Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eros, Dantesque and Freudian

When I was younger, in college and grad school, I'd read that someone my current age had won the lottery, and it just seemed so pointless. What would they do with twenty years of money coming in that could possibly make their, or anyone's, life better? There they would be, beaming out of the front pages of the New York Post, their slovenly decrepitude accentuated by the big checks and grins so appropriately transfigured into the harsh half-tone dots of the giant photo.

This was part of a larger combination of fear and hope: fear for what I would be like at my current age, how I would cope with being this old, with having no prospects before me except the dead end one. Hope that by that time I would no longer be myself, but some other person, an older one, who could have nothing to do with the younger me. (Cf. Hazlitt's Essay on the Principles of Human Action.) That unimaginable person really didn't have to be imagined, since he'd be "one of them," those others who belonged to a different time, to a different attitude towards time. I could see that I wasn't one of them, part of that older generation.

At some point I really started liking, because it made life so much more luminous, books by the very old that were written in the voice of the young. In particular, as I've mentioned before, Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, one of the four or five greatest non-fiction books I have ever read. I mention it here, because I think that's when that category occurred to me. (I'd felt the same, I think, about Joseph Mitchell, though I didn't quite put it to myself that way. And of course that's the surprise in Proust: the extreme old age of the narrator, which we discover only at the end.)

I think this seemed luminous to me because it meant the possibility of communication on equal terms with people much older than I was -- it meant I could be friends with them. Those friendships, not many, but real friendships among equals, have mattered a great deal to me. Imperceptibly -- with the same imperceptibility of time passing -- I became aware that older generations were no different. They were neither more nor less insightful than we were. And I'd wanted them to be both.

What I had once imagined was that that difference would reside in a difference in what mattered to them. What matters to the old? Not the love that mattered to us. No: Cranky issues about health, money, rudeness, insult, etc., instead. That's what I thought. So I was not that person, and my fear of becoming that person (as I have said) also brought the reassurance that that person would no longer be me.

But it turns out that (I began to discover from my conversations with my old friends) and is turning out that what matters all the way through is love. ("Love of the real," the pretty old Stevens put it.) That was somehow Dante's insight, and if Freud said the poets were there before him (did he? That's for another post), then Dante did indeed anticipate Freud's most important insight: that our involvement in the world is always driven by, always troubled by, always channeled through love.

That is becoming more and more to me to seem an amazing insight of Freud's: the thing I could not bear to think -- that the relation of the old to the world is the same as that of the young -- turns out to be true. At this age, I'm glad it is; and it's the reason that I'm glad it is.

This probably sounds more sentimental than I meant it to: it's really Freud's insight that's been really striking me.  Dante's version of it can be seen in these lines, I think:

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l'arco de lo essilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.
                                                      --Paradiso 17:55-60

You will abandon* all things whose delight
is dearest to you: this is the first arrow
that from the bow of exile takes its flight.

Thenceforth the taste of others' bread will harrow
your tongue with salt, and you will have to labor
on others' stairways, hard and steep and narrow.

[More literally: You will abandon* everything most dearly delightful: and this is that arrow which the bow of exile will first shoot. You will experience how salty is the savor of the bread of others, and how how hard a path is the descent and ascent on others' stairways.


*"lascerai," as in "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate": "Abandon all hope, you who enter here," inscribed on the gates of hell. Hope, yes, but not love.]

This is almost the exact center of Paradiso. Dante's twelfth century ancestor Cacciaguida, is prophesying his life back down on the farm, even after he's seen Paradise. Now we know that love moves the sun and other stars in Dante, but the thing that's deepest, that always deepest, is not the love of God (everyone since Plotinus or Plato knows about that) but the love of matter (Philip Pullman) and the material world that represents something different from the love of God.

Where Dante seems to anticipate Freud is the idea that everything is driven by love. Love isn't one principle among others: it's the principle. And the wrong way to read this (the sentimental way I was trying to abjure), is as the apotheosis of love. (It occurs to me that this fits in with stuff I've written about the personification of love.) Love belongs to all: no less to those in the Inferno who love their sins than to those in the highest reaches of Paradise who love their inscrutable God. Yes, those in the Inferno love God too: the point is that even there, everywhere, everyone loves. Love's not an apotheosis because it makes no moral distinctions: the fact that you love isn't a saving feature about you.

Not in real life, anyhow. It is saving as a literary fact: Gatsby and Ugolino alike are great because they love. That's what I like about it: it's a literary virtue, a virtue in fiction. That's why it's not an apotheosis, as Dante and Freud both see. Cacciaguida's speech has always struck me as amazing because of the way it sends Dante back to real life: the exile in which he's writing this poem. Here he's been in Paradise, and he 's been promised that that's where he'll return.  But what presses upon him, more grim than any Purgatory, is exile in this world.  Even in a world with heaven to follow, maybe particularly in a world with heaven to follow, the stops are more poignant than endings.

In our lives, this world is all you get, and its vicissitudes, even terrible ones like exile, are just part of what life is. But in a universe with an eternal afterlife in prospect -- I think this is what's so amazing about Dante -- this life, this brief vigil of the senses -- is all the more precious, since all the rest of it won't be on this earth which is the only place for earthly love, the love that is not apotheosis but fictional (sub specie aeternitatis).  Love up there will be completely secure. But that won't be human experience any more.  The love that is human experience, the earthly love that is the totality of being human, for as long and only for as long as we are human: Earth's, if not the right, at least the only place for that. And Dante, like Freud, sees it as the totaliy of human experience.

The distinction I used to make, between my adolescent concerns for love and the old folks' different ways of being, becomes in Dante a distinction between the real and mortal love of this life, from first to last, young and old, and whatever transcends, and so fails to belong to, this life.  That other love, which moves the sun and other stars, will come when it comes.  But it makes our precarious and mortal love, our precarious and mortal relation to the world, all the more its own, all the more what it means to be in the world, all one's life. All one's life.

That other world is the Truth, and therefore can have nothing to do with the fictional, unreal, real world (whose substance is cathexis alone) which is the only world we live in, and which is utterly and irretrievably bounded and limited by the truth it does not belong to, as all fictions are utterly and irretrievably bounded and limited by the truth to which they do not belong.  The sublunary world we live in, our world, is only here, and being in it is being with what we can only love here, and what we do love here. That's how Dante anticipated Freud.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Set theory for poets / Poetry for set theorists

One modern incarnation of the debate between nominalism and realism is to be found in philosophical arguments about sets.  There are two ways of characterizing a set: intensionally, through description (e.g. the set of all inhabitants of London, to use an example of Russell's), and extensionally, which is just a list of the members of the set.

Quine, as nominalist as they come, objected to the "ontological excesses of set theory" when construed intensionally.  Is there really such an entity as "all the inhabitants of London"?  Yes, there are inhabitants, and we, or God, or Facebook could list them.  Each is an entity him- or herself (let's stipulate, because who wouldn't?)

The problem with extensional sets is that the vast, the utterly overwhelming majority of them would be utterly random, by our lights, like the contents of almost any book in Borges's "Library of Babel."  Those books are all (à très peu d'exceptions près) useless, and so too, more or less, would be thinking about things in sets.  The problem with intensional sets is that they may not exist (what is a set and where do I find one?), and even if some do exist, others might turn out to be impossible, despite seemingly innocuous descriptive criteria for membership.

Nevertheless, set theory is not only obviously useful: it's obviously a way that people think about the world and make sense of it (or it's a formalization of how we think and make sense of the world).  "Natural kinds" for example really do rely on a concept of nature not unlike the nature that we live in, that we evolved to survive in.  And it seems too that we find pleasure in finding sets, or figuring out what intensionally-characterized (or -characterizable) sets seemingly random extensional lists belong to.

Just to reiterate: intensional is more or less synonymous with interesting.  To characterize a set intensionally is to say that its members share some interesting property - interesting enough that you don't have to list them.

But here I want to focus on the converse idea as part of human literary or cultural play (as well as work): figuring out from a list what interesting set would embrace the items on that list.  It's true, of course, that a vast number of different interesting sets might embrace them, so we might want some further criteria of economy (this is also how Freud thinks about mental economy) for what the really interesting set is.  (That kind of economy is something like the criterion for a natural kind, and also for Wittgenstein's ideas about rule-following, which is for another post.)

The criteria would not necessarily be pure efficiency, but a balance between specificity and pith.  Pithy specificity is what we're looking for, and we'll know it when we see it.

