Paltering in Literature

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When I talk about light pollution stopping us from seeing the stars, and you start talking about a Christmas tree ornament.

“You didn’t like working for Wilde?”
“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.”
“I always did myself, sir. I’m glad to hear it.”

—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The General asks a question; the detective responds with a truthful statement which may or may not answer the General’s question. It’s a shifting of focus with intent to mislead.

If you’ve ever listened to a political debate, you’ve heard it in action.

If you’ve ever listened to a sale’s pitch, you’ve heard it.

There’s little doubt you do it too, at least once a day.

It’s called paltering.


A recent BBC article titled The devious art of lying while telling the truth claims a new term has recently been coined for this misleading tactic of truth-speakNamely, paltering.

As it happens, the verb palter—meaning to shift, equivocate, or prevaricate in action or speech; to act or deal evasively, esp. for treacherous ends; to use trickery (OED)—dates from at least 1580. Also, except for the verb, the OED contains all the usual associated words: palterer (n.), paltering (n. & adj.), palterly (adv.). Hardly a new term, but that’s not the point.

The BBC article got me thinking about the role of paltering in fiction.

The rise and fall and rise of paltering (Google Ngram Viewer)

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The Edge of Intent

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I resolve to exercise more

Intent is the birthday present you will buy, the New Year’s resolution you will make, the vacation you will take in the summer of 2018. Intent is the brilliant child of the future, yet whenever something goes wrong—and it does so frequently—we point at the negation of our intent as the devil and the dark excuse of the far past: I hadn’t intended to hurt you, I hadn’t intended to be a bad person. No one intends to be a “bad person”.

In terms of type:

There’s grand intent—that requires thought, preparation, effort, time, and that is usually well-justified within our internal system of values.

There’s habitual intent—that requires only repeating circumstances and that once well-justified is rarely reexamined.

Then, there’s muddling through.

Habit is the mainstay of life, whilst grand intentions are rare (those well-thought out and actionable, even rarer). Which leaves muddling: these are the chance encounters, the unplanned stops, the out-of-stock labels on your favourite items; this is when you forgot a change of clothes or your wedding ring. Whenever Murphy’s law strikes, we muddle. Depending on what comes of it, we ruminate on what was intended—few people will admit to have been guided purely by circumstances, chance, or biology (unless they’re determinism diehards), but will instead claim step-by-step determination.

Unless it’s a crime.

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The Stories We Craft in Darkness

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Quote: Darkness promotes speech. Light is silent.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Blackouts before smartphones left people to entertain themselves without relying on sight. Night before electricity, too. Sure, we’ve had fire in some form for a million years, but as a communal means of subduing the elements, encouraged by need, not by fancy. In darkness, we talked to battle fear, to commune with the dead, to exchange information, and to tell stories. We talked to others, to ward off loneliness; failing that, we talked aloud to ourselves.

It’s only recently that we’ve found ways to communicate in silence, from darkened rooms, and at a distance, but even then we are reduced to two options: written word or spoken word. Only speech requires not a ray of light.

Vision is the sole sense we can extinguish at will, outside of sleep. But when the eyelids do come down, our consciousness doesn’t vanish, we continue to think, to be with ourselves, within ourselves. If anything, the temporary blindness cements us within the bastion of ourselves, drives us deeper, allows us to contemplate because our primary input source is unavailable to disturb or distract us.

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Books as Family

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Quote: According to Seneca, we can pick from any library whatever books we wish to call ours; each reader, he tells us, can invent his own past. He observed that the common assumption—that our parents are not of our choosing—is in fact untrue; we have the power to select our own ancestry.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Let us leave aside textbooks, technical manuals, picture books, and the grey area of “bad writing” (everyone defines it differently); what remains is a thickly-padded centre consisting of books, fiction and non-fiction, that adults read because they want to. Because there is something enticing about delving into another person’s explicitly printed (if opaque, mysterious, multifaceted) thoughts.

