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A Sudden FlightInk-black birds scatter,
Writing lines of free verse
Across a paper sky.
A Sudden FlightInk-black birds scatter,
Writing lines of free verse
Across a paper sky.
Whenever, I read a piece of literature, I always know if it is a poem or if it is prose. My intuition seems wiser than my capacity to reason in this respect, because it seems impossible to clearly define a difference between these two literary endeavors, at least none that can withstand serious philosophical scrutiny.
Admittedly most readers are content with identifying the obvious, superficial differences: poetry is sometimes rhymed, prose is not; poetry is often in stanzas, prose usually in paragraphs; and so forth. And some readers will go so far as to say that these differences may be no more than historical accidents, variations in style or purpose that have no deeper significance; that is, that poetry is nothing more than fancy prose!
However, the vast majority of poets would not agree with this view. And I believe I can speak for most poets when I say that we do not express precisely the same things in stanzas as we do in a paragraphs. Honestly, if we could express the same ideas in prose, we would probably not bother with poetry at all. Poetry can be more difficult. One has to deal with more misunderstandings, with more complexity, with more nuances, with educating oneself in a vast number of unheard of devices. It requires a degree of self culturing and fine tuning that would drive most creative writers insane.
So why do we write poems? Because, I believe, we want to guide our readers to ideas, feelings, impressions, bits and pieces of consciousness that are impossible to convey through mere prose; and that these encompass some of the most beautiful and profound of all our thoughts. That is to say that there are a vast number of thoughts that are not expressible through ordinary speech or prose, and which can only be reached obliquely and enigmatically through the creative endeavor that is poetry. And whereas poetry is comfortable being enigmatic, prose is almost always more comfortable being pragmatic and direct.
If you will forgive the paradox, through poetry, through its many strange devices and ambiguous figures and contrived forms, it becomes possible for us to express the inexpressible. To understand the poetic then is to analyze the inexpressible.
Now I am making a possibly unprovable assumption, that there is a clear division between those meanings which our natural languages evolved to express, and those which can only be hinted at through unusual devices and contrivances like metaphor and rhyme.
Normal speech relates to expressions which natural language is accustomed to and best suited for. Prose is usually an attempt to select the best and most eloquent of these. Poetry, on the other hand, seeks to go beyond the threshold that is permitted by natural language, as though the evolutionary development of language left out a significant aspect of ourselves which can only be regained through poetic transformations.
Whereas prose tends to be concerned with time (as in chronological and ordered series of events ), with space (as in well defined movement through visually imaginable places), and logic (as in chains of cause and effect); poetry tends to be concerned with rhythm, with visual organization on the page, with stepping outside rational boundaries. And whereas prose tends to be easily reworked into alternate readings, poetry tends to lose something of its essence in translation or explanation.
Npw for the sake of argument, suppose every statement of poetry could be written as prose and every statement of prose could be written as poetry. Then the following line by Langston Hughes could be adequately rendered as prose:
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.”
Try to consider what this line feels like, what its meaning is; and then attempt to render it in prose. It would have to be adaptable to a narrative. One would have to be able to wrench out its poetic sense while still indicating the same feeling and meaning. I have no intention of being rude, but I would argue that whatever line you produce would be insufficient. Imagine if someone asked about your day, and you told them the river asked you for a kiss. They would think you were crazy. Or imagine a character in a movie using this as dialogue (and not as a poem.) The effect would be bombastic.
Poetic phrases are selections of words that are just ambiguous enough to point to a deeper meaning that the reader must infer on their own. They create a dissonance between the expressible and the inexpressible, that makes the inexpressible inferable.
Consider a few more lines of poetry.
“Pour your poison on us; let it comfort
Us! We long, so does this fire burn our brains,
To dive into the gulf, Hell or Heaven,
What matter? Into the Unknown in search of the new!” by Charles Baudelaire
“Sad am I … The night encloses
Field and wood … The moon looms wan …
In his seat the driver dozes,
Through the snow the road drags on.” by Alexander Pushkin
“I think of escaping from the universe
To be a hermit in a vastness
Where a long wind comes from infinity
And rivers and seas wash away my turbulence.” by Wang Wei
“All your animal
loneliness, joined to your judgment, all things built with your hands
In a compass of silence bounded abstractly by stones,
Your vintages, the sauce
And the coarse, your aroused
And your delicate vines.” by Pablo Neruda
Whatever is truly poetic can not be expressed as prose.
One may rightfully argue that since the poetic line is expressing something, that something must be equivalent to the poetic meaning of the line. So all this talk about the inexpressible is totally off the mark. It doesn't matter, you might say, that a line isn't expressible as straightforward prose. It is closely translatable.
