Archive for the 'Books' Category

What’s above the text.

There’s a funny exchange in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona. An American with time on his hands in a foreign city tells his friend that he’s been doing a lot of reading, and:

Fred: One of the things that keeps cropping up is this about subtext. Plays, novels, songs, they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?

Ted: The text.

Fred: [Pause] Okay, that’s right. But they never talk about that.

Fred is right, we use the term subtext a lot without really considering its topological implications. If we think of a story or narrative as a series of layers – at the bottom, the subtext; above that, the text – is there another layer, still further out?

If the subtext is the “hidden message” which can be accessed only at one remove, through the mediating layer of the text – does this hypothetical outermost layer mediate our interpretation of the text in the same way? What might this layer consist of?

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about French critical theory, specifically the branch of it known as Structuralism. But while poking around last week for terms to help me refine Josephine Tey’s concept of Tonypandy I kept coming across references to Gérard Genette’s theory of transtextuality, which gives us a bunch of fancy words for classifying the ways texts interact with and are interpreted through their connections to the world outside the text:

  • Intertext is when a text is quoted in other texts.
  • Metatext is critical commentary on a text.
  • Archetext is the way a text conforms or doesn’t conform to the conventions of whatever genre it belongs to.
  • Hypo- and hypertext refer to a source material and its later adaptations; so, the script of the 2002 movie Spider-Man is a hypertext based on the hypotext of the character’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy issue #15.
  • Paratext is all the text surrounding a text, including the title, back-cover blurb, and introduction; and at a further remove, author interviews, publicity materials, and ads intended to guide how readers should interpret the text.

For a good summary of how paratext can shape readers’ interpretations (written in 1963, and therefore unsullied by French critical jargon), consider the opening lines of Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato:

It sometimes happens in the history of the written word that an important work of literature carries a title which does not accurately reflect the contents. A part of the work has become identified with the whole, or the meaning of a label has shifted in translation. But if the label has a popular and recognisable ring, it can come to exercise a kind of thought control over those who take the book in their hands. They form an expectation which accords with the title but which is belied by much of the substance of what the author has to say. They cling to a preconception of his intentions, insensibly allowing their minds to mould the content of what they read into the required shape.

Havelock is referring to The Republic, which he claims isn’t really the book of political philosophy its title would suggest; it’s really about the shift, still ongoing at the time Plato wrote, from a primarily oral to a literary culture.

Last year I wrote about how nearly all of the events we think of as the Odyssey – Polyphemus, the Lotus-Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, and so on – are related in flashback in a few chapters in the middle of the epic. Knowing that odyssey means “a long, adventurous journey”, we read the work expecting a journey – just as readers of Plato’s Republic expect a book about politics. Someone who’d never heard the word odyssey, encountering the epic for the first time and asked what it was about, would answer not “a journey” but “a homecoming”.

***

There’s an old standup bit by Father Guido Sarducci where he talks about launching a Five Minute University, where “in five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

So for economics class, you’d learn the phrase supply and demand; for Spanish you’d learn ¿Cómo está usted? ¡Muy bien! …And so forth. The $20 fee would cover “tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, snacks…everything.”

Father Guido doesn’t mention it, but we can assume that the Five Minute University would include a literature department. What would its scholars be taught about, say, Robinson Crusoe?

An island…a footprint…Friday.

FMU grads who subsequently peek into Crusoe will discover there’s a lot of unfamiliar stuff in there. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the story should be reduced to the thirty or so pages of Crusoe and Friday dwelling peacefully amid the palms – just as it seems inevitable that the Odyssey should be reduced to some sailors fighting a cyclops. But why should those thirty pages of island idyll have attained such fame, relative to what comes after – a breathless cascade of cannibals and mutineers leading to our heroes’ escape? Or what about the preceding 150 pages of Crusoe’s solitude? I have no evidence to support this, but my impression is that what people who’ve actually read the book remember best is Crusoe’s gradual conquest of his environment – fitting out his cave, taming the wild goats, shaking some loose grains out of an old sack and delightedly seeing barley sprout up a few days later. Crusoe alone seems to me inherently more intriguing than Crusoe plus one other guy; but the popular imagination disagrees.

