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structure and interpretation in art


Today I was at a presentation/discussion related to how interpretation and structure affect literature (and art in general, music was also mentioned). In particular the discussion centered about a piece of prose published by Beckett in 1969 (in French, then published in English one year later, with the translation made Beckett himself).

The piece in question is Variations on Lessness. It is composed of of 24 paragraphs and 120 sentences. The whole of the work is divided into two parts, and each sentence occurs twice: once in the first half and once in the second. Beckett later explained to a friend that he had determined the order in which the sentences appear by randomly drawing little slips of paper out of a hat. The work is very dense, rhytmical. It is apparent that there is some structure, but it feels elusive. I couldn't read it all while in the meeting, but later I did. It creates a strange feeling.

Apparently there has been some discussion as to whether Beckett really did put the sentences together purely randomly or not: sometimes sentences seem to have more meaning than randomness would imply. This is, however, beyond the point. Whether it is completely random or random/modified, the piece stands as a great example of how most of what we do, and our perception of art in general (and literature in particular) is interpretation. As much as something feels meaningless, we still want to find some underlying order in it, and Variations... provides enough "hooks" for our brain to keep trying to find a meaning all the way. It keeps you engaged, right until the end.

This discussion led to talking about the structure/underlying patterns of works in general and how much of the structure a work of art (specially the ones that can have strong sense of time and space such as literature and music) can be manipulated, and whether that manipulation can actually convey something more, such as the idea that, rather than the "medium is the message," it's more as if "the viewer creates the message." Interpretation is not just an assignment of categories.

I think that the manipulation of the underlying structure or style has to be done for a very good reason, or not at all, such as the evolution of the use of language and narrative in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where they are synchronized with the evolution of the character itself (in a rather astonishing fashion, by the way).

One thing I was reminded of today, though: that the structular/stylistical manipulation of the work does not have to be explicit, and sometimes it works better when it isn't. Some people (few, granted) will appreciate those things, but for most it will be much more enjoyable or preferrable for the underlying ideas to filter through unconsciously, letting the reader or listener enjoy it without being aware of it, just like we enjoy similar patterns in nature without seeing what they are: let the unconscious appreciate and recognize the pattern and whisper: I know this.

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 26 2002 at 12:21 AM

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