Sunday, July 31, 2011
Or, the Incommensurability of Competence and Affection
I want to take a last look at the Nexus, where Marlow poses something very like a calculation, or a weighing. He’s talking of Kurtz:
He won't be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honor; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I can't forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him.
It’s that last phrase I’m thinking about: “I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him.” How does one do that, weigh one man against another? Though we rarely have cause to weigh individuals in their totality, as Marlow apparently is doing here, we do evaluate others constantly. The most subtle evaluations are about personal relationships and social interactions.
Indeed, that is one of the themes of evolutionary psychology, that our large brain is fundamentally a social brain, that we evolved the brain as a means of conducting a rich social life. As far as I know, no one has proposed explicit mechanisms by which we evaluate or calculate about interpersonal relationships, though Alan Fiske, for example, has interesting things to say on the subject. Nor do I intend to propose mechanisms here. I wish simply to make the point that such mechanisms must exist, and that we are, in effect, observing the traces of their operations as we examine such passages.
So, let us consider that problem Marlow has posed to himself, and by implication, to us: how weigh the life of the helmsman against that of Kurtz? It is, of course, a different problem for (the imaginary) Marlow than it is for (the real) us. He is telling us of something that happened to him long ago and far away. Whatever knowledge and experience went into calculating the balance between the two, Marlow has long since do so, and on the basis of far wider information than that available to us.
So, when he implies that the helmsman is neck-and-neck with or even ahead of Kurtz—who was “not exactly worth” the helmsman’s like, notice that exactly—he’s doing so with fuller knowledge of both the helmsman and of Kurtz than we have. But, do we have enough information at this point to make Marlow’s valuation credible? What do we know about Kurtz? Until the beginning of the paragraph we knew almost nothing about him. He was a name, attached to a position, Chief of the Inner Station, and associated with incredible talent and murky events. That’s pretty much it. But now, thanks to what Marlow has told us in this paragraph (though I assume that the paragraphing was supplied by the unnamed narrator of the frame tale) we know a great deal about him, though the nature of his transgressions is still somewhat murky. So we have at least something to put in the balance as we consider Marlow’s calculation.
What do we know of the helmsman? First of all, we do not even know his name. We know only his position in the boat’s crew. We have statements that Marlow has made about the crew in general, including their apparent propensity for cannibalism (see paragraph 88 where there’s talk of eating one of the attackers), but we also know how the helmsman specifically behaved when the boat came under attack: not terribly well.
That ^ is a so-called piece, from masterpiece. It’s by Jersey Joe, aka Rime. When you by a book of graffiti photos these days, chances are you’ll get page after page of pieces, often tightly cropped and placed edge to edge so you get six or eight pieces on a page, 12 or 16 on a two-page spread. When the case is made for graffiti-as-art, more often than not, it’s hung on pieces.
And why not? Pieces are virtuoso productions. Intricate and elaborate designs, sometimes with realistically rendered figures in them, highly colored. Pieces are difficult to do, few do them well. They don’t look at all like the UGH! tags the folks find so bothersome when they’re planted on mailboxes and lampposts on their streets, and rightly so (bothersome, I mean).
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Graffiti expresses the kami of the site where it is situated
I take it from my post, Living Graffiti, that the site of graffiti is the focus of our, or at least my, investigation. But the site is to be understood, not as a mere physical place. It IS that, but the physical place is to be understood, perhaps, provisionally, as a resource accessed by the graffiti, and thus by the graffiti writer. The site is a confluence of physical, social, and aesthetic energy.
In order further to understand this, a little comparative investigation is called for. And for that we turn to—where else?—but to Japan and Buddhism. Not directly, but as interpreted through Eiko Ikegami’s wonderful book, Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture (Cambridge 2005). We start with linked verse, a form of collective, public poetry practiced in the 13th century (and later):
The atmosphere of a Cherry Blossom session was intensely moving for its participants. The typical number of seats poets in a za session was not fixed by usually stood at around 10. Unlike the more formal linked-verse meetings of later periods, however, members of the audience that surrounded a circle of poets in a Cherry Blossom session were free to contribute poems of the own to the circle. After one sequence of chain poems was made by seated members in the circle, the floor was open to the public. All the participants in the meeting would avidly search for the best follow-up verse, one after the other, Sometimes, dozens of poems were thrown in from the audience to provide the next stanza in a particularly difficult chain. When an unexpectedly interesting succeeding stanza was presented, the perceptive participants would be captivated by feelings of surprised exhilaration.
In other words, we be jammin’.
Now check this out, it’s from Roger Gastman & Caleb Neelon, The History of American Graffiti (Harper 2010); they’re quoting TDEE, a Jersey City writer talking about the Jersey City Wall of Fame, as it’s sometimes known (p. 276):
All of sudden, already seasoned writers like TECK, SERO, SNOW, and the QMB CREW started rocking ‘our’ walls, to where soon you could go up there on any given Sunday during the summers of 1991 to 1993 and find at least ten people painting, and twenty more just hanging out. . . . The Newport Wall was the first time writers from different New Jersey cities got together on the regular and had a place to meet and paint as a collective.
Times have changed, but the Newport Wall’s still there, only three blocks from the Holland Tunnel and thus within earshot of thousands of cars a day, though it’s been neglected of late and part of the wall’s covered with dirt, dirt thrown there as part of preparations for erecting apartment buildings that have not yet happened.
I assume there's an erotic reference involved. Whether or not it has much of anything to do with what might be a hole in the wall at the 'crotch' of the heart, I don't know. I didn't look, though I've been on the other side of that wall.
But what's that white lumpy thing draped over the heart? I could be a cloud; that was my initial reaction. But now I wonder. Maybe it's a (crude) image of the human brain, and the "y" in glory marks the Sylvan fissure. That puts the "Hole" on the temporal lobe and "Glory" on the lateral frontal lobe.
If so, then, however graphically crude, that's a conceptually sophisticated image.
Friday, July 29, 2011
What I’m trying to conceptualize, living graffiti, probably doesn’t quite exist as such. I’m trying to conceptualize graffiti as it could / would be if enough of us saw it that way.
What do I mean?
Well, there’s this one issue: Is graffiti art or vandalism? The dichotomy, of course, is false. It can easily be both, and often is. But, often enough, it may only be vandalism—malicious tagging on people’s homes, for example; or it may be art, pure and simple, as something done on a “permission” wall. But that question, art or vandalism? designates a social dynamic that is at the heart of graffiti.
