Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Playing at Writing a Novel

A timely coincidence: Fadi Abou-Rihan, of The Psychoanalytic Field has recently posted the first of a series he plans to write on Winnicott and Play.

(D.W. Winnicott, 1896-71)

Two relevant quotes from Winnicott:
"It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people--the transitional space--that intimate relationships and creativity occur." (from "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," 1951)

"The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested as play." (from "Playing: Its Theoretical Status in the Clinical Situation," 1971)
Many good links on that last cited page--on creativity and play.

I find the idea of the "found" transitional object, which shares and (if I'm following this) mediates between subject and external reality, one that resonates with my experience of writing--something I'm most keenly aware of when I'm struggling to "find" my way--as I have been for many weeks on my current novel. Success always feels like discovery--but of something that was both already present, and in a sense, known--and yet truly found, as something that did not exist before, as though the discovery, the finding, is what brought it into existence. But how is it possible to bring into existence what already was there in the external world? Again, if I understand this--there is a coming together of the three aspects, and in writing then, what is found, what is new, would be the delimiting form, the new limits set by narrative, dialog, description, argument--as they are realized--literally--in the precise sense of the word, in the work as it takes shape on the page.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Reactionary Criticism

from Gombrowitz's Ferdydurke

Our element is unending immaturity. What we think, feel today will unavoidably be silliness to our great grandchildren. It is better then that we should acknowledge today that portion of silliness which time will reveal...We shall soon realize that the most important: is not: to die for ideas, styles, theses, slogans, beliefs; and also not: to solidify and enclose ourselves in them; but something different, it is this: to step back a pace and secure a distance from everything that unendingly happens to us.

How clear it is that we are in living a reactionary time. Even Wood--unlike B.R. Myers--though I cannot imagine he is politically or personally so--reverts to a level of reaction that far surpasses Myers and the New Criterion/Atlantic Monthly crowd (if for no other reason, because he's far better read, more intelligent and by far the superior stylist).

Josopovici again, Singer on the Shore... we have not begun to follow through on, to scratch the surface of what the modernists began. We know that if we were to try to follow them (making ourselves modernist reactionaries)--they have already rejected us! How refreshing! We cannot honor them by imitation, not even by imitating ourselves.

But we can play--if only we can remember how.

Playing For the Real

Nigel Beale, asks in a COMMENT to my post "Narrative Game Theory" --am I ...."criticizing realism because it doesn't get the "intra" part right?"

Nigel believes that:
a novel replicates 'real' human experience...by building up and describing a personality...by connecting the reader to the character...the more involved the reader becomes, the more profound and affecting the reading experience.
The only rule is to move the reader...make them laugh or cry or see the world differently...

I have to ask: "seeing the world differently than what?"

I see very little "reality" in what is commonly designated as such. Rather, a felt need to reinforce received illusions, and the pleasure of not being thrown out of one's comfort zone.

What do you really mean by "seeing" the world differently? Is that a general, and largely unvetted metaphor, or can you break it down? Does it include thinking?

The "realism" problem is important because our very socialization--the highly complex civil, political, legal and social structures, cannot function without a wide range of "necessary delusions," like the legal understanding of the relationship between knowledge of right and wrong, and free agency (interestingly, one of the recurrent themes in The Man With No Qualities... the Moosebrugger thread): only one element of the modernist agenda Josipovici complains we have left unfinished.

I am not on the side of an aesthetic in opposition to representation. My complaint with conventional realism is that it isn't, that it is too narrowly real, too dependent on unexamined conventions, too rigidly dependent on those tropes that reinforce received notions. I should not have to suspend the better part of my critical faculties to find pleasure in a work of fiction. That to me is where aesthetics comes in. There is no possibility of pretending the action on stage in The Tempest is "realistic," or in Kafka's fiction. The pleasure is found in enjoying them first on a freely imaginative plane, for their aesthetic daring, and at the same time, feeling the wonderful tension between that fantasy and how it challenges--demands of us, that we relocate our notions of "reality" within these dramatic and fictive worlds.

I think that's a very good definition of play--of what happens when a child plays, of where play comes from. Play is at the furthest remove from "entertainment," which only exhausts our capacity to question (or to play--the real thing) that we may return to selling ourselves without protest to what or whoever seeks to use and exploit us.

