Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Visualizing Thoughts a la Proust

The same friend (who was mentioned in the previous Visualizing Thoughts post) and I were discussing the difference between visualizing when reading as opposed to reading without visualization. She had read my post, and said that my post clarified what reading as an event was like for me (should one call reading an event or an act?).

We segued into discussing music and visualization. When I was in high school, my band conductor talked about a certain composer, whose name I have since forgotten, as evoking one image after another for me. I tried quite sincerely to listen to the same composer and to try to evoke images. I could not, but what I felt was a rush of emotions, similar to the sensation of reading. Now, when I hear a piece of music that I played when I was younger in high school band or orchestra, I often hear the instruments that sat behind me: the trumpets in band and the cellos in orchestra. Particularly during Bizet's Carmen, I hear the rough timber of the bow against the cello strings. Perhaps my love of the cello can be attributed to the years I spent sitting in front of them and admiring the grandeur of that instrument, hearing its deep resonance.

In reading the third portion of Swann's Way, I was struck by how Proust talks about language and visualization:

"Words present us with little pictures of things, clear and familiar, like those that are hung on the walls of schools to give children an example of what a workbench is, a bird, an anthill, things conceived of as similar to all others of the same sort. But names present a confused image of people--and of towns, which they accustom us to believe are individual, unique like people--and image which derives from them, from the brightness or darkness of their tone, the color with which it is painted uniformly, like one of those posters, entirely blue or entirely red, in which, because of the limitations of the process used or by a whim of the designer, not only the sky and the sea are blue or red, but the boats, the church, the people in the streets."

Here, Proust is talking of language as a categorizing function, particularly nouns. Yet, anything which is given a specific name is endowed with a identity which takes it out of a category and places it as unique, one of a kind.

However, I must say when I read the word "bird", I don't see "little pictures" but merely understand it conceptually while I am reading. For this reason, I tend to be very focused on characters in my reading rather than the plot. Non-fiction generally tends to be a more difficult category for me, particularly more fact based non-fiction such as history (as opposed to more conceptual non-fiction based such as philosophy or theoretical writings).

When I read fiction, the central character is the center of emotion, the one whose inner-life is the pivot of all action. One might say that I fall into the inner-being of the character, but it is one whose eyes are closed to the visual, whose ears are closed to spoken words. Instead, the book is a hermetic seal within the inner-life; this is how a book functions for me.

For this very reason, to read a book without a central consciousness nor one central character is much more difficult for me to focus on. Large works of history, which I try to read occasionally to understand important portions of history, tend to be difficult. Science books, where visualization is difficult. Philosophy, while requiring mental agility and clarity, is more appealing than a history book to me.

It was interesting to me to hear my friend talk about how visualization works for me. Even when she reads a non-fiction book where there isn't a visual scene that is a component of the fact being conveyed, her brain will come up with a visual component. If her brain does not immediately come up with a visual component, she will read the passage over and again until a visual component is arrived at.

In talking over the book as a hermetic seal, which is part of the argument that some critical theory is based on, I wondered how many critical theorists have thought about reading as conceptually based as opposed to sensory based. In thinking this, I realize that there are some early linguists (and of course Wittgenstein, as discussed in my previous post) that tied visualization to language. It's been a long while since I studied critical theory, but I don't recall this difference in reading as being discussed in any of the essays I read. If this difference in reading approaches was discussed and written about, would it change the way critical theorists wrote about the book? For instance, the phrase "field of language"...what does that mean for people who visualize? For me, it means the hermetic seal, the closed in world of the novel, the closed in play of language itself where language can be unmoored and played with through alliteration, syllabic counts, rhymes and off rhymes. But if language is moored to a visual orientation, how does the field play out for those readers? Interesting to wonder about.


words_drifting_through_the_air said...

Great to see Proust get a mention in a blog. Keep it up!

Bully said...

I enjoy summarizing Proust at a competitive level!

More seriously, you may enjoy this upcoming Thames & Hudson book.

Arijit said...

I just finished Proust! Since then I have not been able to do anything but mull about it and deal with a distinct feeling of loss and emptiness. I am unable to read anything else! Help! How, in Christ's name did you get over Proust?

Arijit said...

Thanks for the recos... I think I will give Balzac a try. I have tried Henry James, but sadly enough found him too stilted and long-winded for my tastes. The Victorians generally disappoint me. I cannot get into their groove. They talk such a lot about so little. :P

Have you read Stendahl? It came highly recommended but Armance failed to make an impression. Charterhouse was a lot better. I loved the descriptions of the battle of Waterloo. Everything moves so fast, and yet you pick up such a lot of detail. The alteration in the pace is simply breathtaking.