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The Criticism of Christine Brooke-Rose

Novelist and critic Christine Brooke-Rose passed away recently. Chicago Blog has a good round-up of the many tributes to her. I had earlier reviewed Xorandor critically, but with great respect for what she had tried to achieve and her voracious, rigorous intellect.

I highly recommend, in particular, her essays in Stories, Theories, and Things, some of the sharpest post-structuralist criticism I have read. I quote some strikingly acute and wry passages from it which easily transcend their particular theoretical orientation. (Though some of the best essays, such as the one on Hardy, are too dense and integral to excerpt.)

“Whatever Happened to Narratology?”

Narratology was thus immensely useful. But in the end, it couldn’t cope with narrative and its complexities, except at the price of either trivialization or of becoming a separate theoretical discourse, rarely relevant to the narrative discussed, when discussed. In other words, it became itself a story, or set of stories, of narratives not only extradiegetic, metalinguistic, transtextual, paratextual, hypotextual, extratextual, intertextual, but also, yes, sometimes, textual, all at the same time. And so, yes, a ‘good’ story. Nevertheless, the study of narratological phenomena, as happens so often, turned into an endless discussion about how to speak of them. The story of narratology became as self-reflexive as a ‘postmodern’ novel. But after all, every age has the rhetoric it deserves.

“Palimpsest History”

Now knowledge has long been unfashionable in fiction. If I may make a personal digression here, this is particularly true of women writers, who are assumed to write only of their personal situations and problems, and I have often been blamed for parading my knowledge, although I have never seen this being regarded as a flaw in male writers; on the contrary. Nevertheless (end of personal digression), even as praise, a show of knowledge is usually regarded as irrelevant: Mr X shows an immense amount of knowledge of a, b, c, and the critic passes to theme, plot, characters and sometimes style, often in that order. What has been valued in this sociological and psychoanalytical century is personal experience and the successful expression of it. In the last resort a novel can be limited to this, can come straight out of heart and head, with at best a craftsmanly ability to organize it well, and write well.

George Eliot – another knowledgeable novelist, though a woman — said it was not necessary for a writer to experience life in a workshop, the open door was enough. This is obviously true: the writer cannot do without imagination. Dostoevsky understood this. And mere homework is not enough either. But a great deal of this homework done by the classical realist was sociological, and eventually led, in the modern neorealist novel we are all familiar with, to slice-of-life novels about miners, doctors, football-players, admen and all the rest. Back to the personal experience of the writer in fact. Now personal experience is sadly limited. And the American postmodern attempt to break out of it rarely succeeds beyond fun-games with narrative conventions – a very restricted type of knowledge.

The novel took its roots in historical documents and has always had an intimate link with history. But the novel’s task, unlike that of history, is to stretch our intellectual, spiritual and imaginative horizons to breaking point. Because palimpsest histories do precisely that, mingling realism with the supernatural and history with spiritual and philosophical reinterpretation, they could be said to float half-way between the sacred books of our various heritages, which survive on the strength of the faiths they have created (and here I include Homer, who also survived on the absolute faith of the Renaissance in the validity of classical culture), and the endless exegesis and commentaries these sacred books create, which do not usually survive one another, each supplanting its predecessor according to the Zeitgeist, in much the same way as do the translations of Homer or the Russian classics.

“Illiterations”

In the Symposium it is Diotima, the only woman allowed into the dialogues but in absentia, who has given Socrates the apparently extraordinary revelation that the purpose of love is procreation in beauty. For what purpose? For immortality (206e, 207a). And she rapidly moves on (in the account of Socrates) to those who have fecundity of soul (men, 209a), who will look for the beautiful object (a boy) and educate him, and at whose contact they will give birth to that with which they have long been pregnant (209c).

Why does Plato put this nonsense into a woman’s mouth, via Socrates? Precisely because she is a woman and knows about ‘real’ childbirth, the literal half of the metaphor, which gives such a solid, physical basis to her figurative sliding, that is, to the meaning Plato wants. The fecund male, though procreating through ‘contact’ with Beauty (boy or Muse) is already long pregnant, quite independently of this contact. He has been touched with divine madness, with genius. The Muse (or boy), contrary to some feminist analysis, is never a mother in this, but a memory-jogger or an ‘ideal’. In practice she is merely a titillating hand-maiden, a stage on the Platonic ladder, at most a gorgeous midwife.