But the point is that very little in a poetic piece is rooted in a “literal meaning” or a “literal reading.” The reader is always being asked to think holistically and to extrapolate from what is given, to create, as it were, the meaning for themselves. So, I would reply, the poem is more like a symbol referring and directing one to the intended meaning,
One may argue also that many lines from poems read just like passages from novels or letters.
However, a string of lines can individually seem like prose, but when conjoined in a stanza evoke a whole new meaning by their proximity. So, it makes little difference if many pieces contain prosaic lines.
I think it would require a detailed analysis of what I mean by “inexpressible” with many case examples and variations on the idea to thoroughly debunk the notion that prose and poetry only vary superficially. However, I would consider the given definition to be a positive inspiration for those of us who wish to continue writing poetry and inventing new forms of expression, and it may assist us in our continued perseverance to capture the ineffable within usoetic expressions are those strings of words which compared with other modes of linguistic communication most resemble music, and whose meanings are just as difficult to express in ordinary language as, say, the meaning of a series of chords or notes. They attempt to rupture the divide between natural language and our own consciousness, by pointing the reader to those cracks in our linguistic code where language breaks down, and the inexpressible within us opens up.
Atomism, the theory that there exist elementary particles in which no further division into parts can be found, has been a persistent idea in the study of physics. Indeed, the very word atom, which means ‘indivisible,’ comes to us from the ancient Greeks. More than two thousand years ago, the philosopher Democritus argued that everything in nature was made of small, indestructible and indivisible units of matter. He called them ἄτομον, pronounced ‘atomon.’
A profound theory to be sure. Democritus is also credited for conceiving many other modern ideas, and I would argue that he is one of the very brightest of ancient thinkers.
Atoms were discovered, and scientists said they were indivisible. Nevertheless, it was later discovered that there are smaller particles of which atoms are composed. Besides the electron, there are protons and neutrons. Once again, it was thought that perhaps these new particles were the smallest units of matter.
No luck! It turns out that protons and are composed of quarks, and that besides quarks there are an alarmingly numerous quantity of other particles: muons, gluons, higgs-bosons, gravitons. The list is ever expanding.
We may wonder if atomism might not be incorrect.
In fact, Aristotle argued against atomism. In his view, matter is infinitely divisible. Although he was completely unaware of the existence of what we now call atoms, we can still attempt to modernize his view: any particle of matter, no matter how small, is composed of parts. Examine those parts, and we will discover yet smaller parts. There is infinite divisibility.
Now consider what this would imply: any piece of matter —your hand, for example— would be composed of infinitely many discrete parts. We would literally be walking bundles of infinite complexity.
This is not impossible from a mathematical point of view. It has been proven absolutely and incontrovertibly that infinite series of discrete parts can add together to a finite sum. This is one of the fundamental propositions of calculus. So, there is nothing wrong with infinite divisibility, mathematically speaking.
Opposed to this theory are two arguments: one is the theory of strings, the other is implied by the Big Bang.
String theory proposes that there exist elementary particles that are indivisible and indestructible (does this sound familiar?) from which all things in the universe are formed.
Indeed, string theory is just atomism again on a much smaller scale. And it is very popular among physicists!
But there are some lingering metaphysical questions: how could there have been “created” an indestructible unit of matter? How could something come into being, yet be incapable of returning to nothingness? Other questions related to the nature of strings are more complicated, but no less troublesome philosophically. How can strings vibrate if they have no smaller parts? I don't want to delve into the unusual laws of quantum mechanics here, but suffice it to say that there might exist bizarre answers to these questions. String theory may very well be true. Only scientific experiment can really prove it one way or another.
But the fundamental assumption of a smallest unit of matter should not stand without being seriously scrutinized. Scientists have been wrong too many times to have so much faith in it.
We should consider if Aristotle was not on the right track. Perhaps there is a series of particles of ever smaller size that continue in an infinite descent, particles smaller than quarks, smaller even than strings.
There is a peculiar problem, however, for Aristotle’s infinite divisibility. Given that the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe, how could an infinite chain of descending particles have been set in motion? There can not be a finite beginning for an infinite chain of events. If each particle is dependent on smaller particles, it can not be formed before the smaller particles, rather it must follow from them in a temporal sequence of cause and effect. One way out of this logical conundrum is Roger Penrose’s concept of cyclical universes. According to him, there may not be just this one Big Bang, but a series of them which came before ours. There may, according to his thinking, have been infinitely many Big Bangs, one proceeding the next, spanning an eternity.So many questions, and many more inspired by these! The human race can not hope to answer them all. I would only like to encourage readers to always question received knowledge. We know far less about the universe than we like to presume!
