Saturday, January 27, 2018

Privileging your check.

I am team-teaching a course on the later Wittgenstein this semester with a somewhat skeptical but radically open-minded philosopher. We were discussing language game (2), as it’s called, the one in which a builder says “Slab” to his assistant in just the circumstances where we would say “Bring me a slab.” Wittgenstein wants to show us that “Slab” is no more short for “Bring me a slab” than “Bring me a slab” is long for “Slab.” It is not an elliptical version of our more precise formulation.
 
This is always a very hard point to get right. Anyhow my philosopher-partner remarked that it was interesting how Wittgenstein always goes to chess for analogies to language games, and it occurred to me that he doesn’t go to chess enough. Because here’s what I think is a very helpful analogy.
 
When someone says “check” in chess, you might be tempted to take that word as one in Elliptical, properly translated into English as “your king is in danger.” The etymology of the word, though, shows that “check” meant “king,” from Persian (cf. Shah), via (most recently) the Arabic شَا (šāh). (I am following Wiktionary here: the OED offers some different and very interesting etymological byways, but as is the case with the way language develops, different etymological pathways converge and diverge and reconverge — for Wittgensteinian reasons — and the Wiktionary etymology is at least a big part of the story.)
 
This means that the word “check” means something like “king.” (Something. Like.)  Is that elliptical for “your king is in danger” as “slab” in language game (2) is supposed to be elliptical for the more precise “bring me a slab”? That is, should we say that when I threaten your king and say “check,” I am saying ’”king” as an elliptical way of saying “I am now threatening your king” (or some such more explicit, unpacked, and therefore accurate formulation)? Likewise, when I say “gin” that would mean “all my cards are now in completed sets and so I win the game” (and similarly with mahjong and any other game where the name of the game is also the name of a declaration within the game.)
 
But check is not elliptical for “your king is in danger.” The king cannot be put in danger. (As Pynchon says “once among nations, as in chess, suicide was illegal.”) “Check” actually means that the king must either move or be defended, either by blocking the piece that can move to the square the king is now on or by taking that piece. The king can’t be put in danger because it can’t be taken. If there is no way to get out of check, then the game is over and the player whose king is in check loses.
 
To sum up:
 
1) Check is like slab in language game (2): something that looks like a noun but isn’t one, though our translation of the utterance would contain nouns in our language.
 
2) There is no natural translation of the word that we could give without knowing how to play chess, since the closest candidate to a natural translation assumes the king could be put into danger, when it can’t. (At least “danger” in chess doesn’t amount to the king’s being put in check.)
 
What about “mate”? How do we translate that? Again, we might be tempted to say that mate or checkmate means: “I’ve won, I've won” or “You’ve lost,” or “There is no way you can now get out of check so that I have won [or you have lost].”
 
But the literal meaning of “checkmate” is “the king is dead,” from the Persian مات‎ شاه (šâh mât) (Wiktionary: if they’re accurate, though it doesn’t matter that much, apparently “check” comes from the Arabic but “checkmate,” under the influence of “check” comes directly from the Persian. The actual etymological paths are close enough to each other that; what matters is the meaning of the phrase.)
 
All of this seems to bear Wittgenstein out beautifully in a way familiar enough to us that we can see what would be wrong with trying to find more “accurate” translations for “elliptical” terms like “slab.” Or “check.” Only when you know how to play chess do its terms make sense, and they don’t make sense just because check “means” king.  Check means “check.” Teaching someone I might say, well think of it as meaning “your king is in danger.” But once she knows how to go on, how to play, she won’t understand it to mean that. She’ll understand it to mean that she’s in check.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Proust in translation and limitation

