Monday, 30 March 2009

Travelogue: Weather or Not

Before I first went in 1971 to work for a year in Canada, I thought that there could be nowhere they would talk more about the weather than where I lived, in Britain. I was wrong. In Canada they talk about the weather all the time. But they do it in a different way. They grumble about the snow or slush, or about the humidity and heat. But if a winter day is less cold than the one before, people express appreciation. When the temperature is 21 degrees and the sun shines from a blue sky, people speak to strangers in the shops: "Isn't it lovely?"

In Canada, the weather is a natural phenomenon. Changes occur according to laws of physics, so winds blow from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. Air masses over North America, each cold or warm according to its origin in the Arctic or the Carribbean, move in understandable ways. And, because this is physics, scientific instruments are important. We hear much about readings of the thermometer and we are informed of predictions about its readings tomorrow and for the rest of the week.

Now I am a Canadian, living for a few months in Britain again, I have had a realization: here the weather is not so much physical as personal. In a sample of four days early in March, listening just before the eight o'clock news to the weather forecasts on BBC Radio, I heard that despite a bright start, clouds, winds, and wet weather were "threatening to arrive by lunch time in the South East." I was told that "snowfall and icy roads will bother people in the North." A day later I heard: "the wet weather has already shown its hand in Scotland," and the day following that there were "showers waiting in the wings." Instead of Canadian storms and air masses, one can hear of the weather being "miserable," of "gales lashing the East Coast," or of "yet another depression making its way in from the West."

Do these differences tell us anything about national character? Here is a summary of how things stand on each side of the Atlantic, which was told to me as a joke, but perhaps it's only disguised as a joke. "The difference between North Americans and the British is that North Americans think that life is serious but there is hope, whereas for the British life is hopeless ... but it's not serious."

In Canada, with weather as a natural phenomenon, there is hope. If winter has been long, spring will come. If it has rained all day today, it may be dry tomorrow. For the British, with the weather being personal, there is little point in speculating about how long a spell of gloomy drizzle will last. What I do, therefore, is to defy the weather. I refuse to carry an umbrella. I go out without a raincoat. That'll show it that I will not be browbeaten or coerced.

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Allure of Knowing

In the March 26th issue of The New York Review of Books, Lorrie Moore asks what it is that we really want from a literary biography. Her tongue-in-cheek answer: photographs, an index, a little gossip. Very much so. Sure, there is also the stuffy business of searching for ‘clues’ pursued by those who want to ‘really understand’ writers and their works. All of that is fine. But what I want to discuss is the particular side-effect of literary biography consumption to which novice writers are particularly susceptible: inspiration.

Though it is known that literary biographies can act as catalysts to writing, the underlying chemistry of the reaction is more mysterious. It could be a relief to a novice writer to know that some have already done what one is attempting to do, that it is possible. If the featured writer had managed to achieve a magnificent worldly success, we might do the same, particularly if he had died in poverty and desolation. Isn’t it just SO romantic to be an underappreciated genius? Some of us treasure reading about stumbling blocks other writers have overcome, some about details of their work habits. Inspiration may lurk in unacknowledged sources (the photograph above might have encouraged many a novice writer to reapply himself to his craft with a renewed vigour.) Or, after an unproductive day, it might just calm us to read Kafka’s diary: 'slept, awoke, slept, awoke, a miserable life.’ Whatever it is, it works. Those of us wet behind the ears in the art of writing will keep the pages of literary biographies turning.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Marmalade, for Preserving Winter

I’m not writing this as if I was there; I am standing in my kitchen, making orange marmalade. It’s the last week of my first winter in Minnesota, and the man who has been standing in the kitchen with me, telling me about being a real Minnesotan, has finally just left. As with the others who’ve welcomed me with similar challenges, he talks so openly about the differences between us that he’s hard to take seriously. Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s day, when real Minnesotans turn off their heat for the winter. It is also likely to be the end of the season for Seville oranges, which I have never tried, but which my British cookbook says I should stockpile for the warm months ahead. As the rivers of melt water sparkle down the yard past the kitchen window in the sun, I’m enjoying the idea of keeping some of winter frozen across the short span till next winter.

I don’t know whether Minnesotans entertain in the kitchen, in the way my mother did, and Colin’s, by the big woodstove – but not their mothers, who used their proper parlors. My kitchen leaves enough space around the blocky Minnesotan that I can chop the oranges, weigh the sugar, and lay out the jars without him feeling in the way, enough, apparently, to feel he should go. Minnesota has more heating degree days than anywhere else in the country, he tells me in several ways (colder than Alaska where his father lives, colder than anyplace but Winnipeg.) He mentions Winnipeg a number of times, sizing it up as a measure of unimaginable heating bills.