Seven hundred years ago, Europe began a revolution in commerce without precedent in its rapid growth and without comparison in its transformation of society and the environment. Europeans learned that through an increased consumption of merchandise, they could raise their standard of living and enlarge their opportunities for wealth through the diversification of the market. Goods of incredible variety were invented and sold at an ever increasing rate. The more of these goods they purchased, the better the economy seemed to do, the higher their wages rose, and the more excess money they had available to spend on more trivial goods.
An unexpected and unfortunate byproduct of this development was a society dependent on the consumption of trivial material goods, goods they didn't need in any sense of the word but nevertheless wanted. Philosophers, writers and theologians debated at the time about the pluses and minuses of so much consumption. They worried that the resulting materialism inspired vanity and eroded everyone’s sense of virtue. Preachers purportedly even advised parents against permitting their children from passing storefronts because of the vanity it inspired.
Their drive for economic growth did not come without other costs as well. Unimaginable quantities of material were used and then disposed of with no long term idea of the effect it would have on the environment. Ever greater quantities of resources had to be extracted from the environment, transportation consumed ever increasing amounts of energy and invaded ever widening lands to compete for markets. A handful of European nations expanded their influence, exporting wars, colonization and mass exploitation across the entire globe.
The aggregate waste of the production, transportation and disposal of trivial goods has caused and continues to cause irreparable harm to our environment. But there is an additional waste as well. People who have various talents, say in art or communication or spirituality, lose a significant portion of their work lives to the manufacture and consumption of trivial material goods, goods which they do not need but nevertheless consume as though they were dependent on them.
I have wondered recently if there isn’t a possible relief for both society and the environment in the commerce of ideas, a substitute for purely material production that could fuel a substantial portion of the economy of the future and hopefully satisfy people in a healthier way.
By the commerce of ideas, I mean in particular the exchange of goods which attempt to satisfy our higher needs of love, esteem, and self-actualization. Artwork, newsmedia, education, music, visual performance, therapy, and literature are a few examples of essentially non-material goods which can be bought and sold, which attempt to meet our higher needs, and which, interestingly, until the commercial revolution had relatively little monetary value compared with the aggregate gross of other forms of work. They are also all potentially green, as they do not necessarily require a significant amount of material waste and are each infinitely renewable. (See my previous journal entry on the topic of potentially infinite language for a justification of this point.)
There is no limit to the amount that can be taught or created, nor are we limited to a purely material means of exchange as we are with other commercial goods. A teacher needs only space to work in and a few resources (which, if we want to be environmentally responsible, can be reduced to a minimum.) Similarly musicians do not by necessity have to use an excess of material goods to be commercially successful. Although musicians formerly relied on the production of such material goods —vinyl disks, tape cassettes, cds— this has largely been replaced by the computer. Hence both musicians and educators can use a single device to exchange their goods for money. Likewise literature, art, news and various other commercial goods can be bought and sold without additional waste using the very same device.
If society were capable of switching from an economy based largely on the manufacture of trivial material goods to a vastly expanded commerce of ideas, the aggregate waste of production and transportation could be drastically reduced while at the same time potentially improving the quality of life by helping people meet their higher needs and aspirations.
What difference does it make —so long as a base of manufacture sustains our basic needs like food and shelter— if we are selling material goods or if we are selling music, education, entertainment, art or other forms of non-material goods?
I believe a change of this kind is coming whether we are conscious of it or not. It does not seem to me to be dependent upon a government or a mass movement, although one or the other may speed up our progress towards that destination.
Before the industrial revolution, musicians —unless they were opera singers or worked for the state— only rarely made a living creating music. Education consisted largely of teachers who worked for room and board in the houses of aristocrats. There were few paid athletes. Social work was largely unpaid or performed by clergymen. The vast majority of artists struggled unless they were sponsored by a patron, or could sell a few pieces in a gallery. The only institution of any great wealth that purported to help people meet their higher needs in those days was the church, whose message was that poverty was virtuous and insisted that most of its representatives behave as such. But there has always been a profound impetus for people to make their living meeting their higher needs, to make money doing what they enjoy (not everyone in this world necessarily wants to work as a wage slave producing and selling goods they see no value in.) This impetus has been driving the expansion and diversification of the economy for centuries. And I see no reason why that expansion will cease until everyone in society is producing the kinds of goods that give them a sense of satisfaction and value in their lives.
