June 18, 2012, by Jonathan

Extremes, caricature and the difference between painting and literature

“I’m only interested in extremes” says Martin Amis in a recent interview with the Guardian. Do extremes work particularly well in literature? They seem to have worked well for Amis, but not every successful author in the modern age has shared his preference. Proust’s characters often have a certain eccentricity, and are often marked by obsessive traits which seem as annoying as they are memorable. But I would not call Swan and the rest of them extremes. Henry James, Virginia Wolf and Joseph Conrad trade similarly in the mostly non-extreme. Of course Amis aims at a slightly wider market, for all that his work is literature. Perhaps avoidance of extremes is the province of a few writers willing to give up on most of their potential audience.

There is another perspective on this. Neuroscientists interested in culture have sometimes argued that the arts function—not wholly, but in significant measure—as a kind of extreme stimulus to the senses: a kind of caricature. Vilayanur Ramachandran, the celebrated brains scientists with important work on phantom limbs and other puzzles of the mind, has suggested this, citing the phenomenon scientists call “Peak Shift”; we are attracted, he says, to certain stimuli, and art gives them to us in quantities we can’t hope to find in the real world. His critics have angrily retorted that very little art of any lasting value falls into the caricature domain. Certainly the project of western realism seems almost wholly devoid of it. Look also at what may be the very first pictorial art available to us, the painted cave walls at Chauvet in southern France. Here we see the most wonderfully life-like and restrained depictions of horses heads. There are massive bulls at Lascaux and elsewhere with disproportionate bodies, but these seem more like well wrought symbols of strength than caricatures. There are intriguing hybrid figures—half man, half lion—from the same period, but these are imaginative constructs, not caricatures. The gracefully convention-bound depictions of ancient Egypt also reveal little that we could call extreme sensory stimulation.

Back to Amis. Is there more scope for the extreme in literature than in pictorial art? I think there may be. While not all literature trades in caricature or near-caricature, a good deal that has been lastingly successful does. Think of Falstaff, and hordes of Technicolor characters in Dickens. The truth is, I think, that we are more attracted to exaggerated representation of character than to caricatures of physical appearance, and it is character that literature gives us. In Narratives and Narrators I argued that the narrative form has been so successful partly because it is well suited to the representation of character, which has to be developed over a significant period of story time. We love the idea of character, and a lot of psychological evidence suggests we over-rate its prevalence and its explanatory importance. We love to find, or believe that we have found, the secret to someone’s character, and literature feeds our fantasy of laying character bear, as visible as someone’s appearance, and it gives us people (“characters”, as we significantly call them) whose characters, good and bad, are much more visible and definitive than the characters of those around us.

Amis is not typical of any literary genre or style, but his tendency towards the extreme is something we are at least familiar with in the literary world—much more so than we are in the world of pictures.


Greg Currie

Posted in Philosophy of narrative