Monday, December 29, 2014

Macbeth's friendlessness

I've always been haunted by this soliloquy --
Seyton!--I am sick at heart,
When I behold--Seyton, I say!--This push
Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now.
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. Seyton!
-- by the way Macbeth begins by calling upon Seyton, twice, the way it interrupts itself and then begins again, and then interrupts itself once more to call for Seyton again.  I vacillated between writing "the way it interrupts itself" and "the way he interrupts himself."  But it's the speech that's interrupting itself: the sense of social agency that belongs to a person speaking is over now, or all but over.

This is the first time that Macbeth calls on Seyton, the first time he's mentioned.  Shakespeare was writing Antony and Cleopatra at the same time as Macbeth, and in both plays he is interested in the last unimportant figures who stay loyal to the end, whose loyalty is only noticeable, who are themselves only noticeable, at the end (in A&C it's the schoolmaster Antony sends to negotiate with Caesar).  Seyton matters here because he's the only person Macbeth can count on, because Macbeth still knows that persons are what you count on, that being a person, being able to speak, means being able to speak with someone, to have them care what you say.

I think I'm obsessed by the minimalism of this soliloquy (as in sonnet 73, the language is headed towards the lesser adjectives: sear to the understated yellow; cf. yellow leaves, or none, or few, as though "few" were fewer still than none, as yellow is consciously less sublime, less an achievement, than sear).  "Honour" isn't replaced by abasement but by "mouth-honour," a repetition with a difference that is not revolution.  And he must not look to have these things: it's not just that he won't have them, but that he can't dally with their false surmise.  But he can call Seyton, good air, his only friend.

"When I behold--": prelude to some grand comment on life and its depths, as in the roughly contemporaneous Sonnet 12:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
Shakespeare questions even the young man's beauty and its defense against time, when he beholds the violet past prime; Marvell worries, "When I behold the poet, blind yet bold," that Milton will ruin the sacred truths; Wordsworth's heart leaps up when he beholds a rainbow in the sky.  But Macbeth doesn't need to finish the thought: there's no lesson to be learned here, no reaction that matters, no when which marks any sort of achievement or perspective.  He has lived long enough to be past whens (she should have died hereafter, either way, so when doesn't matter).

I love this soliloquy, I think, because it doesn't state anything, any insight, any generalization, or rather it's all generalization, since there are no particulars that matter any more, nothing he may look to have.  "The poor heart" isn't it's own, but it's what all hearts are now, thanks to him.  He calls Seyton, I think, partly to interrupt these thoughts, but partly to confirm them: calling Seyton and being alone are the same thing.  Not that Seyton is indifferent to him, but that being alone is the human condition in a different way from the way we imagined.  It's not that we're irremediably separated from each other; it's that we're alone together, that we think for others (that's what soliloquies are always about), but what we think about for them is being alone.


NoteDo not say that Shakespeare is writing a hysterical speech for Macbeth here, that he's calling Seyton so insistently so as not to be alone with his own thoughts, like Lear calling on the storm so as not to ponder on things would hurt him more.  Seyton is more like his Fool, but without any of the Fool's presence: most of the Fool's loneliness is internalized in Macbeth, and Seyton represents more the residual element in Macbeth's character that corresponds to the part of Lear's heart that is sorry for the Fool yet.  But Macbeth is not sorry for Seyton: that's just not in question within the residual affect of the scene 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sweets to the sweet

I've been loving, for a long time, the way Shakespeare uses the word sweet.  Two obvious instances.  In Richard II the Queen, puzzled over her own free-floating sadness, says:
                                                   I cannot tell
Why I should welcome such a guest as grief
Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest
As my sweet Richard.
And then Edgar's amazing, ambivalent lament:
                                 O our lives' sweetness
That we the pain of death would hourly die
Rather than die at once.
It's an amazing word for Shakespeare, and tends to come at times of sadness and need: "If you do love old men, if your sweet sway allow obedience, if you yourselves are old," Lear pleas with the heavens. Sweet sway.

