Poco a Poco

And we’re back. I can’t remember having been quite so comprehensively laid out by an infection for years. To all intents and purposes I did no reading, writing or editing, or to be honest much of anything else, for the best part of three weeks, starting just after the Clarke shortlist announcement, so I’m feeling a bit rusty. (I did rewatch about thirty episodes of The West Wing and listen to a truly staggering amount of Radio 4, so the time wasn’t entirely wasted.) Still, it’s amazing what a course of antibiotics can do, even if it takes two attempts for your doctor to realise they’re needed, and last Friday evening I was feeling well enough to head over to Oxford to see Philip Pullman deliver a lecture titled “Poco a poco: the fundamental particles of narrative”.

It was an extremely well-structured and well-delivered lecture; Pullman is never less than an engaging speaker, and here he was on top form, both witty and erudite. The subject of the lecture was, more or less as you’d expect from the title, an exploration of a way of thinking about stories that Pullman has been playing with for a while, and if anything I say below is unclear, there’s another post about it all here. Pullman was careful to present his argument as an observational work-in-progress, not an attempt to declare any sort of fundamental truth, but if (he asked) we were to try to break down stories in a manner analagous to the way physicists break down matter, what would their fundamental particles be?

You might instinctively say “words”, but Pullman’s argument was slightly different. Because stories are things that take place in time, he suggested, the fundamental particles of narrative are events — small, abstract events that can take on many different meanings depending on the context in which they appear. When we read a story, we instinctively apply the context to the event to derive a meaning. His example, which he mined with what can only be described as admirable thoroughness, was the act of pouring liquid from a vessel. He showed a variety of pictures that positioned this event in different ways, from the background detail of a man in a speakeasy topping up his drink from a hip flask, to an Addams family cartoon in which boiling oil is about to be poured over unsuspecting carol singers, to paintings by Rembrandt and Goya and poems by Coleridge. As his examples became more involved, Pullman introduced the concept of “metaphoric charge”, analagous to the electrical charge that some particles carry; metaphorically charged events carry a meaning beyond the literal. For example, wine being spilt from stolen goblets in Belshazzar’s Feast can be understood as a metaphor for excess, in addition to being a literal part of the story the painting tells. In fact, Pullman argued, it is the combination of the literal and the metaphorical, or the transition between them, that makes a story more than just a sequence of events.

I can’t quite decide whether all this has an aesthetically pleasing neatness to it, or is just a bit obvious. Since I can see a case for words as the fundamental particles of stories, I suspect it’s the former, but some of what was said still sounded quite familiar. (At one point, when he was talking about how we as readers contextualise events based on where and how they occur in the story, I thought Pullman was going to move into a discussion of genre, but no.) It did strike me as interesting that so many of the examples Pullman was using were pictures; no doubt part of that was driven by a desire to make the lecture more visual, but it also left me wondering whether Pullman is at all familiar with Scott McCloud‘s Understanding Comics, which I think articulates a compatible view of the way stories are put together. Pullman also suggested that events build up layers of meaning over time, which reminded me of (obviously) the way the Alethiometer works, and also some of the things Hal Duncan has said about the structure of Vellum and Ink. (It also justified this person’s dissertation, which is nice.)

Towards the end of the lecture, Pullman said that one reason he’d found himself so sympathetic to this way of looking at stories was that he felt it emphasised that our lives are grounded in physical experience, that we are more than just ghosts piloting a machine — in other words, as this post points out, an Epicurian perspective. I can’t argue with the idea that much, perhaps most literature is written in accordance with this assumption, whether consciously or (more likely) unconsciously, and there are undoubtedly reasons for that. I’m just not sure it’s actually an accurate way of portraying how we think, as opposed to how we think we think. It’s not a big deal, though: the idea of breaking down stories into component events works either way.

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