Friday, May 24, 2013

a little note on rhyme

I listen to Adam’s burbles, his hiccups, gasps, moans, and something that is a sort of pure vibration of his vocal chords, and I think of these things as being creatures on the threshold of that great thing, language, peering into it, pondering the leap, although in the end all of this phonological hamming up will still be intact, in the interstices of sense, so to speak. These are elements in the Shakespearian sense – half atom, half fairy. Nobody is taught them. Who among us teaches his child to say um, to use my friend Michael Erard’s favorite example? Hein being, I suppose, the French equivalent. Nobody, that is who.
However, I’ve been thinking about phonemes and sense lately in terms of rhyme. In terms of the cognitive devise that rhyme is.
A few days ago, I was taking a picture and I said to my friends, who were composing themselves to be the foci of my field of vision – I said, throw your hands in the air like you just d
Since then, I’ve been thinking about Chubby Checker’s couplet. The meeting of air and car in – well, in what? The meeting is staged in a number of spaces – phonological, semantic, mental, musical. I’m not sure where these verbal cosmonauts actually dock. I do know that they pull with them the hands in the air, and the curious meaning of those hands. When your hands are thrown into the air, usually you care a lot. You are being robbed, or the police are training their guns on you, or you are catching a ball. You are, in other words, under stress. Thus, to be told to throw your hands in the air like you just don’t care puts you slightly off balance.  How do you do that?
There’s a tradition that sees in rhyme a memory technique. In one of the drawers of the memory palace, you pull out rhyme. And it is true that rhyme becomes memorable. In the revolt against rhyme, which for some critics, like Donald Wesling (In The Chances of Rhyme), is the parameter that signalsf modernity in literature (that is, the revolt against it – not unrhymed verse itself, but the way unrhymed verse attacks rhyme), the fundamental objection to rhyme is that it is not natural, or sincere. Wesling thinks modernity is the era haunted by authenticity as both norm and impossibility. But of course rhyme never went away. It did become something to be justified. Myself, the thing I like about rhyme is that that side of it that is a cognitive trouvaille – something we don’t expect, since we assume our semantics are going to lead us to the higher sense. That rhyme might – well, that is uncanny.
Now I am going to throw my hands in the air like I just don’t care.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Objectification and Sachs fifth avenue - from an old essay

If I get the sugar
would you get me

If we were to resurrect Acteon, that Greek hunter torn to bits by his own dog for gazing upon Diana bathing nude in a stream, he would find the equivalent of his divine thrill not in strip joint America, but rather in women’s clothing boutique America. While I would be the last person to deny the thrill that comes from watching a woman undressing, whether in a bedroom or to the booming of Gimme Gimme over the sound system, it is no longer the unguarded moment – it is no longer the secret of the goddess, it is no longer worth being torn apart by your dogs in the heart of the forest, the hunter hunted, the vig on the male gaze. No, the secret of the goddess has migrated to women dressing up, not taking off. Acteon would better look for his kicks in Sachs Fifth Avenue, in By George, in any number of upscale boutiques in the midsized to supersized urban playlands of America.

I was first taught this lesson by my friend M., back in New Haven. New Haven, in those days, was Yale University, a few streets of affluence, and neighborhood after neighborhood of mythical violence. In actuality, there wasn’t that much violence, just a severe class difference – on the one hand, the scions of America’s wealth, on the other hand, the victims of America’s wealth, all neatly folded into six square miles. At this time, in the nineties, there was – as M. told me over and over – a gross and heartless lack of women’s clothing stores. Nevertheless, she would sometimes, when bored, make the round of what was there – the Laura Ashley to Ann Taylor circuit – and I would tag behind her. This was my first real experience of watching a woman buy clothes – and it was exhilarating. Of course, the real thing was happening in NYC, and when M. and I went there, the first thing we would hit would be clothing stores.

A woman’s clothing store survives on the atmosphere it creates. It does this through a proliferation of huge posters of very pretty people engaged in celebrity moments – laughing sexily at each other; through a color scheme that tends to skin complementary pastels; through a staff that, if they know their business, will make the customer feel, on some level, the need to prove herself to them; and through the music, which will always be as though piped from some marvelous club. It is, in a word, a very dramatic place, although the drama here might seem, at first, no different than any other store. I think that if there were a totally nude culture – by which I mean a culture in which there was no body ornament at all – a culture such as, to my knowledge, nobody has ever encountered – that this culture would have no drama, no ritual. Drama begins with the tattoo, the mask, the feather, the earring. With the beginning of drama, we have, as well, the beginning of stage fright – that marginal anxiety that accumulates as, day by day, year by year, one is looked at. Looks accumulate inside a person as a sort of jury. In response to this, there’s a utopian dream of going beyond these things. This is expressed, in philosophy, by the perennial anxiety about the human as object. In this philosophical dream, nudity is a mark of purity. To the pure, all things are pure. Acteon, in this utopia, would have seen nothing but what there was to see. In fact, what he saw was that there was no exit – that even the goddess wears her nudity. There’s doubleness all the way down.

