This isn't what Vico meant at all, at all...
“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Vico, in the early 18th century, warned against the too extensive use of the “geometric” method in philosophy and the expulsion of rhetoric from the corpus. Twentieth century analytic philosophy is a viconian nightmare, but Vico’s worry that rhetoric would be expelled from the corpus was overblown. Instead, poetry returned under the aegis of a curious argument from imagination. Philosophical subcultures have formed around the consequences of imagining such things as zombies, or arguing about personal identity based on the tale of transposed selves going back to Locke (or, in reality, to Apuleius). The argument goes that the self is separable from the body of the self because we can imagine a dairymaid, say, transposed into the body of a king. Many subtle arguments have been woven around such imaginary instances.
Myself, I like to imagine fantastic scenarios too. But the thing about most of them is that they never happen. In other words, the imaginative method is best for touching on what we don’t imagine. The fact or facts in natural history that have not been absorbed in our sense of the world, and, for that reason, that the imagination has yet to encounter. The personal identity argument is, to my mind, a case in point. We can well imagine a person’s mind being transposed into another person’s body. But what we see, overwhelmingly, is that this has never happened; nor have we any inkling that it will ever happen. This being the case, it seems that imagination, here, should lead us not to argue about what is proven by our imaginary case, but rather, what is proven by the insufficiency of our imagination to grasp one of the total facts of natural history. We should, I think, rethink what separability even means – and whether transposing an idea that originated in alchemy is valid in trying to understand other entities. The separability of the self and the body might well be imaginable only because the imagination is a crude concept mistaker, taking its mistaken presuppositions and projecting them on the world.
Friday, June 17, 2016
“I was reminded of the time a close friend visited my house ten minutes before the arrival of a gentleman caller. I hinted it would be better if she left, but she said he wouldn’t notice she was there. To prove her point she plonked lumps of the children’s Plasticine in the middle of her forehead and chest, stuck darts in them, poured liberal quantities of tomato sauce down her person and lay flat on the sofa, groaning.
He won’t take it in, she said. Just wait and see.
Sure enough – he came in, glanced at her, sat down and complained that he’d had a devil of a day.” – Beryl Bainbridge, Diary
There’s a rather strange, hard to interpret story told in the Homeric hymn to Demeter. When Hades kidnapped the daughter of Demeter, Persephone, the goddess of harvests, wandered about the earth looking for her and refusing to do her job re the harvests. She came, starving and thirsty, to a hut in which an old woman named Baubo sat. Baubo tried to cheer the goddess up, but she remained wrapped in gloom, refusing to eat, until the old woman thought of a prank: she lifted up her skirts and flashed her private parts at the godddess, who then burst out laughing and accepted refreshment.
This story was preserved by the Christian apologists, notably Arnubius and Clement, who found the whole setup appalling. It is the type of humor that has long been considered appalling in the West, down to the present day, which is why it is generally an underground kind of humor. The Christians certainly didn’t see anything funny about Baubo’s strip act; and indeed, the poet spends no time explaining what was so funny about the crone flashing her moneymaker. The joke is a sort of secret between Demeter and Baubo.
I would put Beryl Bainbridge down as one of the holders of that secret. For Bainbridge, in some of her novels, particularly Injury Timen(1977), masters the difficult art of combining disasterous circumstances and sexual absurdity even unto rape and murder with the kind of laughter that wells up, in some, at funerals or solemn events – the laughter of embarrassed alienation I suppose you could call it. Or of an even more embarrassing recognition that the solemnity eerily recapitulates the serious play of children.
Bainbridge is in rare company in this regard. In America, there are traits of the Baubo style in some of Dorothy Parker’s short stories; in the seventies, Iris Owens, after writing pornography under various pseudonyms, gave it a shot with After Claude, introducing, in Harriet, her narrator, one of the most unlikeable protagonists to ever rampage drunkly through a novel and refuse to leave the apartment of an ex boyfriend . The British sit com Absolutely Fabulous and the comedian Sarah Silverman have a bit of Baubo in them. Perhaps the writer who most explicitly explores the secret is Christina Stead, whose character Henny, in The Man who loved Children, coalesces her whole life around it, pitting this mystery against her hated husband Sam’s totalitarian optimism.
