Monday, December 12, 2011

Tasks and answers

(A short post to keep my hand in, while I write the two overdue things I'm writing and finish up the semester....)

One of the great and difficult things about King Lear is its fairy-tale quality.  Writing gripping and unmotivated situations - nothing seems easier, but nothing is harder. Even the Mariner's shooting of the albatross doesn't quite do it, as Coleridge himself acknowledged when Anna Letitia Barbauld complained of the story's want of moral point:
Mrs Barbauld tole me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were — that it was improbable and had no moral. As for the probability — to be sure that might admit some question — but I told her that in my judgment the poem had moral, and that too openly obtruded on the reader, It ought to have no more moral than the story of the merchant sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and the Genii starting up and saying he must kill the merchant, because a date shell had put out the eye of the
Genii's son.
It's worth remembering that Barbauld was an innovative and charismatic teacher as well as poet, and that she wrote a good deal, and successfully for children. But Coleridge was after that near-impossible quality: gratuitous narrative that brings you in so quickly that you don't have time to wonder why or how such situations should ever arise.  To see what I mean notice how well Kafka achieves something akin to the great beginning of the Grimms's "Town Musicans of Bremen" --

A man had a donkey, who for long years had untiringly carried sacks to the mill, but whose strength was now failing, so that he was becoming less and less able to work. Then his master thought that he would no longer feed him, but the donkey noticed that it was not a good wind that was blowing and ran away, setting forth on the road to Bremen, where he thought he could become a town musician 
-- in the opening of the Metamorphosis:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.  He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into corrugated segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely.  His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, flimmered helplessly before his eyes. [Nabokov's modified translation of the Muirs with one reversion to their version; "flimmered" is his portmanteau of flickered and shimmered]
Shakespeare achieves what Coleridge doesn't at the beginning of King Lear.  His source -- the Chronicle History of King Leir -- has the King set the love contest up as a trick.  He is sure that Cordella will vow her absolute love and obedience to him, which will then enable him to require her to marry the husband he has picked for her rather than the man she loves (cf. the less fairy-tale-like Midsummer Night's Dream).  In Shakespeare's version, Lear simply asks the question:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

He means the question to set him up as the judge of their answers - a finely fatherly thing to do. But the question is deeper than that, I've just been realizing: it's the question of the play.  Which daughter will he say loves him most? And the answer comes only at the end, when he finally says that it's Cordelia.  That question is answered for us, but for her also: "Which of you?" The second person matters: it's when he says it to her that the question is answered.  We wait, and she waits, for the answer during the whole play. It is then that he gives the answer to the question he has unwillingly posed himself.  He had no idea that the question was not simply the catalyst of what comes next but the question of the play.  Will he say it? About Cordelia? When?

The "shall" turns out to indicate the whole temporal span of the play: Lear's fairy tale question and fairy tale crisis also shows him setting himself the task that it will take the whole play to fulfill: saying who loves him most.  And when he does that, everything's over.  But the second person also matters because he's setting her the task (in proper Proppian form): make him say it.  And that takes the whole play and her whole life, and his whole life too.

I think this is all obvious, and yet I think somehow it's not: that the story is simpler and deeped than anything in Tolstoy, which is why he (Tolstoy) disparaged it.  The best fairy-tale writer of the nineteenth century, Tolstoy's works have the fairy-tale slyness of the Chronicle History of King Leir.  Perhaps they sometimes rival the the austere complexity, that is to say the simplicity, of King Lear.  But it's King Lear that they rival.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More on the Clock

Went back to watch another hour of Christian Marclay's Clock today.  Very wittily, at 4:45 p.m. Marclay has a clip in which a museum is being closed in that way that museums that close at 5 really start closing at 4:45 -- wittily because just then a stentorian guard came in to intone, over the movie (which kept playing) that it was 4:45 and the museum was about to close and we'd have to make our way towards the exits.  Art museum life imitates art museum art!  Like that Oskar Schlemmer painting of the Bauhaus stairway hung on the wall of the very similar stairway at the old MOMA:

Anyhow, what I noticed this time: how well the cuts between scenes were made, so that there was a quasi-narrative going on (a person made a call at 4:12, a person picked it up a call in the next scene) - effect intensified by sound-bleeds from cut to cut (sometimes anticipating, sometimes lagging the cut).

Quasi-narrative is film's stock-in-trade.  Film relies on the horizon of working memory, on coherence over the last minute or so, without much concern for what's over the horizon.  (Memento is an exemplary demonstration of and inquiry into this idea.)  Sure, most narrative films can be recollected later as more-or-less coherent narratives.  But on the middle levels, the way scenes put people together or tear them apart, can only make sense if we forget that not one minute earlier everything was terrible, or everything was fine.  And on the larger levels, many a movie is just as incoherent (cf. The Big Sleep): movies can afford to be.  The Clock gives you a kind of mosaic of narrative, in working-memory-long clips.

This also made and makes cross-cutting work: as I said before, we recur to some narratives in which time is of the essence.  We check back every time some character is also checking back.  One of those today -- a chess game at a cafe with one of the players watching the tensely photographed clock, awaiting the murderer of the other, perhaps -- turned out to go on for at least half an hour in real time. No doubt in the original film, which I didn't know, the scene lasted more like three minutes, though also, it must be, with cross-cuts that we didn't get to see.  (I think probably that there were no cross-cut clips in The Clock, that every cut to another location was Marclay's, not the source's.)

I also noticed the obvious but deep fact that every film in The Clock was fictional.  This makes an interesting difference: it means that at no point can we infer what time it was in reality on the day the film was shot.  (This is probably not strictly true: there must be location shots with real clocks in them.  But still, the principle of the thing:)  All the clocks and watches depicted fictional times.  Sure, they might accidentally correspond to real times, just as there might accidentally and unknown to Doyle be a real Sherlock Holmes (David Lewis's example), who did and acted just as Doyle's fictional one did.  But Doyle would not be referring to this one, and these clocks would not be referring to real time.  But in our world they do, since The Clock is a clock, and you always know what time it is.

You know what time it is in the theater, though you may not know what time it is in the fiction.  This is because in the sequence I saw today, some of the clocks were stopped.  In a museum (perhaps the one that shooed people out at 4:45, but I don't think so), two characters look at a collage comprising pornographic magazine photos and photos of clocks, all showing the same time (the time The Clock is telling).  Later a character comes in to find that his clock has been smashed.  We can see when.  It's the time on our watches.  But clearly the clock has stopped long before.  (And later there's another clip, Sound-and-the-Fury-ish, with a stopped watch and broken crystal, though I think maybe we see its owner breaking it with a hammer.)  I wonder whether Marclay has the scene from Chinatown where J.J. picks up the crushed pocket watches he's placed under Mulwray's tires to see when he drove off.  I wonder again - well, that's what the movie makes you do - whether Hitchcock winding the clock in Rear Window appears.

So what that made me realize is how much the movie is about clock- and watch-faces.  How much, again, it's about movies themselves, and in particular watching movies, watching faces, looking at the photographed face.  Hitchcock's joke in the Mt. Rushmore scenes of North By Northwest and Marclay's is about the fact that movies show faces on screen at unprecedented sizes: human and clock faces.  (Well, Big Ben may be as big as any photographed clock, I guess.)

As Gloria Swanson put it in Sunset Boulevard: "We had faces!"

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Names of Works: Names ("Turn of the Screw," for example)

What does Reservoir Dogs mean?  Everyone knows: it's that movie that established Quentin Tarantino's reputation for gripping pulp violence, for a kind of pop pleasure in the interactions of large, primary-colored characters (figuratively as well as by way of their names) punctuated by violence, but where the violence isn't quite our central anxiety but part of the stakes in the story.  Before you go see the movie, you assume you'll find out the significance of its title in the movie; afterwards you do know the significance: it's the perfect title for that Quentin Tarentino movie.

Yet, if you've seen it you know that there's no reservoir, no dog, no reference to their concatenation in the movie.  Somehow the completely gripping story so fills your mind that when you've watching it, you don't notice that it skips the part where the meaning of the title gets explained.  By the end, it just means that Quentin Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs.

Tarantino does this so effectively that we can see something really wonderful: an idiom aborning.  The title has the same linguistic effect as an idiom: a piece of language that means the way words mean, but not by virtue of the combination that it comprises.  The whole phrase easily dissolves into the flow of meaning, just like any other word.  The hotly contested philosophical distinction between names and definite descriptions (cf. Russell, Kripke) comes undone in the case of what we could call the idiomatic name, the name that starts out looking like a description and then, after a while, doesn't.

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about The Turn of The Screw, and what the title means.  Everyone knows, right? that Henry James novel, and also the sense of twist after possible twist.  But why "turn of the screw"? The phrase appears in the novel twice, in that strange way that James has of treating bits of language as though they're common coin, even though they're not ("hang fire" being perhaps the most notorious).  In the frame narrative, Douglas remarks about the ghost story that Griffin has just told,
"I quite agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?"

