David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2012

Euripides’ Bacchae: Two Boys at Play

The Bacchae has a reputation as Euripides’ greatest play. It’s hard for me to say. Even for a wildly eccentric and subversive playwright like Euripides, it is very odd. It was one of his very last plays, written quite late in life (in his 70s possibly), but even the contemporaneous Iphegenia at Aulis is nothing like it. It is concertedly archaic and much more soaked in myth and paganism than most of his other, more “human” dramas like Medea and The Trojan Women, which give voice to tremendous amounts of pain and suffering on behalf of life’s losers and victims.

The Bacchae lacks a certain type of immanent universality, though it has plenty of blunt impact. It is still overwhelming and shocking, and ends with one hell of a memorable image: King Pentheus’ severed head impaled on a very phallic thyrsus held by his mother, who has disemboweled him in the midst of Bacchic ecstasy. (The thyrsus is a fennel staff with a pine cone or bunch of leaves on top, a Dionysian symbol.)

Agave (center) and part of her son Pentheus (left), from Brad Mays' production

Thematically, however, it deals in more abstract universalities. Since abstract universalities are more prone to change over the millennia than concrete notions of pain and death, it is more difficult to grasp just exactly what is going on with the Dionysian cults and rituals that occur, even if you’re familiar with how they operated. Add to that Euripides’ inevitable perversions of received values and ideas, and the drama is baffling.

It is quite unusual (even unique?) in surviving Greek drama in making a god not only a spectator and an agent of the action, but the actual protagonist. (Other tragedies with Dionysus as protagonist have been lost.) He is Dionysus returns to Thebes with a group of maenad followers, having returned from the east where he had been establishing his mysteries and rites. His Theban mother Semele was killed by his father Zeus on account of Hera’s jealousy (long story), but the rest of her family has been slandering her by saying she lied about Zeus being her lover, and that that is why Zeus killed her. Dionysius’ cousin Pentheus, son of Semele’s slandering sister Agave, is now king of Thebes and has banned worship of Dionysus.

Dionysus is extremely angry about all of this and eagerly tells the audience, in proto-Richard III style, that he is going to take serious revenge. We follow him as he brings most of Thebes under his spell, Pied Piper-like, causes a major earthquake, and then disguises himself as a human and torments Pentheus at length. Eventually he tempts Pentheus with talk of the maenads’ orgies and has Pentheus cross-dress as a maenad so that he can spy on them. (Here Dionysus certainly anticipates Shakespeare’s similarly twisted Duke in Measure for Measure, as well as that other puppet-master Prospero.)

As expected, the maenads rip Pentheus to shreds, thinking he’s a wild animal—animal dismemberment was part of Bacchic rituals. Agave proudly brings back Pentheus’ head, thinking that she’s slaughtered a lion for a feast. Dionysus removes the spell from Agave so she can see what he has done to her own son, and Dionysus exiles the remainder of the family. Dionysus prophecies that Semele and Agave’s parents, Cadmus and Harmonia, will be turned into serpents.

These grim antics are accompanied by joyless songs from the chorus of maenads, but much of the play is just Dionysus (disguised) and Pentheus onstage in dialogue, occasionally with a visiting messenger, until Dionysus sees Pentheus off to his doom and returns only in the guise of a god in the denouement to pronounce doom. The chorus, as well as some of the other characters, incessantly remind the audience that one does not anger a god and get away with it, ever.

Yet Dionysus’ behavior is perplexing. He hardly seems like the good-times god of wine, and certainly not the buffoon of other myths. His Hermes-esque (Hermetic?) trickery and plotting seem calculated and malevolent. In a bit of mythological overlap, Cadmus and Harmonia’s transformation into serpents echoes the two serpents of Hermes’ symbol, the caduceus. To push that point a little further, Dionysus prophecies their fate simultaneously, emphasizing the pairing, whereas in the traditional account, Harmonia wishes herself to be transformed only after Cadmus transforms (by his own wish).

[The confusion of the diabolical caduceus and the healing staff of Asclepius persists, and Thomas M. Disch had some fun with the confusion in his apocalyptic novel The M.D.]

Even more strangely, Dionysus lets himself be humiliated by Pentheus, who temporarily imprisons him and cuts off his hairlocks. (Dionysus will later cause Pentheus to grow girlish hair.) Yes, it’s a setup, but why? Dionysus is already hellbent on revenge and manipulating events, Pentheus has already refused to allow worship, and Pentheus has no need to indict himself further.

None of this is enough to make you ultimately sympathize with Dionysus, who gets very nasty indeed. The sheer vigor of his revenge rhetoric as the play goes on is enough to make him unpalatable, like someone crushing ants for not staying out of his way. But in the facts, he is a victim, not of Pentheus but of other gods, particularly his wicked stepmother Hera. His obsession with revenge is not so different from that of Medea and Hecuba and Electra, Euripides’ vengeful women, but they were all more sympathetic than Dionysus. They weren’t gods.

Pentheus, for his part, is impetuous, arrogant, and unyielding, but unlike Creon in Antigone, he’s just a kid: he’s described as beardless and Agave reports she has killed “a lion’s cub,” not a full-grown lion. He argues with Dionysus and readies for war against the maenads, but is abruptly distracted by the promise of seeing the secret Dionysian rites. (Has he even been with a woman?)

PENTHEUS: Bring my armor, someone! And you stop talking.

