Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: james joyce (page 1 of 7)

American Imperfectionism: Siobhan Phillips’ Poetics of the Everyday

Siobhan Phillips’ Poetics of the Everyday is one of the best works of poetry criticism I’ve read in some time. Phillips spins a philosophical construction around the work of four 20th century American poets–Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill–and draws out some significant unifying threads in their treatment of time. Though her method is one of close reading supplemented by biographical detail, there is a much heavier conceptual infrastructure than one finds in most contemporary poetry criticism, which tends to focus on linguistic assemblage above all else. This is much to the book’s credit. It’s a book I can engage with on the level of life.

The concern here is time, and specifically differing human conceptions of time. As concerns go, it is about as fundamental and structural as one can get: Erich Auerbach, Georges Poulet, and Paul Ricoeur all have written on how conceptions of time can act as generative and differentiating forces in literature and human life, and how they affect time’s subjective twin, memory.

Poets who can grasp, wrangle, and mangle our sense of time out of any familiar state–such as Euripides, Lucretius, Persius, Lucan, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Coleridge, David Jones, Laura Riding, Ingeborg Bachmann–are exceedingly rare. More common are those who implicitly adopt the position of Wyndham Lewis, who saw time as a drag on creativity and creation and sought an absolutist spatial view of the cosmos, which usually results in sterilized art. Opposed to this was James Joyce, who saw space and time in as interrelated a way as Einstein, and about whom more later, for he is pivotal.

The book is densely argued and I will not attempt to discuss all the nuances here. Rather, I want to try to draw some of her threads together with some that come from my rather more gloomy post-European viewpoint.

Phillips focuses on a particular and idiosyncratic view of time that she draws out of the four poets, one of “creative repetition,” embracing variation in repeated habitual patterns in life, in place of existentialist finality or chasing the rainbows of epiphany. She is excellent on Frost and how this vision of time makes it such that the tragedy in his life can seem muted in his poetry, even in the circumspection of “Home Burial.” She discusses “A Servant to Servants”:

Here, though, Frost also suggests the deathly power of blame; the servant’s bitter afterthought to “through,” in which she vaguely foresees that “they’ll be convinced” when she is gone, reinforces a connection between assignment of guilt and acceptance of mortality. Fault-finding traps one in the submissive regimen of “A Servant to Servants,” lamenting what one will not change and “doing / Things over and over that just won’t stay done.” These “rounds” show what could easily become of the “over and over” in “In the Home Stretch”: without the deliberate decision to rend each day’s bread or recite each evening’s not-new song, without the self-aware agreement to refuse ends and intentions, everyday repetitions can seem no more than the senseless anticipation of complete insentience.

Though not mentioned explicitly, Phillips does seem to be addressing the ancient Greek contrast between chronos and kairos. Chronos is time in the regular order of things, measured and constant, while kairos is time more in the sense of a time, a particular special moment that in some way defies the march of time. Kairos is the root of revelation, epiphany, peak experiences, crisitunity, and Badiou’s event.

Phillips uses Kierkegaard’s affirmation of repetition as a way for a person to “become what he is,” and links this to C.S. Peirce‘s “tendency to take habit” and similar pragmatist strains in William James and Dewey. The pragmatist links stress how particularly American such analysis of habit is. Although Hume among others spoke of habituated behavior and thought, it was Peirce and those he influenced who elevated habit to the level of a benevolent organizing force. (Hume is too much a curmudgeon to endorse it so wholeheartedly.) Closely related to this is the resistance to any finalized abstraction, abstraction being mitigated by the variation in the everyday particulars. (Dena Shottenkirk aptly links this to nominalism.)

To the extent that Phillips is tracing an American poetic evolution that originates from Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson, she explores a territory that is closest to the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who has focused on American transcendentalism and what he terms “Emersonian moral perfectionism,” a sort of endless striving toward the “unattained but attainable self,” in Emerson’s words.

Phillips’ central conceit of creative repetition may be a quasi-rebuttal to Cavell, an Emersonian imperfectionism. Yet her project, if I read her right, is fundamentally affirmative, to seek in a series of repetitions with variations a kind of unending creativity that allows for a sanctification of daily life. A method in which the routine becomes a sustaining creative ritual without a fixed telos.

