The Pantheon

September 28, 2009 § 1 Comment

Oedipus

When I’ve saturated myself too much, with certain elements of media, by zapping myself with electrons and oscillating waves, my skin becomes translucent, my mind reconfigures itself, and I forget who I am.

It doesn’t matter how I fall into this spiral. Maybe it has something to do with the dishes: cleaning them is a practical anchor of my routine, and when I neglect it, they become (dirty and inconvenient) a physical reminder of my lack of focus. At these times I am a cloth man filled with straw. The act of creating a direct sentence eludes me: orchestrating three or four, in rapid succession, is actually painful; when I have somehow managed to spin ten in a row, thanks to some Herculean effort of concentration, I am so drained that the rest of the composition peters out, and is abandoned.

So confused, I return to the pantheon. My pantheon is a collection of supernatural beings, and collectively, though known by their acts–ignoble and noble–they have no mythical powers save for the power of judgement. They are acquaintances and abstract concepts, and many become members of the pantheon thanks only to some trivial and fleeting encounter… An ill word offered up, completely at random, by a stranger on the street, may enter him into the pantheon. For days–maybe weeks, if my condition persists–I will wonder at these words and compare this or that action of mine with them as if, with every action after the event, I am vindicating or vilifying myself. By now Lisa must be used it: in this state of mind I frequently interrupt our conversations to spout context-less nonsense reassuring myself that I was in the right, and he, or she (or it) was in the wrong. Or vice-versa, though it’s more likely I keep that to myself.

Words of praise may enter you into the pantheon: if you are in a position of authority in relation to mine, and I am ripe (unsure) then there isn’t any doubt I will put you there, and think of your praise long afterwards, and applied to circumstances where your words have no real bearing. In this sense praise can be as stifling as the energy I spend counteracting jeers.

A director I once knew told us never to tell our fellow actors what we thought of their performances until after they were over, because otherwise their self-conciousness might derail them. If I could tell you to wait until the end of the performance I would, but there isn’t any such thing, because my performance, in this respect, is endless. Maybe when I am an old man, I will be peaceful. I look forward to the imagined self-assuredness I will gain at that moment with the same certainty I thought I would gain self-assuredness the day I became an adult, or the day I first had sex.

It’s interesting that I should mention being old, or maybe not, because lately the peace of the elderly has been on my mind. This weekend two men, a yin and a yang, entered my pantheon. Both are published authors. One praised my style, and offered help regarding the structure of a story. The other laughably and vehemently criticised this story–and, maybe because these critiques should never be personal–attempted to tear me to pieces as well. He did so with all the clumsy, direct certainty of a man who has learned one skill–how to read the dictionary–and applied this skill to his whole life, a life which is now nearly over, because he is the old man who has been on my mind.

The man was an editor and a freelance journalist, now he is retired. My introduction to him was overheard bragging: “he knew I could write circles around him,” a first impression that led me to believe he was arrogant and blind. No man should ever speak of himself that way, and yet this man invented ways to do so at every possible moment–sometimes interjecting his self-praise with more praise.

But there might have been–for all I knew–something substantial behind his attitude. From the way he spoke of me, and the way he spoke of himself, and the way he dropped the names of magazines he has been published in–and other magazines, I learned later, he only hopes to be published in–it seemed as if he might have been a big-shot. A quick look at his website confirmed that he isn’t, and he never was. His prose is as inelegant as a concrete block, as plodding and insipid as you might expect from a man whose main talent is reading the dictionary. As you can imagine, far from dispelling this man from my pantheon, this knowledge only entrenched him further. In the empty moments of these last few days I thought of him far, far, too often.

Peace and old age shouldn’t be in the same thought, when thinking of this man, and yet they are with him, because as obviously unhappy–and angry–a man as he is, he does have a certain cheater’s peace with himself, an ignorant peace that is quick to find fault with anything besides himself. He has become the lie. It doesn’t matter if he lost three million dollars last year–as he claims–because the fact that he had this money, and more where that came from, whatever his circumstances are, is so crucial to his idea of himself that it might as well be true. In the same vein, he is a terrific writer–one who, at every turn, was failed by the system, and by academia. The CBC won’t talk to him because of certain misogynistic views he holds, but that doesn’t mean the ideas are actually misogynistic, or that there are other reasons they won’t contact him, only that the whole rest of the world is wrong.