"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that they give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them."
And then later (though earlier in time), towards the end, the Governess describes yet once more the line she's had to pursue throughout her time at Bly:
Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature. I could only get on at all by taking "nature" into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.
Sure, Douglas could have picked up the phrase from her, but that seems to be considering it too curiously, as though we're suddenly supposed to think back to the way she's influenced Douglas at this moment when she's praising the ordinary, confronting the ordinary against the ordeal.  It feels more as though the phrase itself has become virtuously, valorously, ordinary, idiomatic, something that people do, in that wonderful offhanded praise (so like James) of "ordinary human virtue."  What is a turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue? Even with just this context, these contexts, it means something like a tightening up of the apparatus, to make it more "rigid" (her word), more capable of resisting the stress or push it undergoes.

Anyhow, the phrase is not an idiomatic one before James made it one.  It does have an origin though: it's the title of a chapter in Bleak House ("A Turn of the Screw") in which Phil calls Joshua Smallweed "a screw and a wice in his actions."  Thus the turn of the screw is the gradual increase of pressure, tightening what is already tight, turning a structure into nothing but itself, the way an idiom comes to mean only that untranslatable thing that the idiom captures so well.

This is essentially Blanchot's reading of the story. His great insight (greater even than what he was the first to remark: that the story is studiously and relentlessly ambiguous, not only about the real existence of the ghosts, but about whether it's ambiguous at all, an ambiguity which requires Miles to die) - his great insight is the importance of the fact that the governess is the narrator.  What this means, he says, is not only that we don't know whether she's reliable, but that the subject of the story is its own narration, the narration of the fact that the narration is at issue. It's her story, which means that the content of the narrative is that it is a narrative: as with Proust it is, in the end, the story of the narrator as narrator.

Blanchot doesn't want to make this into some standard circular paradox of self-referentiality, any more than Proust does.  He wants to see this collapsing of the difference between narrative and thing narrated as the pressure of narrative itself, increased sufficiently to squeeze out of narrative everything inessential, everything that isn't, finally, narrative pressure, so that the pressure of narrative is finally what it is: a pressure to be found only in the irreality of fiction because no fact of the matter, no truth, can come to resolve and relieve that pressure.  The turn of the screw tightens the fiction to itself, makes of the work its own idiom or idiolect, a language you can learn but not one that you can translate, not in any literal, vulgar way, as we are warned from the start:
Mrs. Griffin, however, expressed the need for a little more light. "Who was it she was in love with?"

"The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.

"Oh, I can't wait for the story!"

"The story won't tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."
Waggish's recent post on MacGuffins put me in mind of this.   For Hitchcock (and others) the MacGuffin is the mechanical narrative rabbit (hence the rabbit's foot of MI 3, perhaps), that the greyhounds of plot baying after it.  But for Blanchot (and, if ironically, for Blumenberg) the MacGuffin isn't just (to change the metaphor) a catalyst, some reagent that gets things going and then withdraws.  It's the work itself, the fact of narrative or of fiction, the thing that fiction wants to be able to tell: the significance of its own existence.  And that's what it can't tell in any literal, vulgar way: if it could, its existence wouldn't be significant.  If you chase the MacGuffin in James, or in Proust, or in Kafka (Blanchot compares the three of them) you may indeed go over to the world of parable.  Is this in reality possible?  Of course not.  Only in parable.  You have to learn another language and make its idioms your own, even if they don't translate into anything in your native tongue.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Lewis on Fictional Worlds

My friends assure me that D.K. Lewis was completely serious about his belief in the real existence of possible worlds. For me they're a useful heuristic, but I guess it helps to go whole hog, since to do that commits you to a more robust view of truth: it really is true in a possible world that something possible happened although it didn't happen here.  Lewis's idea makes truth more robust by shifting the adjective possible from modifying truth to modifying a set of worlds.  Then not only are possible things true in some worlds, but it is true, pure and simple, that in all worlds taken together every possible thing is true.

Which can be a depressing idea, depending on the vividness of your imagination, and depending also on your views of counterparts and zombies and the like.  (I myself would want instead to assume that all my counterparts are zombies, and that I escape death at every moment by threading the maze of worlds where my counterparts, are, at every moment, dying.  I could believe in a kind of asymptotic immortality this way, or a kind of perpetual standing wave of reincarnation into some still-living version of myself.  Or, really, a kind of packet-switching of the entity or identity consisting of myself plus all my zombie counterparts; me, I'd always exist in one of the packets getting through to the future, and not in the packets that weren't.  This suggests, by the way, a reason to be a one-boxer: I want to live in one of the one-box worlds.  Lewis, a two-boxer, himself admits that the one-boxers would do better than he would, as a matter of fact.   He'd still pick one box though, since that couldn't causally change his outcome.  But to resume the thread of my discourse....)

If Lewis is serious, and if he's right, he would justify, and also give a spooky and discomfiting authority to, a kind of literary fiction (and fan fiction too) which it's harder to justify if there's just one world, "la vie, la seule qu'on a." Here's how Lewis says we should think about fictional worlds:
The worlds we should consider, I suggest, are the worlds where the fiction is told, but as known fact rather than fiction.  The act of story-telling occurs, just as it does here at our world; but there it is what here it falsely purports to be: truth-telling about matters whereof the teller has knowledge.
Lewis doesn't say why the fiction has to be told, perhaps because he thinks it's obvious: the world of the fiction is one in which the events occur and in which the fictional narrative also exists, since it is, at least implicitly, part of the fictional narrative that it exists.  Now, I myself don't think that it is an implicit part of a narrative that it exists in the world it purports to describe, for reasons I've mentioned in previous posts, but I don't think this actually matters very much for Lewis's view.  I'll note though that he does seem to worry a similar issue at the very end of the essay, when he raises a question about how to treat a fictional character who in the fiction is telling a fiction. But I think all we need to accept is that any consistent fictional world, as long as it is possible, really exists somewhere. Some of those worlds will indeed include true accounts of the events in the world that are counterparts of the fictional accounts of those events in our world.  But I don't see that they need to. (In fact if they did need to, it would seem that there might be an infinite regress to worry about, since we'd have to add to any narrative that it is a true account of the world, which would change it and require another such assertion, etc. Lewis seems to prefer to go the way of collapsing iterations rather than allowing for this infinite regress, but sees the collapse as problematic too, since now it would be hard to keep separate fiction and the things that are fictional within that fiction.)

So every consistent and possible fictional world really exists, somewhere.  Then the work of the writer of "realistic" fiction (where realistic means something like "possible") is a kind of discovery of truth, the truths consistent with the writer's possible and therefore true premises.  It's like math, or like chess, or like their intersection: given a possible state of affairs, here is an array of incidents, events, characters, interactions, and outcomes consistent with it.  Since possible states of affairs are all of them true somewhere, so are all the incidents, event, characters, interactions, and outcomes consistent with them.  The fiction writer discovers truths which we might be glad to know, or be horrified to know.  But they are true, somewhere (unless you go my zombie route, in which case their truth won't matter as much: they'll just really be avatars -- in the gaming sense, not the strongly counterpartial sense in which they'd have something of the meaning they have as reincarnations - coincarnations, perhaps, of real souls.)

So reading fiction is reading about something that's true somewhere.  If there are inconsistencies, then your reading about multiple truths, all of which may obtain in different places, even if not simultaneously.  And the kind of literary criticism so popular a century or so ago, where critics hazard and argue for strange back-stories: all that's true too.  Hamlet was a woman (in many many worlds, in all the worlds in which she existed); was Claudius's son; was his daughter; was old Hamlet's murderer.  Desdemona did betray Othello with Cassio (in many, many worlds), and Emilia did sleep with Othello in many of them.  Fan fiction consistent with the authoritative fiction it riffs on is all true too, somewhere.

Yes, all consistent fan fiction is true, and all consistent back-story mongering is true, but I am making a stronger claim than that.  It can be, is somewhere, true of our Hamlet, our Desdemona, that is to say, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Desdemona, if it is (possibly) consistent with what we know about them.  But if it is consistent with what we know about them, well then these are things that are true, and true in possible worlds as close as you could want them to be to our own. ("Closeness" of possible worlds is how Lewis handles overall resemblance or divergence between worlds.  The worlds in which Hamlet has three eyes and is green are farther from us than the worlds in which he looks like Jude Law.)

Maybe literary critical arguments are another way of arguing for or against closeness of possible worlds. "Only an idiot would think Claudius was innocent" really means "The possible worlds in which Claudius is innocent are each much farther away than its almost perfect replica where he's guilty."  Maybe.  But that world still exists, and that story, that solution to the chess problem the play presents to its critics, is still true.

If Lewis is right, just imagine the Sartrean seriousness of the responsibility of the critic, or the fan-fictionist, or any audience member guessing at what happens after the story ends.  It's not that we cause those worlds to exist by imagining them.  It's that we come to know that they exist, and whatever claim those events have on our emotions is a claim we now can't dodge.

