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:


Friday, July 22, 2011

Ghost stories

"Récit de fantôme où meme le fantôme est absent...."  --Blanchot ("Ghost story where even the ghost is absent")
"Schreiben aber heißt, sich vor den Gespenstern entblößen" --Kafka ("Writing means, denuding yourself before the ghosts")

"Frate, / non far, ché tu se' ombra e ombra vedi." --Dante (Virgil to Statius: "Brother, / don't [try to embrace my legs], for you are a shade, and are seeing a shade.")

As one of those quick heuristic claims, I found myself saying the other day that every good short story is a ghost story.  We'd done Turn of the Screw, so that was the context: ghost story or not, it's a ghost story.  So we quickly went through the syllabus of stories we'd read, proving the point and identifying the ghost.

"Hills Like White Elephants"? The fetus. Their love. Their past. Their future. (Of course: since the fetus represents all those things.)

"A Day's Wait": The boy. (His mother too: what do you say about two people and two ghosts?)

"Gift of the Magi": The hair, the watch.

"Miss Lonelyhearts": Miss Lonelyhearts, Shrike.  "They were not worldly men." Sick-of-it-all's mother.  Mrs. Shrike's mother. Any of the letter writers. Christ.

"Slave on the Block" (Langston Hughes): The "wonderful colored cook and maid" who sleeps in the basement and takes sick and dies.

"Wash," Faulkner's short story version of the death of Sutpen: Sutpen himself, riding home from the War.  The past.  The missing daughter, the dead son.  And much, much more.

Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour": The dead husband.  Who turns out not to be dead.

Hammett's great pair of stories: "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money": Papadapolous.  The Old Man.

"The Swimmer"?  The swimmer.

Anything by Alice Munro: what more needs to be said?  Anything by Dennis Johnson: likewise.  Ditto Javier Marías.  And Bolaño.  Hawthorne.  Melville. Carver. Alistair Macleod, Borges.  Flaubert.  Chekhov.  Tolstoy.  Megadittoes to Isaac Babel. No need to mention Duras or Blanchot.

I wondered a little about comic stories - farce, really - but all you have to do is read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."  Or Saki.

Salinger: "See more glass" could be the epigraph to this entry.

Listing it like this makes the game too easy, maybe, but it shouldn't be quite that easy. The ghosts haunt the stories, come to haunt them, make the stories haunting.

That's as far as we got in class, but later I found myself trying to think in a literal-minded way. The lesson I thought this game taught me was that stories play off of an interesting juxtaposition of anecdotal specificity and the generic world.  Novels have time to invent their world, invent background and context for their characters. Unhappy families are represented as unhappy families in an unhappy world, in a world which reflects and explains their unhappiness.  But in stories, everyone else is just "reasonably waiting for the train."  So the juxtaposition between the characters and the generic world always, in one way or another makes the characters into survivors.

Survivors: those who outlive a world or space or time or community or family or love or hope in which they're in sync with the world.  The story begins when they're no longer in sync.  This idea is generically related (how else should it be related?) to Warshow's description of "the gangster as tragic hero":
Thrown into the crowd without background or advantages, with only those ambiguous skills which the rest of us—the real people of the real city—can only pretend to have, the gangster is required to make his way, to make his life and impose it on others. Usually, when we come upon him, he has already made his choice or the choice has already been made for him, it doesn't matter which: we are not permitted to ask whether at some point he could have chosen to be something else than what he is.
The short story character is faced with a generic world: a world become generic for him and her, however rich and specific it is for everyone else.  The rich and specific have become generic, and the character doesn't belong to that generic world.  It's a ghost for her or him, or the character is a ghost in that world.  Those two ideas are the same: the character's relation to the world is what's ghostly.  The ghost is the relationship, and whoever represents that relationship in the story: fetus or husband or dead first wife (Edith Wharton's "Pomegranate Seed") or Shrike or Mr. Sappleton ("The Open Window) or Billie, the Oiler (Crane's "Open Boat"), or the child in the dream of the burning child reported to Freud is the ghost.

Anyhow, I was wondering whether this was fair and accurate.  Is that what a real ghost is like?

