Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Peter Greenaway

The way of the hedgehog

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The Hedgehog

Jean Renoir once suggested that most true creators have only one idea and spend their lives reworking it,” the director Peter Greenaway said in an interview a quarter of a century ago. “But then very rapidly he added that most people don’t have any ideas at all, so one idea is pretty amazing.” I haven’t been able to find the original version of this quote, but it remains true enough even if we attribute it to Greenaway himself, who might otherwise not seem to have much in common with Renoir. Over time, I’ve come to sympathize with the notion that the important thing for an artist is to have an idea, as long as it’s a good one. This wasn’t always how I felt. In college, I was deeply impressed by Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which he drew a famous contrast between writers who are hedgehogs, with one overarching obsession that they pursue for all their lives, and the foxes who move restlessly from one idea to another. (Berlin took his inspiration from a fragment of Archilochus—“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—which may mean nothing more than the fact that the fox, for all its cleverness, is ultimately defeated by the hedgehog’s one good defense of rolling itself into a ball.) My natural loyalty at the time was to such foxes as Shakespeare, Joyce, and Pushkin, as much as I came to love such hedgehogs as Dante and Proust. That’s probably how it should be at twenty, when most of us, as Berlin writes, “lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal.”

Even at the time, however, I sensed that there was a difference between a truly omnivorous intelligence and the simple inability to make up one’s mind. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to feel more respect for the hedgehogs. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that this classification really only makes sense when applied to exceptional creative geniuses. For the rest of us, identifying as a fox is more likely to become an excuse for a lack of fixed ideas, while a hedgehog’s perspective can become indistinguishable from tunnel vision. I’m neither a hedgehog nor a fox, and neither are you—we’re just trying to muddle along and make sense of the world as best as we can.) It takes courage to devote your entire career to a single idea, more so, in many ways, than building it around the act of creation itself. Neither approach is inherently better than the other, but both have their associated pitfalls. When you stick to one idea, you run the obvious risk of being unable to change your mind even if you’re wrong, and of distorting the evidence around you to fit your preconceived notions. But the danger of throwing in your lot with process is no less real. It can result in the sort of empty technical facility that levels all values until they become indistinguishable, and it can lead you astray just as surely as a fixation on a single argument can. These wrong turns may last just a year or two, rather than a lifetime, but a life made up of twenty dead ends in succession isn’t that much different than one spent tunneling for decades in the wrong direction. You wind up repeating the same behaviors in an endless cycle of tiny variations, and if it were a movie, you could call it Hedgehog Day.

Peter Greenaway

I don’t mean to denigrate the acquisition of technical experience, which is a difficult and honorable calling in itself. But it’s necessary to remember that once we become competent in any art, the skills that we’ve acquired are largely fungible, and we become part of a stratum of practitioners who are mostly interchangeable with others at the same level. You can see this most clearly in the movies, which is the medium in which financial and market pressures tend to equalize talent the most ruthlessly. It’s rare to see a film these days that isn’t shot, lit, mixed, and scored with a high degree of proficiency, simply because the competition within those fields is so intense, and based solely on ability, that any movie with a reasonable budget can get excellent craftspeople to fill those roles. It’s in the underlying idea and its execution that films tend to fall short. (There are countless examples, but the one that has been on my mind the most is Batman v. Superman. There’s a perfectly legitimate story that could be told by a film of that title—in which Superman stands for unyielding law and order and Batman represents a more ambiguous form of vigilante justice—but the movie, for whatever reason, declines to use it. Instead, it tries to graft its showdown onto the alien messiah narrative of Man of Steel, which isn’t a bad concept in itself: it just happens to be fundamentally incompatible with the ethical conflict between these two superheroes. Zack Snyder has a great eye, the cast is excellent, and the technical elements are all exquisite. But it’s a movie so misconceived that it could only have been saved by throwing out the entire script and starting again.)

