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|Notes on Perception
b y H e n r y T r e e c e (1966)
|(The notes that follow were written by Henry Treece at various
times over a fortnight as the basis for a lecture which he gave
at the Regional College of Art, Hull, on June 1, 1966, about a
week before his death. Together they represent the last and probably
the fullest personal account of his philosophy as a novelist.
Treece was a very careful writer, who dated every scrap of manuscript.
By no means all the passages that he wrote for his lecture were
actually incorporated in the script he took with him to Hull and
from which he delivered that lecture. Antony Kamm selected in
their entirety passages from the notes and from the lecture which
seem to be particularly relevant to this monograph, and they are
presented here, from Treece's own manuscript, in the order in
which they occurred to him and in which they were written down.)
MAY 17, 1966
To explain perception in writing is to attempt the ineffable. One's vision is more than the words on the page, more even than the images described. One's writing sometimes exists in its own right, apart from the print, even apart from the images and characters and speech. One can close the eyes and sense itnot as words and pictures, but as a unity in the mind, with kinetic quality and mass. A scene from a book, even a whole book, can be so felt in the mind, as though it had tactile and sonic qualities. As though it were rough as granite, or smooth as a pebble; loud as a drum or soft as an insect moving across a leaf.
Only when I get this three-dimensional feeling coming off a piece of writing do I feel that I have truly created, brought into being what had not been there before, (or rediscovered something that had been there once, but had got itself hidden).
The act of writing a novel is, for me, the slow, and lonely, and infinitely tiring process of finding how to make magic happen. One can learn it up to a point but, once this learning reaches a certain stage one becomes automatic, a conjuror, and the thing one creates lacks organic life. It lies stark on the page, has no warmth, no dimension, no capability of moving me when I think about it again.
If writing creatively were simply a matter of acquiring an enormous vocabulary, and of learning grammar, syntax and the parts of speech, any intelligent person, with time to spare, could become a writera poet or a novelist.
To be, say, a critic, requires that one should be a grammarian, a scientist, a mathematician. But to be the writer of a novel requires one to have perhaps another set of qualitiesor the same qualities in other admixturesand certainly to have an extra sense beyond and out in space, in orbit, perhaps never coming fully to rest.
For certain sorts of writing are out in orbit monstrous, in the sense that one must be obsessed beyond normality even to set the words and the concepts on to the page. One must be dedicated, called, driven, by one's peculiar god, by the creation of one's curious magic. But this art is not entirely conscious, nor is the language in which it is expressed. The driven creator goes into action almost like a man under drugs or hypnosis, using words as they present themselves to give form to the world that is revealing itself to his inner-eye. Later, in cold blood, if he has learned his trade through the earlier stages of linguistic competence, he will find that the words, in the main, came to him right. The right words: the right sentences: the right paragraphs.
What then is this monstrous quality that has such power to drive the writer into his act of creation? What is the force which makes him sit down before five hundred virgin sheets of paper, knowing that once he has started, and this white anonymous mass has stirred into life, he must live with the growing incubus for perhaps two years?
Obviously, he is telling a story of some sort, and this will sustain him, will hold his mind together: obviously in his book there will be people who talk and perform characteristic actions. These too will help to keep the novelist goinghe may even get his amusement, his personal and private kicks, out of letting these people look and talk and act outrageously. From such mechanisms, the novelist may gain relief in the bearing of his load.
But if a novel were only a story and a group of variously interesting people, acting entertaininglythat would hardly be enough, even though the narrative and its human unit, conveyed in the end a message, a moral, a philosophic answer to some dilemma posed by the book's theme. Such a book would hardly compensate the author, in the deepest sense, for the deprivations he had suffered in giving up two years of his life bringing it into being.
What is the monstrous force that drives him forward, compensates himand exhausts him at the same time? What is this frightful orgasm to which he submits, again and again, hating its requirements, but unable to reject them?
I see the creative writer on two levels at least. In one of his functions he is the crippled godthe maker who in his non-literary life is, or feels himself to be, somehow incomplete, inadequate. Yet, being a creator, he has pride, and a stubborn despairing courage: so, he writes for himself a world in which the blind man sees all, and the cripple leaps over mountains.