Long ago, I would couch at a good hour. On many occasions, my lamp hardly out, my lids shut so fast I couldn't think "I am drifting off." And, in about a half hour, thinking I should now nod off, I got up! I would want to put my book down--I thought I was still holding it in my hands--and to blow my lamp out; although unconscious I had still thought about what was in my book, but my thoughts took an odd turn; I thought I was what my work was about! — a church, a musical composition for four to play, or Francis I’s rivalry with Joanna and Philip of Spain’s son. Surviving, for an instant or two, my own waking, this illusion did not look shockingly irrational at all but would blind my vision and stop it from taking it in that my lamp was not burning still. But shortly it would turn baffling, as baffling as thoughts of living in a past world do following a transmigration of souls; unmooring from my book’s topic, I could apply my thoughts to it or not according to my wish; I got my vision back right away, and I would gasp at finding obscurity all around, winning and mild for my vision and, for my mind to boot, to which it would look as though it had nothing causing it, a thing which my mind could not grasp, an obscurity truly dark. In my mind I sought to work out what hour of night it was. Far away, a train’s whistling would sound, just as bird song in distant woods might, thus indicating how spacious night was, how void its blank, vast plains, through which a solitary pilgrim would rush quickly towards his station, following a small road which would stay in his mind thanks to his agitation about unfamiliar districts, unusual actions, thanks to his talk with companions, and to parting salutations, still following him through night’s hush, thanks too to coming back’s sugar-silky, mild harmony.

I would push my own maxilla against my pillow’s, rosy and vital as that of our childhood. I struck a match to look at my watch. Almost midnight. That instant that a sick man who has had to go on a trip, lodging at an unfamiliar inn, waking in crisis, looks down and is joyful at a ray of light shining through from his door’s bottom. What luck — what a good hour! Morning so soon! Its staff is up now, and just ringing will summon aid, bring him comfort.That anticipation of quick support grants him a valorous capacity to absorb it all. Lo! Rapid walking coming his way; coming… and going; that ray of daylight which had lit him up now vanishing. It’s midnight: gaslight off, corridors void of any staff who could bring aid, and no possibility now but to wait all night, sick and in pain, without mitigation.

I would fall back into dormancy, and any wakings to follow might only last an instant, just sufficing for audition of that organic sound of woodwork crackling, for looking around to try to fix obscurity’s whirling dark, for tasting, thanks to a conscious flash, that torpor in which all was sunk — room and furnishings — of which I was only a small part and which I sought to join again, unconscious again. Or again, drowsing, I had found that I had slid with facility into atavistic days from my archaic infancy, still finding, or coming again upon, this or that of my childhood horrors, as that of an avuncular pulling of my curls, a horror dissipating that day — which I took as an important boundary-crossing in my growing up — on which my hair was cut short. Oblivious, in my stupor, to that important shift, I would find it again as soon as I could squirm away from that avuncular, curl-pulling pair of hands, but out of abundant caution I would pull my pillow down on my scalp prior to going back into night’s imaginary world.

It might occur that, similarly to Adam giving birth to a woman from his rib, a woman was born as I lay unconscious from a slightly off positioning of my thigh. A product of that climax I was about to savor, it was this woman who I would think was its origin. My body which would warm to a warmth I thought was not within but without, which I thought was in that woman, but which was my own, sought to join with it: and I would jolt into waking. All humans now would look distant and unimportant in comparison to this woman whom just instants ago I had had to abandon, my lips warm still from kissing, my body aching with that body’s mass. If, as would occur, I saw in that woman any traits of a woman whom I had known in truth, I would aim with all my might at this goal: finding that woman again, as a tourist might who, imagining that truth could match an illusory charm, wants to look in actuality at a city long thought about, wistfully. Bit by bit that haunting flashback would vanish, consigning that fantasy girl to oblivion.