{raven, writing desk}.
 Now we're not really asking about this set itself.  We're asking about the set it's a subset of, but we're still looking for a pretty small set.  So items whose names in English start with the phoneme /r/ won't cut it.  Nor, probably will nouns with the letter n, nor objects smaller than an elephant, nor things that don't taste like rhubarb. They both belong to those sets, yes, and to many others too, but still.

The two terms are, as every school child will remember, from a riddle by Lewis Carroll, which the Mad Hatter asks Alice.  He gives no answer, but later Carroll was prevailed upon to solve it.  He wrote:
Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter's Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: 'Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!' This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

As originally invented, then, it was offered as pure extension.

Now other writers offered later answers.  Martin Gardner and The Straight Dope give some of the best, e.g., Poe wrote on both (Sam Loyd). (Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope also explains the misspelling nevar: it's a palindromic raven.)

So the pleasure of riddles, of this kind of riddle, is the sudden collapse of extension into intension.  Sometimes that will require a reconceptualization of the elements in the extension: not "What's black and white and red all over?" no, but "What's black and white and read all over?"  The extension turns out to be the following set of qualities, denotable by adjectives and adjectival phrases: {black, white, read all over}.

What does this have to do with poetry?  Well, in English, anyhow, rhymes are to be distinguished from inflections.  We don't (really) count unity and disunity as a rhyme; motion and emotion are too close to each other.  As Wimsatt argues, the best rhymes will tend to be different parts of speech, and, as Empson points out, the fact that singular verbs but plural nouns end with -s means that we can't generally or easily rhyme subjects with predicates.  So rhyming words tend to be arbitrarily connected.

Consider the set = {Mahatma Gandhi, the Coliseum, the time of the Derby winner, the melody from a symphony by Strauss, a Shakespeare sonnet, Garbo's salary, cellophane, Mickey Mouse, the Nile,..., Camembert}.  Extensionally there's nothing unusual about it, even if it is, as the kids say, "kind of random."  Not that random though: these all belong to a somewhat larger set of words that can be formed into subsets consisting of rhymed pairs, e.g. {the melody of a symphony by Strauss, Mickey Mouse}.  Rhyming with a member of some smaller set is the principle of inclusion in the somewhat larger set.

Or to put it another way, rhyming provides a principle of one-to-one correspondence between two sets of entities whose names have at least one rhyme.  That's not how I'm defining those sets: that's how I'm characterizing one of many facts about their members.  So the set R (whose membership I haven't fully listed) is the union of those two sets that are in one-to-one correspondence.

Now that principle, as we've seen, tends to be highly arbitrary in English.  The rhyming dictionary is disconcertingly senseless.  But what a poet does, like a riddler, is to find some intensional principle which defines a set given randomly and extensionally.  In this case that principle is that each member of the set R is a member of the set {things that are the top} (I am simplifying the song a little bit to make my point).

Now this distinction between intension and extension is also a distinction between use and mention.  The principle of membership of the two sets whose union forms R is first of all, that is to say, as a matter of poetic craft, a principle which mentions terms, i.e. selects them for the fact that they rhyme.  (The rhyming dictionary mentions words: it doesn't use them.)  But the job of the poet is to take these mentioned words and use them, which means to say something with them and therefore something about the things they signify or refer to.

The solution isn't just economical (as it is with a riddle), isn't just the sudden lifting of a burden through the sudden glory of an elegant summary of its components.  We shunt back and forth between use and mention, intension and extension, admiring at every moment how they fit together: look it rhymes! look, it's the top!

Studies (e.g. by Ray Jackendoff) of the neural handling of music suggest that different parts of the brain have different access to memory.  Some of the cerebral material we use to process music chunks and forgets immediately, so when a theme or motif is played again, it handles it as entirely new.  But other parts of the brain remember that motif or theme, and therefore experience a different relation to the novelty that is still being felt and processed.  That back and forth, that counterpoint, that complex and differently phased experience of music is the experience of music, or at least a large part of it.

I think the same is true about rhyming (and meter), especially since it appears that music actually recruits the cerebral material that processes sounds: vowels are much lower pitched than consonants, and we put words together from sounds much as we put musical experience together.  So I think that we go back and forth, sometimes putting together the longer-term, more coherent intensional sense of the set of rhymes we're given and sometimes testing the always novel extension of the list, and that the delight in doing so is how the abstract distinctions to be found in set theory play out in the pleasures of poetry, and of math.

(At least that's what struck me today.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Punishment and resentment

Nevertheless, despair is veritably a self-consuming, but an impotent self-consuming that cannot do what it wants to do.  What it wants to do is to consume itself, something it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consuming, in which despair is once again unable to do what it wants to do, to consume itself; this is an intensification, or the law of intensification. --Kierkegaard [Hong translation of The Sickness Unto Death, p. 18]
Kierkegaard is interested in the disanalogy that the analogy between despair and vertigo suggests:
Upon [the spirit] rests the responsibility for all despair at every moment of its existence, however much the despairing person speaks of his despair as a misfortune and however ingeniously he deceives himself and others, confusing it with [the] case of dizziness, with which despair, although qualitatively different, has much in common, since dizziness corresponds, in the category of the psychical, to what despair is in the category of the spirit, and it lends itself to numerous analogies to despair. [p. 16]
Robert Frank, in Passion within Reason, discusses some aversive experiments with rats.  Cause them pain when you give them a certain food, and they'll stop eating that food, of course.  But you can reverse this experience by reversing the modalities.  If you cause them pleasure, later, when they are forced to eat that food, they'll unlearn their avoidance.  On the other hand, if you cause them nausea when they eat a certain food (even several hours later), they'll never unlearn their aversion.

Nausea (which Derrida points out is a central affect for the purposes of judgment [as Freud suggests in his great essay "Negation"], but one that Kant fails to discuss in the Critique of Judgment) and vertigo are differently aversive from pain.  How?  Well, for one thing, they are somehow totalizing.  Pain is something that just happens to one, and in most cases it is possible to sustain some clarity of thought even in pain - clarity of thought about the pain it may be (as I know from having had a kidney stone), but still clarity of thought.  Nausea and dizziness are different, all-engrossing, panic-inducing, mind-eroding.

Now it seems to me that our fantasies of revenge (and people's actual acts of revenge) are massively more about causing pain (including the psychic pain of grief, whose analogy to physical pain J.B. Pontalis has brilliantly defended) than about causing nausea or vertigo.  It's not that pain is worse (though of course it may be).  It's that pain is more in tune with the idea of punishment than nausea or vertigo are.

I think that this is because punishment is not so much about the gratification of seeing someone else suffer as it is about making that person understand why he or she is justly suffering.  Resentment is about making those you resent see why you resent them, where that "why" has the full force of justice behind it (cf. P.F. Strawson's great essay on "Freedom and Resentment").  Pain is external, or feels external.  (Elaine Scarry points out that the vocabulary for pain is always instrumental: burning, stabbing, piercing, even throbbing, as though being squeezed.)  Pain speaks to a relation to the outside world, to external things that injure us.  So injuring another is being in a relationship to them.  In French injurier means insult; etymologically injury (from injuria) means counter to the law, so counter to justice: injustice or wrong.  So injury in English suggests one person doing something to another: causing them pain and the damage that pain represents.  It attacks their bodily integrity (or the integrity of their world), but leaves their mind whole.

And so too does punishment.  Thomas Harris's fantasy of Mason Verger's fantasy of revenge on Hannibal Lecter would have Hannibal watching himself being eaten alive by hogs, kept alive and alert to his own consumption.  I think punishment can go only a little farther (as it does in ancient mythology): being forced to eat yourself (or your children), not because the idea is nauseating but because it brings the externalized destruction of body integrity to its zenith, while preserving the mind whole.  (Harris probably goes a little to far and loses a bit of his force when Clarice and Hannibal eat the brain of the conscious Paul Krendler from his open skull, carpaccio by carpaccio.  Here though we might have a fantasied rediscovery of Leibniz's view that all is surface, that the stripping away of each surface of the brain still constitutes and act of bodily harm and can still be perceived by the mind facing its own imminent death.  But I don't think Harris sells it, and the scene is nauseating rather than gratifying.  Though that may be the point; but still it doesn't feel like punishment.)

