Showing vs Telling. Again.


To say that I’ve blogged before about the differences between showing and telling would be an understatement. Some of them are more complete than others, I have two full posts dedicated to showing, and there is a twopart post that talks about Francine Prose’s excellent book, Reading Like a Writer.

I’m making another one because the advice I see most often is “show, don’t tell” and I really think the advice could be confusing to anyone who is looking to get into writing but doesn’t have a whole lot of experience yet. I don’t disagree with the statement, I just think anytime it is brought it should be immediately followed by an asterisk.

You shouldn’t tell:

– the reader what to feel

– the reader what to think

Take this bit of story:

Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot…But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did NOT!

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!

Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

If this were a story in a literary magazine about how the Grinch sees through the shallow hypocrisy of Christmas, as epitomized by plastic Christmas decorations, then this would be bad telling. The author would want us to feel as the Grinch feels about Christmas. He should refrain from just straight telling us that the Grinch hates Christmas, and instead show people applying mindless crass consumerism as a band-aid for human suffering.

But if the Grinch’s hatred of Christmas is a plot element rather than an emotion the reader is supposed to feel, then it’s okay to just say it. In fact, if it is important for the reader to feel differently than the Grinch does on the subject, you probably shouldn’t “show” here!

So you can’t take a quote in isolation and criticize it for telling instead of showing. You can identify it as telling, but whether that telling is acceptable or not depends on the context.

Completeness in stories, poems, and songs


I’ve been thinking about what makes a story complete and it occurred to me that that story would be considered complete if it were a song. Stories, songs, and poems can all be recognized as being complete or incomplete, but the standards for them are very different.

Is this sensible, or merely convention?

You find songs that would be regarded as complete stories in certain genres—ballads, country, & Christmas carols, for instance. “Good King Wenceslas” self-consciously, though not very successfully, tries to imitate story structure with an obstacle in the middle verse. “The Little Drummer Boy”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “The MTA Song”, “Ode to Billy Joe”, and “A Boy Named Sue” are also complete stories. “Norwegian Wood” is a story once you know that the original final words were “Knowing she would”. But even within these genres, we usually find songs that would not be considered complete if they were stories. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is your basic plotless sad fiction, introducing a bunch of characters, killing them off, and then holding a funeral for them. Songs and poems routinely present a single emotion, like a single scene in a story. Love songs live in a single moment of bliss; sad songs have no resolution.

Poems, also, can be complete stories. Many Robert Frost poems are (“Mending Wall”, “The Death of the Hired Man”, “The Tuft of Flowers”). Some, like New Yorker “stories”, are tantalizingly close to being stories (“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”). But most poems are not stories. They’re more like songs. They choose one moment in time and invoke its mood, with no plot or dramatic structure or climax or resolution.

It seems that stories are a strict subset of poems and songs. Anything that could be written as a story could be written as a (perhaps overly long) poem or song, but not vice-versa.

Poems are allowed to jump from particulars to universals in a way that stories are not. Here’s “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct” by e. e. cummings:

Buffalo Bill ‘s


                     who used to

                     ride a watersmooth-silver


and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


he was a handsome man

                                                            and what i want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

It gives details from the life of Buffalo Bill, then stops abruptly on informing us that he is dead, the author leaping through the fourth wall to grab the reader by the collar and say, “This is not about Buffalo Bill; it is about you.” But you couldn’t just drop the narrative and conclude with “He’s dead now, as we all will be” in a story. Poem readers have come to expect that sort of thing. They don’t forget themselves in a poem the way they do in a story; the deliberate obtrusiveness of style keeps the reader always aware of the poet’s presence.

Consider the poem “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1897), later turned into a song by Simon and Garfunkel.

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Here again we jump from the particulars of Richard Cory to a universal statement, this one about happiness and fulfillment. If you tried to do this in a story or movie, readers would be bewildered and demand an explanation of what he was thinking and what led up to it.  Citizen Kane is just such a movie. Were it a poem, it could’ve ended after the first scene, with perhaps one extra paragraph of explanation.

Modern story readers won’t operate at the level of abstraction needed for “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct” or “Richard Cory”; they expect the characters to be real people who matter, not to be reduced to morality-play cutouts standing for Everyman. The convention used to be the opposite: Medieval plays frequently used an Everyman protagonist and caricatured villains, and, I suppose, jumped to universals at the end (or all the way through, as in Pilgrim’s Progress and other allegories).

Songs without a dramatic structure to the narrative sometimes have a dramatic structure to the melody, at least your basic verse and refrain structure, usually elaborated on by changes in instrumentation and voicing that change the mood across verses. And yet poems have a bit of structure, even free verse, but hardly enough to make up for a lack of a dramatic structure. If songs were allowed to have incomplete stories because the musical performance provides structure instead, we would require the text of poems to be more complete than the text of songs to make up for the lack of that auditory structure — and yet, we do not.

It is not possible that this distinction makes any absolute sense. Prose, poetry, and song all exist to have an impact on the reader or listener. It can’t be acceptable for a song, but not for a story, to bring alive one moment in time. Any prose that accomplishes the same thing as a song is a good and complete work of art. It’s only historical accident that prevents us from accepting it as such. At least, that’s the only conclusion that makes sense to me.

This conclusion unfortunately means that it is impossible to devise a theory of story, because our notions of what makes a story are tightly constricted by arbitrary cultural conventions.

The best way to test these ideas would be to compare contemporary Western stories to stories from distant time periods, and from cultures isolated from Europe: Native American, Asian, Indian, Arabian, African, Polynesian. I haven’t read enough of those to do that. I suspect that the stories from those cultures that we find translated into English are only the ones that match English expectations of story. But if it turns out that all those cultures have similar rules for what counts as a story and what does not, then I am wrong, and there is some objective explanation for why we expect different things from stories, poems, and songs.

Bears Discover Fire


In 1990, Terry Bisson’s short story “Bears Discover Fire” won all the awards in science fiction. (Odd, since there’s no science in it.) January of 2014, Lightspeed Magazine put it online for free.