And that dynamic makes most of the graffiti objects rather ephemeral. They’re going to be “buffed” away by the authorities, or gone over by other writers, or be eroded by the weather. But it’s those individual ephemeral objects that are at the center of thinking about graffiti, if not the actual practice. There’s a deep “pull” in this thinking—yours, mine, everyone’s—toward the conceptions developed around ‘legitimate’ art.
That art is about individual works conceived as more or less persisting and unchanging objects. Those objects can be defaced, they can be stolen, and they can be faked. But they are persisting and most often (but not entirely) static objects.
And so we see graffiti as consisting of ‘would be’ or ‘wannabe’ persisting objects that just happen to be painted on other people’s walls, for whatever reason. Because of that, most of these wannabe persisting objects do not, in fact, persist. But is that so? That may be how we think of it, that may even be how the writers themselves, for the most part, think of it. But I don’t think that’s what the writers actually do. Let me repeat that: that’s NOT what the writers actually do. What they actually do is to, in one way or another, go with the flow.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Two days ago, or was it three? Andrew Goldstone made a somewhat bemused post about close reading at Arcade. Others made comments, myself included, and at some point I said to myself: close reading is toast. No one said as much in the discussion, nor did I, but the fact of that discussion, at that place, at this time, that taken together with my sense of the ‘vibe’ in literary studies tells me that close reading is toast. It has lost its mythos.
Goldstone’s post is entitled Close Reading as Genre. That says it right there; it’s a genre, a form. It’s not an induction into the mysteries. He opens:
Just what is that infamous thing, a close reading?
I have recently been seething with irritation at a certain scholarly book. Tempting as it would be to use the internet for its natural purpose and gripe about that book in detail, I am instead going to channel my energies into something with a little more intellectual value. The source of my irritation, you see, is that this book exaggerates to a fault—an incredibly irritating fault—all the virtues of “good” close reading. But what do I mean by that, my rational self asks my (normally dominant) griping self? Hmm. Fair question, rational self.
What follows is not a denunciation of close reading. It’s an attempt to make sense of what it is, with a list of some 19 features ending with an invitation for more.
The mystery is no longer the text, that thing that will unfold before close reading. The mystery is close reading itself. And that mystery has become a mere puzzle: What? Why?
To my mind it is Lee Konstantinou who delivers the coup de grâce: “What has characterized close reading — as opposed to what we might call careful or attentive reading — is the endless production or proliferation of readings.” The endless production, everyone gets one. And this is opposed to mere ‘careful’ or ‘attentive’ reading. That’s it, right there. For close reading had claimed for itself closeness: there is no closeness but that of the close reader. That it could be put in opposition to mere attentiveness to the text betokens its doom.
Much more was said, about evaluation, about ways of reading close, and everyone expressed proper appreciation for “good close readings.” But it’s clear that that appreciation is directed toward the past. These young critics are on the hunt for something new, ways of looking carefully at texts, but that do not invite the indulgence of endless production. Whatever the object of close reading is, that object is no longer compelling, alluring, or even credible.
That’s the key, the object is gone. And so the practice that sustained it must go as well.
I headed off to the State University of NY at Buffalo (aka UB) in the Fall of 1973. While I was going for my Ph.D. in English Literature, I was also interested in their music offerings—the school’s, not the English Department’s. I’d just gotten my trumpet out of “storage,” as it were, a year or so ago and I decided I wanted to sharpen my jazz chops. So, I looked through the UB catalogue and noticed they had some guy named Frank Foster teaching jazz improv. I’d never heard of him. But, hey, I looked him up anyhow, you never know—played and arranged with Basie, Elvin Jones, Sarah Vaughan, “hmmm,” says I to my little-too-smart self, “maybe he’ll do.”
I forget just how I made my way into his improv workshop. While I was registered in the English Department and took courses there, there was no problem about showing up in Frank’s class and just hanging out. I didn’t even register for credit. Just showed up. (Maybe I officially audited the course, as it’s called, but I don’t really remember the arrangement.)
Frank had no problem with that. Neither did anyone else.
So, anyhow, I show up in the room. Other folks came in. We got out our horns and warmed up in that “checkin’ everyone out” way that musicians have. Then Frank comes in—he must’ve, because that’s how it had to be, no? But I don’t actually remember that first day. I remember other days, but not that one. So I’m just makin’ it up about that first day.
Improvising, you might say.
Frank comes in, says ‘hi’ to folks he recognizes. Does some administrative crap, and gets down to business. He goes to the chalk board, writes out the head and changes to a tune, say, “Blue Bossa,” explains a thing or two about “harmonic relevance” (his term) and we’re blowing. The rhythm section has it, we all play the head with Frank. Then Frank takes a chorus or two and then sends it around the room. Everyone took a turn.
But maybe I didn’t play, not that first day. Now that I heard these cats, I wasn’t feeling so cocky with my Blood, Sweat and Tears Chicago Transit Authority jazz-rock solo chops. Eventually I got up there, though with Billy Skinner in the room it was a little scary, and I blew some. Probably sucked, too. But that was OK.
I took notes, practiced, wrote out exercises. Compared this and that with the cats. And got better. One day we were playin’ one of Frank’s tunes, “Who’s That Rockin’ My Jazz Boat.” Funkier ‘n shit. And I got off a good one. When I was done, Frank looked at me, then looked at the rest of the group. He pointed at me and smiled.
Made my day, man. Made my day. My week. I got the nod from Frank.
Somewhere in his Problems in General Linguistics, my copy of which is, alas, in storage, Emile Benveniste has a chapter on sentences hanging on the auxiliary “to be.” As Benveniste was a linguist of the Old School, when being a linguistic meant familiarity with many languages, including—and this is important for this particular topic—classical Greek, it had examples from many languages, making it tough sledding for a monoglot like me.
While the content of this post certainly arises out of my thinking about that chapter, in the absence of actually having the text in front of me, I hesitate to assert a stronger relationship than that. I note only that, for Benveniste, the auxiliary “to be” was fraught with metaphysical significance. For the concept of being derives from “to be.” Where would philosophy be without Being? Thus, when Benveniste pondered such sentences, he wasn’t merely commenting on language. He was doing philosophy, or, if not quite that, camping out on philosophy’s door step.
I’m interested in such sentences because I believe they are a DEEP CLUE about how the mind works. I just don’t know what to make of the clue.
So, I'm interested in word order in assertions such as the following:
(1) Fido is a beagle.
(2) Beagles are dogs.
(3) Dogs are beasts.
They all move from an element in a class (whether an individual, Fido, or another class, beagles) to a class containing it. None of them move in the opposite direction. Consider what happens when you try to go the opposite way. In the following sentence the class is mentioned first, then the subclass:
(4) Beagle is the kind of animal of which Fido is an instance.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Two recent posts about Heart of Darkness centered on strange pictures, mathematical pictures. The object of this post is to talk about such pictures, and others equally strange, if not more so. But I wish first to begin with an ordinary photograph, and to think a little, just a little, about how such photographs made and how we understand them.
