A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics

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Examining Pro’s Prose Part 6

Today we’ll examine Philip Roth. Roth is one of my favorite prose stylists, and I’m not sure it will be possible to convey why by analyzing a brief section of writing. This is because my favorite part of his style is how he drops profound sentences in the middle of ordinary paragraphs, but the deepness of meaning only comes about if you understand the broader context of the what is being discussed.

Back here I wrote about American Pastoral, so we’ll use that again. Roth is much more of a stylist than the people we’ve recently looked at. He tends to come up with inventive ways of turning a sentence, and the sentences tend to be much longer than the clean, pared-down style modern editors advocate for.

I opened to the middle of the novel and picked a passage at random. The main character’s daughter, Merry, bombed a post office in the middle of the night to protest the war. She accidentally killed a person and has run away to escape serving a sentence for this crime. She has been gone for some time, and the main character’s wife wants to move out of the house.

Understanding all too well why she wanted to sell the old house, he acceded to her wish without even trying to make her understand that the reason she wanted to go—because Merry was still there, in every room, Merry at age one, five, ten—was the reason he wanted to stay, a reason no less important than hers. But as she might not survive their staying—and he, it still seemed, could endure anything, however brutally it flew in the face of his own inclinations—he agreed to abandon the house he loved, not least for the memories it held of his fugitive child.

Before diving into this, we should take some time to parse it. There’s only two sentences there. Before the first comma is a subordinate clause. The next clause is the main one. Then there is a clarifying clause between a pair of em dashes which breaks the main clause. The final comma sets of further clarification. This cycling of tangents that continue to clarify the thought is almost Proustian. It can be dangerous if done poorly but works exceedingly well here.

Let’s first talk about the em dash usage. These can be confusing to a someone who never uses them. Clarifying phrases can just as easily be set off with commas, but here the case for the dash is strong. There’s already so many commas in the sentence, including the part between the em dashes, that the use of dashes makes it crystal clear where the clarifying starts and ends. To use commas instead would muddy the beginning and end of that phrase.

Often it is hard to understand why someone would use such a long sentence. A trick to figure this out is to rewrite it following the infamous writing rules and see how it changes the meaning and feel.

He understood why she wanted to sell the house. He wanted to stay for the same reason; Merry was still in every room. He acceded to her wish anyway.

Obviously I left some parts out, but the result wouldn’t change much. What I get from the exercise is that the long flowing form of the sentence has a plodding sadness to it. The choppiness of the shorter sentences feels to clean for the messy situation and not like thoughts at all.

The dash interruption somehow conjures so much in so little space. It calls to mind all these remnants of a child growing up in a house. The fact that it is placed in such an intrusive manner mimics how intrusive the memories are in the line of reasoning.

There is also a back and forth established: one the one hand, blah, on the other hand blah. The opening subordinate clause contributes to this feel, because “he acceded to her wish” makes you recall back to it to know that the wish is to sell the house. This makes the reader mentally perform the same back and forth the main character is going through in making the decision to sell the house.

The next sentence begins with a conjunction forcing the reader to continue the flow of thoughts as if the first sentence never ended. It starts with a subordinate clause again. This transitions to another phrase set off by a pair of em dashes, but it is different this time. Instead of clarifying, the clause is a contrast to the parts around it. Again, it would probably be more standard to offset with commas, but because the interior part is riddled with commas, the dashes clarify the starting and stopping points. It moves to the main clause and again has a comma before the final extra phrase.

Formally the two sentences are very similar. I think this is on purpose. The two sentences must be taken together, so he used a parallel construction to make the tie stronger. The second sentence contains almost the same exact content as the first with altered wording. This is because the first is so long and wandering that cycling through the same content doesn’t feel repetitive. In fact, this helps the reader to grasp it all on a first reading.

This also allows important new information to come into the fold. In the first sentence, we understand that the main character will leave the house he loves, but it focuses on feeling bad that the mother had to endure staying there as long as she did. The second sentence evokes just how painful it will be for him to move. The sentence are parallel but opposite in focus.

