Thursday, July 10, 2014

On the origins of a Hitchcockian dictum

In my last entry I discussed Xavier Dolan's 2013 thriller Tom at the Farm. I tried to show how, in my opinion, the director's failed attempts at building suspense largely depended on bad staging and ineffective camera placement. In fact, despite many reviews having described Dolan's work as "Hitchcockian", the term seemed to me totally out of place in that case.

The abuse of the term "Hitchcockian" made me want to revise why the concept of suspense is traditionally associated with Hitchcock. The first thing that came to my mind was Hitchcock's famous distinction between suspense and surprise, eloquently explained in his 1962 interview to Truffaut:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!" In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.
According to this definition, suspense is strictly correlated with the viewer's awareness. In the example described by Hitchcock the spectator has a wider range of knowledge than the character, but actually we don't need to know more than characters to feel suspense take for instance one of the most suspenseful films in recent memory, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008), whose protagonist is a bomb disposal expert who's perfectly aware of the danger the exercise of his job exposes him to.

It's a known fact that the power of suspense doesn't substantially diminish on multiple viewings. Even when we know what the outcome of the action will be, narrative tension still remains effective. This phenomenon is known as Paradox of Suspense. The surprise, instead, provides a more ephemeral thrill, since its effect rapidly wears off once the unexpected event has taken place. For these reason, a distinction between surprise and suspense generally implies also a value judgment in favor of the second of the two, as in Hitchcock's remark. Many contemporary film critics seem to share the same opinion when they pan movies that exclusively rely on "cheap thrills" to keep the audience on the edge of their seat.

A scene from Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 Sabotage.
This distinction, however, wasn't born with Hitchcock. As fascinatingly pointed out by David Bordwell in two essays last year, the original recordings of the interview with Truffaut reveal that Hitchcock's discourse was a reformulation of a well-known concept (you can read the articles here and here). In addition to tracing back Hitchcock's main influences regarding suspense, he also provides a literary precedent for the distinction suspense/surprise in the writings of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German writer and philosopher of the 18th century. In particular, there's a passage in chapter 48 of his 1767 Hamburgische Dramaturgie (translated into English as "Hamburg Dramaturgy" or "Dramatic Notes") which anticipates Hitchcock's words of a couple of centuries. Here is the passage:
For one instance where it is useful to conceal from the spectator an important event until it has taken place there are ten and more where interest demands the very contrary. By means of secrecy a poet effects a short surprise, but in what enduring disquietude could he have maintained us if he had made no secret about it! Whoever is struck down in a moment, I can only pity for a moment. But how if I expect the blow, how if I see the storm brewing and threatening for some time about my head or his? [...]
[By not anticipating events] the whole poem becomes a collection of little artistic tricks by means of which we effect nothing more than a short surprise. If on the contrary everything that concerns the personages is known, I see in this knowledge the source of the most violent emotions.[1]
The quotation is indeed strikingly fitting. Interestingly, Lessing too privileges a state of prolonged "disquietude" over a short-effect surprise. The reason is always the same: if the spectator is informed that an important event is about to take place, his reaction will be stronger, and his engagement in the story deeper. Moreover, eliciting a reaction of surprise is deemed like a way of cheating the audience, and not a particularly effective one.

From Hitchcock to Lessing it's a giant step back in time. I asked myself if earlier evidences of this argument could be found in the literature. Actually, examples of both techniques are already present in Classic Greek and Latin authors like Homer and Vergil, but our quest should rather concentrate on a comparative definition of the two concepts, which is harder to find. The research did not prove unfruitful though, since I was able to go back in time about half a century before the publication of Lessing's Hamburgische Dramaturgie.

Let's move then to France, precisely in the last decade of the 17th century. These were the years of the so-called Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, a cultural debate that saw defenders of the supremacy of ancient Greek and Latin civilization quarreling with a more modernist group asserting the independence of modern culture from Classicism. We'll restrict our attention to one of the fiercest supporter of the Anciens, Anne Le Fèvre Dacier (1654  1720, photo above). Madame Dacier is best known for her monumental translation from ancient Greek to French of the Homeric poems: the Iliad was published in 1699, followed by the Odyssey in 1708. In open conflict with her classicist approach, French writer and playwright Antoine Houdar de La Motte (1672  1731) famously replied in 1914 with a short, modern-style version of the Iliad accompanied by an essay where he dismissed the Greek author as outdated and obsolete. In that same year Madame Dacier rekindled the controversy by publishing a polemic counter-essay entitled Des causes de la corruption du goût ("Of the Causes of the Corruption of Taste"). This is the work that interests us here, since the author, while making a point-by-point refutation of La Motte's arguments, articulates some interesting observations on literary technique.

