31 January 2009

Out of Pocket

WoW will down for a couple of days while I attend a funeral in Raleigh on Sunday.

There's plenty to keep you busy in my absence. I know there's some sort of sporting event this weekend. I might even have the chance to catch it on TV if I can figure out what time it starts and the idiot commentators stop commentating idiotically all over the place. The hype is incessant and inane. I suppose it's a big deal, though, if you're from Pittsburgh or St. Louis, er, Phoenix. [P.S. I hear Bruce is doing something at half-time.]

But, for real, it's time to start assessing your pitchers and catchers for the season. Spring is nearly here.

29 January 2009

Why They Hate Us

1,073,741,824. One billion plus.

This is the number of ancestors you had, theoretically, approximately 600 years ago, sometime around 1400. How did I arrive at this figure? Simple: you have two parents, each of them has two parents (4), each of them has two parents (8), each of them has two parents (16), and so on for approximately 30 generations (@20yrs).

But there's a problem. According to the best available estimates, at that time there were only about 350,000,000 people alive. Three-hundred-fifty million, slightly more than one-third of the number of your theoretical ancestors. "Go back forty generations, or about a thousand years, and each of us theoretically has more than a trillion direct ancestors—a figure that far exceeds the total number of human beings who have ever lived." Or so says Steve Olson in an article published several years back in The Atlantic Monthly: "The Royal We." What gives?

Intermarriage, intermingling of family trees, etc. Fine. Yet, there is a mathematical issue.
"In a 1999 paper titled "Recent Common Ancestors of All Present-Day Individuals," [Joseph] Chang [a statistician] showed how to reconcile the potentially huge number of our ancestors with the quantities of people who actually lived in the past. His model is a mathematical proof that relies on such abstractions as Poisson distributions and Markov chains, but it can readily be applied to the real world. Under the conditions laid out in his paper, the most recent common ancestor of every European today (except for recent immigrants to the Continent) was someone who lived in Europe in the surprisingly recent past—only about 600 years ago. In other words, all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400. Before that date, according to Chang's model, the number of ancestors common to all Europeans today increased, until, about a thousand years ago, a peculiar situation prevailed: 20 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless); each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today."
Everyone today who has any trace of European ancestry is descended from Charlemagne (the Holy Grail, if you will, of genealogical research). And Muhammad: "The line of descent for which records exist is through the daughter of the Emir of Seville, who is reported to have converted from Islam to Catholicism in about 1200. But many other, unrecorded descents must also exist," says Olson.

Further, as a matter of statistical certainty, everyone alive today is descended from Abraham and David and Confuscius and Nefertiti:
"the most recent common ancestor of all six billion people on earth today probably lived just a couple of thousand years ago. And not long before that the majority of the people on the planet were the direct ancestors of everyone alive today. Confucius, Nefertiti, and just about any other ancient historical figure who was even moderately prolific must today be counted among everyone's ancestors."
So, how does it feel to have royal, even divine blood? Feels pretty good, doesn't it? It gives you a real sense of self-esteem, n'est pas? A sense of pride and confidence. Even a sense of privilege. And that's the problem. This February 12th marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. His On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) offended everyone who felt they had a drop of noble blood because at some level nobility is associated with divinity.

Throughout the history of Western civilization, royalty embellished their claims to rule over others by tracing their ancestral roots to the gods. Today's most blatant example is the Pope of the Roman Catholic sect who claims his authority comes from Peter, to whom Jesus the Divine purportedly gave the keys of heaven: "Behold he [Peter] received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the power of binding and loosing is committed to him, the care of the whole Church and its government is given to him [cura ei totius Ecclesiae et principatus committitur (Epist., lib. V, ep. xx, in P.L., LXXVII, 745)].

Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code plays on this myth of divine sanction, articulating the counter-myth that Charlemagne was the direct physical descendant of Jesus through the line of Mary Magdalene—which claim, of course, is a direct challenge to the spiritual authority arrogated to itself by the Roman church. Prior to this, the Roman Emperors, of course, formalized the model, relying heavily on the divine sanction for their authority. The Divine Augustus, the apotheosis of Nero, etc.

Jesus, as far as I can tell, was the first commoner/plebeian/peasant to be claimed to be a direct divine descendant; and, in the eyes of much of the Christian church, this elevated him to royalty. King Jesus. But this is confusing. In the New Testament, the books of Matthew and Luke make some attempt to trace Jesus's genealogy back through Joseph to David and, thus, Abraham and even Adam; but that makes no sense if his "father" was the Holy Spirit of God and not the icky, spermy Joseph. Either Jesus had a divine ancestor, arguably, in Adam, the first man, or Jesus's lineage represented a break in the chain of ancestry as the divine acted directly in the womb of his mother, Mary.

The tradition, of course, is much older, however. The Greek gods were continually meddling in the affairs of mortals and begetting spawn who were destined to rule over the people. There's a long history in the ancient Near East, as well. The so-called 'Divine Right of Kings' was but a modern shadow of the persistence of this myth.

Suffice it to say: Nobility, Royalty, Divinity: they are all inextricably intertwined in Western history. It can be quite confusing to us poor non-elites. 'Divinity' mythologizes the right of one person or one group to hold sway over another group. 'Divinity' authorizes rulership.