(Pentheus strides toward the left, but when he is almost offstage, Dionysus calls imperiously to him.)

DIONYSUS: Wait! Would you like to see their revels on the mountain?

PENTHEUS: I would pay a great sum to see that sight.

E. R. Dodds describes the moment in a Freudian fashion:

What happens is rather the beginning of a psychic invasion, the entry of the god into his victim, who was also in the old belief his vehicle. In the maddening of Pentheus, as in the maddening of Heracles, the poet shows us the supernatural attacking the victim’s personality at its weakest point—working upon and through nature, not against it. The god wins because he has an ally in the enemy’s camp: the persecutor is betrayed by what he would persecute—the Dionysiac longing in himself.

These Dionysian rites then destroy Pentheus. He has inherited the sins of his ancestors without even the capacity to understand them clearly. Just before sending him off to his doom, Dionysus tells him he will return cradled in his mother’s arms, a happy regression to infancy.

Dionysus (left) and Pentheus

The result is a peculiar portrayal of a god very unlike the irritable but invulnerable deities for whom nothing is of lasting consequence. It feels closer to the Old Testament God, with his mysterious contradictions, hurt feelings, and inconsistencies. As Dionysus sets up Pentheus repeatedly, I think of God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart against Moses. Greek gods usually aren’t so roundabout, not even Hermes. (“My ridiculously circuitous plan is one-quarter complete!“)

Aristophanes portrayed Dionysus as an idiotic buffoon in the comedy The Frogs, and he normally stands apart from the other major gods in lacking jealousy and gravitas. Euripides evens the balance in The Bacchae, but the standard account still persists as well. Dionysus is a child with a dead mother, a wicked stepmother, and a disputed and absent father. The Greek gods are irrational and jealous, but they are not children. (Even Hermes is older than Dionysus.)

Here, though, Dionysus is an illegitimate child, even by the standards of Greek gods. Dionysius himself not accepted, not legitimate in Olympus, not even properly born to his mother before she died but incubated in Zeus’s thigh. He cannot take out his mourning and rage on other gods, but he can on the humans who ridicule his mother. In the myth, Hera motivates Semele’s sisters to slander Semele, but here they do it out of pure pettiness and spite, further stressing the emphasis on the human plane of events. Greek gods normally lash out at humans who are favored by other gods, but Dionysus is the only god in play here. And since the sin against him is that of questioning his very legitimacy, birth, and godhood, that he is defending himself against such accusations puts his status in doubt.

And so Dionysus is a neglected and resentful child, less legitimate than the other gods (much in the way that Dionysiac cults were viewed suspiciously and as illegitimate), punishing his action figures because he has power over them. The story is two boys having tantrums, one of whom happens to be a god.

The nature of Pentheus’ final sin is that of a man (or boy) thinking he is punishing another human, not a god. At that single point, Dionysus is humanly sympathetic, before the power shifts. I think that the need for Dionysus’ humiliation comes from theme and structure. Dionysus and Pentheus must be put on an equal level for a time, so that Dionysus is not only disguised as a human but is acting as one as well. (This also seems unprecedented in Greek literature, to the best of my knowledge.) That is to say, Dionysus can capture the audience’s sympathy only until he exerts his powers–his ability for revenge–at which point he is monstrous. He becomes a god, can only be recognized as a god, by becoming a monster.

What it all means I doubt anyone can say. That we are all children? That we have sympathy not for victims, but for the powerless? That our expressions of sympathy are as irrational and unjust as our expressions of revenge? Because I’ve tried to speak about the less culturally-bound aspects of the play, I’ve barely touched the difficulties and confusions around the Bacchic cults and rituals themselves. It is the most complicatedly ambiguous drama I can think of until Shakespeare came on the scene.*


*As with Hamlet, we also lack crucial context as to predecessor plays around the Dionysus myth and exactly which parts of the myth Euripides altered, and consequently don’t know precisely what audiences of the time would have been surprised at.

New Articles on Computers and Culture

n+1 has posted roughly the first third of my article The Stupidity of Computers online. It talks about what computers can do easily, and what is near-impossible for them.


The Stupidity of Computers


Computers are near-omnipotent cauldrons of processing power, but they’re also stupid. They are the undisputed chess champions of the world, but they can’t understand a simple English conversation. IBM’s Watson supercomputer defeated two top Jeopardy! players last year, but for the clue “What grasshoppers eat,” Watson answered: “Kosher.” For all the data he could access within a fraction of a second—one of the greatest corpuses ever assembled—Watson looked awfully dumb….

Some of the towering achievements in computer science have been in the creation of brilliantly clever, efficient, and useful algorithms such as Quicksort, Huffman Compression, the Fast Fourier Transform, and the Monte Carlo method, all reasonably simple (but not obvious) methods of accomplishing precisely specified tasks on potentially huge amounts of precisely specified data. Alongside such computational challenges there has been the dream of artificial intelligence: to get computers to think….


It has a bit of the history of artificial intelligence, which one rather famous AI researcher has called “a history of failure,” including SHRDLU, ELIZA, and MGonz. (For more details, see Mark Humphrys’ paper “How My Program Passed the Turing Test.”)

I also have a long feature on “A-culture” (anonymous internet culture: 4chan, Anonymous, etc.) now up at the online magazine Triple Canopy. It is in two parts, beginning with an essay:


Anonymity as Culture: Treatise

Alienation, irony, autonomy, discourse. On 4chan and Internet masquerade.