Stationed in the corner between the stove and the sink, while he talks, and then still here, still stirring, as I write, I feel my front warm from the marmalade pot at the same time my back is cold from the draught at the window. (This is why the Minnesotan representative from the energy company is in my kitchen.) I would be warmer if I were sitting over by the breakfast table, where the sun slants in one window, washes over the mail on the table, and goes out the glass doors onto the screen porch, but I would also risk him sitting at the other chair; he has already been glancing at the bottle of scotch sitting on the high wooden worktable between us, waiting to be poured over the marmalade when it’s scooped into the jars on the white enamel table pushed up against it. (To empty jars to house this new season jam, I had to finish blueberry jam – a gift from a trip to Maine – and prickly pear jelly – a gift from a houseguest from Colorado.)

The Minnesotan came with a camera that can see into the walls, but in its small and fancy display face, I cannot read any more of the story of how this kitchen has come to be than I have already told myself. I’ve assembled the piecemeal story of this practical kitchen from the feel of hitches in the drawers pulling, from the difference between the warm and cold cupboards, some with glass faces that let me be satisfied by the view of rows of jars, and the others probably as old as the quarter of the kitchen that pushes out beyond where the wall used to say was big enough for a midwestern kitchen. This used to be called the Flour City, and where my chipped white enamel table stands now on its crooked legs, I imagine an old Hoosier cabinet, dispensing drygoods in modern style before we needed spacious kitchens to tell guests that we know how to cook and they had better stay on their side of the table.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Sounds and Meanings

One of the fascinating matters raised by Valentine's discussions of how verbal and visual modalities can interact is the way in which the visual can, as it were, extend the metonymic possibilities of the verbal. In The conversations (2002) by Michael Ondaatje (see Books on the Psychology of Fiction by clicking here) the idea is extended further. When Anthony Minghella was making the film of Michael Ondaatje's The English patient, Ondaatje met Walter Murch who was editor for the film, and in The conversations they talk about similarities between writing novels and editing movies. Amongst Murch's many insightful thoughts is that, in editing, he is not only looking for frames that depict the most characteristic shot of the actor in each scene, but also for possibilities of introducing sounds that will act as what he calls precipitants of meaning. Murch discusses a lovely example of this metonymic effect in The English patient when, 20 or 30 minutes into the film, after sounds which until then have been of nothing but war, he introduces the first peacetime sound: churchbells from a nearby village. Audience members may not even notice, but this sound precipitates the return of memories in the English patient. Once Murch has described the idea, one can see how potentially far-ranging it is.

One would think that in its combination of verbal, theatrical, and musical components, opera would be able to make use of these modalities in ways that include those that Murch talks about. The possibilities have recently been brought closer by the addition of film to performances of the New York Metropolitan Opera, which are now broadcast in high definition in cinemas all round the world. For me with these showings, the modalities have not always combined successfully, but they did in the very moving second act of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly (first performed in 1904), which I saw as one of these Met film broadcasts three weeks ago. Is it accidental that this production was by Anthony Minghella (who sadly died last year)?

In Act 1 of Madama Butterfly, US Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton marries a young Japanese woman, Butterfly. Act 2 occurs three years later. Pinkerton has long ago gone back to America, and Butterfly continues to await his return to her. Everyone says he will not return because such American husbands never do. Butterfly sings the aria: "Un bel di vedremo," its libretto by Giacosa and Illica. An English translation is as follows:
One fine, clear day, we shall see
a thin trail of smoke arising,
on the distant horizon, far out to sea.
And then the ship appears.
Then the white ship
enters into the harbour,
and thunders out it's greeting.
In this aria, Butterfly imagines her husband's return as she looks down from the terrace of the house he had built for them, towards the harbour of Nagasaki. Puccini's music is full of the most poignant yearning. After the phrase "Poi la nave bianca entra nel porto" [Then the white ship enters the harbour] there is a double stroke on a tympanum: a shot from the ship's gun, and its echo. It is the sound of the warship, bristling with armaments, self-congratulatory, coming to offer to the Japanese—what shall we call it?—trade, interaction with foreigners, Western culture.