This story has puzzled me for a long time. Why is it a story at all, let alone a good story?

(You have to read the story to understand this post.)

Nobody in the story seems to know what they want. There’s no struggle or deliberate action. There are three narratives:

1. The narrator’s relationship with his brother. The narrator is more old-fashioned, and less uptight. His brother is one of those people who thinks they know everything. They have a disagreement about how to raise his brother’s son. Nothing major.

2. Bears discover fire. Also, they discover a new kind of berry.

3. The narrator’s mother. She lives in an old folks home. She’s bored. She goes to sit by the fire with the bears. Then she dies.

That’s it. Three narratives, none of which are a story, none of which connect to each other except circumstantially. None of them seem to support, parallel, or relate to the others.

So why are they a story when you put them together? I like this story, but I don’t know why.

What is Love


They say the Eskimos have 50 different words for snow.  Or they used to; it’s become a bitter debate among linguists, made worse by the fact that you can’t call people Eskimos anymore.

But anyway, those northern Native Americans distinguish many types of snow.  If you’re going to walk five miles across ice fields to hunt seals when it’s fifty degrees below, it matters what kind of snow it is.

But 50 terms for snow would hardly be excessive. lists 52 synonyms for the adjective angry in English.  And 53 synonyms for the verb hit.

It lists only 18 synonyms for the verb love.  I’ve used for years, and that’s the fewest synonyms I remember seeing for any word.

If love is important to us, why have we got so few words for it?  Even the “synonyms” we have are no good; the top of the list is admire, cherish, choose, and go for.

We haven’t got a word to distinguish romantic love from motherly love or brotherly love.  We haven’t got a verb for ‘lust’ or ‘friendship’ that takes a direct object.  We have a shocking paucity of words for love.  So few that ‘love’ is barely a word.  It’s used in so many ways that it hardly means anything at all.

If the Eskimo Inuit, Yupik, and various other tribes have many words for snow because it’s important, does that mean love is unimportant to us?

No; just the opposite:  We have only one word for love because it’s so important that it’s dangerous.

When you talk about snow, you want people to know precisely what kind of snow you’re talking about.  When you talk about love, you want people not to know what you’re talking about.

Imagine you’re a man, and your girlfriend or wife asks you, “Do you love me?”  You are, as stipulated, a man, so odds are your greatest act of introspection into your feelings was two years ago when you finally decided to switch from Busch to Yuengling.  How strong does liking have to be, to be love?  “Do you love me more than you love the Steelers?”  Let’s be honest:  there are many women in your state, and only one pro football team.  It’s not a fair comparison.

Now imagine there are 50 words for 50 different types of love, and each night, she asks you about a different one of them.


If we named as many varieties of love as we’ve named ways of moving slowly, I suspect the word for the predominant romantic emotion that most women feel when they say “love” would be one that most men have never felt.  And wouldn’t that make for some interesting late-night conversations?

But that’s not an explanation.  If there’s an international male conspiracy to obliterate synonyms for ‘love’, I wasn’t told about it.

(Though that’s just what I would say, isn’t it?)

I think ‘love’ is like ‘God’ with a capital ‘G’.  When there were many gods, people ascribed different qualities to each.  But after Plato said ‘god’ had a single abstract essence, and Jesus said that essence was perfection, every good thing became part of God’s definition.  (Hence some philosophers believed God must be a perfect sphere.)

So every good and positive human emotion got sucked into the word ‘love’.  Still, that doesn’t explain why any more-specific terms disappeared.  And it’s still suspiciously convenient.

Thoughts on listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony three times in a row


In “The annihilation of art”, I griped about the path toward ever greater chaos and dissonance that orchestral composition has taken, to the point where it sounds random to me. I tried to appreciate Brian Ferneyhough’s music, but couldn’t. The folks who like it claim that it’s a natural progression from Beethoven to Ferneyhough. I figured that to understand Ferneyhough, I’d have to back up a half-century or so and first try to appreciate something in-between Beethoven and Ferneyhough. So while driving across Pennsylvania, I popped in a CD of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (1902).

I’ve long been frustrated by my inability to remember Mahler’s compositions. Beethoven’s can get stuck in my head for days, to the point where they give me migraines. Mahler’s, I can only remember snatches of. I was determined to play the CD until I could remember how it went.

I played it all the way to Pittsburgh, and still can’t remember it. Mahler’s Fifth isn’t going to get stuck in my head anytime soon.

The symphony opens with single trumpet repeating a few ambiguous notes, then rising in a dramatic minor chord. Suddenly, the entire orchestra joins in a triumphant shift to a major key. And just as suddenly, it shifts back to minor. That exemplifies everything that is wrong with Mahler’s fifth symphony.

When you have a host of brass make a sudden dramatic reversal like that shift from minor to major, it should mean something. But it doesn’t, because we only stay there for a few seconds before there’s another, equally-dramatic reversal by that same brass section back into a minor key. And that doesn’t mean anything either, because we were in major for all of about two measures.

Observer 1: Look, up in the sky!

Observer 2: It’s a bird!

Observer 3: It’s a plane!

Observer 1: Naw, it’s a bird.

The dramatic equivalent of the opening of Mahler’s Fifth.

The piece didn’t earn that shift back to minor. And that’s what it’s like throughout: Sudden, ostensibly dramatic transitions between keys, tempos, rhythms, and motifs, in a desperate attempt to be unpredictable. All those transitions did nothing for me, because they were so unpredictable that I didn’t care where the music went. It was like an action adventure flick that, to keep you entertained, jumps from one cliff-hanging action sequence to another without ever letting you find out who the characters are. Too try-hard, Gustav.

This is especially apparent in the fourth movement, which is the most boring piece of classical music I’ve ever heard. I am definitely in the minority about this, as it’s regularly found on “The Most Soothing Classical Music” collections, but then I don’t listen to music in order to cure insomnia. I could not pay attention to nine minutes of very pretty but disorganized wandering about in various major and minor keys. I find myself repeatedly zoning out and ignoring the music every time I listen to it. Music this slow and lacking in harmony needs more repetition and regularity for me to grasp hold of.

