On reading non-standard forms of text: caligramms, asemic writing, automatic writing, lipograms and the undeciphered “Voynich Manuscript”.
Reading is understanding, symbol for symbol, page for page. This understanding can take many traditional forms—literal, intuitive, passive, applicable—but it is the non-traditional forms, the anomalies, that tempt us to explore the boundaries of written communication.
Calligrams, where the arrangement of words forms a shape suggestive of the meaning (blending of visual and literary arts), characteristic of Apollinare’s Calligrammes, and less so of the avant-guard poetry of E. E. Cummings.
Automatic writing, where words are produced (supposedly) without conscious will (associated with surrealism and spiritualistic séances).
Asemic writing, where the result is without fixed message, context, words, though it may appear regular enough to suggest meaning (a “literary” equivalent of abstract art).
Paradoxes, absurdity, and pataphysics (science of imaginary solutions) where anomaly is the rule, or rather, to quote Canadian poet Christian Bök, the rule itself is the exception in a pataphysical science that rules out the rule.
On the four types of readers according to Barthes in “The Pleasure of the Text”: Fetishist, Obsessive, Paranoiac, Hysteric.
What is it that draws us to quick personality tests?
A,B,C,D,E. Please circle the most appropriate answer in the following five to twenty inane, but unbelievably insightful questions.
The result either tells us what we already know, in different words, or what we didn’t want to hear, in diplomatic words.
A. Is the test about a sense of belonging?
(a bot says we’re two of a kind, we should hang out)
B. Or about a sense of difference?
(a bot says we’re apples and oranges, it’s okay to keep quarrelling)
C. Or is the test just a bit of fun?
(tests, fun, really, since when)
D. Or is it fun that can be used as an excellent conversation starter?
(the best we’ve got, really)
E. Or is it fun that can be used as conversation starter, while feeling smug that we lied on it because in truth we believe it’s a sneaky marketing tool sites use to poll their visitors?
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 Joe Orton’s collected works, and a selection of quotes from his “Loot”.
I discovered Joe Orton in a second-hand bookshop, on the bottom shelf, between a travelogue and a potboiler thriller. The front cover featured a cubist grotesque, while the back cover showed a man in his early thirties, crisply sunburnt, sitting back on a patio folding chair wearing nothing but an amused smirk and a pair of decidedly front-and-centre white briefs, fashionable half a century ago. He’s looking at the camera as if to say: “What you see is only the tip of what you’ll get.”
The mixed metaphor, the innuendo, and the natural smugness are a comedic staple—black comedy in his case. The picture spoke to me. I placed a coin on the counter and the yellowing, 1987 copy of his life’s work became mine.
(Orton, English playwright and etymon of the word Ortonesque, was bludgeoned to death by his partner in 1967, at the age of 34, only a few years after his commercial breakthrough.)
It’s always poignant paying virtually nothing for all that somebody’s left behind, though I suspect that’s not what got me the awkward smile from the cashier who rang up the purchase.
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 the illustrated architectural words beginning with letter B in the 1979 Merriam Webster’s Dictionary.
Balcony, baldachin, baptistry, belfry, buttress… All words that are illustrated in the 1979 Merriam Webster. Flipping through, you’d think architecture starts with the letter b.
Is there something more fundamental about buildings and their features, than about other areas of human activity? Or are stony frills easier to draw? What makes ball-flower a better subject of illustration than ballerina, ball bearing, or ball fern?
On the stranger illustrated words beginning with the letter B in the 1979 Merriam Webster’s Dictionary.
The bail of custody, the bail of deliverance. The bail, as an outer wall of a feudal castle. To bail a free spirit is to confine it. A bail as a container used to bail a boat, therefore freeing it from a build up of water on its interior.
That is roughly six meanings of the word bail given in the 1979 Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
The seventh meaning of bail or bale has the largest number of specific senses, which mostly centre on a curved iron part used in everything from wagons and small boats to the trunnions of a cannon to the tympan sheet in a platen printing press. Lastly, though, a bail is:
the usu. arched handle of a kettle pail, or similar vessel.