It gets worse.

Today, the most ubiquitous online communities are social networks where our identities are mostly known and mostly persistent. Each tweet, each status update, is branded with a persistent name or affiliation.

Yet for people who do not want to be known, do not want to be corralled into demographic groups, and do not want the hierarchy of prestige, other spaces persist. These are the sort of spaces that were the progenitors of social networks: newsgroups, chatrooms, online forums, and Internet Relay Chat channels. They offer a lack of accountability for what one says, a way to hide unappealing facts about oneself, and an instant escape hatch if things get unpleasant. They offer anonymity.

The growth of these anonymous spaces marks the first wide-scale collective gathering of those who are alienated, disaffected, voiceless, and just plain unsocialized….


Delve then, if you dare, into the glossary and case studies:


Anonymity as Culture: Case Studies

Homosexuality, suicide, hate, porn. Four episodes and a glossary.


A trap can never be obvious, or else it isn’t a trap.

Transgenderism is one of the recurrent obsessions of A-culture—specifically the idea of the trap, i.e., a male who presents himself as a woman and would be taken for a woman except for his genitals. The phrase—taken from Admiral Ackbar’s exclamation on being ambushed in Return of the Jedi: “It’s a trap!”—is a pejorative indicating that straight men have been tricked into being aroused by one of their own gender. However, it’s not unusual for posters to identify themselves as traps, or for posters to declare an interest in traps and even express confusion over their attraction to them. The trap embodies two conflicting impulses of A-culture: the love of deviancy and surprise, and the pervasiveness of suspicion, deception, and ridicule. This paradox is best exemplified by the posting of the technically self-contradictory statement “I’m a trap.”

I wrote this article in the spirit of Erving Goffman.

Quantitative Methods in Literary Criticism: Franco Moretti and Brian Vickers

The million-fold increase in computing power over the last few decades has made possible types of quantitative analysis that were previously available only to rulers with access to large amounts of menial but highly precise labor. Because the humanities generally tend to trail the sciences and the social sciences in adopting such new-fangled techniques. Instead, academics have preferred to write about such new technologies using existing frameworks: see the now-forgotten hypertext boomlet of the early-90s led by Stuart Moulthrop.

Here, I want to contrast two scholars who have seriously used quantitative analysis in literary criticism. My negative example is Franco Moretti; my positive example is Brian Vickers.

This piece is something of an appendix to my n+1 piece “The Stupidity of Computers,” because I found that the conclusions I presented there held just as true for literary analysis as they did for data mining, search engines, and online dating. Computers are still dumb, so we must be sure to be extra-smart in using them.


Moretti’s Materialism

Franco Moretti caused something of a splash in the last fifteen years by advocating a quantitative model for tracking literature’s paths. He seeks, in his notorious phrase, a “materialist sociology of literary form.” I’m not fond of the phrase, but it gives an idea of the overlapping circles that are at work here: quantitative, materialist (in the Marxist and positivist sense), sociological, taxonomic.

I do not endorse a never-the-twain-shall-meet split between natural sciences and human sciences, the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften. Many literature departments and continental philosophers cling to the separation as though their jobs depended on it–which indeed they might. But the great inadequacy of quantitative methods applied to artistic and social forms (e.g., economics) still serves as a reminder that the human sciences are vastly more imprecise and variable than the most successful of the natural sciences.

I believe that the reasons for this, as I discussed at some length in my recent n+1 piece, “The Stupidity of Computers,” primarily have to do with language and the endlessly fine-grained distinctions and variances it forces upon us. The practical result is that almost any quantitative approach falls down, and I think Moretti’s is a particularly good example of such a failure.

Moretti’s work has foundered on two main points:

  1. Presuppositions of taxonomies, ontologies, and evidentiary relevance that are then set up to be “confirmed” by the statistical model at work.
  2. Sheer lack of evidence, caused by the vast scope on which Moretti is working.

I have written on the first issue of presuppsitions with regard to political issues: attempts to discern how “liberal” and “conservative” blogs link to one another rely on purely human classification of blogs into the two-category taxonomy selected by the researchers themselves, rendering the results highly dubious.

In the political sphere, complicated charts analyzing networks of links from one political blog to another show clusters of linkages tightly within sets of “conservative” and “liberal” blogs. Another chart from a separate analysis shows clusters using a different taxonomy: progressive, independent, and conservative. Who decided on these categories? Humans. And who assigned individual blogs to each category? Again humans. So the humans decided on the categories and assigned the data to the individual categories—then told the computers to confirm their judgments. Naturally the computers obliged.

The Stupidity of Computers“, n+1 13

The same principle is at work in classifying books and sentences, as Moretti does. This sort of ontological question begging is so ubiquitous it should be the first question anyone asks on seeing a pretty chart or graph purporting to represent some aspect of human society.

The second issue is more particular to Moretti, which is that even with unprecedented processing power at his command, I gather Moretti still doesn’t have the resources to do the requisite analysis at the level which would be required.

Cosma Shalizi, expert statistician, has written extensively on these failings with regard to Moretti’s two main books, and his articles elaborate the problems sufficiently that I won’t go into much detail here. He criticized the statistical methods of Atlas of the European Novel, but his review of Graphs, Maps, Trees, which attempted to make a statistical case that new genres of novel tended to occur in bunche, cuts closer to the theoretical problems at hand:

[Moretti should] give actual causal accounts of how macroscopic patterns emerge from the interaction of many material bodies (notably, people and books), of the sort we know to exist, endowed with the kinds of abilities we know them to have.

