Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ghostlier demarcations

But isn't that what David Markson did (for longer) in This Is Not A Novel?  No. Not at all. This book is different, for all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.  Here's a guy who has turned his genre into a vehicle for serious ideas and serious emotion--and has never, unlike Markson, been tempted to write more than necessary.  Markson hesitates to label his work "experimental" and instead characterizes his novels -- both "literally crammed with literary and artistic anecdotes" and "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage" -- as "playful."  There is no linear (or nonlinear) sequence of events to exploit with a wink-nudge because there is no novelistic time employed at all, no events that would require such sequencing.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

By way of a longish placeholder, and an observation about parties

“Song” The song tells us of our old way of living,
Of life in former times. Fragrance of florals,
How things merely ended when they ended,
Of beginning again into a sigh. Later

Some movement is reversed and the urgent masks
Speed toward a totally unexpected end
Like clocks out of control. Is this the gesture
That was mean, long ago, the curving in

Of frustrated denials, like jungle foliage
And the simplicity of the ending all to be let go
In quick, suffocating sweetness? The day
Puts toward a nothingness of sky

Its face of rusticated brick. Sooner or later,
The cars lament, the whole business will be hurled down.
Meanwhile we sit, scarcely daring to speak,
To breathe, as though this closeness cost us life.

The pretensions of a past will some day
Make it over into progress, a growing up,
As beautiful as a new history book
With uncut pages, unseen illustrations,

And the purpose of many stops and starts will be made clear:
Backing into the old affair of not wanting to grow
Into the night, which becomes a house, a parting of the ways
Taking us far into sleep. A dumb love.
Placeholder: I've always disliked facile talk of the green-world/real-world distinction in Shakespeare. Belmont, the Athenian woods, the Forest of Arden, Bohemia. As though Shakespeare was acknowledging fantasy while gently tutoring us in the reality principle that moralist critics, each a mini-Leavis, valued most.

Of course there's something to the contrast of moods that Shakespeare is after, a contrast to which locale contributes. But I think the contrast is temporal: it's a different kind of experience of time that he's after, the suspension of action, the ritardando slowing the impetus with which cause attempts to burn the stages of effect to achieve its final purpose, that I wrote about here. It's how Shakespeare manages theatrical time, makes theatrical experience into something other than a causal nexus. Our relation to time changes, we live (to alter Beckett slightly) a Shakespearean pause. That's the point: not the contrast between green and real (urban, ordinary, everyday, whatever) world, but the access to that pause.

I can segue to my observation by quoting the Beckett I alluded to, the narrator's description of Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks:
He lived a Beethoven pause, he said, whatever he meant by that.... He was an impossible person in the end. I gave him up in the end because he was not serious.
The pause is where the serious is suspended. It's not unlike (especially in More Pricks Than Kicks) Deleuze's evocation of alcohol as the world of the passé composé, the suspended, timeless, lost and present-in-its-loss world that is other than the careening, unfolding, continuous, exorbitant present. It's the achievement of a non-serious relation to time.

The achievement, that is to say, of parties. Proustian parties we know about, but it's been striking me how many parties there are in Shakespeare, how (as in Proust) they seem to occur mid-play. Not only in the green-world comedies (the "green world" is the place they occur), but in the histories and tragedies as well: the Mousetrap -- and the graveyard--, the feast to which Banquo so unexpectedly returns, Pompey's feasting of the triumvirate (among many others in Antony and Cleopatra), drunkenness in Cyprus, the hovel scene in Lear, the various strange gatherings in Titus. Parties in Shakespeare generally include us: we're not watching for some underlying dynamic (James Bond avoiding the noose tightening around him as he plays Baccarat against his antagonists), but spending time with the play, which gives us, allows us to share, a "time which is our own," to quote Shelley in his great poem of suspension, the "Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici."