Then, along came Darwin. His work smashed this myth, waking humanity from its great slumber of irreality. There are truly no divine origins, no divinely sanctioned royalty, no exclusive nobility. We all have the same origins. We are all, in essence, of the animal kingdom. Human, all too human. It is the great disillusionment.

And 150 years later, the Christers, primarily, are fighting a fierce, rear-guard action defending the primacy of their great delusion. They need to believe that the authority of their priests, ministers, preachers, etc. derives directly from some higher power; that some divinity deigned to appear on earth and interfere in human affairs by impregnating a young Hebrew girl; that the presence of this divinity among us was revealed exclusively to a selective few, bestowing upon them some form of spiritual authority over the rest of us; that this authority has been handed down in an unbroken chain of succession ever since; and that the stories surrounding this revelation are set down in holy writ and, if we read them aright (the way the authorities tell us to), it will be revealed to us in all its glory. Magical thinking, that.

Darwin detached that chain at the source, demolished the feigned origins of authority (divine AND secular) and nobility. That is why they hate us.

26 January 2009

A Quick One, While He's Away

I've been having some fun in the Comments over at D.G. Myers's blog: A Commonplace Blog. The redoubtable Dan Green from The Reading Experience is there, too.

It all started here, you might want to as well.

23 January 2009

Poetry Break, Sort of

Tiger Swallowtail on Periwinkle

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955)
Disillusionment Of Ten O'clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

(from "Harmonium," 1923)

I'm not a Stevens scholar or a poet, but I wanted to take a run at this poem. It illustrates a point from my last post on the novel.

I'll start with the premise that it is the persona of the poem who is disillusioned. And he (let's assume it's a 'he', despite the night-gown connotations) is disillusioned with himself, not the villagers. He is disillusioned by the sameness and conformity of the neighborhood/community in which he finds himself: the houses, the night-gowns. His life is mundane: no color, no exoticism, no adornment. No dreams.

Query: Why does the poet use the loaded term 'periwinkle'? And which meaning does he intend? A periwinkle can be an exotic color, a lovely, delicate flower of that color, or 'a shore-dwelling mollusk'—all of which fit. The color fits the theme of white gowns that aren't either green, or purple, or yellow with various designs upon them. The flower is dreamily exotic, especially in the hands of a baboon, connoting the lack of imagination of the people. The shore-dwelling mollusk contrasts with the drunken sailor, and seems more emblematic of the persona's disillusionment with himself and his life. Similarly, its shell echoes the beads of the sashes the unimaginative (apish?) people don't wear. Let's go with all three.

Red sky at night, sailor's delight.
Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.

This adage is at least as old as Jesus: "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' (Matt. 16:2-3)

Query: So, in this allusion, is the old sailor dreaming about catching Tigers in a treacherous morning, or is he catching Tigers in the delightful, promising evening of his dreams? And are we talking about the big cats or the butterflies here? That one is up for grabs, too (and we can't ask Stevens); but it is clear that the persona of the poem is wistful of the life of the vivid imagination (embodied by the drunken sailor who doesn't don a dull night-gown, but sleeps drunk and in his boots, and is perhaps, an alter ego, a life not lived, or merely a romantic figure)—the danger (Tiger, morning) and the beauty (Swallowtail, night)—and disillusioned with the safe life of houses haunted by white night-gowns as he readies for his own sober, dreamless sleep of ugly conformity. And perhaps, as it's getting late in the day, his death.

By Shroder's definition (in the previous post), there's a whole novel in this lovely, breath-taking, little poem.

22 January 2009

Man Size Pleasure

What is a novel? This is a question I am continually asking myself as I work on my second one.

The learning curve for writing novels is quite steep. Someone once said that writing your first novel is toughest because not only do you have to write your novel, you have to teach yourself how to write a novel as well. Well, from my experience, writing the second novel is just as tough because you're teaching yourself how to write a different novel. That's really just a way of saying I eschew formulaicism.

One of my ways of keeping focused on the task is to keep a theoretic framework in mind. A map, if you will, of the territory ahead.

So, what is a novel? Is it more than, say, a fictional narrative in prose of a certain length? Is it one genre among others in the category of longish fiction? Some good discussion on the Web has been going on recently. Here's Dan Green at The Reading Experience. Here's Richard Crary at The Existence Machine. Go there. You'll find me in their Comments pimping for WoW.

Maurice Z. Shroder, in an influential 1963 article entitled "The Novel as a Genre" in The Theory of the Novel edited by Philip Stevick, remarks the breadth and flexibility of the form prevents easy definition. Some things, though, can be set out:
"Like any narrative, the novel has a typical action, with thematic value, which is peculiarly its own.

The matter of the novel—the theme that has informed the genre from Don Quixote onward—is relatively uncomplicated. The novel records the passage from a state of innocence to a state of experience, from that ignorance which is bliss to a mature recognition of the actual way of the world. In the less loaded terms of Lionel Trilling, the novel deals with a distinction between appearance and reality. It is not necessarily a question of ontological subtleties: the reality to which the novel appeals is that to which it is historically connected, the reality of bourgeois life, of business, and of the modern city. The first Falstaff, as he stands on the field of Shrewsbury, the thought of money metaphorically coloring his speech—as he questions the value of such aristocratic absolutes as chivalric honor and resolves to be a live coward—Falstaff embodies the sensibility that will make the novel possible. The great expectations of the young Hotspur find ironic responses in the lost illusions of the old Sir John. The protagonist of the novel follows the same pattern of disillusionment—which Harry Levin sees as a major part of what we call realism—from potential fulfillment to actual accomplishment, from a hopeful naivete to a resigned wisdom.