So why do we want to keep the mind whole?  For the same reason that we fantasize our enemies in  hell knowing their own sinfulness, knowing what they've done to deserve this.  It's because punishment aims at teaching -- this is what's crucial to the idea of altruistic punishment, even though not spelled out in most of its analysts -- at reform and correction, and so there's an acknowledgement in punishment of the humanity of its objects.  That's why Ugolino is conscious and aware of what he's doing in eating Ruggieri's head: Ugolino is still human, and his punishment is also a means of communication.  The communication is two-way: punishment communicates his crime to him, and makes him feel it; he can describe how he feels to the rest of us, because punishment is still a way of keeping others in the nexus of the human. Causing nausea or vertigo lacks that essential criterion for punishment.

So what about despair then?  Despair, we could say, is something like the successful vector towards correction that punishment aims at.  It affects the soul even as it keeps it whole, mindful of its sins and conscious of them.  Despair is the the borderline between punishment and aversiveness which no longer belongs to the ethical world of punishment.  If we can get someone to despair, we've succeeded. Punishment has had a moral success.  Anything more, like vertigo or nausea, has nothing to do with punishment, and becomes pointlessly dreadful.  Pain always seems structured as though it has a point.  (Obviously I'm talking about how we meditate or fantasize about these things, not about the truth of real pain.)  Despair is where that point or purpose disappears: it is a vanishing point or moment of transition.

It's not that pain causes despair directly (though it can cause despair, it can't cause what Kierkegaard means by despair directly).  It's that pain can remind you of what you've done to others, and that can bring home to you a reason for remorse (etymologically: eating yourself up alive!) and despair.

(Although I'm not so sure that this connection works elegantly, what's important about it is how it helps distinguish despair from vertigo.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In which I comment on Philip Roth's pretty hilarious open letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker

[Roth's "Open Letter to Wikipedia"]

I don't think Roth gives the plot of The Human Stain quite accurately.  It's Zuckerman who thinks all these things about Les Farley, but he never knows them. The scene where he talks to Farley at the end-- but is it Farley? Zuckerman writes: "I came to notice, parked at the edge of a wide field I would otherwise have shot right by, the dilapidated gray pickup truck with the POW/MIA bumper sticker that, I was sure, had to be Les Farley's.  I saw that pickup, somehow knew it was his...", but a couple of pages later is still putting this in the conditional: "if  this was Les Farley..."--is a masterpiece of anxious paranoia: he may be talking to Farley, Farley may be a psychotic murderer.  But he may not be, and he may not be. Zuckerman doesn't know, any more than he knows the truth of Swede Levov's life.  It's interesting that the great care Roth takes to make that point, over and over again in the trilogy, is absent here.  One might wonder to what extent Roth, in this lovely rant, is playing the sly game he trademarked so many years ago, tempting us to wonder what exactly we're supposed to understand as the truth behind his official claims, but refusing ever to show his hand.  That doesn't mean that Broyard was a source for Silk--I think he wasn't--but that Roth is enjoying the serendipitous opportunity not to settle the issue once and for all.

Nathan Zuckerman, of course, would be a good secondary source for the Wikipedia article, if only he were still writing about Roth.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"...which thou must leave ere long"

I feel that I finally get Sonnet 73:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. In me thou see'st the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west; Which by and by black night doth take away, Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire, That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the deathbed whereon it must expire, Consumed with that which it was nourished by. This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I always had a too clever by two (2x2 clever) reading of that last line: that the word "leave" also meant putting out leaves or putting leaves on to, and not just "abandon" or "depart from." I didn't like this facile vulgarization, but it was the only way I could think of to approach the paradox that it's the young man who's forced to leave at the end of the sonnet, not the dying Shakespeare.

Facile vulgarization, yes, because the words to have in mind are Antony's sublime "Let that be left which leaves itself." Being left, leaving: the abandonment there is what matters and is only blighted by imposing a stupid pun (as opposed to a kind of homonymic echo) on to the word.

But what would the young man be leaving? I think we have here a precursor to Wordsworth's Resolution and Independence. It is the nature of life, or of an aesthetic life, the life of those who would agree with Deleuze when he says, "An indescribable joy always rushes out of great books, even when they speak of ugly, hopeless, or terrifying things,” that poets in their youth begin in the gladness of being able to feel this joy, the gladness of anticipating horror and writing about it with all the gusto or brio that's the obverse of even the most melancholy intensity. "Thereof in the end come despondency and madness," Wordsworth comes to realize, as despondency comes to seem real to him. Mary Shelley will note something similar in her preface to the third edition of Frankenstein, after Percy's death, and the death of so many of her little ones:

And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart. Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more. But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations.

Her hideous progeny is the book, not the monster. She describes death and grief but is immune to it when writing the book: these are words which find no echoes and so they yield a Deleuzean joy and Wordsworthian gladness. Does it prepare you for the future, this flower-guided dallying with death (cf. Frost, Coleridge)? That's the question in these poems. Wordsworth dallies with the very fact that the gladness he feels in knowing that life is a life of despondency and madness is going to be self-defeating, self-undermining. That's a glad realization too, to the poetic, rejoicing figure of youth he was at the time.

What about the young man then? I think that the last line of the sonnet describes the merger of aesthetic and real experience. By aesthetic experience I mean what Wordsworth means: the inspiration to poetry through the contemplation of the miseries of life since those miseries measure the possibilities and depths of human dignity and human experience. So Shakespeare shows the young man the curtailments of time (life, year, day, fire at night) and what the young man can "behold and see" (the sonnet echoes Antony and Cleopatra) can yield authentic perception.

Such perception makes the young man's love of life which, like everyone, he must leave ere long ("All lovers young, all lovers must / Consign to thee, and come to dust") the stronger. Stronger not because it is more precious, or not only because it is more precious, for its scarcity. But stronger because the grimness of life gives it depth, and the depth of life is what we love about it.

Or love at any rate about literature, about the depth that literature can achieve. That achievement, in Sonnet 73, redounds to the merit of its speaker (or poet, to the merit of Shakespeare). In telling the young man that he too must die, and telling it in such a way that the young man loves the world which produces poems like Sonnet 73, Shakespeare shows us two ways of thinking deeply: writing well, as the poet does; reading well, as the young man does. Naturally this is the structure of drama as well, and there's a sense in which all the sonnets are reflections on Shakespeare's thought about play-writing: "As a decrepit father takes delight / To see his son perform the deeds of youth," e.g. (though there the positions are reversed).

Resolution and Independence, then, would be the young man's answer. (I am certain it is. I am certain that an enormous number of Wordsworth's poems are haunted by Sonnet 73. Consider: "Seals up all in rest" and "A slumber did my spirit seal.") Here too the young man loves what he must leave ere long, but it's the young man who's the poet, and the leech-gatherer who's just a leech-gatherer. The burden that Wordsworth takes up, or has taken up, is that the youth is both poet and audience of his own coming dilapidation. It's not that dilapidation will put him in a position to speak of such things to an audience that will thereby fall in love with the depths of life. It's that falling in love with the depths of life is something we poets do in our youth. We fall in love with the fact that futurity holds despondency and madness, and we speak of such things as part of our youthful vocation (no danger that Shakespeare's young man has such a vocation), a vocation which leads to just these things.

Writing, to use the word Beckett and Blanchot hit upon independently, is a serious task, and only youth woud be foolhardy enough to undertake it. Only youth or Shakespeare, thinking dramatically, thinking about what he owes to a younger generation that will need a measure of the depth of human sadness, in order to be able to offer such a measure themselves when they too come to be old.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Derrida, Austin, Quotation, Evolution

Derrida's critique of Austin isn't an unhelpful one, since it evinces just the sort of metaphysical thinking that Austin and Wittgenstein are concerned to think past.  Basically, Derrida's claim in "Signature Event Context" is that quotation can't be "parasitic" on performative utterances because to engage in such an utterance requires a citation or quotation of the appropriate formula.  (Like everyone else, and I do mean everyone Derrida neglects Austin's distinction between "hollow" and "void" performative utterances, but that's for another post.)  So performative utterances are logically dependent on a practice of quotation.

This is wrong.  It would be far better to say that the very idea of quotation arises out of performative utterances.  Performative utterances -- or Wittgenstein's language games -- come first.  It may be possible to formulate the rules of such games, but those formulations are descriptive, not prescriptive, attempts to formalize what we do.  Performative utterances, and moves in language games more generally, are practices before they are more-or-less-successful attempts to be adequate to some set of rules governing them.

