Review: House Made of Dawn


House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1968)

I’m trying to read all some of the Pulitzer winners; this is one.

Momaday is a Kiowa, and this short book is very Native American. I don’t know if a book could have been “Native American” before the homogenization of Native Americans thru movies, historical revisionism, pow-wow culture, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but today there is a Native American way, and even a Native American accent, which I’ve found everywhere from the Creek of Florida, to the Iroqouis of New York, to the Hopi in New Mexico.

The book is in four parts, and four is the number of wholeness to the Navajo (and perhaps to the Kiowa as well), just as three is to whites. More “Indian”, though, is the reluctance to exclude or explain thing.

I remember trying to learn to make blowgun darts from an old Creek in Georgia. I told him the seed-fluff I was using for fins was too tangled, and he turned his back on me and started doing something. I was angry until I noticed he was making a tool to straighten them. He was trying to solve my problem; he just didn’t want to explain in words.

Momaday uses lots of words, but in the Indian way, of observing and pointing things out, rather than the “white man” way, of categorizing and summarizing. By the end of the novel, I wanted some white man words.

Realist, modernist, and especially post-modernist writing assumes that there is something unsavory about authorial intent, and that the job of the novelist is to record what is there. Along those same lines, this book is not an instantiation or proof of a theme, but a gestalt, and so it moves in expanding circles, from Abel, to his father, to the white woman who fucks him, to the priest who doesn’t realize he wants to fuck the woman, to the dead priest whose diary that priest reads.

But can a novel work simply by reporting lifelike events, and trusting there is something worthwhile in them? No. If so, we would live life, or perhaps read newspapers, instead of reading novels. The author must know, or at least sense, some themes.

Are these stories connected thematically? Most of the narrators want something from Abel, or from the Native Americans. Is that important? No commentator seems to think so, and I don’t think so. Why are Father Olguin, Angela, and the other priest in the story? They have no narratively-significant connection to anything else in the story, yet take a third of the book. Possibly they are to illustrate other ways of failing to connect with others. The priest does not acknowledge his own desire and deliberately isolates himself; Angela desires Abel and has him sexually, yet fails completely to touch or understand him in the way that she wants to.

Many people say the story is about Abel’s inability to connect with either the Kiowa or the city. But there is less than one paragraph in the entire book about Abel’s difficulty going back to the reservation after prison. If the story were about Abel’s alienation from his own people, it would have to have something in it about why Abel is alienated from his own people, but it doesn’t. If it is supposed to make a general point about the Native American condition of alienation from modern society, it would have to make a better case for why Abel is alienated from the city than the fact that he killed somebody and so is hassled by parole officers and social workers. Most Native Americans haven’t killed anybody lately.

This book would have made a good series of poems, or one good short story. But it isn’t a novel, unless I’m missing the story.

Stylistically, it is equal parts exhilarating and infuriating. You’re either going to love or hate this stuff:

In the early morning the land lay huge and sluggish, discernible only as a whole, with nothing in relief except its own sheer, brilliant margin as far away as the eye could see, and beyond that the nothingness of the sky. Silence lay like water on the land, and even the frenzy of the dogs below was feeble and a long time in finding the ear.

It’s beautiful for one paragraph, but becomes a slog when this goes on for pages. Perhaps a fifth of the novel is description like this. When Momaday wants to show how a character feels, it’s hardcore show-don’t-tell:

Something there struck beneath the level of his weariness, struck and took hold in his hearing like the cry of a small creature–a field mouse or a young rabbit. Evening gives motion to the air, and the long blades of corn careen and collide, and there is always at dusk the rustling of leaves that settle into night. But was it that? All day his mind had wandered over the past, habitually, beyond control and even the least notion of control, but his thoughts had been by some slight strand of attention anchored to his work. The steady repetition of his backward steps — the flash of the hoe and the sure advance of the brown water after it – had been a small reality from which his mind must venture and return. But now, at the end of long exertion, his age and body let go of the mind, and he was suddenly conscious of some alien presence close at hand. And he knew as suddenly, too, that it had been there for a long time, not approaching, but impending for minutes, and even hours, upon the air and the growth and the land around. He held his breath and listened. His ears rang with weariness; beyond that there was nothing save the soft sound of water and wind and, somewhere among the farthest rows, the momentary scuffle of a quail; then the low whistle and blowing of the mares in the adjacent field, reminding him of the time. But there was something else; something apart from these, not quite absorbed into the ordinary silence: an excitement of breathing in the instance just past, all ways immediate, irrevocable even now that it had ceased to be. He peered into the dark rows of corn from which no sound had come, in which no presence was. There was only the deep black wall of stocks and leaves, vibrating slowly upon his tired vision like water. He was too old to be afraid. His acknowledgment of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was. He set a blessing upon the corn and took up his hoe. He shuffled out between the rows, towards the dim light at the edge of the cornfield.

I’ve read that four times now and still don’t know what it’s trying to say. I think I’d have given up if I hadn’t been stuck for five hours in an emergency room with nothing else to read.

Momaday has a poet’s eye for fine descriptions, but sometimes he will describe the smoke curling from the houses before he has told us that there are houses. He throws up a barrage of details about the land without telling you where you are, and you’ll have to read four paragraphs of similes about clouds and sunsets and hills before you realize you are in the same valley he has described three times already. And he has combined Faulkner’s substitution of puzzles (scenes out of chronological order, with unidentified narrators) for depth with the affected ungrammaticality we’ll see later in Cormac McCarthy. (A couple of the scenes cannot be attributed definitely to any character, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether a scene break indicates a new narrator, but that may be a device to suggest continuity beyond the individual.)

The characters are described similarly to the scenery: with poetic detail, yet in a way that often leaves me with no clear picture. There are two entire pages describing Abel’s fight to the death with the albino, which skillfully convey Abel’s physical feelings; but very little to tell us who the albino is, what history they had between them, or why they fought, and so we learn little about Abel from this dramatic central scene.

I think the Pulitzer committee chose the book for political reasons, but I don’t think they were wrong to do so. With great power comes great responsibility. This was the first well-known novel by a Native American; many others followed soon after. If you have the power to bring attention to the literary work of an entire race, then you ought to do that sometimes.


Review: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying


As I Lay Dying is one of the most-famous novels in American literature. I came in with pretty high expectations. I wasn’t exactly disappointed: It does what famous 20th-century literary novels do, which is combine insight into characters with stylistic innovations. But it sure has a lot of flaws.

There are “spoilers” in here, but this isn’t the kind of story that relies on plot twists to keep you reading. I’d have appreciated it better if I’d known what was going to happen (and, often, what was happening).

Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy invites obvious comparison with Faulkner’s work: Both are written by country folk about country folk, are full of details of rural life, and focus at least as much on their characters’ psychology as on action sequences. Both have a unique style that combines startling poetic passages with disregard for whether the reader can tell what’s going on.


Let me start with the style, as that’s the most divisive thing about both men’s writing, but in different ways. Both of them have a flashy big-S Style, and a precious little-s style.

By little-s style I mean the way they construct sentences, supposing someone told them what each sentence had to say and gave them a bag of words they could use. Both make unusual choices about apostrophes, speech tags, and clause-joining. In Faulkner’s case he seems to have decided to lexicalize certain contractions but not others, to avoid deliberately-ordered sentence structures such as this one, and to avoid all speech tags but “said”. In McCarthy’s case it’s just part of a rebellion against grammar, whose transparent purpose is to keep his books from being shelved together with Louis L’Amour.

The problem with Faulkner’s little-s style isn’t that it’s bad in Faulkner’s work; the problem is that it leads to Cormac McCarthy. So many critics have praised Faulkner’s style, but it’s hard to tell when they’re praising the good things about his style, and when they’re praising him merely for being weird. McCarthy learned all the wrong lessons from Faulkner, throwing out quotation marks, apostrophes, and commas as a declaration of literary intent rather than because his characters talk that way. Faulkner avoids semi-colons because his characters never plan their sentences, and a semi-colon occurs only where a speaker has thought about the structure of the sentence before speaking it and broken it down into clauses and sub-clauses. McCarthy just converts semi-colons into commas, to look like Faulkner. Faulkner uses “says” everywhere to be simple. McCarthy omits quotation marks and speech tags everywhere to be simpler, with the result that he has long dialogues with no speech tags that are literally impossible, as he lost track somewhere in the middle of who was speaking, and comes out the other end having swapped speakers.

By big-S style I mean the way Faulkner’s characters come out with sudden poetic metaphors, or the way McCarthy lingers over the landscape and then explodes into a long run-on burst of poetry. Faulkner is dazzling but distracting. He takes care to have characters say things the way country folk would say them, then ruins it by sprinkling bits in their internal monologue like “her leg coming long from beneath her tightening dress: that lever which moves the world; one of that caliper which measures the length and breadth of life,” that no farmer would ever say outside of a church, let alone about his sister. He tosses four-syllable Oxford English Dictionary vocabulary and avant-garde analogies into their internal thoughts at random, just because he thought of it at that point. These are uneducated farmers who speak in words of one and two syllables, and I had to use a dictionary to figure out what they were thinking sometimes. McCarthy uses his poetry and metaphors strategically, focusing the reader on important elements and important transitions. Faulkner jizzes metaphors all over inappropriate characters at inappropriate times, which sometimes make no sense. McCarthy is in control; Faulkner seems to be writing drunk.

Both Faulkner and McCarthy have problems with ambiguity. In McCarthy’s case, it’s mere carelessness. If you find a “he” or a “him” in one of his sentences, there’s no guarantee that you can look to the left and to the right and figure out who it is. Important dialogue might be unattributed to a specific character, or in Spanish.

In Faulkner’s case, it’s deliberate. He loves to introduce a character into a scene without telling us who it is, or whether they are male or female, or how old they are, until later; or even to slip the character in in a way designed to mislead us into thinking it’s someone else (as is done at a critical point in Addie’s chapter, portraying her infidelity in a way designed to mislead us into thinking there was no infidelity).

Ambiguity has been fetishized by literary critics. A fetish is something that has been involved in sexual pleasure frequently enough that the pleasure is associated with that thing, and it seems as pleasing to the fetishist as the original stimuli. Valid literary ambiguity is when the characters have ambiguous thoughts, feelings, or ways of describing what happened. That’s like at the climax of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, when John Singer doesn’t know what he is feeling.

Faulkner specializes in phony ambiguity created by deliberately concealing critical parts of a character’s thought. This is a valid literary technique when an unreliable narrator is deliberately concealing things from the reader. But it’s just a gimmick when Faulkner use it to create ambiguity. Dewey Dell obsesses over Peabody and thinks how he could “make everything right for her,” misleading us into thinking she has romantic feelings for him, until we find out much later that she wants him to give her an abortion. But Dewey Dell knows perfectly well what she wants from him, and isn’t aware of being a narrator, so this “ambiguity” only detracts from the story being told by fooling us into constructing some other story. When Addie narrates her infidelity in a way to conceal the fact that the man she was screwing was not her husband, this wasn’t a valid literary technique to show that Addie is deceiving herself; it was Faulkner leaving the necessary words out. Addie knew perfectly well whom she was screwing, and the words of her narrative showed that she thought of it as infidelity, which is why it was (deliberately) confusing. When Vardaman spills his stream-of-consciousness internal monologue on us in early chapters, we have no idea what he’s talking about until nearly the end of the book, at which point we learn he was thinking about a train he saw in a store window. But Vardaman knew exactly what he was talking about! This ambiguity isn’t a reflection of life’s and language’s complexity; it’s a distracting guessing game that conceals the story unnaturally.


When I began the novel, I thought Faulkner had the win in this regard. McCarthy tells westerns. They may dwell on the thoughts and feelings of the characters more than Louis L’Amour does, and they may be disguised by strange grammar and punctuation, but the stories themselves are westerns about strong, virtuous men thrown into bad circumstances and fighting their way out. Faulkner seemed to be writing about normal people with normal problems. But as usually happens with Faulkner, I gradually realized he had leaned a little toward a Southern Gothic freak show. If the Bundren family were here today, they would get their own reality TV show. Instead of normal people dealing with normal problems, we have a dysfunctional, disconnected family creating their own problems of flood, fire, and insanity. It’s a bunch of improbable sadfics mushed together. Cash is a good man with bad luck who doesn’t stand up to the morons around him. Jewel is his own worst enemy. Dewey Dell has lost her virtue. Addie didn’t love her husband. Etc. The characters act on each other mechanically, as weights and pulleys, rather than having emotional ties. The wordcount-eating subplot with Darl going insane, committing arson, and being taken away was one big WTF that ate up the last third of the novel and didn’t connect with anything else. I guess Faulkner just wanted to get a fire in there after his flood, for the sake of completeness.

The strength of the novel should then be in portraying each of the characters realistically. But character portrayal is always two steps forward, two steps back. The Southern Gothic problem runs through much of Faulkner’s work, making it implausible and not very relevant for people who aren’t insane or from dysfunctional families. Another aspect is the stylistic problem I already mentioned, throwing jarring academic language into the thoughts of “simple Southern folk”. And Faulkner sometimes throws one such startling metaphor into one character’s thoughts, and then throws the same metaphor in the same words into another character’s thoughts later, not only disrupting both characters but homogenizing them.

Then we have the most-irritating problem with Faulkner: Stream of consciousness. It’s what he’s famous for. As I mentioned before, he uses it to throw phony ambiguity everywhere.

Paragraphs, sentences, or words in internal monologues are italicized at random. In the worst cases, the italics indicate an intrusion into this character’s thoughts by some other unidentified character or characters. This is Faulkner being cute by not telling us things. If you want to do a stream of consciousness, fine; but give us the whole stream. If a character, during one conversation, mentally recollects an earlier conversation, he also recollects who he was talking to, and when and where it was. Faulkner just jams in the dialogue with no indication of who is/was speaking, deliberately disorienting us in a way that is not true to life.

But usually it’s just a section of their ongoing monologue that is continuous with what’s around it, but set off by italics in random places, as if Faulkner had a sticky “italics” key on his keyboard. I found it enormously distracting and time-consuming to stare at it until I concluded it was meaningless.