Thematically, then, the novel distinguishes itself from the romance, in which the protagonist proves himself a hero, actually fulfills his heroic potentiality. ... The protagonist of a novel is likely to be an 'anti-hero,' an 'unheroic hero," ...who is able to elaborate his dreams of glory only by ignoring the material realities of his station and his times." (14-15)
"The action of the novel...is essentially a reworking of the basic action of the romance...the 'monomyth'...the 'quest.'... In the novel, the 'going forth' may be metaphorical rather than actual; but the voyage often provides the novelistic framework, and the protagonist's movement is always from a narrow environment to a broader one. He may move in space...he may move rather in time. The goal of the quest...may or may not be achieved; but the protagonist of the novel is likely to discover, with Falstaff, that there is no future for heroism, that he himself is a perfectly ordinary man, with the experience and the knowledge that suit his station. ... [P]rotagonists succeed only because they have let fall their illusions and their pride. Such a fall, in a novel, is a happy one, since it represents the completion of that educational process with which the novel deals, an education into the realities of the material world and of human life in society." (15-16)
According to Shroder, "The novel would then seem to be an essentially ironic fictional form, occupying a middle position between the non-ironic romance and the philosophical tale, which is ironic, but in ways often different from those of the novel." (20)

To recap: the novel is essentially urban, middle class, and anti-romantic, marking the passage from ignorance to knowledge, innocence to experience, appearance to reality. It is ironic in attitude; disillusioned in stance. According to Shroder, these are the hallmarks of the novel, properly so called.
"Romance is essentially escapist literature; it appeals to the emotions and imagination of the reader, invites him to marvel at an enchanted world of triumphant adventure—and the triumph may be the slaying of a dragon or the unmasking of a corrupt sheriff. The novel...leads the reader back to reality by questioning the basis of romance; and the more sophisticated, the more subtle, or the more devastating the process becomes...the less 'popular' the novel is likely to be, the more limited the audience that savors the novelist's irony." (21)
So, for the novelist, the novel is, essentially, novelistic: the better the novel you write, the less it will sell/the harder it will be to get it accepted for publication. How ironic.

21 January 2009

Thirty-five Words

Yesterday, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, John Roberts, had one task: to administer the Constitutionally-prescribed Oath of Office to the incoming President of the United States. He blew it.

Disregarding, for the moment, his political antipathy to one of few Senators who voted against him, was it an act of:
  1. Freudian slip?
  2. Conservative hostility?
  3. Malice?
  4. Judicial malpractice?
  5. Arrogance?
  6. Nervousness?

Without evidence, I won't speculate over what's going on in his psyche or what his motivation was; I'm not a novelist. Oh, wait...I am.

Regardless. I'm not going there. Chief Justice Roberts couldn't spit out the words as he stood there facing President Obama.

Charitably, we could assume he simply choked due to jitters at such a historic moment in front of those 1.8 million assembled and the eyes of the entire world. Anybody would get the butterflies.

Apparently cognizant of this, C.J. Rehnquist used to use a notecard at these swearings-in as a prompt. Roberts eschewed it, thinking, I guess, he could wing it. Well, that's the problem, isn't it? We've had eight long years of people thinking they could just wing it. Let's hope that era is over.

The wingnuts, and even Fox News, are frothing over the fact that Obama cannot legitimately execute the office of the presidency because he didn't mouth the words precisely as they are set out in the U.S. Constitution. Fact is, any judge can swear him in, anywhere, anytime—if he wants a do-over. Bush's Presidency* ended at noon Jan. 20, 2009. There's nothing these people can do about it. And just remember, these are the same folks who managed to overlook the Constitutional rules regarding the Vice President's proper role and function, separation of powers, the honoring of treaties and international accords, the Establishment Clause, habeas corpus, unreasonable searches and seizures, etc., for the past eight years.

In my opinion, Roberts should proffer his resignation forthwith. He had one job to do yesterday: thirty-five words long. It is, perhaps, the most important task of his office. And he botched it. Badly. If he had any professional or personal integrity, he would resign, realizing he can no longer do his job with any respect for the Office of the Presidency, the Office of the Chief Justice, or himself. He has been exposed: the man's a hack.

UPDATE: 1/21/2009—22:00 E.S.T.: CNN and Fox News are both reporting that C.J. Roberts just re-administered the oath to Pres. Obama. I guess the President decided to give the Justice a do-over and forgive him for trying to throw a monkey wrench into the works.

20 January 2009

"Our Common Humanity"

"...that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself..."
Barack Hussein Obama, Jan. 20, 2009, First Inaugural Speech.


I'm going to hold you to that, Mr. President! Good luck! Now, get to work. Have you closed that prison at Guantanamo yet? Have you repudiated all uses of anything that reeks of torture at Abu Ghraib or elsewhere? What about the practice of extraordinary rendition? And say, any word on those war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in your and my name over the past, oh, eight years or so?

Just asking.