I admit I do not feel much of a connection to Frost or Merrill’s poetry. While Stevens and Bishop are not among my favorite 20th century American poets (I prefer Laura Riding, Weldon Kees, Lorine Niedecker, and William Bronk), I do find much more in their work that is close to me. Phillips’ brief treatments of Robert Hass, John Ashbery, and Frank Bidart in the conclusion are so incisive I wish she had written more about them. The subject at hand is large enough to be inexhaustible in its poetic and cultural linkages.

I think Phillips succeeds best in evoking everyday kairos with Stevens, though this may be due to my own poetic preferences. But both Stevens’ life and his poetry seem especially suited to the task of bringing inspiration out of routine.

In his daily poetry, Stevens confronts and ultimately refuses the choice between two terms: he describes how the diurnal interdependence of human and natural time can manifest a recurrent interplay of creativity and empiricism. Everyday repetition can be a “Song of Fixed Accord,” to use the title of a lovely and neglected late poem that could well evince the lessons of a lifetime’s routines. In this work, a dove on a roof at dawn finds the “ordinariness” of “the sun of five, the sun of six” to be “a fixed heaven” (Collected, 441), and this paradisiacal consistency allows her expectant “hail-bow” to the coming light, a reverent lyric “pip[ing]” that equates acknowledgment of external event with affirmation of internal conception. Her music could assuage the misery of another Stevensian bird, therefore, “The Dove in Spring” whose “bubbling before the sun” keeps “seeking out his identity // In that which is and is established” (Collected, 461). If Stevens perceives the discontent in this seeking, his dawn “Song” shows that he also perceives a solution. The accord of Stevens’s dailiness lets an “established” world return one’s own self-definition.

Phillips finds biographical evidence for just this sort of outlook–a sort of constantly reconditioned optimism–in Stevens’ correspondence:

When he writes in a 1940 letter, for example, that socialist aims are possible “within the present framework,” this opinion may not just show the conservatism of a middle-class executive but also bespeak a precise trust in what Stevens takes the framework to be (Letters, 351). His faith can nonetheless appear hollow, certainly, and the choice to “play” reality as one’s own dream can seem like a willed self-delusion—the pretense that Stevens recommends in a late letter when he admits that while things “never go well . . . you have to pretend that they do” (Letters, 866). Yet he adds in this letter that “good fortune can be worth it,” a statement suggesting the rewards as well as the rigor of the process. If one can see the solar “fortuner” of Crispin’s quotidian as one’s own imagined “good fortune,” one can achieve a happiness more resilient than any promised by politics. One can find a “peace, a security, a sense of good fortune and of things that change only slowly,” as Stevens writes in another correspondence, “so much more certain than a whole era of Communism could ever give” (Letters, 609– 10). Stevens ultimately has “no sympathy with communism, instead of expectation,” as he writes in a letter, because communism forbids the best sort of expectation (Letters, 350). In place of the unreliable teleology of political systems, as well as the illusory teleology of religious creeds, he offers his generation the certain futurity that is available in common life.

Phillips bring out the fundamentally stoic and Epicurean mentality that sustains Stevens’ conception. The contrast with British and Irish writers of the period is quite drastic: where Yeats and Woolf tend to speak of a conflict with time that ends in slow defeat (in Yeats) or a futile but noble struggle (in Woolf’s The Waves), the confluence of kairos and chronos in the American poets refracts this dilemma into a near-denial of the finality and fixity of death. In Frost and especially Stevens, Phillips forcefully foregrounds this sensibility–and its attendant problems. Her discussion of “The Auroras” is one of the strongest passages in the book, discussing the wear and tear on one’s identity wrought by the tension between legacy and reinvention. I have to quote it at length:

One may consider the gravity of a human condition, that is, to be neither the “clipped” relation of the “Comedian” nor the tragic doom of the “Anglais”; rather, one’s life may be simply a part of the world’s ordinary pattern. Stevens shows the mental effort of such commonplace “reflection” in “The Auroras of Autumn,” canto 9, when the speaker follows the barrenness of bare trees and evening wind with the belief that what ever is imminent, however disastrous, “may come tomorrow in the simplest word, / Almost as part of innocence, almost / Almost as the tenderest and the truest part” (Collected, 362). Here, the round of mornings and evenings includes the morning and evening of an entire life. Here, the round of mornings and evenings includes the morning and evening of an entire life. This crucial “tomorrow” enlarges Stevens’s everyday mode beyond the limits of individual existence to deny that individual death is a meaningful termination.

