Nov 4 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part II

THE RIDDLING IMAGINATION – PART II

(Read PART I here.)

I again return to Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924).

Again, throughout the “story,” the narrator repeats (emphasizes?) the difference between true singing and mere piping—and that differentiating this difference presents an enormous riddle:

Is it in fact singing at all? Although we are unmusical we have a tradition of singing; in the old days our people did sing; this is mentioned in legends and some songs have actually survived, which, it is true, no one can now sing. Thus we have an inkling of what singing is, and Josephine’s art does not really correspond to it. So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life.

We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping––yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work––if that were all true, then indeed Josephine’s alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has.

(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, ed. Nahum Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 361)

In Kafka’s one dramatic work Der Gruftwächter (The Warden of the Tomb) (1916–17), readers-audiences encounter the following exchange:

PRINCE: And what about the guard in the tomb itself?

CHAMBERLAIN: In my opinion this would have a police connotation. It would mean a real guarding of unreal things beyond the human sphere.

(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Tania and James Stern, p. 207)

How would one differentiate the two, between the real singing and the unreal singing?

Thus the riddle: What kind of imagination did Kafka, as a writer of “Josephine the Singer,” display? I’ve generally been bred by books to read the Penman of Prague’s texts as a combination of spontaneity and calculated brooding. Every line in the story seems accidentally inevitable as well as inevitably accidental. He sometimes comes across so precise as to seem mechanical—Professor Nabokov (1899–1977) once said of Kafka’s (Germanic) style in The Metamorphosis was nearly “scientific.”Yet Kafka (as a writer) remains wholly, utterly, and merely human-all-too-human.

Though that’s not so bad. For Kafka (or his literary characters and narrators) are often good-humored humans, even amid intense anxiety of the story’s situation—in the case of “Josephine”—readers are treated to a trial over judging whether certain sounds are vibrant songs or simple pipe tunes.

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Confession: I also hear a spirit of reverie welling up out of Kafka’s narrator in the passage from “Josephine the Singer” And in my own reverie of rereading and remembering Kafka and his narrator, I recall what, though in quite a different context, Dr. John Locke (1632–1704) said of the concept of reverie:

When ideas float in our mind without any reflection or regard of the understanding, it is that which the French call reverie; our language has scarce a name for it:

(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), (II, xix, 1))

For Marie-Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal (1783–1842), a prolonged period of reverie may involve a thousand details—yet those thousands may lead to what he calls “crystallization”:

The imagination finds its progress barred by the ominous warnings of memory, and crystallization stops dead….

I have been advised in the first place to dispense with this word, or, if I cannot do that, to include frequent reminders that by crystallization I mean a certain fever of the imagination which translates a normally commonplace object into something unrecognizable, and makes it an entity apart. Among those who can only achieve happiness through vanity, the man who wishes to excite this fever must take great pains with his cravat and be constantly on the watch over a thousand details, none of which must be neglected.

(De l’amour (Love) (1822), trans. Gilbert and Suzanne Sale, (New York: Penguin, 1957, 1975), (I, xv), pp. 64–65)

Under Stendhal’s scheme, such crystallization is what the seriously idle reader would eventually hope for in the grand (and unrewarding) attempt to understand Kafka’s narrator.

For there remains part of me as a reader that wants to say: Kafka’s narrator is engaged in a Franco-Lockean reverie of determining authentic, bardic singing from the derived pipping of jesters. Kafka’s narrator is trying to determine: What is real, what is unreal? He (or she) is trying to unriddle a riddle. And most of us do this to some extent in everyday life. Will the car ahead actually turn left just because it’s blinker indicates it will? (“Are these girl-scout cookies made from real girl scouts?”)

Post Script

Stendhal the Frenchman (though pretending to be an Italian in his essay De lamour) goes on to explain two kinds of imagination:

1. Keen, impetuous, spontaneous imagination, leading instantly to action, chafing and languishing at a delay of even twenty-four hours…. It is characterized by impatience, and flares into anger against what it cannot obtain. It perceives external objects but these merely add fuel to its fire; it assimilates them and at once converts them to increase the passion.

2. Imagination which kindles only slowly, but which after a time no longer perceives external objects and succeeds in becoming exclusively concerned with, and dependent on, its own passion. This kind of imagination is quite compatible with slowness and even scarcity of ideas. It is conductive to constancy.

(De l’amour, (§ Various Fragments), p. 228)

Thus one can only hope that a deep reverie in piping may lead to the recognition (recognosis, as in, a repeated gnosis—to re-know what you already know, as in Plato’s Menon) of actual singing––a recognition that might even lead to the actualization (via crystallization) of pure song. The great unutterable thing in itself. One cannot rid oneself of the riddle.


Aug 31 2022

Toward an Unbound Civic Imagination

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

So, first I said I thought Americans need to think about imagination more, and think about it seriously, as a tool (but certainly not the tool) for addressing the most pressing problems in contemporary society: traffic congestion, housing shortages, healthcare costs, and mass-shootings––perhaps even the malaise of a lot of contemporary American (particularly Texan) art and literature.

