David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2003 (page 1 of 4)

Change in George Gissing’s New Grub Street

Proceeding from the research of the good Franco Moretti, who has applied quantitative analysis to the potboilers of the 19th century, we present a bold new initiative in the analysis of literature that solves some of the problems pointed out in the above review: start with a simpler picture.

We see here a model that is fit for not one but two change processes in George Gissing’s New Grub Street. The adaptable writer Jasper Milvain secures an editorial spot at an up-and-coming periodical while Edwin Reardon, somewhat less keen on the contemporary literary trends, gets lost in The Neutral Zone when he attempts to write a “commercial” novel without believing in it. While Milvain boldly leads the way, Reardon below him struggles to shift into higher gear and see his own change through. Who knows? If Milvain had provided more leadership to Reardon, Reardon might have pushed through to a New Beginning and might not have met his fate by catching a deadly cold in rotten housing that he moved to out of necessity.

Reardon is tied up in yet another change, when his wife Amy refuses to live with him after he takes a low-paying menial job out of desperation. As the “manager” of the family, Amy chooses the path for the sake of their child and for her own dignity, but Reardon cannot immediately see the win. Reardon pleads with her; she responds forcefully but respectfully. He insists on sending her part of his slight wages; she tries to explain that his thinking is part of the old way. He cannot even enter The Neutral Zone. Unfortunately, he dies before he can see through the change that Amy led, and Amy must proceed on her own.

Reardon may seem like someone ill-suited to change, and he is, but his inefficacy is a reminder that it is the process of change that models the success and failure of characters in novels.

Vizka la Spat! On Basic English and Loglan

Chris Crawford (you may know him from such games as “Balance of Power” and “Trust and Betrayal”) gives an overview of some of the artificial languages created over the years in “Little Languages”. The one that interests him the most is Solresol, which changes syntax expression drastically by having only seven “letters.” I’m more intrigued by the ones that have implications more on the semantic side: Loglan, which condenses words down to a bare minimum size and overloads grammatical data into every aspect of word construction, and C.K. Ogden’s Basic English, which shrinks English down to 850 words and ostensibly gives you a true generative grammar. Neither seem workable to me, but they’re good testing grounds for a few hypotheses.

Basic English, as Crawford points out, runs into trouble when it has to construct new (i.e., idiomatic) meanings for combinations of words to express ideas that simply won’t fit into constructs of the basic set of 850 concepts. It’s fair to say that you can get “red” (not a Basic English word) out of “blue,” “green,” and the other colors that it does provide, but getting “internet” and “metempsychosis” are slightly trickier, and so on and so forth.

But consider the source of the parsimony:

The greater part of the things we generally seem to be talking about are what may be named fictions: and for these again there are other words in common use which get nearer to fact.

The greater part of the statements we make about things and persons are unnecessarily colored by some form of feeling: They do, no doubt, say something about things and persons, but most common words are colored by our feelings — or the feeling by which the thought of our hearers is to be consciously or unconsciously guided; and it is frequently possible to keep thought and feeling separate.

The most important group of ‘shorthand’ words in European languages is made up of what are named ‘verbs’ — words like ‘accelerate’ and ‘ascertain’; ‘liberty’ and ‘blindness’ are examples of fictions; ‘credulous’ and ‘courteous’ say something about our feelings in addition to their straightforward sense.

The emphasis is mine. Aside from assuming a brute-force representational theory of language, which is an argument I don’t want to touch, Ogden is quite a utopian, believing that he can extract a language of pure representation out of English and remove prejudice and emotion. He takes the dream of a common language, implicitly sees a problem in the emotional biases built into a good chunk of the vocabulary, and seeks to fix that as well. I.e., he would probably see a need for “Basic Esperanto” as well.

Basic English is mechanistic in its approach to minimal, objective representation; Loglan is mechanistic in its word construction (if it’s pronounceable, use it), and its context-free grammar. Loglan was designed to help knowledge representation, though there is not an explanation of why a grammatical language is needed instead of a clearer set of logical axioms, the approach that’s been used by the CYC project and other massive modelling projects. The deeper agenda seems utopian again:

Many loglanists believe, too, that their adopted language is ideally suited to become a lingua franca for the world. Its clarity and lack of cultural bias are just what is needed to cement international cooperation. That leaves each of us with a Mother Tongue that we would use for jokes, poetry, and making love. A further bonus is that our Mother Tongues could be much more locally based: not merely English but Liverpool Scouse, not just German but Hamburger Platt, not just French but Occitan. To maintain the linguistic and cultural diversity that minority and regional languages enshrine could be just as important in the long run as maintaining the diversity of life.

