Saturday, 10 March 2007

Asymmetry and Juxtaposition


There's something most peculiar about asymmetry. For some reason, I think the human brain prefers symmetry; I think we automagically symmetricize things.

A few years back, I ran a chapter by a critiquing group. I had described a girl who peels into two halves, front and back. The front half got one ear and so did the back half.
This caused confusion. How come they didn't get half a left ear and half a right ear each?
Well, I had simply skewed the angle very slightly. By doing this - by skewing the angle - I seemed to have created a conflict in the reader's head, a conflict that might sit well under the heading of 'unfamiliarity'.

I can see that asymmetry lives in the realm of imagination. A first level consciousness idea might always be symmetrical. Only by digging deeper - by pushing through comfort zones - might we create something that is asymmetrical. Indeed, my first thought was to share each ear between the half-sisters. But I went a step further. First level consciousness (or, possibly, stream of consciousness) is terribly superficial and, by its nature, uninspired.
How many depictions of a Cyclops have you seen? A Cyclops is a one-eyed giant. Only once have I seen a depiction of a Cyclops where the single eye is on one side of the face, as though there had been two eyes and one was removed. The typical (as in clich├ęd), first level consciousness Cyclops has its eye centred - symmetricized.

Watching Barbarella the other day, I was struck by the asymmetry of the world.
For example, compare Barbarella's ship (above left) with the Enterprise (above right).
We can see that asymmetry is prevalent in horror movies. Indeed, gore itself is terribly asymmetrical. When a character is disembowelled, all manner of indiscernable forms pour forth.
Asymmetry disturbs us or, at least, lends a peculiarity to a scene or character.
Juxtaposition has the same effect.
Here's a snippet from my recent short story:
It feels like hookworms snagging, tangling your veins, tingling then tearing, and your throat and lungs boil with bile and blood and your breath gargles into your ears.
I have developed a technique whereby I am writing a minimum of two layers (which, sigh, means twice as much work).
In this example, the narrative describes something visceral, something awful, painful, horrendous.
But check out all the devices of sound that I use! Clearly, the style is fun, playful, carefree.
As such, I create a juxtaposition between meaning and understanding.
Imagine how this might be applied to a lengthy narrative! I see it as a pair of wavelengths. If I tune them to one another, there is a feeling of familiarity (and, if this occurs during, say, a horrific moment, there is yet another juxtaposition), whereas if I move them out of synch, an unease is created.
In this way, the first wavelength is the meaning formed by the narrative; it forms a superficial understanding. The second wavelength hits at a deeper level, and is controlled largely by style. I can use sets of themed words that work in harmony or discord with the narrative. Similarly, I can play with the sounds and shapes of the words, and even with fragments of words or inferences (see Associations and Conditioning). I can apply this to rhythm, to flow, to pace ... to any element that I choose. Moreover, with this combination of duality and an appreciation of symmetry and asymmetry, harmony and discord, familiarity and unfamiliarity, I am able to hit the reader subliminally from the very first word and weave a power beneath the patina of the words.

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