Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Too close, too much

Interestingly, in the same passages of Delany and Josipovici that I wrote about last week I found another striking parallel. In talking about the differences between sf and what he calls literature, Delany makes the intriguing (if at first seemingly silly, or trivial) observation that "the conceptual space of science fiction is finally far closer in organization to the performance space of the circus" than to that of the theater, which he aligns more with literature. His reasons are many, all worth considering, most (for me) quite convincing; but the one that interests me right now is the last: that "the circus was the first art to insist openly that more must go on in the performance space than can possibly be seen at once". Whether the historical aspect of the assertion is factually accurate I am not competent to judge; regardless, the point is well taken, especially when one thinks of such "intensively recomplicated" * sf works as Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, to use an example Delany himself refers to in this very essay. Indeed that "more is going on than can be seen at once" is in many ways what sf readers and critics mean when they say that the fictional world created by a work of sf is thick, or deep, or full, or what have you.

* The phrase is, I believe, James Blish's.

Meanwhile for his part Josipovici, still working with T.J. Clark's arguments, brings up the marvelous chapter in Farewell to an Idea about the painter Camille Pisarro. In this chapter Clark compares Pisarro's 1892 painting Two Young Peasant Women to one with a very similar "subject matter" painted the same year by Jules Breton, June. "The latter presents us with an idealised scene of country folk at rest for us to gaze at in comfort," Josipovici writes, then quotes Clark, who finds that in the Pisarro picture things are very different:

we could worry endlessly about the peasants' actual poses, and the distance between them, and where the ground plane is; but of course the painting does not offer us sufficient clues to answer these kinds of questions, and does not mean to. It means us to be in limbo. We have to come in close—too close to get the whole picture.
Josipovici then goes on to draw parallels from this contrast, between Breton and Pisarro, to the one he has been wrestling with in his whole book, that between so-called "traditional" literature and the kind he calls Modernist. I might be stretching here, but I think I might not be—is there not a great deal of resonance between having to come in "too close to get the whole picture" in the one endeavor and there being "more going on than can possibly be seen at once" in the other? Obviously these are not the same thing; if they were, we would be talking about one literary tradition, and not (at least) two. But to me it seems that they are, perhaps, different ways of approaching the same thing.* Can I be the only one who feels that there is, or can be, a great sympathy between...what could one call it?...between restraint and excess, minimalism and maximalism, the micro and the macro, the closeup and the (unauthoritative) panorama? And do we not live our lives too close to get the whole picture, in which there is more going on than we can possibly see?

* I'm deeply uncomfortable with that phrasing, but hopefully it can serve for now as an approximation of what I mean.

I just recently read Doris Piserchia's superb, and to all appearances forgotten, 1974 sf novel Star Rider. It's a sort of baroque far future picaresque—a form with a long and wonderful tradition in sf. After I read it, I lamented on twitter that the novel revealed to me a major failing of my enterprise as an sf critic, in that I simply have no idea how to write about why I found it such a wonderful novel. And while there have been before—and will be again, no doubt—books I could not figure out how to write about, this case seems more drastic a failure—for what I loved about Star Rider is very much at the core of what I love about sf as a form, a field, a calling. I still am not prepared to write at length about Piserchia's novel, but I think what I've discovered here is a key aspect of how I feel. Something in the refractory near-chaos of her recomplications, what Delany himself might (or might not) call the "multiplex consciousness" at play in her novel—and many other sf novels both "like" and not like it—something in all of that lives.

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