For Butterfly, the sound is a gunshot of the mind. Her confidence that the love of Pinkerton is real is paired with her knowledge that he has abandoned her. The double stroke on a drum is the precipitant of meaning in her life. Perhaps, too, it can be a precipitant of our understanding. (The end of the story is that Pinkerton does return. He is accompanied by an American wife, and they take away from Butterfly the two-year-old son Pinkerton has had with her. She commits suicide, in a very Japanese way.)

Michael Ondaatje (2002). The conversations: Walter Murch and the art of editing film. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Travelogue: Front Row Seat

I miss my Toronto friends, though I do like being in London, and something one should certainly do here is to take a visit to the buses. Although the 168 is not regarded as one of London's great buses—it gets four stars rather than five—it is definitely worth considering. It goes from Hampstead Heath (though really it's South End Green), to very useful places like Euston (just a couple of minutes walk from the British Library), through Russell Square from where one can see the tower of the University Senate House, then across Waterloo Bridge to the South Bank, where the National Theatre is. Waterloo Bridge is not Westminster Bridge with its view about which Wordsworth wrote, "Earth has not anything to show more fair." For that you need to be on the Number 12. But the view from Waterloo Bridge is still good. The 168 is a double decker. It is best to go upstairs and, if possible, get a seat in the front row, from where one can see not only the buildings, and the river as one crosses it, but the Audis and Jaguars below which scuttle like cockroaches through gaps in the traffic.

On the 168, the timbre of the voice announcements as we approach each stop is very fine. The announcements are recorded by an actress who I would say is fresh from a run at the Old Vic. For the bus, she uses her BBC accent, informative rather than intimate. One can imagine that although this woman would have preferred something in the West End, she was pleased to get this part. She is of the expressive school of acting, so that two stops after leaving South End Green, she announces "Pond Street" with a sense of satisfaction. Although I think she is doing her best with the script, one could question the decision to announce the stop in this way since (like the stop from where we started) this one is named inappropriately. By the time we reach it, we have turned left from Pond Street and are 200 yards down Rosslyn Hill. I would suggest the stop be renamed "Hampstead Green," home to a host of golden daffodils. Further down the hill we come to "Belsize Park"; this delivered with confidence. Soon afterwards, "Chalk Farm Station" is said with a rising tone, expressing surprise. If I were the director, I would query this interpretation, because in my experience there are few things in London less surprising than reaching Chalk Farm Station. "Camden Town Station" is said as if in passing, which is perfectly correct, and "Pratt Street" is said in the most matter-of-fact manner. As the bus leaves each stop the announcer tells us the number, "one six eight," and then after a tiny pause we hear "to." This preposition is pronounced in a neutral tone so that it can be inserted by the recording engineer into any phrase. Then: "Old Kent Road, Tesco," said with descending pitch not, I think, to disparage Tesco, but to give the sense of final destination, where the driver can have a cup of tea.

One might think that hearing every couple of minutes, "one six eight ... to ... Old Kent Road, Tesco," would be pretty annoying. In fact the experience, with the moving stage set and the sound of this woman's voice in one's ears, is quite stirring. For the sake of the appreciation she must receive from a wide sector of the population, it is perhaps good that she got this part rather than something in the West End, which would probably only have been a re-run, and where the seats are much more expensive.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Imaginary Worlds

Play occurs in mammals generally. It occurs when lion cubs rough and tumble, when dolphins gambol in the waves. Only in humans does it also express itself in symbolic form. As Judy Dunn shows in her (2004) book, Children's friendships, in human children it occurs between friends. Here, from the book's opening page, is a scene at a nursery school: a room in which there is a table, some dressing up clothes, some toys, and two four-year-old boys, friends who have been together at this school for a year. They begin investigating the dressing-up clothes, and a story begins, or is it a game?
First they are pirates sailing on a search for treasure, then their ship is wrecked, and they are attacked by sharks; they reach the safety of an island, and build a house (under the table). What to eat and how to cook it are problems that are ingeniously solved. Their elaborate adventure, their quickly solved disputes (are they being attacked by sharks or by crocodiles?), their extended conversations about what happens next—all are captured by our video camera in the corner of the room.
Dunn points out the children’s “absorption in the shared narrative.” She points out how the “pirate adventure depends on both children,” how what is seen “is the beginning of intimacy,” how what goes on is “emotionally exciting and absorbing for both children.”