Then I said maybe citizens should be careful, because imagination has its costs, and some of those costs Americans may not want to pay for. In other words, “imagination won’t save us; but don’t then let it slay us.”

Still, it feels wrong to remain inert. My mind remains restless, as if I’ve woken up gasping not for air but for fresher thoughts.

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So I continue my studies of imagination, and there I find that poet-polemicist-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) more than once referred to the imagination as a “restless faculty” of the mind, endowed by “Nature,” and made for “noble” ends (or goals).

Let therefore my “lofty ambition,” my “high hopes” be thus: that we may learn to cultivate (bildung) an “enthusiastic imagination,” one “vivid” and containing civic “reveries” not without spiritual “passion.” Though in this advocacy, I feel as if I’m Dr. Frankenstein wanting to create a new and improved civic American (or Texan):

Clerval! Beloved friend! Even now it delights me to record your words and to dwell on the praise of which you are so eminently deserving. He was a being formed in the “very poetry of nature.” His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the world-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination.

(Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), “Ch. XVIII.”)

The doctor further confesses:

My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea and executed the creation of a man. Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk! Oh! My friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in this state of degradation. (“Ch. XXIV”)

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Twenty-nine years after Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), in her novel Jayne Eyre (1847) mentions “the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of imagination,” (Ch. XXI).

Seventy-seven years after Eyre––but very early in the text of the Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (1924)––André Breton (1896–1966) describes “this imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility.”

Breton’s elder, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), later observed in his essay “A Secret Vice” how:

Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind?

After Tolkien, in one his early studies called The Death of Tragedy (1963), Franco-American critic George Steiner (1929–2020) noted of the English poet Robert Graves (1895–1985):“Graves says, the imagination has extra-territorial rights, and these are guarded by poetry.”

Even so, poetry is not policy.

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As Owen Barfield (1898–1997) once put it, “if law is the point where life and logic meet, perception is the point where life and imagination meet.” So even political and societal perceptions (and the political and societal problems we perceive) inevitably contain a substantial component called imagination.

Moreover, as British philosopher Gertrude Anscombe (1919–2001) reminds us that “what is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.” I think she means that imagination and institution rarely go hand-in-hand. (One might dare argue that anything “institutional” can never be “imaginative.”)

When faced with a dilemma between the institutional and the imaginative, Tolkien, as a young student, chose the latter path:

I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faerie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. (“On Fairy Stories”)

In a similar vein, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), someone of a quite different British disposition that that of Tolkien, nonetheless once pointed out that philosophy too has a greater need for imaginative thinking than brute science requires:

[In Voltaire’s novel Candide] Dr. Pangloss’s in his study can ascertain what soil of universe would, to his way of thinking, be the best possible; he can also convince himself, so long as he stays in his study, that the universe means to satisfy his ethical demands [that “we live in the best of all possible worlds”].

Bernard Bosanquet, until his death one of the recognized leaders of British philosophy, maintained in his Logic, ostensibly on logical grounds, that “it would be hard to believe, for example, in the likelihood of a catastrophe which should overwhelm a progressive civilization like that of modem Europe and its colonies.”

Capacity to believe that the “laws of thought” have comforting political consequences is, a mark of the philosophic bias.

Philosophy, as opposed to science, springs from a kind of self-assertion: a belief that our purposes have an important relation to the purposes of the universe, and that, in the long run, the course of events is bound to be, on the whole, such as we should wish.

Science abandoned this kind of optimism, but is being led towards another: that we, by our intelligence, can make the world such as to satisfy a large proportion of our desires.

This is a practical, as opposed to a metaphysical, optimism. I hope it will not seem to future generations as foolish as that of Dr. Pangloss.

So how do we sort the philosophy from the fairy story, the institutional science from an unbound civic imagination? Is democracy the best of all possible governance? We might ought to follow the method given by the narrator of Stephen King’s novel Revival (2014):

We debated the validity of each (first in my living room, later in this same bed), eventually putting them into four categories: utter bullshit, probable bullshit, impossible to be sure, and hard not to believe. (p. 239)

Some Notes to Some of the Above

Gertrude E. M. Anscombe, “On the Source of the Authority of the State” (1978) The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), p. 131.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning (1928), (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973; Third Edition), p. 29.

Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge, (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 159.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Lecture on the Slave Trade,” June 16, 1795, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Vol. I Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, eds. Lewis Paton and Peter Mann, (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1971),pp. 235–36; Coleridge, Watchman No. 4. March 35, 1796. Coleridge Works Vol. II, p. 131.

Bertrand Russell, “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives,” Unpopular Essays, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950, 1969), pp. 56–57.

George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy,(New York, Hill & Wang, 1963), p. 240.


