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?

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.


Stargate: SG-1 and What Sci-Fi Can’t Do

August 10, 2010

I noticed today that my three most recent posts have not been posts at all, in fact, and have instead just been links to other sites. I’ll attempt to rectify that now, and more so, with a rather epically long discussion of the show I’ve been watching most recently – Stargate: SG-1, which ran for 10 seasons and spun off two series, Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe, as well as two direct-to-DVD movies. I haven’t seen any of it but SG-1 itself and a few episodes of Atlantis, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what the Stargate universe is like.

Before I begin, though, you should read this article: Seeing the truth of the world through science fiction. It’s a good description of what some say sci-fi aspires to, and what I myself have said sci-fi is about on occasion. It reveals to us our own limitations, our inability to find the Ding-an-sich, and the necessity of the attempt to do so. It helps us to understand ourselves. Or, at the Teal’c look-alike at the end of the comical SG-1 episode “200” says,

Science fiction is an existential metaphor that allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”

This is what some say sci-fi tries to do. But… is this really what sci-fi is all about?

SG-1, as I said, went on for ten seasons. For the first eight of them, the central theme of the show was the struggle against an obviously evil race of technologically advanced beings who impersonated gods from ancient mythology. In the last two seasons they go up against a race of evil energy beings of arbitrarily great power who demand everyone worship them. Are they gods or not? What is a god, exactly? How do you decide what deserves worship? These are all interesting questions one would feel compelled to explore coming up against either the Goa’uld or the Ori. All of them are alluded to. None of them are ever really addressed in any meaningful way.

Instead, the show, and the characters, assume that the Goa’uld and Ori are not gods, that they do not deserve worship, that they are instead hostile forces bent on destroying human civilization as we know it. As it turns out, these assumptions are pretty much correct. The Goa’uld are evil, the Ori are evil, end of story. But this isn’t demonstrated by the fact that they’re claiming to be gods deserving worship when they’re really corporeal beings (the Ori aren’t even corporeal… kinda), it’s demonstrated by the fact that they’re mass murderers. The question of whether the claim to be a god in and of itself is ever justifiable is never addressed. This is the question that the “existential metaphor” actually raises, but for the most part it is ignored, though always in the back of the viewer’s mind.

The audience lets the show get away with ignoring this because they’re not worried about the existential questions raised; they’re more interested in the complex mythology being built up around the show. We don’t really stop to think about the nature of godhood; instead, we learn about the society of the Jaffa, and the different Goa’uld System Lords that pose a danger to the Tau’ri, and the different technologies the Ancients left behind to be discovered. The philosophical questions are never at the fore. My conversations with by brothers are never about whether humans or robots, or what it is to be a god, or even whether or not it was ethical to do what a certain character did in a certain situation; instead, we talk about whether there was really a scientific explanation for what happened, or what we think the bad guy will do next, or what a piece of technology discovered in the episode is really capable of.

In other words: if we want to say that the philosophical, existential queries being posed are the important part, and the rest just a way of communicating those queries, then the show is clearly a failure, because what we focus on is invariably the fluff, not the substance. I don’t judge SG-1 by its philosophy (if I did, it would fail) but by its characters, its plotlines, and its worldbuilding/mythopoeia — only the last of which is distinct to science fiction.

Now much of this ability to mythopoeticize comes from the long-form narrative modern television takes. SG-1, like many modern shows, has story arcs running through and even across entire seasons, with various alien civilizations introduced, fleshed out, fought with, defeated, over the course of years of in-world time and dozens of hours of on-screen material. This allows for the material to be explored in great detail, every possible factual question about the in-show universe can be asked and answered — but doing so brings us no closer to unpacking the “existential metaphor.” That metaphor is just as thoroughly explored in a single episode of The Twilight Zone. But I don’t watch The Twilight Zone nearly as much as I do SG-1, or BSG, or Buffy, or Angel. (Those last two are fantasy, but in this post I’m talking less about sci-fi specifically than speculative fiction in general.) I do truly believe that, while The Twilight Zone is in many ways brilliant, it is not as good as these others — but this judgment is clearly not based on the shows’ relative ability to metaphorically moralize.

