Having Been, Being Then

February 14, 2011

I’ve been listening recently to Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinois (yeah late to the party I know). I particularly like the song “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!!” But I’m not here to talk about the music; once again, I want to think briefly about misheard lyrics.

In one repeated phrase, Sufjan talks about “having been, at last, forgot.” But my mind often substitutes for “having been” the similar phrase “being then.” The line would mean something very similar, given that substitution, but not exactly the same; there is a difference between having been forgot and and being then forgot. The former places the emphasis on the event of the forgetting; the latter on the state of being forgotten. I think both would be appropriate for a song about the end of the world and the Last Judgment, but I find it interesting that Sufjan chose the event rather than the state. I’m not sure what to make of that.

McCarthy’s Parataxis

September 17, 2010

So, it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Oops. Anyway, I’m drawn back here by the most recent post on this blog written by a fellow UD student. It argues that Cormac McCarthy is a bad prose stylist; as anyone who has read this site over the last four months knows, I have no choice but to disagree with that. I’m not going to try to defend McCarthy’s style generally, but I do want to talk about why one particular sentence that was picked out as egregiously flawed is actually, in my mind, quite brilliant.

The sentence in question is this, excerpted from The Crossing:

He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

The charge is that it makes gratuitous use of repetition in an attempt to sound “literary” without actually communicating anything. This charge is based on the idea that the reptition used here serves no real purpose. I intend to argue that this is false, that in fact, it reflects an important part of McCarthy’s aesthetic of human action.

What this sentence communicates, and what would have been impossible to communicate without such repetition, is how complex a seemingly simple action really is, and thus how much skill is required to do even simple things. McCarthy could have said “He finished his breakfast and thanked her,” and that gets across the same idea, but it abstracts the various actions involved in finishing the breakfast into just “finished his breakfast.” By listing all of them, McCarthy gets across how non-trivial even that most trivial of actions really is.

At the same time, however, McCarthy links each of the actions by “and,” but only mentions the subject once — he doesn’t say “He ate … he wiped … he ate … drank …,” but rather “He ate … wiped … ate … drank …”. This makes us still feel as if we are witnessing a single agent performing a single action, even as we see that action broken down into its constituent parts. McCarthy is making us see “eating breakfast” in a new, strange light — ostranenie and all that. And he’s not doing it just by describing it in a completely nonsensical way; there’s actually a log behind the way he’s using parataxis to say something about how we can abstract a sequence of complex actions into one single action.

So McCarthy is stylistically modifying our understanding of the action of “eating breakfast.” So what? Why is strange-ifying breakfast a literarily intelligent thing to do, rather than just an author trying to fill dead space between interesting scenes? Well, I’d argue, it has something to do with the emphasis McCarthy places throughout his work on everyday life, and how even manual labor can exalt, rather than degrade, the human spirit. He turns the same paratactical trick to turn various complex tasks performed while training horses into single actions. It’s logical effect is the same in both instances, as is its emotional effect, which is to slow us down and make us appreciate how much skill is involved in what we are witnessing.

Therese also complains in her post that “one of the things that rapidly turned me off about the novel was just how banal and quotidien the dialogue was.” Well, yeah. It’s the same thing going on here. The dialogue itself isn’t epic because the characters are not in fact epic; it’s how McCarthy presents them that makes them epic. McCarthy lets their dialogue be mundane because he wants to prove to us that the insigificance of what someone says should not be taken as proof that they are insignificant people. This interpretation is supported, I think, by the very subject matter of the book. The Crossing is in large part about how what the world views as significant is not always what is actually significant. The main character, after all, is not Clyde in the novel’s Bonnie and Clyde couple — he’s Clyde’s brother.

I could go on about Cormac McCarthy’s style, but just say this: while he sometimes goes over the top in his descriptions, I don’t think he attempts anything for pure “literary effect” — every “trick” he pulls is trying to accompish something specific. Also, punctuation is extraneous.

Link: Infinite Life

August 4, 2010

This is a fascinating article about the late 19th century/early 20th century studies in set theory and infinity. I particularly like the accompanying picture. Since I’m not sure the link will work (TNR might be behind a paywall), I’ll reproduce it here:

Style Detection

July 14, 2010

I came across a link recently to iwl.me, a site that claims to statistically analyze your writing style and tell you what famous writer your writing style resembles. I tried it out by plugging a few posts from this blog into it.