In play, we do not turn away from reality, but freely enter the fantasy to find the reality we have lost, or have yet to discover. I relate the pleasure I find in reading--and my motive to write--not primarily from the joy of reading and being read to as a child (though certainly that), but hours spent digging channels in the outlet of Bass Lake on the beech in Michigan--building a tree fort in my back yard in Chicago--the kind of play that left my muscles sore, my body exhausted and my mind reeling with the pleasure of yet uncataloged discoveries. That's what I want when I read, and without which, I know as soon as the words are on the page that my writing will be dead dead dead.

A final thought: Work, not entertainment, is the true extension of play. Work versus labor, as Hannah Arendt would understand it. A pretty good counter to those who complain about "difficult" art, literature that makes you work!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Resistant Brain--Reading Zukofsky

When we find ourselves perplexed in our reading of poetry or prose, unable to inhabit the words, to dissolve the opacity, the problem may be our brain running interference, telling us to decipher it by the wrong set of rules.

Brooks Winchell has an admirably lucid post about working through the difficulties of reading Zukofsky.

The four Zukofsky related links also posted on Lute's Corner

Friday, July 25, 2008

Figure and Ground: More Thinking Outloud

Steven Beattie asked, in a post to my Thinking Outloud:

"I wonder, is there a way to reconcile the desire to view the reading of a novel as a purely aesthetic experience with the desire to engage in an act of interpretation? Should this even be an issue?"

Both of my posts are as much about writing as reading and interpretation--what I call the aesthetics of process. Writing is another form of reading--reading an unfixed text. Reading... drawing on the newspad, still in the dark.

Isn't every interpretation an attempt to do just that? How could it not be? Because we have a split subject, aren't we always talking about two things: the text and our own response. We go wrong if we either forget that we are in fact involved and part of the subject, or overwhelm the text with a response that is not sufficiently engaged with it for its own sake.

In the post quoted above I was thinking about painting--as though Emma and Mr. Knightley were figures on a ground in a painting and the question had to do with distinguishing figure from ground.

Emma and Mr. Knightley are made of words. Goya's naked Maja is made of paint. What are the rules that identify Emma-words from not-Emma words? If we ask how the interpretation of a text is like and unlike interpreting a figurative painting, we realize that it's really a question about our brains. So now we have three levels to the basic interpretive act. I’m guessing that what enables the brains of humans, apes, porpoises, and elephants to recognize their own image in a mirror, is related to how we are able to distinguish the nude Maja from the couch she reclines on, how the Phoenicians, Greeks and Hebrews--whose earliest writing did not add spaces between words--came to see and conceptualize words as separate units--figure and ground. Second level--and this is where I began: how writing isolates subject from ground, subject from subject, analogous to how we visualize what is before us.

Many years ago I took a drawing class at Wichita State University--a primal experience. A room had been especially prepared to block out all light: blackout curtains, baffles around the door. A screen was set up in the front of the room. One small bead of red light left on over the screen so we wouldn't become disoriented in the first five minutes or so of perfect darkness. There was a slide projector rigged to increase simultaneously, intensity of the projected light and focus. The challenge was to render the image that was gradually becoming visible on the screen, drawing on our large pads of newsprint with sticks of charcoal. At first there would be nothing but a slight fog of light at the threshold of visibility: this, or course, would in the end, be the brightest area in the field. Only at the very end did the whole image come together--at which point the exercise was over and the lights were turned on and we could judge the success of our efforts--a landscape, a portrait, buildings that we had made without ever knowing what it was we were drawing.

What is a drawing made of? Not charcoal and paper... a complex interrelationship of light and dark. That is the middle level. In a text, words work to suggest a complex set of relationships between ideas (in the way we usually use that word), brain images, sets of affective instructions, the grammar of the narrative (what I was calling "rules" ), and... that in reading we are guided to visualize (sensualize) figure and ground, figure and ground in changing relationships over time (into the narrative future... which may be into the "past") , until we come to a place where the whole appears (appears to appear) before us. When I read a book or poem I experience something like what happened in those drawing lessons. While I was still drawing, still physically in the dark, there was a rush of images ideas guesses constantly discarded revised and replaced until the "epiphany" --the illusion of the whole. While reading, in the literal darkness, there is a rush of images ideas surmises until the illusion of the whole at the end.