In the 1980s J.M. Coetzee wrote Foe, a feminist, postmodern retelling of the Crusoe story. In this version, it won’t surprise you to learn, Crusoe is no longer a self-improving Christian but a slovenly misanthrope; Friday is an abused slave; and a third castaway, a woman, is written out of the narrative by the villain, Daniel Defoe himself. In Gérard Genette’s terms we would call Foe a hypertext based on the hypotext of Defoe’s classic. But in fact it’s not the text of Robinson Crusoe that Coetzee is deconstructing, but the Five Minute University summary – the hazy, somewhat inaccurate version picked up second- and thirdhand from Looney Tunes and variety show skits. [1]

looney tunes robinson crusoe jr.

Robinson Crusoe Jr., 1941, starring Mel Blanc. Image source.

Nowadays Robinson Crusoe, the novel, is a small and, perhaps, not terribly essential component of the wider Crusoe mythos. Defoe clearly identifies Friday as a copper-skinned Caribbean Indian; in the hazy popular mind he’s usually an African; the South African Coetzee found this variation more fruitful to his creative efforts, and in making it central to Foe, helped thicken the haze.

Genette’s transtextualist lexicon goes some way toward defining this haze – the insubstantial yet opaque Venerian atmosphere we have to dive through to get a clear view of the planetary surface. Most of us never get anywhere near the surface: we accept the smudge of cloud immediately in front of our viewscreen as representative of the whole thing.

But we’ve been presuming that there is a solid body at the centre of every cloud mass: a text, more or less stable: an Odyssey or a Robinson Crusoe, a comic book or a film. Whereas in fact, many of our stories are like Jupiter – clouds all the way down.

***

A few years back I came across this article by Scott Beggs endorsing the then-current internet crusade to get Spider-Man recast as a black guy. I copied this excerpt into my “Future Essay Ideas” folder:

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia. More than that, the central premise that leads anyone to deny that a character like Hamlet can be another race (beyond the apparently all-encompassing “white”), is a faulty one that should be dismissed with great prejudice. Which is why it’s infuriating to see people – especially decision-makers – clinging to it like it’s some kind of Get Out of Racism Free card. It’s the same argument some fans made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. “Viking Gods aren’t black!” they cried, as if the statement didn’t deserve to be tossed instantly on the tall pile labeled Who Gives a Luxurious Fuck?.

I had to chuckle, because the author seemed unaware he was writing a 3000-word article proving just how luxurious a fuck he gave about the skin colour of his superheroes.

In the end, Sony and Marvel hired a young English actor named Tom Holland, who conformed to previous representations of Peter Parker as white, slim, and nerdy. Then to play Peter’s Aunt May – in the comics a white-haired old lady – they cast the forty-something and still sexy Marisa Tomei. Then in Spider Man: Homecoming they gave Peter an A.I.-enabled super-suit.

What is a character? The concept we call “Spider-Man” is a diffuse cloud of story points; it’s impossible to draw a distinct line separating the essential from the inessential. In the comics he starts out as a skinny white high school kid who lives with his aunt in Queens. He’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He feels responsible for the murder of his beloved uncle. He slings webs. He crawls on walls. He has spidey-sense. His costume is red and blue. He has money problems. He gets a job as a news photographer.

I could go on like this for a page or two. None of the above is essential. Even the most faithful adaptation will change or omit many of these details. On the other hand, if you don’t have some of these things, maybe most of them, you’re no longer doing Spider-Man.

Some story points seem more essential than others. How much does it matter that Peter Parker is a New Yorker? Couldn’t we set the story in Los Angeles instead? The radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, the Daily Bugle, all those could take place just as easily in L.A. Shouldn’t matter, right? But it does matter, if for no other reason than because our hero needs tall buildings to swing from. A West Coast Spidey might find a new and interesting means of locomotion – car-hopping on the Pomona Freeway, say. But even if Los Angeles suddenly sprouted a Manhattan-sized complement of skyscrapers I doubt any filmmaker would risk the switch. We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King‘s adventures take place.

Peter Parker’s (or Hamlet’s) whiteness means something too. The meaning is different for every audience; and every day brings a new and slightly different audience.

