Ktismatics

8 November 2013

You Walk Into a Bar

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:56 pm

The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you.

The first book begins in second person present. A page later “you” watch two guys walk out of the bar. Once they’re out on the street the narration shifts to 3rd person preterite:

Stephen Hanley shaded his eyes with his hand as he and Martin Drake stepped out of the cool dim sanctuary of Rik’s Café and into the midday glare.

This more traditional narrative tense persists until the opening of the sixth book, when finally you find yourself back in the same bar that called to you in the very beginning of the ongoing saga.

Why the second person? Some feel that “you,” the reader, are drawn more directly and intimately into the story that way. I’m not persuaded by my own experiences as reader. Empirical evidence from self-report and fMRI reveals no significant differences in reader engagement between 2nd and 3rd person fictional texts. Besides, if I had been trying to lure you in, I should stick with the second person throughout the book, preferably with the main character being the one who’s addressing you, like he was telling you a long story while the two of you are sitting at the bar together. But the main characters are the ones who walk out the door together, being stalked by the 3rd person preterite narrator, while “you” remain seated at the bar drinking your beer watching them leave.

A gimmick then, a little writerly flash to open with “you are” before abruptly shifting to “they were”? To tell the truth, I don’t recall why I started the book the way I did. It just seemed right. But here’s what I think now, afterward, as reader.

***

When about a dozen years ago I first started delving into fiction, I was at the same time thinking about starting a kind of psychological practice. I thought of calling this practice the Salon Postisme. My job title: not therapist, nor analyst, nor counselor — those roles were already too well-defined for my purposes. To preserve ambiguity, I would call myself the Proprietor of the Salon. This practice, this Salon, this profession — they were just as imaginary as the fiction I was writing. I had no clients, and I didn’t have a scheme for recruiting any. But I needed to go beyond theory into praxis. And so I came to think about fiction-writing as a kind of simulation of the practice, an off-line implementation in which my fictional alter-ego would see fictional clients, implementing the praxis of the Salon Postisme.

Here’s an entry from my notebook dated 24 January 2001, in which I recorded the first tentative description of the fiction that I can locate on a cursory search:

The Proprietor is trying to run the Salon Postisme. He is a bit off, earnest, more conservative than what he wants to promote. His destiny is one of futility, exasperation. He sees himself as a poor man’s Nietzsche, wishes he was a sane Artaud. He is European temperamentally, but stuck as an American. The book is about the Proprietor’s efforts to launch the Salon. There are clients who add to the story. Maybe one is an investor, or is a marketing guy. Or, maybe we just follow these people’s differentiation stories in parallel to the hero’s…

But I wasn’t ready to abandon the real-world practice altogether for fiction-writing. My half-page of notes tentatively describing a possible fiction are interspersed with pages and pages outlining theories underpinning the Salon’s raison d’etre, as well as possible praxes to be implemented by the Proprietor — what I refer to repeatedly in my notebooks as “a pragmatics of delirium.” Eventually I would come to merge the fiction and the nonfiction, regarding the fictional version of the Salon as itself a kind of intervention, with the books’ anticipated readers being my clients.

Years passed. I wrote and edited, rewrote and reorganized. The scenario at the beginning of Book 1, where “you” are in the bar, was written long after the events that unfold immediately after the two guys leave the bar, when one of them signs on as Proprietor of the fictional Salon Postisme. So, back to the original question: why the second person present in the opening bar scene? I think now that it’s a nostalgic nod to the time when I regarded the fiction as a kind of intervention, with me being the analyst and the reader being my analysand. I am addressing the reader directly, as if we were having a conversation at the Salon, which in its present instantiation would occur in the bar that calls to you. But the illusion of being present together doesn’t last. Already by the end of the first page I’ve split off a second, preterite narrator who just walked out the door, following those other two guys down the street, leaving you and the first narrator behind to nurse your beers together in present-tense obscurity.

***

If you google “metaphysics of presence,” the very first link to pop up is my old post about it. I quote Derrida quoting Aristotle:

Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.