… what a moral, highminded world their father saw! But for Henny there was a wonderful particular world, and when they went with her they saw it: they saw the fish eyes, the crocodile grins, the hair like a birch broom, the mean men crawling with maggots, and the chilfren restless as an ell, that she saw. She did not often take them with her. She preferred to go out by herself and mooch to the bargain basements and ask the young man in the library what was good to read, and take tea in some obscure restaurant, and wander desolately about criticizing shopwindows and wondering if, in this street or that, she would yet, ‘old as I am looking like a black hag’, meet her fate. Then she would come home, next to some girl “from a factory who looked like a lily and smelled like a skunk cabbage”, flirting with all the men and the men grinning back…”
Bainbridge died a revered novelist in England, but most of the reverence was for the historical novels she wrote after Young Adolf in 1978.
Historical fiction is an uncertain category which, on an expansive interpretation, encompasses everything from War and Peace to Gravity’s Rainbow; but on a narrower interpretation, concerns those fictions in which some past incident is re-enacted with an abundance of detailing, in response to a miniaturist’s compulsion to get the décor right. It reminds me of the compulsive pleasure some people find in building model boats in bottles. Toby Litt has suggested that historical novels are written and read in bad faith, vacillating between the transcendence of imaginative freedom and the facticity of information – those details! This doesn’t bother me so much. What does bother me is the sense of thwarted play, the sense that the writer is operating within some manufactured enclosure that limits her reach for reasons extrinsic to the aesthetic act – those details again.
Bainbridge’s career as a novelist neatly splits, then, between those first novels, with their Baubodian humor, and the novels of her last period, in which the world given was not so much Bainbridge’s as the period in which she placed her characters. The first novels troubled even those reviewers that conceded the brilliance of the style. The rapes, murders, psychotic children that formed the background against which totally self-involved characters worried about other things produced a laughter that the reader felt, vaguely, should be suppressed. In America, Injury Time was reviewed by Katha Pollitt with such incomprehension – Pollitt thought the novel was trying to make some op ed point about the awfulness of modern times – that I can only feel that some vast cultural gap lay between the writer and the reader.
In fact, the urban locale of Injury Time with its obscene drunks sitting in rubbish by the side of the street, it casually criminal transvestites, its fat upper class men so confused by the ceaseless moral double accounting they keep in their head as to be totally vulnerable to the least glitch in practical life are things that I can look up and see, here,now, in Santa Monica, 2016. It is the world in which beggary has returned, symptomatic of a much deeper illness in capitalism. In that sense, far from writing in the style of the op ed, Bainbridge was seeing how the op ed mindset in the governing class was more and more detached from the reality of the street.
The odd couple at the center of the novel, Edward, an upper class accountant, and Binny, his “mistress” (as Edward tells others, since Binny hit him when he once called her that), a woman of no visible means of support living in a house in some outer fringe of London. In brief, the plot revolves around a dinner party that Binny holds for Edward, one of his clients, Simpson, and his client’s wife, Muriel. The dinner party is interrupted, and the house taken over, by a criminal gang that is being chased by the police. They remain in the house for perhaps a day, smashing it up, humiliating Edward and Simpson, and trying to find a way out of the police siege. In the course of the hostage taking, the leader of the gang, Ginger, rapes Binny.
This of course doesn’t’ sound like a laff riot. That it is funny owes everything to Bainbridge’s style. There are hints of the camp genius of Joe Orton in her dialogue (the characters throughout fail to communicate with each other on the simplest level, due to misunderstanding, drunkeness, panic, exhaustion, and their false assumptions one about the other), and partly her way of using the dramatist’s trick of shifting the spotlight from one character to the other as they mull thoughts that are at utter variance with what the other characters are either thinking or trying to convey.
Comedy is a soap bubble, and you can’t simply take out a slice of it and show it around, because it won’t be funny anymore. Its all too pop-able. Everything in the novel is brilliantly timed – from the way we receive “information” (all recited facts suffer from terminal deformation as they are passed from Edward to Binny to Simpson to Muriel) to the way the confusion of the hostage taking is allowed to remain confusing, for different reasons, for each of the characters. That is a very difficult thing to do, since the authorial impulse is to clear up confusion, rather than let it play itself out. The latter seems, to the cautious author, to come dangerously near to confusing the audience, and in the realistic paradigm of fiction, confusing the audiencce is a grave fault. But confusion is as much a part of the world as clouds. And all Bainbridge’s characters are as seriously confused as, well, I am, and you are, reader. Clarity is a rare thing.