Aug 22 2022

The Imagination: Toy for the Child, Tool for the Adult

pencil shavings

We need more imagination to address our traffic congestion, our housing shortages, our mass-shooter threats, as well as our energy supplies and climate alterations. We need incubators and accelerators of imaginative thought (not just for the arts) but to aid in determining solutions to our greatest social pains. For where there’s pain, there is a problem. But there, there is also life; because only what is dead feels no pain.

I don’t pretend to be clever enough to know exactly what that fully entails—but I believe it begins with taking imagination very seriously—seriously enough to study it and analyze it (at least for starters).

And if, at the start, we’re too ill-equipped to undertake such an analysis, let us, if nothing else, attempt to analyze the findings of those who have already analyzed the human imagination.

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Let’s cut to the chase by beginning with Hamlet (II, i), where he is confronted by his old buddies from university Guildenstern and Rosencrantz:

HAMLET
What you have,
my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune,
that she sends you to prison hither?

GUILDENSTERN
Prison, my lord!

HAMLET
Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ
Then is the world one.

HAMLET
A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ
We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET
Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so
: to me
it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ
Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too
narrow for your mind. 

Hamlet here seems a bit childish. And one of the major questions, throughout the earlier parts of the play, concerns the audience, along with the rest of the play’s characters, all trying to decide: how authentic is Hamlet’s childish behavior?

While the word imagination isn’t used in this passage, Hamlet’s holding here that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” marks a possible origin to imaginative thought.

I interpret one of the meanings to the line “thinking makes it so” to mean: the act of thinking allows one to discern a difference between two or more things, in this case, the difference between good and bad (whatever that difference may be).

But even if this is but a single legitimate meaning to the line “thinking makes it so”—one might still label it a childish judgment on Hamlet’s behalf.

Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that it is the latter’s “ambition” that “makes” Denmark seem like a prison.

So, from this scene, a reader might extrapolate (or perhaps daydream) the hypothesis that imagination begins either from thinking or from ambition.

Certainly thinking in-and-of-itself is generally not considered to be childish. (But an over-abundance of ambition might be so considered.)

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For the Enlightenment-age sociologist Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), imagination is part of the complex relationship between reason and memory:

Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination. Since imagination has always been esteemed a most favorable omen of future development, it should in no way be dulled. Furthermore, the teacher should give the greatest care to the cultivation of the pupil’s memory, which, though not exactly the same as imagination, is almost identical with it. In adolescence, memory outstrips in vigor all other faculties, and should be intensely trained. Youth’s natural inclination to the arts in which imagination or memory (or a combination of both) is prevalent (such as painting, poetry, oratory, jurisprudence) should by no means be blunted…. The Ancients required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

This is why, writes Vico elsewhere:

As the children of the new-born human race, the first people believed that the sky was no higher than their mountain heights, just as children today think it no higher than the rooftops….

People living in the world’s childhood [that is, the earliest days of humanity] were by nature sublime poets….

By nature, children retain the ideas and names of the people and things they have known first, and later apply them to others they meet who bear a resemblance or relation to the first.

Therefore:

The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects. It is characteristic of children to pick up inanimate objects and to talk to them in their play as if they were living persons.

(Vico, De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time) (1709), trans. Elio Gianturco, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 13–14; Vico, La Scienza Nuova (The Third New Science) (1725), trans. David Marsh, (New York: Penguin, 1999), “Idea of the Work” [¶ 4] 3; I, § 2, xxxvii, [¶ 186], p. 89; I, § 2, lxviii, [¶ 206], p. 92. See also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment) [formerly Philosophical Investigations Part II] in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), (II, xi, 148), p. 208.)

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So I interpret Vico to say: there is this thing called imagination, and its ingredients (or perhaps catalysts) are memory and reason.

But why talk about thinking and memory and reason when the discussion should be about imagination? The terms and concepts keep multiplying, but it seems better to keep it simple and as few as possible.

Yes, the terms and concepts keep multiplying, but that is because, as journalist and social-theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) has explained, when it comes to discussing the particular act of thinking we call imagination, simply because it is a word, it is (and shall always remain) a metaphor for something else:

The chief difficulty here seems to be that for thinking itself—whose language is entirely metaphorical and whose conceptual framework depends entirely on the gift of the metaphor, which bridges the gulf between the visible and the invisible, the world of appearances and the thinking ego—there exists no metaphor that could plausibly illuminate this special activity of the mind, in which something invisible within us deals with the invisibles of the world. All metaphors drawn from the sense will lead us into difficulties for the simple reason that all our senses are essentially cognitive, hence, if understood as activities, have an end outside themselves; they are not Energeia, an end in itself but instruments enabling us to know and deal with the world.

(The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 123)

In other words, we readers cannot “start from zero” (ex nihilo), for—just as there is no emoji for the word emoji––there is no metaphor for metaphor.

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Imagination isn’t just a mental activity—it can also mean a mental place where such activity can occur. In the tale “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (1927), Japanese novelist-poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933) the child character of Giovanni does this effortlessly:

I’m a great big locomotive! Watch as I speed down this incline! And look, my shadow has slipped out in front of me, swaying like a compass needle, he played around in his imagination.

