31 March 2009

Ur-story: Theory—Is It Good for You?

Some Principles of Narrative Theory:
  • A1. The work of fictional narrative is to modulate an event or sequence of events into a scene or scenes. (Genette)

  • A2. A character is a linguistic construction representing a person whose actions are in some wise important: The metaphor systems used to depict a character reveals certain things about that character, conceals others, and implies still other illusory qualities about that character. (Lakoff)

  • A3. The time, or pace, of a narrative is a function of the relation of the length of a scene to the duration of the event it depicts, where (ideally) straight dialogue bears a one-to-one relationship ("isochrony", real time = 'showing') to the time of an actual conversation. (Genette) Corollary: it is important to vary the pace of scenes; this is also known as rhythm.

  • A4. Narrative (fictional or non-) is essential to understanding events. (DeCerteau)

  • A5. In narrative, historical scenes need not be presented chronologically; this has been called "achrony". (Genette) Corollary: no historical time need pass during a scene.

  • B1-13. The realist story is a product [even a commodity] in today's culture. Through its effects, Its production, however, can be examined and, in point of fact, is structurally and syntactically quite similar to the sentence, or the posing of a question and its subsequent resolution. (Barthes)

  • C1. With respect to point of view, there really is not that much substantive difference between 'quoted monologue' (a/k/a omniscient: '"I am late," he thought'), 'narrated monologue" (a/k/a free indirect:: 'He was late.'), and psycho-narration (a/k/a limited omniscient 'He knew he would be late.'). "Narrated monologue represents, in the third person, the exact thoughts of a character who is narrated in the third person," and, out of context, is indistinguishable from straight narration. (49) (Cohn)

  • C2. The real author and the real reader are irrelevant to the narrative. Yet, the implied author and the implied reader, important as they are, are distinct from the true voice of the narrative: the narrator, whose values (as, e.g., to truth and reliability) differ significantly from the implied author and who addresses a narratee (either identified or implied). Point of view, then, can be formulated as "access by a narrator (who could be a character) to historical information (events in the story) and thoughts of other characters and even their own)." (57) (Chatman)

  • C3. A brief anatomy of types of narrator:
"1. An external observer who narrates actions and dialogue. (camera, fly-on-the-wall)
2. An internal observer capable of narrating the characters' conscious thoughts.
3. An external omniscient narrator who knows things about the history the characters do not.
4. An internal omniscient narrator capable [sic] who knows the characters' unconscious motivations." (57)
  • C4. Sensory input is the basic unit of human experience. No narration can adequately show this. There are only degrees of and kinds of telling, more or less detailed, more or less vivid.

  • C5. Like metaphor systems (A2), narratives are important tools for understanding complicated social and historical situations, revealing and concealing aspects of life at the same time as they create certain illusions. (Lakoff)

  • C6. The narrator stands in one of three relations to the character: he knows/says more than any of the characters knows/says, he knows/says as much, he knows/says less. Similarly, the narrator stands in the same set of knowledge relations to the reader. (Todorov)

  • C7. [This section is like the scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall in which a scene of dialogue is accompanied by subtitles showing what the characters were actually thinking.]

  • C8. The author's choice of person (first, second, or third), singular or plural, does not significantly limit what it is possible to narrate. (Reagan, et al.)

  • D1. Female characters in male, realist fiction are often used merely, or mostly, either to provide a sexy background or otherwise motivate or constrain the central male characters. (Chynoweth)

  • D2. Yet, it is possible to have a narrative without a character (male or female), or, rather, without the illusion of the character's presence. [One thinks, here, of Tyrone Slothrop's disappearance two-thirds of the way through the narrative of Gravity's Rainbow. We still feel the effects of his having been 'present', or having just missed him, etc.]

You can find these principles discussed in fuller detail in William Gillespie's short book The Story That Teaches You How To Write It.

The text consists of explanatory essays on each of these topics on the recto pages of the book, while on the verso pages we find the narration of a story that putatively puts each of these theoretical points into play. Along with this, there are footnotes throughout claiming to be critical comments on the story and essays from participants in the author's graduate creative writing seminar—for which this was his final project. At the end, there is a bibliography, a letter from 'William' to someone named Dave, and, on the back there is a letter to 'William' from someone named Ben.

The story itself concerns two lesbian grad students (one brilliant, the other struggling) in a theory-oriented, creative writing program, and the affair one of them has with their married, male professor.

The author states his purpose as follows: "My attempts to translate narrative theory into instructions on how to write a story are part of a larger process of turning the world into instructions on how to write a story." (3) A noble, ambitious aim, comprehensive and well-stated.

Gillespie claims to have been a student in one of David Foster Wallace's seminars, and this book even includes some critical commentary from a 'DFW', as well as a letter to 'Dave'. At face value, it appears to be a fairly literalistic attempt to apply narrative theory to fictional praxis (as grad students are presumably instructed to attempt to do): theory is stated, indexed (A1., A2., etc., as above), and seemingly applied to correspondingly numbered segments of narrative. Thus, we are called upon to read the pieces as separate: a) story and b) theoretical essays. As such, it is the story that also tries to teach us how to read it. But the attempt feels mechanical and heavy-handed: rote and clunky. And, frankly, we don't have to obey.