In the West, our most famous stories originated in a milieu where the overwhelming majority of storytellers and readers shared a common racial identity. Dr. John Watson doesn’t feel it necessary, when delineating his new roommate’s excessive leanness, piercing eyes, hawk-like nose, etc., to specify the fellow’s skin colour. In a few of his sci-fi novels Robert Heinlein plays with this assumption by offhandedly mentioning near the end that a main character is black, or Filipino, or whatever; but Heinlein was writing in the optimistic age when it was assumed that skin colour would soon recede into unimportance. It looks instead like in the future storytellers will be expected to think deeply about the meaning of the racial identities they assign their characters. Every story inherited from the old monochrome era will be re-examined under the Social Justice spectrograph: racial identity, dismissed by past generations as a trace element, will be declared the essential component of the atmosphere; and stories will present new and unexpected lucencies, while homely old patterns are lost to view.

***

I’ve been tinkering with this essay for ages, wondering whether I would ever arrive at something that could be passed off as a conclusion.

I guess I have two conflicting insights, each captured in a famous quote. The first is from James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, among other novels and stories less successfully adapted by Hollywood. Cain shrugged:

There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. [2]

Maybe Cain’s right. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much haze accumulates around a novel. Barring total civilizational collapse, future readers will always be able to go to the shelf and pull down the original text of Robinson Crusoe.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night that:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

While Robinson Crusoe might not change, all that semi-opaque stuff swirling above the text determines how we read it, and whether we bother to read it at all. Or to put it in Vonnegut’s terms: Our stories become what we pretend them to be.

Is The Merchant of Venice a tragedy about anti-Semitism or a comedic cross-dressing romp? Is Satan the villain of Paradise Lost, or the hero? Is Huckleberry Finn an appropriate book for kids or should it be held back till university and swathed in trigger warnings? What if Sherlock Holmes is black? What if Friday isn’t?

You can’t blame people for getting worked up about these questions. It’s true they’re punching at clouds. We live in the clouds.

M.

1. I suspect Friday became famous in part because Defoe gave him such a memorable name. Why is the Lilliput episode of Gulliver’s Travels so much more famous than his stay among the Houyhnhnms? Probably for the same reason my spell-checker accepts Lilliput while being stumped by Houyhnhnm.

2. Thirteen years ago I quoted the comics writer Alan Moore misattributing this comment to Raymond Chandler – apparently a common error.

Earlier this year I tried (and failed) to apply some numerical analysis to questions of race and representation in Hollywood. I mentioned Gulliver’s description of the immortal Struldbrugs in my 2014 review of the artsy vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. And way, way back in 2001 I read Robinson Crusoe for the first time and was put off by the hero’s frequent theological digressions.

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Tonypandy.

For grumps like me, one of the pleasures of reading Josephine Tey is her tart little asides about the woolly-headed intellectual fads of her era…which, as often as not, are the fads of our own. In Brat Farrar a progressive boarding school is described:

“No one is forced to learn anything at Clare. Not even the multiplication table. The theory is that one day you’ll feel the need of the multiplication table and be seized with a mad desire to acquire the nine-times. Of course, it doesn’t work out like that at all.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Of course not. No one who could get out of the nine-times would ever dream of acquiring it voluntarily.”

In The Singing Sands a grievance-mongering Scottish nationalist is presented for ridicule:

“So you’ve met Archie Brown, have you?” Tommy said, clapping the top half on his hot scone, and licking the honey that oozed from it.

“Is that his name?”

“It used to be. Since he elected himself the champion of Gaeldom he calls himself Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn. He’s frightfully unpopular at hotels.”

“Why?”

“How would you like to page someone called Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn?”

And in Tey’s most famous work, 1951’s The Daughter of Time, she introduces a term that these days, amid contending accusations of newsfakery, seems ripe for revival:

“If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights. You’ll probably hear that Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time, was responsible. South Wales, you will be told, will never forget Tonypandy!”

The speaker is Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. Confined to a hospital bed after sustaining an injury on the job, to kill time he buries himself in historical research, attempting to absolve Richard III of the charge of having murdered the Princes in the Tower – a charge, he concludes, as baseless as the widely believed story about Tonypandy.

