28 June 2012


Like most of us, I learned to read with the help of pictures.  Comic books remained favorite reading late into childhood, and there are panels from the "Classics Illustrated" editions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, The House of the Seven Gables, and Men Against the Sea which I still remember quite clearly after forty years.  Having graduated from books with pictures, my imagination was taught to make its own movies by the development of what one might call "headlong narrative lust": possessed by that same lust, my children become quite deaf while they're reading, just as I once did.  To me, reading is still driven by the engine of narrative, and my interest in considering other aspects of a text would have no real motive without it.  

When a narrative suddenly interpolates a list or catalogue into the text, interrupting that passionate onwardness of reading, it's usually about as welcome as a knot of half-cooked spaghetti in my carbonara.  It seems to promise nothing but boredom and anticlimax: I'm tempted to skip it, much as I skip wanton descriptions of landscape (which, come to think of it, are a kind of catalogue too).  Catalogues aren't supposed to be prose, they're archives for reference, and who wants to read a thesaurus in the midst of a thriller?  Having yanked us rudely out of the stream of time a narrative is happening in, a list reminds us that we're just ourselves, reading.  The story stops while the list is being read, just like when movie screens used to go blank for intermissions: when my daughter was three, the shock of such stopping would make her burst into tears when a movie ended, because she was so disappointed not to be still in it.

Reading a catalogue all the way through sacrifices living in the tale to a kind of contemplative quiescence.  It's a completely different mode of reading, comprising two distinct aims: the registration of each element in the catalogue piecemeal--my wife, speaking of flea markets, calls this "micro-hiking"--and the simultaneous effort to derive or imagine the relationship between elements without the guidance of plot or syntax.  Imagine Kipling's Kim, during his job interview for the Great Game, looking at Lurgan Sahib's tray of miscellaneous objects and trying to figure out what properties unite them into a collection.  However captivating such a puzzle might seem abstractly, when an actual list first looms up in the middle of a story, I anticipate the same tedium as any five-year-old contemplating a page without pictures.


Of course, I wouldn't be writing all this if that expectation of tedium were the whole story.  There's genuine pleasure in submitting to a well-crafted list--once that first impatient repulsion is overcome--a pleasure evoked by the sensory interest of each word or phrase in the list, the play of different elements' rhythms against one another, and the engineering by which a seeming hodgepodge of distinct particles aspires to (or even enacts) a sequence.  Some narrative lists manifest the mind of the writer or narrator in the act of composing them, others pretend to allude to taxonomies already formed.  Just as a long look at the night sky begins to hint at the underlying structure behind an appearance of random distribution--a lacy skein of stars surrounding bubbles of void--so a well-composed list hints at an implicate order in the universe it purports to describe, even while it may be subverting the idea of order.  An excellent example is this well-known list, from Borges's essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," collected in Other Inquisitions:

"These ambiguities, redundances (sic), and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies at a distance.

Each successive element as it appears casts doubt on the criteria by which the catalogue has been devised.  They are alternately over-inclusive and over-specific; sublime, ridiculous, and indefinable.  Eventually the entire catalogue collapses, from something which pretends to be a comprehensive classification into nothing more than a manifestation of the apparent state of mind of the person devising it--who is of course an invention.  (Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that the actual Franz Kuhn played no part in this brilliant piece of whimsy.)  And yet (some inner metaphysician asks), might not there exist some meta-level on which these wildly different levels of abstraction--stray dogs, embalmed, fabulous, included in this classification, resembling flies at a distance--intersect seamlessly to parcel out the world?  After all, as Borges might have reminded us, certain modern cosmogonies postulate seven or nine dimensions, whose mathematics would allow objects galaxies apart--in the universe we think we know--to interact with and influence one another instantly, unpredictably, unimaginably. 

My next exhibit, from Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, starts out irresistibly, 'dervishes of the Tower of the Winds' and all... and keeps on getting better:

"This was the road to Anavryti [in the southern Peloponnese], the approach march to our private invasion of the Mani. ...the bank manager of sleepy Sparta was waiting with his jeep as he had promised... I repeated my questions about the inhabitants of Anavryti... 'Yes,' he said, hooting his way through a clinking herd of goats; their twisted horns surrounded us for a moment in a tangled spinney: 'they all say they are Jews, but nobody knows why, or where they are from.  It's probably rubbish.'
     It was very puzzling.  Perhaps he was right.  And yet the Greek world, with all its absorptions and dispersals and its Odyssean ramifications, is an inexhaustible Pandora's box of eccentricities and exceptions to all possible rule.  I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli, the Pomaks of the Rhodope, the Kizilbashi near Kechro, the Fire-Walkers of Mavrolevki, the Lazi from the Pontic shores, the Linovamvaki--crypto-Christian Moslems of Cyprus--the Dönmehs--crypto-Jewish Moslems of Salonika and Smyrna--the Slavophones of Northern Macedonia, the Koutzo-Vlachs of Samarina and Metzovo, the Chams of Thesprotia, the scattered Souliots of Roumeli and the Heptanese, the Albanians of Argolis and Attica, the Kravarite mendicants of Aetolia, the wandering quacks of Eurytania, the phallus-wielding Boumariots of Tyrnavos, the Karamanlides of Cappadocia, the Tzakones of the Argolic gulf... the Turks of Thrace, the Thessalonican Sephardim, the sponge-fishers of Calymnos and the Caribbean reefs, the Maniots of Corsica, Tuscany, Algeria and Florida, the dying Grecophones of Calabria and Otranto, the Greek-speaking Turks near Trebizond on the banks of the Of, the omnipresent Gypsies... the Bavarians of Attic Herakleion, the Cypriots of Islington and Soho, the Sahibs and Boxwallahs of Nicosia, the English remittance men of Kyrenia, the Basilian Monks, both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic, the anchorites of Mt. Athos, the Chiots of Bayswater and the Guards' Club... the Pontics of the Sea of Azov, the Caucasus and the Don, the Turcophone and Armenophone Lazi of southern Russia, the Greeks of the Danube Delta, Odessa and Taganrog... the exaggerators and the ghosts of Mykonos... the Franks of the Morea, the Byzantines of Mistra, the Venetians and Genoese and Pisans of the archipelago... the Anglo-Saxons of the Varangian Guard, ye olde Englisshe of the Levant company, the Klephts and the Armatoles... the Phanariots of the Sublime Porte, the princes and boyars of Moldowallachia, the Ralli Brothers of India, the Whittals of Constantinople, the lepers of Spinalonga... a wandering Arab I saw years ago in Domoko, the Chinese tea-pedlar of Kolonaki, killed in Piraeus during the war by a bomb--if all these, to name a few, why not the crypto-Jews of the Taygetus?"

"Both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic"--who could ask for anything more?  And here, to demonstrate the virtues of that Græcophile Leigh Fermor's talent even more plainly, is one of the original models for his list and for many others, (translated by Ian Johnston):

 "... But I shall list the leaders,
commanders of the ships, and all the ships in full.                            

Penelaus, Leitus, and Arcesilaus
led the Boeotians, with Clonius and Prothoenor.
Their men came from Hyria, rocky Aulis,
Schoenus, Scolus, mountainous Eteonus,
Thespeia, Graia, spacious Mycalassus,
men holding Harma, Eilesium, Erythrae;
men holding Eleon, Hyle, Peteon,
Ocalea, the well-built fortress Medeon,
Copae, Eutresis, Thisbe, city full of doves;
men from Coronea, grassy Haliartus;
men from Plataea, Glisas, those who held
fortified lower Thebe and sacred Onchestus,
with Poseidon's splendid grove; men from Arne,
land rich in grapes, Midea, sacred Nisa,
and distant Anthedon.  Fifty ships came with these men,
each with one hundred and twenty young Boeotians...

The Locrians were led by swift Ajax, son of Oileus,
the lesser Ajax, not the greater Ajax,
son of Telamon, but a much smaller man.
Though he was short and wore cloth armor,
among all Hellenes and Achaeans he excelled
in fighting with his spear.  Locrians came from Cynus,
Opous, Calliarus, Bessa, Scarphe,
lovely Aegeiae, Tarphe, Thronion,
and from around the river Boagrius.
Ajax brought forty black ships of Locrians
living across from sacred Euboea...

Warriors from Argos, fortified Tiryns, Hermione,
Asine, both with deep bays, Troezene, Eionae,
vine-rich Epidaurus, Achaean youth from Aegina, Mases--
all these were led by mighty fighter Diomedes,
skilled in war cries, and by Sthenelus, dear son
of famous Capaneus..."

And so on for another 232 lines.  Despite the Classical importance of this 'Catalogue of Ships,' I find it much more difficult to keep on reading through it--not to mention copying it out--than I find most of the other catalogues here.  I suspect that actually hearing it in Homer's incantatory voice--if I'd been born in Akhaia--might have supplied it with an interest otherwise missing.  What I mean is, I guess you had to be there.


