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Thursday, 5 March 2009

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes

I love Martin Schoeller's picture of Daniel Everett and a piraha boatman (read a New Yorker article on Everett here). The book is by Daniel Everett, a linguist and missionary who learned the Piraha language so he could translate the bible and convert them. The general idea being to first make them feel bad about their lives and then present Christianity as the solution to all their problems.

Unfortunately for Everett, the Piraha have an almost academic aversion to accounts that they have not either witnessed themselves or had the speaker witness. They lapped up Everett's accounts of the miracles of Jesus until they discovered he hadn't seen them with his own eyes.

Everett goes into great detail in the book about the Piraha language and its incompatibility with Chomsky's theories of universal grammar (there are no universal colours or numbers for example). The one thing he doesn't mention, until right at the very end, is that his work with the piraha ultimately led to him becoming a non-believer and divorcing his wife and gaining a new way of thinking.

Which is a bit of a shame because he springs a completely different ending to a book that is interesting enough but, except for one passage about his wife's near-death experience with malaria, rather impersonal and uninvolved.

Springing a surprise ending on the reader is one of the categories in the marvellous How Not to Write a Novel, by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. Ok, the Everett book isn't a novel (and the surprise ending was probably at the insistence of Everett's editors). but we can assume there are elements of the fictional in there so Newman's and Mittelmark's comments apply:

But a Meteor Could Land there, right? (in which the author cheats)

"...by introducing a previously unmentioned element to resolve situation, the author is suddenly changing the rules of his fictional world. This is as much fun as when somebody suddenly and unilaterally changes the rules of a game you are playing. It is as if the author had said, "Oh, I just realized that the plot doesn't work, so I'm going to add something from outside of my plot, okay?

Okay! And we're going to add something to the recycling.

This particular blunder is know as deus ex machina, which is French for "Are you fucking kidding me?"

A while back, Alec Soth posted a piece on his blog on Charles Traub's Dos and Don'ts of Graduate Studies which was great as a checklist for what you shouldn't be doing in photography(I fall at the first don't). It's also good for wondering where he's kidding and then finding exceptions to all the rules.

For me though, the high sarcasm of How Not to Write a Novel is compelling - there surely must be photographic equivalents for categories such as The Average Day (where mundane detail fails to bring a character to life), The Clone Entourage (Wherein friend characters proliferate into an indistinguishable mass), The Puffer Fish (Wherein the author flaunts his vocabulary) or even The Crepuscular Handbag ( Wherein the author flaunts somebody else's vocabulary).

Some plagiarism ideas for flaunting some Newman/Mittelmark vocabulary in my future posts....

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