The iceberg text

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Photo credit: Andrew Shiva Iceberg, Antarctic Sound 2016

Photo credit: Andrew Shiva
Iceberg, Antarctic Sound 2016

In a recent conversation, a friend talked about the kind of writing that is like an iceberg: there’s the obvious bit, the part you can see; but below the surface there’s so much more. He was referring, of course, to Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” –

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them” (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon – see Note 1).

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway, an aficionado of Spanish bullfighting, “explores the metaphysics of bullfighting – the ritualized, almost religious practice – that he considered analogous to the writer’s search for meaning and the essence of life” (Wikipedia).

Just as only about one-tenth (Hemingway says one-eighth) of an iceberg is visible above the waterline, the bulk of an ‘iceberg’ text – its substance, its depth, its connotations and cultural context – lies submerged beneath the surface of the printed words. Although often complex and richly layered, any ‘meaning’ the reader derives from such a text is invariably apprehended largely at the level of the unconscious; most readers will not think to investigate or question the unseen portion.

A SparkNotes essay on Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” states that “[the author] firmly believed that perfect stories conveyed far more through subtext than through the actual words written on the page. The more a writer strips away, the more powerful the ‘iceberg’, or story, becomes.”

Of course, not all writing is deep and dark and difficult; much of what is written is more-or-less direct and straightforward. In earlier life, when my work was largely in the field of public sector communications, most of what I wrote was as straightforward as I could make it. I recognise that much of my writing now tends, and intends, to be less unequivocal.

Among the kinds of text that qualify as iceberg texts, we would probably want to include many (though not all) works of literature – poems, prose, plays, essays – whose intention is, as Roland Barthes puts it in Essais critiques, “to unexpress the expressible” (Barthes, 1972: p15 – see Note 2 below). But since writing now takes so many forms – including, of course, the still-proliferating variants of social media, web logs, web sites, and ‘apps’, the set comprising all possible types of iceberg text must, in a sense, remain open and incomplete.

As Barthes confidently asserted, “the text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Barthes, cited by Jonathan Culler – see Note 3). Barthes’ approach to literary criticism thus entails “[treating] the work as an intertextual construct – a product of various cultural discourses on which it relies for its intelligibility – and thus consolidates the central role of the reader as a centering role” (ibid).

My friend’s background includes sociology and psychology, so it was not surprising that one of the central metaphors employed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was soon part of our discussion: “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” (Haidt, 2012 [p xiv] – see Note 4).

3D wall mural available through DHgate.com

3D wall mural available through DHgate.com

It goes without saying that each reader sitting down with a book, or opening a web page, brings their own elephant into the room. My immediate question is, who is going to ride the elephant? – the reader or the writer? Will the reader surrender to the writer, and allow the text to influence and persuade the elephant? or will the writer and the reader struggle for control?

Assuming Haidt’s hypothesis to be apt and its details accurate, one would expect the reader’s “conscious reasoning” to take in the writer’s text and work with it, integrating it into “the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware”. Uncontroversially, then, the reader is the elephant’s rider. Sometimes, though, we find a text difficult to read – perhaps because it is poorly written; or because it is dense and complex; or because it contains material that disturbs and distresses the elephant. We do well to remember that “the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” So what, then, is the writer’s job?

Before answering that question, it might be worth explaining that, so far, I have treated the reader as the one with the elephant and the rider. But of course, all writers have elephants of their own, and their own riders. We are reminded that each text the writer produces is a product of conscious and unconscious thought processes. Bearing in mind the Jungian concept of the “collective unconscious”, we can confidently affirm, at least, that a shared heritage of unspoken things lies deep within the interior of all language-based communication. Whether assumed (and taken as read) or signalled (however subtly or overtly), there is much that writers and readers share – archetypes, icons, histories, mythologies, memes, and cultural norms.