By contrast, this next passage is a delicious primer in the art of pacing and grouping a catalogue--salting it with jokes and gossip, peppering it with names from the animal and vegetable kingdoms--so as to convert it into satirical drama:

     "From East Egg then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine.  And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whoever came near.  And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie's wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.
      Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember.  He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden.  From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells.  Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett's automobile ran over his right hand.  The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga's girls.
     From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the State senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another.  And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife.  Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. ("Rot-Gut") Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly--they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day.
     A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as "the Boarder"--I doubt if he had any other home.  Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O'Donavan and Lester Myer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull.  Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S. W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square...
     In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O'Brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls and young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war, and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancée, and Ardita Fitz-Peters and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip, with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.
     All these people came to Gatsby's house in the summer."


When an entire text resists the kind of headlong narrative pace I mentioned earlier, when reading it is a word-by-phrase experience similar to that of reading through a list, there's a special pleasure in encountering a list in a recognizable form, especially one that's been dramatized by a writer even more skillful than Fitzgerald.  Some of you will not be surprised to learn that I'm speaking of James Joyce (who was very fond of lists, as Ulysses shows) and of Finnegans Wake.  This is an excerpt from a catalogue of gifts, following the style of joke bequests or Christmas presents, brought by Anna Livia Plurabelle--the personification of Dublin's river--to all her children.  Reading it aloud enhances its pleasure: the rhythm of the text seems to follow the twists and turns--the 'baltering' and 'soodling,' as Auden has it--of a river making its way to the sea:

"she'd neb in her culdee sacco of wabbash she raabed and reach out her maundy meerschaundize, poor souvenir as per ricorder and all for sore aringarung, stinkers and heelers, laggards and primelads, her furzeborn sons and dribblederry daughters, a thousand and one of them, and wickerpotluck for each of them.  For evil and ever.  And kiks the buch.  A tinker's bann and a barrow to boil his billy for Gipsy Lee; a cartridge of cockaleekie soup for Chummy the Guardsman; for sulky Pender's acid nephew deltoïd drops, curiously strong; a cough and a rattle and wildrose cheeks for poor Piccolina Petite Macfarlane; a jigsaw puzzle of needles and pins and blankets and shins between them for Isabel, Jezebel and LLewellyn MMarriage... a drowned doll to face downwards for modest Sister Anne Mortimer... Wildairs' breechettes for Magpeg Woppington; to Sue Dot a black eye; to Sam Dash a false step; snakes in clover, picked and scotched, and a vaticanned viper catcher's visa for Patsy Presbys; a reiz every morning for Standfast Dick and a drop every minute for Stumblestone Davy... a whippingtop for Eddy Lawless; for Kitty Coleraine of Buttermans' Lane a penny wise for her foolish pitcher... for Seumas, thought little, a crown he feels big; a tibertine's pile with a Congoswood cross on the back for Sunny Twimjim... penteplenty of pity with lubilashings of lust for Olona Lena Magdalena; for Camilla, Dromilla, Ludmilla, Mamilla, a bucket, a packet, a book and a pillow... a Missa pro Messa for Taff de Taff; Jill, the spoon of a girl, for Jack, the broth of a boy... 
     My colonial, wardha bagful!  A bakereen dusind with tithe tillies to boot.  That's what you may call the tale of a tub!"


Next, I offer a certain kind of catalogue in nearly its purest form, a miscellany of words, higgledy-piggledy, from the extraordinary novel Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kiš.  This reading list, in its sublime uselessness, reminds me of Dorothea Casaubon's unfortunate husband (Edward, not Isaac), trying to derive the key to all mythologies:

"Conscious... that I am demystifying the significance and magnitude of my father's undertaking, I nevertheless repeat here that there was nothing extraordinary or grandiose in his intentions at first.  In the beginning... these were [to be] modest tourist baedekers containing notations on landmarks, museums, fountains, and monuments, sometimes including brief commentaries on customs, religions, history, the arts, and culture.  But once my father had started consulting encyclopedias and lexicons for this purpose... he assembled an enormous listing of literature in the most diverse disciplines... and the lexicons came to be replaced by alchemical studies, anthropological studies, anthroposophical studies, archeological studies, studies in the doctrine of art for art's sake, astrological studies, astronomical studies, studies in autobiography, cabalistic studies, Cartesian studies, cartographic, cataleptic, cataplectic, causalistic, causistic (sic), characterological studies, studies in chiromancy, comedic studies... studies in dichotomy, diathetic studies, diluvial, diplomatic, dualistic, dynamic, eclectic, ecliptic, ecological, economic, embolismic, embryological, emotionalistic, empirical studies, studies in empirical criticism, studies in empirical monism, empiricist studies, encyclopedic, entomological, Epicurean, epizootic... paleographic, paleontological, paleophytological, pantheistic, parasitological, particularistic studies, studies of pedigrees, phantasmagoric studies, phantasmic, pharisaical, phenological, phenomenological, philological, philosophical, phylogenetic... toponymic, toxicological studies, studies in unanimism, uranographic studies, studies in urbanism, urological studies, utopistic, venereological studies, studies in versification, voluntaristic studies, vulcanological, Zionist, zoogeographical, zoographic, zoological studies... Abbreviations became subchapters, subchapters became chapters.  The original idea of a combined guidebook-baedeker had become just a tiny, provocatory reproductive cell that was dividing, like a primitive organism, in geometrical progression... the underlying text and marginalia and footnotes had absorbed this delicate, utilitarian, unstable structure that now stood almost invisible and wholly adjunct on the varicolored map of the world of essence..."

It was the question "Why is this particular list so difficult to read?" that prompted me to write this essay.  Even at a quarter the length of the original passage, this excerpt seems interminable.  Its confusion of modes is nearly as wild as that of Borges's catalogue, but Kiš has left us no point of entry for understanding how the terms are associated.  Each term seems interesting at first--diluvial, embolismic, paleophytological, pharisaical, uranographic--but without the occasional word 'studies,' the repetition of which is stultifying in itself, this would just be a bewildering mess of glittery, unconnected adjectives.  No meaning can be derived from the sequence of terms, since it's strictly alphabetical.  Even the narrator's father's ostensible task of compiling a guidebook doesn't guide our understanding.  This catalogue's bizarre but suggestive juxtapositions play against its length and the monotony of its structure to produce moments of fascination quickly swamped by nausea, tedium, and a feeling of overloaded repulsion.

It took me a while to see that this catalogue's resistance to being read, its senselessness, was a performance.  It is not really meant to be read, although it had to produce the same combined effect of flashiness and frustration--seduction and abandonment--wherever the reader entered it.  Kiš meant it to be a tease, but not a pleasant one.  Paradoxically enough--for a piece of writing from which narrative thrust has been actively eliminated--it is meant to serve a definite narrative purpose.  Kiš's point is that this guide for writing a guidebook, so carefully alphabetized, goes nowhere.  It comprises nothing less than a lifetime of false starts: it expresses not only the narrator's attempt to represent his brilliant but manic father's inner quagmire, but also the mixture of fascination, nausea, tedium, and overloaded repulsion he himself feels, in trying hopelessly to come to terms with his father.  To put it more simply, the narrator's effort to reach his crazy father drives him crazy; trying to read his catalogue drives me crazy.  Only a writer of consummate skill could have composed a list so maddeningly boring.


And finally, to demonstrate that alphabetical lists not incorporated into a narrative can offer a very distinct pleasure, here are some random definitions from the glossary to The Poems of Edward Taylor, edited by Donald A. Stanford.  Taylor was a Puritan divine in Westfield, Massachusetts from the 1670's until his death in 1729.

Angell:  English coin (1470-1634) showing archangel Michael slaying the dragon
Baracadoes:  barricadoes, barriers
Beetle:  heavy mallet use for driving stakes
Bemegerim:  inflict with a severe headache
Buskt:  dressed, attired, adorned
Butter teeth:  buckteeth, large projecting front teeth
Chalybdine:  of steel, steely
Chuffe:  swollen, puffed out with disease
Coursey park:  course-a-park, a country game in which a girl calls out a boy to chase her
Crincht:  cringed
Crouce:  pert, brisk, lively, jolly
Dead head:  the residuum remaining after distillation or sublimation; worthless residue
Delph:  quarry, mine
Emmet:  ant
Empt:  empty, exhaust
Fardells:  bundles, esp. burdens or loads of sin
Fleer:  make a wry face, laugh in a coarse manner; mock, sneer; flare
Foist:  stink, musty smell
Frim:  vigorous, flourishing, luxuriant
Gastard:  astonished; terrified; struck with amazement
Glaver:  flatter
Glout:  frown; sullen look
Grudgens:  gurgeons, coarse meal
Harish:  mad
Hopt:  happed, covered, wrapped
Keck:  retch, reject with loathing
Kit:  small fiddle
Layes:  layers or courses of masonry
Learch:  lurk
Mammocks:  scraps, shreds, broken pieces
Maukin:  scarecrow
Mence:  adorn, grace
Mullipuff:  fuzz-ball (used as a term of contempt)
Neckt:  dialectal pronunciation of 'naked'
Obsignation:  ratification, action of sealing
Officine:  workshop, laboratory
Olivant:  horn of ivory
Paintice:  penthouse, a sloping roof, awning, canopy, shed
Pald:  enclosed with pales, surrounded, fenced in
Panchins:  pancheons, circular pans made generally of earthenware
Peps:  pepse, pelt, throw at
Pickpack:  pick-a-back, on the shoulder or back, like a bundle
Pillard:  one who is peeled or stripped
Pink:  peep, blink, wink
Quorn:  quern, a simple mechanism... for grinding corn
Riggalld:  verb formed from the noun riggal 'ring-like mark' (or 'groove in wood or stone')
Rive:  pierce
Sawceboxes:  persons addicted to making saucy or impertinent remarks
Silverlings:  shekels
Slatch:  lazy idle vagabond
Standish:  inkstand, inkpot
Tazzled:  tangled, fuzzy
Wamble:  feel nausea
Womble-crop:  nauseate, make sick

Had enough?  Feeling a bit wambly and listless?  Sorry.  I'll return you to your story.

