Why Would Wolfe Choose a Torturer in New Sun?

Sorry for the extremely weird question in the title. Gene Wolfe’s most famous work is The Book of the New Sun. It is four novels long and follows Severian, a torturer. I’ve been reading the first one in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer.

This post is mostly going to be uninformed musings. I have not read the series before, so I don’t know the later events. I have not delved very deeply into the first novel either (there are people who have devoted a huge amount of scholarship to these books). I wanted to read them with as few spoilers as possible.

But I do know that the most accepted interpretation of the series has Severian as a Christ figure. In fact, I’ve heard it’s supposed to be a straight up retelling of the life of Jesus. This post lists some early ideas I have for why Wolfe would choose a torturer to play this role.

The premise of the book is that Severian feels sympathy for a woman who has been sentenced to be tortured. He gives her a knife to commit suicide so that she is spared the torture. It is portrayed as an act of compassion, but the fact remains that this is very disturbing. The Christ figure enables a woman to kill herself.

It is well-known that Wolfe is a devout Christian. He also writes with meticulous attention to detail. So we can automatically rule out the laziest idea that this is some blasphemous retelling of the Gospels. Severian is not a torturer in order to put out some anti-Christian story. The profession of torturer was chosen for a reason.

The following ideas are being recorded for my own general purpose. I’m mostly curious how my views on this aspect of the book will change as I read more of the story.

Idea 1: The first, somewhat shocking, thing I noticed was that the Guild of Torturers had the official name: Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. This is quite suggestive. Not only did early Christians consider themselves seekers of truth, they sought to convert people by having them repent of their sins. Despite their actions being antithetical to Christianity, the name of the order is highly suggestive of early Christianity. The society at large hates the torturers (obviously), and this is also in line with how broader society viewed early Christian sects.

Idea 2: In Luke, Jesus appears to be aware of the torture he must undergo when going to his own crucifixion. One reason Wolfe might have chosen a torturer for the protagonist is that when Severian defies the order he is a part of, he does so fully knowing what his punishment will be. He goes through with his act of compassion despite this, which makes Severian’s act more humane.

Idea 3: I don’t want to put in spoilers, so I’ll just say that being part of the order of torturers gives Wolfe a plausible way for Severian to “perform miracles” similar to a certain miracle Jesus performs. Although, it does require a certain tool that I’m not sure I fully understand the symbolism of yet.

Idea 4: Wolfe might have wanted to create moral ambiguity and raise tough questions about the morality of torture and death. This strikes me as not the full story. I can see this being part of the reason, but I really believe he could have done this with any number of professions for Severian.

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Structural Analysis of Bag of Bones: Chapter 1

Last week I was somewhat disparaging about opening hooks of novels. Today I want to do a thorough analysis of the structure of Chapter 1 of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, because I think it is an example of an opening hook done well.

I read enough books on writing and listen to enough podcasts on writing that I might conflate a bunch of terminology. Some of this will be Story Grid or Writing Excuses or classical Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Sorry for not sticking to one style of analysis.

The chapter consists of seven scenes or segments (some are quite short, so “scene” might not be quite the appropriate term).

Scene 1:

The first paragraph let’s us know the narrator’s wife went out for routine drugstore supplies and wound up dead. This is the inciting incident for Act I, but also for the chapter and the scene.

King doesn’t tell us how it happens, and this is the hook. What makes this a good hook is that this opening starts at the beginning of the story. This isn’t some artificial action to draw us in. He doesn’t tell us how she dies, and that is the driving force behind keeping the reader interested. It’s the removal of information rather than the giving of information that makes this work.

The scene rounds out by the narrator looking at what his wife purchased. He ends on a cliffhanger. He sees something that indicates she might have been living a double life, but he doesn’t tell us what it is. Now we have removal of information again. We want to know what the item is, and we want to know how she died.

I find it hard to imagine someone reading this first scene (less than 1000 words) and being able to put the book down. This hook is really, really good without being patronizing or condescending.

Scene 2:

It opens with the wife leaving the drugstore. He establishes the narrative voice by indicating the narrator is a writer, and he’s only re-imagining what the scene looked like. He foreshadows the death of the wife being a car accident.

“…there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there’s going to be either an accident or a very close call.”

It shifts to two old women in their own car and a large truck barreling at them. What’s brilliant here is that Scene 1 set a lot of expectation. We know the wife dies, but she doesn’t appear to be in the oncoming accident. This is how King creates tension in the scene. He prolongs telling you what actually happened by describing tangential things. This gives the reader the chance to imagine her own scenarios: truck veers off into wife?

The narrator shifts to the truck driver telling him about the accident. This really ratchets up the narrative drive. If the truck driver kills the wife, would he really be on friendly terms, talking about it to the narrator? Then bam. The truck hits the car with the two elderly women, and both are fine and the wife is fine!

