Aural Suggestion

March 28, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently about a certain poetic technique that I don’t recall ever hearing a name for. I have no idea if it even has a name. But it’s an interesting technique, one which (perhaps) I would like to see more.

It could, I suppose, be called “aural suggestion”. The idea is, you suggest, via rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, that the next word in the poem/song/whatever will be one thing, and then have it be something else. A few examples to show what I mean (none taken from poem of particular merit, but my only intent is to get across the idea of what I mean):

  • From the Nightwish song “Wish I Had An Angel”, there are the lines “Last dance, / first kiss / Your touch, my bliss / Beauty always comes with dark thoughts“. But the kiss-bliss alliteration suggests, to me at least, that the last line ought to be “beauty always comes with darkness“.
  • In my poem “Week-Day of the Conqueror”, a quatrain runs, “Tyr’s time now comes, the fighter god / Off to battle, off to war; / Now Odin’s day, the ravens’ lord / God of wisdom, wolf and lore“. The last word of the last line clearly must rhyme with war, so lore works fine – but in my opinion the wisdom-wolf alliteration builds up to using the word war once again, so, “God of wisdom, wolf, and war“, is aurally suggested, even if rhyming war with war would actually have sounded somewhat odd.
  • There’s a common “joke” in which you ask questions that lead to certain answers, for example, making the victim say the words most, coast, boast, roast. They you ask them, what do you put in a toaster?  They’ll probably say toast. Of course, the correct answer is bread.

Hm… is this a valid poetic technique, or is its inclusion always a mistake? Would the Nightwish song have been better, poetically, if it had in fact run “beauty always comes with darkness”? Or does the aural suggestion add to the meaning – using a single word, “dark thoughts”, to also suggest “darkness”, getting (admittedly similar) two connotations for the price of one? Or is it meaningless – mildly interesting if you happen to notice it, but adding nothing to the beauty or meaning of the poetry?

In my own poem, there’s the line “God of wisdom, wolf, and lore”, with the aural suggestion of “war”. Perhaps the first question is, does this suggest to the listener that Odin is in fact god of wisdom, wolf, war, and lore? Or does it first propose war as something Odin is god of, but then retract it, saying he is instead the god of lore? I think the first “sounds” more accurate, but perhaps both are acceptable readings. Maybe the use of aural suggestion is mostly useful for intentional ambiguity – adding more and perhaps contradictory meanings to a single statement.

Maybe you could even have a poem where a certain word was crucial to its meaning but it was never said – the word was just suggests, so the audience subconsciously thought about it, but the word never appeared in the poem. That would be an interesting, but really difficult, poetic experiment.

Though the joke example, I think, suggests that this is less a poetic technique than a poetic trick – something that the reader will not actually appreciate having in the poem, but instead find annoying.

I don’t really have a point here; just drawing your attention to the idea of aural suggestion. And asking if anyone has ever heard of an actual term for it – “aural suggestion” was just made up by me half an hour ago in an attempt to describe, roughly, what it is. And does anyone have any examples from poems by actually historically important poets that use this?

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Not a Book Review: Crime and Punishment

March 26, 2009

We recently read Crime and Punishment in my Literary Tradition IV class. I’m not going to write a book review, though; just go read it for yourself and see how awesome it is. All I have to say about the book per se is that Svidrigailov is an amazing character, the final three chapters he appears in are fascinating, and the book as a whole is fantastic – my only complaint is with how much Dostoevsky has emotions lead to physical effects – fainting, sickness, etc. It’s somewhat unbelievably Romantic.

Anyway, I’m not writing a book review – but the book actually fits nicely with what I was talking about a few months ago and promised to write a post about but never did (I actually started a draft but never figured out exactly what I wanted to say – you might see why from the rest of this post).

I’m talking about the question of, why do we punish criminals?

Is it because it is “just”? Is it because for the good of society we want to deter people from committing crimes? Is it to rehabilitate the criminal? Do any of these really make sense?