The facts of that riot, or massacre, or what-have-you – as a visit to the relevant Wikipedia page will confirm – are still far from settled. But in Inspector Grant’s version, Churchill was so sensitive to the danger of inflaming the Welsh strikers that he dispatched only a body of unarmed police, and “[t]he only bloodshed in the whole affair was a bloody nose or two.” This sordid scuffle was exaggerated for purely political purposes:

“The point is that every single man who was there knows that the story is nonsense, and yet it has never been contradicted. It is a completely untrue story grown to legend while the men who knew it to be untrue looked on and said nothing.”

Elsewhere Inspector Grant applies the term to the retrospective elevation of the Covenanters – vicious terrorists in his telling – to Scottish national martyrs.

To summarize, Tonypandy in the Josephine Tey sense refers not to politically motivated propaganda, but to the falsified version of history that, thanks to propaganda or lazy reporting or romantic oversimplification, supplants the facts in the public consciousness. Once established, Tonypandy can be very hard to displace:

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset.

Though sorely tempted, I won’t unsettle the reader by providing modern examples of Tonypandy. I’m sure whatever your political sympathies you can think of a few…which would be guaranteed to upset your political foes.

M.

Back in April I observed that newsworthy events are, by definition, out of the ordinary, so that the news inevitably gives us a distorted picture of the world. Last year I discussed the related concept of Gell-Mann Amnesia and pondered the insoluble problem of truthfulness in fiction.

The chain of incomprehension.

With Shakespearean knots on my mind recently, I had my eyes open for other examples of knotty writing.

Like this one in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Glanton, leader of a gang of American mercenaries hunting Apache scalps in northern Mexico, is brooding over the campfire:

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

I read that five or six times, getting madder each time, and finally decided it must contain a typo. Swapping in the word “by”, if it didn’t quite unfuddle the meaning, at least resolved the sentence into some kind of syntactical clarity:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and by his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

But it turns out that others had already untangled McCarthy’s knotty grammar. If that offending “be” is assumed to be in the subjunctive mood, the sentence comes smooth:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and [though] his charter [be] written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

Argh. Why not just write that in the first place? Why be deliberately obscure?

…To which a Cormac McCarthy fan might answer (sans quotation marks, of course), why not print the crossword with the answers filled in?

***

Casting around for examples of long-winded drivel to contrast with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s soliloquy on Salic inheritance in Henry V, I thought of Lucky’s speech in Waiting For Godot.

To summarize the play, two hoboes are waiting in a desolate landscape for a benefactor named Godot, who will never arrive. A self-possessed rogue named Pozzo happens by, whipping along his slave, the elderly and apparently mute Lucky. For his new friends’ amusement, Pozzo instructs Lucky first to dance, and then to “Think!” …at which the slave, at first haltingly, declaims:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell …

…And so on for three pages, to the increasing exasperation of his audience, onstage and off. I remain of the opinion that this speech was scribbled out by Samuel Beckett in a process of free-association, perhaps incorporating snatches of whatever printed matter happened to be at hand, and taking not much longer to compose than it would take to read aloud; i.e., eight minutes or so. But there are scholars who’ve dedicated vast energies to the exegesis of Lucky’s speech, which is, we are assured, “as carefully constructed as the play itself” – which praise may, subject to your view of the rest of the play, be self-cancelling.

There’s a story called “Dear Illusion” by Kingsley Amis. (It’s the inspiration for the ugly cover for his Collected Short Stories, shown and discussed here.) A venerable and beloved poet, doubting whether he’s deserving of the critical adulation that has belatedly elevated him to national fame, dashes off a volume’s worth of poems in a single day, “just putting down whatever came into my head in any style I thought of”, including this Luckyish gem:

Man through different shell all over turns into sea swelling birth comes light through different man all over light shell into sea. Rock waits noon out of sky by tree same turns into rock by noon out of sky underneath tree out of same rock. …

That such half-assed efforts are as widely and vaporously praised as his earlier, sweated-over ones confirms to the poet the worthlessness of his life’s work, which he publicly disavows at a gala dinner in his honour:

“With respect, Sir Robert wasn’t quite right in saying I’ve been neglected. If only I had been. … I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time for thirty-eight years writing what’s supposed to be poetry; I’d have looked round for some other way of coping with the state of mind that made me write those things.”

