Sunday, August 7, 2016

"In a Station of the Metro" I -- antipodean metaphor

“If one thinks of strange scenery, then painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonders of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting.”
—Dong QiChang
How do you know which is tenor and which vehicle in the following juxtaposition?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Of course, you'll know the title, and so you'll think you know the answer. The faces in the crowd in a station at the Metro as Pound watches the train pull in are (like) petals on a wet, black bough.

But without the title, you might be able to reverse it, right? Looking at petals on a wet, black bough, watching them come into your attention, taking on shape and focus, whether in a garden or on a scroll -- you might have a vision of the ghostly faces in a subway car in a station of the Metro.

The scroll is yet another part of the metaphor, the way Pound is using it, and part of the brilliance of the poem. Since this is actually referring to a station of the Metro, that means that in this metaphor, "petals on a wet, black bough" comprises the vehicle, with the faces in the crowd the tenor, the "true" if aestheticized reality perceived by the speaker's eye. (The speaker who sees these faces.) The vehicle in a metaphor is never actual -- otherwise it wouldn't be a metaphor -- and there's something right, perhaps, about the petals on a wet black bough not being actual, being instead the evanescent vanishing aesthetic vision into which the solid urban fact of the Metro station is transfigured. The transfiguration into an aesthetic vision is what the scroll would do anyhow. "Actual" petals and an "actual" scroll are equally unreal here. They're both visions of the aesthetic vision, so to speak. And of course that's what the scroll does anyhow. It takes real petals and transforms them into their brush-and-ink aesthetic counterpart.

But that's just what makes this metaphor antipodean. The crowd in the Metro is transformed into the solitude of mountains or the still greater solitude of the scrolls depicting the solitude of mountains through the representation of a single bough. The metaphor is apt because it reverses the tonality of what it describes. That's what I mean by an antipodean metaphor. All metaphors, as Donald Davidson points out, are false. But this one is the antipodes of what it is predicated of, and so its transformational power is total.

This is why I think Pound must have been alluding intentionally to "Daffodils," which does essentially the same thing, but in reverse. The crowd that Wordsworth sees is the crowd of daffodils which belong to the lonely places he wanders. So where Pound's crowds predicate the metaphor of petals under lonely rainclouds, Wordsworth's daffodils predicate the metaphor of the crowd.

In both cases, though, it's solitude that wins out over the urban jostle. Why is that? Why do goose and gander both fly to the faraway reaches of the scene?

Because they're both poems, and those solitudes are "the one and only metaphor" (Szentkuthy) for the wonders of brush and ink.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Descartes, Milton

Not what you would think. Space, as in "Space, the final frontier...," the absolute space that Newton posited, is a word first used in this way by Milton:
Space may produce new Worlds
says Satan, imagining Earth, our world, as such a new world in space. (It's worth recalling that Galileo, whom Milton visitied, is the only contemporary person named in Paradise Lost: other than he, Charlemagne is the most recent figure mentioned.) Milton's slightly older contemporary Descartes was thinking about space at the same time: measuring it with a coordinate system, and declaring that the concept itself was incoherent. There had to be ether everywhere to make distance possible. If space is empty, it's nothing, and if it's nothing, there's nothing to measure, and nothing there. If the sun is an AU away, it's because an AU of ether separates us from the sun, and we can measure the depth or length of that quantity of ether. (I think a similar argument about the strange emptiness of space is part of the inflationary theory of the early universe, but that's just me being wooly-headed, probably.) Anyhow, it may be that Milton also couldn't quite countenance empty space, because he has God say, six books later:
Boundless the Deep, because I am who fill
Infinitude, nor vacuous the space.
So Milton fills space as well, with God. Or does he? God does "my self retire" to give way to freedom. If that retirement is absolute, as Empson suggests it might be, i.e. that God might "abdicate," then we're in Gnostic territory, and space becomes a true abyss. So it may be that Milton's thinking anticipates Einstein's even as it parallels Descartes' and Newton's.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Love and MacGuffins and Truth

I was just thinking about the interesting and counterintuitive use of MacGuffins in film noir.

