One-Dimensional Prose

“I don’t transgress against this order of things; I merely disperse its elements” (Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted by Jan Mieszkowski, Crises of the Sentence, p. 167.)

We experience ordinary life in four dimensions. Things are either near us or far away, to the right or to the left of us, above us or below us, before or after the present moment, which is simply where, when, and who we are right now. Henri Bergson said that “time is that which keeps everything from happening all at once”; space, we might say, keeps everything from piling up in the same place. We use these categories to keep things orderly. Some things we leave for later and others we leave in the past. Some things we keep close, while we hold others at a distance, and some things, finally, are neither here nor there.

Sometimes we make pictures of things. In Danish, a sculptor is a “picture carver” (billedhugger), someone who carves images out of stone. We can think of this as the removal of a dimension. The sculptor “captures” a living, four-dimensional human being in a moment in time, reducing them to a three-dimensional object. Of course, it’s not really three dimensional. It is still subject to the passing of time, but it is time as “experienced” by a block of marble — geological time, we might say — barely perceptible to the human eye. We can now take our time when we gaze upon its surfaces, which don’t change. We can walk all the way around the sculpture and return to the place we started. We can stare at it at as long as we like. It won’t move.

The painter, removes another dimension, fixing our perspective. Except in special cases, we can walk back and forth in front of a painting, step forward and step backwards, and we’ll see nothing more. The painting itself will usually indicate an ideal point from which to view it. (In some tricky cases, it will indicate two or more.) All other positions only let us us see it more or less badly. We may stand too close or too far away. We may look at it from too far above its horizon or too far below, too far to the right of its vanishing point or too far to the left. But everything is there on the surface.

What about the writer? I want to suggest that the writer works along a single dimension — a line — but not in space. Just as the viewer of a statue is free to move in space, but is frozen in time, and the viewer of the painting is free to stare as long as they like but is glued to the floor, the reader has been completely liberated from space, but is compelled to move forward in time, reading one word after another as determined by the writer. Time, as we all know, only goes one way. You can’t, meaningfully, read a text backwards because the rules of grammar are like the rules of perspective. You can break them but then the “work” is no longer available to you as the artist intended. You will no longer be reading a text if you let your eye wander freely, as you would when viewing a painting. Frankly, you’re not appreciating what the writer has tried to do.

I’m not entirely sure this is true, but I sometimes think that sculpture is easier than painting, and painting easier than writing, because the sculptor has more dimensions to work with, the painter less, and the writer only one. The sculptor represents four-dimensional experience in three dimensions, the painter reduces four to to two, and the writer must capture all of time and the space in the most fleeting dimension of them all. The reader can’t just keep staring at a sentence to get more out of it. The reader can’t go backwards to see if that will help. All the reader can do is read it again, experience the sequence of words exactly as before, hoping, perhaps, there was something they missed. They can then stop or go on to the next sentence, hoping that will clear things up. Good luck, dear reader.

I’m going to develop this idea further in the posts to come. I suspect it only holds, if at all, for prose — and probably only for a rather conventional kind of prose. (Just as our “modern” painters have been subverting our perspective, our poets have been liberating our “feet”.) But conventional prose, after all, is all that this blog is trying to get to the bottom of: the craft beneath the method — not the method in the madness — of scholarly writing.

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