A passage in an essay by Joyce Carol Oates stopped me cold in my tracks:
Literature is not a medium that lends itself well to the Surrealist adventure of disponibilite. Even radically experimental fiction requires some strategy of causation, otherwise readers won’t trouble to turn pages. Unlike most visual art, which can be experienced in a single gaze, fiction is a matter of subsequent and successive gazes, mimicking chronological time, as it is locked into chronological time. … (“Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature,” New York Review of Books, August 13)
So that’s been my “problem” as a poet and novelist? A surrealist adventure? Oh, my! I’ve long been fond of surrealism, often because I often see and hear life in that vein. While stopping short of subscribing to any manifesto, including those that gave rise to dada and surrealism, their ambitions continue to suggest possibilities for artistic exploration and discovery. As for chronological narrative, certainly there must be other ways to relate an event. Right? Well, even the alternative realities of dreams seem to emerge along timelines of some sort, even if they overlap from episode to episode that form what is remembered as a single dream event. A poem, moreover, can aspire to exist purely within a given moment it expresses, even if the reader returns to the lines repeatedly.
Maybe my saving grace here is in my assumption of invisible roots – everything happens for a reason, even accidents. (You don’t have to impute divine intervention there, either.) Perceiving these underlying currents, as some would suggest, demands something other than Aristotelian logic. Hence, the surrealist option, among others.
I do like Oates’ sense of gazes adding up into a quilt-work pattern, though, especially when they can bounce off each other to create yet something more.
And then her essay takes a remarkable turn that reinforces my invisible-roots assumption:
The hypocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped part of the brain necessary for long-term storage of factual and experiential memory, though it is not the site of such storage. Short-term memory is transient, long-term memory can prevail for many decades … If the hypocampus is injured or atrophied, there can be no further storage of memory in the brain – there will be no new memory. I have come to think that art is the formal commemoration of life in its variety – the novel, for instance, is “historic” in its embodiment of a specific place and time, and its suggestion that there is meaning in our actions. It is virtually impossible to create art without an inherent meaning, even if that meaning is presented as mysterious and unknowable.
Again, I’ve long viewed my writing as an attempt to remember what’s right in front of me in my life. Let’s face it, everything often seems chaotic. Times of reflection and self-evaluation are crucial. It’s easy to leap from there, as I’ve found, into meditation and the Quaker practice of group worship grounded in silence itself. Along these lines, Oates puts all this into another framework:
Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depths of art, and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture – no collective memory. As if memory were destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we “were” no one – we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary society, where so much concentration is focused upon social media, insatiable in its fleeting interests, the “stillness and thoughtfulness” of more permanent art feels threatened. As human beings we crave “meaning” – which only art can provide; but social media provide no meaning, only this succession of fleeting impressions whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products.
The motive for metaphor, then, is a motive for survival as a species, as a culture, and as individuals.
Of course, I would see true religion, not art, as the provider of “meaning.” And now the conversation would turn lively.