For Wittgenstein these are practices which arise out of what he calls "agreement in forms of life." The supersubtle mechanisms by which such agreement could evolve (see, for example, Robert Axelrod's Evolution of Cooperation) can't and won't have presupposed something so crude as Derridean citation. Quotation in the Paris-is-Burning Jennie Livingston sense, possibly, where quotation is something closer to biological mimesis as Roger Caillois understands it: interaction, gaming, self-exposure to the spatial world. But this has almost nothing to do with Derridean formalism.

But what we could see, and say, is that citation, verbatim quotation, the idea of the verbatim, Quinean inscription, arise from performatives.  Formulae are fossilized performatives, and the idea of a formula (which is of course manifold in rituals and rites themselves dependent on prior belief in the performative power of utterance, a belief raised to a magical pitch) can give rise (see Homer and Milman Parry) to the idea of quotation itself.

So the great, Emersonian literary device of quotation is secondary to performative utterance.  That's what makes it literature: the evocation of a fictive world, where the performances aren't real, and all the more haunting for that reason.  Maybe I should say something about the hollow vs. the void.  In Austin hollow performatives are those which are not "meant," are those which the utterer performs without any intent to back them up.  Void performatives are those which have no standing, no matter how passionately they are uttered.  Fiction or the literary is the region, then, of the void, not of the hollow.  The poet nothing lieth because he nothing affirmeth, but instead gives us some sense of what the void is, next to which our loquacious selves are so precariously perched (to allude to Kenneth Burke).

Friday, June 29, 2012

If equal love there cannot be

What do we think of the convenient pairings in Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare always loves to get more marriages into the end of a comedy than we expect: from The Comedy of Errors, when we find out who the Abbess is, to The Winter's Tale, when Leontes becomes again, at last, the impressario who can join the widowed Paulina to Camillo, Shakespeare aims almost always (and arguably there's no "almost" about it) at giving us more marriages than we're counting on, giving us an extra surprise.

And this isn't true only of his comedies. Such a dynamic may be found, perhaps surprisingly, true of the tragedies as well. There it tends to appear as friendship more than as the romantic love marriage ratifies. But think of the strange friendships that arise at the end of the tragedies, friendships in spite of all: Richard II and Bolingbroke, Hal and Hotspur, Edmund and Edgar, Hamlet and Laertes, Macbeth and Macduff. Macbeth and Macduff, yes, because once you recognize this dynamic you can see how it works in the subtlest and most unexpected contexts.

The tragic friendships and comic loves overlap as well, and it's worth noticing not only Dolabella and Cleopatra, but also Edmund, Regan and Goneril, "married in an instant," Gertrude and Claudius ("Oh--my good lord! What I have seen tonight!") since these unexpected moments of marital tenderness can make us see that Othello's and Desdemona's last scene also combines spousal conversation ("Husband and wife things" as Charlene [Ashley Judd] says in Heat) with the tragic violence that destroys them both. Othello almost misses it, almost blinds himself to it, but it's there in Desdemona's farewell and in Othello's inability to assimilate it to Iago's version of things. A stretch, I know, but that's the point of coming to see these subtle regularities and the subtle variations on a theme that Shakespeare plays throughout his career.

In Much Ado About Nothing Hero gets to marry the dreadful Claudio, after he apologizes: how happy are we about that? In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena gets to marry someone who only loves her because his vision is medicated; in Twelfth Night Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola), as do we all, but unknowingly marries her double, Sebastian; in As You Like It Phoebe marries Sylvius only because she's promised Ganymede (Rosalind) that she would if "he" were ever to marry a man.

In all these plays there is (for the audience) what in the brilliant vocabulary of the fan fiction universe is called the One True Pair (the OTP); sometimes also what's called the OTT, the One True Threesome. I think that in Shakespeare the odd numbers are what matters. Odd numbers because what's central to us in a romance will often be a single character (Viola, Rosalind, Helena, Hero, Beatrice, Portia, Jessica: in comedies they tend to be female, but one could add Petruchio, I suppose) whom we want to see happy; but sometimes that happiness will take the form of the happiness of those who had been their rivals or misunderstanders, so that the happy threesome, the OTTs in Much Ado are Beatrice, Benedick, and Hero; in Midsummer Night's Dream Hermia, Lysander, and Helena; in Twelfth Night Viola, Orsino, and Olivia: "A sister! You are she!" exclaims Olivia when she finds out that they are to be sisters-in-law happily ever after. (Sir Toby Belch, Maria, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek constitute another true threesome in the play.)

"You blessed winners all," Paulina calls her charges (before the surprise last marriage Leontes commands). So being part of the OTT, or the OT(2n+1), where n is a nonnegative integer) is in a sense what makes it okay for the Olivias, Paulinas, Heros, Helenas, and Phoebes of the plays.

But how is that? Well it's as though they too are part of the general good feeling that they see work out. They belong in part to the events, in part to the set of spectators to which we, the audience, also belong. The general good feeling at the end of a comedy is that we're all liking each other. We're happy that our neighbor in the next seat is happy. We don't need a laugh track: we're all laughing.

So something like a shared sociability is the achievement of comedy, and Shakespeare makes use of that to increase just that good feeling. Phoebe is happy, Olivia is, Nerissa is, and their happiness, like ours, generously assumes that those around them are generously assuming their happiness. Everyone becomes likable. Why not take up with this likable person who likes you too. It's fine. It's okay. It's good. It's the best kind of party.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hamlet's messes

I've been watching the Richard Burton DVD of Hamlet (directed by John Gielgud), and so thinking hard about the play again. Of course it's always a fool's errand to try to say something about Hamlet, and about the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, forsooth, la! But maybe also an exercise worth attempting.

Although Burton apparently didn't do the role the same way twice, you can see him doing something that I think it's very hard to do in performance, but that he does extraordinarily well - the same thing that Scott Shephard does in Gatz. It's a mildly metatheatrical thing: you see the actor (or the person you take to be the actor) growing before your eyes. This is a kind of anti-matter version of method acting. Hamlet isn't Hamlet (nor Gatz Gatz) at the start of the play. He's playing a role - no, he is a role, and all the sawing in the air that he does, the fake thoughtfulness, the willful passion: they're fine (as are the gestures of the actresses the narrator mistakes for La Berma when he first goes to see Phédre in Proust), and fine is dandy.

But then as the time in the theater expands, as the Shakespearean intensity of the thing builds up, our sense of the actor changes. The actor is there to act after all. But Shakespeare loves what I once called "the lost point as exile," the extended sense that now nothing will be happening, that the actors are exiled from a plot that would be going somewhere. Resignation is often an inflexion point in a story, at what screen writers sometimes call the lost point.

The orchestration of plot often takes the form of the difference between a decision weight (to use Kahneman and Tversky's terminology) and a probability. We narrate our prospects, to ourselves if to no one else, via decision weights. But we daily experience how they bump up against the "impenetrable arch of probability" (as Raymond Poincaré, cousin of Henri and Prime Minister of France during the Great War, put it when asked why he wasn't afraid he'd be killed by German bombing). Narratives bring us to this point, which is the intrusion of reality into the story. Characters and audiences have to give up our fond hopes, recalculate our decision weights, see the impossibility of what we were pulling for.

And then an efficient narrative will come to the rescue. It stymies us and then it helps us - helps us through its own unlooked for resourcefulness. (Unlooked for, or perhaps looked for but apparently not to be granted.) The end of Three Penny Opera, with Macheath's rescue from the gallows and ennoblement is a gratifying parody of this. The gratification outweighs the parody just as much as decision weights fulfilled outweigh what Truth says when she breaks in with all her realistic unlikelihoods.

But in Shakespeare, resignation lasts a long time. It's the time of resignation which is part of the time in the theater, the sense that we get of now living with these characters, rather than watching them do what they're supposed to do. We live with them in a different mode, though, from what we thought they'd be, from what they thought they'd be. Their lives are suspended, and we now belong to this interstitial time, this "interim" as Hamlet calls it, and which is to be found, variously, in Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and, perhaps pre-eminently, in The Winter's Tale. Hamlet may be the play that thematizes this time in which time is suspended most overtly. It's a sort of play within a play, in which Hamlet himself comes to terms with the suspension that he is himself responsible for.

