What is a thesis?

April 16, 2011

“because i do not hope to turn again
because i do not hope
because i do not hope to turn”
–T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

I have spent the last thirty-six hours, save for time spent sleeping and eating and occasional breaks, working on my senior thesis. Today was particularly frustrating. I began the day with 2500 words and thinking I was almost halfway done. By six in the evening I had 3300 words and still thought I was almost halfway done. I then spent the next nine hours rehashing those 3300 words down to 2300, and now think I’m only a third of the way done.

But, I now have a much clearer conception of what I’m trying to say, so with any luck, the next two-thirds should be easier. Unfortunately, I have my doubts that this is the case, mainly because my argument has three layers, and I have only completed the first; the second and third will likely be just as tricky to figure out. It seems telling that so far, I can only formally summarize part one.

Incidentally, it runs as follows:
People say A and B, but B->A->!B and A->B->!A, so !Au!B
Part two will say something along the lines of,
People say C because A->C and B->C, but !Au!B, but !!C, so must articulate in what sense C.
And part three will articulate in what sense C. But these are too fuzzy at the moment for me to articulate. Again, this is not a good thing.

But the strange thing is, even though I cannot formally articulate my argument–despite the fact that my argument is, at least I think, the kind that can in principle be described formally–I still think I know what my thesis is. And though I find this odd, I’m not sure I can articulate why, which seems fitting.

Incidentally, my thesis is about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the problem of inhuman violence. I’ll probably elaborate once I have it written.

The Question of Blood Meridian

February 10, 2011

(This is something I wrote at the beginning of the semester explaining why I chose Blood Meridian for my senior novel project.)

In spring of junior year, I took two classes focusing on specific novelists: one on Herman Melville and one on William Faulkner. By the end of the semester, I knew that I would have loved to do Moby-Dick or The Sound and the Fury for Senior Novel, but, of course, having already studied those novels, it would have been almost cheating to do so. Instead, I began considering what aspects of these novels appealed to me, eventually settling on three characteristics which I would insist be present in any other novel I might consider:

  1. An eccentric prose style. I wanted prose that overflowed with a “meaning” which could not quite be grasped (e.g. Melville’s Biblical cadences or Faulkner’s page-long sentences).
  2. Complex structural properties. I wanted a disorderly novel that could not be fully understood, but which could be placed in some order through quantifiable schemata (e.g. the nine gams, three mates, and five-act structure, or the parallels with the Passion week).
  3. The philosophical located above the social. I wanted a novel that had the power to bring the reader himself into (and, perhaps, out of) a spiritual crisis, and which would consider the social only in terms of that crisis (e.g. Melville’s Ishmael, Faulkner’s Quentin).

Given these requirements, several candidates came to mind. I first considered James Joyce’s Dubliners, which had the experimental style, the progression through various points of view, and the cityscape as soulscape. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, too, had a style much like Melville’s, a 24-chapter epic structure, and an exploration of American religion through one man’s sin. But I ultimately turned against both, for much the same reason, I think: they were too tame. Both were stylistically excellent, but not stylistically violent; both had interesting structures, but neither seemed complex, needing to be sorted out; both seemed focused on the political, even if they did have spiritual aspects. The deciding factor, though, was that both stayed too much “in the drawing room,” one might say, finding their life mainly in conversations, avoiding the harsh physicality of Melville and Faulkner’s worlds.