A drowsing, unconscious man holds around him a chain of hours, a disposition of annual circuits, of worlds. Looking to that chain by instinct, on waking, such a man can fix in an instant what spatial point is his, how long his dormition was; but a muddling, a rupturing of that ranking of hours can occur. If towards morning, following a bout of insomnia, lost in his book, a nap waylays him in a bodily position too dissimilar from that which is habitually his if dozing, all that has to occur is for his arm to lift so as to shadow him from sunlight and at that first instant of awaking, not knowing what hour it is, it might look to him as though it was only just now that his couch had drawn him into its warmth. If that man conks out in a highly unusual position, as in a post-prandial nap in an armchair, a total shuffling and undoing of orbit upon orbit, world upon world will occur, his magic armchair will carry him at full tilt into long-ago days and lands, his sight coming back, such a man will think what surrounds him is what did surround him months ago, in a distant country. But all it took was that in my own cot, my own dormition’s profundity should allow my mind to go slack, and so waking at midnight, not knowing what location I was at, I only had, in its primordial simplicity, a kind of participation in primary actuality as it was as it might churn far within an animal’s soul; and I was as starkly solitary, as lacking in situational surrounding, as a lithic, grotto-inhabitant, living prior to all human history. But a flashback—not of any location I was, but of a handful of locations I had, and might still, inhabit, coming in aid from on high, dragging my mind away from that void out of which, as a solitary soul, I could find no way out, I would jump past civilization upon civilization, and looking, at first with confusion, on oil lamps, on my shirts with collars, I would fit back, into a normal congruity, bit by bit, my own original traits.

Possibly that immobility of things around us is a function of our faith and conviction that any such thing is what it is, a function of our thought’s immobility confronting it. Anyhow it was always so, that waking my mind, anxious to find, in vain, just what location it was in, all would turn around and around in obscurity, things, lands, spans and durations from my past. My body, too stiff to shift, sought, following what form its languor took, to align its limbs’ position, so as by induction to find my rooms’ walls, its furnishings, thus building again and naming again this location in which it found that it was lying. Thinking back on what was past, thinking in and through its flanks, its joints, its scapulas, my body had room upon room brought back to it, any and all rooms in which it had, far back, found that it was dropping off, and walls with invisibly changing locations, changing according to how my body was imagining its room’s contours, would swirl around it in shadowy commotion. And prior to my thought’s twigging again to what lodging this was, by bringing back to mind parts of what it saw circumstantially -- prior to that, waiting in confusion on this brink of forms, this brink of archaic days, it — my body — could summon up for all, individually, by what kind of couch it was, or at what location you could find doors, by what light you saw from windows, or if you could pass through a corridor, what I had thought about as I would start drowsing, which I would find still in my thoughts on waking. My stiff flank sought to work out its position in its narrow room’s compass, imagining (this can stand for many such imaginings) that it was lying along a wall, a grand baldaquin high aloft, and right away I would say, “Ah, I did drop off, without Mama’s coming to say goodnight”, I was at my grandpa’s country lodging, my grandpa, long now in his tomb, and my body, its flank on which I lay, faithful guardians of a past that ought not to part from my mind, but which my mind did in fact turn away from, brought back to it light from an oil-lamp in Moravian glass, its form that of an urn, hanging down into my room by chains, its duct of stony Italian crystal, in my dormitory in Combray, at my grand-folks, in faraway days that right now I thought actual, without having to stir up again any particulars of such days, as my vision would soon grasp all of it again, upon my fully waking.

At that point, I would find, born again, and brought back to mind, a contrasting position of my body: my wall would point towards an opposing compass point: I was in my room at Madam of Saint-Loup’s country manor. My God — it’s past 10:00 p.m. — no supping now! That’s what my prolonging too long my daily twilight nap did, a nap which I always had on coming back from my walk with Madam of Saint Loup, prior to putting on formal duds. For Combray was far, far away from that, far, far past, Combray at which our walks back would occur by an hour that would always still allow for my catching sight of a rosy mirroring of sundown in my window glass. It’s a dissimilar way of living that occurs at Tansonton, at Madam of Saint-Loup’s, a dissimilar joy that I find, going out only at night, following in moonlight paths that I would play on long ago in sunlight: this room in which it must turn out I was dozing and not gussying up for supping, from afar I saw it, on coming back, lit up by lamp light, a solitary signal glowing through that night air.