This “tomorrow,” though, must enlarge Stevens’s everyday habits as well— and to potentially fearful proportions. In order to submerge personal life in the larger rounds of an impersonal earth, one’s desire for tomorrow and willing of what is to come must accord with what “An Ordinary Evening” calls the “will of necessity, the will of wills”: one must expect and accept one’s own elimination (Collected, 410). Freud provides a version of this very yearning in the death wish, and Stevens describes something similar at several points— the “monotonous babbling in our dreams” that Crispin fears, for instance, or the id-like “subman” of “Owl’s Clover,” or even the “cozening and coaxing sound” of sleep in “An Ordinary Evening” (Collected, 32, 167, 411). But Stevens is not content with, compulsive wish fulfillment, as he suggests with his reference to “terrible incantations of defeats” in “Men Made Out of Words” (Collected, 310). Rather, he would make defeat into victory, unwitting incantation into active anticipation; he would consciously yearn for the end of consciousness. He would join the unending repetitions of the nonhuman less in capitulation than in conquest.

He would acknowledge, moreover, the high cost of that conquest: an evacuation of memory. With this, the “tomorrow” of “The Auroras” includes a difficulty that is less pressing in the springs and mornings of “Notes”; the speaker of the latter poem must eradicate the sense of having been that manifests a division from the world’s “new-come bee” (Collected, 338). “Farewell” to that sense, the work begins; farewell to the past; farewell to all reminders of “something else, last year / Or before” (Collected, 356). The repeated goodbyes of “The Auroras” render yesterday no more than “an idea.” They elegize elegy, one might say, using the genre’s characteristic repetitions to erase rather than to preserve. Stevens had long suggested that “practice” for death, in “a world without heaven to follow,” must be the “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu” that an earlier poem describes, and he repeats in “Notes” the importance of constantly “throw[ing] off ” what one has (Collected, 104, 330). “I think only too often,” Stevens writes in a letter of the same period, “that what we constantly need is a fresh start— a fresh start every day, like a clean shirt” (Letters, 454). By the time of “The Auroras,” however, Stevens’s adieus are both more difficult and more consequent, and Stevens now writes in a letter that he would like to “throw away everything I have, each autumn” (Letters, 659). The speaker of the poem would go at least as far, casting off not just a possession or event but an entire personhood: the very idea, self-constitutive and self- confirming, of an individual history. However much one hopes otherwise, this identity cannot be preserved; neither a mother’s adulation nor a father’s authority will survive the changes of fate. One must abandon these narcissistic props, forgo this singular yesterday, and give up the assumption that life is a scripted story designed by parental solicitude. The only true theater is the indifferent, impersonal flux of the northern lights themselves, and this earthly transience will destroy the “scholar of one candle”: the distinct self, holding his own light, who sees the fires of necessity “flaring on the frame / Of everything he is” (Collected, 359).

“And he feels afraid,” Stevens adds; “The Auroras” presents the greatest risk in his poetry. Yet it presents the greatest reward as well. When he bids farewell to the idea of a “single man” and his single life story, Stevens finds a new identity and a new past. If one no longer seeks to retain a specific history, the poem shows, a changeful fate no longer seems like vituperative opposition but appears, rather, to be the object of one’s quest. Free of human parentage, free of a particular childhood, the poet can take necessity itself as both birthright and heritage, thereby discovering the security that he had thought sacrificed. He might inhabit the “transparen[t] . . . peace” of a childhood union and meet the reassuring beneficence of a “mother’s face” (Collected, 356). These are the very “purpose of the poem,” “The Auroras” suggests, and their “vivid transparence” and “peace” provide a purpose for “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” too, since the earlier poem anticipates the same in the crystalline harmony of its conclusion (Collected, 329). In canto 8 of “The Auroras,” one may finally “partake thereof,” lying down as if “awake, we lay in the quiet of sleep,” listening as an “innocent mother” sings a lullaby that “create[s] the time and place in which we breathed” (Collected, 361). The scene offers a childhood paradise remade; Eden is no longer a faraway garden from which one has been exiled but the innocence of one’s present setting— as well as of any possible “imminence.”