The thing is, you never have the whole. The whole is bought at the cost of deletions, erasures, a narrowing of focus, so on opening the novel again, the details come back into play--down to grammar syntax peculiarities of style, until out of that everchanging rush... a new whole, which is always, at the end of every reading, the perfect figure of death. Blanchot was right. Why else is it so hard to "finish" a work?

"... give up youthful passions, make friends with death"

Thursday, July 24, 2008

From the Valve.. awesome review of the Dark Knight.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Narrative Game Theory (How Does Fiction REALLY Work?)

This is thinking-out-loud...

The novel as self-generating game. What it generates is the game, the rules of the game, rules to reconstruct old and generate new rules. What are rules? Rules are what they do. What do they do? Rules define the parameters of change.

... I think I just learned something from Gertrude Stein.

If everything changes change will be invisible, undetectable. Everything does change but in pretending to hold some elements constant in memory comparison is possible. What it was, what it is (what it will be?) What it will be is the unknown to solve for. In fiction time can go backwards. The unknown-that-will-be can be either in the past or the future. This is, of course, figurative time. In a novel the future, the novelistic future--the unknown that will be--is the end of the book, the next chapter, the next page, the next sentence, the next hyphen comma dash colon semicolon period word phoneme letter

white space.

That is true even if we read backwards. Reading backwards only reverses forward and back, past and future. The future, the novelistic future, lies in what we've not yet read. The future lies. We read to expose the lie. To solve for the unknown. Solving for the unknown generates new unknowns. Why? Because of the rules. The rules are always making and remaking. Making and remaking themselves.

For there to be change there has to be something to change, different kinds of things changing in the novel. "Characters" for instance. We like to think we know what that is, the "character." I ask my students this question. You finished reading Emma. What did Jane Austin make Emma out of? What did Jane Austin make Mr. Knightley out of? We are made of a complex interaction of cells, and organs--interacting with each other and to what is outside the organism. What is Emma made of? What is Mr. Knightley made of? We are all made in basically the same arrangement, of the same material, the same general design. If I hold up a picture, one at a time, of every man woman and child on the planet and ask: what is this? --you could give the same answer for each one: a human being. And yet they are all different. We are all different. Emma is not Mr. Knightley.

Emma and Mr. Knightley must be made of the same things, held together by the same sort of operations... rules that govern change in "characters." Then how can we tell them apart? Are we to believe they are both the same and different--at the same time? Like the animals we believe them to represent? Or is that the fabric of illusion? What we bring to the novel, project onto, into it--from what we believe the world to be? I don't think we can speak of that part, not yet. That's the usual method: mix up what is in the novel with what is in us and what is in us with what is in the novel. Even if that's the most important part--where the meaning lies... that mixing up of us and it, how can we understand what we're thinking about if we can't answer the question: what is Emma made of, What is Mr. Knightley made of? What is in the novel that stays in the novel, that stays the same? Anything? Nothing?

Life is made up of chemical and physical reactions. What distinguishes life from other chemical and physical reactions is the cell, the cell membrane. Without inside/outside there is no life. Characters live in the novel. We live outside the novel, imagining ourselves inside it, imagining the characters outside the novel.... Emma Bovary in Woody Allen's Manhattan. Inside the novel Emma "exists" in space that is not-Emma, and not-Mr.Knightly. What are the rules that tell us what is Emma and what is not-Emma? Emma is one part of the much larger set: not-Mr. Knightly, and Mr. Knightly is one part of the much larger set: not-Emma. Negation makes them visible. Inside/outside.


Place in the novel. Another negation. Each element defined by what it is not, inside meeting outside, outside penetrating, engendering, driving, destroying. Rules taken apart, discarded, replaced by new ones.

In the game of the novel characters are action figures, figures appearing to initiate and suffer action. We speak of character "depth." What is that? A compliment of the complex opperative sets of stasis > encounter > penetration > reaction > adjustment > interaction > stasis.

Two poles of narrative, character, action: where the change is all in the between--and no account is offered of what has penetrated and assimilated into the character--not x becoming x: novel as action movie. The other pole, where everything, even what is presented as not-x, is within, interactions within the organism, the psychic furniture of the assimilated world of out-there. The Metamorphosis ? Endgame? Ferdydurk, Death of Virgil--very close to the end of the graded scale.

Inter-organic, Intra-organic.

Establishment (realist) Literary Fiction pretends to hold to the middle--though it is closer to the Action Movie end than to the Intra-organic.

