Once in a great while I drift away from fiction and such to read a book that seems to underpin my interest in creative writing, how ideas are communicated through stories, and what makes these stories historically and socially enduring as well as darned fascinating. Which is today’s lead-in to a book dryly entitled, “The Natural and the Normative: Theories of Spatial Perception from Kant to Helmholtz.”
Okay, before you retch on your computer keyboard and go a-Twittering about the dweeb who can’t stay away from arid philosophy, let me say this: My post here isn’t going to step into author Gary Hatfield’s philosophical quagmire. What it will do is draw a probably tenuous line between Hatfield’s philosophical history and what books – stories and literature – mean to us. Here goes.
Spatial perception means how we view space. Not Star Trek’s “final frontier,” but the empty elbow room that contains things. Believe it or not, how we understand that space exists has flummoxed humans for centuries, and this is the crux of Hatfield’s book. It’s been an argument that’s occurred over centuries and, to hear Hatfield tell the tale, our understanding of it seems to continually go in circles, ever ending up where it began.
Emanuel Kant, a German philosopher, stands in the eye of this academic storm, his interest settling on geometry. The significance of geometry throughout this centuries-long debate has to do with how things are structured (or at least how we perceive them structured) within the abstraction of space. Of void. Of nothingness.
But what does this have to do with books and literature? Literary theorists have battled for at least as long as Hatfield’s story has existed over the relationship between three things:
• What the writer intends to do in writing a piece of fiction, non-fiction, or poem.
• What the reader draws from the writer’s “product," and how it's significant.
• What, in fact, the story, book, tale, saga, poem, history, etc. actually is – to both reader and writer.
You might actually think of the “text” of the piece of creative writing as something similar to a geometric structure. That is, the writer “builds” such a textual structure, with all its linguistic quirks, its pacing, omissions, entendres, and the reader (and, of course, the literary critic) reads it, experiences it in some way, and makes some sense of it. (I’m not blogging on this randomly – I plan to sprinkle a bit of literary theory between books I review here – -soon!)
“So, what??” as this post’s title demands to know. The main import of Hatfield’s book to avid readers of creative writing (and it's minimal, I admit) is that philosophy's job is to underpin – among many, many other things – the writing and reading of those paper devices we pull from shelves at Barnes & Noble. It’s that simple (and yes, I have tongue wedged deeply into cheek.)