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”
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 Roland Barthes’s analogy between reading and striptease in “The Pleasure of the Text”
Most communions are licit between mind and body, though only some are enshrined in language.
Within standard usage, the mind can handle, sit on, kick about, or push through difficult problems, while the body remembers what it’s like to be out in the open, the legs are happy to run for miles, and the lungs don’t mind the effort. More creative metaphors would have the mind swimming through a sea of problems or the body navigating a complex ontological issue by mutating. (Here navigating, the physical action of driving a ship, was first abstracted for application in matters of intellect and Internet, before being returned to serve in the physical realm, metaphorically.)
While metaphors can sidle up, similes are signposted either with like or as, or with phrases such as the colour/sound/feeling of or the way that. Also, similes tend to focus on partial comparisons: in the context of gymnastics, a girl could be as nimble as a fawn, without the reader worrying that she might fall prey to the wolves in the hills. Because there are no wolves and no hills; the fawn is, with few exceptions, confined to the initial phrase. That said, extended, unintended meanings are effortlessly available (predatory males as wolves, for example). The imagination obliges, whenever the simile resonates. Continue reading “Reading Faster, or Speeding up the Striptease”
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 Oskar Panizza’s “The Pig” and how to deal with eccentric books.
The Pig by Oskar Panizza is difficult to classify.
It first appeared in the 1900 in the Zurich Discussions, a journal self-published by the author. Translated into English by Eric Butler, the book now reaches us via Wakefield press—an American publisher that specialises in literary oddities. The full title helps support its claim to uniqueness:
The Pig: In Poetic, Mythological, and Moral-Historical Perspective.
A quick flip-through provides a tad more insight.
It is non-fiction, erudite, creative in its approach to interpretation, and it has footnotes, lots of footnotes, so many that a page without them is a surprise and a page only of them ought to have been encouraged by the editor. Hebrew slips between two teeth, German and Latin between the other, Greek likes it on the tongue to roll about with French.
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”
Albert Camus on Kafka and the absurd, taken from “Myth of Sisyphus”.
Here, have some flash-fiction from seventy years ago.
You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.” That story belongs to the baroque type. But in it can be grasped quite clearly to what a degree the absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic. Kafka’s world is in truth an indescribable universe in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it.
The bathtub story starts from an absurd proposition (fishing in bathtub).
The doctor assumes the patient has taken seriously the first part of the proposition (fishing), so proceeds to play along by asking whether the fishes are biting.
The patient, however, latches onto the second part of the proposition (bathtub) and is insulted by the doctor’s lack of intelligence.
The logic of both participants isn’t at fault, though the disjunction stemming from the initial absurdity is. At a basic level this paradoxical repartee is easily inserted into the core of any incident. Somehow it doesn’t fail to perplex every time.
Man is talking to the wall. Friend asks whether the wall is talking back. Man responds: “It’s a wall, how can it talk back?”
Woman in a café is teaching her dog to read. Kindly waiter asks whether the dog has learned any of the letters yet. Woman responds: “It’s a dog, you idiot.“
Boy is writing dead grandma a letter. Mother asks whether he expects grandma to reply with a letter. Boy rolls eyes and responds: “Of course not, grandma is dead.”
Even though I just wrote those three examples, holding their meaning in my head makes me spin like Kafka’s top.
Anne Carson on Kafka’s short story “The Top” (taken from the preface of her book “Eros the Bittersweet”).
There goes a philosopher running after a children’s top. His glee! His ardour! Look how the top spins and wriggles away from him. Now he’s caught it—it’s stopped spinning—he’s inspecting it, grimacing, disgusted, and throwing it to the ground in disappointment.
Oh look another top!
Off he runs after the toy as enthusiastically as after the first. Now he’s caught it, he’s inspecting it…
This inveterate optimist is of Kafka’s imagining (from his short text The Top), and his behaviour is justified: For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. This character is more allegorical placeholder than philosopher.
A well written commentary intended for a general audience doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the primary source beforehand. However, if upon enjoying the commentary you decide to go and make yourself familiar with said primary source—all the better! The four authors above reignited my interest in Kafka, and perhaps they will do the same for you. Continue reading “Running After Tops”
On giving a modern flavour to a retelling of an old myth, specifically Kafka’s “Poseidon”.
“The sea anemones need counting.”
“May I be assigned the Mediterranean section?”
“Same as every year. Here’s the conch. Put one white speck of sand for each healthy specimen, and one black speck for each diseased specimen. You have two days to bring back the conch to the records department.”
“No frolicking about with Triton.”
“Certainly not, sir.”
Poseidon watched the nymph swim off, giggling. Poseidon envied her—all he ever did was sit in his throne room, at the big rock slab of a desk tallying numbers and writing up reports. He sighed. Better get on with it.
On exploring alternative endings to classical myths, specifically Kafka’s “Prometheus”.
Pity the mortals, for they are cold.
Of all the powerful beings populating Greek myth, Prometheus always seemed the most generous towards our kind. According to some sources he moulded the first men from clay. According to most sources he stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. Crafty, haughty, but indomitable in his creative pursuit, Prometheus is perhaps more of a human ideal than we wish to admit.
(Mary Shelly does admit it in the title of her book Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus.)
For his crimes, Prometheus, the titan, was strung up naked on a cliff in the Caucasus and sentenced to an eternity of having his (regenerating) liver torn daily by an eagle. Frostbite and cold, and continuous pain was the price he paid for our warmth and grace.
On fresh retellings of myths, specifically Kafka’s “The Silence of the Sirens”.
Feathers are the soul of the wind.
To fly, you just need wings, gleaming, beautiful, lighter than the thickest ribbons of air so you can take off, heavier than the thinnest clouds so you don’t stumble upon the pathways of the gods.
So the man believed. Man, inventor, father.
The wings were almost ready, the primary feathers sown into place, the secondary feathers glued with wax.
“There.” The man tightened the strap on his son’s right arm, before adjusting his own. The boy quaked for fear of heights.
“What can be more exciting than this,” the man said, “father and son, taking to the clouds, escaping all those guards Minos has sent to secure the coast?”
The boy nodded, hardly reassured.
They launched themselves from the highest Cretan cliffs at noon, when no archer dared watch Helios drive his blazing chariot across the sky.
The man went first, confident, eager to feel the air carry him. He glanced back, and saw his son steadily gliding in his wake. Good.
Shy, inexperienced, and wary of his large wings, the boy chose a steady course between heaven and sea, not looking up, not looking down, even when his father swerved and looped, showing off his flying skills. How he soars, my father! He’s so skilful and I’m so clumsy. One day, I’ll make him proud. The boy glided on.
Disaster crept upon them, stealthily, like a lion stalking a flock of sheep.
The boy noticed a small feather slip from his father’s wings. Then another. All that soaring and acrobatics was making the wax melt. He shouted a warning.
“It’s nothing,” his father said, though he too now chose to fly a cautious middle-course.
But the melting had started, the boy saw, and it could not be stopped. Unless…
Without a word, the boy flew up and up, until he was right above his father, flying at the same speed, providing a constant shade for the melting wax on his father’s wings. It hardened; no more feathers separated.
As they neared an island, the father rejoiced. They had made it. “Son! You see, my wings have not melted after all.” He turned.
On coherent, meaningful combinations of traits that make up entirely original creatures. Example: Franz Kafka’s Odradek from “The Cares of a Family Man”.
A 1000-piece puzzle is not a project for Frankenstein. The pieces were cut from a unified starting picture; the problem was deliberately made and has a predictable, well-fitting solution. No, a worthy project requires the invention or the discovery of something previously inconceivable.
Like stitching together pieces of flesh and reanimating them (science).