Later, when a sympathetic journalist tries to convince the poet that his experiment hasn’t definitively proven his lack of talent:

“Not like in geometry, no. Just a very strong presumption. Quite strong enough for me.”

“But…you may still be good even though…”

“You mean God or somebody may think I’m good. I’d certainly respect his opinion. But he’s not letting on, is he?”

***

C.P. Snow’s The Sleep of Reason deals with the same themes as Blood Meridian – the unfathomable workings of fate; the ever-immanent human lust for depravity and how swiftly it reemerges when societal constraints break down – but in a modest and unfussy style that, to my mind, underlines the central mystery more effectively than McCarthy’s freakshow of bloodstained ruffians muttering curses at the remorseless sun.

Toward the end, after getting entangled in the trial of a pair of sadistic murderers whose motives are never fully explained, Snow’s narrator attends a relative’s funeral and has his attention captured by a knotty passage in I Corinthians:

[Our ancestors] must have gone to the funeral services in the village churches, and listened to this Pauline eloquence for at least a dozen generations. Some of that gene-pool was in us. Gone stoically, most of them, I thought. As with us, phrases stuck in their memories. As with me as a child, the rabbinical argumentation washed over them.

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin: and the strength of sin is the law.

How old was I, when I first became puzzled by that gnomic phrase? We had all listened to it, the whole line of us, life after life, so many lives, lost and untraceable now.

In the unlikely event that C.P. Snow is still being read 400 years from now, our descendants will find much in his novels to confuse them: strange customs, forgotten fashions, obsolete turns of phrase…but perhaps amid the confusion they, like me, will be arrested by the image of a long chain of simple men and simple women half-following the drone of the burial service, their eyes suddenly narrowing in puzzlement, linked across time by a moment of common incomprehension.

M.

 

Shakespearean knots.

Shakespeare could be immoderately knotty.
It’s odd: he must’ve thought in knots a lot.
His thought can be unknotted – but could not he
Have sought a little less to knot his thought?

Look, I’m the first to admit that I’m lazy and not too bright. But I’m also the kind of person who reads Shakespeare for fun, and there aren’t too many of us around these days – so please, all you brainy and diligent Shakespeare nerds, indulge my unsophisticated complaint.

It’s about the knots.

Is there a technical term for them? In his book From Dawn To Decadence the French-born American scholar Jacques Barzun admitted to being less than wholly enthusiastic about Shakespeare because he too often had trouble keeping up with “the involutions of the thought” – a phrase that’s always stuck with me. Consulting the index, I see that the passage in question is actually discussing Racine:

The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

Well, I haven’t read Racine. But in Shakespeare’s case, I think of them not as fancy Latinate involutions but as homely old Anglo-Saxon knots.

Every play has them. I happened to be revisiting King John recently – I remembered next to nothing of the plot, but it came back to me as I read. The biggest challenge in the early scenes, as with so much Shakespeare, is figuring out who’s related to whom. That must have been easier for Elizabethan audiences, who were attentive to the complications of royal bloodlines, and were used to nobles being referred to miscellaneously by title, house, epithet, and Christian name.

But a knowledge of the vastly ramified Plantagenet family tree is not necessary to follow King John. The story unwinds smoothly until Act II, Scene I, where Constance, the mother of young Arthur – the rightful king, as she believes, of England – hurls these curses at her mother-in-law Elinor – Arthur’s grandmother – who supports the claim of Arthur’s usurping uncle John:

I have but this to say,
That he [Arthur] is not only plagued for her [Elinor’s] sin,
But God hath made her sin and her the plague
On this removed issue, plague for her
And with her plague; her sin his injury,
Her injury the beadle to her sin,
All punish’d in the person of this child,
And all for her; a plague upon her!

See: a knot. Usually I can keep up with Shakespeare at a reading pace, with occasional delays to double back and reconnect a distantly severed subject and predicate, or to put back in order some poetically inverted adjective and noun; but a knot like this I might have to read five or ten times just to extract the basic meaning. In all honesty, I’m still not sure what “plague for her / And with her plague” means.

Elsewhere in From Dawn to Decadence Barzun lists the “tenable objections” to Shakespeare’s genius, including:

[T]he dull passages, including the puns, often obscene and prolonged; the inflated sentiments, the ludicrous images, the insoluble syntax, the contradictory details, the theatrically awkward turns, and the sheer excess where terseness or silence would be best.

