Friday, November 20, 2009

The literary narrative as the shadow of life

For reasons I can't begin to fathom, our nine-year-old, Tobey, who until recently was mostly interested in superheroes and video games, has suddenly developed abiding obsessions with chess and, of all things, topology. (At the top of his Christmas list: a Klein bottle.) Needless to say, we approve. But this latter obsession recently produced an interesting byproduct, which I delivered a brief, impromtu lecture on yesterday in my undergraduate Weird Stories class. It's an idea that came from this YouTube Tobey and his brother turned up the other day, and which we've all watched a few times since:

In the video, Carl Sagan demonstrates the way a perfect cube is rendered in two dimensions, in shadow, its equal sides distended, its perfectly square planes skewed. He goes on to describe the "shadow" that a four-dimensional hypercube would cast in three-dimensional space--indeed, he's got a model right there with him (of course, YouTube is two-dimensional--but leave that alone for now).

It occurred to me, walking to work yesterday, that a literary narrative can be conceived as a two-dimensional rendering of three-dimensional reality. That is, with a few notable exceptions, literary narratives are told linearly--you read one word after another, turn all the pages in the same direction, and never go back.

In reality, though, we experience linear time more complexly. When I walk to the bus stop (I told my class), I go out the door, down the steps, across the driveway, through the meadow, and across the parking lot of the school next door, then stop on the shoulder of the road to wait. Linear. But my mind is traveling through time--noticing the chicken shit the birds left yesterday, imagining having to clean it up tomorrow. Noticing the broken taillight on the car from the mishap of last week, picturing myself bringing the car to the mechanic after the weekend. Recalling having mowed the meadow; anticipating its spring return.

When we write a story, we strive not to represent the linearity of time, but to evoke the way memory and the imagination extend themselves forward and back. Flashbacks, foreshadowing, frame stories, back stories--these are all techniques we use to collapse more dimensions into fewer--like Sagan and his cube, to cast the shadow of reality onto the page.


ed skoog said...

Deep stuff, comrades.

Now let's discuss Hummel figurines. You may view a good selection here:

Conversely, we have a three-dimensional representation of a, that's not right, madness is non-dimensional, I suppose. They seem like a 3-D'ing of madness, in their exuberant vulnerability (both as porcelain objects and as adorable children engaged in odd acts--cowering under umbrellas, embracing monkeys).

The dimensions of sculpture are the dimensions of fiction, the inability to see all of a three-dimensional figure at once, from a single vantage point. That casts a kind of shadow too, or at least a blindness, certainly a sublime.

Sagan was a member of the Cosmos Club, here in dc, where I lunched yesterday. Photo on the third floor of Mark Twain playing billiards IN THE VERY ROOM where the photo was taken.

Sagan was marvelous not only at explaining complex ideas, but in only semi-revealing them, initiating us into further mysteries.

Nancy said...

wonderful thoughtful piece, John.

we all think from and within non-doubting realities-
Wittgenstein wrote about this. our certainties, even when faulty or ignorant, enable action

obtusely, your pal, Nancy

Nancy said...


You would like "On Certainty"

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nancy, I believe I will read that. One of our favorite novels, The World As I Found It, is about Wittgenstein.

Ed, you are shuttling from Sagan-haunt to Sagan-haunt these days.

I am basking in the blindness cast by Hummel figurines.

Zachary Cole said...

I have nothing to add to this discussion, beyond linking to a video most of you have probably seen already:

Anonymous said...

Yeesh, am I tired. Let me try that again:


Anonymous said...

Oh, forget. All interested parties will have to copy and paste :)

Anonymous said...

No, I hadn't seen that! I love the apple pie line.

sjwoo said...

I've always thought Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" is a metaphor for how our minds wander all over the place. I've never seen the movie version -- somehow, I doubt the metafiction made it onto the silver screen.

jon said...

Yow, out of nowhere, the essential paradox of the novel, the insane ambition of authors, multi-dimensional projection....
In a preface to volume 2 of the Alexandria Quartet Durrell describes his novel as a 4 dimensional space/time continuum, and it is impossible to read the next three volumes without thinking about how this works out in the narrative. I've always envied music and film their ability to mimic our experience of time and the coincidence of past and future. The fascination and difficulty of language is trying to get it to be less linear, while preserving narrative. How do you learn to read the overtones and undertones of language?

Anonymous said...

I guess by reading, talking, listening, writing like a bat out of hell for decades and decades!

Ultimately, I think that the thing that attracts me most to literature is the utter futility of the literary mission.

Anonymous said...
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Blythe said...

Linear narrative may actually be a questing beast.

Events may transpire in a linear fashion, but the narrative imposed on the events is stitched together out of sensory impression and the desire to recognize pattern.

Novels are like crazy quilts, and even the original reader, the author, is sometimes hard-pressed to make the scraps stay fixed where they belong.

I see the limits of my analogy immediately.

(This is my first visit to this community. I probably shouldn't have posted until I understand the community dynamics a little better. I'll try to behave.)