Lastly, consider how powerful the choice of language is: “however brutally it flew in the face of his own inclinations,” “abandon the house,” and “fugitive child.” These all call to mind such vivid images with strong emotional content underneath. These are the types of Roth-isms I referred to at the start.

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Examining Pro’s Prose Part 5

I started this series back in May, but it fell off after critiquing Mislaid. I still had a few writers I wanted to examine, and since Franzen was one of them and I just finished Purity, now is as good a time as any to pick it back up. Here’s the first in the series if you want a refresher.

Franzen is a really interesting case, because his prose style is a hybrid. In my experience, someone that follows all the “rules” will end up with clear but dry writing. Franzen isn’t as stylized as Chabon, but he also isn’t afraid to throw out rules to make more interesting and humorous writing.

It’s always hard to pick a passage for these things. I don’t like picking opening paragraphs, because the rules are slightly different for them. But if I pick something late, I have to give a lot more background. In this early passage Pip recalls something about her mother.

She’d been eight or nine when it occurred to her to ask why her birthday was the only on celebrated in their little cabin, in the redwoods outside Felton. Her mother had replied that she didn’t have a birthday; the only one that mattered to her was Pip’s. But Pip had pestered her until she agreed to celebrate the summer solstice with a cake that they would would call not-birthday. This had then raised the question of her mother’s age, which she’d refused to divulge, saying only, with a smile suitable to the posing of a koan, “I’m old enough to be your mother.”

There are many more interesting paragraphs in the novel to discuss, but I picked this one because it navigates a topic we haven’t discussed yet. As a general rule, you should stick to simple past tense. The above is in past perfect. As you can see, the paragraph is full of “had,” a word that is almost always extraneous. Not only does this tense get repetitive to read, but it can introduce confusion by lengthening a sentence so that subject and verb sit too far apart to naturally remember what they were.

That being said, it is necessary to use this tense sometimes (as in the above). The rest of the novel is in simple past tense, so the only way to make it clear when something in a character’s past is happening is to change tense. This way it is clear where the past event starts and stops. As a reader, this might seem obvious, but this type of thing is rarely discussed in writing books. As someone who’s looked at a lot of beginning writing over the past year, I can assure you, this isn’t as obvious as it sounds.

Right from the start we see smart handling of the past perfect. One of the easiest ways to hide the “had” repetition is to contract where possible. People who learned to write from academic essays (whether high school or college) are afraid to do this, because it has been drilled into them to never use a contraction. “She’d” is fine in fiction (and in academic settings, but let’s not get into that debate).

The next interesting thing is that this is a flashback. Most advice is to never use a flashback. It interrupts the flow of the story, pulls the reader out, and ruins any built suspense. Any information from a flashback can be delivered more naturally through character action, speech, etc. I agree wholeheartedly with this advice for short stories. There isn’t enough time to lose a reader like that and then get them back. A novel is different. Flashbacks can be a good tool when done well.

In an attempt to not waste time, many people forget their flashbacks need a setting. It doesn’t have to be much, but the characters need to be grounded somewhere. In this case the grounding gets tucked neatly in what looks like a throwaway fragment at the end: “in their little cabin, in the redwoods outside Felton.” I like this, because it doesn’t tangent on some long, unnecessary description for a short flashback. But it does place the characters in a very specific place that can be easily imagined.

Notice also the colloquial tone the flashback has; it feels as if someone is telling you this story. “Her mother had replied that she didn’t have a birthday; the only one that mattered to her was Pip’s.” Note how the tone changes if this were to be written in a more typical fashion. “I don’t have a birthday,” she replied. “The only one that matters to me is yours.” This formal dialogue would break up the flashback and ruin the flow of the memory. We are meant to see this as a brief interlude and not a substantial story to become invested in.

