DOES NARRATIVE MAKE US STUPID?

Is story-telling food for the fool?

Scarriet often gives poetry a hard time, and this, we are sure, offends various poets and those who teach poetry—who are really trying the best they can, etc ok don’t cry.  To restore a little balance, we thought we might take a brief look at poetry’s brother: narrative fiction.

We make a big deal about how important “the public” is, and how poetry has no “public,” and this is all true—but we know people look around (especially the proud and self-flattering avant-garde) and think, yea but the public is stupid!  And much that gets the public’s attention is really, really stupid.  So how does that fit into all this talk about the importance of “the public?”

We’re glad you asked.

First, the public doesn’t have to be smart to be important; the public is important because it’s the public—that’s simply a given, and any imbecile who tries to make themselves feel better by saying they are smarter than the public, or the public doesn’t understand them, etc does not earn our admiration; nor should this attitude earn anyone’s admiration.  It is pure folly.  The public doesn’t have to have any admirable qualities: the public is us; the public, good or bad, is the clay from which all models are made.

But let’s put that aside for a moment—we know you, dear reader, are one of those exceptions who are truly smart, etc.   No, we are serious.  Let’s assume you are.  This still does not change the truth put forth in the previous paragraph on the importance of the public.  If this is understood, we may proceed. 

Why does this public, too slovenly and short-0f-attention-span to enjoy the ‘news-that-stays-news’ of poetry, gobble up best-selling novels—which take such a long time to read?  Dear Public: You won’t take one minute to read a poem—but you’ll take a month to read a novel??  Does that make any sense?

The public is supposedly too unfocused to concentrate for sixty seconds on a poem, but dwells for hours in front of made-up abstractions otherwise known as video narratives. 

We hear so often about the importance of narrative, and how narrative is the basis of everything, and how everyone loves a story, and poetry is no longer popular because it has abandoned narrative.

Is narrative the solution to poetry’s demise?

We think not.

Narrative—and its popularity—may just be at the heart of that stupidity of which the public is so often accused.  The public cannot (should not) be impugned, but narrative may be affecting the public negatively if we examine the matter at hand, instead of merely flattering ourselves by denigrating the public.

To make a proper judgement, we should begin with nature, rather than the words of some professor. 

A beautiful face, (and painters here will know what I mean) a beautiful physique, a form, or picture of great beauty, instantaneously recognized, is nature’s language, and the languge of the most profound art through the ages.

But imagine then, a face which requires a narrative to unfold its beauty.

It would not be a face at all.

Nature would laugh at such a crude method as narrative to present her wares.

The greatest beauty is destroyed by narrative.

Narrative does not enhance attention and focus and appreciation of beauty; it weakens and attenuates it.

Narrative depends on forgetfulness and primitive curiosity—an infant’s peek-a-boo amusement.

Gaps in memory, gaps which destroy the continuity of artistic unity, are the building blocks of narrative.

No wonder frivolously infatuated simpletons are capable of sustaining tremendous focus on novels and films—it is precisely because narrative amuses the part of the brain which keeps forgetting what has just transpired, essentially training it away from artistic unity and towards abstracted know-nothing-ism.

That which is impressive, and beautiful, is so immediately, and should be able to sustain that excellence in every part.

Narrative deceives and lulls us into an expectation that: ‘well, eventually, if I stick with this, it will all make sense—or, there will be a pay-off.’ 

When there is no pay-off, it is too late; the investment has been made, the text has been read, the gaps of memory have asserted themselves, the focus has lapsed, and pride prevents the reader from admitting the narrative, as narrative, betrayed them.

The standard has been imperceptibly lowered.

The TempestThe David, The Mona Lisa, The Ode To A Nightingale have been replaced by The Sad and Pitiful Narrative of Boozy Suzy Singsaw.

The poem should be precisely like the painting, or the work of architecture, in its appeal to artistic unity, in its beauty immediately seen in its first line and apparent to its last, even in that unfolding temporality which sets it somewhat apart from products for the eye.

The novel is far too long to sustain true artistic unity.  (See Poe: A long poem does not exist.)  The novel—because of its length—is for simpletons.

The short novel, The Great Gatsby, a favorite with the public, and published when many were producing either political tracts or miserable little experiments of Modernism, is often produced as a movie—which turns out to be a miserable failure.  Why?  Because the purveyors of narrative are unable to comprehend why The Great Gatsby is popular.  Stripped of the narrative-less beauty of its prose and produced as a narrative (film), the movie-maker, still uncomprehending, no doubt, comes face to face with the truth.

4 Comments

  1. Don Fox said,

    May 21, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    So that’s why Dan Brown puts a clue in his novels: to give the memory of his readers a little boost. Saw an interview where he said that he hopes at the end his readers will check back and say, “How could I have missed that?”

  2. thomasbrady said,

    May 21, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Don,

    The mechanism referred to relates to how Poe opens his “Philosophy of Composition:”

    CHARLES DICKENS, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says — “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”

    I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin — and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea — but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

    Most writers, however, insert perhaps one thing that matters in the early part of the story, so the phenomenon resembles this: doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, matters, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, etc so the reader’s constant attention is necessary, and if they miss it, they feel stupid, which, to cite Poe again, this time in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” noting what Poe says re: the merely attentive powers.

    The higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers. In draughts, on the contrary, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively unemployed, what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen.

  3. Ron Suskind support said,

    May 22, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    “What is my narrative?” [President Obama] all but shouted. “I don’t have a narrative.”

    http://books.google.com/books?id=7bUWLe2IgLkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=ron+suskind&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Se2cUcCzLs-34AOcgoH4DA&ved=0CEcQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=%22what%20is%20my%20narrative%3F&f=false

  4. June 11, 2013 at 2:55 am

    I am aware of four famous statues of David — the one by Michaelangelo that I think you are probably refering to, and then ones by Donatello, Verrochio, and Bernini. My favorite of them (and the only one besides Michaelangelo’s that I’ve actually seen in Italy) is Bernini’s. It really shows David just as he’s about to let Goliath have it with the stone from his slingshot. I really marvel at the sculpting ability of that man, Bernini! I think they call his style “baroque” because there’s so much action and pose to it. I also think his David’s face is the most handsome of the four statues’ faces. But ever since I saw the famous David in Florence, I’m afraid I’ve given it very undeserved short shrift. All I noticed at the time was the relative stillness of the pose, the statue’s just seeming to “stand there,” doing nothing! But, boy, I recently found out how wrong I’ve been all these years! I happened to find an article that said that the statue’s power is all in David’s eyes–his “glint” suggested by a few well-placed lines in the eyeballs as he prepares to slay Goliath. Then I could really see what the author was talking about, myself, and what I had failed to see for so long. I think it just goes to show how art can benefit from explanatory text. The most important thing I came away with from a course in Chinese and Japanese art that I audited about 12 years ago was that Chinese and Japanese artists don’t only draw and paint but include text in their drawings and paintings. They’re really all writers as well as artists! The late Otto Betmann of the former Betmannn Archives said to me once in an interview that a picture without accompanying text was “a helpless item.” So there was an important Western authority who agreed. Good night, all! David Bittner


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