This is a reversal of expectations. The wife watched it happen, but then she falls down when going toward the accident. The tension in the scene increases as no one pays attention to the down wife. This is narrative irony at work, because we, as readers, already know she dies, but we still get mad when people ignore her. It’s as if we think she could be saved if someone attended to her.

The scene, of course, ends with another cliffhanger. We’ve resolved one mystery: how she died (brain aneurysm). As soon as it gets resolved, another is introduced. At the coroner’s, the narrator reminds us of the other unanswered question.

“I told him what she’d purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.”

Now we doubly want to know the item, because it prompted the double life comment and a question for the coroner. Dig that hook in deeper.

Scene 3:

The funeral. Because this is such a departure from the first scenes, there is a new, minor inciting incident for the scene. One of the relatives argues with the funeral director over the price of the casket. The narrator argues with this relative.

It gives conflict, but it is mostly a device to direct our attention away from the earlier question. In that conversation, the narrator tells him the wife was pregnant. This is the turning point of the whole chapter. This reveal is made more shocking by distracting the reader right before giving it.

Our first questions have been resolved. The unknown item was a pregnancy test, and the question to the coroner was to find out if she was actually pregnant. But now we’re left with a new unknown. Is the child the narrator’s? Our guess is no, because of the earlier double life comment he made. We’ve also learned they were trying for eight years with no success.

Scene 4:

We’re still at the funeral. Some standard funeral stuff happens, and we get moments of grieving. Earlier, when King strung the reader along, I called this increasing narrative drive, but because of the resolution of the most pressing issues, this isn’t the case here.

This scene serves as a reprieve to the tension of the first three. It offers character development and empathy for the narrator. The main conflict is the narrator discussing with his siblings what to do about their parents descending into dementia from Alzheimer’s.

The scene ends with the brother of the wife not knowing she was pregnant either, and that the baby was a girl. We end with same questions as the end of the previous scene.

Scene 5:

We get more dialogue as people leave to go back home after the funeral. This is more character development (learn how stubborn the main character is and won’t ask for help etc).

In the middle of the scene, an ominous warning is dropped. “And be careful.” “Careful of what?” “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know Mikey.” In normal circumstances, we wouldn’t think too much of this, but it’s Stephen King. This serves as the next unknown source of tension. Who got the wife pregnant? And now, what should the narrator be careful of?

The scene closes with more symbolic foreshadowing. There’s a description of dark rumbling thunder in the distance as night falls.

To take stock, we built and built and built the tension and unknowns all the way to the turning point, roughly halfway through the chapter. Then we get two segments where we came back down for a bit. But now he’s starting to turn the tension back up.

Scene 6:

We are again in a totally new segment: the narrator, by himself, after the funeral. So we get another minor inciting incident to get things moving again. The scene opens with the narrator having a crying fit. He calls it his “second crying fit,” which implies there’s going to be more.

The narrator hires a group of people to scrub his house clean. He keeps repeating that he feels like he’s in a dream. Up to this point, it seems the obvious way to describe mourning. But now the words have appeared a few too many times to be without significance. The scene ends by reminding us of the pregnancy test. He wants to rekindle that desire to find out what exactly happened.

Scene 7:

New inciting incident. In pre-cleaning for the cleaners, he comes across an open paperback the wife had been reading: The Moon and Sixpence. Side note: This book is about a man who abandons his wife and children to become an artist. Coincidence? Are we to believe the narrator abandoned his wife to be a writer?

What’s interesting is that every one of these supposed “clues” could be to throw us off. The narrator is grasping for anything to help him figure out what happened. But this doesn’t diminish their role in creating a strong opening chapter hook.

We find ourselves thinking: the book, the crying fits, feeling like in a dream, the pregnancy, the coming storm, what does it all mean? The book takes on much greater significance, because the narrator looks at the page, reads some of it, recalls time with his wife in college when they first read it. So many words are devoted to this that we can’t help but feel this is the strongest clue we’ve gotten so far.

He goes into another crying fit and falls asleep. In his dream, he tries to put the book back where he found it, but his wife is there. She calls the book her dust-catcher. She’s wearing what she was buried in. He wakes up. He checks for her, and she isn’t there in real life.

The chapter ends.

The overall structure is two builds with a turning point in the middle. There is a main hook that takes most of the chapter to develop: what happened for her to become pregnant? But he starts with smaller more immediate hooks to get the reader into the story faster. The main question doesn’t make sense without the context of the characters being developed a little first.

The chapter has an “ending payoff” when he finally links the ideas of being in a dream and the book and the wife in the last scene. Since this is King, we also have one extra cliffhanger for the end of the chapter. Was the last event a dream, or did he actually communicate with the dead wife somehow?