Another problem with his stream of consciousness is that he likes to use children and mental defectives as narrators, but has no idea how such people think. It seems like he just grabbed a fifth of whatever alcohol was nearest when he needed to write such a character, then vomited drunken meaninglessness across the page. Here’s a section that is supposed to represent the thoughts of a child:

The train is behind the glass, red on the track. When it runs the track shines on and off. Pa said flour and sugar and coffee costs so much. Because I am a country boy because boys in town. Bicycles. Why do flour and sugar and coffee cost so much when he is a country boy. “Wouldn’ t you ruther have some bananas instead?” Bananas are gone, eaten. Gone. When it runs on the track shines again. “Why aint I a town boy, pa?” I said. God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If He can make the train, why cant He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee.

This isn’t how little kids think. They don’t even talk quite this disjointedly, but imagining that they think like this, well, that would take someone who doesn’t interact with children and has forgotten what it was like to be one.

Here’s the way he writes the thoughts of a man beginning to go crazy:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not.

Or maybe it’s just a man starting to fall asleep. Ordinarily I’d say it isn’t, since the narrator never said anything like “And then I lay down and tried to sleep,” but Faulkner wouldn’t give us plain statements of fact like that, because that would spoil the fun of puzzling out what the hell was going on.

The narrative voice in this novel is different from other first-person novels. It feels like they’re thinking, or talking to themselves, not like they’re talking to you. But it’s hard to put my finger on why. Maybe this is the good part about his stream-of-consciousness style. If so, that isn’t the part that people usually imitate when they do stream-of-consciousness. I associate it with broken grammar, sentence fragments, and thoughts that crash into each other in a heap. But maybe it also means this simple, direct, un-self-conscious first-person narration. I can’t say how he does it, but it is different.

The more that I think about it, the more I think that what makes it work is exactly what I’ve been complaining about—the lack of context or explanation. In a normal first-person story, every time the narrator gives you background or context, it shows she’s aware of you, the reader. Faulkner’s characters never give you the background or context you need to interpret them. That’s what makes them so confusing, but that’s also what makes the narrative seem like a window into their minds, which abolishes any fear of deliberate manipulation or misleading of the reader.

A person doesn’t usually think to themselves, “My ma is 45 years old,” or, “I have always hated lemons,” so you see how that makes it difficult to introduce context. Still, I think Faulkner takes it too far. There are ways to go back, recognize that certain information must be introduced, and have the characters say something that implies it. And Faulkner habitually leaves out critical information that the characters would have been thinking to themselves, which seems deliberate.

Faulkner’s “simple folk wisdom” sometimes makes his characters phony. Darl thinks too much, so he goes crazy. I reckon that’s what happens when you get too much book-learnin’, Floyd. We have genetic determinism in the horses and in the character of Jewel. (When a horse is mean, it’s because he comes from bad stock, not because you beat him every day.) And we have the “Christians are all fanatics and hypocrites” meme in Cora and the minister, and the way Anse uses the word “Christian” to manipulate people.

I had maybe more problems than I should have with simple plausibility issues.
– There’s one point where Darl says Jewel is following them 300 yards behind, and then gives a detailed description of what the folks 300 yards behind are doing and look like.
– There’s a crucial scene fording a river, which is described as being nearly 100 yards wide normally and the water so high now you can’t even tell where the river is. Aside from the insanity of trying to drive a wagon underwater through a ford after a long thunderstorm, we then have people diving into the river to retrieve all of the tools that they dropped when their wagon was swept away. Now, a river under such circumstances is wild beyond endurance, and as much mud as water; and those tools would be spread out over an area 100 feet wide, 10-20 feet deep, and half a mile long, and the description of them diving into it and retrieving the tools made me want to set the book down and laugh.
– The story is supposed to be realistic, but there’s one paragraph where a character speaks a remarkably specific prophecy that comes true later, not accomplishing anything thematically or story-wise, yet turning the whole novel into a fantasy.

Maybe my biggest problem was the lack of basic cues that would help us figure out who these people were and what their relationships to each other were. Things like what century it is, whether the town they’re in is big or small, or how old they are. The text makes it sound like Addie’s about 80 when she dies, but the ages of her children (which you don’t find out until later) imply she’s about 45. That makes a big difference to how we expect folk to feel when someone dies. We’re told lots about Anse’s reluctance to do hard physical work, but not whether he’s young or old, which would help us interpret this. Jewel bullies the brothers about and seems to be the oldest son; near the end of the book we find out he’s 10 years younger than Darl. (When someone has an entire novel about a set of brothers and we can’t tell which one is the oldest, they’ve failed.) I think Dewey Dell is a little girl, maybe thirteen, then find out near the end that she’s 17 and beautiful, and this is crucial information that would have helped me understand what she was doing all through the book.

I believe this could have been a better book if Faulkner had resisted the temptation of giving everybody their own sad story. The good stuff was diluted by too many chapters devoted to too many underdeveloped and under-integrated characters, especially Dewey Dell, who should’ve been eliminated from the book, and Vardaman, who got too much screen time, especially since his thoughts usually didn’t make sense. I also think that a book about a family should have some points where the family members understand each other and reach out to each other. The lack of that makes the novel something of a grotesque. If you want Southern Gothic, go for it.

The novel has many great things about it, mostly the way folks talk, the characters that are clearly-portrayed and interesting (Anse, Cash, and Vernon Tull), and the insights into why people do what they do. I should list a few of these:

– Anse, the father, is determined to bury his wife far away at Jefferson, when he hardly ever gets determined about anything, and it seems like he gets some sort of gratification out of the difficulty of it, as if it were a proof that he had hard luck.
– Vernon notes that Anse isn’t lazy about doing things, he’s lazy about changing what he’s doing, so that he hates to start a job, and then hates to stop it when he should.
– Vardaman, the little boy, beats the doctor’s horses because he blames the doctor for killing his ma. And he’s right. The doctor came; she saw him and decided it was time to die. The curious thing was that the father hated to call a doctor because of the expense, and yet at the last moment, when nothing could be done, the adults all believed that they had to call a doctor because that’s what one does, while only the little boy looked at the situation and saw it clearly.
– Darl is institutionalized, but Anse, Jewel, and maybe Cash are all crazier than he is.

I didn’t emphasize them because I’m so ticked off about it being admired and imitated for all the wrong reasons. It’s recognized as a classic for its use of stream of consciousness, and for its realistic portrayal of realistic people. I got more out of it than I did out of All the Pretty Horses, but I think its stream of consciousness was a gimmick, poorly done, that was part of a larger infuriating game Faulkner was playing called “confuse the reader”. The characters were not very representative of reality, and their portrayals were a mix, stylistically and in content, oscillating wildly between realistic and insightful, and fake and shallow. Most importantly, the family members didn’t seem to have a history with each other and their stories didn’t connect with each other. You could say that was a meditation on the loneliness possible in a large family, but I, having experience with large families, would call it sloppy writing. I find myself wondering whether someone in search of honest portrayals of country folk wouldn’t be better off reading a James Herriot book.

Review of the Iliad


Western civilization began with the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Greeks agreed unanimously that their religion, ethics, and poetry began with The Iliad. So that’s where my review of Western literature will begin.

The Greeks would have said “Homer”, and they would have meant the person who wrote at least The Iliad and The Odyssey. I haven’t done any stylometrics on ancient Greek, but even supposing it were meaningful to talk about the “person” who wrote either, I don’t think it’s useful to group the Iliad and the Odyssey together. The Iliad is a civilization-founding work of philosophy. The Odyssey is a boy’s adventure tale, not meriting special attention. It is more fun to read, though.

I remembered the Iliad as a surprisingly gutsy story for one so old, that took a tough look at the morality of war, duty, honor, and love. Then I read a plot summary of it, and realized I was remembering Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida instead.

When I read the thing itself, I initially hated it. All I saw was a badly-written story with revolting values praised to the heavens so old people who’d gone to Oxbridge could pretend to be the arbiters of taste. But over time, I saw its importance in Western history, and some of the genius behind it. The analysis I’ll present here is unique; nobody’s come to these conclusions before. But I don’t think they’re difficult. People are just stupid when they elevate something to the level of a scripture. It makes it impossible to see it for itself anymore.

Rating the Iliad as a 21st century American is a little silly. The Iliad is the exemplar of the values and aesthetics of its time. By reading it, we can learn how much humanity has changed in 2800 years, and how much it’s stayed the same. We can ask whether great literature is timeless or transient. So the Iliad is important.

What it isn’t, though, is a good read for a modern person. It turns out great literature isn’t timeless after all.

Did I read the whole thing? Absolutely not. I got halfway through before turning to condensed versions and the Cliffs Notes.

There are spoilers here. But come on. You’ve had 2,800 years to read it.

Which Iliad?

I tried Alexander Pope’s 1720 translation, which reads like a ghastly nursery rhyme:

The Greeks in shouts their joint assent declare,
The priest to reverence, and release the fair.
Not so Atrides; he, with kingly pride,
Repulsed the sacred sire, and thus replied:

Chapman’s 1598 translation is longer (230,000 words!), and only marginally better:

Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls losed

Los-ed? Seriously?

I plunged ahead with Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation. It doesn’t try to versify; it renders it as prose. The words seemed stronger and easier to read. All three translations changed the names of the Greek gods into their Roman equivalents, which I found irritating and, frankly, disrespectful. Supposedly the Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Martin Hammond, and Rodney Merrill translations are much better, but they cost money. Oddly, for the most renowned story in Western literature, I had a hard time finding a pirated copy. There are free online versions by Ian Johnston and Anthony Kline (2009).

(Pirates are probably all reading the Odyssey.)

I eventually found Robert Fagles’ 1990 translation, which is free verse. It has a poetic feel like Butler’s, with meter and consonance, without grasping at weak words to fill in the meter, or falling into sing-song whine as Chapman and Pope do.

If you really want to try reading the thing, try the abridged Ian Johnston (pdf here.) It’s only 50,000 words, and this sucker is at least 150,000 words otherwise.

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Aesthetics

Reading the Iliad in 2018 demands an answer to the question of whether there is a timeless, objective “good” for literature. This story was valued far above all others throughout ancient Greece–it was heresy to say otherwise–and was the most-popular candidate for greatest work of fiction of all time at least until the 19th century, and maybe until James Joyce’s Ulysses. [1] Since that claim has been made, I’ll evaluate The Iliad aesthetically first.

It’s easy to point out that the Iliad is formulaic, unstructured, and about 5 times as long as it ought to be, but this is a feature, not a bug. The text we see may be more like the source code to the Iliad than like what most ancient Greeks heard. A bard would memorize the whole thing, then tell each audience just the parts he thought they’d be most-interested in, or that they had time for. That’s why it’s so formulaic and unstructured. It’s modular: you can skip paragraphs or whole chapters without missing much. This makes the Iliad a bad model for written fiction. Oral poetry can be tailored by a good bard to a specific audience, but in return it gives up the power of a complex, dramatic, thematically-unified structure.

The Good

There are many poetic lines. But I can’t tell how much is the poetry of Homer, and how much that of the translator. I like this translation by Fagle:

Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

But Butler’s translation is trite and obvious:

Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground, but when spring returns the forest buds forth with fresh vines. Even so is it with the generations of mankind, the new spring up as the old are passing away.

Which was Homer?

Here Stanley Lombardo’s translation has poetry:

“Who could blame either the Trojans or the Greeks
For suffering so long for a woman like this.
Her eyes are not human.
Whatever she is, let her go back with the ships.” (III, 164-167)

where Fagles’ translation has none:

Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her. for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty!
A deathless goddess–so she strikes our eyes!
But still,
ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long ships.

Homer uses powerful, clean language, full of quick metaphors, similes, and bits of physical detail. He maintains a heroic style but seldom falls into purple prose. This comes across best in the prose translations:

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

Now and then he adds little details that make me think, yeah, this guy might have fought in a war.

With these words she put heart and soul into them all, while Minerva sprang to the side of the son of Tydeus, whom she found near his chariot and horses, cooling the wound that Pandarus had given him. For the sweat caused by the hand that bore the weight of his shield irritated the hurt: his arm was weary with pain, and he was lifting up the strap to wipe away the blood.

But there are few instances like this–so few that, I know from experience, he could have gotten all of them by talking to a few guys in a bar. And there are other instances where those little details are clearly fabricated:

Antilochus rushed towards him and struck him on the temples with his sword, whereon he fell head first from the chariot to the ground. There he stood for a while with his head and shoulders buried deep in the dust–for he had fallen on sandy soil–till his horses kicked him and laid him flat on the ground, as Antilochus lashed them and drove them off to the host of the Achaeans.

The work from later times which it resembles most in style (AFAIK) is Beowulf, but it’s surprisingly similar, even in 18th and 19th-century translations, to American fiction post-Hemingway: strong verbs, few adverbs, and a nearly-neutral external viewpoint that, more than most literature after it, shows instead of telling. The bard comments on the courage and strength of the characters, but reviewers don’t notice that he’s usually silent on the larger moral questions. Is Achilles’ rage justified? When does pride become a vice? This is a key question everywhere, but Homer doesn’t answer it. Men and gods argue, and don’t agree. Western writers failed to learn “show, don’t tell” from Homer for 2,700 years, despite chanting all the while that writers must only imitate Homer. People are stupid.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in a 1766 essay, “Laokoon”, explains why (in his opinion) paintings of Homer’s scenes are boring: Homer describes things with actions and histories, not images. When he wants to describe Agamemnon’s armor, he doesn’t pause the action to describe it; he has Agamemnon put it on, piece by piece. When he wants to describe the bow of Pandarus, he describes how it was made. He would rather describe the history than the appearance of people and things. All those swords whose histories Tolkien describes so lovingly–that’s straight from Homer. And the histories tell you more important things about them than a description would.

He renders few authorial opinions other than whether a man was courageous, wise, generous, or of noble or divine descent. He doesn’t say whether the war, or Achilles’ pride, or Zeus’ lies, are moral or immoral. He has other characters comment on these things, but when one god accuses Achilles of pride, another speaks in his defense, and Homer doesn’t say which is right. Most interpreters don’t seem to notice this, reading their own prejudices into Homer. My reading is that Homer was saying that even the gods can’t agree what’s wrong and what’s right, so forget about it and do whatever brings you personal honor.