Like connecting pieces of metal and animating them (engineering).
Like layering paint or notes or movements and binding them (art).
Like assembling concepts and words and creating a coherent story world, character, or creature (writing).
I mean it in all in a positive way.
Credibility and resonance is achieved by using what’s around us:
Story worlds recycle and recombine common tropes in new ways. (Few go ahead and do the Tolkienesque thing of inventing new languages as well.)
Interesting characters are made up of different already-observed personality traits: take a bit from Aunt Veronica, a bit from Ruth the next door neighbour, a bit from Mum, together with a generous dollop of yourself, then mix with convenient imaginary glue till the gallimaufry congeals into an appetising dessert.
New creatures are often forged through similar borrowings; though, unlike with shape-shifters and cross-breeds where the number of sourced parts or shifts is limited, the creatures I call beautiful frankensteins come from so many sources their existence is as unexpected as it is baffling.
On hybrid creatures, and in particular on Franz Kafka’s half-kitten, half-lamb in “Crossbreed”.
Moonlit blue-tinted night, billowy curtains flicking edges of open terrace doors, impending danger for two sky-gazing protagonists. In swoops a softly neighing white horse with wings so large they trail on the ground when folded.
My first memory of Pegasus.
Despite the grainy TV picture and the obviously unrealistic set of what must have been an ancient Hollywood film, I only remember the awe. The magic! A flying horse, whoever thought of that?
Afterwards, catching a glimpse of a flying lion in a show about Narnia somehow didn’t do it for me. Not to say that Aslan is comparable to Pegasus, but perhaps there is a little idea-bulb in every child’s mind belonging to winged animals, and it can only be turned on once: first-imagined best-imagined?
Fictional cross-breeds, or hybrids, are produced by mating or creatively putting together a few different species. They’ve populated humankind’s imagination as long as shape-shifters.
I won’t attempt a classification—Wikipedia is thorough. However, since I mentioned horses and lions, here’s a taster for their hybrids.
On shape-shifting creatures, and in particular on Franz Kafka’s Rotpeter in “Report to an Academy”.
Fantasy bears many children and loves them all, heads, tails, wings, jaws, beaks, two legs, four legs, five and an input console. Magic and technology marry to make aliens; words (e)merge to make new monikers. A complete classification of templates may be impossible, but spotting patterns can be fun as a reader and helpful as a writer.
I’ve picked three basic categories: shape-shifters, cross-breeds, and beautiful frankensteins. Three is a fairytale ideal number. Also, Kafka’s complete short stories provide three fun examples.
More recently there’s Pennywise the Clown form Stephen King’s It, Mystique from the X-Men Comics, Terminator from Hollywood, and all manner of decanting from body to body, like in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.
Exploration of invisibility in daily life through four stories of Franz Kafka: “The Bucket Rider”, “Investigations of a Dog”, “Rejection”, and “The Bridge”.
Invisibility is a superpower.
Tolkien’s One Ring and Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility render the wearer unseen by conventional methods. Much before that, the Ancient Greeks had gods who surrounded their favourite heroes in mists and clouds so that they could pass unchallenged.
Of course, all superpowers come with a price, and occasionally end in tragedy. H. G. Wells’s invisible man, the protagonist of his eponymous novel, struggles to control his ability, so much so it becomes more of a hindrance than a help.
But what of invisibility in daily life?
It’s actually quite prevalent, and it comes about in two flavours: as a result of being ignored, or as a result of ignorance. The former implies intention and a deliberate act, the latter an accident and blameless innocence—the middle ground is shaded by degrees of intentional ignorance.
(Unsurprisingly, both ignore and ignorance come from the negation of the same Latin stem gnō-, meaning to know, but perhaps surprisingly ignorance is the older wordby a few centuries.)
Fasting has come into fashion. Today it’s called dieting.
In moderation, it’s vaunted as a healthful activity. Taken to an extreme, it’s a debilitating mental illness. Either way, dieting is usually triggered by peer pressure, and since our bodies are our visible, measurable exteriors, all those peers will have an opinion which will affects us.
To put it bluntly: losing weight quickly becomes a performance art.
Kafka’s Hunger Artist explores what this performance art means without going into the physical aspect. Sure, bodies existed in the early 20th century, but calorie-counting, bodybuilding, and pilates weren’t the fad. So instead, the premise is entirely absurdist à la Kafka, but the debilitation, the existential angst, and the struggle of the protagonist with the world (and with himself) are all recognisably modern. Continue reading “Kafka’s Hunger Artist”
On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in Kafka’s short story “In the Pental Colony”.
Kafka has fallen out of favour in the modern age.
The German-speaking Bohemian author, Franz Kafka (1883–1924), I mean.
In contrast, the software, Apache Kafka, is prominently favoured in nine out of the first ten Google results for the search string Kafka.
Perhaps rightly so. After all, software is designed to aid not to befuddle, and to disperse existential angst not to replicate it on paper. Although, it’s a toss-up which of computer-esque or Kafkaesque better describes the alienation of man from mankind.
Since computers are all the rage, I’ll favour the “underdog” Kafka on this blog.
Image of the man?
I expected the search engine to throw up pictures of a human-sized beetle with a rotting apple stuck in its carapace. Even after having read five hundred pages of Vintage Kafka that contains all of his shorter works, I still identify the author with his novella The Metamorphosis. Or rather, with the protagonist, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin-beetle-creature.
The beetle is nasty; his story is sad.
The revulsion, the absurdity, the helplessness of this ungeheueres Ungeziefer (the German original helps spur the imagination), the ostracism that follows, and the final sinking into irrelevancy—they’re the sequence of events anyone on social media dreads. What happens if one day you wake up “ugly”, “disabled”, “different”, and ultimately incapable of communicating with the rest of society?
On Gabrielle Wittkop’s “Necrophiliac” and the questions in raises.
This post stands in the controversial shadow of its title.
You have been warned.
Quote: Sex is spoken of in all forms except one. Necrophilia isn’t tolerated by governments nor approved by questioning youth. Necrophiliac love: the only sort that is pure. Because even amor intellectualis — that great white rose —waits to be paid in return. No counterpart for the necrophiliac in love, the gift that he gives of himself awakens no enthusiasm.
Should every gap in the literary offering be plugged with a high-brow treatment?
I’d say no, because every is too broad a requirement. But some gaps do need the occasional thoughtful contribution. Necrophiliac was Wittkop’s, and she wasn’t shy about it.
Rewind a couple of centuries, and we find one of her literary forefathers: Marquis de Sade. He plugged a gap of his own, but in a savage, largely unpalatable, and tedious manner. For example, his 120 Days of Sodom runs close to four-hundred pages, and just the opening few contain enough brazen graphic violence to put off most people.
TheNecrophiliac isn’t like that. It’s ninety pages, written in first person, from the point of view of a sensitive, poetically inclined protagonist. Readers always have to work harder to condemn the narrator in whose head they ride—Wittkop knew what she was doing. Continue reading “Wittkop’s Necrophiliac”
On mixing metaphors in a quote from Gabrielle Wittkop’s “Exemplary Departures”.
Metaphors are charming, scenic shortcuts to multiple layers of meaning. But they’ve got a dark side that scares people or perhaps doesn’t scare them enough—depending on how you look at it.
Leave no stone unturned.
Once fresh, but now clichéd metaphors are best avoided in creative writing. (Dead metaphors in the sense of those whose meaning has shiftedare something else and can, with care, be put to good use.)
We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.
Malaphors blend two phrases or idioms. They’re humorous, but hardly appropriate in an original piece. (The label itself is a portmanteau, or a blend, of metaphor and malapropism.)
