Monday, October 11, 2010


The human brain removes the jagged edges of our experience and recalls smoothed-out versions of those experiences. When we look back at photos from our trip we imagine a simpler time than what actually was. The same trick happens when anticipating experience. Literary representations of events accentuate this effect, as Alain de Botton writes in The Art of Travel:
If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find the same process of simplification or selection at work as in the imagination. Artistic accounts involve severe abbreviations of what reality will force upon us. A travel book may tell us, for example, that a narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and, after a night in its medieval monastery, awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply journey through an afternoon. We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out of the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in consciousness. A fly lands on the window. And still we might only have reached the end of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘he journeyed through the afternoon’.
Unfortunately, life itself often subscribes to this mode of story-telling, wearing us with repetitions, misleading emphases and inconsequential plot-lines... The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress, they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments and, without either lying or embellishing, thus lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present. 
Ironically, I've noticed in reading through de Botton's books that he is one of those literary offenders. The smoothing-out trick pervades his writing. Virginia Postrel in a gem-filled article on glamour:

... glamour usually begins with a stylized image—visual or mental—of a person, an object, an event, or a setting. The image is not entirely false, but it is misleading. Its allure depends on obscuring or ignoring some details while heightening others. We see the dance but not the rehearsals, the stiletto heels but not the blisters, the skyline but not the dirty streets, the sports car but not the gas pump. To sustain the illusion, glamour requires an element of mystery. It is not transparent or opaque but translucent, inviting just enough familiarity to engage the imagination and trigger the viewer’s own fantasies.

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