Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
"On Beauty and Being Wrong,"
Zadie Smith's On Beauty
April 9, 2007


"What to do with all this useless beauty?"

How 'bout Using it as an Invitation into the Unconscious?

"Howard had walked out of the churchyard, turned left and kept on walking. He had no plans--or at least, his conscious mind told him he had none. His subconscious had other ideas. He was heading for...his 'working class roots'....[He visits and argues with his father.] They didn't mean it to be like this. But it was like this. Both had other intentions. Howard...was a big malleable ball of potential change...[but] his childhood had been shot through with this meaningless noise...Half-lived life. The unexamined life is not worth living. That had been Howard's callow teenage dictum. Nobody tells you, at seventeen, that examining it will be half the trouble" (291-297).

Smith's novel is filled with people
(including Howard's children)
who "think too much."

"Considering things too much, all the time, was the definition of who [Jerome] was." (Ch. 5, p. 45)

"Poor Zora, she lived through footnotes." (Ch. 7, p. 70)

Today I want to explore with you the possibility that
Smith is advocating an alternative to all this thinking.
All this narrativizing. All this story-making--
an alternative she locates in
the sensory receptors of the unconscious.

Beginning with a brief re-cap/slight elaboration (via lunch; thanks, Paul) of last week's conversations:

For example, when Kiki views Charlene's painting of



Maitresse Erzulie by Hector Hyppolite

"It was painted in a primitive, childlike style, everything flat on the canvas. No perspective, no depth....'It's lovely'....'she's my favourite. She's a great Voodoo goodess, Erzulie. She's called the Black Virgin--also, the Violent Venus....She represents love, beauty, purity, the ideal female and the moon....and she's the mystère of jealousy, vengeance and discord, and, on the other hand, of love, perpetual help, goodwill, health, beauty and fortune....rather like all the Catholic saints rolled into one being.'

'That's interesting...' began Kiki shyly, giving herself a moment to remember a thesis of Howard's which she now wished to reproduce as her own for Carlene. 'Because...we're so binary, of course, in the way we think. We tend to think in opposites, in the Christian world. We're structured like that...'

'That's a clever way to put it. I like her parrots.'" (Pt. 2, Ch. 4, p. 175)

Like Forster, Smith is unable to conceive of a place of continued narrative.

Howard's professional position is one of turning the narrative into the non-narrative.


At home, Howard eschews figural painting:

Kiki to Charlene, about Erzulie: "'It's lovely. I just love portrats. We don't have any paintings in our house. At least, none of human beings.' 'Oh, that's terrible,' said Carlene and looked stricken...'They're my company --they're the greater part of my joy.'" (p. 175).

Encountering a new person, Howard turns him into a painting:




Pieter Pauwel Rubens (1577-1640), Four Studies of the Head of a Negro

"'Are you at Wellington? Familiar face,' said Howard distractedly...Carl laughed, a strange artificial laugh that had more anger in it than good humour. 'Do I look like I'm at Wellington?'....'Rubens,' said Howard suddenly. 'Your face. From the four African heads. Nice to meet you, anyway.' Howard's family stared at him....Kiki tried to patch the thing up. It's remarkable what a face like Carl's makes you want to do in order to see it smile again." (Ch. 7, pp. 76-78).

Encountering a narrative portrait, Howard turns it into something non-narrative:

"'Hendrickje Bathing, 1654'....On the wall, a pretty, blousy Dutch woman in a simple white smock paddled in water up to her calves....The woman...looked away, coyly, into the water. She seemed to be considering whether to wade deeper. The surface of the water was dark, reflective--a cautious bather could not be certain of what lurked beneath...."

"Howard made the picture larger...The woman's fleshiness fill the wall....her skin had been expertly rendered in all its variety--chalky whites and lively pinks, the underlying blue of her veins and the ever present human hint of yellow, intimation of what is to come" (pp. 442-442).

(What is to come?)

Of most interest to me is Howard's attempt
to do something similar with writing:
to bring the energy of the as-yet-unspoken
to premature conclusion. Consider Monty's response
to Howard's attempt to preview his lectures:

"'I hold myself completely responsible for the contents of the lectures I give. But I am afraid I am quite unable to answer his frankly bizarre request for their "intention"....I had no idea...what a stickler he was for the absolute nature of the written world....Dr. Belsey, if I may refer you to one of your own liberal lodestars, Jean-Paul Sartre, "We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are--that is the fact"....How...can I possibly predict before I give my lectures how the "multivalency"...of my own text will be received in the "heterogenous consciousnesses" of my audience?'"

In other words, how can he "fix" his narrative ahead of time,
make it non-narrative/predictable/known
before an audience engages with it?

How teleological is this?
How existential might it be?

