On Taste: You and Your Peers (part two)
On Taste: You and Your Peers
The Sleek and the Fat
One style writers often see praised by advice-givers is the “pared down”; sometimes called the Hemingway-esque. Pared-down hews to the nut of truism, marches ahead in noun, verb, noun, verb cadence; lets, in the classic dynamic of mid-twentieth century “muscular prose” (with some Prince tossed in), a woman be a woman and a man be a man.
Lyrical writing, on the other hand, communicates any information through an atypical lens…coins a phrase, nouns a verb, expresses itself in metaphor and song. Top of the scale lyricism might be a story told in a language no one has ever heard—and so we would not know we had heard it. Or something like the art idea, that as I describe a work to you, you picture it in your head, and I have thus not only communicated, which is the purpose of artefactual art, I have created a thing unique. A physical representation of it would be merely limiting.
A man knocks at a door. A woman answers.
Fine pared-down style.
She has hair. She wears clothes.
Bare-bones, but not quite the idea…
A man pushes a mango-fruit through the keyhole of a door. A woman answers firing a cannon. She has fish scales for hair. She wears a cloak of invisibility.
However…taking lyricism to this extremity risks the reader disengaging, having lost any sense of story.
- If an author says “this is a table”, the reader does not question the table.
- If the table is painted red, the reader does not question the table.
- If the table fills the room in one scene, and the hero runs straight to the door in another, the reader questions the table.
- If the writer says the table is water, the reader questions the table.
- If the writer gives an anchor to the metaphor: the table is made of translucent glass, and looks like water—the reader somewhat questions the table.
Assign to pared down style the designation, true (just the facts); to lyrical style the designation, new (atypical lens).
(a) The table exists
(b) The table is painted red
(c) The table fills the room
(d) The table is water (it’s made of glass)
(e) The table has changed shape or size: continuity error
(f) The table is water (un-explicated metaphor)
(g) The table changes shape or size: surreal or absurdist detail
(b ranks farther from true than a because any descriptive detail is more subjective, and can generate a continuity error; c farther than b, because envisioning a table in a room requires more from the reader’s imagination, and she may by doing so create conflicts of her own; d is where doubt set sin—does a glass tabletop really look like water?; e is a straightforward case of disbelief; f shifts the weight to a different type of acceptance; g shades from lyricism to fantasy.)
And if the words are not even categorically apropos; if a line were to read…
I stomp aria, breakfast at limbo
…we could not measure this as a form of storytelling. The values at both ends of the scale would have to be changed, to, say: experimental/affected.
Where the conditions under consideration cluster near one end or the other, a given scale’s values will be a fair way of measuring that condition. Those things that fall in the middle call for a different set of values to narrow the focus, and give us a useful assessment.
Suppose a writer publishes a novel set in her own country, describing a disruptive tactic of its totalitarian regime: a process of sowing unrest in a town occupied by the despised minority. When violence breaks out, the president’s private guards use this as a pretext for gunning people down in the streets, raiding houses, confiscating property, making mass arrests. The regime repudiates her work, and calls it propaganda. She will name it only fiction.
We can judge that the work strongly resembles news stories we have seen, so seems true; yet tells things we have no expertise to judge. We are not from her country. The story, equally, is new to us.
To move it from the middle to some definite value, let’s try: reportage/propaganda.
The broad rule: reportage seeks to reveal; propaganda seeks to conceal. Propaganda sows division among those who would otherwise find common ground; causes inertia by exploiting the fear of acting alone. Propaganda offers plausible explanations, seeming to address, while talking of tangentials.
For example, the conditions that cause wildfires can be mitigated, to great human advantage, without any need to prove that “climate change is real”. But if someone wanting to prevent fires raises the issue of climate change, the debate is sure to be derailed haggling over what doesn’t bear directly on preventing fire.
Reportage wants to bring attention to things unknown or neglected; activist reportage wants to teach people what they can do to bring about change. Reportage crosses into propaganda when it replaces one narrative with another, as with scandal reporting, that disproportions an incident or detail, making people put aside what they have known and accepted in the past, and in their own lives.
(Consider the emails of the 2016 election. Unless you’ve never cleaned your inbox, you have probably deleted thousands of emails.)
We’ve assigned these properties to propaganda; what do they teach us? It is the author, bear in mind, accused of propaganda. She says conditions are bad for the minority. The regime ought to say, then, either that conditions are good, or that the question is a distraction from the real problem. They would produce in evidence statistics supporting their claim of good conditions, or they would reveal the real problem. If they will do neither, we suspect their agenda, and plug the book in on the side of reportage.
We’ve seen how to break something out of the middle value range, how to determine why we respond to it as we do. Going back to the subject at hand, taste, received from or molded by others…how does your response to a thing fit you into a group? How do you discover like-mindedness within a piece of art?
Happy ending through elevation of status
Happy ending through receipt of charity
The capitalist says that all can deal themselves a better hand, that those with the high hand are entitled to keep their place and possessions, that given freedom (from regulation and taxes), wealth will create opportunity for the poor. The socialist says that a minimum status above poverty must be maintained for all; that a society with collectively enough wealth to eliminate poverty, must seek to achieve this by redistributing wealth, that accumulation of wealth in sectors, and among individuals, destroys opportunity.
Consider the Capra model (left-leaning) versus the hierarchical or Victorian (right-leaning) model. The conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge fits a standard suitable to a corporate view, or a stratified society. The Cratchits are not better off at the story’s end because their class has changed, or the fairness with which Bob Cratchit’s working years have been valued has changed, but because the rich man who had withheld charity, chooses to give it. In the Victorian model, the happy ending lies with which the powerful choose, the open or closed hand. Bob Cratchit gets a raise, Tiny Tim an operation, but the street sweeper, the rag-and-bone man, the char, the factory child, toil on.
The tycoon in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, seeks to thwart George Bailey’s building and loan that makes housing affordable in Bedford Falls, that elevates the status of the working class. He goes as far as to steal an envelope of money, in hopes of destroying Bailey. Salvation comes from heaven (for one), in the character of bumbling angel Clarence, who points the way, but chiefly from the people, metaphorically taking up arms, collecting the money themselves to rescue George. The story’s underlying theme: that George, in valuing the lives of others, has altered their fate, kept friends and family out of Pottersville by giving them the means to raise themselves above their given circumstances.
Among animated standards, we have “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, that ends with Charlie’s existential questions unanswered, having substituted, by way of answer, religious Christmas for secular Christmas. This celebrates a type of cultural conformity, but doesn’t address why we have and need secular Christmas. Charlie is allowed temporary popularity, by those who have the power to confer it, while his tree gets made over to group specifications.
“Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”, on the other hand, wins an important post, finding a way in which his particular gift allows him to serve. (Santa’s realm at the North Pole is arguably a benign plutocracy, with Santa as sole mogul and embodiment of all government services, and under which Rudolph’s modest rights movement makes small gains.) The Abominable Snowman is redeemed; the misfit toys remain imperfect—or below saleable quality—but are given homes, a place above their old place. The underlying theme is not that power arbitrates; the message is not entrepreneurialism, as none of the characters starts a business, or competes in Santa’s economy. The moral is the good in societal expansion of class distinctions.
If your taste in Christmas stories runs to Dickens and Charlie Brown, that might imply a conservative worldview; while a preference for George Bailey and Rudolph, a socialist/humanist one.
Next in this series: You and society, how standards of taste serve enfranchised entities, how class identification affects individual leanings.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)