Her learning capacity towers over yours; I bet you she can bridge any knowledge gap in under a month.
Mixed metaphors are more general malaphors, but without the humour. They combine different metaphors in incompatible ways: how can a capacitytower, or then be used to bridge? Sure, we get the message, but the clash draws attention to itself.
Clichéd metaphors can be avoided by not writing down what first comes to mind and malaphors are more often spoken mistakes than deliberate constructions. Which leaves mixed metaphors. They may not be as obviously jarring as my example. In fact, the more complex or original or dense your metaphors, the more difficult it is to judge whether what you’ve written coheres.
On stories where you know the protagonist dies at the end, and quotes about death and rebirth from Gabrielle Wittkop’s “Exemplary Departures”.
The hero dies at the end.
Suppose you know this from the moment you pick up a book. The suspense of “what’s ultimately going to happen” has been taken away from you. Worse, you’ve been told the ending is fatal. So why read a dreary tale?
At least two popular types of books start with the death premise: biography and tragedy. All-encompassing life stories have an inescapable birth-to-death trajectory, while the (classical) tragic drama will likely be lethal for the protagonists.
Then come books that have had their ending “spoiled”. Maybe it’s a history book, and you’re familiar with the outcome of the events it describes. Maybe you’ve seen the film. Maybe you’ve been told. This list is individual to each person.
I would read any of the above for the literary merit or the linguistic enjoyment (or because I needed information)—and not to revel in the plot. How about you? I have met at least one person who claimed she always started a thriller by reading the last few chapters; that way she knew where the novel was headed.
To each their own.
Next, we move into the fictional realm where the author controls your perception. For example, a cryptic opening scene may imply the hero will die (so you read on hoping that’s not the case), or it may depict a memorable death of someone who you find out is a false protagonist (a minor character who’s gratuitously killed off to make a point).
On “Recommended Instrument: Apartment Thunder” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.
If you’ve lived next to a basketball court, or if the walls of your ground floor apartment have been used for football or squash practice, you know the sound.
It’s the sound of a headache.
Add some shouting, squealing, and laughter, make the noise polluters children rather than “sensible” adults and voilà, you have yourself a reason to let Zeus move into your attic and provide you with some audio cover. (As apartments don’t have attics, he might consider moving into the indoor cornices, suitable dangling lamps, or wallpaper patterns at a stretch.) Continue reading “Zeus in the Attic”
On paralipsis, the ironic process, and the combination of both in “Never Imagine” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.
Contrary, are you?
Most likely, yes. Brains like to disobey negative orders: don’t think about that stressful meeting tomorrow (you will), don’t worry about that mosquito bite (it’ll prompt start itching), don’t ruminate on all the goals you have failed to achieve recently (a list will promptly appear).
The inability to deliberately shake off a thought through negative command is called Dostoyevski’s white bear problem or the ironic process.
Writing can harness this process to magnify the impressions left by (disconcerting) images. This is another reason why word associations are hard to dispel; in Dangerous Associations the pairing of baby and knife was disturbing because the mind connected the two words via cutting, but also because the image stuck and telling yourself not to think about applying knife to baby may have lead to a mental deepening of the scenario rather than its dispersion.
(When faced with gloom, it’s worth trying to direct the ironic process towards a positive purpose by trying really hard not to think about, for example, cuddly white teddybears.)
Like with other unbalancing acts, the more stressed you are the more distress persistent, unshakable negative thoughts can cause you. Which is why reading emotionally challenging books during a difficult period at work, for example, can affect you more than reading them during your vacation. Continue reading “I’m Not Telling You What I’m Telling You”
On the power of word associations and “The Danger in Associations of Thoughts” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.
Green for spring-growth, blue for water, white for air. Yellow for the sun, black for mourning, white for wedding. You may disagree, depending on culture or idiosyncrasy. But the fact stands: some colours are associatedto some objects, gestures, rituals—and the connection is exploited as well as propagated by literature.
And that’s only the colours and their meanings.
Language itself carries encoded other associative dimensions. For example, in English, words containing a metaphorical up usually stand for positive emotions. For example: buoyancy, bouncing, floating, flying. Conversely, sinking, submerging, descending, falling, are words that contain a metaphorical down and therefore convey negative emotions. (Lakoff and Johnson go into detail in Metaphors We Live by).
Of course, connotations of words can be bent away from their most common denotations. Take floating, for example, and shade it with gloom:
She floated about, giddy with shock.
The drugs made her float like a ghost in her own body.
Standing over the coffin of his late uncle, the man felt eviscerated, emptied of sense and purpose, and carried along by grief, like a husk barely floating on the surface of a steady, but merciless stream.
Note that in each case the act of floatation had to be qualified before it could achieve its opposite sense: shock, drugs-ghost, elaborate grief padding. And even then, the first two sentences don’t unequivocally carry negative meaning without further context (perhaps the shock was due to a promotion; perhaps the drugs alleviated debilitating pain). Continue reading “Dangerous Word Associations”
On the try-fail-speechless cycle of helplessness, and “The Demolition Workshop” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.
Bullets chase you, or an illness, or even just last month’s bills. If evasion and shielding fail, your soft flesh—whatever the pursuer’s weapon—will suffer. The inability to prevent cataclysmic injury leads to helplessness.
As there are many wars out there, daily, personal, and local, on top of the devastating regional ones, let’s consider the most extreme cases where life is endangered without any rational escape options.
In such situations, what your body does as a reflex or on mental command simply matters no longer—a realisation which goes against the fundamental survival instinct creating a paradox of the highest order. If the situation is somehow protracted, for example in the cases of people trapped inside confined spaces or of those tortured over longer periods, helplessness will have time to set in.
What happens then nobody wishes to find out voluntarily, in situ, but fiction does go exploring. At the very least, fiction allows a reader to explore an atrocious situation, broadening their empathic response, their insight, and their ability to prevent arriving at similar circumstances. Continue reading “Writing Helplessness”
On how scientific terminology hides the feeling of dread in “The Assault of the Swaying Saber” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.
Fear is a state of anticipated pain.
Broken bones, broken friendships, broken dreams—so many kinds of pain can be anticipated, that it’s possible to rephrase every decision, conscious and not, as a decision made out of fear. I’ll take the longer path because I fear falling on the black ice coating the shorter path; I’ll tell my boss I’m well-suited to take on an important client (even if I’m not sure) because I fear projecting incompetence.
Worse, it’s often a choice between lesser fears: I fear starting a new hobby, because it’ll be time-consuming and difficult; I fear not starting a new hobby, because all my friends have one and I’ll stand out as the only klutz.
As a primal instinct, fear pertains to basic, life-threatening harm or physical pain, but we’ve built up a society where what’s “in your head” is often equally prominent. Accordingly, fictional characters reflect the whole gamut: between rapaciousness due to want and retreating due to fear you can summarise the motivational background of any character.
On how the suspense-tension-reveal sequence is reversed in “Man-Sling” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.
Macabre isn’t the word I’m looking for. Yet it presents itself, perhaps chiefly because of Stephen King’s book Dance Macabre.
The word, with a capital M, has its own entry in the OED as part of the phrase dance of Macabre, meaning the Dance of Death, which in turn represents the medieval allegory of Death leading the dance of souls to the grave.
Even if you refuse to read about pirouetting skeletons, you may have unwittingly enjoyed Camille Saint-Saëns’s Dance Macabre, a symphonic poem from 1874:
Returning to King’s book: even though I haven’t read it, I have seen it quoted and paraphrased for its delineation of three concepts in fiction: revulsion, horror, and terror. It’s a useful gradation, regardless of genre or topic, because it pinpoints the crease between the explicit and the implicit.
