• “You after all then now don’t?” Henry James (The Sacred Fount).

Henry James (1843-1916) is notorious for writing things like “What could he have done, after all, in her lifetime, without giving them both, as it were, away?” which comes from his short story, “The Beast in the Jungle.”Reading James can be extremely frustrating at first, but once you get through a particularly dense paragraph you find yourself feeling more confident and a bit snooty, like you’ve just followed some very tough directions for putting together a lamp or fixing a faucet, and succeeded.

The line above is from his novel, The Sacred Fount, considered by some critics to be unreadable. Actually, as a novel it is unreadable, but if you check in with it every now and again you can actually enjoy the book in short bursts, treat it like the merciless exercise in observation that it is, and, as R. P. Blackmur (1904-1965) has said, find the novel a “lucid nightmare of James’s hallucinated struggle with his conscience as a novelist.”

And don’t forget–that line above (preceded by dialogue asking a character if he still feels a certain way) really does make sense, if you read it enough times. (Originally posted January 2, 2013)

Showing and Telling

  • You can hold a mimetic theory of the novel if you believe the narrational methods of fiction to resemble those of drama, and you can hold a diegetic theory of painting if you posit visual spectacle to be analogous to linguistic transmission. Bordwell.

This remark, from David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film (Routledge 1986, page 3) is split in two–and each tweet has, coincidentally, EXACTLY the same number of characters! But that’s not why you called.

The point Bordwell makes is that the novel can be thought of as an example of showing something (it can be mimetic), as if the novelist is putting on a play, while a painting might be thought of as an example of telling (diegetic), if you think of the painting itself as the “tale” the painter is telling.

More typically, of course, we think the other way around: novels tell us something and paintings show us something. Bordwell’s  reminder alerts us to alternative perspectives for interpretation. (Originally posted December 30, 2011)