You may recall that wealthy societies tend to conceive fewer children than poor societies in proportion to their average standard of living. They do not have to be told to do so, but do it as a natural tendency. Just so, it is as if societies with a sufficient economic base naturally create new forms of subsistence that meet their higher needs.
This does not to imply that societies necessarily become more noble or moral, nor has literature necessarily become deeper or more intellectual as a result of a larger number of authors and genres. Commercialism by no means leads by necessity to moral or intellectual superiority. It simply provides more opportunities for buying and selling goods, be it for better or for worse. And I do not believe that society will naturally progress towards egalitarianism through commercialism. The human race is profoundly flawed and always has been. But the potential for change and progress is available as an option.
I certainly hope we do make progress, and transform our society into something sustainable while continuing to grow economically, and that we shift a greater portion of our energies to the commerce of ideas. And perhaps in the passage of time, gain greater happiness and independence through a clever transformation of our buying and spending.
It would be very depressing to assume that we must continue producing more and more trivial goods, extracting larger and larger quantities of natural resources just to keep society from disintegrating. Such growth, be it for several hundred more years or several thousand, is ultimately unsustainable.We can, I believe, evolve into something new, something potentially better and greater than anything seen before in human history. And I firmly believe that if we as a global society were to do nothing more than value each other's thoughts and feelings more, exchange our ideas in ever new and creative ways, to listen, to learn, to create and to entertain one another, we would have achieved substantial progress towards a sustainable future.
“Language is the infinite use of finite means.” Wilhelm von Humboldt
The purpose of this journal entry is to give a long and thoughtful response to a recent forum post. The post voiced the belief that since our language consists of a finite number of letters and words, there are only a finite number of possible expressions. These expressions can only be combined in a finite number of ways. Therefore, there are only a finite number of possible stories we can tell. At some point we will have to start repeating ourselves and have nothing new to say. How depressing!
A quick Google search reveals that a number of linguists and bloggers have written similar remarks on the topic. Their arguments often seem sound on the surface. They take the total number of words in a given dictionary and count how many possible sentences of finite length can be created using those words. The result is a finite, albeit very large, number. Problem solved, right?
Not so fast. A number of very prominent linguists and philosophers have argued otherwise. For example, Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and the revered von Humboldt have all expressed their belief that language, in particular the natural language we use to write stories and poetry, is in fact infinite despite its finite resources.
So which is it? Are we stuck with a limited number of stories? Or are the naysayers missing something?
I propose the following thought experiment:
Suppose our universe were to continue forever. There’s no big crunch, no apocalypse; time stretches on forever. Suppose that every couple decades or so, a person capable of speaking language is born so that there is a continuous series of language-using descendants. Each descendant tells their life story by doing nothing more than describing in detail each day as it happens. By necessity each story will be unique, since each person would be a successor of the last. However, if one claims that language is finite, this is equivalent to saying that at some point the stories will be exact repetitions of previously written stories. Hence, people will have to repeat the lives of previously deceased ancestors. That's impossible (and quite absurd actually.)
Therefore, language must be infinite in order to account for the stories of new people. So, any claim that language is finite must include some false assumption that unnecessarily constrains the natural characteristics of meaning and expression.
I believe the confusion comes from the unnecessary assumption that we can only use one dictionary rather than realizing that the dictionary can change and morph without limit. If we could, for example, track every word of every language from the first words spoken by humanoids to the present, we would find a set increasing without bounds.
Perhaps we will be forced by the naysayers to reduce a noun like ‘John’ to one and only one meaning. But how absurd is that? Suppose I include in an essay the phrase ‘John was the King.’ If I mean King John, the phrase means one thing; but if I mean some guy who works at Subway and is the king of sandwiches, the phrase has a totally different meaning. So, we can not simply count ‘John’ as one eternally same thing. And no one who writes stories would ever assume so!
Language is also infinite in another way. It can be used to represent numbers. Any number can be expressed as a series of words. There are infinitely many numbers and therefore infinitely many sentences containing those numbers. “I like the number X, I like the number X+1, …” Just replace X with any whole number and continue without end. There is a constraint on how long of a sentence we would be willing to utter; but this is not a constraint of language, just of our patience. Each number we utter will be of finite length, and yet —surprise, surprise— there's no limit to how many of them we can produce. Infinity is a tricky concept, isn't it?
I'm utterly unconvinced by anyone’s demonstration that language is finite. They are invariably including some unnecessary constraint that biases the argument in their favor.
