Thursday, April 12, 2012

The significance of dot dot dot

Young people have difficulty understanding the "coyly placed line of white space," according to (great sf author) Samuel Delaney. Michael Swanwick (also a writer of outstanding sf) quotes/summarises:
Today, I watch seminar rooms of graduate students misread both Bester and Conrad because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing both sex and violence. In Tiger! Tiger! the demonic antihero, Gully Foyle, invades Robin's exploded apartment and stalks across her living room to where she cowers away from him on the couch. There is a line of white space . . .
Foyle, of course, rapes Robin. But many of Chip's students simply can't see this. Nor, in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which the death of the African woman that Kurz has been sleeping with, occurs in another line of white space, can half the students understand that when Kurz cries, "The horror! The horror!," he is thinking of her death.

And, further down the page, he concludes:
"If he raped her, why didn't the writer say so?" "If they shot her, why didn't Conrad show her fall dead?" my graduate students ask.
The answer, of course: because they couldn't, and their audience knew they couldn't, so the author could safely assume that the reader would infer what was unsaid.
Delany continues:
It makes me wonder what other techniques for conveying the unspoken and the unspeakable we have forgotten how to read over four or five thousand years of "literacy."
As Swanwick says, that final sentence is "a speculation that opens vistas." He says, "Ever since, I've been thinking about the Bible and Gilgamesh and most especially the works of Homer and what I'm not seeing when I read them."
I wonder, though. It's not that a blank space here is an arbitrary convention. If you guess that something is missing then you can guess that it was unwritable for some reason. So it's not a rule that only makes sense once you learn it: it follows from some simple assumptions about communication and society. Delaney's students are halfway there when they ask the question: Why didn't he write it, if he meant it?
Similarly, one can guess why Victorian translations into English of books in various foreign languages sometimes switch into Latin, mid-sentence, when describing sex.
Of course we might be missing out on a lot of what, say, Homer assumed we would take as read because, firstly, he(/they) might have found things unsayable that we can't now guess, and secondly, he might have used some more arbitrary conventions that were known to his listeners/readers but which we can't work out from first principles.
One more or less arbitrary convention that I never understood the need for is the (19th c?) habit of shortening proper names to initials: Took the landau to T., where I met S., P. and X. and we discussed A.'s betrothal to Z. But it earns its keep in retrospect just by making this Woody Allen gag possible:
Should I marry W.? Not if she won't tell me the other letters in her name.


Andreas said...

About the last point: The idea here is most likely to heighten the sense that the novel is relating real events. This was seen as valuable by many 19th century novelists, and so this feigned repression of real names of people and places is supposed to give the impression of something close to journalism, etc. An obvious example is Dostoyevsky, where this technique is used in novels that present themselves as eye-witness accounts of crimes and scandals.

That's at least what I was taught in school.

nick said...

I'm sure that is right. But it never seemed very effective. A bit like shaky camerawork as a sort of Hollywood shortcut to (or shorthand for) authenticity. Once it's been done once or twice it's already overworked somehow.

I think it (the capital letter thing, not shaky camerawork) works better (and differently) in Kafka, where it's only the protagonist – I think – who is named only with a letter.