Flaubert once said that if you gave your full attention to any object for long enough, it would become interesting. In this, Flaubert, whether he knew it or not, was certainly breaking with the old classical vision of the world. For Plato and Aristotle, there was an inherent hierarchy of worth in the world, an ontological as well as ethical hierarchy. The philosopher was he who ignored trivial objects and plastered his attention to worthier ones. Hair, or dirt, or dogs, or the way a candlestick looks on a piano, were unworthy of noting, of memorializing.
Well, while Flaubert was opining, with a rare uplift, about the value of attention, another Frenchman was experimenting with what had once been called mesmerism, and was now being called hypnotism. Charcot was discovering that you could lull a subject into hypnosis by having them fixate their attention on a bright object until they were, as it were, captured by it – entranced, or at least tranced.
Between the attention that increases the value of an object and the fixation of attention that captures the subject lies the description in narrative.
I’ve had ample opportunity to experiment with this, since, every night, after we read to Adam from one book in French and one book, almost always about dinosaurs recently, in English, we turn out the light and tell him a story about himself. Adam generally lays down the rules for the story, like he was ordering from a menu: I want me to be playing basketball and I want X and Y (his friends) to be Ironman and Batman and I want to be Clobberman. Or along that line.
Now, the thing is, whether Adam has been lulled by the books we read him or not, generally A. and I are. Sometimes I have a hard time keeping my eyes open as I read about the stegasaurus, one of the last of the dinosaurs in Adam’s favorite book. So in telling him a story that I make up, I’ve found that by the end of it, I might be wandering far afield. But if I am thinking about the story, I usually try to throw in a lot of description, or at least names of things, in the hope that this will lull Adam to sleep. If he goes down a path in the forest, I try to enumerate all the things he’ll pass: a pine tree, a live oak, a red oak, a maple tree, a willow, a chestnut tree, an elm tree, a redwood, a bramble bush, a sweet gum tree, a beech, a birch tree, a rhododendron, etc., etc. My theory is that the longer I stretch this out, the less Adam’s attention will be fixed on the forest and the more he will be sinking into slumber.
It works, at least, for me.
So I have thought a bit about the relationship between description in a fiction, the ‘world’ that fiction, or at least certain fictions, try to create, and the hypnotic envelopment in which the narrative’s horizon is overtaken. We do feel that certain novels create a world, one that we enter: but is this entrance like discovering a world, or being entranced by a brilliant pocket watch on a chain?