One might also remark that scenes like this are the beginning of absorption in fiction. The imagination does not die in childhood. It is transformed, and it turns into conversation, into sports, into the arts. It involves sharing and simulation. Wayne Booth (1988) has proposed that the best way to think of our relationship to books, to their authors, and to their characters, is in the way we think of our friends. So reading fiction is an extension of friendship and, just as we are careful how we choose our friends, so we should be careful to choose what we read. In her book, Judy Dunn shows us the beginnings of friendships, and the connection with Booth's book suggests how the shared worlds of intimate play become the bases of fiction, and also of the sense of intimacy that we can achieve in fiction. Dunn's book also illuminates some of the bases of the relation between theory of mind and fiction, a central topic of our research (click here). So, says Dunn (p. 65):
... children who were early 'stars' at mind reading and understanding feelings were particularly likely to develop friendships in which they shared exciting and elaborate pretend play, and long, connected conversations ... Once a friendship begins to develop, the opportunities for the children involved to learn about what [the] other person feels and thinks increases markedly. It is through their creation of joint imaginary worlds, their extended conversations and their management of problems and disagreements that these opportunities arise.
(I have put micro-reviews of Judy Dunn's book and Wayne Booth's book in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, which you can reach by clicking here.)

Judy Dunn (2004). Children's friendships: The beginnings of intimacy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wayne C. Booth (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Babar in Words and Pictures

The posts made by Valentine on comics, on the 4th, 6th, and 9th of March (click here for the start of the series), remind us that the idea of fiction presented solely in the medium of print is rather modern. The earliest stories were oral: words in the medium of sound. The writings of the Egyptians were words and pictures. Then there were plays: words and actors. In medieval times came the comic-strip format of the Bayeux Tapestry's words and pictures. Towards the end of the Renaissance came opera: words, actors, music. Later came the movies. Fiction in print might be regarded as setting a distinctive task for the reader to make almost-sounds by speaking under his or her breath, and imagine scenes that are not represented visually.

It is therefore, perhaps, not accidental that in children's stories pictures share the page with the words: Jemima Puddle-Duck, Winnie the Pooh, Good-night Moon as well, of course, as Babar.

Babar was the subject, in the fall of 2008, of an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, accompanied by a beautiful catalogue by Christine Nelson (2008) that includes an introductory essay by Adam Gopnik (also published in the New Yorker, September 22, 2008; you can read this essay by clicking here). In the beginning, Babar, who had not then been given his famous name, was the subject of bed-time stories, words spoken-out-loud, told by Cécile de Brunhoff to her sons, Laurent and Mathieu. Then her husband Jean, an accomplished painter, started to create illustrations, influenced by Matisse and the Fauves. By clicking here you can see the whole set of page layouts, digital images of the 20.5 x 15.5 cm sheets of paper that Jean de Brunhoff had arranged into a booklet (called a maquette, meaning rough draft or scale model) for the first Babar story. You can also see the pages of the published version of the story, Histoire de Babar (1931). Each page layout in the maquette is of pencil drawings with occasional touches of water colour, and on each page there are one or two sentences written in a round cursive script. By the time Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis in 1937, he had published seven Babar books. After the War, Laurent de Brunhoff took on the series, with a scarcely noticeable break in style. The de Brunhoff family donated the drafts and sketches of father and son to the Morgan Library. In the draft layouts for the first story we see externalization of thought onto paper, thoughtful reorganization, and progression to a final form. And whereas Jean started with pencil sketches in his layouts, Laurent—perhaps because le petit éléphant was by then a fully formed Babar-of-the-mind—started immediately with colour paintings of the characters.

The beginning of Histoire de Babar is that Babar's mother is shot by a hunter. When Jean took up the project of producing a book, Christine Nelson's exhibition, and the images at the website mentioed above, show him experimenting with the balance between words and pictures. For instance, on the seventh page spread of the maquette, after Babar's mother has been killed on the previous page spread, the words (in English translation) are: "Very sad indeed, Babar runs far away from the forest and from the hunter. After several days he comes to a town." In the published version, the text has become "Babar runs away because he is afraid of the hunter. After several days, very tired indeed he comes to a town." In the published version of the page that depicts this scene are three images of Babar. At the top left corner of the page there is an image of him running. Just above the middle the page, there is an image of him wandering. The bottom half of the page has some flowers, the words, and to the right of them the picture of Babar shown at the head of this post. It's a picture of a little elephant drooping, with sad eyes. The idea of sadness has shifted from a word in the earlier draft to a picture in the published form. Jean de Brunhoff thought it better to express sadness visually. One can think of a parent and child in the closeness of their attachment relationship studying this picture as they read the story together. At this point they feel for Babar. They might also feel relieved that their attachment is intact, or perhaps feel how unbearable it would be to have it severed.