A little background. Hitchcock -- and most suspense writers -- use MacGuffins to retard the love story. A MacGuffin pulls a narrative down a track criss-crossing the love story that will make the movie end happily. We want the happy ending, but not too soon -- we want (as George Ainslie says in his great essay on "Money as MacGuffin") to build up an appetite for it not ruined by being satisfied too soon. That's why we go to the movies instead of just day-dreaming all the time: we can have anything we want in our day-dreaming restaurant, and so we never end up really wanting anything. But movies -- even romantic comedies -- delay the happy ending and make it all the more rewarding by doing so. Still, as Ainslie says, it's not just a question of waiting for the happy ending: it's seeing it blocked, and often more and more blocked as the tell-tale compression of minutes that remain (to allude to Northanger Abbey) seems to make the happy ending less and less likely, more and more a mere daydream. That's how climaxes work: there's no way out! Ginger Rogers has actually married Bedini. Almost as bad as when Ingrid Bergman actually marries Alex Sebastian. (I am using stars' names and character names advisedly: part of the point is the star we want to see in a happy ending in this movie marries: some other character, and not the other star.)

So because we don't control the fiction, we worry that we won't get the reward the desire (or "literary need," as I've been calling it in earlier posts) for which has been building and building. Okay -- that's one way of describing the most basic plot: want something and wait for it. But what's great about Hitchcock, and Hitchcockian plots in general, is the way he counterpoints that desire with another one: the desire to know the significance of the MacGuffin.

It's not that the MacGuffin is just an objective the hunt for which brings the lovers together. That's a pretty standard plot too, and it makes sense and it works. But in Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is always a puzzle. "What are the 39 Steps?" Why does the Lady Vanish -- what could her significance possibly be? What is it that James Mason is trying to sneak out of the country? What's in the wine bottles that makes them so significant? Of course we sometimes know what the objective (really) is in Hitchcock, but his movies seem deepest when we don't.

So this makes possible the interplay of two stories: one about love, the other about knowledge. (Vertigo telescopes them together in interesting ways.) The love story can end at any time if the lovers just walk away, which is just what the male characters keep urging: Carey Grant to Ingrid Bergman, and to Eva-Marie Saint, Robert Donat to Madeline Carroll. (Occasionally, and interestingly, it will go the other way, especially if the male star is Jimmy Stewart, doggedly ignoring the good advice of Kim Novak or Grace Kelly: but then she gets into it.) So we could get the reward of the love story with a happy ending if we gave up on the knowledge.

But we also want to know, so that we find ourselves torn between two conflicting preferences. Go away or search the wine cellar? Figure out what James Mason is up to, or check in to a lodge at Mt. Rushmore? And the audience always chooses knowledge, deferring and risking the love story in order to try to have it all. It's important that the knowledge is never worth it -- it's a gap more interesting than its solution. (How couldn't it be? Narratives about the search are always more interesting in their middles than in their endings. Mistah Kurtz, he boring (even when played by Marlon Brando); Alaska, she dead (spoiler, sorry!).

So the end of a Hitchcock movie gives you a quick -- a very quick -- revelation of what the MacGuffin really was. Our thirst for knowledge is slaked, and because that slaking can't be of the order of the desire it satisfies, the solution would be (often is) a disappointment if there weren's something else converging with that conclusion: the consummation of the love story. So the MacGuffin is the mechanical white rabbit (or undetached rabbit's foot, as in the Quinean Mission Impossible III) that leads us down its own track or rabbit hole to the deferred and longed-for conclusion.

So back to noir, and the femme fatale. The genius of movies (and sometimes novels) like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past is that the MacGuffin's formal status as MacGuffin is part of the plot, that is part of what the noir (anti)hero is doing. Spade or Jeff Bailey are not, or not fundamentally, in love with the femmes fatales (disclaimer: yeah sorry, the movies are sexist, it's the formal structure I'm interested in). They both know, and know from the start of the main action, not to trust the women they are teamed up with. And they're barely interested in the MacGuffins, the "dingus" as Spade calls it, at all. Rather they want to understand the crimes that have organized themselves around the MacGuffins. It's still a question of knowledge. Spade knows who done it from the start (as we find out at the end), but not why. So the forties noirs use what might be called fake MacGuffins, objects the detectives are not really interested in, even in the fictional world, and fake love stories, stories for which the detectives have no ambition or dersire for a happy ending, in order to find out the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins, the truth.

That means, of course, that noirs are about truth rather than erotic satisfaction. But the truth is about human character, not the value or history of the dingus (even if it's worth as much as Dr. Evil's "ONE MILLION DOLLARS!"). The noir detective uses the MacGuffin to find out the truth about human motivation. That truth is not erotic, and so the MacGuffin in noir doesn't lead us circuitously to erotic satisfaction: the detective uses the MacGuffin as a decoy that seems to map out that circuitous route, in order instead to undermine the erotic interest in favor of the truth. In Hitchcock the search for truth is a well-paced route to love. In noir the detective controls the pacing of the falsified love story through the MacGuffin in order to find the route to the truth.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Literary Need -- VI

You know how there are talismanic quotations that you know, sufficiently so that you don't quite think them through? I think that's partly a result of rhythm: strict endings complete a line (that's a rule of Indo-European metrics); and rhythms structure and sometimes anchor the remembered words.