The Difficulty of Invisible Description

I’ve been reading Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second Dresden Files novel. In the middle of a fight with a werewolf, the narrator uses this simile:

I was flung back through the air like a piece of popcorn in a sudden wind …

I loved this image at first. It conveyed a vivid image of what happened. It did so with a completely original bit of description. In a sense, it seemed to follow all the “rules” for good writing. It shows instead of tells. It avoids cliche. So why did something feel wrong about it? Why did it pull me out of the story?

And that’s when it struck me. In a sense, the description was too good. It wasn’t invisible, which is why it pulled me out of the story. This is one of those things that no one wants to tell you, but sometimes writing can be too creative to serve its purpose.

Eventually, I realized I could pin the problem down even more. The word “popcorn” is the word that jumped out too much. In a fight scene with a werewolf, the word popcorn is too unexpected. I talked a bit about this in the post on tonal consistency. It isn’t the right tone for the moment.

As readers, we have baggage surrounding werewolves, and we have baggage surrounding popcorn. There is no overlap between these two histories. Sometimes this stark contrast can be done purposefully to achieve a desired mental state in the reader (comedy or Lynchian horror to name a few), but this was not the place for such a thing. A fight scene needs to have invisible description, and that’s often harder than the creative thing.

Let’s workshop how my own thought process goes for description. Say I’m writing a fight scene, and the antagonist yells an insult at Bob, our protagonist. My first draft has the sentence:

Bob was angry.

It’s such bad writing, but that’s what first drafts are for.

On revision, I think about the advice “show don’t tell.” I need to come up with some description that shows the anger. I replace the sentence with:

Bob’s cheeks flushed red with anger.

It’s an improvement but not by much. I call this “fake showing,” because I’m still telling the reader “with anger” and I’ve only put in a shallow, cliche idea.

How did this happen? Well, I heard the word anger, and I thought the color red. I also thought the phrase “hot head.” The description came out as something red on the person’s head. It’s dull and uninformative.

Here’s a technique I learned from one of Orson Scott Card’s books on writing. The first few things you think of will always be cliche and ordinary. That’s why you thought of it first. So make a list of 10-20 descriptions, and only start working with ones that fall near the end of the list. This forces you to exhaust all the common tropes. Don’t worry about sentences. Get the idea for the sentence down.

Anger welled in his gut. (cliche)
He shook with anger. (cliche)
Balling of fist. (cliche)
A low growl of anger in his chest. (semi-cliche, but better)
Tightening of muscles: face? neck? chest? (getting somewhere)

We could move to even more ideas, but let’s stick with this last one. I wanted to get away from the head, so let’s not use the face. There’s too much danger for cliche there. I like neck, because it isn’t so inventive as to automatically draw the reader out of the scene. I can’t recall ever reading this description for anger, but it strikes me as something everyone will immediately relate to: the tightening of the neck muscles.

Let’s try it.

The muscles in Bob’s neck coiled into a tense knot.

It’s okay. It’s a bit general and vague. Which muscles? How did it feel? We’ve replaced telling of the anger to telling of the feeling of anger.

Also, I’ve sort of lost that we’re talking about anger, and it’s cheating to tack on “of anger” to the end of that sentence. I even see this in established authors. It makes me cringe, because if it’s needed, you haven’t used he right description. If it isn’t needed, why is it there?

Let’s make it a bit more descriptive in a way that edges us back toward the anger.

The long muscle running down the left side of Bob’s neck snapped to a rigid knot and pulsed with a fiery violence.

I think the anger has come back a bit. It walks up to cliche with “fiery violence,” but I don’t think it crosses the line.

Are we done? No! Now we have to do the hard part. Will it be invisible in the scene? That’s hard to say without the context of the sentences around it. But there is a major danger with the way it is written now (I did this on purpose). It personifies a muscle by giving it an emotion. Like the simile I started with, this is a dangerous thing for invisible description. Any simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, (insert word here)-ification, will draw attention to itself.

There are tons of situations in which description doesn’t have to be invisible, like setting a scene. In those situations, the literary techniques can run wild with creativity. The middle of an action sequence can’t pull the reader out of the story, so invisibility is more important.

Now let’s try to do one more revision where we tone it down without losing the essence. I first notice some excessive wordiness, which I’ll try to contract and simplify.

A fiery pain jolted through the left side of Bob’s neck as the muscle tensed into a knot.

This is close to done. It will probably need some more tweaking in context to make sure it is invisible and conveys the anger in the appropriate amount. Good luck on your own invisible descriptions!

