Friday, February 18, 2005

Understanding sentences

In his instant-classic Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud suggested that the comics form is based around 'closure', on the comics reader instinctively filling in the gap between two images. The comics reader sees a comics panel; then sees a second panel; then imagines, based on those two panels, what happened between the panels; then moves on to a third picture, and imagines what happened between the second and third panels, and so on to the end of the comics story. As McCloud puts it, "Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality."

McClous sees closure happening in other mediums, but in different ways. The eye automatically blends 24 projected frames per second into a movie, or a quick-moving dot of light into a TV show. But closure deriving from the imagination of the audience is key to comics: "... a medium of communication and expression which uses closure like no other ... a medium where the audience is a wiling and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time, and motion."

McCloud doesn't compare closure in comics with written literature, other than to state that "Closure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between creator and audience." It doesn't seem as though he's implying that the intimacy of the written word derives from closure, or at least not closure as he's been talking about it. A bit later, McCloud does spend some pages talking about the use of minimalism in art and storytelling. But that's something which is a constant in any kind of narrative art: how much and how little information do you give your audience?

Beyond questions of narrative closure, I'd argue that written literature uses closure on a smaller scale. Specifically, on the level of the sentence, and on the level of the word.

Here's a paragraph from the beginning of a chapter in Iain Sinclair's book Radon Daughters, talking about visionary theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg:

"Emmanuel Swedenborg, a young man, twenty-two years old in 1710, takes passage from Göteborg to the port of London. A sorry sequence of annoyances, delays, mental trials. Traditional picaresque colouring: Danish privateers, sandbanks, fog. A bad novel. Plague warnings, quarantine: Wapping Old Stairs. He comes in on the tide like an ugly rumour. This sheep-head scientist, holy fool. A celibate enquirer. The youngest of the dead. A walking corpse with peach-fuzz on his cheeks. He hunts the soul to the innermost recess of the body. Place: an undefined riverside geography has its hooks in his chest. He is fetched. As they are all fetched, these madmen — necessary, an ingredient; humid, vegetable menstrum. Potential fossils, future deposits, we must scratch their darkness in order to see. They lay down memory-traces in the clay of our city. Strange communings, reveries, visions. Their posthumous sleep poisons our weather."

It's a strange paragraph, and Sinclair is a strange writer. Like many modernist writers, he pushes his prose to the point of near-incomprehensibility. In this paragraph, we can see meaning almost distintegrate, coherency fade and return; return changed, in the sudden appearance of the voice of the first-person plural.

Think of that paragraph in terms of closure. The first sentence presents no difficulty. You move from word to word and end up with a coherent sentence expressing an idea. Then you jump to the second sentence. A bit of a leap there, from "a man taking passage" to "a sorry series of delays". But it doesn't take much effort to conclude that the delays occur during the man's passage. The third sentence, much the same. Then a bit more of a leap with the fourth sentence, and you may have to pause a fraction of a second to relate "A bad novel" to the "Traditional picaresque colouring" of the third sentence; the image is extended. Probably you take it in stride; but then what happens in the next sentence, with its quarantines and plague warnings? Presumably the man finds them in London, or on his way there; but where? Do you happen to know where Wappig Old Stairs is?

Sentences describing Swedenborg follow. Hard to understand all of them. "Sheep-head scientist"? "The youngest of the dead"? How about these two sentences together: "He hunts the soul to the innermost recess of the body. Place: an undefined riverside geography has its hooks in his chest." You can see a connection. After a fashion. If you squint. Sinclair's sentences skip over connective ideas that the reader must struggle to recreate; who are the madmen who are fetched? Are they 'fetched' by being brought from one place to another, or are they haunted by ghost images of themselves? Sinclair is pushing literary closure as far as he can.

One might say that prose in which closure becomes difficult, in which meaning seems to dissolve and idea does not smoothly lead to idea, involves disjunctions in consciousness. I think Sinclair does this deliberately, using his incantatory rhythms to create a certain state of mind in his readers. It's good modernist writing, the sort of style which in another context is called "stream-of-consciousness". That's a technique which establishes character by what is left out from conscious thought; the things the character doesn't think about, the things the character takes for granted. Closure breaks down as McCloud's "continuous, unified reality" is mediated by the subjectivity of the individual character.

Closure, in other words, is the key to written literature. The manipulation of closure is central to literary technique. How much information do you give the audience? How little? Return to the idea of closure in narrative: the same questions arise. How much information? How little? Literature and comics are fractal forms, where the same questions have to be answered at every level of creation: the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the book.

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