Jean de Brunhoff (1931) Histoire de Babar. Paris: Hachette.

Christine Nelson (2008). Drawing Babar: Early drafts and watercolors. New York: Morgan Library.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Travelogue: Not Far from the Pond

Keith and his partner Jennifer have gone for a while on sabbatical to London, England, where they have rented a flat 300 yards from South End Green (the less posh end of Hampstead), and about 400 yards from the edge of Hampstead Heath, not far from the Mixed Bathing Pond. Jennifer takes walks on the Heath, but says that the amount of mixed bathing she will do is likely to be quite limited. For Keith the ambiance is enhanced by being about 500 yards from where George Orwell used to live. The flat is one floor of a converted terraced house, built perhaps around 1890 for a family that could afford a servant but not a carriage. One can imagine the word "villa" being used by the Victorian builders in their advertisements.

As one enters the flat's kitchen, one sees to one's left a counter-top which runs along its side and then, a good ten feet away, makes a right-angle turn to accommodate a sink under the window. To one's right is a formica table. It is easily possible for two people to pass in the kitchen. One person can walk through the two-foot gap between the counter-top and the table to reach the sink, and the other can dodge in front of the geyser, which sticks out from the wall to the right of the window.

The geyser is a device that may not exist outside Britain. The one in this kitchen has three knobs of incomprehensible function. "Don't touch those," said Matt, from whom the flat is being rented. As is generally the case with geysers, several pipes of different diameters can be seen coming in and going out. The purpose of the device is to heat water. In North America, even in smaller apartments, such heating is done by furnaces or boilers that the building is designed for. They sit quietly in the basement or in their own closets. Here, hot water is an afterthought. Like the small refrigerator beneath the counter-top, which gurgles continuously, the geyser is not quiet. As it heats water for washing or for the radiators, roarings, whirrings, and rattlings occur. Even when not engaged in heating, it makes an ominous ticking sound that reminds one not so much of the end of the world, as of a time bomb. At those moments when not enough is going on in one's life, a visit to the kitchen makes good the deficit. If one were to film some people living in a small flat in London, one could do no better than to start by pointing the microphone at the geyser and zooming in on it with the camera for a lingering close-up.

The counter-top is made not of some serviceable material, as it would be in Canada, but of bathroom tiles, each slightly larger than a Post-it note, with an undulating surface of mottled whitish-grey. Between them is grout. There are no tiles actually missing, but underneath the geyser the tiles form a downward slope, and here the grout has been lost. If one were to place a marble on the counter-top just here it would roll towards the irregular slot near the wall where the pipes from the geyser plunge behind the counter-top. The marble would fall down the slot and be lost for ever. Like the geyser, the tiles and decaying grout have symbolic functions. They remind one of the state of the nation, which has declined monotonically since British history's most recent high-point, the founding of the National Health Service in 1948.

Yesterday at breakfast Keith finished the last of the marmalade left in the gurgling fridge by the previous occupant: Marks and Spencer's "Blood Orange Medium Cut." Not bad. He mentioned to Jennifer that he would have to get some more, but that he could not make up his mind whether to buy the same, or go for proper French marmalade: Bonne Maman.

"Why don't you just get the best?" said Jennifer.

"Marks and Spencer's is OK," said Keith.

"I don't think you should have anything to do with that kind of protectionism."

So, to encourage worldwide economic recovery, and despite the fact that Marks and Spencer's is good-enough marmalade—here in the country in which Donald Winnicott conceived the concept of the good-enough mother—Keith decided to go for the French.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Third Thinking with Feeling Workshop, 21 March

From the announcement of these workshops: "Since the writing of Plato, the dominant Western model of knowledge has rested on the assumption that we think with our minds and not our bodies, and that rational consciousness is an entirely separate activity from the processes that underpin our lives as bodily creatures. Recent work in philosophy and psychology, however, has re-examined this mind-body dualism and now approaches consciousness, and therefore thinking, as an embodied activity.

"Though this idea is only now being developed by scientists, in fact poets and novelists have for centuries sought to represent and explore human consciousness in ways that are fascinatingly close to what psychologists are now establishing as the working methods of the mind. Our understanding of human consciousness is progressing through a genuinely interdisciplinary exploration which brings together the arts and the sciences. Three one-day workshops will explore these themes across literary studies, philosophy and psychology and from the medieval to the contemporary period.