I didn’t get exactly consistent results. My most recent post, the one about Cormac McCarthy, reported “H.P. Lovecraft.” The one about AIs reported”Isaac Asimov.” The one about Andrew Bird, the one about Robert Lowell, and the one about Wallace Stevens all gave “David Foster Wallace.” Four of my unpublished short stories gave me “Neil Gaiman,” “Margaret Mitchell,” “Kurt Vonnegut,” and “Arthur Conan Doyle.”

This all makes a certain sense; something on existential horror is by Lovecraft, something about AIs by Asimov, a story with an analytic main character is by Doyle. But this is a correlation in subject matter, not style. Which defeats the entire point of the site. I don’t write like these people, I just write about the same things. That’s far from equivalent.

Nevertheless, the repeated result of “David Foster Wallace” intrigues me. I think I know what it means — I write long, sometimes overly long, sentences with precise grammar but still casual in appearance. That’s a primarily feature of the styles of both Wallace and Lovecraft. Indeed, my style here does tend to be, long complex sentences that try to flow easily into each other. My fiction writing is considerably different though. I wonder if it wouldn’t flow easier if I wrote it like I write these posts. It probably would; it would probably be worse though.

I also wondered about what author this post would claim to resemble. The site gave “Dan Brown.” Which I find, I suppose, somewhat insulting. Ah well.

Curtains, Pasteboard Masks

May 16, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ahab’s “pasteboard masks.” In chapter 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” Ahab describes to Starbuck why he must kill the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.”

(Moby-Dick 140, Norton Critical Edition)

The physical world is a pasteboard mask put up over the spiritual world, the world of meaning, and what tortures Ahab is that he cannot know what is in that world, because all his knowledge comes from this one. It’s a question of epistemology, really. It’s like Saussure’s “sign=signifier/signified” equation – Ahab continually senses the signifier, the physical world, slipping over and covering up the signified, the spiritual dimension of reality, leaving him unable to perceive it directly.

And Ahab’s solution is to punch through – to find what lies beyond. But what really fascinates me about this is that finding out what lies beyond is the same thing as fixing what lies beyond. The relationship between signifier and signified is, after all, arbitrary, and forever shifting. I like to think of it (and I believe I read I came across this metaphor in Derrida, but I can’t find a quotation; in any case, Derrida certainly talks constantly about slipping and covering over) as a piece of paper lying on top of a desk. The paper is the physical world and the desk the spiritual. At one moment, a given point on the page may be over a given point on the desk, but trying to actually look at that part of the desk will require moving the piece of paper, at which point the two points are no longer lined up; that point on the page is now over a different point on the desk. There is no fixed relationship between the two. Ahab doesn’t just want to see what lies beyond, then, for what lies beyond is always changing. He want to find a way to fix what lies beyond in place – even if he fixes it at nothingness. He would rather have nothing than not know what he has.

And this lines up nicely with the constant mention of Ahab as self-crucified. Because the image of crucifixion, specifically of using nails to pierce the victim’s hands and feet, involves both striking through the physical body, that is, the pasteboard mask, and fixing the physical body in place using the very holes struck through it. In crucifying himself, Ahab attempts to transcend his physical body and to fix his own meaning (a rather gnostic quest, it seems to me). But in doing so he is destroyed.

So I’ve been thinking along these lines for the last several weeks, and wondering how it applies to the Christian understanding of Christ. Is Ahab, the exemplar protagonist-villain-as-anti-Christ in literature, actually like Christ in the nature of his crucifixion? Does that nailing involve a similar fixing of signifier to signified? Is the crucifixion like God taking a hammer and nail and pound his son into the physical world and out the other side, fixing it to – what, himself?

I wasn’t really sure how orthodox this explanation of the image of crucifixion was, but then in one of the readings for Mass today, I came across this:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, ‘ by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, ‘ and since we have a great priest over the house of God, ‘ let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

(Hebrews 10:19-22, RSV)

That was good timing, I think. In this passage, St. Paul says that Christ has through his death and resurrection opened up a path through his flesh – the curtain, the pasteboard mask – which we must follow if we are to enter the sanctuary – the area of fixed meaning.