It ends with an interesting bit of description: “with a smile suitable to the posing of a koan.” If you haven’t read the book, you wouldn’t know this, but the mother is really into meditation and Eastern philosophy. This makes this description work on more than one level. It is pure description, but it also uses comparisons in line with the character’s personality.

Often writers go crazy with analogies and similes: her lips were as red as a Gala apple. Unless this person is an apple picker or something, that description is probably lazy. It was the first thing that popped into your head. Think of how enriching it would be to find similes that both work as description and fit with the personality of the character. You have to be careful with this, though, or it will become irritating to keep reading bizarre descriptions.

The last question to answer is whether this flashback is necessary. I think it is. In one short paragraph we get context for the upcoming actions of Pip. If it ended there, maybe this wouldn’t be worth it. We also get a better understanding of Pip’s relationship to her mother. But more than that, we also get a ton of characterization of the mother. We learn she is really secretive but also witty and funny. Some people have trouble conveying that much information in a whole short story, yet Franzen easily gets this across in one paragraph.


The Second Section of Purity as Franzen’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”

That title is quite the mouthful. Here’s what it means. A year and a half ago I wrote a post explaining how David Foster Wallace’s short story/novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” was a parody of Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” in order to describe his philosophy of literature. What I want to write here is an interpretation of Franzen’s second section of his latest book, Purity, arguing that this describes Franzen’s philosophy of literature.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, you probably know I subscribe to the idea of valid interpretations of literature. If we consider any well-supported interpretation as valid, then all interpretations are valid making all interpretation meaningless. So I want to give some background context before I start in order to make my case stronger. I really believe this was Franzen’s intent with the section.

Franzen has been describing his philosophy for quite some time in essays and interviews (see this article for more background on this). I’ve either become more aware of it or he has become more vocal or a shift has occurred. In any case, his views seem mostly in line with what DFW described in “Westward” which had to do with love, the relationship between writer and reader, and how to build that relationship. As far as I can tell, he’s never actually included this philosophy in his fiction like DFW did with “Westward.” This makes it plausible that the time has come for such an undertaking.

One of the key points is the similarity in material from Barth and DFW for this section. The most common interpretation of “Lost in the Funhouse” is that the funhouse is about Ambrose’s first sexual encounter. The second section of Purity is framed around various sexual experiences of youths be they lusftful, loving, abusive, and so on. If not taken as metaphor, the whole section comes across as strange and out of place. The wording and detail provided seem excessive and unnecessary as backstory (presumably most readers will read it that way). As metaphor, all these details make sense and certain bizarrely specific sentences point to the interpretation I’m going to give.

Lastly, the section is titled “Republic of Bad Taste.” One learns in the section what this refers to, but as a primer to the section it seems to indicate that the section is about taste, bad taste, and maybe what would make good taste. In other words, the section as metaphor for literature itself. I understand that each of the pieces of context are weak in and of themselves, but I think taken as a whole along with how tight this interpretation is gives sufficient evidence for this as an intended interpretation.

Warning: The content below contains minor spoilers. It will not cover beyond the second section, so if you are planning on reading the book, no major plot points are revealed that aren’t alluded to in the inside flap description. Also, this content is NSFW due to sexually explicit material.

For those who haven’t read the novel, we need a starting point. Here’s a synopsis of the section. Andreas lives in Stasi controlled Germany (probably East Berlin, I can’t recall if this was specified). His father is a somewhat high ranking Stasi officer. His mother sleeps around and Andreas finds out someone else might be his father. He writes subversive poetry which shames his parents, and he breaks off relations. He goes and lives in a church and runs sessions to help at-risk youth. He sleeps with tons of them (none underage). Here he meets Annagret. She tells him about being abused in the past, and he falls in love with her. They carry out the murder of the abuser and then separate for years to not get caught.