What a question!

Why would I even ask it?  Why would I think I could think about a real ghost? And the answer that came to me was that it's in stories that you interact with ghosts. These characters you interact with: they don't stay. And unlike lyric poetry, they don't repeat themselves either, in endless songs of love or longing or farewell.  Lyric is about the generic as the place we can continue to live, interact with, belong to, take comfort in.  But the stories are not our stories.  They're ghost stories.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Forms of Farewell, or: Still a voice in my heart keeps repeating: You, you, you

Well-managed repetition is a great though difficult thing.  One of the touchstones for an actor in King Lear is the line "Never, never, never, never, never."  I love the way Paul Scofield does it, and the very different way that James Earl Jones does.  It's right up Derek Jacobi's alley too, perhaps too much so. But the point is the line is earned by the play, which is why Scofield and Jones can do it so well: it's there to be done well.

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about the way poems sometimes end with those kinds of repetitions, like this of Larkin's:
The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
"Never" repeats its own finality, so that even finality isn't resolution. "Afresh" repeats its own élan, acknowledging that what begins afresh has begun before, countless times, and is no longer fresh: and yet that freshness floods any demurral.

Stevens's "Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu" does its repetition in the title, so that the singularity of the moment of adieu can stand simply there without moving a hand:
What is there here but weather, what spirit
have I except it comes from the sun?
The finality ("the the") is all the more final because it seeks neither to master repetition nor to express itself through its failure to master it.  The title tells you all you need to know about the finality of this form of farewell, the infinite incremental separation of life and death, which is aging, which is death ("World, world, O world! / But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee / Life would not yield to age").  That's the incremental decoherence of what the heart and heart-beat misses in Alvin Feinman's sense of the world undoing itself:
Something, something, the heart here misses.
Freud called repetition an attempt to stay the moment of disaster, to skip backwards like a record at its edge. "Cordelia, Cordelia" -- that's a heartbeat too -- isn't it? -- with a dying fall, since her name means heart. "Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little" - what else should Lear say at the end?

It is always at or near the end that these sad repetitions occur - the happy ones (since "deny, deny, deny is not all the roosters cry") such as those in Cole Porter, in Martin and Blane ("Zing zing zing went my heartstrings") may suggest that the moment is self-perpetuating, self-energizing, effortless, and so they can come in the midst of things. By contrast Larkin's ending is just "sadness, sadness, sadness" (last line of Dennis Johnson's poem "Our Sadness"); the fact that it's an ending makes it as effortful as the trees he's describing, like the end of Hopkins's sad lament for the felled Binsey poplars:
Binsey Poplars

      (Felled 1879)

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew-
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will made no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
These repetitions stand against the strokes of havoc, try to, fail to. The repetitions are oriented towards the past, sometimes reduced to the pure sterility of the reduction to repetition itself, as in this moment from Hart Crane:
The grind-organ says…  Remember, remember
The cinder pile at the end of the backyard
Where we stoned the family of young
Garter snakes under ... And the monoplanes
We launched---with paper wings and twisted
Rubber bands…  Recall---recall
(The poem goes on, but the stanza is integral as a repeated call to repetition.)

Forms of farewell, as Stevens says, and yet they have a kind of choral quality, a sense that the farewell itself yields a culminating verse or line or chant or song: "afresh, afresh, afresh." As with Lear calling on the men of stones around him, or to Cordelia, as with Larkin or Hopkins flying to the trees, or Stevens waving adieu, the pressure of departure makes the words sing, as in the third of the endings of Flann O'Brien's great At Swim-Two-Birds:
Well known alas is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three, and made every aspect of his life a thing of triads. He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup. He cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife, goodbye goodbye goodbye.
 This is more or less O'Brien's version of Cervantes's last words, which Javier Marías quotes and Margaret Jull Costa translates:
Farewell wit, and farewell, charm, farewell dear departed friends, hoping to see you soon, happily installed in the other life.
 I can't find this in Spanish, but the standard English translation has "merry friends." I prefer "departed friends." He is saying farewell to those already dead in this life, but saying farewell as though they're still here.  Where else would they be? That's Cervantes, that's the song that repetition sings, a lingering song of departure.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Another grammar, another interlocutor

