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5) Mechanics

2) Description 2) Sense

Author: Nathaniel Slattery
Posted: Maundy Day, 28th of St. Joseph, Year of Our Lord 2024

It would be good to speak of sense, and this is an expansion of the topic of description. Previously, I spoke of description so far as to usage, that it ought to expound or further or reflect the plot, and I held up Chesterton. It operates then as a particular mode, and, referencing my previous instruction on beginning and the following piece on rhythm, it belongs most properly to the phase which I called construction. This is the phase after violence, in which the formless matter is sorted out into useful things. That is not to say, of course, that description is not a mechanic necessary to all three phases, to wit, resolution, violence, and construction (I have alternately called resolution tranquility, since in beginning a tale there is of course not yet anything to resolve). However, it is so united to the functions proper to construction that to use it overmuch in the other two will actually change them from their natures into construction. This is because it is a presentation to the senses of the reader (usually through the character’s senses), providing them with more and more clarity on the circumstances. As such, in violence, it ought to be used in brief spurts, leaving the reader in a lurch, and in tranquility, it ought to be applied to things of less moment and urgency, leaving the reader with a leisurely and peaceful feeling.

The phase called construction is like the third day of Creation. Now, on that day, the water is separated from the dry land, called by Aquinas distinction, and then the land is adorned with the green herb. The very first mention of the water is like the violence phase, and the adornment with the herb is like the resolution or tranquility phase, but the brunt of the action, the actual separation that fills the day and bridges the gap from the beginning state received from the second day to the ending of the third day, is like construction.

Because adornment seems to belong to the proceeding days, Aquinas addresses why here it is given a place before what seems proper, namely, the adornment of the heavens. He says that it is because life is hidden in plants, since they do not move and are firmly rooted in the Earth. Thus you can see why, if you are to emulate Genesis as a rule for your writing, this is a great picture of the phases, of description as a mechanic, and, as we go further, of sense as the vehicle of that mechanic.

The Senses

There are six senses, with two of them distinguished, one as above and the other as below the remaining. Touch is the one below all the others, being their foundation and mode of operation. Then there is smell, taste, sound, and sight, with sound being nobler than the previous, and sight being so noble as to be a term used to encompass all sense, as the word day encompasses also the night, depending on usage. The sixth sense, so far as I can understand it, is the common sense, and this is the one that takes all the others together and associates them with each other. Above it is the other powers of the soul, such as imagination, memory, and intellect.

Description is like what Aquinas says about plant life. You can introduce it at two times, either at the time which the thing appears, or at a different time within someone’s mind, which is hidden. Here are two examples which we may analyze:

A path extended from the edge of the bridge right up to the trunk through a narrow break in the roots, like the center aisle of a church cutting between the pews. They walked down the path until they reached the trunk. They tilted their heads back, as if standing before a skyscraper, and gazed into the labyrinth of branches and the distant falling sunlight. They placed their hands on the smoothness of the ivory trunk.

We shall continue this passage when we come to analyze the hidden description that occurs in the mind, but for now, let us examine this as the plain description that occurs at the moment of the introduction of the thing described.

Plain Use of Sense

You can see how sight is the most prevalent and natural of senses to use. This creates the first impression of a reader and accomplishes the majority of the work of almost every plot. However, you are leaving your reader in a sort of void that keeps him safely and gently at home. You can improve your writing immensely anywhere where you are using description, if the force allotted to it allows, by adding one or two additional senses, as this writer does with the word “smoothness”. He eases into it with “tilted their heads back” and “distant falling sunlight”, which words denote the sense of touch, but it is not actually accomplished by them. You can almost see this author noticing the need for an additional sense in order to make this scene more significant to his reader, and finally hitting upon it at the very end of the paragraph. Do not be afraid to do this yourself. You might also simply put it in there quite arbitrarily, but be sure to read it back again and make sure it is smooth enough, if you have the experience.

Mental Use of Sense

The excerpt continues:

What happened next is something that’s difficult to explain in a story such as this. All I can tell you is that the children instinctively closed their eyes and subsequently heard a voice, not with their ears, but within their hearts. They couldn’t tell you how, but they knew it was the voice of the Mysteria Tree. We would all like to know what it said but neither Connor nor the girls could tell you, for it was not words that were spoken as you and I might exchange in a conversation; it was more like the speaking of a feeling. That is the only way they could describe it when they recalled the moment much later, that a feeling of joy and courage washed over them, giving them a sense of peace about their difficult journey that they had not possessed moments ago.