First, there is a clear “Anxiety of Influence” dynamic established with the parents. Andreas’s mother and father exert great influence over him, yet he wants to do his own thing. He also meets a person who claims to be his real father. Andreas tries to deny this out of embarrassment, but deep down he knows it’s true. Within this interpretation, we should read this as when someone points out influences in your writing you aren’t proud of.

The other main idea presented in the section is of what art is for. Andreas as a child drew pictures of naked women to masturbate to. This couldn’t be less subtle. He literally creates masturbatory drawings; a way to say we all go through a youthful phase where we only create art for our own pleasure.

Most current aesthetic theory shuns this form of creation. As with DFW, the post-modernists like Barth provided useful fodder, but ultimately got it wrong. The language games of these writers were neat, but didn’t connect with people. Franzen even has his character Andreas write a poem, “Muttersprache/Mother Tongue,” which is a language game itself about influence.

Franzen’s character states this frankly as, “I’m worried there’s something wrong with me. All I want to do is masturbate.” The reply he gets suggests that we are to view this type of art as immature and all great artists eventually grow out of it: “You’re only fifteen. That’s very young to be having sex with another person.” This whole exchange makes very little sense as a defining moment of backstory, but framed in this interpretation as a metaphor for artistic creation, it comes across as necessary to drive the point home.

Andreas then tries to strike out on his own and leave his influences behind. The feeling is so strong, he wants to kill his parents. “It didn’t speak well of his sanity that he actually had to squelch the impulse to run after her and kill her with whatever came to hand.”

He finally evolves into a better person when he meets Annagret. He falls in love with her as she tells him a story that he can intimately identify with. This brings us exactly to DFW’s idea that literature is important because it teaches us we are not alone. Just as Andreas hears a story familiar to his own experiences which causes him to fall in love with the author, we are to read Purity and find traces of our own weird and terrible lives that bring us comfort and fall in love with the author.

Annagret is under the control of her abuser, and Andreas decides to free her by killing him. This is like the author/reader relationship that DFW idealized. After the deed is done, Andreas admits his love for Annagret and she replies, “I barely even know you.” Well of course! We as readers are Andreas who have fallen in love with Franzen/Annagret who is telling the story. We may feel something, but he certainly doesn’t know us.

In a moment where the metaphor goes so far that I have to wonder how anyone could overlook it, Andreas has to bury the body while it is raining outside. This makes the ground wet, and he keeps leaving his footprints all over the muddy ground. To put it as a blunt cliché, he leaves his footprints all over the work he is doing for her.

The author/reader relationship is summarized in another line that must seem strange if the story is read as realistic, but fits perfectly into this interpretation. “He had a confusing twinned sense of her closeness and complete otherness. Together they’d killed a man, but she had her own thoughts, her own motives, so close to him and yet so separate.” This is exactly how great literature works. You feel close to the characters and author, yet you remain completely separate.

[Sorry if there are more typos than normal. I had a teething puppy nipping at me while editing.]

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Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye Reviewed

I’ve heard such good things about Atwood for years, but never managed to get around to reading one of her novels. I mostly do my reviews on Goodreads these days, but this being one of the best novels I’ve read this year made me want to devote a blog post to it.

Cat’s Eye uses a non-traditional narrative structure which suits the novel perfectly. It does one chapter of “present” time and three or four chapters of “past” time between (I never counted to see if this was consistent). The whole thing is in present-tense though. The effect is powerful. The disproportional pacing allows Elaine’s (the main character) entire life to play out and catch up to the story.

The childhood scenes are done particularly well. Atwood focuses on the harshness and cruelty ever-present in childhood relationships. Many other people say she got girl relationships right, but I think everyone will recognize a bit of truth to the situations she portrays. It is a refreshing take on a coming of age story that often idealizes the innocence of youth beyond recognition.

The present story line is about Elaine coming to terms with a gallery doing a retrospective on her art. The interplay between the past and present is fascinating, because it highlights interpretive issues I’ve written a lot about. You get to see the scenes that her paintings are inspired by and the people she painted to appreciate how out-of-touch many people’s interpretations are. It also delves into the psychological issues that arise from other people criticizing your art (maybe Atwood drew upon experience here?).