This commitment may sound harmless, because contentless, but it does actually have implications.  It means that you have to do a lot of work to justify functionalist explanations (though it’s not impossible). It should make you very dubious about ideal types.  It should make you more interested in exploring variation, and not dismissing it.  It should make you very dubious about “practices” and other shared mental objects, at least as ordinarily conceived.  And it suggests a lot of productive directions, investigating communication, cognition, and the collective patterns they produce.

Graphs, Trees, Materialism, Fishing

If anything, Shalizi understates the difficulty. There needs to be a huge amount of work, and it must be done with partial, often inaccurate data from biased observers. The hermeneutic circle holds sway here. It’s not impossible. But the data analysis is vastly easier than the data collection, which computers still can’t do.

Vickers’ Wissenschaften

I have a positive example, however. Studies of authorship attribution are nothing new. They have frequently employed quantitative methods, albeit frequently in a haphazard and unsystematic way. In English, at least, the writer who has been subject to more of them than any other is William Shakespeare.

There has not been a good track record. Two attributions of new (and rather poor) works to Shakespeare in the last couple decades, “Shall I die?” and “A Funeral Elegy,” seem almost certainly incorrect. In the second case, the original claimant, Don Foster, has retracted the claim. In the first, it appears that no one except the original claimant supports the attribution anymore. Unfortunately, the original claimant, Gary Taylor, is the editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, so you can find “Shall I die?” there. What are you going to do?

Against that, though, there is Brian Vickers and particularly his recent work Shakespeare, A Lover’s Complaint, and John Davies of Hereford. (A short overview is available behind the TLS paywall.) This is a distinctive case because it’s trying to pull authorship of A Lover’s Complaint away from Shakespeare. The long (329 lines) poem was published in the same book as the sonnets in 1609, attributed to Shakespeare, but it has never garnered too much attention. There have been some doubts but, over the last 50 years, general endorsement of Shakespeare’s authorship.

Work had already been done to identify Shakespeare’s co-authors on Titus Andronicus, Pericles, Timon of Athens, and others, but this is the first instance I know of pulling a poem away from Shakespeare.

Vickers is upfront in his biases: he thinks the poem is lousy, too lousy to be Shakespeare’s, uninventive and moralistic. He attributes it instead to a mediocre but prolific poet named John Davies, whom I’d never heard of. But his method is far more solid than most. He recognizes the need for a holistic/hermeneutic understanding of the period and its literature, and so Vickers’ book takes both a top-down and a bottom-up approach, deriving general regulative and evaluative guidelines from a comprehensive knowledge of the period, then using atomic, discrete metrics to attempt to make meaningful distinctions. I believe this bi-directional method to be the only one that has a chance of success. (Moretti, in contrast, is entirely top-down, while much philological work is bottom-up.)

Here is a brief sample, taken from the TLS overview:

Davies did so on over 160 occasions. The author of the Complaint used “th’-” elisions frequently, and twice clumsily, not on words beginning with a vowel -as in Shakespeare’s “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” -but before a consonant: “th’wel doing”, “th’smallest teene”. Davies regularly contracted the definite article without any concern for euphony, with such equally clumsy elisions as “th’reversions”, “th’reprobates” or “th’Gospel”. Critics have judged the contractions in “A Lover’s Complaint” to be a sign of Shakespeare’s later style, but here is a different explanation. The poet of the “Complaint” ended two lines with the formulaic phrase “forme receive”, once an infinitive (using the pleonastic do): “which did no forme receive”, and once a present tense: “all straing formes receives”, both times rhyming on “leave”. In John Davies’s poetry there are twenty-one instances of the rhyme word “deceive”; ten of them need a pleonastic do, twice rhyming with “leave”. The author of the “Complaint” took liberties with the English language to obtain a rhyme, coining the nonce-words “sawne” and “loverd”. In one poem Davies rhymed “wander” and “gander”, adding a marginal note justifying “The word . . . Gander for the Rime’s necessity”.

Brian Vickers, “A rum ‘do'”

So while the first section of the book, “Background,” is somewhat traditional literary criticism and close reading, the second section, “Foreground,” is tabulation across many metrics. Vickers downplays one of the most common (and easiest) forms of analysis, that of uncommon word occurrence, owing to the ambiguity of word placement and meaning. Vickers does use this analysis, but not to the exclusions of others, as some of his predecessors had in making the case for Shakespeare’s authorship.

Regardless, A Lover’s Complaint is only 329 lines long, so the sample size for any feature is quite small. Because of this, doubt should accompany any supposed distinction established along any one axis. Aware of this, Vickers is definitely trying for a preponderance of evidence, attacking the poem from different levels and angles. Those in favor of the attribution to Shakespeare (John Kerrigan and Katherine Duncan-Jones are the two most vocal, I believe) have not done a comparable study from the other side, which is what would be necessary to counter Vickers’ claims.

Similarly, statistical analysis is somewhat down-played, because the margins of error are so great. There are lists and collections, but they are presented in the sense of outlying features that distinguish the poem from other work. They are also presented in the sense of non-outlying features that are actually typical of work in the period against common knowledge. The presence of both types of claims is reassuring.

