William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Work Interrupted (1891)
Public Domain; Via Wikimedia Commons

This is what you get when you search for “Distraction” in wikimedia.  🙂

So my distraction is that I’ve been reading the various Introductions to Pope’s poetic rendition of The Iliad. I found this gem  that describes a great challenge for writers.  While it is about translation, I believe it is the great challenge of the modern novel.  Here’s my excerpt:

It is a great secret in writing, to know when to be plain, and when poetical and figurative; and it is what Homer will teach us, if we 
will but follow modestly in his footsteps. 
Where his diction is bold and lofty, let us 
raise ours as high as we can; but where his is plain and humble, we ought not to be deterred from imitating him by the fear of incurring 
the censure of a mere English critic. Nothing that belongs to Homer seems to have been more commonly mistaken than the just pitch of his 
style: some of his translators having swelled 
into fustian in a proud confidence of the
sublime; others sunk into flatness, in a cold and timorous notion of simplicity. Methinks I see these different followers of Homer, some
sweating and straining after him by violent 
leaps and bounds (the certain signs of false 
mettle), others slowly and servilely creeping in his train, while the poet himself is all 
the time proceeding with an unaffected and 
equal majesty before them. However, of the two extremes one could sooner pardon frenzy than 
frigidity; no author is to be envied for such
commendations, as he may gain by that 
character of style, which his friends must 
agree together to call simplicity, and the 
rest of the world will call dulness. There is a graceful and dignified simplicity, as well
as a bold and sordid one; which differ as much from each other as the air of a plain man 
from that of a sloven: it is one thing to be 
tricked up, and another not to be dressed at 
all. Simplicity is the mean between
ostentation and rusticity.

I don’t know if he is still right about Homer being the measure of good taste for the balance between poetic and plain speaking.  I have been reading a good many writers from other eras and ages lately, and it seems that the modern mind delights in what Pope would call the sloven habits of writing. Or perhaps, so deprived are we of good poetry that we do not know the difference between bad poetry and good.  Because the bad is so terrible, we will take none at all rather than attempt to immerse ourselves in the purple.

We have left setting to blank stage, tired of the world of things entire. Only if writers could paint pictures would we accept knowing where we are in a story. Or so it seems.  One only has to contrast Hawthorne to George MacDonald (or even Day) to know that a complete and living setting can be managed without falling into 40 page descriptions of a single room. (House of Seven Gables, I’m looking at you.)

Trust me, MacDonald gives you a vivid mental image of the environs of his stories– you can imagine every stick of furniture in the grand hall at GlenWarlock. Yet… he manages it in a few paragraphs. This is far longer than most modern writers would use unless they were describing a great place in some alien world far away, but perhaps even then they would not expend up so much ink.  But his description was so portentous and well formed I did not feel like precious seconds of my life had been robbed from me.

I’m not sure I’m a good judge for “those people out there”, because I read heavy Russian authors for fun.  I love Neil Stephenson best when he not only leads me through his twisty complex plots, but when he transports me beyond the plot into the rarified air of his ideas and geekery.  It’s about more than what happens next, it’s about the people, the ideas that argue and collide in the shallows that the current of story ties together in a puzzle to be solved in the world we live in. It is, even, how the place they evolve mirrors or contrasts to what we know, to discover like an explorer, a place that holds the secrets and key to understanding what we read.

I have read, and enjoyed books that drive me with “what happens next?” Some of that is quite fun. But the books and stories that stick with me go beyond story into a different realm entirely. Movies can give us all the visuals and story we want. The mind has need of furniture and an architecture to support and grace those wondrous thoughts, people,  and ideas.

Only a nihilist can float contentedly in space, completely  alone and unhindered.  I demand a stage with lush greenery or a flat desert rendered of rock and dust, or perhaps tides of rippling sand. I want to see the Pasha’s palace, bejeweled, decadent and oppressed with humidity and it’s own richness.

Some days, I could be content with counting the stones in his front walk, and note that they are rough rubies casually tossed away in a stream leading to his front door.  I could watch is half-clothed servants polishing the brasses on the door and wonder what their story was, and who it was that quarreled with the peacocks within.

But I fear I’m a mind built for a different age. When I write, I want to share the joys of meditation and delight in the fruits of slower living.  This is why I keep plying you with great art– it seems a good shorthand for what I love to share most.  I think the world looses something for not knowing where it is in space and time– or even taking time to reflect on it.  When the world looks– it only sees  the stories we tell ourselves to spur ourselves ever onward. We do not see where we are or where we’ve been. We only see what we told ourselves the last time we looked.

So what we read is more fuel to maintain incessant motion– ever afraid of rest.

On that note, the next time you are distracted from something, use it as an opportunity to see beyond what is in front of you, and see where you really are.

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