When I think of exactitude, I think of language that is precise. I think of carefully formed thoughts. At the core, I think of specific attention to letters, word choice, sentence construction. I imagine a keyboard laid out on a table. I can see the letters on the keyboard, the “G” and ‘H” in the middle and how a sort of letter hierarchy has determined that these letters are important ones and deserve a prime time spot on the keyboard.
Exactitude of language implies an exactitude of thought. Words have been carefully sculpted. They have been set, left to dry, harden, and form. They say something specific.
Calvino defines exactitude as the following:
1. “a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question (55)”
2. “an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images (55)”
3. “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination (56)”
Successful exactitude in literature can create clear images of the idea trying to be conveyed. This goes along with Calvino’s idea that the crystal is an emblem of exactitude. A crystal is geometric in form, precisely faceted. It can reflect a clear image of the surrounding environment. It creates a sort of clarity, a sort of exactitude.
Calvino wants a story told as straight-forward as possible. He wants it all laid out and out-lined. It is planned. Exactitude is not gray and murky. It is clear. It is about pushing that exact key on the keyboard to form the exact word you want, the complete thought. It is about knowing what you want to say and how to say it.
As a writer, myself, I know how hard it can be to find that exact word, or words, that will create the image I want. It is about figuring out how stringing certain words together will create sounds, images, meanings. It can be hard to have a certain thought in mind and try to find a way to write about this thought to make sure it is clearly portrayed to an audience. But that is sort of the fun, creating a sort of order out of chaos. There are so many meanings, words, thoughts, that can be formed. But figuring out a sort of order to all of this, and being able to convey it in an exact fashion, now that is skill. Crystals might cost a lot to buy, but precise language – to me, that is priceless.
Grounding Calvino’s definition of Exactitude in my own experience with print literature, an author I think really embodies this quality is Jodi Picoult. Her novels have clear goals – they are controversial, they make you think, they address something sticky, and make you go on in there and take a stand. There is a precise goal in her work. She has a way with words, where she can create vivid images, which she has researched, thought about, perfected. She uses, which Calvino says is “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.” She pays special attention to the subtleties of thought and imagination. She may have a precise idea she is trying to convey, but she is aware that thoughts and imagination also come into play. She is very aware of the psychological implications of her words, of the psychology of her characters, her readers.
The cover synopsis for the book entitled Nineteen Minutes starts off with the following paragraph:
In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five…. In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off it. In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge.
Jodi Picoult is creating an exact image here, an exact tone. We get this idea that a lot can happen in just nineteen minutes. She provides us with precise examples. And yet, she lets us use our imagination. She tells us you can stop the world, jump off it, get revenge. She makes us wonder what someone could do in just nineteen minutes, besides the obvious activities mentioned above. She plants a precise thought in our mind, and then lets us do with it what we want.
An analogy for the idea of multiplicity can be found in a game called Bananagrams. This game is somewhat similar to Scrabble, but different in the sense that the pieces on your imaginary board – there is no actual board, you just use a desk or table, or some sort of surface – can move. Each player starts out with a determined set of letters. Then one player shouts out “split,” and all the players flip there letters over to reveal what they have. Once their letters are determined, a player has to start forming words. The words must connect to one another. For example, if you used the word APPLE, you could use the “P” to form PEAR underneath. Once you use up your letters, you shout out “peel,” and everyone must pick up another letter and somehow make it fit on their board. The idea is that you have to constantly move the letters around on your board to accommodate the new ones you are adding. Therefore, while the words, or the meanings, are constantly changing, they are all interconnected in the sense that the letters are not changing, only more are being added. The amount is being “multiplied.” People keep shouting “peel,” until there are no more letters left. At that point, when someone has used all of his/her letters to form words that are interconnected, he/she would shout out, “banana.” The game would then be finished.
I know this is an odd analogy for the idea of multiplicity, but as I sat at my desk thinking of ideas, I noticed my Bananagram set next to my foot on the floor. And suddenly I remembered playing the game with my parents – feeling this rush of adrenaline as I shape-shifted the letters to form new words, that really weren’t all that new, only a variation of what I had already had.
Now that I am thinking about it, I think the most obvious example of multiplicity is the alphabet. I guess this is what I was trying to illustrate in my Bananagram example – this idea that we have only twenty six letters. We sculpt them, mix them up, manipulate them – we have a limited source, but endless possibilities. The English language, itself, gains no new letters. But from these letters, arises “multiple” meanings.
I wrote this in my other blog a couple weeks ago:
There are only twenty six letters in the alphabet. I read in a book the other day how Newton, or maybe it was Galileo – I can’t really remember – likened letters to atoms. He said they are the smallest unit of communication and spin in circles forming new combinations, new meanings. In a way, words create a body, an object, something tangible, in the same way that atoms give weight to the world.
But, since there are only twenty six letters, there are only so many ways in which we might sculpt them, use them, manipulate them to say something we think is important, or maybe not important, or only of semi-importance. We can decide these things, to an extent. The audience, though, will take out of the words and the letters and the passages, what he or she pleases. A writer only has so much control.
With twenty six letters, a sort of cycling will occur, much like the circular image of a clock. Imagine, instead of numbers on the clock, 26 letters. And then imagine several hands on the clock moving from one letter to the next – forming new combinations with each tick or tock. So, while words may be timeless, there is also the sense that they cycle over and over again and maybe it is this cycling that is timeless. Maybe history repeats itself not just because of our actions, but our words.
Like the “I” is the grounding factor in the ever-changing cube of this E-lit, the alphabet, or the limited possibility of letters one can use, is the grounding factor in Bananagrams. Despite a changing board, the letters don’t change, only the combinations do. The letters are interconnected on a sort of grid, must like the “I’s” and “You’s” and “We’s.”
There is this definite symbiotic relationship between image and words. They need each other and could not exist without the other. However the formation of both is interesting. The E-lit I chose illustrates this idea of visibility – the dependence of visual image on words and vice versa. This piece is entitled “The Sweet Old Etcetera” by Alison Clifford. In this work, we are first given a sentence that is formed sideways, as if it is reaching upwards toward the sky. Once you click on the sentence, four more branches of words reach upwards from the original branch. Therefore, we have a core of words with four outgrowths on top of it. If you click on one of the four upper branches, two smaller branches of words emerge from the top of that particular branch. You can click on the other three branches, and the same thing will happen. Now when you click on the whole image, the tree fades away and letters start falling from the sky. Looking at these falling letters floating through the sky of white, you see they form the word leaf. The letters no longer form full words, just like the leaves are no longer part of the entire tree. However, from these parts you can get a sense of the greater whole. You can tell the letters spell the words leaf, just like you know that a leaf at some point was a part of something larger and grander. If you click on the leaves, they gradually disappear and instead, we are presented once again with the image of the “word tree”, except now it is planted in a ground of words and letters. The leaves have fallen to create a floor of words. The cycle of life, and the cycle of words, is being epitomized.
In this E-lit, the visual screen is presented in black and white – the color of text on paper. The words, themselves, illustrate the visual image of a tree, of life, of leaves falling, of rebirth. However, this E-lit also uses these words, to form the literal image that they are trying to portray. The words are sculpted in a way to visually portray their meaning – they hint at growth, Spring, lightness, nature. This is making the audience chose whether the word came first, or the image, for we are being presented with both simultaneously. Did we read the word Spring and think of a tree growing, or did we see the tree growing and think of Spring?