And I've been thinking why it's such a good word: because it's great and ephemeral, the experience of tasting, not possessing, and the purer the sweetness the less it's about even the idea of something lasting. It's Ashbery's "charity of the hard moments," but without hardness or charity: the sweetness of the moment, as it "Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses." It's just for now, but that's pretty great, the way a play can be pretty great.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


We has them.  I want a cheezburger, and I can has cheezburger, but I don't want to want one.

Thomas Schelling and George Ainslie, among many others, use the story of Odysseus and the sirens to illustrate strategies of commitment in strategic interaction, strategies by which we disclaim our most highly ranked preferences.  Odysseus knows that no one can resist the siren-song lure of the Sirens’ song.  But he wishes to hear the song.  He therefore instructs his sailors to fill their ears with wax, so that they won’t hear it, and to bind him to the mast so that he cannot react to the song by forcing the sailors to change course.  He is binding a future version of himself whose preference he know will differ from his present preference – which is to resist the temptation of the song.  He knows that his preference will change, and he is preventing his changed preference from overriding what he also knows is the better, higher payoff, longer term preference that he now has.

This has become a standard example in the literature of behavioral economics.  But what I would like to add is the further idea that Odysseus has yet another preference, which is a preference for his preference to change.  Odysseus knows that the Sirens’ song will make him want to succumb, and he wants to want to succumb.  But he doesn’t want to succumb.  Binding himself is a way of experiencing the desire to lose himself in their singing without fulfilling that desire so completely that there will be no more self to lose, without fulfilling that desire so completely as to lose the experience of its haunting elusiveness in the all-too-present recognition that it is a mere trap.  He desires its elusiveness to his own desires (as Swann desires the little phrase), which means desiring not to fulfill his desire to catch it.  He wants to miss it, and miss it intensely, and therefore experience its essential absence, as Beckett wants to miss his love, and therefore experience her essential absence and therefore love her:

     I would like my love to die
     and the rain to be falling on the graveyard 
     and on me walking the streets
     mourning the first and last to love me
And compare Basho:

     Even in Kyoto
     hearing a cuckoo
     I long for Kyoto
                  (trans. Jane Hirshfield)

Odysseus’s affective and qualitative experience is one of preferring to have a preference not only different from his current preference to resist yielding to the Sirens’ song, so that he’ll want to yield to that song then: he wants as well for his future preference not only to be frustrated but to feel frustrated, since the inability to yield to temptation is part of the longing he longs to feel. (Ainslie elsewhere describes what he calls the management of longing, which means managing to keep longing going.)  So Odysseus prefers not to yield to the Sirens’ song, but also prefers a future where he will not to yield to the Sirens’ song even while preferring to yield to it, where part of the content of the preference to yield to the Sirens’ song is a hopeless preference for a preference not to yield to it.  (In the same way it’s part of the pleasure of smoking that the cigarette trumps our desire not to want it: “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure.  It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.  What more can one want?” (Wilde)  What more can one want than to be unsatisfied?    Not smoking offers a satisfaction (or end to longing) that can’t compete with the frustration of that satisfaction that smoking offers. Smoking when we want to smoke frustrates our desire not to want to smoke, recruits the longing not to want to smoke into a longing for smoking’s exquisite way of leaving one longing.  It’s so insidious because the pleasure of smoking includes the very preference not to take pleasure in smoking.  Odysseus wants to feel the pleasure of wishing the Sirens’ song were not so irresistibly beautiful, so he wants to hear a song that will make him wish he didn’t want to hear it so much.  He binds himself because he does not want to yield to the song, but does want to want to yield to the song, to yield to a song that will make him want to yield despite wanting not to yield.  Gathering terms, this gives us the following near-paradox: he prefers to the preference he has now – not to yield – not having the preference he has now, but having instead a preference for the preference he has now.

I love this kind of inconsistency in preference in literature, where you’d prefer not the preference you have but to have the preference that you have.  We’ve seen it in Beckett, and we can see something similar in a lovely, funny moment in China Mieville’s The City & the City.  The vaguely Balkan detective narrating that noir novel and his assistant Corwi are working themselves to exhaustion:

I stopped and bought us coffee from a new place, before we went back to the HQ. 
American coffee, to Corwi's disgust. 
"I thought you liked it aj Tyrko," she said, sniffing it.
"I do, but even more than I like it aj Tyrko, I don't care."