The poetry in the original Greek is supposedly really special. Here’s a New Yorker article describing how Homer supposedly used stress patterns to imitate the sounds of a raging sea.


The Bad

The Iliad is often praised for the distinctness of its characters. I don’t see it. The major characters differ in wisdom, restraint, cleverness, and bravery, but all have the same values and the same tiresome heroic cast, and all but Hector are narcissistic and brutal.

Homer repeats sentences and entire paragraphs frequently. I imagined at first he was going for some hypnotic effect, like the chorus of a song. But I can’t see it, given the great differences in repetition length, spacing, and similarity of context. It seems to me the bard was just being lazy. Some of this repetition just needs a pass from an editor:

The earth groaned beneath them as when the lord of thunder is angry and lashes the land about Typhoeus among the Arimi, where they say Typhoeus lies. Even so did the earth groan beneath them as they sped over the plain.

The dramatic structure is also repetitive. A well-constructed story has a dramatic arc, driven by the decisions of the key characters, with rising action, a climax, and a reversal hinging on some realization related to the theme. There is an identifiable climax in the Iliad, when Achilles finally decides to fight, but before it are 100,000 words of formulaic repetition: One side is about to win the war. Some god interferes and turns the tide. Repeat. I can’t even count how many times this happened. The characters wash up and down the battlefield with the regularity of tides, at the whims of the gods.

It’s formulaic on a fine scale as well. Each battle is merely a string of individual fights, and each fight gives a name, a city of origin, a parentage, a brief history, and an entrance wound for the loser. Piling up hundreds of deaths of walk-ons adds horror, but not weight. It’s like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”: numbing, but not grieving. Here’s a typical passage:

First, Ajax son of Telamon, tower of strength to the Achaeans, broke a phalanx of the Trojans, and came to the assistance of his comrades by killing Acamas son of Eussorus, the best man among the Thracians, being both brave and of great stature. The spear struck the projecting peak of his helmet: its bronze point then went through his forehead into the brain, and darkness veiled his eyes.

Then Diomed killed Axylus son of Teuthranus, a rich man who lived in the strong city of Arisbe, and was beloved by all men; for he had a house by the roadside, and entertained every one who passed; howbeit not one of his guests stood before him to save his life, and Diomed killed both him and his squire Calesius, who was then his charioteer–so the pair passed beneath the earth.

Euryalus killed Dresus and Opheltius, and then went in pursuit of Aesepus and Pedasus, whom the naiad nymph Abarbarea had borne to noble Bucolion. Bucolion was eldest son to Laomedon, but he was a bastard. While tending his sheep he had converse with the nymph, and she conceived twin sons; these the son of Mecisteus now slew, and he stripped the armour from their shoulders. Polypoetes then killed Astyalus, Ulysses Pidytes of Percote, and Teucer Aretaon. Ablerus fell by the spear of Nestor’s son Antilochus, and Agamemnon, king of men, killed Elatus who dwelt in Pedasus by the banks of the river Satnioeis. Leitus killed Phylacus as he was flying, and Eurypylus slew Melanthus.

Butler’s translation is 153,000 words long. About 40,000 of those words are variations of the above. (I estimated using random samples.) Pick a hero; make up a name for a victim, a few facts about his history, and an entry and exit wound. Repeat. This is the inventiveness that Alexander Pope calls “the greatest invention of any writer whatever” by “the greatest writer that ever touched the hearts of men by the power of song.”

Heroes spout great monologues in the middle of heated battle, digressing like Tristram Shandy:

When they were close up to one another Diomed of the loud war-cry was the first to speak. “Who, my good sir,” said he, “who are you among men? I have never seen you in battle until now, but you are daring beyond all others if you abide my onset. Woe to those fathers whose sons face my might. If, however, you are one of the immortals and have come down from heaven, I will not fight you; for even valiant Lycurgus, son of Dryas, did not live long when he took to fighting with the gods. He it was that drove the nursing women who were in charge of frenzied Bacchus through the land of Nysa, and they flung their thyrsi on the ground as murderous Lycurgus beat them with his oxgoad. Bacchus himself plunged terror-stricken into the sea, and Thetis took him to her bosom to comfort him, for he was scared by the fury with which the man reviled him. Thereon the gods who live at ease were angry with Lycurgus and the son of Saturn struck him blind, nor did he live much longer after he had become hateful to the immortals. Therefore I will not fight with the blessed gods; but if you are of them that eat the fruit of the ground, draw near and meet your doom.”

(Glaucus’ reply is three times as long.)

And here’s where the Iliad really falls down: Even after we recognize that Homer’s themes are repugnant to us, his characters unsympathetic, his plot unbelievable, what still draws people to the Iliad is the action. But the action is not that good.

Homer’s description through actions and histories rather than images may have been a virtue made of necessity: he’s a wiz at describing the sound and the feel of things, but seems unable to visualize anything. Maybe he really was blind. We have no idea what Troy looks like, how big it is, how high its walls are, or how close to the sea it is. About halfway into the Iliad we learn it’s near a bay with a sandy beach, and that’s it for description. We have no idea what the land they’re fighting on looks like or how large it is. In battle, we seldom have any idea where anyone is standing. Each duel seems to take place in its own separate misty no-man’s land, with endless room around it for chases on foot and in chariots [2]. So there is no larger tension about the ebb and flow of the battle. It is a grinding recital of who killed whom, and what their lineages were.

A battle, like a story, has structure. It changes over time. The changing tides of battle can be managed as a dramatic arc, to provide suspense. Homer can’t do that, because he hasn’t visualized any of the fights, and so can’t say how they come together to make a battle. There are no causal relations between the elements. There are no tactics, no logistics, no terrain, no real planning, no cavalry charges or infantry maneuvers, no successful use of phalanxes [3], no shifting front lines, no confusion. So there is no dramatic structure to the battles or to the war. We simply watch people being killed until some random events changes the tide at the last moment.

So the bulk of the Iliad is a series of formulaic events, strung together without causal connection, interspersed with irrelevant monologues, which progress in one direction until some random event turns things around and moves them in the other direction. This is not the structure of a good book; it’s the structure of a daytime soap opera.


Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Ethics

You wanna talk about oppression? This is a world in which murder, rape, and theft aren’t just good, they’re the greatest good. A man is esteemed according to how many men he’s murdered, how many beautiful women he’s raped, and how much stuff he’s stolen.

The Iliad is about a bunch of guys fighting over who gets to rape whom. The Greeks have come to Troy to stop Paris raping Helen. Apollo fights the Greeks because Agamemnon won’t stop raping his priest’s daughter Chryses. Agamemnon has to give up Chryses, so he takes Briseis instead, whom Achilles had wanted to rape, and Achilles stomps off in a huff and prays to his mother Thetis to help the Trojans kill his fellow Greeks. Women are literally trophies; they give them away as awards at sports competitions. Whenever I find some 19th-century Victorian scholar who would have been shocked to see a woman’s ankle in public go on about the Iliad containing all of the ethics needed for civilization, I consider it a vindication of Freud. Throughout history, the more sexually repressed England was, the more its men loved the Iliad.

Homer doesn’t angst over the cycle of violence, either. One of the few places where the narrator expresses a moral opinion is in upholding the obligation for revenge:

Then Menelaus of the loud war-cry took Adrestus alive, for his horses ran into a tamarisk bush, as they were flying wildly over the plain, and broke the pole from the car; they went on towards the city along with the others in full flight, but Adrestus rolled out, and fell in the dust flat on his face by the wheel of his chariot; Menelaus came up to him spear in hand, but Adrestus caught him by the knees begging for his life. “Take me alive,” he cried, “son of Atreus, and you shall have a full ransom for me: my father is rich and has much treasure of gold, bronze, and wrought iron laid by in his house. From this store he will give you a large ransom should he hear of my being alive and at the ships of the Achaeans.”

Thus did he plead, and Menelaus was for yielding and giving him to a squire to take to the ships of the Achaeans, but Agamemnon came running up to him and rebuked him. “My good Menelaus,” said he, “this is no time for giving quarter. Has, then, your house fared so well at the hands of the Trojans? Let us not spare a single one of them–not even the child unborn and in its mother’s womb; let not a man of them be left alive, but let all in Ilius perish, unheeded and forgotten.”

Thus did he speak, and his brother was persuaded by him, for his words were just. Menelaus, therefore, thrust Adrestus from him, whereon King Agamemnon struck him in the flank, and he fell: then the son of Atreus planted his foot upon his breast to draw his spear from the body.

The Iliad’s ethics are grotesque by our standards, but were appropriate for Homer’s times (the Greek Dark Ages), and for the centuries after when Greece fought Persia. They needed a reputation for ruthlessness against their enemies, and they needed brave fighting men at any cost, even that of reducing half of their population to commodities. This is why great literature is not timeless.

Actually, this is an interesting point: Who needed brave fighting men at any cost? Answer: The men did. If we look at tribal societies, conflicts between neighbors were usually over territory or over women. “Territory”, however, really meant “the territory of a group of males”, in the same way that it does for birds. Females were always welcome. You could argue that tribes, cities, and civilizations were things men built to keep other men from stealing their women. That is, in fact, what the Iliad is about: the Greeks trying and repeatedly failing to achieve civilization-level cooperation in order to stop the Trojans from stealing their women (Helen).

The result, though, was to value fighting men so highly that civilization wasn’t a very good deal for women. Maybe they would have been better off without it if it weren’t for the tendency of men to kill the babies of the women they captured.

In fact, the main ethical take-away I get from the Iliad is that there are way too many of these damn men. They’re pests, like swarms of flies. They are just getting in the way, building walls around cities, standing outside of cities, preventing people from farming, making other men lay down their hoes and pick up swords, and eventually killing or raping everybody. And then they write non-ironic literature glorifying doing all that stuff.

If the birth ratio were, say, 4 women to 1 man, things would be just about perfect [4]. We have the technology to make this happen today. I say, go for it. Kickstarter, anyone?

The historical position of the Iliad, right at the beginning of Greek civilization, and its focus on the construction of a civilization as a method to maintain access to women, highlights the importance of sex to civilization. Society is, at root, how we decide who gets to have sex with whom. Men deny that society tries to control women. Women deny their sexual power over men. Hence we argue and argue and ignore the fundamental issues.


Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Philosophy

Okay. Now that I’ve got that out of my system: the Iliad is important as philosophy, not as … fiction. I was going to say “literature”, but the Iliad literally defined what literature was: a triad of fiction, philosophy, and ethics.

There are several really interesting things about the Iliad. The first is that it’s the Greek national story, but the Greeks are all assholes. The only admirable, likable character is Hector, son of King Priam and the leader of the Trojan warriors. He even gets a cute scene playing with his baby son. (By contrast, the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, sacrificed his daughter to Artemis so the fleet could have winds to sail to Troy.)

The second is that the Iliad is usually interpreted as a condemnation of the pride (“hubris”) of Achilles, but the text doesn’t support that. I looked for it, and it isn’t there, except in the first line in Chapman’s translation, which I suspect is Chapman’s own interpretation [5]. Achilles is very, very proud, but he is also very, very great, and the text explicitly says that great men should act proud, demand respect and submission from their inferiors, and not tolerate insults.

The plot resembles 20th-century absurdist theater. The characters are all nearly helpless. Agamemnon is a shitty “king” [6] who no one likes. He’s greedy, ungrateful, disliked, impetuous, murderous, deceptive, foolish, and has kept the Greeks here to fight a pointless war that isn’t worth the trouble even if they win. The smart thing to do would either be to go home, or to work out a deal or compromise with the Trojans, and the Greeks try to do both. Nothing ever works. The Greeks should be able to walk right over the Trojans, but they cause themselves more problems than the Trojans do, and if some stupid Greek doesn’t mess things up, some god does. They are stuck on Troy’s shores like Estragon and Vladimir are stuck waiting for Godot, and the first half of the plot, for all its deaths, is about as consequential as the first half of Waiting for Godot. Neither side wants to fight, and neither side wants Helen–most of the Greeks don’t care, and most of the Trojans would like to throw either Paris or her over the walls–yet they keep fighting and fighting.

And Homer is weirdly okay with that. He’s like, That’s just how the world is. That guy over there is just like you, and he doesn’t want to fight, and you don’t want to fight, but you gotta fight, and one of you has to die.

The most-important odd thing about the Iliad is that its heroes have no morality. When I say “morality”, I mean “a code of behavior which demands actions from a person which do not benefit that person sufficiently to be worth her while.” We’re so used to morality that we see it everywhere, but it isn’t in the Iliad. If a hero does something brave, or shows mercy to an enemy, it’s because he expects to get something from it. He isn’t doing it for the sake of his nation (he doesn’t have one) or even his tribe, and certainly not for his god (unless he hopes to get something from his god). (Maybe for his brother, but loyalty doesn’t feature prominently in the Iliad.) The things that appear to be exceptions to this amorality, I’ll argue, are what the Iliad is about.

The Iliad is the foundational story of Greek civilization because its question is how to build a civilization. It posits a world in which men are selfish, war is inevitable, reason and kindness are helpless, and morality–what’s that? The Greeks and the Trojans must fight, and one side must die. To live, a side needs many great warriors to work together.

And there’s the rub. The Greeks have come together for this great collective deed, the siege of Troy, and they’ve got the manpower and the talent, but not the organizational skills. To be a great warrior, a man must be proud, violent, and high-spirited, but when you bring hundreds of proud, violent, high-spirited men together, they fight each other. To defeat the Trojans, many Greeks must die, but the treasures to be won aren’t rationally worth the risk to the individuals fighting. The puzzle the Iliad poses in the persons of Achilles and Hector is, How do we train selfish men to be violent killers, and then convince them not to fight each other, but to die for their nation?