Writing would be like writing on an Etch-a-Sketch or frosted window: we expose fragments of what's behind it in our writing, and then can't unlearn what we've learned.  As pure epistemological beings, we can know in theory that all possible things are true.  But as empirical humans, the true things that we learn explicitly about have a very great claim on our attention and care, our Sorge. Which suggests we should be cautions about the truths we learn through exposing ourselves to fiction, or through exercising our own imaginations.

Luckily I can't believe any of these possible worlds are real, as the possibly still living and thus-believing Lewises do (or as our this-worldly Lewis was said to).  But it's possible that they are.  And then all you could do is hide.

(The whole thing is Lemian or Borgesian. Lewis would be committed to think, I am sure happily, that the whole Library of Babel really existed, extensionally. For Quine, the whole library may be found condensed, amply, in the alphabet.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Clock-watching, or Truth, sixty times an hour

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant offers some "axioms about time in general":
Time has only one dimension; different times are not simultaneous but sequential (just as different spaces are not sequential but simultaneous).... Different times are only parts of one and the same time.... the proposition that different times cannot be simultaneous could not be derived from a universal concept.... Hence it is contained directly in the intuition and presentation of time.  --Pluhar's translation, A32 = B48
Sequence is how time is related to counting, which is to say that time can be measured by a numbering clock always counting upwards.  Einstein's thought experiments about time really consist of showing the kinds of things that can act as clocks: viz., any physical system that follows the then recently articulated fundamental axioms of arithmetic: the idea of a defined interval and the idea of a succession of such intervals.  (Thus two mirrors bouncing light back and forth to each other are a clock.) Since pretty much all things can be clocks (movies pre-eminently, ticking at 24fps), the universe of things is a universe subject to time. (The fact that Einstein proved Kant wrong is not really germane here: what matters is the domain that space and time map out.)

At any rate, I thought about some of this when I spent a couple of hours at Christian Marclay's The Clock, the real-time exhibition to end all real-time exhibitions.

As everyone knows, Marclay spliced together bits of film totaling twenty-four hours, each bit containing somewhere a (legible) clock, whether a digital sign like the one above, a wrist-watch, a sun-dial (I'm guessing: I don't think I saw one), or someone telling someone else the time.  Some movies, parts of some scenes, appeared more than once -- if a character worried about the time keeps looking at his watch in some movie, his watch may appear more than once in that movie, as time hurries by or seems to drag on forever.  Since most movies aren't in real time even when they're showing continuous time, the time difference between those clips is different (and more accurate) in The Clock from what it was in the original.

In His Girl Friday about twenty minutes passes on the clock in the twelve real minutes that Hildy and Walter are talking; in 24 the commercials allow for elisions but also compress the time a little bit so that particular deadlines can be met during the show and not during the ads.  As far as I know High Noon is in genuine real time, as is Robert Wise's great boxing movie "The Set-Up" (1949).

This is from The Set-Up, at the end, and,
for all I know, from The Clock

You can certainly set your watch by The Clock, and one of the interesting parts of the experience is knowing what time it is as you watch; you don't have to worry about checking.  Watching is checking.  And yet you kind of forget that also: the fragments are all so gripping that you're hooked -- 60 times an hour.  We regret leaving every scene for the next, or would regret it if the next scene weren't so immediately compelling.  The movies!
Part of being gripped, though, is looking for the watch or clock or time-piece in each scene.  (It's a pleasure to see clocks you recognize from the real world.  My watch was there! (Someone trying to pawn it for drugs, at just about 1:17 p.m.  Kind of early in the day, come to think of it; must have been a heroin addict.)  My grandmother's clunky alarm clock!  So we watch (!) somewhat differently from the way we would the original movie.  It might therefore seem surprising that we're hooked, scene after scene.

And yet in another way it's not surprising.  The experience is decontextualized, in the best possible sense, the way movie trailers decontextualize the scenes they show.  We get little fragments of intensity, all the more intense for being unexplained, unassimilated to some reasonable desire or goal or way of making oneself secure in the world, the goal of all characters in sequential narration.

Sequence again, then.  The Clock quilts together scenes from a century or so of movies.  We're not looking at the sequential unfolding of time.  We're looking at different spaces, maybe 2,880 of them (the clips are not the same length; they probably average thirty seconds apiece, but who knows?) that are not simultaneous, and different times that are not sequential, but all brought to the spatial simultaneity, the spacial equivalent of simultaneity, on the video screen.  Time and space are made mosaics of each other.  We recognizes bits and pieces -- here a scene, there some sort of time-keeper.  They all come together.  It's beautiful.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dante, quotation, rhyme (more on time and the other)

A quick note on Dante and his rhyming: I've been interested for a long time in poems that quote other poems, importing lines into a prosodical context different from the context of their origin.

Importing lines this way, quoting them, concentrates the effect of all quotation: it puts the quoted words into a context provided by the quoter; it frames the quotation as the quoter wishes to frame it, against a sometimes contrasting background different from the ground the words originally belonged to (whether as figure or ground or both: reading is the progressive shifting of the figure of the phrase being read against the semi-opaque anticipation of words to come and the less vague but still simplified and abstracted memories of phrases already read: we are always cresting into the present in a standing wave of arrival, as Ashbery puts it).

In Canto XXX of Purgatorio, Beatrice arrives and Virgil disappears. Her arrival is heralded by the singing of a hundred ministers and messengers of eternal life, who quote the Vulgate, as it has been quoted throughout Purgatorio, beginning with the beatitudes that the repentant sinners chant on every terrace.  On each terrace two allegorical narratives present themselves, one from Scripture, a parallel one from classical mythology, in conformity with Dante's reconciliation of his classical and his Christian forebears (whom Virgil, misspelled in the tendentious medieval way with an i, as in Virgin, embodies in the Pisgah sight given to him in his Fourth Eclogue, read by his Christian interpreters as prophesying the virgin birth of Christ.) Those earlier Biblical quotations have always seemed uncontroversially apposite, but here things are somewhat different:

Quali i beati al novissimo bando
surgeran presti ognun di sua caverna,
la revestita voce alleluiando,

cotali in su la divina basterna
si levar cento, ad vocem tanti senis,
ministri e messaggier di vita etterna.

Tutti dicean: "Benedictus qui venis!"
e fior gittando e di sopra e dintorno,
"Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis!"  (XXX, 13-21)


As all the blessed, when the trumpet sounds,
will rise up singing, ready, near or far,
to "Hallelujah!" their return to bodies' bounds,

reclad in flesh: so in that sacred car
a hundred angles, ad vocem tanti senis,
rose: ministers of things that ever are.

All said together: "Benedictus qui venis!"
and, strewing flowers high up and all around,
"Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis!"
The Latin phrases may be respectively translated: "At the voice of so venerable a man" (someone has just been singing from "Song of Songs"); "Blessed are you who come"; and "Give lilies with full hands."

The first phrase is not a quotation at all; it's Dante setting up rhyme and context for the two quotations to follow.  As Singleton suggests, no Italian words rhyme with "venis" and "plenis," so Dante prepares the Latin rhymes by giving them a Latin context: the voice of the old man  makes rhyme possible: to refer to him (as senis) is to structure the rhymes.

The next Latin line is a near-quotation of Matthew: "Benedictus qui venit," blessed is he who comes.  Although it transpires that the singers are praising the arrival of Beatrice, they use the masculine form appropriate to Christ, not to Beatrice.  That's to be expected: the line is too much associated with Christ to bear a change in grammatical gender.  But Dante does change its person, from third- to second-person singular: "Blessed are you who come."  Why does he make the change?

He does this, it must be, for the rhyme, so that he can rhyme it with another line which he wishes to quote with verbatim accuracy.  That's what I want to note here: the hierarchy of rhyming in these lines.  The last line -- "Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis!" -- is the line that controls the other two and dictates what they will be: the unprecedented Latin description of the old man's voice in the first of the three rhyming lines, and the alteration in the second of the three of the Biblical verse to make it second person.  The unaltered last line is from Vergil: it is nearly the very last line that Anchises speaks to Aeneas among the dead, and here (as Singleton points out) its true meaning, beyond its manifest content, is a similar farewell to Virgil whom Dante the pilgrim is about to lose forever.

Anchises's last lines in the Aeneid were added after the early death of Octavia's son (Augustus's nephew) Marcellus, and it is this that Anchises laments to Aeneas in lines that Vergil read aloud to her brother Augustus and Octavia, lines which made her collapse with intolerable grief. Anchises calls for lilies to mourn the death he foresees: it is under the sign of the death of the child that the father and son separate in the Aeneid, and the perfect accuracy of the quotation of that lament confirms Singleton's characterization of "This most remarkable farewell verse....  It bears the haunting sadness of its context in the Aeneid and functions as a climax to the whole strain of pathos that has attached to the figure of the 'sweet father,' as he will now be called when suddenly he is no longer by Dante's side."