"We are pleased to announce the third Thinking with Feeling workshop, entitled 'Emotion: Expression, Narrative, Performance' supported by the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Faculty of Arts, Durham University. This one-day conference/workshop is on Saturday March 21st in the Pemberton Lecture Theatre, Palace Green, Durham. Admission is free and open to all. Please register with if you would like a place at this event."

10.15 a.m. Registration and Welcome
10.30 a.m. Keith Oatley, University of Toronto, 'Fiction and Emotional Expression: Empathy and the Transformation of the Self'.
11.15 a.m. Dan Hutto, University of Hertfordshire, 'Narrative, Self-Expression and Self-Constitution'.
12. Coffee break
12.15 Ulrika Maude, Durham University, ' Literature, Language Pathology and Affect: Samuel Beckett and Tourette's'.
1-- 2 p.m. LUNCH
2 p.m. Patricia Waugh, Durham University,' "The wresting of the mind from what we merely are" (Adorno): affective irony and anti-sentimentalism in modern fiction'.
2.45 p.m. Anne Whitehead, University of Newcastle,' Childhood and the Construction of the Self in Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go '.
3. 30 p.m. TEA
4. p.m. Nicholas Ridout, Goldsmith's College, University of London,' Of Time, Cats and Feeling in Common'.
4. 45 p.m. David Fuller, University of Durham, 'Performing Poems: Dwelling in the Feelings, Dwelling in the Words.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Framing Stories for the Imagination (3 of 3 posts on comics)

In his famous essay On Fairy-Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien discusses some of the features of speculative fiction. Although I haven’t read this essay in many years, two principles of the fairy story have stuck with me, and have repeatedly come to mind as I’ve thought about The Watchmen over the past two weeks. The first principle is that the alternate universe of the fairy story must be presented as true; although it presents marvels, within the frame of the story these marvels must be plausible and coherent. The second principle – one that often scowls demandingly over my shoulder as I write – is that the story must leave space for the reader’s imagination. If I write you a story, in other words, my story will be most effective if I frame the story in such a way as to invite you to contribute as many personally relevant details as possible to your simulation of the story.

(This is matter of much debate in the work of Tolkien himself, who provided so much detail that many people argue he left no leaf to the reader’s own imagination.) The way that stories are framed is obviously the central concern of the comic book. In my last two posts, I discussed the value of these frames for creating stories that re-frame, giving readers different perspectives on common issues (building on Scott McCloud’s recently posted TED lecture on comics) and for providing a rich visual template of place, space, and setting.

In this last post on The Watchmen, I consider a third perspective on frames, related to the way that frame shifts invite readers’ imaginations. The alternate universe of The Watchmen is painstakingly convincing – and the conversion from comic book to film emphasizes this reality in every possible detail. 1985 New York – costumed superheroes, moody ambiance and all – looks exactly as if you might imagine it in the throes of the Cold War had Nixon still been President. The conversion from comic to film may point, however, to some of the mechanisms by which we simulate stories, and in service of which comics work so well to prompt the imagination of readers. Part of what I was saying Friday about the richness of the portrayl of setting in comics has to do with the repeated appearance of layered motifs across the story frame of comics conveying what, in plain text, would require a daunting number of words. (This is why figures such as metonyms become so important!)

An interesting effect of the evocation of place and setting is that once a setting has been created, revisiting that setting becomes relatively easier. The author and reader have already put work into simulating this place, and coming back to it from other ‘places’ makes it more and more familiar and meaningful. (These transitions – like what McCloud calls the spaces between the frames – also contribute opportunities for the reader to insert personal associations.) This is obviously a significant strategy in a number of creative genres, and is a major staple of comics. In the scene from The Watchman pictured above, the main character, Rorschach, is undergoing a series of Rorschach tests. (And yes, I’m including this partly as a nod to psychology.) In the comic, this is a scene repeated over a series of days, with incremental changes in the scene (for example, more pills on the table for the psychologist, who is increasingly psyched-out by Rorshach).

The one scene translated from this series of scenes into the film exhibits the simultaneous condensation and elaboration required of the translation from comic to film. Despite the impressive attention to detail, as with several other such translations, the multiple iterations of a similar scene are condensed to a single scene that captures the essence of the interaction. And in spelling out the story in this condensation, much of the evocative invitation to imagine what happens between the frames is lost. Moore’s brilliant play of intertextuality still infuses the film (and is supplemented with additional filmic references) to good effect, but the palpable loss of imaginative space illustrates some of the recurring themes of narrative effect we’ve been exploring here (most recently discussed by Melanie Green’s post last week).