The answer is clever. You might call it evil, but let’s remember that it worked. Remember the Greeks were not Christians. They weren’t trying to convince men to win treasures in heaven, or to fight because it was the Right Thing to Do. The Greeks had gods who were assholes. They had no transcendental realm or God governing right and wrong. They were basically Nietzschians.

This is a hard thing for Christians to grasp. They think morality has to be dictated or revealed by some transcendent being. The Greeks did not believe that. They had what Christians would consider an unspiritual worldview. Their gods were not transcendent beings. They were just big frat boys. Zeus said how things would go down, and you’d be foolish to oppose him, but that didn’t make him right or just. Humans had to choose what to do on their own. Prometheus was a hero for defying the gods.

So the Iliad invented self-interested, libertarian, civic virtue.

Achilles is sitting in his tent, and warriors come and try to persuade him to join the fight. He knows [7] that if he fights, he will die but win everlasting glory, while if he does not fight, he will return home and live to old age [8]. So why should he fight?

Hector is behind the walls of Troy, and faced with growing discontent from the Trojans, who want him to hand over Helen to the Greeks. He wants to hand over Helen to the Greeks instead of fighting. If he fights, he and his family will die. Homer devoted scenes to showing how much Hector loves his family. So why should he fight?

They should fight, the Iliad argues (though not directly), because life is overrated. Life is an endless cycle of flailing about helplessly in a universe that doesn’t care. Life is being the plaything of the gods. The best thing for you, personally, is to win glory for yourself; that’s more valuable than more of this life stuff. It doesn’t last anyway.

This was a very interesting pivot point in the history of the West. This was a point where the West could have veered left like everybody else, but veered right instead. The obvious choice was for Homer to say that a man should fight for his people because he loves them and he loves his family and wants to defend them. The obvious choice would be to say civilization should be based on morality.

Homer didn’t do that. He said civilization should be based on selfishness.

And that’s when Western civilization was created.

On that hypothesis, the Greeks built a civilization of nation-states, each defended by amoral, basically irreligious warriors, who were willing to give their lives for their state for selfish reasons. And then it was this small civilization, in which men were encouraged and expected to do great deeds to seek their own glory, that almost immediately had the greatest, most intense burst of artistic and intellectual creativity and inventiveness in the world’s history.

Selfish civic virtue was eventually diluted by morality, but the West still honors selfishness and individuality more than other civilizations. This is a large part of why the West has been so successful.

[1] Joyce meant for his book to bring in a new era of literature. Its quick victory over public opinion was the result of a careful propaganda campaign which Ezra Pound had been laying the groundwork of for years. Joyce chose for this purpose to retell a story of Homer’s, not to honor Homer but to bury him, to turn Homer on his head and declare that everything had changed, that what had been good was now bad and what had been bad was now good.

(Joyce chose an easy target; Homer had been turned on his head, one way or another, many times before: by Euripides, by the Christian church, by Shakespeare, by the Enlightenment, by the 19th-century naturalists.)

[2] The word “phalanx”, the key component of Greek warfare, appears only four times. One of them describes a march to the battle; the other three describe a lone hero easily smashing through a phalanx.

[3] There is support for this view of Dark Ages Greek war in The Warrior State: How Military Organization Structures Politics by Everett C. Dolman, page 51-55:

Battles [in 1000-800 BCE, at least 200 years after the alleged Trojan War, but during the accepted time of Homer] were exclusively characterized by groups of high-born champions facing each other in single combat, and were “fluid, free-for-all encounters in which the great aristocrats of one state dueled with those of another.” … Military rank was bestowed as a birthright, and promotion was based on noble association…. about 900 BCE the individual had almost no rights, being absorbed into a totalitarian kinship group, in a system of such groups with no state and no real idea of public authority…. The phalanx formation probably developed between 750 and 650 BCE…. The Homeric Kings, who went out before their people to challenge their equals in single combat, had no place in the phalanx… A dominant leader was, in the age of the phalanx, not a heroic warrior, but a master tactician and organizer.

This would explain why Homer doesn’t use the phalanx correctly, though not how he mentions it at all, if it hadn’t been invented when he wrote, let alone when the events took place hundreds of years before. But that could easily be a later interpolation; the earliest full manuscript of the Iliad is from the 9th century A.D.

[4] So why is the birth ratio 1:1? Very good question! It’s not like fixing that would be too complicated for evolution. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s group selection, more specifically the evolution of traits that enable evolution. Most selection in mammals is probably not the result of animals dying, but of males failing to breed. Producing too many males and then forcing them to fight it out over females is the most-important selection mechanism. Western monogamous societies circumvent this. This slows most evolution, but increases the force of kin selection, because a person growing up in a monogamous culture shares half her genes with her siblings, as opposed to between 1/4 and 1/2 in a polygamous culture. This means monogamous societies should, over time, produce people who are stupid and weak, but very nice to each other and cooperative. Quite a conundrum for those trying to decide which is “better”.

[5] Tip: If you’re going to translate something, don’t start at the beginning and translate as you go. Read it first. I remember the Reader’s Digest condensed edition of the Bible. The last paragraph of the Bible says, “If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.” They decided to leave that out.

[6] Agamemnon isn’t the king of the Greeks. He’s the warlord with the most men.

[7] We think Achilles knows! This is Homer’s most-critical screw-up. We really need to know whether Achilles knows this or not, but Achilles gives several reasons for not fighting, and it isn’t clear which is his real reason, and it isn’t clear whether he was really told this prophecy, or is making it up for his own purposes.

[8] There is a great irony in interpreting Achilles’ dilemma in light of the further history of the Greeks. It was the philosophers of Athens, not the warriors of Sparta, who brought ancient Greece the most undying fame and glory. Yet the philosophical Greece did not survive long–only about a hundred years from Euripides to Alexander the Great. The decision that faced Greece at the dawn of its golden age, had they known it, may have been the obverse of that faced by Achilles: continue to honor valor in combat above all, and survive, or dare a hundred years of free thought, and die, but with everlasting glory.

Review: The Clockwork Muse, by Colin Martindale 1990


The Clockwork Muse: The predictability of artistic change

Colin Martindale, Harper Collins, 1990 (on Amazon)

You know how I always gripe that nobody does literary theory anymore? This is real artistic theory. Martindale studied thousands of poems, paintings, musical compositions, and a few pieces of fiction, using tests with human subjects and with computers. He came up with interesting questions, and tried to form hypotheses, conduct experiments to test them, and evaluate them using sound statistical methods.

I say “tried” because, unfortunately, he didn’t understand the principle of conservation of evidence, and didn’t understand statistics very well. But he raised interesting questions, answered some of them, and showed how to answer more of them. His work is remarkable for almost successfully taking a scientific approach to art.

The extent to which literary theorists ignored him is also remarkable. But Martindale was a professor of psychology, and published most of his results in psychology or computer science journals. I don’t know whether this was by choice, or because literary journals wouldn’t take them. He published quite a few in Poetics. I don’t think Poetics is a mainstream literary journal, since its guidelines request papers in sociology, psychology, media and communication studies, and economics.

The Good

Martindale did a lot of experiments, mostly in support of his central thesis (see under “The Ugly Details”):

– Artists are always trying to make their work more strange or surprising.

– They can make their work more surprising either by using more “primordial content” (basically randomness), or by creating a new style.

– New styles therefore appear at a regular rate over time, when the content presented in the previous style has become as random as it can be.

– This accounts for almost all stylistic change, throughout all of history, across all art forms.

If his analyses had been correct, he would have an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of this (somewhat repugnant) thesis. As it is, it’s hard to say how much evidence is left when you throw out all the bad statistics, optimistic curve-gazing, and post-hoc rationalization, but I think it’s significantly more than zero.

The irony is that other aesthetic theorists had no way of knowing how bad Martindale’s use of statistics was. They knew even less about statistics. They ignored him correctly, but unjustifiably. Or perhaps this incident justifies their ignoring scientific incursions into literature, and explains the hostility between C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” (the sciences and the humanities): Anyone from a scientific discipline can rush into a humanity and terrorize its inhabitants, brandishing graphs and chanting p-values. If our hapless “humanitarians” admit that science works, they’ll be helpless against him, because they won’t be able to tell whether his science is good or bad. (Let us suppose, in the name of democracy, that the same holds for incursions from the humanities into the sciences.)

Chapter 7, “Cross-National, Cross-Genre, and Cross-Media Synchrony”, section 2 on cross-media styles: This experiment showed that the terms “baroque”, “romantic”, and “neoclassical” mean something other than just “what people did during an arbitrarily-bounded time period”. Martindale said this is now an unpopular belief.

Martindale doesn’t get into any of this, but I’ll explain why I think post-modernists are suspicious of the idea that “baroque” by itself means something other than an arbitrary, socially-agreed-on time period. It’s important. Well, if you care about philosophy or art theory.

A lexeme is a word or set of words whose semantic meaning is not clearly composed of the semantic meanings of its parts. “Run” can be a lexeme, but when it’s in “run up a bill”, that whole phrase is the lexeme, because “running up a bill” doesn’t involve anybody running, or any movement up, and you can’t “run up a credit” or “run up a reputation”.

Post-modernists believe that the meaning of any lexeme doesn’t ultimately reside in properties of the thing or event the lexeme refers to, but in the position of the lexeme in a giant graph describing the relationships between all the lexemes of the language. Call that belief S (for “Structuralism”). For example, we might say that the meaning of the term “love” was that two people who were in the relationship “love” had mutual intentions towards each other with positive emotional valences (wishing each other good health, respect, satisfying work, wealth, etc.), while “hate” referred to a relationship between people who mutually held intentions with negative valence towards each other (wishing each other harm, humiliation, and financial ruin).

A post-modernist additionally says meaning is indeterminate. That means that if we met an alien species which used the terms “mikto” and “klaanbart” to refer to relationships between people who held mutual intentions of the same valence, we would have no way of ever knowing which meant “love” and which meant “hate”, because we couldn’t feel the valences of their emotions, and might misinterpret their facial emotions and all other indicators in a systematically wrong way. To be more precise, the post-modernist would say that we can’t be wrong in this fashion, because “love”, “hate”, “mikto”, and “klaanbart” have no meaning other than enabling you to predict that if Jerry “loves” Sally he is more likely to give her chocolates than scrapings from the bottom of his shoe, and if Freemulo miktos Gromblat, ze is more likely to frondle zim than to blammo zim. (This sort of argument comes from Quine.) The argument fails in this case if we believe that pain is a universal evolved perception of negative valence to prevent organisms from harming themselves. We then expect to find either “mikto” or “klaanbart” associated much more often with actions that cause harm, and we can call that one “hate”.

If you try to enumerate the set of relationships baroque music is in, the instantiations of “baroque music” are all instances of music, and not instances of painting, literature, or architecture. If the true “meaning” of “baroque music” were found at such a high level of abstraction that it also applied to instances of music, painting, and literature, that would imply a degree of coherence and orderliness to reality that is at odds with post-modern semiotics. So post-modernists are likely to treat “baroque music” as a lexeme, and say that “baroque music” “means”, mainly, the set of relationships between the people using the term, the music, the instruments used, the musicians, the composers, and so on, and probably has little to do with “baroque architecture”.

For a more logical explanation:

The belief S was posited by Saussure as an alternative to the belief that the meanings of words are “grounded” in reality, which I’ll denote by G. Philosophers see S and G as mutually exclusive, and as covering all possible cases: S ⇔ not(G). (There’s no reason to believe either of these things, however. In fact it’s generally impossible to try to list the (verbal) relationships between words without running into relationships that imply facts about the entities that are grounded in reality. We might, for instance, find that baroque music was usually commissioned by the Church or by extremely wealthy patrons, and so was played in churches or very large private residences, which had large dimensions and so had long reverberation times, and this led to the use of low-pitched instruments and slow tempos. Trying to list the “structure” of relationships that define “baroque music” has led to a quantifiable, measurable property of the music itself, which grounds its meaning in reality.)

Let D (for “Decomposability”) denote the belief that words are usually lexemes, and so “baroque” in “baroque music” probably has the same meaning as “baroque” in “baroque architecture”, even though there are no instances of art that are both baroque music and baroque architecture. There’s no logical necessity to D => G or G => D. The term “baroque music” could be a lexeme whether or not its meaning is grounded in reality, and even if “baroque music” is defined structurally, it could be that “baroque” has its own structural definition. But philosophers appear to assume thatDG, probably because “folk metaphysics” assumes both D and G. It does at least seem that G weakly implies D, because given G, you could follow the folk-linguistics model of coming up with words to describe real things, and then putting them together to describe combinations of things and relationships between them.

So, given the false assumptions Snot(G) and D => G, the post-modern commitment to S implies not(G), which implies not(D), which suggests that “baroque” doesn’t mean anything on its own.

Martindale showed people who didn’t know much about art pictures of paintings, sculpture, and architecture, and played them recordings of music. When he asked them to put them together into groups, in any way they chose, they put the baroque music with the baroque painting, the baroque sculpture, and the baroque architecture, and so on with classical and romantic, more than you’d expect by chance.

The rub is that I don’t fully trust that Martindale knew how to know what you’d expect by chance, because he said subjects created an average of 9 groups (p. 253), then used math assuming they had created 3 groups (p. 254). But the error, if there is any, is in the direction of making his results stronger than his analysis indicates. The musical data chosen is peculiar, excluding Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner from the romantic, but their inclusion would only have made his results stronger.

Chapter 8, “Art and Society”, the only chapter in which he adjusts for multiple hypothesis testing, presents some good data indicating that prosperity for the working class correlates with collective thought, cultural references, and a de-emphasis on nature; conservatism correlates with concrete words and references to culture, while liberalism correlates with thought, emotion, and action. The work is interesting, but cast into doubt by the inconsistency between the British and American data.

In Chapter 9, “The Artist and the Work of Art”, discussing the common theme of a hero’s descent into an underworld, he pioneers the use of word frequency counts to disclose the theme of a story.