A struggling English grad student writing a story about a struggling English grad student writing a story should be our first clue that something else is going on here. Identities are at stake. Per C2 above, the real author is irrelevant; let's leave him be for now. So we follow the chain down: implied author —> narrator. The 'Gillespie' who has penned these essays on theory and the love-triangle story about creative writing grad students (the narrator) should not be equated with the Gillespie who apparently lives in Illlinois and has written this book (about a narrator/character named 'William Gillespie') and who appears to have a Web presence here. But neither should he be confused with the 'William Gillespie' who is the implied author of this text, including the prefatory material, the footnotes, bibliography, and assorted interjections here and there.

The narrator tells us he has written some essays on narrative theory and attempted to apply them to his fiction writing. As such, the work is divided. It's kind of stale and dry, an interesting intellectual exercise. But nothing, as they say, to write home about.

One feels there must be something more, some unifying principle that brings the disparate materials of this pastiche of a book together. That, we learn, is the role of the implied author. (C2) If there is an implied author who provides some overarching unity to this seemingly divided book, it must be the 'Gillespie' who has created the 'Gillespie' narrator/character. The implied author of the grand, totalizing narrative knows more than the narrator/character. (C6) The narrator 'Gillespie' has composed both the story and the essays and claims to have fit the square peg of theory into the circle of practice. 'Gillespie' the implied author recognizes this as a delusion.

At the end, in a letter putatively penned by this implied author 'Gillespie' to DFW, we read:
"I seem to have written myself back into a corner of my own brain so remote that not even you and Jason and a team of English graduate students working together with searchlights, helicopters, and bloodhounds, can find me. My writing has improved so much since I entered graduate school that there is no longer anyone qualified to read it." (78)
It is a difficult matter to untangle. 'William Gillespie' (narrator) claims to be the master of theory and claims to have successfully applied all these grad school tools to his narrative. Story prevails, absorbing all theory into the black hole of its narrative flow. 'William Gillespie' (implied author), on the other hand, claims to be a singular genius who has included all these theoretical essays in the book so he can justify his story's shortcomings to his classroom critics:
"In class for the first time I received more sadness than hostility: a room full of blank faces, letters which read like page-long apologies, and meanwhile Jason accusing me of misrepresenting theories I wasn't, in many cases, even trying to represent. I've seldom gone to so much trouble to do such a small segment of a possible readership so little good. ... I started writing like this, in fact, because of a workshop. I needed decision-making criteria so that, when I received a flood of individually contradictory but collectively discouraging instructions about what to change, I would have the original structure as a guide to know which advice I could use and which I couldn't." (78)
Contempt, confusion, hurt, resentment, anger, perhaps even madness. These are the words of a sensitive soul who has been beat up once too many times in a writing workshop, someone who took it all too personally and is lashing out the only way he can: "Nobody understands me!" This 'William Gillespie' does not appear in the text of the story (D2) except, perhaps, in drag (D1) and multiply (C8), and is specifically concealed behind the illusion of the in-control, imperious theory master (C5, C6) like a Bunraku puppeteer. (C3)

What raises this seemingly dry theory-exercise to the level of Ur-story is the re-visioning of the narrative necessitated by 'William's' letter to 'Dave':

"Dave, Class last week brought up a number of interesting questions. Questions like what the hell am I doing with my life? ... After working on the paper it occurred to me that I actually know what the hell I'm doing. I know exactly what I'm doing. I'm going broke and insane trying to teach the English language to dance." (78) 'William' ("P.S. Please stop calling me 'Bill.'") is self-aware enough to recognize that he is an uninspired "blocked writer" who, paradoxically, must yet strive to "constrain the impassioned diuretic flow of cliches in [a] confident writer[]." (78) The experience of loss—loss of inspiration, loss of focus, loss of girlfriend(?) (C8, D1), loss of time, loss of ideals, loss of faith in humanity, loss of faith in himself and his ability to understand his world, and a near-Nietzschean loss of sanity—the experience of loss permeates this book.

Whereas 'Gillespie' the narrator is vain and cocky, 'Gillespie' the implied author is pathetic and insecure.

The Story That Teaches You How To Write It is a complex, disjointed "model of consciousness." 'William Gillespie', the implied author (not necessarily the "real author" (C2)), is a brilliant, but very nearly unhinged character attempting to find some creative grounding for the ungainly welter of theoretical dicta that have been plaguing his mind for nearly a decade. This book represents his life's work (B1-13), and it is a failure—though an interesting and ambitious one. This makes him, and his story, compelling—especially to someone (such as, ahem, yours truly) whose ambitions and failures find remarkable resonance in this short, powerful effort of the spirit.


