August 20, 2013

Excerpt from "How Fiction Works" by James Wood

Section 39

Flaubertian realism, like most fiction, is both lifelike and artificial. It is lifelike because detail really does hit us, especially in big cities, in a tattoo of randomness. And we do exist in different time signatures. Suppose I am walking down a street. I am aware of many noises, much activity, a police siren, a building being demolished, the scrape of a shop door. Different faces and bodies stream past me. And as a I pass a cafe, I catch the eye of a woman, who is sitting alone. She looks at me, I at her. A moment of pointless, vaguely erotic urban connection, but the face reminds me of someone I once knew, and sets a train of thought going. I walk on, but that particular face in the cafe glows in my memory, is held there, and is being temporally preserved, while around me noise and activities are not being similarly preserved—are entering and leaving my consciousness. The face, you could say, is playing at 4/4, while the rest of the city is humming along more quickly at 6/8.

The artifice lies in the selection of detail. In life, we can swivel our heads and eyes, but in fact we are like helpless cameras. We have a wide lens, and must take whatever comes before us. Our memory selects for us, but not much like the way literary narrative selects. Our memories are aesthetically untalented.

-- James Wood, How Fiction Works, New York: Picador, 2008, pp. 56-7.

August 4, 2013

"When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" - Walt Whitman

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

-- Walt Whitman, "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer," Leaves of Grass, p. 214.