Enough – I would like to quote at length, but I’ll forebear.
Monday, June 13, 2016
George Santayana has always been the odd man out among the great American philosophers. The native genius of American philosophy sprang from a pragmatism shot through with Emerson’s transcendental occasions; and Santayana, if we scan the CV only, seems to have duly drank at this spring. He was the student of William James, after all, and during his heyday in the twenties and thirties, he played Atreus to Dewey’s Thyestes, or, more exactly, Dupin to Dewey’s Minister D… Dewey, in Santayana’s opinion, was too heady, too fumbling, and above all too liberal. Santayana, in Dewey’s opinion, was too clever by half and too inclined to worship an order that gave him every privilege – a rentier philosopher.
The too clever reputation has stuck. Open Santayana and it is easy to see why. When we read Skepticism and Animal Faith, the first thing we are struck by is that, if he absorbed James’s pragmatism, he imbibed it with a writing style much more like James’s brother’s, Henry. And this stylistic choice was not an accident, but a methodological choice. Santayana thought that philosophy was not really best advanced, or, as he might put it,best performed by debate; the impress of this conviction lies behind a style unlike almost any other in American philosophy, presenting philosophical views that are less arguments than a sort of uncovering of ideational motives corresponding to the characteristics of philosophical figures (the skeptic, the Platonist, the naturalist, etc.) in much the way James’s characters, in the latter novels, approach by indirection the betrayals that they are, to their retrospective horror, all too capable of.
In this vein, Santayana’s Skepticism and Animal Faith is one of the great frustrating books, advancing its themes less as deductions than as a sort of striptease in which the philosophical figures cavort on a stage to an audience of bloodless angels. Santayana, too, has that American philosophical allergy to the “myth of the given” , but his way of doing philosophy, after fully accounting for the insufficiency of the given to really account for any of the ‘facts’ of the world, is to take a tremendous detour back to a curious defense of essences. Santayana’s sense of essence has been radically converted by the skeptic’s questioning to one that has only a distant kinship with essence as it appears in traditional theology, morality and cosmology. Plato, in one of his dialogues, asks whether it could be possible for such things as dirt and hair to have a correspondence in the ideas, and decides that they couldn’t – they are all too existentially connected to becoming. Santayana ignores this famous Platonic division and cheerfully welcomes dirt and hair and all other things into the realm of essence. For Santayana, essences are to the world what a book catalogue would be to Borges’s Library of Babel – “It [the realm of essence] is simply the unwritten catalgue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed.”
Santayana argues this position at more length than I am prepared to go in his three volume opus on the Realms of Being. One can allow the practicing philosopher to take up those tomes; Scepticism and Animal Faith, on the contrary, can be picked up by the merely curious reader, because, while it does not stint on technicalities, it is not enchained by them. It contains marvelous extended scenarios, some of the best in the philosophical literature. For instance, here is Santayana, doing justice to the solipsist’s position and putting it back into what he feels to be its natural position:
So far is solipsism of the present moment from being self-contradictory that it might, under other circumstances, be the normal and invincible attitude of the spirit; and I suspect it may be that of many animals. The difficulties I find in maintaining it consistently come from the social and laborious character of human life. A creature whose whole existence was passed under a hard shell, or was spent in a free flight, might find nothing paradoxical or acrobatic in solipsism; nor whouold he feel the anguish which men feel in doubt, because doubt leaves them defenceless and undecided in the presence of on-coming events. A creature whose actions were predetermined might have a clearer mind. He might keenly enjoy the momentary scene, never conceiving of himself as a separate body or as anything but the unity of that scene, nor his enjoyment as anything but its beauty: nor would he harbour the least suspicion that it would change or perish, nor any objection to its doing so if it chose. Solipsism wouod then be selflessness and scepticism simplicity. They would not be open to disruption from within. The ephemeral insect would accept the evidence of his ephemeral object, whatevver quality this might chance to have; he would not suppose, as Descartes did, that in thinking anything his own existence was involved. Being new-born himself, with only this one innate (and also experimental) idea, he would brign to his single experience no extraneous habits of interpretation or inference; and he would not be troubled by doubts, because he would believe nothing.”
