Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ category


June 22, 2010

I hadn’t heard of it either until I read this fascinating article by Errol Morris in the New York Times. It refers to ‘a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability.’ The article, which is witty as well as profound, starts with the remarkable story of McArthur Wheeler who robbed a couple of banks in Pittsburg while under the protection of ‘the juice.’ The poor man had rubbed lemon juice into his face under the belief that it rendered him invisible to video cameras. Extrapolating from this we come to the possibility that some of us might be too stupid to realise that we are too stupid to do certain things. From here Morris dives off into the world of both known and unknown unknowns.

Now, if what I’ve written so far hasn’t sent you off to read Morris’s piece, allow me to spin off to the side myself for a moment.

As soon as I started reading the article I thought there had to be some consonance with the process of writing. The creation of a work as large as a novel takes, often, several years. It is peculiarly frustrating and renders the author susceptible to all manner of self-torment precisely because of the level of unknowns he or she faces everyday. We know that a particular character is going to encounter another character, because that is the basis of our proposed story, but we don’t know what the place in which it happens looks like, who else is there, what time of day it is, what the weather is like; we don’t even know the social/family/ethnic background of either of their characters – in fact all those things, up to and including their age, gender, and names are mutable.

What happens, over a process of months and years, is that we narrow these and another million choices down and laboriously develop reasonably concrete scenes. We take these scenes and weave them into some form of narrative which we hope has a coherent thread, or at least a thread coherent enough to tempt a reader to follow it.

That this can be done is miraculous enough in itself but it is during the latter period that the truly fabulous begins to occur: we realise, for example, that in a given scene our character’s motivation is not quite correct. We go back through the chapters preceding it, changing a word here, a sentence there, removing or substituting a line of dialogue – a terrible and frightening process, risking the whole edifice – only to find, when the last word is in place, that the whole thing comes to life.

This is the business of unknown unknowns. As artists we have to allow, or force, ourselves to sit with the incompleteness of the material before us – its innate crappiness – calming ourselves and our fragile egos in the face of it, until enough matter has come into being on the page to allow us to ask a question which we would not have been able to ask until that moment, the question which will give us the right answer.

There is, as far as I know, no possible way to circumvent this. It is, quite possibly, why so many writers and artists drink.*

* I include here one of Mr Morris’s own footnotes which could equally apply to my own take: ‘A purist would no doubt complain that anosognosia has been taken out of context, that it has been removed from the world of neurology and placed in an inappropriate and anachronistic social science (or in my case literary) setting.  But something does remain in translation, the idea of an invisible deficit, the infirmity that cannot be known nor perceived.  I can even imagine a cognitive and psychological version of anosodiaphoria.  The idea of an infirmity that people neglect, that they do not pay any attention to.’

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