On finding books and books finding us, and on Roland Barthes’s text as fetish.
Books sit on shelves and wait for us to find them.
Every book, inanimate as it is in its state of matter, may not have the attention-seeking drive of a living, brainy organism, but it does have a presence that selectively draws some of us closer, while repelling others.
Little experience with book covers (design, size, publisher’s logo) is needed before you can make a basic, almost subconscious approximation: yea or nay. A little more experience with certain authors, and you know upon associating their names to a new text where you stand in relation to it.
That’s old-school thinking. Still basically correct today, though evolved.
Subtler forces govern a book-world where shelf browsing often happens online, at clicking speed, where previews and reviews are abundant, where recommendation lists crop up unbidden (books-by-this-author,lists-with-this-book, what-others-who-liked-this-also-bought), and where many, mostly older, books are freely available on sites like gutenberg.org (50k) or archive.org (1500k). Continue reading “The Text That Chooses You”
Etymology of the word soul, quote from C. G. Jung’s “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”.
An unexpected etymological delight cropped up in my reading of Jung. The soul, wouldn’t you want to know whence it came? For once I did not have to trawl through a dictionary myself, but could enjoy a clear, informative, and measured exposition (no puns, no detours, no dry details).
What is the origin of the world Seele? Like the English word soul, it comes from the Gothic saiwala and the Old German saiu’alô, and these can be connected with the Greek aiolos, mobile, coloured, iridescent. The Greek word psyche also means butterfly. Saiwalô is related on the other side the old slavonic word sila, meaning strength. From these connections light is thrown on the original meaning of the word Seele: it is moving force, that is life-force.
The Latin words animus, spirit, and anima, soul, are the same as the Greek anemos, wind. The other Greek word for wind, pneuma, means also spirit. In Gothic we find the same word in us-anan, to breathe out, and in Latin an-helare, to pant. In Old High German, spiritus sanctus was rendered by atun, breath. In Arabic, wind is rīh, and rūh is soul, spirit. Thre is a quite similar connection with the Greek psyche, which is related to psycho, to breathe, psychos, cool, psychros, cold, and physa, bellows. These affinities show clearly how in Latin, Greek and Arabic the names given to the soul are related to the notion of moving air, the “cold breath of the spirit.” And this is also why the primitive point of view endows the soul with an invisible breath-body.
Wants give the reader a foothold in the story: What do you think of a man dying of thirst because he cannot reach the glass on his bedside table? Or of a political activist refusing a glass of water as part of her protest fast until she is force-fed?
Opinion is hardly dispassionate. A meagre glass of water will elicit something in even the most desensitised reader (pity, bile, fever), and the emotional investment in another’s hardship—be it fictional—amounts to attention.
Generating hardship is the storyteller’s prerogative and duty, generating it any which way, usually by an idiosyncratic magic opaque to others. But before the twirl of the wand happens, the elements of the craft are strategically employed: the opening paragraph hooks the reader, story parts flow into one another, the final punch is delivered with due panache. Ultimately learnable, practicable, and discernible, these elements are the ideal backdrop against which to measure the effect of the wand’s hocus-pocus. Continue reading “Hazelnuts in the Chocolate Text”
On Roland Barthes’s tmesis, and on density, depth, and the reading speed of a text.
In a conversation, we speak to be heard, if not listened to. In a letter for a friend or a story for the public, we write to be read, if not deeply regarded.
Every word is intended for effect.
No other starting position makes sense for a wordsmith, especially with respect to impatient, multitasking modern readers. Their attention mustn’t be wasted on unnecessary ideas, passages, or words.
(Or, in the extreme, on individual letters. Getting the Words Right, an otherwise helpful guidebook to writing, suggests that s be cut from words like towards and forwards as part of a so-called nano-reduction, at least in American English.In British English, towards and toward are interchangeable, but the nuanced distinction between forward and forwardsis still respect-worthy at the cost of the occasional extra letter.)
But who judges what’s necessary in a text?
A writer’s intentions—the best, the worst, and the proverbially dubious—pave all sorts of profoundly manufactured, “necessary” roads the reader almost certainly won’t walk. The reader seeks what the reader needs: excitement, information, oblivion, or perhaps just a digestive after a heavy meal. The reader takes what is useful and strips off the rest. Roland Barthes calls this perceived encounter of useful and useless tmesis. Continue reading “Writing What Will Not Be Read”
On the rhetorical figure asyndeton, and how Roland Barthes uses the word metaphorically in “The Pleasure of the Text”.
Covering a few miles on the weekend means checking the weather program and pulling out those old shorts and putting on the stinky trainers and knotting the fraying shoelaces and stepping outside and taking the first step and… jogging.
It can also mean getting ready, warming up, jogging, finishing with a sprint.
These two descriptions of the same activity illustrate the basic difference between the rhetorical figures they employ: polysyndeton in the first case (many conjunctions), and asyndeton in the second case (no conjunctions).
