Sunday, September 17, 2017

Boundaries in play and sentences

Social boundaries originate in two ways: either they are imposed, and thus are handed down from a higher level, or they emerge in an activity among actors, which requires at least tacit agreement. Roger Caillois, in Games and Human Beings, claims that the natural history of the latter kind of boundary goes back to animals. For instance, although animals do not engage fully in games of agon – competitive games – there is, in animal play, a sort of foreshadowing: “The most eloquent case is without a doubt that of those so called fighting wild peacocks. They choose “a field of battle that is a little elevated,” according to Karl Groos, “always a little humid and covered with a grassy stubble, of about a meter, a meter and a half in diameter.’ Males assemble there on a daily basis. The first that arrives awaits an adversary, and when another comes, the fight begins. The champions tremble, and they bow their heads under the incidence of blows. Their feathers stick up. They charge at each other, leading with their beaks, and strike. But never does the fight or the flight of one before the other go outside of the space delimited for these tournaments. This is why, for me, it seems legitimate here, and with regard to other examples, to use the word agon, since it is clear that the point of the event is not for each antagonist to cause real damage to the other, but to demonstrate his own superiority.”
Caillois, here, assumes that the boundary gives a total meaning to the happening. Though serious injury could happen, this isn’t the purpose of the fight – which is why the fight doesn’t go beyond the boundaries of the field. But at no point do the peacocks assemble and point to the limits of the field.
This distinction between boundaries seems pertinent to writing. When you are writing a chapter, you can – because of an order by an editor, or because this is how you work – confine it to a certain number of words. This is supposedly how romance novels are assembled by Harlequin books. However, literature takes over, so to speak, when the boundary emerges from the text itself. In fact, the same thing can be said for other components of the text – the paragraph, the sentence. There is a sentential sublime – there are writers whose sentences, by going beyond the boundaries imposed by convention, seem to be out for a thrill ride. Most thrill riders crash, of course. And the sentence can go beyond, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s one sentence Autumn of the Patriarch, merely by kicking out the stops. Joyce is the master of this kind of thing. But there is another thrillriding sentence that seems, by setting new boundaries, to have divided up the referential world differently. Pynchon does this in Gravity’s Rainbow, and you are either immediately drawn to it as a moth to a flame and spend years trying to exorcise the influence, or you hate it.
Here's a graph from the sequence in which Roger Mexico and Pointsman hunt a stray dog for the laboratory that Pointsman has set up on Pavlov’s model: “The V bomb whose mutilation he was prowling took down four dwellings the other day, four exactly, neat as surgery. There is the soft smell of house-wood down before its time, of ashes matted down by the rain. Ropes are strung, a sentry lounges silent against the doorway of an intact house next to where the rubble begins. If he and the doctor have chatted at all, neither gives a sign now. Jessica sees two eyes of no particular color glaring out the window of a Balaclava helmet, and is reminded of a mediaeval knight wearing a casque. What creature is he possibly here tonight to fight for his king? The rubble waits him, sloping up to broken rear walls in a clogging, an openwork of laths pointlessly chevroning—flooring, furniture, glass, chunks of plaster, long tatters of wallpaper, split and shattered joists: some woman’s long-gathered nest, taken back to separate straws, flung again to this wind and this darkness. Back in the wreckage a brass bedpost winks; and twined there someone’s brassiere, a white, prewar confection of lace and satin, simply left tangled… . For an instant, in a vertigo she can’t control, all the pity laid up in her heart flies to it, as it would to a small animal stranded and forgotten. Roger has the boot of the car open. The two men are rummaging, coming up with large canvas sack, flask of ether, net, dog whistle. She knows she must not cry: that the vague eyes in the knitted window won’t seek their Beast any more earnestly for her tears. But the poor lost flimsy thing… waiting in the night and rain for its owner, for its room to reassemble round it…”
These sentences go backwards and forwards and cross a lot of consciousnesses, and in the process seem to violate the way sentences are supposed to be compact units expressing some identifiable relationship of author to material, good little units lined up like desks in a class, obeying the rules of Gricean implicature, easily attached to their pronouncers. Owned. But here the ties of ownership, of pertinence, are looser, and seem to wave in some wind from a source that is, well, history’s own, or the paranoid simulacrum of it. There is a drift here in the sentences, something different (but heralded) than the corporate round of consciousness visiting in, say, To the Lighthouse - that table scene! Even that enrages a certain kind fo Great Tradition reader. And it is cert not all right at all for those more comfortable in the Gricean chains, and the cultural order that pounded into place a written grammar of English since the advent of the printing press. The printing press, though, is defunct, as we all know, secretly, screen to screen, and the grammar and agreed upon territory of all the textual units is up for grabs.

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