Friday, June 17, 2011

Film, will, and the paradox of imperceptible differences; or Body English

There's an interesting philosophical problem about the nature of imperceptiblity, related to the problem of sorites (at some point a baby stops being a baby: when?).  I thought I'd post my ideas about this, partly prompted by a recent and somewhat cantankerous essay by the great David Bordwell, with which I agree with in part and disagree in part.

Consider four photos of the hands of a watch, taken at, say, 1/24th of a second apart.  Put them in front of someone and ask her which one was taken first:

I didn't manage to crop these quite the same (that's an issue we'll come back to: changes in the perceiver's or recorder's perspective), but just look at the hands of the watch.  These shots were taken within about a quarter of a second of each other, so on average they're about 1/12th of a second apart - twice the 1/24th of a second we're hypothesizing.  I present them here randomly (I followed the order of the last four digits of my Frequent Flyer number).  Can you tell the order they were taken?  (Answer: The order is 4,1, 2, 3 - I think you can just make the sequence out if you squint, but if not, highlight all and you'll be able to.)

At some point, though, you'll be able to see that the hands have moved, that it's now (more or less) 9:03 and not 9:01.

So the paradox of imperceptibility is this.  Let's say call p the minimal distance that the hand of a normal-sized watch has to move for us to perceive -- by eyeballing two different life-sized photos -- that it has moved.  The order of magnitude for p here is probably something like twelve minutes of arc or so (for the big hand that would be about two temporal seconds, for the little hand two temporal minutes).  At any rate, the photos above don't show anything like a difference of magnitude p.  We're talking about a total of a quarter of a second here, which is why there's no way you can tell the order by looking.  (Funes could, I suppose.)

Now consider two photos identical except in the second of them the minute hand is at a distance of 1.6p from the first; i.e. 3.2 seconds have elapsed between the two photos. Just looking you can tell the difference!  (Remember that's what p means: the distance greater than which you can see the difference.)

Now imagine interpolating a third photo, which shows the minute hand at a distance of .8p past the first photo, and accordingly at a distance of .8p before the second photo; i.e. this third photo was taken 1.6 seconds after the first, and 1.6 seconds before the second.  In other words, let's assume we're looking at a sequence of three photos, taken 1.6 seconds apart.

So here's what exercises the new Zenonians.  You can't tell the difference between the first and the second photo (we've stipulated that the minimal difference you can tell is p, the distance it takes the minute hand two seconds to cover), nor can you tell the difference between the second and the third, but you can tell the difference between the first and the third.  So you perceive no difference between the first and the second, and no difference between the second and the third, and yet, somehow, somewhere, you must perceive some difference or you wouldn't perceive a difference between the first and the third.  (There's a strange failure of the transitivity we expect here.)

To see how this is true, consider ordering the photos to present them to someone else.  Since there's no perceptible difference between the first and the second, you should be able to switch them around, and no one will be the wiser.  But if you do that there'll be a perceptible difference between the new second and the third.  You can't see the difference between one and two, so their order seems not to matter; but switch them and you can now see a difference between two and three, so their order did matter.

That's the problem.  People have tried to solve it with vague appeals to threshold differences, but the new Zenonians point out that this is just to rename it, since the whole point is to ask what makes something exceed the threshold of perceptibility.  P defines that threshold, but we've already said that.  An appeal to a threshold only changes the vocabulary.

Here's my solution.  Look at any two indistinguishable photos whatever: even at the same photo twice.  There'll always be a perceptible difference between the two.  Your head will have moved slightly, the light will have changed, your eyes will have performed some micro-saccades, the beat of your pulse will cause the image to shudder, your breath will inspire it to fitful and inconstant motion.  But you'll read the two different retinal images as identical, because part of visual processing consists in abstracting from the incessant flux of experience by fixing on what J.J. Gibson called invariants.  The brain uses these invariants (edge ratios, color ratios, etc.) to calculate what's changing in the world vs. what's changing in your perceptual apparatus.