It occurs to me that what is apprehended by the unconscious mind of the reader has not necessarily been formulated by the conscious mind of the writer. Some of its references and inferences will have been included deliberately; others will have insinuated themselves into the “multi-dimensional space” – between the lines, as we say – without conscious intent. Other elements of a text may serve as triggers for the reader, who embroiders, interweaves, or overlays threads drawn from their own experience, with no involvement from the writer at all.

I cannot avoid mentioning, at this point, something that has recently been termed “dog whistling” – the use of particular vocabulary, phraseology, connections, and connotations to alert and arouse “those who have ears to hear”. Whilst dog whistling is not new, its role in the transmission of meaning has come to prominence in recent years. And it’s one of those things which detractors (and even some practitioners – albeit speaking behind their hands) take delight in bringing to the attention of readers.

Urban Dictionary gives an example: “Republicans say they want to make civil rights for gays a state issue, which is really just a dog whistle strategy for saying that they will refuse to grant equal rights on a federal level.”

Writing is, as Roland Barthes reminds us in Writing Degree Zero, “an ambiguous reality: on the one hand, it unquestionably arises from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time; on the other hand, from this social finality, it refers the writer back, by a sort of tragic reversal, to the sources, that is to say, the instruments of creation” (Barthes, 1982: p36 – see Note 5).

And now, once again, that question: “So what, then, is the writer’s job?” Various authors have framed their responses to this question in very different ways.  For the moment, I find myself focusing on words from Anaïs Nin: The role of the writer “is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say” (see Note 6).


NOTES:

  1. Hemingway, E. 1932. Death in the afternoon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  2. Barthes, R. 1972. Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.
  3. Culler, J. 1983. On Deconstruction : Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. London: Routledge. “First published in Great Britain in 1983 : Reprinted in 1985 and 1987 by Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd.”
  4. Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The righteous mind. New York: Pantheon Books; Toronto: Random House of Canada [p. xiv]. “I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis.” In an endnote, Haidt credits Erikson and Tedin 2003, p. 64, cited in Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009, p. 309.
    Haidt, Jonathan. 2006. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books, a division of Perseus Books Group.
  5. Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. ‘Part One’, from Writing Degree Zero. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Translation copyright © 1967 by Jonathan Cape Ltd; Preface copyright © 1968 by Susan Sontag; translated from the French Le degré zéro de l’écriture, copyright © 1953 by Éditions du Seuil.
  6. From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.

 

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Happiness is the light shining on the water

rippling water #249 (10 Nov 2011)

rippling water #249 (10 Nov 2011)

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Happiness is the light shining on the water. The water is cold and dark and deep. (William Keepers Maxwell, Jr.)

Happiness – however we define it – is something we generally agree we’re seeking. But it seems elusive. In fact, it’s the pursuit of happiness, rather than happiness itself, that is the third thing on the familiar list – after life and liberty. In my ongoing contemplation of the role and function of writing – what it intends, what it affords, what it achieves – I have been thinking about how writing contributes to happiness. And of course, I’m interested in how the pursuit of happiness inspires, motivates, and stimulates writing.

Susan “Honey” Good, who writes for Huffington Post, recently shared a conversation about happiness: “I know I am at my ‘happiest’ and most productive,” she told a woman she had met, “when I am surrounded by places and people that are in sync with me … where I can recognize myself.” Her new friend agreed, adding  that “a feeling of compatibility” also made it easier for her to reach out to new people and new places.

This notion of a world that supports us, mirrors how we see ourselves, and reflects who we say we are, is a cultural artefact. Camille Paglia’s succinct assertion serves my argument well: “Civilized life requires a state of illusion” (see Note 1 below). In Paglia’s view, the construct we call society is “a defense against nature’s power. Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature.” Whether it intimidates and troubles us, mystifies, perplexes, overwhelms us, or simply presents hurdles we must leap over as we race towards our bliss, nature is a force to be reckoned with. And writing is a crucial component of that reckoning – especially since the role of the writer, as Anaïs Nin reminds us, “is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say” (see Note 2).