Like numbers, language is capable of infinite variation even if it’s constrained to a finite number of symbols. Consider binary numbers. Everything on your computer screen is represented as an ordered set of 0’s and 1’s. Just two symbols! Two symbols can be used to represent an infinite quantity of numbers. (There are in fact multiple sizes of infinity. Cantor proved this over a hundred years ago. Google his name if this interests you.) Humans, admittedly, are hardly capable of expressing themselves this way. However, unlike computers, we are not stuck with our unforgiving programs. We can use shortcuts and abbreviations and grammatical tricks. We can change the meaning of a word or change its connotation. We have more freedom and license. In this way we take our potentially infinite natural language and compact its features into a justifiably brief and pragmatic set, the living language of our time.
Similarly, we can use the recursive properties of sentences. However, I don't think a discussion of this would add significantly to my essay.
More to the point, even if we did nothing more than tell our own life story, we would be telling a unique story. That is guaranteed. If we write a poem about a particular event in our lives in sufficient detail, it will be unique, because it is our event and ours alone. We will certainly want to create things that are interesting and original, but those two constraints have nothing to do with the basic capacity of language to express infinitely many ideas. Interest and originality are constrained by our time and place, by when and where our work appears in a living network of thinking beings, and are not constants of the universe.
I don't understand how people who claim to be linguists can argue that language is finite. Perhaps they fail to understand the mathematical nature of infinity. (It has many counterintuitive characteristics and requires some sophistication to understand.) Or perhaps these bloggers and linguists are just not creative writers or poets, and haven't delved deeply enough into the fluid nature of words and expressions.
-Bell Sound- by Duo Duo
No bell had sounded to awaken memory
But today I heard
It strike nine times
And wondered how many more times.
I heard it while coming out of the stables.
I walked a mile
And again I heard:
“At what point in the struggle for better conditions
Will you succeed in increasing your servility?”
Just then, I began to envy the horse left behind in the stables.
Just then, the man riding me struck my face.
Note: this poem was written by a Chinese dissident well after the Communist Revolution. So, I've made certain assumptions about his political attitudes.
I would not be surprised if this poem was an actual dream the poet scribbled down one morning, because so many elements in it are reminiscent of the kinds of symbols or substitutions one finds in a dream.
It is written from the perspective of a horse (or a man dreaming he is a horse.)
As the horse leaves its stables, a bell sounds. The bell strikes nine times, but the horse wonders if the bell hadn’t been striking for a much longer period. Then a voice sounds, and it is implied that the bell has transformed into this voice. When the poet says “and again I heard,” he is essentially fusing these two normally distinct things.
It must be remembered that bells have a symbolic value, particularly for those with a background in Buddhism. The bell of mindfulness calls those who meditate to realize their true natures (or to awaken their “memories”). And just so, the bell here seems to call the horse to realize its own servile nature.
The stables are, relatively speaking, a sanctuary. It is in the stables that one does not have to struggle to “better their conditions.” Do they symbolize an earlier period in China’s history? Perhaps, one whose hardships were only mildly unpleasant due to the conditions of life, but not terribly so? An obvious answer would be that, if the rider represents the Communist State in China and the horses are the people who support it, then the stables are the natural conditions of people who are content without the Communist State.
However, more generally, I think the rider could represent any political movement that pushes the population into submission with empty promises, that professes grand strategies yet produces nothing but greater servitude.
This is, therefore, a universal allegory. And its power comes through the perfect placement of lines and images. Indeed, it is only in the last line that one feels the full strength of the poem; it strikes the reader like a slap on the face, just as the horse in the poem is slapped. It is then we realize that the horse is a symbol for mankind struggling to better his conditions, to be duped into becoming the servant of another man.
And the poem itself is a bell, or a disembodied voice, calling on the horses among the masses to awaken to their true natures.
I think it is important to emphasize a few points from the previous journal. I find many of the explanations of plot found in textbooks to be vague in the extreme. Most of these explanations miss the point that the protagonist must be challenged not merely by an external force, but by an internal division that frustrates progress and must be resolved. It is this internal interest that often makes the difference between high art and mere entertainment.
Therefore, we have the following explanation of The Dramatic Mechanism: the thematic problem must compel the protagonist to decide between contrary actions. The protagonist must feel both attachment and aversion in response to the thematic problem. Their feelings must be balanced and weighed one against the other before a decision can be reached. The general arc of the story will therefore require inner growth, thought, deliberation, an exercise of will. If the climax and denouement are too predictable, this is a clear sign that the dramatic mechanism has not been utilized.
Basic misunderstandings about the functions of the parts of plot lead to errors in the interpretations of even famous, major works. For example, in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” considered by many as the greatest literary achievement of the nineteenth century, the character Alyosha is often cited as the protagonist. Others cite multiple protagonists. In fact, Alyosha’s brother Dmitri is the protagonist.
