Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Claude Lévi-Strauss

Quote of the Day

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Our method eliminates a problem which has been so far one of the main obstacles to the progress of mythological studies, namely, the quest for the true version, or the earlier one. On the contrary, we define the myth as consisting of all its versions.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Claude Lévi-Strauss

The characteristic feature of mystical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogenous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2016 at 7:30 am

“There were many ways to kill a man…”

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"There were many ways to kill a man..."

Note: This post is the tenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 11. You can read the previous installments here.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better depiction of the creative process on film than the one we find in Apollo 13. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember the scene. A team of engineers at NASA is confronted with the problem of converting the carbon scrubbers on the damaged spacecraft to ones that will work on the lunar module, using only the materials that the astronauts have on board. As they dump a bunch of boxes full of equipment—space suits, tubing, the inevitable duct tape—onto a conference table, the lead technician holds up a pair of carbon scrubbers and announces: “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this using nothing but that.” (My favorite touch is the voice in the background saying: “Better get some coffee going, too.”) As I’ve noted before, it’s a lovely illustration of what Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible,” the creation of something new from whatever happens to be lying around, and I know for a fact that it inspired one of my oldest friends to become an engineer. And I’ve started to realize that I became a novelist for many of the same reasons.

In the arts, the idea of the adjacent possible is better known as bricolage, literally “tinkering,” as memorably described by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: “[The bricoleur’s] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogenous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project.” And although the possibilities at a writer’s disposal might seem infinite, in practice, we start engaging in bricolage as soon as we begin a story, and continue to do so throughout the process. Taking a challenging premise and doing our best to execute it within the constraints it presents is one kind of bricolage; so is solving a tricky narrative problem in a way consistent with everything that has come before. We’re acting as bricoleurs when we visit a location and work out a chase scene using the real layout of a building or street, or when we start with a twist ending and engineer the story backwards so that the result seems inevitable. And the greater the number of constraints we impose on the universe of potential materials, the more interesting the result tends to be.

"When the solvents had evaporated..."

There’s a nice little example from Chapter 11 of Eternal Empire, in which one of my lead characters is forced, a la MacGyver, to engage in a bit of bricolage himself. While incarcerated at Belmarsh Prison, Ilya is ordered to kill another convict in order to prove his loyalty, and it all has to be done in a way that won’t implicate him. Prisoners, of course, are some of the original bricoleurs: a glance at the improvised weapons that inmates have constructed out of a plastic comb, a shoelace, and a bit of wire offers us a particularly murderous illustration of the adjacent possible. (If we’re looking for a pair of martyrs to the act of bricolage, we couldn’t do better than the gangsters Harry Pierpont and Charles Makley, who tried—and failed—to escape from prison using fake guns carved from soap and painted with shoe polish.) While I could have had Ilya put together some kind of clever shiv, it seemed more fun to see what else I could do using the materials available. And as it happened, I had a useful source of information: the list of items that inmates can purchase with their commissary accounts at Belmarsh, as helpfully reproduced in its entirety by Jeffrey Archer in his memoir A Prison Diary.

The result was the sort of logic puzzle that thriller and mystery writers delight in setting for themselves. Looking at the commissary list that Archer provides—which consists mostly of tobacco, batteries, toiletries, stationary, and salted snacks—I was able to cobble together a plan in which Ilya uses tea bags, butane, and alcohol to extract the nicotine from several packs of cigarettes. (On this point, at least, no exaggeration was necessary: pure nicotine is one of the most potent poisons imaginable, and sixty milligrams on the skin can be fatal.) I had to fudge a few of the steps, and I departed from the commissary inventory in a number of ways: the alcohol was provided by a flask of bootleg prison liquor, while the plastic syringe that Ilya uses to administer the poison was appropriated from a workshop where inmates refill printer cartridges. Still, when I was done, it felt like literally the only solution that worked within the limits the story had imposed, and the fact that it used poison seemed particularly appropriate, since toxins of one sort or another play an important thematic role elsewhere in the series. And while killing an inmate might hold less immediate appeal than saving three astronauts, in both cases, as Apollo 13 famously puts it, it all starts when we have a problem…

