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Craft & Mechanics of Prose II

Here is one final recitation of the five formal practices. Radiant ignition is the first. Sprays of light can bear their own weight or lift something heavy; they can, like a golden envelope, surround an object or, like a glistening worm, move inside it. Rarity, which comes second, is a property belonging to weightless things, such as shadows and reflections, or to things that are nearly weightless, such as butterflies and flower petals. Despite their fragility or filminess, objects with rarity can move in the mind with direction and force (the shadow of a flying spear) or can steer forward and back with highly distinct signatures, as in the case of Little Yellow and Sleepy Orange. Dyadic addition or subtraction, the third mental practice, may describe the movement of the mind from picture to picture (as happens even when the writer has no interest in making pictures move, but simply wishes to rotate our attention from mental object to mental object) or across a set of objects that we are to understand as a composite of some larger thing (“License my roving hands and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below”); or it may involve some changing feature of a solitary picture that remains steadily before us in its entirety (as when the number of people in an otherwise unchanging room suddenly jumps from three to four). This dyadic addition or subtraction is assisted by the abruptness of imperatives, as well as by directional words from which the asserted picture falls away. Strong motion verbs (sprung, flung) attributed to actors in the picture seem often to describe the felt experience of the picture’s arrival in the mind. It sometimes seems that one may in one’s mind lay a hand on an image or perform mental outcomes that are handlike—stretching, tilting, folding—and these together constitute the fourth mental practice. The motion may take place across the full expanse of an image (Emma Bovary grows taller than she was a second ago) or at the periphery (Emma Bovary extends a foot), or at some small patch at the interior (Emma Bovary smiles). Although we usually think of the substance of the image as either remaining constant (when Emma nods, her head stays the same size) or growing (Emma becomes taller; Emma’s extending leg becomes longer), there may also be a subtraction, as when part of a face or body is folded away or disappears from view. Our nimbleness in setting images in motion often depends on our having (like Catherine Earnshaw pulling feathers out of a rent in the pillow) a heightened sense of the materiality or pseudo-materiality of images, and this may be achieved by what I have called the “It’s only cloth” and the “Hands-on” instructions. These, in turn, bring about a temporary derealization of the image, momentarily heightening our sense of the features it has by being a mental image and emptying it of whatever features it had by virtue of its reference to the external world. The fifth mental practice I have called floral supposition: it has four parts, each of which is floral but only one of which is strictly suppositional. One is the rotation of something from a horizontal axis to a vertical axis, which is regularly assisted by the presence of flowers in the image. A second is the destabilization of figure and ground, as when the floral background (whether horizontal or vertical) becomes the foreground figure, whereupon the motion may alternate back and forth between figure and ground or occur at both locations simultaneously. Third, flowers may be the surface on which actions are rehearsed, or the template on which other fainter motions are built. Here the subjunctive voice makes possible a grammatical prediction of the precise level of vivacity the imagining mind can achieve. Fourth, flowers produce motion by quickening the composition, both in the sense of bringing it to life and because they accelerate the movement; this mimesis of aliveness is the aspiration toward which the whole work of moving pictures is directed. The appropriateness of flowers as a template may be related to the fact that the material on which a writer works is not, as with other artists, paint or wood or stone or canvas or paper or strings or reeds (many of which are derived from plants), but something alive: the tissue of the writer’s own mind on which he or she practices mental composition, and the live tissue of the many other minds that will mentally recompose the pictures as they read. The writer is composing instructions for motions that will themselves take place on a surface—the quick of the human mind—that is already, always itself in motion.

—Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book

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