An earlier post on this blog argues that writing is, among other things, a response to the realisation that “we are not really at home / in the interpreted world” (words from the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies – see Note 3). The title of that post was borrowed from the Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, who declared: “Writing is a struggle against silence.” As I said in that piece, the struggle to utter the unutterable is one thing; the struggle against the things that silence us is something else entirely. In our efforts to make sense of the world, writers often find it necessary to grapple with both.

This mosaic from Antioch combines several apotropaic symbols.

This mosaic from Antioch combines several apotropaic symbols.

“Perceptual relations are at the heart of [western] culture,” according to Camille Paglia, “and they have produced our titanic contributions to art. Walking in nature, we see, identify, name, recognize. This recognition is our apotropaion, that is, our warding off of fear” (see Note 4) – which fits with Honey Good’s testimony of happiness and productivity around people and places where she can recognize herself.

Ultimately, the ability to ward off fear is crucial to our freedom to write. “Here is the world,” says Frederick Buechner. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” For many of us, that’s easier said than done. Rather than clinging to my fear as if it were my precious treasure, and protecting it against those who would steal it from me, I call to mind the wise words of Walter Lippmann, who considers we’re all captives of the pictures in our heads, and caught up in “our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.”

Duino Elegies - cover image

Duino Elegies – cover image

Alongside those words, it might be prudent to place this passage from Rilke’s Seventh Elegy:

Nowhere, beloved, will world be, but within. Our
life passes in change. And ever-shrinking
the outer diminishes.

From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

 


NOTES:

  1. Paglia, Camille. 1990 [page 1]. Sexual Personae : Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. London & Newhaven: Yale University Press.
  2. From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.
  3. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. [The cycle was begun in January 1912, and completed a decade later.] The version cited here was “Translated by A. S. Kline ©Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved. This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.”
  4. Paglia, 1990 [page 5]. The word apotropaion links to a page in the German Wikipedia, which includes the image shown above.
  5. William Keepers Maxwell, Jr. The words at the head of this post are cited from Over by the River and Other Stories (1977).

 

 

9 Sure-fire Tips to Expand Your Mind!

April 2015 )

“Nobody understands you because you are Alan Turing reborn. Haruki Murakami with extra wasabi. Yoko Ono on steroids and the beating heart of Jaden Smith’s Twitter account. Plants vilify you in the chasm between the primate amygdala and reptilian metacarpals. Buttermilk splash in your eyes when the red dawn of the event horizon explodes like a gokkun glass on the floor. Space pizzas and gorilla tits. Pimple soup. Keanu Reeves. Exactly.”

Read the full item here: 9 Sure-fire Tips to Expand Your Mind!

Go Down the Rabbit Hole: A Writer’s Manifesto

Alice in Wonderland: falling cards

Alice in Wonderland: falling cards

“You are the work. The work is you: both an articulation of the self and a possibility for self-reflection. “

Writing for Digital Media

1. You are the work. The work is you: both an articulation of the self and a possibility for self-reflection. Be honest in creation: allow yourself to bleed into the work, but also allow it to work on you. Your work can show you things: illuminate and clarify your own thoughts, motivations, actions. If you do it right, you will find the work changing you, too.

2. Thinking is process. Laying on the floor. Sitting on park benches. Getting lost on purpose. These are all working. Learn the difference between mindless distraction and mindful wandering.

3. Go down the rabbit hole. Sometimes the work isn’t about what you think it is. Allow yourself to get lost down alleyways, to follow a train of thought around a corner. Don’t feel you need to reign yourself in. Too much focus squeezes all the possibility for revelation out of the work.

4. Fear…

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Shopping for new shoes – imagining new possibilities

pop-up shoe sale (13 July 2014)

pop-up shoe sale (13 July 2014)

My relationship with the I Ching was complex from the very beginning. Despite repeated re‑reading of the text, in translation and later in the original Chinese, I have never come across anything that looks much like wisdom. Meanwhile, on the internet, whole armies of crazies advanced their theories about the book: that it coded the deep structures of human DNA; that it provided mathematical proof of the Mayan prophecy of the ending of the world; that it might hold the secret to that holy grail of the physicists, a Theory of Everything.

