Two Views of Understanding, from Nabokov to Salinger

August 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, describing the nature of understanding a piece of writing:

In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.

Now here’s an excerpt from a priceless anecdote in Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters:

“That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?”

Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.”

When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.

Are these attitudes in conflict? Probably. But they’re both useful. Both of them constitute an appraisal of real understanding of a work of art — as opposed to knowing what it’s supposed to be about, what its message or gimmick is, instead sensing what animates the organism.

I think a reconciliation of these two attitudes is in a central idea that your job as a reader is not to understand what a work intends or aspires to be, especially not what it’s regarded as, or what its place is in a canon — instead, your goal is to understand what it is. This requires the sheer sensory openness Nabokov prescribes, seeing color and gesture, and it requires the natural fascination with the whole work’s life force that we see in Salinger’s anecdote.

In other words, move past what a work is supposed to be, to what it is. A good example of this is Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, since ostensibly it’s a pure meditation on life’s futility or nobility. That’s its reputation or its apparent significance as a collection of words. But for one thing, pay attention to the details of the scene. One, Ophelia is positioned aside reading a book and trying to look serious per Polonius’s order; two, Polonius and Claudius are listening in; and three, the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy (“…And lose the name of action. Soft you now, the fair Ophelia…”) grades without apparent surprise into Ophelia’s discovery. Now for another thing, what are the motions of the whole work? As with the details, the play so far is one big jest where Hamlet leads on the entire court. And this must be a continuation of that conceit. The soliloquy isn’t a work of lyricism in itself — it has qualifiers in itself, and it’s a curious organ in a larger work.

Some combination of the sense of detail and the sense of structure or soul is necessary in a great reader. Nabokov is more strictly right than Salinger, in that an eye for detail is the foundation of all true kinds of appreciation, but Nabokov is also, tellingly, a narrower writer than some more intuitive and less rigorous types like a Tolstoy, say. But the fine sense leads to the larger sense, I think, because sensitivity is such a richly generalizable faculty.

Cheever’s Ambivalent Americana

July 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve only just started reading Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle and so many descriptions in the book, of a retired New England small town, have a strange approach to their Americana evocations. When Cheever conjures up the summer and the breeze and the Old World peace of a historical town, I think his aim is always to qualify it in an ironic way by mixing in present elements — unsavory things like coal or garbage or sexual infidelity. So it feels like every description in the book is torn between a summery boardwalk-y Americana style and the need for some kind of contemporary realism rooted in seedy things. Here’s an example, from the first page:

The smells of these offices — the smell of dental preparations, floor oil, spittoons and coal gas — mingled in the downstairs hallway like an aroma of the past.

Cheever coalesces these specific details — a dentist’s office, spittoons, and such — into “an aroma of the past”. But those things aren’t an aroma of the past! He’s tried with a false poetic swoop to turn those scents and images instantly into a lofty small-town impression.

Now maybe this is all part of Cheever’s plan — to create a psuedo-Americana style tainted by his character’s weaknesses and his town’s failings. But that leaves him in a curious stylistic position, because he seems to want to infuse all of his descriptions with some measure of summery gilding, so it’s not clear, after reading a long enough stretch of his prose, where the irony ends and where the dreaminess begins. And at least in the form Cheever’s style gives them, those two moods don’t mix well.

Here’s another example in the early going, a description of the Wapshot patriarch’s boat, where it’s not clear whether the prose’s dreaminess is ironically mushy or just mushy:

The timbers of the old launch seemed held together by the brilliance and transitoriness of summer and she smelled of summery refuse — sneakers, towels, bathing suits and the cheap fragrant matchboard of old bathhouses.

“Held together by the…transitoriness of the summer” is an obviously meaningless phrase, but with no ironic edge to redeem it. I don’t think that just by tacking on the bit about refuse Cheever has successfully subverted the hollowness of the opening phrase. If that’s his intention, then I think his approach to a pseudo-Americana style — Rockwell with stained tinges — isn’t very sharply developed.

Every time he pulls what might be an example of this trick of winking Old World genteelism — for example when he outlines the Wapshot family tree in Biblical language like “Ezekiel begat David, Micabah, and Aaron…David begat Lorenzo, John, Abadiah and Stephen.” — I have the sneaking suspicion he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, by enjoying a lofty, lacy prose style while shielding himself from charges of cutesiness.

