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Saturday 12 April 2008

The weasel under the cocktail cabinet.

Back in January (the 22nd) (Was it really that long ago?) I ventured a comment on Jim Murdoch's Post, Judging a Book by Everything Bar it's Cover that I was coming round to the idea of literature being what is left when you subtract the story. The actual phrase was not original, was not from my fast-breeder of a brain; nor, I guess, was the concept. Both seemed to have been hanging around at that time. However, the ground in which the seed for that thought might have grown had been prepared a little over forty years ago, and having left the comment I was reminded of a fascinating puzzle encountered in those dim and distant days, a puzzle that fascinated me then and still does today. At any rate, my comment on Jim's post set that old train of thought back upon its rails, and I have decided that it is now time I went somewhere with it. At the end of the day you might come to doubt the wisdom of that decision.

In the early days of my teaching career I worked in a special school for children with learning difficulties. Looking back, it was one of the most interesting periods of my career. Each child's special difficulties were individual to that child, but in any one there would be some sort of combination of: short attention span, immature language development, poor verbal- and abstract reasoning, some degree of hyperactivity... They were all aged between eight and ten. You will understand my amazement then when I tell you that their favourite television programme, was Perry Mason, an American, Emmy-winning drama. That is, you will understand my amazement if you are ancient enough to remember Perry Mason - or if you happen to have one or more of his D.V.Ds. in your collection. It was basically a courtroom drama written to a formula, the formula being that, in the first half hour a murder is committed and the police arrest the wrong person. Perry, a lawyer, is engaged for the defense and sets out to prevent what seems like an inevitable miscarriage of justice. There is a trial. Perry and his assistant investigate. Perry ties the prosecution up in knots before producing a pyrotechnic display of verbal wizardry that traps the guilty party into a dramatic court room confession, usually while giving testimony on the witness stand. The second part would consist of Perry and the innocent principals getting together for Perry to explain the intricacies of what happened: how the dastardly deed was done and covered-up and how the villains were eventually trapped by their one fatal mistake. That at any rate is how I remember it forty years on.

What I do remember and for sure is that the whole programme was geared to their weaknesses. The emphasis was all on the talk and away from the action. The 'action' was, for the most part, explained, not shown, other than in brief flash-backs - a further complication, for children not as television-sophisticated as they are today. The time-line must have been quite beyond their powers to unravel. And yet they were in no doubt about it: it was their favourite programme. The enthusiasm with which they recounted the previous evening's story was corroboration enough, if any were needed. They could not wait to explain the latest happenings, to tell me "What it was about". But here was the problem: the stories they unfolded bore no resemblance to the one I had watched. Consistently so. Week after week I failed to reconcile "their" plot to the one I had watched. I began by making the assumption that, not able to understand the speech (in which was the action, remember), they were in some way creating their own action and attributing it to the characters, rather as they might manipulate dolls or action men, projecting appropriate motives onto them as they did so. These alternative plots, I supposed, were the direct result of their lack of understanding or of their misunderstandings. That was very condescending of me, a fact I was to realise only when it finally dawned on me that my twenty pupils were not producing twenty different scripts. Some weeks they would all be telling the same tale, like crime suspects who had carefully rehearsed their alibi. (I did check that one out, by the way: they had not had the opportunity to compare notes to that extent, many of them having come straight off different coaches - not that they would have been able to get their stories together that well, in any case.) Other weeks there would be two or three versions with varying degrees of agreement between them, but impressive correspondence within each. And then a moment of intuition: watching the broadcast one Sunday, I tried to rid myself of all the extraneous baggage that I had been bringing to it, baggage which they did not possess: knowledge of the formula to which the stories were written (their versions rarely conformed), familiarity with the conventions of film and video drama (their story lines were always linear, not always as simple as you might expect, though flash-backs would often be absorbed into the present), my greater susceptibility to spoken language than to body language or to other forms of non-verbal communication (it was not so much that the actual words used were beyond them, as that the sentence structures would be unfamiliar), etc, etc. There was a colossal amount of it when I got right down to it. Too much ever to have allowed me to succeed in my self-appointed task of divesting myself of it! However, to the extent that I managed something of my plan, I was able, at least to intuit - no more than that - the possibility of alternative interpretations beneath the author's complex plots. False ones, you might think (the author would have, I am sure!) but that perhaps is to show the prejudices with which our culture so unthinkingly equips us - then sometimes (as in the case of those youngsters), doesn't. Assuming that I was correct in my suppositions, who are we to say that those alternative versions were less valid than the ones the programme-makers had in mind? Less valid to them, perhaps, but to those youngsters? (Another source of divergence, I decided later, after a little more "research", was the fact that they consciously took cues from the mood music - as they called it - while, it being anathema to me, I had always done my best to filter it out.)(I still practice this occasionally, with a kind of detached viewing when watching the soaps - the results can be quite interesting!)