Such rushing limbic confusions would last only an instant or two; mostly my short doubt about what locality I was now at didn’t distinguish among a host of suppositions comprising that doubt, just as, watching a galloping stallion, you can’t fix on any of its particular positions, which only chronophotography can show us. But I had got to look again on this or on that of various of my rooms, rooms from my past, and I would finish by bringing all such rooms back to mind in my long, abstract musings, on waking up: rooms bringing back frosty months during which I’d go plunging down, scalp first, into a warm burrow comprising this thing and that: a point of my pillow, my quilt’s top, a bit of a shawl, my cot’s rim, a pink copy of Disputations, which you finish by piling up into a unity, just as birds do, by continuously piling scraps up; months of frost bringing a kind of joy out of glacial cold, by making us conscious of our insulation from outdoors cold (similarly to littoral swallows, who roost in low bottoms in warmth-giving soil), months of cold in which, with combustion going on all night in your hob, you can stay dozing in a giant coat of warm and smoky air, lit up by scintillations of twigs catching, flaming again, you can stay in drowsing in a kind of phantom bay, a warm grotto, a hollow, a room within your room, a patch burning hot within it, its snug contours blown by slight motions of air which can inspirit you, coming from crooks, from junctions and window rims, or coming from afar, from hallways, cool again; or, during hot months, rooms in which you long to join with night’s moist warmth, in which moonlight shining on half-drawn curtains, throws as far as your cot’s foot its magic stairway, rooms in which your dormition is practically outdoors, similar to that of a robin bobbing against light wind on a point of light—haply that Louis XVI room, so gay that I wasn’t too unhappy in it, not on my first night nor on any night, its supports so lightly and graciously sustaining its top, so as to show and mark my cot's location; or not that room at all, but in total contrast, a small room, with so high a vault that its spacious form was similar to a pyramid, two floors high, and partially mahogany in its lining, in which from my first instant in it I thought it poisonous, morally anyhow, on account of an unknown odor, that of Chrysopogon bunchgrass, with no doubt of its crimson curtains’s hostility, as an arrogant clock, ignoring my sojourn in that room, would yack loudly away; — that locality in which without pity an odd mirror, with quadrangular supports, barring in its obliquity a junction of two walls, would sharply hollow out of my customary visual plain a patch which I was not anticipating;—a locality in which my thought trying for hours to pull and twist around, to modify its own form so as to fill its room’s gigantic tundish, had had to withstand many hard nights during which I lay along my cot, staring upwards, anxiously vigilant also for any sound at all, and my nostrils worrying too, my torso pounding with palpitations, until habit, changing my curtain’s tint, calming my clock’s ticking, instilling pity into in my nasty angling mirror, hiding, if not wholly driving out, that odor of bunchgrass, could bring my room’s dizzying roof calmingly downwards again. Habit! Skillful charwoman and maid, though slow as anything, who starts by allowing our mind to wait painfully for days or months in a provisional installation, but whom, still and all, our mind is so happy to find, for without habit and having to count only on its own capacity and capability, it could not possibly do anything to fix up a lodging in a way making it into a habitat you could inhabit. [Pun on “habit” and “inhabit” is in Proust’s original. —Tr.]

No doubt about it: I was truly up now. My body having spun about in a final twist, my guardian spirit, with an assuring warranty that all was what it was, brought my room and all that was around its inhabitant to a stop, and, tucking my bunk comfortably with quilts, put roughly into its right position my washstand, my writing rolltop, my hob, my window looking out on a familiar roadway, and my two doors. But in vain did I know that I was not in faraway parts — of which waking’s foggy oblivion would bring up for an instant, if not a distinct portrait, still a possibility of its actuality — it shook my mind into flashbacks; I wouldn’t try to drop off again right away, I would pass most of that night in calling back to mind our way of living long ago, in Combray at my grandaunt’s, in Cabourg, in Paris, in St. Cyr’s, in Astonio, and in various additional lands, bringing back many distant parts, souls I had known in this or that locality, what I actually saw of how such humans would act, or what I was told about it.

[That's it (for now anyhow). Amazing starting paragraphs (in Proust's original, obviously). As for Cabourg, St. Cyr and Astonio, all causally link up with Proust's own actual or fictional way of naming or pointing to this locality or that. Astonio with its canals? Look it up.--Tr.]

