Sunday, January 14, 2007

On the ecological complexity of novels.

A few years ago, I was giving a joint talk with Masahiko Shimada, the famous Japanese novelist of my own generation, at the Asahi Culture Center in Tokyo. We were discussing the nature of good literary works, and I happened to mention that the repetition of words was not necessarily a bad thing, although abhorred by editors in general. What I was trying to allude to at that time was the importance of repetitions in the spoken language, especially those that accompany dances and other rhythmic actions in daily life. Close to life in its nature, the liberation of repetition could broaden the universe of literal expression, I suggested

Masahiko then said something interesting that set me pondering. He said that any great novel is like a dictionary. To take an example from the Japanese literature, consider Soseki Natsume. The vocabulary that Natsume uses in his novels is quite vast, and it encompasses a large sea of words employed in the written and spoken forms of the Japanese language. A Natsume novel is a "dictionary" in effect structured along a storyline, covering and giving a lively list of virtually all the words that are used in the cosmos of our native tongue.

The discussion with Masahiko at that time prompted a wave of thoughts about the richness that complexity would generate, how it is related to the philosophy of life. In the Amazonian rainforest, it is known that the same species of vegetation thrives far apart from each other, a multitude of different kinds mixing and co-existing within a tightly woven ecological system. In such a system, the lack of repetition of the same element is a hallmark of the richness of complexity. An obvious analogy can be made between ecology and novels.

It is a worthy ambition for anybody interested in linguistic expression to author a "virtual-dictionary" type work of literature. Technical writings in science and mathematics often suffer from monoculture in words, for the very reason that certain expression and phrases needs to be eradicated to ascertain logical coherence. It is then by no accident that in the beloved literature of the world insanity and illogicality must sometimes surface, as these traits are admittedly major members in the universe of human spiritually, calling for appropriate corresponding expressions in the spoken and written language.

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