The Iceberg

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There’s a saying in storytelling that your narrative should be like an iceberg, with the vast bulk of the story hidden under the surface and only a bare hint revealed explicitly. While I believe that this is a generally correct and often helpful axiom, it’s also quite interesting since it implies that telling a story - or, by extension, an artistic endeavour - must inherently fail to capture what the artist wants it to, in a way that is almost staggering in its scale. And this in turn is not a weakness, nor is it some kind of artistic license or obtuseness - I think that it’s the strength of art, as opposed to other ways we have to access the world.

The iceberg analogy works marvellously to show this - if you think of your work as art as a kind of communication. You have an object of some kind that you wish to explore and to share. If we take this very practically (i.e. we are trying to convey information), then describing the tip of an iceberg is not really doing justice to the thing. In fact in a practical setting, this could have dire consequences. Taken logically: you (the author) know of the iceberg, presumably to its full extent. You are trying to convey what the iceberg is to Party A, let’s call them ‘the navigator’. You describe in elaborate detail the shape, the color, the behavior and composition of the tip of the ice. You mention the gradual contours that recede into the sea, hinting at a great round expanse hidden from view. You wonder at the qualities of ice, that it bobs mostly submerged in a glass, though completely visible in such a safe setting. The hints are there, maybe even obvious. But yet you do not simply say “most of it is underwater, let’s steer clear”.

So what’s the point of doing this? Is it just economical, or a way of preserving mystery, or what? I would say neither. It is instead the necessity of communication without a common frame of reference. You know of the iceberg, the captain does not. To describe it must be done indirectly, through comparison to what the captain does in fact know. But how those comparisons are taken, and how they are combined and interpreted as the whole, the entire ‘iceberg’ is not up to you. You can imply only, but the information is gained through imagination acting upon a jumble of images and possibilities. Once a picture of the object is formed, action can be taken.

The reason this works so well in fiction (and the arts in general) is that they are generally based on something creative, something not in nature. It’s not that the artist has seen something alien, that no one else has known before (though some writers in particular play with this idea, and indeed it’s a way of describing ‘divine inspiration’), but rather that they’ve created something unique to themselves, that can only be expressed indirectly. But I bring this up because I feel that it is a lost art in fields outside the ‘creative’. Except that’s a terrible way to put it, because any innovation or interpretation is also creative - that’s what I’ve just been saying.

The most powerful thing going on here though, is the relation between the object and the varied interpretations of it. First there is the object, ‘whole’, if you like. Then me, the observer. I don’t really get a perfect or direct impression of it, but it’s as close as a person can get. In telling my experience to someone else, they form an object in their mind that is different from the one I have seen. And so on down the chain - each time, the mind is forced to create and to innovate to account for the iceberg. They know that it is there, and they know a very little bit about it. From there, extraordinary work is done.

Written on August 15, 2015