What’s striking is how quintessentially American Stevens’ attitude is. In a line from Emerson, there is the assurance, more or less, that things will go on as they have been, unaffected by outside circumstances, and open to some extent to autonomous change. This all too aptly befits the geographically insulated United States. I think it also explains the bizarre displacement and anonymity of Stevens’ war poetry, which  James Longenbach says shows “Stevens the reductionist.” When writing of “a generation that does  not  know  itself,” Stevens was writing of himself vis a vis the world outside daily routine. In light of Phillips’ discussion, I realize I find much of Stevens’ war poetry unsuccessful because the subject matter does not fit Stevens’ worldview.

I think this brings up a fundamental paradox and one that really is a specifically American paradox. It may be a cliche to say that the United States’ youth, geographical isolation, and absence of history make erasure easier and more common, but it is one that seems compellingly true. This erasure can even be an aspect of one’s destiny. It is a “letting go” that I really do not see in much European literature; only the spiritual rebirth one sees in Dostoevsky seems to come close. But here, as Phillips points out, it is not dramatic, but quotidian. Stevens’ proto-Ashbery “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” embodies this Emersonian imperfectionism as well as any poem I can think of, incessantly throwing out modest ideas and images that do not seek to overwhelm their predecessors, nor enact a final transcendence (it’s “toward,” not “of”).

In the best cases, Phillips writes, the erasure does not take place, but the past is accepted with a certain contingency, a conditioning with a possibility for change. This is a delicate balance. The challenge of retaining one’s memory (i.e., legacy) while modestly creating one’s self anew out of the same materials is not an easy one. I do not think Bishop reaches it more than rarely, but Phillips has convinced me that Stevens often did:

Penelope’s modest “talk . . . to herself,” repeating the name of what is to come, presents yet another instance of the proper nominations possible through iterative practice. Her speech is one more revision of Crispin’s realistic “syllables,” perhaps, and one more idiom or song or hum of the earth’s innocence. Like the best blazons in Stevens’s work, which anticipate a supremacy as repetitive as the process towards it, Penelope’s nominations expect something as “patient” as she. The poem, then, finds a denouement that refuses conclusion without trailing off into inconclusiveness; the steady acceptance of real time is the steady deepening of imaginative triumph. That triumph inheres, moreover, in routines one already performs, routines as “mere” as combing one’s hair. Any everyday process can be the heroic mastery of repetition that Stevens describes in “Notes” or the sovereign rule of reality that he describes in “An Ordinary Evening.”  More simply and accurately, any everyday process can be that “confidence in the world” that Stevens notes in a late lecture, citing Paulhan once again: to “stop to consider what a happy phrase that is,” Stevens writes, is to “wonder whether we shall have the courage to repeat it, until we understand that there is no alternative” (Collected, 864–65). Penelope’s daily meditation, courageously repeating what is necessary, demonstrates this ordinary understanding.

Yet I think a certain sort of American myopia persists in two ways even in these best of cases. First, politically: geopolitical isolation and American individualism, as above. Second, generationally. Whether the poets have children (Frost and Stevens) or not (Bishop and Merrill), a cross-generational focus is blatantly absent in their work. Here time appears symmetrical: the absence of a past makes it far more difficult to conceive of a future. Instead, one’s extensions into the world end up pointing back at one’s self. In the absence of a dominant collective history, one’s individual history becomes a greater weight.

