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.

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.

He is Risen, Alleluia!

April 5, 2010

After a long Lenten season, Easter has arrived.

Last night I went to Easter Vigil mass at my local parish, St. Luke’s Catholic Church. It was a quadrilingual mass – English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. The music was terrible, and the acoustics weren’t that great. It was also over-crowded, so we had to sit in the area behind the altar and thus couldn’t see most of what was going on. All of this is par for the course when going to Christmas or Easter masses at St. Luke’s.

And yes, the un-aesthetically-pleasing aspects of the mass bothered me, as they always do. (I would prefer to go to the Cistercian abbey across the street from UD, but no, my parents like going to the local parish…) But as this was all going on last night I started thinking about it, and realized something kind of interesting. That the mass was so poorly performed brought to the fore an aspect often overlooked – that it is a performance. And realizing this made me start to consider just what kind of a performance it is.

Now, the obvious comparison is of the performance of drama, and indeed, they say that plays originally grew out of the liturgy. But liturgy is radically different from drama, because in a play, the actors are engaged in a fiction, and the play fails if they fail to suspend our disbelief. The mass does not attempt to suspend our disbelief in a fiction; rather, it attempts to make real our belief in a theological truth. Thus, that the mass is a performance, in the context of liturgy, means something entirely different than if it were a drama. It is not a performance put on by the priests and altar servers and choir for the benefit of the congregation, trying to convince them of their belief; it is a performance put on by the priests and altar servers and choir on behalf of the congregation, enacting what they already believe.

I admit, all too often I have found myself disappointed that I have not been emotionally moved by the experience of going to mass, forgetting that this is not the point. The point is to affirm our belief and to participate in the holiest of sacraments. So long as we hear the readings, recite the Creed, celebrate the Eucharist, neither of these is made more difficult by the mass being poorly said or sung.

This is not to say that good music, good sermons, good architecture, etc, are not important; they are. But their goal is not to transport the congregation into mystical raptures, and they have not failed if they do not do so.

Book Review: Outcast of Redwall

March 11, 2010

Two years ago I re-read Martin the Warrior over Spring Break (and reviewed it here). Now, I have always considered Martin to be the best of the Redwall books, but I’ve often heard that Outcast of Redwall could be considered a rival to that title; thus, this year, I decided to spend some time over Spring Break re-reading Outcast (which I haven’t touched for at least six years, probably longer) in order to pass judgment on that claim.

Conclusion: Those making that claim were wrong. Martin the Warrior is far superior to Outcast of Redwall. Furthermore, I think I can see in Outcast the beginning of the end of the Redwall series; that is, I think the book contains hints that Brian Jacques, while writing it, had an authorial crisis; he chose, rather than to bring Redwall in a more mature direction, to continue just spinning fun yarns. And it was this that resulted in the recycling of plots and general lack of creativity in the later part of the series (which has now gone on for longer than the earlier part – Martin was #6, Outcast was #8, and now he’s up to #20).

The book begins by introducing several interesting characters. Sunflash is a fairly relatable badger lord, with his desire to be a peaceful intellectual, and Skarlath makes a nice addition – a bird character who is not completely one-dimensional (not that he’s all that complex). Swartt Sixclaw is one of the more competent villains, though I find it hard to believe that his repeated poisonings of his rivals would work. Nightshade also adds a nice touch of mystery, and she is fairly sympathetic, as villains go; she feels fated to follow her lord to the bitter end.

Unfortunately, Part II adds several rather unlikable characters, including the absurdly romantic/idealistic Bryony and the whiny titular character, Veil. Now, Veil is a morally complex character, but he’s not sympathetically morally complex; whenever he does something bad, the reader’s reaction is to condemn him and wish the author  would stop talking about him, rather than to feel sorry for him and wish he would stop doing bad things. I realize one of the supposed strengths of the book is its moral complexity (relative to the other Redwall books, at least), but I thought it could have been much more convincing.

Plot-wise, there was a nice dramatic unity to each of the two plot threads (the Sunflash-Swartt rivalry on the one hand, Bryony’s struggle for Veil’s soul on the other), though they had little overlap. I found the Sunflash-Swartt one consistently more interesting, and I really liked the use of Nightshade the Seer (the fox prophets in Redwall are always good characters, actually) and how it came full circle at the end, everything coming back to where it began. At times, though, particularly in the middle section, the book seemed somewhat rambling, and the jump forward in time wasn’t as smooth as it could have been (I still don’t see how it took maybe years for Swartt to travel a distance other characters cover in a few weeks).

There was also a strange tendency, which I don’t remember in any other Redwall books, of plot threads being built up for a confrontation but then anticlimactically ending in a few pages. Yes, even in the original Redwall we see Redtooth try to usurp Cluny’s authority and be swiftly eliminated, but the book has more than just a few red herrings. Before the time-jump, we have Bowfleg, Wildag, Krakulat, Shang Damsontongue, Balefur; each is a threat to Swartt’s power, each is instantly eliminated (and interestingly, leads directly to the next threat). After the jump, Zigu appears, has a bit of character development, and dies in battle to a minor hare character. Obviously nothing can interfere with the the Sunflash-Swartt confrontation – Nightshade did predict it would happen, after all.