The polysyndeton brings about a stream of consciousness that reports elements as they occur, or a stately, biblical grandness, such as:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, …
—John 10:27–28, KJV
The asyndeton brings about swiftness and density, or a jerky, rushed rhythm, such as:
The Shakespeare example is a particularly radical asyndeton, called a brachylogia (meaning short speech), where the conjunctions are omitted between individual words making them into a list or heap. Indeed, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian classed both syndetons as types of acervatio (a heaping up).
Rhetorical heaps are sensible sequences. The Gospel polysyndeton is a temporal sequence; the Shakespeare asyndeton comprises two sequences derived from the same word classes (nouns, then verbs). Other more general heaps, like congeries, rely on a climactic ordering to achieve the satisfying feeling of crescendo and carry the reader over (sometimes dubious) reasoning.
On the two reading speeds that Roland Barthes describes in “The Pleasure of the Text”.
In an age obsessed with saving time, reading speed is increasingly scrutinised. Brevity, clarity, immediate relevancy—done! Click on the next link.
The prize is gratification at the price of linguistic mystique.
Lyrical novels are the obverse. Looping descriptions, metaphors upon symbols upon embedded stories, resonances with previously unexplored feelings and questions questions questions—not done! Not done, even when the last word is read.
The prize is linguistic mystique at the price of gratification.
The dichotomy isn’t so obvious: lengthy thrillers immediately pertain to the specific goal of fun pastime, as do mystery novels; on the other hand, short poems resonate for years, as do certain “clear”, brief statements or questions (traditional sayings, koans).
One. This dichotomy isn’t drawn between nonfiction and fiction, or between genre and literary, or between prose and poetry.
Two. This dichotomy isn’t about the words per minute one person can read compared to another.
Three. This dichotomy isn’t well-defined.
Four. A better-defined dichotomy is that of renown French literary critic, Roland Barthes, who divides the world of texts according to one of the two systems of reading applied to each text.
Defining the figure of a book following Borges’s figure of man in “Mirror of Enigmas”.
Some measurements of an object may be more important than others. If a medieval scholar asks how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, you’re unlikely to enquire about the length of the pin. (But enquiring about the size of the dance area, namely the head, would be reasonable.)
Some measurements distort under projection. A man at noon dwarfs his own shadow, but a man in a torchlit cave casts a giant on the wall. This happens because the shadow of an object depends on the object, the source of light, the surface catching the shadow, and their relative positions. Therefore, shadows hint at features of their owner without necessarily describing their owner’s essence.
Those in Plato’s cave cannot imagine the sun.
Similarly: silhouettes are contours from one viewpoint (a cylindrical candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, and a circle when seen from above); photographs show us the lens-facing side (a rectangle of wax and a flaming disc).
Projections are simplifications.
Shadows, silhouettes, photographs, x-rays, scans are projections of physical objects that a human mind grasps more easily than the objects themselves. In intellectual matters, we outline issues and give snapshots of complex situations. Further, a state of mind is the mind viewed within a slice of time—it’s a momentary projection of a more complex figure.
A current state of the mind is by definition “reasonable” or “comprehensible” to that mind, but taken over time, taken together, these projections of mind trace an incomprehensible figure consisting of various states (incomprehensible, in as much as we cannot remember all of it or recreate all of it or make sense of all of it).
On the finiteness and linearity of book-shells, inspired by a quote from Borges’s “The Book of Sand”.
Artefacts are made to the measure of a human hand. A spoon balances between thumb and forefinger, a cigarette between forefinger and middle finger, a ring between the knuckles of the fourth finger. Akeyboard letter fits on the tip of one, a smartphone fits in the grip of all five.
Physical books are no different: their shells are designed to be held and manipulated (from the Latin manus meaning hand). Size, weight, shape; cover quality, binding; texture, thickness, stickiness of pages. Certain values of these parameters confer certain “paravalues” on the content, even if spuriously. Larger is lengthier is deeper or broader. Slimmer is smaller is sleeker or sparser. Weightier is weightier. Lighter is lighter-weight.
Test it on unfamiliar content.
Unfamiliar content is more serious in hardback, more grand in a large format, more fancy on glossy paper—than it is in mass-market paperback. The content ought to vaguely match the paravalues implied by a particular shell, and usually does. Or else, for example: A jolt of incongruity strikes me every time I see an airport novel bound solid and shiny for the centuries, like it’s a compendium of philosophical wisdom.
Test it on familiar content.
The same content in a sturdy shell and in a flimsy shell is not the same content.
Conventionally, visual aspects of the shell feed prejudice, hence the saying: do not judge a book by its cover. But the saying omits to warn against judging a book by the overall feeling of its shell—edges, friction, and gravity—when hand goes to cover.