It is remarkable.  Literary quotation is what happens when what's left are the words which once made the other present (the writer as a psyche, as someone alive in our life, someone we can interact with, even bargain with), words now elevated (in a Hegelian -- better, in a Longinian sense), decontextualized and purified into the intensity of their own self-reference, hermetic but all the more generous for being so.  They don't do anything but quote themselves, exist like a motto or epigraph or quotation out of context, abbreviating, not their original context, but its loss, the loss of the psyche behind them, the psyche now absorbed and condensed into only the words themselves, the written words of one who has become at last a writer only.

The remembered voice of the parent, remembered as quotation: this is what you get in Proust too, in the great passage in which he remembers as a talisman or token of his long-dead father how he had relented from his usual strict refusal to cater to his son's neediness:
«Mais va donc avec lui, puisque tu disais justement que tu n’as pas envie de dormir, reste un peu dans sa chambre, moi je n’ai besoin de rien.» «Mais, mon ami, répondit timidement ma mère, que j’aie envie ou non de dormir, ne change rien à la chose, on ne peut pas habituer cet enfant...» «Mais il ne s’agit pas d’habituer, dit mon père en haussant les épaules, tu vois bien que ce petit a du chagrin, il a l’air désolé, cet enfant; voyons, nous ne sommes pas des bourreaux! Quand tu l’auras rendu malade, tu seras bien avancée! Puisqu’il y a deux lits dans sa chambre, dis donc à Françoise de te préparer le grand lit et couche pour cette nuit auprès de lui. Allons, bonsoir, moi qui ne suis pas si nerveux que vous, je vais me coucher.»

On ne pouvait pas remercier mon père; on l’eût agacé par ce qu’il appelait des sensibleries. Je restai sans oser faire un mouvement; il était encore devant nous, grand, dans sa robe de nuit blanche sous le cachemire de l’Inde violet et rose qu’il nouait autour de sa tête depuis qu’il avait des névralgies, avec le geste d’Abraham dans la gravure d’après Benozzo Gozzoli que m’avait donnée M. Swann, disant à Sarah qu’elle a à se départir du côté d’Ïsaac. Il y a bien des années de cela. La muraille de l’escalier, où je vis monter le reflet de sa bougie n’existe plus depuis longtemps. En moi aussi bien des choses ont été détruites que je croyais devoir durer toujours et de nouvelles se sont édifiées donnant naissance à des peines et à des joies nouvelles que je n’aurais pu prévoir alors, de même que les anciennes me sont devenues difficiles à comprendre. Il y a bien longtemps aussi que mon père a cessé de pouvoir dire à maman: «Va avec le petit.» La possibilité de telles heures ne renaîtra jamais pour moi. Mais depuis peu de temps, je recommence à très bien percevoir si je prête l’oreille, les sanglots que j’eus la force de contenir devant mon père et qui n’éclatèrent que quand je me retrouvai seul avec maman. En réalité ils n’ont jamais cessé; et c’est seulement parce que la vie se tait maintenant davantage autour de moi que je les entends de nouveau, comme ces cloches de couvents que couvrent si bien les bruits de la ville pendant le jour qu’on les croirait arrêtées mais qui se remettent à sonner dans le silence du soir.


“Go along with him, then; you said just now that you didn’t feel like sleep, so stay in his room for a little. I don’t need anything.”

“But dear,” my mother answered timidly, “whether or not I feel like sleep is not the point; we must not make the child accustomed...”

“There’s no question of making him accustomed,” said my father, with a shrug of the shoulders; “you can see quite well that the child is unhappy. After all, we aren’t gaolers. You’ll end by making him ill, and a lot of good that will do. There are two beds in his room; tell Françoise to make up the big one for you, and stay beside him for the rest of the night. I’m off to bed, anyhow; I’m not nervous like you. Good night.”

It was impossible for me to thank my father; what he called my sentimentality would have exasperated him. I stood there, not daring to move; he was still confronting us, an immense figure in his white nightshirt, crowned with the pink and violet scarf of Indian cashmere in which, since he had begun to suffer from neuralgia, he used to tie up his head, standing like Abraham in the engraving after Benozzo Gozzoli which M. Swann had given me, telling Sarah that she must tear herself away from Isaac. Many years have passed since that night. The wall of the staircase, up which I had watched the light of his candle gradually climb, was long ago demolished. And in myself, too, many things have perished which, I imagined, would last for ever, and new structures have arisen, giving birth to new sorrows and new joys which in those days I could not have foreseen, just as now the old are difficult of comprehension. It is a long time, too, since my father has been able to tell Mamma to “Go with the child.” Never again will such hours be possible for me. But of late I have been increasingly able to catch, if I listen attentively, the sound of the sobs which I had the strength to control in my father’s presence, and which broke out only when I found myself alone with Mamma. Actually, their echo has never ceased: it is only because life is now growing more and more quiet round about me that I hear them afresh, like those convent bells which are so effectively drowned during the day by the noises of the streets that one would suppose them to have been stopped for ever, until they sound out again through the silent evening air.  (This is Moncrieff's translation, which I have come to prefer, if you need to read Proust in English, even to Lydia Davis's.)
He quotes his father at some length, and then quotes him again saying words he never said: "Va avec le petit."  This isn't verbatim, but his father wasn't a poet.  This is rather the poeticizing quotation or quotational poeticizing of what his father had said (closest in fictional fact was "Va donc avec lui").  These words are the words of the father becoming lost, giving up patriarchal omnipotence (as Virgil has, as Abraham has in a scene, a painting that Proust has invented for his purposes), the father's first step towards mortality in the eyes of the child.  The child sobs and that's one reason why he sobs, and why he can hear those sobs even now ("near or far, cry is cry" is Beckett's version of this).  Longtemps since he went to bed late that night, and longtemps since his father could say those words that he remembers still as a line nearly of verse, as Dante remembers Virgil, remembers the dead Anchises's words to Aeneas.

And that "oh," is amazing: it fills out the meter, sure, but it's the breath of the speaking voice, the lamenting and quoting voice, that we hear in it, the breath that breaths the life it desperately needs into the words it quote.  That desperation is itself the life it seeks.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Time and the Other in Proust and Shakespeare, part II

“Father!” “Son!” “Father I thought we’d lost you
In the blue and buff planes of the Aegean:
Now it seems you’re really back.”
"Only for a while, son, only for a while.”

What does awkwardness really mean (to continue my previous post)?

Say that what drives a scene in fiction, in any fiction, is some encounter which counts, an encounter that starts something going, introduces a tension. Or it resolves a tension, brings something to a close.  So the awkwardness I ended my last by invoking is an encounter that does... nothing.  It doesn't count for anything beyond its own discomfort. The dreaded or dreamt of moment doesn't change things, except to erode our sense that anything can change this unresolved relationship anymore, that anything will change it.  We've had, like another, our story ("Elle avait eu, comme une autre, son histoire d'amour." --"Un Coeur Simple").  And then what?  Not much. Because all of that's now in the pluperfect, and what's left, one way or another, is intermittent awkwardness.

I think psychoanalysis is supposed to teach you to accept awkwardness, to stop expecting that transferential relations will allow you to make up for the past.  Think of the awkwardness of meeting your shrink later in life (or teacher or coach or whomever).  For psychoanalysis that's the goal: "the ordinary unhappiness of everyday life."  You come to accept awkwardness, intermittence and all, not as a local accident, but an ontological condition, the only form of ontological possibility left.  It's a kind of genuinely resigned hopelessness, hopelessness which doesn't retain the hopefulness, the desperately energetic willing, the exigent need to be wrong, that is part of the grammar of the word hopelessness, part of what that self-description conceals and cherishes.  Awkwardness is hopelessness without hope.

So I don't mean the awkwardness we feel early in life during the so-called awkward age: a form of intense transference onto the person one's awkward before: "I am shy, bring this right, make it happy." I mean posterior awkwardness: if and when this awkward moment is over, that will be a middling improvement, a reversion to the mediocre.  That's what we fear in the awkward age, but what comes true later in life, and isn't even worth fearing. And, writers like Henry James (think of Caspar Goodwood's ridiculous, pointless return to Isabel Archer) or Cormac McCarthy keep showing, this kind of awkwardness occurs at the level of a life or even of history.

Thus, at the end of Blood Meridian, the Kid (a kid no longer) meets the Judge again, having escaped the fate the Judge threatened him with when the Kid was still a kid.  He escaped that fate for a while, anyhow.  But now the Judge is back, and to the Kid's penultimate outburst -- "You aint nothing" -- he responds, "You speak truer than you know."  The Judge is the embodiment of Nothing; he is Marías's "Sir Death" (Marías' English phrase in Tu Rostra Mañana; he claims to get it from medieval English drama but I certainly can't find it).  Like Sir Death, the Judge is the narrative opposition to all narrative possibility, to the bargaining that makes narrative. He doesn't bargain. Nothing is remembered, nothing escapes obliteration. The Judge and Sir Death stand for narrative impossibility, the complete and utter end of the story.