Here’s how King’s words have filtered down to me.
Revulsion or gross-out is when you’re told about the eye that burst out of its socket and splattered the doctor, or the parents who threw at each other the heart of their unborn child, or the woman who was walled in with the heads of her lovers, or the long-haired zingaro serenading a pile of severed body parts while admiring his reflection in a lake of blood (mostly images from Barbey and Lorrain). It’s all red and mushy, and anyone Halloween-minded can do it. The sufficiently exaggerated gross-out is grotesque.
Horror is the moment you take out a bunch of beautiful flowers from a precious historic vase and find a baby’s body providing compost feed (Barbey). Horror is the realisation before the gross-out.
Terror is the suspense before the horror that never quite happens: it’s the quiet laughter in the cellar that is empty when you turn on the light; it’s the attic that calls to you, but when you get there is only full of creaking boards and whistling wind; it’s the nightmare in which you’re chased with a chainsaw, but when you wake up, you see that you’re safe, except there’s a trail of blood across your living room carpet leading to the toolshed.
Terror is almost perpetual horror that prolongs the repulsive revelation, the way a romantic comedy prolongs the first kiss.
On the fine splitting of self in “Circulating through My Body” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.
Uhtceare opened my eyes this morning.
It means dawn-care, or the act of lying awake, worrying, at dawn.
Judging by its internet presence, Mark Forsyth, author of The Horologicon, is responsible for reviving this word—an obscure one even in Old English.1 In a world of anxiety and hyperactivity, it’s a useful term.
If uhtceare keeps eyes open, so does the fear of uhtceare. Ironically, the fear of worry creates additional (meta) worry. The same mechanism accounts for restlessness on alarm-clock mornings: when there’s only three hours left, instead of making the most of those three hours, the sleeper turns insomniac. We’re cursed with the knowledge of the limit, not the limit itself. Continue reading “Becoming Your Body: Fearing Pain”
On Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”, and reverse personification in “Like the Sea” as a way of exploring interactions with the world.
Suppose an empty room contains a gigantic apple.
That’s a proposition even more disturbing than Rene Magritte’s Listening Room.
Henri Michaux’s collection of texts from 1949, Life in the Folds,is the oddest of gigantic apples. If unchecked, it inflates into a daunting monstrosity of ambiguous intent. Indeed, the exquisite mind-contortion chambers contained within it defy obvious origin or characterisation: I started to write a brief post about Michaux’s work, so I copied out all the interesting quotes, only to realise I’d copied out chunks from nearly every page of the book.
Life in the Folds consists of over fifty short texts (and a few longer ones); they are mostly prose, with titles such as The Man-Sling, On the Skewer, In Plaster, Never Imagine, The Danger in Associations of Thoughts, The Trepanned Patient, Recommended Instrument: Apartment Thunder.
Some could be considered mini-stories with hints of plot, but perhaps a good label is thought experiments, or—to move a step away from scientific connotations and Einstein—violent thoughts. A longer descriptor would be: uncomfortably fascinating meditation on pain: psychological, physical, abstract, concrete, subtle, searing.
It’s easy to dismiss such material as fodder for psychiatrists, especially when we find out that Michaux’s biography includes both war and his wife’s sudden death, but violent thoughts occur in most fiction regardless, as necessary motivators well-woven into the fabric of plot.
It’s also easy to dismiss such material as extraneous or incendiary because violent thoughts already occur in most of life—surely that suffices?—but the subject is often taboo and so, if unaddressed, can lead to people’s lives collapsing insidiously.
With that in mind, there are at least two salubrious approaches to Michaux:
As a reader looking for a contained, concrete space to ruminate on negative feelings about others and the self. Perhaps as a springboard for a later discussion.
As a critic or meta-reader exploring writing techniques that conjure up the weird and the pain-fear-terror-inducing (but not grossly shocking) while observing your own reactions to those selfsame techniques.
Regarding the first approach: Safe exploration of on-page violence, no matter how imaginary or disassociated from heart-rending characterisations, requires mental mettle—if your environment or state of mind isn’t conducive to challenging reading, leave Life in the Folds for another day.
I will focus on the second approach, which inevitably desensitised everything it touches, but please be warned. (This also means I will spoil a fully immersive reading experience for you, both by quoting and by deconstructing the quotes.)
On frames within frames as a storytelling technique in “Diaboliques” by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly.
Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that if you saw Hell through a small window, it would be far more horrific than if you were able to see the place in its entirety.
—Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Diaboliques (translated by Raymond N. MacKenzie)
Boundaries are meaningful when exceptions plant flags on faraway summits.
Conventions love to hate those who break them.
The don’t do that, begs for the what if I do do?
Such questioning of authoritative admonishment leads to the fall of Satan in Milton’s Paradise, to the Faustian deal with the devil, to murder mysteries, to class-breakers like Gatsby, principled men like Atticus Finch, alienated teenagers like Caulfield, contrarian patients like McMurphy, and in general any tension that falls under the I won’t take out the trash because you insist that I do so.
Space sagas defy scientific barriers; the absurdity of Kafka defies reason.
Even walls that protect from valid harm—no matter how noble their cause—inevitably invite curiosity: some want to peek over, some want to vault over. Imagination allows us to do so multiple times, in multiple ways, and still wake up in our own beds, warm. Imagination leads to written fiction, and fiction thrives on probing the transgression: either how it was done or why.
This is why there exist whole literary movements built on investigations of taboos. The merits of reading such fantasies are myriad, from gaining historical and cultural context, to understanding existential issues, to merely expanding your perception of the human condition. For those of us who care about the storytelling technique, such texts exhibit a number of methods for addressing tender topics, eliciting either disgust or empathy, and skirting the sensitivities associated with the “fallen”.
Also fiction can be read because: fun, exposure, and yes, curiosity.
The tricks of snappy dialogue. Examples from Carson, De Lillo, Bukowski, and Calderón.
I can see why you would think that.
Faithless lecherous child.
What can I say.
Destroyer liar sadist fake.
Who else do you say that to.
No one he says.
Oh my love.
That was husband and wife ploughing through their domestic argument.
If any dialogue is said to speed up the plot, then “ping-pong” dialogue is a race-car down the page, or a sledge, or a shoot, or a slippery-slope—wheeeeee!—that sends the reader whizzing along.
The absence of dialogue tags (he said, she said) and dialogue beats (He stood up. She pointed a finger at him.) is pleasant. It’s a light touch. It’s the vastness of air above the ping-pong table, that contributes to the game as much as the paddles and the ball.
(Calling it table tennis doesn’t quite capture the gist of repartee.)
But the tags are not needed in a back-and-forth, and the beats appear naturally even when there are none. Once the protagonists of a story are set, their characters and mannerisms vividly portrayed, it’s easy to imagine who’s doing what. When I first read Carson’s exchange, I saw the husbandand the wife making all sorts of gestures. Upon rereading, the gestures changed—such is the versatility of invisible beats.
I offer three further quotes from very different sources. They all use the same specific “trick” to pull off an effective ping-pong. Can you spot what it is?
Learning from Anne Carson’s “The Beauty of the Husband” how to integrate real-world references into fiction.
Fiction mustn’t begrudge the setting.
Gripping plot and solid character-building are necessary, but interest is still often derived from the specific where, be it your street, Seattle, Middle Earth, or Mars.
However, occasionally the narrative is only loosely tethered to a place, if at all. Then the details come from the characters and their internal worlds, which have to be richly furnished with knowledge, sensibilities, traumas, psychoses, which in turn have to be labelled, easily recalled, and presented in a way that resonates with the reader.
