May 14, 2009

Fish on goat action

I’m off fishin’ in Norfolk in a couple of weeks, so I thought I’d consult a guide. What better place to start than the greatest fishing manual ever written, Isaak Walton’s Compleat Angler (1653/1676)?

There I found this intriguing piece of information about a fish called the ‘sargus’:
The adult’rous Sargus doth not only change
Wives every day, in the deep streams, but (strange)
As if the hony of Sea-love delight
Could not suffice his ranging appetite,
Goes courting she-Goats on the grassie shore,
Horning their husbands that had horns before.
This sargus is variously taken to be the sea-bream or bass, or, in Cotgrave’s definition of the French ‘sargon’, ‘the Gilthead, or Goldeney; as some hold; howsoever, it is a verie lecherous fish’. Walton has evidently taken some liberties in translating his source Du Bartas (that horny witticism was too much of a temptation), who does not go so far as to suggest a successful congress between fish and goat:
L’adultere Sargon ne change seulement
De feme chaque iour sous l’ondeus Element:
Ains, come si le miel des voluptés des ondes
Ne pouvoient assouvir ses amours vagabondes,
Les Chevres il courtise, et sur les bors herbus
Veut goûter les plaisirs qu’ont leurs maris barbus.

La Semaine ou Création du monde (1581)
Du Bartas’s source, a second-century poem on fishing by Oppian of Corycus, gave a fuller account of the hirco-piscine intercourse in question:
The Sargo scorns the natural Embrace,
Admires the Goat, and courts the bearded Race,
The scented Females of the Mountains craves,
Himself a Native of th’inconstant Waves.
Strange that the Hills and briny Seas should share
A Lover in a kind consenting Pair!
[…]
With eager Hast th’unwieldy Sargo’s move,
By Nature slow, but swift to meet their Love.
With wanton Gambols greet the horned Fair,
Vault o’er the Waves, and flutter in the Air:
Tumultuous round the rival Lovers throng,
Display the Finn, and roll the busy Tongue.
Intent the Shepherds view th’unusual Sight,
Surpriz’d at once with Wonder and Delight.
The willing Goats receive the soft Address,
While those repeat the Bliss, and unfatigu’d caress.
Thus when their Dams return at Close of Day
From distant Meads, their bearded Wantons play
Within their Folds, vocal they frisk around,
And crooked Vales repeat the bleating Sound.
Joyous the Shepherds gaze, in gentle Tides
Along their Hearts the silent Transport glides.
But not the Kids nor Shepherds Pleasures rise
To equal half the finny Lovers Joys.

Oppian’s Halieuticks, trans. John Jones (1722)
So in Oppian, successful congress does indeed take place, and it would appear that the fish, at least, achieves orgasm; whether the she-goat does too is left ambiguous.

Apparently fishermen used to disguise themselves as she-goats and give the come-on to the finny lovers. There’s an image of this in Alciato’s Emblems, the moral of the story being that ‘the she-goat represents the whore, the sargue is like the lover, who perishes, wretched fellow, in the toils of unwholesome love.’

Aelian gave a similar account of the phenomenon; but he altered one crucial detail, so that the amorous advances of the sargus result not in an inter-species orgy but a meal for the goats. The Neapolitan natural philosopher Giambattista della Porta followed this version:
The Sargi love Goats immeasurably. And they are so mad after them, that when so much as the shadow of a Goat, that feeds near the shore, shall appear to them, they presently leap for joy, and swim to it in haste, and they imitate the Goats, though they are not fit to leap. And thus they delight to come unto them. They are therefore caught by those things they so much desire.

Magiae naturalis (1584); English translation 1658
A more probable conclusion, to be sure, but one that lacks the complex eroticism of the original.

Lacépède debunked the legend in his Histoire des poissons (1798): ‘We may find the origin of this ridiculous belief in a few tales clumsily substituted in ignorance for an opinion which was itself probably false’, namely that the sargus had relations with another fish, the female of which species was popularly known by the same word in Greek as the she-goat.