One of the aspects of the Iliad La Motte finds most annoying is that future events are frequently anticipated, so that in his opinion the Poet fails to elicit reactions of surprise. (Note for the reader: since I wasn't able to find an English version of these texts, in the following you will have to trust my tentative French-to-English translation, or read the original French versions in the end notes of this post.) La Motte writes:
[Homer] doesn't content himself with preparing the events: he announces them without any regard in more than one occasion, prior to putting them before our eyes. Halfway the poem, Jupiter himself gives the Gods an exact account of all the events to come, in order to show off his foresight or power; so that we are tempted to quit reading further, our curiosity having been already satisfied. One could argue that the gravity of the poem requires so [...]. Homer did not prepare surprises of the sort that touch the heart so deeply, for he deemed them puerile, and because it's in the nature of the poem to disdain them.[2]
La Motte here refers to a figure of speech widely used in the Homeric poems, the prolepsis (flashforward), which consists precisely in revealing the outcome of an important event before it has taken place. So he is claiming the right of the spectator (or the reader) to ignore future developments of the story, because in his opinion such "spoilers" considerably diminish the dramatic force of the text. But Madame Dacier disagrees, and bitingly replies:
Regarding the means of surprise, [La Motte] has rightly recognized that Homer sought the sense of wonder, but he blames the Poet for having neglected that sort of surprise that requires greater artistry and that he considers much more important, which consists in preparing the events without foreshadowing them [...]. 
The way Mr. de la M. expresses himself allows us to see that his is a dialectic in bad taste. There are two sorts of surprises, one when all of a sudden we see things coming that we are not prepared for, and that have not been announced; and the other, when things come that have been truthfully announced, but the means to get there have been concealed.[3]
The last sentence seems to me a perfect illustration of the difference between surprise and what we now call suspense. Like Lessing and Hitchcock, the Dacier claims the superiority of the latter in terms of dramatic impact:
Minerva declares that Diomedes will carry out great feats; Jupiter announces that he will raise the glory of Agamemnon; a certain hero is destined to die; all this is in no way contrary to surprise, for the wonder that originates from this concatenation of things is ever present. Hence why we enjoy so much tragedies of which we already know the climax and the whole denouement, because we forget everything and react to these surprises the first time as much as the last [...]. 
Cause what force must [the poet's craftsmanship] possess to engage and surprise us with something we've been warned about, and despite this warning, to leave an impression so strong as though we didn't know anything! [4]
The last passage is a prefiguration of what we have called the paradox of suspense: if the poet's skill is great, foreknowledge doesn't diminish our reaction to the text, it magnifies it, and this means also that its power remains substantially unchanged on multiple viewings (or readings). Coherently with her Aristotelian convictions, Dacier also enlightens the importance of causality. The efficacy of the text is enhanced by the fact that events develop from a concatenation of things ("enchaînement de choses") rather than from sheer arbitrariness, which seems to be typical of surprise instead.

So that apparently Dacier's remark is an older precedent for Hitchcock's dictum than Lessing's. But surprises are not finished yet. While reading some excerpts from Lessing's Hamburgische Dramaturgie and Laocoon for the purpose of writing this post, a name captured my attention: that of Anne Dacier. In fact, she is mentioned many times throughout both works, mainly when the author examines the Iliad. However, this should not surprise us too much, as Dacier's were among the most respected translations of Homer circulating at the time, and Lessing not only had no problems in reading French, but he was sensitive to the slightest nuances of the French language as well:
[For its pictorial quality] his splendid language served Homer marvellously. It allowed him not merely all possible freedom in the combining and heaping-up of epithets, but it had, too, for their heaped-up epithets an order so happy as quite to remedy the disadvantage arising from the suspension of their application. In one or several of these facilities the modern languages are universally lacking. Those, like the French, which, to give an example, for Καμπύλα κύκλα, χάλκεα, οκτάκνημα, must use the circumlocution 'the round wheels which were of brass and had eight spokes', express the sense, but destroy the picture. The sense, moreover, is here nothing, and the picture everything; and the former without the latter makes the most vivid poet the most tedious babbler  a fate that has frequently befallen our good Homer under the pen of the conscientious Madame Dacier. [5]
If not exactly complimentary, this passage taken from chapter 18 of the Laocoon is one of the many evidences that Lessing was well acquainted with Dacier's oeuvre. Which brings us to the question: could Madame Dacier have had a major influence on Lessing's formulation of the distinction between short-term and long-lasting surprise? But, this task appearing to me more suitable for a historian than a movie geek, I must lay down my pen here, and content myself with my Pindaric flight from Xavier Dolan to Madame Dacier. Anyone willing to investigate further? Any contribution will be appreciated!