Such books are friends that console and regale, give hope and dispel loneliness, but, vitally, they also illuminate and edify. When it comes to fiction, Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story synthesises various authoritative sources that describe how story affects neurobiology; in essence, we crave fiction because it is a safe environment that equips us with mental tools we can use in real life. Our brains expertly convert a made-up narrative into a convincing environment, cast us as the relevant protagonists, and take us through our paces word by word.

Reading fiction is role-play.

Or, if you prefer Einsteinian terminology, reading is an immersive thought experiment. While we’re within the pages, the thinking is done for us; when we close the covers, we can either forget what we went through, or we can ruminate on the implications, extending the story, transposing it onto our own lives.

Non-fiction also transmits tales, which may be served up well-seasoned, savoury, steamy, but usually fail at inducing the sugar-rush of fiction. History is gripping because it happened—its lessons taste of iron; philosophy is mesmerising because it requires us to step through distorting mirrors to see ourselves more clearly—a paradox; books that cross-section subjects, like Manguel’s on Libraries or Ackermann’s on Senses, are magic because they reveal the intricate strings holding swathes of our reality together—they ask why.

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Books as Libraries

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Quote: No page is the first page; no page is the last.

— Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

Traditionally libraries contained books; later they expanded to hold film and music; later still, computer files and programs. Metaphorically, they are repositories of vast knowledge.

How vast does vast have to be before we call a collection of items a library?

Any public or private institution that has densely populated bookstacks is unmistakably a library. A child’s shelf containing twenty-thirty books is that child’s library—small, but present. What of a physical handful that fits thumb-to-little-finger and the weight of which you can hold up in your palm? I suspect most people would say: no, that’s hardly a library. Surely, the answer should be: it depends.

Consider three moderately-sized books you could just about fit in your hand: a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, an atlas. Right there you’d have more facts than you could possibly learn, and more thought-seeds than you could possibly nurture in a lifetime. What if you added a single Joyce, a single Tolstoy, and a single Plato?

Library is a sliding term that involves defining a minimum of some quantity (word count, page count, size, weight, space, influence) that inevitably leaves out a certain immeasurable aspect of knowledge, because no matter how cunning your index of choice, what knowledge means is in itself a personal matter. A bit like intelligence, or wisdom, or savvy. Any test you set is couched in terms of perceived excellence versus failure—often societally defined, but privately disputed.

The finiteness of a personal library is both its greatest weakness (it biases its owner) and its greatest strength (that bias supports the uniqueness of its owner). Indeed, a writer’s creativity springs from the kinds of books they have around them, like flowers or trees from a particular patch of soil. One may wonder: what of the roots?

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Siloed in a Writer’s Library

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Every reader is also a writer, if writer is taken to mean author to mean originator of one’s own actions. Books, like people and circumstances, influence our actions; the more we tease out those influences and knead them into useful, applicable tools, the more we are aware of our partnership with the written word.

Quote: The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil’s famous words, under “the friendly silence of the soundless moon.”

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night.

A den may invoke a tight, dark, mystical space, dense with gases, metamorphosing thoughts, and halusogenic phantasmagoria, but it could also be spacious, light, littered with post-it notes and gewgaws and candy wrappers, or spotless with perfectly aligned rows of books like lines on a page ready for inscription. Whatever its physical manifestation, the library is both an extension of a writer’s identity and a container for it.

To unite these two seemingly clashing metaphors—extension and container—I prefer the idea of a silo from the top of which it is possible to see lands, seas, skies, as well as, communicated with other silos.

Few writers have a complete, perfect library. Better-personalised probably encompasses most desires for improvement (change in arrangement and content), but even if a snap of the fingers brought about an envisaged ideal, there remains the issue of finiteness: the library is of limited size.

This limit is one cause of reader’s angst. But we do have a choice of what to put in our library and that choice, every time it’s made, influences us.

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Reader’s Angst

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Quote: I have no feeling of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night,

The Library at Night is an “uneven” experience: a passing familiarity with the frequent citations is necessary, yet, if you possess such familiarity the connecting exposition sounds oddly bland and loose in places. It’s almost as if this were an expert draft ready to be tightened. Or as if the writing were deliberately left colloquial to “balance out” the  dense forest of references. What Manguel excels at, however, are the dashes of insight, like in the Quote—some of them developed, some less so—that he inserts between the obvious and the obscure in his chapters.