This is magnificent, and even, given the ethology of the time, plausible. The standard of intelligence by which philosophers and their henchmen, the journalists or popular science writers, still judge animals is, comparatively, retarded. Intelligence is never judged for the animal – there is no novelistic transposition into what it is “like” to be such and such a beast. Of course, that novelistic leap is all too human, and the solipsism of the fly, such as it is described by Santayana, strikes me as strangely akin to that of the Wall Street stockbroker, of whose kind Santayana knew a few.
The price to be paid for Santayana’s kind of philosophy (a kind in which style is as intrinsic as the carapace is to a beetle) is not entrapment in an infinitity of technical questions of diminishing resonance (the fate of analytic philosophy), but a cold bloodedness that is all too freezing for my taste. Santayana was a very closeted gay man, who ended his life living as a tenant in a nunnery in Rome. His affections were always, so far as I can gather from the letters, frost-bitten. In SAF, this disposition is always just beneath the surface:
“I myself have no passionate attachment to existence, and value this world for the intuitions it can suggest, rather than for the wilderness of facts that compose it. To turn away from it may be the deepest wisdom in the end. What better than to blow out the candle, and to bed! But at noon this pleasure is premature. I can always hold it in reserve, and perhaps nihilism is a system – the simplest of all – on which we shall all agree in the end.”
This accomodates our final end a bit too richly. It reminds us of the fascist slogan: viva la muerte!
This is perhaps no accident. Santayana’s politics was always inclined to fascism. In 1931, surveying the problematic modern scene (which he took in a wholly sub species aeternitas fashion – the Great Depression was a matter for intermittent notice in the letters, where he made the usual rentier complaints against FDR), he wrote that one of the great problems among the “Western” countries was:
… an inherited form of government, by organized parties
and elections, which was based on revolutionary
maxims, and has become irrelevant to the true work
of the modern world if not disastrous for it.
In 1951, a year before his death, he corresponded with Corliss Lamont, who wanted to enlist him as a “humanist”. In the course of so doing, Lamont defended Santayana from the charge of fascism. Santayana gently disabused him, writing that,, on the contrary, he welcomed Mussolini (Santayana had been living in Italy by this time for around thirty years) and Franco, even if he agreed that Mussolini, at least, was a bad man. He at least, to paraphrase Santayana’s defense, made the trains run on time.
Like other of the great modernists, Santayana’s authoritarian streak arose from a cancerous nostalgia for something other than modernity. Unlike Pound or Lewis or Eliot, though, Santayana fully accepted the nihilism that gnawed at the very core of the existentialist project. He’s perpetually the philosophical loner, which I accept as a genuine posture of thought. In that spirit, Skepticism and Animal Faith is a loner’s masterpiece.
Tuesday, June 07, 2016
There is a subculture of neglected or lost books, of which I am a member. I am a frequent visitor at the neglected books blog, which keeps lists put out at various times by journals like Anteaus and American Scholar. Typically, these lists are compiled from the responses of authors who are asked to name a book that deserves more recognition.
While I was travelling back from Paris a couple of days ago, I read a book, Lost Classics, which consisted of little essays extolling neglected books, lost books, childhood favorites, and the like. The essays were built on the format of the personal essay, the dominant form in our time. I’m not against personal essays, but I do find that context sorta gets whacked in favor of a rather uncritical self report.
I thought, naturally, about what I’d include in a list. And then I thought I’d write my own little essays about writers who have not gotten a fair shake in the American culture I know.
But before I do that: what does it mean, in a book’s career, to be lost? Or, more broadly, to be rediscovered?
The rediscovery of, for instance, the Bible during the 16th and 17th century was not an event of merely antiquarian interest, but was of vast importance to the formation of a literate public, and to the formation of pre-modern culture. It was not the only cause of the religious wars, but it played a very important role in them. The New Model Army of Cromwell may have been the first to supply its soldiers with books – specifically, the Soldier’s Pocket Bible.