So what did I glean from all that? A good deal that was valuable to me as their teacher, but for our purposes, an understanding that in any play or novel there are things going on that are not in concert, so that for the reader, viewer, listener what they take from it will depend upon where their focus is located. How many plots are there in even a simple tale well told? What, for this reader, that viewer, listener, is the tale about? Who but they can know? Certainly not the author. In a slim volume, an anthology of his work, a real gem of a book called Various Voices, Harold Pinter tells how many years ago he was taking part in a discussion on the theatre. A lady asked him what his work was about. As it happens, Pinter hates having to answer that particular question, and so replied "with no thought at all and simply to frustrate that line of inquiry: The weasel under the cocktail cabinet. It was a great mistake," he says, for "Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful remark about my own work." I believe theses have been written on it since, and no doubt Doctorates awarded and professors appointed on the strength of it. For Pinter the remark had meant "precisely nothing".


Ken Armstrong said...

I think many successful writers have learned that art of nodding sagely and accepting all the nuances attributed to their work as deliberate and fully planned whereas, more often, they are undoubtedly the workings of the audiences own projections onto the story.

Recognising this, I really do work to get at least a few strands of seperate theme and meaning into my own plays and I am occasionally rewarded when even a small percentage of an audience pick up on one of these.

Just as often, though, I am surprised by the stuff people take out of the writing which I never really put in!

Dave King said...

Thanks Ken. All grist to the mill.
There is an interesting essay byPierre Macherey "The Text Says What it Does Not Say", I have not been able to find it on line, but I believe it is still available through Amazon et al along the lines that a text may possess content, even contradictory content, that the author did not knowingly include. The hearest I could find on the web was a Lit Studies piece here.
on meaning as found in the incompleteness of a text, in its gaps and silences.
Thanks again for the contribution.

Jim Murdoch said...

What you seem to be saying here, and something I've believed for a long time, is that any work of literature, including dramatisations obviously, is a collaborative effort. I suppose those children must have had the literary equivalent of colour blindness, the plot, which was so obvious to you, just missed them completely; all they heard was subtext. None of us as writers can predict how someone will see our work. Ken Armstrong has just left a comment on my last blog about the fact I reference the film Field of Dreams and he picked up on it. This quite tickled him as if he was getting a joke that no one else was and I don't expect any teenagers reading that post would get the joke (the film came out in 1989). The thing of course is that no book is about one thing. It may have a strong central theme but that's not what it's about. Beckett was exactly the same about distilling his works down into a nice pithy sentence. If that had been the case I suppose he would have written the one sentence, given it a title and got on with his next project. Why waste time, eh, if that's all people are going to get out of your work?

Lucy said...

I am filled with admiration that you got to the bottom of their interpretations like that, it's a fascinating story.

Dave King said...

Hi Jim,
Thanks for a really thought=provoking response which takes the discussion on a bit, I think. Yes, the literary equivalent of colour blindness is a good way of putting it, but the issue is perhaps not what they missed, but what they saw. Sometimes seeing a colour shot in black and white can bring out other aspects. You would be surprised what remains of a soap when I am too lazy, too tired or too preoccupied either to turn it off or to follow the plot!

Dave King said...

Thanks Lucy, but you flatter me. It was a "given" moment, not the result of some brilliant detective work on my part!

Rachel Fox said...

Fascinating post Dave. I worked in a special needs college for a little while as an assistant and it was probably one of the most interesting jobs I've ever had. Different stories, different ways of thinking, different expectations...it all gave a taste of freedom from the must-succeed, must-think-a-certain-way and live-a-certain-way world (and all the energy wasted trying to keep it that way!).

Dave King said...

Thanks Rachel.
Yes, I agree absolutely: if they don't think like us, there must be something wrong with them!

Rachel Fox said...

Sadly a sentiment that creeps in all over the place...certainly poetry/poets are not exempt.
Sometimes I feel myself thinking the beginnings of it too (especially when it comes to religion, how to bring up children and anything to do with shopping). It's hard to sit on it and keep the 'I know best' in check but sat-upon it must be!

Dave King said...

Yes, know the feeling only too well. Been there, done that - so easy to get caught out!
Thanks again.

swiss said...

dave, you can get the macherey essay in dennis walder's literature in the modern world, which you can get second hand on amazon for buttons. it's not a bad wee book and has other interesting bits in it. better, i think,is rivkin and ryan's literary theory, which still graces my shelves and gets dipped into whenever i'm of that mind

does it matter? i never ended up teaching put it that way!

nice post

Dave King said...

Much obliged to you for the info. I shall look out for the Rivkin and Ryan.
Thanks for dropping by.