On another more important of his levels, the creative writer is not the lame god, but the integrated observant man, man using all his senses and his sense, to understand and to set down archetypal patterns. Now this man will have only one essential tale to tell: and it will be the story of the seasons in their progression through the yearfrom the Sun's first awakening after winter, to the burning of the stubble after the harvest. His vision will be directed to this ritual-dance of the months, the crops, the heroes; to their coming their fruition and their death.
It is a primitive pattern, but it contains everythingthe gentle colours of primroses and the sound of roaring thunder. It is a pattern over which a greater god (or goddess) than the writer presides, and is acknowledged by him: and once this writerwho is the messenger of the godhas perceived this pattern, surrendered himself to this visionthen he will know, without doubt, that all years are one year, all pleasures one pleasure, all disasters trivial, and all heroes expendable.
It is next to impossible for the writer to see an object objectivelythat is, showing it for what it is to the camera-eye and for nothing else. A writer must use words and these words attract themselves to his mind and hand because of his part personality. When he uses them, he expresses his personality perforce. He sees a white stone column in the desert: if he says that, that is as far as he dare go towards an absolute.
If he says that the colour or material or shape of the column reminds him of anything, so much does he depart from the column and reveal himself.
Now the nature of creative man is to invest each object seen with his full sense of it, his perception, his impression, his vision. And the more the writer allows his sensing mechanism to work, the less column we get and the more autobiography.
So, in the end, the writer with the richest and most diverse senses (and the least control on his surgical knife) will not expose that column, but will hide it. Not recreate it, but destroy it. That is the dilemma, the dichotomy, as I see it.
Perception is essential if writing is to have bite, freshness, individuality: yet, as the balance sinks under the cumulative comparisons, likenesses, relationships to the allied world of that column, so does perception smother itself.
Or, to put it another way: perceptions must be so inhibited, if the column is to emerge as anything like a column, that almost before he starts work the writer must prepare himself to put on blinkers. That is, as his pen touches the paper, he must already be prepared to withdraw (if he is to write of the column and not of himself-as-column). Consequently, the original first-sight glimpse of that column, the innocent view, is only remotely likely to come through since, close behind this view, is a secondary one which must be limited and even withdrawn to give the column a chance to declare itself: and awareness of what is already in store may tend to throw forward the writer's self-known necessity to prune, so that even the first words come under the knife.
Perception is the act, or state, of knowing the nature of anything through the senses, but in such a deep, sensitive, sympathetic way that this thing takes on an extra dimension and becomes for a while at least more than it had been before.
When the writer is so attuned that he can relate a number of such supra-things into a cosmology, or imaginative system, so as to form an entire and self-sufficient environment for his writing, that is his vision. But it is more than mere dream and imagination: it is such a co-ordinated pattern that, once it is explained other human creatures can also move in it, if they too are in tune. Or, if they cannot actually share it, they can respect it as being valid for someone whose processes are not of their own sort. Sometimes the writer, catering for this divergence, writes closely alongside the thing so as to share it with others, perceiving the inner nature of the thing now in a related but more generalised term, and this we call a symbol. This, too, is vision.
There is another point I would like to grope towards: it is this, that perception and vision in a writera prose-writer at leastdo not operate 24 hours a day. For much of the day they are switched-off, and the writer is a very ordinary moron, moving about rather blindly, unaware of significances, just another animal eating and drinking and enjoying the sunwhen there is any.
But there are times in that careless day when his perceptions suddenly go into action and his total vision accrues something more towards its completeness. These times are when the outside touches the writer's basic and personal themethat central thesis of his life which makes him slightly different from other writers. I think that every writer, at some time or other in his evolution towards maturity, finds himself a thesis or theme (or has it found for him by outside circumstances). Often, he is not conscious of this and realises it, or wakes up to it, only a long time after it has been in operation in his work. Then he suddenly understands that he has been writing one book, all the time or has been rehearsing various versions of one book, unconsciously directed towards a perfection of his statement.
I was first made dimly aware of this about twenty-five years ago when, in an article in Horizon, Stephen Spender, writing about an exhibition of the work of Cecil Collins, the painter, said: 'Like Treece, Collins is obsessed by the concept of the Sacred Fool.'
Looking back, I think he was right at that timethough one's hard-core theme twists and turns and takes on accretions as the years go on. And, only very recently, I became sharply aware that for the past fifteen years or so the two principal themes in my writing had been the Father seeking the Son (or the Son the Father) and the theme of the Distracted Woman, the woman drawn away from gentleness and mercy into other, perhaps more sinister paths; the Maenad, the Bacchante.