Safire, On Language: "Existential,"NYTimes Magazine (4/8/07):
"the cheerful philosophy of existentialism...summed up as "there is no God or we're not sure." In 1846, the Dane Soren Kierkegaard set forth Existents-Forhold, holding that the need to make painful ethical decisions was the source of mankind's dread and despair; that man was solitary, existing in isolation. The fact of being totally free - therefore, uniquely responsible - scares us in the most profound way, requiring a 'leap of faith' to find God.

Friedrich Nietzsche later worked it over into his God-is-dead nihilism. Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1940s retained that atheism but stressed that the sources of dread - the key word in existentialism - were our denials of personal responsibility, our failure to fight for ourselves in a hostile universe and our craven flight from 'inescapable freedom' (that last is a great oxymoron). The existential way to live was to 'stand as if on a trap door' that might spring open at any moment."

Smith's characters have a rich repertorie of tricks to avoid the "trap-door sensation"--
including the making of stories.

Remember Margaret's complaint to Leonard Bast about her sister's listening habits?

"'this very symphony that we've just been having--she won't let it alone. She labels it with meanings from start to finish; turns it into literature. I wonder if the day will ever return when music will be treated as music."

Remember how many of us also turned the music into a story? Kiki does this, too:

"Mozart's Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit....Your death is awaiting you in that pit....In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined...in which you were the only black woman....The job of this choir is judgement....It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be. Also surprising are the mermaids and the apes that persist on dancing around each other and sliding down an ornate staircase...."(p. 69)

Why do we make stories out of music?
Can we stop ourselves from doing so?
Why would we want to?

What about painting?
Can you look at non-representational art
without telling a story about it?




What do you see?

Are you moved by what you see?

James Eakins, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (2004), Chapter 1, "Crying at nothing but colors": "It is likely that the majority of people who have wept over twentieth-century paintings have done so in front of Rothko's paintings...."

Can you be moved by "nothing but colors," without turning them into a narrative?

Tom Sarrantonio (a landscape artist): "Rothko was a landscape artist."

Is there something deeply narrative-making
(pattern-making? meaning-making?) about us all?

Something our consciousness does, with the
sensory material that enters our unconscious?

Might(?) one describe the history of art history as an alternation between the attempt to create (and celebrate) timeless, still Platonic forms, and a counter-refusal of that intent, by surrealists, among others, who painted restless chaotic forms? With art historians, all the while, turning both forms of non-narrative into narrative?

Let's keep trying this out:
can photography be non-narrative?



Liam Frankland, "Rapeseed-Rothko"

Can the written word be non-narrative?

Can fiction be non-narrative?

Consider Samuel Beckett's Lessness:
Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind. All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only upright. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless.

Beckett wrote each of these sixty sentences on a separate piece of paper, mixed them all in a container, and then drew them out in random order twice....Beckett told Cohn that this aleatory method was 'the only honest thing to do'....Indeed, whether Beckett shaped the flow of the work or whether the ordering of the sentences is actually random is less significant than the appearance of randomness.... Lessness works on the nerves rather than the intellect of its readers....It is a piece that seems on many counts to fulfil Samuel Beckett's ideal of 'accommodating the chaos' of consciousness in linguistic form. (Lessness: Randomness, Consciousness and Meaning)

How useful (generative?) is this story about our two interconnected stories? Unwilling to write random narrative, like Beckett, and unable to imagine a place of continued narrative, both Forster and Smith tried to shape their fiction around the possibility (in the immortal words of PG), "interconnected vastness, or i.v. or 'ivy' for short, a fundamental drive that is not...permanently achievable, in part because it conflicts with... a wish for autonomy" [and movement]?

Our immediate response to beauty is an unconscious act, one Smith wants to preserve. She distrusts the conscious (academic intellectual) analysis of that experience--because it limits the experience itself?


Cf. Denis Dutton's scathing critique
of Scarry's argumentation in On Beauty and being Just with

Dalke & Grobstein, Story-Telling in (At Least) Three Dimensions:
An Exploration of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Beyond
:
"Because both of us were...convinced that the academic enterprise generally emphasizes explicit, language-based, descriptive exploration at the cost of implicit, action-based engagement, we agreed on the need to find ways of effectively blending, rather than opposing, the two activities in an introductory college-level writing-and-thinking course. The guiding concept of our planning was our awareness that understanding involves a continual cyclic interaction between knowledge acquired largely unconsciously through action, and critical synthetic processes that are mostly conscious."

Could that be why Howard "interrogates" beauty so relentlessly,
and why Smith defends it as steadfastly...?

In an essay on Forster, Smith wrote: "There is no bigger crime in the English comic novel than thinking you are right...a lesson that must also apply to the comic novelist."

Has she applied it to herself?
Can we apply it to her?


For Thursday's discussion:
please finish the novel

Third Paper, on the evolution of literary stories,
due a week from Friday, 4/20:
hard copy and on-line by 5 p.m.


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