UPDATE: Jan-22-2009: 15:30 E.S.T.: Damn if he didn't do it (ex-Nuremberg): Gitmo, torture, rendition on Day Two! Plus, Mitchell and Holbrooke to boot! Wow.

19 January 2009

Are We Not Men?

"Humanity is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not." Protagoras of Abdera (ca. 430 BCE).
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle II, ll. 1-2 (1733)
Stanley Fish, in his usually brilliant blog, Think Again, hits pretty close to home with this post. According to Fish—as with Alexander Pope—the proper study of Humankind is Humanity.

I am a full-bore humanist in his sense. I graduated college with a double major in Philosophy and English, and a double minor in Classics and History. I have graduate degrees in Theology and Philosophy. I terminated my Philosophy work with an M.A. when I realized how peripatetic the life of an academic truly could be. I would have no real control over where I lived, taking whatever adjunct positions I could until I managed to land a tenure-track spot at whatever backwater U. This felt like the beginnings of what Fish is lamenting.

There is a benefit to a humanities education, however indirect. Granted, a terminal undergrad humanities major does not translate directly into a professional career. Understanding human nature, learning to think, learning to feel: these by-products of reading, say, Milton and Herodotus, Wittgenstein and Beckett, and Protagoras and Pope (for that matter) are not negligible. Navigating the seas of humanity is not an M.B.A. skill. Not even a PoliSci or Econ skill, as much as their proponents would have you believe.

My humanities background translated into a pretty fair law school app. Because of my training in logic, I scored in the 98th percentile on the LSAT's—way better than my SAT's, by way of contrast. Frankly, law school was a breeze after Philosophy grad school—law review editor, honors, multiple job offers from top NYC firms, etc., all while holding down at least one job and finishing my M.A. thesis (on inter alia Barthes's S/Z). And certain areas of the practice of law—research, analytical reading, reasoning from facts and principles and rules, rhetoric, argument—came easily as well. Understanding people—their motivations, foibles, and deviances— played a big role also. I always recommend Philosophy to kids who know they want to go to law school. I do not always recommend the practice of law, though, and I'll go into the reasons for that another time.

[My wife translated a Philosophy and Music double major, filled out with the requisite pre-Med science courses, into a successful medical school app. And there are others.]

There's a long list of blogs I follow with some regularity. For the most part, they are non-corporate and non-professional. All are humanistic—broadly conceived, whether their proponents would agree or not. For this reason I commend them to you. As the humanist aspect of education wanes, the conversation of humanity is continuing on in the blogosphere. Click, comment.

Here they are (in no particular order):

Arts & Letters Daily
Maud Newton
The Elegant Variation
The Reading Experience
The Millions
Nigel Beale
Blog of a Bookslut
Conversational Reading
Literary Saloon
Literary Kicks
That Shakespeherian Rag
wood s lot
Chekhov's Mistress
Joshua Harmon
The Existence Machine
The Valve
This Space
Syntax of Things
Sentences (Harper's Magazine)
The Book Bench (The New Yorker Magazine)
Paper Cuts
This Itch of Writing
O Caderno de Saramago
The Modern Word
Brit Lit Blogs
Yankee Pot Roast
Book Trib
International Necronautical Society
The Morning News
Novel Readings
Cahiers de Corey
Happy America Literature
Jacob Russell's Barking Dog
Lee Rourke's Scarecrow
Mister Trippy
Bianca Steele
The Glass Hombre
3:AM Magazine » Buzzwords
Dennis Perrin
Barry Crimmins : Political Satirist
Jesus' General
Landover Baptist

Who knows, maybe I'll make a blogroll.

16 January 2009

Anybody Catch This?

Did anybody catch this story? Apparently, the Weser River town of Hamelin in northern Germany has been plagued recently by a surge in the rat population.

Can anybody come up with a solution to this problem?

Don't Let the Door Hit You...

As Pres.* Bush makes his farewell star turn, he keeps repeating one message: At least his administration kept the country safe after 9/11. Indeed, after that terrible day, there have been no more attacks on the "homeland".

But, the President* is being far too modest in his accomplishments. This guy named Jon Swift, I think, gets it just about right:
"After Hurricane Katrina President Bush kept our cities safe. ...

After the October 2008 stock market correction there have been no Great Depressions. ...

After Iraq and Afghanistan took a turn for the worse, President Bush kept us from losing any wars. ...

After the District Attorney firing scandal, the outing of Valerie Plame and other scandals, President Bush restored integrity to government. ...

After divisive elections President Bush united our country. ...

After Abu Ghraib, President Bush reaffirmed America's adherence to the Geneva Conventions and against torture. ..."
I would note, too, that after the President's re-election in 2004, we no longer needed to keep up with those color chart threat alert levels to know how much danger we were in. And it is truly comforting to know we are leaving precisely none of our children behind.

BTW: Mr. Swift, if you're reading this, I enjoyed that travelogue of yours about the horses and giants and such.

14 January 2009

Data Viz

This Cool Site is the source for these two videos. Check it out (again and again) and learn how it's done.

13 January 2009

One Last Star Turn

In case you're interested, here's a page on Clarice Lispector. Here's the Wikipedia entry, informative as almost always. This is for those of you who read Portuguese. Apparently, someone maintains a blog about her, as well. It's in Portuguese too.