A quote from the letter on the back of the book, which Gillespie refers to as a "preface" (77), inspired me to revive one of my favorite pictures from a previous post on my blog for this post:
"I am the Eskimo watching the basketball game. Except I'm more like an Eskimo who thinks he's watching a basketball game, but isn't really sure because he doesn't really know what basketball is, so he may not be watching a game at all. My relationship with literary theory; most theory, hell any theory, is like a monkey riding a bicycle. He can do it; the monkey, he can ride the bike if he tries hard enough. But he never looks or feels comfortable doing it. It's possible; it's been done, but it sure as hell isn't pretty."

27 March 2009

Cyclical or Secular?

Once in awhile, the boys at South Park, crass as they are, really knock one out of the park (yes, that's a baseball metaphor and baseball season is looming; our middle school team is 3-7 so far this season, but we're just sandbagging with an eye to the playoffs). Their latest episode, Margaritaville, pretty much nails it. If you have the patience to deal with all the slow-loading features at their website, you can watch it online. In sum, Randy Marsh becomes a bit of a Jeremiah, chiding the citizens of South Park for letting "the economy" down, not worshipping it properly. The conceit is that the economy is like the jealous god of the Bible.

Now, Matt and Trey not economists, nor am I; but a number of really smart economists have been saying something similar: Stiglitz, Galbraith, Krugman. Hell, even that non-economist gadfly, Chomsky has weighed in on this issue. What they are saying is that the Obama administration and the Congress— and,in fact, pretty much every other government in the world—is treating the current crisis as if it were merely a cyclical event. As the conventional wisdom has it: "They don't call it a cycle for nothing;" the economy will eventually right itself and we will return to previous levels of employment, GDP, etc. The point of Galbraith, et al., is that this could be a true sea change and needs to be treated as such. Are they right? Who's to say? But, as Don Corleone says about Virgil Solozzo, these are serious men, and they deserve to be respected.

Stiglitz made news recently by saying that the current bank plan is tantamount to "robbery" of the American public. [That may be, but where was he when the taxes of the wealthiest in the country plummeted and the prices we all paid for oil and gas and other commodities held by these same plutocrats skyrocketed and oil company profits reached historically unprecedented levels? That wasn't robbery?] And he has called for a complete "overhaul" of the international financial system.

Galbraith frames the peril like this:
"The deepest belief of the modern economist is that the economy is a self-stabilizing system. This means that, even if nothing is done, normal rates of employment and production will someday return. Practically all modern economists believe this, often without thinking much about it. (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said it reflexively in a major speech in London in January: "The global economy will recover." He did not say how he knew.) The difference between conservatives and liberals is over whether policy can usefully speed things up. Conservatives say no, liberals say yes, and on this point Obama's economists lean left. Hence the priority they gave, in their first days, to the stimulus package.

But did they get the scale right? Was the plan big enough? Policies are based on models; in a slump, plans for spending depend on a forecast of how deep and long the slump would otherwise be. The program will only be correctly sized if the forecast is accurate. And the forecast depends on the underlying belief. If recovery is not built into the genes of the system, then the forecast will be too optimistic, and the stimulus based on it will be too small."
Krugman keeps beating this drum on his blog:
"The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system — that what we’re facing is the equivalent of a run on an essentially sound bank. As Tim Duy put it, there are no bad assets, only misunderstood assets. And if we get investors to understand that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it, all our problems will be solved."
"It’s a bit disappointing to see the Obama administration engaging in this sort of market-worship — hailing markets as a Good Thing in themselves, rather than as an often but not always useful means to an end. But I have reason to think that unlike the Bushies, they don’t really believe it; it’s just politics. Which is actually better than having genuine market fanatics running things, I guess."
Chomsky, in this interview, brings up an idea I floated some weeks back: the notion that all the interests of all the stakeholders in the economy (as well as the individual corporation) should be taken into consideration in formulating plans:
"CHOMSKY: For a start, corporations, banks, and so on should be, I think, responsible to stakeholders. That's not a huge change. In fact, it's even been brought to the courts. It was an important case, highly relevant now. About 30 years ago, when the major steel companies wanted to destroy the Youngstown steel plants—major part of the steel industry, you know, the core of the community had been built up around it, and so on—and they wanted to move it or get rid of it. And the workers and the community wanted to keep it and felt they could run it privately. And in fact they brought a case up through the courts, arguing that the management rules ought to be changed so that stakeholders, rather than just shareholders, would have control over the corporation. Well, it lost in the courts, naturally, but it's a perfectly feasible idea. It could be a way to keep communities alive and the industry here.

JAY: So if you're looking at the financial system now and you take this principle, the representing the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, what would that look like in terms of policy?