I was thinking about it for a while, and in the end, no… they don’t. If by “make sense” we mean have any firm philosophical backing. If we punish because it is just, aren’t we taking on the role of God, making the state into an idol that determines right from wrong? And what about the fact that “justice” doesn’t always lead to what is best for society? If it’s just a purely utilitarian concept of deterrence, don’t we have to say that even if something is intrinsically wrong – take, for example, murder – that if outlawing it doesn’t reduce the murder rate, we shouldn’t outlaw it? That’s crazy. If we’re trying to rehabilitate the criminal to put him back into society, what are we even to make of life sentences and the death penalty? They seem absurdities – but “common sense” dictates that those are the appropriate punishments for murder. And I’m a  big fan of common sense.

What we might want to say is that we can’t say exactly what our reasons for punishing criminals is, but having criminal law is obviously a good idea, and that all of these suggestions for why we punish criminals ought to be taken into account as evidence for why punishing criminals is a good idea… we justify punishing criminals through a “concilience of inductions” or something like that. But this isn’t satisfying either, in my opinion. And it gives us no way to say what is an appropriate punishment other than “common sense”.

What the book Crime and Punishment points towards is a mixture of justice and rehabilitation – or, rather, redemption. The final goal is to rehabilitate the criminal – but this can’t be done without justice being satisfied (though justice tempered with mercy). Protecting society from the criminal is a nice benefit, but not the primary purpose of the punishment. This makes a lot of sense to me – but it’s based on a fundamentally Christian framework, with the Christian meanings of justice, mercy, and redemption…

But ah well. This might be the best we’ll get. Government are all founded on unjustifiable assertions anyway…


Code Geass

March 22, 2009

I recently finished watching the anime Code Geass (only the second anime I’ve watched, after Death Note). My reaction was… mixed. I have a lot of complaints with it (I hate the anime style of animation, the school half was dumb – the series is about a high-schooler named Lelouch who is also leading a rebellion, and the parts at the school are stupid – and I found some of the events in the main plot somewhat unbelievable). But overall I thought it was good, worth watching if you have nothing better to do with 20 hours of your life (about how long it will take to watch all 50 of the 24-minute-long episodes).

The most interesting part was the ending… but I’m not sure what to make of the ending yet. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say it was well done and succeeded at surprising me. But I’m not sure I agree with the reasoning behind Lelouch’s actions. *shrug*

Anyway, if anyone reading this is really into anime, any suggestions for more anime series I would like, given that I found Death Note more interesting than Code Geass and my main problem with most animes is their immature sense of humor and poor quality of animation?

Incidentally, Wesnoth 1.6 has been released. This is the newest stable release, it has some new campaigns and much better graphics, go try it out. And download the Imperial Era and the associated campaigns as well from the add-on server – you know you want to.


Book Review: The Road

March 17, 2009

Again, over spring break I got a lot of reading done; another one of the books I read was The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. It’s about a father and son trying to survive in post-apocalyptic America (it’s set about eight years after the apocalyptic event, which was presumably nuclear war but it’s never explicitly stated).

Now, this was a serious apocalypse – almost all species are extinct, there’s almost no food (they feed off of cans of food they find in abandoned grocery stores for the most part), and almost everyone is dead – they encounter very few people in the course of their several months of wandering. The world has no future. There is no hope. And that’s the main subject of the book – theological hope, and whether it’s justified in a time when there is absolutely no hope for the world.

One of the immediately noticeable things about any book by McCarthy (I’ve also read All the Pretty Horses, a quite good book with very different subject matter) is his style. It’s very minimalistic; no quotation marks, no long sentences, very matter of fact. It can get irritating at times, when it seems over-used or forced, but for most of The Road I thought it fit perfectly. It conveys amazingly well the feeling that what is happening is inevitable, that there’s no way the man or his son could somehow better their situation, that there is any escape; this is how the world is. It’s fruitless to hope for anything else.