09 June 2012


Your name is Hawkins or Starbuck, Selkirk or Hardy, or even Christian; your captain is called Drake or Cabot or Aubrey.  You are in mid-ocean, off the vexed Bermoothes, or on the Spanish Main, or in those straits you will--if God spares you!--name after your lost captain Magellan, a bare cable's length from a lee shore.  Your ship--Unicorn, Surprise, Endeavor, Santa Maria--is enveloped in a lurid, formless, orange light sticky with dew, the sea is "sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould" (Benito Cereno) and the studdingsails hang limp in the dead air while your whole crew whistles for all you're worth.  But your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, your eyes are fixed on the glass which is dropping like a plumb-weight, and your nerves are taut as a harpoon line, awaiting the order to strike sail, for the hurricanoe's coming on...

And then the gale is upon you--and time stops.  Sails not hauled down in time are instantly replaced by rigidly horizontal tatters, or else the masts are overborne; cannons careen loose over the gun-deck, the cargo breaks free and shifts promiscuously, heaving the vessel towards her beam ends from starboard to port and back again, and the undermanned pumps slowly lose ground to the water that pours in through the strakes as the hull flexes and lurches in mountainous seas.  Surely this is the apotheosis of "messing about in boats"--the grit, the panoply of expertise, the urgent cleverness of a tiny universe of sailors staving off annihilation one improvised inch at a time.

We all know this scene, even--or perhaps I should say especially--those of us with no practical knowledge of sailing.  And of course this is a scene from the age of sail, not from the present; it is from a time when the wall between man and drowning was far thinner and more delicate than a steel triple bulkhead, when right action in concert was all that stood against the long rolling dark.  Writing about Heart of Darkness in an earlier essay (March 2011), I suggested that the combination of humble--almost domestic--skills needed to sail a ship was exemplary of a particular level of civilization.  Margaret Cohen, in her book The Novel and the Sea, describes that combination this way: "To achieve success, [Robinson] Crusoe calls on craft's compleat competences, such as knowledge of geography, arms, shipbuilding, and carpentry.  He also exercises craft's human traits, notably prudence, patience, protocol... resolution, jury-rigging, and the pragmatic imagination.  Maritime craft, which is exemplified in the mariner's skill under conditions of great duress, is an ethical as well as a practical discipline."  That ethic, allying a modest but unshakeable professional devotion to the mastery of a braid of practical skills, is a high achievement of civilization, with generations of refinement behind it.

Richard Hughes's narrative In Hazard takes place on board the steamship Archimedes in 1929, when sail had largely been supplanted by steam.  This is what he says about sailing: "It is only lately, when the supply of sail-trained officers has begun to run short, that most of the first-class steamship lines have begun to accept officers trained in steam alone: have begun to train such officers themselves.
     This seems an anomaly, to landsmen: that steamship companies should actually require their officers to have been trained in sail: landsmen are inclined to smile, as at a piece of foolish conservatism--as if London bus drivers were required to serve for seven years as stableboys and grooms, before they were allowed to handle motor buses.  With so much technical knowledge to acquire anyhow, why waste the man's time in learning a useless and outmoded technique as well?
     The answer is a matter of virtue, really.  For an inclination towards virtue... is not enough in itself; it must be trained, like any other aptitude.  Now there is a fundamental difference in kind between the everyday work of a sailing vessel and the everyday work of a steamer.  The latter does not essentially differ from a shore job: it is only occasionally, rarely, that emergencies arise in steam.  But every common action in the working of a sailing vessel, all the time, partakes of something of the nature of an emergency.  Everything must be done with your whole heart, and a little more than your whole strength.  Thus is a natural aptitude for virtue increased by everyday practice.  For changing a jib in a stiff breeze is a microcosm, as it were, of saving a ship in a storm.
     So the officer in sail acquires a training in virtue that may later, in steam, mean the saving of some hundred lives, and a million or so of property."

This extraordinary book--which reads like a documentary account containing characters from a novel--tells the story of the Archimedes's four days under a monstrous hurricane.   In a manner typical of Hughes, the narrative moves quite casually from an allusion to the immense strength of the ship's structure to a rapid and seemingly inevitable chain of disasters.  First, in the teeth of the gale, the steering mechanism jams.  As the ship loses its forward thrust, it turns broadside to the wind, the force of which heels it over at a 35° angle.  The gale, producing a relative vacuum over the deck on the leeward side, yanks the hatches off as it would have yanked off roofs on land, and spray begins to fill the hold.  Part of the cargo is old newspapers and tobacco, which begin to absorb water: because they are stowed above the rest of the cargo, the ship becomes topheavy and rolls still closer to the water on the leeward side.  That's just the beginning.  The funnel's guy wires are warranted to withstand a hundred tons of force, but the wind rips it off the ship anyway.  As a result, the draft required to keep the furnaces fired fails.  And so on, and on.  The suspense lies in whether the increasing weight in the hold will founder the ship before the storm subsides.  (I imagine it's no accident that the vessel in this story is named after the man who learned to measure the volumes of solid objects by measuring the volume of water they displace.)  The circumstantial detail in this book is terrific.  Two midshipmen calm the worst of the waves by dribbling lubricating oil onto the sea through the bow and stern latrines, having wrestled full oil-drums across a sloping deck as wind and spray threaten to throw them overboard.  The officers and crew have to keep screaming at each other even in the calm at the eye of the storm because the unrelenting din has temporarily deafened them.  When they finally get steam to the pumps again and empty tobacco-brown water out of the bilges, fish rise belly up through the water, poisoned by nicotine.

The Archimedes does make it in the end, by dint of the same grit, nobility, and desperate cleverness which a sailing vessel calls upon in extreme weather, and--just as in sailing--by dint of luck as well.  There is one conspicuous difference though.  In the pastiche I opened with, the work of luck goes hand in hand with the skillful work of hands.  Sailing ships can be jury-rigged and repaired; pumps are manned by men; and the course of the wind is engineered by the manipulation of sails.  The heroism of seafarers goes hand in hand with a mastery of the component crafts of sailing.  Captain Aubrey travels with a carpenter and his assistants, a full set of tools, and spare wood for repairs.  Even a dismasted ship can sometimes be usefully towed by oared boats.  Hughes, however, takes pains to point out that even the finest of engineers can do nothing to repair or supplement a steamship's means of propulsion while at sea: the propeller shaft of the Archimedes is impossible to shift by hand.  In Conrad's Falk, a steamship is left so helpless when its propeller shaft breaks that the crew has resorted to suicide and cannibalism in the Southern Ocean before they are finally rescued.  Not only were they unable to change their fate, but they could not sustain such fragile esprit de corps as they once had.  As in the trope of the post-apocalyptic survivor surrounded by useless scrap metal, the high civilization of the sailor has given way to a kind of de facto barbarism.  And while sailors are subject to savagery too, when luck and wit fail them, the 3600-mile journey in an open boat undertaken by Captain Bligh and those of his crew who didn't join the mutiny on the Bounty shows us that a Hobbesian state is not inevitable even under extreme privation, so long as the discipline inherent to sailing can still be evoked.  Hughes and Conrad both seem to imply that unless the training in virtue which sailing offers can be acquired elsewhere, barbarism in technical matters risks entraining moral barbarism as well. 

02 June 2012


The year is, say, 1520.  The New World is known to exist; nevertheless, a small flotilla of three ships sets out westward from Europe aiming for the Moluccas.  When they reach land, the captain and crew do not know where they are: 

"Of people we saw not a sign.  No one.  If these were the Indies as was claimed, there was no evidence of any Indian inhabitants, no self-aware beings like ourselves within whom might burn the small flame that gives shape, colour and volume to the space around and lends it its externality.