In “Information theory and writing”, I said art should have high entropy. The entropy of a thing is the number of bits of information you would need to replicate that thing. Something with high entropy is unpredictable. The huge caveat is that random strings have very high entropy, and yet random strings are boring.

The British mathematician G. H. Hardy once visited the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in the hospital:

I remember once going to see him when he was ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavorable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”

If we could perceive the unique qualities of each random string, we might find each random string as interesting as Ramanudran found each number. But we don’t. Random strings are boring because we can’t tell them apart. What we want is an entropy measurement that tells us how many bits of information it would take to replicate something like the item of interest, from an equivalence class for that item. Something sufficiently similar that we wouldn’t care if one were substituted for the other. (Assume we have a random number generator available for free; randomness does not require information.) A random string of 16 bits has 16 bits of information, but it would take zero bits of information to make another string “like” it, if any string will do.

This equivalence-adjusted entropy would be a measurement of complexity. Measuring complexity is a difficult problem in the study of complex systems.

Cellular automata (CAs) are simple model complex systems. A CA is a set of rules that operate on cells. The cells are usually laid out as squares. Each cell is in one of K states. (For the game of Life, the most-famous CA, K = 2.) Each rule says which state a cell in state k should change to on the next turn, given the states of itself and of its neighbors in the current turn.

Steve Wolfram, studying cellular automata (CAs), found that there was a class of rules that quickly produced static, unchanging CAs, and a class that quickly produced random noise, and a narrow class in-between that produced strange, beautiful, non-repeating patterns. He called these patterns “complex”. He found a single parameter that predicted whether a CA would be complex. Probably he could have used entropy, but he did not. He used λ (lambda), which he defined as the fraction of transition rules that turn a cell “off”.

These three graphs below from (Langton 1992) show typical results, for four-state CAs: A set of rules with λ = .40 quickly leads to a static, “dead” state, and a set with λ = .65 quickly blows up into random noise, while a set with λ = .50 shows interesting, non-repeating patterns for quite some time:

Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 2 lambda=.4 Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 2 lambda=.5 cropped Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 2 lambda=.65
The curious thing is that entropy (unpredictability) is maximal for these four-state CAs when  λ = .75. Increasing λ increases the apparent complexity up to a point, but past that point, although it  it is still increasing unpredictability, it generates noise, not complexity.

Figure 3 from (Langton 1992) plots transient length (one measure of complexity) versus lambda. Transient length peaks suddenly in the area with middling lambda, then just as suddenly falls off again as lambda and unpredictability continue to increase:

Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 3

Gregorian chant was very predictable: one part only, no instruments, and almost no rhythmic or dynamic variation. Music became steadily more complex and less predictable over the next several hundred years.

It seemed like a good rule to say that the less-predictable music became, the more complex and better it would be. And in fact, the commentaries on Mahler’s Fifth are full of references to the “complexity” and “interest” generated by its dissonances and irregularities.

But music does not become more complex the more unpredictable it is. After some point, increasing unpredictability makes it less complex. Instead of complexity, we get mere noise.

This, I speculate, is what happened to music. Composers internalized the theoretical belief that unexpectedness made music more complex and interesting, rather than just listening to it and saying whether they liked it or not. They kept making things less and less predictable, even after passing the point where complexity was maximal.

Once they’d passed that point, unpredictability only made the music boring, not complex. Like Mahler’s Fifth. That created a vicious circle: New music was noisy, unstructured, and boring. Composers believed the way to make it less boring was to make it less predictable, which only made it even more boring, pushing them to make newer music that was even less predictable. This led inevitably to Ferneyhough’s random-sounding music.

And the inevitability of the entire progression was taken as evidence that this was progress!

“But, Writing Guide,” you might protest, “you’ve based this on the idea that there are equivalence classes of musical compositions. But what counts as equivalent depends on the listener. To someone who understands music perfectly, each composition might be distinct! Then each equivalence class has exactly one member, and randomness equals complexity.”

There is something to that objection. The more one studies music, the more distinctions one can easily make in music. But if you really believe that’s a valid objection, you must conclude that all possible music is equally good.

I don’t know how to deal with subjective equivalence classes, but we don’t have to base our measurements on something subjective. We can use an objective information-theoretic measure of complexity. Mutual information, for instance. The mutual information between two variables is the information they have in common. If both are very low-entropy, this is low, since neither contains much information. But if both are high-entropy and uncorrelated, it’s low again, since you can’t predict one from the other. Here’s a plot of mutual information versus lambda, again from (Langton 1992):

Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 11

This appears to have a maximum around lambda = .25 instead of .5, which might be a problem. But I don’t think lambda makes sense as our measurement, since it depends so much on the arbitrary choice of which state is the “off” state. Entropy would probably be a better measure, and using it might remove the discrepancy between which lambda givese maximum MI and which gives maximum transient length.

My point is that we can choose some objective scheme for measuring the complexity in a score. For instance, go through the score three measures at a time. Call three measures in a row A, B, and C. You can measure P(C|A,B) and P(C|A) for each set of three measures, and then compute how much information about measure C you get from measure B but not from measure A. This will be small for compositions so predictable that measure B doesn’t add much information, and it will be small for compositions that are so random that neither B nor A helps you predict C.

We could argue about how to make the measurement, but we could actually make such measurements (if, say, you got an NEA grant to spend a few months on the problem). I believe that any reasonable measurement would prove that Ferneyhough’s compositions are less, not more, complex than Beethoven’s.

That wouldn’t mean everyone should start chasing complexity. I think the problems with modernism that I complained about can be summarized as “doing art according to a theory rather than according to what seems good”. Ideally, the result of proving this would be to incline people to trust their feelings more and their theories less.

Chris Langton (1992). Life at the edge of chaos. Artificial Life II.