1. ^ For those like us who know what eternity was made for, here is the original German.

2. ^ "[...] c'est peu pour lui de preparer les évenements, il les annonce sans ménagementet même plus d'une fois, avant que de les mettre sous les yeux. Jupiter mesme dans le milieu du Poëme, pour faire parade de prescience ou de pouvoir, fait aux Dieux un abregé exact de tout le reste de l'action, de sorte qu'on est tenté d'en demeurer là parce que la curiosité est satisfaite. On pretend que la gravité du Poëme l'exige ainsi [...]. Homere n'a point menagé de ces surprises interessantes qui font une impression si vive dans le cœur, donc ces sortes de surprises sont pueriles, donc il est de la nature du Poëme de les dédaigner." (Antoine Houdar de La Motte, L'Iliade: poëme. Avec un discours sur Homère, Aux dépens de la Compagnie, Amsterdam 1714. Complete version here.)

3. ^ "Sur le moyen de surprendre, il a bien connu qu'Homere a cherché le merveilleux, mais il accuse ce Poëte d'avoir negligé la surprise, qui demandoit plus d'adresse & qui paroist aussi plus importante, c'est de préparer les évenements sans les faire prévoir [...]. C'est ainsi que s'explique M. de la M. & nous allons voir que sa dialectique est la dialectique du mauvais goust. Ilya deux sortes de surprises, l'une quand on voit arriver tout d'un coup des choses ausquelles on n'a point esté préparé, qui n'ont pas estè annoncées; & l'autre quand il en arrive qui ont veritablement esté annoncées, mais dont on a caché les moyens qui doivent les amener." (Anne Dacier, Des causes de la corruption du goût, P. Humbert, Paris 1714, pp. 92-93. The book is downloadable here.)

4. ^ "Que Minerve declare que Diomede va faire de grands exploits; que Jupiter annonce qu'il va relever la gloire d'Agamemnon, & qu'un tel Heros va périr, cela n'est point du tout contraire à cette surprise, car le merveilleux qui naist de cet enchaînement de choses, s'y trouve toûjours. De lå vient qu'on prend tant de plaisir aux Tragedies dont on fçait tout le nœud & tout le denoüement, car on oublie qu'on les fçait, & on se preste ã ces surprises la derniere fois comme la premiere: marque seûre que ce qui est annoncé, peut encore suprendre quand les moyens qu'on employe pour l'amener, sont naturels, & que les choses naissent les unes des autres. J'ose dire mesme que ces dernieres font plus d'honneur au Poëte, & marquent bien mieux la force de sont Art. Car quelles ressources ne faut-il pas avoir en soy pour m'attacher & me surprendre par une chose dont on ma desja averti, & pour faire sur moy malgré cet avertissement, une impression aussi forte que si je n'avois rien fçû!" (Ibid., pp. 95-96)

5. ^ Classic and Romantic German Aesthetic, edited by J. M. Bernstein, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p.94. Original German version available here.


  1. Hello,good job indeed! but how did you have the idea to go and see such a french erudite reference as Anne Dacier? Someone of your friends? or some of your readings? It's important for me to know that, because I write an article about Dacier and i want to quote your blog, of course; but also your own references if they exist. Thank you very much.

    1. You're welcome, French Lecturer. Thank you for your interest in my little research.

      Film historian David Bordwell in his blog talks extensively about suspense and surprise, and how Lessing articulates this distinction in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (see the links to the blog in my post). That's was my starting point, so I guess you'll have to ask his permission too (Bordwell's, not Lessing's).

      Then I asked myself if we could go back further in time. For my purpose I mainly used the Google Search tool, which allows you to search through a wide database of books within a particular date range, and also the Google Ngram Tool, another search engine which charts frequencies of a particular term or expression in books from 1500 to 2000 approximately.

      With the help of these tools I searched for the terms "surprise" and "suspense" and came across Dacier's and La Motte's oeuvre. As you can see it's a matter of curiosity, not erudition :)

      All the excerpts in the blog entry are referenced in the footnotes, so you should be able to read all the original sources I have used. Please contact me again in case something is unclear.

      Of course you can quote the blog. I would be glad to read your final work, if possible, or at least part of it.

      Best regards

  2. Thank you very much. It's very kind of you. I've already read Bordwell. When my paper will be achieved, I'll give you the reference! Best regards, F.L.