The shell’s physicality also imbues the reading process. Via the visual aspect, as usual: font, layout, print quality. But also via the tactile: size, weight, shape, etc, like above. The landscape between the palms, with a broken spine or dog-eared pages or an annoying French flap, integrates, over the formative period, a reader’s proprioception with their mental representation of the book’s content.
This is why the e-reader experience, where the “shell” of all e-books is the same, sometimes feels like a bobbing about of the mental faculty, disconcerting and abstract, in the absence of the body—it’s discombobulating.
On “patchwork texts” or centos in general, and specifically a cento of Paul Willems’s work.
Patchwork, colourful, a garment. I’ve carried the image since childhood. To me this internal multicoloured display is the symbol of being different, of suffering for this difference, though for ultimately righteous reasons.
It took me a while to trace the origin of this association to the Biblical story of Joseph in a comic book that I read as a child.
I do mean comic book: it had panels, gutters, speech bubbles, and lovely colourful drawings—the whole mesmerising caboodle—only the subject wasn’t Batman or Wonder Woman. Instead, I read and envisioned the Israelites’ God living in an elaborate golden box, the Arc of the Covenant, which His faithful servants carried through the desert under an unforgiving sun. The brightness of that sun was only rivalled by the brightness of the Arc itself. God spoke in a stern, sharp-angled bubble unlike everyone else’s.
The story of Joseph lends itself to a dramatic telling, panel for panel, as his fortune rises and falls time and again, to rise in the final instance. He is special, endowed with dream-visions he knows how to interpret. Joseph’s adventures, however, start with his father’s gift:
Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.
(KJV, Genesis 37:3)
Alternative versions call it a “coat with long sleeves”, but that is of little relevance to me now, retroactively.
(This isn’t where I was going with this post, but since the association is inevitable and particularly relevant in June: Happy Pride Month!)
My personal mythology has transformed the symbolic coat at every opportunity. Colourful goes hand in hand with unique with beautiful frankenstein with remarkable with dangerously balanced on a pinhead (like Kafka’s spinning tops that lose their lustre once they’re picked up), all of which circle back to dissimilar.
Between memories and daydreams, between the past and the future, the mind lingers.
You have to fight the onslaught of time on two fronts before you can carve out a space in which to have a moment for rational, directed thoughts.
That’s how philosopher Hannah Arendt reads the following aphorism of Kafka.
He has two antagonists: The first pushes him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks his road ahead. He struggles with both. Actually the first supports him in his struggle with the second, for the first wants to push him forward; and in the same way the second supports him in his struggle with the first; for the second of course forces him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two protagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? However that may be, he has a dream that sometime in an unguarded moment—it would require, though, a night as dark as no night has ever been—he will spring out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience of such warfare, as judge over his struggling antagonists.
“He” is the mind; the two antagonists are the two arrows of time: the past presses at the mind’s back, while the future presses at the mind’s front. The aphorism is told from the viewpoint of a man’s thinking ego struggling to carve out space for itself, as Arendt explains in The Life of the Mind, and not from the viewpoint of a spectator observing the thinking process. To a spectator, time flows uninterrupted (as eternal change) or it is meaningless (the forces of past and future annihilate each other). Continue reading “Quiet of the Now”
Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.
I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.
In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.
I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.
She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.
So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.
“… to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.”—Alberto Manguel
Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Hier wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.
The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.
Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.
She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.
Tips on how to write clean, balanced prose that conveys your meaning (without hiding it behind unnecessary hedge words.)
E. B. White was not yet thirty-eight when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Roosevelt’s suggestions to retire Supreme Court judges over the age of seventy. At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again, after a decade or two of conservatism, writes White. The piece ends with the following paragraph; note White’s use of sweeping generalisations, balanced by a sprinkling of caution (italics are mine).
Quote: A man’s liberal and conservative phases seem to follow each other in a succession of waves from the time he is born. Children are radicals. Youths are conservatives, with a dash of criminal negligence. Men in their prime are liberals (as long as their digestion keeps pace with their intellect). The middle-aged, except in rare cases, run to shelter: then insure their life, draft a will, accumulate mementos and occasional tables, and hope for security. And then comes old age, which repeats childhood—a time full of humors and sadness, but often full of courage and even prophecy.
— E. B. White in Life Phases (2/20/37), Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale.
Do you agree, more or less, or do you disagree and have you come up with (yourself as) a counterexample?
Humour is one of those things that you recognise about the time it makes you smile. Most people would rather enjoy it than figure out its rhetorical secrets. But there’s good reason to make an effort: not everyone is born a humorist, and I believe that those of us left without the gift can still learn to throw a joke, the way even the worst apprentice learns to throw a pot—it may be a laughing stock, but it’ll hold water.
Don’t let the first line of the Quote throw you.
Quote: Practically everyone is a manic depressive of sorts, with his moments and his down moments, and you certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.