Monday, 27 June 2011

From Ambiguity to Certainty

Iphigenia in Forest Hills is a short book. Ordinarily I wouldn't read a book about a murder trial; but it's by Janet Malcolm, who writes with such thoughtfulness that I bought it and read it eagerly.

The title of Malcolm's book comes from Greek tragedy. Iphigenia was a daughter whose life was sacrificed. In this book, the child who was sacrificed was the four-year-old Michelle, daughter of Mazultov Borukhova (a physician) who was separated from her husband, Daniel Malakov (an orthodontist). Borukhova was found to have hired a hit-man (her cousin), who shot Daniel Malakov as Michelle stood just a few feet away. Borukhova was found guilty of murder. In a custody dispute that neither parent wanted, Michelle had been ordered by a court to be taken from her mother, to whom she was very close, and put in the care of her father. The prosecutor had a story-line with mythical undertones. His story (writes Malcolm) was that: "It was as as inevitable that Borukhova … would revenge herself on Daniel for the loss of Michelle as that Clytemnestra would revenge herself on Agamemnon for the loss of Iphigenia" (p. 16). 

Malcolm's approach to the trial is to show how one attorney was skilled and persuasive and the other had a much more difficult time. She shows how one witness, Michelle's "court appointed law guardian," who was supposed to work on Michelle's behalf, seemed instead to have been working against her. He had a hand in the court order to have Michelle—whom he never met—taken from her mother, thus initiating the disastrous chain of events. Malcolm depicts the judge as having a "faux genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate" (p. 7), and as announcing at one point, a date by which the trial must be over, because, as he said, he would be "sipping pina coladas on the beach in Saint Martin" (p. 72).

The centre of Malcolm's book is the juxtaposition of ordinary human conversation with what goes on in a court of law. In conversation everything is provisional and ambiguous. What someone says today, or to this person, may be entirely different from what the same someone says tomorrow, or to another person. In court, procedure must overcome the provisional and the ambiguous. Whatever is said is fixed. The verdict will define exactly who did what, and with what intent.

Malcolm's book prompted me to compare courtroom procedures to games, not because courts are frivolous. Quite the opposite. Rather, it's because both games and courts ensure that the provisional becomes certain. Do both settings, perhaps, fulfill a yearning for certainty? A golf ball either drops into the hole or it doesn't. A defendant is either guilty or not guilty.

After the trial, Malcolm goes to talk with members of the families of the murdered man and of the defendant. There are still issues, for instance of who will care for Michelle. And, as is usual in conversation, despite the verdict, questions of who did what, and why, once again became provisional.

What about fiction? That's where we combine the certainty of an ending with the ambiguity of what it might mean.

Janet Malcolm (2011). Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a murder trial. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Image: Janet Malcolm (from the book cover) 
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Monday, 20 June 2011

The Imaginary and the Real

Norman Rockwell “Marriage License”
Saturday Evening Post Cover © SEPS
Used with kind permission Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN.

Two weeks ago, I visited the small town of Stockbridge in Massachusetts and discovered it was where the famous American illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell lived from 1953 onwards.

My room in the charming Red Lion Inn had on its wall a print of one of Rockwell's paintings: "Marriage License." It's a picture of a young six-foot-tall man with short hair, wearing a suit, and with his arm protectively round his fiancée who, even in her white high-heels stands on tiptoe as she carefully holds a fountain pen in her gloved hand to sign her name on the license. Sitting on the other side of the big roll-top desk, looking quizzical, reflective, sceptical perhaps, is the town clerk.

This has been, I think, my favourite Rockwell painting. It invites me to imagine the young man and the young woman totally wrapped up in each other and longing—for the year is 1955—to have sex for the first time. The word "License" in the title is a further hint. At the same time the painting exhibits a fine irony, and I imagine the clerk sitting and waiting, not unkindly and not because he has seen it all before, but in a way that indicates that he knows what might be in store for such young people as they set out in a life together.

I thought I would go and see if there were a real location for this picture. I memorized the shape of the window in the painting, turned right outside the Red Lion and, to my delight, there it was, next-door-but-one: a red brick building bearing the legend "Town Offices 1884." Its side windows were those of the picture.

I went back to my room, looked at the picture again and worked out, from what could be seen through the window, where the scene must have been. The window in the picture is now the front door of the Yankee Candle shop, in which the young woman behind the counter confirmed that I had the location right. She also said she thought that the young people in the picture had indeed married, and had lived in Stockbridge. She said there had been an article in the local paper, The Berkshire Eagle, just a week previously, on people who had been subjects in Rockwell's paintings.