CHOMSKY: First of all, to begin with, it would mean that the government would not just bail out the banks, pour capital into them, but would exercise control. And control begins with inspection. So we find out what they're doing. And then you keep the viable parts. And if they're viable, they might just vote it into public control. I mean, the government could probably have, you know, bought AIG or Citigroup for far less than what they're paying them now. I mean, in a democratic society, the government would meet the public, and then there should be direct public engagement in what these institutions ought to do and how they ought to distribute their money, what the terms ought to be, and so on. I mean, they could be democratically run by the workforce, by the community."
Now, the reason I'm not a pundit is because I don't have a ready-made answer to this question—or, for that matter, a whole host of other questions. I don't even have an opinion. I do think it is an important question. And I do hope serious people—people with power and brains—are addressing it seriously.

Maybe it's the agnostic in me, the skeptic, but I don't believe the market—or the economy—is a god: Moloch, Baal, whatever. Or even godlike. I'm not so sure I even buy the hocus-pocus of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'. The myth of the self-regulating market economy has informed our politics and even our culture for who knows how long, centuries perhaps. It has certainly been the prevailing ideology since the fall of communism. Communism's fall, I might add, led proponents of free-market ideology to, perhaps, overreach, and we're just now seeing the results of that hubris collapse all around us. As an ideology, though, the belief in the market and its magical, invisible self-regenerative powers is, by definition, irrational. And it seems to me that any true fix (whether the crisis is cyclical or secular) must be based on a rational analysis of the problems, and not on a set of fixed beliefs—even if that system might have had some explanatory power in the past.

UPDATE: Lest we forget, Alan Greenspan earlier admitted that his entire professional life had been lived in the thrall of this "flawed," irrational ideology.

23 March 2009

Poetry Break: Excessive for the Carolina League?

William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.

A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipt and arm'd for fight
Does the rising sun affright.

Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul.

The wild deer, wand'ring here and there,
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misus'd breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher's knife.

The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won't believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever's fright.

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.

The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.

The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the last judgement draweth nigh.

He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar's dog and widow's cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

The gnat that sings his summer's song
Poison gets from slander's tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of envy's foot.

The poison of the honey bee
Is the artist's jealousy.

The prince's robes and beggar's rags
Are toadstools on the miser's bags.
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;

This is caught by females bright,
And return'd to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on heaven's shore.

The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar's rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.

The soldier, arm'd with sword and gun,
Palsied strikes the summer's sun.
The poor man's farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric's shore.

One mite wrung from the lab'rer's hands
Shall buy and sell the miser's lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.

He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mock'd in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.

He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour's iron brace.

When gold and gems adorn the plow,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow.
A riddle, or the cricket's cry,
Is to doubt a fit reply.

The emmet's inch and eagle's mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you please.

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.

The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation's fate.
The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding-sheet.

The winner's shout, the loser's curse,
Dance before dead England's hearse.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

16 March 2009

Ur-story: The End of Modernity?

Nicholson Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, made quite a splash when it was published in 1986. I had neither the time nor the inclination to read it at the time, and the paperback edition has sat unread on my shelves for twenty years.

I'm not sure what my reaction to it would have been lo these many years ago, being at the time an office drone much like Howie, the POV character. My response to it now is mixed.

Let me preface this by saying that my problem with cultural references in the writing of my writer friends is usually one of dismay. Now, I'm a bit of factoid junkie and can identify an allusion or in-joke or cult reference with the best of them. Yet, cultural trivia tend to date novels. If we read that one character's favorite song is 'Girlfriend in a Coma' or that another goes home every night to tend to her pet rock, we get a sense of when those characters lived (late '80s and mid-'70s, respectively). The song and the trend are artifacts of their periods, just as broadswords and armor are of medieval crusades. If we do our cultural archaeology, we might even glean some bits of meaning or, importantly, characterization from the writer's use of these items (say, fey insouciance in the first instance and lonely, mindless trend-following in the second), if the writer is being 'intentional' (the very use of that word is itself a cultural reference to an intellectual fad, or trend, of the mid-'80s, as well).

Mezzanine is now nothing but an artifact. The mindless, chick-lit, prep-school and shopping and fashion novels of the early part of this century are, if anything, intentionally (there's that word again) 'artifactual': fashionable, brand-conscious, trend-setting, marketing tools to and for a hyper-consumerist, pre-teen through twenties-ish set of middle class girls (yes, girls and not young women). They practically come with a 'Use By' date stamped on them. Of course, they, too, will someday be relics to be studied by cultural anthropologists to try to understand something about the current American (and British) commodity capitalism culture. But, they are at least aware of their datedness. Mezzanine, I feel, isn't. Still, in this respect, they are the heirs of Baker's novel.

Baker's book is dated. For example, there are, notwithstanding the writer's excruciating attention to detail, no desktop computers. Staplers and date-stamp machines are antiquated. There's even a cigarette vending machine by the bathroom.

More problematic is the overwhelming, absurd amount of detail Baker brings in. There is no selection, no judicious use of detail to color or characterize or advance the plot or set the scene. Baker describes things promiscuously and to obscene detail. It's as if he is trying to describe everything that happens and that goes through the narrator's mind in the span of the time it takes Howie to ride an escalator from the ground floor of his office building to the mezzanine where he works. That's not to say he doesn't describe things well. To the contrary, he is a marvelous writer of descriptive prose. Someday, an anthropologist or cultural archaeologist might pick up this book and actually get a sense of what went on in an average, urban white-collar worker's head one fine, summer day in the 1980s.

