Levels of observation

Dalrymple reviews an odd novel in the British Medical Journal (subscription required):
All art, said Walter Pater, aspires to the condition of music. Whether this be so or not, the Swiss novelist and dramatist, Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) certainly wrote the novel The Assignment: or, on the Observing of the Observer of the Observers after listening to a recording of Glenn Gould playing the first half of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. He decided then to write a novel in 24 sentences, either in imitation or in honour of Bach; not surprisingly the book is short, but the sentences are long.
It is a technical accomplishment to write a sentence several pages long that is both lucid and easy to follow, and Dürrenmatt succeeds triumphantly. The novel is a metaphysical thriller, a meditation on the increasingly convoluted ways in which we are all, in the modern world, under surveillance.
No one’s character could survive such minute observation; everyone would appear disgusting viewed this close up. “One could not [afterwards] help imagining that [one] is disgusting to look at while eating”—or, of course, doing any of the other necessary things observed in the same way.
In other words, not to be observed at all, to be reduced to mere abstractions, is demeaning because it implies a lack of human interest on the part of the non-observer; but on the other hand, to be too closely or obsessively observed, to have nothing overlooked, is to feel oneself simultaneously trapped, repellent, and despicable.
There is a level of observation, then, that is correct, somewhere between absent and minute, but it differs according to the situation and is therefore always a matter of judgment. And where judgment is, error is sure to follow.

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