Jan 2, 2012

What Happens When I Read Novels

       When I read novels I do not see images when I read. I may see an image emerge in my mind’s eye after the reading has been done, but during the reading itself I read in black and white without images. What I conjure in my mind's eye of Marcel dipping a madeleine cake into a cup of tea anticipate images. Novels do not generate images. What we do when we read novels is similar to what happens to us when we dream. Freud calls the dream image a rebus (p. 276); in this way, I think he is correct. If there is an image in the novel it is more akin to a rebus, an hallucination of loosely strung together spectral thoughts. We free associate when we read a novel; what comes before our mind’s eye are parts and pieces that do not form an entirely thought together whole. In the novel's image, like the dream, parts stand for wholes. Novels are constituted by their love for particularities. Epics and grand eloquent drama are the stuff of another art form; they form archetypical images. Novels are a unique art form in that they work similarly to the way our minds work. Novels arose as the predominant art form because they privilege individual experience over grand narrative; the mundane and the banal are championed in the novel over the hero trope and archetype. It is not the photographic image that is desired in the novel, but rather, what we see in the novel is the recognition that the mirror is broken; we see in the novel a skewed mirror and we call it real.

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  1. I think the troublesome part of the thesis that "novels do not generate images" hinges on the word 'image'. Of course, the novel is neither a film, nor a photograph, nor a painting. However, does this preclude the use of 'image' in order to describe some of the results produced by the reading of a novel? Nabokov, as you know, used to test his students with questions like, "what was the color of Gregor's room in The Metamorphosis?" It seems hard to argue that novel's do not sometimes generate images, at least in Nabokovian imaginary reading.

    Along this line of inquiry, I find your use of the term 'spectral thoughts' provocative, because it challenges us to analyze what kind of image the novel produces. Clearly, most novels do not require or even encourage a cinematic or photographic reading, but I hazard to say that most novels do have pictorial components, how else would we be able to say that an overweight mustached man in a green hunting cap and brown scarf looks like Ignatius? Still, these may just be the more pictorial images linked to the more dynamic, rebus-like 'spectral image' by which the novel haunts us.

  2. What I mean is that the novel's description of a world is not authorized by an image. By image I mean a pictorial representation of the world -- if the novel does have some claim to the image, it has been usurped by cinema and the photograph, but this does not necessarily dig the grave for the novel, but rather, in the same way painting was liberated by photography to be freed from its necessity to mimic, so too, the novel is freed to express significance about the world over and against the photograph's claim on the image. When I say novels do not generate images I am thinking of the novel after the invention of the photograph and its subsequent iteration in cinema, etc. We can certainly see the novel form as pictorial, as you mention, and I do not mean to say that we are foreclosed to thinking about novels pictorially, but, I would say image-making is something we do after the novel. Novels can generate concepts without concepts, to use a Kantian formulation; they make judgments about the world in a form of purpose without purpose. In this way novels are like other forms of great art, which do the same thing, but the novel authority does not come to be in terms of “images,” but rather to the spectral, to the anticipation of what can be thought. Perhaps cinema is superior to the novel -- but its superiority lies in the mechanics of taking a likeness of perceivable reality. I have not really thought through Nabokov's reflections on art. And I must say, my ideas are provisional, but I want to think of image in terms of what can be apprehended as real; if photography has a claim on mimesis, then it frees up fiction, and by extension, painting, etc., to do something else. Or at least, help us to understand reality in a way that is privileged by how novels present reality to us. I need more clearly what I mean by ”image“ to think of what I mean by “what novels generate;”