The annihilation of art


Here’s some music for you to listen to while reading this blog:

A little while ago someone I know made a few insightful observations about poetry. I’m not anti-poetry, and I don’t think he is either, but he makes a good point: Poetry has for decades been caught in a vicious cycle of self-isolation. An elite chooses experimental, inaccessible poems and fills the journals and anthologies with them. Readers drift away from poetry, deriding it as pretentious. The elite learns to associate inaccessibility with quality, and criticism with amateurism, and produces more and more inaccessible works, which it is capable only of praising, never of criticizing. Their tastes drift farther away from the mainstream, casting more and more readers out. Poetry that does not meet their criterion for obscurantism is not published; poetry that does, is not read.

I’m going to paraphrase my friend here:

You mention that to many people you know, poetry is “too difficult, too vague, or too subjective.” I would argue that in many cases, this seems a very accurate description.… And likewise, poetry is often allowed to succeed where other forms of art would not. Many poems are so highly impressionistic that listeners and readers are left struggling to find meaning in the words….

With music or prose or artwork, we can point to something exact and have our opinions judged fairly. I dislike the singing; the characters are bland; the colors are mismatched and give me a headache. All valid criticisms. But when you approach poetry, criticism from the uneducated is treated as such….

For poetry to escape the taint of elitist disdain, it needs to rid itself of the shell that is formed around it. Is this a condemnation of all poetry or even most poets? No, not at all. But the popular conceptualization that poetry is a pastime for a small group of intellectuals, as unfair as it might seem, is grounded in a subjective grain of truth. For the people looking in from outside, poetry is often not some beautiful song waiting to be digested, but a pretentious chunk of purple imagery that revels in its own depth and inaccessibility. Which is, I think we can both agree, a sad state of affairs that harms those on either side of the window.

… We’ve all heard people say they dislike rap, or country, or dubstep; the most common response amongst those respective genres is to attempt to convert the doubter with “good” examples from that genre…. In my personal existence, poetry was never handled the same way.

This isn’t isolated to poetry. Orchestral music has taken exactly the same march into isolation and cultural irrelevance since about 1920. Jazz followed later, starting maybe around 1960. Literature started down that path with Ulysses, and Joyce kept going down it for the rest of his career.

The visual arts, meanwhile, went in a similar but weirdly opposite direction, taking the quickest and easiest route to driving away the common folk. By the 1930s, the goal in architecture, sculpture, and painting was to make everything as simple, boring, and ugly as possible. This 1938 building in Brooklyn wasn’t a slapdash cost-saving construction project; it was a celebrated design by a famous modernist architect. Notice how its color perfectly matches the mixture of dead grass and mud on the ground in front of it.

Brooklyn project William Lescaze 1938

And it wasn’t long ago that if you walked into a modern art museum, all you’d find would be a hundred variations on this:


and this:

That YouTube video at the top? That’s a composition by Brian Ferneyhough. My renter is a composer. He’s trying to earn enough money to go back to grad school in music composition, and Ferneyhough, he says, is considered by many composers to be the greatest living composer. That piece isn’t modern at all—he composed it in 1966. 48 years ago. It represents the pinnacle of the past eighty years of orchestral composition.

To get accepted to grad school, my renter has to write something like it. He has seven folios full of his attempts.

I asked him if it bothered him that he’s spending his whole life struggling to make a kind of music that, if he succeeds, no one outside of academia will want to hear. It will never be played on the radio; it will never appear in a physical music store; it will probably never be played in a concert hall outside of western Europe. He says that this is only to be expected; few people have the intelligence to understand the greatest works in any art form.

An art form that is completely detached from culture. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Is it art, or is it a cult?

I asked him if it was an arbitrary social convention, or else if it was the next logical stage in music—if you rewound the clock and played the 20th century over again, slightly differently, would it inevitably lead to that kind of music, like geometry inevitably led to topology? He said he believes so; that Ferneyhough is not just different than Beethoven, but superior to him.

During the 1930s, the entire European artistic landscape seemed determined to drive people away from art. I think this made nationalism and fascism possible. People outside the elite sensed that culture had deliberately rejected and ejected them, and so they united to destroy it.

It’s seldom a good sign to find yourself in agreement with Hitler. But if Ferneyhough is great, I don’t want to be that great.

The march to self-isolation always starts with great works by a great artist—Picasso, Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot,  Miles Davis, Joyce. People imitate them, and try to take it further. Then it goes too far, and no one can admit it’s gone too far because by that time everybody in the elite power structure of that art has gone on record praising it.

Is this a uniquely 20th-century event? Has it happened before in history that the leaders of an entire art form deliberately isolated it from the masses? As far as I know, it hasn’t.

I think this couldn’t happen before the 19th century because art was funded by patrons, and the artists had to please the patrons. The patrons didn’t have careers in art, so they didn’t have to always find something new and weird to try to stay ahead of the crowd. There were professors of art and of music, but their opinions didn’t matter much.

It bothers me a lot. Orchestral music was, to me, humanity’s greatest achievement, and now we have annihilated it, and many other art forms, and no one understands why.

How and why did a single generation of artists destroy half of the West’s artistic heritage? Is modernism really the single cause behind 20th-century elitism in music, poetry, sculpture, art, and literature? Why didn’t it succeed in literature? How can we make sure it never does? I really wish I had answers.

And I really want to know whether the stuff is actually good, and I’m just too dumb to see it. But I don’t see any way of ever knowing that, even in principle. If the only way people ever come to appreciate Ferneyhough’s music is to be told they can never understand music unless they appreciate it, and to listen to it over and over trying to appreciate it, how can they know whether they appreciate it because it’s good, or because they’ve gotten used to it?

You can’t tell by the color


In one corner, against the wall, colorful cushions have been spread out over a Persian carpet. Some of us are sitting propped up against the cushions. The wine and vodka are homemade, but you can’t tell by the color.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, IV.15

You can’t tell by the color?

Changing that one word from “taste” to “color” says so much.

The narrator is describing a party in Iran in the 1990s. Wine and vodka are illegal, and Persian carpets are shyly subversive, because they represent pre-Islamic Iran. The wine and vodka are homemade, and of course you can tell by the taste. But you can’t tell by the color.