Better and better. I looked up the archive of the Berkshire Eagle, and there was the article, by Amanda Korman about people still living in Stockbridge who had been painted by Rockwell. I e-mailed Amanda Korman to see if she knew anything about the couple in "Marriage License," and she kindly cc'd my enquiry and her reply to Corry Kanzenberg, curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum. She pasted into her e-mail to me the wall label of the oil-on-cavas painting "Marriage License" as follows.
Set in the town clerk's office just footsteps away from Rockwell's first Stockbridge studio on Main Street, Marriage License captures Rockwell's fascination with the somber wood-paneled interiors of his favorite seventeenth-century Dutch painters. Indeed, the building itself is fashioned after one pictured in Jan Vermeer's A Street in Delft. In keeping with the older style, Rockwell replaced an existing metal file cabinet in the left foreground with an old railroad station stove. His model for the town clerk had recently lost his wife, and the authenticity of his feelings adds power to the poignancy in this study of youth and old age.
Corry kindly told me about the three people in the picture, and also sent me a link to the series of photographs from the museum's archives, taken by Rockwell, one by one as he staged the setting for his picture, in the way he normally did. Here is that link: click here.) Among his arrangements for this picture, Rockwell brought in the roll-top desk and replaced the office filing cabinet with a large wood-burning stove. Finally he posed the people who would be models for the final photograph which, in his painting, he copied, almost exactly. To see Rockwell's final photographic study for "Marriage License" (from which he made his painting) you can go to the website of a 2009 exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum, click here.

The relationship with Vermeer is evocative, because Vermeer was one of the first painters to use a camera obscura (forerunner of photography). He too would pose his models as if in a piece of theatre, to transform a moment in time into the eternity of one of his paintings. (On 15 July 2010 I wrote an OnFiction post on my pilgrimage to Delft to see where Vermeer lived and painted, and in it I discuss the idea of painting as theatre; click here.)

For me, the effect of my research on "Marriage License" prompted a transformation of an entirely different kind: it completely changed the way I saw the painting. Rather than an invitation to the imagination, the picture had become a piece of social history. Knowing that there was a real young couple, who did indeed get married, and knowing now (as Corry told me) that the woman in the picture is still alive and her husband died just three years ago, prompted a completely different impression. Now as I look at the picture I see the young couple as if I were to walk past on the street and see them outside the church door after the ceremony. No more irony. It's no longer a commentary on the social absorption of being in love, no longer the imagination of art, with its layers and implications. It's about the real. I find myself wishing the couple well in their lives together or—knowing now a fragment of their subsequent lives—hoping that their marriage was a good one.

In social history, the young couple are themselves. In art they are themselves and at the same time wonderfully different.

My thanks go to Amanda Korman and Corry Kanzenberg, and to the lady in the Yankee Candle shop. In the transformation from Rockwell's final photographic study to the painting, the words "Town Clerk" on the door have been changed to "Marriage Licenses;" the calendar date has been changed to June 11, 1955 (the date of the issue of the Saturday Evening Post for which this would be the cover picture). There are other changes, too: in the painting, foliage seen through the window has been added and a kitten sidles out from behind the clerk's chair.
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Monday, 13 June 2011

Scientific Study of Literature

A significant event has recently occurred for the psychology of fiction: the publication of the first issue of the field's own journal Scientific Study of Literature. The journal's editor is Willie van Peer, and OnFiction's own Raymond Mar is an associate editor, a function he shares with Max Louwerse and Joan Peskin. This first issue of the journal has articles by many well known people in this newly developing field; you can find the list of authors and the titles of their articles by clicking here.

Names are often a bit of a problem, as I gather they were in the naming of the new journal. We've found this too when we talk about the psychology of fiction: we don't just mean prose fiction, we mean poetry too, as well as plays and films, and we'd also like to include some kinds of biography and history. Perhaps we should say the psychology of narrative, but that seems too broad. So people have to be a bit understanding, because we don't have a well delineated category. We'd like the category to be defined by its content: something like stories of intentions and vicissitudes of selves and others in the social world.

So far as I can tell, the scientific study of literature (fiction, narrative) began in the early years of the 20th century with two groups of linguists, in Moscow and St Petersburg, who became known—by way of a sneer by the Bolsheviks—as the Formalists. The Russian Formalists' most famous members were Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovsky. The group's goal was to study literature as such, scientifically, and not treat it as a species of political moralizing. The group's exclusion of politics from their considerations was why the Bolsheviks sneered at them.

A concept that the Formalists' firmly established is "defamiliarization," the way in which literary language can make something strange, distinct and individual, so that it comes alive, so that it is not just passed over thoughtlessly, out of habit. In his 1917 article on the topic Shklovsky offers an example of the principle from Tolstoy's short story "Kholstomer" (Strider), which is narrated by a horse.
I understood full well what he said about flogging … But then I found it impossible how and why I could be called man’s property. The words my horse referring to me, a living creature, struck me as strange, just as if someone had said my earth, my air, my water ( p. 86).
The idea was later developed by Jan Mukarovsky (1932) of the Prague Linguistic Circle, who coined for this idea the term "foregrounding."