I eventually read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and immediately knew I had found my novel. Its style is a mix of the Faulknerian and the Biblical. Its structure, a failed epic, with 23 chapters and a bizarre one-page epilogue, and consciously Melvillean, explicitly paralleling Moby-Dick. Its content, apocalyptic, a world of violence and despair seen through the eyes of one man—the kid—who stands for all of us, with a secondary focus on the specifically American sin of the rape of the West under the banner of Manifest Destiny. One might say I fell in love with McCarthy because he is to the West what Faulkner was to the South or Melville to the Northeast—if “love” is the right word. I find it strange to love Blood Meridian, for I am not sure it is a novel anyone should really enjoy. Perhaps this is the true reason I have chosen it—that in a way, I hate it, or, rather I hate its violence, and cannot explain it, but neither can I dismiss it. I think about it constantly, two aspects in particular:

  1. Judge Holden: Is he Death incarnate? Why is he a scientist? Is rational inquiry an inherently destructive act, an act of war upon the world, ultimately unjustifiable? And if McCarthy believes this, what does he see as the role of reason in human life?
  2. The man digging holes: Is he the artist? Why does he appear so briefly and vatically? If rational inquiry is unethical, is art a valid alternative? And how can this be the message of Blood Meridian when the novel itself is so grotesque, so senselessly violent, as to make the very act of writing it seem a perversity?

Theory: A Dialogue

January 18, 2011

(For my literary theory class last semester we wrote several short papers about different theoretical ideas. One of mine, co-written with another student, took the form of a dialogue between “1” and “2” about paraphrase. Given its subject matter, it seems right to not attempt to rewrite the ideas it contains in essay form, but to simply post the thing itself. It runs as follows:)

1: To begin, I would agree with the New Critic’s claim that a poem cannot be paraphrased; or, at the very least, that such a paraphrase would necessarily be woefully inadequate.

2: It is a plausible enough sounding claim, but what precisely do you mean by “inadequate”? If a poem is saying anything at all, any format will do for communicating whatever it says. Now there might be as much controversy as you like about the meaning of a particular poem. And maybe you won’t ever be able to paraphrase all the constantly changing, evolving critical debate out there. But as long as you have a view on what the poem says, or at least what it might say, then you have a paraphrase you can express with standard English sentences. Perhaps that paraphrase is boring or contrived or awkward, but it gets across everything you believe to be the poem. There’s nothing you can’t say about the poem that you can’t say about the poem.

1: Well that hardly covers it. What about the aesthetic impression a poem makes? That can’t be replicated in ordinary language—it’s an experience, not a propositional claim. If poems were just complicated propositions then their form would be little more than decoration. But it is not mere decoration—it’s of central importance to the experience of the poem, which cannot be replicated. It is this that makes paraphrases of poetry inadequate in a way normal paraphrases are not. Poems are not simply statements, they are aesthetic objects.

2: That I will grant—a poem is independent of the description of a poem, in the same way a flower is independent of the description of a flower. Perhaps my paraphrase does not have the same “ring” to it, or perhaps it’s harder to remember. Perhaps my description of a flower fails to evoke the same emotions the actual flower might. But that doesn’t make poems special—all objects are like that. The phenomenon of the thing differs from its description. Fine. But not important.

1: No, I don’t think that’s quite right. Poem’s are not quite like flowers. You see, a flower does not mean to communicate anything at all. Perhaps there is some sense in saying it has a certain rhetoric with regard to bees. But poems are not like that. They are intentional acts of communication. And I don’t think this is trivial, because language acts’ only meaning is intentional. Flowers exist regardless of how they rhetorically affect bees, but the word “flower” only exists as long as we allow it to mean something. And poems are made up of words. Moreover, I think poems are special acts of communication. They intend a “meaning” like any statement might; but unlike other verbal acts, a poem also intends itself.

2: What do you mean by “intends itself”? All this sounds very nice, but, if you see my point, you’ll know you have to tell me specifically what it is that only a poem can tell me. You’ll have to say what it is that you cannot paraphrase, and you’ll have to say it in a way that couldn’t itself serve as a paraphrase.

1: When one speaks, one intends something by one’s speech different from the speech itself. Speaking attempts to communicate linguistically, but the act of speech, at the most basic level only produces sound waves. The meaning behind those sound waves is intended, but not explicitly present—what would it mean for it to be? For it to be present, the speech would have to carry within itself the entire context of the conversation, indeed the entire English language. None of this is present in the speech itself, yet we can say that the speaker intends for us to find it there. Synecdochally, we can say that the speech intends it. We could, but perhaps should avoid, getting into whether speech is actually the sort of thing that can intend.