So that’s interesting. But this all leaves me slightly confused; because if God needed to nail signifier and signified together through the crucifixion in order to fix meaning, doesn’t that mean the Crucifixion (and the Incarnation as well – but, in this understanding, they seem roughly equivalent, since God entering the world is the same as God nailing through it) was necessary from the beginning of creation? In what sense, then, was it caused by the Fall?

I have three thoughts on the matter. The first, is that the Fall can be considered akin to the first sliding of the piece of paper across the table. Before it, the world was perfect, but fragile; aligned correctly, but unfixed. After it, God “realized” that he needed to nail it down. It doesn’t fit, of course, to say that God “realized” it; but the basic idea is that Creation occurred in two steps, the first, the laying down of the piece of paper, the second, the nailing in. And the nailing in occurred immediately after the laying down, but because the nail was placed in time, we perceive it as occurring billions of years after the creation of the universe.

My second thought is that I need to re-read what Gerard Manley Hopkins had to say about the matter. Because, as I recall, he talked a lot about the connection between creation and the Incarnation, and his idea of “instress” and “inscape” seems somehow related to all of this, though I’m not quite sure how, honestly. I don’t have an amazing conceptual grasp of GMH’s theology, though what I know of it, I find quite fascinating.

My third thought is that perhaps the reason the image doesn’t really fit with the gap between Creation and Fall – and in fact seems to imply that they were the same thing (which sounds like heresy) – is that any imagistic way of understanding theology is inherently flawed, and only useful in a limited context. This may well be the case. But then again, it may not.

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!”

These United States

April 24, 2010

I’ve had several conversations recently about the nature of the Union binding together the several States. Many of my friends argue for the South’s position during the Civil War (states’ rights), while others of them, though fewer, argue for the North’s (secession is unconstitutional). And I was reminded of it again today by this post over at Saint Superman, which brings up new attempts to assert states’ rights following the passage of Obamacare, and argues that they’re inherently damaging to the Union.

So, I thought I’d try to write something about my take on the issue. Keep in mind this is all “speculation”; I am tentatively convinced by the arguments below, but don’t hold to these views particularly strongly. They’re just my efforts to unravel some complex issues.

To begin: If I take a legalistic approach, just looking at the text of the Constitution, I can’t see any definitive reading. It’s ambiguous – and, I suspect, intentionally so – as to whether states have a right to secede or not. It doesn’t mention anything explicitly either way.

But I still think the South had a good legal argument, insofar as there can ever be an argument for secession. Everything the American Founders could argue, the Southerners could as well. Yes, they had representation, but the population growth in the North and the movement westward meant that Southern states were beginning to have less and less control over national politics. It had always been a matter of compromise between North and South, but the election of Lincoln meant that it was no longer even that. The North could have its way in national politics without even really taking into account the South’s interests; that’s basically the same thing as not having representation.

Also, the South and the North were greatly separated by distance; I think people today have a hard time understanding that in 1860, you couldn’t fly from Texas to Maine in four hours or however long it takes. With such limited communication technology, a truly centralized government, of the kind we have today, wasn’t even conceivable.

And the South did have radically different interests than and a radically different culture from that of the North. They were linked economically, but so were the South and England. But the South had an aristocratic, rural, traditional society, while that of the North was egalitarian, urban, and modern. In a lot of ways, I think, the Civil War was about the modernization of America – the forced modernization of the South. Modernization is not inherently bad, and is in some ways necessary, but modernization at the point of a bayonet (and with everything burned to the ground) does not seem like the way to go about it.

Then there’s the slavery question. It’s true that a large part of the South’s complaints had to do with efforts to curtail and abolish slavery. And I’m as much against slavery as anyone else. But I don’t think the North had the right to step in and end slavery in the South without any regard for what would happen to Southern society after slavery was ended. The aftermath of the War – i.e. the abysmal failure of Reconstruction – was not an aberration. It was a direct result of the North’s idealistic belief that it could destroy the culture of the South and replace it with something better.