...We saw nothing but blue sky, smooth golden-brown waters and empty shores as we entered the 'sweet' sea: this was what the captain named it when we landed, invoking the King with his customary mechanical gestures.  From the shore we watched him plunge almost waist-deep into the water, scything the air and skimming the waves with his sword in ceremonial gestures.  My inexperienced eyes followed the captain's precise, complicated gestures with interest but failed to perceive the change my imagination anticipated.  After its baptism and appropriation the dumb earth stubbornly withheld any sign or signal.  From the boat... I remained staring at the spot where we had disembarked; although only a few minutes had passed since we left, I could find no trace of our presence there... We nursed the illusion that by discovering this unknown land we were laying claim to it, as if before us there had been nothing but an immanent void which our presence peopled with a corporeal landscape.  But when we left it... we saw all too clearly that the space we considered ourselves the founders of had always in fact been there and had allowed our passage through it with indifference... Each time we disembarked we were like a fleeting irritation come from nowhere, an ephemeral fever that glimmered for a moment at the edge of the water and then was gone."

Acute and well-rendered as this is, the trope is familiar enough: Europeans encounter the unknown wilderness, whose brute and stubborn indifference to them eventually transforms it into mother and mirror to the Lord of flies.  We might remember Marlowe's steamer randomly shelling the West African bush from offshore, en route to the heart of darkness, or Aguirre's hallucinatory violence, or Cotton Mather's Puritan brethren vexed to nightmare and witch-burning by their "squallid, horrid American Desart" (as recorded by William Carlos Williams).

But this is not one of those books.  This is Juan José Saer's extraordinary novel The Witness, a short work of grave and fearsome irony.  It offers quite the opposite nightmare--or is it the same?--with different actors and a different Devil--or is He the same?  Three pages later, the captain and his entire landing party are abruptly annihilated by a "rain of darts," leaving alive only the unnamed narrator, the ship's cabin-boy.  A group of Indians appears out of the jungle and transports him and his dead shipmates to their village in the interior, where a nightmarish ritual takes place--which I shall leave you to discover.  He lives with the tribe for a long time, as a mysteriously cosseted "def-ghi."  Late every summer another such def-ghi is acquired from the neighboring peoples under similar ritual circumstances, is fêted for some months, and then is sent back home in a canoe full of presents.  When his hosts finally detect some Europeans downriver, ten years later, they send the narrator off to rejoin his own tribe.  What the Europeans learn from him about the ways of the Indians and the fate of the original landing party, in what little he can immediately muster of his mother-tongue, impels them inland to 'exterminate all the brutes' (a return to that familiar trope, on the only basis that might make sense of it--and yes, I'm being mysterious on purpose).  He spends the rest of his years trying to recover himself, and to understand those ten years in the wild.  As an old man, he begins to write down the story--in the form of the novel we are reading--and eventually comes to understand that by writing he is at last fulfilling a function which that now-extinct tribe had initiated him into all those years ago.

This is what he tells us about them: "[Their village was] the centre of the world which they carried within them; the visible horizon around it was made up of concentric rings of problematic reality whose existence became less and less likely the further away one went from that central observation point... [On their expeditions] it was they who gave reality to the other places they visited: by their mere presence they gave physical reality to the uncertain, formless horizon."  The echo of the 'social constructionist' European fantasy--"an immanent void which our presence peopled with a corporeal landscape"--is plain: but this is solipsism, the real thing.  Unlike that world of impervious and mindless solidity which refuses to submit to the Europeans' imagination, their world--the very same--is made solid only by their mindfulness.  And yet, their solipsism is of a peculiarly wavering, diaphanous kind.  The Ancestors of the aboriginal peoples of Australia sang their world into being as they walked along its dream-meridians; these Indians, unlike them, have to go on singing up a world always on the verge of melting away:  "They were the resistant nucleus of the world, whose soft outer covering, thanks to their excursions, acquired every now and then transient islands of solid life.  When they left that provisional solidity would vanish."

Indeed, in their world-view, the situation is even less reliable than that.  "The world of the Indians was the most real there was, but... their own existence was in no way irrefutable... It is true that they and the world were one and the same thing, but the single being they constituted was debilitated by a common uncertainty rather than affirmed by their mutual presence."  For example, "A tree... was always somewhat lacking in reality.  It was present as if by some miracle, which the Indians scornfully allowed.  They did so in exchange for some useful advantage: fruit, wood, shade...  [However, they] could not trust in the existence of the tree because they knew that the tree depended on their existence... At the same time, since the tree contributed by its presence to guaranteeing the existence of the Indians, the latter could not feel entirely sure of their own existence.A vicious circle, this--without any hope of external proof or disproof--which the ritual they were driven to enact every year failed to interrupt in any lasting way.  Even worse, their dilemma is unconscious.  They don't live it, it lives them, leaving in their awareness only a pervasive, sourceless dread. "All these lucubrations were much more painful than they seem written down because they knew nothing of them, despite living them out every day.  They lived them in every action they performed, with each word they uttered, in everything they built and in their dreams... Even when it was unrewarding, they constantly worked at making that one known world real.  They had no choice: it was, after all, that or nothing."

In his first days in the Indians' village, the narrator is inclined to see them as "immune from doubt... they gave me the sense of being the measure which defined the place of everything between earth and sky... they gave the enviable impression of being more present in this world than any other thing."  This is truer than he yet knows, but his envy is as absurdly misplaced as Gulliver's envy of the immortal Struldbrugs.  He attributes "their lack of joy and their moroseness" to being so much at one with the world that pleasure was superfluous.  "Slowly, however, I began to see that the opposite was true, that they felt they had constantly to make real the apparently solid world so that it did not vanish like a thread of smoke into the evening air."  Their moroseness manifests the strain of having to ensure the continuation of the world through constant vigilance and work, in the shadow of an implacable doubt about their own reality.  So much are they constituted by doubt that they lack the verb 'to be:' they can only indicate a tree by 'It seems tree.'  Samuel Johnson's famous refutation of Berkeley--kicking a tree, say--would mean nothing to them.

At the end of his life, the narrator comes to recognize why the Indians spared him when they slaughtered his shipmates.  They addressed him as def-ghi, which can mean many things: 'people absent or asleep, or people who were tactless, or visitors who outstayed their welcome;' a mynah-like bird which could be taught to repeat words; 'things reflected in water; something which lasted a long time;' 'certain objects... put in the place of someone absent;' a spy or scout; and ultimately, 'a witness to and a survivor of [the Indians'] passage through this material mirage.'  Since this novel is written in the Latin alphabet, it may not be coincidental that 'defghi' are the letters following 'abc,' the letters which, so to speak, introduce the idea of writing, beyond the simple naming of the alphabet.  The narrator comes to understand that as def-ghi, along with all the other def-ghi who were sent home laden with gifts, he was meant to stand witness on the tribe's behalf "to the vast formless world that, because they had learned to distinguish between the internal and the external worlds, between what now stood in the luminous air and what was still floundering in the dark, they had become the sole support of that harsh reality, the one true people."  A different light is shed even on the killing of his companions: for the Indians it initiated a desperate maneuver in their ceaseless effort to hold back the dark.  He understands finally that what to him was unprovoked murder was also a version of tragedy.

The richness of this brief text is incomparable, and becomes even richer in contemplation; I could go on quoting until none of it was left unquoted.  Abstract as it may sound, the narrative is carried through with such grace and lightness, and such sinew, that it imparts a Johnsonian reality to this extinct tribe of despairing and unconscious solipsists from the tristes tropiques, as well as to the universe they are no longer alive to maintain--or were they ever?  And that is only one of the many rewards of this grimly beautiful and moving novel.

23 May 2012


     Moscow to the End of the Line (also translated as Moscow Circles) is a funny and savage little paean to drinking in the Worker's Paradise.  Written in 1969, it circulated in manuscript for 20 years before it was finally published in the Soviet Union, the year before the author's death of throat cancer in 1990, at the age of fifty-one.  The narrator, who like the author is named Venedikt Erofeev, spends the book trying to take the Moscow commuter train to the outermost suburb, Petushki, to see his girl, while drinking whatever he can find.  His fellow passengers also drink as much as possible: there seems to be no other way for them to tolerate living.  In this book, alcohol has the same function as the anomie in Chekhov's plays: it is the means and the medium of paralysis, and the consolation for it, and later, of course, also how it is punished.  The train ride to Petushki becomes increasingly phantasmagorical: tall tales, literary speculation, visions of angels, and the blue horrors--all spiked with Soviet slogans in ironic counterpoint--succeed one another like a photomontage as the drinking picks up.

     But simply getting drunk isn't the point here: this kind of drinking is an aesthetic, poetic, philosophical, even religious ritual, and what one might consider drinking comes in a range of subtle variations in quality and character, finesse and mood--even in terroir--that is far broader than is available to even the most refined late-capitalist Scotch-fanciers.  Of course the materials from which such subtlety is evoked are a little different from ours (unless you drink Sterno regularly):

     To drink vodka, even from the bottle, is nothing other than weariness of spirit, and vanity.  To mix vodka with eau do cologne, there is a certain caprice, but no pathos whatsoever.  But if you drink a glass of 'Balsam of Canaan,' there is caprice and an idea and pathos, and beyond that a hint of the metaphysical.
     Which component of 'Balsam of Canaan' do we value above all else?  Well, the methylated spirits, of course.  But, after all, the methylated spirits, being only an object of inspiration, are themselves simply devoid of this inspiration.  What is it, in this case, that we value in the methylated spirits even more?  Of course, the naked taste sensation.  And, even more than that, the miasma which it exudes.  In order to set off this miasma, a touch of fragrance is necessary.  For this reason velvet beer or, best of all, Ostankino or Czech beer, is added in the proportion 1:2, with one part refined furniture polish.
     I won't remind you how to refine furniture polish--any child knows that.  For some reason no one in Russia knows why Pushkin died, but how to refine furniture polish--that, everyone knows.