Basic English was designed as a supplemental, agnostic second language to be used for people who didn’t have the time to live inside full English. The mission of Loglan seems to be to create a neutral language to allow ever more diverging local languages. I don’t know how this is accomplished either, but it seems to be a step backwards from the all-encompassing aims of Volapuk and Esperanto: instead of the Tower of Babel, it’s a hut.

This can get silly, but I don’t know that it’s so much worse than what the universal grammarians claim about D-structure: roughly speaking, what Loglan (not quite Basic English) set out to do should be accomplishable. Loglan makes you think twice about the project. English particularly has engendered so many dialects across drastically different cultures and countries that the study of gesture, affect, and inflection is becoming increasingly prominent.

(As a follow-up, the only context-free, ambiguous languages I know of are mathematical and computational ones, which have some theoretically crazy ideas of their own (like Tcl’s use of whitespace as an disambiguating mechanism). Question to argue over: are they representational?)

The Death of Virgil, Hermann Broch

I once said that The Death of Virgil exists on its own plane of reality, and that is what makes the book worth reading. As a novel of ideas it is behind most of Thomas Mann’s work, and doesn’t even approach Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. As a historical excursion into the classics, it’s detailed and panoramic, but that is hardly Broch’s main concern here. He uses Virgil and the Aeneid to give weight to his subjects. He views imperial Rome as a better testing ground for his thoughts than contemporary Europe, which Broch increasingly loathed and saw as decaying and diseased. But he mostly needs solitary territory, and in The Death of Virgil he finds it.

The most striking portrait of Broch was given by Elias Canetti in his memoirs, where he describes Broch as fiercely moral but unguarded and emotionally transparent. The contradiction plays itself out nobly in The Death of Virgil, as conservative political statements clash with modernist techniques on a huge swath of territory that is Broch’s alone.

The book is divided into four sections named after the four elements. In the short first section, the sick and dying Virgil arrives in Rome and is brought to rest. The blind Virgil is preternaturally aware of his surroundings and the section is oriented around pure sensory language as he slowly progresses from the ship to the palace. Rome is vibrant but immoral, and Virgil, in his sensory immersion, achieves a sort of inhuman alienation from the people and society around him, connected but only partly conscious.

It’s scant preparation for the second section, one hundred and fifty pages of tumbling, disorienting language dealing with half-formed abstractions and conjunctions of art, life, love, feeling, infinity, and more. What’s most remarkable is how Broch keeps it from coalescing. Any approaching “payoff” of a unified vision is discarded before it’s reached for a new set of jumbled conceptual atoms. A sample:

the poem though well able to duplicate the creation in words was never able to fuse the duplication into a unity, unable to do so because the seeming-reversion, the divination, the beauty, because all these things which determined, which became poetry, took place solely in the duplicated world; the world of speech and the world of matter remained apart, twofold the home of the word, twofold the home of the human being, twofold the abyss of the creaturely,but twofold also the purity of being, thus duplicated to unchastity which, like a resurrection without birth, penetrated all divination as well as all beauty, and carried the seed of world-destruction in itself, the basic unchastity of existence which came to be feared by the mother; unchaste the mantle of poetry, and nevermore would poetry come to be fundamental…

What impresses are not the ideas, which derive from Friedrich Schiller as well as Plato, but the writing that is constantly at war with them. This is the sort of stuff that you write when you must write, or even more, when you are driven to fill up the page out of agoraphobia or a fear of silence. Somewhere in the middle of it, Virgil decides to burn the Aeneid, lost as he is inside a transient but autonomous language that provides effect without impact, divorced from “the world” and focused on metaphysical existence. It is as pure as Rilke, and just as difficult.

The third section is just as much a shock: Virgil returns to reality, as it were, and there follows lengthy passages of dialogue between him and his friends Plotius and Lucius, and then then with Augustus, who all attempt to convince him not to burn the Aeneid. Augustus paints the poet’s relation to the state; Virgil tries to negate it. Augustus flatters Virgil; Virgil will have none of it. Torn between his unattainable obligations and aspirations, Virgil’s positions appear pompous next to Augustus’s rhetoric: they are having a dialogue, but it binds the section to the sort of discourse found in The Sleepwalkers and The Unknown Quantity, in which Broch attempts to raise the state of humanity first through Burkean criticism, then by sheer force of intellectual will.

