killclaudio: (Alethiometer)
[personal profile] killclaudio
I forgot to mention this, but in March, I went to see a lecture by Philip Pullman. Philip Pullman! OMG, I hear you cry, that’s amazing. Stupendous. Miraculous. I know! No, seriously, he was great. And his lecture was on ‘the elementary particles which make up a narrative’, so obviously I took notes to share with you guys, because who wouldn’t want to hear about the process of constructing a story from a man who is such a master storyteller? I can only apologise that it’s taken me this long to get them into some kind of coherent order.

Just for the record, I am not affiliated to Pullman and this is not an official transcript. Just a few notes that I frantically scribbled as he spoke; it's nowhere near as long or as polished as the lecture was.

There were a number of slides showing various paintings and so on to illustrate each point - I’ve tried to replicate as many of them as possible, but unfortunately I didn’t get the names of all of them. So, the post has a few images. Those of you on slow connections might want to go and make a cup of tea while it loads. There are also a couple of extracts from his books that I need to dig out, I’ll try and get to those soon.

Narratives are by their very nature sequential, and not instantaneous. When we are writing we always come up against the problem of order; what story do we want to tell, and how do we want to tell it?

I want to draw a comparison this evening with the search for elementary particles of matter. Heroclitus believed that everything was made up of four particles; earth, air, fire and water. Today we think in terms of atoms; protons, electrons and neutrons; quarks and string theory. So if matter is made up of these things, pieced together as it were, then are stories made of words? Well, they could be. Language is good at transmitting the temporal nature of our stories. It’s built into our language, our grammar. Let’s examine a quote from ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot and ask ourselves, could we draw this story? Could we make a picture of it?

“Dorothea seldom left home without her husband, but she did occasionally drive into Middlemarch alone, on little errands of shopping or charity such as occur to every lady of any wealth when she lives within three miles of a town.”

We can show Dorothea driving into town, but how do we express that this occurs multiple times? How do we show ‘occasionally’ as opposed to ‘often’? We can show she is wealthy, but how to express that the errands are typical ones for a woman in her position? I think the answer, in part, is that words and pictures show different things, tell different stories.

But that doesn’t mean that stories are made up of the media in which they are transmitted. What I am going to argue tonight is that the smallest particles of stories are not words but events. And these events are so small as to be almost abstract; neutral and devoid of inflection. Consider the action of pouring something out of a container. This is one small event, one particle, known as an ‘image scaler’. A tiny pattern of experience.


What I want to look at isn’t the main action in this cartoon but a tiny throwaway detail; the man in the background who is pouring the contents of a hip flask into a glass. The fact that he is doing this when there are waiters around shows us where we are - this is America during prohibition, perhaps a speakeasy.


In this picture, the pouring action forms the main story. It’s not what is happening in the picture which is the story, though, but what is about to happen; we can see beyond what is depicted to predict the fate of the unfortunate carol singers. The contrast between innocence and mischief helps the humour, but it is the timing here that is important. The split second we are shown, and our ability to extrapolate, is what makes it funny. So we see that some image scalers are dynamic.

The above picture is Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt. Belshazzar was king of the Babylon, and according to the Old Testament he used the sacred vessels of Solomon’s Temple in his feasting, thus profaning them. During the feast writing appeared on the wall which said ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting.’ Belshazzar died that night. In the paining, we see Belshazzar spilling the wine from the sacred vessels as he turns in shock. The act of pouring here is metaphorical; it stands for excess, loss of control, the spilling of blood. In this case, the individual particles that make up a narrative are not neutral; they carry a charge.


The picture above is a depiction of the baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca. Here, the act of pouring carries a charge of great gravity. Most western churches today baptise by pouring water over the forehead, letting the action stand for total immersion. So the symbolism doesn’t just reside in the depiction of the action, but in the act itself. The painting is a picture of a synecdoche, a part of something which is used to refer to the whole thing. What’s also important here is that meaning resides in what the action signifies. I wonder how this painting would appear to someone who had no knowledge of Christian ritual?

The next painting I want to look at is one by Francisco de Goya called The Forcibly Bewitched. The man in the picture is pouring oil into a lit lamp, a mysterious and obscure gesture. Light is usually symbolic of good but it looks as though it is being held by a demon, and the man looks haunted by guilt and fear. The shadowy figures in the background are foreboding. And yet this painting is actually based on a comedy by Antonio de Zamora, in which the protagonist is led to believe that his life depends on this oil lamp and thus keeps replenishing it. Does the explanation, the history behind the painting, expand or diminish its impact?

So the narrative particle moves through the literal, physical and metaphorical without any hard and fast division between them. Our language, in fact, favours this twilight region. Consider some of the metaphors that involve pouring: we pour oil on troubled waters, pour money into a venture, it pours with rain (perhaps the last isn’t always so metaphorical). [Ed - I think there may have been some other point made here about how some things have less power when they’re reduced to the bleeding obvious, but I didn’t catch it. Told you it was frantically scribbled.]

Our next painting is La Source by Jean-Dominique Ingres. The spring, fountain, source of life-giving water, has long been symbolic. The essence of it is that something good comes out of something as a gift, and it has all the more meaning because it is given where it is needed. Comparisons have often been drawn between the source and the muse.