What, then, can’t science fiction do? It cannot, except in a very limited sense, actually offer those existential metaphors that its proponents so often say is what redeems it. The fictional world sci-fi presents to us can indeed offer to us a metaphor worth considering — but after the initial presentation, it is not giving us with that metaphor, it is ornamenting the world used to create it and creating complex mythologies around it and making us care about people and civilizations that have never existed and will never exist. That activity of ornamentation is something very different, and it, not the existential metaphor itself, is what lies at the heart of sci-fi and fantasy.

To put it a different way; sci-fi is at its heart concerned not with black and white, but with color. Existential metaphors are black and white. They reveal stark truths about the nature of the human condition. They are also amazingly simple. We are reading The Road in my American Literature class right now. It’s a sublime book. Perhaps it’s a work of science fiction in some vague almost meaningless sense, but at its heart it is no different from his other work, none of which can be called sci-fi, or from even more obviously non-sci-fi fiction. Yes, I suppose it’s set in post-apocalyptic America. But it’s not at all interested in exploring the new make-up of the world, in politics or society or biology. Those are all dead. It is interested in Life and Death and Love and arriving the essence of those things. And it takes place in a world devoid of color. (The Twilight Zone, I note, was shot in black and white, and I seriously doubt a color version would have been an improvement.) It contains elements of sci-fi – primarily the descriptions of how people survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland – but apart from that there is no world-building going on, no interest in the exterior world — rather the exterior has been reduced to the interior.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is interested primarily in color. Specifically in colors never before seen. Sci-fi isn’t black and white; it tries to show us colors that don’t exist except in our imagination. Consider H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space. A meteor crashes that is made of a material that is not red, blue, green, yellow, nor any color known to man. It sticks around for a while, causes problems, then vanishes. That, not The Road, is science fiction boiled down to its essence — an encounter with the never before seen. Though of course since part of the essence of sci-fi is its baroque density such a boiling down fails to really illustrate by example. This is not to say that works of science fiction can’t be serious, nor that sci-fi cannot reduce the world to black and white. It is rather to say that this is not the essence of sci-fi.

So what exactly is my point? Why does it matter what the essence of sci-fi truly is? Because the nature of sci-fi’s essence determines how we defend it to those who discount its true worth. I want us (“us” meaning those of us who love speculative fiction) to realize that the usual defense of it, that it functions as a metaphor for real life that can reveal things not easily seen in ordinary fiction, does not really hold up under scrutiny. Something else is going on.

What that is, I’m not sure exactly. As I said, I think it has something to do with discovering new colors. But is that really worthwhile? Is that a legitimate endeavor? It may just be ornament for ornament’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake, the act of subcreation as an exploration of the power of the human imagination. That sounds to me incurably romantic, and I’m not sure it makes for a good defense. But exploring this question will have to wait for another day. I’ve already gotten too far off-topic from my original idea for this post, which was to rant about how naive SG-1 often is. Perhaps another time.


Thoughts on Blood Meridian

July 23, 2010

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

It’s also an amazing book. It’s like Moby-Dick, but more nihilistic, with whaling replaced by scalp-hunting, and Moby-Dick made a member of Ahab’s crew (i.e. Glanton’s gang) in the form of Judge Holden. The Judge is perhaps the most disturbing example of the sublime ever; a giant of a man, hairless, and pure white, he kills for pleasure and desires to possess all knowledge in the universe so that he can control (and destroy) the universe. To that end carries around a notebook in which he makes detailed scientific observations before destroying the things he is observing. He may be a pedophile. He claims that “War is god.” He seems some sort of Gnostic deity, though he cannot be traced back to any “atavistic egg.” Perhaps he represents Death. He is a skilled dancer.