Resonance comes through recognition, and is achieved by recalling common facts—scientific, geographic, historic, cultural, mythological, literary. We’ve all probably heard of Plato, World War II, and the Internet (my readers at least).
You see: lists, lists, and more lists of building blocks. They get boring. Quickly. Also, there are many choices to make, what to include, where. Different references to the real world ground the world of the story differently, and the audience self-selects for those who appreciate that particular grounding.
For example, Anne Carson’s verse-novel The Beauty of the Husbandreferences Duchamp on the first page, to set the mood for a tale of a broken marriage.
of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
which broke in eight pieces in transit from the Brooklyn Museum
to Connecticut (1912)
Even if you were unaware of Duchamp’s mixed-media installation, the mention of artist, work, place, and time, flicks colour onto the background of Carson’s literary painting, so to speak. You know what to expect.
Such references—which are neither part of a traditional, physical setting, nor outright quotes of external sources (though there are some)—are difficult to integrate so the reader doesn’t perceive them as mini info-dumps. It’s a skill, and the first step to mastering it is learning from well-wrought examples.
Mesmerised by Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, I embarked on a more ambitious journey through her world of verse-novels. This blurb warned of complexity:
The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.
If tackling page one was an act of faith in myself, then moving from page one to page two was an act of faith in the author and in her ability to write an “enjoyable” book on marriage, starting with the words A wound. Petty grievances and family drama make for hard reading.
But reality TV this is not. In fact, Carson’s book is the smoothest ninety-minute read.
Of the 145 pages most are nearly blank—the usual sparsity of verse counterbalances the density of its internal images—so it’s easy to breeze through visually.
The consequences of the content are another matter (which is personal).
The writing lessons to be drawn, yet another (which I’ll share).
Shade and shadow. Different or same? Similar? How?
Fowler’s admits they have an almost identical meaning which branches out into a considerable diversity of idiom. Well put, if hardly illuminating. But his mnemonic “clue” to their difference does enlighten.
shade, shadow, nn. The details of this diversity are too many to be catalogued here, but it is a sort of clue to remember that shadow is a piece of shade, related to it as, e.g., pool to water.
So shade fills a shadow to the brim and no farther, and while shadow belongs to a concrete object, shade belongs to the world.
The pool-water analogy is not as trifling as it seems. It’s almost poetic.
So muses Satan on the nectar flowing through Eden. But how much thought does he give to the adjectives derived therefrom: is that flow nectarean or nectareal, or is it paradisean, or perhaps paradisiacal?
In 1968, Fowler’s opines:
nectar has kept the word-makers busy in search of its adjective; nectareal, nectarean, nectared, nectareous, nectarian, nectariferous, nectarine, nectareous, and nectarous, have all been given a chance. Milton, with nectared, nectarine, and nectarous, keeps clear of the four-syllabled forms in which the accent is drawn away from the significant part; and we might do worse than let him decide for us.
Even within such meagre context, the nature of Countess Kausala’s secrets is evident, despite the euphemism. Fiction is a purveyor supreme of such delicate phrasings precisely because they hide the explicit on the page, so that they may reveal a particular (peculiar?) explicitness at the pleasure of the reader’s imagination. In an erotic context, they’re the equivalent of a veil that gets lifted not by the hand but by the mind, and they’re often the difference between seedy and sublime.
In my previous post, I discussed elegant variation—the laboured avoidance of repetition according to Fowler’s—which itself is a useful euphemism employed playfully, but with the more usual, real-world negative connotation.
Euphemising has been around for longer than Photoshop, so it’s also had longer to earn its infamy.
Indeed, as Fowler’s shows us in this entry from 1968, History has clapped along to a rich linguistic variety show: biological states are known to parade powdered, masked, bedecked in feathers, while societal scourges dress up as sophisticated harlequins.
An example of how to edit out repeating words, as guided by Fowler’s advice on “elegant variation”.
By the house grows a poplar. Each spring its branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s rocket-shape.
Try writing a third sentence about the poplar.
Did your sentence use poplar or tree? Did you feel clumsy having to repeat a prominent word that was already used? Or perhaps you went for an unambiguous application of the pronoun (Its roots dig further down into the gravely earth …)? What would you do for a fourth or fifth sentence?
If you’re wondering why word-variation matters, consider the example without it:
By the house grows a tree. Each spring the tree’s branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s bullet-shape.
Aside from losing the specificity, we’ve lost a solid, well-formed image to the inane hammering of a word.
You usually notice that you’ve referred to something in the same way across multiple consecutive sentences during a rereading of a draft. Then comes the question of substitutes. My example above is fairly prototypical for common nouns: there is at least one other word which can serve you immediately (poplar) and one pronoun you can seize on (it). If those are not enough, then the problem lies with uniform (and therefore uninteresting) sentence structure, and it’s a matter of reworking from the elements up.
If it does, critics manufacture reasons for praise. If it does not, the object under scrutiny is shaded with degrees of doom.
This applies to writing, too. In fact, it’s the reason why self-editing is so difficult: of course this essay-poem-post-book comes off beautifully—I conceived it! No one writing for public consumption believes they’re creating a priori substandard or flawed works.
This is also true on a micro level, when it comes to defining what a (good) sentence is. Must it have a subject and a predicate? Or must it just be a unit of coherent thought?
Fowler’s Dictionary offers ten definitions to illustrate the range of approaches. Number 1 takes the ‘popular approach’.
sentence. What is a sentence?
1. A word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose.
It almost sounds like the beginning of a modified Turing test. Note how context sneaks in: purposes are largely intelligible when set off against a particular background.
Number 8 takes the ‘grammarian approach’.
sentence. What is a sentence?
8. A number of words making a complete grammatical structure.
Here the onus is shifted to those willing to define such structures and then grapple with potential exceptions.
Fowler’s 1968 Dictionary on synonymia, tautology, circumlocution, pleonasm, meaningless words, and pairs of commonly confused words—all delicately sautéed and prepared for modern connoisseurs.
Synonyms are like spices: used in moderation, they enhance the taste; used without moderation, they obscure every flavour. Linguistic gustation differentiates between them under the titles synonymia and tautology. Though, of course, pleasurable variety for one reader is overabundance for another.
Let’s have a saucy example.
“She’s an Encyclopaedia, that woman.”
“Of all the vices, ancient and modern, and very interesting to riffle through.” He started stoking up the fire. “There’s everything in that woman, of the ghoul, the lamia, the Greek courtesan, the Barbarian queen, the low prostitute, the great lady of Rome, with something very partial, very gripping, very corruption of the fin-de-siècle, very Baudlerian, if I might put it like that: a slightly funereal seasoning of lust and quasi-Christian resignation; she’s as subject, a case-study. …”
“For the Salpêtrière, eh—let’s say the word. Another neurotic.”
Lorrain specialises in psychological studies of moral decadence—and there is a separate post on his prose—but for now it suffices to note that to some people the quote may appear overdone. And that’s despite me having spared you the accompanying references to Pasiphae and the bull, Messalina’s promiscuity, and Cleopatra in general.
(Writing tip: Observe that Lorrain prepares the reader for the word-train by having his characters be aware of the upcoming speech figure: they call the woman an encyclopaedia. Clever. It helps believability.)
Some of the different ways things can go wrong for a writer, courtesy of Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” (1968 edition).
For Christmas I received from my grandfather-in-law a special present: his lovingly kept second edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers). Even though I’d heard of Fowler’s, seen it referenced, and perused extracts from its modern entries, I’d never actually held it my hands—until now!