Here, very simply, not having a preference is ranked higher than his actual preference.  But on what scale? Not a scale of preferences, but maybe on a scale he prefers to the scale of preferences.  This is a microexample of the authentic mode of the noir detective, broken and defeated, but unbroken and undefeated by being broken and defeated.  Its simple complexity is really a complex simplicity, and that's just what Kant says aesthetic achievement is: the resolved irresolution of preferences among preferences.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ghostlier demarcations

But isn't that what David Markson did (for longer) in This Is Not A Novel?  No. Not at all. This book is different, for all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.  Here's a guy who has turned his genre into a vehicle for serious ideas and serious emotion--and has never, unlike Markson, been tempted to write more than necessary.  Markson hesitates to label his work "experimental" and instead characterizes his novels -- both "literally crammed with literary and artistic anecdotes" and "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage" -- as "playful."  There is no linear (or nonlinear) sequence of events to exploit with a wink-nudge because there is no novelistic time employed at all, no events that would require such sequencing.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

By way of a longish placeholder, and an observation about parties

“Song” The song tells us of our old way of living,
Of life in former times. Fragrance of florals,
How things merely ended when they ended,
Of beginning again into a sigh. Later

Some movement is reversed and the urgent masks
Speed toward a totally unexpected end
Like clocks out of control. Is this the gesture
That was mean, long ago, the curving in

Of frustrated denials, like jungle foliage
And the simplicity of the ending all to be let go
In quick, suffocating sweetness? The day
Puts toward a nothingness of sky

Its face of rusticated brick. Sooner or later,
The cars lament, the whole business will be hurled down.
Meanwhile we sit, scarcely daring to speak,
To breathe, as though this closeness cost us life.

The pretensions of a past will some day
Make it over into progress, a growing up,
As beautiful as a new history book
With uncut pages, unseen illustrations,

And the purpose of many stops and starts will be made clear:
Backing into the old affair of not wanting to grow
Into the night, which becomes a house, a parting of the ways
Taking us far into sleep. A dumb love.
Placeholder: I've always disliked facile talk of the green-world/real-world distinction in Shakespeare. Belmont, the Athenian woods, the Forest of Arden, Bohemia. As though Shakespeare was acknowledging fantasy while gently tutoring us in the reality principle that moralist critics, each a mini-Leavis, valued most.

Of course there's something to the contrast of moods that Shakespeare is after, a contrast to which locale contributes. But I think the contrast is temporal: it's a different kind of experience of time that he's after, the suspension of action, the ritardando slowing the impetus with which cause attempts to burn the stages of effect to achieve its final purpose, that I wrote about here. It's how Shakespeare manages theatrical time, makes theatrical experience into something other than a causal nexus. Our relation to time changes, we live (to alter Beckett slightly) a Shakespearean pause. That's the point: not the contrast between green and real (urban, ordinary, everyday, whatever) world, but the access to that pause.

I can segue to my observation by quoting the Beckett I alluded to, the narrator's description of Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks:
He lived a Beethoven pause, he said, whatever he meant by that.... He was an impossible person in the end. I gave him up in the end because he was not serious.
The pause is where the serious is suspended. It's not unlike (especially in More Pricks Than Kicks) Deleuze's evocation of alcohol as the world of the passé composé, the suspended, timeless, lost and present-in-its-loss world that is other than the careening, unfolding, continuous, exorbitant present. It's the achievement of a non-serious relation to time.

The achievement, that is to say, of parties. Proustian parties we know about, but it's been striking me how many parties there are in Shakespeare, how (as in Proust) they seem to occur mid-play. Not only in the green-world comedies (the "green world" is the place they occur), but in the histories and tragedies as well: the Mousetrap -- and the graveyard--, the feast to which Banquo so unexpectedly returns, Pompey's feasting of the triumvirate (among many others in Antony and Cleopatra), drunkenness in Cyprus, the hovel scene in Lear, the various strange gatherings in Titus. Parties in Shakespeare generally include us: we're not watching for some underlying dynamic (James Bond avoiding the noose tightening around him as he plays Baccarat against his antagonists), but spending time with the play, which gives us, allows us to share, a "time which is our own," to quote Shelley in his great poem of suspension, the "Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici."