We can use coherence of trends [in word usage] to decipher what a narrative is about: that is, if a narrative is about overcoming evil, the trend in evaluative connotation should be stronger than the trend in primordial content. If a narrative is about alteration in consciousness, the reverse should be the case. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, shows a clear trend in primordial content but no trend at all in the use of good versus bad words: it must be about alteration in consciousness rather than good versus evil. This conclusions conforms with what a Tibetan Buddhist would probably tell you. The descent into Hell in book I of Homer’s Odyssey is more about good and evil than about alteration in consciousness, though it seems to be about both. In this case, the trend indicates that Hell is a better place than earth, and is consistent with pagan conceptions of the afterlife. … Moby Dick [has trends in primordial content, but not in good/bad word frequencies, so it] doesn’t have much to do with ethics but does seem to symbolize alteration in consciousness…. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is an exception: it has no trends at all in either evaluation or primordial content. The story is about something else. (p. 329)

We can use some simple equations to delineate the plots of such narratives…. They can help unlock the hidden or symbolic meaning of a narrative. Narratives have more than one meaning. We do not need to leave it to the whimsy of the reader to decide which interpretation is most important. We can examine the coherence or orderliness of trends in the usage of different types of words to make an objective decision. Book VI of the Aeneid and Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ are both about alteration of consciousness and about confronting and overcoming evil. (p. 339)

I think he overstates the strength of conclusions based on word counts, but I admire his vision. He also looks at Dante’s Divine Comedy and other major works. I haven’t seen anyone use word frequency analysis to investigate the themes of different books, or of the different parts of different books. I want to start testing this idea myself.

The Bad

He presents his theory as being about the evolution of music, but didn’t understand what evolution is. When he says “evolution”, he means its opposite: genetic drift in the absence of selection pressure. He says this is essential: “Evolution” only occurs when art proceeds without any interference from society. He calls selective pressure from society “non-evolutionary pressure” (p. 169). He assumes that whatever aesthetics is, it is not anything that real people like or want; their preferences can only contaminate aesthetic evolution. That’s not just saying artistic quality or popularity isn’t objective; it’s saying, from an “evolutionary” standpoint, that it’s bad. (Again, though, this is a popular position among aesthetic theorists.) He seems to have forgotten that he theorized that arousal potential (AP; see “Ugly details” below) was important only by arguing that it increases hedonic value = aesthetic fitness.

He ought to spend more time explaining what “primordial content” (PC) is, since he spends the entire book measuring it. It comes from psychoanalysis and indicates regression into… something. The subconscious? The collective? The pre-human? His attempted explication (p. 49), equating primordial thought with noticing similarities, and conceptual thought with making distinctions, is just a repetition of a common prejudice against “analytic” science that we have inherited from the Middle Ages and the romantic poets, of scientific thought as only dividing and never synthesizing. It has no real bearing on whatever it is that his construct measures.

So the theoretical underpinnings of his research are shaky. Fortunately he has lots of data. His interpretation of it, though, is usually statistically flawed. On p. 166-167 he describes computing a correlation using 150 samples, and says it results in “a marginally significant correlation of .14 with time…. If we [group datapoints together into 15 groups and use their means], the correlation is much higher–.66–and clearly significant.” That shouldn’t happen, and if it does, you shouldn’t use it. Allowing the experimenter to choose a cluster size that gives him “significance” is cheating. There are problems with many of his claims of significance, particularly the ones that claim periodic oscillations are significant [5]. He tells us that his theory works with Hamlet, Cymbeline, andThe Great Railway Bazaar (p. 318), but not how many books it didn’t work with. This concealment of his selection process reduces much of his quantitative data to anecdotes.

[5] My guess is that what he means when he says an eyeballed oscillation is significant is that he tried a lot of different polynomials, and eventually found one simple polynomial to fit the main curve, and one higher-degree recurrence relation that fits the oscillation after the first one is subtracted from the data, such that the fit to the oscillation explained {enough of the variance left over after the fit to the main curve} to achieve significance on a t-test. However, this doesn’t account for the freedom he had in choosing the type of equation and the parameters for it to fit his data.

The most-common problem is that he would do some experiment rating people or works of art on, say, 20 different dimensions, most of which he didn’t specify in this book, and nearly all of which, when revealed, are synonyms for either “primordial content” or “arousal potential” (AP). Then he does data fishing to find the two of the ten million or so possible small subsets of those 20 which have the highest correlation with PC and AP, and if one of those ten million choices correlates better than would happen one time in 20 by chance, he calls it significant.

If you look on page 188, you’ll find an experiment with Italian paintings in 20-year periods from 1330-1729. He had subjects rate painters along 24 dimensions, and then do factor analysis. Then he informs us that two of the resulting 5 dimensions corresponded to primordial content and arousal potential. This is better than cherry-picking the subsets that work best for him, but it’s still picking 2 out of 5. (We’d really like to know what the other factors were, and their relative importance, because that would suggest other influences on artistic change, but he doesn’t tell us what they were.) When he tells us which dimensions correlated with arousal potential (active, complex, tense, disorderly) and which correlated with primordial content (not photographic, not representative of reality, otherworldly, and unnatural), it becomes clear that most of the first set were designed to measure arousal potential, and the second set are all synonyms for primordial content. So the experiment didn’t validate his two dimensions; it just asked people to rate paintings along them, then (surprise) pulled his planted measurements out of the factor analysis.

He’s guilty of cherry-picking data. On p.178 you’ll find a chart of primordial content in pop music lyrics. He states that “there was a significant increase in primordial content from 1952-53 to 1958-59.” But if you start at 1953 instead of 1952, it becomes a decrease; even more so if you end at 1960 or 1961.

He had no conception of degrees of freedom. The section on cross-national synchrony in Chapter 7 is outrageous: He fit equations to explain how trends in one art in one country are influenced by trends in other arts in that country and other countries. But studying the equations on page 242, we realize that each of his fits takes 17 parameters! And in most cases he constructs these to fit fewer than 17 datapoints! I don’t know why they don’t fit exactly, or how he found his supposedly optimal solutions.

His quest for periodicity used tests that would find periodicity in random walks. Every time he plots a bunch of points and says that the oscillations around a curve are statistically significant, count the number of times that a segment goes through one point before re-crossing the central curve, and the number of times it goes through 2 or more points. If those numbers are roughly equal, it indicates that the oscillation around the central curve is a random walk, and is not statistically significant. (You can prove this using the binomial theorem.) Out of figures 7.5, 9.1, 9.2, 9.4, 9.20, and 9.21, only figures 9.1 and 9.21 pass this simple test. He’s generally guilty of optimistic eyeballing of data. He analyzes Dante’s Inferno and finds that “the main trend takes the shape of an M with an extra up-flourish at the end” (p. 323) Looking at figure 9.18, it’s hard to imagine how any realistic data could look less like his description of it.

The book is full of post-hoc rationalization. (That is, he never predicted a test’s outcome; he found the outcome, then justified it, often with some accommodating exceptions). For example, his study of American painters (p. 193-198) finds a single dip-rise in primordial content from 1800 to 1920, and so instead of admitting that he didn’t find dips and rises for the different styles during that time, he designates that entire 120-year period as “American style”. By never stating up front what he expects to find, he always interprets his result either as having proven his hypothesis (when they are consistent with it) or having proven something peculiar about the data (when they are not).

Sometimes he claims to have proven both at the same time. On p. 191, he reports finding results for his Italian paintings experiment that match the time periods for the styles late gothic, renaissance-mannerist, baroque, and rococo. But what’s “renaissance-mannerist”? It’s a mashing together of two periods because the data doesn’t come out as it should if they’re two separate periods. “If one accepts the idea that primordial content rises once a style is in effect, the present results support the idea that mannerism is the final stage of renaissance style rather than a separate style” (p. 193). Okay, but you can either assume A (mannerism is the final stage of renaissance style) and use it to prove B (that primordial content dips then rises within a style), or you can assume B and use it to prove A. You can’t assume both A and B in order to prove B and A simultaneously!

The Ugly Details

Primordial Content

Martindale also thought he’d found the principal component of art, starting from theory rather than from data or observation. This principal component was “primordial content” (PC, p. 57-59), which seems not to mean content that’s primordial = primal (e.g., sex, hunger, pleasure, terror), but content that’s dream-like, hallucinatory, unreal, nonsensical, chaotic, incoherent [1]. Martindale doesn’t get much more specific than that. He justifies this by saying that Nietzsche’s Apollo / Dionysius, Jung’s eros / logos, McKellar’s A / R (?), Berlyne’s autistic / directed, Werner’s dedifferentiated / differentiated (?), and Wundt’s associationistic / intellectual dichotomies, all mean the same thing. “Thought or consciousness varies along one main axis, as is obvious to anyone who studies the topic.” (p. 57)

Not quite. Those are all dichotomies with logic on one side, but they have one of two very different things on the other side: either sensuality, or associationism / dream-logic [2]. I don’t think those things (Dionysian abandon, and drug-induced hallucinations) have anything in common. The former is very agentive; the second is entirely passive. The former leads to Lord Byron, Wagner, the Moulin Rouge, and heavy metal; the latter (I would say, based partly on my own limited experience), to Celtic knotwork, Bach, Salvador Dali, Carlos Castaneda, and electronic / trance music. It became obvious as I read on that Martindale was measuring dream-like content, not sensuousness.

Also, because those other dichotomies oppose logic to something, they’re about processes of thought, while Martindale’s “primordial content” is static. It’s something you can see in a picture, like dark shadows or bat wings, or words you can count in a poem, like “rock”, “flame”, or “kiss”. And he doesn’t oppose primordial content to logic; he opposes it to… less primordial content. That’s not actually a dichotomy; it’s just a category.

But that’s okay. It doesn’t really matter how he came up with the category if he can state clearly what’s in it, and gets strong results from it. He does that [3].

[1] My guess is he was thinking of Freud’s “primary process thought”, and used “primal” in its obsolete sense of “primary”, even though Freud’s “primary process” is neither primal nor primary.

[2] If there is a historic linking of these two kinds of dichotomies, it’s probably through the yin-yang. Women were historically stereotyped as being (a) sensual and (b) illogical. So if your main dichotomy is male / female, and “female” = sensual and illogical, then of course Apollo / Dionysius and directed / autistic mean the same thing.

[3] He built something called the Regressive Imagery Dictionary that’s a big list of PC words, among other things.

I mislead by calling PC the principal component of art. If you had a principal component, you’d explain variation in art in terms of variation of that component. Martindale’s explanation isn’t that simple. It’s complicated and not very compelling. (Don’t worry. Things gets better once he starts experimenting.)

Arousal Potential

“Arousal” is a very general, very vague concept from psychology that’s used to measure the strength of an animal’s response to stimuli. It can mean the number of steps an animal takes per minute, how much time it spends awake, its blood pressure, sexual arousal, or pretty much anything else an experimenter can measure that seems more active than passive.

Like Willie van Peer, Martindale begins by describing the Wundt curve (p. 42):

This curve shows that people get the most enjoyment (“hedonic value”) out of things that produce one particular amount of “arousal”. Play music too quietly, and it’s not very arousing. Play it too loud, and it’s painful. Same thing for other senses.

Also like van Peer, Martindale forgets the shape of the curve immediately after presenting it. He assumes for the rest of the book that artists always seek to increase arousal, although looking at the Wundt curve would suggest instead that they always seek to keep it at its optimal value. He uses the term “arousal potential” (AP), because he’s talking about a property of works of art, not a measured response to them.


He doesn’t forget about the curve entirely. He dismisses it by talking about habituation (p. 45). Habituation is a very general behavior, found in humans, mice, snails, and even planaria. It means that an organism responds strongly to (is aroused by) a stimuli the first time, but its response grows weaker with time. So a given type of art should arouse the same person less and less the more they’re exposed to it. This, of course, is why, after reading science fiction books for a few years, people will get tired of them and switch to romance or mystery novels, and why old people can’t stand to listen to the music or re-watch the movies that were popular when they were young, but continually seek out the newest and latest. So this is why artistic styles must change: They produce less arousal over time, and people grow tired of them. The main problem is thus always to produce more arousal, to get back to optimal AP.

Except, wait, humans don’t act that way. Habituation is routinely used in theories of art, but it doesn’t match human behavior at all. Humans do exactly the opposite: They imprint on what they read or listened to as a teenager and generally seek out more of the same for the rest of their lives.

Also, if music entered the classical style around 1750 because people had become habituated to baroque, why don’t we just switch back to baroque now? The idea that we, in the 21st century, know fugues better than Bach did, is ridiculous. The habituation explanation for changing artistic styles requires Lamarckian inheritance of habituation. Martindale takes up this objection, which has been made before, and rejects it with an argument on page 49 that is, frankly, too nonsensical to summarize.

Pure Aesthetics: Content Doesn’t Matter

Martindale began by assuming that artistic change is internally driven by the quest for increasing AP. The only way to increase AP, he believes, is either to increase the primordial content (PC) of art, or to change to a new style. This is so obvious to Martindale that he doesn’t explain why. I think I’ve figured out why: Martindale adhered to a “pure aesthetics” theory of art.

It is not what Gibbon said—it is not meaning—that makes The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a work of literature. It is how he said what he had to say that makes it literature… In other words, the meaning of a text is not really relevant to literature. (p. 15)

He never considers the possibility that the content of a poem, or a story, or a picture, can be artistically significant. He says the point of all art is its style (p. 71). If someone likes a work of art, any part of that liking that can be explained in terms of, say, their personal experience or morals, must not be aesthetics (p. 169). (Indeed, being likable or not likable is generally not thought by theorists to be properly part of aesthetics–rather odd, considering aesthetics is defined as the study of what people like.)

I would like to be able to say that Art, to him, is whatever is left over after you understand it. The aesthetic value of a piece would then be literally the soul of its appeal, in that it’s a hypothesized essence that can contain only whatever you don’t yet understand. That would mean he was chasing a ghost.

That’s a horrible thing to say, but I can’t be even that generous, because he says what he considers to be the soul of art: Surprise. When he talks about French poetry, it becomes apparent what he thinks art is. Like Apollinaire, he prefers poetry that makes no sense to poetry that does, because poetry that makes no sense is surprising, while poetry that makes sense, isn’t (p. 82-86). It seems that “art” is, to him, approximately synonymous with “shock”. (Unfortunately, I think this may also be a common view now in aesthetic theory.)