An Ordinary Photograph
Here’s a photograph of the Empire State Building at night.
Figure 1: The Empire State Building
Though I don’t understand much about the inner workings of my camera or my computer, I nonetheless feel that I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how that picture came to be: I pointed my camera at the Empire State Building, snapped the shutter, ‘developed’ it on my Macintosh, and then uploaded it to the web.
At THIS level of analysis, the level I’m taking in this post, that’s OK. While we know that one can easily monkey with digital photos, I know that didn’t happen. How do I know that? Because I controlled every step of the process. I saw the Empire State Building that night, I took the picture, etc. No one or nothing interfered with the process.
You, of course, pretty much have to take my word on all that. You might suspect, for example, that I didn’t actually take a shot of the Empire State Building and a street lamp. Rather, you suspect, I combined two images. Such things are possible, and quite easy with digital technology. I assure you, I didn’t do that. But, really, that’s all I can do here and now. Offer assurances. I might be lying.
Something Very Small
Now look at this picture:
It’s not a photograph. It’s a line drawing. What’s it depict? We see two spirals connected by rods. Maybe it’s a design for a wrought-iron staircase.
Maybe. But you know it’s not. You know that it depicts (the structure of) a DNA molecule. That’s the illustration Watson and Crick used in the 1953 paper in Nature in which they announced this structure to the scientific world.
How do you know that? Have you seen a DNA molecule yourself, with your unaided eyes. No, you haven’t. They’re too small.
Perhaps you saw it through an optical microscope. No? That’s right, it’s too small for that. The wavelength of visible light is too long to resolve such small structures.
If you didn’t see it with your own eyes, then, how can you know what it is? Because you’ve seen other pictures and have been told that they represent the structure. And you believe what you’ve been told about those pictures; you have faith in the fundamental integrity of the social process needed to inform and support such pictures.
But, how did Watson and Crick come up with that image? What did they look at? They could no more see it with their eyes than you could see it with yours; and their optical telescopes are no better than yours. Well, yes, maybe they did have better optical microscopes. But no such microscope of whatever quality can see such things; that’s a matter of fundamental physics.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Once Marlow reached the Inner Station, he found Kurtz, of course. Kurtz was weakened and gravely ill. He died on the trip back:
"One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, 'Oh, nonsense!' and stood over him as if transfixed.
"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—
"'The horror! The horror!'
At the very end of the story, when Marlow is talking with Kurtz’s fiancée, known only as “the Intended,” she insists on knowing the last thing he said. He tells her that it was her name, which is, of course, a lie. But as Johanna M. Smith* points out in a feminist reading of the text, things are not so simple:
And surely the particular lie Marlow chooses is meant to satisfy his “dull anger” with the Intended’s naïveté and her insistence that he give her something “to live with.” He and his audience—and the reader—know that by substituting the Intended’s name for “the horror! the horror” he equates the two; her ignorance of this equation becomes a punishing humiliation.
I believe that she is correct in this matter. And that opens up three lines of inquiry which I’d like to sketch out: 1) empirical, 2) psychohistory, and 3) narratology.
Monday, July 25, 2011
This studio is in an abandoned building in Jersey City near the waterfront in the vicinity of Liberty State Park and the old Morris Canal. I have no idea what the building was used before it fell into disrepair. But now it's become a design studio, though I have no idea when it was last used as such. None of the design work appeared to be fresh.
This is one of the main studio spaces:
Work in progress?
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo, Part II
While Kurtz is the center of attention in Heart of Darkness, he doesn’t appear until relatively late in the story. He isn’t mentioned until about 8000 words into the 38000 word text nor do we know much about him until a long paragraph that starts roughly 23,000 words into the text. That paragraph, which I’ve called the nexus, is structurally central to the text, and is roughly 1500 words long.
I decided to investigated Kurtz’s presence in the text by the simple expedient of noting where the name “Kurtz” occurs. The result, my colleague Tim Perper subsequently told me, is what’s called a periodogram (PDF):
Figure 1: Periodicity in the appearance of “Kurtz”
Visual inspection suggests that the appearance of “Kurtz” is periodic, with two components, a short one and a significantly longer one. Before discussing this further, however, I would like to explain what I’ve done.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
A couple of days ago The New York Times reported an increase in graffiti across the nation (slide show here). The increase is particularly noticeable in smaller cities that hadn’t had graffiti before:
“It’s popped up all of a sudden in the last six months,” said Tim Sandrell, the owner of Safari Adventures in Hair in Florence. “I’ve been downtown for 10 years, and I’m really disappointed that we are seeing this kind of activity. We have a beautiful city and an historic city, and it’s really upsetting to me seeing this going on.”
I wonder about graffiti on freight cars, which travel everywhere, and live nowhere. Is that on the rise too?
In Portland, officials said taggers from other communities were defacing their property. “We’re arresting more people from out of town,” said Marcia Dennis, the city’s graffiti abatement coordinator. “For every one we get cleaned up, something else takes its place.”
Why’s this happening?
“It’s because of the pop culture,” said Ramona Findley, a Los Angeles police detective who heads the department’s graffiti task force. “It’s very interesting; with your violent crime going down, it seems like your mischievous crime is going up. The art world has accepted it. People make money from graffiti T-shirts. I was in Wal-Mart on Easter, and I saw graffiti Easter eggs.”
And in the department of Get a Clue:
Several officials said they were concerned the graffiti had extended beyond gang markers to others who consider more of their community a canvas. “The areas where we’ve seen the biggest increase are areas where we haven’t had a problem before,” said Mr. Racs of the Los Angeles beautification office. “It’s not gangs. It’s primarily just taggers. They are just cruising around on their skateboards.”
Umm, err, guys it’s gone waaaay beyond gang markers since, well, since spray cans and magic markers and Taki 181. Speaking of whom…
Viewed in some circles as an American art form on a par with jazz and Abstract Expressionism and in others as vandalism, pure and simple, the movement has gained momentum ever since and has spread around the world.
Its pioneer, meanwhile, has been out of sight, absent from the celebrations and exhibitions of old-school graffiti now taking place with increasing regularity. But on Thursday night at a signing party for “The History of American Graffiti,” an ambitious new survey of the movement written by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon and published this spring by HarperCollins, a short Greek-American man named Demetrius, now 57, with glasses and a bush of salt-and-pepper hair, arrived, took up a marker and began to sign his name again, this time legally, on frontispieces of the books.
