Saturday, March 8, 2008

From "Dimensions for a Novel," by Elizabeth Bishop

To requote again {from Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"}: "The existing monuments [read moments] form an ideal order among themselves. . ." and "The existing order is complete before the new work arrives. . ."

Almost, it seems to me, one is born with a perfect sense of generalities. At five years one looks around the dinner table at the cumulative family with as great a sense of recognition and understanding as ever comes later on. There is always an absolute pitch, a perfection to the understanding which may shift, branch out suddenly, or retreat, and yet can never be "improved on." The existing order is complete; every other is absorbed into it. When you see someone for the first time, in the blank moment just before or during a hand-shake, this knowledge of them slips into the mind and no matter what you may learn of them later this is always the first fact about them: a knowledge of recognition which when compared to the things you may learn of them later is much the more amazing. The connection between this and my idea of the interplay of influence between present and past may seem at first a little obscure, but in reality the latter depends directly upon it. I can think of the existing moments which make up their "ideal order" as existing first of all as these moments of recognition. From a vacant pinpoint of certainty start out these geometrically accurate lines, star-beams, pricking out the past, or present, or casting ahead into the future.


We have all had the experience of apparently escaping the emotional results of an event, of feeling no joy or sorrow where joy or sorrow was to be expected, and the suddenly having the proper emotion appear several hours or even days later. The experience could not really have been counted chronologically as having taken place, surely, until this emotion belonging to it had been felt. The crises of our lives do not come, I think, accurately dated; they crop up unexpected and out of turn, and somehow or other arrange themselves according to a calendar we cannot control. If, for example, I have a "feeling" that something is going to happen, and it does, the the feeling proper to that experience has come too early—its proper place was afterwards. If I suffer a terrible loss and do not realize it till several years later among different surroundings, then the important fact is not the original loss so much as the circumstance of the new surroundings which succeeded in letting the loss through to my consciousness. It may seem that when a novelist talks about such things he is giving them the credit they deserve, but it seems to me that the fact of experience-time can be made of use possibly in its own order, in order to explain the endless hows and whys of incident and character more precisely than before. Again, I do not believe this in any way contradicts my belief in the expression of the constant re-adjustment of the actions within a novel—rather, it only helps to bear it out. Events arriving out of accepted order are nevertheless arriving in their own order, and the process will be just as true, no matter whether 2:4 :: 4:8, or 4:2 :: 8:4.

This is very plainly related to my original conviction that each successive part of a novel should somehow illuminate the preceding parts for us, that the whole should grow together. A belated emotion points back, of course, to whatever caused it, which was experienced in two different ways, each way exerting its own influence, the two seeking to eradicate or supplement each other.


In a recent little book called Acting, by Richard Bolislavsky, rhythm is defined as "the orderly, measurable changes of all the different elements comprised in a work of art—provided that all those changes progressively stimulate the attention of the spectator and lead invariably to the final aim of the artist." This definition, plain enough when applied, say, to the music of Mozart may seem rather obscure when applied to the loose form of the novel. But just possibly everything I have been saying could be set down under the heading of rhythm. The "ideal order," the relation of present to past in the novel naturally arises from "the orderly, measurable changes of all the different elements comprised." And my belief in the peculiar cross-hatchings of events and people also amounts to a feeling for rhythm. A superstition or coincidence, even, is "rhythmical" in that it achieves a motion between two things and a balancing of them. And what is "experience-time" but a more careful, exact method of looking at the materials to be used, and perhaps a means of marshalling them more rhythmically.

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