Tuesday, October 1, 2019

“Parentheses” (and quotations)

Geoffrey Nunberg (somewhere) makes the point that parentheses and quotations follow similar typographical, and, you could say syntactic rules: If you open a parentheses (with a lunula) you have to close it (with another, facing the opposite way).  Likewise if you open a direct quotation (with raised, inverted commas (auf Englisch, zumindest), you have to close it (with reverted commas, but at the top of the line as well (das gilt auch für Deutsch, für die „Gänsefüßchen”)). (Look closely at what surrounds the words “inverted commas;” there's also a more minor question about punctuation, which can sometimes go inside a closing mark without suggesting that it's part of the original inscription, whereas parenthetical insertions are treated as either part of a sentence, so that there is no punctuation mark just before the last lunula, or they are sentences in themselves, as here, so that the parenthetical at the end of the previous sentence is part of a longer sequence of words and therefore does not itself end with a punctuation mark, whereas this parenthesis is a stand-alone sentence, so it does.)

Another typographical convention that intuits the similarity is the rule that when you break a quotation into paragraphs, you open each paragraph with inverted commas, but only put the reverted commas at the end of the entire quotation.  (Cf. Virginia Woolf's The Waves as a good example of the Hogarth Press's conformity to this rule.)  Similarly, parentheticals that are broken into paragraphs have opening (concave) lunulae at the beginning of every paragraph but closing (convex) lunulae only at the end of the entire parenthesis (I am using “concave” and “convex” as understood intuitively, perhaps: the opening lunula opens an interior space: the closing lunula pushes us onward into the flow of the larger discourse).

I was thinking about this the other day, and realizing that there is an interesting and symmetrical difference between quotations and parentheses.  A parenthetical phrase (like this one) may refer to things outside of it, parts of the sentence it inhabits (say) that have no reciprocal need for the parenthesis (which is why it's parenthetical; look at how cleverly Pope allows you so skip parentheses in The Rape of the Lock without disturbing the rhyme scheme (though parenthetical phrases will often contribute (“(not in vain)” (The Essay on Criticism)) to the meter)).

Quotations on the other hand must not refer to the quoting context, since they precede it logically and temporally.  (“Scare quoted” material may, I suppose, but here they're pretty much meant to quote the context.)  So parentheses are outward-looking, supplemental to the discourse in which they appear, but quotation is inward-looking.  The quoting context is the late-coming supplement, unregarded by the haughty indifference of the quoted words.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Wittgenstein's Cat

Imagine a cat in a box (it could be a duck or a rabbit or even a beetle instead, of course but we will assume without criteria that it's a cat) . She is caterwauling (you might be going to the vet or some such, because the cat is sick) but you can't tell if her cry is closer to "yanny" or to "laurel." At some point she quiets down, which after a while is worrying. You'd stopped at a fabric store on the way to get some soft silk to make the cat more comfortable in the box. The shopkeeper matched the gold fabric which you gave him a sample of to some silk he had on hand. Then perhaps he counted out fourteen inches of fabric (perhaps he recited the numbers from 1 to 14 as he counted out each inch: he counted in just the way we count, in the most ordinary sense). You arrive at the vet and she opens the box in her examining room. I want to say you will see either a dead cat surrounded by the funerary crepe of black fabric or a living cat rolling upon pink to work it in. But what was she doing before that, and was her caterwaul "yanny" or "laurel?" (We assume it has to be one of those.)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

We went to see the HD version of the Met's Walküre yesterday. Despite the much-hated set (which I ended up thinking was okay), I thought it was amazing. And I think I got something about Wagner -- how the extreme length of his operas matters. (Twain's joke: You go to see a Wagner opera that starts at 6, and an hour later you check your watch to find that it's 6:15.)

As with Act II of Tristan, Act III of Die Walküre is a long interchange between a devastated authoritarian, a father figure whose grief seems impossible to reconcile with his authority, and the person -- here Brünnhilde -- whom he must injure, who has brought her injury upon herself, and whom he must explain himself to.