I think Cheever’s prose style is ambivalent more than anything else. To generalize, so much American writing has a conflicted insecurity — many, almost most, American writers I’ve read want to be fancy and delicate and sophisticated, but this is America, where that style clashes with all the rugged terrain. So you get writing like Cheever’s, which is fancy, but not really. So — what is it, actually?

Rhetoric vs. Poetry and “Othello”

June 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I read Othello in high school I didn’t like it, and I had a sneaking suspicion its reputation was based on something self-perpetuating, and on the seriousness and topicality (especially in the racial element) of its subject matter.

I’m reading it again and I feel I have a better idea of why I don’t like it: it’s a story of rhetorical manipulations that are pretty straightforward. I don’t see much life or strangeness in the characters or their interactions. Instead, one character fools another through a crude manipulation, and one character calls another honest when they’re actually not, etc.

Contrast this with what I’d call the poetry of characterization and interaction in other plays, say in King Lear which has amazing scenes balancing madness and pseudo-madness between characters, where the dramatic medium becomes a very strange and fluid substance.

In Othello the drama is made of rather square blocks. Here’s a typical scene, in Act 3 Scene 3, where Iago, by playing innocent, guides Othello into suspicion of Cassio:

IAGO
My noble lord–

OTHELLO
What dost thou say, Iago?

IAGO
Did Michael Cassio, when you woo’d my lady,
Know of your love?

OTHELLO
He did, from first to last: why dost thou ask?

IAGO
But for a satisfaction of my thought;
No further harm.

The rhetorical device here is that Iago ceases thinking aloud innocently, as if he were satisfied, with the obvious intent of leading Othello on.

OTHELLO
Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO
I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

The word “think” repeats, and its repetition suggests something gnawing.

OTHELLO
O, yes; and went between us very oft.

IAGO
Indeed!

OTHELLO
Indeed! ay, indeed: discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO
Honest, my lord!

OTHELLO
Honest! ay, honest.

Othello’s repetitions of Iago’s words, “indeed” and “honest”, show that he’s ensnared.

IAGO
My lord, for aught I know.

OTHELLO
What dost thou think?

IAGO
Think, my lord!

OTHELLO
Think, my lord!
By heaven, he echoes me,
As if there were some monster in his thought
Too hideous to be shown.

Some horrible conceit: if thou dost love me,
Show me thy thought.

IAGO
My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO
I think thou dost;
And, for I know thou’rt full of love and honesty,
And weigh’st thy words before thou givest them breath,

IAGO
For Michael Cassio,
I dare be sworn I think that he is honest.

OTHELLO
I think so too.

“Think” keeps repeating, around more plain rhetorical ironies: that there is some “monster” in Iago’s thought, and that Iago “weigh”s his words.

There’s just not much to these devices, and the whole play is constructed of such scenes where plain conflicts are brought about by plain manipulations. I’m a little baffled by its reputation, to be honest.

This is the same reason I can’t enjoy a movie where the main thrill is to see the bad guy eventually toppled by the good guy. I mean, who cares? We all know it’s coming and the whole story is basically a stalling tactic before the big payoff. (That the bad guy wins in Othello doesn’t really change the formula.)

Othello is put together with utter cleanness and precision, but not much strangeness. It’s drama, for sure, but Shakespeare’s best drama is really poetry.

James Joyce’s Dirt-Covered Locket Story

May 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

I finally found an anecdote I remember reading about James Joyce, where he tells a story about a story of a dirt-covered locket. It took so much googling that I started to doubt it had ever existed in the first place, but at last, via a Google book search, I found it in the “New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes” (which is a shockingly reasonable place to find it).

It’s about specificity in writing, and it goes like this:

A German lady called to see me today. She is a writer and wanted me to give an opinion on her work, but she told me she had already shown it to the porter of the hotel where she stays.

So I said to her: ‘What did your hotel porter think of your work?’

She said: ‘He objected to a scene in my novel where my hero goes out into the forest, finds a locket of the girl he loves, picks it up and kisses it passionately.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘that seems to me to be a very pleasing and touching incident. What did your hotel porter find wrong with it?’

And then she tells me he said: ‘It’s all right for the hero to find the locket and to pick it up and kiss it, but before he kissed it you should have made him wipe the dirt off it with his coat sleeve.’

I told her, (and I meant it too) to go back to that hotel porter and always to take his advice. ‘That man,’ I said, ‘is a critical genius. There is nothing I can tell you that he can’t tell you.’