And it underscores something to bear in mind when reading the work of Moretti and others: beware statistical analysis on incomplete evidence. The challenge is in deciding on the metrics and applying them in the most exacting fashion, something that remains in the human sphere, not the computer. What computers have enabled is the ability to run some of the metrics on a large corpus rather quickly: a significant evidentiary boon, but not a paradigm shift. The most satisfactory uses are considerably less sexy than Moretti’s graphs: for example, searching for particular words and variations of a word across all (or most) Elizabethan literature.

(Again, I refer back to my n+1 article, where computers proved themselves most useful in dumb tasks performed in great quantity: lexical analysis rather than semantic analysis.)

For any analysis, there is also the ever-present problem of negative evidence. The significance of what words aren’t co-occurring is considerably harder to analyze, and so is frequently ignored. The case study Vickers gives is that of neologistic word formation with the prefix un-. Shakespeare indeed did form an awful lot of new words by attaching un- to existing words, a feature of A Lover’s Complaint. But Vickers cites Juergen Schaefer’s work in showing that the OED overrepresented Shakespeare (for assorted reasons) and that other writers had coined similar un- neologisms at a similar rate. Two of them were Thomas Nashe and…John Davies (133).

And in fact, when it comes to neologisms, A Lover’s Complaint introduces 11 Latin neologisms in 329 lines, including wackiness like annexions, fluxive, and Cautills (151). This is hardly sufficient evidence but it is the sort of heuristic metric that gives reason for doubt. Moreover, Vickers uses it to bash those who have claimed that the supposed lexical inventiveness of A Lover’s Complaint was unique to Shakespeare, when in fact it seems to have been a common feature among many writers of the period. Context is everything.

Above lexical and grammatical analysis, Vickers performs more complex rhetorical analysis. One striking example is Davies’ almost compulsive use of asyndeton (omission of conjunctions), helping to produce what’s been called the “cramped, gritty, discontinuous quality” of A Lover’s Complaint. Vickers has some fun citing instances of Davies piling on up to ten verbs in a row in his other work.

A high level of elision of other parts of speech and peculiar inversions of word order is also present. Here the qualitative element kicks in, as distinguishing “awkward” and “unnatural” inversions from “good” ones is simply not something that is uncontestable. Here Vickers returns to close reading and attempts to see what purpose inversions serve in the function and rhythm of the poem. This is not a positivistic method, but I’m with him in thinking it is more convincing than attempting to taxonomize inversions on a purely grammatical level as “unnatural” or not.

This alternation between the quantitative and the qualitative continues throughout the rest of Vickers’ book, and because Vickers is forceful in his aesthetic judgments, they do not always stand by themselves, but in tandem with the statistical evidence, they do gain a certain amount of force. Because I am not an expert in rhetoric and not an expert on the literature of the period, I cannot say how contestable some of the judgments are. But the work is there to be evaluated. Vickers also shows how metrics have been abused in the past to make other wrongful attributions, and so points out the pitfalls.

For rhetorical devices in particular, it helps a great deal that Vickers is immersed in the rhetorical taxonomy that Shakespeare and Davies themselves would have learned, and so applies metrics that they themselves would have used in constructing their works. This is where historical knowledge is crucial; the ready-made ontological categories that happen to be popular at a given time (structuralist tropes, for example) are less likely to line up as well as taxonomical devices that authors would have knowingly applied to their work at the time of creation.

Let’s look at some of the general metrics Vickers applies to A Lover’s Complaint, in order to see how that middle-ground is navigated:

  • A set of six rare words occurring in Davies work and in the Complaint
  • 21 common phrases like “high and low,” “wake and sleep,” and “gainst plus admirable moral principle” occurring disproportionately in Davies work and present in the Complaint
  • Six instances of poetic diction unique to A Lover’s Complaint and Davies other work
  • A reflexive fondness for a a handful of rhetorical figures, particularly the overuse of the word “all” (often twice in a line), occurring in the complaint and in Davies’ other work (and nowhere else save sometimes John Donne)
  • A certain overlap in metaphorical vocabulary, such as the “congestion” and “compounding” of individual appetites into desire
  • Of rhyme-word pairs in the Complaint not used by Shakespeare, 25% of those pairings do occur in Davies’ work

The last one gives an example of how inexhaustible the work is, since the analysis is only performed on rhyme-word pairs not occurring in Shakespeare and is not compared to other authors. Similar objections can be made to other metrics, but the thing to remember is that Vickers has still set the bar vastly higher than usual, and since such work is a progressive process, the details are at least there to be rebutted by someone who wants to perform some of the many remaining analyses. To use an apt legal analogy, such matters are always decided by the standard of a preponderance of evidence, not a K.O., and right now it appears that Vickers has presented the preponderance.

Harold Love, in the TLS, in fact criticized Vickers for not using more sophisticated statistical and computational tools, and disputed the certainty of the Davies’ attribution. Vickers’ response displays, in my opinion, the right attitude to take toward such tools and analyses:

Your readers are told that Vickers uses “an old-fashioned kind of testing”, and “lacks real understanding” of modern computational stylistics, such as “John Burrows’s Delta algorithm, based on complex statistical probing of lengthy frequency lists”.