That means the party is a success. It paints a picture of normalcy, an illusion that they can enjoy as they would a movie (if they were allowed to see any good movies). That’s all they can hope for. They don’t expect to enjoy the wine and the vodka. They just want to be able to pretend that they do.

Collateral damage in Hamlet and the Merchant of Venice


This is how a lot of stories form: The writer wants one thing to happen, and slowly assembles the forces needed to make the characters do what they have to do for it to happen. And the writer sometimes twists the story nearly to the breaking point to do that.

Critics think that things that stick out oddly from stories are clues the author dropped as to what’s going on. That’s typically not the case. The one thing the writer wants to happen is gonna happen, and probably pretty smoothly. The weird stuff that sticks out is peripheral. It’s the collateral story damage from the big idea.

I spent the last few hours reading The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, loans 3000 ducats to Antonio, under the stipulation that if it is not repaid, Shylock may claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Lots of critics have argued over whether Shylock is supposed to be sympathetic or despicable. Everyone in the play hates him, and always has, because he’s a Jew. He has been severely put upon all his life. The jokes the Christians make at his expense, unlike in the rest of Shakespeare, aren’t even supposed to be funny. So he’s sympathetic, and Shakespeare was a closet progressive.

But, wait. Shylock is cruel, and wants to kill Antonio, whom everybody else agrees is the best guy ever. Even when offered double his money back, he spurns the money and wants his pound of flesh. And nowhere in the text does anybody question the abuse that’s been heaped on Shylock. The word “Jew” is an insult to the end. So he’s despicable, and Shakespeare hated Jews.

I don’t think Shakespeare cared one way or the other. I think he had one cool idea: “Imagine there’s a guy who offers up a pound of his own flesh as surety for a loan, and then he can’t pay back the loan. Everybody expects the guy who loaned him the money to say, “Oh, well, I was just kidding; a pound of flesh isn’t going to do me any good.” And then the guy says he really, in fact, wants his pound of flesh. And then, the first guy’s friends get there just in the nick of time with twice the loan to pay it back. But then, whammo, the other guy says, No. He wants his pound of flesh.

How do you get a guy to do that?

Well, you want Shylock to really, really hate Antonio, right?

Not really. Then you’d have to show Antonio doing something horrible to Shylock. And Antonio is supposed to be the sympathetic character. And Antonio would know Shylock hated him, and wouldn’t sign the loan condition, probably. And the whole story would get hijacked by the conflict setting up the Antonio-Shylock drama.

What Shakespeare did was very clever: Show that Shylock’s life is intolerable–everyone hates him for what he is; he is forced into being a money-lender because the law allows him no “honest” profession, and yet the same people who force him into that role despise him for it. Never let the hatred up. And then, have his own daughter hate him, too, and steal his money and run away with a Christian.

See, Shylock doesn’t hate Antonio. Shylock hates everybody. But especially his daughter. He wants to lash out, and Antonio is right there.

Shylock isn’t a representative of an oppressed race, or of a sub-human race. He isn’t a nuanced handling of issues of prejudice and race. The fact that viewers feel sympathy for Shylock is, dramatically, a colossal fuck-up. It makes no sense, coming as it does not as the climax of a drama, but as the warm-up to the funniest (well, only funny) scene of a comedy.

Shylock is a plot device. Shakespeare needed somebody who could be put under enough pressure to want a pound of somebody’s flesh, somebody who hadn’t really done anything bad to him, so much that he wouldn’t take any amount of money instead.

That’s how stories get written. The critics focus on the strange things in a story, like Shylock, as if they were clues to hidden secrets. They aren’t. The strange things are the things you don’t notice you screwed up while you were paying attention to your one big thing.

Shakespeare wrote Shylock too well. He made him a real character we could sympathize with. That made the courtroom scene tragic instead of funny, and it doesn’t fit the story that it’s in.

On to Hamlet.

Lotsa theories about what Hamlet is about. It’s about death. It’s about disease. It’s about mortality. It’s meta-fiction. It’s about indecision. It’s about fate. It’s about the moral depravity of a man who has lost his faith. It’s about a woman who has no control over her life. It’s about the inability of language to tell a coherent story.

There’s this one part in Hamlet, it’s kinda memorable. Goes like this:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.


That’s the one big idea. Hamlet is a question: Whether ’tis nobler to suffer insult and disgrace, or to end it with violence that will inevitably spin out of your control. It’s the kind of question that has no answer. (See: American middle east policy.) That’s what literature is for. Thinking about things that have no clear answer. The play is about revenge and its costs. It doesn’t wind up with a simple message: “Revenge is bad, kids.” Hamlet chooses to take arms against his troubles, and the viewer sees the result. The entire play can be explained as either (A) things showing how bad Hamlet’s troubles are, or (B) things showing the cost everyone will pay for Hamlet’s revenge. That’s why Ophelia has to kill herself, and that’s why Hamlet has to be cruel to her. That’s why the play ends with the very boring scene of Fortinbras taking over Denmark (the very thing Hamlet’s uncle opened the play worrying about): Without that scene, one might think Hamlet was noble because he saved his country from a usurper. No; in doing so he just gave it away to an invader. The weird stuff, like Hamlet killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and being cruel to Ophelia, and the Fortinbras business, are just where Shakespeare was trying too hard to show those two things, instead of letting Hamlet be true to his character. They’re not themes; they’re the collateral damage.

At least, that’s my theory today.

Review: William Congreve’s “The Way of the World”, 1700


I’m reading English plays from 1600 to 1800, to get a sense for what Shakespeare’s influence was, and why he’s so highly-regarded. I just finished

as found here. This was a popular comedy 300 years ago. It has some good lines:

Where modesty’s ill manners, ’tis but fitThat impudence and malice pass for wit.

‘Tis an unhappy circumstance of life that love should ever die before us, and that the man so often should outlive the lover. But say what you will, ’tis better to be left than never to have been loved…. For my part, my youth may wear and waste, but it shall never rust in my possession.

You should have just so much disgust for your husband as may be sufficient to make you relish your lover.

