With our enhanced self-interrogation techniques we devise questions and answer them separately to discover what we know about a given topic. What notions do we hold in common? Are there any points of difference that offer themselves up for poking and prodding?
Why is smallness appealing? Does it inspire other feelings, as well?
NG: The world is big and makes us feel small, which is not appealing. We feel constantly threatened, like something big could come along and eat or squash us and what could we do about it? But a small object makes us feel big. Instead of casting paranoid glances in all directions, we can narrow our gaze upon one small thing. A small thing is, naturally, an object of contemplation; its smallness makes the bigness around us disappear. Or put another way, we become the bigness, which is very appealing.
SS: I’m not sure. Size is a tricky concept. The appeal of smallness varies; some things are more appealing in a larger format, whereas other things we might prefer to be more compact. This could be said for either objects or living things. With objects, it’s often a question of form versus function, and on which side we’re willing to compromise. For example, we might prefer a small, low-profile bag for the sake of convenience and easy handling, but in choosing that smaller bag we sacrifice the space necessary to transport a greater number of objects that a larger, more unwieldy bag would accommodate.
I think smallness also inspires tenderness and a caring attitude. We may feel protective toward small beings and want to welcome them into our nest. Likewise with plants—we know that young, small plants are not necessarily strong enough to survive on their own and so need extra attention. Larger living things may suggest a more certain degree of self-sufficiency, though that is not always the case in actuality.
How can examining smallness lead to a wider and deeper understanding of the world?
SS: Big things are made up of smaller things. Animals (including humans) are composed of the smallest building blocks of energy and matter. The most complex scientific theories and systems of philosophy begin with single letters joined into words. It is at the level of the small where we all must begin our journey with any enterprise.
NG: One crazy idea is that the world is a fractal. The large things of the world, the really big weighty questions, are too big and abstract to know. But because the world is a fractal, these big weighty questions are contained wholly in smaller things, if only one has the eyes to see them. The brutality of existence is spelled out in the sun-bleached mandible of an animal. Love reveals itself in a laugh.
Smallness can suggest vulnerability, but size is not always analogous to strength. What are some small things or beings that project strength, either explicitly or implicitly?
SS: Cyanide pills, plutonium atoms, fire ants, action figures, poetry books.
NG: Poison seems to have outsized power. A tiny spider in the attic or a scorpion hiding under a rock could spell disaster for the person who discovers it. I suppose magical items work on the same principle of disproportion—the ‘one ring’ that fits a halfling’s finger and decides the fate of the realm. Geesh, even an atom, when tickled in the right way, will blow up the world. I suppose we should be grateful small things so rarely follow through on big ideas.
Late in his writing life Robert Walser began to write his small fictions in an indecipherably small pencil script on scraps of paper. Why was this the obvious thing to do?
NG: The great artist, to imitate true perspective, rushes to meet the vanishing point within the furthest depths of the portrait. He or she doesn’t wait for it to come. Walser had discovered that to approach the vanishing point he had to make himself increasingly small, so that when he and the vanishing point finally met, they would already know each other.
SS: I think that by this point he’d given up on being published again and was strictly writing for himself, while also living in conditions where he likely did not have ready access to writing paper. So it seems logical that he would turn to whatever scraps of paper he could find and by necessity also reduce the size of his script in order to maximize his available writing space. I think there is also something addictive about writing small fictions, whereby one can feel drawn to scale down as much as possible while still retaining meaning. I don’t know if Walser felt this or not, but it could also have been a factor.
Why is a small book a more seductive object than a large book?
SS: Personally I find small books more seductive because they are easier to transport in a clandestine manner and I like the idea of a book I can read in many different spaces. I also like books I can complete in a reasonably short period of time, so small ones entice me more than large ones. When I see a small book, in the back of my mind I’m always thinking ‘I could possibly read that in a single afternoon!’ and that is a powerful seduction.
NG: A large book wants to tell you everything. A small book is a secret. This is supported by the numerous tv shows and movies where a character is protected from a bullet by a small, personally meaningful book hidden in the coat pocket, guarding the heart. A large book, on the other hand, will only ever tumble from an upper shelf and smash you in the head.
In the realm of the small, who (or what) rules?
NG: Economy, I think. Like in chess, where a game can only contain a (relatively) small number of moves, the most powerful move is the one that serves multiple purposes, like advancing a pawn while simultaneously freeing up the movement of the queen behind it. Similarly, a powerful poem or sentence exploits the multiple connotations of words, the simulative effects of syntax. I imagine the Queen of Small’s crown stacked precariously on her head, not a bejeweled diadem but a melding of all the other hats of the realm: the fireman’s helmet, the nurse’s cap, the policeman’s visor, the foreman’s hardhat, the doctor’s mirrored disc, the teacher’s mortarboard, the dancing girl’s feather, the judge’s wig, the jester’s bells, etc.
SS: The smallest of the small rules the realm of the small.
4 thoughts on “Smallness”