Shakespeare's plays tend to follow the dynamic of the convergence of all surviving characters which Dan Decker describes so well in his great book Anatomy of a Screenplay. But the really interesting thing is the two-step rhythm of that convergence: first at a party mid-play (the Mousetrap, Cyprus, even the hovel, where the joint stool can't deny that it is Goneril), and then again at the end. The party is a false-ending, often (as it certainly is in the Mousetrap), but in another sense it's the other possible ending, the one came there for, the experience of the play and not of its resolution. The duration of that experience, in all genres, takes shape as a party.

These thoughts are partly inspired by listening, elegiacally, with just this sense of suspension, to Lou Reed's "Heroin," which is of course about what it's like to be moved to sing "Heroin." All true songs are about what it's liked to be moved to sing them: The old way you lived, relive it,* at least during the song: tomorrow is just some other time. What the song promises -- a promise it keeps in making it, and doesn't break by not keeping it in any other way -- is that you can always bring it with you, always sing it again tomorrow. Blanchot finds sublime the moment that Achilles offers Priam bread or death, hospitality or the end of things. Plays have to end, but no one so well as Shakespeare understood how to use them to offer the hospitality of time, the interim of friendship.
*Children, while you can, let some last flame
Coat these walls, the lives you lived, relive them.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Automatic ciphers

First something obvious, and then a meta-comment.

One thing I sometimes post are duh-moments: instances of the obvious that weren't obvious to me. Here's one from the other day. In Paradise Lost Adam describes to Raphael his first experience of experience, his finding himself in the world. There he was:
But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
My tongue obeyed, and readily could name
Whate’er I saw. ‘Thou Sun,’ said I, ‘fair light,
And thou enlightened Earth, so fresh and gay,
Ye hills and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here! (8.270-77)
I'd long realized that Wordsworth ("And, O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, / Forbode not any severing of our loves!" and Shelley ("Show whence I came, and where I am, and why") must both be remembering this moment (and other resonating moments in Paradise Lost).

But what struck me the other day was the idea that this is perfectly autobiographical, that what Milton is describing here is poetic vocation, the combination of ease (of style) and wonder (about existence itself, including the fact of ease) that make a poet a poet. He can describe the world as he found it, including his own being in the world, and the fact that he can describe the world. Unlike Wittgenstein's self, his blank, Sartrean opacity is part of his world too: part of the world a poet thinks about (even when living a skeleton's life).

As I say, completely obvious, and yet I'd never realized this before, being too absorbed in the plot, and also perhaps in my own memories of my 1.75-lingual childhood: I remember one day noticing that I could understand Yugoslav, noticing, then, that it was a different language from English, and noticing therefore that I could understand English as well.


So my meta-comment is this: there's a way in which everything you see in a poem should be obvious when you see it, should be a duh!-moment. Even if you can't or didn't readily name it in your first or fifth or hundredth reading, that would have been a failure of attention, not of intelligence.

That's what Stanley Cavell means by "the ordinary," the things that escape notice because you just don't pay attention to them, because it's an essential, ordinary part of what they are that you don't pay attention to them.

One place that I think you can see this at work is in canonical titles, the way they become "automatic ciphers." Why, for example, Reservoir Dogs? Well that's easy: it's the name of Quentin Tarentino's movie. It's called Reservior Dogs. Before you see the movie, you assume you'll understand the title when you see it, so that's fine; and after you see the movie, you know what the title designates: that great, violent, grueling picture you've watched. But at no time does the meaning of the title explain itself. The title is always ordinary, in Cavell's sense: always just the perfect, obvious, transparent designation of the movie. Similarly, who's Hoon in Stevens's "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"? His answer to Norman Holmes Pearson (I wonder if he knew that Pearson had been a leader in the O.S.S.):
You are right in saying that Hoon is Hoon although it could be that he is the son of old man Hoon. He sounds like a Dutchman. I think the word is probably an automatic cipher for "the loneliest air", that is to say the expanse of sky and space.
For Cavell, the late Wittgenstein (and J.L. Austin) is like the Kant of the Third Critique in paying attention to the ordinary. One of Cavell's great insights is that aesthetic judgment shares with Wittgenstein's grammatical remarks (Bemerkungen, as he always calls them) the fact that you can't prove something beautiful or sublime (or whatever). There's no philosophical argument for beauty. It's something you have to see. In the same way, ordinary language, ordinary things, aren't amenable to an analysis that moves beyond the visible or apparent. The visible or apparent is all that counts, all that can count.