The Renaissance is also inextricably tied to the “new learning”. Although historians now tend to dissolve the Renaissance into an epiphenomenon or a retrospective illusion about the 14th and 15th century, I am true to my education and like to think of Gemistos Plethon sailing from Byzantium to Italy with a boatload of manuscripts in 1438. This is the Gemistos celebrated in Pound’s Cantos. Whoever the agent,it seems that there was a rage for manuscripts in Florence in the early fifteenth century, and that Plato was finally released into the European mainstream by translators and commentors like Ficino. Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato is a bit too magisterial – Plato was teleported into Europe in various stages. Still, Whitehead’s remark is a good measure for scaling the importance, in the posthumous life of an author, of rediscovery.
That said, I’m going to list a few of my discoveries.
Sunday, June 05, 2016
A detached page…
Visit to the Muséum d’histoire naturelle yesterday on Rue Buffon. I am fond or, to be Frenchy, J’adore this little piece of Paris, between the Austerlitz station and that Hammam-mosque on St. Hilaire that boasts a little salon de the. First, I, with Adam in tow (or, more precisely, en avant, since I was pushing Adam in his stroller) met Francois at the Luxembourg Park, where we strolled about under a grey sky that was determined to make the Park look ordinary or even dreary. And succeeded: the Park did look dreary, as we walked down dreary paths among dreary, locked up amusement areas for the kids, past the dreary tennis courts where two ardent but very wet players were batting around an increasingly soppy ball, and past the rain bedraggled flowering bushes, and past the dreary orangery into the coven of streets near Saint Sulpice, wet and grey, and into an American style lunch place. It was American style down to the menu, which advertised bagels and lox and various super burgers. Francois and I discussed the dreary state of American and especially French politics (I said that if it was between Juppé and Hollande, I’d be for Juppé, and Francois said Juppe was making an effort to get the bobo vote, like mine). Adam, after eating his bagel with cream cheese, quietly imagined that a red plastic lego piece he was carrying was Spiderman and had it fight with various other objects, all of which were, for the moment, supervillains and superheros. Finally it was time for coffee and I noticed how patient Adam had been and proposed going to the Muséum, where I thought we would find dinosaur skeletons.
In fact, I had never visited the Muséum’s exhibition space. In 2010, I have a very sweet memory of strolling the flourishing garden on an Autumn day with A. I was new in Paris then. I also remember, in 2012, visiting a seminar room in the complex of buildings with M., where we listened to lectures on the history of taxidermy, M. being a great fan of taxidermy.
In any case (a trick of language, this “in any case”, like a dreary usher inviting the guests in to see the cosmetized corpse of a transition), there we were, entering the vast first floor hall, gazing at the cadenced, suspended skeletons of whales under what dim artificial light there was, with the outside light barely filtering through the colored windows far above us: this gave the whole the aspect of being a vast, antiquated acquarium. Adam was hesitant and frankly afraid of some of the stuffed animals. This was not just due to the Muséum’s intention, but an echo of yesterday’s disastrous decision to visit the Musée Grevin: a wax museum on Boulevard Montmartre. It was raining yesterday – rain was always strumming its fingers on the roof when we were in Paris – and so I had looked up things to do for kids in Paris when it rains. A. was off to a business meeting. After navigating the Metro with the stroller and Adam, we plunked down our Euros and plunged into an atmosphere of grotesque entertainment. Adam was not amused. In fact, he immediately felt something was not right at the Grevin when we went into the hoaky antechamber, a mirrored room, and were entertained by various cheap light and sound tricks. This, he decided, was definitely a monster haunted place, which who in their right mind would want to visit? The wax figures were even worse: they were too lifelike and at the same time unlifelike – had that zombie-ish glitter of in-between. Soon he was crying, and soon I was rushing through the many many chambers of that combination of chamber of horrors and celebration of celebrity with a sobbing little boy in my arms. However, the Muséum d’histoire naturelle was not out to frighten, but to edify, and Adam realized this. The rather kitsch tableaux at the Grevin charm me (I like these lefthand descendents of curiosity cabinets). The taxidermist’s dream of herds of Sub-Saharan beasts in the Muséum are charming in a different way (these are the true, lineal descendents of the curiosity cabinet – I could draw up a family tree, and show you the affects of unnatural selection). All the skins are genuine – they belong to beasts that died long ago – and the point is to learn about them close up. Or the ostensive point. The closest we came to the Grevin was the Salle des disparues et presque-disparues. It was a long, shadowy gallery, practically unlit, on the top floor. A glass case with a giant stuffed dodo is the first thing to greet the visitor, providing the motif for the effigies within. Dodoes are, legitimately, the monarchs of the kingdom of the extinct – or extinguished, as the French say. It is a tour, in brief, of man’s inhumanity, or perhaps better, surplus humanity, to beasts, braining them, plucking them, eating them or wasting them, and leaving mounds of bones upon the shore. It was so dark in there that I couldn’t read the notices on all of the glass cages, and am not sure if the snowy egret is extinct or nearly extinct – or was that the whooping crane?