Perhaps calling the Quote an insight a misleading overstatement, for what he says sounds neither novel nor enlightening, but it does touch on a relevant, persistent gripe of many people: there’s never enough time to keep up with the to-read list. Whether feigned or genuine, hyped or deep-seated, I call it reader’s angst.

There are at least two types of reader’s angst: one plagues people who would like to read this or that, in an abstract, diet-and-fitness-goals sense (these are the casual readers); the other plagues people who would like to read an impossibly large number of books, in a concrete, obsessive, catalogue-and-notes sense (the compulsive readers).

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Bookscapes, Real and Imaginary

Around us may be windowless walls of brick and rebar, but give us a story and immediately an arc of the horizon appears. What if we had many stories?

Magnificent arrangements of books inspire awe in most bibliophiles. Awe—the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature (OED)—really is the right word. Public libraries, bookshops, private collections, even a carefully positioned mess of tattered paperbacks on a stack of plastic shelves in a café: they are magical vistas of possibility.

By Diliff (Own work)

Library of Trinity College Dublin, by Diliff (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the grander the bookscape, the more likely it will overawe any visitor with sheer Olympian attitude, for where does one begin?

Occasionally, even if we were to just dip into a book, then into a another, and so on, it would take years before we wormed our pathetic way through all the covers. (For example, it would take approximately 35 years in the case of the library of Trinity College Dublin, if we were to spend a minute a book, eight hours a day, every day of the year.) The thought makes me go hot and cold and shaky—the potential knowledge, the tales, the imagination, the human ingenuity waiting within the pages, the Diderot-Deridda-Dostoevsky, and only a finite amount of time before my hands will no longer be able to reach beyond the inside walls of an ash-filled urn, let alone hold a book. The desperation!

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On Annotating Books

My annotations on a page from John Banville’s Birchwood.

 

To read, I need a book and a pencil.

I’d like to emphasis that the pencil is as much a conduit of information between book and mind, as are eyes and brain, and as much of a physical necessity, as is my ability to hold a book open or flip a page.

I produce the following anecdotal evidence:

If I sink into a sofa with a book, but without a pencil, I will exhibit all the symptoms of anxiety and discomfort—fidgeting, gazing about, scratching, gazing about, back-and-forth page-flipping because I can’t remember what I just read, and some more gazing about—until I finally get up and acquire that writing implement I’d been gazing about for.

It has to be a pencil (preferably a mechanical pencil so I don’t need to sharpen it), but no erasers are needed.

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Reading implements.

 

Underlining is much maligned; it’s generally useless, it’s for those who can’t think at the time of reading but leave it for later, it produces an appearance of engagement while actually reducing it.

All true.

That is why I mark up the text and take notes.

Marking up a text involves:

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Six Hundred and Twenty-Three

Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, by Piet Mondrian (1908-1910)—I preferred this painting to one of his lozenges.

 

I compiled a list. Take a moment to guess what these words have in common:

leaven, reticulum, neroli oil, raglan, syzygy, lozenge.

Don’t try too hard, it’s not obvious, other than I liked them, they’re nouns, and they sit in a file together with a few dozen others. That’s it. No deeper insight.

Doesn’t that leave you feeling unsatisfied?

Certainly that’s how I feel, when I’m given a selection off someone’s list, but there isn’t a clear designation of why these words even when they’re supposedly a purposeful sample.

It’s like being given a few answers from a survey, but not being told whether those answers are the best, the worst, the most frequent, the most obscure. In which case you might respond: fine just give me all the data from the survey, I’ll read it myself.

Satan in Paradise by Gustave Dore, illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost.

 

One chapter of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon presents a selection of words that John Milton (1608–1674) introduced into the English language. The chapter is written in Forsyth’s signature style—bantering, yet erudite—but at one point he simply lets a list speak for itself:

Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, and cooking. All Milton’s. When it came to inventive wording, Milton actually invented the word wording.

