Literary Imagination

The matter of a certain literary style and practice came up a couple of months ago – and I was reminded again of the discussion in a weird way, when my daughter and I watched the Night at the Museum movie series. This was in the interests of not freaking out Wee Jamie terribly, who is soaking up information and stimuli like a small, child-shaped sponge. I vaguely recall watching the first of the series, but my daughter did not, so I must have seen it in a theater, possibly when the Gentleman With Whom I (Once) Kept Company was on one of his yearly visits to Texas. Cute movie, and one which loaded in a lot of established actors in supporting roles (Ricky Gervais? Seriously?) …but anyway. (It is kind of cool, though – imagining an animated dinosaur skeleton playing ‘fetch’ the bone, and behaving like a playful puppy…)

The museum of the initial movie setting reminded me of an elementary school field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park, which also covered the La Brea Tar Pits, with all the life-sized landscaped dioramas, and the stuffed critters, mounted dinosaur bones and the remains of paleolithic critters excavated from the tar pits… all terribly retro and rather quaint, actually. There’s a natural history museum here in the old upscale part of San Antonio, the Witte Museum, with pretty much the same sort of exhibits, established around the same period, now with the addition of lighting and sound effects.

In any event, I began to think on how these kinds of exhibits became so very popular in the 19th century: I mean, the showman P. T. Barnum started with his exhibit of natural curiosities, scientific exhibits, wonders, and marvels early on. People flocked to see them in the flesh, and twice natural size – because most ordinary people didn’t often see extraordinary things; dinosaur bones, ancient Egyptian temples, statues of Greek gods and goddesses, African elephants … such were curiosities, and rare ones at that. So going to P. T. Barnum’s flamboyant exhibits, and later on to more staid and scholarly local museums of natural history – well, there they were; all the exotic natural history and fabled creatures that you could wish to see, before movies and television brought them to us in living color in theater and living room.

On one of the book/author blogs which I follow (can’t recall which one or when, or even if it is an original insight!) another writer made what I realized immediately was a perceptive observation, regarding those verbally florid Victorian novelists who went on for pages and pages, describing scenes, settings and characters. Modern readers find this terribly frustrating, as this tendency bogs down the plot something awful. The reason Victorian authors did so was because most of their readers then had no mental archive of visual references to build on! When someone like Sir Walter Scott wrote about medieval Perth, or Dumas wrote about Renaissance France, or Lew Wallace about the Roman-era Holy Land, they were setting the necessary scene for readers in necessary and exacting detail for a reader who perhaps might at best have seen a crude black and white line drawing, or a hand-colored lithograph of a castle, Jerusalem, or the skyline of Paris. There was nothing in the 19th century reader’s visual vocabulary anything like what movies, television, even color photographs in glossy coffee-table books provide modern readers. We have the advantage of already having those visuals in mind, and don’t need to have them spelled out at length.

And that is my off-the-wall observation for this week – the news is just too depressing to contemplate at the moment. Comment as you wish.

9 thoughts on “Literary Imagination”

  1. I recall a similar observation from one of my design school professors: namely, the practice of illuminated biblical scenes in churches – from vitrages (lead glass windows) to wall and ceiling murals to painting to sculpture were to provide visuals to mostly illiterate people and to bring them to a shared ideas through a shared visual experience. Which is why, incidentally, biblical personages in religious art are wearing clothes of the contemporary audience – and exotic camels appear to look suspiciously like deformed horses…Add to it monumental architecture with volume they lacked in their low-ceilings, dark dwellings; add music and singing their everyday life – the church was making impression to all senses.

  2. In all my years of reading almost anything and everything that I could lay my hands on, not once have I had a “reason for” that beat Sgt. Mom’s article and Tatyana’s thought. It’s one of those things that just was and that I accepted. I’d never thought of the why.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. The visualization aspect is very interesting. People who study the mind suggest that our brains are visually-focused. For example, it is (somewhat) easier to learn a second language if we can see it written down as opposed to simply just hearing it spoken.

    The literary word required the reader to visualize the scenes being described. When radio came along, there was an analogous need for the listener to imagine what was being broadcast. Initially the Internet was text-only, also requiring the participants to engage their minds in visualizing topics. Now film & TV have replaced the written word and radio, and the textual basis of the internet is being replaced by the visuals of Facebook and Tik-tok. Will this have an impact on the ability of future individuals to use their imaginations — becoming passive consumers instead of engaged participants?

  4. This is part of it, but having lived till about ten with limited entertainment, the reader also had a MUCH higher tolerance for boredom. Like, you know, we read the cereal boxes, if nothing else is available. hence all the descriptions were also tolerated.

    An interesting note on this: Jane Austen has almost no description, because what she was describing was so well known to her readers, since she wrote for and about a limited class/place/time. “A well appointed drawing room” was known to all. :)

  5. There is also the complement to that.
    Science discovers physical truths by experimentation. Darwin
    Art works out social issues by observation, which often requires subtle details. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

  6. I never thought of it that way but you’re right about those old authors. I learned something today.

  7. Indeed – Jane Austen was very spare with descriptions; her main contemporary audience already had the required visual references.
    And as one of the readers on my author blog pointed out – Dickens’s novels started serials in the newspaper – and he got paid by the word!

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