“Strip away the sonorous rhetoric of nationhood and bogus history, and you have the neoliberal project at its purest and most explicit… Behind every populist assertion of Britishness stands a smiling Old Etonian with an offshore account.”
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).
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).
- Hemingway, E. 1932. Death in the afternoon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.
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.
“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.”
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)
- Paglia, Camille. 1990 [page 1]. Sexual Personae : Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. London & Newhaven: Yale University Press.
- From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.
- 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.”
- Paglia, 1990 [page 5]. The word apotropaion links to a page in the German Wikipedia, which includes the image shown above.
- William Keepers Maxwell, Jr. The words at the head of this post are cited from Over by the River and Other Stories (1977).
At Vida, writer Dallas Athent confronts one of the thorniest issues plaguing the literary scene: the unspoken nepotism-fueled culture of connections and reciprocal favors that determines who gets published where.
There are times – yes, you know them, you have them, too – when the world clicks into a new position and nothing can ever be quite the same again. Or maybe it isn’t the world that goes ‘click’. Maybe it’s something that happens in the mind, as a response to or a consequence of one’s experiences. Okay, I need to be specific.
For more than three years I have been professing that I’m writing a novel. It’s not the first I’ve attempted – my personal history is littered with the wreckage of those failed projects. My previous major writing effort – ‘clinically obese’ might be an appropriate diagnosis – boasted double the planned word-count, and it was only halfway through when eventually abandoned.
In recent days I’ve been looking back over the text which purports to be the stuff of the ‘new’ novel (working title: You Wouldn’t Dare). The opening scene I wrote on ‘day one’ is delicious, delectable. I’m really keen to continue. But aside from a few promising scenes, very little of the rest of it will find itself in the final draft.
So what’s clicked? what’s shifted? It’s something I’m still fathoming. In the meantime Vincent van Gogh’s advice is pertinent:
“If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You are not a painter,’ then by all means paint … and that voice will be silenced.”
It was the old-school typewriter that made me look. It was the headline that made me look twice.
Dry-Humping Parnassus is today’s featured poetry blog at Discover, “A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.” Thanks to Discover Editor and Chief Semicolon Advocate Michelle W. for featuring my stuff, and especially to all of you humans out there for reading, following and supporting it. With any luck, the Muse will let me go outside and play now.
Robin Lucas publishes poems, stories, and satire. He began writing at 22, mostly by accident: as he states in his bio, he had a typewriter, plenty of time due to unemployment, and a sudden urge to express his festering self-indulgence. He’s based in Southern California.
“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!
“You are the work. The work is you: both an articulation of the self and a possibility for self-reflection. “
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.
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“Just a moment, please.” Walking with a friend along a side-street, I had (out of the corner of my eye) spotted a ‘photo-op’ – a wheelie-bin outside the rear entrance to a hotel. My friend’s arched eyebrow and crooked smile told me he didn’t ‘get it’. But that’s okay …
The digital camera makes it easy for me to grab stuff in passing. I rely on being able to act quickly, without stopping to analyse what I am seeing. (There’s always time for that later.) But, in what can take as little as a few seconds, I often find myself with an image that seems to make some sort of sense – even if not everybody gets it.
I explain this to myself in terms of Roland Barthes’s theory of “intertextuality” …
“The intertextual nature of writing turns both the traditional author, and the traditional critic, into readers,” explains Voicu Mihnea Simandan, in a blog piece titled Barthes’s elements of intertextuality (see Note 1). The blogger elucidates further: “Barthes’s theory of text involves the theory of intertextuality because the text offers a plurality of meanings and is also woven out of numerous already existing texts. The text is not a unified, isolated object that gives a singular meaning, but an element open to various interpretations.”
Roland Barthes concludes The Death of the Author with the following lines: “… a text is made from multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused, and that place is the reader, not, as hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up the writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination … the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Barthes, 1977: p 148).
1/ Voicu Mihnea Simandan is a Bangkok-based Romanian expatriate who lives in Thailand. His blog is called A Romanian in Bangkok.
2/ This citation is the final passage in “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, by Roland Barthes, translated by Stephen Heath (1977).
The grey paint might just
be uglier than the tag
(03 April 2015)