Culture Magazine

The Varieties of Descriptive Experience

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Bump:  Description is (extraordinarily) important and the passage by Mark Twain is (freakin') gorgeous. (Post originally from Nov. 2011.)
Or, literary hermeneutics as blind butchery
First, I note that I’ve blogged a number of posts dealing with description, either as a main or a subsidiary topic. In particular, there’s this post where. among other things, I note that a grammar is a description of language, specifically, that the Chomsky revolution in linguistics was about a certain way of describing a grammar. And there’s this post where I talk of abstract pictures (as descriptions), using the Watson/Crick double-helix model of DNA as my prime example. And then there’s this post, about the distribution of paragraph lengths in Heart of Darkness, again, description.
Those are very different kinds of description. Back in my days teaching technical writing I had students describe a mechanism in one assignment and a process in a different one. There we have two more kinds of description. In one case you’re describing something that’s static and in the other you’re describing something that unfolds in time.
Here’s a descriptive passage that’s of still a different kind. Technically, I suppose, it’s a description of an object. But the description is fundamentally expressive in nature, the concluding sentences from Mark Twain’s “Speech on the Weather”:
Mind, in this speech I have been trying merely to do honor to the New England weather--no language could do it justice. But, after all, there is at least one or two things about that weather (or, if you please, effects produced, by it) which we residents would not like to part with. If we hadn't our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries—the ice-storm:
when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top—ice that is as bright and clear as crystal; when every bough and twig is strung with ice-beads, frozen dewdrops, and the whole tree sparkles cold and white, like the Shah of Persia's diamond plume. Then the wind waves the branches and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, which change and change again with inconceivable rapidity from blue to red, from red to green, and green to gold—the tree becomes a spraying fountain, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; and it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence.
One cannot make the words too strong.
I suppose we could go on and on cataloging various kinds of description. And perhaps someone has done so.
The description that most interests me these days, of course, is the description of literary texts. And not just any old description, but a certain kind of description. Just what kind that is, that’s a bit tough to specify. There IS this longish essay in which I say that a text has a computational form.
That’s what I want to describe. But I can’t say just what that is a priori. At least I can’t do that very well. That is, in part, because the nature of computation is itself rather obscure, as this article on Computation in Physical Systems lays it out.
It is my belief that such descriptions are necessary if we are to construct objective knowledge of literature of a new kind. That’s what I’m after, objective knowledge. What must those descriptions be like in order to be the foundation of objective knowledge? The Watson/Crick description of DNA became one of the foundations of objective knowledge about the molecular genetics of biology. Thousands upon thousands of morphological descriptions prepared over three or four centuries provided Darwin and others with the foundation on which to develop the idea of biological evolution.
THOSE are the kinds of descriptions I’m after. But not of biological objects. Of literary texts. I want descriptions that carve nature at the joints, to use a figure that dates back to Plato, Phaedrus (265e-266a):
. . . we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher, but to take example from our two recent speeches. The single general form which they postulated was irrationality; next on the analogy of a single natural body with its pairs of like-named members, right arm or leg, as we say, and left, they conceived of madness as a single objective form existing in human beings. Wherefore the first speech divided off a part on the left, and continued to make divisions . . .
And so forth. You get the idea.
It’s clear to me that, as long as the explication of textual meanings is the primary tool of literary criticism, we’re just hacking away like blind butchers. If we want to carve our texts at the joints, we’ve got to open our eyes, and describe what we see. Slowly, patiently, accurately.
It’s not easy, it’s not self-evident. It’s worthy of our best efforts. In fact, believe it or not, it requires invention. We need to create tools and tactics for doing the descriptions. Why? Because they’re not there ready and waiting for us. Biologists had to figure out how to describe organisms and molecules. We’ve to do the same, and the things we’re describing, they’re not so tangible.

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