2: So explain what is different about what a poem intends.

1: Consider the sentence “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.” In normal speech, this is a proposition about the location of certain women and their activities, and intends to communicate that information. Within “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is something quite different.

2: Is this due to the strange form of that line?

1: No. Not really.

2: Well, what do you attribute this special sense to? Look, the line you are talking about has an unusual form, but it can nonetheless be paraphrased.

1: How would you paraphrase this line?

2: Well, I suppose I might rather say that the poem itself can be paraphrased. The sentence can be paraphrased insofar as it is part of the poem.

1: But the line cannot be paraphrased?

2: Merely because of its brevity and isolation from context.

1: Well, this is sort of what I’m trying to get at: that poetic context makes things mean differently; and that we cannot get beyond poetic context without changing meaning.

2: I’m not sure I agree with that. To say that a line cannot be paraphrased because it is within a poem is akin to saying that a word cannot be paraphrased because it is within a sentence. Certainly the individual word cannot be paraphrased, but the sentence as a whole can be. Context must always be considered when paraphrasing; the non-poetic version of the “Michelangelo” utterance can vary drastically in meaning because of context. If it followed the question, “what sort of art do women prefer?”, it would mean something different from if it followed, “where are those women, again?” But this does not render the phrase impossible to paraphrase, any more than all language cannot be paraphrased—and it would be absurd to say that no language can be paraphrased, for then the word “paraphrase” would become useless. So clearly paraphrase depends on context, for all paraphrase. My point is this: Poetry provides an unusual, but arbitrarily defined kind of context; it has no special properties that are in principle unique to poetry. Poetic context is not unique. It functions in the same was as the context of normal speech, except in that the context of normal speech is immediately obvious to the speakers while the context of poetry is not always so clear.

1: Yes but you’re ignoring aesthetics. Perhaps I take back what I said about the form of poetry. Perhaps it is the crucial difference. The sentence in question has aesthetically interesting properties, and it is because we find that poem in a poetic context that we pay attention to them. The rhyme between “come and go” and “Michelangelo” doesn’t mean anything, propositionally, but within the poem it is significant.

2: So it looks like we’re relegating the supposed uniqueness of poetry to its rhetorical value, i.e. how well it sounds?

1: That is certainly part of what distinguishes poetry from other speech.

2: But can’t anything have aesthetic value? A good speech will use the same tropes of repetition, evocative imagery, and allusions that you want to call specifically poetic. So I grant, again, that poetry can’t be paraphrased fully, qua rhetoric. But note two things: First, the word “paraphrase” does not really demand replication of rhetorical effect in the first place, and, Second, it is in any case sometimes still possible to reproduce the aesthetic effect in the paraphrase.

1: Still, poetic speech doesn’t intend to be taken rhetorically—at least the words “poetic” and “rhetorical” are not to be understood equivocally. Rhetoric seeks to persuade. Poetry may be persuasive, but poetry qua poetry entails nothing of the sort. Thus I feel legitimate in maintaining that a poem is “about” its own aesthetics in a way the speech is not.

2: I don’t follow. Are you saying poems that poems are meant to be pretty? Lots of things are pretty. What is the difference between a poem being about its aesthetics and a poem having aesthetic value?

1: A poem is not just aesthetically pleasing, but of aesthetic interest—we take rational interest in the poem’s aesthetic facts. We can hear “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo” and simply find it pleasant, but we can also try to make sense of what that rhyme does as it is situated in the poem. This is what most literary criticism written about poetry attempts to do. So, what differentiates the context of poetry from the context of normal speech is that the context of poetry draws our conscious attention to the aesthetic facts of the poem.

2: If aesthetic facts are the type of thing in which we can take rational interest, then they are the type of thing which can be paraphrased. If poems are about their aesthetics, then a summary of the poem insofar as it is as a poem, rather than insofar as it makes statements, would be a description of its use of tropes and figures, and a summary of the poem as a whole would be a combination of the two. So the poem can be paraphrased by summarizing its use of aesthetics/rhetoric as well as its propositional claims.