Some of the most poignant misinterpretations have to do with her work being attached to feminism. Although the main character can probably be considered a feminist, her work was not meant to have much to say about it. She has a mature and complicated understanding of the label, and many of the people writing about her work want simple headline grabbing messages. It rings truer today than back in 1988 when it was published, because you see in these people the early form of click-bait articles that devalue their movement’s message.

It hits upon these complicated and less common themes as well as ones as old as literature itself. These include the value of friendship and solitude; what makes a meaningful life; and the anxiety of getting older. These more universal themes are uncovered with remarkable depth and subtlety, and the answers/questions the book points to might surprise you.

I would highly recommend the novel. I always thought of Atwood as a genre or sci-fi author (not that those can’t be excellent as well; my other favorite book this year so far is Hyperion). This novel is literary fiction at its finest.


Has 1984 Arrived?

Answer: No. This isn’t going to be some conspiracy theory post about living in a police state and carrying around devices that constantly spy on us even when they’re off: Big Brother is watching. That’s been done to death. This is a post about how many of Orwell’s predictions seem to have manifested in very unlikely places and ways.

One of the scariest and least likely predictions has to do with revising history to fit the current narrative. The reason this seems so unlikely in the novel is that it is such a monstrous task. Everything is physical, so every newspaper, book, and so on must be totally incinerated to put out a revised version. It is surprising Orwell even came up with this with how unrealistic and massive such an undertaking would be. Here’s a quote describing it.

“This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.”

In today’s world everything is digital. It looks like pretty much all print media will be solely digital before too long (we’re talking years, but not decades?). This means no more newspapers or books to be incinerated. One quick click of a button revises every single copy.

It is true that the internet remembers everything, so it will be possible to find the older copy. But who’s going to do that? No one has the time or patience to sift through internet archives to find if something has been changed. I’m not saying any reputable news source does this (e.g. the New York Times post “Updates” at the bottom of an article that has been changed to notify the reader). But this unbelievable aspect of 1984 has become much more believable with how we get our information now.

Another disturbing aspect of Orwell’s dystopia is the concept of “doublethink,” and to a lesser extent, the formation of Newspeak where word’s are redefined so they can only be used to support a given message. Here’s a quote where doublethink is first introduced:

“His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, …”

A prime example of doublethink in our current world is in Twitter public shaming. These people claim the moral high ground while destroying an innocent person’s life over a politically incorrect joke. That is doublethink so extreme that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned it.

The examples that recur throughout the novel are “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” I have a new one from recent news. Our own politically correct coded language has hit such doublethink extremes that one cannot utter the phrase “all lives matter,” without a certain demographic hearing “black lives don’t matter.” To put it in the above terms “equality is inequality.”

The last disturbing point I’d like to address is something called the “Two Minutes Hate.” If it’s been a while since you’ve read the book, this is a moment in the day where everyone watches hate propaganda and gets all worked up about it. Winston, at first doesn’t totally buy it, but then as everyone around him gets angrier, he finds himself joining in, not even having to fake it. Then it ends, and everyone goes about their business as if it never happened.

It seems this is how a lot of people use Twitter. They go about their day. They randomly check Twitter. They see a pile-on hate mob trending. At first, the dongle joke doesn’t seem so bad, but after reading more and more hate comments, they start to get worked up. After about two minutes of this, they realize how insensitive this straight white man was to make a private joke to his friend (BB is watching). We have our own Newspeak. The word invented for this is “microaggression.” After getting worked up, this person doesn’t even have to fake their outrage as they tweet about firing him. Then they click off their phone and go about their business as if it never happened, just like the Two Minutes Hate.