Here's the story, such as it is: Howie has broken a shoelace, his second in two days. This is wondrous, and pages and pages of verbiage are spent remarking this fact and attempting to theorize the forces at play in bringing about this coincidence. He sets out at lunch to go to the CVS and buy a new pair. In the meantime, he marvels over the workings of escalators, the polishing of the handrails thereof, staplers and date-stampers, paper towel dispensers in men's restrooms, the flushing of toilets, the modern drug store, the arrangements of bricks in a courtyard, the modern wonder that is perforated paper, and on and on. Words that come to mind: quotidian, jejune, even boring. Yawn.

The novel is essentially shapeless. As in a Seinfeld episode (again, a cultural artifact), nothing happens. A faceless office worker goes out to a drug store at lunch to purchase a new pair of shoe laces and returns to his office on the mezzanine of a corporate office building up an escalator, hoping to get to the top before anyone else jumps on either the up or down side. The character is smothered in the excessive details of a few brief moments—and, perhaps, that is the point; but that's a stretch, and I'm not feeling generous. There is no tension, no conflict, no real obstacles. Towards the end of the book, Howie, having finished his hot dog and his cookie and half his carton of milk (yes, he spent several pages describing it) and not read anything in the Penguin paperback of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations he's been carrying around, synopsizes the book:
"'Manifestly,' I repeated, as if scolding myself, 'no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!' Chance found me that day having worked for a living all morning, broken a shoelace, chatted with Tina, urinated successfully in a corporate setting, washed my face, eaten half of a bag of popcorn, bought a new set of shoelaces, eaten a hot dog and a cookie with some milk; and chance found me now sitting in the sun on a green bench, with a paperback on my lap. What, philosophically, was I supposed to do with that?" (p. 123)
Oh, and there're footnotes. Loads of 'em.

James Wood opens his first book, The Broken Estate, as follows:
"The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists thirst. The real is contour, aspiration, tyrant. The novel covers reality, runs away with it, and, as travelers yearn to escape, runs from it, too. It is impossible to discuss the power of the novel without discussing the reality that fiction so powerfully discloses, which is why realism, in one form or another and often under different names, has been the novel’s insistent preoccupation from the beginning of the form."
In my last post, I mentioned a type of 'the world is too much with us' realism, what Wood later calls "hysterical realism." If you like that sort of thing, this book is the mother lode. Perhaps an Ur-text.

Reading the book, I was put in mind of a passage from another book published some half-century earlier in another country. I had no idea at the time why the association leaped to mind, but I chased it down and re0read it. It goes like this:
"So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn't remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble point of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision.

It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of 'existence.' I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, 'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be.' Or else I was thinking ... how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness." [Sartre, J.-P., Nausea p. 126-27]
After I re-read this passage, I knew why it had presented itself unbidden to my mind: this is precisely the sort of thing the Baker novel lacks: insight. Roquentin is sufficiently self-aware to know he has what he calls Nausea. The press of things is overwhelming, revulsive. But he accepts it. Howie, on the other hand, just doesn't get it.

Howie is essentially passive, neutral toward all the things that impinge on his life and his consciousness. His attitude is one of subservience. He is held captive by reality, the press of things, and suffers from some cognate of Stockholm Syndrome; he actually seems to like things the way they are. He certainly never questions things. Though, much to his credit, at one point, he actually wonders how long such a materialistic civilization can sustain itself.

Howie is locked inside a vapid subjectivity and cannot see the way out, the connection Roquentin makes. He himself is colorless, truly characterless. This book is the tale of the loneliness of a solitary consciousness. It represents an almost willful refusal of what I have called the Ur-story: the coming to consciousness of one's own mortality and the subsequent sense of loss of the self amongst the things of the world. Howie is unself-conscious, adrift on a vast sea of materiality. Lost. And, perhaps, that is his true tragedy, though Baker isn't saying.

10 March 2009


Mainly because I'm dense—a slow-learner, if you will—I want to try to get my head around a term that gets thrown around in discussing fiction and literary criticism (and in other contexts, too, but they're not the ones that concern me just now). And that term? Realism.

In his now infamous broadside against Zadie Smith's White Teeth, James Wood called out a trend he called 'hysterical realism.' By that, he seemed to indict the sort of fiction that allows too much of the noise of the world into its cocoon. You find it, presumably, in William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, William Vollmann, and others of its chief offenders. One thinks, too, of Tom Wolfe and his ilk. It's a 'the world is too much with us' sort of concept where the 'news of the world' takes precedence over the 'news of the soul.'

Smith riposted in the NYRB, in an article comparing two recent novels, Netherland and Remainder (both of which I've reviewed here), with a stab at something she labeled 'lyrical realism'.