     This concoction "in plain speech is called a Black Fox and the liquid is a blackish brown, of moderate strength and a staunch aroma that is really not an aroma, but a hymn.  A hymn of democratic youth, because this cocktail fosters vulgarity and dark forces in the drinker."  This recipe is followed by one for "The Spirit of Geneva," which has "not a drop of nobility... but it does have bouquet... the key [to that bouquet] lies in the fact that you shouldn't replace White Lilac eau de cologne with any other kind... your Lily of the Valley Silver is not White Lilac even in the moral sense, not to speak of bouquet.
     Lily of the Valley, for example, excites the mind, disturbs the conscience, strengthens a sense of one's inalienable rights.  While White Lilac, on the other hand, soothes the conscience and reconciles man to the sore spots of life.
     Once I drank a whole phial of Lily of the Valley Silver, sat down, and started crying.  Why was I crying?  Because I recalled my Mama, recalled her and couldn't forget her.  'Mama,' I say.  And I cry.  And then again, 'Mama,' I say, and once more I cry.  Somebody else would have just sat there crying.  But me?  I grabbed a phial of Lilac and drank it.  And what do you think?  My tears dried up.  And I was overcome by idiotic laughter, and as for Mama--I even forgot her name."  The crucial ingredient in "The Spirit of Geneva" is (as you might have guessed from the previous recipe) alcohol varnish.  The next cocktail offered is "Tear of a Komsomol Girl," which has the capacity to leave the drinker with either his right mind or with a clear head, but never with both, nor with neither.

     This short list of dream-potions culminates with "the cocktail 'Bitches' Brew,' a beverage which overshadows all others.  This is more than a beverage, it is the music of the spheres.  What is the finest thing in the world?  The struggle for the liberation of humanity.  But even finer is this (write it down):

                                       Zhiguli Beer                                     100 g.
                                       "Sadko" Shampoo                             30 g.
                                       Dandruff Treatment                         70 g.
                                       Athlete's Foot Remedy                     30 g.
                                       Small Bug Killer                                 20 g.

The whole thing is steeped for a week in cigar tobacco and served at table... and should be drunk with the appearance of the first star, in large gulps.  After only two goblets of this cocktail, a person will become so inspired that it is possible to go up to him for half an hour and, standing one and a half meters away, spit in his fat face without his saying a word."

And in the end?  "I'll die and He will ask me: "Was it good there for you?  Was it bad there for you?"   I will be silent, with lowered eyes.  I'll be silent with that muteness familiar to everyone who knows the outcome of days of hard boozing.  For isn't the life of man a momentary booziness of the soul?  And an eclipse of the soul as well?  We are all as if drunk, only everybody in his own way: one person has drunk more, the next less.  And it works differently on each: the one laughs in the face of this world, while the next cries on its bosom.  One has already thrown up and feels better, while the next is only starting to feel like throwing up.  But me, what am I?  I've partaken of much but nothing works on me.  I haven't really laughed properly, even once, and I've never thrown up, even once.  I, who have partaken of so much in this world that I've lost count and the sequence of it all, I am soberer than anyone else in this world; it's simply that nothing much works on me... I'll just be silent, silent...

If 'Bitches' Brew' is the music of the spheres, surely the silence of this sobriety beyond drunkenness is Pascal's fearsome 'silence eternel de ces espaces infinis.'

21 February 2012


I offer my thanks and apologies to those of you who suffered (or will suffer) through my two James Joyce sketches, Another Drossier from the Ministry of Finicking Walks (the parody) and Macaroni Swallowed (the pastiche).  I wanted here to explain my fascination with Finnegans Wake, and to discuss some of what I learned in writing these feuilletons.  I really want to talk about the pastiche, my attempt to write something original in a Joycean fashion, since the parody is little more than a shaggy Joyce story, patterned after some of the novel's better-known passages.  Anyway, if you're sorry you ever heard of Finnegans Wake, stop reading this now.  Consider yourself warned.

Auden once remarked that books read us, rather than the other way around.  I was first read by Finnegans Wake in my last year of high school, opened up to it by my beloved and mischievous English teacher, Mr. Cooper.  Later that year a group of Joyce enthusiasts at the University of Colorado took turns reading Finnegans Wake aloud, straight through, for the first time since it came out in 1939.  I had already made my European Lit. class listen to the actress Siobhan McKenna reading excerpts from the chapter Anna Livia Plurabelle, and I knew the text came through more clearly heard than read.  My friend John and I found out about the marathon reading a couple of hours before it began, and cajoled a parent to spirit us up to Boulder, making it just in time.  When the reading was over, we had sat through more of its thirty-two-and-a-half hours than anyone else in the audience, having taken an hour's break around 3 a.m. to gulp down some silver-dollar pancakes at an IHOP (or was it Denny's?).  The longer I listened, the more I seemed to understand, although I wish I'd read more than just the book beforehand--had studied a translation of the libretto, so to speak.  By the end of the reading, however, we felt as if we'd really lived through something important and splendid.  As one of our fathers was picking us up right afterwards, we couldn't accept the last-minute invitation to the cast party.  What a pity.  Some of the enthusiastic readers were really quite fetching, too...

That was all a long time ago, and while I remained seriously engaged with the book for a long time, it's been a few years since I spent any time with it.  I don't quite know why I was inspired--if that's the right word--to essay these ventriloquizzical (sorry!) exercises all of a sudden.  Joyce's birthday was 2 February--Groundhog Day or Midwinter Day, as you prefer--and perhaps that's what prompted me.  I don't think I would have considered such an ambitious foray until I'd done some other writing first, so maybe I was driven to write these sketches as I approached the first anniversary of The Library of Altered States.  And maybe it's just because I'm a paronomasiomane, as my children could tell you, if not by that neologism.  Well anyway, as you from puns would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.  All right, now that I've apologized, let me explain.


As I began this corkscrewy experiment, I hoped to learn something about how Joyce actually wrote.  In retrospect I'd infer that my writing process involved a series of transformational steps, but that inference is to some extent a heuristic fiction, because elements of my text frequently presented themselves as a single gesture.  At any rate, this is the sequence: first came a narrative line and a tone of voice; then I thought of words to enact them (as one would for any piece of writing); then I substituted homophones for most of the words, so that reading them aloud would produce some approximation to the original text.  Too right, thus aweigh, assisi, and have it formal a swell, O diction.  Yes, that's right, "To write this way is easy, and habit-forming as well: addiction."  At this stage, there was little active selection among possible homophones, except that I hoped the new text might counterfeit normal syntax.  I mostly put down whatever offered first.  Exact homophony mattered less than a decent approximation of sounds.  As an extreme example, Tokarev the zounds intersensual ticker-off thumbs' elves is purely a string of unconnected near-homophonic substitutions, given coherence only by the quote from Alice they're embodied in: "Take care of the sounds and the sense'll take care of themselves."  (You may have noticed that "themselves" should have been "itself," but apparently I was nodding.)  This rudimentary level of substitution might be said to constitute the writing proper. 

Revision played a much larger part in the process than in most writing, and was an altogether more interesting process: the convergence of homophony (and other non-denotative aspects of language like onomatopeia, prosody, and rhyme) and substantive meaning.  As in any sustained act of bricolage--which is a defining characteristic of much High Modernist art, literary and otherwise--accident and purpose danced in a happy dialectic.  What counted in this stage was how successfully an acceptable range of denotations was suggested by the finished text.  Thus, the coinage meimeosas was meant to convey:  a) (most importantly for the sense) "mimesis;" b) "meiosis;" and c) "mimosas:" with such success as the reader may judge.  I kept reading the text over, looking for places where the substitutions didn't enrich the meaning of the text, and replacing them with other homophones.

As this recursive interrogation went on, the word-substitutions slowly assembled themselves into agglomerations which conveyed a significant meaning distinct from--and complementary to--that of the ur-text: meaning which echoed, commented on, subverted, modulated, or imposed parallax upon the original meaning.  Thus in paragraph four, Broth bountiful and trop (obstruct end o' days)? seems to ask, "What's too much?  Will I overwhelm the ur-text with too many extra meanings?  What are the limits of intelligibility?"  However, the ur-text asks, "Both Beautiful and True ([the] 'Abstract Entities' [of T. S. Eliot's Whispers of Mortality])?"  This is meant to ask, "How should this text be substituted so as to remain both true and beautiful to read?"  Put together, the different meanings are meant to suggest that excess (trop means "too much") might well carry all the virtues pertinent to a work of art, and even that it may fend off death--that personal apocalypse--much as we hope chicken soup would do.  I offer this as a Joycean riposte to Eliot's witty gloom ("And even the Abstract Entities/ Circumambulate her charm,/But our lot crawls between dry ribs/ To keep our metaphysics warm.")

