Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Details: Proust, van Eyck, Nabokov, et al.

This week I've been thinking about details in the arts. I'm thinking of the intricate layering of Bach's powerful, divine music; the almost painfully realistic details of Jan van Eyck; and the sprawling, nearly neurotic prose of Proust. The small image of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434) to the left does the masterwork no justice. Click the image or view the image at this location. Zoom in on the image, spend time grazing over every piece of it, and, above all, savor the fine details. This is an oil painting on wood panel, and Jan van Eyck has obviously given much attention to detail: look at the fabric of the foreground characters' clothing, look at the chandelier, look in the mirror! I would post a picture of one of Bosch's triptychs, but looking at both van Eyck's picture and Bosch's would effect a sort of Stendhal syndrome that wouldn't allow you to read the rest of my post!

In his Cornell University lecture, Vladimir Nabokov urged readers to give themselves over to the authors words. Good readers take in and process and feel and see and hear and smell every detail because good readers recognize that the author has taken time to use her or his creative genius to construct a world the reader can live in. In fact, Nabokov views writing as a medium of connection between reader and writer. The two parties, through the world the author has created for the reader, can meet at the top of the mountain and have a conversation. So, the more refined the details are, and the more we as readers take in these details, the more realistic and powerful this mountaintop communication between reader and writer, or observer and painter, or listener and composer, will be. Is too much detail gratuitous and superfluous? Well, look at van Eyck's painting again and ask yourself if it would have the same power with less detail. The same theory, in my opinion, can be applied to literature.I've also been reading Stanley Fish's latest book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, the basic premise of which is that good readers and good writers (to allude back to Nabokov) love sentences. And it's true. I've never thought to focus on sentences as the objects of my literary affections--usually I refer to really enjoying an author's style (form, tone, etc.)--but Fish is right. Words by themselves are discrete objects wandering around looking to join with one another to establish meaning. Sentences string words together in such a way as to construct meaning. So when it comes down to do it, a writer's merit can be measured by her or his ability to write sentences. And those sentences--thinking in terms of content--work to create details that paint a picture that tells a story. Sentences, then, are time capsules of details, waiting for the reader to discover them.

Some call him trite and others call him genius, while still more call him mostly boring with a chance of sunshine. I call him a master of his craft. He sets out to capture a world he once knew in all its vivid details, which flood his mind as he lies on his sickbed in his sickroom, writing out the final moments of his life. This is far more than the psychoanalysis equivalent of free association (Henry Miller's Tropic of... books come to mind when thinking of disjointed free association; William S. Burroughs's fragmentary "cut-ups" too). This is an artist's ability to reach down into the depths of the human psyche and survey the strange elusive lands against the details that weave together the diorama of everyday life. Whenever I think of details, Marcel Proust comes to mind. Instantly. It's an association as tightly coupled as the associations Proust himself describes when he tastes the madeleines and lime blossom tea. Let's take a moment to enjoy Lydia Davis's superb translation of the most popular moment in Proust's magnum opus (the original French version of Proust's first volume, Du Coté de Chez Swann, is available for free on Gutenburg):

But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside of me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.

This is, in fact, to be a defining moment for Proust, who is attributed with voluntary (or Proustian) memory. But this is a small taste (pun intended) of Proust's ability to take a single action or object and meditate on it sentence after sentence, clause after clause. And, really, this is a very minor example; it just happens to be a portion of his work one cannot omit. Further along in this first volume, the reader encounters details of musical pieces and several paintings that will give you quite a literary workout. As most know, his prose is very demanding of the reader: there is very little dialogue, and there are subordinate clauses that stretch sentences for pages, shifting and tuning a deep meditative thought until Proust qualifies it with a single verb and ends the whole mini event with a bang. This is, of course, captured better in the original French, but as I've already mentioned Lydia Davis's English translation does justice to Proust's form. And she doesn't use British slang like some of the Penguin translators of the subsequent volumes.

But details aren't limited to the prose heavyweights. The iconic minimalist himself, Ernest Hemingway, does not eschew details as a result of his minimalist style; he just packages the details a little differently than, say, Proust or Milton. If we want to explain it in formal terms, we might say the difference can be described as between hypotaxis and parataxis, where Proust's writing exemplifies the former and Hem's the latter. In parataxis, we are given what Stanley Fish refers to as additive sentences. That is, we just keep adding to and adding to, without subordination. Consider this excerpt from "The Big Two-Hearted River, Part I":

The coffee boiled as he watched. The lid came up and coffee and grounds ran down the side of the pot. Nick took it off the grill. [...] He put sugar in the empty apricot cup and poured some of the coffee out to cool. It was too hot to pour and he used his hat to hold the handle of the coffee pot. He would not let it steep in the pot at all. Not the first cup. It should be straight.

Short, clear sentences with simple words. Taken from their context these sentences seem pretentiously banal--I've heard at least one person say that Hemingway, at this point, was just writing whatever because he'd secured an audience. That is, I suppose, Hemingway has established an ethos that allows him to ruminate everyday occurrences to a captive audience without care. I don't pretend that the above snippet or the entire story is without vulnerability to being construed as such, but banality happens to be the point of the details here, and Hemingway was almost insane about his style, sometimes spending hours writing only one paragraph that he was satisfied with. The onslaught of details wrapped in Hem's trademark sharp, cutting, raw, terse sentences, in the additive manner, move the reader headlong through the story. Then, here and there, Hem simply drops in one of Nick's thoughts, usually without a narrative indicator such as "he thought," which allows the story to produce the perfect simulation of a man alone in the wilderness with only his thoughts. Through not only detail after detail, narrative descriptor after narrative descriptor, the reader is able to feel the full arch of human emotion, from Nick's being content with the simplicity of Nature all the way to Nick's anxieties about the independence of Nature from humanity. Note: You'll really need to read both parts of "The Big Two-Hearted River" to feel these two spectra concerning Nature, but you'll get my formalistic points no matter which story you read.

I've often heard readers' complaints that follow a pattern of "I don't need three pages describing a sunset" or "Why does this writer feel the need to weigh my mind down with exhaustive biographical exposition for a minor character?" (the psychoanalytic critic in me always stirs at this latter complaint!). There's also the common writing advice that urges authors to write only what's necessary, which ends up being an interesting paradox with most artists and seems to reveal the chasm that separates high and low art. In the world of cinema, Michael Haneke comes to mind. He is constantly berated for annoying, pointless lingering and empty space, while at the same time Haneke states that he "shoots only what is necessary" (I have no citation for this, and I'm not being graded for a change! Seriously though, check out this essay for the reference). Typically what happens is the two sides of the argument--those who herald the meticulous details and those who deride them--settle on the fact that writers like Proust are writers' writers and auteurs like Haneke are filmmakers' filmmakers. In other words, only an aspiring writer could admire Proust. I believe the fact is that there are no facts. We might do as well to argue over euthanasia or capital punishment because it's a battle of subjectivity. All I can offer is my opinion, and my opinion is that details can be savored just as the otherwise boring bits of everyday life can be savored. We need only to stop, settle ourselves, and yield to the artful details all around us.