(Night on the Galactic Railroad & Other Stories from Ihatov, trans. Julianne Neville, (Long Island City, New York: One Peace Books, 2014) “§ The Centaurus Festival,” 54)

But one shouldn’t accept Vico’s statements on children and imagination at face value. Some people, like Canadian comedian (and social philosopher) Norm MacDonald (1959–2021) as a child, imagination takes a tremendous amount of effort psychological effort:

So I decided right then and there to see the picture as it really was. I stared at the thing long and hard, trying to only see the paint. But it was no use. All my eyes would allow me to see was the lie. In fact, the longer I gazed at the paint, the more false detail I began to imagine. The boy was crying, as if afraid, and the woman was weaker than I had first believed. I finally gave up. I understood then that it takes a powerful imagination to see a thing for what it really is.

(Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir, (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 20–21)

This passage serves as a kind of over-arching metaphor for Norm’s book—readers don’t really know completely what is fiction or fact or some combination of the two, blended by memory.

Adults too, make use of imagination as a place where they can imagine they know things that they actually don’t know. As the glad genius Umberto Eco (1932–2016) once explained:

Even though I too am incapable of telling an elm from a beech, I can easily recognize mangroves (which I was able to identify one day thanks to having read about them in many travel books) and banyan trees, about which I had received plentiful instructions in Emilio Salgari’s adventure books. But I was convinced I knew nothing about the paletuviere (mentioned equally frequently in Salgari’s books), until on reading an encyclopedia one day I discovered that, in Italian, paletuviere is simply another word for mangrovia. Now I could reread Salgari, imagining mangroves every time he mentioned paletuviere. But what did I do for years and years, from childhood on, reading about these paletuviere without knowing what they were? From the context I had deduced that they were plants, something like trees or bushes, but this was the only property I could manage to associate with the name. Nevertheless, I was able to read on by pretending to know what they were. I used my imagination to integrate what little I had been able to glimpse within the half-open box, but in fact I was taking something on trust.

(Kant e lornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition), trans. Alastair McEwen, (New York: Harcourt, 1997), p. 292)

Finally, compare the imagination of patient Leonard L. in the Awakenings (1973) report by Dr. Oliver Sacks (1933–2015), where the imagination is an aid to survival and quality of life:

Leonard L. had in fact, been hallucinating for years—long before he ever received L-DOPA (although he was unable or unwilling to admit this to me until 1969). Being particularly fond of ‘Western’ scenes and films, Leonard L. had, indeed, ordered the old painting of the shanty-town as long ago as 1955 for the sole and express purpose of hallucinating with it—and it was his custom to ‘animate’ it for a hallucinatory matinée after lunch every day….

Most of the patients’ hallucinations lack the ambivalent, often paranoiac, and in general uncontrollable nature of schizophrenic hallucinations; but that they are, in contrast, very like scenes of normal life, very much like that healthy reality from which these pathetic patients have been cut off for years (by illness, institutionalization, isolation, etc.). The function (and form) of schizophrenic hallucinations, in general, has to do with the denial of reality; whereas the function (and form) of the benign hallucinations seen in Mount Carmel has to do with creating reality, imagining a full and happy and healthy life of a sort which has been cruelly denied to them through Fate. Thus I regard it as a sign of these patients’ health, of their enduring wish to live, and live fully—if only in the realms of imagination and hallucination, which are the only realms where they still enjoy freedom—that they hallucinate all the richness and drama and fullness of life. They hallucinate to survive—as do subjects exposed to extreme sensory, motor, or social isolation; and for this reason, whenever I learn from such a patient that he constructs a rich and benign hallucinatory ‘life,’ I encourage him to the full, as I encourage all creative endeavours which reach out to life.

(Awakenings, (New York: Random House, 1973; Vintage Books, 1990), pp. 214–15)


Apr 30 2022

When Families Together Sing: The Cashes, the Statlers, and the Beatles

London - Georgian Apartments

When Families Together Sing: The Cashes, the Statlers, and the Beatles

Here are two songs about families singing together. The listener may notice that Johnny and June (with the Statler Brothers in the background) sing their song in first-person, while the Beatles sing theirs from a third-person point of view.

And from the Beatles:


Mar 25 2022

Sally Rooney and Sherlock Holmes: Romance and Exhaustion

pencil shavings

SALLY ROONEY AND SHERLOCK HOLMES: ROMANCE AND EXHAUSTION

(Consider the following to be a supportive response to Mary Ann Sieghart’s “Why Are So Many Men Still Resistant to Reading Women?” at Literary Hub, March 8, 2022.)

While St. Patrick’s Day has just passed, we nonetheless remain in an Irish holiday season, with the Spring Equinox, Easter Rising, May Day, (the 100th!) Bloomsday on June 16, and the Battle of the Boyne on July 12.