As curved handles go, my preference lies with the more mouth-rounding boul or bool, which you’d use to refer to the semicircular grip of a teapot or of a pair of scissors. This word, however, did not merit a picture, so I move on with my exploration of illustrated b-words.
On the illustrated words beginning with the letter B in the 1979 Merriam Webster’s Dictionary.
Six months ago, in January, this year’s blogging season began for me with the letter A. I looked at the words that the editors had chosen to illustrate, and therefore highlight, in the 1979 Merriam Webster’s Dictionary.
At six kilograms and a volume of 7650 cubic centimetres, the Dictionary is a slab of language, as hefty as any gravity-based weapon, and as monumental (to my mind) as the stone stele carrying the Code of Hammurabi. Compared literally, it’s sized like the brain of a killer whale.
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.
On fancy literary abodes, and in particular Paul Willems’s “Cathedral of Mist”. And a list of 20+ famous (more or less) literary towers, castles, rooms.
Looking at the diverse collection of M. C. Escher’s sketches, it’s hard to believe there exist impossible architectures he has failed to conjure.
Throw in everything else described on this site, Impossible World, with its historical and modern explorations of the subject, and you’re in a genuine tight spot to think of something new.
So take a sidestep and look at the problem linguistically. Instead of asking about the impossible, ask about the imaginary.
(Note the synaesthetic idioms we swallow daily: you can speak visually—apply the eye to an action of the mouth, and look linguistically—apply language to an action of the eye.)
The sidestep works. Words can paint pictures more bizarre than pencils can. What a warped, inconsistent visual geometry does for sight, a description of an imaginary, non-existent wonder does directly for the brain—many times over and uniquely so for every individual. This shouldn’t be surprising: on paper, a drawing is constrained by two-dimensions and utensil type, while a story is only loosely constrained by two hundred thousand words and some grammar rules (amongst which linearity is chief).
So if you’re not a naturally gifted draughtsman with an instinct for the optical paradox, literary expression is another potential outlet (assuming learning how to write comes more easily to you than learning how to draw well).
Paul Willems on how to regenerate worn words in the short story “In the Horse’s eye”.
Is old hat old hat?
A valid question. Old hat is an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is used to indicate that something is old-fashioned, outdated, hackneyed. But has the entry itself become outdated and hackneyed?
You could ask similar questions of other words: has calling something boring becomeboring, or is talking about clichés now a clichéd activity for a writing blog?
Let me dwell on that last one because, like any writing blog embarking on the topic, I am enticed by the thought that I’ll be able to offer my readers an offbeat experience.
Clichés are the bane of the creative writing (cottage) industry. All aspiring authors realise fairly soon that the phrases first to mind are the phrases first to everyone’s mind. They’re uninteresting in their banality. And to be read, a writer needs to either say something different (in a world where most things have already been said), or say the same things differently (which requires extirpating clichés).
Reaching for unusual words—like extirpate—and combining them with usual words—like cliché—is a common method of seeking out original expression. The problem resurfaces, however, when it becomes apparent that thesauruses are not shortcuts to a rich vocabulary, and that a rich vocabulary in itself is not a shortcut to an ear for elegant phrases (and the discipline to apply said ear consistently). My example works as an eye-stabber, or a comedic hyperbola designed to make a point, but usually an author of fiction isn’t keen to draw attention to word combinations.
(The exceptions are modern meta-fiction or genres dependent on wordplay. For example, Joe Orton’s Loot is a black comedy, so it relies on witty cliché-breaking elements, like the one I marked in bold:
TRUSCOTT. Have you never hear of Truscott? The man who tracked down the limbless girl killer? Or was that sensation before your time?
The slender blade of reason is no more than a probe against the tomahawk of insanity, which can crush a skull with a single blow.
—Louis Levy, Kzradock (translated by W. C. Bamberger)
Doubt about our surroundings, about our reality, about ourselves.
But where should doubt start, and when? What do we gain by being the detectives of our minds and souls?
These are the themes at the core of—take a deep breath—Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier by Louis Levy (1910).
A moment to parse the title of this novella:
Dr Renard is the protagonist.
Kzradock the Onion Man is the title of Part I.