Speaking is more immediate than writing, emanating directly from speaker to listener, carrying a presumably more authentic representation of the speaker’s truth. Speech is more present than text. Writing is deferred, transmitting its truths (or its lies) across a gap in both time and space between the writer and the written. Upon its arrival before the reader, the text has traveled so far from its source that it appears autonomous, disconnected from its source, orphaned, an undead letter uncannily appearing to be the source of its own thoughts rather than the bearer of its author’s.

A text written in the second person present tense seems to manifest a metaphysics of presence, but it’s an illusion — a fiction. There is always a temporal gap between the writing and the reading.  But what about a text written in the preterite — is it truthfully describing occurrences after the fact, as they transpired in the past? A case can be made for the nonfictional reportage of historical events, but not for fiction surely. The fictional events never happened, so it’s a mistake to regard their written record as a true account.

But isn’t it possible for a writer to record on the page mental experiences that came to mind some time ago? I think about Mozart’s claim that he could hear the music fully realized in his head, that all he had to do was write down what he had already heard. I understand that some fiction writers are able to outline their novels chapter by chapter, scene by scene, such that when they actually sit down to write the novel they need only fill in the details that have already been envisioned. Even if those mental experiences are products of the imagination rather than observations of events the composer or fictionalist witnessed in the real world, they are experiences pulled back from the past being documented subsequent to their occurrence — preteritely.

But what if, instead of transcribing what he’s already imagined in his head, the fictionalist is making it up as he goes along? What if he is documenting events in writing that are taking shape coincidentally with their being written? Then the fictional preterite tense is itself a lie, a grammar as fictional as the content encased in it.

Still, even if the writer is actively inventing a fiction in real time, it is taking shape as words, sentences, paragraphs, pages of written text. The act of inventing happens in the present, but the resulting invention is already a fait accompli as soon as the word hits the page or screen. The leading edge of invention is now, but the now is never really here. The writer is always moving on to the next word, leaning into the future. As the text is written it extends backward in time, the beginning continually receding into the past. As soon as you type THE END at the bottom of the last page, the whole writing process has come to an end and the book is finished. Preterite.

But the text. Having taken on an existence of its own independent of the writer, the text persists in the present. There are those who contend that a text is dead, or at best virtual, until someone reads it, is reading it. In a dialectical metaphysics of presence the text continually comes into existence while it is being read, reader and text jointly bringing the text alive like two guys sitting in the bar talking. But what about the text that sits languishing on the shelf or the hard drive, unread? Maybe it lurks, waiting for the reader to bring it to life. Maybe the already-written text exists only in the future tense…

***

In a remarkable synchronicity, Craig Hickman of Noir Realism just put up a post about the preterite tense in fiction.

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7 Comments »

  1. What we discover is that we are inventing the world moment by moment without ever know how or why, blinded to our own complicity in the process we awaken only to the ability to overhear and oversee the process by slipping in and out of the play field of time. The illusion of intentionality is just this temporal sense we all have but can never know.

    Comment by noir-realism — 8 November 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    • That’s certainly one view, though I don’t subscribe to it. I can, however, see your POV as a strong justification for using present tense in describing this ongoing autopoietic process. Implicitly your assertion also establishes a kind of metaphorical or metonymic relationship between the world we collectively are inventing and the realm of fiction, such that the same verb tenses apply. Certainly fiction is part of the world, as are abstract expressionist paintings and twelve-tone musical compositions. I’m not persuaded that any of these art forms need to be a “mirror of nature” to borrow Rorty’s phrase, that they must speak poetic or imagic truth about the world and so on.

      Comment by ktismatics — 8 November 2013 @ 3:34 pm

  2. “we are inventing the world moment by moment”

    This is a metaphysics of presence. Is improvisational jazz more authentic than composed music being performed by musicians reading the score? Is live music more authentic than recorded music? Is the give-and-take in a blog discussion thread more authentic than the original post? I have certainly believed this last one, often having written posts that consist entirely of movie screengrabs, relying on the images to trigger interactive give-and-take in the thread. Of course this sort of moment-by-moment mutual invention requires active participation. When the co-inventor drops a single short comment never to return, the onus falls back on the solitary writer facing the void of the empty comment box, talking to himself with text. And of course I’ve done that too, written strings of comments on my own posts, and on other blogs, without receiving response. That sort of one-way dialogue on Terrence Blake’s thread about a Graham Harman essay triggered my writing of the Tables post, which found its way into the novel I was writing at the time. But even if the blog dialogue (diablog?) is moving along more briskly, it’s still decelerated relative to face-to-face conversation of people sitting at a bar. Twitter speeds up the give-and-take, but it’s still two steps removed from an authentic metaphysics of presence. It’s artifice. Personally, I love artifice.