I’ve never found either tactic wholly successful. Broch’s strength, at its peak in the other sections of The Death of Virgil, was the sort of comprehensive, complex emotional state of being of an artist; when he tries to rationalize its place in the world, either in Vienna in the 1930’s or in Augustan Rome, he can be callow and even petty. After the autonomy of the first two sections, his attempt at worldly engagement and debate in the third doesn’t–really, can’t–justify itself. Thomas Mann’s philosophical debates in The Magic Mountain may be caricatures (of people like Johann Nestroy), but they reflect a certain compromise with the terms of the world that Broch is not really capable of. In The Sleepwalkers there was a conservative nostalgia for the supposedly moral uprightness of past ages; in The Death of Virgil, Broch abandons even that.

This is if anything emphasized in the last, short section. Having divested himself of his possessions and freed his slaves, Virgil surrenders to the inhuman abyss and is thrown into the realm of the essential, a conflation of the cosmos, creation, and language. The placement of language there is a forthright statement of where Broch aims to be and what he sees as Virgil’s proper place.

I don’t know. The high-minded but pedestrian third section helps illustrate how extreme Broch’s position is. It is obviously very impractical, a book that nearly negates its own existence in the world. (Even if Broch does not side with Virgil in the third section, the rest of the book makes it clear that Broch is not hosting a debate.) But the same single-mindedness makes it the closest fictional analogue to Rilke I’ve read, and sui generis. The Death of Virgil is not something to engage and certainly not to argue with, but it has its effects, and they are unique.

“The End of the World”, Richard Huelsenbeck

wood s lot wishes happy birthday to dada-ist Richard Huelsenbeck, and so do I. The passages he quotes give a good sense of the anger underneath the nonsense and free association, but my favorite poem of his is the moving “The End of the World”. Here’s the whole thing:

The cows sit on the telegraph poles and play chess
The cockatoo under the skirts of the Spanish dancer
Sings as sadly as a headquaters bugler and the cannon lament all day
That is the lavender landscape Herr Mayer was talking about
when he lost his eye
Only the fire department can drive the nightmare from the drawing-
room but all the hoses are broken
Ah yes Sonya they all take the celluloid doll for a changeling
and shout: God save the King
The whole Monist Club is gathered on the steamship Meyerbeer
But only the pilot has any conception of high C
I pull the anatomical atlas out of my toe
a serious study begins
Have you seen the fish that have been standing in front of the
opera in cutaways
for the last two days and nights…?
Ah ah ye great devils – ah ah ye keepers of bees and commandments
With a bow wow wow with a bow woe woe who does today not know
what our Father Homer wrote
I hold peace and war in my toga but I’ll take a cherry flip
Today nobody knows whether he was tomorrow
They beat time with a coffin lid
If somebody had the nerve to rip the tail feathers
out of the trolley car it’s a great age
The professors of zoology gather in the meadows
With the palms of their hands they turn back the rainbows
the great magician sets the tomatoes on his forehead
Again thou hauntest castle and grounds
The roebuck whistles the stallion bounds
(And this is how the world is this is all that’s ahead of us).

It’s very different from Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, closer to Mayakovsky, but less dogmatic. It was given an appropriately earnest reading by Peter Blegvad, who has taken one or to things from Huelsenbeckas well, on the impossibly rare Dr. Huelsenbeck’s Mentale Heilmethode.

American Writers of the 1950’s

Eudaemonist goes after Randell Jarrell’s Portraits from an Institution:

I now understand why people go ga-ga for Kerouac: general American fiction of the 1950s was rotten…When seen against the backdrop of such insipid, feeble prose as Jarrell’s, where flashes of wit last no longer than a firefly’s flickering (and provide, if I may say so, rather less illumination), Kerouac’s writing, for all that it is petulant, adolescent, and puerile, at least has some spark.

(Jarrell was not the only poet to try his hand at a campus novel. Weldon Kees’s Fall Quarter is quite dull and loses its way early on, torn between social criticism and an unwillingness to indict as viciously as Kees did in his essays.)