I find in a nineteenth-century edition of The Compleat Angler a different explanation:
The notion was derived probably from the fish crowding round the goats to feed on the vermin, &c., which fell from them.
Such is the difference between the poetic and the scientific worldview.

April 02, 2009

Youdunnit I

The postmodern detective story may be a more or less straightforward pastiche of style and plot conventions; or it may be a narrative that ironizes the form, imitating its structures but subverting and distorting them.

The most obvious way of subverting a form that is geared towards the solution of a mystery is to absent or defer the denouement. Thus the postmodern detective narrative is constructed around an absent centre (absence of a crime, absence of a solution); the detective narrative, insofar as the solution of the crime stands for the production of meaning itself, invites the application of poststructuralist theories of différance.

An example: a man reading a pulp detective novel borrowed from a library becomes dangerously obsessed with the narrative, to the extent that his life is consumed by the desire to know the solution. His prurient interest in the sexual dimension of the crimes described mounts to the point where the act of reaching the last page becomes for him a promise of orgasmic release. But the last page is missing, torn out. He complains at the library, but there are no other copies. He approaches the publisher, but the book is out of print. He attempts to visit the author, but he is dead. Finally he obtains a copy from the legal deposit library, and on turning the last page finds a publisher’s note informing the reader that the novel was left unfinished at the time of the author’s death. He will never know.

Alright, I’ll come clean: that was the plot of an episode of the popular BBC sitcom Hancock’s Half-Hour (1960).

In that episode, Hancock is shown in one sense to be the ideal reader of a detective novel, because he identifies with the detective so completely that he not only attempts to do the detective’s work in finding the solution to the crime (and these sequences are very funny), but also turns detective himself in finding the solution of the solution. This he does successfully, and even if the result is for him unsatisfying, for the viewer it is a perfect comedic pay-off.

However, in another way Hancock gets it wrong: the ideal reader of a detective novel should not identify completely with the detective; he should keep his distance, play the game. The reader’s true adversary is not the murderer, but the author. Gilbert Adair gives an insightful account of this here.

Pastiche of detective stories is a tricky balancing act, because the genre itself has a recuperative power and even in its classical form can accommodate self-referential games. I mentioned in the previous post the chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935), in which the detective tips a theatrical wink to the reader:
‘But […]’, interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’
‘Because’, said the doctor frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.’
Such explicit self-referentiality may be rare in the classic detective novel, but there are gestures towards it also in Conan Doyle and Christie where the detective’s fame (which is of course really a literary fame) always precedes him; or in Chesterton, where Father Brown is asked to compare his methods of detection with those of other fictional sleuths.

Gilbert Adair’s Agatha Christie pastiches came in for some bad reviews for their irritatingly knowing tone and self-referential clowning. Myself, I rather enjoyed the one I read (A Mysterious Affair of Style), because Adair is clearly quite aware (as he shows in the above article) that the classic detective story is not itself ‘innocent’: it is a game between a knowing author and a knowing reader.

A Christie parody of a different sort, The Prismatic Bezel by Sebastian Knight, was published in 1925 (the same year as Christie’s third Poirot story The Mysterious Affair at Styles); already by that date the murder mystery had become a moribund form, a thing ‘shamming life, painted and repainted, continuing to be accepted by lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud.’ Knight’s story places a corpse in a boarding house and populates it with the usual cast of suspects. Then the distortions begin: the detective character is called in but fails to arrive; the configurations of the story shift ‘with a quick sliding motion’ and all of the suspects are revealed to be connected with each other; the boarding house setting melts away and is replaced by a country-house; the crime plot fades out and the story takes on the contours of an entirely different type of novel. But then the detective arrives and we are back in the mystery plot. The corpse is revealed to have vanished. Finally the chief suspect (suspected by the reader from the start for being the most conspicuously innocent-looking character) is unmasked: not as the murderer, but as the victim. ‘You see, one dislikes being murdered’.