To reply in brief: I am perfectly familiar with modern stylometry, but the Delta algorithm uses small vocabulary samples, such as the fifty most frequently occurring words, which are then treated as individual counters, deprived of semantic identity and grammatico-syntactical relationships with other words. It has achieved some success, but it is open to suspicion that two or more writers might favour the same fifty words. I am currently working with a team of medical statisticians who are applying to computational stylistics a technique developed for measuring irregular heart beats, which is able to use all the words in a text. It lists shared words in descending frequency and then uses a phylogenetic algorithm to create a tree, grouping similar texts on nearby branches and dissimilar texts on distant branches. (Intertextual distances are measured, applying a weighting function which is the sum of Shannon’s entropy–details on request.)

Brian Vickers, 13 July 2007

Love definitely erred in endorsing the Delta algorithm, which is indeed dangerously arbitrary in its metrics. Endorsing any one metric, in fact, is liable to be dangerously arbitrary because of evidentiary limitations. Fancy statistics run the danger of obscuring the anecdotal component of the work.

Vickers impresses, ultimately, because he bears three main points in mind: all such analyses are to be treated as incomplete, no one metric should ever be seen as definitive, and conclusions must be based on a pluralistic methodology utilizing both quantitative and qualitative metrics.

In conclusion: the human sciences are inexact and dismal, much like humans.


Afterword: Duncan-Jones and Kerrigan’s rebuttals to Vickers’ de-attribution were not sufficiently substantive to need addressing here. Kerrigan’s failure should not obscure my esteem of his panoramic study Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon.)

In addition, I should say that Vickers’ critical sympathies are not necessarily my own. While I’ve learned a great deal from his work on the history of rhetoric, someone who can confidently announce of the sonnets, “These are, to state the obvious again, not homosexual poems”–and then cite Sonnet 20 as evidence–either sees friendship as a wildly fertile ground for manic jealousy, or else is using such a narrow definition of homosexuality as to make the observation tautological. I prefer Samuel Butler’s witty (though coy) formulation:

Fresh from the study of the other great work in which the love that passeth the love of women is portrayed as nowhere else save in the Sonnets, I cannot but be struck with the fact that it is in the two greatest of all poets that we find this subject treated with the greatest intensity of feeling. The marvel, however, is this, that whereas the love of Achilles for Patroclus depicted by the Greek poet is purely English,absolutely without taint or alloy of any kind, the love of the English poet for Mr W. H. was, though only for a short time, more Greek than English. I cannot explain this.

Samuel Butler

S. Yizhar: Khirbet Khizeh

Yizhar was an Israeli soldier in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and it is evident that this novella was based heavily on his own experience. It is the story of a soldier expelling Palestinians from the village of Khirbet Khizeh: what he sees, his tremendous ambivalence, the chatter of the soldiers around him, and the expulsion itself.

The story is tied up in politics, but I don’t think of the novella itself as primarily political. The heartfelt afterword by David Shulman, a brilliant scholar of Indian language and religion who’s also been a peace activist in Israel, feels out of place because it lays down such a definite stance on present-day Israeli matters, talking about conscientious objectors and contemporary Twaneh demonstrations. As Shulman himself says, Khirbet Khizeh is about being stuck in a position where there is no space for conscientious objectors, where moral unease leads to psychical shutdown and thoughtless complicity. That feeling, which Yizhar communicates viscerally, is one to be quietly lived with and absorbed for some time, before going on to a political polemic. Better not to break that spell.

The narrator accompanies a group of mostly unruly and unthinking soldiers. They encounter civilians. They don’t treat them well. They enter the village and do the expulsions. The narrator meekly voices his reservations, but he’s easily told off. What are they supposed to do? The narrator continues.

The novella doesn’t belabor the events, but neither does it withdraw from them. It’s a portrait of a very particular mindset, one that is refusing abstract thought because of the anxiety and immediacy of a situation and so absorbing the details of the environment in a nearly dissociated way. The prose flows at different paces depending on how much is going on, spilling over into long serpentine sentences at the beginning and then becoming more jagged as they near the village. The long paragraphs travel in circles at the start, with vague, guilt-ridden phrases like “a humiliating, shameful silence before the action, small devious ruses to deny it.” Then “The order to start arrived,” and from there the prose starts to pare itself down.

By the time the panicked narrator is helping exile some very helpless and innocent civilians from the village and he says to himself, “Khirbet Khizeh is not ours,” the story is very nearly over. It stops there for the reason that going on would mean the obscuring of the event, which is only being resurrected in his memory against his better instincts and will. “A single day of discomfort and then our people would strike root here for many years.” To go on is to minimize the discomfort.

Such discomfort does not entail a particular political stance. This obituary of Yizhar suggests that he was a somewhat ambiguous pacifist, but Khirbet Khizeh also put me in mind of Benny Morris, who did huge amounts of archival research to reveal occurrences of Israeli massacre and rape in 1948, but still goes on to say:

There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.

My feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country – the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River.

If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948.

Haaretz interview, 2004

I do not think this was Yizhar’s view, yet Morris looked at what Yizhar describes and worse, and Morris came out very far from Shulman’s view. It’s a mistake to assume that even such a politicized book will instill a particular political point of view, or even that it was written with the intent to do so. Whatever the “meaning” of the story is remains greater than can be presented in a particular political commitment. (Which is why I am not discussing the politics of the situation here and have no wish to do so in this venue.) What the novel asks for is living with and in that day of discomfort a bit longer, whatever that may bring.