Here's an introduction to The Hour of the Star. It was made into a film, and here's its IMDB page. Here's a 3:00 scene from YouTube, again in Portuguese (with subtitles). It has Caruso:

If you want more, there's always Google.

12 January 2009

Ur-story: Quid Pro Quo, Clarice

[This continues our look at Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star]

The question raised in our initial post comes down to something like this: Why does Lispector feel the need to distance herself from Macabea? Why does she need the intermediary Rodrigo? According to the translator, Giovanni Pontiero (yet another intermediary):
"As Macabea stumbles from one embarrassing exposure to another, one can virtually hear the author muse: 'there but for the grace of God go I'. This diary of a nobody gains in strength and meaning as a game of counter-reflections develops between the author and her protagonist. For, while it is true that Lispector would have us believe in a male narrator, she does not relinquish involvement. The advantage she claims to derive from this masculine alias is one of emotional detachment. Its validity and necessity, however, is debatable." (91-92)
I will not speculate on the author's motives and intentions. They are lost to us now; the author is long dead; we cannot ask her. I will, however, look to the text.

The central fact in the life of Macabea is her anonymity, her blankness, She is truly a nobody. Everyone in the novella itself seems to be competing to control her, to define her. Her boss in the typing pool at the pulley equipment manufacturer threatens to fire her because she makes so many errors as a typist. It is only her politeness and docility that saves her. The sadistic old aunt who raised her in the absence of her parents beats her. Her situation living in the crowded slums of Rio, the heat of the summer, the economics of Brazil all threaten to take her over. Olimpico, the boy with whom she has a brief affair, is narcissistic and abusive to the point of cruelty. At one point, after Macabea asserts that she is happy inside, he claims he can lift her off the ground with one hand:
"They walked to the corner of the street. Macabea was overjoyed. He really could lift her up above his head. She shouted gaily:

—This is like flying in an airplane.

That's right! Suddenly he couldn't support her weight on one arm any longer and she fell on her face in the mud, blood spurting from her nostrils. She was tactful, however, and quickly reassured him:

—Don't worry, it's nothing serious.

Having no handkerchief to wipe the mud and blood off her face, Macabea rubbed her face with the hem of her skirt. She pleaded with him: Please don't look while I'm cleaning my face. No decent girl ever lifts her skirt when there are people watching.

Olimpico was becoming extremely impatient but made no reply. After this little episode, he didn't make any attempt to see her again for days: his pride had been injured." (52-53)
Gloria, Macabea's femme fatale co-worker, steals Olimpico from her. She is a large-breasted, maternal figure in Macabea's life and makes some pretense to look after her well-being, though it is rarely from kindness. The doctor, whom Macabea sees on a suggestion from Gloria, diagnoses her with TB and summarily dismisses her from his office because of her hopelessness. Madame Carlota, the fortune-teller Macabea goes to see (again on suggestion from Gloria), gives her false hope and a bogus reading. It bears mentioning in this context that the images of Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo likewise control Macabea's self-image, Monroe being the 'star' of the title—at least until the very end.

This battle for control goes on in Macabea's relationship with the author and her alias as well, giving us an insight to the authorial relationship with character. At times, Rodrigo professes to care about her. At others, he grows bored, impatient with this story. It is a battle of control—determinism vs. free will—over the carcass of poor Macabea. By distancing herself from her character, Lispector lets her live. Perhaps Lispector was trying not to leave her own fingerprints on all the manipulations of poor Macabea. No matter.

Yet, amidst all this skirmishing over her anonymous existence, Macabea in all her ugliness and brokenness and anonymity persists. She has, we are told, a certain freedom in her inner life that none of these combatants can ever touch—not even the words of the story. That, it seems, is what it means to be alive. To be an Other.

So, some thirty years later, into the fray we ride, boasting our own reading. Attempting to exert control over poor Macabea. Will the text bear up under a social reading, a cultural critique? Yes. Is there a critique of colonialism here? Yes. Are there class clashes? Yes. Is there false consciousness? Yes. Will the text support a gender-based critique? Yes. Is there a post-modern component? Yes. Yes. Yes.

As the writer emphasizes in the first and last sentences, the text is radically open.

Yet, when we cut through the onion-skin layers of complexity, there is a certain tragical realism to the story. A certain humanity.

Macabea is a typist who cannot type: she is barely equipped to survive in the modern world of mechanical devices and grammar/language. Her life is squalid. The one joy she finds (short of death) comes from the solitude she achieves by skipping work one day and listening to music on the radio and dancing around her shared flat alone.

Love and fellow-felling are illusions, as mythical as Mt. Olympus. Macabea suffers abasement, abuse, betrayal, and, finally, a fall into the mud as a result of her one 'love' affair. Her one 'friend' at work, Gloria, cynically uses her.

Medicine fails her as well. She is equipped to survive, but nothing much more.

Ultimately, it is Macabea's superstitions that kill her. She is musing on the charlatan fortune teller's prognostications as she steps dreamily into the path of the oncoming Mercedes—a symbol of what? reality? European colonialization? industrialization? modernity? It matters not. She dies.