In such a season, and being an American, I feel free to admit that, more than Saint Bridget, and more than the mythical figure of Deirdre, has actress Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015) served as the central icon for my ideal Irishwoman––an ethic and ethnicity which she defines in her memoir ’Tis Herself (2004):

An Irishwoman is strong and feisty. She has guts and stands up for what she believes in. She believes she is the best at whatever she does and proceeds through life with that knowledge. She can face any hazard that life throws her way and stay with it until she wins. She is loyal to her kinsmen and accepting of others. She’s not above a sock in the jaw if you have it coming. She is only on her knees before God. Yes, I am most definitely an Irishwoman. (p. 3)

Yet so much of the conversation in Irish writer Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends: a Novel (2017) comes across as mundane, moribund, university-centric banter that feels very far from being either “strong” or “feisty.” And though Rooney is said to be something of a socialist as well as a novelist—and I’m sure she could sock me in the jaw if she wanted to––no working-class Joes from Finglas show up in this novel. No sisters to hooligans from Glasgow pop up. No Shankill-type folk mucking about. Hers is instead a modern Dublin without a housing shortage.

Here I must admit to never really having understood the attraction some readers feel for reading about college-age romantic relationships, particularly in fiction. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of how romantically unwanted I felt way back when I was that age. Or maybe I followed Simone Weil’s advice too literally as when she writes in her essay “The Great Beast” how, “relationship breaks its way out of the social. It is the monopoly of the individual. Society is the cave. The way out is solitude,” (Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986), p. 142).

 Or perhaps I simply haven’t been trained to read that kind of prose properly––just as, as C. S. Lewis (native to Belfast), similarly reminds modern readers of their ineptitude for reading medieval allegory:

Young readers in the not ignoble ardours of calf-love, and elderly readers in the mood of reminiscence, whether wistful or ironic, could all find in it [the French Roman de la Rose, 1230–75 AD] the reflection of their own experience. But we are not so fortunately placed. We have to reckon not only with the unfamiliar erotic psychology, but with the unfamiliarity of allegory in general; and, to speak plainly, the art of reading allegory is as dead as the art of writing it, and more urgently in need of revival if we wish to do justice to the Middle Ages. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936), p. 116)

On the other hand, just as Sherlock Holmes once noted that the most commonplace crime can, in fact, be the most mysterious, who’s to say the most commonplace of college flings may not contain their own profound, ineffable mysteries? For as Holmes explains:

“You failed at the beginning of the inquiry to grasp the importance of the single real clue which was presented to you. I had the good fortune to seize upon that, and everything which has occurred since then has served to confirm my original supposition, and, indeed, was the logical sequence of it. Hence things which have perplexed you and made the case more obscure, have served to enlighten me and to strengthen my conclusions. It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without any of those outré and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable. These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so.” (A Study in Scarlet (1887), (I, vii) “Light in the Darkness”)

Rooney’s novel may in fact contain certain “rules of deduction” with regard to the contortions and conversations of college-age relationships:

[Said Holmes to Watson]: “I have a lot of special knowledge which I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully. Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn, are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me is second nature.” (Study in Scarlet, (I, ii) “The Science of Deduction”)

My own ineptitude, meanwhile, has probably, as Holmes would say, “aroused” “scorn” when in fact Rooney may actually be providing “invaluable,” “practical work.”

For Sally Rooney is a true artist—she isn’t just disguising passages from some diary she journaled in adolescence as authentic, literary fiction—she is capable of an occasional strange, sublime metaphor, such as when the narrator informs readers:

He hung up. I closed my eyes and felt all the furniture in my room begin to disappear, like a backward game of Tetris, lifting up toward the top of the screen and then vanishing, and the next thing that would vanish would be me. (Conversations p. 272)

As a reader, I wonder whether Rooney’s character here is, in an emotional sense, thinking backwards the way Sherlock Holmes suggests analytic thinking should proceed:

“I have already explained to you that what is out of the common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance. In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards. That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practise it much. In the every-day affairs of life it is more useful to reason forwards, and so the other comes to be neglected. There are fifty who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically…. If you told them a result, [they] would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.” (Study in Scarlet, (II, vii) “The Conclusion”)

Though it isn’t requisite for composing in an analytical style, Rooney’s prose is quite colorless. That’s not meant metaphorically. I found only two mentions of color in the book. First: “The tip of Bobbi’s cigarette glowed a spectral orange color and released tiny sparks into the air,” and, “On my first day a woman called Linda gave me a black apron and showed me how to make coffee,” (pp. 244, 277). As a reader, I almost feel that Rooney feels nothing new can be given to readers of her prose by including certain hues, just as Samuel Beckett once rewrote Ecclesiastes in the opening lines to his novel Murphy (1938) by penning that “the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

I suppose Rooney should be extended the benefit of the doubt. For some of her descriptions of relationships possess both artistic merit as well as commentary on the (literary) arts. And that commentary involves a feeling of exhaustion of “the nothing new” in the humanities––the sterile, fatigued spirit of those who engage with works of art and literature with a chronic, political gaze, as in this moment:

I’ve never worked hard at anything I said.