Here is an example of the recursive process of composition, interrogation, and revision.  At the beginning of paragraph three, my narrative required me to enact a state of mind in which the narrator ("I") gives up trying to renounce Joycean wordplay and reconciles himself instead, with increasing enthusiasm, to figuring out the rules of doing it well.  I used the phrase "alea jacta est"--"the die is cast"--as Julius Caesar is supposed to have said when he broke the Senate's laws by crossing the Rubicon with his legions to advance upon Rome.  This first came out as aliyah jokester asked, a rendition firmly anchored in the Joycean denotation of jokester.

Later, aliyah snagged my eye, and what happened next took place almost instantaneously, but may be tedious to read.  One of my narrative conceits was that  "I" was being ridden by a Joycean loa, like a zombie.  Aliyah jokester weakly implied something like "go home, Joyce-loa," and so it survived the initial act of composition.  When it returned to my notice however, that implication struck me as far too flimsy to enrich the subtext.  More damningly still, its exotic color upstaged jokester, rather like a talking parrot in Elsinore.  Olio sprang to mind to replace it, and offered a precise reference to Finnegans Wake, since it means "hodgepodge."  Olio jokester, now put together, meant "the writer of Finnegans Wake," or "the imago of James Joyce inside my head," and jokester had been strengthened rather than attenuated.  All of this happened immediately upon my judging aliyah unfit to stay.

A day or two later, the word "glossolalia"--"speaking in tongues"--popped into my head as a perfect description of the Joycean project, and I decided I had to find a place for it.  Instantly, colossal olio presented itself as a fuller description of Finnegans Wake, which is a big book.  Colossal olio jokester asked is a bit unwieldy and weakens the integrity of "alea jacta est" slightly, but the enrichment of jokester with "glossolalia" was too good to pass up.

Where does this process of elaborative revision stop, and why?  A second later a new coinage appeared: "Panglossolalia," which might mean something like "speaking in all tongues," or "babbling like Pangloss," or perhaps "all is for the best in this mist of all possible languages."  Such sudden fusion of two distinct ideas into a new concept through a shared element was characteristic of this experiment.  For example, in the first paragraph, Judah spree day-scholier mixes "jeu d'esprit" with "esprit d'escalier," and offers precisely the image for my situation after publishing Another Drossier from the Ministry of Finicking Walks, that is, "longing to resume an episode of wordplay right after it ends."  "Panglossolalia" seemed like an excellent elaboration, but when rendered as Pancolossal olio--or even softened as pancolossal olio--it lost its charm: it weakened and confused colossal, it distracted the eye from jokester (much as aliyah had done), and it definitely overbalanced "alea jacta est."  If I'd thought of it, I might have tried out puncolossal olio jokester asked, which would still hint at Dr. Pangloss while intensifying jokester, but the same aesthetic considerations of balance would probably have led me to discard it.  If every tessera gleams too brightly, the grand design of the mosaic disappears under its details.  Parts of Finnegans Wake could certainly have used the kind of maieutic pencil-sharpener with which Ezra Pound shaped the rough-hewn Waste Land.


Finnegans Wake is meant to be the longest dream-report ever.  The dream takes place in a single night, which is also all of human time; it recapitulates all of human cultural and political history as well as the central drama of the family.  Joyce's narrative is sequential and simultaneous all at once, and also circular--which is why it starts with a minuscule letter r.  As he had done with Ulysses, Joyce built his book like a construction project, a sort of schematic museum containing a vast array of allusions, specifically gathered and categorized in notebooks over many years.  This hyper-conscious architectural armature, however, is enveloped in a verbal tissue representing the texture of a dream before it is told: a language riddled with puns and jokes.  Joyce's gaudy and eccentric dream-mosaic bears clear analogies to dreams as described by Freud (whose name, in one of Fortune's especially lovely flourishes, seems a German version of Joyce).  The Interpretation of Dreams tells us that dreams abound in puns and "bad jokes" because they are formed through the action of 'condensation' and 'displacement' (see my earlier entry "A Dream Is a Rebus:" A Primer of Dream-Construction).

What struck me most in my own experience of writing was that significant meanings seemed to coalesce without conscious intention.  I only had to ask myself, "Is there a better choice than this?" for an usable replacement to appear in my awareness, clearly evoked by the demands of fitness to the narrative agenda of the moment.  This tendency went on well beyond the lifetime of the sketch (more esprit d'escalier).  For instance, as I wrote these words my pastiche of Mallarmé (to pastrify the wards of the tribune) floated into my mind, and I instantly realized with chagrin that I had missed the chance to refer to the grand old man of French modern poetry as "Mallomar"--not quite a pastry, but damn near.  The word "Mallomar" had never occurred to me when the word pastrify presented itself, but I'm sure it would have sprung to mind automatically if I'd thought of mentioning Mallarmé's name.  I rarely had to struggle with the text to find the right substitution; it seemed to revise itself, if I interrogated it enough.  My difficulty was in deciding to stop revising, not in how to go on doing it.

The analogies between dream-mechanisms and my experience of writing seem quite clear.  Replacing the ur-text with homophones--the writing, as distinct from the revision--corresponds to the translation of dream-thoughts into images.  The subsequent process of revision used condensation and displacement to pepper the text with jokes, that is, to produce new and subversive meanings by further substitutions and elaborations.  The pruning which led to my ejecting the particle "pan-" from colossal olio jokester asked is a more conscious version of the final operation in dream-formation, 'secondary revision,' that is, revision for the sake of establishing or reasserting narrative continuity.  This level of revision might be thought of as focusing on how well larger assemblages of elements work together to carry through the narrative intention.  For instance, at a certain point I realized that the middle of my essay had assumed the form of an exchange between aspects of the narrator (the writer and an inner demiurge, so to speak), and so I recast it explicitly as a dialogue of Self and Soul: this might be taken as another example of 'secondary revision.'

So far so good.  But dreams are not jokes.  Dreams are produced because powerful repressed urges push towards consciousness, and do so more successfully during sleep.  They are not consciously willed (except for the uncommon phenomenon of 'lucid dreaming'), nor, unlike jokes, are they meant to be 'understood.'  However, my experience while writing and revising was that while jokes appeared instantaneously, as if they already existed in my unconscious mind, they were 'released' because I wished them to be.  It was the hope of clarifying that apparent paradox which led me to read Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which he published in 1905, five years after his dream-book, almost as an ancillary text in the study of unconscious thinking and its effects.

For Freud, there is a special pleasure inherent in producing speech that reaches back towards the nonsense of childhood, that plays with rhyme, rhythm, onomatopoeia, homophony, and all the other non-denotative aspects of language which Joyce so reveled in.  Certainly, any time spent around children at their ease will demonstrate this pleasure in near-sense and pseudo-sense beyond a doubt.  While I was writing these I was in the grip of a pleasurable excitement verging on giddiness, an irrepressible ebullience of pun-making which for some days threatened to pervert everything I heard (I think I mostly kept this quiet, but perhaps I flatter myself).  When I heard something which engaged this process, a pun would come to me and I'd wonder something like, "Could that be understood to mean anything witty?"  In descriptions of untreated schizophrenia, this is called "klanging," the production of "klang associations" (meaning something like "associations based on sound" in German), although the process there is autistic rather than consensual, not aimed at achieving wit.  "Word salad," by the way, is also a term used to describe the speech of certain schizophrenics.

At any rate, my paronomasia brought with it an expansive mood (no longer present) which made me curious.  Clearly, it was entrained by constant punning, which was more extreme than anything I've indulged before.  As Freud describes joke-formation, a thought which arises preconsciously--that is, a thought which is outside conscious awareness, but not repressed--dips down into the repressed unconscious and is subjected to "the unconscious thought-processes...the one and only ones--produced in early childhood," namely condensation and displacement.  "The thought which, with the intention of constructing a joke, plunges into the unconscious is merely seeking there for the ancient dwelling-place of its former play with words...so as once more to gain possession of the childish source of pleasure."  Because of the special nature of such "primary process" thinking, the elements of the thought are taken apart, reassorted according to analogies both denotative and otherwise, and the reassembled thought then reappears in consciousness as a joke.  Because analogical thinking of this kind is simultaneous rather than sequential, it seems to take place instantly.  Freud does mention the high spirits which accompany punning, but sees them as loosening barriers against the unconscious, rather than as resulting from greater access to it.

Earlier in his book Freud says that 'tendentious' jokes, meaning those by which hostility or obscenity escape the usual censorship in disguise, produce more forceful laughter than 'innocent' ones.  While that observation makes sense (and is more consistent with the drive behind dream-formation), it doesn't quite seem to account for the gleeful energy that spurred on my written joking, which seems, by Freud's criteria, quite 'innocent' to me.  I know from experience that innocent but unexpected jokes sometimes provoke boisterous laughter, and of course the unwitting teller of an innocent joke often laughs in delight afterwards.