I've always loved these lines of Stevens's, from "The Plain Sense of Things":
Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.
Some time long ago I abbreviated them, without knowing it, as "The absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined, / Required, as a necessity requires." And it was only the first of those two pseudo-lines whose meaning I thought much about. The imagination would never be absent! To think so was to rejoin it, to imagine even that. "Disillusion as the last illusion," as Stevens says in a later poem. Or Beckett's: "Imagination dead, imagine!" (my punctuation).

The end of the poem, the end of my abbreviated version, was only what filled out the stirring, saving, Berkeleyan self-contradiction of trying to imagine the imagination absent.

But now I begin to wonder why the absence of the imagination was "required"? Why makes its absence, or imagining its absence, necessary?

I think if I thought about it at all that I took "required" to mean just a way of repeating had in "had to be imagined." It is required that you do euthanize your faith. But that's because I didn't really pay attention to the as of the last line. As a necessity required. We need to imagine necessity too. Ananke is not the iron law we cannot escape. It is the law we imagine we suffer under, but we need to imagine it. The rat can come out to see, whenever it wants to: it's a placidly, self-contained Rilkean animal, a denizen of the immediate.

But we need necessity, and the only question is whether our need for it is enough to count as need -- as we need it to be.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Exit Chantal, to the west

Word has just come today of the death of Chantal Akerman yesterday (October 5).  I spent a week with her in 2001, just post September 11; we really hit it off and I always hoped to see her again and imagined I would (because who would have thought I'd ever meet her anyhow?).  I arranged for the U.S. premiere of La Captive, and she came to discuss it, and to talk about Jeanne Dielman in my film class.  Leslie Camhi and Stanley Cavell joined Chantal (as it seems more faithful to my memory of that week that I should call her) for a discussion after the screening of La Captive.

Chantal insisted in class and in conversation (which always took place through a cloud of Gitane smoke) that Jeanne Dielman was not a feminist movie -- she hated hearing it described that way; she hated seeing it analyzed that way.  Stanley talked about it a little bit after the screening of La Captive: he saw it as being about skepticism, about being part of the line of theatrical and cinematic treatments of the desire to be a skeptic, to abolish other minds, to secure oneself from the world, that he has traced from Shakespeare to screwball comedies and melodramas.  Jeanne's murderous response to having an orgasm was for Cavell a response to losing control (of course) because of her relation to another, followed then by the abolition of the other.  Although he didn't say this, Jeanne's relation to her son would be part of that skeptical dynamic, that skeptical recital which Jeanne's whole life constitutes.  Cavell sees the creation of a world for another, so that skepticism can't be the point or the shield, as the reason that Shakespeare's women don't hide within skepticism.  They transcend it, but that's something that Jeanne manages to dodge.

Unskeptical myself, at least among the truly great, I worried about how Chantal would respond to Stanley.  I needn't have.  She was ecstatic.  This was one of those rare moments where I felt perfectly happy to embrace the intentional fallacy.  Well, that's what was thematized, wasn't it?  Chantal's sense of Delphine Seyrig's sense of Jeanne -- all of them other minds.

This was partly the case because Chantal had a very intense relation to her actors, and there was some continuity between actor and role (as when she played in her own movies).  I liked how much she loved and mourned Seyrig.  I was fascinated by her dislike for Juliette Binoche, who starred in A Couch in New York (she liked William Hurt well enough).  I liked her arms-length professional-peer memories of Godard, who let her observe him making movies in the late sixties.

After that week, she was off to Douglas, Arizona, to make her documentary on Mexican immigrants, De l'autre coté.  I'd been to Douglas, and to Agua Prieta, on the Mexican side.  Douglas was a dirt-poor town, Agua Prieta a ridiculously energetic place.  It seemed great that we both knew those obscure towns.  We had fun talking about it, and about everything else.  I am so sorry that will never happen again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Patty Duke of Ilyria

We know that the Elizabethan stage used doubling a lot: one actor, several characters. That saved money and made possible plays with a large set of characters. But it also allowed (like The Wizard of Oz) for a kind of metatheatrical linking of characters, and we know that Shakespeare loved metatheatrical moments: "too long for a play"; "my father died within these two hours"; or the moment when Jaques notices that a prose line (in a scene that's all prose) is also iambic pentameter, as many, perhaps the plurality of our fully formed sentences are:

ORLANDO: Good day and happiness, dear Rosalind!
JAQUES: Nay, then, God be wi' you, an you talk in blank verse.

