Richard Kostelanetz

Notes on Spacial Form


The American critic Joseph Frank perceived, a half-century ago, that much innovative modernist writing is »spatial« in form, as opposed to linear. Even in traditionally narrative genres, such as fiction, the representation of time is often so fragmented and disordered that the reader has trouble »following« the plot the first time through. In Frank's analysis, advanced fiction is emulating a characteristic form of modernist poetry, which favors a »spatial interweaving of images and phrases independently of any time-sequence or narrative action.« As novels structured in this way recompose the chronology of the stories they tell, they force the reader to develop perceptual processes quite different from those honed on traditional fiction. Frank advised that, »By continually fitting fragments together and keeping allusions in mind by reflexive reference, [the reader] can link them to their complements.«

Though some old-fashioned readers (and teachers) try, at least mentally, to reorder the parts into the semblance of linear sequence, this effort is usually futile. Not only do certain temporal relationships remain persistently ambiguous, but the effort seems false to the epistemology of the work. Precisely because such writing neglects the linear representation of time, it tends to portray life in process, without specific beginnings or ends; in this respect, it is truly utopian.

Since »what happens next« is not a consequential matter, it would instead be wiser for the reader to disregard chronological concerns - to take the story as it is, letting it engage him or her directly, and even reading around the book, rather than through it - just as he or she no longer needs to reconstruct a detailed representation of space to understand a cubist painting. Major works of contemporary literature create an impression, an aura, an »afterimage,« apart from the details of plot and subject; and it is these encompassing qualities that the reader absorbs and particularly remembers.

A painting need not be read from »beginning to end.« Nor need most modern-music compositions. Nor need the pages of Finnegans Wake, typically, be read in numerical sequence. Whether the reader has examined every page is no longer a measure of whether he has »finished« the book. A work of literature is not necessarily a channel that progresses in a single direction. It can be understood as a field that is read from several angles.

This essay of mine (that you are now reading) need not be read sequentially, although certain advantages are perhaps gained by doing so.

Here and elsewhere, modernist fiction prepares its readers to make those perceptual readjustments necessary to comprehend subsequent new fiction. In reading such works (unlike detective stories), what is principally remembered is not narrative sequence but a sense, first, of thematic interests and, then, images of both characters and the atmosphere in which they move, in addition to prose style and overall structures--qualities that the attentive reader comprehends bit by bit. It is those qualities, rather than anything dependent upon sequential narrative, that the modernist novel tries especially to communicate; so that »spatial form« becomes a means entwined in an epistemological end.

It was Guy Davenport, a very literate writer, who observed of Stan Brakhage, a very literary filmmaker, that the latter's Anticipation of the Night (1958) contains »a succession of images that do not tell a story but define a state of mind."

The publishers of Erich Auerbach's classic book on literary representation, Mimesis (1946), should invite an avant-garde critic to write a successor to Auerbach's concluding chapter on Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927). (My choice would be stories in Gertrude Stein's Geography and Plays, which was incidentally published five years before Woolf's book, just as Stein was born eight years before Woolf.)


In the direct experience of fiction, continuity is the center of our attention; our later memory, what I call the possession of it, tends to become discontinuous. Our attention shifts from the sequence of incidents to another focus: a sense of what the work of fiction was all about. - Northrop Frye, »Myth, Fiction, and Displacement« (1961)

A story is no longer a story when words are reduced to bare necessities. Time is cancelled out in the process of exploring it, when the quest for a perfect recurrence, a coming and going in time, is achieved by means of pure prose, of writing reduced to its essence. - Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World (1968)

In any age how to read and how to write are complementary terms, and the reading of the Pound Era, like the writing, discerns patterns of fiction and gathers meaning from nonconsecutive arrays. We can tell one page of Ulysses from another at a glance; to our grandfathers they would have seemed as featureless as pages from a telephone directory. - Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1971)

The tendency of literature has been to escape itself, to subvert or transcend its form, to re-imagine imagination, and, as it were, to create a state of unmediated literary awareness. -Ihab Hassan, Paracriticisms (1975)

When a critic deals with a work of literature, the most natural thing for him to do is to freeze it, to ignore its movement in time and look at it as a completed pattern of words, with all its parts existing simultaneously. - Northrop Frye, »Myth, Fiction, and Displacement« (1961)

The musical conception of form, that is to say the understanding that you can use form as a musician uses sound, that you can select motives of form from the forms before you, that you can recombine and recolour them and 'organise' them into a new form - that conception, this state of mental activity, brings with it a great joy and refreshment. I do not wish to convert anyone. I simply say that a certain sort of pleasure is available to anyone who wants it. - Ezra Pound, »Vorticism« (1915)

I begin, then, with the assumption that Ives wrote pictorial music - music based largely on relationships that are simultaneous, reciprocal, and reflective in nature rather than successive, sequential, and unidirectional. It is in this sense that I say that there relationships are primarily spatial in nature rather than temporal. If this music is approached in these terms, I think that much that may otherwise seem puzzling in it becomes more readily comprehensible. - Robert P. Morgan, in An Ives Celebration (1977)

You might if you chose develop any part of the picture, for the idea of sequence does not really exist as far as the author is concerned. Sequence arises only because words have to be written one after the other on consecutive pages, just as the reader's mind must have time to go through the book, at least the first time he reads it. Time and sequence cannot exist in the author's mind because no time element and no space element had ruled the initial vision. If the mind were constructed on optional lines and if a book could be read in the same way as a painting is taken in by the eye, that is without the bother of working form left to right and without the absurdity of beginnings and ends--this would be the ideal way of appreciating a novel, for thus the author saw it at the moment of its conception. - Vladimir Nabokov, »The Art of Literature and Commonsense«, Lectures on Literature (1980).

By reducing the text to a minimum (syllables, letters, line), Kruchonykh indeed achieved one goal, that of simultaneity. Such a page of »text« need not be read sequentially in linear time, but can be taken in at a glance and absorbed by the same process of free visual exploration used in studying a painting. - Gerald Janecek, The Look of Russian Literature (1984)


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