Despite this copy’s notable sixty years of age, its pages are in impeccable condition. Fowler’s advice, his examples, and inherent relevance show some wear, but nothing that the author’s sense of humour doesn’t amply recompense. I speak of this 1968 edition. The few more flavourful entries that I was able to search for in a 1996 edition were either non-existent or effectively bowdlerised. What’s left nowadays is the bland and spartan, but most pragmatic, dictionary-speak.
I understand why—political correctness and modernisation march rightly on—though I think the earlier editions can still be enjoyed, if not as go-to guides, then as historical documents. Quirky and witty ones at that. Although, I warn you: quirk and wit have this charismatic presence that often wins out over straight-laced teachings.
Style cannot be learned, but must be brought out and burnished—chisel, sandpaper, diamond dust, all the way down to the spit-and-rub.
On the density of style, and where to find advice on style (Strunk & White and Fowler’s).
Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.
On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.
Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.
For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.
A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his owndictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found inEssays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).
I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.
On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)
The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).
The riddle relies on singling out a few properties (footedness) of its answer (man). The air of mystery is removed further, if you see the answer and riddle presented together in a more standard format:
Man, four-footed at sunrise, two-footed at noon, three-footed at sunset.
This sentence (fragment) is now a metaphorical description qualifying the familiar in less familiar terms.
(You can use this principle to make riddles of you own. Take a metaphorical description, remove the familiar thing being described and pose the rest as a question. For example, what first smells of breakfast, then later smells of hell?)
Penning the poetic finale of a Great American Novel or dramatising a metaphor into a full-blown allegorical play isn’t teachable by example. Exploiting an extended metaphor is.
Template extracted from a quote of Martín Adán’s found in “Cardboard House”.
What is it to you: a flower, a dusty road, a never-ending night? Or would anything short of an essay be too simplistic an answer? To forge captivating, brief similes is often trouble enough, but depending on what is being described and in how much detail, extended metaphors may be called for.
In general, metaphors need not be explicit, like in the last line of Fizgerald’s Great Gatsby:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Here life (or time) is a river—a common enough trope that it can be toyed with implicitly.
On the other hand, metaphors can be explicit, like in the following quote from (and title of) Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream (1635):
What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.
(Act II, line 1195, translated from the Spanish by Edward and Elizabeth Huberman)
Penning the poetic finale of a Great American Novel or dramatising a metaphor into a full-blown allegorical play isn’t teachable by example. Exploiting an extended metaphor is.
In particular, any good example offers a template which can be reused, like Adán’s Quote ofabout life that I’ll work through today. (Translation by Katherine Silver.)
On why personification of objects matters, and an excerpt from Martín Adán’s “Cardboard House”.
Shoes, mules, what’s next? Metal, wooden, tall and thin, ever-present, holding out lights, signs that warn us, ropes that connect us: poles.
Full-blown personification of non-human entities is usually the province of children and the insane, but it shouldn’t be. It’s an essential imaginative method for enriching any environment, even if you do not intend to write a story about it.
Beyond providing private, in-brain entertainment, it develops perspective-switching, awareness of surroundings, discernment of cause-and-effect, and ultimately, I believe, it enhances empathy.
(What does the world look like from the point of view of that paving stone I just stepped on? What’s it like to be trodden on physically? Metaphorically? Now that you’ve thought about it would you do it to a fellow person?)
Of course, separating reality and fiction is crucial when you act, but otherwise, in your head, the knots in a wooden table are free to unknot overnight and straighten out their poor backs, and nightingale floors can be made of flattened vampire birds that attack assassins bent on taking the emperor’s life. Or maybe they’re zombie birds? You decide.
On personifying animals in myth, and an excerpt from Martín Adán’s “Cardboard House”.
When a jack donkey meets a mare you might get a mule. In real life the mule is usually sterile. In fiction the mule can be the creator of worlds. For why not?
Hold that thought.
Nonhuman characters throng mythologies and religions in symbolic roles. Lions, eagles, horses, snakes, dragons and their kin. The powerful, the swift. What about the stolid or the fickle?
Perhaps the most easily forgotten are those who carry the world on their shoulders, unseen. (Not Atlas, though, he’s had his fair amount of press coverage, even siring a common noun.)
I remember the weird plausibility of Terry Pratchett’s idea when I first read it: four elephants carrying his Discworld, while standing on a turtle that swims through space. The notion may or may not derive from anecdotes in Hindu mythology.
Telescoping world-holding responsibility appears elsewhere too. For example, going back a few centuries, there are Kujata and Bahamut, a bull and a fish, whom I discovered through Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. Here’s how he introduces them:
In Moslem cosmology, Kujata is a huge bull endowed with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, and feet. To get from one ear to another or from one eye to another, no more than five hundred years are required. Kujata stands on the back of the fish Bahamut; on the bull’s back is a great rock of ruby, on the rock an angel, and on the angel rests our earth. Under the fifth is a mighty sea, under the sea vast abyss of air, under the air fire, and under the fire a serpent so great that were it not for fear of Allah, this creature might swallow up all creation.
On personifying shoes, an excerpt from Martín Adán’s “Cardboard House”.
Shoes are light, tight, and immaculately polished, they are replaceable and irreplaceable, they come with identical siblings, with willy cousins, with colour variations, straps, studs, belts, laces, eyelets, soles for souls, a unique body odour, a sense of humour, and a rapacious hunger for stripy socks they swallow but never digest.
They live in the cupboard, on the stairs, under the bed, behind the coat stand, and on top of other shoes. They’re found in Van Gogh’s paintings, in ultracrepidarian, in someone else’s walked mile.
They are what makes you yearn to sit down after a long night out and what makes you want to keep going on a long slog home.
They bite the dust, even when you don’t, they take one for the toes, they retaliate with the heel, they kick, dribble, squelch and chork. They dance, they lounge, they sneak away when you need them most, and they give you ten inches of height when you’re young at the price of giving you bunions when you’re old. They are loved and hated, lauded and sexualised, they are bought at a discount only to be returned, they are dragged through the gutter, draggled through the mucky lawn, they are torn, tattered, discarded then rediscovered, they are thrown in protest, they are thrown at vermin, they are forced upon horses, pets, and children. They can kill and they can liberate.
Trainers, boots, high heels; slippers, sandals, flip-flops. Just think: the pressure of their workplace, the ignominy of their position, the assault of odours, the taste of dog fluids, the scraping, the freezing, the frying, the up-close imagery of the lowest places that collect the worst gunk. They take it all in silence; occasionally they squeak.
They protect and serve, almost as much as a police force; they provide security, hope, and companionship almost as much as a family member. They may trip you up, but more often they will break your fall. Even when your tie is crooked and your blouse has wrinkles, they make you decent.
Without shoes in a city you are homeless; without shoes in the wild you are dead.
If you care to read it before I dissect it, here it is. (If you can’t imagine why I’d care to dissect it, see below the Quote.)
Quote: The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast. A frond rubs against a house as the chaste swallows protest. Above, the cirrus sky. Below is the street, extensively, energetically stained with light and shadow as if with soot and chalk. The gentleman’s jacket belches, swells, and belches again. With their brooms, sharp and straight like paintbrushes, the street sweepers make drawings along the tree-lined streets. The street sweepers have the hair of aesthetes, the eyes of drug addicts, the silence of literary men. There are no penumbras. Yes, there is one penumbra: a burst of light in vain spreads through the street that grows longer and longer in order to cancel it out. Here a shadow is not the negation of the light. Here a shadow is ink: it covers things with an imperceptible dimension of thickness; it dyes. The light is a white floury dust that the wind disperses and carries far away. A shabby young girl inserts a cord into bare spools of thread. I insert wooden adjectives into the thick, rugged rope of an idea. At the end of the street, blocking it, a blue wall grows pale until it turns into the sky itself.