P.S. My parents complain that it takes me too long to write a book. Here’s a 1000-word thought process in an attempt to edit a 3-word sentence. How long does it take to edit a 90,000-word novel? Do the math.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 11

Today we’re going to look at the prose of J. M. Coetzee. He is a South African writer and is known for his controversial topics. His 1980 work Waiting for the Barbarians is about a town magistrate that takes on disturbing power by preying on the fears of the people about an incumbent attack by the barbarians. This novel is now seen as an eerie and accurate premonition of the events in the U.S. after 9/11 that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the forfeit of our freedoms in the name of safety.

The novel I actually want to look at is his more recent 1999 novel Disgrace. The main character is a disgraced English professor who loses his job after having sex with a student under dubious circumstances. He moves in with his daughter in the countryside to recover from the affair and try to turn his life around. While there, the two suffer a brutal attack coming from lingering apartheid tensions.

I won’t give more away, but a hallmark of Coetzee’s writing is how much he packs into so little space. This novel is short, more like a novella, yet it contains more plot and emotional content than many 90,000 word novels. And this is where I’d like to start with his prose. If you’ve never read him, I highly recommend taking one or two days to go through one of his novels. The bare and exposed prose breaks every rule we’ve been taught, yet it suits his subject matter perfectly. It is unlike anything I’ve read. I can’t even compare him to other people.

To set the scene, the professor has just called Melanie, the student, at her house. Her mother answered and has left the phone to get her.

Melanie—melody: a meretricious rhyme. Not a good name for her. Shift the accent. Meláni: the dark one.

‘Hello?’

In the one word he hears all her uncertainty. Too young. She will not know how to deal with him; he ought to let her go. But he is in the grip of something. Beauty’s rose: the poem drives straight as an arrow. She does not own herself; perhaps he does not own himself either.

The first segment is the professor’s thoughts. Part of the slimness of Coetzee’s writing comes from how he slides into and out of the head of the main character with no frills. No italics. No “he thought” to punctuate and emphasize what is already obvious. I like this style, and find some writer’s overemphasis on pointing out character’s thoughts as needless distrust of the reader’s comprehension.

The punctuation through this segment is brilliant. It also allows Coetzee to do away with excess words that the professor wouldn’t be thinking anyway. It flows quickly like actual thoughts would. It’s word association rather than something logical.

Then we get to the actual words. He notes the rhyme between Melanie and melody. But the brilliant thing is calling it a “meretricious” rhyme. This word does so much work in the passage. On the face of it, he wants the rhyme to be deceiving because he doesn’t want a melodic girl but a devious one. The word meretricious doesn’t merely mean deceiving though; it has the archaic meaning “of, like, or relating to a prostitute,” exactly how the professor views the student in that moment.

In four sentences, we, as readers, feel so much. We get to watch how the professor thinks about this student. We watch how his mind turns things around. We see how he starts to justify his actions to himself. In context, these four sentences give us a sense of revulsion at the main character’s true self that we wouldn’t get from a mere surface description of the act. There’s something deeper and more disturbing about the scene playing out this way.

After she answers the phone, the point of view shifts out of his thoughts, but things only get worse. Now we see that he understands that what he is doing is wrong. He understands that he needs to leave, but the narrator joins in on the justification. He’s out of control. She’s out of control.

As a reader, we start to feel helpless. Even the narrator is pushing the act along, and we learn that we cannot trust the narrator to show us the moral condemnation we hope for. We want to shout, “No! He does own himself! Stop making excuses for him. Lust is not reason enough to lose control of one’s actions.”

Shakespeare is quoted with “beauty’s rose,” reemphasizing the fact that the English professor knows his stuff, but it is more significant than that. This comes from Shakespeare’s first sonnet, and this is the first scene to start the plot of the novel. The full sonnet is about an older man who self-destructs under his selfish and gluttonous ways. That brief phrase “beauty’s rose” is a deep foreshadowing into the rest of the novel.

This is what makes Coetzee such an experience to read. His sparse prose strikes immediate emotional response into readers with no analysis necessary. But upon a deeper reading, we can find a shocking amount of extra information layered in through precise word choice.

Year of Giant Novels Part 7: 2666

I don’t remember how I learned of the existence of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. When it released in English in 2008, it took the literary establishment by storm, winning multiple best book of the year awards. But even so, I’d wager that most people haven’t heard of it. I know I paid attention to these things in 2008, but this wasn’t when I heard about it.

When I started the novel a few weeks ago for the giant novels project, I wasn’t convinced of its greatness. The novel is broken into five large parts, and each of these is broken into little page-length segments. There aren’t any chapters apart from these segments. These little vignettes read almost like Baudelaire stories, and indeed, Baudelaire is quoted at the start.

The first part follows five academics who study an obscure writer. They get into little love triangles and fights with each other. The stories certainly build into a coherent part, but I didn’t really see the point. There was a strange allure that kept me coming back, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything that struck me as particularly interesting or compelling.