    Speaking of screengrabs, a movie embodies the metaphysics of presence more than does a text. There is no preterite narration, no he-said she-said annotation to dialogue set off in quotation marks. Instead you hear and watch the characters say their lines — a much closer simulacrum to real conversation. And you don’t have to rely on descriptions of the bar’s zinc surface or full-length mirror, the bartender and the pendant she wears around her neck, the customer ogling her over his glass of Bass — you can see it all in a glance. But it’s still artifice, the characters reciting memorized lines, the pendant selected by the props people, the bar constructed on the set. One of the reasons I like screengrabs more than youtube clips of movies is that the static image pulls the movie out of its moment-by-moment presence and into a kind of timeless iconic fetishization of the artifice. At the same time it also reveals something about the making-of, looking under the hood of how the artifice is generated. After all, a movie is comprised of still shots displayed sequentially at a fast enough speed that it outraces the human visual cortex’s continual refreshing of its information capture from the ambient array, creating the simulacrum of a continuous real-time presence.

    Comment by ktismatics — 9 November 2013 @ 9:14 am

    • “But even if the blog dialogue (diablog?) is moving along more briskly, it’s still decelerated relative to face-to-face conversation of people sitting at a bar. Twitter speeds up the give-and-take, but it’s still two steps removed from an authentic metaphysics of presence. It’s artifice. Personally, I love artifice.”

      I think Twitter only hardens the junkie who was before involved in what else it meant to be trendy, while politically correct, on the internet. I think it’s mostly garbage, at least in the bleugosphere use of it, and is effective as a relative of Facebook networking. The people have mostly machinic ‘followers’, not real followers, and they pride themselves on the number of these. In fact, it has proved the total airheadism of some previous bloggers who want a bigger, if even more evaporative audience. They are always ‘unfollowing’ somebody, blocking somebody, and counting their followers, once you’ve started it, it gets very clearly addictive in some cases, and there seems to be no way out. I haven’t noticed anybody stopping it, although I guess it happens sometimes. I never followed Facebook but a couple of times. Christian has to use it with his art-book publishing, but I never would sign up to it, and don’t intend to.

      I do think my long exchanges with you on either bleug have been very rich, even if many nuances are missing. Even that seems rare.

      Don’t skip what the phone offers, though. I use it ONLY with my family, I want to hear their voices, although one sister-in-law nearly blackmailed me for my email address and Facebook-joining so she could brag on her grandchildren. But she loves the virtual, and I never gave in, but it was very close. With Brendan, we talk on the phone as often as possible, having both bought internat’l cards that give 2 cents a minute to 5 cents a minute. This has almost all of the important dimensions for face-to-face encounters, but is removed ironically for us in a couple of other sensory areas, due to the nature of our relationship. It is still, though an augmentation of his commenting on my bleug, and our many long daily emails, and goes on for an hour and a half to two hours. . We send pictures and videos, but I have to use the old low-tech instruments and regular mail. Still, there are ways around everything but literal touch. And we are both happy about this, because we don’t even WANT to be able to have that sensation through some machine. Fuck Nick’s ‘machinic desire’ and his recent stuff about how ‘if it doesn’t exist in cyberspace [some talk of music done in clubs but not elsewhere], it doesn’t exist’. So that’s the way HE and others live. I never read him anymore, nor even check in. He is welcome to his endless cyber-culture. I also think the internet people, who claim to be associated by ideology are not. They are associated by INTERNET THINK, because they are perfectly willing to champion an internet-friendly right-winger (even super-right) if he only belongs to the family of internet junkies. You write fiction, and that is not ‘internet stuff’, although you’re more polite to the internet people. I think they’re mostly total hypocrites, protecting only other bleugers, and feeling free to literally massacre anybody successfully writing in the mainstream or near-mainstream. Doubtless because most of those people wouldn’t be caught dead reading most of them, certainly not their Twitter.