Shakespeare's plays tend to follow the dynamic of the convergence of all surviving characters which Dan Decker describes so well in his great book Anatomy of a Screenplay. But the really interesting thing is the two-step rhythm of that convergence: first at a party mid-play (the Mousetrap, Cyprus, even the hovel, where the joint stool can't deny that it is Goneril), and then again at the end. The party is a false-ending, often (as it certainly is in the Mousetrap), but in another sense it's the other possible ending, the one came there for, the experience of the play and not of its resolution. The duration of that experience, in all genres, takes shape as a party.

These thoughts are partly inspired by listening, elegiacally, with just this sense of suspension, to Lou Reed's "Heroin," which is of course about what it's like to be moved to sing "Heroin." All true songs are about what it's liked to be moved to sing them: The old way you lived, relive it,* at least during the song: tomorrow is just some other time. What the song promises -- a promise it keeps in making it, and doesn't break by not keeping it in any other way -- is that you can always bring it with you, always sing it again tomorrow. Blanchot finds sublime the moment that Achilles offers Priam bread or death, hospitality or the end of things. Plays have to end, but no one so well as Shakespeare understood how to use them to offer the hospitality of time, the interim of friendship.
*Children, while you can, let some last flame
Coat these walls, the lives you lived, relive them.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Automatic ciphers

First something obvious, and then a meta-comment.

One thing I sometimes post are duh-moments: instances of the obvious that weren't obvious to me. Here's one from the other day. In Paradise Lost Adam describes to Raphael his first experience of experience, his finding himself in the world. There he was:
But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
My tongue obeyed, and readily could name
Whate’er I saw. ‘Thou Sun,’ said I, ‘fair light,
And thou enlightened Earth, so fresh and gay,
Ye hills and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here! (8.270-77)
I'd long realized that Wordsworth ("And, O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, / Forbode not any severing of our loves!" and Shelley ("Show whence I came, and where I am, and why") must both be remembering this moment (and other resonating moments in Paradise Lost).

But what struck me the other day was the idea that this is perfectly autobiographical, that what Milton is describing here is poetic vocation, the combination of ease (of style) and wonder (about existence itself, including the fact of ease) that make a poet a poet. He can describe the world as he found it, including his own being in the world, and the fact that he can describe the world. Unlike Wittgenstein's self, his blank, Sartrean opacity is part of his world too: part of the world a poet thinks about (even when living a skeleton's life).

As I say, completely obvious, and yet I'd never realized this before, being too absorbed in the plot, and also perhaps in my own memories of my 1.75-lingual childhood: I remember one day noticing that I could understand Yugoslav, noticing, then, that it was a different language from English, and noticing therefore that I could understand English as well.


So my meta-comment is this: there's a way in which everything you see in a poem should be obvious when you see it, should be a duh!-moment. Even if you can't or didn't readily name it in your first or fifth or hundredth reading, that would have been a failure of attention, not of intelligence.

That's what Stanley Cavell means by "the ordinary," the things that escape notice because you just don't pay attention to them, because it's an essential, ordinary part of what they are that you don't pay attention to them.

One place that I think you can see this at work is in canonical titles, the way they become "automatic ciphers." Why, for example, Reservoir Dogs? Well that's easy: it's the name of Quentin Tarentino's movie. It's called Reservior Dogs. Before you see the movie, you assume you'll understand the title when you see it, so that's fine; and after you see the movie, you know what the title designates: that great, violent, grueling picture you've watched. But at no time does the meaning of the title explain itself. The title is always ordinary, in Cavell's sense: always just the perfect, obvious, transparent designation of the movie. Similarly, who's Hoon in Stevens's "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"? His answer to Norman Holmes Pearson (I wonder if he knew that Pearson had been a leader in the O.S.S.):
You are right in saying that Hoon is Hoon although it could be that he is the son of old man Hoon. He sounds like a Dutchman. I think the word is probably an automatic cipher for "the loneliest air", that is to say the expanse of sky and space.
For Cavell, the late Wittgenstein (and J.L. Austin) is like the Kant of the Third Critique in paying attention to the ordinary. One of Cavell's great insights is that aesthetic judgment shares with Wittgenstein's grammatical remarks (Bemerkungen, as he always calls them) the fact that you can't prove something beautiful or sublime (or whatever). There's no philosophical argument for beauty. It's something you have to see. In the same way, ordinary language, ordinary things, aren't amenable to an analysis that moves beyond the visible or apparent. The visible or apparent is all that counts, all that can count.

