Friday, January 28, 2011

Meaning and Sound

More than two years after David Foster Wallace's death, his reputation continues to grow and the conversation about his work only increases in its intensity and pervasiveness. You see his name popping up all the time. For example, he gets mentioned briefly in this Ken Auletta article about the CEO of America On-Line, and in this Adam Haslett review-essay about Stanley Fish's new book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.

Haslett argues that "Wallace’s anxious, perseverating sentences are arguably the most innovative in recent American literature":

Take the first sentence of David Foster Wallace’s story, “The Depressed Person”: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.” By mixing heightened feeling and unrelenting repetition (“pain”, “pain”, “pain”) with a Latinate, clinically declarative voice (“component”, “contributing factor”), Wallace delivers his readers right where he wants them: inside the hellish disconnect between psychic pain and the modern means of describing it. The rhythm of the sentence is perfectly matched to its positive content. Indeed, from a writer’s point of view the two aren’t separate. If we could separate meaning from sound, we’d read plot summaries rather than novels.

I particularly like Haslett's final point. It's one that I try desperately to make to my freshmen when I see them furtively reading their Sparknotes before a class on the Odyssey or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Huck Finn or Romeo and Juliet: if you're just trying to cram information from a pre-digested summary, you're missing the biggest reason for reading in the first place—to learn how to experience a book.


framiko said...

One more example.

Rich said...

I think Auletta claims more territory for sound than it can properly account for. The difference between summary of a story and and the story itself is not just sound; it's also the emotional engagement that comes from pitching the reader into the middle of scene. All the work we do to get students to create scene inside their stories suggests the importance of moving the readers into the story rather than asking them to survey a summary from an Olympian point of view. I could make this case by mentioning the power of silent movies or wordless storyboards or by conjecturing about the power of stories for the hearing impaired, but I don't think that's necessary.

framiko said...

Yes. I think I took Haslett's idea of "sound" a little more broadly to encompass something like what you're saying. I thought what he was getting was that in literature you can't separate the content of what's being said from the way in which it is said without losing something essential. Thus, in Shakespeare, as Marjorie Garber writes, "Diction is character"—and reading summaries of Shakespeare almost entirely misses the point.

Rich said...

I think it was your blog entry that prompted me yesterday to send the following message to my students along with information on tomorrow's essay assignment. Thanks.

"Let me say here that nothing will serve you as well as a thorough command of the text. Some of you have skipped parts of the book or read summaries. You can serve yourself well by using this wintry intermission as a chance to sit down and read the book itself so that you have, at your command, not just the facts of the book but also the feelings it inspires. That feeling has been missing from many of you so far this quarter: I wonder if it has been absent because you have been reading passionless summaries of the novel and therefore not experiencing the action from inside the skin of the characters. I say this not just for the sake of this text but the sake of all texts that you will face this year and in this life. You need to let the narrative seize you."

framiko said...

Glad to be of service. I like your note to your students.