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2 December 2007

Shooting the Black Swan with Chekhov's Gun

It was coincidental that the only interesting part of the This Week in The Economist podcast (though, to be fair, it was less dull than last week's special report on Austria!) was a quotation from Chekhov: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." I've always been a fan of novels with lots of foreshadowing and tried to introduce it into my own as much as possible. My favourite way of the Chekhov's gun phenomenon being realised is the well-crafted title that makes sense on its own but whose interpretation can only be fully understood as you read the last page.

Watching Working Girl late on Friday night with Non-Fascist Housemate highlighted this art (should one use "art" to describe this film? It was directed by Mike Nichols and in some ways it was so convincing at being a trashy '80s film that it was hard to tell whether or not it was satire), where as soon as a "throwaway" detail was introduced, you knew exactly how the plot would develop next.

Tired, post-gym, and trying to pass a rainy Sunday afternoon I headed for Caffรจ Nero in Heffers and settled down with a double espresso (having lost my appetite for cappuccini of late) and a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book Black Swan. I have been meaning to read this for a while but it's not yet out in paperback and I refuse to buy hardbacks except on special occasions on account of the price, the weight and (mainly) the amount of space they take up on my limited bookshelves.

Taleb describes a Black Swan (with capital BS) as a event that is rare and hard-to-predict (or unpredictable) and which has a massive impact. I only got a few dozen pages in but 9/11 and Black Monday both came up as the obvious examples (interestingly, also the two events that form the centrepieces of Jay McInerney's two novels about the Calloway family, Brightness Falls and The Good Life; coincidental, again, but the point is that both events did have a colossal impact.

I suppose that really Chekhov's gun and the Black Swan are opposing forces: Chekhov's gun is a clue that we can use to predict that something might be about to happen, if we are aware enough to detect it and if we don't spot his gun, then it might go off, resulting in a Black Swan. With hindsight, of course, it is easy to explain how something happened: oh, that gun was there all along; it was bound to go off and create this massive chaos in everyone's lives, culminating in this one brief, tragic event. If only we had spotted the gun at the time, we could have eliminated it as a threat and stopped the shooting happening. Life would be good.

Taleb thus tells, briefly, of the importance of the diary as a historical document. As I have written before, one's feelings about a person or an event are affected by the context in which they are grounded. Years later, away from this context, it is easy to re-evaluate how you think you really felt at the time because the actual feelings are so distant and detached, it can be hard to remember what you were really thinking.

Perhaps this was why I kept a diary for ten years: I knew that in time, my trivial, teenage woes would seem exactly that: trivial. It is only though re-reading my diary that I can fully comprehend how and why it all felt so life-or-death serious at the time. Of course, last year, I couldn't cope with the guilt associated with having a written account of my crimes and misdemeanours and I stopped writing altogether. Being the over-priced stationery whore that I am, however, I do have a notebook for occasional diary updates. In the past year, I have written three times: once about this time last year, once in the summer and once after I returned from holiday in October. It is good, sometimes, I suppose, to have a record of important events. Christina Rossetti begs to differ:

Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Laura Jesson, on the other hand, agrees:

There'll come a time in the future when I shan't mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don't want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.

And Thom Yorke? These are his thoughts on the Black Swan. Probably pessimistic enough for moi.


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