“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

Saturday, August 25, 2012

editing the last post: sketch and portrait

The standard reference in twentieth century writing on characters in literature is E.M. Forster’s division of characters into round and flat ones, elaborated in Aspects of the Novel (1927) with the same exemplary application of Cambridge method as that by which Ansell, in The Longest Journey, proves that there is a cow in the room. That is, distinctions are made, flare up in a burst of illumination, hold for an instant, are manipulated, and then retreat back to the dark. In the case of character, however, Forster is speaking in character as a novelist, and he wants to approach character as a technician: the point is that character enters narrative as a devise to be manipulated, worked on a grand scale and on a  miniature one, and is ultimately  in the hands of the reader, which is where the fun of the novel is. Readers, then, as well as novelists need a lesson in character, and this requires a lesson in distinguishing degrees, or types, of character.  Forster relates his flat characters explicitly related to the comedy of ‘humor’ in the 17th century, and he writes that they are “sometimes called types, sometimes called caricatures” – the calling here being done by the critics.  Round characters, on the other hand, have complexities that lie “under the surface”. Forster’s roundness is actually three dimensionality, and round characters have perspectival depth.
The distinction between flat and round is very much a pictorial reference, made explicit in the idea of “caricature”. In fact, in the early modern re-appearance of character, the Theophrastian ‘character’ and the Aristotelian “ethos”, which come down in two different lineages, could be and were figured under the metaphor of the sketch and the portrait. Both have different values. Both thematized character in different ways.

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire speaks of a certain kind of croquis, or drawing, in which everything depends on the “velocity of the execution.” This velocity is not only the difference between the sketch and the finished painting – it is, transposed to the tradition we are looking at, the difference between character and ethos. The character writings, inhabiting the routines of the humors, the temperaments, up through Le Bruyare, were wedded to speed. Baudelaire, in fact, compares the painter of modern life – Guys – to La Bruyere at one point, for the combination of elements in his talent that are usually distributed among characters with different life-styles the amateur of life, the lover of forms, of sensation, of the crowd, who nevertheless possesses the art of being serious.
Baudelaire’s insight, on the threshold of modernity, can be taken backwards into the conjunctions between character and ethos that feature in the different types of literature of the early modern period in France – the play, the letter, the history, the story, the essay.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The sketch and the portrait: 1

The standard reference in twentieth century writing on characters in literature is E.M. Forster’s division of characters into round and flat ones, elaborated Cambridgianly in Aspects of the Novel (1927) – that is, the distinction is made, held to the light, manipulated, and shown to be grossly workable and perhaps of some interest to the novelist, but – in terms of where the fun in literature is, the emotional affect of the narrative, the affair that one has with the text – not very useful. Forster’s flat characters are explicitly related to the character of ‘humor’ in the 17th century, and are “sometimes called types, sometimes called caricatures”. Round characters, on the other hand, have complexities that lie under the surface. Forster’s roundness is actually three dimensionality. The figures have perspectival depth.

The distinction between flat and round connects to a vocabulary that connects character to the sketch or the portrait, thereby, I think, negotiating the difference between the two thematics of character that were re-discovered in the 16th and 17th century: the Theophrastian character, and the Aristotelian ethos.

Jean Lecointe has examined the transmission of the rhetoric of ‘the person’ that takes up this second source of the early modern notion of  ethos. Aristotle introduces ethos in his Rhetoric as one of the three sources of legal argument, where character lends plausibility to the argument either that a person did something or didn’t do it, or did it excusably. Plausibility is a very important realm of social reasoning in Aristotle  - the plausible makes logic socially respectable, in as much as what is plausible is what is believed by credible, or respectable, persons. Probability, a mathematical concept, bows here to a pseudo-mathematical concept, the majority, meaning the majority of people – or rather, people who ‘count’. As Lecointre points out, ethos, which was taken up and expanded in the Roman tradition of  rhetoric, largely disappears from the rhetorical tradition in the Middle Ages in Europe, in favor of a Christian typology and an ideology of imitatio. It reappears in the rhetorical tradition with the Renaissance turn to Cicero,  especially On Invention, and the diffusion and translation of Plutarch’s Moralia and Lives.

It was at this point in the intellectual history of character that the organizing pictorial metaphoric makes its appearance. The two aspects of character divided between the sketch, or character, and the painting, or portrait.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

children's games and perspectivism

The last day Tom and Kiyo were here, I asked their four year old son, Takeo, what his favorite things in Paris were. The boat? [the Bateau-bus which goes from Hotel de Ville to the Trocadero]. The Eiffel tower? Take bit into his ham, admired the way he had made it look like a fish, and said, one was the boat, two was the Eiffel tower, and three was the playground. And thus Take miniaturized into mere dust the Notre Dame, the noble façade of the Louvre, the Trocadero and all the tourist must-sees in comparison with a quarter acre of sand and rubber with climbing equipment in the small park at the end of Rue des Archives.  Some find the ultimate statement of perspectivism in Jenseits von Gut und Boese – but these simply haven’t had a discussion about the state of the world with a four year old.

There is no better exercise in perspectivism than watching kids play on the playground. We had let Take loose there, and at first he had clung to a small exercise bar that was around his height. Around him swirled mothers and kids, mostly speaking French, and over on the bench his dad and his friend, Roger, were making encouraging noises (which sometimes even penetrated the filter that nature erects in the brain of the child to keep it from being cretinized by adults too early), and Take was sizing up the place. A playground is an experiment in perspectives. There are the sizes of the kids and the sizes of the equipment; there are degrees of difficulty and fun; there are the adults, the sprinkling of kids that are just too old to be there, and then the enormously different tribes, the one and a halfs, the three year olds, the six year olds, etc. It is one of those rare human moments in which the verbal and the tool do not dominate. The play is directly connected with perception (the metaphoric base of perspective). Huizinga’s much disputed distinction between the ludic (play) and games has its best evidence here. Back in the fifties,  one of my favorite anthropological  couples, Peter and Iona Opie, parked themselves in playgrounds in Liss, Hampshire, England and just recorded the games, rhymes and interactions. Jonathan Cott did a wonderful profile of them for the New Yorker back in 1983. I’ll quote Iona:

“Adults sometimes ask us why my husband and I use the word “people’ in our book in children’s games – as in, “you need six people to play a game.’ But that’s what they themselves say. We’d never like at all to make fun of children, because this isn’t what we’d want to have done to us. So if a child makes a mistakein saying a world we would never print it that way. But if it’s his ordinary way of talking, that’s fair enough, that’s the right way of saying things.”

The book is “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren”, and it is a great guide to such things as Wall Street and Intellectual property. The Opies have recorded numerous game crazes, where one game will take over a  playground – and then it will be suddenly dropped, with the muffled thump of a Facebook stock being offloaded by a punter. And they record verses that have been around for centuries being claimed by children who have altered a word, or even think they made it up.