Sunday, December 18, 2005

EL Doctorow "Reporting the Universe"

Dem Wahren, Schönen, Guten

liked this and so do I:

From E. L. Doctorow, Reporting the Universe:

Henry James, in his essay 'The Art of Fiction,' suggests how fiction is made and the source of its genius as a system of knowledge. Speaking of the 'immense sensibility ... [that] takes to itself the faintest hints of life ... [and] converts the very pulses of the air into revelations," he celebrates the novelists intuitive faculty that, for example, would inspire a writer "who has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost" to write a book about the military. So that she might, as I extrapolate, walk past an army barracks and, hearing a fragment of soldiers' conversation, go home and write a credible novel about army life. This accords with my experience. I know I can hope to write well about places I've never seen and times before I was born and in voices other than my own. What is secret in all of this is not necessarily the power, as James describes it, "to guess the unseen from the seen." The secret may be that the discipline itself is capacitating, or as we've taken to saying lately, empowering. I have argued elsewhere that "a sentence spun from the imagination, that is, a sentence composed as a lie, confers on the writer a degree of perception or acuity or heightened awareness that a sentence composed with the strictest attention to fact does not." Why and how this is I don't know, but everyone from the writers of the ancient sacred texts to James himself has relied on that empowering paradox. It involves the working of our linguistic minds on the world of things-in-themselves, when, our perception shot through with memory, our consciousness haunted by dreams, we ascribe meaning to the unmeant and the sentence forms with such synaptic speed that the act of writing, when it is going well, seems no more than the dutiful secretarial response to a silent dictation.

But let's return to the idea that from one fragment of conversation overheard by the writer a whole life and culture can be projected. And of course it can be something else than a conversational fragment, it can be an image, a phrase of music, a felt injustice--any private excitement of the writer's mind so mysteriously evocative that it flowers into a novel. This, in microcosm, reminds me of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, which proposes that from the infinitesimal happenstance of a singular moment/thing the entire universe blow out into its dimensions, exploded in one silent flash into the volume and chronology of space-time.

Is this an outlandish comparison? Perhaps it would be less so if we brought God into the discussion; because if we are made in his image, then it is a truism that every work of art mimics God's cosmic creativity. (In the beginning was the Word.) The Big Bang is our newer more sophisticated though perhaps too flippant metaphor, and the intuitive use of the smallest amount of information to create a fictional world suggests more accurately, more precisely the little bang of the writer's inspiration. And if we recall Emerson's faculty of reporting (that's us) and the possibility of being reported (that's the univeerse), clearly the origin of the universe and the origin of every reported universe in the mind of the writer are isodynamic.

I'm satisfied that the ancient storytellers of the oral tradition, whose systematic fictions were to be eventually recorded in the sacred texts, would have attributed those fictions, or their inspiration, to God, would have attributed to God the consequential revelatory understandings that come of the practice of storytelling when it is done righteously, that is, in the belief that it is a system of knowledge.

Therefore, when I speak of the narratives of the Judeo-Christian heritage as fictions, and their historical communities of believers as fiction readers given, in Coleridge's phrase, to a "willing suspsension of disbelief," I am not speaking pejoratively, I am speaking as a writer about writing and reading, one who knows and can attest to the power of the not entirely rationally derived truths of good storytelling to affect mass consciousness and create moral constituencies.


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