1: Even if that is the case—that we can paraphrase poems that way—there is no sense in which it would be an adequate account of the poem. Reading a good poem has an effect on the emotional state of the reader in a way that a description of that same poem would not. That effect, for its part, alters the way in which all aspects of the poem affect the reader. A cold, dead summary could not communicate this emotional experience that we all know to be inextricable from our encounter with a poem—inextricable from the poem in a way that it is not inextricable from normal speech.

2: To an extent, I will grant this. Yes, the way in which a poem affects my emotions differs from the way in which a description would, however elegant or correct that description may be. This having been said, it is not the purpose of a paraphrase to mimic the emotional ups and downs of a poem, but rather to be like a description, however inadequate a description it will be. Secondly, we should note that all descriptions are by nature inadequate, not merely those of poems. My description of a flower is exactly like my description of a poem, in that it would be incapable of mimicking the emotional effect of a flower in an exact way. The fact that the paraphrase of a poem is limited in its descriptiveness does not make poems “special” in any way.

1: That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all. If we allow paraphrases to be descriptions, however inadequate, then of course we can paraphrase a poem; grant that, and we can paraphrase anything, and made the word “paraphrase” meaningless. But you have completely ignored the way in which paraphrases of poems are radically inferior to paraphrases of non-poetic speech. Leaving flowers to the side, your description of a speech is not exactly like your description of a poem. What would be lacking from that of the speech would be incidental to the propositional purpose of that speech, but what would be lacking from that of the poem—its aesthetics—would be of the utmost importance.

2: You continually attempt to separate poems from normal speech by saying their aesthetics are of special importance, but it is unclear what exactly you mean by that. You shift between saying that they are aesthetically pleasing and that they are aesthetically interesting. But the first of these applies to all aesthetic objects, and the second poses no significant obstacle to paraphrase. Insofar as poems are like flowers, they can be described; insofar as poems are like speeches, they can be paraphrased. I am not denying that poems are like both of these—that poems are not reducible to normal speech—but just because a poem is like both of these things does not mean it is a third kind of thing distinct from both. I remain unconvinced that poems differ from normal speech in some deeper fundamental way that makes them impossible to paraphrase.

To be continued…

Portrait of the Reader as a Young Man

September 27, 2010

I recently finished reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for class. It’s an excellent book, though I don’t claim to understand what Joyce is trying to do. One thing I do find extremely amusing about the book, though: the reaction it elicits from people who read it.

Because the strange thing about the book is, it’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, is an artist type, and the book is mostly about his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. There’s a plot, but it’s driven almost entirely by the ideas Stephen has. He’s really the only character of importance. This means that your reaction to the book is dictated almost entirely by your reaction to the character of Stephen Dedalus. And, since Stephen is a brilliant, angsty, pretentious artist type, most people have the same reaction to him: disgust mingled with a prideful sympathy.

The disgust is easy to understand. Stephen is in many ways a terrible person. The prideful sympathy might need a little drawing out. What I mean is, most people recognize something of themselves in Stephen – the questions he is grappling with, after all, are questions everyone confronts at some point in their life, and Joyce describes Stephen’s searching in such honest terms that, whatever else we think of him, we have to believe he is really struggling with these questions.

But Joyce also presents Stephen as believing that he is alone in his struggles – he is an artist who cares more about his art than about other people and believes himself uniquely capable of forging the “conscience of his race” (whatever that means). He is convinced that no one else thinks about things the way he does. So when the reader recognizes party of himself in Stephen, he is made also to assent to this prideful part  of Stephen’s personality. Joyce brings the reader to believe himself to be, like Stephen Dedalus, unique.