Knight’s story is of course the invention of Vladimir Nabokov, in whose 1941 novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight the above description appears. Around the same time, Raymond Chandler, who also thought that classic detective fiction had exhausted itself as a form, was busy writing the books that would in large part define a new genre: the hard-boiled thriller.

(Part 2) (Part 3)

Youdunnit II

(Part 1)

Tzvetan Todorov’s seminal ‘Typology of Detective Fiction’ clarifies the distinction between mystery and thriller. (Although it seems to me that the dominant form today, in British detective fiction at least, does not quite fit either of these genres, being perhaps closer to the ‘police procedural’.) Todorov makes the starting point of his analysis this extract from Michel Butor’s L’emploi du temps (1956):
Every crime novel is constructed around two murders: the first, committed by the killer, is merely the pretext for the second in which he is the victim of the true murderer, the immune murderer – the detective who puts him to death, not by one of the vulgar methods was himself reduced to using, poison, dagger, silenced pistol, or silk stocking garrote, but by the explosion of the truth.
This neat formulation is often quoted approvingly as an apt description of the way crime narratives work. But Butor’s novel itself does something much more interesting, and this explanation is nothing but a lure, a paper-thin construct that the centripetal narrative strains against and destroys.

In some ways such a sophisticated postmodern gesture is in fact an idiotic literalism, an inverse-quixotic way of reading narrative conventions: not the desire to make real life like a novel, but the desire to make novels more like ‘real life’:
In the crime novel the narrative gradually explores events prior to its beginning […] in reality, all too often, it is only when our lives are suddenly disrupted by the explosion of a tragedy that we rouse ourselves and try to find its origins
The postmodern crime novel continually frustrates attempts to impose order and meaning; its clues resist interpretation, events get distorted by the very act of investigating them. The narrative involves the reader in ever more labyrinthine twists, and increasingly indistinguishable temporal layers. There is no ‘explosion of truth’, only the explosion of meaning into fragments.

Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos (1964) takes further the idea of detection as a descent into madness. Paul Auster’s City of Glass and Ghosts (1986) do something similar, in subverting the conventions of the hard-boiled detective narrative, and tipping in a large dose of metafictional whimsy to further confuse matters. If I sound dismissive, I don’t mean to: I loved the New York Trilogy when I first read it, and I even made it the subject of a tedious postgraduate essay I wrote for a module on the impenetrable French theorist Maurice Blanchot. The NYT attracted many imitators, none of whom added much to the mix. Sam Taylor’s The Amnesiac (2007) is the most recent one that I’ve read; it wears its debt to Auster on its sleeve, and isn’t very good.

Novels like Butor’s, Gombrowicz’s and Auster’s function according to a logic that does not merely foreclose the possibility of a solution to the mystery, but ultimately reveals there never was any mystery to solve in the first place. The founding event of the detective narrative has been whipped out from under it, and if its attendant devices remain (clues, suspects, surveillance), they point only to an absent centre. The story of the investigation is no longer underpinned by the story of the crime. Todorov noted that in the generic detective narrative the story of the crime is the story of an absence in that it cannot be immediately present in the book; the difference here is that the story of the crime is an absence made pervasively present in the book. Clues become freely-circulating signifiers, leads become aporias, the lure of a solution becomes the endless deferral of meaning.

These kind of novels often get called ‘metaphysical detective stories’. It would probably be better to call them postmodern or poststructuralist, and reserve the ‘metaphysical’ label for the work of a Borges, or, at a stretch, of a Chesterton.

Umberto Eco’s historical mysteries represent a different type again, I think, because even if they load elements of the story with semiological significance, they do not violate the structural logic of the genre: both The Name of the Rose and Baudolino have murder mysteries and solutions that are recognizably classical in their form.