And Phillips makes one of the most compelling points I’ve seen about Merrill, suggesting that his attraction to the occult methods of organization like Tarot was precisely this sort of repetitive everyday restructuring:

In the words of “To the Reader,” each tomorrow might be proven more “right” by being more “exemplary”—more like an exemplum. The “true-est” individual life may be the one closest to a universal form.  Merrill’s respect for such individual conventionalism explains his attention to manners, which he calls an “artifice in the very bloodstream” (Collected Prose, 58), and helps to explain why he can further self-knowledge through a card game: “Last Mornings in California,” for example, links the speaker’s experience to a tarot deck, while other works compare living to a game of patience (Collected Poems, 447–48, 192–94; Sandover, 67–68). Perhaps most important, Merrill’s respect for formal autobiography helps to explain why he wants to tell his story through “conventional stock figures,” as he writes at the start of The Book of Ephraim (Sandover, 4). When McClatchy rightly notes that the child of Water Street often has “a typological rather than an autobiographical emphasis,” one might add that Merrill would often elide the difference (“On Water Street,” 88). Even a draft of “The Broken Home” is labeled “Notes for a Myth” (WU IV.1.a). This myth is a metrical legend, poetic and temporal; as “Verse for Urania” notes, “the first myth was Measure” (Collected Poems, 385– 91). “Rhyme and meter” not only manifest the patterns of “fable[s],” they also inscribe the “conjunctions and epicycles” behind those prototypes, the natural cycles that make “the world go round” as they make human stories repeat. Thus the order of everyday recurrence governs almost every biographical pattern already mentioned.

Standing as a complement to the poets Phillips treats are some of the poets under the “objectivism” rubric: Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker. I say a complement rather than a contrast because these three were all after a sort of kairos as well, and also sought it by first rejecting epiphany. These three shared a tendency to elevate non-epiphanic experience and treat it in as impressionistic a fashion as the most epiphanic moments of Wordsworth. They sometimes negate the temporal aspect that becomes such a problem when dealt with either as finitude or momentariness–at the risk, I think, of the same sterility I mentioned in association with Wyndham Lewis. The objectivists’ subjects tend to be there to revisit, albeit always in different ways. By withdrawing the explicit, never-to-be-reclaimed emotional content traditional to poetry, they provide far more eternal-seeming moments. But the recurrence is wholly implicit and never stated.

Because this sort of imperfectionism is an ongoing process that does not know final success, it brings with it the simple problem of maintenance, the danger of always falling out of the work of renewing the everyday and falling into despair or torpor.

In genuine contrast, and as a model I would wish to put up against those of these four poets, is James Joyce, who put world and family first rather than the individual. As a secular, expatriated Irish ex-Catholic, Joyce came out of a worldview that had an enormous weight of history and culture behind it, in stark contrast to the tabula rasa on which Emerson and Whitman had wrote. (The New World, of course, was not a tabula rasa, but European immigrants certainly treated it as such: it was not their history that was to be found there.) Joyce’s later work rejects epiphany (as A. Walton Litz observes) as an adolescent stage in development, seeking instead a universalization of particulars in all their incompatible variation.

Variation among repetition is central to the entire scheme of Finnegans Wake, but it overlays all variations across peoples and nations over one another simultaneously. To amass such a work, Joyce indeed still required underlying structural principles beyond that which the American poets were ever comfortable embracing. Perhaps history and legacy–the certainty of a past and a future to which one is inextricably and often painfully tied–are necessary in order to legitimate any such large-scale structure. Yet Joyce’s near-eidetic obessiveness that all life be recorded makes impossible the sort of creative affirmation which Phillips finds in Frost, Stevens, Merrill, and sometimes Bishop. Joyce is too deterministic for that.

What I like about The Poetics of the Everyday, which deserves more than the generic blurbs on its back cover, is that it lays bare the conceptual foundations that underpin so much modern American poetry and helps explain why Frost, Stevens, and Bishop were successfully innovative while much recent poetry is not. These conceptual arrangements, which usually go unquestioned, have remained so uniform so as to create a hermetic discourse that has not seriously progressed since the middle of the 20th century. (For the most part, the same goes for prose. As I have said before, such conceptual impoverishment is responsible for the tedium of so much current literature.) Only by taking a more aggressively interrogative tack, as Phillips does here in the spirit of Coleridge, Empson, and Zukofsky, does there seem to be the possibility of a forward progression.