Emerging from the end of the world, we descended to the ground floor again and went out to look at the Garden. The Garden was wet. Still, I like the tall plane trees that line the big peripheral paths, which led us to the gates at the bottom. In the area near the gate, there’s a large statue of the “discoverer” of evolution (a little French bragging here – the statue is of Lamarck). Tucked in a corner towards the left was a lonely ice cream stand, which we headed to. Adam ate a double chocolate ice cream at a table from which we’d wiped away the puddles of water; after this, Francois headed out to photograph the Seine cresting under the Pont d’Austerlitz while Adam went back to the statue and climbed onto the plinth. Then he started skipping around the statue singing London Bridge is falling down. I watched him, and allowed the spirit of some old poet to wander around inside me, looking for the symbol here. Surely I was being given a Baudelarian correspondance, and what was I going to do with it?
The day grew drearier.
Later, in the news, there were reports of flooding in Northern France.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Shakespeare makes it easy for the audience by having his villains – his Gloucester, his scheming Edmund – rehearse, in soliloquy, both the evil of their intentions and the strategy of deception by which they pursue them. Deception becomes not only an instrument but a major pleasure as well, a proof of the superiority of the evil character to the good ones.
In our era, the soliloquy is pretty much dead. The strategy of deception more often deceives the deceivers, who think not that they are beyond good and evil, but that they are experts in nudgery, technocrats and meritocrats, and will the good. Their true intentions are estranged from them, and a whole code disguises the source of their advantages.
This is what makes the current freakout of the media over Trump such an interesting phenomenon. At least for the critics. For this freakout has made the norm of strategic dissimulation, usually denied, float to the surface as a thing defended.
What I mean is this: the word on Donald Trump is that he has “crossed a line.” Where other GOP politicians have dogwhistled on race, never openly encouraging racism, Trump has openly encouraged racism.
Here’s the deal. There is no line. Dogwhistling on race is racism. Implicit appeals to racism that wear a cast of deniability are not some degree removed from racism, but the very expression of racism in a period when it operates under a code of plausible denial.
In other words, the press has long been operating under a “gentlemen’s agreement”- much like the tacit quotas on Jews that were common in universities and social associations early in the twentieth century. Except this is an agreement not to call out the dogwhistler as racist. In this way, racism found its pocket of tolerance among those who pretended to be socially liberal. It was a good deal – by pretending to find racism abhorrent, the class of elite thumbsuckers, the editors of the great papers, the tv correspondents, could comfortably inhabit the most segegated income level in America – the top one percent – without looking around and asking why it was so very, very white.
Of course, I am sure that the thumbsuckers will go on freaking out about Trump’s racism without understanding that they have revealed their own. But with the gentlemen’s agreement getting some airing, it is going to be that much harder to keep up the strategy of deception.
Friday, May 13, 2016
There seems to be a rule among old literary dogs that we all have to moan and groan about the internet and computers. I do share the prevailing angst about the extinction of the book store. Book stores civilize cities, as do parks, sidewalks, statuary, and a level of crime high enough to scare away gentrifying urban professionals.
The book, too, it is said, is on its way out. First they came for the snow leopard, then the hardback version of War and Peace. I think this exaggerates the book or in general paper media situation. However, it is true that one of the defining physical characteristics of the book – a page that must be turned – is on the way to minority status.