He means “insoluble” in the sense of “unsolvable”, but the other meaning works too, if you picture Shakespeare’s knots as tightly compacted lumps of matter that refuse to soften up no matter how long you soak ’em.

Returning to the play, the next knot comes in Act III, Scene I, once again courtesy of Constance. She’s trying to convince the French king to do his religious duty, abandon his alliance with the excommunicated John, and switch his support to Arthur. She’s accused of arguing “not from her faith / But from her need.” She replies:

O, if thou grant my need,
Which only lives but by the death of faith,
That need must needs infer this principle,
That faith would live again by death of need.
O then, tread down my need, and faith mounts up;
Keep my need up, and faith is trodden down!

As Professor Barzun said, what characterizes passages like these is involution – ideas looping around on themselves like interlocking ouroboroses. They remind me of the logical puzzles known as sorites [1] presented by Lewis Carroll in his book Symbolic Logic:

(1) No one takes in the Times, unless he is well-educated;
(2) No hedge-hogs can read;
(3) Those who cannot read are not well-educated.

Conclusion: No hedge-hog takes in the Times.

That’s an easy one. When the propositions are multiplied, a sorites can quickly grow too cumbrous to be parsed on the fly:

(1) All the dated letters in this room are written on blue paper;
(2) None of them are in black ink, except those that are written in the third person;
(3) I have not filed any of them that I can read;
(4) None of them, that are written on one sheet, are undated;
(5) All of them, that are not crossed, are in black ink;
(6) All of them, written by Brown, begin with “Dear Sir”;
(7) All of them, written on blue paper, are filed;
(8) None of them, written on more than one sheet, are crossed;
(9) None of them, that begin with “Dear Sir”, are written in the third person.

With a little patience, these propositions can be reduced to pairs of eliminands, which cancel out, leaving the two retinands “letters written by Brown” and “letters that I cannot read”, comprising the conclusion: “I cannot read any of Brown’s letters.”

[Full disclosure: Despite Carroll’s jaunty assertion that none of the exercises in Symbolic Logic should be “beyond the grasp of an intelligent child of (say) twelve or fourteen years of age”, I haven’t attempted them myself. I’m a lot dimmer than a well-brought-up 19th century English schoolboy.]

Coincidentally, just as Shakespeare reminded me of Carroll’s sorites, Carroll had Shakespeare on his mind while composing them:

(1) All writers, who understand human nature, are clever;
(2) No one is a true poet unless he can stir the hearts of men;
(3) Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet”;
(4) No writer, who does not understand human nature, can stir the hearts of men;
(5) None but a true poet could have written “Hamlet”.

Conclusion: Shakespeare was clever. Too blasted clever, one sometimes grumbles…

***

In Act III, Scene I, of King John, shortly after Constance’s speech about faith, Cardinal Pandulph makes his own religious appeal to the French king, who is torn between the oath he recently swore to King John and his loyalty to the church. Pandulph unfurls this string of small knots:

O, let thy vow
First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d,
That is, to be the champion of our church!
What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself
And may not be performed by thyself,
For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
Is not amiss when it is truly done,
And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
The truth is then most done not doing it:
The better act of purposes mistook
Is to mistake again; though indirect,
Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d. [2]

Did Shakespeare trust that contemporary theatre-goers could follow this display of Jesuitical rope-trickery? Or, like a Hollywood screenwriter throwing masses of jargon into his space opera script to set an atmosphere of scientific authenticity, was he content that the knots should plink melodiously off his audiences’ skulls, communicating nothing but “ah, this Cardinal fella’s real smart”?

I recall reading Henry V for the first time and nodding off at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s eye-glazing explanation in Act I, Scene II, of Henry’s claim to the French throne. Then I saw Olivier’s film of the play, where the scene is played for comedy, with Canterbury shuffling through stacks of paper, losing his place, being assisted by his flustered deputy, seeming to wind down only to wind back up again, and so on. It culminates with Canterbury on his knees amid drifts of fallen parchment, declaring to the bemused noblemen that Henry’s claim is “as clear as is the summer’s sun.” Which I suspect, though I can’t be sure, Shakespeare intended as a punchline.