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Exit Monty Hall, but through which door?

Monty Hall will live on as the eponym of the Monty Hall problem.

Since it's now well-understood it might be worth recovering some of its spookiness. So I offer this recollection:

Among those who got it wrong at the time (early nineties) were the logician and philosopher Burton Dreben and the famous and eccentric mathematician Paul Erdös (I almost have an Erdös number of 2. If I can just convinced my friend to publish some sort piece with me!) And "Cecil Adams" of the Straight Dope, which is where I read about it. Marilyn Vos Savant got it right. I remember realizing that, after I read the Straight Dope take down of her, and feeling proud.

One night I explained it to Dreben with quarters over Sangria. We had three quarters, two even years and one odd. I would put them heads down (it was there coin Monty!), and ask him to pick the odd year. He'd pick, I'd flip one of the evens, he'd always stick, and lose 2/3 of the time.

Doing it that way was really eerie because there was a probabilistic ontology to the two remaining quarters, one being twice as likely to be odd as the other. They were physically unchanged and physically unremarkable, and yet this ghostly probability haunted and hung over them.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

David Lewis, uses fictional worlds as a way of exploring the idea of the proximity of possible worlds, but confesses he's not quite sure what to do with fictions within fictions.

One thing some writers have done is to write the actual (our-word) fictional work that some fictional work only mentions.  They give it to us for our use.  (This is the converse of the sort of thing that Borges and Lem do.)


A few such useful texts spring to mind right away, in chronological order:

Prencipe Galeotto: Dante has Francesca say of the book she and Paolo are reading together when they stop reading, "Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse."  So Galeotto -- Prince Galahad (perhaps; it's not clear whether Dante identified Galeotto and Galahad), vicariously catalyzing their mutual seduction -- is both the author and the book itself. Boccaccio gives the Decameron the sub- or alternative title Prencipe Galeotto, making it into the book that Paolo and Francesca were reading, and promising it as a conversation piece for later lovers to seduce each other with.

Spenser completes one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Squire's, in Book IV of The Faerie Queene.  (Spenser takes it as complete -- a real thing that Chaucer mentions, but that we don't have.

"Where is the Life that Late I Led?"  Petruchio interrupts himself after he starts singing this song in Taming of the Shrew.  Cole Porter gives us the whole song (with a bridge and a slight modification of Petruchio's second line).
"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came": Browning writes the poem that Edgar quotes in King Lear.
The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: From Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the book that Sandy Stranger writes when she becomes a nun (Sister Helena). Arthur Danto (not Dante!) then wrote a book about the philosophy of art with that title.
The Secret Goldfish: D.B.'s "terrific book of short stories" in Catcher in the Rye, and the title of a book of short stories by David Means.


Can you think of others? 

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Comedy Romance in Pantomime

City Lights is a sound movie in pantomime.  There's a synchronized sound-track with many sound-effects, most obviously the kazoo-speech of the worthy's dedicating the statue at the beginning of the picture, the bells ringing in the boxing-match sequence, and the shots fired in the Millionaire's house.  These are examples of what's come to be called (wrongly but almost universally) diagetic sound, sound common to the world of the fiction and the world of the audience.  Non-diagetic sound (now) designates sound that only we hear: scary mood music when someone is exploring a haunted house that seems (to them) completely silent, for example, swelling strings when two lovers are about to kiss.

In some movies we can't tell whether the sound we're hearing is part of the fictional world: usually the surprise will be that it is, that music that we think is only for us turns out to be coming from a radio or a performer we hadn't seen.  And sometimes -- maybe most famously in the 1946 version of The Killers -- there's an interplay between the diagetic and non-diagetic music, so that the Green Cat piano-player's performance of Flight of the Bumblebee strikingly interacts with the Killers-leitmotif when they enter the bar.

But (as I noticed the other day) the opposite sort of thing happens in City Lights.  As with the three-decades of silent films it mimics and closes, there's plenty of sound in the world of the film that we in the real world don't hear.  Sound movies invert the relationship of sound to world that we find in silent movies.  Not quite -- while in silent movies all we can hear is non-diagetic sound, it is true that the silent characters don't hear that sound at all.  All they hear is diagetic sound -- to use a double solecism because this is sound we don't hear.