So all you can do is pay attention, and the idea is that if you do pay attention it might be obvious to you too. That's how reading should work, and how I think it does work in the great critics: they draw your attention to the automatic ciphers, which (as Kant says of the "pure reflective judgment" that is aesthetic experience, experience which isn't the application but the observation of a judgment) will then just decode themselves to you, and make you happy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Sudden lit crit

I am thinking of some of the greatest short moments of literary criticism I know. I would mention Twitter, but that would corrupt the idea, and besides you tend to need the quotation, the literary sample, before the remark. Herewith a few such moments:

A scrap from Dickinson, about Antony's great speech in Antony and Cleopatra:
                            Since Cleopatra died,
I have lived in such dishonour, that the gods
Detest my baseness.
He's heard the (false) report of her death only about ten lines earlier. Dickinson writes three words: that engulfing since.

Empson on Hamlet, an absolutely great essay:
What is reckless about the speech is that it makes Hamlet say..."I have cause and will and strength and means / To do it", destroying a sheer school of Hamlet Theories with each noun.

Blanchot on Kafka, who in his journals describes the necessity for a writer to devote oneself to writing all one's life. "Toute sa vie." Trois mots exigeants.

Blanchot again on The Iliad. Achilles, remembering his own father, whom he will never see again, allows Priam to take Hector's body. Then he seeks to feast Priam (as the laws of hospitality demand), but Priam refuses. Achilles tells Priam, in a tone of quiet menace (say I) that he had better eat, for fear that Achilles should forget himself and kill Priam if he doesn't. This is the most elemental of alternatives: ou la parole, ou la mort. Either you accept human connection (as Achilles has done) or all there is is death. This is the meaning of the laws of hospitality. Blanchot's two word judgment of Achilles's speech: Parole sublime.

Proust on Flaubert, long by these standards but worth it: un homme qui par l'usage entièrement nouveau et personnel qu'il a fait du passé défini, du passé indéfini, du participe présent, de certains pronoms et de certaines prépositions, a renouvelé presque autant notre vision des choses que Kant, avec ses Catégories, les théories de la Connaissance et de la Réalité du monde extérieur.

(This is all by way of celebration. The great negations are really all about The Excursion. Francis Jeffrey's This will never do. Mary Shelley after she and Percy read it aloud to each other: He is a slave.)

I think that in the twentieth century, a certain kind of novel learned to reflect on itself this way. Fitzgerald was particularly great at that, especially in Tender is the Night. This sort of self-reflection was arch in the nineteenth century (Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, for example), but became real literary criticism later on. Thus this moment from Tender is the Night:

The foregoing has the ring of a biography, without the satisfaction of knowing that the hero, like Grant, lolling in his general store in Galena, is ready to be called to an intricate destiny. Moreover it is confusing to come across a youthful photograph of some one known in a rounded maturity and gaze with a shock upon a fiery, wiry, eagle-eyed stranger. Best to be reassuring--Dick Diver's moment now began.

Denis Johnson does something very similar in The Name of the World. Mike Reed, the narrator, reflects on his narration and what he should say next, in the subtlest but most lucid of ways. These were originally Johnson's own notes on his MS as he was writing, and their incorporation into the narrative intensifies its narrator's exploration of the strange, and literary, experience that is all that is left to him.

I think Virginia Woolf might have originated this, maybe in Jacob's Room? The third person narrator reflecting on her materials, on the situations and settings of her novel.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Choriambic observation

Iambic pentameter lines in English often begin with choriambs, in which the first two feet go:  / _ | _ /  [stress, no, | no, stress]. Thus in Keats's "To Autumn" "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" begins with a choriamb, as does the first line of Hyperion: "Deep in the shady sadness of a vale"; the first line of The Triumph of Life: "Swift as a spirit hastening to his task": and the first line of Book III of Paradise Lost: "Hail, holy light, offspring of Heaven first born." (Also Book IV: "O for a warning voice...") That's just what immediately comes to mind.