Gregor von Rezzori: An Ermine in Czernopol

An Ermine in Czernopol

Excellent Max Beckmann cover

I’m coming to believe that Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) was one of the greatest postwar German-language writers. His work has a sensitivity and more significantly an intelligence stronger than so many of his contemporaries. His socio-intellectual analysis, in particular, stands respectively close to that of his avowed hero Robert Musil, even though Rezzori implicitly acknowledges that he can’t match him. (Rezzori even wrote a long unfinished two-part novel, The Death of My Brother Abel/Cain, just as Musil did. I have yet to read it)

He outdoes many other notables: Heinrich Boll, Wolfgang Koeppen, Peter Weiss, Arno Schmidt, W.G. Sebald, Stefan Heym, Gunter Grass, Christa Wolf, Heimito von Doderer. And I think his work approaches what I consider the upper echelon of postwar Germanic letters: Ingeborg Bachmann, Uwe Johnson, Thomas Bernhard, Adelheid Duvanel, Alexander Kluge. And going back a bit, he leaves Stefan Zweig in the dust and outdoes Hermann Broch‘s The Sleepwalkers.

I’m listing all these names not to show off but because Rezzori still seems like an odd figure to place in their company. Why? Because from all I’ve read, he was quite the bon vivant and well-adjusted man who wrote popular trashy books like The Idiot’s Guide to German Society and even more bizarrely, hosted a tv show called Jolly Joker, which seems to have been an Austrian version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

That all apparently damaged his standing with critics a bit, and even I find it difficult to reconcile with the sheer sensitivity in the writing I’ve read. His memoir The Snows of Yesteryear (inferior to its German title Blumen im Schnee) and his non-memoir Memoirs of an Anti-Semite are both remarkable works, suffused with a great deal of sympathy and very carefully observed. This wonderful passage from Snows, about his childhood maid, captures his talent:

Cassandra’s superstitious awe of the reality of letters, and her ultimate and voluntary rejection of their decipherment, originated in a much more archaic insight. The serried rows of books on the shelves of my father’s library were truly demonic for her. That certain things had been recorded between the covers of these books which could be grasped mentally and transformed into speech and knowledge by initiates in the shamanic craft of coding and decoding those runic symbols–this could be understood only as a supernatural phenomenon. It irritated her to see that we had lost the sense of its terrifying uncanniness and that reading was an everyday custom, publicly performed, nay, that it could even become a vice, as exemplified by my sister. With the instinctive certainty of the creature being, she felt that such casual handling of the irrational was bound in turn to generate irrationality.

She realized that for those who had acquired it, the ability to read conferred power over those to whom the written or printed word remained a sealed mystery. But she also knew that this was a power pertaining to black magic–that it turns against its own practitioners and transforms them into slaves of the abstract. She saw in it a truly devilish power, since its manipulators, who also were its most immediate victims, were not even aware of its nefarious effects.

Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear

So now comes An Ermine in Czernopol (1966) in a new translation from New York Review Books, an apparently autobiographical novel set in the 1920s in a fictionalized version of Czernowitz, a cosmopolitan city which belonged to Austria-Hungary until 1918, then to Romania until 1940, when it was captured by the Soviets. Today it is part of the Ukraine and is known as Chernivtsi (it has had other names). The name “Czernopol” may be an attempt to capture the city’s essential statelessness.

All this background is somewhat necessary because although the back describes the novel as the story of the anachronistic military officer Tildy, his story only makes up one of many in the novel, which is intentionally fragmented and prodigal. The construction may be the most remarkable aspect. The individual pieces are inconsistent, some characters making a stronger impression than others, but the overall flow is quite unusual and striking. While assembling a portrait of the city in the 1920s, when a pluralistic culture is thriving but dark forces quietly swell in the shadows, the organizing principle is the sense of growing up from child through the teenage years, as seen by a set of siblings.

For much of the novel the siblings are undifferentiated: the narrator is the collective “we.” Only in the latter half does the eldest, Tanya, come into her own and separate from them, and “I” begins to assert himself as well. Tanya will die at 20, we are told, just as Rezzori’s own sister did; he tells of her death in Snows and how much he has missed her for the past 50 years. That sense of breakup, and the sense of youths diverging in tandem with the fracture of the city, is the true center of the novel, and it is deeply affecting.

In keeping with the strange, disorganized time-flow of childhood, other characters make abrupt entrances and exits and recurrences. Tildy, the haplessly chivalric and obstreperous officer who is far too eager to challenge people to duels, disappears for the bulk of the middle of the novel. Mostly we hear of the tutors and prefects and schoolmasters who provide the siblings with what sounds like a damn fine liberal education. We also begin to hear of the casual anti-semitism of the siblings’ parents and extended family, and their aunt’s association with a group of proto-fascists who rail against the sarcastic, urbane liberal press (who are friends and fans of Karl Kraus) and of course the Jewish presence in the liberal press and in the city in general. The proto-fascists come off as uncivilized, sinister buffoons rather than violent menaces, but it’s fairly clear where the line leads, even as it’s also clear why none of the characters are able to anticipate how deadly it will become. For all its idiocies and disasters, urban civilization seems so robust and tolerant, doesn’t it?