Have the play’s interpreters always leavened this scene with buffoonery? Or was the buffoonery a necessary adjustment for modern audiences, who are less engrossed than their ancestors by genealogical disquisition? Anthony Brennan, in his Critical Introduction to the play, argues that Canterbury was meant to be played straight:

Given the extended arguments throughout Shakespeare’s whole cycle of history plays as successive figures try to legitimise their claims to the crown and to dispute that of others, it seems inherently unlikely that the Elizabethan audience regarded such a huge speech as laughter-fodder. [3]

(For his Henry, filmed a half-century after Olivier’s, Kenneth Branagh opted for the stodgier solution of forgoing the comedy, but compressing the speech to a quarter of its length.)

As with Canterbury’s evolution into a figure of comedy, I can imagine Pandulph being performed as a suave word-spinner, dazzling the blunt-witted nobles (who broadly mime their incomprehension) into acquiescence. But the fact that Constance is as nimble a spinner as Pandulph makes me wonder whether Shakespearean audiences, raised in a more verbal culture, were simply more adept at uncoiling knotty rhetoric.

M.

1. Sing. sorites [pron. so-righties], pl. sorites or (Carroll’s preference) soriteses; from the Greek for heap; not to be confused with the sorites paradox.

2. “…as fire cools fire / Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d.” Apparently in Shakespeare’s time medical orthodoxy held that burns should be treated by the application of heat:

Fernelius asserted that fire was its own antidote and should be applied to the burned part to drive it out which abates the pain. Ambrose Pare similarly called for the burned part to be held near a flame or live coal to draw out the igneous particles in the tissues.

3. I was pointed to this quote by Anthony Boyd-Williams’s 2002 master’s thesis, “I Am Left Out – A Study of Selected Clerical Characters in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, which contains meaty chapters on Pandulph and Canterbury, with detailed scene-by-scene notes on several high-profile filmed and theatrical performances of King John and Henry V, focussing on the portrayals of these characters.

In Robert Heinlein’s 1980 novel The Number of the Beast – discussed in my essay on Heinlein’s Crazy Years – the dimension-hopping heroes bump into Lewis Carroll and trade sorites to pass the time.

 

A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance – perhaps a better chance than any other – that in time, perhaps in our life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends.

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.

M.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe.

“You think I know f*** nothing?”

Toward the end of Nicholas Monsarrat’s World War II novel The Cruel Sea we find the frigate Saltash in charge of a convoy delivering supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk, far above the Arctic Circle. The Russians are suspicious and resentful of their British allies who, as they see it, have been shirking their fair share of the war effort – hunkering down behind the Channel, postponing their promised invasion of France, while the Red Army fights a desperate defensive war.

These resentments bubble over in a shouting match between First Lieutenant Lockhart and a Russian interpreter. The fight ends on a farcical note:

At the head of the gangway [the interpreter] turned, for a final blistering farewell.

“You English,” he said, in thunderous accents and with extraordinary venom, “think we know damn nothing – but I tell you we know damn all.”

For a novel published in 1951, The Cruel Sea is rather more forthright than I was expecting. Death and mutilation are unflinchingly described, and prostitution, abortion, and venereal disease come up for discussion – albeit in language much less salty than real-life seamen were likely to have used.

While overall this linguistic propriety scarcely handicaps the novel, it struck me that the scene with the Russian would have been more effective if Monsarrat had been permitted fuller access to the vernacular – as David Niven enjoyed, a quarter century later, when he used the exact same gag in his Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses. The title derives from a supposed incident on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge and his Hungarian-oriented English was a source of joy to us all.

High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. “Okay!” he yelled into a megaphone. “Bring on the empty horses!”

[Errol] Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language…you think I know fuck nothing…well, let me tell you – I know FUCK ALL!”

It’s possible that Niven – who had no compunctions about rustling a stray anecdote and passing it off as his own – swiped this line from Monsarrat’s novel. It’s somewhat less likely (but still in the realm of possibility) that Michael Curtiz really was the originator of the “I know fuck all” gaffe, on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936, and the punchline made its way across the Atlantic to Monsarrat’s ears.

Far likelier, the tale was floating around the British military during the war, and Monsarrat (Lt. Cdr., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) and Niven (Lt. Col., British Army) independently heard it and stored it away for later use.

