14 May 2006

The discourse of point

Through a nocturnal pollination of the bedside pile, we notice some writers doing different things with what looks like one form, a much neglected one at that. It’s easy to see the differences between Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus where each entry is a preposition duly numbered (1.1, 1.1.1, 1.2) in a logical sequence so the reader can map and trace each set and subset of proofs and their conclusions. Blanchot’s entries are gnomic, closer to, yet different from, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Blanchot may be closest to the tradition of pensées that harks back to Pascal, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Weil. What cannot be spoken of, according to Wittgenstein, may have mystical analogues in the likes of Rumi, the Upanishads, St. John of the Cross & c. although in his positivist period he would have hardly read them.

We remember what a friend working on the Frankfurt School had said. He claimed that he had uncovered 22 steps between one statement by Hegel and the next. He had plotted the missing contents of logical argument/prepositional spaces between two full stops. In Blanchot, the lacunae between entries are not logical transition spaces but unnamable voids. The compressed and elliptical forces of his thoughts are harder to unpack and connect as the silence between the act of the disaster and the writing is enormous and cannot be spoken, written or shown, particularly in the face of what could possibly have been done which, in turn, is unimaginable. This tension between action and passivity leads to a break. Writing itself causes this fracture of expression into fragments, into what passively survives the disaster. He notes: “Writing is per se (it is still) violence: the rupture there is in each fragment, the break, the splitting, the tearing of the shred—acute singularity, steely point. And yet this combat is, for patience, debate. The name wears away, the fragment fragments, erodes. Passivity passes away patiently, lost stakes.”

Fragments may sometimes even be complete inscriptions (“Odd made me” engraved on the handle of an ancient implement) but generally they are not. Fragments are older and incomplete; they are what survives of once-complete texts. However, Valéry created texts in fragments where the reader actively supplies the meanings. Anne Carson recuperates Sappho’s fragments and weaves her own poems from them. Accused of obscurantism for his compressed, ambiguous verse, Mallarmé wrote a defence in The Mystery in Literature: "Every piece of writing, on the outside of its treasure, must — out of respect for those from whom, after all, it borrows the language, for a different purpose — present with the words a meaning, even if an unimportant one: there is an advantage to turning away the idler, who is charmed that nothing here concerns him at first sight.” A current use of fragments is in “found poetry” where items are extracted from extant works and composed into a newish whole. We should note an older form “cento” where words and phrases were taken from other known works to form an often comic pastiche. Presumably this worked hundreds of years ago because the audience often knew the stuff by heart.

Proverbs, aphorisms, wise saws, morals and sayings, the most popular kinds of compressed discourse, may in fact be the oldest forms of this kind of discursiveness; some were derived from the apologues of the likes of Aesop and older Asian fabulist texts. Their quotability allows them to be plucked from their context so that they float on the surface like flowers of wisdom. These flowers are usually compiled in the form of chrestomathy (“anthology” refers to a bouquet) as being useful to learn. Commonplace books were used to record these sayings. They can have a moral or ethical dimension and are rules to live by even in this age where wisdom is trite or ignored (think Khalil Gibran). Here is one from Juvenal’s Satires: “voluptates commendat rarior usus” [pleasure taken less often pleases more]. The homiletic tradition in English goes back a long way. Monks compiled their way of living into rule books. Equally, laws and customs could be precise and pithy in those days.

Rules were found in other forms such as theorems and axioms. Panini's Sanskrit grammar is written in the form of a verbal algebra where each grammatical theorem describes — it does not prescribe — well-formed usage. A.K. Ramanujan, who collected, translated and developed a typology of Indian folk tales in the oral tradition, also noted the heuristic force of the conclusions. Commonplace books were used to record these sayings. Sancho Panza and Švejk are both comic figures because of their endless and reflexive regurgitation of received wisdom in the form of phatics, platitudes and proverbs. Ibsen underscores the tragedy at the end of the end of A Doll's House with the deft use of a cliché.

According to Aristotle, pointed, clever sayings work best as antithesis, metaphor, and in recalling actuality or vividness. Brevity being the soul of wit, Wilde inverted moralism lightly in his epigrams (“I can resist everything except temptation”) but others, like Martial (“though I can’t live without you/I can live without you in the house”) and Catullus (“Not even if, head between his legs,/He took a swig of his own foul dregs” — both from Penguin translations), were more caustic in their poetical observations. With a soupçon of wit, wisdom can turn into maxims in prose: witness La Rochefoucauld (218: “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue”). In Aristotle’s work on rhetoric, maxims are part of enthymemes as one of two modes of persuasion, the other being the example. He claimed that maxims should be used by old men to controvert popular sayings. Maxims enable a speaker to universalize hearers’ opinions as truth, thus pleasing the audience. Used as observations, maxims can lead sometimes to a chain or a series of remarks, usually comic: from Cyril Connolly (“imprisoned in every fat man a thin man is wildly signaling to be let out.”) to Kingsley Amis (“outside every fat man there was an even fatter man trying to close in”) to Katherine Whitehorn (“outside every thin woman is a fat man trying to get in”). Ironically, the plain style favoured by such pointillists as Hemingway may be just as mannered as the baroque.