Fun! But what to make of the list? Is it ordered alphabetically? No. Are its elements the same parts of speech? No. Are the words related to an obvious subject? No. So what then?

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Humour Takes Dictionary

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Definitely not British weather: El Salvador one beautiful morning.

 

The biographies of words are almost as riveting, embarrassing, profane, and lewd as those of humans—just turn to Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon. The official book description is:

A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. 

I would add:

Or, what happens when Humour takes Dictionary to bed and lets a writer spy on them.

Beyond that, a summary or analysis of such a book ends up being a mishmash of paraphrases and inferior humour. Instead, while I was tidying my reading notes, I marked up a number of passages that could stand on their own.

A bit on British weather:

Do you know the difference between the clouds and the sky? If you do you’re lucky, because … our word sky comes from the Viking word cloud, but in England there’s simply no difference between the two concepts, and so the word changed its meaning because of the awful weather.

A primer on how to speak with grace of the lesser human urges (euphemism):

A polite, even beautiful, word for foods that make your bottom quack is carminative.

One that makes me wonder about the reading list of the Archbishop of Canterbury:

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Huh: Quirks and Perks

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Plain is a vice too

 

Forget figures of speech. Avoid them all. Speak cleanly, and commit no rhetorical crimes. What remains is aschematiston.

But that, too, is a vice.

Aschematiston comes from the Greek, meaning without form or figure, and technically it designates not only plain-speaking but also the inappropriate use of figurative speech.

In Trying to Be Cute, I discuss how one way to think about vices (the coin model), considers licit rhetoric to lie between the extremes: the ordinary and any of the various ornamented styles. Most of us know overwrought when we see it, but aschematiston is harder to spot. In particular, sometimes it’s not clear whether a literal interpretation is called for, or whether there’s a hidden metaphorical dimension after all. I termed this phenomenon the metaphorical itch. I often encounter it in surrealist literature, but it’s also present in contextually ambiguous situations.

The last batch of my Nature Magazine  headlines falls into this category. See what you think.

  1. Eating ourselves dry
  2. Economy in the toilet 
  3. Frozen fruit cake
  4. How to build a better dad
  5. How to suck like an octopus
  6. Winged wonder

My first reaction was: Huh. 

What are your guesses: which ones are literal, which metaphorical? What about their subjects? (My answers below.)

If you’ve stuck around on Quiver Quotes for the last three weeks, then you’ve seen approximately 80 headlines drawn from 40 issues of Nature.

That’ll do for a while.

I think it’s time to read on—past the title.

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Trying to Be Cute

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Where virtues live, live vices.

Figures of speech are no less afflicted by this schism, although classifying them accordingly is as much a matter of taste, nuance, and circumstance, as any binary division of a continuous scale.

Following The vices of style by William Poole (Chapter 13 in Renaissance Figures of Speech), there are essentially two ways to approach this dichotomy:

  • Fine linguistic feats are opposed by abominations, but they are both just obverse sides of the same tool. (Idea drawn from Peacham’s observations.)
  • Virtuous rhetoric lies between the vicious extremes: plain language, on the one side, and various modes of excessive ornamentation, on the other. (Idea of Aristotelian mean.)

I call the first, the coin model; the second, the razor model.

Take the familiar notion of alliteration (starting consecutive or nearby words with the same consonant), which I develop in Ad Nauseam.

  • According to the coin model, alliteration can be both a good thing (it yokes ideas to words in mnemonics, it gives poems their glitter, it turns headlines into hooks, it makes names memorable, it lends a twist to prose), but it can also be a bad thing (it makes poems sound shallow, headlines puerile, names forced, prose juvenile).
  • According to the razor model, a gracious application of alliteration lies between the dullness of plain “tone-deaf” writing and the grossness of overuse (paroemion).

However, before you can talk about vices or virtues (using either model), you need to be able to classify the figures themselves. But surely, you say …

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