The next two parts go off on seemingly unrelated sets of stories. I got 350 pages in, and I started to lose my grounding. There didn’t appear to be any central glue to these disparate stories. I again was reminded of Baudelaire, because something like Paris Spleen is a collection of unrelated vignettes that combine together to give a wider portrait and worldview.

When I thought in these terms, a few threads appeared. Two ordinary people quickly turn to disturbing violence when they beat up a cab driver. An artist’s self-portrait involved a gruesome chopping off of his own hand. A disturbing boxing match. Murder. Violence. The whole of human history consisting of beating each other to death over the dumbest things.

These segments made their appearances so quickly and sparsely so as to almost not be noticed in such a grand and complex novel whose plot revolves around other ideas. But they came and made their impression, and the magnitude of what they pointed to started to weigh as I approached Part IV.

I’m not sure anything can prepare someone for Part IV of this novel. Part IV is essentially 300 pages of graphic depictions of murders of women that all happened in the town of Santa Teresa, Mexico (though fictional, it is based on Juarez, a real place in which over 370 women have been murdered and 400 more have gone missing since the 90’s). To read 2666 is a powerful and changing experience because of this section.

I think we have to take a step back and consider Bolaño’s achievement here. He could have just published Part IV as the whole novel, but no one would read it. I know I would have gotten through the first few, and then put the book down as a tedious and gruesome exercise. But as I’ve pointed out, Bolaño works on your subconscious for those first three parts, and he gets you mentally prepared to experience it. It is a brilliant move to put this section in the middle like this.

The final part gives the reader a chance to decompress after the experience. I wouldn’t say it ties up loose ends or becomes happy or anything. It more gives the reader time to digest and reflect on the horror.

The novel is not a genre mystery where the murder cases get solved. In a sense, this would be offensive to all the victims and their families who don’t get closure in real life. It doesn’t offer solutions. I’d see this as giving false credence to the politicians who oversimplify issues like this and offer clean solutions that can never work.

The book remains complex and difficult, and in doing so, presents the problems and issues in the only mature and realistic way conceivable. This makes it art. The novel is a testament to what great art can be. Tidy, easy stories can still move you, but it takes novels like these to change you. It’s a reminder that “literary” and “experimental” doesn’t have to be synonymous with dull and unengaging. Sometimes breaking the traditional form is the only way shock someone into understanding what you are trying to say.

Replies to Against Theory, Part 2

Continuing on with the responses to “Against Theory,” I was kind of excited to see that Richard Rorty wrote one. I’ve written about him on the blog, and he is one of my favorite philosophers. Here are my notes on Rorty’s “Philosophy Without Principles.”

Recall that the original Knapp-Michaels piece tried to take out E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. The main point of Rorty’s piece is to identify the philosophical first principles from which such an (anti-Hirsch) argument could be made. For the record, Rorty disagrees with Hirsch but also think the Knapp-Michaels approach did not succeed.

Rorty begins by pointing out that not everyone agrees with their assessment that a random string of symbols appearing to be language has no meaning if there was no authorial intent. H.P. Grice is one person in this camp. There is a more subtle question that still leaves some room for theory: “Granted that the sentence means such and such, did its author use it to mean that on this particular occasion?”

Rorty takes what seems to be a radical view here. He claims that anything should be counted as language if a human construes it as such (he even includes “an arrangement of stars” as an example).

Recall that Rorty is a pragmatist, so basically he wants to say that Knapp-Michaels are being wildly unpragmatic with their view that we must always identify an author before considering something that looks like language to be language (i.e. have meaning). How do they know that the random symbols in the sand at the beach have no meaning if they come across them and can’t tell if it is an accident or intended?

Trying to identify intrinsic properties is futile in a pragmatic framework. Rorty wants to forget the question of what was intended and instead examine the language in various contexts and describe the advantages/disadvantages as such. We can never “know” the true authorial intent as a pragmatic matter anyway.

This view is clearly against Hirsch and an argument “against theory” (stop theorizing and interpret already!). But I’m not sure how he escapes the paradox that by describing why he feels this way, he has laid out the foundation for a pragmatic “theory” of interpretation. It’s a Catch-22. No one has the answer to why we should be pragmatic without the theory to back it up.

Rorty tries to escape these endless circles by appealing to Heidegger and Derrida. The philosophers who developed theory have skewed the debate by the terms they’ve deemed important enough to study: intention/meaning/etc. This jargon is in place because of tradition, and we should first ask if we have any reason to continue to go along with it.

We can’t argue against theory by using the language of theory. The vocabulary must be changed first, and vocabulary doesn’t change through arguments. It changes because a new vocabulary comes into usage and serves the discussion better.