Thus doubling can link Hamlet Senior to Claudius, if they're played by the same actor, or again the Fool to Cordelia (since they both very likely were played by Robert Armin), or Mamillius to Perdita.

So I was wondering about near-identical twins in Shakespeare -- he liked such Plautian stories as we know from The Comedy of Errors. But what about writing plays so that one actor can play both twins? Well if the twins are going to meet (and they are), you need two actors. But do you need them all the way through? I was thinking about this in Twelfth Night, and noticed this. Viola (dressed as the boy Cesario) exits Act I, Scene v after expostulating with Olivia. But the scene isn't over: Olivia broods about loving "him," then summons Malvolio to send him the ring, etc.

Next scene (II.i): enter Sebastian and Antonio. If the same actor is now playing Sebastian, the business at the end of the previous scene has given him time to change. They talk, express their love and mutual admiration, etc., and then off goes Sebastian. But Antonio stays on stage to say some more about how much he likes Sebastian and also why he (Antonio) has to be discrete. This gives the actor enough time to change again and begin the next scene (II.ii) as Viola/Cesario.

We next see Sebastian in III.iii, in a scene considerably later than Viola's last appearance in scene i; then after Sebastian's exit at the end of scene iii, Viola reappears in the next scene, but only half-way through it (again, plenty of time for the actor to change). She exits near the end of the scene, but some business after her exit between Sir Toby, Fabian, and Sir Andrew allows the actor time to change costume and re-enter as Sebastian in IV.i, where he first meets Olivia. Neither of them is in the next scene, so Sebastian doesn't have to change before he re-enters in IV.iii.

But he stays till the end of IV.iii, so Shakespeare has to write a little interchange for the beginning of the next scene (V.i) between Fabian and Feste before the actor re-enters as Viola/Cesario a few lines later. Into this last scene, of course, Sebastian will also enter, and he and Viola will reunite. But I suggest that it's only in this scene that a new actor plays Sebastian, so that he can appear on stage at the same time as Viola. (If you did a play version of The Prestige or of Dead Ringers it would be the same deal, I think.)

So I am now going to Google to see if this is generally known -- but I think it's a pretty cool thing and I am glad to have worked it out myself.


Well, apparently this is not general knowledge, since Stanley Wells generally knows. But I am sure it has to be true. So: COOL!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Shakespearean slips

I am wondering whether Shakespeare invented the Freudian slip.
Did other people before Shakespeare represent mistakes on stage? I am thinking of the way Shakespeare has people make everyday mistakes (the mistakes of everyday life), as in certain kinds of forgetfulness
Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there's not it;
That you know well: something it is I would,
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten. (Cleopatra)

what was I
about to say? By the mass, I was about to say
something: where did I leave? (Polonius)

HOTSPUR    Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower,
Will you sit down?
And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!
I have forgot the map.

KENT               I am come
To bid my king and master aye good night:
Is he not here?
ALBANY   Great thing of us forgot!
Speak, Edmund, where's the king? and where's Cordelia?
I don't think this is just the reality effect, though it is that. Or maybe it would be better to say that the reality effect is one in which something real is going on, something real offered and bargained for and exchanged and clarified.  It matters to Polonius that he was about to say something, and it matters that Reynaldo reminds him of what he wanted to say, show's him a kindness where Hamlet would scorn him.  It matters that Albany forgets Lear and that he has to remember him before Edmund is willing to help: recalling the fates of Lear and Cordelia makes Edmund count.

In a previous post I alluded to Grice's distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic meaning.  A fever of 102 degrees F means you're sick, whether you say so or not; "I'm sick and can't come to work today" also means you're sick, whether you are or not.

Freud (we know) had trouble with theorizing repression, because the unconscious mind seemed split between the part that wanted to tell the truth (about its desires, judgments, demands, etc.) and the part that was censoring the part that wanted to tell the truth.  The result of this split was a compromise formation: the unconscious got to tell the truth slant.  Parapraxes -- Freudian slips -- were good evidence for this, he thought.  Whether this is true or not, it's certainly true in some literary contests, where a writer or performer imitates a telling and revelatory lapsus linguae.  But how do we analyze how it's telling?

Does an unconscious communication, a hysterical symptom, a slip of the tongue, mean naturalistically (it's a sympton! like a fever) or non-naturalistically (it's discursive! it knows what it's saying and wants to say it).  Some extreme Freudian formulations (I am looking at you through my -- gulp! -- myopic eyes, Otto Fenichel) saw all symptoms as non-naturalistic meaning, as expressions of unconscious intentions.  Although the intentions themselves might not have been intentions to express, so that naturalistic meaning can come back that way, this doesn't seem true of slips of the tongue: they are my unconscious talking, and my unconscious is talking to you.  So they may have naturalistic meaning on a conscious level (they mean I am repressing something) and non-naturalistic meaning on the unconscious level: they say what my unconscious mind wants to say.