A better man ought not to have been sacrificed to the occasion; a worse had not answered to the purpose.

Mirabell: For beauty is the lover’s gift: ’tis he bestows your charms:- your glass is all a cheat.

Millacent: One no more owes one’s beauty to a lover than one’s wit to an echo.

We’ve still got the thee’s and thou’s:

Come, thou art an honest fellow, Petulant, and shalt make love to my mistress, thou shalt, faith.

Did people really talk like that 300 years ago? No. Congreve was trying to sound like Shakespeare. For comparison, here’s the opening of Gulliver’s Travels (1726):

My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies; but the charge of maintaining me, although I had a very scanty allowance, being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years.

The Way of the World is a cross between Jane Austen, an English bedroom farce, and Shakespeare. Act I is 9 scenes long, and about as enjoyable as the first chapter of War and Peace: a whirlwind tour of many different indifferent characters whose names all sound the same, gossipping about each other. I’m sure this would be less confusing if I were watching a play, but it still seems to rely on me having memorized the playbill to know who is whose daughter, niece, uncle, and former suitor. The author thoughtfully gave the characters names such as “Petulant”, “Wilfull”, “Waitwell” (a servant), “Foible”, and “Mincing”, so as to spare the trouble of needing to portray their characters through action. There are 13 characters; 4 of their names start with ‘F’, 4 with ‘M’, and 4 with ‘W’. The names are gender-confusing in a play where gender is all; it was several scenes before I realized that Mirabel, the main character of Act I, is a man.

Once I figured out who these people were and what was going on, it was almost enjoyable. The language is sufficiently clever, elevated, and word-order-inverted to string a Shakespeare junkie along between fixes. The humor is witty, but tossed out in self-encapsulated sentences that sparkle with a clever simile or wording, but don’t illuminate the characters or the theme. It did at times make me smile, surpassing Shakespeare in that regard. But overall, the first act needs to be axed, the plot is interesting only as it affects the characters, and the characters have not much character. I never cared about or liked any of them. So the whole thing is just a paper backdrop for clever lines.

CliffsNotes says this. I agree with all of it except for the “striking characterization”:

Because of its striking characterization and brilliant dialogue, The Way of the World is generally considered to be the finest example of Restoration comedy, as well as one of the last. Nevertheless, it was not successful when it was first presented in 1700. Although the English audiences, unlike the French, were accustomed to plots and subplots and to a great deal of action in their plays, they were confused by the amount of activity crammed into a single day. The Way of the World had only a single action to which everything was related, but it included a scheme, and a counterplot to frustrate the scheme, and then moves to foil the counterplot. There were too many episodes, events, reversals, and discoveries, most of them huddled in the last acts, and they demanded too much of the audience. … In Act I, we are told that Mirabell is in love and that there are obstacles to the courtship, but most of the significant facts are hidden until Act II so that the first part of the play is obscure. Then, just as Mirabell’s scheme becomes clear, it loses significance, for Fainall’s counterplot becomes the machinery that moves the action forward. It is, therefore, worthwhile to trace the story in chronological order.

Loose Ends of the Plot

Although there seems to be the usual happy ending to this comedy, The Way of the World leaves a number of loose ends that add to the confusion.

It is difficult to see where Mrs. Fainall’s future is satisfactorily resolved. At one point in Act V, she says that this is the end of her life with Fainall; that is one comfort. But at the end of the play, it seems that she will continue to live with Fainall in an obviously very awkward domestic situation.

It is not clear that Fainall is completely foiled. He could still demand control of Lady Wishfort’s fortune or disgrace her daughter. Mirabell’s statement that “his circumstances are such, he [Fainall] must of force comply” is hardly adequate.

Is the affair between Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall at an end? She married Fainall only to forestall scandal if she became pregnant. If it is at an end, why has it ceased? Why should she help Mirabell with his wooing of Millamant? Has he perhaps convinced Mrs. Fainall that he is marrying Millamant for money?

Apparently Mirabell had wanted to marry Millamant the year before, but the match was forestalled by Mrs. Marwood’s interference. Fainall suggests that, had they married, Millamant would have lost half her fortune. Why then the elaborate plot now, to save the 6,000 pounds that Mirabell was prepared to sacrifice before?

There no real answers to these questions. They seem to be loose ends that the dramatist never bothered to tie together.

Post-Modern Dialectic as Improv


Post-modernists “mean” what they say

George Steiner is a literary theorist who has had appointments at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Geneva, despite not believing in literary theory. While reading his 1989 book Real Presences, I suddenly understood how post-modern thought works, and why it is self-consistent. All you have to do to understand it, it turns out, is believe that they mean what they say [1].

I had just read Steiner’s description of modernism (p. 87-100), and was puzzled that he never used the word “modernism”. I flipped back to the index to see if it listed modernism. No modernism, and no post-modernism either. In fact, there were no concepts of any kind in the index. It listed only proper nouns. Steiner, it seemed, organized his thought entirely around references to previous philosophers, artists, and works of art.

I went back to reading and came across this sentence: “Mallarmé breaks (rupture becomes a cardinal term) the covenant, the continuities between word and world” (p. 104).

This struck me as strange. I’ve read similar sentences in many other works, but could always interpret them as sloppy short-hand for something like “Mallarmé was the first to act as if there were no covenant between word and world.”

But Steiner doesn’t do sloppy short-hand. He says what he means and means what he says. He studies every word and clause, alert to its connotations and etymology, unpacking idiomatic expressions to make sure their original historical meaning is also in tune with his intent. If Steiner says that Mallarmé broke the link between words and reality, he means that there was a link between words and reality before Mallarmé wrote, and there was not afterwards.