Rorty takes the view that we shouldn’t stop teaching theory, because it gives philosophers the opportunity to discuss novels, poems, and essays with literature students. It is wrong-headed for Knapp-Michaels to think of teaching theory as some sort of indoctrination into a particular view of interpretation that skips out on the actual interpretation of texts (personal note: I don’t blame them if you think back to the New Critical climate in which the original essay was written).

Knapp and Michaels actually wrote a direct response to the Rorty article entitled “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What is Pragmatism?” So now we’ll look at that. First, they clarify that they are not against making critical arguments about a text. We can analyze texts without engaging in “theory.” The theory they attack is the attempt “to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without.”

Without going further yet, I have to insert my own reservations about this. I get the distinction, but they seem to run into the same epistemological problems they worry about in the original article. Sure, you can do some analysis, but I’m worried how you’ll know it makes any sense without some theoretical grounding. It’s sort of like saying: do math, no wait, stop formulating a theory, just manipulate the symbols, what do you mean you want to make sure you’ve done something legitimate?

Next they push back on the issue of “an author” vs “its author” (this was discussed last time). Knapp-Michaels reiterate that the same set of words authored by various people can have different meanings (one can’t help but think of Borges’ Pierre Menard here). This is because these are different texts. It is problematic to refer to the same text having different (even if fictional) authors.

Knapp and Michaels make a very strong case that the its/an distinction is irrelevant. When someone says “fire,” they could be talking about burning or discharging a weapon or terminating someone’s employment or any number of things. The only meaning that matters in interpretation is the one intended by the speaker. To even contemplate alternate meanings that “an” author could have meant is at best a masturbatory indulgence and at worst a complete waste of time.

Well, I think I’m done with this series of posts for now. I had planned on doing more, but I’m finding this quite tedious and exhausting. For now, I land somewhere in between the pragmatist and Hirsch viewpoints. On the pragmatic side, it does seem a waste to contemplate intentionless meanings. On the Hirsch side, we need some sort of foundation and theory to work out a range of valid interpretations (we get a range because we can never truly know the intention of the author).

Replies to Against Theory, Part 1

Two weeks ago I blogged about Knapp and Michael’s “Against Theory.” I’ve started going through the book Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism, which is a compilation of all the major papers arguing for/against the points brought up in “Against Theory.”

Here’s the main point of Knapp-Michaels, which I never articulated in a clear way. All theory is effectively an illusion based on making distinctions that don’t actually exist (meaning/intention; true belief/knowledge). Thus, the only thing we should do is “practice” (i.e. read/interpret), and we may as well skip out on the unnecessary “theory” part.

One of the most interesting things about these articles is that no one has mentioned the point I raised (so far), but many, many other issues are raised. The first response is titled “Revisionary Madness: The Prospects of American Literary Theory at the Present Time” by Daniel T. O’Hara. It is quite good but hard to summarize, since it’s points are made rhetorically through satire.

The next one is Hirsch’s “Against Theory?” This was the piece I was most excited to read, because I wanted to hear how Hirsch defended himself. He begins by reiterating that Knapp and Michaels seem to firmly agree with him, and it is somewhat odd that they took so much effort to call him out over what appear to be misunderstandings.

Hirsch reiterates that intentionalists never imagine a moment of interpretation before intention. That is the whole point of this school of thought! One must have intention for there to be a meaning to interpret. Hirsch also agrees with them that intentionalists choose among a range of possible speakers. He takes it for granted that this avoids the intentionless meaning issue, but I think this grants Knapp-Michaels too much ground.

I diverge from Hirsch here, because this is such a bizarre way to frame what an intentionalists does. I still like my analogy. When one works out the answer to 2583 x 3921, one doesn’t posit a range of plausible answers in order to choose the correct one. There is only ever one correct answer, and just because you don’t know it at first glance doesn’t mean there are other possibilities you are “choosing between.”

The interesting thing about this example is that it shows how both practice and theory can be necessary even if there is only ever one right answer. Deriving the correct answer is “practice.” But you won’t know the derivation gave the correct answer without the “theory” to ground the method.

Under this framing, intentionless meaning is avoided. The collection of symbols on the page only ever has the meaning the author intended. You may have to do work to find that meaning, but you don’t have to posit a bunch of meanings by fictional people to choose among to do it.

Hirsch’s main criticism of Knapp-Michaels is with their leap from “intention and meaning have no distinction” to “intention has no theoretical interest” (also a point I alluded to in my post). He claims some semantic slight of hand goes on here by pointing out that text-authorship and meaning-authorship are not the same. In other words, there’s no theoretical interest if a text only means what “its” author intends, but there is theoretical interest if a text can mean what “an” author intends.