For the most part, this doesn’t matter, since he’s working with data rather than armchair philosophizing. His poor understanding of how art operates only becomes a burden when coupled with his weakness for rationalizing away results. (In the section on short stories, he explains away some unexpected results using a very crude model of what a story is; e.g., p. 172, 175, 313.)

But it’s his unspoken justification for assuming that there’s a very simple dynamic underlying all of art, so that taste, artistic merit, or external factors. He doesn’t feel the need to justify his expectation that artistic appeal can be measured by a single number (AP), since he already believes, from his own taste in art, that it is composed of only one factor (surprise), which means about the same thing as “arousal potential”.

Artistic Change is Scalloped

PC, Martindale says, goes down and then up within an artistic style. The more PC a work of art has, the more AP it has. But PC is hard to generate. The artist has to regress (perhaps by becoming alcoholic, acting like a spoiled brat, and/or moving to the Village). So artists generate just as much PC as they need to out-do the artist before them. (A better explanation would be that artists generate just enough additional PC to compensate for the diminution of AP below its optimal level due to habituation, but Martindale has long since forgotten that AP has an optimal level.)

When artists invent a new style, they can slack off on the regression and not generate so much PC, because the new style, and incremental changes to it, provide enough AP to exceed the AP of the previous style. (Similarly, a better explanation would be that they must include less PC, to avoid producing art with too much AP.)

Once the new style has completely replaced the old and has been completely developed, PC must increase to keep increasing AP. Eventually an artist’s workdegenerates progresses to complete incoherence, or his liver gives out, and he can only increase AP by switching to another new style.

So you expect a plot of PC over time to go up and down, and each local minimum of the graph should be the midpoint of one artistic style. And this is what we see, sort of, in this plot on page 231 of PC in European music from 1500 to 1900:

Here we see the main problem with Martindale’s work: It involves a lot of staring at graphs and wishful thinking. Yes, there are curves going up and down. But how could there not be? Are these curves any different than we’d see if we plotted a random number from a normal distribution for each point?

If a point goes on a random walk, at each step it has a .5 chance of changing direction. So if you cut a random-walk’s graph into pieces at every local maximum or minimum, half of the pieces should have 2 points, ¼ should have 3 points, ⅛ should have 4 points, and so on. If the walk isn’t random, but instead you plot points from a normal distribution, then there should be fewer long runs; reversion to the mean should be more common. Pieces with 2 and 3 points should be more common, and pieces of 4 and 5 should be less common. I’m too lazy and stupid to figure it out, so I wrote a program to brute-force it. Let’s check:

          Pieces  2     3     4     5

Italy:        15   11   3     1     0

France:    10    4    3     2     1

Britain:     12    5    6     1     0

Germany: 13    5    7     0    0


Total:       50   25  19     4     1

RWalk:     50  25 12.5  6.2   3

Normal:   50   31  14     4     1

“RWalk” are the numbers we’d see in a random walk. “Normal” are the most-likely numbers we’d see if the plots were from a random number generator with a normal distribution. I’m not impressed.

And, yes, we see that the labels for the periods B1, B2, etc., seem to come at the beginning of a decline in PC. But the declines didn’t come where those labels were; Martindale put the labels where he saw the declines. I know this because they’re in a different position for each graph (France, Britain, Germany). The standard division is as follows: Baroque 1600-1750; Classical 1750-1800; Romantic 1800-1900 [4].

Wikipedia divides Baroque music into Early, High, and Late. Martindale has only Early and Late Baroque. Hmm. On the German graph, which is the most-important one for this period of music [6], the labels B1 and B2 appear after points 4 and 8, which would locate them at the years 1570 and 1650. Interpolating between his points, Martindale locates the start of the Early Baroque around 1555, and the end of the Late Baroque around 1695. His entire “Baroque” is shifted 50 years too early. It would be more accurate to call the dip labelled “C” on his graph (1700-1760) “Late Baroque” instead of “Classical”. And if you check the other graphs, they’re even worse: he has the Baroque in France as 1520 to 1680!

[4] Wikipedia approaches it differently; it gives overlapping periods of 1580-1760, 1730-1820, 1780-1910, and 1890-1975. Averaging the endpoints gives the same results.

His graph begins the “Early Romantic” in 1760, 40 years too soon, and ends the “Late Romantic” in 1880. Wikipedia lists a single Romantic era. Throughout the book, Martindale divides recognized eras into as many styles as his graphs seem to say they have, rather than stating up-front how many different styles he expects to find. So, again, what would the data have had to look like for Martindale to say it didn’t confirm his theory? Pretty strange, I think.


Suppose Martindale’s thesis about artistic change were correct. What would that mean?

Well, it would at least mean that all of the essays and manifestos by all artists of all time were meaningless twaddle. Artists creating new styles are sometimes quite vocal about why they’re doing it, like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters, realist novelists, existentialist playwrights, and modernist poets. When they’re not, critics will often jump into the gap and explicate their work for them. All of those explanations are incompatible with Martindale’s. He says that a new style is good if, and only if, it is strange. No amount of theory matters. The theories all offer only false justifications for new strange things. At best, they’re rationalizations artists must make to themselves to produce something new and strange.

It also leaves no role for quality, content, or even skill. I’d like “arousal potential” to include these, but Martindale has been explicit throughout that it does not–it only includes depth of regression (primordial content), and degree of surprise. He maintains this even when it’s patently absurd, as on page 313, when he says, “A writer must … either increase depth of regression or change styles in order to increase incongruity, complexity, and the other devices that constitute arousal potential … in an individual work of literature.” In other words, action, plot, suspense, surprising events, engaging characters, and even steamy sex are all incapable of increasing arousal potential, and so have little or no bearing on the artistic fitness of a book. Logically, I would conclude from this that the best thing I could do to my stories to make them more popular would be to use bad grammar, or no grammar at all, to increase their incongruity and “complexity”.

Taken as an absolute, his thesis is simply wrong–there is more to art than incongruity. But if even a quarter of his tests held up under appropriate statistical techniques, it would indicate that the judgements of posterity, on who were great artists and what was great art, have very little to do with skill, quality, or anything other than novelty. It would mean that we don’t know how to art. I’ll have more to say about this after I review Pitirim Sorokin’sSocial & Cultural Dynamics.

Even if Martindale’s thesis is entirely wrong, it’s still valuable as an insight into the horrible implications of Ezra Pound’s “make it new!” Martindale’s book drives home, page after page, graph after relentless graph, a totalistic vision of art as lust for novelty. That Martindale can be so conversant with these many types of art, and value them only for their incongruity, proves that humans can theorize themselves into a numbness to art. Or, worse, that there are people who have no other aesthetics. (This would explain Axe Cop and a lot of Random fics.) That this vision of art is so compatible with 20th century ideas about art is a warning sign about the latter.


I like Martindale’s approach very much. He gathered a lot of data, framed a lot of hypotheses, and did a lot of tests, in many different art forms, covering the past 700 years. He just screwed up almost all of his analyses. His analysis is plagued by a failure to account for multiple hypothesis testing, a crippling failure to account for degrees of freedom, confusion of statistical significance with significance, and post-hoc rationalization. So most of his conclusions are at best suggestive, and at worst bogus.

But his experiments could have been analyzed correctly. He showed us many creative ways to experiment quantitatively on art. He just didn’t get the logic and math right.

And he did several important experiments correctly, providing strong evidence for some interesting, contentious, and broadly-applicable theories about art. But if you haven’t got a strong background in math, you’ll never be able to tell which of his experiments are the pearls among the rubbish.

Review: Critical Theory Since Plato



To gather data for a future post on the “principal component of literature”, I’m skipping through Hazard Adams’ Critical Theory Since Plato, a 1271-page collection of the most-famous essays on Western literature from Plato up to 1988. It also includes texts not about literature that influenced literary theory, like excerpts from Locke, Kant, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Ferdinand de Saussure, Walter Benjamin, and Heidegger. This is a great way of finding parts of those texts about art without having to plow through, say, Kant’s entire Critique of Judgement.

I have the 2nd edition, not the 3rd. The third edition is 300 pages longer, and costs about 10 times as much.

You need to know that, until 1800, when people meant “literature” they said “poetry”. They didn’t have a concept of “prose literature.” Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485 seems to be the first Western story thought of as “literature” that wasn’t a poem, and Don Quixote in 1605 may have been the second. According to Google n-grams, the word “literature” didn’t even exist before 1750 [0].

The book is pretty cool, but frequently horrifying. Literature is again and again made slave to power, religion, or ideology.

The Ancients (390 BC – 260 AD)

The Greeks and Romans start by saying poetry must be a tool for moral instruction. Plato says it’s corrupt and should be banned [1]; Aristotle says it’s okay if it “delights and instructs.” This phrase echoes throughout the collection, down into the 19th century, yet few say out loud its more sinister implications:

1. Poetry’s purpose is to delight in order to instruct. Poetry that merely delights isn’t halfway successful; it’s degenerate and should be burned.

2. “Moral instruction” does not mean to make people think. Stories that question conventional morality are degenerate and should be burned [2].

(The first writer in the volume to say that it’s okay to just enjoy a story is Joseph Addison in 1712, who justifies this by saying that people are so evil that it’s good to allow them any pleasure that isn’t actively evil, just to keep them out of trouble.)

Plato said, more specifically, that literature is an imitation of reality, and reality is an imitation of the Forms.  (The Platonic Forms.) A person thus does better to observe reality than to read poetry, and better still to study philosophy and contemplate the Forms directly.

Aristotle and the Romans thought that the purpose of literary theory was to help writers to write good poetry, just as the purpose of theories of engineering is to enable engineers to build things that work.

What a concept!

Aristotle’s Poetics is the must-read from this section. I don’t agree with everything he says, but as far as I know, he’s the only person before the 20th century who analyzed fiction structurally, asking how all its parts fit together to convey a message or effect. Others look at different pieces independently, but never synthesize them [6]. He approaches the task in the right way.

The Medievalists and the Renaissance (400 AD – 1700)

It’s conventional to put the cut between Renaissance and Enlightenment closer to 1600, but I just don’t feel it here. The critics in the 17th century seem more like the guys in the 16th century than like those in the 18th. The literature was very different (Shakespeare, Cervantes, opera), but the critics were still judging them by Aristotle and the Bible while trying not to get executed for heresy. (Perhaps art leads, and philosophy follows?)

The 1300 years of Christian piety from 400 to 1700 A.D. are probably the bleakest part of the book, and the second most full of worthless essays (St. Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Boccaccio, Bacon, Henry Reynolds, Boileau-Despreaux). Some still give advice on how to write, but it takes a backseat to theology, moralizing, and mysticism, and the analysis of poetry often becomes instead the classification of authors into the virtuous and the villainous. I get the sense that independent thought was anathema to Europe during this time, and a need for some authority to worship and adore, whether God, Homer, Aristotle, or Shakespeare, recurs through the 19th century. The degree of praise a man of this time heaped on his chosen idols sometimes verged on psychotic, like Pope’s praise for Homer in his preface to the Iliad (not in this volume), yet was no guarantee that he perceived his most obvious qualities (as shown by Pope’s abominable translation of Homer’s Iliad).

A lot of the discussion on how to write was arguments over how closely to observe Aristotle’s Three Unities of action, time, and place. The fact that Aristotle never even said anything about unity of place tells you something about how useful this discussion was. Shakespeare eventually convinced everybody that the unities of time and place were useless by writing great plays that ignored them.

The emphasis on morality lingers on through the 18th century. It’s impossible to tell when it’s sincere and when it’s forced, which complicates my attempt to associate each writer’s views with the properties of his or her art. Boileau-Despreaux reminds his reader of a local poet who had recently been hanged for a poem that was judged impious.

Just as Pope’s adoration of Homer didn’t help him read Homer, the people who demand morality from literature always seem blind to morality–as the act of hanging a poet in Jesus’ name suggests. They often praise the Iliad, a poem that glorifies rape and murder, for its virtue. Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded, was considered indecent by Britain’s upper class, not because its heroine was “rewarded” by getting to marry (rather than be raped by) the evil man who imprisoned and abused her, but because shewasn’t good enough for him, being born to a lower class. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles was considered outrageous in 1890 not because its heroine, Tess, was raped, not because this led to her meeting a horrible end, but because Hardy implied that she didn’t deserve to be punished for being raped.

(Moral literature is surprisingly rapey.)

A common approach to art theory during this period, and on through the 18th century, was to respond to Plato by saying that art could approximate the Forms even better than direct observation of reality could, if the artist were careful to depict idealized people, lacking any distinctive personalities, having idealized emotions, rather than real people with real emotions. You can see this in the essays by Philip Sydney and Francis Bacon, and also Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. This is what Johnson means (in 1765) when he praises Shakespeare because “in the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.” Characters were not supposed to have depth. Depth meant individuality, and individuality was merely the way in which a particular person fell short of the Form.

This was… a terrible idea, which led to nearly 2000 years of bad literature. You know how lovers in old romances (I mean, really old romances) are smitten with a crippling love at first sight, based on the transcendent beauty of the beloved? Like in Chaucer’s Troilus and Crisyde, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? That wasn’t lazy writing. That was deliberate. That was the accepted theoretically correct way to portray the highest form of love. Anything else was degenerate.

But then again, men of these times seem not to have had a concept of romantic love. This sounds hard to believe, especially since they spent their whole lives writing about it. But there are a couple of essays that try to analyze romantic love, and they seem to be talking about lust, and one uses the words interchangeably. When they write of love and its proper portrayal, trying to enumerate the possible kinds of love, all they can come up with is lust and this mystical Platonic pure-spirit hogwash. Some of these guys knew Greek, so they must have heard of pragma, the love of old married couples. But they don’t think to mention it.

I’ve read nearly all of this section, and the only essay I recommend is John Locke’s “An essay concerning human understanding” (1690). It demolishes Plato’s essences, and is one of the best rational investigations into how words work in all philosophy. It’s especially stunning because it doesn’t rely on any technology or scientific discoveries. It seems Aristotle could have written this, and saved us from 2000 years of nonsense. An interesting question is, why didn’t he, or someone else during the next 2000 years?

