Peter Beagle: The Line Between

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

Introduction

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.

Quarry

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.

Method Writing

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There are 2 school of acting in English-speaking films: the American way, or method acting, and British acting.  As the Guardian says,

This difference is encapsulated in the classic confrontation on Marathon Man where Dustin Hoffman was delaying proceedings by searching for his character’s motivation. His scene-mate was Sir Laurence Olivier – tired, perhaps, and exhausted by theorizing. At one point he whispered to Hoffman, “Just pretend.”

(Or, alternately, “Try acting.”  That’s an interesting link, BTW, for different reasons–it says that Americans assume that people who speak intelligently are evil.  I’ve always assumed it’s because people who aren’t evil probably aren’t very intelligent).

The method actor works from the inside out, trying to understand the character’s motivation first, so he can discover how the character walks, talks, and drinks his coffee.  The British actor works from the outside in, trying to find a combination of clothing, mannerisms, and speech patterns that fit the lines and each other.  A famous British actor (I can’t remember who, and neither can Google) told the story of how a character fell into place once he found the right hat for him, and told actors to “let the hat do the work!”  A joke about the Star Wars prequels is that the British actors were so much better than the American actors because the Americans were trying to discover characters that weren’t there.

Not coincidentally, these are the main two ways of creating characters on the page.  Google quickly shows somebody else already thought of this and is trying to make a buck off it:  Dick Bentley teaches a course at the U of Mass and by mail on “Method Writing”.

“The method”, imagining a character’s past, her emotions and motivations, corresponds to what writers are usually told to do.  The key point of both method acting and good character writing is the same:  Each character, in each scene, must know what he or she wants.

But method acting adds more:  the method actor is supposed to intentionally use pieces of his past to create the character.  He tries to create the emotions in himself that the character feels by remembering similar things that happened to him.  I confess I don’t do this intentionally, though I might accidentally.

My first reaction is that for writers, “method writing” is right, and the British approach is wrong.

Here a Scottish acting coach gives 10 reasons why he hates method acting.  Most of his reasons sound like laziness to me, and his arguments against “the method” only prove that it is the correct way to create characters:

3. Unnecessary Focus on EmotionActing is not emotion. Acting is action. The incorrect focus on emotion comes through an embarrassingly arrogant view of Stanislavski’s work that was developed by Lee Strasberg and called The Method.  We do not have control over our emotions. We have less control over them when we’re under the kind of stress that actors feel on stage. If we could control them, we’d be robots and no longer need therapy, counseling or Prozac! You can fake emotion (badly) and you can force out some tears, but that’s not much of a basis for acting. Truly great acting moves the audience, not the actor.

Wow, this is such bad advice for writers.  I believe your writing should move you first of all.  A story is ready for writing when thinking about it would make me cry a little.  Theoretically.  If I did that sort of thing.

(It’s also wrong.  Acting is not emotion?  That’s defining the problem away.  But it’s a physiological fact that appearing like someone appears when they have strong emotions sometimes requires having those emotions, because some facial movements aren’t under conscious control.  We do not have control over our emotions?  Not if we refuse to try to have control over our emotions, no.)

It’s true, though, that making the motions associated with an emotion can create that emotion in you.  So maybe you can start with the cliched actions of a movie hero or villain, and get from there to emotions.  Maybe.

I don’t think so, though.  Actions are always cliched.  Every action has been done a million times before.  Actions are generic, and give rise to generic emotions.  Good character motivations are not generic.  I don’t think there’s any way to pile up enough actions and mannerisms and odd bits of clothing to generate a distinctive character.  Maybe for an actor, who (though you wouldn’t know it to listen to them) already has a character complete on the page before him.

6. PsychosisThe Method’s ill-educated and misguided approach to tinkering around in the mind of the actor is frightening. Stanislavski gave all of that up in favour of an approach focusing on ‘action’. Your own psychological state is not the playground of an acting teacher; you don’t know what a potentially explosive minefield of unresolved issues that you are poking around in. Messing with that stuff isn’t brave, it’s stupid.

In other words, he says, Don’t go poking around inside your own head; you might stir something up.  Which I think is the main point of writing.

7.  Self-IndulgenceWhen you’re a Method-actor, you do ‘research’. You go off and learn to fire guns so that you know how a soldier feels, you learn Swahili so that you can say three lines in the film, you talk to real prostitutes about their craft to play Prostitute Number 3 or interview real criminals to play ‘Second Crook from the End.’ It’s an excuse to do something fun and call it work, but:

None of this will help you play the scene. I’ll say it again, NONE OF THIS WILL HELP YOU PLAY THE SCENE.

That’s stupid.  If you’ve never spoken to a real prostitute or a real criminal, you shouldn’t play one on television.