Wordle: Distracted from Distraction by Distraction...

This is too much. Found this at CosmicVariance


Create word clouds from any text. Now I'll never get any work done...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Reading in South Philly

Summer time... hot. No A.C. (rhymes with A Sea) Not a complaint.

I listen to those reports--you know the ones. The "elderly" left alone in their elderly flats la la la.. I Keep a box fan going on my mostly naked body, take showers, drink plenty of water, juice, seltzer...and into the evening, refreshments more conducive to sleep.

And I read.

I may be seized tomorrow by the G.M. (rhymes with Dim Bleeper) in any one of his guises--but it won't be on account of my inability to remember how to avoid heat stroke. I'm only 67--three years before I have to bid adieu to youth and compulsively wrap myself in scarves and overcoats no matter the season.

Summer readings: tonight, finished The Europeans, which I enjoyed immensely. Sometimes it helps to find where and what we are by giving ourselves freely to what was, and what we are not and never will be again. Oh yeah, first Vol. The Man Without Qualities, Flaubert's Sentimental Education (in English), Makine's Music of Life, Tournier's The Ogre.

Have begun a new piece of short fiction... suggested when I noticed a clerk at our Pennsylvania Communist State Liquor Store-she had a JW ( rhymes with Recovia's Blitzness) flier off to the side... pastel Peaceable Kingdom. A delicious fantasy as I biked home, of how/why someone given to a pledge of abstinence to every imaginable and unimaginable earthly pleasure (my god, how do these people procreate?... without joy? ... the only explanation for Republicans... but JW's don't even vote! ) would find herself vending booze to the Great Unsaved...

Opened Gombrowitz', Ferdydurke tonight. Reading a neat but full of missing links record of web postings from a Poetics List-Serve, compiled by Joel Kuszai--the missing links being the stuff these comments are referring to. Trying to catch up on months of New Yorkers, London Review of Books. Reading Al Ferber's wonderful L'Strange Cafe--me, a connoisseur of neighborhood bars, loving this one. Paul Auster's selected poems in Disappearances... impressive. Several books of poetry by Donald Finkel: The Detachable Man, What Manner of Beast: Adequate Earth: God Hunger, by Michael Ryan, Donna Cartelli's Black Mayonnaise-- (all books bought at Molly's). Continue to improve my reading-French with Fin de partie.

Really enjoyed the Last Reading at Molly's... Ish Klein is awesome.
Summer is good. Social Security makes it even better...

South Philly is great... but I do miss the ocean

Friday, July 18, 2008

Literature Means... Saying What You Mean By Other Means

I've been reading The Europeans. After Musil, quite a wonderful contrast. Not for better or worse, but for how language works. This is early-middle James. More early than middle. 1878. Same year as Daisy Miller--which points in a whole different direction. Or maybe not so different. James just hasn't made the integration yet between what he could do in Daisy Miller, and what he will be able to do on a much higher level when he's learned to perfect the language he needs to do it.

Daisy Miller is, in some ways, a concession to the market--and he did very well by it on that score... but in The Europeans, he's resisting the temptation to please the audience. No happy marriage for Eugenia. I feel Robert Acton standing in for those expectations. He doesn't meet the test. Better to be disappointed in love and true to what you are, what you are meant to do.

But this post was to be about language... how wonderfully repression enriches the possibilities of style! And by contrast, how difficult, how resistant to aesthetic manipulation, is so-called "plain speech." Saying (ahem) "just what you mean."

Of course, no one ever says quite what they mean. Not all of it. And the challenge in a time that pretends to believe that all things are permissible--is to find a way to include what isn't being said in that anti-puritanical (which is only the mirror image and imitation of what it would appear to reject), "directness."

James shows what can be done with indirection--and in this novel, and in The Americans--just where he's learned it. The Europeans are up on these Emersonian New Englanders, not by being more direct, but by knowing what's left out, by being more conscious of it, and knowing how to use indirection to their great advantage. He was going to do this book over and over... The Americans, The Bostonians... until What Maisie Knew. There's where James found his voice.