That must be why you study English.

Then he said that he was just joking, and actually he had won his school’s gold medal for composition. I love poetry, he said. I love Yeats.

Yeah, I said. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets. (Conversations pp. 200–01)

Similar to the exhaustion found in Rooney’s novel is a line from Irish writer Roddy Doyle’s short story “The Slave” (from his 2011 anthology Bullfighting, Viking), where the narrator reflects how “I can read, for fuck sake. I’m a two books a week man; I eat the fuckin’ things. So, yea. But I don’t remember learning how to read,” (p. 43). In this case it seems his attitude of exhaustion was produced by an overexposure to the arts, while his ignorance of how he learned to read seem rather unintentional.

But to this one might also contrast Dr. Watson’s description of Sherlock Holmes:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. (Study in Scarlet, (I, ii) “The Science of Deduction”)

And later Holmes admits aloud:

“Excuse the admiration of a connoisseur,” said he as he waved his hand towards the line of portraits which covered the opposite wall. “Watson won’t allow that I know anything of art but that is mere jealousy because our views upon the subject differ. Now, these are a really very fine series of portraits.” (The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), “XIII. Fixing the Nets”)

So regarding the above moments in Rooney’s novel and Roddy Doyle’s short story, I wager they contain cases involving an exhaustion with poetics, and possibly, unintentional ignorance; with Holmes, it’s a case of willful ignorance.

Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862), likewise, contains a passage in its eleventh chapter where a character reflects on a seemingly similar attitude of aesthetic nihilism from his son’s friend from college: “Nicholas Petrovich lowered his head and passed a hand over his face. ‘But to reject poetry?’ he asked himself again. ‘To lack all feeling for art, for nature.’” In this case, Nicholas doesn’t know whether the poetic nihilism he has encountered is a product of exhaustion or willful ignorance. It might even be both.

Though I began this piece by dismissing a certain form of literary romance, Arthur Conan Doyle has informed readers that there is always romance:

“There is one other point,” said Inspector MacDonald. “You met Mr. Douglas in a boarding house in London, did you not, and became engaged to him there? Was there any romance, anything secret or mysterious, about the wedding?”

“There was romance. There is always romance. There was nothing mysterious.”

“He had no rival?”

“No, I was quite free.” (The Valley of Fear (1915), (I, v) “The People of the Drama”)

Whether or not Rooney is as exhausted with aesthetic contemplation as I sometimes am when reading about romances occurring among a college-age demographic in a university environment, there is something “quite free” in her writing. And that means I’ll have to keep reading her. Because:

Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed. Everything without exception which is in me is absolutely valueless; and, among the gifts which have come to me from elsewhere, everything which I appropriate becomes valueless immediately as I do so.

––Simone Weil, “The Self,” Simone Weil: an Anthology, p. 103.


Oct 17 2021

When Nothing’s Not New and Everything’s Always Random

typewriter

Some Recent Encounters with Surrealism in Contemporary Literature

I.

I recently reread the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), a habit which, it seems, occurs every five to ten years.

So it was fresh on my mind when I reviewed Nicole I. Nesca’s short-story/poem “Child” (2017).

And maybe, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman says, my attention is too “anchored,” too primed and predisposed to see the surreal when reading recent works of prose, poetry, or something in between.

But it can’t be all that. There must be (a little) something more. For, as Kahneman points out, simply being aware of the biases brought on by an anchor is still only half the battle:

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). (Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) p. 128)

II.

One of the things (I think) Breton is getting at in the Manifesto is that surrealism existed long before he (or anyone else) gave it a name. Breton, moreover, didn’t let himself be lured by the temptations of Originality. He knew he didn’t invent surrealism. Nor was he afraid to list his precursors on the subject:

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism….

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid…

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

And, as I discussed in the Nesca review, part, but not of all, of the “game” (Breton’s word) of surrealism is radical juxtaposition. Let’s let Breton explain again (and admit his unoriginality again):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)….

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

This radical juxtaposition, however, at least in my (mis)understanding of surrealism, brooks no endorsement or herald or call for absolute randomness, á la pseudo-Dadism, anarchism, nihilism, the Voynich manuscript, etcetera. For if surrealism is a “game,” then it must have certain rules. Games remove a certain amount of randomness from any situation. If a game contains so many rules that it (theoretically) removes all randomness from (or within) the game itself, the situation is no longer a game: the situation is a machine: it is completely predictable and repetitive in its outcomes. Or, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it, “Without the random, there can be no new thing,” (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 147).

On the other hand, as Bateson elsewhere pointed out, pure randomness, whether in literature or natural science, can only be achieved via infinite means across an infinite amount of time:

It may well be that any particular pattern (or redundancy) in the method of search will necessarily blind the searcher to certain possible patterns in the universe; and that only RANDOM search can ultimately catch all possible regularities. This ideal will be achieved, however, only by a searcher with infinite time and in a universe which makes available infinite series of data.

