Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Sacred James

 I'm reading Henry James's bizarre last unfinished novel, The Sense of the Past, which I guess he started around the time of The Sacred Fount and just after Turn of the Screw.  Anyhow, the way it treats its central character's relation to a cousin whose intelligence waxes and wanes during a single conversation reminds me of The Sacred Fount, which treats intelligence and insight as a kind of fluid quantity that flows back and forth between characters.  That's what literally happens in each chapter, as characters go from complete imbecility to supersubtle analysts, back to imbecility: with the observing narrator also needing to worry about his own susceptibility to this coming and going of accurate insight in himself.

And it occurred to me today (maybe this is a brief waxing of insight) that James is explicitly parodying what happens in all his novels, parodying the way Isabel or Strether or Milly Theale or Maggie Verver go from being less intelligent and insightful than those around them to being far more so.  It's as though James thought to give this another, how shall I say?... turn of the screw, in order to see what would happen if the dynamic would shift back and forth.

Why would he do this?  Well, partly for fun, mainly for fun, but partly as an experiment in style, since it's style alone that can suggest insight that then becomes so fine that (as Eliot says) no idea can violate it, at which point it becomes obtuseness, an obtuseness so intense that it can't help becoming self-aware and turning into insight again, in an incessant dialectic that can go nowhere except into the subtlety of its own endlessly elaborating, endlessly self-modifying sentences.

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.)