It was inevitable that the Kid should meet the Judge again (the Judge dances and he is everywhere and he will never die), and that no escape can shape the story's end.  That's the Judge's final lesson for the Kid:
A man seeks his own destiny and no other, said the judge. Will or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man's destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.

He poured the tumbler full. Drink up, he said. The world goes on. We have dancing nightly and this night is no exception. The straight and the winding way are one and now that you are here what do the years count since last we two met together? Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.

He took up the tumbler the judge had poured and he drank and set it down again. He looked at the judge. I been everywhere, he said. This is just one more place.

The Judge arched his brow. Did you post witnesses? he said. To report to you on the continuing existence of those places once you'd quit them?

That's crazy.

Is it?  Where is yesterday? Where is Glanton and Brown and where is the priest? He leaned closer. Where is Shelby, whom you left to the mercies of Elias in the desert, and where is Tate whom you abandoned in the mountains? Where are the ladies, ah the fair and tender ladies with whom you danced at the governor's ball when you were a hero anointed with the blood of the enemies of the republic you'd elected to defend? And where is the fiddler and where is the dance?
No witnesses but the Judge who witnesses in order to obliterate (as we learn in an early scene).  There is nothing and no one left to show that Shelby or Glanton or Brown or Tobin (to quote Marías again) "trod the earth or traversed the world" before ending up in "one-eyed oblivion."

So let's say, then, that this is Cormac McCarthy's view of tenses : "The past that was differs little from the past that was not" (his view of punctuation is for a later post).  Then the end of Blood Meridian, despite all of McCarthy's contempt for Proust, and presumably for Flaubert, is not essentially different from the end of that other helpless, hopeless coming-of-age novel L'Education sentimentale (the Kid too knows the melancholy of waking up in tents).  The Judge's words gloss that ending: "The straight and the winding way are one and now that you are here what do the years count since last we two met together?"  This is Holden's version of Flaubert's tremendous blank.

The straight and winding way end at the same place.  Dickinson knew this, knew that Shakespeare knew it.  "Since Cleopatra died," says Antony, "I have lived in such dishonor, that the gods / Detest my baseness."  She died, he thinks, moments ago, and so he too has invented a new tense: the passé composé of perfect difference from the past.  "That engulfing since" Dickinson calls it.

But Cleopatra hasn't died.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra are to see each other again, to speak to each other again.  The forlorn hope of reunion comes true.  Their way to death is more winding than they think.  And yet, like Ashbery's skaters, they are only elaborating their distances to a common and inescapable end.

I remember reading a study which graphed anxiety about medical tests against the likelihood of their coming out positive (likelihood of bad news, that is).  Essentially as you get older, your anxiety about any specific test decreases, even as the likelihood that what you're worrying about actually will be true increases.  You get less anxious (you get used to the routine, you become less of a hypochondriac), but the negative results become more and more uncertain.  You're pretty confident, maybe too confident, that this test will come out negative.  But what about the next one? How much good does it do you to get this negative result? Considering the alternative, a lot.  But life becomes more and more filled with the sense of a temporary reprieve, not a happy ending.

"Every catching of the breath / Is the sickness unto death" writes John Bricuth in his great poem "Hypochondria as the Basis of Conversion," each stanza of which ends with a Kierkegaard title.  In fact hypochondria of the soul increases as you grow older.  Every crisis of anxiety passed only brings you deeper into the world of crisis.

In Shakespeare the worry is not hypochondria but anxiety about other people, about love and loss.  A Midsummer Night's Dream ends in blissful ignorance about the coming disaster: that "the issue there create," in Theseus and Hippolyta's bed, will lead to Senecan tragedy.  So too Henry V ends the second Henriad with hopeful marriage, Hal and Kate's happiness undimmed by what we know is coming, the scene that takes place only a year or so later, and which Shakespeare wrote ten plays or so earlier at the beginning of The First Part of Henry VI.  Marriage is about everything's working out.  The fact that nothing works out for good is beside the point.  For the young.

But the parental generation (the later Shakespeare's generation) is always aware things work out only for a while, son, only for a while.

For "the worried well" (to go back to hypochondria for a moment), the equivalent of things' working out is the negative test result.  That's what we want: let it be negative this time.  As we get older, we know the positive result will come.  But we bargain: let it come later, but not now.

Heidegger (as John Limon points out) -- the early Heidegger, anyhow -- had contempt for this kind of bargaining, which he thought characteristic of "They-being," the mode of being of the fearful evaders of truth who cannot attain an authentic being-towards-death.  Kierkegaard thought of this sort of bargaining as one of the kinds of despair

But what I'm interested in here is narrative, not the anti-narrative stance of being-towards-death.  Narrative is about bargaining, and the question is what you get out of the bargain.  In life, and in narrative that seems adequate to our experience of life, we start out bargaining for some quit-claim, but later on what we want, what we know as the only possibility, is deferral.  Let the moment be awkward, not final.

Sure, all bargaining, in even the most naive stories, can involve characters' deaths; it often does, but death there means a bad narrative outcome, which we'll accept, if we have to, along some of the byways narrative takes as long as we get what we want at the end of other pathways.  Babar's mother, Bambi's: they die.  Little Paul Dombey may die, if he must, but then their father had better give Florence the love she needs and deserves.  And we do have to accept the bargain.  We have to accept the fact that we're bargaining if we're to participate (as we do) in any narrative experience beyond pure wish-fulfilling daydream: the interest, the emotional involvement in narrative comes from the bargaining and negotiating we put our souls into.  (It's characteristic of Shakespeare's generosity in the comedies, by the way, that at the end he tends to throw in some added gift we hadn't bargained for.)  If we could get everything we wanted, we wouldn't be bargaining; narrative experience is the experience of bargaining, ergo we can't get everything we want.  One of the manifestations of what we don't get may be death.  But death here just stands for an element of the bargaining outcome, where what's important is the bargaining.  At least in most narratives.

The bargains we make with narrative are often more gratifyingly framed versions of the bargains we make in real life.  We worry, and we are willing to give up some of our happiness in order not to lose it all.  We think in terms of negotiated satisfaction; we signal our willingness to accept lesser but still saving and even gratifying states of affairs.

(My mother was once very anxious about where my father was - he was terribly, unaccountably, uncharacteristically late.  The phone rang and it was the police!  They identified themselves and made sure who she was.  Then: "Your husband's in jail."  Her response: "Oh, thank God!"  Because he wasn't dead.  [He'd cussed out a cop who had pulled him over for speeding.]  The phone's ringing, and I'll accept a compromise: bad but not terrible news.  I'm a reasonable person, a serious man.)

Tragedy and comedy represent two different bargaining equilibria: we give up a little in comedy to get a solution we're satisfied with (maybe even a better solution than we ever expected: we get a surplus reward).  We give up a lot in tragedy to get to a solution that at least leaves us calm of mind, all passion spent.

I think Aristotlean unity is about the straightest way to whatever equilibrium is achieved.  (There's a reversal, yes, but the reversal is the start of that straight path.)  Shakespeare is interested in the winding ways.

And this is where things change, this is where he thought his way through to a new narrative representation of real experience -- the representation later to be found in Flaubert and Proust, e.g.  In his later plays, the winding ways become more and more his subject, and not only the itinerary of its exposition. Romeo and Juliet part, never to converse again.  But in the later plays, look what happens: Lear is reunited with Cordelia! Antony with Cleopatra! The Macbeths reign for a long time, longer than they ever dared to hope: everything they sought they get, except the immortality they never believed in anyway.  And then, there's the original for Dombey and Son, The Winter's Tale.

Mammilius, a senex puer like Paul Dombey (and Miles), has to die, but for that loss we get the recompense of Perdita's happiness, and the reunion of Hermione and Leontes in overplus.  And yet, they're old. The play begins with a lamentation over lost youth: how much more lost is it at the end!  The happy ending of the play isn't the real, true end, final end of everything, but that final ending isn't far away from the parental generation there.

I think what Shakespeare was thinking about more and more was the way all our real-life bargains with fate (or life or God) become modes of temporizing, seeking extensions on the loan, a raise of the credit limit, not the impossible forgiveness of the debt.  As we become aware of time in the Proustian, Flaubertian sense - as we become aware that the future is continuous with the present and not something whose existence is absolutely deferred (which is how we thought of is as children) - we become aware that all that our bargaining achieves is, at most, renewals on harsher and harsher terms and for shorter and shorter periods of the crushing debts we owe.  There is no happy ending for Antony and Cleopatra, or Paulina and Camillo (far from it) or Lear and Cordelia or the Macbeths, despite their unexpected reunions. The Kid can escape Judge Holden for years, for as long as he could possibly hope for, and yet he cannot escape.

We bargain and bargain and usually get the extensions we want; we usually get more than we'd allowed ourselves to hope for. Usually. Until we don't. It's all okay! Until it isn't.