Such explanations are not easy. This is the opposite of the marvelous efficiency of dramatic or film dialogue, where clarity is completely efficacious. This is more about mind-changing. The argument, the reasoning is clear from the start. What acts to change Brünnhilde's mind is the strange, bass-baritone emotion with which Wotan (and Marke, a basso profundo in Tristan) sings. It's as though their loss, despair, powerlessness is in part the impossibility of their singing in a tenor's register -- Siegfried's par excellence. Hunding (also a basso profundo), is simply evil. He revels in his authority. Wotan doesn't. His authority is a fact that he cannot escape. If he could be a tenor, he would. If he could have two eyes he would. Wotan and Marke (and to an extent the baritone Giorgio Germont, the father in La Traviata who finds himself unexpectedly having to explain to Violetta why he needs her to give up her love for his son) cannot set aside the burden of office, the burden that makes him a type, not a character, an opposition and not a protagonist. It's a very hard position to be in, and there's something very moving about the hopelessness of power the very long explanation conveys. Care sits on their faded cheeks, and the length of their scenes is an amazing demonstration that there is nothing to be done.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

I love echoes in literature, the way that you can hear echoes in others because the same echo is reawakened in your mind.

I was thinking about this, because I was reading the story of the Syrophenician woman in Matthew and Mark -- she asks Jesus to exorcise her daughter, and at first he refuses because she's not an Israelite, and the bread on the table must go to them.  To which she replies: "Truth, Lord: yet indeed the whelps eat of the crumbs, which fall from their master’s table."

This is the Geneva translation of Matthew's Ναί, κύριε. (Geneva translates Mark's identical repetition of Ναί, κύριε, the same way, though the King James Version gives the somewhat more accurate "Yes, Lord" for the latter, which means that the KJV translators didn't compare notes, or possibly actively disagreed, or perhaps wanted the whole range of connotation and used the translator's trick of variation when translating the same phrase.)  George Herbert used the Geneva Bible and therefore (I realized today) this must have been echoing in his head when he (or his speaker) replies to Love's generosity in "Love" (III):

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Anyhow, I don't know whether anyone has noted the echo, but "Truth, Lord" as an assertion of agreement only appears in this one context in the Bible, so Herbert must have been remembering it.  Not consciously, I wouldn't think, but the parallels are there: the person who feels that she or he doesn't deserve a place at the table, and the Love that gives them such a place.

And yet these aren't quite parallels, since the Syrophenician woman is asking for something the Prince of Love is at first hesitant to give her, whereas Herbert is refusing an invitation to sit at the table himself.

But the words, in Herbert's mind, must have resonated with the sound of their original context.  He's embracing their context as the words themselves embrace the truth -- the truth uttered by the lord of love.  In using the Biblical words he lets himself be carried along on the wave of quotation, and that experience, as we all must know, is one of joy. 

But it's not quite quoting that's the joy -- it's the sense of an echo, there, not a citation.  Longinus defined the literary sublime as quotation, specifically quotation out of context: "The soul takes a proud flight as though she herself had written what she has only heard or read."  Here it's rather that there are words available, capturing exactly the degree of intense and therefore meaningful subordination that he wants, that he feels.

I think we feel it too.  (I do.)  It's as though the Syrophenician woman, and then Herbert, have made available a new formula for showing love and truth.  It's not the original context that matters; it's the words that come out of it, neither citation nor quotation out of context but a new expression of human contact, and so a pleasure to read or hear without needing to be the originator of the quotation.

Maybe a way to put this is to say that those words are not great by themselves, the way Longinian quotation is.  They need a context of humility, gratitude, and the surprising generosity and love that this gratitude elicits.  They need to be uttered as part of some exchange between persons, and when they do they hit the note all the more perfectly because they echo the original context that resonates in them now.

And part of the right context for these words is a poem or story in which they're uttered in the right context.  When that happens, we're carried along by them, and it's a joy that this can happen.  And the more such phrases echo in your mind -- as in Herbert's -- the more you'll find yourself stirred by them, by literary language used right.

(Note to self: I think what I mean by literary language used right is, in the end, something like meter.  Meter as an echo of contexts which are the right ones to echo.  But I don't think I managed to get that feeling down right here.)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Lipogrammatical translation

Down To What’s Low, Canto 1

Just halfway through my own trip in our living
Provisional, short world, I found that I
Had lost my path in dark woods, unforgiving.

It is so hard a thing that I must sigh
If I would say how brutal was that wood,
To think on which will always horrify.

If anything, it’s only dying could
Outdo that acrid wood’s malignity.
But I will turn from horror, towards that good

Which also on that pathway, luckily,
I found, though I can’t say what hid all truth
Away in total blank stupidity.

I cannot work out how it was, in sooth,
That in that  gloom awaking, full of stupor,
I’d lost that saving road I took in youth.

I got at last to what you’d call a croup or
Boundary of that dark and dismal hollow,
A bank of rocks which from a mountain do pour,

To that bluff’s scapula my look did follow
Upwards still that guiding morning glow,
Bright from that star so holy to Apollo.