In short, there is nothing wrong with him, it’s the incongruity between his imagined self and his reality that causes his unhappiness. He doesn’t have the imagination, or the wisdom, to take this fantasy further and place himself in a world that he likes, only to make it a mirror of his own shortcomings, which he is constantly reminded of. In this sense–how convenient is it that I’ve been thinking of him? When I resort to my pantheon, I’m doing nothing less than this old man does, and sowing the seeds of my own future ignorance and insanity. Whenever I think of him, I think of what I did wrong by implication. Likewise, I think of how I was right. The more I am right, the less I will ever have to change, and the more I will become annoyed at even the idea of my being wrong.

I have to de-saturate myself as soon as I realise I am resorting to my pantheon, and to seek peace by turning instead to silent contemplation, quiet reading, physical activity, and close, intimate conversation, or maybe dancing, with my wife.

A Complete History of the World

September 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

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In the first year known, numbers, letters, and images erased themselves from their containers and catalogues. From books and documents, from digital and audio storage, from monuments and from posters, a new voice had risen up and quashed all of the others: nothing.

Following this period, there were many years of lawlessness and chaos. The old institutions stood abandoned or were crumbling. The men and women lived in the wooded hollows, or in tents set up on the rustling plains. The cities, if they remained, became jungles. Few went to them.

During the chaos a sect of ambitious men had sprung up almost overnight. Some of them were in contact with one another–these called themselves the tradionalists–but the others, even if they were isolated, were of the same mind. They would recreate all of the great works lost during the erasure, those of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Confucious, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, and Nabokov, among many others. The effort was a unanimous failure. The remembered copies were rough and shoddy death masks which, because of a general lack of vitality, found no home in the collective imagination.

By the time the chaos had ended there were few who remembered the original works, and even those who did couldn’t be sure whether or not they had dreamed them. The copies were widely considered heresies; they had no relation to the world of the present and so must be lies. A few old, decrepit men continued working, oblivious to all that was happening around them; their recollections were dim and clouded, and the work they produced was as cramped and airless as a musty, narrow hallway. The people, who were busy hunting the forests and hoeing the plains, ignored it.

Time passed. As the techniques of the people grew in complexity, less work was needed to support more people, and from this difference came the classes of clerics and administrators. The people arranged themselves into settlements, and these settlements entered into a systematic dance of war, amalgamation, and death. The stories of conquests, and of daily life, were remembered in song. In time the lyrics, which were written by ordinary people, were recorded by one, or many, scholars. The first lines of one of the most famous works, translated into English, went like this:

Achilles’ baneful wrath–resound, O Goddess–that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Between Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son.

In the eleventh century, twenty-three centuries after these words were written down, one hundred centuries after the chaos, the disciples of Gerbert, having learned of it from the Spanish Moors, first came into possession of the astrolabe, which for the first time allowed them to make accurate measurements of the stars.

THE EDITORS OF THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF THEORY AND CRITICISM BLOW

September 16, 2009 § 6 Comments

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In the past fifty years or so, the language of literary criticism has become increasingly and unnecessarily complex. I have read that it needs to be so because the ideas that it discusses are so novel and complicated that they require a new and highly specialised language. Yet complicated ideas are not new, and the extremes literary critics have gone to convolute even simple ideas seem well beside the point. In the introduction to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, the editors describe three methods of reading. I present the example below first, though it is the last in the introduction, because it is the simplest:

And Paul de Man instead pictures reading as a mode of exegisis wherein the reader’s rewriting or restaging of the text replaces the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.