(“The Message of Reinforcement” (1966) in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.141–42)

Part of this is because of the difficulty of defining the word “random”:

In both the theory of evolution and the theory of learning, however, the word “random” is conspicuously undefined, and the word is not an easy one to define. In both fields, it is assumed that while change may be dependent upon probabilistic phenomena, the probability of a given change is determined by something different from probability…. The word “random,” upon which all of these explanations turn, appears to be a word whose meaning is hierarchically structured, like the meaning of the word “learning.”

(Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 254–55)

III.

All this is to say that the game of surrealism strikes a balance between pure randomness and absolute predictability. Surrealism, at its best, offers moments of such balance, often through radical juxtaposition, as Margaret O’Brien has recently pointed out:

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

Some recent encounters with surrealism in literature I’ve had include the following emboldened quotations:

The world is a broken lightbulb / no one cares enough about to sweep up. / Please, Marshmallow, lick the glass/ until your tongue bleeds sunlight.

(Austin Davis, “Marshmallow,” Some Houses Are Built with the Wrong Bricks, Massachusetts: Moran Press, 2020)

*****

At first he is ecstatic and brings in his wife who is overjoyed at the lively giant baby. The joy turns to panic soon when they realize the baby is still growing at an alarming rate. After an hour young Philbert is too big to hold. After his nap he is to [sic] big for the house and eats his parents. By the time for “One Life to Live” he had gone through the beach homes of the rich and famous, and working on the western half of Fire Island. By the third rerun of the “Simpsons” he had devoured four million people including the staring back line for the Islanders.

(James Thornton, “Tony Randall vs. the Giant Baby Who Ate Long Island,” Meaty-Ochre no. 1, Austin, Texas: Self-Published, 2019)

*****

Cool sea water sweeps away his jetlag for the time being. Dried off, we eat ice-cream and return to the airport.

(Anthony Rudolf, “Pedraterra,” Two Fables: Pedraterra, Angleterre, (Les Brouzils, France: The Fortnightly Review, 2021) p. 5)


Oct 7 2021

Tenderness: A Writer’s Tool

bookshelf

Lately I’ve noticed when reading some recent works of fiction occasional moments which can only be called (at least to my mind) “tenderness.” As a reader it seems you either catch them or you don’t. Perhaps you have to get attuned, putting your ear to the ground to see if you can hear the train coming etcetra.

Take for example the opening lines from Richard Daub’s short story “The Huffy” (2021), via New Pop Lit:

Day after Christmas, 1983, fifth grade, in the attached garage at Eric’s house—

“They got you a Huffy?” Eric laughed, referring to Carl’s new bike. “Huffys are for losers. Did they buy it at Sears?”

And also this moment from Stacy Swann’s novel Olympus, Texas (Doubleday 2021):

That day, while at school, Hap had missed his brother. He’d been excited when, after walking the quarter mile from the cattle guard, where the bus stopped, his mother met him by swinging open the screen door and setting an impassive March on the porch. “Go play,” she commanded before she went back inside. (p. 18)

Like the old legal definition of obscenity, it must be admitted that while I can’t quite define such tenderness–I can’t tell you why x is tender and y is not–but I know it when it see it. And the tenderness conveyed in these examples seems to be something ephemeral, never sustained; always momentary, never stationary.

But such tenderness isn’t limited to fiction alone. Chris Arnade’s work, which I have studied for several years now, also periodically captures this delicate humanity, this non-poisonous sentimentality at which, in a seizure of squeamishness, the jaded soul too often shrieks:

While we are talking an older regular comes in, who is blind. Not somewhat hard of seeing, but completely blind. A few regulars get up and quietly map out the lay of the bar to him, explaining where he shouldn’t sit based on who else is near by. It is a very sweet moment, that isn’t especially special. Just people being decent. It happens everywhere.

I try not to overthink stuff. I try not to be all metaphorical. But I am buzzed, and it is a blind man coming to a sports bar, something he clearly does all the time. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 2: Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott,” Intellectual Inting, October 7, 2021)

Tenderness is found in those so-called “cheesy,” “cornball,” nostalgia-laced moments of life on the Backrow that more of today’s American writers need to capture (and realize why they really aren’t cheesy) if they sincerely wish to shrug off the group-think elitism they acquired while sitting in the Front Row of so-called writer’s workshops that trained them into submission. As Arnade has recently pointed out:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

So, as writers, let’s find the tender moments, but not metamorphize them. Don’t turn them into allegories, just learn to behold the present moment, be mindful of it. Learn to be, not do—focusing more on what is tender rather than what is travesty.


Sep 4 2021

Short Story Review: “Child” (2017) by Nicole I. Nesca

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Nicole I. Nesca’s Let It Bleed (Screamin’ Skull Press, 2017) is a book of prose and poetry—of verse, vignettes, as well as short stories—and a book both Canadian and American.