Still, the tone of both my pieces may offer a clue that their joking is not altogether 'innocent' despite the innocence of their content.  They both carry an air of impertinent mockery, a slightly jeering tone also found in plenty in Joyce's book.  No doubt some of that tone was acquired from those passages in the book, but Finnegans Wake contains many richly different voices, and the cynical voice is what drew me in first.  Perhaps my willed immersion in the joke-work--my prolonged exposure to the daemons of childhood--set free an element of grandiose, exhibitionistic, jocularly aggressive nose-thumbing normally kept in check.  If that's true, then I imagine Joyce had to learn to master it--to sublimate it--in order to evoke other emotional modes in that tendentious language of dreams and jokes.

Ultimately, at this 1905 stage of theoretical development, Freud could not answer the question of how or why the joke-to-be is drawn into the unconscious at the behest of consciousness, with the aim of producing pleasure.  He says, "we can...assume that the possible form of expression that involves a yield of verbal pleasure exercises the same downward drag on the still unsettled wording of the preconscious thought as did the unconscious purpose [i.e., the repressed impulse seeking discharge] in the earlier case [of a dream.  But]...I have no further proof of my view...Our knowledge of unconscious processes has scarcely begun."  Not a very satisfying answer.  I don't know yet whether he took up the subject of joking later, as his theory evolved. 

I suppose the real point is that play is another country: we do things differently there.

13 February 2012


Joysad treble (concertenure) laving weasands off Punagains Weak: punter's galways everreturned crowbarred, compolutely cupboard in attritions and conniptions.  Caprice afterbeck uncle newteen fifth-rate hidden oddending, a pologue, elustive encryptions toothylast setto gulleys, jimsown fight to phoenixh.  Accordiont endemic prosecesse of texual uglification ether.  Cleavarivacuations captain proseincenting thingsolves, foothering nowaydears.  Hearer, summa my corkuptions:

Hippogriff     Lion   
        1               1      Fire "Ayeve tryeed", right "Oft wryed"
        "               1      Fire "deWit", right "deWitt"
        "               1      Fire "twained", right "twinned"
        "               2      Dalite "Injeness"
        "               3      Fire "(a loa)", right "(a loang)"
        "               3      Putt "(looka zoombye)" wry tufter "Ogun"
        "               5      Fire "Pauzze", right "Pauzzo"
        "               5      Fire "dime", right "dieme"
        2               3      Fire "Half-barred", right "Half-bared"
        "               7      Fire "gracers", right "graces"
        "               7      Fire "Rudely", right "Readily"
        "               7      Fire "Al", right "al"
        "               8      Fire "troll", right "tryall"
        "               9      Fire "uthers sow", right "unthers see"
        3               1      Fire "winter lowqualizing", right "wantreallikewiseing"
                                 ex cathedra, bed sittera, gob stoppera, Great Scotthorror

Adventurely, Jayses consternections weary inkerspirited endue detoxed, machinate mulch osier treed.  Howrigan knife dundersame:

What, stoppunning?!  Oft wryed, bit canaled deWitt.  Eiffeld twinned this tour of Babble.  Pottery's Nineveh Finnish, marely a bandersnatched, by farce, Invalerytilly pursed.  Or, invaliant errorly, hey janxt to sin (a loang) Ogun (looka zumbye).  Judah spree day-scholier complines, tiercely vespers (no stannic-luck skulker he!)--one true dreamer, force physix, Sabinate, nein? (Pauzzo.  Caezura dieme)--Quarkadaedaldue!  Time to begin agoing, run agate, pun agon, feign again Funny Jin--wake, Wake, WAKE! 

Too right, thus aweigh, assisi, and have it formal a swell, O diction.  Insufferablated by Choice's pneuma tics, my inner landscage is idealectofried--TVA not TV, doubt it's quotation.  Can eumenides?  O rest esy?  Half-bared dreams: Aye dares drub discursive anymadhesion?  Eave bloukoum a lily blottoseater; strap-in his daffycult.  A symphony infacted by counter-Joyce memes, and Av nenuphar boon taxineeded.  Pun is borne to troubledears, Oster sparks flyipwords.  The associolitterative fooled Safire, stumped at butterflayr epigone. Sample graces: Readily Macher (trubba not!); mucklurk porridge, al Exemo horrorshow tryall; the toy-tripped triggers oft Infancy; undercourse Elys'on pundermandrillum, unthers see waders.  Yorick, light us, torch us to Cairo not Tokay, Teacher's, Toby's still.  Helpless nutter Step hen dearsome forever twyst!  But aleas it's nogoad Tory.

  Sylph:  I canna chop it thin?  Thus Joyous understundying vie meimeosas, wantreallikewiseing a weigh-in to dreamcountrary?  O Kay, colossal olio jokester asked, ifso, fatso, howlieu prosecede?  Wet thrulles aptlie to stitch lottery Brücke-college?  Città folk shun, O say, bward James, crossmess parzle?  Interattunement, Homerseal troyed, or crowdery pleasesir?  Sot factor affliction?  Wot jersey maids: demonstretchum, indiscrept shun, X prosission, Pally A. Nation, rammit orgy, hammylettext, sa-Tyros, pirady, Mimi sissy?  Howdyah delemmingate the banned rose (banloose) of the fold?  How chorale yore ward-hordses?  Houghton pastrify the wards of the tribune?  Helter Shepard Katz?  Mechno punsensor porpoise?  Canst raize (Levinate) tunas, widowed Annette? 
     If Corsican watch the store, York, hourmature (skillet, hon) of the Noratiff: bedwetter the mussels, nervous vassals, ees hares ort?  Sominy questings to parseyou.  Shad owl sovereignty tropes of ambiquity (and Emp some!) being cloudded?  Ysold eliberation valeted?  Broth bountiful and trop (obstruct end o' days)?  Watts gesso, wits ever rot?  Waits allwed, weights frere verse?  Shoedye shawharm in as much ambigaiety, as manna aliments as acorn, chap fulla nuts as a chickmump, strewords a rum galleon, tumuli raisings inter priddeng?  Willa cockup a hottering djinnius hog gluten notion lucca lingual carabiniaro; testy mettle of saucy Jessy; succotash haggies (bile and babble); cadger eye spice messer pourritch?  Re-eyesore me!
   Saul:  Shore, wittels?  Bouillevairsse!  Exspoliade the starry!  Tether modyarn traumbucken wrider tortoise--that Kill-ease sickman--abeaut sidekick debtor minis-truism, trustyer umclampshears prunning for narrowtive thryst.  His new roses, hys steery (Joyses), both pen in umbresse undertau zones of asocialoceans, and scrumptiously.  Tokarev the zounds intersensual ticker-off thumbs' elves.  So daunt be Freudened, done by tents, lets we g'wam and Cotuit!
    Sylph:  You sore?
    Saul:  Look, thrust the farce, ma'an!
  Sylph:  Oaky jokey.  Hearbsalyst of scourses passable.  Yesumé personnel references?  Lowcal crullers (var. Bosthoon)--Baking Hell; Scopellay Swear; Slumberveale; Kenless Square nomore, Sue Barbie Ann; Citgo letitgo; Johnnycake Touring (impudentially); Onion Squalor; D'ya make her Plain? 
    Saul:  Chick.  (Deliberate ploy Izvestia?  O ja!)
    Sylph:  Alfabestial?  Lisztry?   Bottle nymps?  Motor ghost dreymification? 
    Saul:  Czech.
    Sylph:  Joggerforay, litterchore, aisance? 
    Saul:  Wattles?
    Sylph:  Walkabout rheumor, is't allayed?  Watteauve hoarselauves, mimsy, comodices?
  Saul:  Nonono!  Rot a jakes in this wool outrance: Thesis a sillious bidness, labor nth deggereel--*y--aspace dumbisilly!  Caper opiniump tersleeve!  Shawzam daiquirum!  No luffing aloud, check?  De Gowin and kip Gawain.
    Sylph:  Orky doxy.  Landbridge of flow-ers?  Epithetamicum?
    Saul:  Chuck.
    Sylph:  Lokiay.  In dreck illeutions, light sportif, relaytod Thebes? 
    Saul:  Chock.
  Sylph:  End of cruise, occidental fallicities scribed or proscribed.  Murther my sweets!  Weed opus, Lex!  But witch dartlings demur dear?  Huw Chewsent?  Phlox simple, housel eye maim this hearessy?  Mickeyrooney sullied?  Mockarunic solid?  Macarena squalid?  Amuckrunning sillied?  Ouchoos!?  
    Saul:  Idaho: Alaska.

Now wandered he switzzled perchoyce, O fill the jim joynts, t'weak poorshames to dram, for serving tin ears!  Sinjim, set a pun by paronomastoidtons, pawn (de mie) urged and pendaemoniummed, Persse-coted by punic worse (lexsicle hannibalism), noncompulssed by part-manitou men (yeah!), wiles mystering the drum-rules (ratatat!) uffish Walking dream.  Madderhern (shaw!) writer scan a cat.  Imaging a brain carrion thus constraint--malty fairyless rubygold burglary for Mavourneen tears--eye coding to wit!  Lovelacely, purr Neora honor dear swore.  Drover Crécy dinnit (viz., Anneye Loveya Pleurebel: "you're but a puny")?   Orris dwaterloo ciao ennuwaye, Poordiers.  Offer goose to court Agin, fair punnish mint, allaway to the crack of Bloom, grinning agape, bigeminy!  Git they to a punnery!

