SxS: In the mi(d)st


From the opening of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, aboard the Nellie:

We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds.

Three sentences—ten words, twelve words, forty-four words. I appreciate the mimetic effects here, especially in specifically visual movements in the third sentence; the sequence to the seeing helps credibly place us there in the boat on the Thames as the day closes.

The first two sentences are simple and short, less visual than factual, providing basic information. And then Conrad takes us into the “staring,” the seeing, with a sentence more than three times as long as those that precede it, and compromised of three discrete directions of the gaze that implicitly have us seeing how the five aboard look out from the boat.

First, and briefest, the water (4 words). We/they see at once its expansive shine. Nothing in particular can keep the gaze, and so we/they look up to the sky, which is wider, and this act of looking into the clear “immensity” lasts a bit longer (12 words). This feels true: after staring out at the water to tip the head back and take in the vaster sky. But the sky — “without a speck” — is featureless. So the gaze moves to land, and the sentence then stretches and stretches more (adding 28 words) with, finally, some material (so to speak) for the eye stay with — not stare at but look at now, and look at with enough consideration to prompt a specific simile that aids in achieving a vivid picture.

It was Conrad who famously defined his job in writing as, “above all, to make you see.” Notice how he works, patiently, to make us see that mist on the marsh, backed by (and made more visible by) the “wooded rises inland.” That neither the sea nor the sky had offered the eye anything as substantive contributes to the palpable quality of the mist.

Those wooded rises remind me of a passage by Elaine Scarry (again fromDreaming by the Book), who devotes a lot of attention to how effortlessly the mind can visualize “filmy” objects, like that “gauzy and radiant fabric,” those “diaphanous folds.” Here Scarry is addressing how writers achieve “solidity” in the reader’s imagination:

The passing of a filmy surface over another (by comparison, dense) surface is not the only way of solidifying walls. But it is a key way; it recurs with writers universally saluted for their vividness, and it occurs precisely at moments where the newborn fictional worlds are most fragile and at risk because they are just in the midst of coming into being.

SxS: From Out of the Darkness

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Harker looks out from the coach that is taking him toward his first meeting with the Count:

Each moment I expected to see the glare of lamps through the blackness, but all was dark. The only light was the flickering rays of our own lamps, in which the steam from our hard-driven horses rose in a white cloud.

A few years ago, preparing to teach a new fiction course and compelled to begin with image-making (and to impress upon my students at the start that writers must consider themselves visual artists), I began to ask the question why certain images made from words on the page are particularly vivid. What makes them so? The question returned me to Elaine Scarry’s brilliant Dreaming by the Book, in which she offers several answers. Among them is what she refers to as “radiant ignition,” when (to simplify) we are asked, first, to “[i]magine nothing, just an empty expanse of black — the dusky emptiness in the midst of which images form but which are being kept away at the moment.” Then light shines and produces movement against the black. There’s the darkness, the anticipation, and the ignition of motion. Of course.

This example from Stoker is particularly instructive, I think, and it extends a bit my simplified description of what’s behind this kind of successful image-making. There’s Harker’s expectation in the dark (“[e]ach moment”), which is our expectation for something visual. That we’re asked to imagine the anticipated “glare of lamps” and then this is erased — this is not seen — makes the resultant darkness all the more dark. And then “flickering rays” ignite movement. Yes, we can see the light of the lamps themselves against the dark, but that’s not what makes the image-work here especially effective (and it’s not very interesting). What we are asked to see are how the rays play on the steam rising from the (unseen) nostrils of straining horses. The interplay of different speeds — the “flickering rays” are many, fast, and sharply shifting, while the “white cloud” is singular and slower — and the white-on-black contrast are what lends this small moment of seeing particularly vivid power. The exertion of those horses is palpable even as they remain off-screen.