In 1984 you can be accused of committing a thoughtcrime. The penalty is a public hanging. You don’t even have to act on it. Merely thinking the wrong thing amounts to a public death. It is scary how similar this is to someone like Justine Sacco, who dared to make a politically incorrect joke on Twitter. The mob tried to read her thoughts based on this and convicted her of a thoughtcrime against The Party. She proceeded to be publicly shamed for it. Her life was ruined.

Now there is no “Party” or “State” that is carrying this out like in the book, but the group that is doing this is politically motivated. The punishment isn’t as harsh, but the goal is the same: to incite fear in anyone that dares to think differently. I’m not sure if we should be more or less scared that it isn’t some Leviathan government forcing this on us. It is we the people who have imposed this on ourselves.


Year One Roundup

Year one? But this blog is well over seven years old. As many of you have probably noticed, my posts have turned away from math and have had a heavy literature/writing focus.

The story is long and complicated and not the point of this post, but I should probably give some context. As many of you know, I left academia at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year. Almost none of you probably know that I left to be a full-time writer. I know what you’re thinking, “You’re such an idiot! You can’t make any money doing that. You could always just write as a hobby if you like it so much.” You’re right. But there’s more to life than money. I wrote a 3000 word essay detailing the complexities and difficulties in coming to this decision, so I can’t fully explain it here.

It’s hard to predict what a given person will find more shocking: leaving math or becoming a writer. I mostly went to school for math because I was good at it, so people told me to major in it. This led to grad school, because that’s what a 4.0 GPA math major does. I never recall making this decision for myself. Once at grad school, I didn’t find my research meaningful, and I wasn’t all that into teaching either. That meant academia would not be a good fit. There are plenty of people killing themselves for minimum wage adjunct positions. Why should I take one of those away when I don’t even want to be teaching?

As for writing, this should not be as big a surprise as many people make it out to be. At the top of this post, I pointed out that this blog has existed for over 7 years. I had a books blog for years before starting this one. I found the time to write about things even in the hectic schedule of grad school. It’s what I love doing and find time to do. I even wrote 50,000 words of my first novel during grad school. From the start, the blog has had a big focus on literary theory, analysis of literature, book reviews, and so on. My interest in this has been there forever.

So what’s year one? Well, I’m considering September 2014 – September 2015 to be my first year as a writer. As you’ll see, I didn’t really publish anything, but I consider that to be okay. I figured my first few years would be a learning experience. Like math, you may have been doing it your whole life, but you shouldn’t expect to publish a paper in your first year of grad school (first year taking it seriously). You have to build up the skills first.

Here’s my stats and analysis of what I did during year one. The point of posting this is to have it in an accessible place. It’s mostly for me, not you. This is not meant to be a “bragging” post or something. If anything, I’m embarrassed by my output, and showing it to the world should serve as motivation to do better in Year 2.

Weekly habits:
1) Blogged once a week.
2) Read a book a week.
3) Wrote a review of that book each week.
4) Wrote an album review each week.

I can recall no exceptions to the weekly habits, though they probably exist early on when I took the most time off (see the end for what this refers to).

Work produced:
1) Six short stories + a significant portion of a rough draft of another. These were submitted to 30 places. No acceptances, but one split vote on the editorial board. Several decisions are still pending.
2) Three essays published at Death Metal Underground (on analyzing/listening to avant-garde music).
3) One essay published at Imaginary Realities.
4) A novella (to be submitted mid-Sept).
5) A novel (to be submitted around Nov).
6) A chapbook of poetry (21 poems). The poems were submitted to 12 places. No publications, but one passed the poetry editor (vetoed by general editor).
7) About 20,000 words of a non-fiction book.

1) Wrote approx 241,000 words.
2) Read over 21,000 pages.

A general issue this first year was taking time off. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I took about a month off. I took another month off while finding, buying, fixing up a house, and moving. Other miscellaneous vacation included engagement parties, weddings, visiting parents, relatives visiting me, and 7DRL. I took close to 3 months of vacation in my first year of work. This isn’t good. I would have been fired many times over for this in a “real” job.