And, in dying, Macabea experiences:
"A sensation as pleasurable, tender, horrifying, chilling and penetrating as love. Could this be the grace you call God? Yes? Were she about to die, she would pass from being a virgin to being a woman. No, this wasn't death. Death is not what I want for this girl: a mere collision that amounted to nothing serious. Her struggle to live resembled something that she had never experienced before, virgin that she was, yet had grasped by intuition. For only now did she understand that a woman is born a woman from that first wail at birth. A woman's destiny is to be a woman. Macabea had perceived the almost painful and vertiginous moment of overwhelming love. A painful and difficult reflowering that she enacted with her body and that other thing you call a soul and I call—what?

At that instant, Macabea came out with a phrase that no one among the onlookers could understand. She said in a clear, distinct voice:

—As for the future.

Did she crave a future? I hear the ancient music of words upon words. Yes, it is so. At this very moment Macabea felt nausea well up in the pit of her stomach and almost vomited. She felt like vomiting something that was not matter but luminous. Star with a thousand pointed rays.

What do I see now, that is so terrifying? I see that she has vomited a little blood, a great spasm, essence finally touching essence: victory!

And then—then suddenly the anguished cry of a seagull, suddenly the voracious eagle soaring on high with the tender lamb in its beak, the sleek cat mangling vermin, life devouring life." (83-84)
Macabea dies with the text, in its last pages. Obversely, she lives only in its pages. In this, she is like Ivan Ilych—though without the moral insight. In this she is like Malone, as well—though less of a raconteur. She does not tell her own stories; she hasn't the power. She merely 'exists'. Macabea is an empty signifier (to borrow Saussure's structuralist term), and it is for us to supply the meaning—much as that is our task in our own lives.

So much meaning. Such a short book.


10 January 2009

Ur-story: Strawberry Fields for a While

I have a confession to make. Before the holidays, I read a novella I picked up at my local second-hand bookstore and planned to post a brief review of it. Last week, I started my review, thinking it would be a fairly quick and easy post, and soon found myself stymied. Reading back through the book brought out new layers of meaning, and what I once thought was a simple, little book took on a whole new aspect. I couldn't do justice to this book in a single post.

The book? The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (trans. Giovanni Pontiero) (1977).

This is a beautiful, surprising little book. Here's how it begins (sort of):
"Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.

Let no one be mistaken. I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.

So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they actually happen? If before the pre-prehistory there already existed apocalyptic monsters? If this history does not exist, it will come to exist. To think is an act. To feel is a fact. Put the two together—it is me who is writing what I am writing. God is the world. The truth is always some inner power without explanation. The more genuine part of my life is unrecognizable, extremely intimate and impossible to define. My heart has shed every desire and reduced itself to one final or initial beat. The toothache that passes through this narrative has given me a sharp twinge right in the mouth. I break out into a strident, high-pitched, syncopated melody. It is the sound of my own pain, of someone who carries this world where there is so little happiness. Happiness? I have never come across a more foolish word, invented by all those unfortunate girls from north-eastern Brazil." (11-12)
And here's how it ends:
"Should God descend on earth one day there would be a great silence.

The silence is such, that thought no longer thinks.

Was the ending of my story as grand as you expected? Dying, Macabea became air. Vigorous air? I cannot say. She died instantaneously. An instant is that particle of time in which the tyre of a car going at full speed touches the ground, touches it no longer, then touches it again. Etc., etc., etc. At heart, Macabea was little better than a music box sadly out of tune.

I ask you:

—What is the weight of light?

* * *

And now—now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?

Don't forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes." (85-86)
Does this pique our interest? Does this pertain precisely to what we've been calling the Ur-story? Yes and yes.

The main character, as it were, is named Macabea. She is an imagined girl from the impoverished, rural northeastern coastal region of Brazil. The narrator, who calls himself Rodrigo S.M., invents the story of her squalid life around the face of such a girl he sees one day in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. He claims authority to indulge in this fantasy because he, too, is from that region and because he knows "about certain things simply by living. Anyone who lives, knows, even without knowing that he or she knows." (13) He feels it is his "duty, however unrewarding, to confront her with her own existence." (13) Lispector (who apparently also grew up in that region) uses Rodrigo, a male persona, to tell this story because, as he tells us, "what I am writing could be written by another. Another writer, of course, but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out." (14)

Identity, authenticity, and authority are problematized from the get-go. The simple tale of an otherwise anonymous girl's brute existence is, though clearly at the heart of the tale, not the essence of the story—no matter what Rodrigo claims. Sympathy, or any sort of sentimentality, is not on the plate, for it tends to obscure the truth the writing is seeking to convey. The text seems to be telling us how to read it—though we are in no wise so obligated.
"Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consists of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases. Like every writer, I am clearly tempted to use succulent terms: I have at my command magnificent adjectives, robust nouns, and verbs so agile that they glide through the atmosphere as they move into action. For surely words are actions? Yet I have no intention of adorning the word, for were I to touch the girl's bread, that bread would turn to gold—and the girl (she is nineteen years old) the girl would be unable to bite into it, and consequently die of hunger." (15)
Reality itself is likewise implicated.