Good ideas, as I’ve often said before, are cheap, but the ones worthy of fueling a great novel or movie or even a lifetime are indescribably precious, and the whole point of developing technical proficiency is to defend those ideas from those who would destroy them, even inadvertently. There’s a reason why screenwriting is the one aspect of filmmaking that doesn’t seem to have advanced at all over the last century. It’s because most studio executives wouldn’t dream of trying to interfere with sound mixing, lighting, or cinematography, but they also believe that their story ideas are as good as anyone else’s. This attitude is particularly stark in the movies, but it’s present in almost any field where ideas are evaluated less on their own merits than on their convenience to the structures that are already in place. We claim to value ideas, but we’re all too willing to drop or ignore uncomfortable truths, or, even more damagingly, to quietly replace them with their counterfeit equivalents. Even a hedgehog needs to be something of a fox to keep an idea alive in the face of all the forces that would oppose it or kill it with indifference. Not every belief is worth fighting or dying for, and history is full of otherwise capable men and women—John W. Campbell among them—who sacrificed their reputations on the altar of an unexamined idea. We need to be willing to change course in light of new evidence and to be as crafty as Odysseus to find our way home. But all that cleverness and tenacity and tactical brilliance become worthless if they aren’t given shape by a clear vision, even if it’s a modest one. Not all of us can be hedgehogs or foxes. But we can’t afford to be ostriches, either.

How is a writer like a surgeon?

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E.L. Doctorow

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 22, 2015. 

The late E.L. Doctorow belonged to a select group of writers, including Toni Morrison, who were editors before they were novelists. When asked how his former vocation had influenced his work, he said:

Editing taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values—the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that’s done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don’t need it. You learn how to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that’s it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, Well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three. You’re at ease in the book the way a surgeon is at ease in a human chest, with all the blood and guts and everything. You’re familiar with the material and you can toss it around and say dirty things to the nurse.

Doctorow—who had the word “doctor” right there in his name—wasn’t the first author to draw a comparison between writing and medicine, and in particular to surgery, which has a lot of metaphorical affinities with the art of fiction. It’s half trade school and half priesthood, with a vast body of written and unwritten knowledge, and as Atul Gawande has pointed out, even the most experienced practitioners can benefit from the use of checklists. What draws most artists to the analogy, though, is the surgeon’s perceived detachment and lack of sentimentality, and the idea that it’s a quality that can be acquired with sufficient training and experience. The director Peter Greenaway put it well:

I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It’s like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can’t help the patient and you can’t help yourself by emoting.

And the primary difference, aside from the stakes involved, is that the novelist is constantly asked, like the surgeon in the famous brainteaser, to operate on his or her own child.

Atul Gawande

Closely allied to the concept of surgical detachment is that of a particular intuition, the kind that comes after craft has been internalized to the point where it no longer needs to be consciously remembered. As Wilfred Trotter wrote: “The second thing to be striven for [by a doctor] is intuition. This sounds an impossibility, for who can control that small quiet monitor? But intuition is only inference from experience stored and not actively recalled.” Intuition is really a way of reaching a conclusion after skipping over the intermediate steps that rational thought requires—or what Robert Graves calls proleptic thinking—and it evolved as a survival response to situations where time is at a premium. Both surgeons and artists are called upon to exercise uncanny precision at moments of the highest tension, and the greater the stress, the greater the exactitude required. As John Ruskin puts it:

There is but one question ultimately to be asked respecting every line you draw: Is it right or wrong? If right, it most assuredly is not a “free” line, but an intensely continent, restrained and considered line; and the action of the hand in laying it is just as decisive, and just as “free” as the hand of a first-rate surgeon in a critical incision.

Surgeons, of course, are as human as anybody else. In an opinion piece published last year in the New York Times, the writer and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar argued that the widespread use of surgical report cards has had a negative impact on patient care: skilled surgeons who are aggressive about treating risky cases are penalized, or even stripped of their operating privileges, while surgeons who play it safe by avoiding very sick patients maintain high ratings. It isn’t hard to draw a comparison to fiction, where a writer who consistently takes big risks can end up with less of a career than one who sticks to proven material. (As an unnamed surgeon quoted by Jahuar says: “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases.”) And while it may seem like a stretch to compare a patient of flesh and blood to the fictional men and women on which a writer operates, the stakes are at least analogous. Every project represents a life, or a substantial part of one: it’s an investment of effort drawn from the finite, and nonrenewable, pool of time that we’ve all been granted. When a novelist is faced with saving a manuscript, it’s not just a stack of pages, but a year of one’s existence that might feel like a loss if the operation isn’t successful. Any story is a slice of mortality, distilled to a physical form that runs the risk of disappearing without a trace if we can’t preserve it. And our detachment here is precious, even essential, because the life we’ve been asked to save is our own.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2017 at 9:00 am

