Not Just Facts

Not Just Facts

Continuing with the spectrum of experience….

We sometimes hear that language conditions what we see. This is one of the themes of Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival. In the film, linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) mentions the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, according to which language shapes thought and cognitive categories.

But I have the impression language often plays catch-up, after the fact. As we move through life, as the spectrum of experience spreads out before us, we are challenged by new experiences – surviving cruelty as a child, confronting perversity, witnessing the death of loved ones, founding a family, caring for newborns, getting through illness and trauma, learning about the purely arbitrary nature of each person’s destiny.

I say “we are challenged” because we often lack the vocabulary to describe and therefore get our mind around what is happening to us. We don’t even know where to start! And it takes quite the struggle to communicate what we experience to other people.

Alfred Hitchcock told me about the world of elemental emotions lying just below the surface

Last June I wrote a blog about a dream I had. Alfred Hitchcock dropped by, to offer help in completing my feature film, The Blinding Sea. “Your story should be pushed along by elemental emotions,” he told me in that dream. “Excitement, love, desire, fear, hatred, hunger, disgust, terror, thirst, pride, shame….”

These elemental emotions go to the core of film-making, but also of translating from one language to the next, and of writing works of fiction and non-fiction. Even though facts have their importance in story-telling.

A gargoyle in Oxford

Any one of these elemental emotions transforms what we see. Excitement sets off frenzied vertigo; love warms the heart and breaks down one’s defences; deep-seated fear affects perception – particularly when that fear looms in the shadows of whatever is unspeakable, hidden, prohibited. Jean Delumeau makes this clear, in his studies of fear, guilt and sin in Christian communities between the 13th and 18th centuries. As for terror, it is an emotion silver-etched on the heart. A terrorizing experience is impossible to forget, and risks putting us in the crisis mode every time something similar happens to us (as in post-traumatic stress).

So much for the elemental emotions.

The way one’s mind works also affects perception, including the perception of facts.

For example, the search for absolutes can lead a person on a burning quest for something total, secure, fixed – even when the goal is at the outer edge of reality – or beyond the outer edge. The other world beckons, but one neglects this world.

Consider the polar obsession of explorers from a century and more ago. How many of them actually died in pursuit of an absolute, abstract ideal?

A dog-team I filmed, racing along the ice-pack of Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island

What about the discovery of a habitable exoplanet 4.75 light-years away from Earth (37.843 trillion kilometres)? This is too far for humans ever to visit, but close enough to feed a frenzy of speculation.

Then again, the quest for the “perfect” relationship is like holding love and passion to some unattainable standard just beyond reach, as if the woman of one’s dreams were a marble statue.

Whereas the spectrum of experience is naturally coloured by the conditional, the indefinite, the uncertain, the finite. There is a rift between what we experience and the way we remember it afterwards. At the age of seventeen, I spent a week taking care of my dying grandfather. When I picture this experience then, and how I remembered it five years after, and how I remember it now in middle age, it is almost as if I were thinking of three distinct experiences lived by three different people!

It takes creative imagination to make a film, translate a book and write a book. Instead of simply focusing on facts, creative works should evoke the spectrum of experience. That’s where creativity comes in.

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