But in that sentence the whole absurdity of the claim makes itself apparent. Because if every reader is like Stephen Dedalus, then the way Stephen thinks is clearly not particularly unique. And so the reader is forced to admit that he, too, is not actually unique; he is so normal, in fact, that a hundred years ago a book had already been written about the type of person he is.

And it is this self-recognition, when the reader realizes how prideful his sympathy with Stephen Dedalus is, that brings about the disgust that the reader feels towards him. Becaue the reader realizes that the main character ought not to be sympathetic, and also that the portrait drawn of the main character is as much of the reader as it is of the artist.

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.

Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

September 4, 2010

I’ve recently gotten into the music of The Decemberists. Genre-wise, Last.Fm classifies them as “indie/indie rock/indie pop/alternative”; my listening to them is thus partially a result of my having picked up Andrew Bird over the last year or so. But in a lot of ways, I think, the Decemberists are closer to the rest of my music library (i.e. various flavors of metal) than they are to Bird. I’ll try to make the argument for why, though again, since I’m not a musician, I don’t feel qualified to talk about musical style; I’ll primarily be looking at lyrics in this post.

While Bird concerns himself with the inherent limitations of science, language, and reason generally, the Decemberists are interested in much the same things as, say, Kamelot; their songs are love songs, for the most part, generally failed loves, and often have a strong historical or literary bent to them. Kamelot’s best work is their two-album-long interpretation of Goethe’s Faust; the Decemberists’s three “The Crane Wife” songs are twenty minutes of music about a traditional Japanese story, and “The Island–Come And See The Landlord’s Daughter–You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” is from what I can tell about Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The Decemberists also bear resemblances to Dream Theater, another prog metal band. Both are strangely literary for musicians; they constantly allude to poems and poets, and try to capture the emotional state of characters from stories. Dream Theater quotes Frost and James Joyce in some of the songs off Awake; the Decemberists seem to reference Coleridge in “The Island (&c)”, with lines like “The rivers roll down to a soundless sea,” and the song “The Legionnaire’s Lament” always reminds me of Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues,” though perhaps only because of the word “legion.” Songs like “Yankee Bayonet” and “When the War Came” are historical, not literary, but show a story-teller’s eye for history, just as Dream Theater has songs about AIDS (“Learning to Live”) and 9/11 (“Sacrificed Songs”).

These may seem like facile points, that I’m pointing out similarities of the sort that exist between any two musicians. But I don’t think that’s it. The main point is that the Decemberists, unlike Andrew Bird, are predominantly story-based. They’re not trying to capture a mood that one arrives at upon contemplating the world (which is what Bird does most of the time, I think), but rather to show how emotions work as one acts in the world — primarily in the most emotional of activities, falling in and out of love.

Anyay, this all brings me to the song I started this post wanting to talk about, “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect.” I’ve been listening to this constantly over the last week or so. Though it’s a great song, I’m not here really to talk about how it functions musically; mostly I want to point out the verse in which the title appears.

And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade
To keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seemed to meet
This structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go

I find fascinating how similar, and yet different this is to Andrew Bird’s stuff. It’s using so much of the same language, the same ideas. It’s more abstract than most Decemberist songs; the reference to architecture makes it necessarily meta-artistic, and we have to think of language as architecture, as a building, words used to build and to cage. The line “even though my work is unparalleled” is the kind of mathematical pun I think Bird would love. But while Bird would use these words to talk about the failings of science when it tries to understand the world, the Decemberists use them to show a failed romance; even when dealing in abstract ideas, they come back to concrete human interactions — to life, not thought. An interesting juxtaposition.

More on Strangeness in Fiction

August 17, 2010

A topic that has interested me of late (well, it’s always interested me, but recently I posted about it) is, what exactly is it speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, etc), attempts to do? What is the point of the unfaithfulness to reality?

There’s an article today on the Atlantic website called Telling Tales, and while it’s not about spec-fic, it is about the nature of the imagination and the proper way of writing — i.e. don’t be boring. While it’s not amazing it’s worth reading if you have five minutes to spare. Enjoy.

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