Artists often take up the unenviable task of putting into words or images the indescribable via creating scenarios that attempt to distil the essence of the intangible matter at hand. One such example is the efforts of James Joyce in putting on paper the inner monologue of thought in the form of stream-of-consciousness prose. Any student of English will be familiar with the concept but just in case someone missed a few classes (semesters), stream-of-consciousness is constructed as a minimally punctuated succession of words that attempt to mirror the manner in which our own thoughts jump freely from concept to image and so on. Initially it can appear strange on the page as it doesn’t always resemble conventional narrative structure but once the reader is “on board’ then it allows for a unique experience of what one might imagine is akin to exploring another’s thoughts. Though Joyce is the prime example he is not alone in this convention however and counts Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Sylvia Plath amongst his fellow “streamers”.
Samuel Beckett goes even further into the abstract and is an artist whose entire body of work is infinitely re-interpretable. Biographer Anthony Cronin highlights Beckett’s study of the works of philosopher Henri Bergson who posited a difference in time as measured and in “duration” which is as we experience it (127). Cronin posits that Beckett’s Happy Days exists as a study of time in “duration”. In this compelling reading Happy Days acts as a study of how one experiences time in the moment and distills the act of waiting into an artistic construct. Bergonian time could be read in much of the work of Beckett as a dramatic interpretation of what it can feel like to stare at a clock and the same fractions of time seem to contort and twist into mangled forms though the measure hasn’t been altered at all.
Computer games, while still in relative infancy, have a unique narrative position for transcribing the incommunicable as the player must perform actions to advance the narrative. The potential of this art form to engage people is just beginning to be explored in games such as Hotline Miami’s portrayal of societal violence or The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask’s cyclical time mechanic. Hotline Miami shifts from various perspectives and allows the player to see the effects of violence from multiple viewpoints. The game attempts to distil the essence of humanity’s capacity for violence in disorientating narrative that could only make sense truly in the control of a player.
Attempting to transcribe the intangible is a cornerstone of the arts and has been a part of humanity for as long as there have been humans. When we cannot as a species come to terms with something we often turn to metaphor or story telling to disseminate the information into something conceivable. Fairy tales are used to this day as a means of warning children of the perils of the world and break down complicated constructs into digestible narratives (once we avoid the Disneyification of the original texts). Religions across the globe all have in common the attempt to use metaphor and stories as a means to understand death or time or other ontological quandaries. Art can turn what seemed absurd and unreachable into something discernible or at the very least allow us the language to address innate fears of the unknown or unknowable.
Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. Flamingo, 1997.
Beckett, Samuel . Happy Days. Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works. Faber and Faber, 2006, pp. 135–168.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Oxford UP, 2008.
Hotline Miami. Dennation Games, 2012.
The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask. Nintendo, 2000.