Accordingly, we're always testing the origin of the perceptual changes that occur every moment. This is an argument that Kant was the first to make, as he analyzed the nature of our capacity to distinguish between seeing a boat move downstream and a house standing still.  Both visual experiences come to us through the incessant flux of appearance: I see a window, a door, a lintel, an eave, in any order; or I see a prow, a stern, a sail, an oar.  But I am proprioceptively aware of the fact that the flux in my view of the house comes from movements I am myself making, that originate in my own will.  (William James argues that the difference between proprioceptive awareness of unforced change and the experience of willing is essentially nonexistent.)  The flux in my perception of the boat isn't assignable only to my own will.

At some fairly automatic level our brains proprioceptively track our microsaccadic eye-movements and assign the origin of the flux we see in an unmoving object to our own movements.  At some point we'll begin to wonder whether, and at a later point decide that, we're seeing more flux than we can explain through our automatic proprioceptive guidance systems.

Vertigo provides an obvious example of this fact.  If we mess with the vestibular system (by spinning around, by drinking), we lose a very important proprioceptive clue as to the attitude of our heads.  Now we're reeling and seem to stand upon the ceiling: the room is still but we think it's moving.  Closing your eyes helps because you stop seeing the motion that they're making, stop projecting it into the world.

So no case of motion may be absolutely assigned to one domain or the other, to the world or to the seeing soul.  But usually we start with a very good guess as to where the motion is.  This also explains a feature of vertigo: the way we cast our eyes everywhere trying to find something that will stay still to orient ourselves by.

Imperceptibile motion, then, is motion whose perception is swamped by the normal flux of appearance.

Consider the converse idea: that of imperceptible stillness.  I feel as though I've been waiting for this class to end forever.  Has the clock stopped or am I so bored that every minute seems five?  I keep looking at the clock, and after a while, I start realizing that it's broken.  It's frozen but I thought it was moving.  I decide that it's frozen in several stages: I wonder, I concentrate, I observe closely, I wait a little longer, and after a while I make a judgment: it's not fucking moving.

Likewise imperceptible motion occurs when I think something is still (when my automatic visual processing takes something as still), but then after a while start wondering if it really is still.  I am not sure the flux derives only from myself.  I start testing the hypothesis that the minute hand itself has moved.  That hypothesis is easier to test the more it moves.  Nothing makes it certain that the motion comes from the world, and not from me, but I become more and more confident that certain intervals are more likely to be due to a change in the object than to a change in my own perspective.

Body English -- you know, as with Carlton Fisk's stay-fair home run -- provides a vivid example of what I mean: you move your own body to some extreme angle to get a preferred perspective on the ball.  Of course you know that this doesn't affect its trajectory, but you can fool or try to fool your perceptual apparatus into thinking that the change you see is a change in what you're seeing, not in yourself.

The fact that perception always involves the will, gyroscopically orienting the telemetry of the senses, means you can dally with false surmise by flooding the proprioceptive stabilizers of perception a little bit.  We can pick the locks of perception (by spinning around or crouching and cocking our heads or whatever) and so perceive a little more wishfully than accurately, when we really want to.  This shouldn't be surprising: it's the will after all that's being engaged.  We move in certain ways because we want certain things to happen, and our motion sometimes affects the world (and so our perception of it), sometimes just our perception of the world.  The fact that we engage so much in body English shows that the frontier between what our brains think comes from outside and what they think comes from inside is porous and vague. The two types of willing are continuous, no doubt because all perception requires the same sort of experimental assessment of how (or whether) it's going as action does. A single way of doing that experimental assessment governs both cases, and can turn one into the other.

Film depends on this fact about impercetible motion, in more ways than one.  Two frames, 1/24th of a second apart, will often be indistinguishable.  (Not to Fred Astaire, apparently, who'd fiddle with single sprockets in his movies, to get the beat exactly right.  I believe the technology was eight sprockets per frame when he made his great movies, so that would mean he was able to perceive differences at about 1/200th of a second.  But no one had more motor control, and therefore more fineness of proprioception than Astaire.)  But of course over eight frames you can see any perceivable motion - that's a third of a second. So when we watch a movie, we're brought to judge motion as imperceptible differences - differences we would ascribe to the noise of the perceptual system - make themselves felt as perceptible.