City Lights is the real inverse, though.  We and the boxers both hear the bell; we and the robbers both hear the gun go off.  And of course we hear all the non-diagetic music that we learned to listen for from silents, if not from opera and ballet, which the characters don't.

But the Blind Girl: what she hears we don't.  She plays a record on the phonograph, but the soundtrack music doesn't change.  More significantly, in the intensely reworked scene in which the Tramp, and the audience, come to realize that she's blind, we see her respond to the slamming of a car door that we don't hear, at about 8:35 into the movie (there doesn't seem to be a good way to start just at that point in this post but you can click on this link to start it at just the right place: https://youtu.be/TkF1we_DeCQ?t=8m35s )


You'll see her react to the slamming door, but we don't hear it slam: we just see it.

I think it's important that we never hear what she's hearing.  The Tramp can see but he can also hear and we can hear with him, just as we can hear with everyone else.  We can see that she can hear but we never hear what she's hearing, which means that we focus on her bodily relation to the world, on her touch.

At the end of the movie, when she sees the Tramp for the first time, there's no reason for her to recognize him.  But she would be able to recognize his voice, and that would be the natural recognition scene. And it wouldn't work.

What matters is that she should recognize him through touch, when unknowingly she gives him the change that she failed to give him before.  Now she can see, and the days of touch are over: we can see them touch for the last time.  All of this requires that the movie be silent, be a pantomime, so that the self-presence of sound doesn't enter into it.

It's another version of Orpheus and Eurydice, that central myth in which sight overwhelms sound -- the song that Orpheus sings -- with the result that touch is banished forever.    He looks back at her and loses her forever, sees her going but will never touch her again.  The happiest version is in Purgatorio: Dante looks back at Virgil, and he's gone, and so are his sweet songs; but he can truly see Beatrice now, though touch is no longer a relevant sense in the Comedy.  City Lights isn't the saddest version, but it is an exceptionally clear exposition of that moment when the pantomime has ended.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Nous autres

In class today we were talking about the differences between Vergil and Homer. The difference between the deep administrative state that Vergil is describing, and the eternally contextualizing hierarchy against which Homeric personal relations play out. Dr. Johnson sees the silence of Dido in Book VI of The Aeneid as one of the clearest ways in which Vergil ornaments his poem with sparkling Homeric lusters that he can't resist, and complains of how much less affecting it is than the silence of Ajax in Book XI of The Odyssey. But he misses the lesson of one of his own points: Vergil unites the beauties of The Iliad and The Odyssey, yes, but he reverses the order: the intense personal experience that burgeons throughout The Iliad and culminates in The Odyssey is in Vergil a turn away from that experience to the violence that the always emerging possibilities of political violence that state develops from and resists.  The end of the Vergilian Odyssey is in Book VI of The Aeneid, at which point Aeneas turns away from the Homeric characters in the underworld and leaves them behind forever.  Dido's silence is a recognition of this, and a forerunner of Lavinia's equally conspicuous silence in the last six books.  It's not about her, and barely about Turnus or Pallas or even Lausus and Mezentius, the Vergilian equivalents of Hector and Priam.  (We get something like Achilles's point of view, remembering his own father when Priam supplicates him, as Aeneas thinks of his own son when he kills Lausus and sees Mezentius's intense mourning and desire to die. Achilles threatens to kill Priam but takes pity on him and gives him safe-conduct back to Troy; Aeneas takes pity on Mezentius by killing him, so he needn't out live Lausus very long.  Another farewell to the Homeric characters.)

