Well, what a cheeky bit of fun we’ve wrought, theming our ninth issue “Themes”. And aren’t we just too pleased with ourselves about it. We’re very clever, we’d like you to know.
But at some point we had to take our little ploy seriously. Not another one of these “what does it mean?” panics, for we know very well what theme is. Just to lay it to rest, here’s a short list:
-a recurring idea in a work of art of literature
-a recurring melody in music
-in the recurring system we call linguistics, the first major constituent of a clause, or, the stem of a noun or verb
-any of the 29 provinces of an iteration of the Byzantine empire
- a custom graphical appearance for certain software, a repetition of a preset package containing graphical appearance details, often used to change the look and feel of a wide range of things at once
- a vowel placed before the word ending that repeats in certain Proto-Indo-European words
- signature music which recurs in a film, television program or performance
- a white building at the Los Angeles International Airport
Recursion and repetition are accompanied by attenuation. Take some of what are our favorite themed ventures: Disneyland, Medieval fairs (fayes?), America. They all extract synecdochic elements of an imagined source and reproduce them on unfamiliar ground. We still can’t decide whether the 80s were better the second time around.
Which is all to say, somewhat regrettably, that the concept of theme appears to be as fungible as the themes themselves. So maybe we’re not so sure what they are. But then, as you know, we tend to let the elements of each issue speak penumbrally where we can not, dancing lithely around the open secret. (Is this perhaps our theme?)
Shall we propose a new theory of history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce, then as theme? Tragedy and farce are already themes. This process of attenuation, the watering down and dislocation that a theme presupposes, has a creative potential. It frees the theme from that which it is supposed to represent. Moominland in Winter, Will Self says in a 2007 Guardian interview, is “as good an evocation of clinical depression as you’re ever likely to encounter”.
Of course, themes are pleasurable partially because they are recognisable. The thematic elements of any story provide the point of reference for interpretation. We understand Moominland as being contiguous to clinical depression because the thematic elements of loneliness, isolation and glacial austerity are recognisable not only as parts of this story but also other stories and experiences.
A case in point. In the recent documentary Argerich, the filmmaker daughter of the pianist Martha Argerich is obsessed with breaking her mother up into thematic constituent parts: parent, spouse, artist and commentator. The continual probing forces Argerich to become the critic and curator of her own life, but she does so reluctantly. She eats on screen, sulks at being filmed, laughs and gets distracted.
In a different way to normal documentaries, Argerich is cobbled together from years of the daughter’s private material. The film extends life into the past: it speaks to an idea of public record keeping, documenting rather than making documentaries. Even though we understand the subject’s character through the frames which Argerich ostensibly offers, ultimately her raw personhood asserts itself and the Künstlerroman runs in reverse. Towards the end we’re trying to assert the narratorial voiceover of the daughter onto the mature artist. The explicit framing starts to vie with the implicit themes.
Sometimes one turns around and sees the story has been there all along.