Bricolage

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Bricolage is an idea put into general circulation by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his work on myth and pensée sauvage (loosely, ‘the primitive mind’). The term has that mot juste quality of other Gallicisms for which English has no exact equivalent, such as mise en scène, dénouement. The nearest French-English dictionaries can get is ‘bricoler = to putter’. Putterer (bricoleur) or putterage (bricolage) do not fall happily from the lips. The meaning as more fully defined is ‘work that is put together from whatever materials come to hand’. DIY, one might say. A classic example is the eighteen Watts Towers, in South-Central Los Angeles – handsome structures that were constructed out of street garbage. Much literature can claim to be put together on the same DIY architectural principle.” (bold emphasis and italics in original, p.108)

Literary applications The idea of bricolage can be usefully applied to literature.” (bold emphasis and italics in original, p.109) … “Consider SF and dinosaurs. When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World, in 1912, there were parts of the globe still unexplored. It was plausible (at least for readers of fiction; not perhaps for geographers) to suppose recesses of the planet, the Amazon principally, where dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts might still roam.

Doyle’s Professor Challenger novel has been a best-seller for almost a hundred years – regularly revived (or shamelessly ripped off) for film and TV adaptations. But if one flashes forward to a more recent dinosaurian adventure tale, Jurassic Park, the explanation has to be different. There was, at the end of the twentieth century, no spot on earth – however remote – where dinosaurs might plausibly roam.

Michael Crichton reached for the more recent discoveries of Crick and Watson about recombinant DNA. Also to hand was the separate fact that prehistoric blood-sucking mosquitoes had been preserved in amber. This created a believable scenario – genetic re-creation: a park that was half Disneyland, half Eden.

Bona fide scientists (probably Crichton himself, who had a degree from Harvard in medical science) regard Jurassic Park to be as fanciful as [-p.111] Professor Challenger’s expedition into the Cretaceous period lying on the banks of the twentieth-century Amazon. But both authors can be seen as bricoleurs – framing their narratives out of materials to hand, ‘fragments’, as T.S. Eliot says, ‘shored against my ruins’.

Long-lasting works of literature typically adapt to new circumstances in this bricolage way.” (pp.110-111)

Ref: John Sutherland (2010) 50 Literature ideas you really need to know. Bloomsbury: London

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