Thus did that anxious horror, which had so
Brought churning with it, all that awful night,
To my soul’s pool, diminish, calm its flow.

And as a man who pants hard, still in sight
Of billows which, almost, brought him to sink,
From land looks back on that main, full of fright,

So did my spirit, panicking, still think
On that grim pass no mortal human can
Go out of without passing living’s brink. 

At last my body pausing for a span
Until invigoration from that stop
Could now allow it motion, though no plan

Could show it how to go, with constant prop
On foot in back and downwards, sought to gain,
By climbing always upwards, that mount’s top.  

And lo! A cougar stood stock still, though plain
Its quick and light agility.  No turning
Could pass it by.  Upon its skin a rain

Of spots, which I, that bright and airy morning
(As sun and star-companions Loving God 
Had first spun, still did spin) saw as adorning

That cat, a sign of succor I might laud,
During that blissful dawn, but not so bright
That I did not start shaking, on that road,

At what was now arising in my sight:
A lion, drawn up high, intimidating,
So much that air and I, both full of fright,

About how it its stomach might start sating,
Must stop — for what? A wolf, and I was pavid,
So skinny was it, though anticipating

It would sup soon on anything, for avid
It was for food: though lank it was full too:
That wolf so ruinous to man was gravid!

And I was too — with fright! I could not do
What I was hoping for — to climb that hill.
Alas, I found no pathway round nor through.

And as a man who’d got just what his will
Saw as most worth wishing of all things,
Now gasps on losing it, a poignant thrill

Of brutal pain, transfixing with its stings
From that wolf, did I sob at, and I shrank
Darkwards, away from Sol’s loud blazonings.

Back did I go, back to that lowland dank;
Abruptly in my sight shows up a man,
Who, dumb so long, I thought would sound as blank,

As our surround was. Straight to him I ran,
Still crying “Pity!” to him, “Man or shadow
Of a man!”  “Not a man, but Mantuan,  

By birth” was his account, “Born Sub Julio,
But it was good Augustus, though his gods
Did not say truth nor know your Christian Trio,

Who was my king.  My song got many nods,
All praising it as Roman history,
From Trojan loss to gain, against all odds, 

From burning Ilion to victory.
But why do you avoid that joyous mountain,
As though to climb you’d no ability?” 

“Now art thou Virgil? That riparian fountain,”
All blushingly I said, within his sight,
“Of words that all who follow find a sound in

Which our own songs would sing with.  If I might,
I’ll say how much I honor you, what study
I sanctify with loving to your light.

But now look on that animal so bloody,
To you I turn for aid, to you I’m flying.
O horror!” “You must go this path, though muddy,”

Did Virgil say, to try to hush my crying,
“If you would from this dark wood find a way.
For past that wolf can no amount of trying

Attain that goal; whoso will try will pay
With his annihilation; hungrily,
Voraciously that wolf puts him away.

Marrying many animals bodily,
It looks to go on doing so, until
A Grayhound, coming with finality,

Shall bring its pain to culmination, kill
That awful wolf, who did not pity show.  
That hound, consuming not, such is its will,

Things of this world, but only what would go
With wisdom — loving all morality —
In fabrics of Franciscan monks will know

His nation.  Savior of low Italy,
That hound: our land for which Camilla, dying
A maid, and Nisus, and his loving ally

And Turnus, all lay down for good.  Now plying
Its way through any town that it might harry,
That wolf cannot avoid damnation, buying,

Through vicious rivalry, its day to tarry,
So soon to finish. So I think it right
That I conduct you, and that you stay wary.

As onwards through this aways-lasting night
You go, with sounds of always-lasting sorrow
Imploring total dying, not this blight.

But going through, I’ll bring you tomorrow
To souls who though in pain stay happy with it,
Hoping to pay back soon what sin did borrow

And climb salvation’s mount to that first orbit,
To which I must not go. But if you will
You’ll find at that hill’s top a worthy spirit,

Which I am not, as I did not fulfill
Writs laid down by that all-causing King,
Combatting what was law. His codicil

About my task thus says: I may not bring
A pilgrim to his city.  Though his might’s
Ubiquitous, from that city starts its ring

Circling all worlds.  O, happy, any sights
Of Him; most so, who in that city strong
Find bright salvation in its million lights.” 

And I to him: “I pray, by your high song — 
And by that God you did not know, I pray—
That you will as conductor, for as long

As you can do so, bring us on that way
Of pain, at last to portals which saints hallow,
And far from this soil’s sorrow.” With no stay

On did Virgil go, downwards did I follow.