Of course, this is a children’s story, and the tone is suitable to that. But you can see in here something that can be done either very artfully or very amateurishly. The hidden or mental use of sense is done most easily in a place in the story later than the thing meditated upon. When it follows immediately upon the introduction of the thing, then it usually necessitates a sort of jump forward in time and then another right backward. This author here does it well.

This use of sense is good for the construction phase of rhythm, as all description is, but especially if there are not enough objects immediately present to resolve the violence that has been introduced previously. In that case, you ought to go into your character’s store of knowledge, recall something that has happened already in the book at a far distance, and then work upon it by the use of the ghost of sense (seen here in how he uses the word “feeling” without anything literally to touch) in order to progress the plot to the phase of resolution.

Thus for sense. There is much more that could be said about it, which perhaps might be done with more examples and more analysis. Therefore, I have copied the examples from my previous essay below, although I have not at this point analyzed them for use of sense. I recommend you try your hand at it, and I shall do so if I find the time.


“The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its skyline was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the outburst of a speculative builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne, apparently under the impression that the two sovereigns were identical. It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, though it never in any definable way produced any art. But although its pretensions to be an intellectual centre were a little vague, its pretensions to be a pleasant place were quite indisputable. The stranger who looked for the first time at the quaint red houses could only think how very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit in to them. Nor when he met the people was he disappointed in this respect. The place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as a deception but rather as a dream. Even if the people were not “artists”, the whole was nevertheless artistic. That young man with the long, auburn hair and the impudent face— that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem. That old gentleman with the wild, white beard and the wild, white hat— that venerable humbug was not really a philosopher; but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others That scientific gentleman with the bald, egg-like head and the bare, bird-like neck had no real right to the airs of science that he assumed. He had not discovered anything new in biology; but what biological creature could he have discovered more singular than himself? Thus, and thus only, the whole place had properly to be regarded; it had to be considered not so much as a workshop for artists, but as a frail but finished work of art. A man who stepped into its social atmosphere felt as if he had stepped into a written comedy.”

That is from The Man Who Was Thursday, a poetic, comedic portrayal of the reality of the tragic world of politics of the days of Chesterton. If you read the book, you will see how that exquisite opening suggests the whole meaning of the book, which is not easily grasped, but rather has to be intellected in a complex manner.

“The sun rose on Saint Patrick’s Easter Sunday above Eireann like the Christ Child in a manger on Christmas, or the candles lit on Candlemas. As often happens, at that most exceptional time of year, newness replaces the dreary sorrow of Holy Saturday and the outright evil darkness of Good Friday, when everything is hidden in the shadows of Hell. It is often assumed that terrible things are accomplished in that fiery bastion on that day, when the devils have free run of the world. But the devils are never free, and, regardless, all of this is absolutely corrected on the dawn of Easter. For it was not the devils which invaded the Earth, but rather, God Himself Who invaded Hell and set forth such a shining light of new dispensation that all Creation felt compelled to echo and reenact it every year.”

That is from my book Saodfàil. I then go on to give every character’s interpretation of the weather, which is all over the board. In this case, I am creating a great juxtaposition and description and suggestion from the previous days, which are described accurately by the references to Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and then, with God’s help, I am suggesting that something outside of all of what has been said so far is to intervene, namely Christ, and it will be good and complete. So you see, weather, which might not have been mentioned at all, is made a shining encapsulation of the whole plot, allowing the reader both to rest and reflect, which as St Aquinas says, is how a man gains knowledge.

“The ache in his head flared, and he stretched out to dispel it, but it did not help. He closed his eyes, and it made it worse. When he opened them again, the old man was gone. He breathed heavily, Nothing made him feel better.