(Part 3)

Youdunnit III

(Part 1) (Part 2)

In any case, the genre-defying twist is in many ways invited by the very conventions of the genre, as if distortion of the form were built into the form itself, and some of the most 'unconventional' solutions are actually found in the most classic and even genre-defining stories. Even discounting ‘unusual’ solutions that are nevertheless perfectly permissible in the ‘classic’ canon (suicide disguised as murder, etc), the genre has from the get-go been corrupted by every manner of perversion. Unclassical solutions in ‘classic’ stories (Christie, Dickson Carr, Chesterton, Poe, Collins) include the following: the narrator did it; the victim did it (not suicide); everyone did it; no-one did it (there was no crime); a non-human animal did it; the criminal doesn't know he did it (but it wasn’t an accident); etc.

The Oulipopo (note that reduplicated syllable: Ouvroir de Littérature Policière Potentielle) was founded in 1973 as a sub-commission of the College of 'Pataphysics. François Le Lionnais had in 1971 written the founding text of the ‘analytical’ wing of the movement (the other being the ‘synthetic’, concerned with the composition of detective stories under various constraints), a study entitled ‘Who is Guilty?’, in which he attempted to outline all the possible solutions to a murder mystery narrative. (My information here all comes from the excellent Oulipo compendium, ed. Harry Matthews.)

Le Lionnais, who had clearly read many more crime stories than I have, even knew of examples of the following: the detective did it; the author (who is not the narrator) did it; the publisher did it. There are even apparently instances of the most genre-defying and perverse solution of all, that is, the absence of any solution (‘we can never know’) which ramifies, in Le Lionnais’s scheme, into three distinct types.

It is one of the most widely-acknowledged rules of the genre that the detective cannot be the culprit (Van Dine reserved particular scorn for this gimmick). I don’t know which story Le Lionnais had in mind here; but I know of one interesting example of the detective-as-culprit: G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Secret of Father Brown’ (‘You see, it was I who killed all those people’) – where the guilt, however, is moral and spiritual rather than legal.

Clearly some of the instances mentioned here are not properly speaking canonical representatives of the genre, but parodies (for example, the one in which the criminal is the publisher is a ‘humorous story by P. G. Wodehouse’). Still, it is clear that the mystery genre has always clamoured to violate its own generic conventions. Like all genres in fact.

The only twist that had never been done, to Le Lionnais's knowledge was: the reader did it. The Oulipo Compendium duly supplies an example of just that, in Jean-Louis Bailly’s La Dispersion des cendres (1990). (Although it has to be said that this cheats a bit by being merely a description of such a novel and not the novel itself; and by really being a case of ‘the purchaser of the book did it’ rather than the reader.) There are other examples, the internet tells me (pdf), and I’m disappointed – if unsurprised – to see that I’m not the first to think such stories should be categorized as ‘youdunnits’. It appears that the examples mentioned in that link adopt the expedient of the second person narrator. That may seem like a cheap trick, reminiscent of those ‘choose your own adventure’ books we used to read as children, but Michel Butor’s 1957 novel La modification (although not itself a murder mystery) proves that it can be done well.

Incidentally, I have arranged it so that the email notification for one randomly selected comment on this post will remotely trigger a mechanism causing a hammer to smash a flask of poisonous gas concealed in my enemy’s bedroom. You have been warned…

March 28, 2009

Whodunnits and howdunnits

I’m a sucker for detective fiction, even bad detective fiction. When I start a crime novel, I’ll always persist with it, heroically, until the bitter end, suffering abominable writing and gappy plotting, wading through the longueurs and plumbing the depths, taking on the nose insults to my intelligence and assaults on my taste. I wouldn’t bother to do this with any other type of novel, or any other art form come to that. Life’s too short. But with crime novels, giving up feels too much like admitting defeat. I know the rules of the game; the author knows them too; and if either one of us cheats, we make a mockery of the whole thing.

I do occasionally read thrillers, but it’s the classic ‘golden-age’ detective story that really gets me, because the conventions are better defined: the rules are clearer, and I stand a chance of winning.