And Taki says he got the idea for JULIO 124, “Whose identity now seems to be lost to history.”
So, who’s Julio? Remember that Paul Simon song, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”? It’s about two law breakin’ kids, but the law’s never specified. Could they be vandals?
Story at 11.
Friday, July 22, 2011
I think that the original Fantasia is one of the great works of 20th Century art. Fantasia 2000, alas, is only so so.
But I can’t explain why.
Sure, there’s lots I could say that would justify my assessment, which is an intuitive one, as such things are. The colors didn’t work in X. The animation was sloppy in Y. Z was too long and had too little action. Things like that, and more sophisticated as well. But I’m not sure that such observations would ACTUALLY CONNECT with whatever’s not going on in Fantasia 2000 that WAS going on in the original Fantasia.
Here’s an extreme example of what’s not going on. I’ve argued that Fantasia had an encyclopedic range of themes and topics, “sampling the space” of life and the cosmos as we know them. Fantasia 2000 doesn’t do that. There’s nothing about microscopic life nor any solar-system wide imagery, as there was in the “Rite of Spring” episode. Nor is there anything with the contemplative grace of the “Ave Maria” episode.
But I don’t think THAT’s the problem. The problem’s with the individual episodes. In too many of them, something fails to click. What? Everything is technically superb. The film was made by superb craftsman, with ample resources (that is, time and $$$) to work their magic. But the magic doesn't astonish.
Except in Eric Goldberg’s visualization of “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which we see the intersecting lives of various New Yorkers. The visual style is quite unlike anything else Disney’s done. But surely it’s not that unlikeness that’s the magic, the difference-from. There’s something positive here that simply works, and works superbly.
And so we’re left with vague abstractions like spirit, or the lack there-of. The original Fantasia was infused with vital spirit in every second of film. Fantasia 2000, not so much.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
A couple of days ago I put up a post about the lengths of paragraphs in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I sent notice of the post to a number of people, including Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Liberman. Mark then put up a post at Language Log where he: 1) reported work of his own on HoD, 2) reported work that Shalizi had done, and 3) reported work he did on Nostromo and The Golden Bowl. There was some discussion at Language Log as well.
I don’t know quite what I think of this. It’s been interesting, but . . .
So, in this post I will: 1) restate my original observation, without the rhetorical frills of my original post, and 2) append two longish comments I made at Language Log. In the first comment I suggest that patterns of paragraphing are to prose (fiction) as, say, verse forms are to poetry. The second comment outlines a pilot study, one that alas, I do not quite have the resources to carry out myself – though, if I can learn a bit of Python, who knows? I finish with a note on a parallel matter.
Paragraphing in Heart of Darkness
The central matter involves four observations about Heart of Darkness, two quantitative and two qualitative. This post is almost entirely about the quantitative observations, but the qualitative observations provide useful context. A long-term research objective would to, of course, to somehow ‘bridge the gap’ between those two sets of observations.
I’ve been working with a text that I downloaded from Project Gutenberg. In that text Heart of Darkness consists of 198 paragraphs. I counted the number of words in each paragraph using the word-count function in Microsoft Word, loaded the results into a spreadsheet, and made two charts. Think of these charts as being an abstract kind of X-ray image of “the text.” We’re now looking at “internal organs” not otherwise visible.
In this chart the paragraphs are ordered as they occur in the text, the first paragraph at the left and the last at the right:
It’s rather spiky, as you would expect. There are a few long paragraphs, there are many short paragraphs, and there are paragraphs in-between. But those different length paragraphs are all mixed together in the text. The result is long paragraphs sticking up out of plains and rolling hills of short and mid-size paragraphs.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Es ist klar, daß sich die Ethik nicht aussprechen läßt.
Die Ethik is transzendental.
(Ethik und Ästhetic sind Eins.)
It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.
Ethics is transcendental.
(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
Yep, another one of my ‘why am I following OOO?’ posts.
Here’s the thing. For decades I’ve been trying to figure out how the study of literature can become more objective. Yeah, I know, objectivity is problematic, yadda yadda. So stuff it! Anyhow, that’s what I’ve been doing.
It’s clear to me that the newer psychologies are part of the deal, a big part, as basic background knowledge and a source of models and theories. But so is developing better descriptive techniques. We need to gain descriptive control over our texts, like that paragraph distribution stuff I just bumped into (HD7: Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo) – about which, more later.
At the same time it seems clear to me that this objective lit crit I’m stalking isn’t going to be very good on the political, ethical, and aesthetic issues that have been and remain central to literary studies. Isn’t very good? Perhaps it’s: Not good at all.
What to do?
What to do?
One possibility is simply to jettison those concerns. Now, I have no problem in saying that there are whole fields of literary and cultural study where those value-laden concerns are not central. But to kick those concerns out of the discipline, out of the academy? I don’t think so.
Here’s where object oriented ontology comes in: as a way of bringing the descriptive work and the newer psychologies into political, ethical, and aesthetic conversations. I’m not talking unification, I’m not talking “bridge the gap between the two cultures.” It’s not like that; that’s old stuff. It’s dead and gone. Forget about it.
I’m just talking about conversation. The central tenet of OOO is a flat ontology, all things are the same with respect to Being. Nothing has more Being than anything else. Ants, computers, dust, galaxies, flocks of geese, E. coli, off-shore wind farms, sewing circles: anything, everything. The same with respect to Being. In conversation. Negotiating mutual living arrangements.
I think that can work.
The reconsideration I have in mind isn’t mine, it’s A.O. Scott’s, movie critic for The New York Times. He hasn’t actually reconsidered. But would he do so if he accepted the account of the film’s ending that emerges from two of my posts: Apocalyptic Confusion, and Ritual in Apocalypse Now.
Of course I don’t know the answer to the question, but I have a reason for asking it. In a 2001 review of Apocalypse Now Redux he states unequivocally that the film is a great one. He also states that the ending doesn’t work. Given that the not-working ending takes considerable time on the screen, I’m wondering why he doesn’t hold that against the film so as to make it, say, only near-great?
You see, his review tells us what he thinks about the film, how he understands it, comprehends it, but it doesn’t tell us how he felt it. Was he bored by the ending? Or did the film grip him to the end, but when he thought about it, he found himself unable to rationalize the ending and so had to say it didn’t work?
Let’s take a look at his review. I don’t expect to answer those questions, but I do want to show that, in view of what he actually said, they are reasonable questions.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The idea that Joseph Conrad, one of the canonical writers of Western literature, and properly so, is / might be a racist is not so shocking now in 2011 as it was back in 1975, when Chinua Achebe delivered a lecture entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Many were shocked that Achebe would make such an argument, and about a narrative that was so obviously an indictment of European imperialism in the Congo. Many critics responded with vigorous and sophisticated defenses of Conrad and of Heart of Darkness. In consequence Achebe’s essay and the response to it are now central to the scholarly literature about this text and this author.