By far my favorite. Like the difference between the early impressionists Barnes collected and the later workings and reworkings you find in the Annenberg collection--after they'd become quite, (um... profitably) "collectible." James found himself in Maisie. A bold stylistic experiment (he's had to have learned something here from Flaubert)--a narrative that spins itself out, not on what happens, but on this child's ever maturing discoveries of stuff that's mostly already happened. And he pulls it off. And in doing so, gets himself out of the "Americans/Europeans etc rut, back on track with what he'd found in Portrait of a Lady--but now he's got the voice, the language... that will turn out the late masterpieces, The Golden Bowl, Wings of a Dove. Those long, ever digressing imbricated (Cynthia Ozick's word for them) periodic sentences.. that shimmer like fish scales in changing light.

There's a lesson to be learned here, though I may not be the one to know how to formulate it. A knife that cuts two ways. Against those who believe too naively in the power of mimesis--of the realists--literature as imitation of "life," and those who would give up what has always been the greatest strength of the so-called "realists:" their way of avoiding too direct an expression of what they wanted to represent, and so finding, in that necessary indirection, a way back into the power of language.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Opening the Critical Agenda

Clavida, of Letters from a Librarian, responds to Morgan Meis...

I was also reminded of what this web-world is about -- a particular closeness -- the choice to remain inward and look deep and to perhaps trace out one or two lines -- to help with reading and with responding. What is beautiful is that as these particular affinities pile up, the ones that shine with a truer and clearer understanding -- with a greater effort and a well-informed understanding, those become treasures not just to the blog-readers who share in an affinity, but also to those people who may not have ever responded to a particular work of art. They open up communication (how long have we been saying that) -- but it's not necessarily the communication of web-person to web-person, it's the communication of reader to story, the realized possibility of a response that otherwise may have never been.
We must always be on the watch for too much haste, too little thought, too overbearing of an agenda -- but between the large well-trod flagstones that make up this web-world of readers and responders there have accumulated lovely intricate villages -- like the mosses and gravel and little ant-hills that line the patio -- woven together from disparate elements but still introducing, inspiring and responding.

Read the whole post HERE

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Molly Russakoff's party...

Molly is moving beyond poetry, or maybe not. Maybe into poetry in a new and better way--a way untold, unpredictable; the young men and women she is inviting into her space... for that's what they are, young men and women, however we are want to dismiss them by the names we give them. Though it may not be poetry--or anything like it; their lives will open into their very own unforeseen becoming.

What could be more like poetry?

A bookstore is an education for explorers. When explorers are few, and discouraged if not despised in the usual venues--the public schools, purposefully mismanaged and underfunded to insure the perpetuation of compliant ignorance, and their capitalist alternatives designed to turn out cooperative, relatively better remunerated slaves... what is a poet to do?

But open her store to the store of freely available knowledge?

And so she has begun to do.

A party tonight to kick it off... vintage South Philly. Wine, cold cuts, good conversation... a near look-alike of Penelope Cruz... (well, that's not everyday South Philly... then... what is?) probably her much smarter sister. But nice to look at out the corner of my eye.

Who, other than Ron Silliman, has read even a fraction of poets published in the last 50 years. How to keep up? I am hopelessly behind. But that sometimes leads to a private discovery--for me, tonight (the commercial and pragmatic purpose of this party was to exchange books for cash for the next venture) was in finding in the sack of books I took home, a name I probably should be, but was not aware of... Donald Finkel.

I may not like much else (I bought 3 of his books, so should soon know) but the epitaph in his What Manner of Beast, "There is no abyss between man and animals; the two domains are separated by a tiny rivulet which a baby could step over." REMY DE GOURMONT, The Natural Philosophy of Love ... for one like me... with profound animal friendships... this looked promising.

Here's the poem I opened to, from The Detachable Man.


The mongrel licks his thorn-torn forepaw
doggedly, a dithyramb of licking.
an epic of cleansing.
His wound glistens, naked as water,
as unashamed.

We let our wounds skin over,
a crust of desiccated gestures,
old grimaces stiffening into masks
while we look away.

Then we worry them with our thumbnails,
working relentlessly inward from the edges
till at last they bleed.

... an echo of Kafka's ax...

Images: La génération perdue

Photos and illustrations of Hemingway's Paris

The second video works... complete with South Philly Mummer's music... and they misspell E.H's name in the credits.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Storm Stalking

Bertha teases Bermuda

A new storm forms mid-Atlantic.

I am a storm stalker... I cannot help myself

I want to figure out how to write poetry without words. Without language.

Carved in silence.