This occurs only when he returns from the aborted trip to England, having relinquished any thought of taking revenge on his father. True resignation in Shakespeare, true exile, comes when motives lose all power, that is to say when the ghosts disappear. The laying of ghosts is the most important purgation: Banquo ceases to haunt; Hamlet senior ceases to haunt.

Before that is the Shakespearean mess. It's this mess that his great characters tend to find so intolerable. The mess is the entanglement you can't get out of. It is, in our lives, the mess we've made of our lives: pointless, stupid, avoidable, and yet inevitable. "Just look at the filth you've made, / See what you've done" (John Ashbery, "The Task").

That's just what Burton captures so well. He's all set to play Hamlet! We see him in the court, sneering at the King, superior to his mother, all dressed in black and nobler than the image he works so hard to portray. A method actor would go deep into this opening melancholy, just as he has.

And then, to quote Dashiell Hammett, things happen. It's all a mess. He doesn't know whether the ghost is telling the truth. He doesn't know what to make of Ophelia or his love for her. Horatio is a brick, but then there's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He wants to confuse everyone around him, but he can do that only by being confused himself, by using his confusion as a vortex to draw others in. Why else stage a play where no one knows what's going on, who's feeling how, what emotions belong to whom, and with an added speech? It's all just a royal mess. The players come, and they seem to have some clarity, but it's false clarity - just as he's claimed from the start, actions that a man might play, but not what reality is really like. He runs into Ophelia, reading just as he's been reading for Polonius's benefit. Other people, it turns out, are just as hard to interpret and evaluate as he makes himself to them. Only his three friends, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Horatio are transparent (for good or ill). And they're no help. Now he's going to stage this play, this dream of fiction, as though that could tell him the truth that the truth cannot.

So of course he starts thinking not about seeming any more but about being. The clarity of the question "To be or not to be?" is its point. What is the whole speech's attitude towards life except that it's a mess? Fardels, contumely, wrongs: where and why are they here, and why should we bear them? Being or not being are the only two clear states. And yet even they get confused: being is a mess, but dying may be just as messy, a dream of passion like the player's dream of Hecuba.

Hamlet gets clarity about the need for clarity. Burton recognizes what a mess he's in, and how pointless the mess is. That recognition isn't an achievement, the way it would be in method acting. It's a loss: the loss of motive, the loss of goal, the loss of any ontological orientation. There's nothing to be done about it. That's what the actor comes to feel, what you see Burton coming to feel. All this interaction to get through, and all of it pointless.

Until he returns from his sea change. It's at that point that he no longer wants anything. We can feel it, maybe, as the actor no longer wanting anything either. A fantastic effort has failed, but that's okay too. There is a clarity here. The role's impossible to play and that's the point.

Of course the actor plays it again every night, and that's where I think the fact that Burton played it differently every night is so significant, and (I am wagering) so captured by this specific performance (or mosaic of three performances, rather). Each night he tries to play Hamlet again. Each night the mess becomes intolerable. Each night Burton just lets the play go, lets it go where it takes him. Each night we see the education of an actor, into that place of exile on the empty stage, where everyone finally converges to acknowledge their one final achievement of straightforward truth: that this is what it's led to.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


I've just been reading a bunch of Cavell, and I had been thinking about Lem's great novel Solaris ("better than any movie!") and it occurred to me how much the book is an allegory of Cavell's thinking about Cartesian skepticism.

That is, it's obvious that Solaris belongs, more strictly than Dick, to the category of philosophy done as science fiction. What if we could reify characters who existed only on our mind? (Not surprisingly the character so reified is named Rhea, a pun I think on reification as well as an allusion to Heraclitus's "panta rei" (πάντα ῥεῖ) - everything flows: Solaris is an ocean planet.) Or put differently, what if we literalized psychoanalytic fantasy, so that memories came alive, transferential relationships become material and actual? It seems obvious that the book is about such psychoanalytic reifications: hence the glimpses into the circus of the repressed fantasy lives of Kelvin's colleagues.

But if we moved from the psychoanalytic to the philosophical we'd be up against the telescoped skepticism that Descartes considers: the outside world may simply be my projection or dream; other people may be my projection or dream. Then I realized that this would make the planet Solaris itself play the role of the genius in Descartes (he calls it evil, but we could see it, as Lem does, as completely inscrutable), the entity that makes us believe in the false or non-existent outside world that we perceive.

Lem's depiction of the planet brings out the psychoanalytical dimension of this philosophical meditation: like the analyst's the planet's inscrutability is at the heart of the transferential relation. And Rhea's state of being is transitional, again in a completely psychoanalytical way. She is at once a part of the inscrutable mind of the planet, with superhuman powers and strengths, and a lonely, confused, unhappy human who has no connection with the sources of her being. Her bewilderment and vulnerability is essential to the love story, to the story of recovered love. Transference onto the planet being impossible (that might be how to describe the twin goals of analytic neutrality: to elicit transference in its most direct form and to make transference impossible), it finds its target in Rhea instead. Of course what's transferred onto Rhea is not, quite, the love of another being, prior to Rhea. It's love of Rhea herself. (That's why it happens twice.) The short circuits of analytic transference are canceled out when it comes to the planet, and intensified when it comes to Rhea.

Cavell too sees Cartesian skepticism from a psychoanalytic perspective: why do we want to disbelieve in the outside world? Because we want to disbelieve in other minds. Why? Because they threaten us, threaten our own sense of psychic integration and self-protection. How do we know this from Descartes? Because this threatening personage is an evil genius. What must we do? Acknowledge Rhea.

This would make Solaris more or less like Merrill's Book of Ephraim. One telling moment is Ephraim's own moment of confusion and clarification, confusion-as-clarification from 1962:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

I've been thinking (and hope to do a series of posts about) what we're doing when we think actively. I don't mean how does a thought develop according to its internal logic or potentialities. I mean to try to think about some consequences of the fact that what makes thinking thinking (what makes it discursive and not intuitive) is that it's hard. Its difficulty has something to do with its content, with where it arrives, with what it learns. (I am not much alluding here to the distinction that Daniel Kahneman makes in his great book Thinking Fast and Slow, though it's not irrelevant. More relevant still might be George Ainslie's Breakdown of Will, but I'm not going to say much explicitly about either, except to note that both are interested in the Housmanian fact that thought is irksome, and three minutes a long time.)

By the relation of difficulty to content, I don't mean less that some content is hard than that hardness is something that thinking thinks about. Difficulty of thought leads to thinking about difficulty and what difficulty means about the thinking you're doing. This feedback loop (we avoid the word "dialectic" in this blog: too easy a landing place)-- this feedback loop obviously has something to do with poetic thinking, which is what I want to get to in a later post.

Here I just want to try to note what I mean by making an observation about the rhetoric of rhetorical questions. Why are there such things? Why are the rhetorically effective? There are obvious answers having to do with some aspects of irony and quotation, of ironic quotation, so to speak. "Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a milcher and eat blackberries? A question not to be asked." (1 Henry IV)

So it's only asked in retroactive quotation marks that the question makes its appearance. Who would ask such a question? The targets of our irony, of the irony nous autres share with respect to the person who doesn't realize that it's irony.

But what I'm interested in is the role that a rhetorical question plays in genuine discursive thinking. It raises a real issue or some consequence of a real issue that has to be thought through (even in the most demagogic situations: without real issues there's no occasion for rhetoric of any sort). And it asks for help in thinking it through. A rhetorical question assumes a listener, and that listener is a sort of check or hedge for thought. To ask a question is to see that thinking is partly social, that the fact that it occurs discursively, in language, is important. Thinking is about judging, and proper judging is or should be always a vicarious, because a disinterested, activity.

When we ask a question with a foreordained answer, it matters that we get the foreordained answer. That ratifies our judgment, vicariously as I say. It ratifies the fact that it is a judgment, that we can ask others and expect them to concur. The retroactive feature of rhetorical questions that I've just noted is a sort of check-bit when the thought is done, making sure that the judgment now seems unassailable, no?

I don't mean that rhetorical questions always constitute genuine thought. But I expect they do whenever they're first formulated. At any rate, they stand for the larger class of ways of guiding thought. "The experience of being guided" (Wittgenstein) is what thought thinks about (it had better), whatever else it thinks about, whenever it thinks. (This is one clear commonality between the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations.)

This has everything to do with what it means to be a writer, in the Blanchotian sense that I so revere.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Two types of metafiction

One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word "philosophy" there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so: it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word "orthography" among others without then being second-order.

