Fun with Fractals and Fred: Some Slight Aesthetic Musings
The concept of a refractory period is familiar to most people, thanks to its association with sex. People’s prurient interests help ensure that anything associated with sex generates interest. In sexuality, the refractory period refers to the time after lovemaking, more specifically, the time in which the energy to go again is restored. The period is much longer in men than women. As men and women get older, it gets even worse.
The refractory period not only applies to organisms, though. It refers to smaller systems within the larger organism. You could say that the refractory period is fractal, I guess.
What’s the old quote by Goethe? Das Ur-Bild ist das Bild und die Spiegelung. Or, in English, The original image is the image and the reflection.
One area where refractive periods come up a lot is in neuroscience. It’s still nowhere near an exact science, as the brain is a very, very complicated organ. Not only that, but it’s dynamic. Convolutions on brains aren’t exactly like whorls on fingerprints, but they’re closer than you might think. Supposedly “left-brain” functions will sometimes be handled by the right hemisphere (or at least in conjunction with them) and vice versa. The brain also maintains its neuroplasticity (and can even rediscover it) much later than was initially thought. We may find solutions to break up certain tau (plaques) fairly soon, which could alter the effects of everything from Alzheimer’s to dementia pugilistica.
Compounding the problem of complexity is the attempt to locate mind within the realm of the brain. German (and before it Greek) reflects this medical and conceptual imprecision in consanguine linguistic imprecisions. Geist can mean ghost, but pair it with other words and weird things start happening. Geist + krank (which means “sick”) gives you Geisteskrank, which logic would tell you means Soul Sickness. Except it means mental illness.
We’ve made some progress from the days where the Egyptians caked people in crocodile dung to heal their mental traumas, but not much. Or maybe not, as coming up with drugs to bind to MU-receptors in the brain has probably gotten more people killed than crocodile shit. Besides which, seeing someone smeared in crocodile feces is funny. Seeing them dead of an overdose, not so much.
One of the things neuroscientists have learned about nerves is that they also have refractory periods. If someone strokes the back of your hand, you’ll get a slightly pleasurable tingling sensation. Repeat the stroking and the tingling sensation will repeat, albeit in an attenuated version. Keep doing it and the spot will just hurt. Done enough times the slight nuisance can become an unbearable agony. Water torture exists for a reason.
Variation is key to stimulation, while a lack of it leads to excruciation.
Which got me to thinking about Fred.
For those who’ve never read Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction (I can’t recommend it highly enough), he calls the Muse/the unconscious “Fred.”
If all of a sudden you find yourself wanting to read nothing but books on one subject, Knight says, Fred is trying to tell you something. You’re probably getting ready to write a book (or at least a short story) on that subject, only you just don’t know it, yet. Fred does, though.
Fred not only provides help. He can be a sort of a trickster from time to time. I don’t have the exact example here before me, but Knight cites a case in which the same word pops up twice in two sentences. This isn’t a problem with small things like prepositions and pronouns, but with more noticeable words the effect on the reader can sometimes be glaring. It’s the literary equivalent of walking out of a bathroom with a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe.
I’ll give you an example:
“Bob put his gun in his belt and sat down in the driver’s seat. He’d have to gun it if he wanted to make it to the Florida Keys in time.”
See the use of “gun” twice in two sentences, once to refer to the literal object and then a second time in a more figurative sense? There’s nothing wrong with the word “gun” to idiomatically describe driving fast, especially if you’re writing close-third person. But coming so soon after the previous mention of gun, it galls, at least a little. Use the word “gun” again in the next sentence—and perhaps the one after that—and it starts to become absurd.
Let’s try it just for shits and giggles:
“Bob put his gun in his belt and sat down in the driver’s seat. He’d have to gun it if he wanted to make it to the Florida Keys in time. The gun smarted where he’d stuck it down the front of his pants. The discomfort, though, would last for less time if he kept gunning it for the Keys.”
Pretty soon anyone reading this is going to want to blow their brains out, or at least they’re going to find themselves annoyed by it. Sort of like, you know, someone who keeps rubbing one patch of flesh rubbed repeatedly in the same way, over and over again.
Which makes me wonder: is there something fractal here? Not just between the organism as a whole and a system (the brain) and a smaller subsystem (the nerve) but as regards other domains, or at least interacting with the “mind” and not just the brain’s registering of sensory input?
Someone a lot smarter than me and with access to a lab and human guinea pigs would probably be able to figure this out. You’d have to get people to read sentences of varying length—maybe even entire books’ worth of material—and monitor them while they had those wires fixed to their heads. You could monitor brain patterns to see which sentences—and sentences of what length—worked the best on their brains. You could also monitor what kind of effect seeing the same word in multiple sentences had on the brain.
Because each brain is different, though, some would react negatively more quickly than others to the repeated word. The writer Theodore Cheney claimed in his book Getting the Words Right that sentences should not be over thirty words in length. Much more and the mind tunes out, or loses the plot, some anteceding thread or relative pronoun needing to be tracked down again.
Too many especially short, staccato sentences, though, and the effect is a bit like being slapped, or hearing an overconfident child with a bad voice singing. The boldness grates, and smacks of overweening confidence, posturing faux machismo like Hemingway after he lost it and descended into self-parody.
Varying sentence length—not rubbing the same place in the same way twice—is the key. Even as I write that, though, I can remember something else Cheney said, something which contradicts that. The only rule in art, he claims, is the rule of thumb.
Thinking that I’m going to figure out how the mind works by studying the brain (especially when it’s reading fiction, which is art) shows I’m just struggling with the same old conceptual conflations. I’m making Cartesian errors of clockwork, confusing an organism with a mechanism.
And sometimes the deliberate courting of that feeling of sense-deadening creates new and special sensations. The refusal to use ornamentation or artifice—to write several sentences of similar length, and even using the same word in each—can sometimes produce its own kind of cacophony. Greek aestheticians of Attic antiquity were quick to point out that cacophony was just as important to harmony as euphony.
The singer Moby observed as much when talking about torch singer Norah Jones. Too much beauty, perfection in the voice starts to sound robotic. Folk music exists for a reason. Kurt Cobain’s shredding of his laryngeal flesh would’ve gotten him kicked off American Idol in the preliminary rounds, but who cares? The winners of that show make mostly derivative, watered-down versions of standards (usually not even written by the people who originally sang them.) I think Nirvana’s music sounds better with every passing year, but that’s also a matter of opinion. A lot of metal heads who like virtuosity and cocksure front men in their musicians found his primal screaming and performative self-loathing obnoxious and ugly.
There’s an editing program I once used—a program I won’t name here—which would monitor for stylistic flaws and errors in prose. When one made an “error” (and it does necessitate the quotes) the program would produce red squiggly lines beneath the word in question, like in MS-Word.
It did this once when I had written three sentences that had begun with the pronoun “He.”
“Same word used three times in a row to start a sentence. Think of using another word.”
I was thinking more of finding a way to tell the program—non-sentient though it may have been and born ex nihilo of some programmer’s fancy—to fuck its mother.
I’ve seen plenty of instances where three, four, or even more sentences began with the same word, and they not only worked, but sung.
Perhaps, then, there are worse things than having your character gun the motor with a gun stuffed down the front of their shirt.