That's what's awkward about getting the terms of the extension.  It's the awkward gratitude you express to the debt collector for giving you another month.  The awkward fact that we can more or less clumsily affect not to notice, in order to save the moment, is that the debt is still due, and harder to pay than ever. Maybe we can save the day. But only the day. How awkward for the poor servant to meet Death in the marketplace in Baghdad.  But the man manages to get out of the situation, and lives to keep his appointment in Samarra.

And it seems that for Proust, maybe for McCarthy, the only cure for that is remembering, which is to say writing - being lost in another world.  But is that a cure that lasts? How long?  A lifetime? Why did Shakespeare stop writing?

[A bit more on Proust, in my next which will be, I promise, shorter.]

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Time and the other in Proust and Shakespeare, I: transcending the parasitism of anecdotes and the dross of the story

Proust rests his arch defense of Flaubert's style almost entirely on the novelty of his use of grammar, and especially of tense; Flaubert is:
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.
a man who by the entirely new and personal usage that he has made of the past definite, of the past indefinite, of the present participle, of certain pronouns and of certain prepositions, has renewed our vision of things almost as much as Kant, with his Categories, the theories of Knowledge and of the Reality of the exterior world.
Still more archly (this is 1920, after all, and he's already famous for the first two volumes of A La Recherche), Proust alludes to his own modest researches into the representation of Time, which helps underscore the great ending of L'Education sentimentale (he writes at some length about the odd definite article in the title), with its sudden juddering jumps to the end of life, or, at least for Proust, to a region close enough to the end to require only an etc. or a series of them:

Je ne me lasserais pas de faire remarquer les mérites, aujourd'hui si contestés de Flaubert. L'un de ceux qui me touchent le plus parce que j'y retrouve l'aboutissement des modestes recherches que j'ai faites, est qu'il sait donner avec maîtrise l'impression du Temps. A mon avis la chose la plus belle de l'Education Sentimentale, ce n'est pas une phrase, mais un blanc. Flaubert vient de décrire, de rapporter pendant de longues pages, les actions les plus menues de Frédéric Moreau. Frédéric voit un agent marcher avec son épée sur un insurgé qui tombe mort. « Et Frédéric, béant, reconnut Sénécal! » Ici un « blanc », un énorme « blanc » et, sans l'ombre d'une transition, soudain la mesure du temps devenant au lieu de quarts d'heure, des années, des décades (je reprends les derniers mots que j'ai cités pour montrer cet extraordinaire changement de vitesse, sans préparation) :

     « Et Frédéric, béant, reconnut Sénécal.

     « Il voyagea. Il connut la mélancolie des paquebots, les froids réveils sous la tente, etc. Il revint.
     « Il fréquenta le monde, etc.
     « Vers la fin de l'année 1867, etc. »

Sans doute, dans Balzac, nous avons bien souvent : « En 1817 les Séchard étaient, etc. » Mais chez lui ces changements de temps ont un caractère actif ou documentaire. Flaubert le premier, les débarrasse du parasitisme des anecdotes et des scories de l'histoire.


I could never tire of bringing to notice Flaubert's merits, so contested today.  One of those which touch me the most because there I find the culmination of the modest researches I myself have undertaken, is that he knows how to give the impression of Time masterfully.  In my opinion the most beautiful thing in The Sentimental Education is, not a sentence, but a blank.  Flaubert has just been describing, just been reporting for many long pages, the slightest acts of Frédéric Moreau.  Frédéric sees an officer march with his sword upon one of the insurgents, who falls dead.  "And Frédéric, gaping, recognized Sénécal!"  [Sénécal is the officer.]  Then a "blank," an enormous "blank," and, without the shadow of a transition, the measure of time suddenly becoming instead of quarter-hours years, decades (I pick up the last words that I have quoted to show this extraordinary change of speed, coming without warning):

      "And Frédéric, gaping, recognized Sénécal.

      "He traveled.  He knew the melancholy of packet-boats, cold awakenings in tents, etc.  He returned.
      "He went out in society, etc.
      "Towards the end of the year 1867, etc."

     No doubt in Balzac we often get: "In 1817 the Séchards were, etc."  But in him these changes of tense have an active or documentary character.  Flaubert is the first to liberate them from the parasitism of anecdotes or the dross of the story.

Proust says he's quoting from memory, which allows him to reframe Flaubert a bit: the enormous blank is actually the end of a chapter; but that's just another way of saying that Proust wants us to be stunned by the ending of a chapter where Flaubert ends it, without any continuation of the anecdote in the next chapter, or ever.  James probably learned this from Flaubert: the moment of recognition feeling like a kind of social awkwardness, but in a far larger context.  There's nothing more to know than this awkwardness, even when it occurs on the scale of a human life (as in James or Rimbaud: "Par délicatesse / J'ai perdu ma vie"), even when it occurs on a world-historical scale (as in Flaubert and Proust).  After that awkwardness there's really nothing left to do or to hope for.

And that changes your relation to time.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Purgatorio

The fire of the terrace of the lustful reverses the fires of earthly lust, purifying and undoing the sins with which those lower fires raged. Apparently, the reverse sexuality of Dante's entrance into the fire has not been noted (according to my desultory research into various commentaries, anyhow), which gives me a chance to quote and translate some more. Dante, having a body (hence still subject to bodily desire), hesitates to breach the surface of the refining fires from which the love poets have spoken to him, Arnault Daniel most recently. In Canto 27 Virgil urges him to enter into the fire, despite his physical body:

"Pon giù omai, pon giù ogne temenza;
volgiti in qua e vieni: entra sicuro!".
E io pur fermo e contra coscïenza.

Quando mi vide star pur fermo e duro,
turbato un poco disse: "Or vedi, figlio:
tra Bëatrice e te è questo muro".

Come al nome di Tisbe aperse il ciglio
Piramo in su la morte, e riguardolla,
allor che ’l gelso diventò vermiglio;

così, la mia durezza fatta solla,
mi volsi al savio duca, udendo il nome
che ne la mente sempre mi rampolla.

Ond’ei crollò la fronte e disse: "Come!
volenci star di qua?"; indi sorrise
come al fanciul si fa ch’è vinto al pome. (Purgatorio XXVII, 31-45)

"Now put away, now put away all fear:
and come this way, with trust in your safeguard"
And me just standing firm, conscience unclear.

And when he saw me standing firm and hard,
a little vexed he said, "Look here, my son,
by this sole wall from Beatrice are you barred."

As at the name of Thisbe, his life done,
Pyramus looked up at her, his body sloughed,
his blood too, the red mulberries begun;

Just so, my hardness instantly made soft,
I turned to my wise leader, my mind's chapel
a source whence always that name wells aloft.

He shook indulgent brows, and feigned to grapple
with the question: "Standing pat then, are we?"
then smiled, as at a boy won with an apple.

This is Virgil already mothering him, teasing him affectionately rather than commanding him, and the same little boy ("fanciul") will turn to Virgil as to his mother later -- to Virgil who is gone.

But here I want to note the sexuality of the lines.  Dante won't enter the fire, he feels in some sense impotent to do so: impotent with lust, paradoxically, because the lust that brought him here in Beatrice's pursuit makes him inappropriately firm and hard -- he has a human body, and so human appetites, and the fire will burn him, punish him with physical pain, as it won't the pure images who are its denizens and who love the fire and who disappear into its depths.  His conscience is unclear: he feels bodily desire.  But Virgil assures him that it's this wall that separates him from Beatrice -- and that wall is hymenal.  It's as though crossing the never broken wall of flame is to suffer the pain of regaining virginity, a shared virginity with her, the wall between them no longer an issue.  That regaining virginity means suffering a wound that reverses the loss of virginity, means suffering an anti-wound as it were, is clear in the reference to Pyramus and Thisbe.  The wall separated them, and now Pyramus stabs himself, undergoes symbolically what in the more standard, reversed course of events Thisbe would undergo.  "The wall is down" that parted them, and the result of this is not their sexual union but their union in death, which is the painful guarantee of their virginity.

Virgil sees that Beatrice will win Dante to this anti-sexuality: the reversal now is that he can only enter the fire when his hardness is made soft ("la mia durezza fatta solla"), and the sound of Beatrice's name is like an easy bribe to an innocent boy, won with an apple - not the apple of the tree of sexual knowledge and original sin, but the apple that tempts him back to childish sexual innocence, painful as that might be.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Purgatorio XXVI: His body's not fictitious!

The terrace of the lustful - the last and least blameworthy of the sinners are near the top of Purgatory, just as the lustful have been near the top of Inferno.  After all, their crime is love!  So of course is everyone's, at every level, but the lustful love others, not themselves, and love those others to get what they conceive of as good: love the others to have the experience of love as well.  Lust is for Dante the most generous, the least perverted of sins.

