Dangerous Word Associations

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Green for spring-growth, blue for water, white for air. Yellow for the sun, black for mourning, white for wedding. You may disagree, depending on culture or idiosyncrasy. But the fact stands: some colours are associated to some objects, gestures, rituals—and the connection is exploited as well as propagated by literature.

And that’s only the colours and their meanings. 

Language itself carries encoded other associative dimensions. For example, in English, words containing a metaphorical up usually stand for positive emotions. For example: buoyancy, bouncing, floating, flying. Conversely, sinking, submerging, descending, falling, are words that contain a metaphorical down and therefore convey negative emotions. (Lakoff and Johnson go into detail in Metaphors We Live by). 

Of course, connotations of words can be bent away from their most common denotations. Take floating, for example, and shade it with gloom:

  • She floated about, giddy with shock.
  • The drugs made her float like a ghost in her own body.
  • Standing over the coffin of his late uncle, the man felt eviscerated, emptied of sense and purpose, and carried along by grief, like a husk barely floating on the surface of a steady, but merciless stream. 

Note that in each case the act of floatation had to be qualified before it could achieve its opposite sense: shock, drugs-ghost, elaborate grief padding. And even then, the first two sentences don’t unequivocally carry negative meaning without further context (perhaps the shock was due to a promotion; perhaps the drugs alleviated debilitating pain). Continue reading

Writing Helplessness

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Bullets chase you, or an illness, or even just last month’s bills. If evasion and shielding fail, your soft flesh—whatever the pursuer’s weapon—will suffer. The inability to prevent cataclysmic injury leads to helplessness.

As there are many wars out there, daily, personal, and local, on top of the devastating regional ones, let’s consider the most extreme cases where life is endangered without any rational escape options.

In such situations, what your body does as a reflex or on mental command simply matters no longer—a realisation which goes against the fundamental survival instinct creating a paradox of the highest order. If the situation is somehow protracted, for example in the cases of people trapped inside confined spaces or of those tortured over longer periods, helplessness will have time to set in.

What happens then nobody wishes to find out voluntarily, in situ, but fiction does go exploring. At the very least, fiction allows a reader to explore an atrocious situation, broadening their empathic response, their insight, and their ability to prevent arriving at similar circumstances. Continue reading

Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words

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Fear is a state of anticipated pain.

Broken bones, broken friendships, broken dreams—so many kinds of pain can be anticipated, that it’s possible to rephrase every decision, conscious and not, as a decision made out of fear. I’ll take the longer path because I fear falling on the black ice coating the shorter path; I’ll tell my boss I’m well-suited to take on an important client (even if I’m not sure) because I fear projecting incompetence.

Worse, it’s often a choice between lesser fears: I fear starting a new hobby, because it’ll be time-consuming and difficult; I fear not starting a new hobby, because all my friends have one and I’ll stand out as the only klutz.

As a primal instinct, fear pertains to basic, life-threatening harm or physical pain, but we’ve built up a society where what’s “in your head” is often equally prominent. Accordingly, fictional characters reflect the whole gamut: between rapaciousness due to want and retreating due to fear you can summarise the motivational background of any character.

The stronger the fear, the more dramatic its consequences and the better the story. So how to write fear, transmitting it, not telling about it? Continue reading

The Terror-Horror-Revulsion Sequence

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Macabre isn’t the word I’m looking for. Yet it presents itself, perhaps chiefly because of Stephen King’s book Dance Macabre.

The word, with a capital M, has its own entry in the OED as part of the phrase dance of Macabre, meaning the Dance of Death, which in turn represents the medieval allegory of Death leading the dance of souls to the grave.

Even if you refuse to read about pirouetting skeletons, you may have unwittingly enjoyed Camille Saint-Saëns’s Dance Macabre,symphonic poem  from 1874:

Returning to King’s book: even though I haven’t read it, I have seen it quoted and paraphrased for its delineation of three concepts in fiction: revulsion, horror, and terror. It’s a useful gradation, regardless of genre or topic, because it pinpoints the crease between the explicit and the implicit.

Here’s how King’s words have filtered down to me.

Revulsion or gross-out is when you’re told about the eye that burst out of its socket and splattered the doctor, or the parents who threw at each other the heart of their unborn child, or the woman who was walled in with the heads of her lovers, or the long-haired zingaro serenading a pile of severed body parts while admiring his reflection in a lake of blood (mostly images from Barbey and Lorrain). It’s all red and mushy, and anyone Halloween-minded can do it. The sufficiently exaggerated gross-out is grotesque.

Horror is the moment you take out a bunch of beautiful flowers from a precious historic vase and find a baby’s body providing compost feed (Barbey). Horror is the realisation before the gross-out.