But visible. Audible.
I want to figure out how to write poetry....

without words.

without language.

People passing on the street before my door will have to stop... look up at the sky ... or down at their feet... where did that come from? they will say to themselves.

And I will sit here, shirt off in the heat, rocking back in my chair. I might even manage a smile (as long as they aren't looking my way).

They'll think it's the helicopter passing far to the west. Or the firecrackers a few blocks away... weeks after the 4th... think no more of it and go on with whatever they were doing and never once in their lives remember this moment--which might have been the most important moment in their lives... and mine.

But I'll remember. I will remember. Each and every one of them--their passing, their passing me by... the way I remember, even when sometimes I forget their names, the women I've entered and left... drawing out of them what I am, what I have become, what I will leave behind when I am no more.

Like the names of the storms... the one's that did not merit immortality, but are named again and again and again... returning until they have learned to do the one thing that will earn them their place in history

Saturday, July 12, 2008

South Philly Flicker

To acknowledge 10,000 visits since I made JRBD public last summer...
South Philly Photos

Inovation, Percolation, Reaction

Silliman has some interesting ideas in this essay on change in poetry and the arts, motivated and unmotivated.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Reading Causes Global Warming!

The answer to climate change? Stay stupid!

From corporate interest groups to journalists looking to sensationalize a story, to political ideologues, scientific writing is fair game: treat it, not for what it is, but as a form of rhetoric--a naive rhetoric that makes no effort to embed its statements in defensive ambiguity, and so, the victim of all the grown-up versions of playground bullies.

Evolution and climate science have been the prize targets of late. Recent posts on RealClimate HERE and HERE give you an idea of how this works, and what demands it places on scientists who take seriously their responsibility to inform the general public.

Why for me, the contributors to RealClimate--and Cosmic Variance, among others, are the heroes of our time. The service they provide to the general public in taking time from their real work is invaluable.

There's a parallel here: we complain about the coverage of literature and the arts, but compared to how the established media treats science--thoroughly corrupted in equal parts by politics and the drive to "entertain," literature comes off pretty well... only because, I suppose, for those with their claws on the levers of power, it matters so much less.

In reading a series of comments on This Space, I was struck by how we are assaulted, in a similar way, by those who launch rhetorical challenges and attacks that are impossible to answer. The most difficult (my illustration here).. are from those who have a degree of intelligence, education... but mistake engagement for confrontation... (or is it, confrontation for engagement?) impossible to know how or what to say to them.

No, science is not the model for aesthetics or critical thought--the analogy to science is just that... a richly ambiguous metaphor. What we should take seriously, is how--the different ways--that theories change. In science, the idea is that that each change leads us closer, to a more all embracing understanding. In aesthetics, no such ultimate goal is possible... or meaningful. We need to free ourselves, not of past errors, as in science, but of the past itself. Which is of course, impossible. So it isn't the past we need to break away from, but a present viewed and understood exclusively in the terms and ideas of the past, without acknowledging how much we--and our way of seeing, feeling, thinking... has changed, and so altered the "reality" we would, as writers, as "artists" represent.

And yet, in this critical debate... conflict... whatever you want to call it, I am at a loss to know how, or with whom, to engage on those elements that matter most to me, as a thinker (such as I manage to be), as a writer, as a reader.

I very much wanted to add a comment to that exchange on This Space--but when another exchange only tightens the jaws of the rhetorical bear trap... what is one to do?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Politics and Peter Handke

When a situation that is extraordinarily ugly and equally complicated meets an outraged sense of injustice, the need to simplify, to assign clear demarcations of blame and demonize anyone who refuses to applaud the conventional morality play as it passes may be as close as we can come to a collective universal. Even when the conventional view may be more right than wrong, for all it leaves out, the model of action and reaction is disturbing: If you doubt just how disturbing--look at its application in the American action and reaction in the seven years following the attack on the World Trade Center.

For those following the surreal political drama that's been following Peter Hadke and his alleged defense of Milosevic, Steve Mitchelmore has a new post on THIS SPACE
with some interesting comments and links--one by Handke translators, Scott Abbot and Zarko Radakvic

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Musil on the Novel: The Break from Realist Fiction

Here is Musil on the novel and realist narrative. Its ending note, an invitation to reach beyond 19th Century conventions of time and causality. In the network of human interaction there is not one, but countless butterflies, each beat of a wing sets in motion and alters the course of new migrations, wars, the generation redistribution and destruction of wealth and power, the vicissitudes of love, the shape of family life, the fate alike of individuals and generations. The novelist who sets out to find language for this, this relationship to reality, is compelled to move beyond the 19th Century tropes and their endless reiteration in establishment realist fiction.