The reason I remember this anecdote, and the reason I wanted to try to rescue it from obscurity with this blog post, is that it’s such a neat lesson about the prime virtue of good writing: specificity, i.e. filling in the details that bring a story to life.

The interesting angle in this anecdote is that it argues how much creative mileage you can get out of the mundane question “What would really happen?” You can expand your understanding of a work, and you can expand your own work, by several dimensions simply by considering its implications for itself.

In Bleak House, a man spontaneously combusts. Okay. So what would really happen? Well, there’d be soot scattered everywhere, in spots here and there and then closer and closer together, drawing a passerby by degrees to the scene of the incident. And that’s what happens, in a terrifically narrated scene.

Or there’s a scene in The Simpsons where the camera turns from a marching protest group to Homer banging his fists on a counter at a food truck chanting “Where’s my burrito?” He keeps banging his fists until the awning comes loose, collapses, and whacks him in the head. The scene is so unforgettable simply because the writers or animators asked “What would really happen?”

Or to put it my own way, the difference between an ordinary scene and a creative one is stopping to ask “What if?”

Why Isn’t Chekhov Taught in High School?

April 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

(It shouldn’t be, by the way.) I was talking with a friend about stuff I’d read recently or wanted to read, and Chekhov’s name came up and he said in passing, “Oh, he wasn’t in the high school curriculum.”

And it’s true, of course, but it’s a very obvious yet unspoken thing that seemingly doesn’t even need remarking. There are lots of authors we don’t teach in high school — Umberto Eco, or Proust, or Marquez, or Borges. And I don’t think you can really argue it’s because those authors are too advanced for high schoolers, because there are also lots of authors we force kids to read — like Shakespeare or Austen — that are over their heads. But so why not Chekhov in particular? Why does one author make it into the curriculum but not another?

Chekhov’s case is interesting because of all the strange particulars of his writing that are thrown into relief when you think about teaching him to 17-year-olds. First off, he doesn’t teach you about a particular time and place, so there’s no social studies mission to be fulfilled by reading him. (Have you ever had a teacher tell you A Tale of Two Cities takes us back to revolutionary Paris? I’m skeptical. There aren’t enough long days milking cows and paying taxes in that book for me to be convinced.) You could argue Chekhov gives us a portrait of landed Russia from bottom to middle classes, but there aren’t any grand historical cues in his writing to make the thing look like a history lesson.

And there’s no moral, didactic, or philosophical value in his work either. Macbeth “teaches” us about free will, and Catch 22 “teaches” us about the madness of war, but Chekhov, even when you’re stretching, doesn’t teach us anything except the dreaminess even in drab lives and the variety of stubborn minds to be found among them. Some lesson! His books can’t teach you any hard questions or answers.

Lastly, and here I’m speculating more, there is something more fundamentally and wonderfully useless about his writing, in that the mere facts of his stories don’t align toward some lesson or purpose, except to illuminate their own characters and the texture of their own worlds. This is true of all real writing, but I’m still amazed at how serenely and profoundly Chekhov resists practical use. There is nothing to extrapolate from his writing, which is a quality of any whole and serene world. Imagine trying to teach high schoolers how deep the feeling of having to go out and buy a new light bulb at 10:00 in the evening because you screwed in your new one wrong and it burnt out, and maybe that conveys some idea of what I’m talking about.

This is my way of trying yet again to illustrate the difference between “literature” the academic exercise and literature the entirely frivolous pursuit.

Polyphony in the “King Lear” Mock Trial

March 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

For fun, I asked myself, what are the ineluctable advantages music has over literature, as far as technical elements? I came up with two:

  • Silence
  • Counterpoint, i.e. multiple simultaneous voices

Other elements of music, like timbre or tempo, can be approximated via the musical elements of language itself, but silence and counterpoint are structurally incompatible with a string of words.

Shakespeare tried, though, and there’s a great famous mock trial in King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6, where Lear and his posse of followers put his daughters Regan and Goneril on trial for forsaking him. It’s a sort of literary counterpoint: there are four voices of madness or oddness in the scene — Lear, his court Fool, Edgar posing as a mad beggar, and Kent posing as a servant — all speaking in rapid succession, almost at once over each other and to each other and alongside each other. I always figured writing plays would be too restrictive, being purely dialogue, but Shakespeare takes that limitation as a premise and uses the dialogue as voices.

When the four of them first enter, each of their voices is introduced in turn: Kent considerate, Edgar raving, Fool jesting, and Lear frothing:

KENT.
All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience: the gods reward your kindness!