But that means that we're constantly judging what we're seeing, through the engagement of our will.  In well-edited films, the films themselves will, through what we could call cinematic occasionalism, conform to our own acts of willing.  Someone looks right.  We want to see what they're looking at.  The camera or the editor obliges.  In classic Hollywood film the audience almost always feels in control of the camera.  (The times that we don't, at least in a good movie, are generally the places where we feel the pleasure of being played: think of any Hitchcock film.)  Film, and classic Hollywood film especially, exploits our negotiations with our own perceptual flux, and engages our will in ways that minister to narrative desire, to the body English that makes us try to see things as acting the way we want them to act.

I think that what we have here is a natural analogue to Newcomb's Problem.  By choosing our perceptions right, we may be able to get what we want.  If that's how the psychology of narrative works (through the general phenomenon that I call non-causal bargaining), then on every scale, from 1/24th of a second to two or more hours, our relation to film keeps our occasionalist testing of what we see highly sensitized and engaged.  This would make film a particularly apt medium for narrative engagement (probably just about as apt as language, where I think we do a similar sort of testing).

Obviously I wouldn't confine this to Hollywood movies: Chatal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a case in point: we watch Jeanne over three days and start noting the tiny differences in what she's doing.  Are they artifacts of film making or are they action?  That's the question that animates our perception of the movie.

The perception of all action requires our involvement, and the more our involvement is fictional or factitious, even on the level of the most basic perception, the more it enmeshes our willing and our wishing, our desire and our engagement in non-causal bargaining.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Unimmediate Stages of the Erotic

I claimed in my last post that people are needlessly confused by "When the Lamp is Shattered." But that's not quite right. The poem is confusing, the way the fate of love is confusing. It's confusing because, as with love, you lose track of the pronouns.  So it's worth looking at them carefully.

Here, again, are the last two stanzas:
When hearts have once mingled,
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled
To endure what it once possessed.
O Love! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier?

Its passions will rock thee,
As the storms rock the ravens on high;
Bright reason will mock thee,
Like the sun from a wintry sky.
From thy nest every rafter
Will rot, and thine eagle home
Leave thee naked to laughter,
When leaves fall and cold winds come.
The important thing to remember abut Shelley is the supernatural delicacy of his effects ("Ah, sister, desolation is a delicate thing"). You can see that delicacy in the mingled interchange of reference.  As the opening stanzas make clear, this poem is an example of a particularly  Shelleyan version of allegory. "The light in the dust lies dead" can't quite mean that you can see light in the dust of the ground (as though the oil were still burning), because the light is dead. It almost means that, but it means that only if you understand that "the light in the dust" also and more deeply means: the light of life and love that animates the dust that we are, to which we will return. We've lost our spark, alive but loveless. The light in the dust that is still biologically alive has been extinguished.

Allegory figures through externalization, so the allegorical figuration of that is light actually lying dead in the dust, as on a battlefield, exteriorized. This is not quite an image, though it sounds like one. It's a verbal substitution for an image, a verbal form which can never be imagined as a pure image, since you would have to imagine light and its extinction at once. I do imagine that, but only by personifying the image of light prone and dead somehow in the dust, light still but dead, like Burke's not quite imaginable "angel of the Lord."

This is the mode of the last two stanzas as well. After love has expressed itself (when the hearts have mingled and mingle no longer, "when the lips have spoken), it does not last. Not for both: the weak one still loves though love is over. This is the meaning of the self-discrepancy of the light lying dead in the dust. Love is dead, the weak one still loves.

The well-built nest decays when love leaves it. Who leaves? The one who doesn't love anymore, and so: love departs. Who stays? The one who loves, debilitated by loss, and so: love stays. It does both at once.  Each is the equivalent of the other.  Love's departure brings out the love felt by the one who's lost all, and from whom love can never depart.

Love doesn't return to its eagle home; its only nest now is the place where the weak remains forlorn since love is gone. Love is gone, and what's left is love. Allegorical exteriorization is just the right figure for this discrepancy within experience: what is inside can only be seen now from the outside, and that fact tells powerfully and devastatingly on inner experience and brings us back to inner experience.

So in the last stanza, the pronouns are only hard to fix if you think they have to be fixed. "Thee" is Love, addressed already in the second person in the previous stanza: "Why choose you the frailest / For your cradle, your home, and your bier?" So "its passions" are the passions of the "weak one" who must "endure what it once possessed."