The children come to gain this perspective from those around them: The Great War happened; it was the folly of the educated, civilized world; as civilized people we have learned from it; such gruesome folly can never happen again. The novel begins just as the Great War is ending:

We were particularly taken by the young noncommissioned officers: slight, gangly figures so completely bloodless they might have sprung from the soil of the trenches and crater-fields instead of a mother. But because we had been assured that they wrote the most beautiful poems, or at least carried the same with them in little volumes—because they fought to purify the soul more than merely to win the war—and hence their rather certain death was not only a casualty of enemy fire but a sanctified sacrifice on the altar of the highest human values, we felt obliged to somehow square this spirit with the horror. (92)

And this sort of romanticism is something that indeed disappears from the rest of the novel. (Tildy remains its sole exponent.) That is not the future threat.

As to that future threat: there are a fair number of Jewish characters, from the sensitive student Blanche Schlesinger to the Brill family, and the children spend a good deal of time attending Madame Fiokla Aritonovich’s Institute until their quietly anti-semitic parents pull them out. The children know of the anti-semitism but they never quite comprehend what exactly it is or exactly where these mostly assimilated Jews fit into the picture of society. Even among adults, the sense is that anti-semitism isn’t something that was ignored so much as not understood, not even by the anti-semites themselves. This is arguably more depressing, since the implication is that even if we were to look for the dangerous signs of hatred and intolerance, even the intelligent among us would be too stupid to recognize them.

Long after we had left Czernopol, whenever we thought about the Jews in those surroundings, what always came to mind, from all the myriad faces and figures, was the otherness of that gaze.  The Jews were many eyes. We told ourselves that for them we were probably also many eyes. Because nothing gives a more painful demonstration of how far apart we humans truly are than eyes peering out at us from the mask of a different race.

Their gaze hits us like that of a prisoner looking through the bars of his cell. We consider ourselves free, and view others as free as long as we can see through their faces, because they have been shaped in the same way that our face, which we cannot see, has been shaped. But where a different world has left its imprint to obstruct our vision, we recognize just how much we are trapped behind our own masks.

In fact, we never truly love the other, but merely the different world he represents. (310)

Rezzori would later refine this message to a sharper point in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, where the main character remains a stand-in for Rezzori himself and is not spared condemnation.

Rezzori reaches for Musil-esque levels of societal observation with a higher success rate than most. Speaking of the archaic character of Tildy and his hellbent intention on molding his destiny, Rezzori writes:

Destinies have become as rare as people with character, and they are becoming harder and harder to find, the more we insist on replacing the concept of character with that of personality. (33)

Which is a fairly pithy summary of the psychological  modernist shift. And indeed many of the more intellectual characters are both more multifaceted and more amorphous. Some still make a strong impression. Tutor Herr Alexianu, who raves about the ideas of his cynical, cod-Nietzschean friend Herr Nastase, is hysterical:

“He talks about all this in front of women without the slightest embarrassment. And they love him. They all love him. But as far as he himself is concerned, he refrains from any kind of reciprocity in love. And he does this consciously and intentionally. He calls it his form of monastic asceticism. It is part of his purity, his chastity, not to love. He despites the idea of si vis amari, ama. He says, and correctly, that it is the expression of a half-intellectual, an amateur poet courting the favor of the masses.” (67)

But such humor fades away later on in the novel, when the petty fascism of Herr Adamowski replaces the decadent self-indulgence of Alexianu and the severe skepticism of Herr Tarangolian. Tildy stands somewhat apart from him because he has a story and his story is reasonably self-contained, but his time has passed too, and in fact passed before the novel even began. His miserable fate signals only that old-fashioned Burkean values will not step in where urban liberalism has failed.

Still, all these characters are chiefly part of a background, overshadowed by a very deliberate attempt to portray the process of maturation in a modernist technique that draws heavily on Musil and Proust. (In an interview with Andre Aciman, he cites those two as well as Broch and Joyce as his primary models.) It is an attempt to project their method onto the postwar years, to prove that critical, sensitive, patient portrayals of psychology and civilization still have something to offer despite the increasing noise of industrial and popular culture. I think Rezzori makes his case rather well, but admittedly I’m already in his corner.

Nonetheless, assessing the novel as fundamentally realistic will make it seem like a failure. It was never meant to be; it is fundamentally an internal novel, but the internals are those of children and so are only obtained through retrospection and the jumbling imposition of clumsy, post-hoc systems of narration on them. And depicting this compellingly is a very significant achievement.

Rezzori’s work has touches of affectionate sentiment, but it is primarily bleak. Rezzori declared his utter pessimism and despair with humanity in interviews. How to square this with the host of Jolly Joker and the seemingly comfortable life he lived out, even the comfort with which he gave such interviews? It is one thing to be a Franzen or a McEwan and fail completely to live up to the pretense one has taken on of diagnosing the problems of our time: any complacency then seems perfectly in keeping with the pose. But Rezzori’s sensitivity to pain seems too much like something that would cause him genuine angst. Perhaps it did and he could only show it in the most refractory way. Perhaps it just didn’t.

And what to make of this passage in his author bio—present in every back cover bio I have seen—full of sinister import but not (as far as I can find) something whose details have been publicized:

During World War II, he lived in Berlin, where he worked as a radio broadcaster and published his first novel.

In Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Rezzori describes his fictionalized self as “the hideous fop who, under the hail of bombs on Berlin in 1943, leads an idler’s life, cynically watching a world in flames, millions of people dying.” No mention of the radio broadcasting though, as though he purposefully left mention of it in his biography in order to raise suspicion. I call out the detail here not because I have any conclusive assessment of it, but because I think this unease is at the very center of his work.

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