“He had to get a grip. He had to clear his mind and remember the four last things, or remember the tenets of the Order, or remember his oaths, something. His oaths. Sworn to protect. Age of thirteen. There is no power on heaven or earth that can prevent a man from defending the innocent. I will defend the innocent, for I am a power on earth. I am a man who desires heaven. I have power given to me by God. I have fingers strengthened for battle. Though peace consumes me, though I am a maker of peace, I will not fear to defend the innocent, for this brings with it a great reward from heaven. The innocent are children, are the makers of children, are the family members, are the free and unarmed, are the sleeping, are the distant and the near, are the last to speak, are the strong men and the weak women who do not want to fight. The innocent may have strength. The innocent may have arms. The innocent are known by their words, their actions, their thoughts. I will defend the innocent.

“’I will defend the innocent.’

“’He told me you were a little delirious, sir,’ a man said beside him.

“David opened his eyes and looked at a knight as if he had always known him. He wore battle armor. His face told him to be middle-aged, long past the terms of chevaliers. On his breast was a scrap of brown cloth, and the same thing also hung from his neck, an embroidery picture of a man leading a donkey with a pregnant woman upon it, halos about their heads. He had the hardness of a knight, and his eyes held the wisdom of any old Order man. He asked, ‘Are you well enough to answer my questions?’

“’Who are you?’ David asked.

“He smiled. ‘It’s not important.’”

I could go on with this excerpt because I very much enjoyed writing it, and it has been probably over a year since I read it. Regardless, you get the idea. Here we have a character with whom the reader is very familiar, David, and a mysterious and significant new character. Now, this character artfully dodges revealing himself, and even when he gives his name, he does it while pronouncing sentence and leaving. That is interesting to look at:

“The knight said, ‘I am Sir Joseph Moore, and I have known a wife. It is said men will keep on marrying and giving their daughters in marriage until Our Lord returns upon His cloud in glory. I do not doubt this. To have met you, Sir David, and hear that this is your ambition, sheds such light on what I have heard of you as you could not imagine. I worried that you would be inscrutable. But I have met a base man with the fires of passion, and now I think I understand what St. Paul said.’

“’I am not a saint,’ David said.

“’You are like Solomon, I think, and your ancient days have served you little good. Do you know when your sickness will pass?’

“’A week,’ David said.

“’Well,’ the knight said, rising, ‘you shall have to join us in our journeys, then. I won’t abandon the innocent on the road, no matter what is said of me.’”

You see here how he throws out some details about himself, but that is it, and he explains no farther. This, too, is done more with dialogue. I limit myself in the early description of his actual body, focusing more upon his clothing, which signifies his association, and then even with the specifics about him, I compare him rather to anybody else of his association.

Why did I do this? Why did I not describe his hair color, his build, his wife, his expressions, etc.? Well, the simple answer is this: I did not yet know enough about him. You can fill in all that, but I wanted to give him a chance to show himself, and this he did only modestly, and only in relation to who he was dealing with and what he was about.

Hopefully that is helpful.

Object description is easy. It indicates the significance of an object, though it can be employed to show simply a character’s fixation o the object, if, for instance, he is distracted by it from his duties. A single example from the same book suffices:

“David entered his room with no caution at all. His rifle was not with him, and if someone had been hiding in a corner to ambush him, he would have laughed at it. He went to the desk and fell into the seat like a sack of potatoes, almost tipping it over before catching himself.

“That moment of off-balance tottering brought him sharply into focus. He noticed another thing on the desk which he had neglected. It was a phone.

“This he stared at. It was a tan, plastic thing, with buttons which something suggested to him did nothing. It had a mysterious attraction, this useless thing. He reached his hand out slowly to it. He would call the front desk. That would shed some light on the situation.”

In this circumstance, the character is considering proposing to a woman, and is overwhelmed by it. The description of the phone is nothing but something to show how distracted and lost he is in his thinking. I do, however, use it to advance the plot:

“The phone rang as his fingers touched it. He jerked back. The ringing was a jarring, artificial sound which bothered him deep down in the sand of his being. Hurriedly, he picked it up.

“’Hello?’ he said.

“’You’re getting too emotionally involved in this thing,’ Sir Joseph Moore’s voice told him from the other end. ‘You need to end it soon.’”

There are some significant mystical things happening here, but the crux of it is that the internal situation of the character is described externally by his fixation on the phone. And then, because it is an object, it can cause some event either of the character’s choice or someone else’s, because it can be the object of an action.

Thus ends the previous matter which might be analyzed from the previous essay containing an explanation of description.