To a Friend Who Said That All Art is Based Entirely on Surprise
I view art as stemming from combinations of surprise AND RECOGNITION.
It's based on the stimulation of expectations, followed by some
BLEND of surprise and recognition. This can be put in other terms:
a blend of the unexpected and of the expected resolution or fullfilment.
This applies to any art: Expectation is stirred and is fullfilled
or disappointed or some combination thereof. For example, when art
is "working," often I and others have described it as
delivering surprises, even shocks, which, at the same time as they
are surprising, are also, once received, luminously inevitable,
as if they've always been there. I've heard symphonies where each
note had that effect.
Sometimes, where there have been many surprises, familiarity itself
is an ambush, like the C-major chord that resolves everything when
we expect some further dissonance. Another wording is, instead of
surprise, disappointment; instead of recognition, fullfilment. The
interplay between the opposites generates the aesthetic frequency,
derived from the flow of energy that results from holding apart
of two poles.
The surprise and recognition are primarily the reader's, but since
readers identify with protagonists, one way to evoke these responses
in the reader is to tell a story in which the protagonist experiences
surprise and recognition. The fineness of aesthetic frequency has
to do with the blend: How the same event or word or emotion is (e.g.,
at an epiphany) made to convey simultaneously extreme surprise and
extreme resolution, both the predictable and the unpredictable (as
when what is utterly familiar is, without losing its familiarity,
made utterly new).
All surprise and no recognition doesn't work: No duplication (we
simply don't get it), no satisfaction, no REALITY, so no agreement
with the art. All recognition and no surprise doesn't work. SOME
surprise is needed): No excitement or unpredictability, only unconsciousness
If you think about what a surprise IS, you'll see that it is a
broken agreement. When an expectation is stirred, if it isn't fullfilled,
that's a kind of broken agreement. An expectation is a promise of
agreement. When, for example, I say to you "Hello, my name
is..." - that stirs in you the expectation that I will then
state my name. However, if I simply break off after the word "is,"
I disappoint that expectation. That's a surprise and also a break
in agreement (and thus in what is real between us), since it violates
an AGREEMENT that when one says those words, one then says one's
name. Or you could call it a convention. Conventions are agreements.
So is syntax. So is grammar. So are the meanings of words. Art depends
on agreements. It also depends on DISagreements, on giving words
unexpected meanings, on doing the unconventional, etc.
But to describe literature as based on surprise is to say that
literature is based entirely on reality breaks. Since lowered reality
brings about a lowering of our willingness to be there and in communication
with the work of art, art based only on surprise would be art based
on lowered understanding. Does it make sense to say that art is
based on an absence of understanding?
Copyright c. 2004 by Dean Blehert. All rights reserved.