Kenneth Baker, art critic
Dreaming by the Bookby Elaine Scarry
Dreaming by the Book explores the almost miraculous processes by which poets and writers teach us the work of imaginative creation. Writers from Homer to Heaney instruct us in the art of mental composition, even as their poems progress. Just as painters understand paint, composers musical instruments, and sculptors stone or metal, verbal artists understand/i>
Dreaming by the Book explores the almost miraculous processes by which poets and writers teach us the work of imaginative creation. Writers from Homer to Heaney instruct us in the art of mental composition, even as their poems progress. Just as painters understand paint, composers musical instruments, and sculptors stone or metal, verbal artists understand the only material in which their creations will get madethe back-lit tissue of the human brain. In her brilliant synthesis of literary criticism, philosophy, and cognitive psychology, Elaine Scarry explores the principal practices by which writers bring things to life for their readers.
Kenneth Baker, art critic
"A startling inquiry . . . a truly revealing phenomenology of imagination. . . . Dreaming by the Book will affect how one reads fiction and poetry as few critical works have done before."Kenneth Baker, art critic, San Francisco Chronicle
"[Scarry] is extremely ambitious, seeking nothing less than a theory of literary cognition. . . . Her interest, which is really in aesthetic success, makes her an original."James Wood, New Republic
"Her approach often recalls that of . . . Descartes and Hume as she attempts to solve the riddle of how the mind works. Scarry is an original, interdisciplinary thinker. She writes like someone enraptured by both the natural world . . . and by language."Publishers Weekly
"[Scarry] has written an appendix to Aristotle, perhaps best entitled De Imaginatione, though I wonder whether it fits better to the end of his De Anima, 'On the Soul,' or his Poetics."Virginia Quarterly Review
- Princeton University Press
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- First Princeton Edition
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- 5.48(w) x 8.51(h) x 0.75(d)
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When we speak in everyday conversation about the imagination, we often attribute to it powers that are greater than ordinary sensation. But when we are asked to perform the concrete experiment of comparing an imagined object with a perceptual onethat is, of actually stopping, closing our eyes, concentrating on the imagined face or the imagined room, then opening our eyes and comparing its attributes to whatever greets us when we return to the sensory worldwe at once reach the opposite conclusion: the imagined object lacks the vitality and vivacity of the perceived one; it is in fact these very attributes of vitality and vivacity that enable us to differentiate the actual world present to our senses from the one that we introduce through the exercise of the imagination. Even if, as Jean-Paul Sartre observed, the object we select to imagine in this experiment is the face of a beloved friend, one we know in intricate detail (as Sartre knew the faces of Annie and Pierre), it will be, by comparison with an actually present face, "thin," "dry," "two-dimensional," and "inert."
It seems that we tend to notice the inadequacy of daydreamed faces only when we are especially keen on seeing a specific person's face, only when we desperately care to have it present in the mind with clarity and force. We then notice the deficiency, and, like Proust's Marcel, who berates himself for his inability to picture the face of Albertine or the face of his grandmother, we conclude that the vacuity of our imagining issomehow peculiar to our feeling about this particular person and that there must be a hidden defect in our affection. But the vacuity is instead general, and all that is peculiar or particular to such cases is the intensity of "wishing to imagine" that makes us confront, with more than usual honesty, the fact that we cannot do so. It is when we are soaked with the longing to imagine that we notice, as John Keats confessed, "the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do." By means of the vividness of perceptions, we remain at all moments capable of recovering, of "recognizing" the material world and distinguishing it from our imaginary world, even as we lapse into and out of our gray and ghostly daydreams. Aristotle refers to this grayness as "the feebleness" of images. Sartre calls it their "essential poverty."
Of course, insofar as the imagination is enfeebled and impoverished, it is so only on sensory grounds. To complain that the imagined object lacks vivacity and vitality is only to complain that it is not a perceptual object, since vivacity and vitality are the very heart of perception. We should not be surprised that the sensory realm surpasses the imaginary realm on sensory ground; we should only be surprised that this does not always strike us with the force of tautology. Phrased another way, only by decoupling "vividness" from "the imaginary" (where we unreflectingly and inaccurately place it in many everyday conversations about aesthetics) and attaching it to its proper moorings in perception, can we then even recognize, first, that the imagined object is not ordinarily vivid, and second, that its not being vivid is tautologically bound up with its being imaginary.
Now it is a remarkable fact that this ordinary enfeeblement of images has a striking exception in the verbal arts, where images somehow do acquire the vivacity of perceptual objects, and it is the purpose of this book to trace some of the ways this comes about. The verbal arts are of particular concern here because theyunlike painting, music, sculpture, theater, and filmare almost wholly devoid of actual sensory content. There is nothing mysterious about the fact that a painting approximates or exceeds the vivacity of the visible world, since it is itself a piece of the visible world. A painting by Henri Matisse or one of the great Florentine colorists, for example, saturates our eyes with actual sensory experience. The airy yellow and ochre stripes of Interior at Nice set off an unceasing succession of retinal events thatcarrying us out across the white shimmer of curtain, or back into the golden sheen held cuplike in the olive-green taffeta chairare, whatever else they are, starkly perceptual acts. The same is true of music (why should it not share the vividness of the audible world when it is itself audible?), of sculpture (which inhabits, hence participates in, the vividness of the tactile and visual realms), and of theater and film (brimming with auditory and visual commitments). But verbal art, especially narrative, is almost bereft of any sensuous content. Its visual features, as has often been observed, consist of monotonous small black marks on a white page. It has no acoustical features. Its tactile features are limited to the weight of its pages, their smooth surfaces, and their exquisitely thin edges. The attributes it has that are directly apprehensible by perception are, then, meager in number. More important, these attributes are utterly irrelevant, sometimes even antagonistic, to the mental images that a poem or novel seeks to produce (steam rising across a windowpane, the sound of a stone dropped in a pool, the feel of dry August grass underfoot), the ones whose vivacity is under investigation here.