Will Buckingham, in The uncertainty machine (Aeon Magazine)

Traditionally, the I Ching and its hexagrams were thought to pre-date recorded history, and based on traditional Chinese accounts, its origins trace back to the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE. Modern scholarship suggests that the earliest layers of the text may date from the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, but place doubts on the mythological aspects in the traditional accounts. Some consider the I Ching the oldest extant book of divination, dating from 1,000 BCE and before. The oldest manuscript that has been found, albeit incomplete, dates back to the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). (from Wikipedia: I Ching)

Questions to which there are no answers

clarice lispector
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So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. (Clarice Lispector)

Reading Rachel Kushner on the subject of Clarice Lispector: “… a visionary instinct, and a sense of humor that veered from naïf wonder to wicked comedy. … novels that are fractured, cerebral, fundamentally nonnarrative …” As I read, I find words I myself might have considered writing.

Truth is, I have never read any of those novels – have somehow not even consciously heard or read the name of this Brazilian writer. Regarded by some (including Benjamin Moser) as the most important Jewish writer since Kafka, acclaimed internationally for her innovative novels and short stories, Clarice Lispector was also a journalist.

As a child, so many of the responses I wanted to give could not be given using any of the logical templates available: Yes/No. Good/Evil. Right/Wrong. Black/White.

Eventually, I began to develop an understanding that was all paradox and antithesis, uncertainty, indeterminacy … shades of grey.

In her 1973 novel, Água Viva, Clarice Lispector writes: “Reasoning is what it is not. Whoever can stop reasoning – which is terribly difficult – let them come along with me.”

I am heartened. Encouraged. Inspired.

I have some unexpected reading to do. And some more writing.

Everything happens for a reason

Everything happens for a reason and this reason is usually physics

graffiti on tile

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How many people do you know who – even though they don’t profess any sort of religious affiliation – are convinced that “everything happens for a reason”? Or else they say particular things are “meant to be” … or “not meant to be”.

An example: A customer comes into the store you work in and looks at a set of dinner bowls, or a beautiful French knife, a hand-crafted scarf, or a pair of gold earrings. You come out from behind the counter and spend time with the customer, attentive without being pushy. You know she really wants that lovely thing, and you intuit that she’s trying to convince herself it’s okay to make the purchase.

“If it’s here when I come in on pay-day,” she tells you, “I’ll know it was meant to be.” And you realise there’s a ‘back-story’ underlying her behaviour – one about which we know virtually nothing – like the string of silk handkerchiefs a magician might pull from his sleeve at a children’s birthday party. (Yes, it’s a trick, a deception, but very effective when expertly handled.)

“Everything happens for a reason and this reason is usually physics.” I’m on Facebook, and this meme has been posted by a page calling itself Empty and Meaningless. One pedantic person has commented: “Except that it’s called a ’cause’ instead of a ‘reason’.” Yeah, yeah. Yadda yadda yadda.

The point is that the machinery of “life, the universe, and everything” operates on the basis of cause and effect. Chaos theory and quantum physics have tried to explain it, of course, with talk of things like the butterfly effect – but it’s still mindbogglingly complicated.

And what about when things go wrong? Do they really happen in threes? “The perceived perversity of the universe has long been a subject of comment, and precursors to the modern version of Murphy’s law are not hard to find” (Wikipedia: Murphy’s Law). But there’s nothing perverse about it. Everything that could possibly happen is waiting in the wings, eager for its opportunity, its big moment. And as soon as it gets a chance, it’ll happen. Don’t take it personally.

But of course we do tend to take everything personally. And rightly so, because each of us lives in a unique – and uniquely personalised – world that exists only in our mind. “Reality is not what it seems to be, nor is it otherwise” (Tibetan Buddhist teaching). Furthermore, “We don’t know what matter is any more than we know what mind is” (Christian de Quincy, in The Paradox of Consciousness).