So it's appropriate that among the lustful, Dante's living body becomes an issue again.  (This after Statius's long and fascinating lesson in Purgatorio XXV about the meaning of the spectral bodies of the dead, the forms infused into the intellectual soul by the nature they once inhabited and absorbed and refined.)  Here are the lustful, and here is a man with a sexual body, not the mere shades who kiss each other turn by turn, in chaste conformity with Paul's rule in Romans, as they do their endless contra-dance.  A real body, and the lustful in their counterlustful flames can see him:

feriami il sole in su l'omero destro,
che già, raggiando, tutto l'occidente
mutava in bianco aspetto di cilestro;

e io facea con l'ombra più rovente
parer la fiamma; e pur a tanto indizio
vidi molt'ombre, andando, poner mente.

Questa fu la cagion che diede inizio
loro a parlar di me; e cominciarsi
a dir: «Colui non par corpo fittizio»;

poi verso me, quanto potean farsi,
certi si fero, sempre con riguardo
di non uscir dove non fosser arsi.  (XXVI. 4-15)

My shoulder stung by sunshine on the right,
I saw those rays already change the West,
its azure aspect now transformed to white;

my shadow caused strange glowing, for the crest
of flames shone brighter in the shade I cast --
those Shades to this strange sign their minds addressed.

So was it that they spoke to me; first massed
together they said, at this strange sight,
"His body's not fictitious!" From the blast

were certain who approached, as close as might
comport with keeping wholly to the fire:
nor for a moment sought they to take flight.

At the height of Purgatory the difference between allopathic punishment (the correcting "contrapasso" or counter-suffering by which Purgatory purifies you for heaven) and the Inferno's homeopathic punishment (you wanted this? You'll have it in spades, you'll have it to the nth degree), begins to vanish.  Heaven, like hell, gives its denizens what they always wanted in the way they wanted it.  At the end of Purgatory, the flames of purification and the flames of love become one (as do gay and straight: Dante is very clear about this).  And in those flames they burn to know more about Dante, whose real presence (in the theological sense too: "Colui non par corpo fittizio!") is what makes this frankly fictitious word one that matters.  It's no wonder that Dante is about to name himself.

The other to all worlds, says Blanchot about literary space.  And to that fictional world comes this non-fictitious person, like K. to the bleak world of the Castle ("what but the desire to stay here could have brought me to this desolate place?") and in it, in exile, he can find a home.  The love here is the love of the real for the fictional, which when strong enough is self-requiting.

(Of course this will interfere with the theology, so alas Virgil, fictional being and real purveyor of fictions, and who loves him most, is about to disappear, in favor of the Christian Beatrice, in the realm where there are no bodies, fictional or otherwise.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nous autres, or: The peculiar semi-circular stare

A short post on narratees to keep my hand in, until I get this cursed review off....

It's difficult to find a vivid way of explaining narratees to students.  Well, to explain the last narratee, the figure who corresponds to the first narrator, the author-as-narrator or impressario of the fiction, the narrator not meant to be ironized -- who, if ironic, is in control of the ironies we readers savor.  Obviously history has its own ironies, and authors are often their butts.  But in the fictional world, the final narrator is not ironized - not necessarily the first person narrator in a first person fiction, but the third person narrator who presents the first person narrator to us, the writer, as it were, of the speech prefix to the whole narration.

So who corresponds to this narrator on the receiving end? What is the narratee?  The narratee is the figure not meant to be ironized either -- who, if ironic, is in control of the ironies the narrator offers him or her to savor.  Just as obviously as with authors, narratees and readers may be the butt of some historical joke, but not in the fictional world.  But it's very hard to clarify the distinction between readers and narratees, partly because the distinction is so obvious.  People see that they're not the narratee, and they regard this as a failure, structural it may, be of the author.  Structural because no writer can know me!  I survive, a jolly candidate for a future that the author could not dream of - if only because of the lag time between her writing and my reading.  The author may have gone cool-hunting, but didn't anticipate what turns out to be cool today.  What a n00b!

But the obviousness is misleading.  All reading is vicarious (even of history, even of letters): only a fictional reader -- the narratee -- reads with direct and perfect interest and absorption.  Only a fictional reader imagines herself the addressee of the fiction.

It suddenly occurred to me, reading Nightwood, that one way to make the distinction clear is to think of narrator and narratee as belonging to the exclusive we -- nous autres, and not nous tous.  The narratee seems to use the inclusive we, but doesn't.  This moment in Barnes will illustrate what I mean -- she is talking about Felix and the disturbing element of Jewishness in his presence:
He was not popular, though the post-humous acclaim meted out to his father secured from his acquaintances the peculiar semi-circular stare of those who, unwilling to greet with earthly equality, nevertheless give to the living branch (because of death and its sanction) the slight bend of the head - a reminiscent pardon for future apprehension, - a bow very common to us when in the presence of this people.
Leave aside the question of how ironic Barnes is being, and how ironic history is being at her expense (that is the question of the nature and extent of her own prejudice against "this people").  The us is what interests me here: that "us" embraces nous autres, those who are of a certain aristocratic class for whom "earthly equality" means something, and who think in terms of familial branches (Felix, like his father, passes himself off as a baron); and also those who are male, and who would bow or bend their heads as a token of respect.  Her "us" makes clear who the narratee is -- who the narratee always is: someone who belongs to the same group as the narrator, plays the same language games the same way.  (Language games: we readers of a chess column and its annotations are credited with the exclusive understanding of the significance of moves that the master writing them has worked out for us.)

That "us" is particularly prominent in Barnes, but is to be found passim in Eliot, in Trollope, in Proust most of all.  ("Quand nous aimons une Gilberte, une Albertine....")  It's a genial, empirically philosophical "us" -- read any page of Hume or of Johnson or of Adam Smith to see what I mean.  In a philosophical context it offers qualified people entry into the circle of nous autres: men, say, or Englishmen, or Scotsmen of leisure.  It can of course be ironized even in such contexts: read practically any sentence of Gibbon.  It can be ironized in philosophy and fiction, but it's always ironized, however lightly, in fiction.

I think, paradoxically, that this is why such sentences, containing any form or mode of the word we, are so vanishingly rare in Henry James, that is in his narrators' addresses to the narratee reading the fiction.  He fictionalizes with such radical assiduity that he doesn't want us to confuse inclusive and exclusive we's, as we might if he used them.  The only real counterexample I can think of is a moment at the end of The Golden Bowl, when James's narrator tells us how Amerigo appears to Maggie as she is approaching her final triumph:
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.
James's tortured, artificial, metaphysical analogies give way, for this once, to an appeal to the experience of the reader.  Objects loom thus largely in all our dreams, dans les rêves de nous tous.  The narratee knows just what the narrator means, and we readers know just how it is that the narratee would know just what the narrator means.  This is an effect all the more powerful and spectacular because James has held it in reserve for, well hundreds of pages and indeed (it is not too much to say) dozens of years.  James's narratees are in general part of the extremely rarefied society of his narrators, those who can trade anecdotes like Henry James.  That's an exchange among an exclusive us that the rest of us take pleasure in following, as the child takes pleasure in the adult conversation of its parents.

One final example of the uses to which this difference may be put, again not from a fictional context, where the difference is always present, but from a sociological one.  In Stigma (and everywhere, but most obviously in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity) Goffman distinguishes categorically between "us normals" and the variously stigmatized persons he treats as his categories and examples.  But the point of the book is that "at some point" everyone is stigmatized.  There is no such thing as the "normal" individual (useful, to some extent, only as a medical category), only the stigmatized person's belief in that norm.  "We normals" are normal only with respect to whatever specific stigma is under discussion, but in the end we find that it is only the narratee who is normal.  In non-fiction, like Goffman's, there isn't a fictional narrator (the irony is the author's, not the narrator's); but there is a fictional narratee.  That's his point.  To be normal is a fiction.

And in fiction, the narratee is the figure the narrator takes as normal: the two of them are ordinary denizens, perhaps the only ones, of a non-existent world, looking at it with their peculiar semi-circular stare.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Truth in Fiction - I: The State of Things

When I was in grad school, Wim Wenders came to talk about a movie of his, Der Stand der Dinge (the State of Things).  I loved Wenders, and was glad that he was coming.  After the movie I asked him what I thought was a very clever question about what was hidden under some stairs (iirc).  He said he didn't know (which I knew he wouldn't), and I suggested that it was something from Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray is an extremely important precursor and mentor for Wenders).  He looked at me as though I were batshit crazy, said no, it definitely wasn't that, and went on to the next questioner.  I had imagined that he would get the important theoretical point that he was no more privileged as an interpreter of his own film than I was, and that what counted was the penetration of the reading (my reading), not the supposed authority of the reader (an authority that the author could pre-eminently claim).  Literary theory, through its immense (and perennial) philosophical idealism had gone back round to treating fiction as though it were the representation of a true state of affairs, that anyone might be the first to see.

Truth in fiction didn't depend on what the fiction-maker meant.  Its existence was independent of the fictionist's intention.  Of course what made something true in a fiction was the interpretive aptness of the claim (like the notorious nineteenth century claim that Hamlet was a woman), such aptness measured by the insight it made possible.  Insight into what?  Well, into what was true in the fictional world. Such insight made, and could therefore find, the truth it claimed.  Let's say it established truth.  But that's what we do in the real world - we try to establish the truth.