The last red herring is The Wraith, whom Swartt hires to kill Sunflash. Of course, genre-savvy Redwall readers know by now that assassins never work; thus it is no surprise when he fails mid-mission. But his failure is spectacular – not only does he not kill Sunflash, he doesn’t kill anyone, instantly falling to his death on being hit with a pie in the face. And after the number of failed diversions already appearing in the book, I couldn’t help but notice the absurdity of it all. It began to feel like a deconstruction of Salamandastron, #5 in the Redwall canon.

Indeed, I think Jacques was, perhaps self-consciously but probably not, performing a deconstruction of previous Redwall stories; thus the moral complexity of the Bryony-Veil plot line (ill-executed as it was) made perfect sense. I got the impression while reading that Jacques was realizing some of the absurdities of his universe, with its species-based morality and predictable plot lines, and decided to explore them – what happens if a vermin is raised by Redwallers? Is he still evil? How inevitable is the final confrontation between Hero (Sunflash) and Villain (Swartt)?

But then… Jacques doesn’t do anything interesting with it. The Nightshade/prophecies aspect of the Sunflash-Swartt plot line vanishes after Nightshade’s death, leaving the status (fated or not?) of their rivalry not only unanswered, but unaddressed. I don’t mind leaving something unanswered, but I think authors have a duty to at least address the issue and suggest a resolution, even an imperfect one.

Then there’s the final resolution of the Bryony-Veil plot line. It really bothers me. Jacques, speaking through Bella the badger-mum, seems to say that all of the moral ambiguity we thought he had been discussing had been illusory, and in fact morality is black-and-white after all.

So Jacques begins to deconstruct his world – but then stops, goes back on what he’s said, and then writes a bunch more Redwall books – twelve (and counting). Did he decide the issues he’d brought up didn’t actually need addressing? Did he think he had addressed them? Did he not realize there were issues? I don’t quite know. But it definitely seems that Jacques began a deconstruction but never attempted a reconstruction.

The later entries in the series were never as good as the ones preceding Outcast, and I think this is why. Jacques kept writing what he had been writing, but he had realized some of the absurdities of it, on some level at least, and decided not to address them. Thus they moved from innocence to immaturity.

I realize this is a harsh criticism, and I don’t mean for it to be taken as entirely accurate. I overstate my case; the books were not perfect up until Outcast, Outcast is a decent book, and they were not uniformly abysmal following it. But I do think Outcast serves as a good turning point in the series towards the worse, and that the above is a good part of the reason why.

Kirillov and Lolcats

January 10, 2010

There is a character in Dostoevsky’s novel Demons (also titled The Possessed or The Devils) named Kirillov who refuses to use proper grammar. Oh, he’s not ignorant of correct usage, though he claims that he has forgotten how to speak properly. He is simply intentionally agrammatic, using the wrong tenses, the wrong cases.

Oddly, what I first thought about when I encountered this chararacter was, lolcats! You know, the bizarre internet phenomenon where a picture of a cat is given an amusing, often grammatically incorrect or misspelled caption, and that makes it hilarious? They can be found on the website icanhascheezburger.com, which name pretty well captures what I’m talking about.

What the two have in common is that they involve people who know correct grammar intentionally misusing words in order to provoke a reaction. Yes, lolcats are meant to be humorous – but they achieve their humor through self-conscious absurdity. They point to themselves and say, “I’m misusing the language, and I know it!” If you show that you are aware of the absurdity of language, it puts you above it.

How is language absurd? Firstly, it’s arbitrary. We collectively agree on what words mean, how they go together, how sentences are formed, but we could just as easily speak a different language. The fact that Kirillov and lolcats are comprehensible even though they break the rules proves that arbitrariness – they’ve made you understand them even though they refused to follow the rules. You know exactly what “I can has cheezburger?” means, even though “I can has” shouldn’t mean anything and “cheezburger” won’t be found in any dictionary.

But, apart from language itself, the very idea of communication is absurd in certain lights. What does Kirillov care what you have to say? Nothing. And conversely, he realizes that you do not (or at least ought not to) care about what he has to say. He will invite you to have tea with him, but the phrase intentionally sounds forced, because he wants you to know that he does not really care whether or not you have tea, that he knows you don’t really care, that he’s going to ask anyway to be polite, but that he does not care. As he says near the end of the novel: “Makes no difference.” Not, “It makes no difference,” but, “Makes no difference.”

I find myself reacting thusly every so often. If I have to text someone about their location, I won’t say “where are you?” but rather “where is you?” or “where be you?” I’ll do the same for myself; “i’z in my apt” rather than “I’m in my apartment.” Or I’ll try to respond in German rather than English – I constantly find myself using “wo?” instead of “where?” and “wie ist die uhr?” instead of “what time is it?”