I do not know (and do not wish to enquire) why these themes should now lie at the deep heart of my work. But what I do know is that my perceptions of the outer world, and the cohesion of those perceptions in my head (which form my vision and life) are directed towards developing and making clear in wordswhere one can ever clearthese two obsessive and compulsive themes.
Out of one's struggle to set down such themes grows one's personal manner of writingone's style as it is called. Buffon said, 'Le style, cest l'homme même.' Style is the man himselfthat is, the man trying to record his struggle to make clear his essential and obsessive theme, the theory which makes him tick.
Yet there is a strong case for believing that the writer outgrows his own style as his vision develops. Looking back, the writer is dissatisfied with what he said, not because it was bad in its day, but because if he did it now, he would do it differentlybecause his perception has developed and the old words no longer represent his present development or change.
The writer is probably fighting a losing battle all his life, for his perception is perhaps always one jump ahead of his technique, his ability to set down the inner turmoil and its resolution.
There are some things that a writer senses or observes objectivelythat is, as objects outside himself, and equally available to all, and having a roughly equal shape, dimension and nature for all.
There are other things that a writer senses subjectively. That is, as an extension of himself, he being the subject. It is as though he takes such things within himself as part of his own organic functioning. When later he externalises his subjectively-perceived images, it is possible that others may not recognise the original object of sensing, since their own perceptions may be of a different sort or quality, the parallels they draw of a different dimension.
In effect I am saying that the subjective writer is much like the oyster which takes in the irritant grain of sand and round itfor his own reasons and in his own dark and special ways, coats this sharp grain and converts it to a pearl, of whatever size, quality and colour.
If a writer says: 'A poorly-dressed old man came in and sat, half-blind, at the oak table near the fire. After a time he began to scratch at the table top.'this is objective writing. But writing subjectively, he might say: 'He stumbled in from outside, from nowhere, crook-backed as a hawthorn on which dirty scraps of rag fluttered, blown by a long-dead wind. Like a moving tree seeking companionship of other wood, he sat at the oak table. The dry thorns of his fingers travelled across the golden grain, envying its smoothness, its youthits prosperity, trying to wound it. Withered thorn against young oak. "Take care," said the fingers, "be you not proud. The little fire that purrs in its iron cage will eat us both in time. Then, of our mingled ashes, who shall say: this was an oak tree, this was a thorn?"'
I am not trying to say that the second is better than the firstor that either is good: I am pointing out a difference in the two statements. What the first writer says would be observed by all who saw the old man come into the room. What the second writer says has an extra dimension which depends on the writer having recognised a similarity between the old man and a thorn tree. All that follows, after this initial recognition, this simile or parallel, leans towards an almost mythic moralthat we must all die and be equal in death.
This is the vision which grows out of the writer's perception of the old man. It may not be true for anyone else who sees the old man, but it is valid for the writer: it is a part of the cosmos, the regulated complex of impressions which goes to make his world different from that of the man standing next to him.
Or, to put it another way a number of writers, seeing the old man come in, might each be struck by his similarity to a thorn treebut havin done that, each would develop this recognition differently, according to his own personal temperament, experience, background: each would create his own myth, his own ultimate vision of the subjective world of which the old man had become a part.
Sometimes I feel the need to put sunlight, and dried earth or sand, or vegetation, or salt water into my books because I often write about Greece and the Mediterranean. I feel the need for these elements not merely as background to the human characters, but almost as characters themselves. Often the scene seems to induce action or thought or feeling in the people of that scene.
As a writer of this sort of thing I tend to push my perception to its limits. I not only want to feel the sun's heat but to smell itto smell what it does to rocks and flowers and water. Just as I feel the need to see heat coming off a rock or a man's face or a girl's hair.
This is not the surrealist dislocation of the senses: it is something deep at the core of a tradition. Sometimes I get so carried away by this that I go into a sort of trance of absorption in which I am part of the scene, the sun on rock, the rock suffering sun or frost, the leaf suffering rain, the boughs in the wind, and the wind itself. Sometimes my prose is the wind beating at boughs, or blowing blind over empty spaces.
When my writing turns into this, it does not, can not, tell a story; cannot push the narrative or characterisation on; it is just itself then. It says nothing, it just is.
Often editorsand especially American editorstry to cut these bits out, and sometimes they succeed if I am too tired to fight them. But I would rather have them inbecause such fugal passages, such flights, occur only too rarely in a storyand more rarely still as one grows older.
They are not flights of unfundamental lyricism, not pure poetry: they are part of the organic movement of the piece, of the story: without them the story loses a dimension, a limit, is partly emasculated.
To an objective editor these passages seem to have no relevance: to a writer who feels with his body as well as his emotions (and even with his mind, his intelligence), they are essential in that they are the essence, the Being, of what he feels he needs to put down at that sparking-off point of his book.
Such writing is not cerebral, not easy, not dependent on sheer thought. It comes from low down out of the pit of the stomach and the pit of life's experience. And when it comes, the writer knows he has to put it down, or he is being false to his book, to his being, to his talent. This is the deep part of his creation, his fusion of perceptions: this is what his vision is. This is what makes him tick, what his story is about, and what he is about.
Any trained literate can write a story, a novel of sheer action: but to achieve more than that needs the writer to be a poet, a recording sensitive, willing to be obedient, to put himself into the condition of the static stone, or the sea shore pebble, and to let the sun's heat and the salt tide's fury play on himeven destroy him.
In medicine there is what is called a Sympathetic Pain, or a Referred Pain. I mention this because it is in line with my own psycho-physical concept of perception in writing.
If you have a Sympathetic or Referred Pain, it means that the limb, or the tooth, in which you feel the pain is not the one which is suffering dis-ease (or disease), but that it is twanging in sympathy to that one; or is receiving pain referred, or sent on by that one.
It is my contention that this 'formula' applies to all we do, in that elevated column we call our body. That a pain in my right arm might be referred from my left leg or that if I run a thorn into my little finger I shall feel the pain in my neck or that it I see the sun, I may smell Seville oranges.
I see the colunm which we call our body as being an intricate computerlike a complex which no onenot even Freud, Jung or Ernest Joneshas been able to chart and to make a blueprint of.
When we talk of a writer's perceptions, we are up against this complex, this unexplored labyrinth (with no Ariadne to give us a ball of wool to find the way out): we are in it alone: for writing is the loneliest trade, and will permit no observer in its operation.
The writer who is in-key with his complex (though without being able to communicate what this in-keyness is) will suffer (and enjoy, and tolerate) certain Sympathies between his senses, certain Referred Pains: so that he may at last perceive the scent of blue, the touch of sound, and the taste of music.
The sympathies, or pains, of each sense will be referred to the other senses. But to the reader who is not a writer, is not in some degree alive to this complexity; the reader who judges everything by its rational content, its ability to make instant head-meaning, this reader will say that the writer has abused the truth, has not made sense.
Of course, I too believe that certain writers do not make sense: but I have been in the trade long enough to tell myself, at least, why they do not make sense. Broadly speaking, if they are honest craftsmen and creators, the two reasons are these:
(a) Words got the better of themhonest as the writers were.
(b) The writers used words because, like typewriting apes, they had learned how to put them down, but not how to feel them.
As a student, I was most impressed when a lecturer told me that three chimpanzees, typing for a million years, would end (by the law of averages, or permutations and combinations) up with writing Hamlet. Or it may have been King Lear, I forget which. And I am not greatly bothered which. Psychological-statisticians can prove anythinglike the Chancellor can prove that the cost of living has gone up by one per cent.
It is not the artist's function to prove: but to create. And, even if those poor apes did write Hamlet, they would not have created it. They would merely have (by some mathematical chance) reproduced it. If they had done that, as it were mechanically, one important factor would have been lacking: they would not have felt what they wrote, or have perceived what they wrote. To me, it is fundamental that the writer should have feeling about the thing he writes. He should suffer, experience and be aware of the forces that move him, and not be like one of those ancient Aeolian harps that hung on the antique mountains, vibrated by the breezes, and never hearing the music they themselves made.
I never thought to ask my lecturer about this when he first fed me the monkey-gimmick. But I would now: because it has long been an Article of Faith with me that the creative writer is born to awareness (if only partial) and to suffering (sometimes in extremis) just as the sparks fly upwards. •
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