Back to the books

Enough is left besides to search and know;
But Knowledge is food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind might well contain;
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

John Milton Paradise Lost, Book VII

My brain is feeling a bit oppressed lately. I hate it when everything sticks together like some sort of awful carmel popcorn ball. Met with a novelist whose name I don’t recall today, and the topic was maintaining tension in your writing. How to bait the hook, so to speak, through word choice to keep a reader on the line. Discussing a Hemmingway short story, he expressed a distaste for symbolic readings of things, prefering instead to point out the way that Hemmingway used a sort of thematic coherance to tease his readers into wanting to know more. The funny thing was, what he pointed at were mostly symbols, at least according to W.B. Yeats’s definition: Yeats called symbols hints.

Where I get enthralled by the whole process (I confess, I’m a symbol-hater too) is that symbols are perhaps the ultimate in tools of displacement for readers. They put a distance between a reader and the idea, forcing you them try to be some sort of magic decoder ring to discern the meaning of the text. There’s the rub. In order to try to transmit an idea, a writer’s first impulse is to impose distance between the utterance (action) and the idea of the action by coding it in a symbol. Paul deMan argued that the Modernists misread the Romantics, giving priority to this higher level level of symbolic displacement over the more “base” form of allegory. In actuality, their writing was very much connected with storytelling rather than abstraction. Hence, I think the same thing happens when we read people like Hemingway who were storytellers first, and ideologues second. Yeah, there are symbols in there— but they aren’t the main point. It’s the story that matters more: what happens and the relationships that evolve. Symbols do however make great hints; they provide a sort of glue to hold something together where those relationships are initially unclear. Perhaps writers sometimes abuse that privilege, turning writing into a mucky ball which attracts the lint of false interpretations across the huge abyss between symbol and action. But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

1 thought on “Back to the books”

  1. i tend to agree with your opinion there… a sprinkle of hint is okay, but no more. oh and i liked your “awful caramel popcorn ball” line 🙂

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