[It's a Daily Double today.]
Elaine Scarry is a "Professor of Aesthetics" at Harvard, and a better, more literal job title for her I couldn't imagine. She affirms (and investigates) beauty, in a way few academics have been interested in lately. Zadie Smith found her ideas fertile enough to name her last novel after an essay of Scarry's (found inOn Beauty and Being Just). If it sounded better, I might be inspired to name a novel after the book of hers I love,Dreaming by the Book.
Most academic criticism (at least back when I was doing it) seems more interested in pigeon-holing, diagnosing, or dissecting its subject, but Scarry gets inside the acts of reading and imagining at such an elemental level that you feel like you're walking around behind the stage of, say, Madame Bovary, watching Flaubert's sleight-of-hand in a way that only expands the magical sense you get from good storytelling. One of Scarry's basic points is that imagining something, particularly a face or a room, and holding it in your mind with the vividness of life is very difficult, and one of the pleasures of reading (which separates "dreaming by the book" from mere undirected daydreaming, and which separates the verbal arts from the more immediate perception involved in music, painting, film, and other media) is that you have someone leading you through a fictional dream in a way that mimics the incomplete, shorthand method your own mind uses to construct a mental image.
From this idea she builds surprisingly specific (sometimes bizarrely idiosyncratic!) theories about exactly the sorts of described images our minds find so satisfying to imagine. I'm not sure I buy (or understand) all of them, but in passage after passage I find myself thinking, "That's why I love to read," or "That's how the stories I love work," or, best of all, "I want to try to create that sensation!" I'm not sure I can get this across in any other way than quoting her directly, in this case brilliantly explaining the enduring appeal of the ghost story:
Why, when the lights go out and the storytelling begins, is the most compelling tale (most convincing, most believable) a ghost story? Since most of us have no experience of ghosts in the material world, this should be the tale we least easily believe. The answer is that the story instructs its hearers to create an image whose own properties are second nature to the imagination; it instructs its hearers to depict in the mind something thin, dry, filmy, two-dimensional, and without solidity. Hence the imaginer's conviction: we at once recognize, perhaps with amazement, that we are picturing, if not with vivacity, than with exquisite correctness, precisely the thing described. It is not hard to imagine a ghost successfully. What is hard is successfully to imagine an object, any object, that does not look like a ghost. [emphasis mine]
Wow--reading that again makes me want to slip a ghost into a story, something I've never even considered doing. May you be equally inspired. --Tom