Once you start qualifying a term like 'realism' you begin splitting into factions and you start losing focus on the substantive issue. Both Wood and Smith are arguing FOR realism, they just differ over which flavor of realism they prefer. Realism is a sort of catch-all term that can mean so many different things it has become virtually meaningless. Arguments shoot by each in the night without ever really touching because the antagonists hold two different views of realism. The debate often is really over what kind of realism or what meaning to give it.

Below, I've tried to sort out some of the things that go by the name 'realism'. The following is by way of anatomy, then, rather than polemic.

First, the term realism is used to describe a period or genre of literature. Thus, we might describe the works of Balzac or Dickens and their ilk as realism—19th Century, French, English, whatever. This category is generally for literary historians. On the genre view, realism is opposed to fantasy or allegory or myth. Or, we might say how much we admire Raymond Chandler's gritty noir realism, referring, for example, to the seaminess of the world he depicts and the sordidness of his characters. On this view, realism is opposed to a presumed sugarcoating of things in, for example, bourgeois fiction.

Another use of the term realism has to do with with the traditional view stemming from the work of Aristotle. It goes by other names such as Mimesis or verisimilitude. On this view, it is the world to which the text points that alone is real. This is the most obvious, most common usage of the term. It is analogous to what philosophers call the correspondence theory of truth, or the propositional form we find in Tractarian Wittgenstein. I believe the term 'hysterical realism' refers to an extreme adherence to this form: the perceptual world of table and chairs intrudes too noisily on the novel.

On yet a third view, it is capturing the character's consciousness of his or her own world that alone is real. The 'form of life' (to borrow and perhaps bastardize yet another Wittgensteinian term) the text embodies or portrays alone is real. The perceptual/psychological/emotional/ethical/social being whose expression just is the text alone is real. Stated another way, the form of life inside of whose head/being the text transpires is what is realistic. We may liken this to the philosophical coherentist view of truth. The character, on this view, has no purchase on any truth about the world. In fact, s/he may misperceive his/her world and that is what is realistic about the work. The character's attitude, or stance, with respect to the world is what matters. This is what is behind the privileging of 'free indirect style' by such public critics as James Wood.

It is between these two views that a significant polarity has arisen: the 'world is too much with us' school (The Recognitions is ur-text here, with a little 'u') vs. the 'navel [sic] observatory' school (contemplative narrative where everything takes place in the head, so to speak, of the character(s); the 'yes, Virginia, there is a soul or the remnants thereof' school; Augie March is the ur-text here).

These three views are not the only ones, however; though to hear some of the proponents you would think they had exhausted the richness of the term realism.

In an earlier post, I cited Maurice Shroder's view that the novel alone is the most realistic literary art form because "protagonists 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." Thus, realism is an essential characteristic, perhaps the essential characteristic, of the novel and describes the arc of the character's (whatever his attitude) coming to grips/terms with his/her world (however conceived).

A further view of realism holds that it is the reader's response to the text that alone is real. Roland Barthes exploded the myth of Balzacian realism in his monumental S/Z. As Barthes says, the reader is no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. There are many versions of reader response theory, but the point is that it is what the text implies alone that is real. Thus, all men are mortal; Gatsby is quite a man, but a man nonetheless; so, draw your own conclusions. Realism relates strictly to the communicative effect of the text. Philosophically, this flows from the deconstructionists' notion that the text is an empty signifier [where signifier + signified = sign]. It is, in effect, a sociological realism: what is real is the way the text is emblematic of [feminist, queer, Marxist, Darwinian, (insert your pet theory here)] theory, for theory alone is real.

A more analytic view is that it is the text alone that is real. William Gass is the most vocal proponent of this view. The reality of the text just is the words on the page. The text thinks the world. Once published, the text becomes a historical object capable of not only being acted upon (as in reader response theory) but in acting upon the world. One thinks here of feedback loops in cybernetic theory. Not only does art imitate life, life, too, at times imitates art. It is not the world which the text depicts, nor the character's attitude toward that world that is real; to get at what is real, don't focus on what is represented, rather focus on the picture itself and its aspects. I'd better let Gass speak for himself:
"..the consciousness contained in any text is not an actual functioning consciousness; it is a constructed one, improved, pared, paced, enriched by endless retrospections, irrelevancies removed, so that into the ideal awareness which I imagined for the poet, who possesses passion, perception, thought, imagination, and desire and has them present in amounts appropriate to the circumstances—just as, in the lab, we need more observation than fervor, more imagination than lust—there is introduced patterns of disclosure, hierarchies of value, chains of inference, orders of images, natures of things. ...It remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create (since not all books are bent on that result), but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about..."[Wm. H. Gass, "The Book as a Container of Consciousness," in Finding a Form, pp. 348,351]
"[T]he philosophical analysis of fiction has scarcely taken its first steps, Philosophers continue to interpret novels as if they were philosophies themselves, platforms to speak from, middens from which may be scratched important messages for mankind; they have predictably looked for content, not form; they have regarded fictions as ways of viewing reality and not as additions to it. There are many ways of refusing experience. This is one of them.

