Examples of Mise en Abyme (in form)
April 2, 2008 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Recursion filter: I recently came across the phrase 'Mise en Abyme' and have become fascinated by recursion in literature, language and film. What writings have used these themes in their form to address the questions they posed?

The idea of presenting the form of a text/film/critique so that it exemplifies the question posed fascinates me (so for instance, if I asked 'what is recursion?' and my essay contained a footnote which refered back to the text which then refered back to the footnote, then in some simple sense I have a form of recursion in my essay).

What writers, film-makers etc. have integrated aspects of Mise en Abyme into their work in this exemplary manner? (I am more interested in non-fiction pieces, but realise that a lot of fiction out there which has used this technique are formally very unique.)

I have a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach sitting on my bookshelf, staring at me. I am also well versed in the works of Foucault, Barthes and Derrida.

Thanks for reading
posted by 0bvious to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ooops. I missed a '/' from the end of the 'recursion' link. Any chance of putting that in for me mefi editors? Thanks
posted by 0bvious at 7:05 AM on April 2, 2008


If you don't want to read all of Godel, Escher, Bach (which is worth it!), take a look at Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas, which contains several excellent essays dealing with recursion in art, language, and programming.

If you can stomach the often substandard prose, much of Philip K. Dick's fiction uses recursion and Mise en Abyme to explore the relationship between perception and reality, albiet somewhat obliquely. See especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
posted by googly at 7:08 AM on April 2, 2008


Palmer Eldritch is a personal favourite. Thanks for the reminder...
posted by 0bvious at 7:09 AM on April 2, 2008


David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (a novel) has that russian-doll, story-within-a-story (-within-a-story- etc.) thing going on, which seems to fit what I'm reading on the wikipedia page about Mise en Abyme.
posted by vytae at 7:13 AM on April 2, 2008


As far as movies go, Incident at Loch Ness seems like it would be an example, though I can't claim to have seen it myself. Otherwise, Adaptation fits as well.
posted by ictow at 7:31 AM on April 2, 2008


Oh, and The Five Obstructions.
posted by ictow at 7:34 AM on April 2, 2008


Samuel Beckett's Endgame has been called a theatrical Mise-en-abyme by-Adorno, I think? Make of that what you will, Endgame is such a baffling, enigmatic play that its setting has been interpreted as everything from nuclear winter to the inside of a skull.
posted by Ndwright at 7:57 AM on April 2, 2008


I think the film "The Science of Sleep" has elements of this. Gondry is great at weaving in this kind of trickery.
posted by loiseau at 8:58 AM on April 2, 2008


Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (and the movie adaptation of it). Also Georges Perec’s unfinished novel 53 Days.
posted by misteraitch at 10:19 AM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Blindness, a novel by Jose Saramago, is written in such a way that the flow of the narrative creates an obfuscation similar to the blindness experienced by the characters.

I used this kind of recursion once in an essay analyzing a German novel in my undergrad, but that doesn't really help you. Let's see...other examples of this:

Oscar Wilde's play Salome, deals directly with language imitating music / music imitating language. But subtly so.

This person has written an essay on recursion in music and mathematics (specifically fractals).


Mozart created a Musical Dice Game that would generate minuets and canon pieces based upon the principles of recursion and chance.

And from pop culture:

The movie Adaptation: When one of the fictional brothers dies, the movie begins to resemble the narrative structure that the dead brother preferred for the movie....begging the question of whether that brother is actually dead or if he actually won the struggle in taking over the writing of the movie.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 10:49 AM on April 2, 2008


I would say Infinite Jest since the book is structured like a Mobius Strip (or lemniscate {although Wallace himself claims the subplots of the book are structured as a Sierpinski Gasket}). There are also several other metafictional recursions throughout the novel: In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a fungus that grows on another fungus; a nuclear reaction fueled by the byproducts of nuclear reactions; and movies whose audiences watch an audience watching them. For this kind of derivative process, he invokes the adjective annular, which the O.E.D. defines as "ringlike" or circular, but which presumably shares some roots with "annul" - to make into nothing.
posted by mattbucher at 11:27 AM on April 2, 2008


Experimental fiction that may be right up your alley:
-Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller...
-Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves and his more recent book Only Revolutions
-Short stories by Borges (if you haven't read him, go get one of his books now; you will really like him)

Previous questions about:
-recursive narratives
-experimental authors
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:37 AM on April 2, 2008


Thanks for the input...

I really should have mentioned Borges in the beginning. Very much up the alley of what I am looking for.
posted by 0bvious at 11:44 AM on April 2, 2008


Some great stuff, thanks. I should probably have mentioned Borges in my pre-amble...

Any non-fictional ideas or examples you can think of? Or any specific writers/theoreticians who grapple with these concepts (especially in literature and poetry)?

As an after-thought I realised that specific poems must exemplify a recursive structure. In particular some of the Concrete Poets came to mind. Any other ideas, as always, would be much appreciated.
posted by 0bvious at 12:00 PM on April 2, 2008


Check out this article on Oulipo poetry that talks a bit about recursion techniques.

"The Oulipo anticipated the potentiality of recursion early in its history: in a report submitted to the Collège de Pataphysique (an institution dedicated to the pursuit of the “the science of exceptions”), the group proclaimed that computers would make possible the abstracting [of] commonplaces from the structures of commonplaces—and then a “squared” topology of these places, and so forth until one attains, in a rigorous analysis of this regressus itself, the absolute, the Absolute “whose armature,” according to Jarry, “is made of clichés.” (Motte 1986a, 50)"
posted by mattbucher at 2:43 PM on April 2, 2008


John Barth's collection of short stories, Lost in the Funhouse, fits very well. In particular, check out "Menelaid." Here's a line from roughly the middle of the story:

“ ‘ “ ‘ “ ‘ “ ‘ Love! ’ ” ’ ” ’ ” ’ ”

Maybe a little pretentious, but I love him.
posted by themadjuggler at 7:57 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Paul Auster's New York Trilogy does this pretty well, as do some stories by Donald Barthelme (and his acolyte Dave Eggers). I'll also add Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, which seems in line with your interests.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:43 PM on April 2, 2008


Some sweet stuff on here. Thanks muchly
posted by 0bvious at 4:30 PM on April 4, 2008


Maybe the cult documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm? It is a documentary about making a documentary about making a documentary.

I'm writing a paper about Godard's Vivre Sa Vie. It is sort of like this in that it refers to itself, but you kind of have to know that it is both a portrait of his wife (firstly), Anna Karina, then a documentary, and then a fictional story about the fictional character Nana. I may be a bit biased, or missing the real meaning of the term with this though.

I think my reflection back to Godard is that the French New Wave movement was a re-imagining of Existentialism on film, in a matter of speaking. The signifies are empty of real meaning when you refer back and fourth between them. There is no proof, just experiences. Andre Bazin influenced this. There's the epistemology of phenomenology which suggests that "the experience comes before the essence," which influenced a lot of the avant-garde thought. I find this sort of stuff fascinating as well. But I think you are specifically interested in the "absurd" category of existentialism (me too, in some ways). Which brings me to:

The Theater of the Absurd (which can be seen as an influence on Lynch), and helped to explain the nature of my favorite show: 12 oz. Mouse, which is maybe the perfect example of what I seem to be thinking this thread is about.

What about Waking Life? The series of dream sequences commenting on the reality which the audience and individual in the dream never escapes.

I hope some of this was helpful, and not to tangential.
posted by codybaldwin at 5:06 PM on January 2, 2009


ahh, sorry one more. The film: The French Lieutenant's Woman.
posted by codybaldwin at 5:11 PM on January 2, 2009


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