I've been thinking about two types of metafiction, or at least metafictional moments: the type we're all too familiar with in recent years, where the metafiction is the point, and the (what to call it?) target fiction is in its service, and another more common, more exhilarating type (as I have come to think), where metafictional moments are actually in service of the story itself.

The first type - let Susanna Moore or Charlie Kaufman, or Borges, or Philip Roth or K. Dick stand for its practitioners - keeps you checking on its coherence. Does the level of self-reflexivity interact coherently with the other level, that which it self-reflexively circles or twists back into and out of? I guess all the paradoxes of time-travel SF form a subset of this kind of metafiction. It's a game, and the game is to see how the first-level fiction can unfold with at least some of its characters, and some putative or plausible audience members, unaware of its metafictional, metaphysical determinants. The fun is to get it, to see how well or how cleverly it works. And that is fun, but only one kind of fun. Of course in Roth or Nabokov or Dick, there are other kinds of fun as well. But somehow the metafictional perfection of their metafictional narratives subordinates all other aspects of those narratives to the self-reflexive theme.

The result is a kind of defensive irony, or at least the knowingness of an endlessly self-aware irony to which all events, characters, hopes, recognitions, resolutions reduce. Nothing really matters as its own moment: it's all the fulfillment of the typological structure of metafiction. The tone wears thin after a few decades of this.

The other kind of metafiction is exuberantly undefensive. Cervantes or Shakespeare "Nay, then, God be wi' you, an you talk in blank verse") are two obvious examples, but we could add Austen (especially Northanger Abbey), Melville, Thackeray, Marías, Bolaño and the more recent work of Steve Erickson (right now I am thinking in particular of These Dreams of You) to the list. There the metafiction is just a quick, convenient, fun, and pre-eminently local part of the fiction. The fiction isn't dragooned into serving the metafictional demonstration; the metafiction forms part of the series of events or incidents that the fiction delights in displaying.

So I guess this is really a post about fictional delight. It takes a long time to learn or relearn to read, and probably to write, fiction which knows about all the ways that it can be made to thematize itself, without being much concerned to show its mastery of such things. It's got other fish to fry - it's got fish to fry, is the point, and metafiction is one fish among others, tasty enough in convenient quantities in a varied diet, but not (as Blake said Swedenborg believed of himself) "the single one on earth that ever broke a net."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rhyme and meter, part 4b: Childe Roland

The second in a series of fairly frequent, short(ish) followups to Part 4 in this series.

"Childe Roland to the dark tower came"comes from Edgar's song in Lear, and then is to be found again in Browning's poem titled " 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.' " Note that the quotation marks and the sentence-ending period are part of the title --

-- and that this is confirmed by the running heads in the original:

Browning's title is a quotation of Shakespeare's line, and the fact that it's a quotation matters. In Shakespeare the line doesn't rhyme; and yet it feels like a line that must rhyme in the song of which it's a fragment. At least it feels that way to Browning, whose attributional parenthesis under the title is: "(See Edgar's song in Lear.)", also with a period at the end (I could be convinced that case matters to, but I don't think that here there's any harm in the mild difference between our titling conventions and Browning's):

Then, at the end of Browning's poem - it's not the song Edgar is singing; rather Edgar must be singing a song based on Roland's adventure, which, Bloomianly, transumes the song - at the end of Browning's poem, we get the line in both quotation marks and italics --

-- as Roland achieves the italicized otherness, timelessness, of the original. Italics were invented by Aldus in the fifteenth century (and supposed to imitate Petrarch's handwriting, so a great authority's annotation or addition to a printed text.  They stand, originally, for something that comes from elsewhere, something that doesn't belong to the original, to the utterer of the text we are reading, but to which that text is sufficiently relevant that it is entitled to demand or to entreat the italicized words. They are words granted or permitted from elsewhere. The italicized words in the King James Bible are the translators' clarifying additions, permitted, but only under that flag, by the sublime austerity of the original, its sublimity reflected in the italics that the supplementary words must display; the italicized words in quotations (italics were far older signs of quotation than are our inverted commas) were the words of another that for a moment the text wishes to display while not presuming to take possession of them. We put titles in italics to show that their title belongs to some other, that we are not the originators of the phrase. Italics and quotation marks have a similar genealogy and have leap-frogged each other in their somewhat out-of-synch history, but the point is whatever quotation marks have ever done, so have italics, and vice versa.

At the end of " ' Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. ' " the quotation marks are for Roland himself: here are the words I uttered. But he didn't quite utter them: he blew them (in proper Shelleyean manner) through the slug-horn, both horn and slogan (the origin of the word), so that what he blew became the self that was that quotation. And if the quotation marks are his, the sign of his breath through the horn, his utterance of words come from elsewhere, through the trumpeting of the prophecy that the words constitute, the italics denote Shakespeare, or Edgar, or Lear (the play), or the source that makes Edgar's song a quotation of a line from elsewhere. That last most of all: Shakespeare quotes them from elsewhere, and now Browing is quoting them from that same elsewhere.

What does this have to do with shortish accounts of the rhyme? Only this: that we feel the rhyme must rhyme (that's why it's from a "song"); and Browning makes it rhyme (with "flame" and "frame"), and yet the line still stands alone, rhyming with some word in a context orthogonal to the poem and to the song, a kind of signal from that other world of the rhyme we'll never know, but a rhyme that we know the line we do have nails, know it simply through the fact that Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rhyme and meter, part 4a: "But still a ruby kindles in the vine."

The examples in my previous post may have been a little too anomalous, but they were partly designed to show that generally we don't even think about whether a line rhymes or not. We sort of know it. What makes things interesting, and what those examples were meant to bring out a little bit more than usually, is what it means to "sort of" know that a line rhymes. Or rather how much "sort of rhyming" just means the same thing as rhyming, and how much it doesn't.

What I am after is the experience we might have when we try to reconstruct a half-remembered poem. We might go wrong by trying to find a rhyme for an unrhymed line, or we might fail to remember that a particular line did rhyme. Form will help, of course: in a Spenserian stanza, all the lines rhyme; in a quatrain the odd lines could easily fail to. But sometimes the line itself will bring with it its own obscure metadata: this line rhymes; this line doesn't. How is that metadata compressed into, distributed over, the line itself? I've been giving examples where I think the "metadata" are more interesting, more ambiguous, than usual.

Take the line that I played with: "But still a ruby kindles in the vine." I suggested three prosodical contexts for it: in a blank verse quatrain, a quatrain rhymed xaxa, and one rhymed abab. I should have offered a fourth, and will do so here. The third of the four improvisations below is new:

But still a ruby kindles in the vine;
A glistering diamond shineth in the dew.
The morning's freshness fills me with delight.
The promised evening soothes me with its rest.


But still a ruby kindles in the vine;
A glistering diamond shineth in the dew.
The morning's freshness fills me with delight.
Its early, ancient jewels are ever new.


When with the sun depart the jewels of day
The jewels of night, though dark, are just as fine:
No glistering diamond shineth in the dew
But still a ruby kindles in the vine.


But still a ruby kindles in the vine;
A glistering diamond shineth in the dew.
These star-flared jewels are gathered from no mine
But fall like sunlight, ever fresh and new.

The bolded stanza differs from the second by rhyming "vine," just as the last one does; but differs also in that it's the only one in which the line we're concerned about concludes the stanza. It's hard, as I say, not to feel that the attention we're paying to the line now alters how we feel about it, makes it difficult to say really how much attention we would have paid in the normal course of reading. But maybe the original context will be novel enough, after all of this, that you can read it with fresh eyes while noting, on the fly, the line's effect:
Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose,
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;
But still a Ruby kindles in the Vine,
And many a Garden by the Water blows.
A Rubaiyat stanza, because it's one of Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat. Note that it's the only line that doesn't rhyme. Rubaiyat rhyme aaxa, and this is the x-line. But generally we don't notice the x lines as different in rubaiyat: really, they seem a breath taken before the last, decisively rhyming line, and make that last rhyme feel all the more decisive.