Then and Now
At that time I was a graduate student in the English Department at SUNY at Buffalo. However, I’m slightly embarrassed to say, I have no recollection of the firestorm. If I’d had a specific interest in late 19th century British fiction I would, no doubt, have been aware of Achebe’s address and its repercussions. But that wasn’t where my interest lay, so I wasn’t attending to those currents. Had I been doing so I might well have taken offense at Achebe’s essay. As it is, I’ve only read the essay in the last week and I cannot find anything shocking about it.
What made Achebe’s argument so shocking (in 1975) is simply that we — what we? — want our culture heroes to be flawless. As a canonical literary figure Joseph Conrad is a culture hero, at least to the public that pays attention to literary culture. Racism is bad. It therefore follows that Joseph Conrad cannot be racist.
I would like to think that we, at least some WE, have become more sophisticated in such matters and are prepared to recognize that artistic greatness sometimes comes with unpleasant traits, such as racism or sexism. The question of Conrad’s racism, or of racism in Heart of Darkness, which is not the same question, is complicated, and Achebe has picked his textual evidence carefully, as all critics do. One can certainly argue against him, as many critics have done.
But I do not, in this post, want to enter directly into those discussions. I’m not going to argue about racism in Conrad’s text. I’m doing something different.
I’m presenting a fairly recent conversation between a black man and a white man on a topic that involves relations between blacks and whites and in which racism is a central issue. I’m offering this conversation as, shall we say, a parallel to the conversation between Achebe and Joseph Conrad or, since Conrad is long dead, his defenders against Achebe.
My question is a simple one: Can we get along with Achebe, and those who agree with him, as this white man and black man get along with one another?
Monday, July 18, 2011
Or, Speculations in Computational Evolutionary Psychology
Note: This version of the post has been revised from an earlier version in which I suggested that the distribution in the first chart followed a power law. Cosma Shalizi checked it for me and it’s not a power law distribution. It’s an exponential distribution.
So, I’ve been exploring Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the last two posts I’ve examined one paragraph in the text, the so-called nexus. It’s the longest paragraph in the text, it’s structurally central, and it covers a lot of semantic territory.
OK, but what about the other paragraphs.
What about them?
Aren’t you going to look at them?
Well, yeah, but I sure don’t have time to troll through them like I did the nexus. I mean, that post stretched from here to Sunday.
I get your point. Why don’t you do the Moretti thing?
You know, distant reading.
Distant reading? You mean count something? Count what?
How about paragraph length?
What’ll that get me?
I don’t know. Just do it. I mean, you already know that the nexus is the longest paragraph in the text. There must be something going on with that. Mess around and see if something turns up.
* * * * *
I did and it did.
I used the MSWord word-count tool to count the words in every paragraph in the text. All 198 of them. One at a time. Real tedious stuff. Then I loaded the results into a spreadsheet and created a bar chart showing paragraph length from longest to shortest:
Sunday, July 17, 2011
My previous post in this series (see links at the end of this post) was about the longest paragraph in Heart of Darkness, one that is structurally central to the text. For that reason I’ve called it the nexus.
In this post I offer comments on the entire paragraph, along with comments on several preceding paragraphs and one following paragraph. My object is to demonstrate, in some detail, the range of material Conrad covers in this structurally central paragraph. What’s lacking in these comments is an overview. To invoke an old metaphor, I’m commenting on trees by ones, twos, threes and stands, but the shape of the overall forest is obscure.
Perhaps there’s no overview to be had. But I doubt that. I just don’t know the terms in which an overview can be constructed. I'd appreciate suggestions.
* * * * *
At this point in the story Marlow and the others are close to the Inner Station, where they expect to find Kurtz and, of course, his ivory. The boat is attacked from the shore. The helmsman is transfixed with a spear and dies, bleeding all over the floor. Marlow notices that his shoes are drenched in blood. He transfers the wheel to one of the pilgrims who’d been sent by the manager, and tosses one shoe overboard, thinking about how Kurtz must be dead and how he’d lost the opportunity to talk to him.
I have interpolated comments in italics, thus. The comments do not strive for depth. They note or ask about the obvious. Where I break a paragraph into segments to comment on the segments individually, I number the segments A, B, C, etc. I also give the total word count for the entire paragraph, but only list that total in the first segment of a multi-segment paragraph.
Before the Nexus
[99. 117 words]"The other shoe went flying unto the devil-god of that river. I thought, 'By Jove! it's all over. We are too late; he has vanished—the gift has vanished, by means of some spear, arrow, or club. I will never hear that chap speak after all,'—and my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had noticed in the howling sorrow of these savages in the bush. I couldn't have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life. . . . Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody? Absurd? Well, absurd. Good Lord! mustn't a man ever—Here, give me some tobacco." . . .
(1) Notice the sorrow and desolation he experiences while thinking of the meeting he’ll never have. (2) And then he turns his attention to his present listeners, one of whom apparently has sighed. Where does the “absurd?” come from? What’s Marlow thinking the other has judged to be absurd? (3) And then the concrete need of tobacco for his pipe, which gets lit in the next paragraph, which focuses our attention on the here and present of the frame tale.
[100. 61 words] There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow's lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame. The match went out.
[101A. 210 words] "Absurd!" he cried. "This is the worst of trying to tell. . . . Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal—you hear—normal from year's end to year's end.
Notice this figure — “each moored with two good addresses”. It will return again at 103G. Marlow then returns to commenting on his actions back then, the loss of his shoes, of Kurtz’s discourse. But, to the present Marlow’s shame, he did not shed a tear back then.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Or, Center Point construction in a tale within a tale within a tale
For Mary Douglas
It’s a long way through this post. First, I look at the structural center of Heart of Darkness, which is that long paragraph I’ve called the nexus. I then argue that Heart and Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis deploy different techniques for achieving what I’m calling center point construction, which is close kin to the ring forms that held Mary Douglas’s attention at the end of her career. Finally, I attach an appendix that contains the complete text of the nexus.
Consider the following diagram. It represents, albeit crudely, the narrative structure of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
While the tale is told mostly by Marlow, Marlow does not speak directly to us, the readers. Rather, his tale is told to a group of four men aboard a boat in the Thames. One of those tells it to us. That tale is the frame tale. It begins Conrad’s novella, running for roughly 1300 words before giving way to Marlow, and it concludes the novella, with the last 70 words or so. It also shows up here and there during Marlow’s tale, though never for long. The diagram doesn’t show those . . . what shall we call them, intrusions, reminders, touchstones relief points?