The first question we are led to ask then: Who is this novel really about? Macabea, Rodrigo, or Lispector. In the usual case, we might ignore the author in attempting to analyze the book, but Lispector specifically injects her authorial self into the novel. She begins the text with "The Author's Dedication (alias Clarice Lispector)" In this introit, she cites the sources of her inspiration (mostly musical, but clearly implicating Macabea or any of the thousands of similarly-situated, anonymous girls from the sticks teeming the slums of Rio), asserting "What troubles my existence is writing." The next page lists a number of other titles for the book—each of which captures a crucial aspect of the text. Tellingly, Lispector's own cursive signature appears in their midst: "Clarice Lispector" is necessarily, then, a character present by virtue of her absence,

Macabea, the ostensible protagonist, is barely more sophisticated than an animal—merely existing, barely conscious of her self: she is human degree zero. Her diet consists of hot dogs and Coca-Cola; she has never tasted spaghetti and meatballs or a beer. Rodrigo takes it as his purpose to confront her with her own life. He is the bringer of consciousness: a Prometheus. This device, the construction of an 'other' is not new.

"But the idea of transcending my own limits suddenly appealed to me. This happened when I decided to write about reality, since reality exceeds me. Whatever one understands by reality." (17)

Rodrigo is Lispector's Nick Carraway, though with a modicum of imagination and practically no empathy. Macabea is his (anti-)Gatsby. Which is all fine for Rodrigo, but here certain recorded facts of Lispector's own life are mirrored in those of the fictional Macabea. Macabea represents the poor girls Lispector apparently grew up with and presents a generalized vision of their fortunes in the slums of Rio. Perhaps she sympathizes with their plight. Perhaps she identifies with them. It does not matter. But, assuming so, it would be safe to assert that she uses the device of Rodrigo as an alter ego to turn the mechanism of fiction on some aspect of herself, i.e., to catch an objective glimpse of herself, yet another alter ego. This is all very interesting, but doesn't really tell us much. It is tautological.

Rodrigo arrogates to himself the right to speak for Macabea. This has long been the privilege of the writer, the intellectual, the bourgeois over the peasant. The man over the woman. Yet, because of the dual, mirroring relationships of the triad, Lispector turns the table and has Rodrigo speaking both for her and of her at once, yet at one fictional remove. (more to follow)

06 January 2009

Frye on the Forms of Fiction (with a virtual cavalcade of literary links)

In our Ur-story theme posts, we've been looking at the substance of fiction. It has proved useful in looking at a number of contemporary and classic texts, and we shall continue to use it. In this post, we're going to shift focus to look at the form of fiction.

There is a lot of sloppiness in the definitions of literary terms. That's not surprising as the study of literature is not an exact science. However, it is important to know that we're all talking about the same thing. Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), tries to bring some precision to the analysis of fictional forms. In that book's Fourth Essay, "Theory of Genres," he identifies four continuous forms of prose fiction: the novel, the romance, the confession, and the Menippean satire (a/k/a the anatomy).

For Frye, "novel" is not an umbrella term because not all forms of prose fiction are technically novels:
"When we start to think seriously about the novel, not as fiction, but as a form of fiction, we feel that its characteristics, whatever they are, are such as make, say, Defoe, Fielding, Austen, and James central to its tradition, and Borrow, Peacock, Melville, and Emily Bronte somehow peripheral." (304)
Characteristics of the Novel: The plot maneuvers around a central situation; "the novelist deals with personality, with characters wearing their personae or social masks. He needs the framework of a stable society, and many of our best novelists have been conventional to the verge of fussiness." (305); "an important theme in the more bourgeois novel should be the parody of the romance and its ideals." (306); "The novel tends..to expand into a fictional approach to history. ... the larger the scheme of a novel becomes, the more obviously its historical nature appears. As it is creative history, however, the novelist usually prefers his material in a plastic, or roughly contemporary state, and feels cramped by a fixed historical pattern. ... most 'historical novels' are romances. Similarly, a novel becomes more romantic in its appeal when the life it reflects has passed away..." (306); "the technical problem [of the novel] is to dissolve all theory into personal relationships." (308); "The novel tends to be extroverted and personal; its chief interest is in human character as it manifests itself in society." (308); "the picaresque form...has the novel's interest in the actual structure of society." (310); "The novelist shows his exuberance either by an exhaustive analysis of human relationships, as in Henry James, or of social phenomena, as in Tolstoy." (311) Examples include: George Meredith's The Egoist, Austen's Pride and Prejudice, James's The Portrait of a Lady, Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, and the works of Defoe and Trollope. The short form of the novel can be found in the short stories of Chekhov or Katherine Mansfield or Joyce's thematically-linked Dubliners.

Romance is not simply the sort of thing one finds under, say, the Harlequin imprint. "The romance, which deals with heroes, is intermediate between the novel, which deals with men, and the myth, which deals with gods." (306) "The romancer does not attempt to create 'real people' so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes. It is in the romance that we find Jung's libido, anima, and shadow reflected in the hero, heroine, and villain respectively. That is why the romance so often radiates a glow of subjective intensity that the novel lacks, and why a suggestion of allegory is constantly creeping in around its fringes. Certain elements of character are released in the romance which make it naturally a more revolutionary form than the novel. ...The romancer deals with individuality, with characters in vacuo idealized by revery, and, however conservative he may be, something nihilistic and untamable is likely to keep breaking out of his pages." (304-05); "Romance is older than the novel...The social affinities of the romance, with its grave idealizing of heroism and purity, are with the aristocracy... . It revived in the period we call Romantic as part of the Romantic tendency to archaic feudalism and a cult of the hero, or idealized libido." (306). Examples include: Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, Scott's Waverley, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and the works of William Morris. The short form of the romance is typified in the tales of Poe or Boccaccio's Decameron.