Thus in the earliest texts that echo down and influence the European literary tradition, even to modern times (e.g. Pound), men have simply appropriated childbirth as a painless metaphor, a bearing over, a mater phor artistic creation. A Muse may or may not preside, but genius begets and travails. The woman in this does neither. Indeed when women did start writing, the ancient metaphor was all too easily reversed: her books were produced instead of children, as surrogates, in the absence of the all-essential male.

For men have always had it both ways: the begetting and the travail (the travail which, as ‘work’ belongs to culture, but which as bearing and ‘labour’ belongs to nature); the genius and the work (the genius which is itself both passive possession and authoritative production), the penis and the womb. Man has in fact appropriated, to represent his relation to truth or God, both aspects of woman’s role in relation to man: the being made fecund and the travail. This in addition to begetting. It is his supplement: he, as God, begets a work upon himself; he, as poet, is made fecund and labours. But on a safe, metaphoric level: he would never actually die in childbirth.

It would seem, then, that the androgyny that some men have claimed for all good writers at the creative end has willy nilly been acquired by women at the receiving end, but not by men, who rarely identify with women characters as women do with male ones. Whatever the case, it would surely be a good thing if more men learnt to read as women (even the wild zone [cf. Elaine Showalter]), so that the bisexual effort, which they have metaphorically appropriated at the creative end, should not remain so wholly on the women’s side at the receiver’s end. Both should read as both, just as both should write as both. And one of the ways in which this delightful bisexualism should occur is in a more open and intelligent attitude to experiment of all kinds by women.

“A Womb of One’s Own”

Clearly the silencing of women critics and writers, and especially of women experimental writers, is true, is constant, and is done by ignoring them or, more often than might be supposed, by stealing from them without acknowledgement. I have experienced both myself and simply put up with it. Nevertheless I have always been deeply suspicious of all movements and labels which create blind obsessions. A writer, man or woman, is essentially alone, and will be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ independently of sex or origin. This view is condemned by some feminists as the ‘androgynous-great-mind stance’, but it is fundamentally a sound one, however ill used.

But things are changing, however slowly, and only indirectly through feminism, much more directly through specific women writers.

The twentieth century in general, from the Surrealists and much misunderstanding of Freud onwards, has tended to enthrone the Unconscious as the latest substitute for dogmatic truth, rather than as a language to understand, a language to come to terms with and to explore, exploit, imaginatively. The Unconscious (or the pre-Symbolic) by definition is inaccessible, like the ontic, except through conscious effort and analysis, which automatically means structuring and schematizing and rehandling, to which all perception is subservient: we already rehandle a dream the moment we try to capture it and write it down. The Unconscious as Truth, the ‘music of the womb’ as ‘more real’. Feminism is belatedly repeating the same gesture, and I am not at all sure how ‘subversive’ it really is, on its wombish own.

Flux and chaos and primitive perceptions, for all their undoubted vitality and necessity as a means of achieving tolerance, integration, wholeness, are nevertheless at the moment more in danger of threatening all that we hold dear in civilization today. Moreover, control and logic (etc.), as well as ‘symbolic’ rather than purely ‘semiotic’ expression can hardly be said to be absent from the best and most incisive feminist criticism – it couldn’t make its points without them. Cixous and Kristeva, who seem to be the highest feminist reference, are the two most highly qualified, intellectual, and intelligent literary women in France. Feminist critics usually hold jobs in academia, with all its internecine power-struggles, and presumably they partake in those, using ‘male’ structures. Naturally there is still unfairness and difficulty, but to compete they presumably do not turn to the music of the womb, but to tough preparation for tough examinations, dissertations, conference papers, publications. It seems to me unacceptable to live in these relative sinecures and continue to talk about the desirability of flux, chaos and pre-Oedipal sensibility.

“Hawthorne’s ‘The Customs-House'”

F. O. Matthiessen, writing on Symbolism and Allegory in Hawthorne, tells us that Hawthorne ‘seems sometimes to have started from a physical object – the minister’s black veil, the Faun of Praxiteles’, but that he could also start with noting an idea, ‘and then working up an embodiment to fit it’ (1941, 244). The idea, he says later, ‘might itself be hardly more than a nervous tic, some freakish notion that possessed him in his solitude’. And he quotes an example of this from the Notebooks: ‘To personify If— But — And — Though etc’ Matthiessen adds: ‘To be sure, this proved too insubstantial even for Hawthorne, and got no further than his notebook’ (242).

