Nameless Emotions

When the celebrated film editor Walter Murch was working on the movie adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he would receive dailies from the director, Phil Kaufman, every two weeks. Murch made a series of photographic stills from the various filmed scenes sent him, in an attempt to locate what he considered the decisive emotional moment.

As he recounts in his book In the Blink of an Eye, Murch regarded those stills gathered together as “hieroglyphs for a language of emotions,” but a language that didn’t necessarily include any known words.

“What word expresses the concept of ironic anger tinged with melancholy?” Murch asks, describing a scene featuring the actresses Lina Olin and Juliette Binoche, and then answers himself, “There isn’t a word for it, in English anyway, but you can see that specific emotion represented in this photograph. Or the photo may represent a kind of nervous anticipation: The character is scared and lustful at the same time, and yet she is confused because that lust is for another woman. And that woman is sleeping with her husband. So what does that mean?”

Murch used those stills to locate for the director the emotional complexity a given scene needed to be built upon, a complexity that can be seen but not necessarily be easily expressed in words: “If you can simply point to an expression on an actor’s face, you have a way around some of the difficulties of language in dealing with the subtleties of nameless emotions.”

Are they so nameless, though? When writers dig deeply into their imagined characters, that route offers branching possibilities and a call for a more careful attention.

José Saramago, speaking in an authorial sotto voce in his novel The Double, identifies what he calls “subgestures”:

“People say, for example, that Tom, Dick or Harry, in a particular situation, made this, that or the other gesture, that’s what we say, quite simply, as if the this, that or the other, a gesture expressing doubt, solidarity or warning were all of a piece, doubt always prudent, support always unconditional, warning always disinterested, when the whole truth, if we’re really interested, if we’re not to content ourselves with only the banner headlines of communication, demands that we pay attention to the multiple scintillations of the subgestures that follow behind a gesture like the cosmic dust in the tail of a comet, because, to use a comparison that can be grasped by all ages and intelligences, these subgestures are like the small print in a contract, difficult to decipher, but nonetheless there.”

Of course single words can never express the full range of our reactions–they conceal as much as they reveal. Writers who don’t yet understand this settle for presenting a reader with the “banner headlines” of their characters’ inner lives. How much more difficult to locate, in ourselves as well as in our creations (because the interior drama of our lives is a well from which we draw), the fine print of emotions. How much of my anger contains fear, which is laced with envy and the shame that envy brings? How much of my joy contains relief, a certain smug self-satisfaction, and a touch of regret I can’t quite place? Squinting at fine print like this can edge us closer to naming the unnameable.

Photo credit: Undead Backbrain.

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August 28th, 2010 by admin

What Chasm? What Mist?

A favorite among the books I’ve read this summer is the novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano. The narrative follows the entwining lives of an Italian girl and boy, Alice and Mattia, from childhoods marked by unexpected trauma to the unfolding consequences of those events into their early adulthood.

Through their separate traumas, Alice and Mattia become akin to prime numbers, divisible only by themselves, alienated from family, possible friends or lovers. When they meet as adolescents, they sense the depth of their individual isolations, are attracted to each other because of it, and yet they cannot quite, as “prime numbers,” make connection. This essential dilemma, of attraction and repulsion, fuels the forward motion of Giordano’s novel.

I’m especially intrigued how Giordano depicts ephemeral emotional landscapes through metaphor. In one passage, Denis, a tag-along friend of Mattia’s who wishes for more than friendship, suffers this unrequited attraction to the point where “he had learned to respect the chasm that Mattia had dug around himself. Years previously he had tried to jump over that chasm, and had fallen into it. Now he contented himself with sitting on the edge, his legs dangling into the void.”

Denis, labeling Mattia’s emotional distance as a chasm, finally imagines himself at its border, and by accepting its imagined reality, dangling his metaphoric legs over the metaphoric edge, manages to claim a small version of intimacy.

In another passage, Alice, now an adult and still pining for Mattia, who has somehow escaped her, is coming to the end of her brief marriage with Fabio and realizes that she can recall only a few of her husband’s many kindnesses: “there had been an infinite number of which Alice no longer remembered, because the love of those we don’t love in return settles on the surface and from there quickly evaporates.”

Giordano works a lovely magic here (and in many, many more passages such as this). He understands that metaphor isn’t a trick–or if a trick, it’s a transcendent one. The metaphors we create for ourselves can illuminate a brief patch of what roils hidden within, can provide a GPS for navigating private geographies.

Photo, “”Rising Mist,” by Jane Voorhees

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August 25th, 2010 by admin