I am interested in costly or honest signaling, how such signaling evolved, what happens when such signaling interacts with conscious expressive intention, what such signaling hopes to elicit (e.g. Reynaldo's aid, Antony's love, Hotspurian enthusiasm; in the Lear case, it's more like we've all forgotten, and need Edmund as he needs to be needed: Albany's forgetfulness is his as well, and only Kent remembers).  One argument in favor of Freud's view is that Freudian slips would be uncontrollable and therefore honest signals, and cooperative species, especially hypercooperative species like our own, need honest signals.  Freudian slips, and maybe the Freudian unconscious, solve a problem in cooperation for a species that has to be able to use language in an extremely skillful and fine-grained way, without being able to lie too easily and at will.  We need to be able to tell when someone is lying, and the way to tell that is both by detecting lies and by detecting truths that they might not wish to admit.  (Some of these truths can be happy ones: she's too shy to admit it but she does love me! Upon that hint I'll speak!)

Anyhow, I think Shakespeare saw this and used it.  Here are two examples of classic Freudian slips, a quick one and a more subtle and therefore more telling one (since what's telling about them is the point).  The quick one is this: when at the end of Twelfth Night Orsino realizes that his page and friend is actually a woman, Viola, he's delighted.  He can marry her.  His repressed homoerotic affection for her now finds heteronormative (sorry, seriously) legitimation.  And so he speaks, and calls her... Cesario.

Cesario, come.
For so you shall be, while you are a man...

He quickly corrects himself, but the mistake isn't one.  That she is pricked out as Cesario is not a bug but a feature.

Here’s my other, longer example, from Richard II.  Richard has gone to Ireland, his rebel cousin Bullingbrook has landed at Ravenspurgh in Yorkshire.  York is the last, despairing survivor of the previous generation.  The trouble in the play begins when his brother (Bullingbrook’s father) the Duke of Lancaster dies; now he receives news that his sister-in-law (“my sister Gloucester”), who had been the close confidante of the last two surviving brothers has just died, and he is the last surviving member of the great generation of Edward’s sons and their widows.  The Duchess of Gloucester doesn’t count as one of them in the psychology of the play because she is not a widow, but a wife and mother who will be called on to interpose between husband and son.  Shakespeare has a bit of playcraft to do here; he has to make plausible the fact that York will change sides, and that the Duchess of York isn’t reason enough to stay loyal to the old regime and its legacy, though loyalty is his natural instinct.  The whole play is about the counterpoint, divergence and convergence between public, politico-theological fidelity and obligation on the one hand and private loyalties and motives on the other.  Shakespeare must represent York as a figure who believes himself to be acting according to the dictates of political theology (as his brother Gloucester certainly had), but who nevertheless is too weak-willed and weak-minded to represent the true principle that he wishes to and thinks he does.  So Shakespeare makes him needy: what’s best is to feel that public duty and private commitment coincide.

Shakespeare has already begun this portrait of his character by showing how Richard manipulates him (in the same way but far more easily than he manipulated Lancaster into voting to banish his own son) by making him his deputy when he goes to Ireland, playing on York’s desire to show his loyalty against his own private preferences, while realizing that this desire is itself a private preference. The Queen contributes to that.  Everyone capable of loving loves her (a fact Bullingbrook capitalizes on); we do, and York does too, so that she adds a private incentive to his preference to do the right official thing.  The Freudian slip that Shakespeare writes for York shows his neediness, his loneliness, his fecklessness and confusion, all of which are necessary to his character, even while adding another touch to the portrait of the sorrow of the Queen, whose husband is later to be murdered just as the Duchess of Gloucester has been murdered.  Off York must go to prepare for Bullingbrook’s invasion, and he takes the Queen with him, calling on her (as Orsino has called on Cesario):
Come, sister,--cousin, I would say--pray, pardon me.
He wants her to be his sister, to replace the sister he has just lost who herself replaced the brother he had lost before.   But she is not his sister and won’t be Queen long, and he no longer has a friend or close relation to support him in his last attempt to support his generation’s view of the world.  He is like Polonius, flustered by a new world, whose grimness his discomfiture underlines. We see he's flustered, we see his need.  Shakespeare, at least, thought such slips worth the telling.  He may not have invented, but discovered them.