So they contribute to rhyme, and the way they do so is metrical and rhythmical. And the concept that we might derive from them is this: the adjacency of the experience of true rhyme to that of the metrical setting up of, the metrical structuring of, the line that rhymes. This structuring can occur within a line (pretty obviously: the Indoeuropean rule for meter is: loose onsets, strict endings, and they are all the stricter for rhyming), but it can also occur from one line to the next, from an unrhymed line introducing a rhymed one, or even a rhymed line introducing another, either through alternation or even as a couplet. (I think Dryden's triplets often work the same way: the gentle shock of mild surprise at the unexpected continuation of a rhyme says something similar about how rhyme may be structured by elements outside the line it appears in.)

This structuring is what makes us feel (if we do) the unrhymed rhymes in Carrol's "Mad Gardener's Song," which I cited before:
He thought he saw an Elephant
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
"At length I realize," he said,
"The bitterness of life!"

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister's Husband's Niece.
"Unless you leave this house," he said,
"I'll send for the police!"

he thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
"The one thing I regret," he said,
"Is that it cannot speak!"
Elephant, Buffalo, Rattlesnake don't rhyme. Their initial caps give them a certain solid dignity, though, and entitle them to be heard as cretics rather than dactyls, and indeed cretics verging on anapests: elePHANT, buffaLO, rattleSNAKE. They don't rhyme but the strongly suggest rhyme, if not their own than at least of the poem they belong to. And it seems that experientially the suggestion of rhyme and rhyme itself tend to merge.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rhyme and meter, part 4: Does that rhyme?

Can you tell when a line rhymes? I don't mean can you tell when two lines rhyme: that's usually pretty. But consider this list of lines, drawn from different poems.  Don't look them up.  Just contemplate them for a while - and, if you can, remember, where they come from, or if you can, forget.
"Childe Roland to the dark tower came"

"Lay hidden in the small-slate colored thing"

"And thee, returning on thy silver wheels"

"And wash the dusk with silver.  Soon, full soon"

"And if thou wilt, remember"

"Or just some human sleep"

"The everlasting universe of things"

"Welcome, proud lady"

"They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds"

"The dying of the golden and the grey"

"Each care decays, and yet my sorrow springs"

"But still a ruby kindles in the vine"
It's probably hard to stay in the right frame of mind to really be able to think about each line, but just try.

There are a few of questions that can be asked about each one.

First of all, does it rhyme? I think in most cases, even if you don't know the poem, you'd have a pretty good guess. If so, what I'd like to ask is how you know, or seem to know.  (I think I'll try posting a sort of phenomenological description of each line, as well as the answer to the question, in a few short subsequent posts.)

Focusing on this question can give rise to further observations.  Would it matter if you knew the position of the line in the poem, or at least in a stanza?  Just for simplicity, let's distinguish between opening line, medial line, and closing line.  Can you tell which of these are last lines?

If you can tell where in a stanza each line goes, is it a sense that they rhyme, or don't rhyme, that determines where you place the line?  I ask it this way to be provocative, but also to try to get you to use fresh eyes, fresh ears.  The converse question is probably more obvious, so consider that too: would the placement of the line affect your sense of whether it rhymed?

Let's take the last line as an example: "But still a ruby kindles in the vine."  If you knew that it was the first line of a stanza, would you expect it to be an onset rhyme or not?  (Onset rhyme: the word we have in mind that a later word will resolve by rhyming with it.)  Let's be simplistic.  Which is most likely:

But still a ruby kindles in the vine;
A glistering diamond shineth in the dew.
The morning's freshness fills me with delight.
The promised evening soothes me with its rest.


But still a ruby kindles in the vine;
A glistering diamond shineth in the dew.
The morning's freshness fills me with delight.
Its early, ancient jewels are ever new.


But still a ruby kindles in the vine;
A glistering diamond shineth in the dew.
These star-flared jewels are gathered from no mine
But fall like sunlight, ever fresh and new.

It probably matters what order you read them in: form and rhyme prime us for more of that form, and if there's rhyme, for more rhyme.  But try to think of them independently, or of the line independently.  At the start of a stanza, will it rhyme?

How about in the midst of one?  At the end of one?

So try these exercises with all the lines quoted above:

First say of each line whether you think it's opening, medial, or closing.

Then try to say of each line whether it rhymes, and decide whether its place in the stanza makes a difference to whether you think it rhymes.  What kind of work, or what kind of attention, do you have to do to make it seem rhymed?  To make it seem unrhymed?

My simplified guess is that you'll be able to tell the rhymed lines just by their form in most of the cases here.  And I guess as well that the deceptions will be systematic: that some of the lines here will strike a large majority as rhyming when they don't, or as not rhyming when they do.  The ones that are deceptive in this way are all the more interesting for that.

To be continued....

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rhyme and meter, part 3: What we can hear, and what they could

I'll want to return to my previous set of examples in a future post; here I want to start by considering one more.  A naive historian of rhyme might think that what doesn't sound like a rhyme to us ("hand or eye / symmetry") would have been more natural in a different dialect or pronunciation.  True we can hear eye as diphthongized (as the unlovely linguistic term has it): the slow-motion pronunciation would decompress it to "ah-ee" (the way Mark Twain or Kate Chopin might write it).  That tweak would turn this into a natural rhyme, which sounds forced only to those who pronounce as we do, here, now.

But it's harder to say the same of the near parallel, and very frequent rhymes on internal "i" sounds.  Shakespeare and Donne, to quote the two most obvious examples, rhyme such words as wind and mind. (The doggerel rhyme to Rosalind in As You Like It in my first example has taught generations of actors how to pronounce her name: majority rhyme seems to win, though I think it would be interesting to go with the early returns that turn out to be the minority: Ind and wind.)
From the east to western Ind,
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth, being mounted on the wind,
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no fair be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind. 
* * *
If a hart do lack a hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind.
If the cat will after kind,
So be sure will Rosalind.
Winter garments must be lined,
So must slender Rosalind.
They that reap must sheaf and bind;
Then to cart with Rosalind.
Sweetest nut hath sourest rind,
Such a nut is Rosalind.
He that sweetest rose will find
Must find love's prick and Rosalind. 

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.
Remember that Wyatt, too, knows where is an hind, though in a net he seeks to catch the wind.  Nor let us forget Arlo Guthrie's great motorcycle song, which has him, as needed, rhyming pickle with motor-sickle, and die with motor-sigh- / (cul), as his folk rock pronunciation allows.

So wind/mind is okay, but you'll never find (I do not think) weened/mind, though that would seem a closer parallel to eye/symmetry or (say) we/my.

So here's the passage I want to think about, from Sidney, the octet of Atrophel and Stella 86:

Alas, whence came this change of lookes? if I
Haue chang'd desert, let mine owne conscience be
A still felt plague, to selfe condemning me:
Let wo gripe on my heart, shame loade mine eye,
But if all faith, like spotlesse Ermine ly
Safe in my soule, which onely doth to thee
(As his sole object of felicitie)
With wings of Loue in aire of wonder flie....

Note that the rhyme scheme is obvious here abbaabba.  But this isn't inevitable: some of the sonnets rhyme (in their octets) abababab, and if eye can rhyme with me, it would seem that some could argue that the latter rhyme scheme governs here as well. We're facing here an example of the sort of thing that Wittgenstein ponders when he considers the problem of rule-following: there is a rule that can justify any sequence.  (My favorite recent example is the sequence that begins sweetly enough as 0, 1, 2, but whose fourth member (scroll down if this isn't of tremendous interest to you) is
260,121,894,356,579,510,020,490,322,708,104,361,119,152,187,501,694,578,572,754,183,785,083,563,115,694,738,224,067,857,795,813,045,708,261,992,057,589,224,725,953,664,156,516,205,201,587,379,198,458,774,083,252,910,524,469,038,881,188,412,376,434,119,195,104,550,534,665,861,624,327,194,019,711,390,984,553,672,727,853,709,934,562,985,558,671,936,977,407,000,370,043,078,375,899,742,067,678,401,696,720,784,280,629,229,032,107,161,669,867,260,548,988,445,514,257,193,985,499,448,939,594,496,064,045,132,362,140,265,986,193,073,249,369,770,477,606,067,680,670,176,491,669,403,034,819,961,881,455,625,195,592,566,918,830,825,514,942,947,596,537,274,845,624,628,824,234,526,597,789,737,740,896,466,553,992,435,928,786,212,515,967,483,220,976,029,505,696,699,927,284,670,563,747,137,533,019,248,313,587,076,125,412,683,415,860,129,447,566,011,455,420,749,589,952,563,543,068,288,634,631,084,965,650,682,771,552,996,256,790,845,235,702,552,186,222,358,130,016,700,834,523,443,236,821,935,793,184,701,956,510,729,781,804,354,173,890,560,727,428,048,583,995,919,729,021,726,612,291,298,420,516,067,579,036,232,337,699,453,964,191,475,175,567,557,695,392,233,803,056,825,308,599,977,441,675,784,352,815,913,461,340,394,604,901,269,542,028,838,347,101,363,733,824,484,506,660,093,348,484,440,711,931,292,537,694,657,354,337,375,724,772,230,181,534,032,647,177,531,984,537,341,478,674,327,048,457,983,786,618,703,257,405,938,924,215,709,695,994,630,557,521,063,203,263,493,209,220,738,320,923,356,309,923,267,504,401,701,760,572,026,010,829,288,042,335,606,643,089,888,710,297,380,797,578,013,056,049,576,342,838,683,057,190,662,205,291,174,822,510,536,697,756,603,029,574,043,387,983,471,518,552,602,805,333,866,357,139,101,046,336,419,769,097,397,432,285,994,219,837,046,979,109,956,303,389,604,675,889,865,795,711,176,566,670,039,156,748,153,115,943,980,043,625,399,399,731,203,066,490,601,325,311,304,719,028,898,491,856,203,766,669,164,468,791,125,249,193,754,425,845,895,000,311,561,682,974,304,641,142,538,074,897,281,723,375,955,380,661,719,801,404,677,935,614,793,635,266,265,683,339,509,760,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 --