So little is known of the power of the gods in the worlds of fiction, or of the form of cause, or of the nature of soul, or of the influence of evil, or of the essence of good. No distinction is presently made between laws and rules of inference and conventions of embodiment, or their kinds. The role of chance or of assumption, the recreative power of the skillful reader, the mastery of the sense of internal life, the forms of space and time: how much is known of these? ... No search is made for first principles, none for rules, and in fact all capacity for thought in the face of fiction is so regularly abandoned as to reduce it to another form of passive and mechanical amusement. The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized. William Gass, "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction," in Fiction and the Figures of Life, pp. 25-26
"To see the world through words means more than merely grasping it through gossipacious talk or amiable description. Language, unlike any other medium, I think, is the very instrument and organ of the mind. It is not the representation of thought, as Plato believed, and hence only an inadequate copy; but it is thought itself. ...Literature is mostly made of mind; and unless that is understood about it, little is understood about it." William Gass, "Finding a Form" pp. 34-36 in Finding A Form.
Finally, there is something we might call the Platonic view: it is the ideal Form to which the text aspires (call it the Good, the Beautiful, the Just, the True) and which it attempts to embody that alone is real. Realism (often mislabeled 'idealism') is seeing through the text to the Ideal Form it seeks to embody. To the extent the text liberates us from the world of the senses (i.e, shows us the way out of the Cave) and leads us into the ideal world of Forms, it is Realistic.

Well, that pretty much exhausts my anatomy of the uses of the term realism. There may be more. I suppose there are any number of hybrid types—ethical realism, theological realism, moral realism, journalistic realism, etc., etc. If so, as they relate to fiction and literary criticism, please enlighten me.

From this brief foray, I think we can safely say that what the various views of realism have in common is an attempt to describe the complex relation/interaction between the text and the world.

My own view of realism, however non-practical for the practice of criticism, is probably closer to, though not coextensive, with Gass's: It is reality alone which is real and it is this reality which produces the text, just as nature somehow produces consciousness. The text is a model of consciousness, linguistic in form. It not only represents an awareness of the reality that produced it, it is an awareness of the reality that produced it. The evolution of consciousness is aligned with the continual perceptual probing of the world and retreating from it: it is adaptive. Texts are, likewise, an adaptational form. Texts are evolving probings of and retreats from the reality from which they flow—whether it is the human agent that pens them and the humanity of which s/he is a part or the noisy, intrusive physical world they are made to mirror. The text is part and parcel of reality, a feature of it that must be taken into account—especially to the extent that it is 'aware of' reality—by all subsequent texts. For Gass, the text thinks the world. To my mind, it is the self-reflexive world that thinks the text, and any realism about texts must take this into account. The text is Foam.

Of course, my view is relatively unformed (and possibly unprecedented—I don't know) and will require much further thought and research to articulate. As I continue to review novels on this site, I plan to try to apply it—if possible.

I am left, however, with one last question: if these views are the forms of realism, what, we might ask, is its opposite? That, as they say, is a question for another day.

06 March 2009

In Lieu of Anything Original

Because I have a house full of flu, and because I put some thought and energy into a couple of (longish) comments on other people's blogs, and because I'm in the throes of researching and writing an intense scene about a character trapped in a small earthen cave with a cobra while the siege of Kham Duc roars around him, this will have to suffice for a post*:

Peter was an acquaintance in college: Tuesday(?) night astronomy lab—woohoo! He blogs about his experience here, and about the creative process of song-writing here. Read about his entire Tennessee road trip. It's compelling. Of course, you have to read from the bottom. Here's my comment—#6.

Because the absolutists tend to get all the attention anyway, I had to weigh in on the usually ignored middle path—agnosticism—when I read this defense of theism. I don't know Dr. Myers. [UPDATE: The dialogue resumes and continues to an impasse here.]

Some other places you can go:

Too funny.

Too true.

Too prime.

Too good.

Too wicked.

Too right.

Stop it, you're killing me.

Seriously, though, it's on!

And, lastly, because there's almost no mood the jangle of an arpeggiated Rickenbacker and a chiming Telecaster can't improve, especially when you throw in 10 seconds of heavenly wah-wah pedal (izzat you, Mitch?), I give you, all the way from Down Under, Dom & the boys:

* Plus, my son and I have three baseball games this weekend. It's 75 degrees here today. Yippee!

05 March 2009

Failure of the Will?

I had originally thought about writing a post called "Failure of the Will!", alluding to Leni Riefenstahl's notorious, monumental propaganda film celebrating the Hitlerian Reich, "Triumph of the Will". According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), "The overriding theme of the film is the return of Germany as a great power, with Hitler as the True German Leader who will bring glory to the nation."

