Creating Suspense or Changing Tack

A further way that writers make their writing exciting is through a strategy of reversals. The reader believes that we are heading in one direction, but the writer suddenly changes tack and leads us off in another. Wittgenstein, one of the twentieth centuries most well known (and most famously cantankerous) philosophers, called this a technique of “pulling the rug out” from under the reader. Carl Wilson’s book about Celine Dion, Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, enacts this kind of reversal with its first chapter, which is called, “Let’s Talk About Hate.” 

Here is another example, from Canadian philosopher Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy. Throughout that work, Zwicky employs a number of interlocutors, but one of them is invented–a critic with no name but who defends the position of contemporary analytic philosophy as it is most often practiced in the English speaking world.

Objectivity emerges in the Enlightenment as the idea of a perspectiveless perspective, its lack of perspective being more or less synonymous with its lack of emotion.

What interests me most is not the overt logical tensions or potential psychological impossibilities inherent in such a viewpoint, but the positive value that is then attached to the lack of emotion.

Why should emotionlessness make a way of thinking good? (84)

Now Zwicky brings in her interlocutor:

“Isn’t this just another version of anti-intellectualism? Aren’t you really just looking for emotion instead of thought?”

No. I am looking for a way of thinking that in addition to using analysis can travel by extra-logical connections of images, similarities in overtone and structure; thought that is at once clear and resonant; in which clarity can assume the form of resonance. (86)

Her interlocutor voices the objections that mainstream academic thinkers would raise. She introduces them here specifically because she wants to get everything out on the table so that it is clear what position she holds and what position she rejects.

Analysis is the embodiment of objective, i.e., emotion-independent, thought. It is allied to a criterial conception of truth; and is itself susceptible to criterial evaluation. Its valorization in contemporary North American philosophy reinforces and is reinforced by the economic attitudes characteristic of industrialism. Its measurability–hence its susceptibility to economic interpretation–has fostered an attitude of mind congenial to careerism.

“But is that all there is to it? Are you suggesting that objectivity in philosophical thought has no purely conceptual basis of any sort? That it’s simply a cultural artifact with no broader significance or value? Think about it. Isn’t there something about what thinking is that leads us to identify clear thought with the absence of passion?”

Perhaps there is more than cultural inertia at work. However, armchair (neuro)psychologizing aside, it is very difficult to say precisely what that ‘more’ might be. We still know too little about the structures of human mentation. Certainly, the many examples of clear, emotionally sensitive thought European culture has produced in spite of academic stereotypes show that those stereotypes are not simply encapsulations of biochemical necessity.

Perhaps the sense that there is something natural about the division of faculties is itself a product of our culture’s infatuation with objectivity and system, as Blake argued. (100)

Read these two examples of an author using this tactic–fully taking us in one direction and then bringing us back to another.

From the School of Life

From Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

Here, from a 1964 essay called “Word and Character: Sartrian Autobiography,” we see another example of a highly structured opening that employs reversal to propel us forward:

Before Jean-Paul Sartre was a year old, his father died of an intestinal fever contracted in Cochin China, and his mother went back to live with her parents at Beudon. Her father, Charles Schweitzer, uncle to Albert Schweitzer, gave up without a word of complaint his intention of retiring from teaching and subsequently, when in 1911 he could no longer continue at the lycée, founded the Institut des Langues vivantes in Paris in order to provide for his wife, daughter and grandson. He was indeed so very attached to Jean-Paul that he found a series of pretexts to prevent him from going to school until he was ten and a quarter.

The first volume of Sartre’s long-promised autobiography is the story of an extremely lonely and over-protected childhood. At the same time it is an account of how this loneliness led Sartre to begin writing and to develop a particular concept of literature from which he says he took thirty years to recover. Like almost everything else which he has published, Les Mots is a didactic work aimed at criticizing the social, philosophical and literary ideas of the bourgeoisie from which he sprang. It is a confession, but a polemical one; an account of his childhood, but also a calling into question of the literary and philosophical presuppositions of his own early work.

The first sentence of the second paragraph upsets the story we thought we were reading. The first paragraph tells the story of parental abandonment and rescue at the hands of a devoted grandfather. The second paragraph explains how damaging that devotion was.




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