I was thinking about a post of Jeff's, on the last entry in Wittgenstein's Zettel (since you're no doubt already a FB friend of his, you should be able to read it).  That last entry reads:
"You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed". — That is a grammatical remark.
It's of some, though only some, importance to note that the clauses in quotation marks belong to the intermittently changing person conventionally known as the interlocutor (the narratee, the person who says what a student might say, or a teacher).  Wittgenstein's interlocutor is of immense importance, not as a straw man or "idiot questioner" (Blake) but as a figure who experiences language and the world and other people as one does, as we do.  Where he goes wrong, sometimes more than other times, is when he starts philosophizing. He tries to systematize his experience, and the value of this attempt is always in the first step that he takes, the immediate experience that he offers as premise for what follows.  (As the minor premise, I am thinking: the major premise is some philosophical truism that will then lead to an equally truistic conclusion.  The minor premise becomes its confirmation.  The syllogistic form would probably be the one called Bocardo.)

So the interlocutor notices -- remarks (bemerkt), that is, observes -- that you can't hear God speaking to someone else. By this he means to show something like a conventional view of privacy.  God has access to the innermost reaches of the soul, and a fortiori those reaches, that innerness, exists, inaccessible to the outside world.  So thinks the interlocutor, and this is the idea that Wittgenstein is undercutting.

For Wittgenstein, God is not a mind-reader.  Or to put it more accurately, he's no different a mind-reader than human beings are (though he might be better, sure).  God can't know, any better than you can, how I'll follow a rule.  (Not that he can't know: he just can't know better than you can know it.)  As Kripke more or less gets right, not only can't we tell whether I'm adding or quadding until our results diverge, God can't tell either.  (I'll note in passing that this is related to some profound remarks of Wittgenstein on forced mates in chess: the only "proof" of a forced mate is playing out all the possible moves.) It's not that mind-reading is impossible. That's what the interlocutor thinks, with God as the name for that impossibility.  No, mind reading goes so deep into the mode of possibility as to come out on the other end, in necessity.  It's something we all do, and all must do, by virtue of being human.
I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. It is correct to say ‘I know what you are thinking’, and wrong to say ‘I know what I am thinking.’ (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.)
If we couldn't mind read we couldn't learn to speak. We learn to speak because we know what others are thinking.  That's the point of Wittgenstein's saying that the interlocutor's observation is grammatical. It's a remark about what we talk about when we talk about God.  And the point is that God is one of the things we talk about, and neither the origin nor privileged interpreter of our talk.

Which allows for a connection between this post and my previous. Jeff alludes to the great Abrahamic response to God: הנני (Hineni) "Here I am."  That's Abraham hearing God speak to him.  (And of course Isaac clearly hasn't heard God.) But Kafka imagines various Abrahams, including one who can't believe he's the one being summoned:
Aber ein anderer Abraham. Einer, der durchaus richtig opfern will und überhaupt die richtige Witterung für die ganze Sache hat, aber nicht glauben kann, dass er gemeint ist, er, der widerliche alte Mann und sein Kind, der schmutzige Junge. Ihm fehlt nicht der wahre Glaube, diesen Glauben hat er, er wurde in der richtigen Verfassung opfern, wenn er nur glauben könnte, dass er gemeint ist. Er fürchtet, er werde zwar als Abraham mit dem Sohne ausreiten, aber auf dem Weg sich in Don Quixote verwandeln. Über Abraham wäre die Welt damals entsetzt gewesen, wenn sie zugesehen hätte, dieser aber fürchtet, die Welt werde sich bei dem Anblick totlachen. Es ist aber nicht die Lächerlichkeit an sich, die er fürchtet - allerdings fürchtet er auch sie, vor allem sein Mitlachen - hauptsächlich aber fürchtet er, dass diese Lächerlichkeit ihn noch älter und widerlicher, seinen Sohn noch schmutziger machen wird, noch unwürdiger, wirklich gerufen zu werden. Ein Abraham, der ungerufen kommt! Es ist so wie wenn der beste Schüler feierlich am Schluß des Jahres eine Prämie bekommen soll und in der erwartungsvollen Stille der schlechteste Schüler infolge eines Hörfehlers aus seiner schmutzigen letzten Bank hervorkommt und die ganze Klasse losplatzt. Und es ist vielleicht gar kein Hörfehler, sein Name wurde wirklich genannt, die Belohnung des Besten soll nach der Absicht des Lehrers gleichzeitig eine Bestrafung des Schlechtesten sein.