The Enlightenment and Modernity (1700 – 1950)

These two and a half centuries seem to me to fit together, and to contrast with the pious 18th century before them, and the angry late 20th century after them. It stands out to me as the time period during which critics could think clearly. This is the brightest part of the book, and the longest. I’ve read very little of it, but most of what I’ve read, I’ve liked. People are back to talking about writing techniques and the purpose of stories. Plus, they’re talking about novels! Also language, and literary movements.

And often, they’re… how do I say this… not stupid. Bouncing back and forth between the 17th and 19th centuries, I’m struck by the contrast: The 17th-century writers have an amazing command of the language. Some twist their sentences in flourishes like Bacon; some have only the grandeur of precision and clarity. And yet, though each sentence is constructed with great care, their train of thought usually runs into the ground, in accidental assumptions, unjustified assertions, appeals to authority, overconfidence, dismissals of evidence or of alternative hypotheses, or wishful thinking. Alternately, they have nothing to say but trite common sense. It’s as if constructing beautiful sentences used up all their mental powers. The 19th-century writers may muddle along in ugly run-on sentences, but they often have something to say.

If I’d read more 17th-century poetry, maybe I could draw a parallel here…

Locke’s 1690 essay, which I talked about above, is a watermark. I look before it and see fearful piety, reverence for the ancients, high style, and less reasoning than rationalizations for pre-drawn conclusions. I look after it and see free and diverse opinions, degenerate style, and clear thought. It seems to me that freedom of speech and a loss of reverence was the crucial change. Strangely, this made people able to observe and think where they could not before, even along lines that were acceptable under the old rules, such as Lessing’s 1766 analysis of Homer.

It’s worth noting that the monarchs were “right” in suppressing thought, for by 1800 most of them had been overthrown.

Also, a woman! Until Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 “A vindication of the rights of woman”, and Madame de Stael’s 1800 “Literature in its relations to social institutions”, it’s all by men, about men, for men. There are more women as you get towards the end of the book, but most write only about how literary criticism oppresses women.

I’ve read only a few of these entries. You might like Alexander Pope’s poem about poetry. It’s kind of fun, and a little useful. Lessing’s “Laocoon” (1766) is the first to look closely at Homer’s writing style and pick out his techniques. Kant’s excerpt from Critique of Judgement is required reading if you want to argue with philosophers about aesthetics. Emile Zola’s essay is very interesting but about 20 times as long as it should be. Anatole France’s is, by contrast, wonderfully compact; a few paragraphs, each sentence loaded with meaning. Mallarme’s interview is entertaining, if a little irritating. He messes up my theory: he’s an idealist, yet also an individualist. (Literary idealism, which means the belief that literature should be about idealized people, and written in an idealized style, is usually found in the service of a state or a religion, and advises unity and censorship.)

In the 20th century, the articles by De Saussure, Hulme, Eliot, Wimsatt & Beardsley, and Brooks are probably the must-reads.

Post-Modernity (1950 – 1988)

In the 1950s there’s a sudden plunge into ideology and sloppy armchair epistemology [3]. Aristotle’s original idea, that literary criticism was to help writers write, is completely lost. There’s nothing more about writing techniques or the purpose of story.

Instead, literature is used as a one-sided battleground for ideological wars, where victims seek proof of their oppression. There are no conservative voices in this part of the book, as if conservatives were all dead and gone by 1960. Maybe that’s just what got published in the late 20th century.

Other than liberal ideology, literature becomes anthropology and philosophy. Instead of the theory of how to write stories about society, criticism becomes the discipline of how to read between the lines and see what the author has unwillingly confessed about society. Instead of using philosophy to ask what stories are worth telling, now it is philosophy using literature as data. Literary interpretation is attempted not in order to interpret anything, but to observe the process of interpretation and draw philosophical conclusions. No longer can an English major read the essays; they use more and more specialized vocabulary drawn from semiotics and post-modern philosophy.

The Christian era’s need for heroes to worship is mirrored by the late 20th century’s need for heroes to tear down. Instead of praising something, every essay seems to be complaining about something, or claiming to have debunked, dissolved, or deconstructed something. All of this is probably important. None of it is useful to me as a writer.

Nor is much of the philosophy very good. Literary theory and philosophy since the 1930s have both turned on the study of language, yet few in either field thought to study language. By “study” I mean either count data, perform experiments, or read the works of those who counted data or performed experiments. Noam Chomsky developed his influential theory of a universal grammar a decade after Claude Shannon developed the communication theory needed to debunk Chomsky’s key argument [4]. Eleanor Rosch experimentally debunked the entire semiotic tradition only a few years after Jacques Derrida’s tremendously influential essays [5], but to this day no one in literature or philosophy has noticed.

That cultivated ignorance of science is, throughout this collection, the dog that doesn’t bark in the night. The selected essays show the close historical relationship between literary criticism, philosophy, theology, and ideology. By the mid 20th century you couldn’t even call them separate fields. Yet it shows almost no connections between literary criticism and science, except when it’s pseudo-science (like Marx, Saussure, Freud, and Lacan), or science-bashing (like Kuhn). Many literary theorists use testable ideas, yet no one tests them. Even such a basic endeavor as finding experimentally, say, what fraction of people or what kind of people actually like Homer, is never attempted. It seems literary theorists deliberately avoid quantitative thought.

The sole exception I’ve found is Emile Zola’s 1880 essay, “The experimental novel.” The title is accidentally ironic; this was before what we call experimental novels. Zola meant the naturalistic novel, the novel which depicts ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, which is considered an invention of 19th-century French writers. He said that philosophy and poetry are the muses to science, asking questions that they don’t have the tools to solve, and so giving science direction and inspiration to press onward and actually solve them. “The philosophers [are] musicians often gifted with genius, whose music encourages the [scientists] while they work and inspires the sacred fire of their great discoveries. But the philosophers, left to themselves, will sing forever and never discover a single truth.” Zola says that naturalistic novels can now fulfil that role. A classic poem uses as its material only the phenomena of human nature: anger, greed, love. Homer says Diomedes is brave, but if you ask him why, he can only say it is because of his noble ancestry. A naturalistic novel posits a hypothesis about why someone is brave, and works it out scene by scene.

This is pretty close to my own view of the “purpose” of literature. When we read, we are “conducting experiments,” exploring things that might happen, and asking ourselves what we might do in someone else’s shoes. Some of the pleasure we get from reading is pleasure from vicarious gratification, but some, I suspect, is the pleasure we get from learning.

There was good work in literary theory during this time period; it just isn’t included. This was when “empirical criticism” developed. Willie van Peer and Colin Martindale independently developed a scientific literary theory which constructs and tests hypotheses about literature. I should probably post about their work. van Peer gained a lot of followers. Their work is interesting, but hampered because none of them seem to be writers. They often ask what a writer would say were the wrong questions. Martindale’s favorite thesis was that art was driven by the search for novelty, and that this led to predictable, cyclic stylistic change. He gathered a lot of data, but his analysis is marred by his unfamiliarity with information theory and statistics. He uses baroque ad-hoc metrics when what he really wants is just to measure entropy, and he seems unable to compute confidence intervals or adjust for degrees of freedom correctly. Once he fit an equation with 6 degrees of freedom to 10 data points, and was pleased that it explained 71% of the variance.

In closing, I give you semi-random quotes from the book’s closing essays. Maybe they will inspire you as you write your next story.

Because we are never not in a situation, we are never not in the act of interpreting. Because we are never not in the act of interpreting, there is no possibility of reaching a level of meaning beyond or below interpretation. But in every situation some or other meaning will appear to us to be uninterpreted because it is isomorphic with the interpretive structure the situation (and therefore our perception) already has.

Stanley Fish, 1978

Despite Ricouer’s simplified idealization, and far from being a type of conversation between equals, the discursive situation is more usually like the unequal relation between colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed. Some of the great modernists, Proust and Joyce prominent among them, had an acute understanding of this asymmetry; their representations of the discursive situation always show it in this power-political light.

Edward Said, 1983

If we are conscious of the provisional nature of the aesthetic dream that the poem nurtures, we also look for the poem’s own self-consciousness about its tentative spatializing powers. Its fiction, and our awareness of it, contain the twin elements of symbol and antisymbol, of words that fuse together even while, like words generally, they must fall apart in differentiation. Even further, the poem, together with our apprehension of it, combines its transformation of time into myth with its resignation to the countermetaphor of time as mere historicity.

Murray Krieger, 1981

[0] I’ve looked at the samples from the 17th century, but they all turned out to be collections of 17th-century stories published in the 18th century, when books didn’t include their own publishing dates. Google’s computers scanned them for the publishing date and picked up the dates of the stories in them.

[1] Not really, but that’s what everybody remembers him as saying.

[2] It doesn’t even mean stories that support conventional morality if you think about them. Dangerous Liasons, an 18th-century French libertine novel, is about two wicked people whose wicked schemes lead them to bad ends. It was universally condemned as wicked. Presumably figuring out that you’re not supposed to imitate the wicked people was considered too difficult for readers. Stories are supposed to have a clear, black-and-white morality, in which good people do good things and win a reward.

[3]  Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

[4] Chomsky said grammars of human languages take more information to specify than humans can glean from the language they hear in the time it takes them to learn the language. Shannon showed how to measure the information content in a grammar. Measure it, and it turns out Chomsky is very wrong.

[5] Semiotics is based on a logical theory of categories, in which linguistic “signifiers” (words) mediate between “signs” (not signs, but concepts; blame Saussure) and things in the world. It assumes that people can think only in words, and so words correspond exactly to concepts, and so you lose no information by examining only words without asking about mental representations. This means words must mean the same thing in every context. Yet words have different implications in different contexts. Saussure interpreted this as showing that meaning is not present within the words, nor associated with words, but is something mystic and non-decomposable, brought to life by a body of words in the way that a soul is brought to life by the body of a man (my interpretation).

Wittgenstein and Derrida showed that words have different meanings in different contexts, and argued, more or less, that this meant they had no fixed meaning at all. Rosch’s study of categories, especially color terms, shows that categories have a lot of internal structure, and that the whole “a thought is a mental representation of a sentence, and a concept is a pointer to a word” theory is wrong.

[6] I may write a blog about analysis and synthesis. This is a distinction made often in philosophy. People say that Aristotle and scientists are “analysts” who break things down into their components, while Plato and mystics are “synthesizers” who combine things together into unified wholes. The distinction is often made in order to dismiss science as reductionist and say, “Yeah, sure, you guys can break things down into pieces, but you need a poet / a philosopher / God to put them back together.”

This is stupid. Look at the Poetics, and you can see that what Aristotle does is first analysis, breaking poetry down into its parts, and then synthesis, showing how the parts come together into a unity greater than the sum of its parts. That’s synthesis. What Plato, Hegel, and the other people who are called synthesizers do is make shit up. They aren’t doing synthesis because they never isolated any parts to combine.

Here’s the table of contents of the 3rd edition:

Plato.  Ion.  From “Republic.” From “Phaedrus.” From “Sophist.”From “Philebus.” From “Cratylus.”

Aristotle.  From “Metaphysics.” Poetics.  From “Rhetoric.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero.  From “Brutus.”

Horace.  Art of poetry.

Strabo.  From “Geography.”

Publius Cornelius Tacitus.  From “A dialogue on oratory.”

Pseudo-longinus.  On the sublime.

Plutarch.  From “How the young man should study poetry.”

Flavius Philostratus.  From “Lives of the sophists.”

Plotinus.  From “Enneads.”

Saint Augustine.  From “On Christian doctrine.”

Anicus Manlius Severinus Boethius.  From “Consolation of philosophy.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas.  From “Summa theologica.”

Dante Alighieri.  From “The banquet.” From “Letter to can grande della scala.”

Giovanni Boccaccio.  From “Life of Dante.” From “Genealogy of the gentile gods.”

Giralomo Fracastoro.  Naugarius.

Julius Caesar Scaliger.  From “Poetics.”

Lodovico Castelvetro.  From “The poetics of Aristotle translated and explained.”

Sir Philip Sidney.  Apology for poetry.

Giordano Bruno.  From “The cause, the principle, and the one.”

Giacopo Mazzoni.  From “On the defense of the comedy of Dante.”

George Puttenham.  From “The arte of English poesie.”

Torquato Tasso.  From “Discourses on the heroic poem.”

Sir Francis Bacon.  From “Novum organum.”

From “The advancement of learning.” From “The wisdom of the ancients.”

Pierre Corneille.  Of the three unities of action, time, and place.

John Dryden.  An essay of dramatic poesie.

Nicolas Boileau-despreaux.  The art of poetry.

John Locke.  From “An essay concerning human understanding.”

Alexander Pope.  Essay on criticism.

Joseph Addison.  From “On the pleasures of the imagination.”

Giambattista Vico.  From “The new science.”

David Hume.  Of the standard of taste.  Of tragedy.

Edmund Burke.  From “A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful.”

Edward Young.  From “Conjectures on original composition.”

Samuel Johnson.  Rambler 4.  From “Rassalas.” From “Preface to Shakespeare.”

Henry Home, Lord Kames.  From “Elements of criticism.”

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.  From “Laocoon.”

Denis Diderot.  From “The paradox of acting.”

Sir Joshua Reynolds.  From “Discourses on art.”

Immanuel Kant.  From “Critique of judgment.”

Mary Wollstonecraft.  From “A vindication of the rights of woman.”

William Blake.  From “The marriage of heaven and hell.” From “Letter to thomas butts.”

From “Annotations to Reynolds’ discourses.” From “A vision of the last judgment.”

Friedrich Schiller.  From “Letters on the aesthetic education of man.”

Friedrich Schlegel.  From “Critical fragments (lyceum fragments).”

From “Athenaeum fragments.” On incomprehensibility.

William Wordsworth.  Preface to the second edition of lyrical ballads.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  From “Shakespeare’s judgment equal to his genius.” From “The principles of genial criticism.”