And yet: it's the passions of love that must be rocking the weak one, who endures it. The change in antecedent this reading implies is confirmed by the shift from "you" ("Why choose you the frailest") to "thee," the weak one.

The final, deepest allegorical figure of love is the person whom love abandons, leaving that person to be love's image, the frail and sorrowful personification of love's frailty. What's left when love is faithless and abandons you is the truest image of the faithfulness of love, faithful love.

"What may I do when my master feareth, But in the field with him to live and die? For good is the life ending faithfully."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Poetry and the contagion of affect

Balaustion (Browning's Balaustion) prefaces her by-heart recital of Euripides' Hecuba with these words, which can form a kind of motto for the practice of rapturous quotation:
                                 no one of all the words
O' the play but is grown part now of my soul,
Since the adventure. 'T is the poet speaks:
But if I, too, should try and speak at times,
Leading your love to where my love, perchance,
Climbed earlier, found a nest before you knew —
Why, bear with the poor climber, for love's sake!
I think Browning is remembering -- and so he, too, is speaking -- the words that end Shelley's "When the Lamp is Shattered":

When hearts have once mingled,
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled
To endure what it once possessed.
O Love! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier?

Its passions will rock thee,
As the storms rock the ravens on high;
Bright reason will mock thee,
Like the sun from a wintry sky.
From thy nest every rafter
Will rot, and thine eagle home
Leave thee naked to laughter,
When leaves fall and cold winds come.
These lines have occasioned much unnecessary confusion.  What Shelley meant, and what Browning saw, was that the personification of Love ("thee") opens it to the experience of all human beings: abandonment by love.  Love itself experiences the loss of love.  (Personifications of love, from the Symposium onwards, will often have this strange effect; it may indeed be in view of this effect that love is so often personified, standing on the burning deck reciting "Casabianca", hiding his face among a crowd of stars.) Balaustion's beautiful inversion of this fate leads us back to love's nest: her love for Euripides encouraging our own.

It may be too that in remembering Shelley Browning is remembering Dante, and the strange affection between shades that Statius and Virgil feel for each other.  In Purgatory the saved Statius tries to embrace the unsaved Virgil's feet, but Virgil reminds him that they are shades that that they are seeing shades.  Statius replies that his love for Virgil was so great that he forgot this unforgettable fact: that they are dead.

Virgil returns the compliment at the beginning of the next Canto (Purgatorio 22):
acceso di virtù, sempre altro accese,
pur che la fiamma sua paresse fore;

onde da l’ora che tra noi discese
nel limbo de lo ’nferno Giovenale,
che la tua affezion mi fé palese,

mia benvoglienza inverso te fu quale
più strinse mai di non vista persona,
sì ch’or mi parran corte queste scale.


Ignited by some power, spreads its flame
to others, if its fire flares above

The surface, vividly. When, Hellwards, came
Juvenal to Limbo, joined us there, and
made me know your love, I felt your claim

On my benevolence, by far more fair
Than any had yet felt for unseen persons,
so now it seems with ease I climb this stair.
Virgil loves Statius because Statius loves Virgil's poetry, loves it right, loves it deeply, loves it as should be loved: loves a shade.  There is nothing remotely self-absorbed about Virgil's love for Statius. Rather the poetry he wrote is, like all poems, an invitation to loving something together: something, to put it in the most banal and yet the deepest terms, quotable.

And indeed that's what Statius is about to to do: he quotes from the Aeneid to explain his own salvation.  Virgil's bitter critique of the corruption that gold produces among all humans wakens Statius to clearer thinking about avarice and prodigality, and he narrowly escapes hell, thanks to his master, who does not.  The words have a life of their own, like Love.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Shakespeare's craft: Othello and Twelfth Night

In Shakespeare, as in history, everything happens twice, first as tragedy, then as farce, sometimes, but sometimes vice versa. Consider Twelfth Night (1602) and Othello (1603).

I've long insisted that Dan Decker's great how-to book for writing for Hollywood, Anatomy of the Screenplay, is the best single book on Shakespeare that I've ever read, despite the fact that Decker never mentions him. What I learned from that book is the sublimity of Shakespeare's construction, of his skill.

