hiding your hand

I don’t know who Noah Kulwin is — someone, I don’t remember whom, linked to this post, which among other things talks about the assassination of JFK. If this sounds like I’m picking on poor Mr. Kulwin, my apologies; I really don’t mean to. I just want to illustrate a point. 

In the post Kulwin quotes Don DeLillo’s comments on the Zapruder film. Here’s the key part: 

The Zapruder film is a home movie that runs about eighteen seconds and could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics. And every new generation of technical experts gets to take a crack at the Zapruder film. The film represents all the hopefulness we invest in technology. A new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis — not only of Zapruder but of other key footage and still photographs — will finally tell us precisely what happened. 

For the rest of his post Kulwin speaks of “DeLillo’s faith in technology” and wants to argue with it. But of course — as anyone would know after reading even a smidgen of his fiction — DeLillo doesn’t have any faith in technology. Kulwin has misunderstood the last sentence of the quote above. He thinks DeLillo is making a claim, but in fact the novelist is narrating a perspective

You can tell this is so by looking at the previous sentence, in which DeLillo speaks in broadly cultural terms of “all the hopefulness we invest in technology.” By “we” he doesn’t mean himself and his interviewer; he means Americans in general. And the sentence that follows — the one that Kulwin misunderstands — is not a statement of his own views, but a kind of expansion of or commentary on that hope. DeLillo is not saying that he believes that a new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis will finally tell us precisely what happened; he’s saying that the hope Americans invest in technology makes us — collectively, as a society — believe that a new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis will finally tell us precisely what happened. 

As I’ve said many times before — e.g. here — I don’t think my students today are any worse than my students from years or even decades ago. But I believe that students today need more explanation of how writers think, how fictional narrative works. They have grown up in a media environment in which, as far as I can see, language is almost exclusively used for three purposes: to praise cultural friends, to condemn or mock cultural enemies, and to declare the Truth. The idea that language might be used to explore a way of seeing the world without judging that way — without issuing a 👍 or a 👎 — is pretty foreign to most of them, especially since most of the literature they’ve been assigned in school is either intrinsically didactic or is taught to them didactically. 

This leads fairly regularly to misreadings of the type that Kulwin commits. Again, I know nothing about Kulwin, so I’m not trying to account for his error — only to note that it’s a very common kind of error these days. We live in a moment too polemical and defensive for undidactic art to flourish; most people, it seems, suspect any artwork that doesn’t declare its principles unambiguously. 

Some years ago Mandy Patinkin described the lunch meeting at which Rob Reiner recruited him to play in The Princess Bride. He recalled that 

He said to me, ‘The way I want everybody to play this is as though you have a hand of cards, and I want all of us to almost show the hand to the audience, but we never really show it. That’s how I want it to happen.’ So, he collected a bunch of people who would play cards that way. 

I think that’s actually a pretty good explanation for why The Princess Bride is such a brilliant movie, but whether it is or not, it’s a great way to describe what the greatest stories always do. You get a peek at the cards maybe, but not enough to be sure about the whole hand. You have to guess; you have to think; you have to ask difficult questions like “How might I behave if I had a great hand? A lousy one?” You have to imagine. All the great artists and writers do.