I submit that in The Scarlet Letter it got a good deal further, and is far more than a freakish notion or a nervous tic, but the very stuff of poetry. I submit that as an idea it in fact rejoined the physical object, the piece of cloth, to form the antithetical style to ‘personify If- But – And – Though’, a style itself representing the signifier A and all its protean forms along the signifying chain, the human shape, openings both physiological and abstract, the threshold of the narrative, the prison-door, the alpha and omega of the human soul, the house of custom.

“Ill Locutions”

What is sadder has been the misunderstanding of Represented Speech and Thought by writers. Invented spontaneously, almost unconsciously, unreflectively, then developed very reflectively indeed, Represented Speech and Thought, like most artistic devices, eventually became unconscious again, that is, it was not only used as a cliche (already parodied by Joyce), its subtlety wasted on trivia, but it was also misused because misunderstood.

Formally, as we have seen, the sentence of Represented Speech and Thought can be similar to the Narrative Sentence, indeed identical with it when deictics and other signs of E are not linguistically present, but only the perceiving character. This formal similarity led, inevitably, to these two distinct poles being fused, and the sentence of Represented Speech and Thought being used as narration, to tell, to give narrative information – whole summaries of a situation, for instance, or analepses (flashbacks) of a whole past, which are clearly there to inform the reader and not to represent a character’s perceptions, save at the cost of making them rather gross, or at best wholly artificial. This can go on for pages. Such misuse is extremely frequent in the average modern neo-realist novel, including most classical Science Fiction that imitated the worn-out techniques of the realist novel in an attempt to be respectable. This misuse is a direct result, not only of the post-Jamesian (and Aristotelian) condemnation of’telling’ in favour of’showing’, but also of the concomitant attempt to eliminate the author: and since narrative information must be given, the easy solution was to ‘filter’ it all through a character’s mind, however implausibly, thus thoroughly weakening the device into its opposite.

In particular, the passages from “Palimpsest History” articulate something I have felt nascently but had not been able to crystallize fully before reading Brooke-Rose. That ability to give voice to our inchoate ideas is rare and invaluable.

Xorandor by Christine Brooke-Rose

Xorandor (1986) is a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-). Jip and Zab are preteen twins who speak a weird, unfamiliar slang and meet up with a talking rock that turns out to be a foreign lifeform from Mars, which they dub Xorandor. They communicate with it using a programming language somewhat akin to BASIC, and they discover it can consume radiation particles. This then spins into a tale of spies, nuclear disarmament, and a disorganized offspring of Xorandor who gets scrambled, decides it is Lady Macbeth, and demands that it and its brethren be given endless radiation or it will create a critical mass and destroy a good part of England. Jip and Zab work with Xorandor to stop its mad offspring, speaking to it in that same programming language, and they also discover more about Xorandor’s real provenance and nature.

My criticisms of the book ultimately fall away in the face of its mere existence. Boy is it a strange one. Thomas M. Disch reviewed it when it first came out, comparing it to A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, clearly on the grounds of its distended language. But Brooke-Rose’s use of code snippets (in a BASIC-like language of her own design) as well as a certain lack of fluency with the concepts of computer science makes it both less and more than those other two books.

It is more in that neither Burgess nor Hoban attempted to graft a formal symbolic language onto English, preferring instead to deform English into a new, imagined human language. It is less in that the graft does not take: Brooke-Rose cannot create the hybrid she attempts, because she treats the symbolic language as human language when it is is not. To explain the nature of this failure is to understand the multilayered nature of metaphor and analogy in natural language.

Before critiquing, though, let me praise Brooke-Rose’s achievement. She engaged with the syntax and semantics of what I gather to be a genuinely foreign domain, and she managed to utilize them logically and cogently in a novel, at a level that I’ve only seen in Vernor Vinge (who, besides having background in the relevant domains, is a far more conventional and unimaginative writer). She did this well into her career, and she did this in the mid-80s, well before any such concepts had penetrated into the mainstream. Compared to the contemporaneous Tron, Xorandor is an algorithms textbook.