Given our knowledge that Dmitri is the protagonist, we may infer that the major theme is this: “can a person be truly innocent, if their heart is guilty?” Recall that in the Gospels it is written that a person who commits murder in their heart has already sinned. In the Russian classic, Dmitri's dilemma is contrasted by his two brothers Alyosha, the “hero”-monk, and Ivan, the disreputable atheist.
Dmitri's desire to kill his own father is broadcast widely throughout the first half of the book. Dmitri can not forgive his father and comes very close to killing him. However, he doesnt go through with it. Later when his father is murdered by someone else, Dmitri is immediately charged for the crime. It does not matter that he is actually innocent! The denouement follows: conviction for patricide and exile to Siberia.
If the protagonist is always certain how they will solve a problem, then there is no mystery, no suspense, and hence no drama. Therefore the thematic problem must in some way challenge the protagonist to do something new. Even Sherlock Holmes was required to battle with internal problems to solve a crime. The same can be said of other “invincible” heros. The best adventure stories are never solely about the hero defeating a nemesis or solving a mystery.
Attachment and aversion in detail:
The protagonist feels compelled to resolve the thematic problem. However, they are divided by conflicted feelings of attachment and aversion (for example, an attachment to duty and an aversion to follow a particular order, or an attachment to family but an aversion for a spouse). Often they must face complications and further struggles before they can find a resolution. In 'The Brothers Karamazov,' Dmitri desires to kill his father over money and their mutual infatuation with the same woman. This aversion agrees with his brother Ivan’s nihilistic philosophy that if there is no God, everything —including murdering one’s own parent— is permitted. In almost equal proportion, Dmitri desires to forgive his father and to be healed. His attachment to the old religious ideal of forgiveness corresponds to his other brother Alyosha’s sentiment that one must love others as God intended them to be, and not as they appear to us through mortal eyes. So, Dmitri both wants to kill his father and to save him. He oscillates between hatred and love, murder and forgiveness, doubt and faith —issues that must be weighed and resolved before any climatic action can be taken.
, once the climax has been reached, the protagonist may accept the story’s descent towards the denouement, resist it or, what is better, do both. Indeed, if these feelings of resistance and acceptance are cleverly balanced, then the result will be high drama.
Acceptance and Resistance in detail:
Protagonists continue making important decisions after the climax and the tension felt as they attempt to make those decisions corresponds to their willingness to accept or to resist the coming denouement. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Romeo accepts his star-crossed fate by contemplating suicide. However, he then protracts the story, resisting death, traveling to Mantua and hoping to be reunited with Juliet. There is a tension between acceptance and resistance; the more closely balanced they are, the greater the tension. Likewise, in ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ Dmitri both accepts and resists his accusation of murder. He both wants to face punishment for a crime he didn't commit and to escape it.
In the following series of journals, I will be covering various aspects of the theory of narrative. Although much of the material is based on the writings of Aristotle and Freytag, I have adapted many ideas according my own analysis of the subject.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet will serve as our primary source of examples since it is both well-known and classically structured.
A plot is a chain of cause and effect actuated by the will of the story’s protagonist. It is not enough that things happen to the protagonist, the protagonist must change and make decisions on their own. It is only their decisions that constitute the plot.
A cause is any problem the protagonist feels compelled to solve. The effect is whatever results from their acting to solve that problem.
Many writers on subject lose sight of the fact that it is not just any chain of cause and effect that works, nor is the protagonist just some character who stands out more than others. Note also that plot differs from story. A story is less formal, less mechanical. In the examples given below, I have written the story first and then given the actual plot in parenthesis.
The protagonist’s actions perpetuate the plot's chain of cause and effect. Therefore, the protagonist can not be a being incapable of making decisions, devoid of will. They can not be an infant, for example. They can not be an insentient force or an abstract group. Typically the best characters are those capable of ethical distinction, be that for good or evil.
In the case of Romeo and Juliet, that protagonist is Romeo. This is not to say that other characters like Juliet, Tybalt and Mercutio don't make important decisions in the plot, only that their decisions are ancillary to the plot.
We start by dividing the plot into three key components: the thematic problem, the climax and the denouement. We may then subdivide these into a total of seven parts: introduction, thematic problem, ascending action, climax, descending action, denouement and conclusion. Some writers, in particular Freytag, divide these into eight parts, but I believe the eighth to be superfluous.
The thematic problem is the force that pushes the story forward. Without it, there is no plot. Anything that happens before it is introductory and serves only to provide helpful material to make the story more understandable and believable. The problem must be such that it compels the protagonist to act.