Apparently it’s generally thought that European detective fiction is enjoying something of a golden age of its own at the moment. It seems otherwise to me, based on my reading of (among others) Henning Mankell’s The Fifth Woman, which was a tedious slog, and even if the leaden style can charitably be blamed on the translator, the author must take all the blame for the clunkiness of the deductions. For instance, in order to bring the detective up to speed with what reader and author already know – that the killer is a woman – Mankell contrives to strike him with the insight that the contents of a suitcase are disposed in a certain way, such that only a woman could have packed it. This makes several errors, not the least of which is that the reader has been allowed to know more than the detective, and so is in a position to see his deduction for the absurd contrivance it is. Second, it places undue demands on the reader, because it does not specify exactly how a woman’s packing technique might universally differ from a man’s (in a way that takes account of the possibility of a particularly fastidious man or a particularly slovenly woman). The best detective fiction must specify every plot point. And thirdly, it plays on gender markers which in classic detective fiction are usually only there to set up a bluff or a double-bluff: if poison is used, the murderer is probably (gender stereotype principle) a woman, and therefore (principle of misdirection), probably a man, and so therefore (double-bluff principle), probably a woman… and so on. Gilbert Adair’s very enjoyable Agatha Christie pastiches get quite a bit of play out of this game of cache-cache between author and reader.

I’ve also recently read a couple of Fred Vargas novels (one in French, one in English translation), which, though they are more lively that the Mankell, are equally irritating in the fudging of plot points. Now, I’m told that the USP of this detective is that he proceeds not by rational deduction but by intuition and flashes of psychological insight; but it is not admissible to have the detective arrive at these pseudo-Freudian insights by the same process as the author presumably did in the first place– that is, by pulling them out of thin air. This is the problem also with the ‘psychological profiling’ sections of serial killer movies: that the process of deduction moves the wrong way, making of a contingent cause a necessary one, so that the procedure resembles less the reconstruction of the motivations of a real person than the supplying of motivations to a fictional one.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot himself liked to tell us that his insights rely not only on the cold rationality of a Sherlock Holmes but on a profound understanding of human psychology; and her plots are satisfying because they do supply plausible motives that always end up having the semblance of necessary and sufficient causes. This is the difference between a psychology that is ‘scientific’, in that it assigns motives to its actors that are ultimately explicable and comprehensible, precisely where they seemed inexplicable and incomprehensible – and a post-Freudian psychology that assigns nebulous, contingent ones. Freudian psychology, whose deductions appear largely subjective and whose conclusions are unfalsifiable, should have no role in detective fiction, whose solutions can only satisfy if the clues can ultimately be shown to point in one direction only.

But my favourite kind of detective fiction in the classic mould is one that generally eschews the problem of motive. It is the ‘howdunnit’ style, best exemplified in the short fiction of G. K. Chesterton, and taken further (some would say exhausted) in the novels of John Dickson Carr. The purest form of this subgenre is the ‘locked room’ mystery. No need to go to Todorov for a typology of this: the best place to look is Chapter 17 of The Hollow Man, where Dickson’s Chestertonian detective Dr Gideon Fell takes a metafictional leap and analyses the conventions of the genre.

I remember reading somewhere the opinion that Chesterton’s stories impatiently dispose of the opening and middle-game phases of the usual type of detective fiction, and present us only with the endgame. (Actually, I don’t think the chess metaphor was used, but I reckon it figures it quite well.) That’s a bit unfair, I think: it’s true that the Father Brown stories don’t really bother much with characterization, or the pacing out of clues, or any of that stuff; but that’s because the form does not require them. Chesterton’s stories don’t even pretend to try to give the reader a chance to catch up with the detective: they simply present an impossible situation, and then a few pages later explain how it happened. It’s clear from his other work (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Manalive) that for Chesterton the appearance of the impossible, the miraculous and the paradoxical had an ethical and religious significance: it is meant to jolt us out of the complacency of reason.