I was thinking about that today - well this week actually, since I went to see Derek Jacobi's Lear at BAM on Saturday. What I saw there, on that bare stage, was how perfectly the director, Michael Grandage, had blocked the play, from start to finish. I'd never really noticed the obvious fact that one reason for the contest among the daughters is to establish those three characters (Grandage properly brings out the differences between Goneril and Regan, so that we don't, as in so many other performances, just lump them together as evil step-sister-types). The play has a lot of important parts for an audience to keep track of: Lear and his three daughters and Kent and the Fool (6); the elder daughters' husbands (2 more); Goneril's servant Oswald (+1); Gloucester and his two sons (another 3): that's a total of twelve important roles. I think the general rule is that without famous actors (or famous characters) an audience can't keep control of who's who if there are more than eight people in a movie, but Shakespeare pushes well beyond that (off hand I think only Hamlet rivals Lear in the number of important figures). So part of his craftsmanship is telling us who's who at every moment, and the contest does that with very great economy and skill.

It also makes it clear whose side we're on: Cordelia's and not her sisters'. This is so obvious as not to warrant a mention, but it got me thinking about how we know whose side to be on in other plays. Why Othello's and not Roderigo's? Again, easy. Still the point is that (as Decker says) every scene consists of people talking to each other who want things from each other and don't want to keep things from each other. Everyone wants something. How do we decide whom we want to get what they want, and whom we don't?

Twelfth Night, for example, might be a little harder. The very first speech establishes a love-lorn figure (like Roderigo in Othello) who loves a woman who doesn't love him back. This being romantic comedy, it seems significant that she doesn't love another. In romantic comedies in general, if the obstacle to mutual love is misunderstanding or misapplication of one's energies or talents, the story will show how that obstacle may be overcome. If the obstacle is true-love for another person, well, the protagonist's gain comes at the expense of that other person, at the expense true-love, and the result is at best bittersweet. Ilsa must go with Victor Lazlo; whereas Ginger Rogers may be engaged to others, but never loves anyone but Fred Astaire.

But here Orsino loves Olivia, and she, for her part, is just making excuses. Defeasible excuses. Excuses that the story can overcome, or so it would seem.

But then there's Viola. She loves Orsino, but he loves another. Structurally, she's in more or less the same position as Malvolio. (Olivia is somewhat different: Malvolio doubles and so serves as a foil for Viola; whereas Olivia, willing to marry someone like but not identical to the person she thought he was, doubles and serves as a foil for Orsino. Malvolio and Olivia are possibilities that bring out some less satisfying routes Orsino and Viola's characters could have taken.) Why do we root for her and not for him?

The answer illuminates the very fact that we do root for one and not the other. Why do we root at all? Rooting for a preferred romantic outcome in a play is a type of prosocial behavior. We like someone - Orsino or Viola or Hermia or Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire - and we have an interestingly unselfish reaction to liking them. We want to see them happy. They don't have to like us or know us or notice us. In plays they don't; in novels still less; in movies least of all, perhaps. We're lookers on, but we look on with good will, not Malvolio's malevolence.

What we feel good will for, in the virtuous circle of prosocial interaction, are those with good will. Audiences feel unified when we all root for the same thing, especially when we root for those who are similarly good-natured. That's what it means to see a feel-good movie or play. Everybody's happy because everybody's happy.

So we root for Viola because she's rooting for Orsino. She tries to help him. She loves him, but her love is sufficiently unselfish, sufficiently like an audience's, that she works to bring him a happy ending to which she'll be a spectator. See, too, the melancholy joy with which Paulina congratulates "you precious winners, all" in The Winter's Tale. Paulina, Beatrice, Viola, Theseus, Hippolyta: they root for the happiness of those they love, even love erotically. So (in the same way) we root for theirs, and so (therefore) we root for theirs.

Shakespeare makes us like those generous-hearted characters who don't stand too squarely in the way of what other generous-hearted characters want. That's Viola. She's helpful, against her own interests. Whereas Malvalio isn't. That's (strangely enough) Helena. But she's helping, against her own interests, a character who isn't generous-hearted (Demetrius), so we are more ambivalent about her. (Shakespeare experiments with every combination, and the comparison of Helena to Viola is extremely useful.)