Adrian Veidt, justifying his perspective on the poverty of human problem-solving and imagination, quoted in Nova Express in book 11 of The Watchmen: ‘They want to be spared the responsibilities of maintaining that world, to be spared the effort of imagination needed to realize such a future.’

J. R. R. Tolkien (1964). Tree and Leaf. New York: HarperCollins.

Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1995). The Watchmen. New York. DC Comics.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Comics as Place, Space, and Setting

Last Monday, Keith Oatley described recent brain imaging research demonstrating the way that reading fiction prompts the simulation of complex experiences in the brain. And Melanie Green’s post this past Monday provides an additional jumping off place for thinking about visits to the narrative world via novels or film.

Comics, as I’ve been musing this week, provide an interesting kind of middle ground between novels and film – they are themselves already a sort of simulation of what’s going on in the story, and as most children recognize, provide a compelling platform for cognitive effort in reconstructing a story: for those with low cognitive needs, the story is there, laid out and illustrated; for those with high cognitive needs, comics provide what Scott McCloud calls “a call and response,” in which the artist gives you something to see in the panels and something to imagine between the panels.

In the McCloud TED lecture I discussed on Wednesday, he argues that comics offer messages for all senses funneled through the conduit of vision. As a landscape researcher interested in narrative, I find the implications here fascinating for a number of reasons. One can easily imagine the rich signals that McCloud describes as capturing essential qualities of sound and texture being simulated in the way that Keith discusses – and in a way perhaps closer to our non-reading experience than the simulation of narrative straight from text might be. Comics can show what's happening around the story without breaking up the flow of narrative. Consider how much of the "interior" narratives of modernist writers like Virginia Woolf are about reactions to exterior phenomena, often settings – and this took a revolution in narrative to achieve, while “comics” representations have been around at least since the pyramids.

Although much more attention has been paid to the nominal centerpieces of fictional narrative, such as characters and plot, setting is less often explored (less often than I would like) – but in comics, although it may be abstracted, setting effectively is the medium: especially in the vernacular used in The Watchmen (the inspiration for this series of posts, which will continue on Monday) each image has a place. Every line of the call and response provides a visual template of place, space, and setting, and in so doing, enables a very different read than straight text or illustration.

As a slight tangent, I end with two recent prints by Erik Waterkotte that draw attention to the vocabulary of comics space and setting – beyond the imagery of The Watchmen (which will no doubt be becoming increasingly familiar to readers where the film is being publicized – Raymond reports a facsimile newsstand, pictured above in the comic and the movie set, having appeared in Toronto).

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Watchmen: Comics' Use of Dissonance

Having just read the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons series The Watchmen in anticipation of this Friday's release of the comic-book-based film, this week I will reflect in a few installments on some of the creative possibilities of the comic book format in the context of the psychology of fiction.

In my post last Wednesday, I discussed the way that making up fictional stories may help us reconcile pieces of our world views that don't quite work together; small fictions may provide the fabric that piece together constructions or understandings that don't quite mesh. As these kinds of intermediaries, these kinds of fictions may well tell us a lot about our world views – displaying the very shape and form of the unknown we recognize well enough to need to contain. But these "necessary fictions" of everyday life are very difficult to examine (particularly for scientists), because by their very nature, they guard daunting areas of our cosmologies that we are likely to be loathe to unpack.

Fiction provides a venue for juxtaposing irreconcilable stories without all of the consequences of real life. The rigors of coherence and correspondence demand a certain restraint in creating such juxtapositions, but a central stock in trade of fictional construction is the paradoxes or contradiction that the protagonist encounters and must engage. Such dissonances provide excellent points of entry for some of the classics of the comics genre, and these dissonances also provide a subject matter that comics are pecularliarly well-suited to explore. The Watchmen takes as its starting premise the dissonance between the standard comics trope of "costumed heroes" and the perspective of comics readers. If those costumed heroes are to be judged from the perspectives of readers’ everyday lives, their long-underwear drama is obviously fanciful and somewhat ridiculous. Using as a starting premise this dissonance between a time when heroes made sense and a time when they seem weird, the cast of characters in The Watchmen are introduced mainly through the form of reminisce from retirement about the personal, social, and political changes that have contributed to this dissonance. Where once it seemed to makes sense for them to fight crime as heroes, does it now? Did it ever?