The deep state administers and monopolizes and so restricts the violence that threatens everywhere. That insight is what leads to the proto-Miltonic moments in Vergil, the moments when the narrator speaks, for the only time, from the perspective of the first person plural: we Romans, in Vergil, we fallen humans ("all our woe") in Milton.  And the place where I saw that today is in this moment which, of all people, Henry James may be picking up on in The Golden Bowl.  Vergil's narrative insight is to narrate any intense incident, more and more as The Aeneid progresses, from the perspective of those in distress or pain or despair. This is particularly true in the shifts in perspective in the last moment of The Aeneid, the loss and death of the supplicating Turnus.  We go from his perspective to Aeneas's when he sees Pallas's belt: of course the very last moment is the flight of Turnus's indignant (indignata) soul down to the shades.

But even before that Turnus has the nightmarish experience of being unable or barely able to hold his own:

...velut in somnis, oculos ubi languida pressit
nocte quies, nequiquam auidos extendere cursus
velle videmur, et in mediis conatibus aegri
succidimus  (XII.908-911)

...as in dreams, when languid rest has pressed our eyes at night, we seem in vain to wish to stretch forth our eager running, and in the middle of our efforts we sink down exhausted.

As has been pointed out (e.g. by Christine G. Perkell), this is a Vergilian recasting of a description of dream-frustration in The Iliad (22.199-200)

James's omniscient (or near omniscient) narrator uses the first person far more frequently (singular and plural, though the plurals are a bit more specific, designating narrator and readers, not all human beings), but not like this, except perhaps for this passage near the end of The Golden Bowl:

He was so near now that she could touch him, taste him, smell him, kiss him, hold him; he almost pressed upon her, and the warmth of his face--frowning, smiling, she mightn't know which; only beautiful and strange--was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams.  (Chapter XLI)

The first person here is latent but all the more powerful for that: James knows, and we know, what our experience of dreaming is like.  This is James’s version of the Proustian nous, as impersonal a first person plural as we ever find in Proust, since it applies to all of us in our lonely and isolated dreams: a universal loneliness, a universal separation.  So too is Turnus all alone, as all are. For Vergil this is the birth of the administrative state, the real entity that has replaced Homeric human relation.  Blanchot says the choice in Homer is violence or speech.  In Vergil, in the modern state, our choice is only violence or silence.






Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Joseph and the Angel

There's a show of Valentin de Boulogne's paintings at the Met. Valentin (1591-1632) was a French Caravaggist twenty years younger than Michelangelo Merisi. They said there'd never been a show devoted to him before. He was pretty great. Here's "The Dream of Saint Joseph," as he is prompted by an angel to take his family and fly into Egypt. (The rest before the flight into Egypt.)



I think it's a great example of something close to the "Dream of the Burning Child" that Freud, and then Lacan, analyze so wonderfully, and shows the relation of that analysis to allegory (unsurprising, I guess, that there's a connection between dream and allegory). The angel is urging Joseph to wake and fly, but it is only in the dream that he can see the angel. We can see him because we are not part of that reality; we viewers recognize the dream because we belong to our own dream of human life, so far removed from the salvational history that this episode is part of. We want him to wake from our life, in which we share his dream of the angel, to go and save Mary and Jesus.

And yet even in our dream of the angel, we're not in his dream world. The angel may be in both worlds, or all worlds: his dream, our dream, reality itself. The angel of course would be invisible in reality -- or how could we know, as we do because we see him, that this is Joseph's dream? But he is its emissary, and therefore can wake him. But the angel that wakes him cannot wake us, and when Joseph awakens, the angel will disappear from our dream world too.

So, like so much Counter Reformation art, this painting shows the everyday truth of human life -- it's evanescence. The father of a newborn is asleep, exhausted, as one is. Some dream of the young man to come already haunts him, as he wakes up (in his dream) to the fact that the present is absolutely fragile, already past, and the future is already present. He looks so old -- is that part of his dream too? The age he'll be when he goes to see this painting with his son home from college for Thanksgiving? Or is that already the truth, so that like the friendly ghost Caspar Goodwood, he's been aged thirty years on the spot? Not "Come up and be dead," but: Wake up and be old! that's the demand the child makes, or rather that the father dreams the child makes. It's a wish-fulfillment, it's the demand the father wants the child to make, dreams he makes. He dreams that the child will live and thrive, and wakes up, old and exhausted, to try to make that dream come true.