And if Viola were playing for herself and not for Orsino? If she were strategizing to get her man by interfering with the love she's supposed to be trying to forward? Well, she'd be the villain, and the story would be a tragedy, and her name would be Iago.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Merwin's similes

I had a thought about W.S. Merwin's similes today. "Still Morning" is one of the great poems in his latest book, The Shadow of Sirius:


It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

Why would he think that the flying birds know nothing of the air they are flying through? They would, or might, know as much about the air as we do about the fact of age. To say that at this age (in his eighties), age knows nothing of age is to say that what it once thought would be the knowledge of age that would come with age turns out to be nothing. It doesn't feel different at eighty from at eight. Here, now, he sees the world as he did there, then.

How did he see the world then? The way we all did, before we were surprised by light or air or having a body or the voluptuousness of looking. When did we learn that air existed? We didn't used to know it, or if we knew, we knew it in our breathing, not in our knowing. That was knowledge before the knowledge came that we would die. And now, trying to recall that tacit knowledge of air, all we can do is find a simile for how we once breathed: the way the birds fly, without thinking of the air they fly through, the day that bears them up.

So let's say that this simile is false. The flying birds must know much about the air they are flying through in order to be able to live as they do. But trying to remember early childhood, and the not knowing of that time, we imagine it not as we imagine being a bird, but as we imagine a child imagining being a bird.

Would a child really imagine being a bird like that? I doubt it. But however a child imagines things, it seems continuous with that imagination to imagine a child imagining that way. We imagine childhood the way a child would - a child our age.

And an interesting thing about this similes is what it brings out, by contrast, about similes in general: Similes focus on the true. When you use a simile to make a comparison, the thing you're comparing your theme or subject to is something true and public. If the hangers rattle like madmen, it's because there is a way that real madmen cause disturbances.

But Merwin's similes are different. Part of their amazing economy is that both sides of the simile are figurative. His poetry has always been about the comparing of figure with figure, not figure with the already established truth. That's what give his poetry its gossamer quality, its fragility, its sense of subjectivity in every direction. Merwin's similes are as delicate as the things they're supposed to be stabilizing and explaining. And that's what this poem is about.


It's also what another poem in the same book is about, "Blueberries After Dark," which begins
So this is the way the night tastes
one at a time
not early or late

The night, every night of old age, turns out to be like a blueberry eaten at just the right moment, neither harsh and crude nor falling overmellow into the rotten mouth of death. That's good. How do we know it's old age? Because of the title: "Blueberries After Dark." It's not the night that brings the dark. The sequence of nights here are those that come after dark. The metaphor is half-joined to what it's figuring: in the night, each night comes at the right time. A clear and well-formed version of this metaphor might go something like: "In the late autumn, each night comes at the right time." But here night and the dark it brings are both simultaneously tenor and vehicle: the way they come together is the way subjectivity feels in Merwin.


I think that it's also the way subjectivity feels in Proust, partly because "Still Morning" reminded me of this great passage at the beginning of La Prisonnière:

Jadis, un directeur de théâtre dépensait des centaines de mille francs pour consteller de vraies émeraudes le trône où la diva jouait un rôle d’impératrice. Les ballets russes nous ont appris que de simples jeux de lumières prodiguent, dirigés là où il faut, des joyaux aussi somptueux et plus variés. Cette décoration, déjà plus immatérielle, n’est pas si gracieuse pourtant que celle par quoi, à huit heures du matin, le soleil remplace celle que nous avions l’habitude d’y voir quand nous ne nous levions qu’à midi. Les fenêtres de nos deux salles de bains, pour qu’on ne pût nous voir du dehors, n’étaient pas lisses, mais toutes froncées d’un givre artificiel et démodé. Le soleil tout à coup jaunissait cette mousseline de verre, la dorait et, découvrant doucement en moi un jeune homme plus ancien, qu’avait caché longtemps l’habitude, me grisait de souvenirs, comme si j’eusse été en pleine nature devant des feuillages dorés où ne manquait même pas la présence d’un oiseau.