      I think I can see how, from your two new posts, you can see the interchangeability of science and fiction,and that is interesting. I remember when I realized that I was reading Derrida as ‘fiction’, and it didn’t seem nearly so formidable. These methods you use come to you naturally in any endeavour, because you have been trained that way and continued in your various jobs to work that way, while being smart to realize that academia determines your ‘imagination’, you can’t use it to speak of there. I used to think I was anylytical until I ran into so many people who are much more formally so.

      “Personally, I love artifice”

      I like some aspects of it, but probably ultimately not as much as I thought I did. Even the bizarre people I’ve been writing about recently are only superficially artificial, they are actually flesh-and-blood characters. So I was able to get some insight into how you come upon things in your writing, the fascinating way the fiction emerge in this: “When about a dozen years ago I first started delving into fiction, I was at the same time thinking about starting a kind of psychological practice. I thought of calling this practice the Salon Postisme. My job title: not therapist, nor analyst, nor counselor — those roles were already too well-defined for my purposes. To preserve ambiguity, I would call myself the Proprietor of the Salon. This practice, this Salon, this profession — they were just as imaginary as the fiction I was writing. I had no clients, and I didn’t have a scheme for recruiting any. But I needed to go beyond theory into praxis. And so I came to think about fiction-writing as a kind of simulation of the practice, an off-line implementation in which my fictional alter-ego would see fictional clients, implementing the praxis of the Salon Postisme.”

      Vis-a-vis your previous post, I can see that, among other things, you can see a literal ‘fictional alter-ego’, in that phrase I remarked on about the ‘dreamer’ and the ‘waking self’. I could never see them as separated as such, even if they’re very skewed and not in sync, which still for me proves they are mostly the same thing. I also became aware that, by now, homoerotic fiction is also arcane, and mine gets smarter the more I do realize that this is built-in with this kind of thing. knowing it actually makes me let loose even more totally, and see it move into real life in some cases, much like the move from the dreaming self to the waking self. It’s ‘arcane’, because the voluptuary, like the sophist, is never officially admired, and has to keep the identity ‘something else’ in order to ‘be in practice’. That doesn’t bother the voluptuary, it the desired results are achieved. At some point, the opinions of others are truly irrelevant, and the knowing that it’s a very circumscribed taste (even if some like it to some degree) actually is a protective device from those who find it something that maybe should not be legally forbidden, but that ought to be spoken out against in their ideologically-correct sermons. Which, by the way, I also totally disposed of recently.

      Anyway, these are good posts, and glad you’re doing them.

      Comment by Patrick — 9 November 2013 @ 3:29 pm

  3. I would expect many of the former bloggers who shifted to Twitter will bail now that it’s a publicly traded company. It’s so last year. The medium is built for one-liners rather than extended conversations — not a very good setup for inventing a world together. Your last comment alone would comprise about 50 tweets. Besides, I still don’t have a cell phone. Okay, I love some kinds of artifice more than others. Blogs I prefer to tweets.

    “the voluptuary, like the sophist, is never officially admired”

    Well said. Even our food discussions would no doubt be deemed trivial by potential onlookers. But your other, more arcane home cooking? Fahgeddabahdit. Me, I’m happy to read recipes and testimonials even for dishes I don’t intend to sample.

    Comment by ktismatics — 9 November 2013 @ 5:52 pm

  4. The continuous present has its adherents. I can think of Hilary Mantel whose books on Thomas Cromwell are wholly written it it. I find that excessive and counter to the heightening that it might bring applied locally as you have done. Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot allows one book per writer in that mood. Like medicine ‘apply locally, do not swallow whole’.

    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 10 November 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  5. I seem to recall using the present tense in a dream sequence here, a fugue state there. As you say, these constitute local deviations intended to heighten the ecstatic discontinuity of the narrative interlude. In those altered-state contexts the present tense seems to connote not ongoing action in the now but rather experiences unfolding outside of ordinary time, timeless, eternal.

    Comment by ktismatics — 10 November 2013 @ 3:38 pm


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