Knowing vs. knowing about

There’s been a lot of coverage recently of Sam Gosling’s new book Snoop, which is subtitled What Your Stuff Says About You. The central thesis is simple: that the objects we surround ourselves reveal more of our character than perhaps we would wish. 

It’s not a new idea, but it’s an interesting addition to a number of current debates about the way in which we define ourselves, or come to be defined by others. In fiction, of course, there are various ways to delineate a character. Ian Fleming could be counted as a Goslingist: James Bond is more defined by his his choice of cocktails, clothes and cigarettes than by his spiritual quest for meaning. Superheroes, on the other hand, tend to be determined by a single but defining moment: Bruce Wayne, for example, only becomes Batman because of his sense of injustice at his parents’ death. In literature, Paul Watkins’s characters are determined by the age in which they live, victims of history, whereas Nabokov’s are prisoners of a single but obsessive psychological drive. 

All of these are valid, but all are too easily cheapened into the kind of fridge magnet drama so familiar from bad television: Haunted by his tortured childhood/ past as a soldier of fortune/ father’s madness, former surgeon/ vet / sommelier turns detective while battling alcohol addiction / schizophrenia / penchant for fairy cakes. In reality, of course, past experience is pretty simplistic as a determinant of future behaviour. It also leads to predictable drama, in which every character has a secret past that explains exactly why they behave now as they do. 

One of the reasons that reality shows can be so gripping is precisely the absence of this kind of cause and effect psychology. We don’t know the pasts of these people — we rarely even know their second names — so our entire judgement of them as characters is based on their actions and reactions to the people around them. It’s easy for writers of fiction to rail against the proliferation of reality shows on TV, but more useful, I suspect, to see what we can learn. I was reminded of this recently while reading Michael Frayn’s The Russian Interpreter, in this exchange between Manning, the hero, and his best friend Katerina:

“Surely it’s right [says Manning] for us to try to understand our fellow human beings?”

“You don’t come to know people well by knowing about them. I know you very well, Paul, without knowing anything at all about you. I don’t want to find out what you’ve done in the past, or why you did it. That would be idle curiosity. The answers would be irrelevant to what you now are. They might even conceal you from me … Don’t you know that God washes out the past each evening, as if it had never been, and that we are born again each morning? What happened yesterday is just gossip, Paul, just empty gossip.”

The truth, surely, is somewhere in between. People’s pasts do help determine how they act today. But Katerina has a point. It’s too easy, writing fiction, to reach for the cause-and-effect solution: what Sidney Lumet dismissively calls the “rubber ducky” effect (“he had his rubber ducky taken from him as a child, and that’s why he turned to crime”). You don’t know people well by knowing about them: you know them well by what they do.

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