The purpose of the introduction is to create a sense of believability in the reader, and to facilitate in understanding both the thematic problem and why it affects the protagonist.
Introduction: there is an ongoing feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. Fights often break out between the two factions. Prince Escalus warns the factions that they must not disturb the peace again, or he will resort to capital punishment. Meanwhile, Romeo feels love-sick for Rosaline. Capulet tells Paris that he may not marry his daughter Juliet until she is older. Romeo and his friends learn of a party being held by the Capulets, and decide to go to it as masquers. At the party, Tybalt sees Romeo, but is prevented from fighting him by Capulet. (Plot: Romeo is heartbroken. So he decides to go to a party even though the party is being held by mortal enemies.)Thematic
Thematic Problem: Romeo meets Juliet, and they instantly fall in love. However, given the antagonism between the Montagues and the Capulets, it is impossible for the two star-crossed lovers to be together. Romeo must therefore must find some make to make the impossible possible. A tension results. Romeo is attached to Juliet because of his love for her, but he also feels an aversion for betraying his family and his city. Therefore, he is limited in his solutions. He can't simply take Juliet away to another city. He must find a way to appease the Capulets and all related parties. His principal obstruction being Juliet’s cousin Tybalt whom Juliet adores as equally as Romeo is loathed by Tybalt. The introduction and the inciting event form a complete unit that drive the plot forward. (Plot: Romeo falls in love with Juliet at the party. He must find some way to be with the girl he loves while preserving the peace and not offending both families.)
Note that if we were to reveal to a first time reader that Romeo kills himself at the end, there would be great surprise. Information that would make sense of the suicide is missing.
The protagonist feels compelled to make a decision, and, at least in the best writing, they must change emotionally, spiritually or in some other significant way before a decision can be made. The writer may at this point cause delays and add various events that give greater depth to the story. Although the writer can choose any number of additional events, the most pure form of writing would only add events that in some way increase the reader's depth of understanding of the plot and its theme.
Ascending Action: Romeo tells Friar Laurence what has happened. The Friar decides that by marrying Romeo and Juliet, he may bridge a peace between their warring families. Tybalt sends Romeo a challenge to fight. Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet are married in secret. Tybalt, looking for Romeo, finds Benvolio and Mercutio. Romeo arrives. He is challenged by Tybalt to fight but refuses. Mercutio fights Tybalt and is fatally wounded by him. (Plot: Romeo tries to solve the thematic problem by marrying Juliet in secret. Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt, a Capulet, in an effort to maintain the peace. But seeing Mercutio killed, Romeo seeks revenge.)
Climax: Romeo decides to fight Tybalt and kills him. Notice that this one decision seals his fate. If he had not fought Tybalt, then, being married to Juliet, he would still seek opportunities to both be with Juliet and make both families happy, and the plot would still be winding indecisively forward. (Plot: in this case it is essentially the same as the story.)
Note that this decision by Romeo significantly changes his fate. It answers the question: what has a greater weight, romantic love or the ongoing fued between the families? If we were to tell a first time reader that Romeo will commit suicide at the end, it would make sense. He has ruined any chance of resolving his main conflict. He can't both be with Juliet and maintain peace in Verona. Indeed, he almost immediately contemplates suicide.
After the protagonist makes the decision to act, thus attempting to resolve the inciting problem, the action of the story moves towards a total resolution or denouement. Whatever happens does so by a necessity totally dependent on that decision.
Descending Action: Romeo is banished by the prince. The Friar advises him to visit Juliet secretly, then to leave for Mantua. Capulet tells Paris he may marry Juliet in three days. Juliet refuses to marry Paris. The Friar devises a plan: he will give her a drink that will make her appear dead and thus avoid the marriage. Juliet tells her father she will now marry Paris. Juliet exits and drinks the liquid. When her unconscious body is discovered she is assumed dead and taken to a tomb. Romeo, not aware of the Friar’s plan, believes that Juliet is dead. He, now intent on dying, buys poison and goes to Juliet’s crypt where he encounters Paris. They fight, and Romeo kills Paris. (Plot: Romeo despairs his fate and his exile, but he has faith in the Friar’s wisdom and leaves for Mantua. Upon learning that Juliet is dead, Romeo returns to Verona, determined to kill himself besides Juliet’s tomb. Upon reaching the tomb he encounters Paris. He fights and kills Paris, before reaching Juliet’s tomb.)