The Spring-Fresh Methuselah is the title of Part II.
A shorter moniker generally aids mental manipulation, so I chose Spring-Onion (no disrespect meant); you might chose something else. I note that the original Danish title at least avoids the English double-barrelled translations: Menneskeløget (Onion Man) and vaarfriske (Spring-Fresh).
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.
Jorge Luis Borges on Kafka instructing Max Bod to burn Kafka’s unpublished work.
In the days before the internet people used more ephemeral media for writing, like paper, like parchment, like papyrus. If you wanted to destroy your work, you would chop it up and commit it to flames. You could also delegate the task, though in modern terms that would be like handing someone your phone and asking them to delete your notes.
Kafka died a month shy of his forty-first birthday, in June 1924. Most of his unpublished work he left to his friend Max Brod with a final request that it all be burned.
In the case of Kafka, we know very little. We only know that he was very dissatisfied with his own work. Of course, when he told his friend Max Brod that he wanted his manuscripts to be burned, as Virgil did, I suppose he knew that his friend wouldn’t do that. If a man wants to destroy his own work, he throws it into a fire, and there it goes. When he tells a close friend of his, I want all the manuscripts to be destroyed, he knows that the friend will never do that, and the friend knows that he knows, and that he knows that the other knows that he knows, and so on and so forth.
True or not, this Borgesian circularity has a particular, pleasing ring to it, like an echo—an echo every reader of Kafka’s work perpetuates.
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 the art of writing tales about solitaries in Michel de Ghelderode’s “Spells”.
Man is alone in life. He’s alone in his cradle as he’ll be alone on his deadbeat; he’s alone in love…
—Michel de Ghelderode, Stealing from Death (translated by George MacLennan)
Alone in a house, on a bus, in the middle of a field. Alone in a room.
Alone in your efforts, in your struggle, in your pain.
Yet, somehow alone does not mean swimming in a sea of silent nothingness. On the contrary, barring meditative states, itmeans alone with your thoughts. And the nonsense that swills around in there, between Willing the Future and Judging the Past, can be quite an imaginatively torturous pandemonium—a stampeding herd of dinosaurs makes less of a fuss.
Grotesque exaggeration in Jean Lorrain’s “Soul-Drinker”.
When it was known that the Queen had given birth to a frog there was consternation in the court; the ladies of the palace remained mute, and no one any longer ventured into the high vestibules except with sealed lips and heart-rending gazes that spoke volumes.
Written in the Yellow nineties (1890s), the stories of The Soul-Drinker reflect the French literary trends of the time. They split into two groups: psychological probings of perverse loves (naturalism) and mock-folktales (symbolism). Both feature a heavily ornate style and themes of moral decadence.
The first group of stories has a similar thrust to Barbey’s Diaboliques, although Lorrain doesn’t attempt such a high level of historical realism. He does use framed narratives, but in a more traditional Holmes-Watson setting, where the Watson narrates what shocking discovery Holmes tells him he has made (although the degree of unreliability is substantial).
Lorrain’s women are dissolute—diabolical, even, like Barbey’s—but instead of them striking precisely, daggers-to-hearts, they seem to be striking with such variety they might as well be the embodiment of everyone on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express.
Lady Vianes are everywhere; blonde, brunette or red-haired, Lady Viane is woman, the woman, the true woman, the Eve of Genesis, Flaubert’s Ennoïa, the eternal enemy, the dancer who drinks the blood of prophets, Salome, Herodias, the impure beast, Bestia. When she kills us physically, she’s called Debauchery; when she kills us morally, she’s called Hatred, and sometimes Life.
The quote insists on its message to the point of hysteria where any genuine shock becomes grotesque, and then even the grotesque loses its original meaning.
If excessive euphemising is one way to neutralise the unpalatable, excessive exaggeration is the other. Pushed far enough, the mealy-mouthed and the loud-mouthed meet at the ineffective extreme with their backs to each other. The difference lies in their respective wakes: pasty grey versus glossy gold. Neither may be to to your liking, but the scenic diapason is worth reviewing. Continue reading “Urns as Hearts”
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?)