Schreckliche Dinge - genug.
Terrifying things: enough indeed.  Another Abraham who always wants to do the right thing and has the right temperament for the situation, but can't believe that he's the one who's meant, he and his grubby young man.  He has true belief, but fears that on the way with his son he'll be transformed into Don Quixote, and that everyone will make fun of him, that the teacher is punishing him for being the class dunce by exposing him to his fellow-students' laughter.

The very idea of laughter is the social. There is no God without language, and no language without other people.  This Abraham knows that it's a grammatical, not an ontological, remark to say "You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed."  If he's a bad student he might not get the grammar right ("glamour," as in its original meaning of supernatural or magical powers, is a corruption of grammar, which the literate scholars know). God is a game in our language, and like many games, the one in which God calls on you can be cruel, with the punishment for grammatical error humiliation in front of the whole class.

He feels just like his "schmutzig" son, who risks becoming grubbier still, and so he imagines himself sitting at his schmutzig desk in at the back of the class.  This Abraham fears God and protects himself and his son by refusing to believe in his exceptional, his private importance.  Grammar is about how we speak to others.  He stays in the back of the class, with his son, with the others.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tragedy, farce, and other, rarer modes: a post on Kafka

In almost any interesting narrative, everything happens at least twice. The first time to set the rules of this here kind of fictional event, so that the second time its stakes and its moves are intelligible to the audience. That intelligibility may be necessary to the protagonist too -- the first time may occur as practice, in the Smersh training circuit, on the flight simulator, in the dojo, in the school yard (no less in The Wire or in Buffy than in the opening of Abel Gance's Napoleon). Or it may be only there for us, as when Chigurh flips his coin to determine his suppliants' fate in No Country for Old Men.

It's really hard to think of a story with an interesting plot that doesn't rhyme incidents in this way: Madame Bovary, Proust, Austen, Waiting for Godot, any Shakespeare play, Dickens, Fielding, Tolstoy (well, maybe not Tolstoy: there may be something of Kafka in him). It's the principle of revenge stories as of love stories. It is to be found in every fairy tale. Hansel drops stones and the children find their way home. The second time he drops bread-crumbs and they don't. The wolf blows down two of the pigs' houses, and then he fails.

There's one obvious reason, to which I plan to return in a later post, for this repetition (sometimes multiple repetition as in the story of the three little pigs as well as the story of Goldilocks). Events in narrative had better be doing at least double duty. They are interesting in themselves, but they also convey information crucial to the set-up of later and still more interesting events, events that make the narrative particularly interesting, events that particularize the interest of this narrative. Narratives have to teach you the rules of the game they're playing (or in genre fiction the rules of the variant of the game that they're playing), for you to appreciate the moves made according to those rules. A Swedish client of my father's visited the U.S. in 1956 for the first time, and his host took him to see Game 5 of that year's World Series. The client was bored out of his mind. Nothing happened, that he could see: every Dodger batter who went to the plate returned to the dugout.  Don Larsen retired every single one, pitching the only perfect game in World Series history. But the Swedish client didn't know the rules, and he missed the unbelievably exciting experience that he was present at.

If a narrative doesn't set up its own rules early, and then follow the constraints imposed by those rules, you get only chronicles, what E. M. Foster calls plot as opposed  story. Such constraints don't only include whether people can fly in this fictional world or not; whether animals can talk or not; they include subtler things like establishing the balance between consistency and freedom in a character, between a character's capacity to act surprisingly and gratuitously and our sense that a character is acting plausibly, consistently with what we know about her and what she has become at some point in a narrative. Such rules will also include psychological rules about how much time or experience can change characters: is their psychology Jamesian? Dickensian? Woolfian? Proustian? Is remorse or repentance or degeneration or despair possible in their fictional world?

