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.

 

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).

 

 

The basis of optimism

Grammarly shared this on Facebook, on 24 January 2015

Grammarly shared this meme on Facebook, on 24 January 2015

The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid of ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde)

“Oscar! I don’t get it. Please explain!” That was my reaction when I recently encountered again these words, spoken by Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s famous novel. But with time to think, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don’t do optimism. I’d say I’m a realist. Life is tough enough without setting myself up for disappointment.

You know the old saying referred to in the Grammarly meme: an optimist sees the glass as half full whilst a pessimist considers it half empty. I don’t think that’s the kind of optimism Wilde had in mind: his words (in the mouth of Lord Henry) align optimism with something akin to hope − but a hope predicated on a terrifyingly low self-esteem.

For many of us, optimism is about making the best of a bad situation – it is what we opt for when our circumstances are far from optimal. But hoping for the best is tantamount to fearing the worst. That’s why the words “think positive” so often jar with me: they invariably send the signal, “There’s something wrong here” … or, “They won’t like me” … or, “I’m not good enough”.

“Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed,” was, according to Alexander Pope, the ninth Beatitude (see note below).

All too few of us can meet every situation with equanimity – acknowledging feelings, but not involving them in the decision-making process. So now I’m pondering what Marianne Williamson means when she declares:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

Feeling insecure is hardly unusual among human beings. We’re generally not so much scared of other people, per se, as afraid of not fitting in. But, as Williamson explains, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

On the other hand, St Paul warns his readers “not to have exaggerated ideas about your own importance. Instead, develop a sober estimate of yourself based on the standard which God has given to each of you, namely, trust” (Romans 12:3, Complete Jewish Bible).

That word, trust, is akin to confidence. And confidence seems to work, even when it’s a con. Coco Chanel put it well: “Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”

But, as is so often the case, it is to Lao-Tzu we can turn to sum it all up for us: “Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”

 


NOTES:

Read the Wikipedia article about The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Alexander Pope (in collaboration with John Gay) wrote his “Blessed is he …” in a letter to William Fortescue (23 September 1725), declaring it “the ninth Beatitude which a man of wit (who, like a man of wit, was a long time in gaol) added to the eighth.” (Wikiquote)

Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) Copyright © 1998 by David H Stern. All rights reserved.

The Coco Chanel quote appears in Believing in Ourselves: The Wisdom of Women by Armand Eisen (editor).

Williamson, Marianne. 1992. A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. New York: Harper Collins. [Chapter 7, Section 3 (p190-191)]

Note About Nelson Mandela: The quote from Marianne Williamson is often found on the Internet incorrectly credited as being from Nelson Mandela’s Inauguration Speech, 1994, especially the last sentence, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Giving up the past

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

A little piece I wrote back in 2010 – Sanitation? … or sanitization? – has been receiving a bit of attention from blog-readers in recent times, so I took another look at it myself … and it seems quite an appropriate topic for the season of Lent (which began last Wednesday (05 March).

Responding to a comment on the original post, I explained that “The between-the-lines inferences and implications of my post [had] to do, on the one hand, with destroying incriminating evidence, hiding my inner life … and, on the other hand, with holding on to mementos and souvenirs, and maintaining a record of things I [wanted] to remember.”

A bit cryptic – to say the least.

In the original post, I quoted something from A. Whitney Brown: “The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.” (A. Whitney Brown, in The Big Picture)

What I didn’t make clear, in that 2010 post, is that what happened in the past is still in the past – nothing of the event itself is actually happening now. In effect, all that’s happening now is that a voice in my head is reading aloud what got written down in the past, and maybe reminding me about the wrong I have done and the good I have not done … and maybe I’m cringing, feeling guilty.

An act of contrition is one thing; getting rid of the rubbish is another. But this is not a lenten sermon, so back to the crux of the matter: “Giving up the past”.

In my experience, the inclination to clutter is often the outcome of either of two impulses: at one extreme is the Proustian urge to document everything (see note 1 below); at the other end of the scale, I hang on to things I cannot find the inner resources to attend to, process, or deal with.

Of late, I’ve been managing pretty much all the day-to-day chores and commitments, but there is a persistent residue that is harder to shift. A high percentage of that stuff still clutters my living-space; the remainder clutters my mind and my heart. The physical clutter is the manifestation of inner states, and its persistence is invariably anchored in the past.

The prophet Isaiah – who, by the way, had some worthwhile things to say about fasting and repentance (see Note 2 below) – said: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” (Isaiah 43:18, NIV). Whilst digging around on the interweb, I found a nice paraphrase: “When your past calls, let it go to voice-mail. It has nothing new to say.”

So I have plenty of work to do – giving up my past, and putting out the psychological and emotional trash.
__________

NOTES:

1/ Proust, who claims to have no memory, keeps track of everything. His letters (there are several thousand) provide a running inventory of his bodily functions – letters to his mother providing an update of his respiratory condition, letters to his doctor listing the details of his menu, little notes handed to his housekeeper every morning reporting the number of times he coughed the night before. (Rebecca Comay, in Proust’s Remains)  

2/ The symbolism of the familiar Ash Wednesday ritual – a cross smeared on the forehead using the ashes of palms gathered up after the Palm Sunday procession – connects back to repentance practices in Old Testament times – see Isaiah 58, for example. 

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)

 

 

Making the cut

You knew – you must have
known – how deeply you could cut
with that knife of yours.

Life is dropping crumbs
(which the birds will eat) – no point
hoping to get out

alive. Gratitude
counts for a great deal, you know …
but then, who’s counting?

Strictly speaking, only the syllables are correct. Does it still count as a haibun? But this piece (seventeen three times) playfully (suggestively) (arbitrarily) offers up a sampling of the cuts and connections that came to mind whilst reading something else. (And here I give thanks to Derrida.)

Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!

"La Marseillaise"

“La Marseillaise”

Yesterday, on the eve of Bastille Day, I experienced “patriotism” more profoundly than ever before. The agent of my enlightenment was Mireille Mathieu – and I have not a drop of French blood. 😉 PS: I was listening to a radio programme of music by French composers on Radio New Zealand Concert.

This post appeared on a certain Facebook page on 14 July, but I did not have the opportunity to post it here at that time … so I have adjusted the publication date.

Starting again … again

water feature (25 January 2009)

water feature (25 January 2009)

Nothing of my past
(or virtually nothing)
seems suitable now;
not quite inappropriate
– merely ineffectual.

This morning I snapped
the connection between now
and my history.
Don’t ask me who I am; time
starts now … and again starts now.

(10 June 2013)

__________

Written yesterday, the tanka serves as a marker: I am starting again … again. 

The image, shot in 2009 but not selected for display, now appeals to me afresh.