So if most of what is happening within us and around us can be explained by (or at least attributed to) physics, what else is there which – albeit less frequently and/or less likely – might have something to do with driving what’s happening?

There’s a Talmudic tradition that “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow’.” Alan Lurie explains that “everything yearns to grow; it is an inherent drive embedded in all creation”(Listening To The Call Of Growth). “According the Talmudic writer, one of the forces that angels carry is the urge to grow – to develop, improve, and evolve. By noting that even every blade of grass is imbued with this urge, the Talmudic saying teaches that, like light, gravity, and electromagnetism, growth is a ubiquitous force of nature.”

Life is opportunistic. Everything yearns to grow.

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NOTES:

1/ The origins of Yadda yadda yadda can be traced back with certainty to the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce in the early 1960s (see The Straight Dope for further information).

2/ Recommended reading: Consciousness and Reality (Peter Russell).

3/ “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.” (René Magritte)

 

 

Dian Fossey and the Google doodle

Google doodle celebrates Dian Fossey's 82nd birthday

Google doodle celebrates Dian Fossey’s 82nd birthday

Google has celebrated the 82nd birthday of late American zoologist Dian Fossey with a Doodle on its search page, The Independent reported today. The Guardian carried a similar story. Dian Fossey was born on 16 January 1932, in San Francisco, California.

Considered the world’s leading authority on the physiology and behavior of mountain gorillas, Dian Fossey fought hard to protect these “gentle giants” from environmental and human hazards. She saw these animals as dignified, highly social creatures with individual personalities and strong family relationships. Her active conservationist stand to save these animals from game wardens, zoo poachers, and government officials who wanted to convert gorilla habitats to farmland caused her to fight for the gorillas not only via the media, but also by destroying poachers’ dogs and traps.

Tragically, on December 26, 1985, Fossey was found hacked to death, presumably by poachers, at her Rwandan forest camp. No assailant has ever been found or prosecuted in her murder. (Biography.com)

The capacity of human beings to embrace, support, and protect life stands in stark contrast to our willingness to plunder, exploit, and murder.

The Dian Fossey doodle is the latest in the more than 1,000 doodles created for Google’s homepages around the world. Answering the question, “How did the idea for doodles originate?”, an About page explains that “In 1998, before the company was even incorporated, the concept of the doodle was born when Google founders Larry and Sergey played with the corporate logo to indicate their attendance at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. They placed a stick figure drawing behind the 2nd “o” in the word, Google, … intended as a comical message to Google users that the founders were ‘out of office.'” (About Google Doodles)

A marker to measure drift

A Marker to Measure Drift [cover]

A Marker to Measure Drift [cover]

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A yacht in full
sail, white as the moon, cuts
across the bay.

(Alexander Maksik, in A Marker to Measure Drift [p47])

My summer reading – such as it has been – has included Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, which “recounts a season of homeless exile in the life of a 24-year-old Liberian woman fleeing an episode of gruesome violence incidental to the overthrow of the tyrant Charles Ghankay Taylor, in 2003.” (Norman Rush, in a New York Times review dated 23 August 2013)

In describing the writing as hypnotic, I find I am not alone: the GoodReads review also calls it spellbinding. Which helps brings me back to the point of this post: in the seventy days since starting NaNoWriMo, my commitment to this blog and its twin has tended to drift. Rather than attempt to return them to their original headings, I am now actively looking for “new angles” – as I did in fact signal on |A Twisted Pair| on Christmas Eve.

I have been missing the haiku I had been in the habit of publishing – and likewise the states of mind and everyday routines within which such haiku so easily composed themselves. The fourteen syllables that begin this post were not written as a haiku; they are simply a sentence that appears on page 47 of Alexander Maksik’s beautifully written book. But when I read them, they leapt out at me … and have stayed with me. And they serve as a marker against which I now measure my own drift.

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Maksik, Alexander. 2013. A Marker to Measure Drift. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Link here to Alexander Maksik web-site.