***

I shouldn’t single David Niven out for scorn; he just happens to be associated with the most famous version of the anecdote. A Google search reveals that it’s been recycled any number of times, and the verbal flub attributed to any number of funny-talking foreigners.

(By the way, I mistakenly assumed that “fuck nothing / fuck all” was the “authentic” version, and “damn nothing / damn all” a weak-tea substitute; but the latter seems to be the one more commonly reported by speakers of British English.)

In this biography of Sidney Poitier, the quote is put in the mouth of Hungarian director Zoltan Korda.

In a British humour book called Funny Shaped Balls the setting is a football match between England and Scotland, overseen by an exasperated Hungarian referee.

In this article credit is given to yet another Hungarian, conductor Georg Solti

…However, the Rough Guide to Classical Music assigns it to conductor Ernest Ansermet, a French-speaking Swiss.

The line is spoken by an Arab officer in a 1967 British theatrical farce called Bang Bang Beirut (…which it somehow pleases me to see was being performed as recently as 2017, at a high school in Austin, Texas).

This old British sailor claims to have heard it in the sixties from a Calcutta dock supervisor with a “sing song Indian accent”.

In a recent memoir by an American Air Force veteran, it’s delivered by a German guard in a WWII POW camp…

…But that Yank airman was beaten to it by a one-legged RAF POW who got his version of the story into print way back in 1957.

…The “unnamed German POW camp guard” attribution seems to be the most frequent; I can’t link to them all. I will single out the commenter on this blog who mistakenly remembers the line occurring somewhere in The Great Escape.

Who knows where the anecdote originated. Its appearance in The Cruel Sea is the earliest I’ve found; however, that may simply be because much before 1951, “damn all” (let alone “fuck all”) would’ve been considered pretty racy. The joke may have circulated for many years, without leaving a trace on the printed language, before Monsarrat seized on it.

M.

PS. Here’s a discussion of the origins of the expression “fuck all” and its variants, claiming that the horrific murder of the English girl Fanny Adams in 1867 inspired a morbid sailor’s joke comparing their unappetizing meat rations to the girl’s remains – later abbreviated to “sweet F.A.” – later misunderstood to denote “sweet fuck all”.

The Phrase Finder, however, claims that “fuck all” predates “Fanny Adams” and that the two phrases were conflated sometime between Fanny’s murder and World War I.

In a post last year that attempted to answer the question “Why read?” I quoted some other dubious David Niven anecdotes from Bring On The Empty Horses. On a related note, here’s Nevil Shute being told by the publishers of his first novel, in 1926, to replace every instance of the word “bloody” with “ruddy”.

Sergeant, erect that flagpole.

Early in Nicholas Monsarrat’s Second World War novel The Cruel Sea, newly commissioned Sub-Lieutenant Ferraby, serving on his first ship, is given an order he doesn’t understand:

“Single up to the stern-wire,” Bennett had said, and left it at that – though not forgetting to add, by way of farewell: “And if you get a wire round the screw, Christ help you!”

Ferraby wanders aft and looks despairingly at the mooring ropes leading off in various directions, not knowing how to proceed, sweating under the gaze of the old salts under his command. Then he has an inspiration:

He nodded to Tonbridge and said, simply:

“Single up to the stern-wire.”

Tonbridge said: “Aye aye, sir,” and then, to the nearest seamen: “Take off those wrappings,” and then, to the hands waiting on the jetty: “Cast off breast-rope and spring.” Men moved: the wires splashed in the water, and were hauled in: the moorings quickly simplified themselves, to one single rope running aft. It was easy as that.

Although relieved, Ferraby feels that he has “cheated” – disguising his ignorance by fobbing the responsibility onto his men. But perhaps he has actually demonstrated good military leadership. Steve Sailer, in his obit for his friend, the sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, shares a lesson he learned from the Korean War vet:

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.

M.

Twelve years ago, in an essay inspired by the premise of Mike Judge’s barely-released movie Idiocracy, I summarized the climax of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s apocalyptic sci-fi classic Lucifer’s Hammer: “Ultimately the army of property rights and technological progress prevails in a bloody battle against the army of cannibalistic former welfare recipients.”