There’s no hope for the world, anyway. And so the question becomes, what of theological hope? There are extended discussions in the book between the man and his son in which the son is talking about God as if he believed in him, while the man is thinking to himself about how God does not exist – but he tries to keep alive in his son this belief in God. It is as if he wished he could believe in God, but cannot bring himself to, because if something like this apocalypse were allowed to happen, God could not exist.

This is just an extreme version of the problem of evil, of course. So we’re back to theodicy. So, what is McCarthy’s theodicy? It’s hard to say. He does a really good job of setting up the world as hopeless – but then, at the end… well, spoilers are perhaps inevitable: the kid survives and is adopted by a family and the grandmother begins telling him about God. Is this cheating? Has McCarthy just avoided the problem, giving us a Deus ex Machina ending where he says “oh wait, there actually is hope, never mind about all this theodicy stuff, ignore what i said about the world being completely without hope”? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.

The last passage in the book, after all, is not of the child being catechized. It pans out, to a broader view.

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing that could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Now, this is a weird passage, hard to understand…  but I think part of what it’s saying is that the world is fallen; it is fallen because of man; the evil in the world is because of man; but this evil does not drown out the beauty of nature, God’s creation; in the end, there is theological hope because creation is good, God is good, and even though man is fallen and brings himself to a place where there is no hope, it is possible for him to get out if it, if not in this life then in the next.

Obviously I’m reading a lot into this. I’m not sure it’s all actually there to be read into it. I’m not sure if McCarthy’s a Christian or even a theist. But… I do think something at least somewhat like the above can be found in the book. Which in the end is why I don’t think the ending is a deus ex machina, and why I think the book is certainly worth reading, rather than just being a somewhat interesting exercise in depressing speculative fiction.

In the end, then: it’s worth reading, and it’s certainly a quick read. It’s a very good book, and the only reason it’s not a great book or a classic is there’s just not enough there; it doesn’t attempt enough to be great. But what it does do, it does very well. And it’s a very good exploration of theodicy, which we don’t get enough, I think (except from people who think that the problem of evil proves God doesn’t exist, which I’d vehemently argue it does not).


Movie Review: The Cube

March 16, 2009

Several years ago, my parents and I watched a movie called Cube. It’s a “psychological thriller/horror/science fiction movie” from 1997 about seven people trapped in a giant grid of cubes, 14ft in each direction, with hatches on each face (including top and bottom) that lead to identical cubes (though each cube is colored, some red, some green, some blue, some white). They’re trying to find their way to the edge of the grid so they can escape, but some of the cubes have traps that kill you.

For some reason when I first saw the movie it made a huge impression on me. I actually made a model cube out of K’NEX, with hatches and everything, that could connect to identical cubes (though I think I only made one… maybe I made two, I don’t remember).

Anyway, I saw it again recently, so I think I can now give a good account of what struck me about it when I first saw it. It was the basic premise. It’s a perfect example of the microcosms I find so fascinating. The world is made up of hundreds of connected cubes, some of which are trapped; there are people trapped inside the cube, who have to escape before they die of dehydration; this is the world. Sure, the characters were originally from the “real world”, they did have backstories, but those aren’t important; in fact, the characters’ discussions with each other are mostly about whether or not the characters’ backstories are meaningful, and the movie ends up arguing that they’re not.

Also interesting is the mathematical aspect of it. Without ruining the plot, numbers play a big role in the cube – each cube has an ID number, and they keep trying to find some sort of system based on them to know where they are in the cube and avoid the traps – but, if you know much math and pay attention to the numbers given, the math doesn’t make sense. I suspect this was intentional on the writer’s part, just trying to mess with our heads. I found this really interesting, though perhaps in the end inexplicable and without explanation.

The final reason I liked the movie was that one of the seven characters, named Kazan, was an autistic man – not just Asperger’s or something, but severely autistic. He was also the only sympathetic character in the movie, in my opinion. And his reaction to being in the Cube is fascinating. My favorite quotation from the movie is: “This room is… green. I want to go back to the blue room.”

