Wednesday, May 12, 2010

An age old question

I came across this passage of an argument between a writer and a painter in Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor:

"Your characters," he said, "my dear Pattieson, make too much use of the gob box; they patter too much . . . . there is nothing for pages but mere chat and dialog."

"The ancient philosopher," said I in reply, "was wont to say, 'Speak, that I may know thee;" and how is it possible for an author to introduce the persona dramtis to his readers in a more interesting and effectual manner than by the dialog in which each is represented as supporting his own appropriate character?"

"It is a false conclusion," said Tinto; "I hate it, Peter as I hate an unfilled can. I will grant you, indeed, that speech is a faculty of some value in the intercourse of human affairs, and I will not even insist on the doctrine of that Pythagorean toper, who was of opinion, that over a bottle speaking spoiled conversation. But I will not allow that a professor of the fine arts has occasion to embody the idea of his scene in language in order to impress upon the reader its reality and its effect. On the contrary, I will be judged by most of your readers, Peter, should these tales ever become public whether you have not given us a page of talk for every single idea which two words might have communicated, while the posture, and manner, and incident, accurately drawn, and brought out by appropriate colouring, would have preserved all that was worthy of preservation, and saved these everlasting said he's and said she's, with which it has been your pleasure to encumber your pages."

I replied, "that he confounded the operations of the pencil and the pen; that the serene and silent art, as painting has been called by one of our first living poets, necessarily appealed to the eye, because it had not the organs for addressing the ear; whereas poetry, or that species of composition which approached to it, lay under the necessity of doing absolutely the reverse, and addressed itself to the ear, for the purpose of exiting that interest which it could not attain through the medium of the eye."

Dick was not a whit staggered by my argument, which he contended was founded on misrepresentation. "Description," he said, "was to the author of a romance exactly what drawing and tinting were to a painter; words were his colours, and, if properly employed, they could not fail to place the scene, which he wished to conjure up, as effectually before the mind's eye, as the tablet or canvas presents it to the bodily organ. The same rules," he contended, "applied to both, and an exuberance of dialog in the former case, was a verbose and laborious mode of composition which went to confound the proper art of fictitious narrative with that of the drama, a widely different species of composition of which dialog was the very essence, because all, excepting the language to be made use of, was presented to the eye by the dresses, and persons, and action of the the performers upon the stage. But as nothing," said Dick, "can be more dull that a long narrative written upon the plan of a drama, so where you have approached most near to that species of composition, by indulging in the prolonged scenes of mere conversation, the course of your story has become chill and constrained, and you have lost the power of arresting the attention and exciting the imagination, in which upon other occasions, you may be considered as having succeeded tolerably well.

There is a lot that could be discussed in this passage but I find it interesting to see artists --even fictional ones-- argue the same points a hundred years ago as we do now. And still we have no definite answers. Dialog or description? Show or tell? How much like drama should a narrative be? It is equally interesting that the popular answer to the question seems to have changed over the years. This was written by Sir Walter Scott who, to judge from his own work, strongly favored the painter's argument for description and he was possibly the most popular romance writer of his time, whereas now we would have more readers, as well as writers, favoring the author's argument for more dialog.

1 comment:

  1. There's always going to be two sides to every question, right? Sometimes more than two. As writers, we must do what feels right for us and works with the words.