How is a writer like a surgeon?

with 8 comments

E.L. Doctorow

The late E.L. Doctorow belonged to a select group of writers, including Toni Morrison, who were editors before they were novelists. When asked how his former vocation had influenced his work, he said:

Editing taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values—the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that’s done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don’t need it. You learn how to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that’s it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, Well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three. You’re at ease in the book the way a surgeon is at ease in a human chest, with all the blood and guts and everything. You’re familiar with the material and you can toss it around and say dirty things to the nurse.

Doctorow—who had the word “doctor” right there in his name—wasn’t the first author to draw a comparison between writing and medicine, and in particular to surgery, which has a lot of metaphorical affinities with the art of fiction. It’s half trade school and half priesthood, with a vast body of written and unwritten knowledge, and as Atul Gawande has pointed out, even the most experienced practitioners can benefit from the use of checklists. What draws most artists to the analogy, though, is the surgeon’s perceived detachment and lack of sentimentality, and the idea that it’s a quality that can be acquired with sufficient training and experience. The director Peter Greenaway put it well:

I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It’s like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can’t help the patient and you can’t help yourself by emoting.

And the primary difference, aside from the stakes involved, is that the novelist is constantly asked, like the surgeon in the famous brainteaser, to operate on his or her own child.

Atul Gawande

Closely allied to the concept of surgical detachment is that of a particular intuition, the kind that comes after craft has been internalized to the point where it no longer needs to be consciously remembered. As Wilfred Trotter wrote: “The second thing to be striven for [by a doctor] is intuition. This sounds an impossibility, for who can control that small quiet monitor? But intuition is only inference from experience stored and not actively recalled.” Intuition is really a way of reaching a conclusion after skipping over the intermediate steps that rational thought requires—or what Robert Graves calls proleptic thinking—and it evolved as a survival response to situations where time is at a premium. Both surgeons and artists are called upon to exercise uncanny precision at moments of the highest tension, and the greater the stress, the greater the exactitude required. As John Ruskin puts it:

There is but one question ultimately to be asked respecting every line you draw: Is it right or wrong? If right, it most assuredly is not a “free” line, but an intensely continent, restrained and considered line; and the action of the hand in laying it is just as decisive, and just as “free” as the hand of a first-rate surgeon in a critical incision.

Surgeons, of course, are as human as anybody else. In an opinion piece in today’s New York Times, the writer and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar argues that the widespread use of surgical report cards has had a negative impact on patient care: skilled surgeons who are aggressive about treating risky cases are penalized, or even stripped of their operating privileges, while surgeons who play it safe by avoiding very sick patients maintain high ratings. It isn’t hard to draw a comparison to fiction, where a writer who consistently takes big risks can end up with less of a career than one who sticks to proven material. (As an unnamed surgeon quoted by Jahuar says: “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases.”) And while it may seem like a stretch to compare a patient of flesh and blood to the fictional men and women on which a writer operates, the stakes are at least analogous. Every project represents a life, or a substantial part of one: it’s an investment of effort drawn from the finite, and nonrenewable, pool of time that we’ve all been granted. When a novelist is faced with saving a manuscript, it’s not just a stack of pages, but a year of one’s existence that might feel like a loss if the operation isn’t successful. A story is a slice of mortality, distilled to a physical form that runs the risk of disappearing without a trace if we can’t preserve it. And our detachment here is precious, even essential, because the life we’ve been asked to save is our own.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2015 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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Peter Greenaway

I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It’s like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can’t help the patient and you can’t help yourself by emoting.

Peter Greenaway, to Salon

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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