t I use it? After all, save official sanction, it has the features required – recognizable phonemes, and plausible meaning. And as Crystal will confirm, and I will second, (exhibit A that I am) spelling is a function of multiple skills which have little to do with reading. Therefore, lacking (at least) one of the said skill sets, hell, conversate looks good to me!

We think of our fellow-speakers as using the ‘same’ sounds, even though acoustically they are not. (67)

Taking the first- the recognizability of phonemes, Crystal explains the unique ability that our ears, throats and brains have to do this thing we call language. Not mere communication- but language. Broken down into as many parts as science has been able, the process is fascinating. In the same way that visual perception both aids and distorts what we see, auditory perceptions has its own modifications for better overall use even at the risk of obfuscation of reality. Just as in visual perception: repetition, constancy, and closure dominate. Our ability to pick out words, particularly familiar ones, such as one’s name, in a crowded room defies the decibel level and chaos of noise.

The fact that our unconscious brains find order while our conscious brains try to instill order is an interesting collision of consciousness. But our conscious system is nothing if not incomplete: while in English we have five written vowel sounds, in speech we have twenty. And don’t even get me or my son Augie started on the sad lack of written punctuation.

Why is it that in English the ‘l’ sound in ‘fall’ and ‘leave’ is considered the same, when everyone can feel that they are produced in very different locations in the mouth and throat? One language will make the conscious distinction, while others will not. Every language makes use and organizes its own sounds, but no language makes use of all the sounds we are physically capable of making.

The word meaning, Crystal tells us,  has upwards of of twenty meanings. Twenty meanings of meaning. Oh Dio. Without these multiplicities we would not have the spectacularly creative and wonderful experience of language, but I have a feeling that the misery too is contained within. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…

How did this all begin? I’m going to have to side with the Danish linguist Otto Jesperson who listed all the possible theories of language origination, but favored one: the ‘la-la’ theory. Such a lovely name I hardly feel the need to say more. But here it is:

Jesperson himself felt that, if any single factor was going to initiate human language, it would arise from the romantic side of life – sounds associated with love…(351)

Typically, our extended efforts to maintain order create their own complications. So much starts to seem arbitrary and then some French deconstructionist comes running in and blows the whole joint up, making matters worse! In the end, and yes, I’m talking to you grammar police out there, clarity and sincerity is all that counts. If you understand me, and if you believe in me we are experiencing linguistic communion of the highest order. And it’s lovely (regarding lovely: apparently it is a word that women make much more use of then men…).

The unconscious order is wondrously, marvelously complex, yet also, intensely directed towards purpose…of course, the meaning of the purpose is the real mystery.

*Title from page 56: Distinguishing vowels and consonants

 

Mountain of Unsaid

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The Mountain of Unsaid,
where I let none dare tread,
looms over me whilst laying in bed
pressing in a shameful dread.

Unsaid Mountain, my voice it did take.
Immune alas, all attempts to berate.
A naïve mountaineer abandoned by fate
under dark shadows standing in wait.

Unsaid Mountain no one’s ever seen,
maps unfurled within my dreams.
Someday, someone will know what I mean
hand in hand, on the Mountain of Unsaid’s green.

JA/2013 inspired by tocksin