In the old days, a theatrical producer would spend hundreds of thousands of francs to constellate with real emeralds the throne where the diva played the empress role. The ballets russes have taught us that the simplest play of light scatters, directed rightly, gems just as sumptuous and more varied. This decoration, already tending towards the immaterial, is nevertheless not as graceful as that by which, at eight in the morning, the sun replaces the decoration that we are used to seeing there when we don't get up until noon. The windows of our two bathrooms weren't smooth but textured with an old-fashioned artificial frosting, so that we wouldn't be seen from outside. The sun suddenly yellowed that glass gauze, turned it gold, uncovering within me a young man from longer ago, hidden for a long time by the force of habit, intoxicated me with memories, as if I had been right out in nature looking at golden leaves which didn't lack even the presence of a bird [since Albertine is whistling].
One of the things he'll be remembering was the sun he longed for because it might mean that Gilberte would go out: he watches for "cet or inaltérable et fixe des beaux jours" - that fixed, inalterable gold of a lovely day.

And Stevens of course:

to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained... --"A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts"


Rabbit Light and Frosted Glass

Friday, June 3, 2011

Patriarch or Old Clothes Dealer?

In an earlier post I brooded on how the end of literary transference is represented in and as a literary moment.  The child turns to the parent for comfort, but the parent cannot offer that comfort.  The need for comfort is what I (elsewhere) once described as literary need, the kind of thing one goes to literature for when there is nowhere else to go.

One thing I was thinking about there, but didn't explore, was the difference between turning to a parent, or to a spouse or erotic partner, or to a child.  Dante and, really, Achilles, turn to parents, whose fragility they see and mourn; what they mourn is that the parents aren't their parents.  Virgil is like a mother ("quale"); Priam in his frailty and need reminds Achilles of his own father.  Of course the scene will often involve "real" parents as well: Isaac, the burning child, Griffin's child.  But that last example shows that the real parents are turning into non-parents: Griffin's child is replaced (in Turn of the Screw) by Miles and Flora, whose parents are dead, whose uncle has absolutely foresworn all contact with them, and whose only quasi-parental protection is to be sought from the Governess, or from the ghosts.

The ghosts: the same is true in Hamlet as well: he does not know who his father is, who the dilapidated king of shreds and patches turns out to be.

That's the sadness of the Freudian transference: we transfer onto others because our own parents are no longer parental figures for us.  The transference, Freud says, is a tribute to what they once were for us.  But are no longer.

So in Gertrude's closet, the only scene in Shakespeare* (as Neil Hertz once pointed out) to show the nuclear family whole and alone - father, mother, child - the family romance is entirely mangled: the father is a ghost, while a real father lies dead behind the arras; the son may be insane; the mother has no inkling that the father may be there; the son has no idea what his father wants from him, but nevertheless senses the ghost's powerlessness, and therefore the erosion of the ghost's comforting authority to demand that Hamlet set justice right.  The scene is itself the echt-tragic scene of the end of the family romance: and of course if Claudius is Hamlet's father, he too has become risible by now.  (Kafka's "The Judgment" is a kind of redo of this scene, or of Hamlet, though maybe in reverse order.)

Dante, or rather the place where will and act are one, replaces Virgil with Beatrice, the erotic object, whose power over him Dante felt first as a child, then as now "sister and mother and diviner love," since in both cases she replaces the lost mother.  Likewise Albertine, her kiss, explicitly replaces the narrator's mother as the latter morphs more and more into her own mother, his dead grandmother, which means his mother is now in the frail and mortal role of his grandmother whose death has been so devastating a part of the book.

Transference on to a suitable erotic object (Albertine, Beatrice, the King of France, Ferdinand) is the way it's supposed to work, according to Freud.  In poetic terms such a (relatively) good outcome is what Harold Bloom means by poetic election: the love you learned from elsewhere, in imitation and in awe, becomes a love you make your own.  Milton's Sonnet 23 has something of this, despite its sadness.  His late espoused Saint comes back to him, inclines towards him even as she leaves him, and his need for her when she's gone is the occasion of his poetry, the delineation of all our woe.  Notice that she too is a maternal figure: she being mortal of her child has died, and so comes to him washed from spot of childbed taint - comes to him as the dead and purified mother, not another Eve ("I waked to find her or forever to deplore her loss," says Adam, and he does find her), but another Calliope ("nor could the Muse defend her son").  Another Calliope. The dead mother as spouse, the dead spouse as mother: for Milton that's what the muse or origin of poetry is. Adam is not a poet.

