Sunday, 20 July 2014

Meditation on

And here's another thing:

'Barnes' latest—a meditation on memory and aging.'
Stephen Lee, Entertainment Weekly's  

'From the first page of his [Derek Walcott's] superb meditation on death, grief and the passage of time, it's clear we're in the presence of a master.'
Sarah Crown, Guardian

'Playtime: James Franco stars in a meditation on the power of money.'
Adrian Searle, Guardian

'The Snow Queen review – Michael Cunningham's poetic meditation on life and death.'
Stephanie Merritt, Guardian

'Proteus: adventure game is a meditation on place and nature.'
Keith Stuart, Guardian

'the dots join so that this plays as a single, richly human meditation on memory and our notions of who we are.'
Dominic Maxwell, The Times

'12 Years a Slave: A stunningly beautiful if ultimately numbing meditation on the horrors of slavery.'
The Sunday Times

Journalists — novels and films don't 'meditate', they plot and depict, and say out loud. If you can't have a go at summarizing what a book or film expresses, you're probably not qualified to review it. 

Perhaps it is baldly literal and obvious to state that a book is 'about' something, and as a reviewer you would rather avoid it — but if so, wouldn't it be better to find something more interesting and insightful to say, rather than saying the same thing but in a flashy, superficially intellectual high register?

The word I am looking for is meretricious.

REVISIT: Furthermore I struggle to see how it is possible to speak about 'place', 'nature', 'life and death', etc. without also saying something about these things. If there is a subject, there must also be something subsequently that the subject does, or is, or that is true of that subject — otherwise a novel would just be a one-word heading, 'nature', 'life and death', etc. Isn't it logically impossible to just say about something — you have to say something about your topic, and if you're saying nothing about it then you're not doing any meaningful or worthwhile saying whatsoever.

Now a novel could potentially predicate so many things of its subject that it ends up being contradictory and directionless. If the film Playtime proposed (in whatever way it is that fictional narratives propose — a different topic) that 'the power of money is good' and 'the power of money is bad', and 'the power of money is important to our lives' and 'the power of money is irrelevant', and 'the power of money is a political question' and 'the power of money is like the smell of napalm in the morning' - then we'd be defeated in our attempt to summarize what was said of the subject 'the power of money', and we'd say the film amounted to a contradictory, directionless meditation on that topic.

But in almost all cases we don't need to worry about this, because films and novels are plotted, and the degree of contradiction above (note, contradiction — not ambiguity) is impossible in a plotted narrative. Each event in the narrative follows as a consequence of the previous one, and these causal relations are susceptible to a limited set of meanings and interpretations — the story of the Wolf of Wall St getting rich and then becoming dissolute as a result leaves little room for the interpretations 'the power of money is good' or 'the power of money is irrelevant'. Narrative sequence will inevitably have some degree of moral meaning — this is all basic Aristotelian stuff.

Ok, granted, there doubtless exist avant-garde works in which the plot is so disjointed that the work in fact does express the propositions 'the power of money is good' and 'the power of money is bad', and 'the power of money is like the smell of napalm in the morning'. But these are purposefully experimental and exceptional. They also make heavy weather for the reader or viewer.

The plotted coherence of narratives means that in most cases we can, if only we think about it, extract some sort of notion of what a film or novel is all about. That notion might be contestable, of course, or propose merely an ambiguity — but our attraction to ambiguity is usually why we bother to read novels in the first place.

Ambiguity is the result of possible interpretations that are in contention with one another. If we say that narratives are mysterious 'meditations' and leave it at that then we cheat ourselves out of their true, thoughtful value. 

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