How could one lone Frenchman’s poetry rupture the nature of reality? It can’t. No words can. Words have no connection to reality for Steiner:

To ascribe to words a correspondence to ‘things out there’, to see and use them as somehow representational of ‘reality’ in the world, is not only a vulgar illusion. It makes of language a lie. (p. 95)

Used (misused) as some kind of representational grid or facsimile of ‘the real’, language has indeed withered to inert routine and cliche’. Made to stand for inaccessible phenomenalities, words have been reduced to corrupt servitude. They are no longer fit for poets or rigorous thinkers (poetry being thought at its most rigorous). Only when we realize that what words refer to are other words, that any speech-act in reference to experience is always a ‘saying in other words’, can we return to a true freedom. It is within the language system alone that we possess liberties of construction and of deconstruction… so boundless, so dynamic, so proper to the evident uniqueness of human thought and imagining that, in comparison, external reality, whatever that might or might not be, is little more than brute intractability and deprivation. (p. 97)

When Steiner says there was a link between words and reality, he means that before Mallarmé, everyone agreed there was such a link. When he says there is no more link, he means people now agree there is no such link. That is all that matters. The surprising thing is that, given certain peculiar environmental conditions, this can be a self-consistent worldview.

Steiner isn’t a model post-modernist, and might not like being called a post-modernist. He seems to be Catholic, and where your typical post-modernist says, “Words can’t access reality and so have no meaning,” Steiner says, “Words can’t access reality and therefore it is God who imbues them with meaning.” But this post is entirely about how one can believe that we can know nothing about reality and be self-consistent, not about how one can believe that we can know nothing about reality and escape nihilism. Steiner is adequate for this purpose.

Post-modernism as philosophical behaviorism

His index contains only proper nouns because he doesn’t believe in any-thing but people and texts. Modernism? What’s that? A concept that does not correspond to anything in the world. Where is “modernism” in between books? Nowhere. It is no-thing. Steiner does not refer to “modernism”, but only to the relations between the words in particular works and of particular thinkers. It is a philosophical analogue of behaviorism: There are no concepts in the world in post-modernism, just as there are no concepts in the brain in behaviorism. Philosophical rigor requires dealing only in the word-streams that emanated from previous individuals, not in false “concepts” reified from those word-streams.

Steiner makes many exceptions to this, of course; otherwise he could not use language at all. But he does not think of writers as discovering things that exist in the world. Post-modernists introduce metaphors (“rhizome”), processes for creating post-modern art (“bricolage”, “pastiche”, “mash-up”), and endless terms to describe different ways of relating art / word to meaning / reality / original (“camp”, “différance”, “incommensurable”, “indeterminacy”, “kitsch”, “language games”, “parody”, “simulacra”) and text to text (“intertextual”, “metafiction”, “meta-narrative”), but these are not the kinds of words that show up in indices. They are relationships and attributes, but not in themselves things one talks about as bridges or sine waves are. Post-modernists aren’t taxonomists. The world of things is irrelevant to them.

Post-modernism as improv

This also explains why Steiner never worries whether the things he says are correct, contradictory, or sensible [2]. He never asks whether the sources he cites are correct or contradictory. A citation, to him, is the same as a proof. The only criteria of a proposition’s admissibility is that it has already been accepted into the game [3]. Dialectic requires embracing contradictions; it moves forward by pasting them together in aesthetically-appealing ways. Given only statements that don’t contradict each other, a post-modernist could say nothing.

That’s why Steiner only rarely says anyone is wrong, and never anyone who is an accepted part of the literary canon or of the post-modernist word-game. Because the first rule of the word game is: You cannot say anything is wrong once it’s part of the game.

This is also the key rule of improv comedy. A member of an improv troupe might say or do something that appears to paint the sketch into a corner, but the other members must never contradict it or deny it. Postmodern dialectics should not be thought of as an attempt to be correct, but as an extended game of improv.

Even when post-modernists wish to make the ultimate condemnation of a viewpoint, they don’t say it’s wrong, they say it’s “dead” (implying it was once alive and vital) [4]. Arguments are not wrong or right; they are in fashion or out of fashion. It isn’t a question of whether a statement corresponds to reality; it’s a question of whether the person who said it was playing the game correctly at the time. Aristotle can get away with talking about truth because the game demanded belief in objective truth when he wrote. A citation to something he said is a proof; a restatement of it is idiocy.

The post-modernists have been trying to explain this to us all along. They say it over and over: Words do not correspond to reality. Understanding this leads to the “freedom” to say anything. Philosophy is a word-game. Philosophical discourse is done via dialectic, in which you take two contradictory earlier views and combine them without resolving their contradictions.

Once you have all four principles, enough like-minded colleagues to play word-games with, and no fear of your games having any personal consequences to you, you can play your word-games forever.

Post-modernism versus science

Steiner devotes p. 69-86 to this puzzle: How does science produce things that work when it relies entirely on the false belief that its claims are objectively true? “The ultimate grounds of this contract [between theory and fact] remain enigmatic. Why it should be that the external world, in the naive, obvious sense, should concur with the regularity-postulates, with the mathematical and rule-bound expectations of investigative rationalism, no one knows.” (p. 71)

He suggests (p. 72) that science works because God deigns to indulge it. But he insists that science and “theory” [5] have no place in literature and the arts, and presents as proof his statement that theories of art cannot be tested, and a list of famous works of literature he has read that are all different from each other (p. 75-76).

It’s difficult to make sense of this section, but it is clear that Steiner doesn’t think scientists are playing the game. Of course they violate the first rule, by calling some statements wrong, but it’s more than that. He equates theory and scientific thought with computation (p. 83-84). Science and theory, for him, are mere calculation, the turning of a crank after the appropriate meat is dropped into the grinder. Science is not as rich as language: “No formalization is of an order adequate to the semantic mass and motion of literature, to the wealth of denotation, connotation, implicit reference, elision and tonal register which envelop saying what one means and meaning what one says or neither. There is a palpable sense in which one can see that the total explicative context, the total horizon of relevant values which surround the meaning of the meaning of any verbal or written utterance is that of the universe as human beings, who are beings of speech, inhabit it.” (p. 83)

He does not address the question of how theories, which do predict reality, can be developed by playing the language game; his remarks in other sections insist, repeatedly and emphatically, that statements in language can never escape the circle of language to refer to reality. I think he is unaware that science includes creating theories by thinking. He also does not notice that he has explained the surprising power of science by saying it is less powerful than what he does when he thinks.