Now, given what I’ve just said about why I like it… is it really worth seeing? Well, yes, as long as you’re not expecting anything beyond what I’ve explained above. The acting and writing aren’t that good, the characters except for Kazan are rather dislikeable, and the special effects suck; but the movie’s only an hour and a half long, it has an interesting premise, and I would say, yes, it’s worth seeing. It’s certainly enjoyable. So watch it. If you don’t mind illegally downloading things you can probably find a torrent of it fairly easily. Otherwise, I dunno, find it on Amazon or something… though I’m not sure it’s worth paying $14 to buy a copy.


Book/Movie Review: Watchmen

March 13, 2009

(I don’t mean to turn this into just a bunch of reviews of everything I see and read, but I’ve done a lot of seeing and reading over Spring Break so far and so that’s what’s on my mind. Bear with me.)

So, I knew very little about Watchmen before last Saturday. I’d picked up the graphic novel about a year ago and read the first chapter, but gotten no further (I have a bad habit of starting books that I don’t own and can’t borrow). Thus I saw the movie before I read the book. I really liked the movie, though, and so decided to read the book. I started it yesterday around 2PM and finished it yesterday around… well, more like today, around 2AM.

Strangely, I actually preferred the movie in a lot of ways. I think part of this is related to the effect I described in my Earthsea book review about order-of-reading/order-of-viewing: if you read the derivative before the original, the original will seem derivative when you do read it. But there are actually several things I think the movie did better:

(SPOILER WARNING – SKIP TO THE END OF THE BLOCK QUOTE TO AVOID)

Firstly, the change of Ozymandias’ scheme from exploding a giant squid-creature to just blowing up NY with a Dr. Manhattan-imitation bomb was a good move, aesthetically. It simplified things where previously they were unnecessarily complicated. Also, I somehow doubt Ozy’s original plot would work – if it’s just a single alien accidentally teleporting into NY and dying on arrival, would that really unite mankind and stop the Cold War? But if it’s Dr. Manhattan doing it and he clearly did it on purpose, it would, because it poses an ongoing threat.

Secondly, a lot of the most memorable lines from the movie don’t actually appear in the graphic novel. Dr. Manhattan’s response to the question about the doomsday clock, for example – “It’s as nourishing to the intellect as a picture of oxygen is to a drowning man”.

Finally and in a sense least importantly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the art of the graphic novel. I got used to it after a while, but I didn’t like how everything was so ugly… all the women, especially, were really unattractive. Maybe that was part of the point (though I can’t see what “point” that could have – if the Silk Spectre is supposedly a model by day and a superhero by night, shouldn’t she be attractive rather than weird-looking?), but I didn’t really like it. And it wasn’t just them, it was a lot of the stuff – the blood and tears, for example. They looked stupid. I think I just don’t like a lot of the conventions of the comic book art style.

This isn’t to say the book was in all ways worse than the movie… firstly, I agree that a lot of the greatness of the graphic novel couldn’t be re-enacted on-screen, and I can recognize that greatness. There’s a lot you can do with the graphic novel form you just can’t do with a movie. There were also many things better about the book:

Firstly, things like the chapter “Fearful Symmetry” you just can’t do in a movie. That was really cool. Or the way you can have the dialogue or narration about one event but have the panel itself be a picture of something else, drawing a contrast between the two; it’s hard to do that in a movie. Or all the different storylines, and having more detailed backstories for the characters… there’s just more you can do in a graphic novel, in a lot of ways.

Secondly, though I prefer the movie ending in a lot of ways, I think the final scene between Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan in the book was interesting and should have been kept. It makes you realize that Ozy’s plot to “save humanity” was, well… idealistic, and didn’t work, in the end. It might have good results in the short term, or even the long term, but it was not mankind’s salvation. And it did not justify what Ozymandias did.

Finally, the sex scenes were much more bearable in the book. They were just pointless, gratuitous sex in the movie, and way too long. This is something the director could have avoided easily but didn’t.

