“Tropism” is a pretty useful word

Hey, blog reader (really I just mean Anthony, actually). I am actually trying to increase the amount of posting I’m doing, since I have a lot more time nowadays. But I am finding it a little difficult. For instance, right now I am reading David Copperfield. It’s great, don’t get me wrong. But since I am not really in a David Copperfield sort of mood, it hasn’t really put me into that free-associational state from which blog posts spring.

But even when a book does get me to that place, my free associations usually don’t go anywhere. Any conclusion I can draw from them is usually trite, and much less interesting than the line of thinking itself. Unfortunately, with their weird position between essay and conversation, I struggle with a lot of things about blog posts, and one of those things is how to make an empty coming to a close without ending on that trite little conclusion.

(This halfway point between essay and conversation causes me alot of confusion. For instance, this is a permanent, textual medium, which implies that I shouldn’t repeat this point [about it being a halfway point between essay and conversation] again, since I have definitely addressed it in the past, but practically speaking, each post has a really short shelf life, so I kind of feel like I am totally allowed to mention it again. But I don’t feel that comfortable about the repetition, hence this note)

But I am going to try to work things out a little.

So, I have been feeling really weird for the past week. I can’t really describe what the feeling is. I can’t even fit it into some broad category of feelings. Sometimes, I’m not sure that those emotion-words – love, anger, hatred, etc – don’t do a lot more harm than good, by blinding ourselves to the diversity of our own emotional responses.

About a week ago, I read a book that kind of spoke about that. Nathalie Saurrate was a French New Novelist from the 1940s-ish era. And I have not read any those new novels. But what I did read was her very first story collection, Tropisms. It’s a really slim volume – maybe 15-20,000 words – and if it was twice as long, it would have been merely okay. If it had been four times as long, it would have been excruciating. But at its current length, it was totally perfect.

I really admire French writers for coming up with strange artistic theories that are actually interesting, and somewhat manage to explain their work. Americans are terrible at that. We can barely manage to come up with artistic theories that cover a single work that we’ve written. Like, take Geoff Ryman, who formulated “mundane” science fiction (SF without super-fantastical stuff like time-travel, aliens, hyperspace, nanotechnology, etc.). Now, ummm, has Geoff Ryman ever actually written a mundane novel? I’ve read a huge portion of his oeuvre, and I really do not think he has. The closest he comes is Air, which revolves around global internet that connects people’s brains wirelessly (and without any sort of cybernetic attachment or anything. The rest of his SF (like the Unconquered Country, where a woman gestates and gives birth to technological weapons, amongst other things) are not even close.

Anyway, so that was a pretty long digression. In the forward to Tropisms, Saurraute writes:

I started to write in 1932, when I composed my first Tropism. At that time, I had no preconceived ideas on the subject of literature and this one, as were those that followed it, was written under the impact of an emotion, of a very vivid impression. What I tried to do was to show certain inner ‘movements’ by which I had long been attracted; in fact, I might even say that, ever since I was a child, these movements, which are hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives, had struck and held my attention. In this domain, my first impressions go back very far.

These movements, of which we are hardly cognizant, slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak and the feelings we manifest, all of which we are aware of experiencing, and are able to define. They seemed, and still seem to me to constitute the secret source of our existence, in what might be called its nascent state.

Now, I am not saying that this is a hugely clear explanation of what a tropism is. But it seems to hit at some kind of truth about emotion and sensation that all our words about it can often obscure.

For me, my emotions are always so strange and so particular. It’s always such a compound of memory, desire, and chemistry, that emotion-words seem curious and false to me. They’re some strange kind of place-holders, invented purely for stories, something with no meaning in themselves. My “love” in any particular moment is so different from all the “love” I’ve felt in the past that it seems ridiculous to call them by the same word. And sometimes I feel things that don’t really seem to fall under any word. That’s when emotional description seems most silly of all.

Anyways, Tropisms is really good. It’s composed of very short stories, maybe 400-600 words long, with unnamed protagonists (he or she, etc) that don’t have much in the way of personality and personal history. It would seem annoying, but it’s actually very interesting, and, sometimes, very affecting, as for instance, Tropism 20 (which I am probably committing a copyright violation by reproducing in full).

When he was little, he used to sit straight up in bed at night, call out. They would come running, light the light, they would take the white linens, the towels, the clothes, in their hands, and show them to him. There was nothing. In their hands the white linens became harmless, shrank, they became set and dead in the light.

Now that he was grown, he still made them come and look everywhere, hunt inside him, observe well and take in their hands, the fears cowering in the nooks and corners inside him, and examine them in the light.

They were accustomed to coming in and looking, and he prepared the way for them, he himself lighted all the lights so as not to sense their hands groping about in the dark. They looked— he remained motionless, without daring to breathe—but there was nothing anywhere, nothing that could cause fear, everything seemed in good order, in place, they recognised everywhere familiar, well-known objects, and they showed them to him. There was nothing. What was he afraid of? At times, here or there, in a corner, something seemed to tremble vaguely, to waver slightly, but with a pat they set it straight again, it was nothing, one of his usual fears—they took it and showed it to him: his friend’s daughter was already married? Was that it? Or else, so-and-so, who although he was a former classmate of his, had been promoted, was to be decorated?

They repaired, they righted that, it was nothing. For a moment, he believed he felt stronger, propped up, patched up, but already he sensed his legs and arms grow heavy, lifeless, become numb with this solidified waiting, he had, as one has before losing consciousness, a tingling sensation in his nostrils: they saw him withdraw into himself all of a sudden, assume his strangely preoccupied, absent look: then, with little pats on his cheeks—the Windsors’ travels, Lebrun, the quintuplets—they revived him.

But while he was coming to himself and when they left him finally mended, cleaned, repaired, all nicely seasoned and ready, fear formed in him again, at the bottom of the little compartments, of the little drawers they had just opened, in which they had seen nothing, and which they had closed.