Imagine that you are a Human Camera…
The Camera Eye
John Dos Passos’ [U.S.A]
John Dos Passos was justifiably lauded as one of the twentieth century’s great American writers. His U.S.A trilogy, in which the stream of consciousness technique known as The Camera Eye can be found, is actually a compendium of three separate novels – The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money — which form a ”collective portrait of America, shot through with sardonic comedy and brilliant social observation.”
Throughout the novel, as the Library of America editorial for the U.S.A trilogy suggests, Dos Passos employs –
A startling range of experimental devices [that] captures the textures and background noises of 20th-century life: “Newsreels” with blaring headlines; autobiographical “Camera Eye” sections with poetic stream-of-consciousness; “biographies” evoking emblematic historical figures like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, John Reed, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thorstein Veblen, and the Unknown Soldier. Holding everything together is sheer storytelling power, tracing dozens of characters from the Spanish-American War to the onset of the Depression.
The Camera Eye, to me, represents a metaphor for exactly what it implies: the notion that the human eye can be used as a ‘recording camera’ in connection with reportage that is written down, either in the form of a stream of consciousness, or as a focused tool for delivering acute narrative descriptions of the world around us.
Often I have taken my students into the streets and laneways and asked them – poised at a fixed position – to SPONTANEOUSLY write down what they see in front of them and without THINKING about it too much, to try to RECORD as accurately as they can what they SEE, as well as to SLOW DOWN their mind as an enabling tool in the process.
Next time you have your notebook in hand try this simple exercise: you might be very surprised what springs from it. Indeed, the continued honing of your skills using this observational technique can sometimes lead to some remarkable results.
Marcus D. Niski, June 2017