I caught a few slip-ups where she uses terminology in an invalid way or attempts to draw an analogy based on a misunderstanding of a particular formal concept, but really only a handful, which is really rather stunning for someone coming to the material for the first time. So my aesthetic criticism is balanced by my immense admiration for Brooke-Rose’s adventurousness, curiosity, and diligence.

The only hint of previous background I’ve found is in Frank Kermode’s piece on Brooke-Rose, where he says she served at Bletchley Park in World War II, alongside the likes of Alan Turing. Yet there is little here that has to do with the theoretical aspects of computer science. Brooke-Rose is interested in computer languages as language, not as a practical tool. Yet the problem lies in the inseparability of these two aspects.

Consider this representative piece of code from the book:

ABSTRACT 2 RUN
    JIP AND ZAB
        REM JIP AND ZAB NOW = ZIP ENDREM
      DEC 1 'ZIP USE SAME LANGUAGE RESTRICTED TO
      STRUCTURES MORE ELEM THAN ON SOUND WAVES AND/OR INEFFICIENT SEQUENCE CONTROL' ENDEC 1
      DEC 2 'POOR LEXIC BUT SOME UNFAMILIAR' ENDEC 2
ENDRUN

The vast majority of the code, in fact, ends up being DEC and REM statements, which allow Brooke-Rose to use English primarily in the code. These statements are made to seem more computer-like by mutilating English syntax, but they are no closer to actual computer language than English. She has taken the syntax of computer language and some of its semantics, but overlaid it with slightly altered natural language semantics. Within a REM or a DEC statement, anything goes.

Brooke-Rose makes steps toward accommodating formal language semantics within the DEC and REM statements, such as pointing out the problems of indefinite antecedents, but they are small and tentative, and these issues, which would be at the heart of an effort to deal with the difference between logical and natural language, fall by the wayside in favor of moves that belong purely in the realm of natural language.

The problem is that Brooke-Rose has not lived the language she is appropriating. This is as great a problem with a programming language as it is with a human language, although the nature of the problem is different. By utilizing programming language to serve the purposes of a human language, she neglects the very nature of the language, and so the result is akin to what would happen if one were to write poetry in an unknown foreign language with only a translating dictionary as a guide. It is the confusion of the (partial) definition of a word with the knowledge of its many uses and place in the language. Programming language is simpler than natural language, but by ignoring the greater part of the purposes the language can serve, Brooke-Rose’s code is enfeebled.

The problem manifests itself in Jip and Zab’s slang as well. Here is a brief bit of dialog:

Zab, do we have to reconstruct every conv?

That’s what storytellers do Jip, or else they invent them. But we can’t, this is real.

Floating-point real or fixed-point real?

Endjoke.

This rings false because this is not a joke programmers would make. (There are many others like it in the book.) The mere dual definition of “real” as both meaning “actual” as well as “a number belonging to a continuum” does not make it suitable grounds for a pun. Even puns, which exist on the surface level of language, require some conceptual apparatus to link their two meanings. By making the linkages purely on the lexical level, Brooke-Rose betrays a lack of conceptual knowledge of the language she is adopting.

To recast this exchange with German instead of computer language:

I have committed a mortal sin.

Are you sure it wasn’t merely a mortal bedeutung?

Endjoke.

Punning on Frege’s Sinn/Bedeutung distinction in this context serves no purpose. We can have some fun this way (I originally tried to do it with kind, kinder, and art), but it does not lend any greater meaning to the matter at hand or illuminate the connections between English and German. If anything, it trivializes them.

I have criticized science and engineering people for adopting too literal and too concrete metaphorical models of emotion and humanity. Rod Humble’s The Marriage was a model example, in my opinion. But this is a critique in the other direction, of the fact that Brooke-Rose has adopted the syntax and semantics of a domain without understanding their practical usage. That practical layer, which I hesitate to call sub-linguistic because it is still linguistic, is one that writers too often ignore. Beneath the shuffling of imagery and semantic ambiguity often lies a linguo-conceptual level as arid and stale as a formulaic plot.

The grammatical, rhetorical, lexical material of computer science have been employed without much of their actual content. Very little of the code apparatus serves much purpose except to give shape to the narrative that would otherwise be done with the usual natural language devices. Because Brooke-Rose chose a computer language rather than a natural language, the gap between the two languages is huge and starkly reveals what more subtle shifts do not. It is not always so clear what gets left out when interweaving two languages.