I have a hard time saying more than this about the novel. This is partially because it’s so overwhelming on a first reading – it’s like Moby-Dick in this regard as well – that I am completely aware that I do not understand it, at all. The Judge is by far the most fascinating character, but the rest of the gang are interesting as well — the captain, the expriest, Toadvine, the Delawares (are they like Fedallah and his men?), the kid himself, who never receives a name. One gets the feeling each of them can be examined individually in much the same way as Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, and Ishmael. But I have not done so yet.

I did wonder, while reading the book, whether or not Cormac McCarthy is capable of describing anything as being red without comparing it to fire or blood. It’s an effective descriptive technique, but every once in a while I sat back and said, really? Again? The sunset is bloodred. Is it ever any other color?

I’ve also read recently that there are plans to make it into a movie. Now, three of McCarthy’s books have already been filmed – All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old  Men, and The Road – but those are children’s books compared to Blood Meridian. It would be completely impossible to show all the violence described in the book without getting an NC-17 rating. And omitting the violence somewhat defeats the point. So, to say the least, I’m skeptical, though I’m willing to give it a chance.

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

Book Review: The Border Trilogy

July 14, 2010

Over the last month or so I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called “Border Trilogy,” which consists of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). I highly recommend all three, though the second is the best of the three and the third not as good as the other two. McCarthy really is the Melville and Faulkner of the American Southwest, and these three books are among his best.

Now, the three books form a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word; they’re self-contained novels, the first and second having nothing to do with each other and the third taking the two main characters from the first two and having them both play a central role in it. I would like to be able to make something of the structure of the trilogy as a whole — the John Grady->Billy Parham->both order for the books I find suggestive — but I can’t make much of it, so I won’t try. There are, however, themes which run throughout all three, including the loss of innocence and passing away of the romantic worldview; the impossibility of free will and its phenomenological necessity; and the revelatory nature of violence, a McCarthy favorite.

An interesting aspect of all three books is their division into four sections, rather than three or five. I’ve been finding four a more and more interesting number lately; three suggests beginning, middle, end, and five suggests an act structure like a Shakespearean tragedy, but four, I think, suggests a presentation of the world, a meditation, rather than a dramatic narrative arc. There is no rising action, climax, falling action, but rather a gradual transformation of worldview. And indeed, all three of the books are quite episodic in nature (though Cities of the Plain less so than the other two). All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing both consist of the main characters wandering somewhat aimlessly (though always with a proximate goal in mind) around Mexico and the borderlands of the United States, finding themselves at the end in a similar state as when they began, but with a transformed understanding of it.

A fascinating example of this can be seen in The Crossing, where in each section can be found a long narrative told to the main character by outcast figures. In the first, the crazed old hunter whose family is all dead; in the second, the priest living alone in a deserted village; in the third, the blind man whose eyes were plucked out during the Revolution (another theme running throughout the trilogy is the Mexican Revolution, which I unfortunately know too little about to comment); and in the fourth, the gypsy transporting the crashed plane. Each of these touches upon existential themes and presents a slightly different understanding of the existential quandary man finds himself in, and there is clearly some sort of progression between them (though I have not fully formulated what it is). All four are fascinating reading; they resemble the “Grand Inquisitor” short story in The Brothers Karamazov in a lot of ways. What’s interesting is that there is no obvious movement between them; the focus is on the four different states of mind, not on how one changes into the other. The same applies to the novels as a whole; the focus is on the journey, not the turning points.

Nevertheless, there is change over the course of each book, as the main characters discover their true nature and the true nature of the world. They begin idealistically, wanting to go be cowboys because they think cowboy life to be the perfect life, the best life imaginable; they discover that cowboy life, like all life, is primarily a prelude to death. That leads to another interesting question – is Cormac McCarthy a nihilist? I think the answer is no. Certainly not in The Road; probably not in No Country for Old Men; and, I think, not in the Border Trilogy either. But it’s a hard argument to make, and in the end I’d say that, though he’s not a nihilist, he comes close. Certainly he leans existentialist. I’m currently reading Blood Meridian, the book that preceded All the Pretty Horses and which Harold Bloom calls the best novel by a living author; we’ll see whether I think McCarthy’s a nihilist after I read that.


%d bloggers like this: