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To be precise

We love precision in what we read. No, let’s be accurate, we demand precision. We attack all forms of imprecision. Cliches are wrong not because they are familiar but because the generalise an image rather than making it sharp and unique. Woolly writing is wrong because it gets between the reader and the vivid image.

But how on earth can we be precise, when we are using language which is, by its very nature, imprecise? If not for the ability of language to generalise, we couldn’t have fiction (or at least not without inventing an entire new vocabulary whenever we want to introduce a new character or a new world).

I started thinking about this when I opened Don DeLillo’s new novella, Point Omega. DeLillo I have always considered one of the most precise of novelists, and here, at such short length, wouldn’t that precision be heightened to a level of austerity, a spareness that used the fewest possible words to hit the spot? And what do I find?

The original movie had been slowed to a running time of twenty-four hours. What he was watching seemed pure film, pure time. The broad horror of the old gothic movie was subsumed in time. How long would he have to stand here, how many weeks or months, before the film’s time scheme absorbed his own, or had this already begun to happen? He approached the screen and stood about a foot away, seeing snatches and staticky fragments, flurries of trembling light. He walked around the screen several times. The gallery was empty now and he was able to stand at various angles and points of separation. He walked backwards looking, always, at the screen. He understood completely why the film was projected without sound. It had to be silent. It had to engage the individual at a depth beyond the usual assumptions, the things he supposes and presumes and takes for granted. (6-7)

The language is very plain and simple (although I do hate ‘staticky’). It is absolutely precise, you cannot move on from that paragraph without having a very clear sense of what he wants to convey in it. And yet look how much he repeats to make that point. The word ‘time’ comes up five times (sorry); ‘film’ and ‘screen’ keep cropping up; the film is both ‘without sound’ and ‘silent’; and consider the dying fall of that last sentence: ‘assumptions … supposes … presumes … takes for granted’. Again and again the same word to make the point; but is it always the same?

A little later there is a brief meditation on the word ‘rendition’:

What lay between these sentences was a study of the word rendition, with references to Middle English, Old French, Vulgar Latin and other sources and origins. Early on, Elster cited one of the meanings of rendering – a coat of plaster applied to a masonry surface. From this he asked the reader to consider a walled enclosure in an unnamed country and a method of questioning, using what he called enhanced interrogation techniques, that was meant to induce a surrender (one of the meanings of rendition – a giving up or giving back) in the person being interrogated … He pointed out that words were not necessary to one’s experience of the true life. (33-4)

Except, of course, that isn’t what he (DeLillo) is pointing out. Rather he is showing how necessary, but how unreliable, words are. How their meaning can be shifted and so how our understanding can be shifted also. In short, he is making a point about how imprecise words are.

He makes the same point somewhat differently (this whole post is about making the same point differently) when Elster talks about haiku:

‘Haiku means nothing beyond what it is. A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind. It’s human consciousness located in nature. It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count … What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things. This is the soul of haiku. Bare everything in plain sight. See what’s there … See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear’. (29)

I have a sense that, since Underworld, DeLillo’s fiction has all aspired to the condition of haiku. But here, in his most haiku-like work to date, he is specifically addressing the impossibility of such a condition. That language won’t allow such a baring in plain sight.

Which brings us back to that scene in the gallery and the 24-hour Psycho. What can you show in plain sight that won’t be altered as time is altered? All those different times in that paragraph are used differently, they mean something slightly different. Language is never precise, all we can do is build up and build up and build up what we want to say in the hope that somewhere along the line we have presented the image in enough variations that we might get some idea of what we are looking at before it disappears again.

3 thoughts on “To be precise

  1. I like this question you ask:

    “What can you show in plain sight that won’t be altered as time is altered?”

    Do you think this question applies equally to all genres and mediums? The reason I ask is that a still frame, or a photograph, or a painting, seems to be subjected to the passing of time in a way that is different for a sentence, or a collection of sentences, or a series of moving pictures (a movie). They all exist in time, but whereas a still frame depicts something ‘frozen’ in time, and can usually be absorbed by the viewer in a single glance, a sentence, or collection of sentences, or an entire movie requires time to be experienced, or absorbed. Does this constitute a difference in the ability to be precise?

  2. I think everything exists in time, even a still photograph. However quickly you might glance at it, there is still an appreciable amount of time involved. So for the experiencer, there is always that issue of duration (and with it the issue of duration after the event, the time spent forgetting the exact experience).

    As to what is depicted, both a sentence and a movie frame can record one frozen moment. But think of the complication of spending time to experience something outside time or frozen in time. I find time fascinating, but every time I start to think about it my mind starts doing backflips.

    Think of it the way, say, a mayfly, a human and a tree all exist within time, but their experience of time is necessarily different because of the constraints of lifetime. So a poem and a novel, a still photograph and a movie, a painting and a play, all exist within time, all record time, all need time in order to be experienced, yet all operate within very different timeframes.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t have an answer to your question, but I suspect it might be ‘yes’. Now the next question is: what would that difference in the ability to be precise entail?

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