In the past fifteen years, I have read perhaps as many texts on computers, on pdf, epub and djvu, as I have in the media that was current when I was a lad. I am not unhappy about this.
Its deeper effect on my reading is, perhaps, to replace the unconscious expectation that is given to a reader by the mechanism of using his finger to turn the page. Epub, which I read on Ipad, cleverly reconstructs that experience, so that it doesn’t disappear altogether into a vague nostalgia, like the feel of squeezing your finger into a hole on the rotary dial to make a call on a phone. This, like turning a page, was one of the affordances of the index finger. However, the epub experience does not completely materialize the older reading experience, any more than a three d movie really makes you feel like you are moving in space. The older experience links us to a world of vegetation that pre-existed our very species, which our ancestors scrambled down in the long morning of the Holocene. In other words, even with the epub, our monkeyness is thwarted.
Perhaps that monkeyness is what is engaged in the page-turner – a hand-eye activity like scooting through the branches in a tree. Of course, there is the desire to know what is next. But perhaps the satisfaction of the primate self and the satisfaction of our curiosity are interlinked. And perhaps in reading a pdf, there’s a bit of a shock deep down, a dull thud among us vieux garcons, as our monkeyness falls out of the tree for real.
This, though, ignores the hand’s participation in scrolling. So far, we don’t have voice commands for it – rather, it is a carpal activity. Scrolling does, however, rather unmoor the page-trained reader. The page as a unit is no longer viable. The scroll takes in half a page or a page and a half. It may preserve the old space between one page and another, but it is a space that is no longer validated by a turn. The passages in a book leap out in a different way than they do on a page by page basis.
I recently reread Chesteron’s The Man Who was Thursday on the computer. I used both a pdf version and an epub. The pdf was digitalized for the Internet Archive and was missing some pages. The epub I got somewhere else.
Chesterton dealt in the page – turner genre, the mystery or thriller, but one doesn’t chase his puzzles like one chases, say, the puzzles of H.G. Wells or John Buchan, even.As Chesterton himself said, the MWWT is a bad novel, if one judges by the conventions of the novel, but it is an excellent surface upon which Chesterton mounted his beautiful paradoxes and an allegorical poem, of sorts. Chesterton warns the reader in the subtitle: a Nightmare. It is more like an allegorical vision, however, except much funnier than Piers Plowman. But the fabula, to use the Russian formalist term, is much more tedious than the syuzhet. The plot device of an anarchist conspiracy in which all the anarchists are really secret policemen is good – it makes for a fine farce – but Chesterton is not interested enough in the mechanics of revelation to remove the tediousness from the exposure, one after the other, of the anarchs as cops. Chesterton never absorbed a single lesson from the master, Henry James. Wells, who has a similar allegorical bent, did. Chesterton’s master was the fairy tale, but his sensibility was shrank too much from the sadistic side of H C Anderson and the Grimms. His fairy tale model was Victorian, a matter that was sieved through the middle class morality of Andrew Lang.
To get back to my thesis, what this means is that Chesterton’s words often hang on the page as unturnable wholes. We don’t feel these words are engaged in a chase, but rather, the frieze portraying a chase. In that sense, TMWWT is as unturnable as The Gay Science (a comparison that Chesterton would have loathed).
It is a matter of various kinds of turns, really. Chesterton chose the turn of the phrase over the turn of the page. The turn of the phrase, in turn, overturns the inversions characteristic of Wildean paradox. It is as if Chesterton came upon the back, or shadow, side of the commonplaces that Wilde was always showing up. But in doing this in a narrative, he mader the page a heavier business.
Still, it was the business Chesterton knew. When the page form floats away, it makes the story part of the book even more of an irritant. On the other hand, the beautiful passages, which are what one remembers of Chesterton, stand out, although they still feel like they have not been roughed up by experience. The famous passage at the end, for instance.
Syme sprang to his feet, shaking from head to foot.
"I see everything," he cried, "everything that there is. Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter.
I began this meaning to protest against the old dog growling about the sin and shame of reading on computers, but I see that, by now, I have varied the bark but barked nevertheless. Well… I am an old man. I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, but I do not think that they will sing to me.