EDGAR.
Frateretto calls me; and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.

FOOL.
Pr’ythee, nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman?

LEAR.
A king, a king!

Sometimes they talk to themselves, each in their voices:

KING LEAR
To have a thousand with red burning spits
Come hissing in upon ’em, —

EDGAR
The foul fiend bites my back.

FOOL
He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a
horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.

And sometimes two different voices are focused on a single subject. Here’s Fool’s playful directness set against Lear’s bluster:

FOOL
Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?

LEAR
She cannot deny it.

FOOL
Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool.

This is a great bit because between Lear and the Fool, each character, in his own voice, is being similarly direct yet wildly different.

There are also various meters used among the voices. Iambic pentameter is less common here. There’s just as much of prose and of Fool’s and Edgar’s various singsong rhythms. Sometimes Lear manages iambic pentameter and it’s a send-up of the psuedo-lucidity of his bluster:

LEAR
It shall be done; I will arraign them straight.
[To EDGAR]
Come, sit thou here, most learned justicer;
[To FOOL]
Thou, sapient sir, sit here. Now, you she foxes!

Compare this to one of the more truthful bits in the scene, where Fool sings a song directly mocking Lear.

So these few examples illustrate, I hope, how Shakespeare uses different dimensions of the notion of a “voice” — content, form, mood and tone, rhythm — some musical, some literary, to organize the chaos of a scene with four liars and/or madmen, each with his own aims. I think the attention paid to Shakespeare’s supposed breadth of understanding of humanity — his ability to understand drinkers and bards and lords and serfs — is a pointless kind of scorekeeping when applied across his work. To see him bring very different literary/musical voices — creative manifestations of individual characters — to bear within a single scene is much more interesting.

Being and Struggling in Writing

January 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s Glenn Gould making a subtle but profound distinction between the “state of ecstasy” in Bach’s music and the sense of struggle and progression and striving in later music such as Classical:

I’m not a musical expert, but I believe you can hear Gould’s characterization of Classical music in, for example, those Beethoven sonata-form movements that are predicated on starting on the tonic and moving away into the dominant or the relative major or some other harmonic center before finding a way home. Explicit modulation and transition are essential in marking out the sections of a movement.

Compare this to Bach, whose harmonies are in such constant motion that they can’t really be described in sections or progressions. The sense of progression or movement, if you’re looking for it, is so constant that a whole piece of his is rather a state of being — a “state of ecstasy”, as Gould describes it around the 6:15 mark in the video.

That notion of “static” music, that distinction between music that struggles to go somewhere and music that merely is, is what I find so profound. And of course, I think it applies to writing.

I think the literary analogue to this idea can be summed up in that famous line from Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica”:

A poem should not mean / But be

A real story — a living, full-blooded one — isn’t caught up in the obligations of taking readers from one exciting event to another or describing some amazing situation. An ordinary story is concerned with introducing us to a more or less normal “home” state, and then subjecting it and us to some conflict, keeping us in tension for long enough that we feel sufficiently relieved and gratified at the restorative ending. The pattern of progressing inevitably from home to a strange place and, comfortably, back home again reminds me of the exertions of a classical piece with its tonic-dominant-tonic harmonic transitions.

There is a total and consistent richness in a great literary world that doesn’t proceed in sections — indeed, doesn’t really proceed at all. The profound serenity of a Chekhov play or story consists precisely in his writing’s lack of machinations. We’re not whisked along a plot. Rather, the characters are allowed to live and breathe, and the constant (not chunky and artificial) modulations of their lives form the substance of the story.

For another example of writing that merely is, see the associative, memory-driven structure of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which there is no start and end goal for the story, but rather one episode, long or short, wells naturally out of another. Or see the first four acts of Hamlet, which Hamlet spends, in a way, clowning around and making an ambiguous mockery of his own reputation for brooding. That ambiguity is the story, before the fifth act comes and kills everyone off for closure’s sake.

All these stories are round, not linear, worlds, in the spirit of how Gould described Bach’s music as capturing the “immutable totality of existence” in that video.

If you want to appreciate writing that is, you have to let go of all the most common fundamental values: a beginning, middle, and end; excitement and intrigue; moralizing and lesson-teaching; good guys rising up from their darkest hour. These feature are machinations — struggling, rather than being. They serve to distract you from the author’s choice to pass the time rather than create something.

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