This much is well-recognized in the literature on the book, which I’ve been examining in the two case books I’ve just acquired, the Norton Critical Edition (2006) edited by Paul Armstrong, and Ross C. Murfin’s Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011). But there’s a third ‘level’, which I’m calling the nexus. It is not, in what I’ve read so far, singled out as a tale within the tale within the tale, as my diagram has it.
But it is certainly mentioned. For example, in Albert Guerard’s, “The Journey Within” (from his 1958 book, Conrad the Novelist), which is reprinted in the Norton, pp. 326-336. He says, “We think we are about to meet Kurtz at last,” referring to a passage in paragraph 101 (see endnote on paragraph numbering) where Marlow tells us that he did get to meet Kurtz. And then Guerard observes: “But instead Marlow leaps ahead to his meeting with the “Intended”; comments on Kurtz’s megalomania and assumption of his place among the devils of the land; reports on his seventeen-page pamphlet ...” In those three clauses Guerard has characterized the paragraph that I’m calling the nexus.
Friday, July 15, 2011
Last September I did a post on some heart motifs in graffiti: Graffiti Mystery Theatre: Same Old Same Old. The mystery began which I observed the heart motif in this piece, by Zen1:
It’s just to the right of center at the bottom of the left stroke of the ”n”. As I went on to explain, that piece is in Osaka, Japan and appeared in a DVD that accompanied RackGaki, by Ryo Sanada and Suridh Hassan.
The heart motif, in that form, seemed interesting to me because, 1) I haven’t seen it very often, and 2) but I have seen it in graffiti I’ve photographed. Here it is in a piece by Then or Then One that I photographed in 2006:
Most of that post was devoted to describing the characteristics of this motif and then to tracking it down. Did Then One in Jersey City and Zen One in Osaka invent this motif independently, or did they get it from a common source. I don’t know, but there is a well-known book that they might have gotten it from, Subway Graffiti by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfont. If you look at the cover you’ll see it near the bottom at the right edge. There’s a piece by Heart, and the motif is on the bottom of the first stroke of the “H.” (Here’s a link to the book at Amazon.com. If you click on the cover image, you’ll get one large enough so you can see the piece I’m talking about.)
Well, I’ve now photographed three more examples of that motif, all in the Erie Cut (aka Bergen Arches) in Jersey City. Here, near the East end of the cut, you can see it at the bottom of the “n” in Blank:
Thursday, July 14, 2011
It has long been obvious to me that the so-called cognitive revolution is what happened when computation – both the idea and the digital technology – hit the human sciences. But I’ve seen little reflection of that in the literary cognitivism of the last decade and a half. And that, I fear, is a mistake.
Thus, when I set out to write a long programmatic essay, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, I argued that we think of literary text as a computational form. I submitted the essay and found that both reviewers were puzzled about what I meant by computation. While publication was not conditioned on providing such satisfaction, I did make some efforts to satisfy them, though I’d be surprised if they were completely satisfied by those efforts.
That was a few years ago.
Ever since then I pondered the issue: how do I talk about computation to a literary audience? You see, some of my graduate training was in computational linguistics, so I find it natural to think about language processing as entailing computation. As literature is constituted by language it too must involve computation. But without some background in computational linguistics or artificial intelligence, I’m not sure the notion is much more than a buzzword that’s been trendy for the last few decades – and that’s an awful long time for being trendy.
I’ve already written one post specifically on this issue: Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable, where I write abstracts of four texts which, taken together, give a good feel for the computational side of cognitive science. Here’s another crack at it, from a different angle: symbol processing.
Operations on Symbols
I take it that ordinary arithmetic is most people’s ‘default’ case for what computation is. Not only have we all learned it, it’s fundamental to our knowledge, like reading and writing. Whatever we know, think, or intuit about computation is built on our practical knowledge of arithmetic.
As far as I can tell, we think of arithmetic as being about numbers. Numbers are different from words. And they’re different from literary texts. And not merely different. Some of us – many of whom study literature professionally – have learned that numbers and literature are deeply and utterly different to the point of being fundamentally in opposition to one another. From that point of view the notion that literary texts be understood computationally is little short of blasphemy.
Not so. Not quite.
The question of just what numbers are – metaphysically, ontologically – is well beyond the scope of this post. But what they are in arithmetic, that’s simple; they’re symbols. Words too are symbols; and literary texts are constituted of words. In this sense, perhaps superficial, but nonetheless real, the reading of literary texts and making arithmetic calculations are the same thing, operations on symbols.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Let’s recap. At the thematic center of Conrad’s novella we have a litany. It first appears in the long paragraph I’ve called The Nexus (paragraph 103), 1503 words long: “’My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—‘ everything belonged to him.” It is repeated later on in paragraph 148, while the steamer is on its return trip with Kurtz on board: “My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas--these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments.” Notice, FWIW, that while it is Kurtz who produces the phrase the first time it appears in the text – I assume that’s what Conrad meant by the single quotes – it is Marlow himself who produces it the second time.
If we take the two statements together, we have this list: (1) Intended, (2) ivory, (3) station, (4) river, (5) career, and (6) ideas, all prefaced, of course, with “my”. Ivory and river are physical things. But ivory is, in this usage, a formless substance, though any piece of ivory, such as a tusk, must necessarily have particular form. So is station in its use to designate Kurtz’s compound beside the river. But station could conceivably be abstract as well, where it could mean his position within the company, which is a matter of some discussion here and there in the story, or his station in life more generally. Those things are positions in a network of social relationships and, as such, are rather more abstract. Career and ideas are both abstract, with ideas being possibly more abstract than career.
As for the Intended, that is a person. People are physical things, of course, like ivory tusks, or rivers. But they are living things and so they have . . . what? Classically they have souls, with plants having vegetative souls, animals having (additionally) sensitive souls, and humans having (additionally) rational souls – think of Aristotle, De Anima, and of the Great Chain of Being. Within that list the Intended is the “link” between ivory and ideas, as it were. She is a physical thing, like ivory, and, as the possessor of a rational soul, is capable of having ideas.
I've now taken my posts about Apocalypse Now and gathered them into a single downloadable PDF, which you will find at my Social Science Research Network Site. I've appended both the Abstract and the Introduction to this post.
* * * * *
This is series of informal essays about Apocalypse Now that argues that the movie as a whole takes the from of a classic rite of passage as described by Durkheim and van Gennep. Particular attention is given to the opening montage, the trip into the jungle for mangoes, the sampan massacre, the final parallel killings of Kurtz and the caribao, and parallels between characters. There is a descriptive précis of the whole film that organizes it into five large sequences and screen shots throughout.