Again, this feels slippery to me, because I think Knapp-Michaels do have a point if one allows “theoretical” intention to be relevant. I’m not sure Hirsch really wants to allow this either, because it basically nullifies the whole point of the intentionalist project. This would allow all of the New Criticism in, which Hirsch wholeheartedly wanted to reject with his book. So I think I must be misunderstanding his point here.

Hirsch also brings up the distinction between “what an author intends” and “what an author intended,” another scary distinction for intentionalists in my view. It seems to me that in an attempt to refute Knapp-Michaels, Hirsch is almost bringing on more problems than he solves. I think there was a section in his book about this, but it again seems scary to think intention can change at the whim of the author twenty years after writing something. Surely intention must mean: by the author at the time of writing; otherwise, it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

Is Twitter our Penal Colony?

I know that’s quite the inflammatory title, so I’ll explain it up front. I recently read Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. If you haven’t read it, go do it. I liked The Trial and The Metamorphosis, but neither compare to the true horror that is In the Penal Colony.

I’m going to spoil the whole story so that it can be discussed. The story takes place around an execution machine called the Harrow. The main character asks questions about it. In a brilliantly paced set of revelations, the reader becomes aware of how the torture happens:

The condemned person is gagged and strapped to the machine. A bunch of tiny needles stabs them for six hours, repeatedly tattooing their crime on their body. They bleed a lot, but the machine is carefully designed to not let them die. Then they’re buried alive.

But it’s much, much worse than that. There is a collection of laws that must followed in the colony (it was unclear whether anyone had access to them to know what they are). When charged with the crime, you are not told what it is. You have no chance to defend yourself. You are convicted without trial. The first time you learn of any misdoing is too late, because it is from the words appearing on your body from the Harrow.

Unfortunately, this should sound all too familiar from Twitter shaming. People post jokes without knowing what the rules are for offending the wrong group. Then they get accused and convicted without trial. The first time they learn of their un-PC crime is when the words start flowing across their Twitter feed. By then it is too late. They will probably lose their job and have the next several years of their life wrecked.

Does the story give us any hope or are we stuck in this twisted sense of justice forever? The end of the story is hard to make sense of. The executioner turns the machine on himself and gets the words “Be Just” tattooed on him. By administering this punishment on others, the executioner has clearly broken the rule of being just. This machine and system is so clearly unjust that we don’t need the story to understand that. By analogy, I think the Twitter punishment is not just, but the people doing it have not realized this yet. They call it social justice the same as the executioner in the story calls the Harrow justice. This doesn’t make it so.

One interpretation in light of this analogy would be that when members of the mob become targets themselves, they will be dealt a sort of poetic justice and see how wrong they were. Although this is satisfying to see when it happens (think of the “dongle joke shamer” who lost her own job as well), it is a “two wrongs don’t make a right situation” and is unsustainable. An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind.

Ultimately, I think the ending teaches us that we can only get out of this mess if the people instigating it take matters into their own hands to stop it. Outside forces won’t ever be enough. Unfortunately, these people will probably have the machine of their own making turn on them for this, and like the main character, they too will be a victim of this justice. But it has to be their own choice, otherwise the practice will continue unhindered.

Thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s Divers

I’ve made it no secret that I think Joanna Newsom is one of the most important living musicians. After five years, she has finally released her newest album Divers. I must begin this post with a ton of caveats. Writing about Newsom is difficult, because her albums are so complex. The melody, rhythm, and harmony could be analyzed for all their intricacies or for how they interact with the lyrics. The lyrics could be analyzed on their own. I can’t even get to a fraction of it, so I won’t try.

To me, this album is the pinnacle of what she has been working towards. It contains some long-form highly metaphorical harp/voice pieces like she did on Ys. It has some more modern pieces like on Have One on Me. And it has some very traditional folk style pieces like The Milk-Eyed Mender.

The album is unlike most in that all the songs must be taken together to get the whole experience. They are inextricably tied together. This post will mostly be about things I hear that relate to the main themes explored.

The main ideas have to do with the elusiveness of time (it moves both forward and backward? more on this later) and the impermanence and cyclic nature of life. One thing that jumps out after several listens is that the album itself is a cycle. The last word of the album cuts off without finishing, and the word gets finished as the first word of the album. The first song starts with birth and the last song ends with what could be considered death.

Now I’ll go through the places where time comes up. In “Anecdotes” there are two references. “Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do” and “temporal infidelity” (a bizarre phrase that I love). In “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” we get “Time is smaller than Space is wide.” At the end of “The Things I Say” is a strange sound that I can only interpret as the sound of playing the song backwards. This is the first foreshadowing of the last song.