And then we look at today, and the various states that are threatening nullification. What are we to make of those threats? Brian at Saint Superman wants to see them as attacks on the Union itself. I’d rather see them as checks on the central government’s power. Yes, they’re an intentional provocation; it’s like the states and the federal government are playing a game of chicken. The states are betting they can pressure the government into changing its mind.

Brian says that this  means “federal sovereignty is subject to that of the states, and thus has and can have no real power over them but that power which they agree to cede on a case by case basis; the moment this becomes even a prevailing theory, the next logical step is to contemplate secession.” He has a sort of point. If the states can do anything to contravene the national government, it means the union is not strong enough to be indissoluble.

But, I think, that argument is based in Hobbes and his Leviathan, not in the idea of a social contract that our nation was founded on. The government is right, no matter what; if you don’t like it, deal with it. But do we really want an indissoluble union? I don’t think so. An indissoluble union seems to me like a perfect recipe for tyranny. I think that, rather, the state-union relation needs the same kind of play as the person-state relation; there’s a sort of testing of the boundaries on both sides, and the union is always fragile, because if either side oversteps certain boundaries, the union can dissolve. But the fact that either side can dissolve the union, means that both sides have an incentive not to do anything that will push the other side too far, and so the union is actually less likely to dissolve.

Of course, there’s still the question of whether dissolving the Union is practical at all in the modern world. Advances in technology have knit us closer together than ever, and the world has become increasingly contractual and legalistic, meaning there’s less room for change. Everyone considers the USA an entity, and there’s no real mechanism in place for dealing with the death of that entity. So such a dissolution is probably completely impossible – or, at least, it would be completely disastrous, meaning that in playing the “secession” card, the states are going “all in.”

Is this something that they ought to be doing in response to health care reform, of all things? I’m doubtful about that. But I don’t think we can cry foul at their doing it, saying they’re trying to destroy the Union, or that what they do will necessarily lead to its destruction.

To Look Out Upon the Sea

March 27, 2010

(I will now offer a string of analogies, without explanation or defense, and then a pair of allegories written by two men much more intelligent than I am.)




Or, –to change the metaphor,–there are immense quarries of fine marble; but how to get it out; how to chisel it; how to construct any temple? Youth must wholly quit, then, the quarry, for awhile; and not only go forth, and get tools to use in the quarry, but must go and thoroughly study architecture. Now the quarry-discoverer is long before the stone-cutter, and the stone-cutter is long before the temple; for the temple is the crown of the world.
— Herman Melville, from Pierre

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their bulding material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, from “The Monsters and the Critics”


What is the meaning of all of this?

Put simply, I want to expound a theory of the nature of abstract intellectual endeavors, the liberal arts, broadly speaking. Hence my beginning with the Trivium – logic, grammar, rhetoric.

In this model, there are three possible activities, each of which is necessary in its own way:

The quarry-finder. This is the philosopher, the metaphysician. He chooses what stone to use; thus, he examines the nature of the stone, determines what the stone is. He tries to bridge the gap between us and the transcendent, tries to understand the meaning of words like God, Man, Good, True, Beautiful, Purpose, Form.

The stone-cutter. This is the mathematician, the logician. He cuts the stone into the proper shape for the architect; thus, he examines how the stones fit together, fitting them together in a puzzle. He is interested solely in structure, not in content; he does not care what words mean, only how they fit together. But it is he who shows how to rhyme, how to alliterate, how to construct parallelisms; he does not know what they mean, but he makes them possible.

The architect. This is the author. He chooses what the temple or tower will be like; he guides its construction throughout, from the quarrying to the stone-cutting to the placement of the final brick. He does it all with his final purpose in mind: to ascend the tower and look out upon the sea. And yet the temple is not his alone; it is the crown of the world.


A final thought. I have been speaking all along as if the building were the work of art, as if the artist occupied some ontologically distinct position from the rest of mankind. I don’t believe this to be true. The work of art is not the tower; it is merely the blueprint offered to the world. Each of us must be all of these, quarry-finder, stone-cutter, and architect, each building our own towers, hoping that they can look out upon the sea (which is the Beatific Vision).

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