From Volume I, The Man Without Qualities, Vol. 1, Vintage International. Translation by Sophie Wilkins. Chapter 122, Going Home. pp 708-709.
...And in one of those apparently random and abstract thoughts that so often assumed importance in his life, it struck him that when one is overburdened and dreams of simplifying one's life, the basic law of this life, the law one longs for, is nothing other than that of narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: "First this happened and then that happened..." It is the simple sequence of events in which the overwhelmingly manifold nature of things is represented in a unidimensional order, as a mathematician would say, stringing all that has occurred in space and time on a single thread, which calms us; that celebrated "thread of the story," which is, it seems, the thread of life itself. Lucky the man who can say "when," "before," and "after"! Terrible things may have happened to him, he may have writhed in pain, but as soon as he can tell what happened in chronological order, he feels as contented as if the sun were warming his belly. This is the trick the novel artificially turns to account: Whether the wanderer is riding on the highway in pouring rain or crouching through snow and ice at tem below zero, the reader feels a cozy glow, and this would be hard to understand if this eternally dependable narrative device, which even nursemaids can rely on to keep their little charges quiet, this tried=and=true "foreshortening of the mind's perspective," were not already part and parcel of life itself. Most people relate to themselves as storytellers. They usually have no use for poems, and although the occasional "because" or "in order that" gets knotted into the thread of life, they generally detest any brooding that goes beyond that, they love, the ordinary sequence of facts because it has the look of necessity, and the impression that their life has a "course is somehow their refuge from chaos. It now came to Ulrich that he had lost this elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even thought everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer follows a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Text Editor for Writers: JDarkRoom

I've been looking for a text editor since having to give up WordPerfect 5.0 for Dos... I hate MS-Word. It's a business application--not for writers. Certainly not for writers of very long documents. Add to that, how cluttered the Windows screen environment is. When the words are slow in coming, it too easy to be distracted--

CLICK, and I'm playing a game chess. CLICK and I'm checking the progress of Tropical Storm Bertha, CLICK and I'm seeking how many new visitors have been on my blog...

JDarkRoom is a simple full screen text editor. I mean, full screen. Even the bottom panel with the clock and Start and tiny icons--gone. Black screen. Green text (you can change fonts and font colors).

Nothing there but the words. And the dark screen is much easier on the eyes. A blessing for anyone with even a touch of ADD.

Takes 5 minutes to figure out the commands. (F5 gets you a help menu).

F1 for a new document

F6 change color/font

F7 or Ctrl-F for search

F9 - set margins.

Ctrl-L word/line count

Ctrl-S Save

And if you need to get to your browser, Alt-Tab will switch you to the Windows screen.

That's it. You can use your mouse scroll to cruse the document.

And it's free. (donation requested). Uses Java so works on all platforms: Mac, Windows, Linnex.

Have to save your file as .txt. But once the document is written you can open it in Word and format--since almost everyone insists you submit work as Word docs. Even simpler: Ctrl-c to copy your last session or days work, and paste it into Word.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Robert Musil's Analytic Metaphors

I've been struck by the richness of figurative language in The Man Without Qualities. Musil comes up with a seemingly endless variety of metaphors and similes, unexpected, often humorous, often slightly off balance, hitting their target at oblique angles, yet perfect. Think of Twyla Tharp--how her dancers will land off center, choreographed stutter steps, flinging themselves at one another and missing, and how absolutely right it feels.

I wish I'd begun to mark them from the beginning--to take notes. For more than 600 pages I've been trying to understand how he uses metaphor, what it is that marks his style. Then on p. 634 there's a paragraph about metaphors, the points here are repeated in the next chapter, which is a prolonged essay on metaphors (Musil uses the word essay in Montaigne's sense; his protagonist, Ulrich, wants to make his life an essay, a trying out, an experiment as-you-go). Now I can account for the cerebral quality of these comparisons--the metaphor is for Musil the equivalent of a scientific instrument, an analytic tool he uses to take apart things (language, ideas, beliefs, illusions) and recombine them to see what happens. Ulrich himself is a meta-metaphor, a thing of language always in process--why he has no "qualities."

