What we see when….

I recently listened to Krys Boyd’s interview with Peter Mendelsund, author of the new book What We See When We Read,  on North Texas’ public radio. Mendelsund is an award-winning book jacket designer. The interview had the effect of connecting his thoughts about reading to thoughts that I have had about mathematics. It wasn’t immediately obvious, even to me, why. But I think I’m beginning to understand.

An excerpt from the book was published in the Paris Review. This excerpt focuses on the incompleteness of the visual images that our minds create when we are reading, despite the fact that we experience them as clear or vivid. Mendelsund quotes William Gass who wrote on the character of Mr. Cashmore from Henry James’s The Awkward Age:

We can imagine any number of other sentences about Mr. Cashmore added … now the question is: what is Mr. Cashmore? Here is the answer I shall give: Mr. Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organization, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy.

The quote is from the book Fiction and the Figures of Life, a collection of essays first published in 1979.  Following Gass a little further we find these remarks:

But Mr. Cashmore is not a person. He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him. There is no path from idea to sense (this is Descartes’ argument in reverse), and no amount of careful elaboration of Mr. Cashmore’s single eyeglass, his upper lip or jauntiness is going to enable us to see him.

Mendelsund adds this:

It is how characters behave, in relation to everyone and everything in their fictional, delineated world, that ultimately matters…

Though we may think of characters as visible, they are more like a set of rules that determines a particular outcome. A character’s physical attributes may be ornamental, but their features can also contribute to their meaning.

(What is the difference between seeing and understanding?)

He follows this with a very mathematical looking statement where the characters (along with some physical attributes), as well as particular events and their cultural environment, are represented by letters. Their interaction is somehow formalized in symbol.

These are all words that have been used with respect to mathematics – “not an object of perception,” “behavior that matters only in relation,” “a set if rules that determines a particular outcome…”

Mendelsund occasionally uses mathematical ideas to describe some of what may be happening in the reading (and the writing) of a story. There are the maps of novels, the graphs and contours of plot, the vectors in Kafka’s vision of New York City. And these observations:

Anna can be described as several discrete points (her hands are small; her hair is dark and curly) or through a function (Anna is graceful)

If we don’t have pictures in our minds when we read, then it is the interaction of ideas – the intermingling of abstract relationships – that catalyzes feeling in us readers. This sounds like a fairly unenjoyable experience, but, in truth, this is also what happens when we listen to music. This relational, nonrepresentational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found. Not in mental pictures of things but i the play of elements…

…But we don’t see “meaning.” Not is the way that we see apples or horses…

Words are like arrows – they are something and they also point toward something.

Any text can be seen as communication through words (symbol), that can be aided by pictures, but that only lightly relies on them. The reader builds an internally consistent world, grounded mainly in concepts, whose structure is communicated in symbol. And both structure and meaning are never fully completed. This certainly sounds a lot like mathematics. But more striking about Mendelsund’s work in particular, is his making direct use of his experience to explore profound philosophical questions.  What happens when we read tells us something about ourselves.

The world, as we read it, is made of fragments. Discontinuous points – discrete and dispersed.

(So are we.  So too our coworkers; spouses; parents; children; friends..)

We know ourselves and those around us by our reading of them, by the epithets we have given them, by their metaphors, synechdoches, metonymies.  Even those we love most in the world.  We read them in their fragments and substitutions.

The world for us is a work in progress.  And what we understand of it we understand by cobbling these pieces together – synthesizing them over time.

It is the synthesis that we know.  (It is all we know.)

And all the while we are committed to believing in the totality – the fiction of seeing.

…Authors are curators of experience.

…reading mirrors the procedure by which we acquaint ourselves with the world. It is not that our narratives necessarily tell us something true about the world (though they might), but rather that the practice of reading feels like, and is like, consciousness itself; imperfect; partial; hazy; co-creative.

Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read. The brain itself is built to reduce, replace, emblemize…Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal. So we reduce. And it is not without reverence that we reduce. This is how we apprehend the world. This is what humans do.

Picturing stories is making reductions. Through reductions, we create meaning.

There is significant overlap here with how I see the doing and the making of mathematics.  Mathematics is the making of meaning through reduction and synthesis.  Emerging from some adjustment in the direction of the mind’s eye, mathematics mirrors, in another way, how we are acquainted with the world. It finds meaning that opens up other parts of that world, a bit more for us.  And it tells us something about the nature of vision and understanding itself. Mathematics will not be fully embraced by our culture until we see this – until we recognize its own living nature.


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