Introduction: Shakespeare Couldn’t Do This
I don’t know just when I bought Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier. But it was several years ago. I watched the film, most likely the original first, and was blown away: Shakespeare didn’t do this, I thought. In the spectacle department there’s no contest, just as Shakespeare wins the poetry competition.
Was I then thinking that Apocalypse Now was comparable to The Bard?
Yep, that’s what I was thinking.
[The horror! The horror!]
I still think so, but won’t bother to argue it. The Bard, after all, is untouchable, mythic, beyond category. Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, makes wine on the side.
When, for whatever reason, I finally decided to post something on the film, I decided to post doubts (see listing of posts below). And I had no firm intention to do any more than that. But, once I was in, I was in. I figured I’d do two, maybe three more posts. I had no intention of doing eleven posts, and I’d have done a twelfth if I hadn’t decided to start working on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Or, Did Conrad’s Kurtz pioneer the Latour Litany?
I continue to think about the ending of Heart of Darkness, a conversation between the teller of the tale, Charlie Marlow, and Kurtz’s bereaved fiancée, known only as the Intended – a significant, depersonalizing, practice (one thinks of those characters in Dickens novels carousing about like self-contained armored vehicles). She wants assurances of his goodness and nobleness of spirit, which Marlow provides, despite the fact that, however remarkable he may have felt Kurtz to be, he also thought he was crazy at the end. She wants to know his Kurtz’s words and takes comfort when Marlow tells her that her name was the last thing that left his lips. But that is not so, at least not unless her name was Horror. And, in fact, I have no trouble imagining a bit of British sketch comedy in which The Husband refers to The Wife simply as The Horror.
But Heart of Darkness is not a comedy sketch. It is . . . well, what IS it?
The story’s ending reads like a grim parody of all those 19th Century British novels that happily end with He and She destined for wedded bliss. In Heart of Darkness He and She are like two continents, call ‘em East and West, and never the twain shall meet.
So that’s one thing. Here’s another. There’s that long paragraph in the second installment – it was originally published in three installments in Blackwood’s Magazine – in which Marlow, among other things, leaps ahead of his story and tells us about all the ivory they found at Kurtz’s station and piled onto the steamer. Let’s call that paragraph the nexus, for it seems to gather all the strands of the story into itself — I’ll say more about it in a later post. At 1503 words it’s the longest paragraph in the text, with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th longest being 1129, 1103, and 865 words respectively.
Anyhow, once the nexus gets good and rolling along, we have this: “You should have heard him say, 'My ivory.' Oh yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my--' everything belonged to him.” Somewhat later in the story, in the third installment, we have:
Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now--images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas--these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments.
Monday, July 11, 2011
The material below the asterisks is from my notes and has, as its point of departure, one of my touchstone texts, a passage from Weston La Barre’s The Ghost Dance, a classic anthropological study of the origins of religion. It was written before the era of evolutionary psychology and so doesn’t go at origins in that way. Yet it manages to be consistently interesting and insightful.
I’m posting this because it’s relevant to both Heart of Darkness and to Apocalypse Now, which focus on people trying to make sense of a world that is not comfortable and familiar to them.
* * * * *
Early in The Ghost Dance Weston La Barre considers what happens to the mind under various conditions of deprivation. Consider this passage about Captain Joshua Slocum, who sailed around the world alone at the turn of the 20th Century:
Once in a South Atlantic gale, he double-reefed his mainsail and left a whole jib instead of laying-to, then set the vessel on course and went below, because of a severe illness. Looking out, he suddenly saw a tall bearded man, he thought at first a pirate, take over the wheel. this man gently refused Slocum’s request to take down the sails and instead reassured the sick man he would pilot the boat safely through the storm. Next day Slocum found his boat ninety-three miles further along on a true course. That night the same red-capped and bearded man, who said he was the pilot of Columbus’ Pinta, came again in a dream and told Slocum he would reappear whenever needed.
La Barre goes on to cite similar experiences happening to other explorers and to people living in isolation, whether by choice, as in the case of religious meditation, or force, as in the case of prisoners being brainwashed.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Well, I’ve read Heart of Darkness. And, yes, Apocalypse Now is quite different. But, no, I’m not going to subtract any points from Coppola for not being faithful to the text. Why? Because, even if he did carry around a copy of Conrad’s story and marked it up six ways from Sunday and copped the general river voyage situation and some lines from it, even then it wasn’t his text and fidelity isn’t relevant.
I suppose, as a stunt, I could subtract points from Heart of Darkness for not being faithful to AN, but what would that get me? Not even another day older and deeper in debt. That happens, but it's automatic and has nothing to do with this. So I won’t attempt that.
Herewith some notes.
At first blush the most interesting comparison between the two is in closure. AN closes upon the double sacrifice, one aspect of which has Willard, the Marlow character, killing Kurtz. That doesn’t happen in HD, where Marlow wasn’t sent to kill Kurtz, but simply to get to his station so Management could recover the ivory he’d gathered for the Company. There IS a moment where Marlow considers that he might have to kill Kurtz, but Kurtz backs off.
Instead, as Management has taken Kurtz’s ivory on board, so Kurtz brings the man himself, very ill, on board. He dies in transit: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”
Kurtz entrusted Marlow with his papers, as Kurtz had asked Willard to convey the truth to his son. He gives the last packet of papers to Kurtz’s Intended. Note that difference: Coppola’s Kurtz is married with children; Conrad’s Kurtz is only betrothed. Here’s the conclusion of Marlow’s conversation with the Intended:
“‘Forgive me. I—I—have mourned so long in silence—in silence. ... You were with him-—to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. ...’
“‘To the very end,’ I said, shakily. ‘I heard his very last words. ...’ I stopped in a fright.
“‘Repeat them,’ she said in a heart-broken tone. ‘I want—I want—something—something—to—to live with.’
“I was on the point of crying at her, ‘Don’t you hear them?’ The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. ‘The horror! The horror!’
“‘His last word—to live with,’ she murmured. ‘Don’t you understand I loved him—I loved him—I loved him!’
“I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
“‘The last word he pronounced was-—your name.’
Whatever comfort that lie may have given the Intended – didja notice, BTW, that this creature has no proper name, just a functional specification; I don’t know Conrad’s work at all – through I read The Secret Agent in college – so I don’t know whether this is a feature of his style or merely a feature of this text – it bothered Marlow enough for him to wonder whether it caused a disturbance in the cosmos:
It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her.
So, Conrad’s tale achieves its closure with a lie told to a woman about the man she loved, no, it would seem, worshipped. Coppola’s tale achieves its closure with the completion of a military mission, albeit one that was off the books.