But he does not need to address these things. He has cited Wittgenstein; he can move on. His post-modernist colleagues will not ask whether he has used Wittgenstein “correctly”, as long as he does it with passion and style. He goes home, turns on a switch, and the room is lit; he turns a faucet and water comes out. Science works its magic, as it should. It would be beneath his dignity and the nobility of his thoughts to concern himself with such brute mechanical concerns.

Post-modernism versus the environment

Consider the environments that the most-prominent post-modernist philosophers did their major work in:

Jean Baudrillard: Paris
Jean François Lyotard: Paris
Michel Foucault: Paris
Jacques Derrida: Paris
Jacques Lacan: Paris
Richard Rorty: Princeton

The post-modern mind-view is so hard to grasp because one immediately perceives that regular encounters with reality would shatter it. Like a hothouse orchid, it can survive only in one environment: a mind that does not interact with the physical world. This is found in city-dwellers with academic tenure in the humanities. The “freedom” they worship is not freedom to think or act, but freedom from consequences. They are free, quite literally, from reality.

For two things to interact means each has an effect on the other. The natural state of humans is one of constant interaction with the environment. Consider an early European settler of the American plains. The environment continually acts on him, forcing changes in his behavior: Winter is coming; he must gather firewood. It looks like a storm; he must put off his trip to town and gather the animals in the barn. He continually acts on the environment: He builds a cabin, digs an irrigation ditch, builds a fence. He must continually model and predict the world, and take steps to achieve favorable outcomes.

Now consider a tenured post-modernist literature professor in Paris. If it is cold, he turns up the thermostat. If he is hungry, he goes out into the street and exchanges little pieces of paper for food, at stores that are open 365 days a year, nearly 24 hours a day. He never has any need to model or predict the environment. He lives in an apartment, works in a school, and commutes there by train; the sum total of the environment’s effect on him is to determine whether or not he takes an umbrella.

The main source of unpredictability in his life is the train he takes to work. Imagine our post-modernist waiting for a train that is to arrive at 8:25. At 8:26, it has not arrived. A non-postmodernist might say, “The schedule said the train would arrive at 8:25, but it was wrong.” If he were a railroad employee, this would matter; he would have to realize the train had, in fact, not arrived, and figure out what had gone wrong and how to correct it. But a post-modernist is free instead to say, “The schedule says the train will arrive at 8:25. My eyes say the train did not arrive. Life is indeed full of unresolvable contradictions.” He is so occupied in this reverie that he fails to notice as the train pulls in, and everyone else on the platform boards. After it has left, he notices, and says, “Fascinating! For them, the train arrived. For me, it did not.” Because he has no impact on the train, and because missing the train and being late has no impact on him (he has tenure), he is free to deny the objective reality of trains and their arrivals.

Likewise, he has no opportunity to influence the environment. His apartment is rented; he may not modify it. Every inch of the street he traverses is owned by someone else and subject to a thousand regulations concerning its use.

The only things that affect him are word games, with his colleagues, students, and the administration. Even gaining tenure and climbing the ladder to an administrative position are word games. The only effects he has are in word games. He does not inter-act with the real world beyond the word games.

This seems contradictory at first–aren’t many post-modernists political activists? Yes, but they would never participate in politics on the local level, knocking on actual doors to get votes to build an actual local community center. They are interested only in grand political visions: Marxism, Revolution, Globalization, Humanity. Frederic Jameson describes post-modern politics as “without a party, without a homeland [patrie], without a national community . . . without co-citizenship, without adherence to a class.” This is essential, because any <connection with reality through which post-modern rhetoric may accidentally cause an observable effect in the real world> would turn its own sword of deconstruction against itself.

The self-consistency of post-modernism

Steiner and many other post-modernist philosophers have literally crazy beliefs, but they can hold those beliefs and be self-consistent, because they live in a world where other people deal with reality for them. Indeed, a scientist put in the shoes of a literary critic would fail miserably; he would play the language-game all wrong and be kicked out of the game. Once someone has learned to play the word-game well, the natural human neural mechanisms that reinforce behavior that is rewarded will only strengthen their faith in the way they see the world.

[1] Post-modernists don’t “mean” anything in the sense of believing it, or even ascribing objective meaning to it. But the sentences they utter convey the propositions they intend to convey. You can’t ascribe the most-sympathetic interpretation you can imagine to anything a post-modernist says; that would nearly always mangle their meaning.

[2] He implies the Greeks believed Anselm’s ontological argument for a monotheistic God (p. 88). He implies undecidable languages are languages in which every sentence is undecidable (p. 61). He claims to know the motives of Cro-Magnon cave painters (p. 211). On page 78 he says Aristotle’s “Poetics” is a theory; on page 86 he insists it is not. He says critics should not write about literature other than the classics, then criticizes them for all writing about the classics. He says each sentence conveys infinite meaning; he says no sentence can convey any meaning at all. In the space of a few pages, he provides his second definition of all art in all media, criticizes the arrogance of people who create theories of literature, and then presents his third all-encompassing theory of what makes good art. He admits his own discipline has generated almost nothing but uncountable useless books and articles every year for hundreds of years, then dismisses experimental approaches to literature as “barren” after about five years and a hundred papers. The thesis of his book, that good art requires logocentrism, contradicts two of the primary claims he invokes to support it–that (1) we must accept the modernist critique of language, and (2) the modernist critique of language destroyed logocentrism.

[3] Note the resultant extreme concentration of power: Claims are evaluated not according to their truth, but according to whether members of elite institutions read and comment on them. Post-modernism is therefore evolutionarily fit as a meme in any elitist discipline, because it gives more power to those already in power.

[4] This is after Nietzsche, the ur-post-modernist, who said “God is dead; we have killed him”, not “there is no God”, and may have meant it.

[5] Steiner appears to think that a “theory” is a set of rules that can deterministically predict every last detail of the object under study (p. 77). A theory that claims to explain Hamlet, in his view, must be able to write Hamlet.