Goals for Year 2:
1) Keep weekly habits 1, 2, and 3 no matter what.
2) Write 6 more stories (one every other month is not bad when the primary focus is on a novel).
3) Double the number of places I submit to. Important! Acceptance is a numbers game.
4) Write a rough draft of a new novel (already outlined).
5) Complete this reading list.
6) Increase the number of words I write.
7) Only take one month or less of vacation. I’m not sure this is physically possible being a writer married to a professor. Our families would deem this excessively stingy: a week at Thanksgiving + a week each at Christmas + a week each in summer = 5 weeks already.

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Extrapolating Meaning from Ashbery’s “The System” Part 3

The previous section ended by pulling ourselves out of the futility of knowledge and the search for happiness. The next section begins by throwing us back into real life. This reminds me of the movie I Heart Huckabees in the separation of the philosophical and the real. We can achieve peace by solitary meditation, but as soon as we go back to living we lose that:

“…back to the business of day-to-day living with all the tiresome mechanical problems that this implies. And it was just here that philosophy broke down completely and was of no use.”

Real world problems seem so different than the abstract problems we worry about in academic settings. He proposes a labyrinth image for the path of our lives, but returns with some optimism. It only seems the labyrinth directs our steps “but in reality it is you who are creating its pattern.”

The next segment returns to the Frost symbolism of a fork in the road and can be read as almost a meditation on the meaning and application of the idea in real life. Ashbery points out that we take the straightforward path first and only after understanding its destination do we return to the convoluted and less traveled path.

In a previous part, I commented on the cyclical nature of using “track” instead of “path” and this returns as well. After going down the less traveled path you find out the two options actually join up at the end, and the end is actually the beginning where the fork was.

He goes on to condemn wallowing in the difficulties all this presents. Go out and live. “Do you really think that if you succeed in looking pathetic enough some kindly stranger will stop to ask your name and address and then steer you safely to your very door?” He then proposes many explanations for why you would stand there looking like that and references Robert Browning’s poem saying Childe Roland probably had that look as well.

As you change, words that have stayed the same take on new meanings. You hope for a moment in the future where you can participate in the play being performed in front of you; for a time where artist, viewer, actor, director are all one and the same, but there is no “indication this moment is approaching.”

The poem switches back to the big universal questions. “Who am I after all, you say despairingly once again, to have merited so much attention on the part of the universe?” It moves to grandiose language of dying and rising. I think this is a return to the knowledge issue: realizing everything you knew is wrong and revising your worldview based on this.

But “clouds of unhappiness still persist in the unseen mesh that draws around everything,” so this new life hasn’t changed anything. The language here is what I consider quintessential Ashbery. He takes the small and personal and expands it into the gigantic. The personal is you waiting for a reply. Look how he makes the transition so naturally:

“There is not much for you to do except wait in the anticipation of your inevitable reply. Inevitable, but so often postponed. Whole eras of history have sprung up in the gaps left by these pauses, dynasties, barbarian invasions and so on until the grass and shards stage, and still the answer is temporarily delayed.”

The reply comes, and it is God giving comfort. Yet you should not expect any more comfort in your actual existence from this. Ashbery switches from a long period of “you” pronouns to “we” which softens the harshness of the section. We all have childish wants and get angry at delayed satisfaction. We give in to impulses.

After coming full circle on the path, you end up rejecting “oneness” in favor of a plurality of experiences and diversity. Paradoxically, once embraced, you realize everyone is basically the same. He begins an extended movie metaphor. It starts out by claiming that the movie doesn’t lie. It will show us things about ourselves we didn’t realize. It then moves on to classic Ashbery paradox. “That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures.”

In the last part, Ashbery comes back to the “new year” language. It is a strange summary of what you experienced. “These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence.” It turns sort of David Lynch-esque. The film is maybe a mirror, and all the characters are played by the narrator. It is a return to the solipsism of the beginning and the poem itself comes full circle.


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