a number with 1,747 digits. But there's a rule for that.*  Wittgenstein wants to know what makes a rule the right rule to follow, when there's no rule that could make it the right rule to follow that couldn't itself be followed in an infinite number of different ways.  His answer, more or less, is practice ratified by the relationship of learning and teaching the belongs to "agreement in forms of life."  Hannah Ginsborg, more or less in agreement with Stanley Cavell, calls such agreement in forms of life "primitive normativity."

Anyhow, back to our example.  Sidney likes partially ambiguous forms.  The famous "night and day" sonnet has only two rhyme words:
Now that of absence the most irksome night,
With darkest shade doth ouercome my day;
Since Stellas eyes wont to giue me my day,
Leauing my Hemisphere, leaue me in night,
Each day seemes long, and longs for long-staid night,
The night as tedious, wooes th'approch of day;
Tired with the dustie toyles of busie day,
Languisht with horrors of the silent night;
Suffering the euils both of the day and night,
While no night is more darke then is my day,
Nor no day hath lesse quiet then my night:
With such bad mixture of my night and day,
That liuing thus in blackest winter night,
I feele the flames of hottest sommer day.
Two rhyme words, but what's the rhyme scheme?  I think it's too easy to stay with just a and b: most sonnets in Astrophel and Stella have four or five different rhyme pairs, typically rhymed abbaabbacdcdee, sometimes, e.g. the sonnet previous to this one, ababababccdeed, and again sometimes, as in the one before that, ababbabaccdccd.  I think it would be better, and more natural, to "chunk" the night and day sonnet as rhymed abbaabbacdcdee: the rule of the sonnet form seems to require that.

Note that we're already chunking by taking homoteleuton (or repetition of endings) as rhyme.  "Night" doesn't rhyme with "night," not even richly.  It repeats the word (as in a sestina, the form Sidney introduced into English).   You might almost call it a duina, at least the part that cycles night day day night night day day night. (On the relation of n-inas to prime numbers, see this short paper which proves that if an n-ina cycles, 2n+1 is prime: 5 in the case of a duina, where n=2. The converse doesn't hold, though.) In Dante, except for the repeated endings on "Christ" - which must not be adulterated by the arbitrary similarity of rhyming words - repetition is always rime riche: this is a principle of interpretation, so that you can understand an ambiguous word (such as torna, palma, and pianta, all rhymed with homonyms in Paradiso IX) as requiring difference in meaning between its orthographically identical homonyms, which can help solve the ambiguity.

The point is that in reading rhymed poetry we assess similarity pretty subtly, and assess as well the difference that prevents similarity from just being identity. Rhymes have a lot of give, but (as with stress) how much give they have is always contextualized by the rhyme scheme that determines them, and by the rhymes that surround them.  Night and day rhyme with themselves because they belong to a sonnet with a familiar rhyme scheme; piante and piante rhyme because they belong to a rhyme schemes that eschews self-rhyming, so that they therefore don't mean the same thing.

And this allows us to return to sonnet 86, where we can have no doubt that the rhyme scheme is abbaabba. Why no doubt?  Why not abababab?  Because the prosodical context and the closeness of sound brings out, here, the difference between I and be, me and eye.  Sidney takes pains to prevent our being misled by the conventional rhyming of, say, me and eye, by making sure that the first, the a, rhyme-pair is homophonic: I/eye. We then have to work to separate them via their different meanings, and that very work of separation (as in Dante) pairs them: very similar but still different.

Sidney's fearless symmetry makes sure we keep track of what's rhyming with what, even when doing so requires some involved and subtle distinction.

And here's the payoff of the always pain-in-the-ass subtlety of following a formal analysis.  Making us keep track of the rhymes, especially in a fairly monochromatic context, is a way of infiltrating our sense of rhyme with a sense of meaning and vice versa.  These are considerations that we're used to understanding when it comes to poetic meter, where the interaction of metrical and semantic stress contributes to our understanding of what's being said.  It's interesting that there's a subtle analogue of this in rhyme as well, which suggests that the interaction, both prosodically and semantically, between rhyme and meter is closer than has usually been suspected.

*viz., 0 followed by 0 bangs = 0; 1 followed by 1 bang (1! or 1 factorial) = 1; 2!! (2 factorial factorial, 2 followed by 2 bangs = 2; 3!!! (3 factorial factorial factorial) = 720! = the foregoing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rhyme and meter, part 2: Non-regular rhyme

Try this little experiment.  Read these passages of rhymed poetry:

Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street.
Come with a whoop, come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A half-penny roll will serve us all.
You find milk, and I'll find flour,
And we'll have a pudding in half an hour.
                                                              --Mother Goose

* * *

Hush-a-by baby
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby
Cradle and all.

* * *

He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship," quoth he.
"Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"
Eftsoons his hand dropped he.
                                     --Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

* * *

Your pain still hangs in air,
Sharp motes of it suspended;
The voice of your despair —
That also is not ended:

When near your death a friend
Asked you what he could do,
"Remember me," you said.
We will remember you.

Once when you went to see
Another with a fever
In a like hospital bed,
With terrible hothouse cough
And terrible hothouse shiver
That soaked him and then dried him,
And you perceived that he
Had to be comforted,

You climbed in there beside him
And hugged him plain in view,
Though you were sick enough,
And had your own fears too.
                                           --Thom Gunn, "Memory Unsettled"

* * *

He thought he saw an Elephant
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
"At length I realize," he said,
"The bitterness of life!"

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister's Husband's Niece.
"Unless you leave this house," he said,
"I'll send for the police!"

he thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
"The one thing I regret," he said,
"Is that it cannot speak!"
                                       --Lewis Carroll, "The Mad Gardener's Song."

* * *

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

* * *

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

* * *

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

* * *

Then gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd,
Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
But stedfast rest of all things firmely stayd
Vpon the pillours of Eternity,
That is contrayr to Mutabilitie:
For, all that moueth, doth in Change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O thou great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight.
                                                               --Spenser, The Mutabilitie Cantos

* * *

Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
                                                               --The Intimations Ode

Each of them contains what Pope (the purest of English rhymers) would regard as a false rhyme.  And not only Pope, but Pope can set the standard.  How quickly do you notice them?  What words did you think rhymed that didn't, at least by what you might call standard standards?

Anyhow, I am going to propose that we call these non-regular rhymes ("irregular rhymes" would be misleading, since we're used to talking about as irregularly rhyming poems, e.g. poems, Lycidas).  Non-regular rhymes would be pairs that register as rhymes the way irregular past tenses register as past tenses, without our generally noticing them.

In my next post I want to think about how and why they work.

Here I'll just draw attention to the way Auden's rhymes are sometimes an anthology or cento of rhymes like those above:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful. --Auden, "Lullaby"
We sense rhyme here, and it takes a while to figure out what rhymes with what.  That's an interesting perceptual combination.

The second in a series of short posts about rhyme's relation to meter