Moore and Gibbons skillfully meld the frames of the ostensible reader and the comic, calling into question the usual obvious distance placed between the reader's reality and the fiction of the comic -- while obviously also maintaining the frame of the comic's costumed hero genre. As Bill Benzon notes in his review on this site of Scott McCloud's 1993 Understanding Comics, comic books provide a particularly good insight into cognitive mechanisms of storytelling. In his recently posted 2005 TED (Technology Education Design) lecture, McCloud notes a contrast embodied in the experience of powerful stories: between stories as a venue to which to escape and stories as a window back into world we live.

McCloud asserts that comics provide a valuable frame for creating stories that enable different ways of re-entering the world in which we live, not just escaping it, and Moore and Gibbons’ juxtaposition of 1980s politics and superhero politics certainly delivers incisive commentary. As the political ramifications of the 1980s manifest in the current economy (a theme also picked up in Moore’s V for Vendetta), a curious theme of doubt cuts through the plentiful advance speculation about the film: do people want to see a dark murder mystery in depressed times? They did pretty well in the last Depression. It will be fascinating to see what kind of discourses emerge around The Watchmen, and they tell us about the shape and form of the unknowns we now face and recognize well enough to need to contain.

Scott McCloud (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial.

Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1995). The Watchmen. New York. DC Comics.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Research Bulletin: Repeating Narrative Experiences Across Genre. By Melanie Green

One of the most fascinating aspects of fiction is our ability to become completely immersed or transported into the world of a story (Gerrig, 1993; Green & Brock, 2000). But does this experience of being transported into a narrative world change depending on whether the individual is engaging with that story for the first time, or for a repeat trip? It is possible, for example, that a repeat story would be less engaging due to boredom and lack of suspense; on the flip side, it may be that experiencing a story for a second time allows for greater fluency and deeper understanding. And furthermore, how might story medium (text versus film) affect this process?

Our recent paper in Media Psychology investigated these questions, using a field study and a laboratory experiment (Green et al., 2008). For the first study (N = 88), we recruited people at movie theaters. We were interested in whether their transportation into the movie (one of the Harry Potter series, and replicated with one of the Lord of the Rings films) would be affected by whether or not they had previously read the book version. Results showed that people who read the novel before viewing the film version were more transported into the film, compared to non-readers. A prior visit to the narrative world increased engagement with a new version; novel-readers seemed to have heightened emotional reactions to the film.

While this study provided suggestive evidence that repeat exposure could be beneficial to narrative experience, it was open to alternative explanations – perhaps most obviously, the possibility that individual who were bigger fans of fantasy or of these series in particular might be both more likely to read the book and to become transported into the movie. In Study 2 (N = 71), participants came to the lab on two separate occasions to either read a passage or watch a movie clip. Results replicated Study 1: reading followed by watching provided the greatest transportation (a significant increase from the first to the second session). However, watching the movie clip twice resulted in lower transportation at the second session (and the other two combinations showed no change in transportation at the second session). It appears that repetition can indeed enhance one’s narrative experience, but not always – perhaps the movie version did not provide enough new food for thought to be engaging a second time around.

An even more interesting finding emerged when we examined individual differences. We measured a variable called need for cognition (Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984), which assesses how much people like to think. High need for cognition individuals enjoy effortful cognitive activity (puzzles, debates, thinking of all sorts), whereas low need for cognition individuals tend to think hard only when they need to. We found that across both sessions, high need for cognition individuals were more transported when reading, whereas low need for cognition individuals were more transported when watching a narrative. In other words, individuals were more transported when a narrative medium matched their preferred level of cognitive effort (following the commonly-held assumption that reading is more effortful than watching).

As a whole, these studies make two key points. First, a match of desired cognitive effort with the challenge of the text seems to matter for becoming transported into the narrative world. Although we investigated these effects with differences between film and text, these findings have broader implications as well (for example, for comparisons between simple versus complex stories). Second, repetition can (under some circumstances) enhance transportation into a narrative world. Transportation does not solely rely on the excitement of wanting to find out what happens in the end. Rather, traveling back to a familiar storyworld allows individuals to engage again with beloved characters or perhaps to find something new in a familiar story.
Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Kao, C. F. (1984). The efficient assessment of need for cognition. Journal of Personality Assessment, 48, 306-307.

Gerrig, R. J. (1993). Experiencing narrative worlds. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Green, M. C. & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701-721.

Green, M.C., Kass, S., Carrey, J., Feeney, R., Herzig, B., & Sabini, J. (2008). Transportation across media: Print versus film comparisons. Media Psychology, 11, 512-539.

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