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2015 at 9:37 am

Bricolage and the working writer

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Ad hoc chair

Yesterday, I posted an extended passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss on the concept of bricolage, or the art of using whatever happens to be at hand. I stumbled across it while browsing through a book that has fascinated me for a long time, Adhocism by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, which is essentially an extended love letter to the art of creative improvisation. The more I think about that quote, the more it resonates with me, although the reasons might not seem obvious. As regular readers know, I’m an innately left-brained author: I love planning, research, and outlining, and I rarely sit down for a day’s work without a detailed idea of how the end result will look. On a deeper level, though, just about everything I’ve ever written has been an act of bricolage. I’m only really happy when I’m working on some kind of project, so in the early stages, I’ll often assemble a few promising scraps that look like they might lead to a story and see where they take me after a few days of noodling. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how random these building blocks can be—a few magazine articles, a book I want to read, an idea for a scene or character, a world I feel like exploring—and while I don’t always know how these components will eventually come together, that’s part of the fun.

And while I’ve previously emphasized the random nature of the pieces, the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to suspect that randomness is less important in itself than a natural side effect of the way in which the parts are acquired. This isn’t to say that randomness isn’t inherently valuable: I still believe that creativity is primarily about connections, and I’ve gotten many of my best ideas by juxtaposing ideas that might as well have been drawn out of a hat. But this is only a more systematic, or more artificial, version of a process that would probably take place on its own even if I didn’t make a point of it. The assortment of ideas competing for our attention at any one time is likely to be inherently random; as writers, we’re exposed to countless stray influences and oddments of material, whether we seek them out deliberately or come across them by chance, so the result will naturally resemble a kind of lucky bag. And this is all the more true to the extent that the process is a continuous one. A writer, if he or she is lucky, will stumble onto a coherent network of previously unexplored material maybe once every few years, which isn’t often enough to make a living at it. In order to achieve the level of productivity required to sustain a career in art, a writer needs to become very good at making use of whatever happens to be at hand right now.

Sylvia Plath

Which gets at what I think is a surprisingly powerful concept. Becoming comfortable with randomness—or being able to see affinities between the pieces that the universe happens to give us at any given time—isn’t just a necessary part of the creative process, but a survival tactic that keeps the whole machine running. When an artist like Gerhard Richter tells us that we need actively to go out and find an idea, he’s really talking about seeing what’s right in front of our eyes, which rarely falls into an order that is evident at first glance. More often, it’s a hodgepodge that we’ve gathered unconsciously or according to intuitions that aren’t easily explained, and it’s the willingness to follow through on those instincts, even if we aren’t sure if they’re right, that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional. Someone who dithers between ideas, picks up and drops projects, or agonizes endlessly over where to begin isn’t likely to invest a lot of time into a set of components with no clear payoff—the opportunity cost is just too great. A working writer with sufficient confidence in his or her ability to see things through, by contrast, is more likely just to jump in and see where it goes. And while that sort of security in one’s own talents is only earned through practice, some version of it, however irrational, is probably required from the beginning.

This isn’t to say that every intuition a writer has is correct, or that everything we assemble through bricolage will result in a great, or even publishable, story. Every writer knows what it’s like to spend weeks or months on a project that turns out to be a dead end, and the garages and workshops of every bricoleur are filled with the remnants of unfinished conceptions. More often than not, though, if we push past our doubts and proceed under the assumption that the outcome will be worth it, we’ll end up with something that at least advances our understanding of the craft and teaches us a few tricks that we can put to use elsewhere. The result may not be a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be, as long as it keeps us in the game. As Ted Hughes wrote of Sylvia Plath, who rarely left a poem unfinished: “Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” A working artist is someone whose threshold level of engagement is set just low enough so that he or she is making toys all the time, even if they occasionally turn out to be the size of a house. And if I were giving advice to someone who wanted to be a writer but wasn’t sure where to start, I’d say that the best thing you can do is assemble a few pieces, trusting both to chance and to your own intuition about what parts will fit, and get to work.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2014 at 9:37 am

The way of the bricoleur

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Claude Lévi-Strauss

The “bricoleur” is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand,” that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions…

Consider him at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem…A particular cube of oak could be a wedge to make up for the inadequate length of a plank of pine or it could be a pedestal—which would allow the grain and polish of the old wood to show to advantage. In one case it will serve as extension, in the other as material. But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes…And the decision as to what to put in each place also depends on the possibility of putting a different element there instead, so that each choice which is made will involve a complete reorganization of the structure, which will never be the same as one vaguely imagined nor as some other which might have been preferred to it.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind

Written by nevalalee

March 2, 2014 at 9:00 am

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