In “Divers” we get the theme of the backward motion of time again with “infinite regress” and “infinite backslide.” In “A Pin-Light Bent” the idea of “inversion” comes up several times, again giving a dual meaning to inverting the direction of time.

The last song, “Time, As a Symptom,” ties it all together. The entire song is about time. “Time passed hard,” “The river of time,” “Time moves both ways,” “Time is just a symptom of love,” and so on.

This last song is probably one of the best things she has ever written. For one, it must be listened to as the last track on the album. Part of its greatness is that all the songs leading up to it keep alluding to what is to come (as I think I demonstrated above). These ideas get in your subconscious and are ready to bear the impact of this piece.

It is also the only song on the album to have a big climax. It builds and builds until it explodes in a brilliant, exalted moment with the perfect words to summarize what the album is about: “Joy of life.”

I could go on and on about how I think certain songs relate to other ones, but as I’ve said before, I think her music is best not over-analyzed. It is so abstract and metaphorical that the best way to experience it is to let the image/sound combinations evoke feelings on their own. After repeated listens, you’ll start to notice how they fit together which will enhance the experience. This is what makes her so important. I don’t know of anyone else doing this type of thing (maybe The Dear Hunter).

I can’t recommend this album enough to anyone with a serious interest in music.

The Stories of Cheever Part 3

This is the last post in the series. He really only has two more stories that are well-known: “The Five-Forty-Eight” and “Goodbye, My Brother.”

“The Five-Forty-Eight” is a strange case study for me. To my eye, it breaks a ton of traditional advice given to writers. The story itself is a suspense/thriller plot. A man notices that a woman is following him. He realizes that it is a secretary he used to have but fired. She is crazy and wants revenge, so she follows him onto a train and threatens him at gunpoint to listen to her.

First, it was originally published in The New Yorker. I hate most stories from The New Yorker. I think I wrote this back when I commented on some BASS 2014 stories. I’m not sure if they get heavily edited to always sound the same, but I started reading this story and immediately knew where it had been published. I looked it up and was correct.

The prose is very formulaic and tedious. It is pronoun heavy and has this too precise alternating between he, she, we, they to the point of distraction. Fake sample: “He looked at her. She shied away. He knew what she was thinking. She reached out for his hand. They walked together. We live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow.” I swear, that type of thing is in every story they publish.

The story starts out with the suspense of being followed. Structurally there is a flash back to learn about this woman. Starting with a flashback is usually considered very bad form, because it breaks the suspense. I think that is correct in this case.

I’m not a no-flashback purist, but when the flashback information can easily be transferred to the story body, I think it can only improve the flow. In “The Five-Forty-Eight” the material could be naturally conveyed through later conversation, since this is happening anyway. It would also heighten the suspense of not knowing who this woman is.

The most interesting detail is how the main character keeps coming back to the woman’s handwriting. We are meant to see the instability in her through the ugly, chaotic writing. It makes me think of Palahniuk’s Diary. I wonder if he was referencing this story when he chose to make handwriting analysis such a major part of his novel.

The plot itself feels very cliché, even for its time. This is the basic plot of tons of pulp thrillers and Hitchcock films. I don’t think it is supposed to be a parody. It just reads like a standard psychological thriller.

The one thing I really liked about the story was how the random act of violence changed the characters. We don’t like to think about it, but these types of things can and do happen all the time. They change people forever. The man and the woman have opposing trajectories. The man starts confident, but by the end of the event, he is shattered, face down in the dirt. The woman starts timid and self-conscious, but is confident and restored after the event.

I’m not sure I like the message: revenge can be fulfilling and helpful in overcoming someone that has wronged you.

“Goodbye, My Brother” I have a bit more respect for. It is told in first-person, but overall it reads like an ensemble piece. The impressive part is how he gets such a large number of fully developed characters into such a small space. Having more than two or three main characters is difficult to handle in short stories. Cheever achieves this by setting up a large number of tightly written scenes to get different combinations to interact with each other.

In addition, the house itself almost becomes a character. Each of the characters derides problems with it or takes comfort in memories from it. This aids in fleshing out the family history. Not that he’s doing anything original with this technique, but it fits the story well.

I like that even though there is no action, there is still a lot of tension and forward motion that give way to moments of emotion. It is interesting how he can achieve this by making it feel like something is always about to boil over into a major catastrophe. It does, in fact, eventually happen, but I won’t spoil it here if you haven’t read it. There is a very intense scene between the main character and his brother. It is the only bit of action, and the slow build up makes the release far better than if there had been action the whole time.

Now that I’ve gone through the major Cheever stories, I can say that I can see hints of greatness throughout. It is still a mystery to me why he is heralded as one of the best. He is very good, but so are a hundred other people. My guess is that his material spoke to a particular demographic that had most of the literary power of his time.