The Confession began with Augustine and found renewal in Rousseau, though its fictional form does not necessarily concern itself with the author: "Most autobiographies are inspired by a creative, and therefore fictional, impulse to select only those events and experiences in the writer's life that go to build up an integrated pattern. This pattern may be something larger than himself with which he has come to identify himself, or simply the coherence of his character and attitudes." (307); "After Rousseau—in fact in Rousseau—the confession flows into the novel, and the mixture produces the fictional autobiography, the Kunstler-roman, and kindred types. ...The 'stream of consciousness' technique permits of a much more concentrated fusion of the two forms, but even here the characteristics peculiar to the confession form show up clearly. Nearly always some theoretical and intellectual interest in religion, politics, or art plays a leading role in the confession. It is his success in integrating his mind on such subjects that makes the author of a confession feel that his life is worth writing about." (307-08); Like the romance, "[t]he confession is also introverted, but intellectualized in content." (308). A notable example: Joyce's A Portrait of the Author as a Young Man. The short form of the confession is what Frye calls the "familiar essay" perhaps best exemplified in the Essays of Montaigne.

Finally, the Menippean satire, or what Frye calls the 'Anatomy', "deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent. ... A constant theme in the tradition is the ridicule of the philosophus gloriosus ... . The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry which the philosophus gloriosus at once symbolizes and defines." (309) "At its most concentrated the Menippean satire presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern. The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative, though the appearance of carelessness that results reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction." (310); "The Menippean satirist, dealing with intellectual themes and attitudes, shows his exuberance in intellectual ways, by piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme or in overwhelming his pedantic targets with an avalanche of their own jargon." (311). Examples are rife in Frye: the works of Petronius and Rabelais, Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Walton's The Compleat Angler, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Voltaire's Candide, Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet, Huxley's Brave New World, "The short form of the Menippean satire is usually a dialogue or colloquy, in which the dramatic interest is in a conflict of ideas rather than of character. This is the favorite form of Erasmus, and is common in Voltaire." (310). The short form derives from Plato's dialogues, is found in Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy, and often involves a symposium or a country-house weekend.

The forms are rarely pure; many works of fiction are mixed. "[T]he early novels of George Eliot, for instance, are influenced by the romance, and the later ones by the anatomy." (312) Romance and novel converge to ironic effect in such works as Northanger Abbey, Madame Bovary, and Lord Jim. Moby Dick is a romance-anatomy. de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is a romance-confession hybrid. Confession and anatomy are united in Sartor Resartus and, surprisingly, in Kierkegaard's Either/Or (sorry, it's the best I could find). Novel, romance, and confession come together in Pamela; novel, romance, and anatomy in Don Quixote; novel, confession, and anatomy in Proust; and romance, confession, and anatomy in Apuleius. Joyce's Ulysses Frye calls "a complete prose epic with all four forms employed in it, all of practically equal importance, and all essential to one another, so that the book is a unity and not an aggregate." (314).

Happy Reading!

04 January 2009

A Christmas Present

As tomorrow, January 5, is the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, I wanted to give you all a Christmas present before Ordinary Time begins:


  Ho! Ho! Ho!

[Some assembly required]

Happy cheap super-computing!

03 January 2009


This picture from the Hubble Deep Field has been called the most important image in human history. You can play around with it here. Or here.

At year's end, we get a lot of 'best of' lists. I've compiled a few on the science/technology front. It's important—perhaps even wise—to pay attention to advances and discoveries in the sciences even if you are not a scientist. I'm not, but this stuff fascinates me no end. Important as well is to communicate scientific issues in understandable terms.

Here are the top 100 science news stories according to Discover magazine.

Here, according to National Geographic magazine, are the top ten archaeology finds of 2008. Archaeology Magazine has a different list.

Here is Cosmos Magazine's top ten news stories of 2008. The New Scientist lists its top ten articles about Cosmology. Tool around on their site; they have year-end reviews in other areas as well.

Generally: Here's USA Today's look back at the year in science. This is Science A GoGo's list of most interesting science news stories.

On a forward-looking note, here's Technology Review's look at ten emerging technologies. And, last but certainly not least, from The Edge.org's world question center is the Edge's annual question for this year, with answers aplenty: "WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" Lots of good, interesting, important information here.

Best to all for the New Year!
Jim H.

02 January 2009

More Stuff I Don't Understand—Like Everything

You can play around with the E8 image here. It's a PDF. This is an explanation of the image. Here's another.

I don't think they drew that thing with this:

So, some 'surfer dude' named Garrett Lisi comes up with a real simple theory of everything based on the E8 projection above. Here's a copy of his paper. The beauty of it is that the CERN Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator might (or might not) produce some of the elementary particles his theory predicts once they get that thing back up online, assuming the whole planet isn't sucked into a black hole. Testability: that's the key. If you want to play around with your own elementary particles, look no further.

Here's my stupid/ignorant/amateur question: If everything's so symmetrical, why does time appear to move only in one direction?

Speaking of CERN, here're some more people who look like they want to blow the world up with a "laser".

Hey? What if they put the NIF star in the CERN black hole? Kaboom?