From “Biographia literaria.” From “”essays on method” in the friend.”

From “The statesman’s manual.” From “On the constitution of church and state.”

Wilhelm Von Humboldt.  From “The eighteenth century.” From “Essay on aesthetics.”

From “Catium and Hellas.” From “Introduction to general linguistics.”

From “Announcement of an essay on the language and nation of the basque.”

From “On comparative linguistics.”

From “On the national characteristics of languages.”

From “Basic characteristics of linguistic types.”

From “On the episode from the mahabharata known as the bhagavad-gita ii.”

From “On the differences in human linguistic structure.”

John Keats.  From “Letter to benjamin bailey.” From “Letter to george and thomas keats.”

From “Letter to john taylor.” Letter to richard woodhouse.

Thomas Love Peacock.  The four ages of poetry.

Percy Bysshe Shelley.  A defense of poetry.

Arthur Schopenhauer.  From “The world as will and idea (representation).”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  From “The philosophy of fine art.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson.  From “The american scholar.” The poet.

Edgar Allan Poe.  From “The poetic principle.”

Matthew Arnold.  Preface to the 1853 edition of poems.

The function of criticism at the present time.  From “The study of poetry.”

Charles Baudelaire.  From “The salon of 1859.”

Karl Marx & friedrich engels.  From “The communist manifesto.” From “The German ideology.”

From “A contribution to the critique of political economy.”

Walter Pater.  From “Studies in the history of the renaissance.” Introduction: the modern era.

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine.  From “History of English literature.”

Charles Sanders Peirce.  On a new list of categories.

From “Lessons from the history of philosophy.” The first rule of reason.

From “Training in reasoning.” From “What pragmatism is.”

Walt Whitman.  From “Democratic vistas.”

Friedrich Nietzsche.  From “The birth of tragedy from the spirit of music.”

From “Truth and falsity in an ultramoral sense.”

Emile Zola.  From “The experimental novel.”

Oscar Wilde.  The decay of lying.

Stephane Mallarme.  The evolution of literature.

The book: a spiritual instrument.  Mystery in literature.

Gottlob Frege.  Sense and meaning.

Sigmund Freud.  Letter to Wilhelm Fleiss.  From “Archaic and infantile features in dreams.”

From “Development of the libido and sexual organization.”

Leo Tolstoy.  From “What is art?”

Edmund Husserl.  From “Logical investigations.”

Ferdinand De Saussure.  From “Course in general linguistics.”

Viktor Shklovsky.  Art as technique.

T.  S.  Eliot.  Tradition and the individual talent.  The frontiers of criticism.

Bertrand Russell.  Descriptions.

Paul Valery.  From “Leonardo and the philosophers.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein.  From “Tractatus logico-philosophicus.”

From “Philosophical investigations.”

C. K. Ogden & I. A. Richards.  Thoughts, words, and things.

I. A. Richards. From “Principles of literary criticism.”

From “Science and poetry.” Four Kinds of Meaning.

Leon Trotsky.  The formalist school of poetry and marxism.

Boris Eichenbaum.  The theory of the “formal method.”

Virginia Woolf.  From “A room of one’s own.”

William Empson.  From “Seven types of ambiguity.”

Mikhail M. Bakhtin.  Epic and novel: toward a methodology for the study of the novel.

V.  N.  Volosinov.  Verbal interaction.

Antonio Gramsci.  From “Prison notebooks.”

John Crowe Ransom.  Poetry: a note in ontology.

R.  P.  Blackmur.  A critic’s job of work.

Rudolf Carnap.  The elimination of metaphysics through logical analysis of language.

Empiricism, semantics and ontology.

Jacques Lacan.  The mirror stage.

Walter Benjamin.  Theses on the philosophy of history.

Max Horkheimer.  The social function of philosophy.

William Carlos Williams.  Against the weather: a portrait of the artist.

Kenneth Burke.  Literature as equipment for living.  Four master tropes.

Ernst Cassirer.  From “An essay on man.”

W.  K.  Wimsatt AND monroe c.  Beardsley.  The intentional fallacy.

Cleanth Brooks.  The heresy of paraphrase.  Irony as a principle of structure.

Martin Heidegger.  From “Letter on humanism.”

Ronald S.  Crane.  The critical monism of Cleanth Brooks.

From “The languages of criticism and the structure of poetry.”

M.  H.  Abrams.  Orientation of critical theories.

Theodor Adorno.  Cultural criticism and society.  From “Negative dialectics.”

Claude Levi-strauss.  The structural study of myth.

Roman Jakobson.  The metaphoric and metonymic poles.

Georg Lukacs.  The ideology of modernism.

Northrop Frye.  From “Anatomy of criticism.”

Noam Chomsky.  From “Review of verbal behavior.” From “Aspects of the theory of syntax.”

Jean-Paul Sartre.  Marxism and existentialism.

Frantz Fanon.  On national culture.

Jacques Derrida.  Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences.

Meaning and representation.  From “Of grammatology.”

Hans Robert Jauss.  Literary history as a challenge to literary theory.

Roland Barthes.  The death of the author.

Michel Foucault.  What is an author? truth and power.

Thomas S.  Kuhn.  From “The structure of scientific revolutions: postscript, 1969.”

Louis Althusser.  From “Ideology and ideological state apparatus.”

Paul de Man.  Criticism and crisis.  The resistance to theory.

Clifford Geertz.  Thick description: toward an interpretive theory of culture.

Laura Mulvey.  Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.

Mary Louise Pratt.  From “Toward a speech act theory of literary discourse.”

Raymond Williams.  From “Marxism and literature.”

Edward W. Said.  From “Orientalism.”

Annette Kolodny.  Dancing through the minefield: some observations on the theory, practice, and politics of a feminist literary criticism.

Stanley Fish.  Is there a text in this class?

Pierre Bourdieu.  The production and reproduction of legitimate language.

Identity and representation: elements for a critical reflection on the idea of a region.

Jean Francois Lyotard.  Answering the question: what is postmodernism?

Benedict Anderson.  From “Imagined communities.”

Jurgen Habermas.  From “The philosophical discourse of modernity.”

Gilles Deleuze & felix guattari.  Rhizome.

James Clifford.  On ethnographic authority.

Richard Rorty.  The contingency of language.

Eve Sedgwick.  From “The epistemology of the closet.”

Philipe Lacoue-labarthe.  The truth of the political and the fiction of the political.

Stephen Greenblatt.  Resonance and wonder.

Judith Butler.  Imitation and gender insubordination.

John Guillory.  From “Cultural capital: the problem of literary canon formation.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Teaching for the times.

Slavoj Zizek.  From “The ticklish subject: the absent center of political ontology.”

Ernesto Laclau.  Subject of politics, politics of the subject.

Peter Beagle: The Line Between


A quick review of his 2006 book of short stories, The Line Between:


Some of his thoughts about fantasy.  Worth reading.  “What’s important to me here, as a writer, is that I’ve grounded the single fantastic element of the tail in the most realistic atmosphere I could manage… Possessed cat or no, mystery or no, magic or no, the rent still has to be paid…  My wizards are mostly out there in the rain, trying to light a fire, never mind summoning a genie.”

Gordon, the Self-Made Cat

This may be my favorite story in this book, and the only straight-out comedy other than the fables.  It’s really a fable extended to be more funny than moralizing.  Gordon is a mouse who decides it’s better to be a cat.  So he goes to cat school, and gradually wins over the cats there to accept him as one of them with his dedication and skill.  Then, disaster strikes.

Two Hearts

I’m sure the title is some kind of double-meaning, but I can only figure out the literal one:  The gryphon terrorizing a village has two hearts.  King Lir, now old, goes to fight it.  It’s a sequel to The Last Unicorn, so why bother describing it more?  You must read it anyway!

(You have read The Last Unicorn, right?  If you haven’t you really should.)

Four Fables

Spotty.  These are short-short comedies.  Even as short as they are, some are a little too long.  “The fable of the moth” and “The fable of the octopus” are the only ones that count as fables, in the sense of having something worthwhile to say.  They are beautiful, subtle, and interesting; but aren’t really of any consequence as (I don’t think) they are not funny enough.

El Regalo

This is a first-person story – in fact, all the stories in this book are first-person except “Gordon” and the fables, which is odd because in the introduction Beagle speaks of writing in the first-person as if it’s something he seldom does – told from the point of view of the older sister of a little boy who discovers he’s a witch.  You think she’s a Watson, but she isn’t.  I don’t know why I like this story so much – perhaps because it nails the older sister-younger brother dynamic.  Weird witchy stuff happens, but it’s a story about a sister and her brother, who happens to be a witch, not a story about a witch, who has a sister.


This is the only story I didn’t read, because it begins with a little boy being pursued by inhuman, nightmarish assassins.  I should trust Beagle and read it, but I just don’t want to read about a child being hunted by assassins.

Salt Wine

The story itself – the plot, I mean – doesn’t deliver a lot.  I appreciated this one mostly for its ability to get into the head of this genuine-feeling 19th-century old salt.  Beagle’s mastery of obscure and obsolete 19th-century nautical slang is impressive.  He must have done a lot of research for this short story.

Mr. Sigerson

A Sherlock Holmes story.  I used it as one of the models for the style in one of my own short stories.  It is a beautiful Holmes story, better than the originals stylistically and in its portrayal of Holmes and of the odd orchestra conductor who dislikes him and yet has much in common with him.  It would be perfect, but is ruined as a mystery, because it has only two scenes that are crucial to the plot, the first establishing the mystery, and the second resolving it – and the second scene directly contradicts everything in the first scene, not in a subtle way but in a gigantic “Oops, did I forget to replace that chapter with the new draft?” way.  So read it, but don’t bother trying to solve the mystery; you can’t.

A Dance for Emilia

This one was of course brilliantly written, but was too sentimental for me.  A man who longed to be a dancer but could not, because he just wasn’t physically gifted enough, dies and comes back as his cat, and discovers among other things that as a cat he can dance with inhuman grace.  Sweet, but, my God, the length!  Beagle stretches this sweet idea out over 38 pages.  It’s a testament to his skill that he can almost do it.  Almost.

John Updike’s 6 Rules for Reviewing


From the introduction to “Picked Up Pieces,” his second collection of assorted prose, and much later blogged on Critical Mass:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

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.

Review: Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, 1915


When I read the Paris Reviews interviews, the great writers of the 1930s-1940s kept bringing up Ford Madox Ford as one of the writers they admired most. I’d never heard of him. His best-known book is The Good Soldier, which I’d also never heard of. Yet at that time it was generally considered to be one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

Reputation is a funny thing. Ford’s reputation was as high as it was partly because he made a lot of friends. And it fell as low as it did because, eventually, he made a lot of enemies. People thought he was egotistical, and didn’t believe half the things he said about himself. He really did write books together with Joseph Conrad, but after Conrad’s death, some people got very upset with Ford for talking about it so much; I suppose they thought he was just making stuff up again. It also didn’t help that he wrote only autobiography and autobiographical fiction, and wrote other real people into his novels. According to a Teaching Company lecture I heard, the literary world more-or-less conspired to erase him from the canon after his death.

To which I say: No great loss.

I only read the first half of The Good Soldier, but I read plot reviews, and there’s clearly no reason to read the second half. It’s famous for being one of the (maybe the) first major works using an unreliable narrator, and so he’s considered a father of modernism. But it’s badly done unreliable narration; I can’t believe the narrator is that stupid or self-deceptive. Ford’s writing style is very good, but he has little to say.

The story is about 2 upper-class couples who spend 9 years together, travelling about Europe, inseparable all that time. Then, at the end of that 9 years, the narrator learns that the other couple’s marriage is completely dysfunctional (as is his own), and that his wife’s been cheating on him with the other husband all along. That’s pretty much it, except that there’s also a young woman, now age 22, who is never mentioned until halfway through the book when you learn she’s been constantly with them every moment all this time.

One of the major criticisms I hear of fan-fiction is that the people who write it don’t create their own characters. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. I image it might be good practice every now and again. If you’re forced to use characters that already exist, you have to come up with stories that work with characters that already exist. If, on the other hand, your story can’t possibly work with any character that anyone has written about before, it’s probably not a true story, and you shouldn’t write it.

This is the case with The Good Soldier. It’s often reviewed positively as a shocking exposé of the shallowness of the upper class. But it can’t be, because all 4 of his main characters are insane. I’m not particularly fond of the upper class, but this is more a freak show than a commentary on real life. Things like this might have happened, but calling it an exposé of the upper class is like calling a biography of Charles Manson an exposé of the 1960s.

I suppose they are all exaggerations of things that happen in many people to a lesser degree.

I learned pretty near the start what had happened. I kept reading because the narrator was engaging; it felt like listening to a good storyteller. But I began wondering why I was supposed to keep reading. I knew how it ended. All of the characters are contemptible, so I didn’t care about any of them. I had only a mild curiosity as to how things had played out.

When I came to the end of Part 1 (of 4), I seriously wondered why I was supposed to keep reading. There were no unanswered questions and nobody I cared about.

When I came to the end of Part 2, I wondered the same thing.

Partway through Part 3, I decided to read plot reviews online and find out whether there was anything else to the book, some twist or something. There wasn’t.

This book is entirely psychological, and so the only reason to read it is for its psychological analysis of its characters. But there isn’t any. The characters are all incredibly warped. We get a pretty good picture of how each one is warped, some impression of how each one feels, but no idea why they’re warped that way.

That’s because they’re not plausible characters. They’re cheap plot devices. They all have bizarre personality deficits, yet even those deficits aren’t sufficient to make them act in the self-destructive ways they do. We’re repeatedly told that the “good soldier” of the title is a very, very good man, doing all sorts of charitable work–but the author obviously just stuffed that in there to make him seem “complex”; none of it feels real or motivated.

The narrator appears to be based on Ford himself, and, if we believe what others wrote of Ford, his unbelievable denseness might just be how Ford really was. He was repeatedly accused of not being able to distinguish fantasy from reality in his own life, and not knowing what he had and had not done. Which might mean that the unreliable narrator was invented not as a clever literary device, but because a crazy man wrote fiction.