In it readers will find pairs, symmetries, contrasts, and sometimes, radical juxtaposition—the kind prophesized (though not before acknowledging necessary precursors) by Bard André Breton (a prophecy which still needs hearing in 2021):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

(André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (c. 1924), trans. unknown)

In Nesca, readers can encounter this idea of radical juxtaposition of either/and with regard to structure-medium-content: similar to the way William Blake’s paintings and poetry can be absorbed with profundity individually, but, when found together, offer an intimidating sense of wonder to those modest readers who nevertheless continue their approach toward Blake’s super-art, though they learn they must approach with fear and trembling.

But in terms of content for either a poem or story—the writing’s agency that acts upon the reader when something jars that reader simply because what the reader encounters is adjacent to something else (and can also occur with painting or music or architecture)—results often in mere perplexity, though occasionally, in sound enlightenment. The results are such things as: McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (1970), a radical juxtaposition of two or three, depending on how you count them, different pieces of music; Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and the irreverence of the title to the movie itself; Metallica’s “One” (1988), which begins as a quiet, solemn dirge toward the singer’s own death, then, shifts into an loud, angry invective against Death itself; Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1989), which is almost two separate movies sandwiched together, though a sandwich with almost nothing in between, so it might be better to say squished; or even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), with its wild rural setting in the South that then moves to the wild metro setting of the North)….

So too with Nesca’s book overall. Particularly, the piece “Child” is what stood out for me upon first-reading (certainly not the last) with its radical juxtaposition.

For here is poetry that flows into prose—but there is a vivid narrative underlying it all, one with a true beginning, middle, and end—yet here also is a clash of lyric and free verse, a clash of Nature’s organic pheasant and Humankind’s artificial rifle, a clash of daughter and father, of life and death.

Or is it not so much a clash, as a balance of all these things?—dare we say a Dao of things?––if my feeble misunderstanding of the Dao is correct? Here I’m thinking of something recently written by Alan MacFarlane, who earlier this summer explained in The Fortnightly Review:

Working in Japan was a larger challenge. As Ruth Benedict, among many western observers, pointed out, the essence of Japan is that it is not an Either/Or civilization, but rather a Both/And one. All categories overlap in Japan and they fluctuate all the time. There are numerous instances of situations and thoughts which do not fit into western binary categories. Just to take one example. I make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the realm of spirit and normal, secular, activities. So, for me a religious service or prayers are sacred, while a game of football is secular.

This does not work in Japan. Many of the so-called sports and games there, often with an ending which mirrors the idea of ‘dao’, the path or way in Shinto and Buddhist thoughts, are both sacred and secular. This is the case with ju-doken-dosu-mo, and with Noh opera. It is true of archery, of sword-making, of the ‘way’ of tea (cha-do), the way of gardens. Indeed, it turns out to be true of all Japanese art and all its crafts, which are both spiritual and secular at the same time.

So, yes, I think Nicole Nesca is getting at something like that Dao, or balance or sense of both-and rather than either-or––in particular in her story-poem “Child,” but also, her book Let It Bleed maybe getting at something similar overall. Overall, this is a book I intend to return to. There is definitely something wild going in Winnipeg, and ’tis nothing to do with weather nor wildlife.


May 20 2021

Short Story Review: “Server” (2020) by Stephan Moran

Western book stack

I don’t recall having that many (consciously) physical reactions to literature…. though upon arriving at the last pages to Andrew Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), I remember being tempted to throw the book across the room.

Since the book was borrowed, I ended up not throwing it (also because it belonged to my supervisor at the time). Later he and I discussed Card’s denouement, and I eventually came to realize it didn’t have (what, as kids, my siblings and I would’ve called) a “trick ending.”

But reading Stephen Moran’s short story “Server” (Moran Press, 2020? [hand-stitched!])—each of the three times that I read it—gave me the heebie-jeebies, a sense of constriction bordering on claustrophobia, the way some people have described how they felt watching Uncut Gems (2019).

My siblings have worked in restaurants over the years, and I try to tip generously except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, so I can somewhat empathize with the server-narrator of the story named Scott. Parts of it certainly reminded me of passages from chapter XIV of Orwell’s memoirish Down and Out in Paris and London (1933):

Between constantly seeing money, and hoping to get it, the waiter comes to identify himself to some extent with his employers. He will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.

And:

According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hôtel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English––no French––and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.

Stephan Moran’s “Server” offers similar sentiments, but much more intensely. The story is nearly pure intensity. Reading it is like running out of coffee but resorting to sticking your finger in an empty light socket in order to wake yourself up.


Aug 19 2020

The Brave New World of Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” (2019)

pencil shavings

I’m very excited to have The Fortnightly Review publish my essay review of Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019).

It covers not only Arnade but has plenty of Thoreau, Frederick Law Olmsted, James Agee and Walker Evans, William Least Heat-Moon, Samuel Johnson, Wesley Yang, Yuval Levin, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.