R.P. Blackmur on James Joyce

They say the best criticism articulates what you sensed but couldn’t conceptualize, and I think Blackmur hits a very major nail on the head here, identifying the ever-growing problem of literature for the last 200 years or so and showing Joyce as one of the few to have come up with a truly satisfactory (but immensely difficult) answer:

Precisely because Joyce could not assent to the official version of his Dublin-classical-Christianity, he was all the more condemned to the damnation of imposed orders. Imposed order–forced order–always mutilates what is ordered and tends to aridify it. Not the observation of Stephen or of Bloom (or Molly) is imposed order, but the conceptions of those characters under the observation and the aesthetic frames in which the book chooses to see them: e.g., the parodies of English prose style in the hospital scene, the theory of hallucination in the bawdy house, or the dialectic in the homecoming scene.

Perhaps all art is imposed order, but it ought to be the order called for by the substance in terms of the governing concepts of those imaginations which are not aesthetic. These Joyce’s experience of his society did not provide; his only providence was the gratuitous one of the whole undistributed flux of sensation and possibility; and into this, every order he chose to use poured willy-nilly. Neither parody of old orders nor that substitute for order, research-naturalism, could restrain the flow of the parade into the mob.

Perhaps that is why he distrusted–or at any rate never for long used–either of the “great” modes of traditional prose literature, the full narrative or the full drama. Joyce had none of that conviction which is the inward sense of outward mastery; and those who feel the lack of that sort of conviction tend to truncate their merely outward skills: truncate, mutilate, and mock. In such a predicament it is almost the normal solution to choose, instead of full statement in narrative or drama, some dessicated dialectic and try to make it pass for fresh because it was chosen. Such trials are self-laceration, as the monastic impulse, denied access to its own insight in the body’s life, becomes ascetic fury.

So it happens in some artists; as in ordinary people similarly deprived you get hair-splitting in extremis despite the major issue of love or security, where the categories of relation are argued as if they were reality itself.

R.P. Blackmur, “The Jew in Search of a Son” (1947)

What Blackmur seems to see as pathology rather appears to be the norm. The sort of trust that Joyce could not possess–trust in a given order–comes off today as antiquated at best, disingenuous and reactionary at worst. The parallel of structural with cultural order is well-drawn. If you aren’t one of the lucky few to have been gifted with a strange, compelling inner order (I’m thinking of Kafka here), what’s one to do?

Rod Humble and the Marriage: Not Labels, Not Pointers, but Live Fragments

A few years ago, Rod Humble wrote a short, abstract game called The Marriage. The action consists of trying to get two squares not to shrink or fade out while circles drift around them. You control the blue circle. The pink circle is not under your direct control.

But the game interests me less than the rhetoric of Humble’s explanation for the game. I really am not picking on Humble here, who seems like a reasonable person. It’s just worth observing how utterly foreign his analogical mindset is from that of the best writers.

He wrote the game in an attempt to get away from concrete, visual representation of ideas and concepts, yet what resulted was something conceptually very concrete.

Here is his interpretation that guided the game’s construction:

The game is my expression of how a marriage feels. The blue and pink squares represent the masculine and feminine of a marriage. They have differing rules which must be balanced to keep the marriage going.

The circles represent outside elements entering the marriage. This can be anything. Work, family, ideas, each marriage is unique and the players response should be individual.

The size of each square represents the amount of space that person is taking up within the marriage. So for example we often say that one person’s ego is dominating a marriage or perhaps a large personality. In the game this would be one square being so large that the other one simply is trapped within the space of it unable to get to circles and more importantly unable to “kiss” edge to edge.

The transparency of the squares represents how engaged that person is in the marriage. When one person fades out of the marriage and becomes emotionally distant then the marriage is over.

Your controls reveal the agency of the game. You are only capable of making the squares move towards each other at the same time or removing a circle by sacrificing the size of the pink square. You are playing the agency of Love trying to make the system of the marriage work. Not only does this mean that the mechanics of attraction and sacrifice communicate love but also the physical way the game is controlled, I wanted a gentle almost stroking like feel to playing the game, that’s why clicking or rapid motion was not appropriate.