Let me quote Musil. First, toward the end of chapter 115, The Tip of Your Breast is Like a Poppy Leaf:

Now he experienced a moment of that special lucidity that lights up everything going on behind the scenes of oneself, though one may be far from being able to express it. He understood the relationship between a dream and what it expresses,which is no more than analogy, a metaphor, something he often thought about. A metaphor holds a truth and an untruth, felt as inextricably bound up with each other. If one takes it as it is and gives it some sensual form, in the shape of reality, one gets dreams and art; but between these two and real, full-scale life there is a glass partition. If one analyzes it for its rational content and separates the unverifiable from the verifiable, one gets truth and knowledge but kills the feeling. Like certain kinds of bacteria that split an organic substance into two parts, mankind splits the original living body of the metaphor into the firm substance of reality and truth, and the glassy unreality of intuition, faith, and artifact. There seems to be nothing in between; and yet how often a vaguely conceived undertaking does succeed, if only one goes ahead without worrying it too much. Ulrich felt that he had at last emerged from the tangle of streets through which his thoughts and moods had so often taken him, into the central square where all streets had their beginning.

Here you have ideas, several at once, really--developed through a succession of metaphorical analogies, but not at all in the way the "conceit" --a single extended metaphor (he does this on occasion, but not often, and then, to wrap up a set of ideas he's been working through)--but each one independent in itself, each called on to break down for analysis a different aspect of the idea being examined.

A few pages later (637) in chapter 116: The Two Trees of Life and a Proposal To Establish A General Secretariat for Precision and Soul., we find a variation of this idea, only explored from different side. This is Count Leinsdorf speaking.

An Austrian Year or a World Year of Austria is a splendid idea, of course, but I must say that every symbol must in due course turn into something real; that is to say, I can let myself be deeply moved by a symbol without necessarily understanding it, but after a while I am bound to turn away from the rirror of my heart and get something else done, something I have meanwhile found needs doing.

Then on pp. 644-5:

In such a world it was absurd to think in terms of metaphors and the vague borderline shapes life might possibly, or impossibly, assume. Ulrich felt that there was nothing amiss with his perception of life as a crude and needy condition where it was better not to worry too much about tomorrow because it was hard enough to get through today. How could one fail to see that the human world is no hovering, insubstantial thing but craves the most concentrated solidity, for fear that anything out of the way might make it go utterly to pieces? Or, to take it a step further, how could a sound observer fail to recognize that this living compound of anxieties, instincts, and ideas, such as it is, thought it uses ideas at most in order to justify itself, or as stimulants, gives those ideas their form and coherence, whatever defines them and set them in motion? We may press the wine from the grapes but how much more beautiful than a pool of wine is the sloping vineyard with its inedible rough soil and its endless rows of shining wooden stakes. In short, he reflected, the cosmos was generated not by a theory but--he was about to say "by violence," but a word he had not expected leapt to mind and so he finished by thinking: but by violence and love, and the usual linkage between these two is wrong.

The violence here is like that which sunders the parts of the metaphor to better understand it--while rendering it impotent to lend meaning to what such understanding as we've won from it.

p. 647=8

These two basic strategies, the figurative and the unequivocal, have been distinguishable ever since the beginnings of humanity. Single-mindedness is the law of all waking thought and action, as much present in a compelling logical conclusion as in the mind of the blackmailer who enforces his will on his victim step by step, and it arises from the exigencies of life where only the single-minded control of circumstances can avert disaster. Metaphor, by contrast, is like the image that fuses several meanings in a dream; it is the gliding logic of the soul, corresponding to the way things relate to each other in the intuitions of art and religion. [...] No doubt what is called the higher humanism is only the effort to fuse together these two great halves of life, metaphor and truth, once they have been carefully distinguished from each other. But once one has distinguished everything in a metaphor that might be true from what is mere froth, one usually has gained a little truth, but at the cost of destroying the whole value of the metaphor. The extraction of the truth...has had the same effect of boiling down a liquid to thicken it, while the really vital juices and elements escape in a cloud of steam. It is often hard, nowadays, to avoid the impression that the concepts and rules of the moral life are only metaphors that have been boield to death, with the revolting greasy kitchen vapors of humanism billowing around the corpses.