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[Back to Essays]

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 (sleep).

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.

Last updated: December 13, 2004