Terror is the suspense before the horror that never quite happens: it’s the quiet laughter in the cellar that is empty when you turn on the light; it’s the attic that calls to you, but when you get there is only full of creaking boards and whistling wind; it’s the nightmare in which you’re chased with a chainsaw, but when you wake up, you see that you’re safe, except there’s a trail of blood across your living room carpet leading to the toolshed.

Terror is almost perpetual horror that prolongs the repulsive revelation, the way a romantic comedy prolongs the first kiss.

Continue reading

Becoming Your Body: Fearing Pain

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Uhtceare opened my eyes this morning.

It means dawn-care, or the act of lying awake, worrying, at dawn.

Judging by its internet presence, Mark Forsyth, author of The Horologicon, is responsible for reviving this word—an obscure one even in Old English.1 In a world of anxiety and hyperactivity, it’s a useful term.

If uhtceare keeps eyes open, so does the fear of uhtceare. Ironically, the fear of worry creates additional (meta) worry. The same mechanism accounts for restlessness on alarm-clock mornings: when there’s only three hours left, instead of making the most of those three hours, the sleeper turns insomniac. We’re cursed with the knowledge of the limit, not the limit itself. Continue reading

Becoming a Statue: Fearing Change

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Telepathy would be a wonder. Telekinesis an inestimable power.

Only after acquiring both we’d tackle teaching a stone slab to get up and move (maybe).

Or…

… we can immediately read Henri Michaux’s text The Statue and 1.

In my spare time, I’ve been teaching a statue to walk. Given its exaggeratedly prolonged immobility, it isn’t easy. Not for the statue. Not for me. Great distance separates us, I realize that.

The futility of teaching a statue to walk! The first line presents a paradox heralding a discussion, if not a resolution. The reader is drawn onwards.

The remainder of the paragraph claims the problem is real: this is no metaphorical statue (reserve judgment on that) and the narrator is aware of the difficulties.

A few lines later in the text, the moral of a perennial piece of advice is reversed; instead of reassurance that a journey begins with a single step, implying any first step, just get going, we read:

What matters is that [the statue’s] first step be a good one. Everything depends on that first step.

This is doubly unsettling. Continue reading

Becoming the Sea: Fearing Fate

Suppose an empty room contains a gigantic apple.

That’s a proposition even more disturbing than Rene Magritte’s Listening Room.

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Henri Michaux’s collection of texts from 1949, Life in the Folds, is the oddest of gigantic apples. If unchecked, it inflates into a daunting monstrosity of ambiguous intent. Indeed, the exquisite mind-contortion chambers contained within it defy obvious origin or characterisation: I started to write a brief post about Michaux’s work, so I copied out all the interesting quotes, only to realise I’d copied out chunks from nearly every page of the book.

Life in the Folds consists of over fifty short texts (and a few longer ones); they are mostly prose, with titles such as The Man-Sling, On the Skewer, In Plaster, Never Imagine, The Danger in Associations of Thoughts, The Trepanned Patient, Recommended Instrument: Apartment Thunder.

Some could be considered mini-stories with hints of plot, but perhaps a good label is thought experiments, or—to move a step away from scientific connotations and Einstein—violent thoughts.  A longer descriptor would be: uncomfortably fascinating meditation on pain: psychological, physical, abstract, concrete, subtle, searing.

It’s easy to dismiss such material as fodder for psychiatrists, especially when we find out that Michaux’s biography includes both war and his wife’s sudden death, but violent thoughts occur in most fiction regardless, as necessary motivators well-woven into the fabric of plot.

It’s also easy to dismiss such material as extraneous or incendiary because violent thoughts already occur in most of life—surely that suffices?—but the subject is often taboo and so, if unaddressed, can lead to people’s lives collapsing insidiously.

With that in mind, there are at least two salubrious approaches to Michaux:

  • As a reader looking for a contained, concrete space to ruminate on negative feelings about others and the self. Perhaps as a springboard for a later discussion.
  • As a critic or meta-reader exploring writing techniques that conjure up the weird and the pain-fear-terror-inducing (but not grossly shocking) while observing your own reactions to those selfsame techniques.

Regarding the first approach: Safe exploration of on-page violence, no matter how imaginary or disassociated from heart-rending characterisations, requires mental mettle—if your environment or state of mind isn’t conducive to challenging reading, leave Life in the Folds for another day.

I will focus on the second approach, which inevitably desensitised everything it touches, but please be warned. (This also means I will spoil a fully immersive reading experience for you, both by quoting and by deconstructing the quotes.)

Continue reading