Orca.  Fad enough.  Oddiyou, police stop.  Em dun.  Dun dun dundun!  Himhell!  Humbled mitrailleuse auto ammo.  Gatling stunned.  Sprint atoomich tie 'em allrooty.  Cureya eleysian?  Cure Jura diction!  No a good jim, joys?  Gotta strait exorcising, jack it!  Ampersesst, picklerow, dangbit, opperculased in wittier prankster's double!  Neighs most under teuful drives-- cant Abaddoneate-- nighdsmair yelp from author humor banes: lemma outer Dis!  Anyibuddy dare to helpum, pure pidgin?  Cannae hylp his sylph!  Halp!  Hipholp!  Help fiend me I!

Harp!  Youse voyce from yonder binglow spakes?  Tis me Awn-gel--and aul' Nick as the son!  Nearabby!  Lesson, they sez (baht a yiz togather, now, croon brillo): "Top hat blaguerighting, Daddy Big Juan!  Eetee squall whom!"  Grace us, byabbies, hankies lots, jesting tyoom.  Re-systemboots utile.  Ohm hoom noo.  One last punt, phought to Finnishan; jest Ablather Lashted Parriody.  This: .  Full stop; abundant; woke up.

11 February 2012


What, stoppunning?!  Ayeve tryeed, bit canaled deWit.  Eiffeld twained this tour of Babble.  Pottery's Injeness Nineveh Finnish, marely a bandersnatched, by farce, Invalerytilly pursed.  Or, invaliant errorly, hey janxt (looka zoombye) to sin (a loa) Ogun.  Judah spree day-scholier complines, tiercely vespers (no stannic-luck skulker he!)--one true dreamer, force physix, Sabinate, nein? (Pauzze.  Caezura dime)-- Quarkadaedaldue!  Time to begin agoing, run agate, pun agon, feign again Funny Jin--wake, Wake, WAKE! 

Too right, thus aweigh, assisi, and have it formal a swell.  Insufferablated by Choice's pneuma tics, my inner landscage is idealectofried--TVA not TV, doubt it's quotation.  Can eumenides?  O rest esy?  Half-barred dreams: Aye dares drub.  Discursive anymadhesion.  Eave bloukoum a lily blottoseater; strap-in his daffycult.  I symphony infacted by counter-Joyce memes, and Av nenuphar boon taxineeded.  Pun is borne to troubledears, Oster sparks flyipwords.  The associolitterative fooled Safire, stumped at buttahflayr epigone. Sample gracers: Rudely Macher (trubba not!); mucklurk porridge, Al Exemo horrorshow troll; the toy-tripped triggers oft Infancy; undercourse Elys'on pundermandrillum, uthers sow wider.  Yorick, light us, torch us to Cairo not Tokay, Teacher's Toby's still.  Helpless nutter Step hen dearsome forever twyst!  But aleas it's nogoad Tory.

  Sylph:  I canna chop it thin?  Thus Joyous understundying vie meimeosas, winter lowqualizing a weigh-in to dreamcountrary?  O Kay, olio jokester asked, ifso, fatso, howlieu prosecede?  Wet thrulles aptlie to stitch lottery Brücke-lodge?  Cittá folk shun, O say, crossmess parzle, bward Jamie?  Interattunement, Homerseal troade, or crowdery pleasesir?  Sot factor affliction?  Whit jersey muds: demonstretchin, nondescript shun, X prosession, Palli A. Nation, rammit orgy, sa-Tyrosickle, pirady, Mimi sissy?  Howdyah delemmingate the banned rose (banloose) of the fold?  How chorale yore ward-hordses?  Hard to pastrify the wards of the tribune?  Hot, O Shepard Katz?  Mechno punsensor porpoise?  Canst raize (Levin ate) tunas, widowed Annette?  If Corsican watch the store, York, hourmature (skillet, hon) of the Noratiff: bedwetter the mussels, nervous vassals, ees hares ort?  Sominy questings to parseyou.  Shadowl sovereignty tropes of ambiquity (and Emp some!) being cloudded?  Assured eliberation valeted?  Baith bountiful and trop (obstruct end o' days)?  Watts gesso, wits ever rot?  Waits allwed, weights frere verse?  Shoedye shawharm in as manna aliments as acorn, chap fulla nuts as a chickmump, strewords a rum galleon, tumuli risings inter priddeng?  Willa cockup a hottering djinnius hog gluten notion laika lingual carabiniaro; testy mettle of saucy Jessy; succotash haggies (bile and babble); cadger eye spice messer pourritch?  De-eyesore me!
   Saul:  Shore, vittles?  Bouillevairsse!  Exspoliade the starry!  Tother modyarn traumbuck wrider tortoise--that Kill-ease--abeaut sidekick debtor minis-truism, trustyer umclampshears prunning for narrowtive thryst.  His new roses, Joyses his steery, both pen in umbrage of asocialoceans, and scrumptiously.  Tokarev the zounds intersensual ticker-off thumbs' elves.  So daunt be Freudened, done by tents, juiced we g'wam and Cotuit!
    Sylph:  You sore?
    Saul:  Look, thrust the farce, ma'an!
  Sylph:  Oaky dukey.  Hearbsalyst of scourses.  Yesumé personnel references?  Lowcal crullers (var. Bosthoon)--Bacon Hell; Scopellay Swear; Slumbervoale; Kenless Square knowmore, Sue Barbie Ann; Citgo letitgo; Johnnycake Tour (impudential); Onion Squalor; D'ya make her Plain? 
    Saul:  Chick.  (A labret ploy Izvestia?  O ja!)
    Sylph:  Alfabestial Lisztry?   Bottle nymps?
    Saul:  Czech.
    Sylph:  Joggerforay, litterchore, seance? 
    Saul:  Wattles?
    Sylph:  Walkabout rheumor, is't loud?  Watteauve hoarselauves, mimsy, comodices?
  Saul:  Nonono!  Rot a jakes in this wool outrance: Thesis a sillious bidness, labor nth deggereel--*y--aspace dumbisilly!  Caper opinium tersleef!  Shawzam daiquirum!  No luffing alewd, check?  De Gowin and kip Gawain.
    Sylph:  Orthy doxy.  Landbridge of flow-ers?  Epithetamicum?
    Saul:  Chuck.
    Sylph:  Lokiye.  In dreck Aleutians, light sportif, relaytod Thebes? 
    Saul:  Chock.
  Sylph:  End of cruise, occidental fallicities scribed or proscribed.  Murther my sweets!  Weed opus, Lex!  But witch sweats to murder?  Huw Chewsent?  Phlox simple, houselye maim this hearsay?  Mickeyrooney swallowed?  Mockarunic solid?  Macarena sullied?  Amuckrunning sillied?  Ouchoos!?  
    Saul:  Idaho: Alaska.

No wandered he, switzlered perchoyce, O fill the jim joynts, t'wake poorshames to drame, for sovran teen ears!  Sinjim, sat a pun by paronomastoidtons, pain (de mie) urged and pendaemoniummed, Persse-coted by punic worse (lexsicle hannibalism), noncompulssed by part-manitou men (yeah!), wile mystering the drum-rules (ratatat!) uffish Walking dream.  Imogene a brain carrion thus concertant malty fairyous rubegold burglary for Mavourneen tears--eye coddled toowhit!  Purr Neora honor dear swore.  Drovers missus Crécy dinnit (viz., Anneye Loveya Pleurable: "you're but a puny")?  Oris dotterloo ciao, ennuwaye, Poirdiers.  Offer goose to court Agin, fair punnish mint, allaway to the crack of Bloom, grinning agape, bigeminy!  Git they to a punnery!

Orca.  Em dun.  Dun dun dundun!  O dew pleez stoop!  Curia eleysian!  Fad enough!  Himmell!  Humbled mitrailleuse auto ammo.  Gatling dun.  Sprint atomich tie 'em allrouty.  No a good jim, joys?  Got a staff exorcising.  Ampersesst, picklerow, dangbit, opperculased in wittier prankster's double!  Neighs most rendered teuful drives-- cant Abaddoneate-- nighdsmair yelp from author humor banes: lemma outer Dis!  Anyibuddy dare to helpum, pure pidgin?  Cannae hylp his sylph!  Halp!  Hipholp!  Help fiend me I!

Harp!  Wot voyce from yonder bingalow spakes?  Tis my Angel--and auld Nick is the son!  Nearabby!  Lesson, they sez (baht a yiz togather, now, croon brillo): "Top hat frighting, Daddy Big Juan!  Eetee caul whom!"  Graciaus, byabbies, hankies lots, Justin Thyme.  Re-systemboots utile.  Ohm hoom noo.  One last punt, phought to Finnishan; jest Ablather Lashted Parriody.  This: .  Full stop; abundant; woke up.