Anyhow, yesterday I was thinking about the phrase "smit with the love of sacred song," a little later in the Invocation to Book 3:

                                         Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song...

A student had read that to mean that Milton (or the Muses: the ambiguity is important because whichever of the the two the participle is modifying, each meaning entails the other: how the Muses feel is how Milton feels)--; I say (I revel in my own disgust for that Victorian, indeed Arnoldian pickup after a parenthesis)--; a student, I say, paraphrased that to mean that Milton had finally come to a place where song could be sacred. He's smit by the love of a certain kind of song, that kind of song we could call "sacred."

How was I to answer that student? The Derridean dodge is right: "song insofar as it is sacred," which just preserves the ambiguity. But later it occurred to me that it's the stresses that make it clear that sacred modifies the concept of song, rather than picking out some songs instead of others. As in Leonard Cohen's "holy game of poker": the game of poker is always holy.

Generally, in iambic pentameter, the five stresses can be ordered in intensity, and there are some loose but real rules as to which of the five can be stressed the most. The last stressed syllable is a candidate for strongest stress (it's often a summation, after all, which is what makes Byron's "Laureate"/"Tory at / Last" rhyme funny: the summative intensities of the stressed syllables in the rhyme don't match except through a readerly force of will or body English). So is the penultimate stress: "and all our woe"; "the ways of God to man." Bolded here means more stressed, if only slightly so, than the other stressed words (woe, ways, man). You may not agree, and maybe shouldn't but it's a plausible reading, because the stress in the fourth foot can be most prominent, as can the stress in the fifth foot, and indeed the stress in the first, especially in a choriamb:

                                         Mee of these
Nor skilld nor studious, higher Argument
Remaines, sufficient of it self to raise
That name, unless an age too late, or cold
Climat, or Years damp my intended wing    [45]
Deprest, and much they may, if all be mine,
Not Hers who brings it nightly to my Ear.

Line 45 is amazing. Probably first syllable gets the most stress, though Years might as well. But unstressed damp seems more stressed to me than even Years does. The least stressed of the syllables in strong position is my, which only receives its official stress by contrast with the in (inintended) that it precedes.

Oh, once you start embarking on the description of metrical effects, there's no end to it, so I won't say anything more about this extraordinary passage. Let's return to "sacred song." The meter makes it virtually impossible, and certainly risible, to read the line so as to give sac more stress than Song. (The capitalizations are almost certainly not officially Milton's, but on the other hand they may well record how he recited the line to his amanuensis-daughters.) The choriambic start to the line gives its center a metrical topography in which the stresses have to go something like this, with 5 as the most stressed syllable, 1 as the least stressed:

  3                       5         1             4               2
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief...

Some interchange is possible, but I feel certain that sacred gets the least stress in the line. After the two unstressed syllables in the middle of the choriamb, love is particularly marked (it doesn't even need capitalization!), and so the instantaneous resources of our sobvocalizing capacity to stress what we're reading are momentarily depleted, depleted for a beat, until we get to Song and the pause, the semicolon, that contributes its own brief, summative finality to the stress. This is the rhythm of meter itself; I suspect it follows something like a pink noise pattern, a kind of miniature version of the rhythm of cinematic cuts, and perhaps of a wide range of phenomena. It seems (I continue to speculate wildly) related to hyperbolic discounting, to a temporal rhythm of attention to and desire for stimulus including that of stress and the cognitive information that stressed syllables tend to offer. It is part of what we call style, part of a great poet's style, to convey meaning through the rhythms of stress itself. That's what makes song sacred.

At any rate, that's why I think my student was wrong, and why even the songs in hell, therefore, are part of the sacred category of song, making hell grant what love did seek.