Monday, March 10, 2014


Holbrook:  You movin' out, Ben?
Rumson:  No.
Holbrook:  Me neither.  I guess there's two kinds in the world, Ben.  People who move, people who stay.  Ain't that true?
Rumson:  No, that ain't true.
Holbrook:  Well what's true?
Rumson:  Well there's two kinds of people.  Them goin' somewhere, and them goin' nowhere.  And that's what's true.
Holbrook:  I don't agree, Ben.
Rumson:  That's 'cause you don't know what the hell I'm talkin' about.

I've included these lines from Joshua Logan's Paint Your Wagon in order to make a point about the way many people express themselves and the way they understand others.  I have for a long time now believed that most difficulties in communication between people, and most efforts to educate, suffer from two fundamental philosophies.

The first I've spoken of before, but I'll reiterate it because it's been three years.  If you are working with a graphics program, occasionally you'll need to insert a picture from your desktop into a frame on the program. In that case, you'll be asked a question:  do you want the picture to fit the frame, or do you want the frame to fit the picture?  If you choose to make the picture fit the frame, the frame stays the same but the picture distorts.  If you choose to make the frame fit the picture, the picture stays clear but the frame changes size.

Those are your choices.  Most people in this life would rather distort the picture than change the frame.

The other error is that which occurs above.  People hear (or read) the words, but they don't immediately make sense.  And because they don't immediately make sense, it is presumed the words must be senseless. From that point on, anything that is added is a waste of time.

Consider the post thus far.  I have chosen to include every sentence written so far for a reason.  None of the sentences I've written are included randomly or by chance.  So it is with Logan's play.  Look carefully at all the little parts of the exchange above and recognize that there is more that is included beyond the set-up for Rumson's final line.  Think, for a moment, why Holbrook, having made his statement about two kinds of people, finds that he must turn to Rumson and ask, "Ain't that true?"

Why does Holbrook do that?  Doesn't Holbrook know?  More to the point, why does the writer have Holbrook ask the question?  Was he padding the script.  Was he merely creating a reason for Rumson to answer?

I don't think so.  I think Logan wants Holbrook to ask the question because many people, when they speak or say something they 'believe,' feel the need to have that belief confirmed.  They don't want to feel alone. They're aware that the moment they speak, they're going to be judged.  It isn't pleasant to be judged. Particularly if one does not know what the judgement is.  So Holbrook asks.  "Confirm my thesis," he says. "Don't leave me out here not being certain where you stand."

Rumson, however, does not confirm the thesis.  He proposes an alternative thesis ... but he doesn't ask if Holbrook agrees.  He makes it clear: "This is so.  There is no room for argument."  That's because Rumson isn't proposing a thesis ... which is, after all, the entire point of Logan's play.  Rumson knows.  That's why, when Holbrook answers that he doesn't agree, Rumson doesn't care.  He gets to the root of it.  Holbrook doesn't agree because Holbrook doesn't understand.

More to the point, Holbrook doesn't try to understand.  He has his thesis, and from his perspective, his thesis and Rumson's thesis are just two philosophies in a wilderness of philosophies.

Holbrook's character is the nominal leader of the community.  He chairs the meetings that are held, he is the auctioneer in selling off the Mormon's second wife, he's the 'minister' that presides over Rumson's wedding to Elizabeth.  He's an experienced miner and he's no duff.  He is however, second string compared to Rumson throughout the play (and not only because Rumson is the main character). Rumson is older, more experienced, and more certain than Holbrook.  Holbrook chairs the meeting, but even dead drunk Rumson is the one that takes action.  Holbrook is an observer.  Rumson is a doer.

Despite the fact that Holbrook defers to Rumson, then, he still doesn't answer with, "Why, how is that, can you explain that remark?"  No.  He doesn't understand it, and therefore he disagrees with it.

So it goes.  The same impulse that compels Holbrook to admit that he needs confirmation also restrains Holbrook from confessing that he doesn't immediately understand what Rumson says.  Perhaps, more accurately, Holbrook thinks he understands when in fact he doesn't.  From Holbrook's perspective, he hasn't made an error when he disagrees.

But you have to look hard to find anyone aware of the play that is standing on Holbrook's side, here.  It's plain to the audience that Holbrook doesn't understand.  Rumson has said something deep, too deep for Holbrook's analysis, even though it is the same position Rumson has been arguing throughout the play. Rumson contends that he's the only sane man in No Name City.  He's seen what civilization does and he sees the future that's coming.  He knows full well that he's one of the people going nowhere.  Moreover, Rumson expects that Holbrook won't understand.  Most of the time, no one understands.

It changes nothing for him.  The thing is the thing, and it doesn't rely on Holbrook's agreement.

This is a blog and I write things here.  I am as clear as I can be, but I will never be clear enough for Holbrook.  Writing is not done for the Holbrooks of this world, who think that reading and investigating the world is about making a choice between agreement or disagreement.  Holbrook is assessing the wrong issue.

I have on my shelf a copy of Paint Your Wagon, the film, that worries so many people who think it is about whether or not Eastwood can sing, or should have sang.  I am indifferent to that.  I am concerned with Logan's thesis, or play, the one he produced first for Broadway before taking it to film, as is always the process. Logan hasn't produced a thesis from which I am set to cherry-pick.  He did not include a line in the play that doesn't belong there.  He did not include an argument in the play that does not address the thesis. It isn't a question of what do I agree with, or what do I not agree with.  I am indifferent to agreement.

My concern is to consider why Logan decided to place his story in a boom town.  What is the relevance for the wagons being painted?  What does that signify?  It was all written to make a point.  None of it can be dismissed.  It is all important.  It is all relevant.

I have done the same here.  I am making a point about blog posts, and about my writing of them.  I don't care that the reader agrees.  The response, "I agree with some of what Alexis writes, but not all of it," is pure Holbrook.  I am not Holbrook.  I am Rumson.  I don't care that the reader agrees.

I do care that the reader understands, in so far that I am carefully choosing the words, the sentences and the order of my position, to enable understanding to occur.  Valuable comments are those that begin, "I understand, and that's why I ..." - or - "I don't understand ..."

Those caught up in the concerns of agreement have set themselves to distort the picture so that it fits the frame.  The picture is still, more or less, the same picture.  It is distorted, but it is still recognizable.  If some of what I have said is agreeable, and some of what I have said is disagreeable, we have a distorted picture. Understanding, on the other hand, is gone.  The picture is distorted.  Nothing proper or meaningful can be discerned from a distorted picture.

1 comment:

  1. You seem to be making a point about how desperately communication depends upon shared knowledge of cultural context.

    I'll start with the most accessible part of your post, which is an excellent metaphor for the point I think you're trying to make: At least some graphics programs offer a third option, that you did not mention, which is to crop the image according to the frame. Thus you obtain on the finished page a clear rendition of only a part of the original image. Arguably, that's what's happening between Holbrook and Rumson. But also, it's what happens in your own post: necessarily you've provided only a carefully framed portion of their dialog, so it's hard for a reader to ascertain what is the rest of the hidden image. In order to fully understand your allusion, one would need to go find and examine the rest of the picture.

    So it is with everything else you post. And so you are seeking in response to your postings, rather than clueless dispute, broader or additional windows to the big picture of which you know that you have only a partial but hopefully clear view. This, really, is what all artists hope for from critics - and what so few critics have the capacity or diligence to provide.


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