One of the earliest laboratory experiments on the psychology of fiction was on this very concept. It was published in 1986, by Willie van Peer, the new editor of the new journal Scientific Study of Literature. He argued that foregrounding is accomplished by a writer offering something linguistically unusual: creating variations from ordinary usage. He asked the participants in his study to read six short poems, the linguistic content of which he had analyzed to determine which phrases were foregrounded. He found that phrases that were foregrounded were experienced by readers as more attention-drawing, more striking, more important, and more worthy of discussion, than other phrases.

In this experiment, linguistics is linked to psychology. The artist offers something that draws attention because of its linguistic structure. When it works well, a defamiliarizing, foregrounded, phrase psychologically enables the imagination of the reader or viewer to expand creatively within its context, and within the structure of the attention that the artist shares with us.

Having a journal devoted to the relation of literature (poetry, fiction, narrative, or whatever it should properly be called) to the psychology of its reading, hearing, and watching, and to the psychology of its writing, is an outcome that those linguists who started the idea nearly 100 years ago may have been pleased to hear about.

Jan Mukarovsky (1932) Standard language and poetic language (click here for download).

Victor Shklovsky (1917). Art as technique (L. T. Lemon & M. J. Reis, Trans.). In D. Lodge (Ed.), Modern criticism and theory (pp. 16-30). London: Longman (current edition 1988).

Leo Tolstoy (1885). "Strider" (Kholstomer). In R. Wilks & P. Foore (Eds. & Trans), Leo Tolstoy: Master and man, and other stories (pp. 67-107). London: Penguin (current edition 2005).

Willie van Peer (1986). Sylistics and psychology: Investigations of foregrounding. London: Croom Helm.

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Monday, 6 June 2011

Travelogue: Venice and the Vaporetti

Visiting Venice is always engaging so when my partner, Jenny, and I had a chance to spend a few days there, we took it. We booked a hotel on Hotwire which offers attainable prices at normally too-expensive hotels, but with an element of the unexpected because within an area that you can specify, they may put you somewhere you'd never think of.

The hotel Hotwire chose for us in Venice, Residenza Canareggio, turned out to be impossible to find, because Hotwire did not say what street or canal it was on. At the railway station, I asked the hotel inquiry person where it was. She did not know, even after looking it up on her computer, because in Venice—now they tell us—buildings have a number in a region, not on a calle (alley) or fondamenta (canal-side street). The address of our hotel given by Hotwire was 3210 Canareggio. This would be like an address in New York being 3210 Brooklyn, or in London, 3210 Battersea. Correspondence between numbers and the names of each calle and fondamenta on the maps are known only to the postmen and postwomen. In the end, by dint of many inquiries, we found the hotel in a converted gondola workshop that previously was a monastery on the Calle dei riformati.

At the hotel we related our difficulties to the man at the reception desk. He laughed amiably, and said In impeccable English that Venice is a labyrinth, that being unable to find the hotel was frequent and that some people, even having booked, gave up and checked into another hotel instead. But when we’d settled in we found the hotel pleasant, and the area, two canals north of Campo Ghetto Nuovo, far nicer than some of the more crowded areas. Jenny particularly liked the way people strung their washing up across the alleyways.

What is it about Venice? The canals, yes; the absence of cars, yes. But most of all, being able to walk about and see how the architects and builders of Venice have somehow arranged that even the most ordinary, even the most neglected, even the newest of buildings, looks beautiful and harmonious. Even in a city in which all the larger buildings were constructed to be entered from a boat, one can walk anywhere, and there's a sense of people living close to each other.

And, of course, there's Venice's form of public transport the vaporetto.

Ah, the vaporetto; that most wonderful vehicle. It seats perhaps twice the number of passengers as a bus. A good number more stand to get a better look-out. There are 19 routes, which can take one almost anywhere in Venice and nearby islands. One can tell from its name that this kind of boat used to be propelled by steam, vapore, but it's now propelled by diesel, perfectly acceptable. It is not quick, but it is marvellous both in the prospects it affords on the canals and lagoon, and in operation. Two people operate the boat. One steers and at each stop brings it to within a foot or so of the end of the little floating pier which is the equivalent of a bus-stop. Then the other person throws a sturdy rope over a sturdy cleat on the pier and makes it fast to another cleat on the boat, while the first person keeps the boat in gear in such a way as to wedge it firmly against the pier so there is no gap when passengers walk on and off.

In my most favourite guidebook (to anywhere I have been in the world) Venice for pleasure, by J.G. Links, the author goes into ecstasies, entirely appropriate, about the vaporetti, and even about their timetables, about which he includes this:
It may be presumptuous to write in prose about the … timetable. What is there to add to the pellucid yet dramatic words of the timetable itself? Who but a poet, Shakespeare perhaps … could improve on such phrasing as Servizio accelerato con vaporetti Lido—Canal Grande—Piazzale Roma? (p. 237).
J.G. Links. (1984). Venice for pleasure, fourth edition. London: Bodley Head.

Image: A vaporetto
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