In a way, it’s an attempt to break through the banality of life, to transcend earthly existence. Kirillov refuses to use correct grammar, and his entire philosophy is centered around the idea that he should commit suicide in order to become God: “I want to put an end to my life, because that’s my idea, because I don’t want to be afraid of death.”

But that statement itself perfectly demonstrates Kirillov’s error. He does not want to be afraid of death, but he is – he’s afraid of the power that death has over him. His solution is not to fight that power, but to give in to it entirely. Kirillov is afraid of being “merely” human. His suicide is, in the end, still an act of cowardice.

The same applies to his bizarre speech patterns. He’s refusing to engage his fellow human beings as human beings – he insists on being agrammatic so that he doesn’t have to do so. In fact, this seems true of most such breakings of grammar, including my own. The phrase “where is you?”, after all, conjugates “to be” not for the second person, but for the third person – changes the “you” from a person to interact with into an object to be dealt with.

And the lolcat caption does the same thing. Instead of saying, “can I have a cheezburger?” the cat says “I can has cheezburger?” Whomever the cat is addressing is thus treated as a robot, with an input of “ask for cheeseburger” and an output of “get a cheeseburger,” without being given the respect of a grammatically correct question.

This is funny, of course, because this is exactly how pets treat people; they use them. I’ve seen “lolcats” of dogs, horses, walruses, etc – but rarely people, and I don’t think it would work for people. For people, I think, it would just be disturbing, as the character of Kirillov is himself disturbing.

Powerful Themes (1/4)

November 15, 2007

I’ve mentioned before that I have, in essence, four favorite bands. There’s Blind Guardian, whose magnus opus Nightfall in Middle-Earth tells the story of the Silmarillion; then Rhapsody (of Fire), who sing of the Enchanted Lands; of course Kamelot, the only American band I really like; and finally Týr, who hail from of all places the Faroe Islands.

These four artists are in some ways quite similar. They all, except Týr, play a style of music known as power metal (though all in quite different ways); Týr plays what I think is a related style, viking metal. (Incidentally, all of them blur at least somewhat the lines the demarcate their genre – I don’t think you can be a great band if you view genre definitions as unbreakable.) It seems to me, however, that though these groups are quite similar in style, their subject matter differs greatly.

This post will be about Blind Guardian.

This German band portrays itself as a group of wandering bards, singing tales to lighten the hearts of those that hear. This fits perfectly with their band’s theme, which I postulate is that of mythopoeia.

Many of their songs – “Imaginations from the Other Side”, “The Bard’s Tale”, “Skalds and Shadows”, etcetera – are about this very idea. Take these lines from the last of those:

Just hand me my harp
And this night
Turns into myth
Nothing seems real
You soon will feel
The World we live in
Is another skald’s
Dream in the shadows

Not all of their songs are about this directly – NiME itself is entirely a concept album, after all – but they all reflect this sentiment. All of the songs are, I think it could be said, self-consciously artistic; they are not just acts of mythopoeia, they are about acts of mythopoeia. They are about, though often indirectly, art – about telling stories.

Take “A Past and Future Secret”, about the King Arthur legend. A minute or so in, you hear this chorus:

My song of the end
I had seen it in my dreams

And take that concept album NiME that supposedly had no self-reference. First of all, they chose as the basis for their concept album the Silmarillion, written by the master of mythopoeia, Tolkien. Second, the album is constructed so that every actual song has an “interlude” to go with it – not really a song, just a short dialogue or somesuch to bring the sotry along. Track 5 is “The Minstrel”, and in it Fingolfin says,

So I stand still
In front of the crowd
Excited faces
Whar will be next?
I still don’t have a clue

And so on and so forth.

Finally, there’s the fact that their latest two albums are titled “A Night at the Opera and “A Twist in the Myth”. The significance of that should be obvious.

Now, what do I make of this?

Clearly I think they do a good job with it. After all, they’re one of my favorite bands. I have many of the same concerns, obsessed as I am with writings random stories and Wesnoth/Orbivm campaigns and trying to make them into actual art not just amusement.

But still, I wonder – is the meta-ness of this all really a good thing? If the best art is about making art, then how is art actually about anything? It can be taken to the extreme, and it then becomes too self-referential. If there’s nothing to ground the art it has no value.

So Blind Guardian’s meta-art seems to me to be, in a way, dodging the question. They should be singing about something else – what, I’m not sure exactly. And they do, much of the time. The problem is that the subtext is always “what does this mean for the bard and his audience?” That might not be a problem, but it strikes me as somehow wrong.

Also, if art ought not to be about art… it seems to imply that art is not the highest calling. That there are better things to do with your time than what the artist does. In which case, why should the artist bother? I find that a rather depressing thought. I know intellectually that art isn’t the most important thing we can do in this life, but it is very hard to motivate yourself to make art if you don’t have that illusion to some extent. At least it seems like that to me sometimes.

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