Though from this sentence we get a clear picture of de Man’s theory, that each reader constructs his own version of the text as he reads it, we are also confronted with some startling, even bizarre, word choices. Why are we given “as a mode of exegesis”, for example? Very simply, “exegesis” means “exposition”, or “description or explanation”. “A mode of exegesis” would, therefore, essentially mean “an interpretation”. Why isn’t the simpler form used? Because if you inserted it into the sentence, it wouldn’t make sense. There’s no need to introduce the idea of exegesis, because we are already talking about critical reading, which is the same thing. “A mode”, in this sentence, is purely superfluous, as whatever follows “Paul de Man instead pictures reading” is necessarily going to be one man’s idea of reading. “Wherein the reader’s” is also superfluous, made necessary only by the addition of “a mode of exegesis”. Eliminating those two phrases, we get:

And Paul de Man instead pictures reading as a rewriting or restaging of the text, replacing the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.

Not only is the necessary idea communicated, it is communicated in a way that is more direct and less likely to confuse or mislead the reader, whoever that reader may be.

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The other two descriptions of reading seem to me only useful as entries in a bibliography. They transmit little useful information other than the names of two critics who may have written important works on reading.

Friedrich Schleiermacher draws a detailed account of interpretation both as historically informed grammatical explication and as psychological identification with the author. His view contrasts with the perspective of Fredric Jameson, who advocates ideology critique of social contradictions, class antagonisms, and historical stages of social development manifested in texts.

I understand that the above contains a lot of nonsense. Don’t worry. We will go slowly. The first major miscommunication seems to be the idea of “grammatical explication”. What on earth could that be? The word “explication” is not in my dictionary, which may be too plainspoken for this enterprise. The word seems to come from “explore” or “explain”, and a quick search on Google seems to confirm this. So we have grammatical explanation, or the explanation of grammar. We are not told how grammar is explained or interpreted: only that it is considered. Perhaps Schliermacher counts the proportion of semi-colons used to commas and uses this magical number to reveal something important about the author, or maybe he connects periods with his pen and constructs elaborate labyrinths on each page. I’m sure that I am wrong, but there is no way of knowing because no useful information is given. We could investigate how Schleiermacher’s “grammatical explication” is particularly “historically informed”, but it’s pointless to discuss the historical legacy of nothing.

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“Psychological identification” also seems to me curious. Does Schleiermacher see himself in every author, or does he, almost like a kidnapped victim developing Stockholm syndrome, come to intimately understand, and maybe even love, each author as he reads their book? There’s no real way of telling. Or, what is more likely, maybe Schleiermacher uses texts to identify the psychological traits of their authors. That might be so–but how does he do this, and what are his motives? Without this crucial information we are left with a phrase that is so ephemeral that it means nothing unless one has actually read Schleiermacher; it is the very definition of vacuousness. Cutting the text down accordingly, Fredrich Schleiermacher’s sentence-and-a-half now looks like this:

Freidrich Schleiermacher’s view contrasts with

It’s possible you see where this is going.

Fredric Jameson “advocates ideology critique of social contradictions, class antagonisms, and historical stages of social development manifested in texts.” Let’s start with “social contradictions”. What could those be? I have no idea. A search on google suggests that a social contradiction is “two forces pulling in opposite directions”. So, to make this example sensible, let’s say “creationism” and “darwinism” are an example of a social contradiction, because they are two forces pulling in opposite directions. How is saying that they are a social contradiction more useful than simply saying they are opposed to one another? What is gained by saying that they are a “social contradiction”? Is the idea of “social contradiction” just a way of saying that two competing ideas exist in society? Why do we need a specialised shorthand for that?

The selection from the Norton Anthology seems to suggest that you can critique the ideology of social contradictions “manifested in texts”, and that this is something Jameson believes we do–or should do–as we read. I don’t see how such a critique is possible, or what it would entail. Is it the critique of the author’s use of opposing forces? Or is it the critique of opposing forces casually invoked by the author…? Or, only because the previous two examples don’t really make sense, is it neither?┬áThe same goes for “class antagonisms” and “historical stages of social development”. There doesn’t seem to me anything inherently ideological about those ideas, although social development and issues of class are important when discussing ideology. But in the particular, they don’t really mean anything more than “social contradiction” does, and to investigate them further seems to me needless. I’m sure they mean something–but, like in the case with Schleiermacher–they are unintelligible unless you have read Jameson. As we’re quoting from an introduction to literary criticism, and not from an afterward to a book comparing Schleiermacher and Jameson’s approaches to reading, we will cut accordingly. Jameson’s sentence becomes:

Fredric Jameson’s.

Putting everything we’ve done together, we get:

Freidrich Schleiermacher’s view contrasts with Fredric Jameson’s. And Paul de Man pictures reading as a rewriting or restaging of the text, replacing the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.

One intelligible idea, two erratic and undefined allusions. I wish I could say that the passage I have quoted from the introduction to the anthology was spectacular: it wasn’t. I chose it at random and believe it to be indicative of the whole.

csp_hydrogen-bomb

Infinite Ethiopias

September 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

While working at the Robarts Library recently, I came upon a book that very innocently contains infinite possibilities. The book is the 1901 volume of Empire Review, and it exists in its own ontological universe. For it time has stood still, while its own empire (that of the British), and others, have risen, and fallen. The future the book assumes, that of a continued, ever growing, Empire, does not exist; likewise the future we assume, and conjure, may be radically different in ways we do not expect. The same must be true of the present. Our present is a different present than it is for our parents, as it will be different for our grandchildren…

It follows that every generation may be lost in their own epochs. There must be some, a dwindling number, for whom the Holocaust is still happening; there are many of the most recent generation who still inhabit, and have no plans of leaving, their own pampered childhoods.

If we agree that a state of constant dreaming can alter our perception of reality, and that our perception of reality is reality, perhaps there are those who are still dreaming, and living, a past haunted by old magic that does exist, but only in the heads of those who still live it. A quote from the opening paragraphs of “The Abyssinian Question”, an article from the above-mentioned Empire Review, may illustrate this:

The movement which has convulsed the whole of the the Dark Continent, since the European powers commenced the partition of Africa into spheres of influence, has extended into Abyssinia. Before the discovery of the sources of the Nile, the kingdom of the Negros was located by geographers in the unknown country depicted in the early maps of the last century as the site of the so-called mountains of the moon.

In the above paragraph we notice two things: first, that the sentences above are steeped in a sensibility that is so alien to our own it can’t seem anything but hopelessly backward. Evidence is the casual and indifferent way the division of Africa is catalogued; the mystery underlining the introduction of “the kingdom of the Negros”, as if it’s still doubtful such a place could ever exist, and the author had to work hard to capture it and pin it up so that it might be fathomable to his European readers; the statement “the kingdom of the Negros” itself, which, for obvious reasons, would be not be used today.

The second thing we notice is the author’s own disdainful reference to the the apocryphal truths of previous generations: “the so-called mountains of the moon”. The “mountains of the moon” imply that they are located on, or have some secret relationship with, the moon. But they are so-called because in the next sentences (not recorded here) he describes the actual location of the kingdom of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), as discovered and noted by men of his race.

Before this “discovery”, it’s obvious that Ethiopia existed, and that it wasn’t on the moon. But perhaps there were two Ethiopias: the historical Ethiopia, and the Ethiopia of the Englishman’s imagination, which enjoyed some sort of (unexplained) relation to the moon. Perhaps the mountains of the moon, in this Ethiopia, existed on the moon and on earth, or perhaps the mountains contained a hidden staircase that extended to the moon, or maybe the mountains were the moon itself, and where it rested in the morning and during the day. Perhaps, in the fragmentary imaginations of an entire nation, they were all three, and more. An infinite number of Ethiopias, just as there might have been an infinite number of Englands.

In Don Barthelme’s short story, Paraguay, the traveller descends from the mountains on Paraguay’s borders, and into a Paraguay not contained on any maps, a world containing fields of red snow, whose inhabitants are regulated entirely by body temperature, and where gold and silver abound. The Paraguay isn’t the historical Paraguay, but it does exist, because it was suggested by just the sort of passage quoted above, and there (and in Barthelme’s story) it still lurks, at all times, just as an infinite number of Paraguays lurk infinitely, in everything, as well as an infinite number of Canadas, Bolivias, Florences, Shanghais, Indonesias, Englands, and Ethiopias.

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