Thematic Solution: Romeo drinks the poison and dies. This effectively ends any continuation of the plot. At this point it is appropriate to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary action. It is a subtle, philosophical difference. Imagine Romeo’s suicide had he not been exiled and had Juliet not seemingly committed suicide herself. Both the fake suicide of Juliet and the exile of Romeo were direct results of the death of Tybalt, a decision made by Romeo, and not the act of falling in love. Had Romeo committed suicide without killing Tybalt the resulting play would be far weaker. (Plot: in this case it is the same as story.)
Conclusion: The Friar arrives to see Romeo dead and Juliet waking. She refuses to leave, and kills herself with Romeo’s dagger. Officers arrive, and rouse the families and the Prince. The Friar explains what has happened. Montague and Capulet agree to make peace with each other. The final words giving the reader an overall view of the world of the story after the denouement. Essentially the writer eases the reader away from the story with a few ideas the help the reader predict what might happen next if the story were to continue. However, the conclusion is not essential to plot. There are examples of stories that don't use them. ‘Vivre Sa Vie’ is a French new wave film that ends abruptly and immediately after the protagonist is shot dead. There is no conclusion and yet the film is widely considered one of the best art films of all time. (Plot: there is no advancement of plot here. There are only parts providing a clear closure to the plot.)
The main theme of a classical piece is always a question related to human nature. In Antigone, the Greek tragedy, the question 'what is more important, family or state?’ is answered by the actions of the protagonist. Many thematic questions exist. What is the difference between good and evil? Is man the master of nature or visa versa? Are ethics universal or relative?
The possible themes are many, but they are always questions. This opinion differs slightly from the standard one. However, in my view the theme is the question. It is posed by the thematic problem. The protagonist by dealing with the problem attempts to answer the theme’s question through the climax. The denouement then settles the question as to whether the protagonist made the right choice or not.
Therefore, the plot is both question and answer, posing a theme and meditating on it.
Once again, classical plot contains three key components: the thematic problem, the climax, and the denouement. The protagonist feels compelled to solve the thematic problem. The climax is the solution to that problem. If the solution is a good one, then the denouement is happy. If the solution is not good, then the denouement is unhappy.
Once these basic parts of plot are understood, their uses can be expanded to include multiple storylines in a series, a trilogy or other variations.
I do not desire to imply in the above essay that there is only one correct way to create a story. A great number of works have been written that are anti-classical and even anti-plot; for example, the works of certain Dadaists, Gertrude Stein, some works by James Joyce, and much of the work of William S. Burroughs. I don't believe that a writer is ever limited this one structure.
My main hypothesis is that plot is an analog of human self-awareness. Just as I exert my own will power in a conscious attempt to solve the problem I encounter in life, the protagonist exerts their will to solve the thematic problem; we can each be either right or wrong about the results. This analog of human will is the foundation of plot.In the next journal, we will attempt to further dissect the plot, moving from large, abstract parts to small, concrete ones.
“The slow leaves recall a child who gravely
Dreams vague things he cannot understand.”
Jorge Luis Borges
Catachresis, also called an implied metaphor, is the twisting of a word from its proper application to an improper one.
More specifically, we may define four basic types of misapplication:
Stretching the meaning of a word or phrase to its limits.
Replacing an easily understood word with an ambiguous synonym.
Replacing an expected word with a half rhyming word.
Using an incorrect word when there is no suitable word available.
I will speak daggers to her, but use none. Shakespeare
Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse. Shakespeare
… take arms against a sea of troubles. Shakespeare
The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses; Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands… E.E. Cummings
Their crimson flesh hovers there, light in the air drowsy with dense slumbers. Stephanie Mallarmé
Drunk with milk of gold. Jules Laforgue
I dreamed of green nights and glittering snow, slow kisses rising in the eyes of the sea. Rimbaud
Since the device requires the misapplication of various words, there is the possibility that the writer will create mixed metaphors without any meaning at all. So, it is important to have a clear idea or impression of what is being implied.
Some individuals use the device unwittingly with painfully embarrassing results:
Examples of catachresis poorly used:
We’ll let our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America will be the pacemakers. G. Bush (type C)
Anyone engaging in illegal financial transactions will be caught and persecuted. G. Bush (type C)
See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda. G. Bush (type A)
George Bush is truly the master of poor usage in all its forms. Comedians work very hard to invent jokes that are as funny as Bush’s unintended malaprops.
Various sources online cite catachresis as a vice. They confuse it with mixed metaphor. Although it is true that the unintentional use of catachresis is sometimes a vice, the work of so many writers and poets —particularly Symbolists, Dadaists, and Surrealists— proves that the device has profound uses as well.The principal use, so far as I am concerned, is to convey meaning at the limit of what is expressible. It is therefore quintessential in poems having a dream-like or surrealistic quality.