An interesting vignette about such a change, early on, will sound the note for the possibilities of such changes over the course of the narrative. As with so much of Eliot, the opening two of Daniel Deronda makes the point explicitly:
Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars' unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backward as well as forward, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story sets out.

Was she beautiful or not beautiful?
The first paragraph tells us how to read the question that opens the second: we are at an arbitrary moment that nevertheless tells us that there are four different directions, towards four quadrants in the narrative field, that the curve of the story might trace. We know both that a character might be difficult to pin down, and, what's more, that he might be difficult to pin down because he has difficulty pinning another character down.  Daniel's difficulty says something crucial both about Gwendolyn and about himself, and the possibilities of their respective adventures are given by the narrative anecdote with which the book opens, and by the narrative vignette with which that anecdote opens.

There's a chaotic dialectic between randomness and determinism in good narrative, a dialectic itself stabilized by the practice of repetition, often as with Eliot in the mode of self-similarity, where repetitions occur across different orders of magnitude.  A good narrative approximates a Koch Curve:

From Wikimedia: as we zoom in on the curve you can see its every part is made up of similar parts
To take some obvious narrative examples, in a trust narrative, a character must learn either trust or suspicion.  She'll learn them on the basis of an early narrative experience, and the mode may either be once burned, twice shy or first antagonistic, later life-saving.  The second schema is to be found in any number of heart-warming narratives, from Huck Finn to Lisbeth Salander's relation to Mikael Blomqvist.  Of course you can get various combinations of the two, meta-versions where modes of repetition are themselves repeated with a difference.

Indeed the second story probably requires the first: "Once burned, twice shy" is the reason a character may start out antagonistic; if she becomes life-saving afterwards, what's happened is that once burned, twice shy has been repeated with a difference.  If the once burned, twice shy part of the story is itself well told, so that trust leads to distrust, the return to trust will require all that much more narrative invention, force, resourcefulness, and management of the relation between the audience's desire and its knowledge.  These are things that Dickens and Homer do particularly well.  The rightly suspicious Achilles trusts Priam in the end, and Priam trusts him; the rightly suspicious Odysseus trusts Penelope, and she trusts him.

If we put this very schematically, we can describe Frye's four basic narrative arcs in terms of such repetitions.  The replacement of a sad event with its happy repetition is comedy.  The replacement of a happy event with its sad repetition is tragedy.  Happy to happy is farce.  Sad to sad is melodrama.  Again, these things can occur on meta-levels, some more self-similar, some less, again with different emotional outcomes.

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about Kafka's fairy tale openings.  They're so hard to write -- no one trusts themselves any more with this kind of unexplained directness, which seems a feature of oral memory, not of meditation and invention. In the twentieth century maybe only Kafka ever wrote them convincingly.  Gregor Samsa wakes up as a giant insect: so do fairy tales begin.  The Emperor has a message for you.

All the fairy tales that open in this way would repeat their incidents in a way that advanced towards some conclusion with a difference.  You wake up as a bug and later on, when you wake up as a tree your experiences as a bug will help you negotiate your new, arboreal circumstances.  The Emperor's message comes, or doesn't, and later on when you hear a more important message has been sent, you'll know how to insure that you receive it in time this time.  Leopards break into the temple, and later on they'll become a part of the ceremony.

But, in Kafka, what almost always happens -- this is the rarer mode -- is that things only happen once.  You wake up as a bug, and that's it.  You stay a bug and nothing rhymes with that experience.  You don't get the message.  You don't get to the next village. The first part of the book will be about getting to the Castle.  K. never gets there.  Or it will be about waiting for the trial.  But the climax never comes. Once you pass the first stage and enter the doorway of the Law, that's when things will get complicated.  But you never enter the doorway.  God calls unto Abraham to sacrifice his son!  Abraham assumes some other Abraham was meant: he can't be important enough for this test.  Fairy tales without the repetition that offers narrative satisfaction: that's the amazing thing in Kafka.