I’m not quite sure what to make of that difference. Not sure at all. It seems to me that The State is very much in play in AN, but not HD. European civilization, yes, The State, no. To be sure, The State is not front and center in AN, but it’s the matrix in which the whole tale is set. Is love between a man and a woman the matrix in which HD is set?
An interesting puzzle.
Friday, July 8, 2011
Now that I’ve come to terms with the film’s ending, I’ve seen a pattern in Apocalypse Now that’s been staring me in the face the whole time. The pattern is that of a rite of passage as described by Arnold van Gennep and Emile Durkheim. The final sacrifice of the caribao is part of this pattern, but only part. The pattern, in fact, governs the whole film.
First, let’s consider ritual pattern (using prose I’ve lifted from one of my essays on Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues). Then we can follow it through Apocalypse Now and conclude, symmetrically, with more prose lifted from that Sita essay.
The pattern I have in mind are an abstraction from structures anthropologists have found in rituals around the world. Here’s how I characterized that structure in my essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (find downloadable PDF here):
In “Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time” Edmund Leach has described the ritual structure of Durkheim's “states of the moral person.” They are: 1) secular life, 2) separation from the secular world and transition to 3) the marginal state where the ‘moral person’ is in a world discontinuous from the ordinary world, often being regarded as being dead, and from which a return to the secular is made by a process of 4) aggregation or desacralization, often symbolized by rebirth. Arnold van Gennep talks of separation, transition, and incorporation in The Rites of Passage. The ritual sequence involves two realms of being, the secular and the sacred, and is designed to order the transition of initiates between these two realms.
As a simple example, consider the bride’s role in the now standard Christian wedding ceremony, a ceremony in which she will loose the surname she was born with and assume her husband’s surname, thereby changing her social identity. She enters the church with a veil over her face. She is thus faceless; symbolically, she has no social identity and is now separated from the secular world. Accompanied by her father, she walks to the altar where she is met by the groom; she is in a transitional state. She and the groom exchange vows and the priest pronounces them to be married. Now that she has her new social identity, and a new name, the veil can be lifted and the new woman can be incorporated into society in that new identity.
This ritual is a relatively short, but anthropologists have recorded rituals that last for hours and days and even longer. Adolescent initiation rites, for example, can last for months. There is an initial rite of separation where the young men, shall we say, are stripped on their ordinary identity. They may have to wear special dress and have special markings on their bodies. They may be given a different name as well. Once they have thus been separated from society, they’ll go live in some other place reserved for them and they’ll be taught things needful to be an adult man in their society. This process can easily last several months and may involve arduous physical tasks or a vision quest. During this period their friends and family may well treat them as being dead, which they are, socially. They are in transition, without an identity in their society. Once the proper things have been done another ceremony will be performed and the young men will be given new names, perhaps new body make-up, and will be incorporated into society as adults.
What’s important about the ritual pattern is not how elaborate it is, or how long it takes for the full ritual to run to completion. What’s important is the pattern itself: separation, transition, and incorporation. That’s the pattern we’re going to look for in Apocalypse Now.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
It is a truth fervently believed, at least among those who have beliefs about such things, that Shakespeare is the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Without question. Period. End of story. So help me god. Cross my heart and hope to die.
It’s not that I doubt Shakespeare’s excellence. Of course he’s good. But not that good. For THAT good is not about history, it’s about mythology.
And that mythology has got to stop. We can’t treat our literary culture as though it were but an appendage to Shakespeare’s large, various, and excellent output. Debts are owed, certainly. But appendages to, certainly not.
It’s simple: We can’t enter into the 21st century as long as we keep swearing fealty to The Bard, even if we cross our fingers behind our backs while so swearing. The world’s changing, it’s been changing since Shakespeare’s time. The old guy can no longer keep up. It’s time to put him on a raft, and cut the raft free. Let him float out to sea.
Who’s this WE you’re talking about?
Good question. Tricky question. I suppose I could say Harold Bloom and the Bloomistas and be done with it. In fact, that’s what I will say: Bloom and the Bloomistas!
Call it a figure.
Though Harold Bloom is real enough. His admiration for Shakespeare is well known – didn’t he write a fat book explaining how we’re all Shakespeare’s children? And he’s set himself up as the Defender of the Western Literary Canon, the Finger in the Dike that Protects Western Civ from the Sea.
Give the finger a rest. Let the water flow. Life goes on.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Ever see two hot chicks on horseback, in the middle of the desert, fight with bull whips? The winner licks blood off the back of the looser. Then they kiss.
Hot, hot, hot!
Followed by, still in the desert, a black crow on the back of a white rabbit, dead.
Whoa! mystical symbolism? An omen?
No, just plot furniture in El Topo (the mole), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 surreal spaghetti magical mystical western tour with blood and guts and deformed people and a gunslinger with slick black Jimi Morrison pants. Lots of sun and sand and sending the intellectual rubes up the flag pole. With meaning.
Did I mention the two hot chicks? The four masters? And the umbrella over a naked boy on horseback behind the guy with the slick leather pants, his father.
Well, the boy grows up to be a priest, after the gunslinger deserts him for one of the hot chicks. The one he took from the colonel manqué he’d castrated. Whose men had massacred the village we saw at the beginning.
But why did black pants cover the third master with dead rabbits? White ones.
More furniture. And we’ve not even gotten to the second half of the movie. The part about the village of corrupt bourgeois who play Russian roulette in church and brand slaves. Hot, hot, hot. Leaves ugly scars.
Now black pants has a shaved head, no guns, and wears a brown robe of rough cloth. And does it with a midget. Tenderly. The son returns, vengefully. First in brown priest’s robes. Then in slick black gunfighter gear. Get it?
Villagers kill deformed people, who were liberated through the work of midget and brown robe the father. Brown robe kills villagers. Immolates self. Midget gives birth.
Rides off with infant and with gunfighter the son.
That was exciting stuff when I saw it back in, I guess, 1971 or 1972. I’d never seen anything like it. It was disgusting, but thrilling! My god it was a roller coaster ride of mystical meaning. I probably saw it twice.
Wikipedia tells me the film has tons of artsy fans: David Lynch, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Manson, Peter Gabriel, and John Lennon. I can believe it. We’re all young once.
But it doesn’t hold up. John Emerson put it succinctly in a Facebook discussion: “Once your innocent vulgarity and stupidity is lost, it can never be restored, and one class of peak experience is inaccessible forever.” Yep.
Gimme Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, 1 & 2. She had a mystical sword forged just for her. She’s hot, hot, hot. And her daddy’s a Buddhist priest.