I want to say something here about writing. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to be able to work without inspiration. To write almost as well without it as you do with. About this I am both sceptical and credulous simultaneously. There are times when writing seems easier, the words flow more naturally. But that doesn’t mean you hang around waiting for inspiration. People are always asking me where do I get my ideas, and I tell them that they come to me. They come to my desk, in fact, and if I’m not there, they go away again. I have to be working. It never really feels like invention; it feels more like discovery, as if the story already exists. Or I find my way out of a narrative cul-de-sac. And once you see the possibilities, that cheers you up immensely, and writing becomes a bit easier again.

Anyway, to return to sources. The point about sources and water and life is best made by quoting Leonidas of Tarentum’s The Roadside Pool:

Drink not here, traveller, from this warm pool in the brook, full of mud stirred by the sheep at pasture; but go a very little way over the ridge where the heifers are grazing; for there by yonder pastoral stone-pine thou wilt find bubbling through the fountained rock a spring colder than northern snow.

So ‘source’ as a word enters the language, and as a concept laden with symbolism. In Coleridge’s Kubla Khan we encounter:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced.

In this way we set up patterns, repetitions of actions such as the water coming from the source, which set up the emotional colouring of a story.

To illustrate all this I’ve chosen two extracts from two of my own books which involve the act of pouring, and which colour the stories in different ways. The first is from ‘Clockwork’, the second from ‘I Was A Rat’.

From "Clockwork":

'Bring a glass for my companion,' said Dr. Kalemnius to the landlord, 'and then you may leave us.'

The landlord put the bottle and another glass on the bar, and fled. Only five minutes before the parlour had been full to bursting; but now Dr. Kalemnius and Karl were alone, and the inn was so quiet that Karl could hear the whisper of flames in the stove, and the ticking of the old clock in the corner, even over the beating of his own heart.

Dr. Kalemnius poured some brandy, and pushed the glass along the bar. Karl said nothing. He bore the stranger's stare for nearly a minutes, and then he banges his fist on the counter and cried:

'God damn you, what do you want?'


In the first extract the pouring of the brandy is an indication of the authority of the older man - power belongs to those who bestow, not to those who receive. The alcohol is emblematic of confusion, danger; the older man is trying to influence the younger. The second is much more domestic; pouring water from the kettle to wash with, suggestive of warmth and nourishment. Cleanliness, order and domestic harmony prevail.

To conclude, then. Pouring is only one kind of elementary particle. There are many others; journey, task, balance, equilibrium disturbed and restored. In His Dark Materials I found myself using again and again the motif of two things which have been closely bound together being split apart. And these particles, the elements of a narrative, are grounded in physical experience, in the actions and sensations of our bodies when we interact with the world. It is that connection with our own experience that underlies the metaphor and understanding, because we are not a ghost or a machine; mind and body are inseparable. As William Blake so aptly puts it; “That called body is a portion of soul discerned by the five senses.”

According to Pullman these ideas will eventually be published in a book, which he is even now working on. It’s also worth reading the essay on writing on his website which touches on some of the points he covered in the lecture.

If anyone has any ideas about where else I might post this then let me know - is there a community somewhere for the sharing of fanfiction resources? A bit like [ profile] ds_workshop but for the whole of fandom? (And if not then why not?)

(no subject)

Date: 2008-05-16 07:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
There's [ profile] fanthropology

From their userinfo:

Fanthropology is a community dedicated to discussing and analyzing fandom culture, news, and events, for both fandom in general and specific fandoms. Our goal is analysis, understanding, and relaying of information related to fan culture. We're here to think and be informed - but we want to have fun doing it!

This community is open for discussions on any fandom related to fictional creations and popular media: television, books, computer games, animation, movies, role-playing games, etc. We also include discussions of sports entertainment fandom (such as wrestling), and fandoms of things portrayed in the above medium. In general the only subject not covered is sports fandom, as that is often adqueately represented and analyzed elsewhere.

What is appropriate to post here?
1) Any fandom-related news.
2) Any particuarly interesting fandom experience for discussion, analysis, or information.
3) Links to articles on fandom and related issue for discussion, analysis, or information.
4) Discussions and presentation of theories on fandom and fandom culture.
5) Reviews and links to books and articles on fandom.
6) Links to interesting and unusual fandom resources.
7) Links to articles, pictures, and so forth on major popular-culture events and occurances.
8) Calls for help in finding fandom-related information, advice, or resources.

If you're not sure something is relevant, use your best judgement.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-05-16 08:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think the operative word in all those points if 'fandom'. I got the impression that [ profile] fanthropology is there to dissect fandom as a phenomenon, the same way that anthropologists dissect other cultures.

I was thinking more of a community that has thoughts on how to be a better writer, how to construct plot and write dialogue and all that kind of stuff. Since that's (very broadly speaking) what Pullman was talking about. There's always [ profile] metafandom, of course.

Thanks for the suggestion, though!

(no subject)

Date: 2008-05-16 09:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah that's true it does tend to be focussed on fandom as a culture...

I tried searching for writing nad so many comms come up, likewise with fandom. I am sure there must be one. Albeit one hard to track down...

(no subject)

Date: 2008-05-16 08:03 pm (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
Oh, cool! Haven't read yet, but I will. I've read "His Dark Materials" several times--those books are great, and it must've been cool to listen to the author.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-05-16 08:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yay, another Phillip Pullman fan! It was amazing. I think I was about eleven or twelve when I read NL and TSK, and they had a really big impact on me, so I was all *wibble* about seeing this author who sort of characterises part of my childhood, but he was every bit as eloquent in the flesh as he is on the page.


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