The theme was striking and found echoes in the partisan rhetoric and actions of the previous U.S. presidential administration on many fronts: 
  • Karl Rove, the strategist behind George W. Bush's two electoral runs, is on record as wanting to create a "permanent Republican majority". 
  • Grover Norquist, conservative thought leader and single-minded proponent of cutting taxes, has declared that his avowed goal is "to cut government in half ... to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." 
  • The Reagan so-called revolution, the glorious ascendance of American conservatism, was propagated on the belief that "government is not the solution, it's the problem." 
  • Newt Gingrich, former Republican Speaker of the House (R-GA) during the Clinton presidency and currently chief strategist and mouthpiece of the conservative 'movement', is the father of the obstructionist 'just say no' tactic that now pretty much defines Republican congressional action. Perhaps Gingrich's most remarkable coup (especially given the hypocritical failure of his Contract With America) was the shutdown of the Federal Government out of pique over some mostly minor budget matters, and, if Tom Delay is to be believed, because he felt President Clinton snubbed him by making him sit at the back of Air Force One on the way back from Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in Israel. 
  • Tom Delay, subsequent Republican Speaker from Texas, was known to have spearheaded, along with former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and the aforementioned Norquist, something called the "K Street Project" whose primary goal, while Republicans held power in both the Legislative and Executive branches, was to purge lobbyists in Washington with Democratic ties by refusing to do business with any firms that had Dems in positions of authority. 
  • This mission did not come cheap. Financing for this goal came from Jack Abramoff, the basic outlines of whose corrupt practices we are only just now beginning to learn as cases work their way through the legal system. One suspects there are many, many other 'off the books' financial tentacles pumping cash into these operations—including the billions of dollars on the Pentagon's 'off-budget' budget that went missing during the Bush Administration's lax regulatory regime. 
  • It was further theorized that, with the coming of conservative dominance, human polity had reached "the end of history": the secular, self-regulating free-market democracy.

There is an ancient political theory that only the elites should be allowed to rule, Plato's philosopher-kings. And that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the few who should, by nature, be allowed to rule and the many who, by nature, are suited only to be ruled by them. The elite should, thus, be secretive about their true plans and intentions. The only ones who should be allowed to know the truth are the rulers and the ruling class, and they don't need to talk about it because they instinctively recognize the truth and they recognize each other's other's adherence to these absolute goals. The ruled need to be fed myths about the motivations of the rulers and the ways of the world in order to legitimize their rule. In their view, religion is a useful fiction and its practitioners are instrumental in preserving culture and cultural values. The truth that no higher power exists should be kept away from the people, and God should be invoked to justify the actions of the elite.

In modern times, this view is often attributed to Leo Strauss and those of his students who congregate as, but craftily reject the label of, neo-conservatives. A further, more controversial political view ascribed to the Straussians is that the ruling elite are justified in tearing down societal and political institutions (to the extent they are designed to bring this special knowledge to the non-elite and serve to bring the masses into the arena of political governance) and fomenting chaos in order that an eventual Nietzschean superman can salvage culture: this, of course, is the age-old battle of absolutism against relativism. Relativism, which in its radical form approaches nihilism (the absence of values or standards), is a vulgar product of the Enlightenment and must be resisted with all the power of the state. Hypocrisy, projection, faux populism, faux piety, adventurism, belligerence, bellicosity, secrecy, extraordinary accretion of power, disregard for laws and rules: these are all justified, indeed countenanced, on the Straussian, neo-conservative view.

On this view, "culture" is:
"another word for history, civilization, convention, civil society, country, city ... The word culture is of fairly recent extraction. It emerges as a reaction to the rational, calculating, and commercial society that is a result of Enlightenment thought ... Culture offers man something loftier and more exalted than anything he could find in nature ... Culture wages a war against chaos, nature, and brutishness. Culture is the triumph of order over chaos, art over nature, and humanity over brutishness ... Culture decides what a people bows before and regards as sacred ... Myths are the stuff of culture and culture is the cement of society." (Shadia Drury, Alexandre Kojeve: The roots of postmodern politics. New York: St. Martin's Press 1994:162-163).
Culture is the last refuge against relativism and barbarism. It is essential to civilization, existential in the direst sense.

Given the foregoing, I find myself asking whether the entire conservative movement which got it wings in Goldwater's ignominious drubbing, took flight under Reagan, leveled off under Bush pere, and via Newt, Delay, Rove, Norquist, Bush fils, et al., ascended the commanding heights was a crashing disaster or, indeed, a crashing success.

As a result of their mis-rule we are currently mired in two expensive foreign wars, we are in a recession that shows no signs of letting up, GDP is actually shrinking, the banking and financial systems of the country (and, indeed, the world) are crumbling, Americans are un- or under-employed by the millions, mortgages are underwater as asset values plummet, private and public debts are beyond out of control, oil companies and their Middle Eastern counterparts are awash in luxe profits, etc., etc. The question, then, is whether this represents a triumph of conservativism, in some esoteric formulation, or its abject failure:

Is this what they wanted?