An analogical strategy of linguistic substitution is one of the core skills of any writer. Xorandor very clearly shows what such strategies easily miss or take for granted: the underlying, mutable conceptual matter, made to seem irrelevant by the manipulation of surface-level syntax and semantics, but in fact distinctively present. This matter is not plot, though it can take the form of plot; it is the subcutaneous ideological and structural stuff of writing and life that language captures inexactly, imprecisely and in multifold ways, but which is nonetheless there. It is present in the technical uses of computer language that Brooke-Rose did not make use of. This matter lies not in syntax or semantics, but in pragmatics and superstructure. And that is what is precisely missing, almost totally, in Brooke-Rose’s use of computer code. The deficiency of the book is astonishingly illuminating.

In this sense, Brooke-Rose is firmly ensconced in her time, in the post-structuralist milieu in which language slippages occur purely at the surface level of syntax and atomic signification. This anti-conceptualist dogma of deconstruction has been tremendously detrimental to the creative spirits of many writers, who too often forsake all thoughts of a deeper conceptual structure underpinning languages in favor of an emaciated, localized play on the simplest of word associations, as prescribed by the primitive associative models of Derrida and Lacan and the rigid structuralist networks of Barthes. Puns often come to dictate analogies rather than analogies dictating metaphors.

Brett Bourbon mischaracterized this deeper conceptual realm as the realm of nonsense, talking about deformations of language. But these deformations of language, exemplified by those of Finnegans Wake, are not excursions into nonsense, but attempts to pull and reshape our conceptual language in unfamiliar directions.

Most literature, of course, settles for much less than this. It is not necessarily a writer’s responsibility to operate on this linguo-conceptual (linguo-pragmatic?) level, but I believe the mark of truly substantial literature (as opposed to merely great writing) is indeed a work’s ability to wreak havoc to existing linguo-conceptual structures.

The challenge in addressing these structures and grasping them even partly is immense, and falling back on simplifications is tempting and sometimes sufficient to create a decent work of art. But only decent. The human tendency to reduce and simplify into models is unavoidable, but complacency with them, an unwilingness to accept their provisionality, is an unforgivable offense against our rational and creative powers. Every writer of “experimental” prose should reflect on this book and wonder if their amalgamation of novel lexical and semantic overlaps is only serving to reiterate unoriginal macrostructures.

Yet Brooke-Rose is smart enough to recognize this, and her essay collection Stories, Theories and Things (1991) shows her to be a keen and precise critic who draws on structuralist, deconstructionist, and speech act theory without becoming obfuscatory and usually not too straitjacketed. The essays on gender and writing, in particular, are some of the best I’ve read on the subject in ages.

And here she speaks, I think, exactly to the problem I describe above, the narrowness of the conceptual apparatus so often at work in writing:

Now knowledge has long been unfashionable in fiction. If I may make a personal digression here, this is particularly true of women writers, who are assumed to write only of their personal situations and problems, and I have often been blamed for parading my knowledge, although I have never seen this being regarded as a flaw in male writers; on the contrary. Nevertheless (end of personal digression), even as praise, a show of knowledge is usually regarded as irrelevant: Mr X shows an immense amount of knowledge of a, b, c, and the critic passes to theme, plot, characters and sometimes style, often in that order. What has been valued in this sociological and psychoanalytical century is personal experience and the successful expression of it. In the last resort a novel can be limited to this, can come straight out of heart and head, with at best a craftsmanly ability to organize it well, and write well.

What she also implies, which is something worth spelling out, is that the most egregious exponents of this anti-conceptual anti-knowledge tendency have not been novelists, but literary theorists, who too often not only sought little knowledge beyond their narrowly-focused reading, but then built even more constraining systems around those impoverished areas!

I will not analyze her criticism in detail here; I am only interested in how it serves to illuminate further the noble failure of Xorandor, as well as the less noble failures of countless other books. If Xorandor does not free itself from its theoretical shackles, its immersion into foreign territory remains a notable effort to escape the orbit around the endless deferral of signification.

That is to say: when we are captivated by the shiny surface of language, when pyrotechnics and puns and prestidigitation of words comes to substitute for attention to the far deeper realms of the conceptual and practical use of even the most ordinary language, then we have come to treat language as a solipsistic activity that turns us inward and away from the world. And so such linguistic activity becomes a way of avoiding life.

If we are content to refine and nourish only the epidermis of language, we let the innards rot.

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