It has often been said that a watched plot never spoils. Often said by me, at least, since that phrase, coined in 2008, remains my greatest contribution to Western civilization. A Watched Plot Never Spoils, in two parts. Overly attentive readers of Wuthering Expectations will not be so surprised when the dismissal of the very concept of spoileration turns into a defense of the value of first contact with a strong story. The Appreciationist can see all sides. Or, I am inconsistent and confused.
The Lifetime Reader, pondering away upon The Iliad, asks her readers for their opinions on Spoilerism, which it turns out, showed me something. Now, the main reason I am writing this post at all is to rescue a good joke* from her comments, but I also have a point. Please consider:
As is often the case in Debussy’s compositions, the 1894 tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune begins with a dissonant chord that (spoiler alert!) never resolves.
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed entrance to The Rookery begins with a narrow, dark corridor which soon (spoiler alert!) opens up into a large, light-filled atrium.
Masaccio’s importance as an innovator rests on the skillful incorporation in his paintings of the new technique of (spoiler alert!) linear perspective.
Writing about music is like (spoiler alert!) dancing about architecture.
In Citizen Kane, the identity of “Rosebud” turns out to be (spoiler alert!) some depressingly idiotic sub-Freudian nonsense, barely worthy of the term “MacGuffin,” in an otherwise brilliantly-written film.
I find these hilarious, so please contribute more.
In each case, just as in a key point in a story, a moment of tension has been created. What does happen to that chord? The word “that” signals the continuation of the narrative. The tension, presumably mild enough to begin with, lasts a moment and is then swept away by the simple act of finishing the sentence. The tension created by a first encounter with the story of Abraham and Isaac is considerably greater, but it hardly lasts much longer.
One could resolve the tension in another way, though. One could, and should, go to Chicago and visit The Rookery. The visitor will discover how Wright created and resolved tension by experiencing the effect himself. He does not have to read about it in a book, or, heaven help us, a blog post. Similarly, he could watch Citizen Kane, listen to Debussy, perhaps with the assistance of some training in composition, and master the fundamental concepts of Renaissance art history solely through careful attention to the artworks of Masaccio and his contemporaries and predecessors.
I do not want to argue against the importance of experience. I want to identify its cost, which I will call knowledge. Once I begin to study an art, once I begin to treat it as a field of knowledge, I begin to replace my direct experience of art with others' experience of art. Spoilage abounds. The diehard Anti-Spoilerists put all of their weight on experience, at the expense of knowledge. Knowledge is then acquired slowly, and without the benefit of the expertise of others. But the cost of the active pursuit of knowledge is a dilution of the thrill of discovery, including but not limited to our experience of a well-told story.
I am convinced that the rewards of knowledge are ample, even enormous. I could make a half-hearted argument that the shift from experience to knowledge is not only necessary but inevitable. It would involve an odd juxtaposition – the desire for a pure experience is a component of innocence.
I don’t want to make that argument, though. For one thing, I’m not sure how to do it without loaded, and I suspect inaccurate, words like “mature” and “serious.” For another, just look at the books I write about – on the list of Most Interesting Features of Salammbô, the plot ranks somewhere between the binding and the typeface. Talk about a moot point.
And, really, I dance around plot twists and surprises with what I hope is some degree of respect for unspoiled readers, even though I doubt I have any. I bluster, but I’m actually a sweetheart.
But: another of my lines retrieved from Lifetime Reader’s comments – I'll start including spoiler warnings as soon as Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson do. That one’s not a joke. Separate post, some other time.
* The idea here actually belongs to Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books. My innovation was to understand its comic potential, or to trivialize it.