The backdrop’s colour has meaning. It starts off blue representing the world of the masculine. The club scene perhaps or adventures and exuberant experimentation. It then over time transitions to purple a mix of blue and pink representing the beginnings of a more permanent relationship. Then to pink as we enter fully the world of the feminine such as a home made together or emotionally the relationship becoming more kind. Next onto green colour of life and renewal, this represents a giving back to the world by the marriage, perhaps creatively, perhaps by having children or caring for others. Finally it becomes black symbolizing that at the end of the marriage when life is done there is nothing but each other. The only break in the blackness is at the bottom, where the strip of light representing memories of the marriage has been built up.

The game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. Its easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile, I wanted to get this across.

The final part of the game comes if the marriage ends while the backdrop is black. At every point the two squares have kissed during the game a pair of tiny squares is created and drift off the screen, as the last one leaves the game ends.

Now, without getting into heavy analysis, some points should already be clear.

  1. The incredible literalness of the mapping from game elements to concepts.
  2. The stripped-down simplicity of the conceptual vocabulary in order to allow for such a literal mapping.
  3. The received nature of the concepts, taking stereotypical notions like the blue masculine and the pink feminine in order to obtain an easily-grasped mapping.

(In 1910 pink was considered a very masculine color, so the symbols are culturally relative, but some relatively common symbol set within a community must always exist, and is probably always trite by its very nature.)

None of these are inherently bad tendencies. In many ways, they are necessary ones for making playable games. But the risks and problems of applying such an ambiguous conceptual vocabulary onto a literal representation should be apparent as well. It encourages a fallback onto the most common of common knowledge in order to make such a mapping comprehensible. Subjective metonymy within a simple framework (the “stroking feel” being linked to love, the various meanings of all the colors) is the key dynamic at work.

But it’s not even the particular symbols used (pink feminine, blue masculine), so much as the need for such a simple framework itself. Let’s say we need two things in a game to represent the male and the female. Is there anything satisfactory that isn’t either reductive or opaque?

  • The Mars and Venus gender symbols
  • Sword and pillow
  • Square and circle
  • Drum and cymbal
  • Hot dog and donut

The use of pink and blue didn’t produce a more sophisticated set of symbols, just a less blatant set. The metonymy was at the same concrete level as any of the duos above. And it applies to metonyms like the transparency equating to engagement.

It is the mindset of a Gene Wolfe, then, where every element, no matter how obscure, has a single definite meaning, rather than the mindset of a James Joyce, where the embrace of ambiguity and contradiction on lexical, semantic, and structural levels yields greater riches than a single postulated meaning.

My contention is that this sort of Platonic, atomistic thinking goes hat in hand with the sort of thinking used in constructing and utilizing scientific models of the world, as opposed to the messier business of human language and human relationships where a far greater degree of ambiguity is both acceptable and accommodated. This ambiguity inevitably leads to misunderstanding, sometimes destructively (say, in a marriage). The question is whether sufficient clarity can be achieved without adopting such a reductive, game-like model. Otherwise, you’ve adopted a view of the world (or of love, or of a marriage) that could easily fail you.

Ironically, this is the sort of analysis often performed in literary criticism. Thomas Karshan’s recent article on Nabokov in the TLS quoted this scabrous response from Nabokov in response to W. W. Rowe’s finding sexual innuendos in Pale Fire such as “wick” in “wickedly folding moth”:

The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes for the “symbols” of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion. The fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe’s treatment of recurrent words, such as “garden” or “water”, is his regarding them as abstractions, and not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say, in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov appeals to a hermeneutic holism that defeats such easy metonymic models. It’s not that the richer worlds of which he speaks cannot be quantified as such, just that the vocabulary required is so dauntingly extensive as to require lived human experience. No such sophisticated symbolic model for this experience yet exists, and I don’t see one coming any time soon. A model cannot capture the live fragments of which Nabokov speaks. When rendering such fragments in a game, the abandonment of complexity disguises itself by using a sufficiently obscure model, so that the model does not seem banal.

Nabokov hated Freud and psychoanalysis (hence the veiled reference to Vienna), and indeed, this sort of atomistic symbolism makes me think of something Ernest Gellner said about psychoanalysis in The Cunning of Unreason: the psychoanalytic model had to walk the line between scientific precision and mythical ambiguity so as not to seem banal or spurious.