I like seeing literary innards—the bones, the flesh, the tendons and the sticky thingamajig that congeals quickly (blood, humour, ichor). The text dies on the table, as it should, but how else am I to learn the anatomy of good writing? Also, there’s something satisfying about realising that all those ancient rhetorical devices—the so-called figures of speech—still form the essence of an evocative description. That said, rhetoric is as far away from oratory in Adán’s writing as you could possibly imagine.
Aren’t you curious how that’s possible?
If you’re a writer, don’t you want to know the secrets?
All of them?
The literary scalpel comes out.
The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast.
A chiasmus inverts the order of words (day, cackles), and is a staple of paradoxes and nifty quotes. It sounds clever, even if it isn’t. It gives meaning, even where there may not be much otherwise. It’s wordplay that compels the mind to juxtapose meaning in unusual ways.
Learning the tricks of effective metaphors by analysing Martín Adán’s descriptions of “sky” in “The Cardboard House”.
Last time I looked up on this blog, I saw Adán’s sun; today, I see his sky.
Sky from Old Norse for cloud.
Welkin from the German for cloud.
The empyrean from the Greek for fire.
Firmament from the Latin for firm.
Cerulean, from the Latin for dark blue, dark green, as applied to sky—that would have been another appropriate synonym, but it’s not. It’s a colour smeared over our heads on clear evenings.
Beyond the synonyms, the obvious adjectives, and the troves of clichés, writers are left to portray the variations of sky as best they can. Like with descriptions of the ubiquitous sun, the task is formidable.
Once again, Martín Adán, in his lyrical fragments from The Cardboard House, shows us where to look for inspiration. Unlike with sun, which carries the essence of unique, compact shininess, the sky, has a vaster, more flexible (and nightly) presence.
Q1–8 are Adán’s descriptions related to sky (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver). Each exhibits a different tactic that could be used to describe any target object:
Convert other objects to descriptors of the target.
Use interactions of objects with the target as descriptors.
Choose kooky words to bring interest into the description.
Pick an original metaphor for the target then extend it to surrounding objects.
State a metaphor explicitly, develop it over a couple of sentences, elevate the ending by combining unpoetic and poetic words.
Sneak in a most original metaphor as a parenthetical aside.
List the target alongside other objects, thereby creating a complex blend.
Negate the target.
I’ve underlined the points of interest: sometimes they are whole constructions, sometimes they are quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that transform the ordinary into the interesting.
Q1: The vulgar epic poem of the summer, the red sky, the sun sky, and night as a shout.
Analysis: This is an enallage, or deliberate grammatical mistake, using a noun as an adjective.
Writing tip: Use nouns as adjectives. E.g. Paper on the breeze, flying paper, butterfly paper.
Learning the tricks of effective metaphors by analysing Martín Adán’s descriptions of “sun” in “The Cardboard House”.
How would you describe the sun?
Most immediate answers are trite. And that’s because the sun is an ancient presence in our lives, which means most people in the history of language have reported about it, exhausting whole swathes of linguistic options.
In writing, the weather is a bit like that sex scene: it needs to be mentioned, but unless you have something fresh to contribute, you’re better off not dwelling on the subject—everyone knows what it looks like and is quite satisfied if you state the temperature and the likelihood of rain.
Taking that into account, I am appreciative of writers who offer even a single neat and novel way to say it’s sunny. And when I find a writer who does it page after page, like Martín Adán, seemingly only writing about the sun without repeating himself, I rush to learn how.
Martín Adán (1908 – 1985) was a Peruvian poet who published his only novel, The Cardboard House, when he was twenty years old. The book meanders through page-long vignettes of life in Lima surrounded by sky, sea, and city. Adán’s work in general is described as hermetic, metaphysical, deep, full of symbolic metaphors. That may be so, but from a superficial literary standpoint—were there such a thing—in Cardboard House, he excels at lyrical descriptions of the commonplace seaside scenes.
Although the credit for the content goes to Adán, the credit for the beautiful English rendition goes to Katherine Silver.
Effective, innovative descriptions are hard to craft. They take practice (practice, practice, practice) and an ear developed through reading: that’s the general advice, and I’m yet to come across a book that teaches you how it’s done. But the learning process can be sped up—like when coining new meld-compounds—by analysing, and then mimicking, the tactics employed by successful examples.
The elementary descriptive figures of speech are simile, metaphor, and personification. Tips for identifying them:
On the elements of metafiction and Julio Cortázar’s short story “Continuity of Parks”.
If you look in the mirror and see your reflection, you are seeing reality.
If you look in the mirror and see the back of your head, you are seeing a self-referential impossibility. You are seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence—an existence you are suddenly aware of.
Now, what if you are a fiction seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence?
Metafiction is fiction about fiction.
The proliferation of metafiction is part of humanity’s cultural progression. In the past fifty years, it’s ridden the rising wave of societal self-awareness. More recently, the language of recursive programming routines has been filtering into daily life.
Although, nothing about metafiction is new: it is an embodiment of self-consciousness in literature.
I am (aware of) me.
As far as I am concerned that sentence illustrates four tropes, one or all of which occur in any metafiction: symmetry, circularity, branching, and (questioning of) being.
Without delving into ontology or going all Chomsky on you, to make sense of I am me you need two entities that are:
distinct (if only for a moment, so that you can hold them apart in your head before identifying them),
connected (via an identification),
essential to your being (are the essence of you).
The ephemeral distinctness is the branching. The connectedness of you with you is a circular argument. The essence of you is at the heart of being.
Symmetry—in the sense of not-necessarily perfect mirroring, reflection, duality, self-splitting, identification—is both the most fundamental trope of metafiction, and it is contained in the other three:
the basic, choice-free branching is a symmetrical one,
the basic circular function is a reflection there and back,
the basic test of existence (of a degree of self-consciousness) is the mirror.
The difference between point of view (POV) and viewpoint (character), and an analysis of Julio Cortázar’s “Blow-up” that switches between first-person to third-person narratives with a fixed viewpoint.
It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.
—Julio Cortázar, Blow-up (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn in Bestiary)
As introductory paragraphs go, explicit indecision about point of view comes high on my list of attention-grabbing gimmicks. Especially when stated so honestly. The last thing a narrator wants to do from the onset is state their own ineptitude.
Unless the clumsiness, the cluelessness, the fracturing of character is a game of deception relevant to the message. And boy do I want to hear that message! It’s likely to be bold, deep, and disruptive—otherwise it wouldn’t survive the bruising journey through opaque linguistic waters.
It screams metafiction.
But before you get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
But before we get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, let us consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
But before one gets all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, one should consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
The pronoun game is real even for the puny blogger.
Each version slants the statement differently: you addresses you, dear reader; we puts me, the author, and you, the reader, on the same side; one tries for neutral and formal.
If blogs have the freedom of choice, other specialised areas have accepted norms. For example, scientific texts mostly eschew I, as too personal and biasing, and often resort to we, which can mean we, the author(s) of the text, or we, as in me, the author, and you, the reader.
Of course, an ocean or two separate Cortázar’s we hurt me at the back of my eyes and the convenient swapping of you-we-one-I every few paragraphs, but it’s worth remembering that even prosaic texts have to resolve this issue (and often do so unsatisfactorily).
Before moving on, I’d like to sort out a possible confusion in terminology: point of view, shortened to POV, and viewpoint (character) are not the same thing to a writer.
(Sloppiness, or editing for elegance and word count, often equates the terms. I’m as guilty as the next person.)
It’s easiest to demonstrate the difference.
Situation: a mother is buying her young son a treat at an ice cream stall.
You can write in first person (a point of view) from at least four different viewpoints:
Mother: I think he’s been a good boy, he deserves an ice cream.