Speaking as an avowed detractor from the beats, seeing them as an anti-intellectual offshoot of more self-conscious European surrealist/dadaist movements, I always saw the 50’s as a time of post-war retrenchment. Popular genres (mystery, sf) had been established and were being elaborated on and toughened. William S. Burroughs, not quite a beat, was still writing sordid books like Junky and Queer (not published until later, but still…) that derived from Nelson Algren’s work of the 1940’s. Authors like Hubert Selby and John Rechy would follow this arc in the 60’s, but it is not typical in any way of the 50’s. Likewise with John Barth’s first two novels, which would not have stood out had he not drastically shifted tacks afterwards.

On the more socially conscious front, Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis’s complaints did not yet seem appropriate again (and their writing was far too clunky to stand on its own aesthetically), and Faulkner’s Southern chronicles became rote and nearly pastoral. Faulkner still won the Pulitzer–twice–seemingly by default, once for the failed stretch of A Fable, which reads like an intentional shifting of weight to “larger” (not really) issues.

But there are several 50’s authors that had and continue to have a huge impact on writing style and people’s expectations of the demarcated beast that is “American fiction.” J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Richard Yates all got their start in the 50’s, and none ever really made an impact beyond what they accomplished in that decade. Even Bellow, who held some of himself back for later, spawned upstarts Philip Roth and Joseph Heller before he could wrangle back any significant influence, and settled for becoming an elder statesman who would write books about Allan Bloom. All of them outlined areas that became de facto concerns in what could get published.

Cheever and Yates both specialized in malaise. Cheever’s version had darker, more perverse undercurrents to it (submerged homosexuality quite large among them), while Yates stuck to the surface of things and painted anomie devoid of content. Cheever may have had the richer vision, but Yates was more precise, he knew exactly what wall he was hitting, time and time again, while Cheever wandered.

Bellow was dabbling in a self-mythology based around the already-forming detritus of Jewish intellectual circles of past decades, which were fast being reduced to the parochialism of The New York Review of Books (as well as Irving Kristol’s neoconservative movement, but that’s not literary). But hardly less than Cheever and Yates, he was working on a blank slate of American culture based around a middle-class that hadn’t dominated when Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis had been writing. The context of all of their writing was post-Freudian psychology, the self-defeating self-reflection that produces neurosis. With much less of the weight of history than corresponding European novels of the same time, they drew from the sociology of the moment, and constructed a view of middle-class intellectual and non-intellectual life that produced its own problems. It revolves around the psychology of the little gesture, the meager possession, the sentimental attachment, and the bland statement. These took on specific associations, so that every fictional character looking at a gray building or working in a garden or cooking dinner or walking down a sidewalk came to signify certain things about American life.

Many, many American fiction writers have been dealing with this landscape since, from John Updike to Raymond Carver to Grace Paley. Salinger introduced an element of religious or quasi-religious purity in his work, which was later developed by Walker Percy, among others, but as I get older I see Salinger more as a peculiar variation on the other three, glorifying a narcissistic but extremely personal and effective view of family as a non-historical response to Yates and Cheever’s monotonic views. It is a less robust response than Bellow’s, which has made it harder to imitate. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, though.

These are far from the only movements, but in terms of disproportionate impact, I think the figures above stand out. Many literary magazines today print stories that almost exclusively conform to the boundaries set out: ahistoric, neurotic, drawing from quotidian symbols. And I don’t believe there has been a group since that has had anywhere near as much impact. (For a while, I thought Don DeLillo was doing pretty well in reorienting the field towards a more reductionistic, impersonal psychology, but scions like Steve Erickson and Stephen Wright seem to have faded fast.)

In comparison, there are the roads not taken, those of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and even Nabokov, whose Pnin is a less claustrophobic statement on the social life of the academy. There is Flannery O’Connor, whose pacing and plotting were appropriated, but not her modern gothic sensibility. And there’s William Gaddis, whose The Recognitions I never finished, but who was clearly working towards a more epic, contextual tableau, even if he seemed to get mired in the details.

In sum, then, the 50’s still seem a flagship decade for one of the most dominant breeds of American fiction, as well as its height. There is little that Christopher Tilghman writes about that could not be gleaned (albeit indirectly) from Richard Yates, thirty years earlier. Lorrie Moore adds a touch of Bellow’s eloquent mythologizing to very similar material. Which is to say, there are clearly identifiable “American writers of the 50’s,” in a way that there aren’t of subsequent decades. It’s as though time has stood still.

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