For Freud a successful transference (on to an appropriate erotic object) and the end of transference are the same.  Psychoanalysis seeks a successful end to the transference, that is to say it seeks to give the analysand the capacity for successful erotic transference. For the elegist, transference and its ending are the same too, but in a darker key.  Poetry is what's left when the erotic object is just as gone as the parent is.

But what happens when the turn is to the child? That's what happens in the dream of the burning child, in Wordsworth's greatest sonnet, "Surprised by Joy", or in Ben Jonson's elegy on his son, what you could imagine (as Kafka does, as Kierkegaard sort of does) in "another Abraham."  This is what Freud calls the defeat of parental narcissism, and what we could call, in the context of literary vocation, the defeat of that vocation.  The poem is not worth the candle.

Stephen Dedalus's reading of Hamlet: which is about Shakespeare's desperate wish that he were the ghost, whom he played, and that his dead son Hamlet or Hamnet had survived him, might go some way towards a reading of the play as attempting to save literary vocation as a supreme fiction in which the young can still believe: Joyce wants Stephen to believe; the ghost wants Hamlet to have a vocation, even if the only one he can come up with is violent revenge.

These are all cases, you might say, of poetic dis-election, what Wordsworth is already noticing, though in gladness, in "Resolution and Independence":
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.
He's ready for this, ready for the glad confrontation with mortality and loss, rejoicing in his own power to face the utter loss of his power.  That's what transference and poetic election is: choosing to give it all up for love, being able to make that choice for the poetic power it creates (like Thamuris in Balaustion's last adventure), which is a rearticulation of the gladness in Wordsworth's poem.  He's ready for it too in that great earlier sonnet about the arbitrary joy of transference or election:
WITH Ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh,
Like stars in heaven, and joyously it showed;
Some lying fast at anchor in the road,
Some veering up and down, one knew not why.
A goodly Vessel did I then espy
Come like a giant from a haven broad;
And lustily along the bay she strode,
Her tackling rich, and of apparel high.
This Ship was nought to me, nor I to her,
Yet I pursued her with a Lover's look;
This Ship to all the rest did I prefer:
When will she turn, and whither? She will brook
No tarrying; where She comes the winds must stir:
On went She, and due north her journey took.
His soul is mistress of its choice, and chooses this big boat, the right one, it is clear, since she goes due north.  But of course due north is towards cold and death, despondency and madness.  But where else would a poet like Wordsworth seek to travel, with his earthly freight?

It's when the utter loss of power comes that you wake up to the dead child, carried away by a muse infinitely more exigent than the Rumpelstiltskins of our childhoods.

All of this was prompted by reading a great poem by Franz Wright in this week's New Yorker, "Recurring Awakening" (you need to be a subscriber: you can google the title and author for some messed-up versions of the poem, but it's worth it to go buy the issue).  The title's a kind of summary of Lacan's thoughts on the dream of the burning child.  The poem is addressed by its mortal speaker to a dead friend, or lover, or parent, or self.  (Wright volunteers, a lot, at a center for teenagers who have lost their parents.)  The poem ends with his dream of the person he's dreaming of
sideways in time
to some slow stately dance
hand in hand
with the handless
in their identical absence
of affect, lips moving in unison.
I can't hear a thing, but it's said
the instant of being aware we are sleeping
and the instant of waking are one
and the same--and thus, against delusion
we possess this defense.
Only if you refuse
to respond, if I can only write you,
and write on black wind-blurred water, what's the use?
"I turned to share the transport": that's the moment of poetic inspiration.  But the despondency comes when the only question that remains is Wright's: "what's the use?"

Nothing sadder than this: read it while you're young and can still take pure joy in it.

* Well there's one trivial exception, in Richard II, and probably it's an interpolation.

"An indescribable joy always rushes out of great books, even when they speak of ugly, hopeless, or terrifying things." --Deleuze, when young.  He committed suicide at 70.