Son: I’ve been a good boy, I deserve an ice cream.
Vendor: I’m glad the strawberry ice cream is selling so well, the new recipe is definitely an improvement.
Ice cream: Why was I so lovingly made, only to be torn to scoops repeatedly? Oh, Food Gods spare me!
On Cortázar’s short story “The Faces of the Medal” written in first-person plural.
Stories are usually written in first-person singular (I vomited a rabbit) or in third-person singular (He vomited a rabbit), where I and he are the protagonists.
Occasionally, the disconcerting second-person singular makes a showing, like in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, or more popularly, in confessions where the reader is requisitioned as judge or jury, like in Albert Camus’s The Fall (here there’s an overarching narrator I, and a second, quasi point of view: you).
If you haven’t thought about how a story in second person would sound, try writing You vomited a rabbit and spinning a narrative therefrom. Then try getting someone to read it; it’s an intrusive, and often grindingly repulsive, experience.
What remains? There’s the first-person plural (we), the second-person plural (you), and the third-person plural (they).
Remarkably, Cortázar’s Bestiary runs the gauntlet of viewpoints (and points of view) and their tangled variations, but his story The Faces of the Medal is consistent: it is written in first-person plural.
On Julio Cortázar and his short stories in “Bestiary”.
I wouldn’t confess my secret either.
I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don’t think, from the lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit.
—Julio Cortázar, Letter of a Young Lady in Paris (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn)
If Jorge Luis Borges is the literary scientist who excels at exhibiting impossible geometries in miniature, Julio Cortázar is the long-winded, mussy-haired standup act with something direly unsettling about each of his stories, something you really want to pin down, but—no matter how closely you listen—you never will.
When I feel that I’m going to bring up a rabbit, I put two fingers in my mouth like an open pincer, and I wait to feel the lukewarm fluff rise in my throat …
For those unfamiliar with Borges, perhaps I should be playing on a comparison with another short-piece writer closer to the Western ear who was also Cortázar’s contemporary: E. B. White.
Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) was an Argentine writer, and part of the flourishing Latin American literary scene of the 50s and 60s.
E. B. White (1899–1985) was na American writer, known for his contributions to the The New Yorker all of which are firmly grounded in reality. (Although, of course, there’s his fiction for children, such as Charlotte’s Web.) My literary-minded readers will know him for the Strunk & White writing manual that contains such classical advice as Omit needless words, Be clear, and Place yourself in the background.
Now for the comparison.
Within the bastion of brilliant writing, Cortázar is the polar opposite of White.
Let me spell that out:
Cortázar does not omit needless words,
Cortázar is not clear,
Cortázar does not place himself (or, rather, the narrator) in the background.
No, no pictures. But at least it’s multiple choice.
Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice published in 2014, is a novel-exam hybrid which I’ll refer to as a novexam. It is divided in five sections according to the types of questions he asks of the reader. Section I contains the following instructions (translation from the Spanish by Megan McDowell):
In exercises 1 through 24, mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.
How would you answer?
Manifold is almost a synonym for multiple, as is numerous, as is the first meaning of untold. But what of five and two? They’re related to each other (as numbers), and they’re both multiples, even if two is smaller than five. The dilemma may appear trivial, or subtle, or indeed unsettling depending on how you see it.
To my US readers: who just had a flashback to an SAT nightmare?
To everyone: if I were giving out instructions on how to read this, and any other, novexam I’d say: before and after reading each “question” remember—remember!—that this is voluntary and no one will grade your answers. Otherwise you may not progress past the first few questions, or you may find your blood pressure needs medical attention.
A unique reading experience is undeniably Zambra’s intention, so you shouldn’t completely anaesthetise yourself from the emotional impact, but if you’re unused to challenging books, beware.
— Mini spoiler alert: I will not reveal the plot of the stories, and there are plots and stories in the book; however, I may reveal the moral of Section I, and therefore possibly part of the overall message Zambra wishes to impart—
On the “difficult” words in any book and what they tell us about its contents.
As much as speed-reading is in vogue, speed-learning unfamiliar words is still a rather less flaunted ability. Perhaps because it is harder to define.
Does learning a word mean acquainting yourself with its first meaning, with all its meanings, with its pronunciation, its origins, its examples and seeing its effect as you apply it in an appropriate setting? Learning has some degree of knowing as its goal. Can it be said that you know a word if, after having supposedly learned it, you have never again thought of it? (If your answer is yes, you haven’t ever attempted to learn a foreign language, and failed.)
Some words we get for free as we grow up; some we get for cheap by osmosis.
The setting often aids us: if I tell you of a milky-white small roundish object called X, and say it’s on a necklace, you might think it’s a type of pearl; if I say it’s on a plate, you might think it’s type of rice. But it could have been ivory in the first instance, and salt in the second. You can’t be sure, unless you’re sure of the word’s meaning.
Life is too short and language too multitudinous for us to know every word in every book we pick up. In fact, I am disappointed if I have failed to find a single interesting word in a text: unknown, referential, inventively used, made-up, altered—I am open to being surprised. Banal word-strings leave me with a sense of wasted time.
(In the strictest sense this can hardly occur, so I’ve set some minimum requirements for interesting words.)
In most cases, after having marked up my reading, I am left with numerous circled words which might merit investigation—and only a fraction of which will. That fraction is what I call the quirk words of a book.
Taken as a list, the quirk words can say a lot about a book: they cluster around the subject matter, they gravitate towards borrowings from the language in which the book was written (if not English), they’re dated to match the described era or the era in which the book was written.
This is not particularly surprising. A quirk list of a book varies from person to person, exhibiting the vocabulary deficiency of the reader with respect to that particular book. However, assuming we’re referring to fairly well-rounded readers, most of the words on each quirk list will be relatively rare in English overall (Frequency Bands 1–4 in the OED). These are the subject-related, the regional, the colloquial or the technical words—and each implies a specific application and context, narrowing down the kind of text it may be sensibly found in.
On crafting complex colours (meld and compound words). Examples taken from W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, Keri Hulme.
Approximately 90 posts and 90 books ago, in mid-April this year, I wrote about Keri Hulme’s The Bone People—the beautiful, unusual love story that won the Booker Prize for 1985. I titled the article Seabluegreen Eyes to mark my appreciation of her meld words, and, as it turns out, to mark a change in how I viewed English words.
Since then, I have become a hunter of creative and effective meld words (consisting of two or more words that have been merged, like seabluegreen) and compound words (consisting of two or more words joined by hyphens to create new nouns, adjectives, verbs, like Yeats’s red-rose-bordered hem). I seek out those neologisms that bring something genuinely new—beyond syntactic surprise—into a sentence or stanza.
Unsurprisingly, they’re seldom found.
Firstly, there is a modern tendency to avoid hyphenated hybrids: in 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from 16,000 words, either by splitting the words (ice-cream became ice cream) or by melding them (bumble bee became bumblebee). But those were old words. The University of Oxford Style Guide from 2014, for example, offers the following advice in general: To make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words (e.g. it’s webpages not web-pages). I suppose the Guide would prefer to see Hulme’s seabluegreen just like that, rather than as sea-blue-green, but perhaps today it’d tell Yeats to write redrose-bordered hem?
Secondly, at around 200,000 words, some obsolete, some regional, some derivatives, English is fairly rich and nuanced by most standards. One may think, then, that the coining of an inventive compound or meld word—outside of novel applications in science, technology, and trends—is either a sign of a greedy mind unaware of a well-established equivalent, or of a greedy mind aware that none of the well-established equivalents will do. The former type of greed is almost guaranteed by the scarcity of the latter.