So all you can do is pay attention, and the idea is that if you do pay attention it might be obvious to you too. That's how reading should work, and how I think it does work in the great critics: they draw your attention to the automatic ciphers, which (as Kant says of the "pure reflective judgment" that is aesthetic experience, experience which isn't the application but the observation of a judgment) will then just decode themselves to you, and make you happy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Sudden lit crit

I am thinking of some of the greatest short moments of literary criticism I know. I would mention Twitter, but that would corrupt the idea, and besides you tend to need the quotation, the literary sample, before the remark. Herewith a few such moments:

A scrap from Dickinson, about Antony's great speech in Antony and Cleopatra:
                            Since Cleopatra died,
I have lived in such dishonour, that the gods
Detest my baseness.
He's heard the (false) report of her death only about ten lines earlier. Dickinson writes three words: that engulfing since.

Empson on Hamlet, an absolutely great essay:
What is reckless about the speech is that it makes Hamlet say..."I have cause and will and strength and means / To do it", destroying a sheer school of Hamlet Theories with each noun.

Blanchot on Kafka, who in his journals describes the necessity for a writer to devote oneself to writing all one's life. "Toute sa vie." Trois mots exigeants.

Blanchot again on The Iliad. Achilles, remembering his own father, whom he will never see again, allows Priam to take Hector's body. Then he seeks to feast Priam (as the laws of hospitality demand), but Priam refuses. Achilles tells Priam, in a tone of quiet menace (say I) that he had better eat, for fear that Achilles should forget himself and kill Priam if he doesn't. This is the most elemental of alternatives: ou la parole, ou la mort. Either you accept human connection (as Achilles has done) or all there is is death. This is the meaning of the laws of hospitality. Blanchot's two word judgment of Achilles's speech: Parole sublime.

Proust on Flaubert, long by these standards but worth it: un homme qui par l'usage entièrement nouveau et personnel qu'il a fait du passé défini, du passé indéfini, du participe présent, de certains pronoms et de certaines prépositions, a renouvelé presque autant notre vision des choses que Kant, avec ses Catégories, les théories de la Connaissance et de la Réalité du monde extérieur.

(This is all by way of celebration. The great negations are really all about The Excursion. Francis Jeffrey's This will never do. Mary Shelley after she and Percy read it aloud to each other: He is a slave.)

I think that in the twentieth century, a certain kind of novel learned to reflect on itself this way. Fitzgerald was particularly great at that, especially in Tender is the Night. This sort of self-reflection was arch in the nineteenth century (Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, for example), but became real literary criticism later on. Thus this moment from Tender is the Night:

The foregoing has the ring of a biography, without the satisfaction of knowing that the hero, like Grant, lolling in his general store in Galena, is ready to be called to an intricate destiny. Moreover it is confusing to come across a youthful photograph of some one known in a rounded maturity and gaze with a shock upon a fiery, wiry, eagle-eyed stranger. Best to be reassuring--Dick Diver's moment now began.

Denis Johnson does something very similar in The Name of the World. Mike Reed, the narrator, reflects on his narration and what he should say next, in the subtlest but most lucid of ways. These were originally Johnson's own notes on his MS as he was writing, and their incorporation into the narrative intensifies its narrator's exploration of the strange, and literary, experience that is all that is left to him.

I think Virginia Woolf might have originated this, maybe in Jacob's Room? The third person narrator reflecting on her materials, on the situations and settings of her novel.