(END SPOILERS)

Now, all these complaints about book and movie aside – both were fascinating, and well worth reading/watching. The most interesting part, I think, is the fascinating dichotomy they present between Rorschach’s moral absolutism and the “bad guy”‘s (name withheld because we’re out of the spoiler zone) pragmatism. And they don’t really side with either one.

Personally, I have to side with Rorschach. What does Rorschach’s view entail? Well, it means a certain way of interpreting the message of the movie and graphic novel, and so I’ll just present that interpretation.

Are they nihilistic? Yes, somewhat, but it is a kind of nihilism I can accept, because (when tempered with Christianity – not that they’re pro-God – interestingly, the movie is actually less atheistic than the graphic novel) it is basically what I believe. Do they conclude the world itself is meaningless? Only, I think, insofar as we have to come to the conclusion that (without God) the world is meaningless.

And do they say the world is hopeless? I think they come to the conclusion a lot of fiction comes to, and which I partially agree with – generally speaking, this world is hopeless (until God comes again and brings the New Heaven and New Earth), but that doesn’t mean we give up hope.

Nor does it mean we give up our principles, even if those principles do not bring us anywhere (in this world); as Rorschach says when told “We have to compromise” –

No. Not even in the face of Armageddon.

Never compromise.


Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

March 8, 2009

So I just finished A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while that I finally borrowed from someone last week. I’m glad I read it; it’s well-done; but, well, it’s not all I was led to believe it would be.

As a work of mythopoeia, it is extremely well executed. The archipelago-rather-than-giant-continent aspect is well done and interesting. I really like how she does magic with Words, which represent Forms; very Aristotelian. This was probably my favorite part of the book. Also, there were never really any parts where I said, “wait, whaaa…?” and immersion was broken. All of these are good.

As a story, it’s interesting, but not inspired. The twist at the end – that the name of Ged’s shadow is “Ged”, and they are really the same – was somewhat predictable. After all, it couldn’t just be something random – it had to be something that appeared earlier in the story, or it doesn’t feel real (it’s like Chekhov’s gun rule, but reversed – you have to show the gun in act one before you can have it go off in act three), and having it named “Ged” makes more sense than any other possibility. It does have some interesting philosophical implications about life and death and accepting mortality. But other than that the story was basically “let’s wander around Earthsea and see as many islands as we can in a string of vaguely connected adventuers”, each of which was interesting but not extremely so.

The biggest problem, I think, is that Ged isn’t that interesting a character; he’s your standard intelligent, proud, teenager who is going on a quest to learn about himself and the nature of the world. I felt I could predict exactly what he could do in every situation he was in. Of course he would decide to go to Roke rather than remain with Ogion, of course he would accept Jasper’s challenge and bad things would come of it, of course he would almost be seduced by lady on Osskil but not be (and the fact that that Lady was the same as the little girl was predictable too), etc etc… being able to predict to a certain extent a character will do is necessary, of course, otherwise he’s just acting randomly and isn’t believable as a person. But if he always does what you expect he and any other intelligent, proud teenager would do in his situation then he becomes too generic. He becomes just a vehicle for exploring the physics and metaphysics of the world of Earthsea. I’m not opposed to that, per se, but it makes for what is only a good story, not a great story.

Finally, the prose is competent, but not inspired the way, say, Gene Wolfe’s is, and there were very few parts where I stopped and said “that’s a really cool of describing that”. LeGuin isn’t really a wizard with words.

Of course, in saying that A Wizard of Earthsea is only decent, not great, fantasy, I’m ignoring the fact that it came out in 1968. I think it’s comparable in quality with something like Sabriel, but Sabriel was written in the 90’s, nearly thirty years later. Clearly Garth Nix owes a lot to LeGuin’s work. And perhaps part of the reason I wasn’t hugely impressed with the book was that so much more recent fantasy was directly inspired by it – I could understand people who read the Lord of the Rings after reading more recent works of high fantasy having the same reaction. Not seeing how trailblazing these books were because we’re already at the end of the trail, and all that.


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