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Cunning of Unreason

And weaker writers rely on exactly this careful navigation between the Scylla of simplistic allegory and the Charybdis of pointless ambiguity, so that they may seem profound when they really are not. I am thinking her of Alberto Moravia’s endless rationalism, where there is a neatly placed psychological explanation for every character trait and every movement proceeds from the careful arrangement of forces logically arrayed. (See The Conformist.) Moravia does it so well that the ultimate weakness of construction is a shame. (Removing the explanations, as was done in the wonderful movie of L’Ennui, can produce amazing results.)

L'Ennui: "I could tell you what I'm thinking but it would make the movie less interesting."

I know: The Marriage is just a game. Humble did not mean to make any sweeping statement about marriage in general, and the game is clearly so personal to him that I feel a little bad using it to exemplify a certain type of thinking. But speaking just personally, if my partner wrote this game and explained the game to me in that way, I would be frightened out of my wits.

Update: Rod Humble has responded kindly in the comments, and I appreciate his openness to discussion and critique. I also wanted to point out Derek Badman’s essay on Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, since comics rely on the sort of abstracted narrative visual representation that games do as well. Bleu “tells” of the interaction of a green blob with two stars and two dots. To the best of my knowledge, there is no “key” to the abstraction. Yet the similarity is striking!

a page from Lewis Trondheim's Bleu

Happy Bloomsday from James Joyce and Guy Davenport

Leopold Bloom reflected in John Ireland’s window, O’Connell Street, by Guy Davenport

Wait. Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now. Other I got pound.

Buzz. Buzz.

But I, entelechy, form of forms, am I by memory because under everchanging forms.

I that sinned and prayed and fasted.

A child Conmee saved from pandies.

I, I and I. I.

A.E. I.O.U.

Ulysses

My Life in Books, The First Thirty Years

This is a meme of my own invention (as far as I know). [Update: Nope, Paul did it first. I may have subconsciously plagiarized him. Sorry Paul!] The books that had the greatest impact on me year by year. Obviously very subjective, and vexing for all sorts of different reasons. Not always the best books, not often the most helpful books, just those that occupied my mind more than others. The years are to my best recollection; I may have fudged some of them.

I’ve had to list a number of unbreakable ties, where I remember the influence of each book as being so dominant and the books as so incommensurable  that it was impossible to choose.

And there were a couple near-ties where I painfully excluded a runner-up. (Invisible Man, Catcher in the Rye, Wittgenstein, Lucretius, and Hegel’s Phenomenology all fell into this category.)

So, by age, from the beginning!

  1. Goodnight Moon
  2. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton
  3. What Do People Do All Day? (unabridged), Richard Scarry
  4. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst
  5. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Dr. Seuss
  6. Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, Carl Barks
  7. The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill
    The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster (tie)
  8. The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
  9. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater
  10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
    What is the Name of This Book?, Raymond Smullyan (tie)
  11. “By His Bootstraps” and “—All You Zombies—”, Robert Heinlein
  12. The Singing Detective (script and serial), Dennis Potter
  13. The Sirens of Titan; and Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
  14. White Noise, Don DeLillo
  15. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
    Moby Dick, Herman Melville (tie)
  16. Ulysses, James Joyce
  17. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
    Imaginary Magnitude, Stanislaw Lem (tie)
  18. The Tunnel, William H. Gass
  19. The Castle, Franz Kafka
  20. Lanark, Alasdair Gray
    Interstate; Frog; Gould; assorted short fiction, Stephen Dixon (tie)
  21. The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
  22. Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist
  23. The Melancholy of Resistance, Laszlo Krasznahorkai
  24. The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso
    How It Is, Samuel Beckett (tie)
  25. The Waves, Virginia Woolf
    Epileptic, David B. (tie)
  26. The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi
    Simultan, Ingeborg Bachmann (tie)
  27. Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
  28. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
    Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (tie)
  29. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  30. A House in the Country, Jose Donoso

I am sure there are many books that felt more significant at the time whose influence I have mostly forgotten because I failed to pursue the directions they signaled. My memories have persisted of those books that were close to the parts of me that remain with me now.

This is probably as good an autobiography as any. Anyone else want to try?

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