Given the choice, I imagine Acteon would have chosen to live in the world where he saw more than there was to see, even if it meant ending up in the mouths of dogs in the end. I’m with Acteon here. And certainly I’m with the women’s clothing boutique designers, who don’t need Greek mythology to go about their business. You are immersed in the gaze – in some kind of gaze – the minute you enter a boutique. If the male gaze is defined as an objectifying one, than one might say that here is the very workshop of objectification. Myself, I find this vocabulary to be so out of synch with what happens in a boutique that it is absolutely distorting. For objectification implies, of course, a cool mastery, an absence of effect, and this is just what the classical male gaze is not capable of. The male gaze wants a strip tease, not an x ray. At the heart of objectification is, as I said, drama – the drama of making the object. We are the objects that make the objects, including the object that we will be, with the clothes that we wear – it is the moment in which the body is ornamented that we become both body and the body that we are making, both master and slave, both object and subject, and there’s not a gaze sharp enough or thin enough to get between those two things. We’ll never be naked again. The theater of dressing up in a boutique, usually to the most affectless techno sound possible, is the recapitulation of the happy fall, the original sin, that moment of becoming our own double – with clumsy fig leaves or the first clothing, which was manufactured by the first fashion designer, the Elohim: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Likeable monsters

The New Yorker asked some novelists – Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, etc. – to comment on Claire Messud’s comments to an interviewer who asked her about the likeability of her protagonist in her new novel. Messud claimed the right to create unlikeable characters, citing the royal precedents of those novelists who did it before her – or, rather, more cleverly, simply referencing the characters. It was a nice spate of indignation, and made for a nice interview. The novelists, asked their opinion, all spoke up for characters who aren’t likeable. But I was a little disappointed that they all spoke up, so to speak, within the novel and its tradition itself. From the point of view of technique, the question is whether the character works, not whether the character is likeable. Humbert Humbert was cited by Messud, and is used as a sort of totem of unlikeability by these novelists.
However, I think this misses the response outside of the novel – the response that fully accounts for the novel’s strangeness, or function within novel cultures. For it is a good question: why would anybody want to read about the actions, thoughts and words of a person one dislikes? Why would you do this for fun?
The line in lit crit, which was cemented in mid twentieth century, was that the modernists invented the novel in which the anti-hero is the dark eminence, and true prince of our sensibilities. This, however, really isn’t the case. Greek myths, the Grimm’s fairytales, Daoist anecdotes are all ceded with mildly or strikingly dislikeable personages. Aristotle, in a sense, is asking a similar question in the Poetics about tragedy. We can admire Antigone, we can even admire Achilles, but we don’t – we are intended to – befriend them. For Aristotle, plausibility is a sort of meta-rule of narrative production. Plausibility is not reality, but rather, reality as seen by a certain credentialed set. It inscribes class into the very heart of aesthetics. Plausibility is not just continuity and logistics, but it gives us our sense of what typifies a character – what they would do in character. This is not a neutral judgment about norms – it is an imposition of a certain class’s norms upon narrative. And, always, the artist has squirmed under that imposition. The slave’s impulse – irony –counters the demands of plausibility even in fairy tales. When La Fontaine portrays the ant and the grasshopper, for instance, we know, from the point of view of plausibility, that the ant is right Mention, say, welfare at a dinner party in the suburbs and you will hear a chorus of ants. But La Fontaine surely makes the reader uncomfortable with this judgment. We see the cruelty of ants, and the beauty of the grasshoppers.
Plausibility and likeability get us to reflect on what these narratives do in the culture. And I think that this is what really happened with the novel in the 19th century in a Europe that was still largely peasant and ancient regime: the novel was a tool for encountering the Other. The Other outside the bourgeois norms, as orphan or ax murderer, as adulteress or unhappy wife.  This is where the anti-hero collects within his unlikeability the collective unconsciousness, and opens up the dreamlike possibility that the plausibility-ruled reader is, perhaps, Other. The novel hymns what Foucault calls the experience-limit – the limit in which you test to see whether you are a human or a monster. How much of a monster can you be? And so far, in the sweep of the imperialist eras, the genocide, the famines, the wars, we find that often, dizzyingly, the likeable is the monstrous, liquidating the dislikeable in a systematic monstrosity that runs because we don’t want to look at it or claim our responsibility for it.  

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...