Tight Form and Aesthetic Impact

These comments are taken from a post to a friend on the Washington Post, who was preparing an article about James Burke's new CD-ROM. Taking of from a brief discussion of Burke's wonderful "Connections" articles in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, I explore the impact of formal structure on good writing -- and good Game design.

Charles Cameron


James Burke's "Connections" articles take one on a journey through some diverse and fascinating places -- inventors, discoverers, industries -- but you'll notice that at the end of each article, he has somehow contrived to get back to where he started.

In this month's article, for instance, he begins with a Wedgewood "willow pattern" cup, flawed, which he returns to the department store for a replacement, then takes us via the excavation of Pompeii and Lord Nelson's mistress to Coleridge and Samuel Morse, thence to the Erie railroad and the beginnings of modern business administration, and so back to department stores and the fact that Josiah Wedgewood's London showrooms were the first place where you could buy a product and, if it was defective, bring it back a few days later -- "replacement guaranteed"...

Obviously, you and I both know this is one of the simpler tricks of the writer's trade -- tying it all back in -- though it's particularly effective when, as in James Burke's case, you've taken your readers all over the globe in the interim. Everyone up to and including James Joyce does it, and he goes so far as to call it "a commodius vicus of recirculation" -- honoring Giambattista Vico, whose cyclic view of history he views as prefiguring this strategy...

But simple and obvious though it may be as a writing technique, I'd still like to take a closer look at *why* it works -- what the mechanism is. Because it's a kind of twinning, and as you know twinnings always interest me.

What I come up with is a sense that in writing, the exposure (places visited along the way, the journey) pleases one part of us, but the closure (completion, arrival) pleases quite another. If James Burke wrote one long piece that lasted a lifetime, taking us through all the varied links on his "great web of change" in one breathless rush... and never made it to the closure, we'd be disappointed. It would be brilliant, entertaining and educational: but it wouldn't be lovely (grin: English term), it wouldn't be *beautiful*.

So the closure, the "in my beginning is my end", the commodius vicus of recirculation calls to the aesthetic sense -- and unless the aesthetic is present at least in the form of *some* kind of closure, no amount of additional brilliance along the way can compensate for it. My theory, anyway, probably not too original.

What I'm getting at is that "linkages" -- at which Burke excels -- need to be complemented with "tight form" -- which he manages by ending at his beginning -- if we are to feel real satisfaction.

And my Games, like poems, are an attempt to build a real *density* of aesthetic impact via the "tight form" of the board, so that every move is a beginning and an ending with respect to some other move or moves along the linking lines of the board... Every *link* in a well-played Game is a "beginning-and-ending" that can be read in both directions, as a two-way metaphor or analogy.

And having smaller aesthetic effects of this kind woven densely into a larger work is precisely what the arts are all about in any case... I think, for instance, of Shakespeare's breathtaking two-word play in *As You Like It*, when Rosalind asks Phebe:

Who might be your mother,
That you insult, exult, and all at once,
Over the wretched?

There he goes: "insult, exult"...

From an actor's point of view, there's a sort of hairpin bend between those two words. One carries the baneful charge of a curse, the other the joy of an overwhelming blessing. To allow the full resonance of "insult" while maintaining momentum right into the full and very different resonance of "exult" is the sort of thing that marks the Oliviers out from the herd... Two very simple two-syllable words that even share one of their syllables -- delivered right on top of one another ("and all at once"), with absolutely contradictory meanings... fantastic! That's what separates Shakespeare out from the herd, too, I think.

Associative linkages are wonderful and creative: *patterned* linkages are beautiful. That's the secret.


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