In discussing Mannerism, E.R. Curtius notes that “no poetic form is so favourable to playing with ideas as epigram” which explains the popularity of “Sinngedicht” in 17th and 18th century Germany. Curtius remarks that “the word pointe (‘point’) is the French equivalent for the ‘pointed’ diction or thought which the Romans designated as ‘acutus’” (Italian “acutezze,” Spanish “la Agudeza”). He notes that, in Spanish and Italian, “the ‘acute’ or ‘subtle’ mode of expression [is] interpreted by the term ‘concetto’ (Spanish ‘concepto and ‘conceto,’ English ‘conceit’)” before going on to illustrate how ingenuity, acuteness, and conceit became the conditions of ingenious discourse associated with the Hispanic schools of Cultism and Conceptism. The French Classicists took exception to these “two ‘dangerous’ diseases of Spanish mentality” that marked these displays of wit. In fact, the roots of “arte de ingenio” lie in Quintilian’s work on classical rhetoric which refers to “the inimitable.” In ceremonial oratory in 18th-century London, a “sentiment” was an epigram that expressed a pleasing thought or wish at a toast. Epigrammatic discourse is used in literature to this day. Chamfort and Geoffrey Madan, now sadly out of print, were modern epigrammists of note. “Saki” (H.H. Munro) was a neat quipster (“He was good as cooks go and, as cooks go, he went”) and Dorothy Parker was well-known for her one liners and putdowns.

In Nuruddin Farah and Nancy Huston, as in many others, chapters and books open with epigraphs — some literary quotations, others inventions. Here the forms seem to suggest that they are outside the confines of the story, or that they mark the beginning of a story, and that they elide the distance between author and narrator. However, while they may show off the writer’s or narrator’s erudition, epigraphs can act as thematic, narrative or even cultural frames through which the story will be developed or viewed by the reader. They encircle and contain the story which usually recuperates or recapitulates the preceding epigraph(s). “Only connect” is E.M. Forster’s facile take on his own book. In the oral tradition of Indian folklore, the opening and closing formulae (“once upon a time”, “and so it ends”), A.K. Ramanujan notes, signify the beginning and the end of the story, assuring the audience that the tale has been relayed completely.

Nothing could be less circuitous than lists. In some traditions, there are set items in the catalogue of (female) beauty which are described feature by feature. An Indian sufi romance, ca. 1545, anatomizes the princess Madhumalati vividly, itemizing her from “her parting” down to “her thighs and legs,” a topos that’s also used in the western European tradition (e.g. Alanus and Bernard Silvestris). Lists can also be family trees as in the biblical “begats.” The catalogue of ships in the second book of the Iliad is part of an oral historical recitative tradition, usually listing queens, kings, and commanders. Rabelais puts this epic tradition to more playful use when he describes Gargantua’s games starting from “at Flushes” to “at Cricket” with many scatological pastimes in between. Georges Perec, another playful writer, makes Rabelaisian use of lists in his works as does Batavus Droogstoppel of Lauriergracht, coffee trader from Last & Co., in Multatuli's Max Havelaar where he lists dissertation topics for 5 pages. Using inventories in modern books as aide memoires is yet another common device.

The discourse of point is put to many different uses in literary speech. Stichomythia was a device often used in scenes of conflict in Greek theatre where actors spoke half lines in quick succession. Mr. Jingle in The Pickwick Papers spoke comically in choppy, barely complete, phrases. As a parody of a didactic speaker, Flaubert invents M. Homais in Madame Bovary who uses clichés to numbing effect. Bouvard and Pecuchet, in their turn, come up with odd definitions which are terse but often not to the point at all. (An ironic modern equivalent can be found in the glossaries in Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers.) In Compton-Burnett’s novels, characters converse acidulously in short, plain sentences that carry the narrative forcefully to its usually bitter end. In their plays, Beckett and Pinter use fragmentary speech aporiastically to suggest the futility of communication in a meaningless world riven by violence.

Other forms of compression are driven by necessity. Borges claimed to have learned terseness and indirection as a result of his political fears. Certainly, the enigmatic character of Gramsci’s Notebooks derives in part from his attempts to get by prison censors. Such anticipatory fears can lead to bitter epitaphs. Of course, epitaphs ranging from the mawkish to the scurrilous are a delight to those who relish pointed discourse, in prose or in rhyme. We offer you a tame one by Matthew Prior “And so they lived; and so they died.”

Pointed discourse is effective in compressing narrative time between events, chapters or parts of a book (e.g. “fifty years later”). Flaubert, ever the great stylist, in the middle of a “real-time” narrative of events in a book then skips over years (cf. The Sentimental Education). In extremis, we recall Samuel Johnson’s short biography of one character who is dismissed from birth to death in the space of a single, balanced sentence in Rasselas. By far, our favourite biography of a literary character with the shortest life is in Flann O’Brien’s story, “John Duffy’s Brother” — “Gumley was a doctor. He was present when John Duffy was born and also when he died, one hour later.”

Last words are another source of pointed discourse. In Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a conquistador on a raft is killed by a spear thrown from the shore. “Long spears are now the fashion” he says before he falls overboard. This is an echo of Grettissaga where, in chapter 45, Þorbjörn holding a spear (spjót) with both hands runs Atli through. Grettir’s brother comes up with a classic “andsvar” before he dies. "Broad spears are in fashion now" (Þau tíðkast nú in breiðu spjótin) are his dying words. The sardonic remark (“svar,” ‘aðugasemd,” or “andsvar”) that a character makes when he receives a death blow or deals one remains understudied in Old Icelandic sagas. It’s quite possible that these lines derive, as do other features of sagas, from classical rhetoric. Our understanding, though, is that Romans were schooled to die nobly and in silence. Swedish novelist Reidar Jönsson’s My Life As A Dog also uses these throwaways which Lasse Hallström kept in his film version of the book. The device is still used in modern literature. What could be more bathetic than “What! No soap?/so, he died” in Samuel Foote’s The Great Pajandrum Himself? Of course, there are many collections of famous last words, some apocryphal.

We must stop. We fear that, unlike our topic, we have been neither witty nor brief in our telling or in our last words. And so we move on.


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