Thus the only difference between the two - a difference which made possible the many-worlds interpretation of fictional interpretation - was the difference the article (the "the") suggests.  In the real world we try to establish the truth, in fiction we try to establish truth.

Kendall Walton rightly argues that "truth in fiction," as D. K. Lewis called it, is a misnomer, since there's no requirement for logical consistency in a fictional world, on pain of deal-breaking incoherence.  Deconstructive readings exploited the fact that most fictions are inconsistent, almost by their very nature, since fiction purports to know and to show things that cannot be known or showed: e.g. people alone with their thoughts, and the thoughts they're alone with (this particular inconsistency, rightly understood, is probably the one most central to deconstruction).  Walton therefore prefers a technical use of the word "fictional": a proposition in a fiction would be called fictional if, as a stand-alone, it bore a relation to the fictional world it refers to analogous to the relation a true proposition bears to the real world.  Fictional propositions don't have to appear in the fiction itself: they can be paraphrases or reasonable deductions or inductions from the propositions that appear there ("Hamlet dies at the end of the play"; and, probably, "Horatio lives on, with Fortinbras as King").  The reason for calling them fictional rather than "true in the fiction" is to suggest that not all their logical consequences are also true in the fiction.  The dead Hermione's ghost appears to Antigonus... Hermione turns out not to have died.  I think it's easier to say that both those statements are true in The Winter's Tale, rather than saying they're fictional in the play, but I've paused to rehearse Walton's argument because it brings out the difference between what I'm calling and will call fictional truth and the truth.

So we can tease out the implications of the difference the "the" makes by saying that our basic view of truth in the real world is Tractarian (i.e. conforms to the arguments of the early Wittgenstein): the consistency of the world will guarantee the consistency of the elementary propositions that picture it. Hence the world is all that is the case.  Whereas our view of truth in fiction would be much more a coherence theory of truth: arguments about what happens in fiction require a reasonable amount of consistency among the various things that are true in that fiction, a consistency that makes it possible to handle the inconsistent parts that themselves contribute to the sense of coherence.

Still, at that time, in those days, the similarities seemed to us more important than the differences: the real world was coherent, and so was the fictional world.  Ideal it may have been, but it shared with reality a presumption of completeness, and anything which made it complete could count as a live hypothesis about the fictional world, just as anything which explains away an apparent contradiction counts as a live hypothesis in the real world.  In the real world, we are taught, we should always prefer the simplest possible account; in the fictional world we also used Occam's razor, but found that his straight edge didn't cut it and we had to plug in the electric one, which made possible all sorts of stylistic choices in the barbering of fictions hirsute with unexplained tufts of incident, character, or description.  The simplest explanation is the best, but it's hard to define simplicity when in principle there's no reality check: it became a question of explaining all the fictional facts with a story supplementing the one we received.  This of course was also what the New Testament did, and Midrash (where was Isaac after the Akedah?) and Kabbalah, and all manner of theologically inspired commentary and complement.  Chandler might not know who killed Owen Taylor, but we could try to figure it out.

Now as the later Wittgenstein points out, there are an infinite number of sequences (of stories) that will explain any data (any fictional facts) that we are given.  Since whatever sequence the author may have had in mind doesn't count more than any other, doesn't count more than the sequences readers may invent; since the logical inconsistencies, however trivial, show that even if we credit the author with authority over the meaning of her fiction,  she nevertheless hasn't specified the whole sequence, item by item (any more than I have specified a whole sequence in my mind when I count 2, 4, 6, 8... that couldn't continue 1000, 1004, 1008, or - my favorite - 0, 1, 2, 720!, a number with 1,747 digits)* we deep readers felt entitled to our own penetrating, sequence producing fictional assertions about what happened offstage in the fictional world.  Addition had no priority over quaddition, no matter what kind of real world type of pragmatism you inevitably evinced.  There was no cash value to pragmatic truth in interpreting fiction - quite the reverse.

But to think this way is to lose the very thing that makes a fiction fiction, the universal literary genre we call fiction.  It is to lose sight of the central law that the truth is what the author thinks it is (or what an authorial narrator, the last in the series, the narrator who has the author's full confidence, thinks it is).  Narrating is one of the most basic forms of human interaction, of human sociability.  "I've got a story": words which promise pleasure to both teller and told.  The pleasures are different: the teller takes pleasure in promulgating, the listener or reader in learning (as Aristotle pointed out already in the Poetics).  No stories without tellers is the moral of this one.

A moral more complicated than it might seem, it plays out differently according to the kind of story being told.  A quick taxonomy would distinguish between true stories and fiction, but we have to add a third phylum: anonymous stories whose origin is lost in the mists of time (folk tales, myths, legends, etc.).  When someone is telling a true story, we're entitled (rude though it might be) to second-guess her interpretations.  Some people always do.  I tell a story about a jerk cutting me off on the 405, but my skeptical listener suggests I might be in the wrong.  He thinks the truth (the single truth) might be different from what my story is suggesting, that there is a fact of the matter and I'm misrepresenting it.  This is true of third person stories as well: I say that Babe Ruth called his shot; she says, No, he was stretching prior to batting, and it just looked like he was pointing.

My skeptical chum doesn't have the same right to say that about a fictional narrative I originate. I get to say what my characters have known, have planned, have anticipated, have done.  If Wenders denies that there's something under the stairs, if his denial is serious, his skepticism genuine, no one is entitled to gainsay him.  It doesn't matter if the author is dead (you know, literally, biologically, dead).  Our sense of her is that what she thought happened happened.  We may not know what she thought happened, but we're still appealing to that category.  Who killed Edwin Drood?  We'll never know, but Dickens sure did.

The third phylum is the tale, which intersects  the other two, and with their common ground.  If you've heard a story, I can think you've heard it wrong, or that there's a way to tweak it to make it better.  It's fiction, but it's like the truth in the sense that it's public property.  No one has exclusive rights to it.  Here the teller is more or less like a literary critic, or an actor: an interpreter of a story that comes from elsewhere.  But her interpretation also gives her the authority that a witness has when it comes to telling true stories: she has a somewhat privileged, but defeasible relation to a public truth.  More defeasible than an actual witnesses would have, since once I know the story I am as entitled to tell it in the way I think best as she was.  There are no rules against hearsay in this phylum: indeed hearsay is obligatory, even or especially with all the hopeful mutation hearsay can introduce.

My interest, though, is in the authority the teller has over the tale, an authority most marked in the second phylum, the one where the fiction has an indentifiable author.  Here the strangeness of fiction - that we care about what we know isn't true - and the importance of the teller are both at their maxima.  And yet, the author is still governed by some coherence-producing restraints.  0, 1, 2, 720! will rarely do (though perhaps that's David Lynch's speciality).  Chandler may not know who killed Owen Taylor, but he would have wanted to know, would have decided and established who did, had he realized that hadn't known.  He doesn't know, and now there's nothing to know.  There is something to know about who killed Edwin Drood, but we never will know it: ignorabimus.

That constraint, like poetic form, can be a goad and a spur to the fictionist.  Lewis Carroll has to come up with the answer to random riddles he's posed - and he does (How is a raven like a writing desk?)  The whole movie in the can, and being shown to test audiences, Hitchcock decides (the audience has a hand in this, as it should) that Cary Grant had better be innocent.  Hitchcock comes up with an ingenious ending explaining away all the Suspicions.  Javier Marías never returns to revise a page once he's done with it: he has to cope with the fictional truth of the fictional past, to explain the drop of blood or the behavior of young Pérez Nuix.  Writers had to do this all the time in the age of serials: TV writers still do, though it's more interesting as in the case of Marías or (I think) Helen DeWitt when you have produced your own constraints.  (DeWitt is endlessly inventive and then endlessly attentive to the implications and consequences of her inventions.  DFW is sometimes like that too.)

Truth in fiction: there is a fact of the matter, but that means there are privileged relations to the facts, authoritative perspectives, certified fact-finders.  (Otherwise no one would need to listen - everyone would already know that the tale referred to the fictional just as Frege says that true propositions refer to the true.)  Even when we tweak anonymous tales, we usually think we're getting back to what they must originally have been, or at least we present them as the more authentic versions.  (Or else we transmute them into something frankly our own, become their announced authors, even if we're anonymous: "by the author of Waverly, &c.")  The risibly clever "fact" I offered Wenders showed that I got right that fiction trades in truths; what I got wrong though, was the way that such truth is in principle only available through the teller and her actions as a teller.  We all trust our own judgment, and all human communication is a comparison of divergent judgment (no matter how small the divergence) - otherwise it's not communication.

But then how can we compare our own judgment about the world she has invented with that of the fictionist?   And how can we know the truths she's left to our own inference - what prevents us from inferring the world we want to infer when we have a chance?


*In case you're curious, here are all 1,747 digits of the fourth number in the sequence whose first three numbers are 0, 1, 2 written out: