A question by Catherine Brown to the Narrative-List on "describing the unobserved":
... I am interested in literary treatments - and critical discussions - of the problem of describing the unobserved. If a tree fall down in a wood with noone to hear it, does it make a sound? Literature sometimes treats human-less contexts - and occasionally it reflects on the paradoxes of doing so. Consider the following passage towards the end of Shelley's 'Mont Blanc':
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them: - Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently!
Is the possible reason why 'Winds contend/ Silently' that 'none beholds' at the top of Mont Blanc ?
The humanless world is also of course a concern of ecocriticism.
Answers by Hilary Schor:
This is the world's most obvious suggestion, so I'll make it quickly -- Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse: "Think of a kitchen table when you're not there," followed by the "Time Passes," in which the Ramsay's house decays, unobserved by any "person."
—and E. J. Kortals Althes:
Sartre, la nausée, and Les Mots; typical existential thought experiment: how's the world without oneself?
blanchot's work. the sense of absence is integrated in the subjectivity effects; you'd have to look how that affects descriptions, don't remember well enough.
robbe-grillet; fi Les Gommes, La |Jalousie, etc.: by now classical Nouveau exploration; + :can one describe the unobserved without critics/readers recuperating what's presented as perceived (so narrativizing it, Fludernik wd say) ? it's also in the eye of the beholder.
The question on the unobserved brought to mind a joke told by Ken Robinson, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? - Now, if a man speaks out his mind in a forest and no woman is listening to thim, is he still wrong?"Of course what is unobserved 100% is unobserved and therefore not dealt with by any form of representation. So one way of dealing with the issue would be to establish a contrast between different kinds and degrees of observation, most obviously the characters' absence of observation vs. the narrator's virtual observation (as in the example from To the Lighthouse. Or again, a contrast between the changing significance of events and situations when they are contemplated retrospectively, for instance following an anagnorisis of some kind, or some eye-opener as in Oedipus (ouch.). The point is that what was unobserved is now reviewed and brought to light retrospectively or retroactively. These retroactive effects can be approached through Gary Saul Morson's perspective in Narrative and Freedom, or by other analysts of hindsight bias. Hindsight may be one of the forms taken by the narrator's virtual observation I mentioned before. I keep a blog on Retrospectionhttp://www.scoop.it/t/retrospection
where some approaches to this issue may be found. Or perhaps you might care to read this paper: "Rereading(,) Narrative(,) Identity(,) and Interaction"
—and there follows an interesting contribution by Don Larsson:
For an interesting take on "The Silence of Nature" see this article from the journal Environmental Values:
The very ending of Thomas Pynchon's V. provides another literary example. The final section of Chapter 3 in the same novel is yet another. The difference between the two illustrates one distinction between forms of the "unobserved." The ending of the novel is apparently given by a third-person omniscient narrator who is capable of observing and relating an action unseen and unheard by anyone else. (Compare Joyce's famous description of the artist as being "like God . . . invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.")
On the other (manicured) hand, the ending of Chapter 3 is itself a kind of parody of the extremes to which the Joycean notion gets taken by Robbe-Grillet and others; however, the entire chapter is imagined by the character Stencil, creating/re-creating an episode in the possible life of the possible character V. Thus, "observing the unobservable" is actually an act of artistic creation (or paranoid fantasizing) being observed/presented to the reader by the omniscient (?) author. Woolf's tour-de-force description of the passage of time and the decay of the Ramsey house is still being described--opened for viewing, as it were--by the narrator. It would seem that describing the unobservable still requires that indifferent artist to observe, even if he/she is not a homodiegetic narrator or focalizer (as Jose Garcia Landa has suggested in his response). (For that matter, the third-person chapters of Bleak House are another good example.)
At any rate, these and other examples cited in response suggest several categories of the "unobservable" where some event/action/state of being occurs without the possibility of direct human perception: natural (Shelly's Mont Blanc, as Catherine notes), historical (ranging from fictional accounts of historical events that were otherwise unrecorded to historians' and biographers' hypotheses about particular events and actions), psychological (Freud and Jung being obvious examples of interpreters of dream-events that are unobserved by anyone except the analysand), crime fiction and reporting/docudramas that recreate an unobserved crime (an obvious example of Jose's "retrospective" narration), metaphysical (the actions/existence of gods), etc.
Science itself seems to provide examples as well. From Eratosthenes to string theory, scientists have found ways to infer descriptions of an otherwise unobservable universe, even if later technologies provide means of such observation. Even, as I understand it, the stunning pictures of galaxies, nebulae, and supernovas we have seen in the last few decades are really suppositional constructs based on assembling data from instruments that do not depend on the visible light spectrum for observation--a different way of rendering the "invisible" visible.
Film narratives up the ante on the unobservable, since the film image is some kind of observation. In more pedestrian movies, such as many mysteries, a narrator or character usually gets to narrate/reconstruct what took place but was unobserved. A film like The Usual Suspects, however, complicates the issue enormously, since we do not know at the end how/whether to trust a character who has done most of the reconstructing. Some filmmakers, like Robert Bresson, deliberately withhold visual information in certain scenes in order to force the spectator to infer what actions have happened/are happening through sounds and other cues. Terence Malick typically turns the question around by dwelling on close-ups of natural events that the main characters may or may not be aware of. In Melancholia, Lars von Trier depicts the destruction of the world from outer space--an event the film's characters become aware of, yet cannot observe at any distance, an event that is perhaps the ultimate extreme of "describing the unobservable."
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José Ángel García Landa
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