Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Francis Schaeffer's Perspective #3: Continuity with Words and Syntax

Perspective #3. In all forms of writing, both poetry and prose, it makes a tremendous difference whether there is a continuity or a discontinuity with the normal definitions of words in normal syntax. 

In this perspective, Schaeffer uses both literature and painting as examples. It is easier to comprehend his point by first considering a picture. Abstract art will have shapes and colors but does not communicate anything concretely
meaningful. One may look at the art and see something familiar. For example, in this picture, I see a fish feeding. But I also see the mouth and chin of a child; and a giant hair follicle or maybe Larry the Cucumber. In abstract art, one sees intriguing and aesthetically appealing shapes and colors, but they have no meaning except what the observer gives to them, a meaning that comes out of an association between what he sees in the art and what he knows as real and has a meaning which everyone agrees on.

Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, might be considered abstract art in prose.[1] Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll, less so. It is classified as a nonsense poem, but  does have enough sense to it that the killing of a monster is not missed. Its appeal (and clarity also) is heightened when read aloud.
Akin to totally abstract art is art that has identifiable forms in it, but are arranged in such a way that in a casual glance one’s mind does not detect anything amiss; but then, on closer scrutiny, they defy meaning. The graphic art of Maurits Cornelis Escher is an example. In his painting, Relativity (1953), there are a number of stairways and windows that in themselves make perfect sense. But there are people walking up and down them in ways that are impossible and therefore make no sense. For example, the stair at the top of the picture has two persons on it facing the same direction and nearly at the same point, but one is moving up the steps while the other is going down them. We are imaginatively torn as we try to conceive of both true at the same time. We are trying to turn the illogical visuals into something logical, and it gives rise to a frustrating feeling of helplessness because what seems to make sense at first suddenly becomes impossible and thereby has no sense at all. Prose that mimics this kind of art can produce the same frustration.

Schaeffer does not see such art as intrinsically immoral or anti-Christian, but simply that it loses a dimension of communication.[2] Here we are brought back to the point that communication in art is significant, and if so, it increases its value. Communication is important, and it implies a message. It is message that writers of speculative fiction (or any fiction) must give care to. Carelessness or insenstivity in the use of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar will affect the clarity and possibly the meaning of the message. It is not simply words arranged according to rules of grammar and syntax. It is more. Stephen King made the astute observation, “Take any noun. Put it together with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails.”[3] The noun and verb follow the rules of grammar and syntax. We may think that all sentences with just a noun and verb say little – except the Johannine observation, Jesus wept. That simple sentence is a jewel whose beauty is magnified by the contextual earth it lies in.

Consider the noun Frog and put it with the verb sings - Frog sings. Does the sentence say something? We know there are no such things as singing frogs, except imaginary ones. A singing frog makes no sense. Are we to say that a story about a singing frog has no value because of the unlikelihood (really, impossibility) of any frog having the ability to sing. Warner Brothers introduced Michigan J Frog in a Looney Tune cartoon on December 31, 1955 entitled, One Froggy Evening
If you’re as old as I am, you likely saw it in its debut. The animated feature was a speculative masterpiece, and it did say something – this world is cursed and our best plans go awry. The humor may have dulled that point, but it was there. A singing frog makes no sense, but a story about a singing frog can make a lot of sense. That is why the Chronicles of Narnia makes sense. Talking beavers are illogical, but they can say things that are profoundly true. Speculative fiction uses the illogical, but it does so in such a way that a message is communicated. Speculative fiction is not abstract art, and it should not be art that frustrates because it is imaginatively perplexing.

[1] “The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical items and neologistic multilingual puns and portmanteau words, which many critics believe attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams. Owing to the work's expansive linguistic experiments, stream of consciousness writing style, literary allusions, free dream associations, and its abandonment of the conventions of plot and character construction, Finnegans Wake remains largely unread by the general public.” Wikipedia Article, FinnegansWake.

[2] Schaeffer writes, “If there is no continuity with the way in which language is normally used, then there is no way for a reader or an audience to know what the author is saying. . . When, therefore, there is no attempt on the part of an artist to use the symbolic vocabulary at all, then communication is impossible here, too. There is then no way for anyone to know what the artist is saying,” 37-38.

[3] Stephen King, On Writing.

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