Saturday, May 01, 2021


A rhetorical device (also known under the Greek name paralipsis) by which a speaker emphasizes something by pretending to pass over it: 'I will not mention the time when…' The device was favoured by Chaucer, who uses it frequently in his Canterbury Tales. --The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

I am reading Samuel Delany's Tales of Nevèrÿon. A strange ship has come to the Ulvayn Islands -- a ship captained by a large black man and crewed by some forty blowsy female hands -- and the locals, outraged by this crew's attempt to recruit some of their daughters to their company, swim out to the ship by night and burn it. It is all to me rather obscure -- I am confused about both what this ship is and why the locals are outraged. But Delany is apparently anxious that he is telling a story so conventional that his sophisticated readers will be contemptuous, because he announces that "certain storytelling conventions would have us here... insert some fictive encounter between the girl [the protagonist] and one or more of the sailor women..." But he is not going to do this, he solemnly says -- after giving a couple examples of the meetings he has in mind -- because such meetings frequently do not happen, and because reading them lets us off the hook by making us feel we have already responded adequately to the discomforts of the story (? I think? Since I don't quite know what conventions we're talking about, I'm not sure I have this part right).

This is a thoroughly Chaucerian occupatio -- there's nothing Chaucer enjoys more than informing you that he is not going to tell you this, that, and the next thing, in considerable detail. Since I'm all at sea as to what the convention is that he's rescuing me from, I'm a little perplexed, but probably I just haven't been reading the right things. That's all right: you have to start somewhere.

It is a little startling to be told, in a fantasy story, that the author's conscience will not let him narrate something because that something happens infrequently. The hobgoblin of realism is to plague us even here? Maybe this is just a joke, but it doesn't feel that way to me. It feels sincere: that he felt a conventional twist to the story coming on, and he resisted it on our behalf, but he did want to let us know what the danger was and why it was avoided.

What is clear is that Delany feels that it's his responsibility to make it new (as Pound would say) and to make it real: and that to do less would be to participate in the sin of making us comfortable in the story: making us feel that there was nothing we needed to feel uncomfortable about, nothing we actually needed to do.

All of us who received a literary education in the 20th Century will recognize this as our time's fundamental justification of the study of literature. What literature was for was to make people uncomfortable: and nothing was worse, more unliterary, than a book that made you complacent. You could in fact measure a book's worth by how uncomfortable it made you. The end result of this doctrine was that most of the 20th Century's deliberately literary works are unreadable: the literary production was enormous, but the amount that will be read a hundred years from now will be very small; my guess is that future readers, if we have them, will mostly skip from Tolstoy and Dickens to whatever the 21st Century has in store.

Anyway, that's my view of it, a curmudgeonly view, and possibly a ridiculous one. Time will tell. My view of the storyteller's job, in this modern world -- a world which is saturated with stories, brimming over with them -- is to repair the old stories, to take the stories that have become painful and ill-fitting, for one reason or another, and make them over so that they suit us in our new-made world: that stories are precisely a comfort and a refuge, and it's what they ought to be. Which is not to say there's nothing to be learned from them. There is. Obviously I think so, since I have dedicated my life to them. The stories, the great stories: we go on telling them, it's the most human thing we do, and we desperately need the right stories to allow us to go on working together; to go on recognizing -- for instance -- that strangers are not necessarily enemies; or that people make mistakes in good faith. What we learn is seldom groundbreaking. It's not science, where the world is really made brand new every ten or twenty years. These are old, old lessons: that loyalty is better than treachery, that courage is better than cowardice, that honesty is better than lies. Promises must be kept and children must be cared for. That sort of thing.


Jarrett said...

And the exception to the dreariness of 20c literature will be fantasy and science fiction, Delany excepted.

Dale said...

Yes. Although I know really it's foolish to even try to guess what people who come after us will think. Who knows if they'll even read any more?

And there's all those genres that I don't even read around in. They probably harbor gems too.