But I think this is a disagreement about what storytelling is rather than about how to act.  If the only point of storytelling is to entertain, regardless of whether you’re telling truths or lies, then, sure, why bother portraying reality accurately?

He gives us one point to ponder.  Point 9, the method takes you out of the scene:  Pausing to recall your own similar experiences, besides slowing you down, may lead you back to the exact circumstances of your past rather than toward the things that belong in your story.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t pause to recall your own past while writing.  I don’t, not often.

Brooks & Warren on Showing & Telling

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I think I’m going to post part of the introduction to each chapter of Understanding Fiction by Brooks & Warren, 3rd edition (1979), to summarize their main ideas about fiction.  This one is a digression, so you get it out of order.  In the intro to chapter 3, “What Character Reveals”, they talk about showing versus telling while talking about characters.

(BTW, this intro to chapter 3 is completely new in the third edition (5 pages, vs. 1 in the 1st ed.)  They revised everything in the 3rd edition, even the discussions of the same stories, although those generally make the same points.)

        Warning:  They use the term “indirect” to mean “showing” and “direct” to mean “telling” when they talk about describing a character, and “direct” to mean “showing” and “indirect” to mean “telling” when they talk about dialogue. It makes some sense, since they use “indirectly describing” as a double-negative. They mean “indirectly summarizing”, which means “indirectly not directly depicting”, or “directly depicting”.

How shall the author present his character? Directly, with a summary of his traits and characteristics [telling], or indirectly (that is, through dialogue and action [showing])?  The very nature of fiction suggests that the second method is its characteristic means, yet direct presentation is constantly used in fiction, often effectively.  Much depends upon the underlying purpose of the story and much depends upon matters of scope and scale.  If the author made every presentation of character indirectly, insisting that each character gradually unfold himself through natural talk and gesture and action, the procedure might become intolerably boring.  “The Necklace” indicates how direct presentation—and even summary presentation—can be properly and effectively used.  (Look back at the first three paragraphs of this story on page 66.)  But when he comes to the significant scenes of the story, the author of “The Necklace” discards summary in favor of dramatic presentation.

The danger of direct presentation is that it tends to forfeit the vividness of drama and the reader’s imaginative participation. Direct, descriptive presentation works best, therefore, with rather flat and typical characters, or as a means to get rapidly over more perfunctory materials.  When direct presentation of character becomes also direct comment on a character, the author may find himself “telling” us what to feel and think rather than “rendering” a scene for our imaginative participation.  In “The Furnished Room,”for example, O. Henry tends to “editorialize” on the hero’s motives and beliefs, and constant plucking at the reader’s sleeve and nudging him to sympathize with the hero’s plight may become so irritating that the whole scene seems falsified.  Yet in D. H. Lawrence’s “Tickets, Please,” we shall see that direct commentary–and even explicit interpretation of the characters’ motives–can on occasion be effectively used by an author.

An author’s selection of modes of character presentation will depend upon a number of things. His decision on when to summarize traits or events, on when to describe directly, and on when to allow the character to express his feelings through dialogue and action, will depend upon the general end of the story and upon the way in which the action of the story is to be developed…

Indirect discourse [telling], like [“direct”] character summary and description, is a quicker way of getting over the ground, and in fiction has its very important uses.  Notice, for example, in “War” that the husband’s explanation of why his wife is to be pitied is indirect discourse: “And he felt it his duty to explain… that the poor woman was to be pitied, for the war was taking away her only son.” But the speeches of the old man who argues for the sublimity of sacrificing one’s son for one’s country are given as direct discourse. The importance of the old man’s speeches to the story, the need for dramatic vividness, the very pace of the story–all call for direct discourse.

John Updike’s 6 Rules for Reviewing

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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.

Completeness in stories, poems, and songs

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

Is this sensible, or merely convention?

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

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

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

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

Buffalo Bill ‘s

defunct

                     who used to

                     ride a watersmooth-silver

                                                            stallion

and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

                                                                                                                        Jesus

he was a handsome man

                                                            and what i want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

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

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

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

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

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

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t tell by the color

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

Reading Lolita in Tehran, IV.15

You can’t tell by the color?

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

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

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

Collateral damage in Hamlet and the Merchant of Venice

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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.

Shit.

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

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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
800px-Way_of_the_World_cover_(Congreve,_1700)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loose Ends of the Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-Modern Dialectic as Improv

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Post-modernists “mean” what they say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-modernism as philosophical behaviorism

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

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

Post-modernism as improv

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-modernism versus science

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

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

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

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

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

Post-modernism versus the environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The self-consistency of post-modernism

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


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

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

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

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

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

Review: Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, 1915

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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.