To be clear, it might be useful to distinguish three phenomena. First, immediate sensory content: the light-filled surface of Matisse's Interior at Nice, the sweet fleeting notes of "Honeysuckle Rose" on Fats Waller's piano recording, or indeed the particular room one, at this moment, inhabits while reading. Second, delayed sensory content, or what can be called "instructions for the production of actual sensory content." A musical score has no immediate acoustical content, only the immediate visual content of lines and dots and the immediate tactile content of the smooth, thin pages, but it does directly specify a sequence of actions that, if followed, produces actually audible content. The third case, in contra-distinction to the first two, has no actual sensory content, whether immediate or delayed; there is instead only mimetic content, the figural rooms and faces and weather that we mimetically see, touch, and hear, though in no case do we actually do so.
It probably makes sense in this third case, as in the second, to use the word "instructions." When we say "Emily Brontë describes Catherine's face," we might also say "Brontë gives us a set of instructions for how to imagine or construct Catherine's face." This reformulation is accurate if cumbersome, in that it shifts the site of mimesis from the object to the mental act. We habitually say of images in novels that they "represent" or "are mimetic of" the real world. But the mimesis is perhaps less in them than in our seeing of them. In imagining Catherine's face, we perform a mimesis of actually seeing a face; in imagining the sweep of the wind across the moors, we perform a mimesis of actually hearing the wind. Imagining is an act of perceptual mimesis, whether undertaken in our own daydreams or under the instruction of great writers. And the question is: how does it come about that this perceptual mimesis, which when undertaken on one's own is ordinarily feeble and impoverished, when under authorial instruction sometimes closely approximates actual perception? In the poem "Birthplace," Seamus Heaney describes a young boy named Seamus Heaney staying up all night to read for the first time a novel (Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native) and at dawn not knowing whether the newborn sounds of bird and rooster and dog were coming to him from the surface of the field or from the surface of the page. The question is: by what miracle is a writer able to incite us to bring forth mental images that resemble in their quality not our own daydreaming but our own (much more freely practiced) perceptual acts?
Each of the arts incites us to the practice of all three acts: immediate perception, delayed perception, and mimetic perception. But painting, sculpture, music, film, and theater are weighted toward the first, or (perhaps more accurately) they bring about the second and the third by means of their elaborate commitments to the first; whereas the verbal arts take place almost exclusively in the third. Within the verbal, a further distinction must be made. Both narrative prose and poetry devote themselves centrally to mimetic perception, but poetry retains a strong engagement with delayed perception, the second category: like the musical score, its sequence of printed signs contains a set of instructions for the production of actual sound; the page does not itself sing but exists forever on the verge of song. Poetryagain unlike narrativeeven has immediate sensory content, since the visual disposition of the lines and stanzas provides an at once apprehensible visual rhythm that is a prelude to, or rehearsal for, or promise of, the beautiful regulation of sound to come.
William Wordsworth describes two fish imprisoned in a glass bowl that, though they lack the song of larks and bees, produce a type of sun-writing in their "glittering motions" (their "golden flash and silver gleam"):
How beautiful!Yet none knows why
This ever graceful change,
Within your quiet range.
Is this beautiful display closer to the scattering of light in the yellow stripes of Matisse's Interior at Nice (or, for that matter, his many paintings of goldfish), or is it instead like the scattering of light in the silver flash and gleam of the sword dance in Far from the Madding Crowd, or the lightning dance of Gabriel Oak when, "sensitive of every ray," he secures the hayricks in a midnight storm?
Although its tone and content overlap with Matisse's, there can be no question that, in terms of the categories posed here, Wordsworth's sun-writing and Hardy's light-writing are the same. Matisse's "colors bright" and pigment "sensitive of every ray" are physically present and engage us in a starkly actual perceptual act, whereas Wordsworth and Hardy produce in our minds sudden radiant ignitions that are vividly mimetic of actually seen light but are not themselves actually seen. Yet because of the sound of the poem, the palpable touch of the interior parts of the mouth glancing across one another even in silent reading, and because of the visual scanning of the lines, the material surface of the poem is closer to the material surface of Matisse's painting than is Hardy's prose: that is, while Wordsworth is much closer to Hardy than to Matisse, he is a little closer to Matisse than Hardy is. Everything that I wish to say in what follows is as true of poetry as of prose, but it is harder to say clear sentences about the subject because one has to stop and qualify. Both prose and poem take place in the realm of the non-actual, but the poem is a few inches to the left of the narrative since it has its metrical feet in the material world. Therefore, in looking at how vivacity is achieved in the imagination, I will at first stay with prose. Prose requires of us neither immediate perception nor delayed perception; it instead requires nonactual or mimetic perception.
We shall find that imaginary vivacity comes about by reproducing the deep structure of perception. On one level this is wholly unsurprising: if imagining is a mimesis of perception, then successful imagining will of course come about through the accuracy or acuity of the mimesis. Still, it seems amazing that what in perception comes to be imitated is not only the sensory outcome (the way something looks or sounds or feels beneath the hands) but the actual structure of production that gave rise to the perception; that is, the material conditions that made it look, sound, or feel the way it did. I will illustrate this startling phenomenon with a very specific example, then turn back to the global features of narrative that also illustrate it.
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