But of course, Chesterton’s solutions are always completely rational, in the how, if not in the who. We don’t expect to beat the detective to the unmasking of the killer, because the motive is rarely a puzzle – it is mere sinfulness, human evil; but we may, if we have read enough of the stories, beat the detective to the solution of how the murder was done (or rather, how the crime scene came to present the appearance it did).

The Chesterton stories, written at the height of modernism (an artistic movement to which Chesterton emphatically did not belong), present some similarities with the games of a Joyce or an Eliot. They are zero-sum games between author and reader. There is little on offer to compensate the inattentive or lazy reader, who wants to be presented with some easy truth about the human condition, and does not delight in ingenious puzzles. But I like puzzles, and paradoxes; and as Schlegel said, ‘all great truths are basically trivial, and so we have to find new ways, preferably paradoxical ways, of expressing them, in order to keep them from falling into oblivion.’

February 16, 2009

Mobile vulgus

Here’s something that really gets my goat: imagine you’re having a conversation with someone, perhaps discussing military strategies in the second Peloponnesian war, or merely batting phatic trivialities back and forth, and your interlocutor breaks off mid-sentence, reaches into his pocket and, making some vaguely apologetic gesture, takes out a mobile and starts replying to the text he’s just received. Or worse: answers a call and starts chatting, directing his conversational attentions away from their rightful beneficiary and onto an unseen other. Away from the one who, according to every principle of laws canon and civil, has the first claim on them, by dint of priority and physical proximity (a prioritate atque a proximitate corporis, as it is no doubt written in the Pandects of Justinian).

I know I’m not alone in this. I know I’m not the first to make this complaint. And I know I risk coming across as exactly the sort of person I don’t want to be in making it. I’m not a reactionary technophobe, and I don’t want to be one of those people who lament the decline of good manners or the collapse of society. But god damn, it’s annoying.

People didn’t act like this a hundred years ago. I know this because they didn’t have mobile phones. However, they did have telegrams, and if this excerpt from Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades is anything to go by, that technology had a similarly deleterious effect on morals:
Grant, in particular, seemed so dreamy at table that he scarcely saw the pile of letters by his plate, and I doubt if he would have opened any of them if there had not lain on the top that one thing which has succeeded amid modern carelessness in being really urgent and coercive – a telegram.
Letters do not impose on the modern mind this insistent demand for attention. Where a text or a telegram command the immediate breaking off of a conversation or a leisurely breakfast, the reading of a letter may be deferred.

People didn’t act like this four hundred years ago. They didn’t have mobiles or even telegrams then, I am reliably informed. But the relatively old technology of the handwritten letter still had an aura of urgency about it, and Montaigne writes of:
cette passion avide et gourmande de nouvelles, qui nous fait avec tant d'indiscretion et d'impatience abandonner toutes choses, pour entretenir un nouveau venu, et perdre tout respect et contenance, pour crocheter soudain, où que nous soyons, les lettres qu'on nous apporte

(that eager passion for news, which makes us with so much indiscretion and impatience leave all to entertain a newcomer, and without any manner of respect or outcry, tear open on a sudden, in what company soever, the letters that are delivered to us)

[trans. Charles Cotton]
Fifteen centuries before Montaigne, Plutarch was already bemoaning such indiscretions:
And therefore we must by little and little accustom ourselves to this, that when there be any letters brought unto us, we do not open them presently and in great haste, as many do, who if their hands be not quick enough to do the feat, set their teeth to, and gnaw in sunder the threads that sewed them up fast. Also, if there be a messenger coming toward us from a place with any tidings, that we run not to meet him, nor so much as once rise and stir for the matter

[trans. Philemon Holland]
Montaigne, of course, knew his Plutarch, and he approvingly cites the civility and courtesy of one Rusticus, who, ‘being present at a declamation of his [Plutrach’s] at Rome, there received a packet from the emperor, and deferred to open it till all was done: for which all the company highly applauded the gravity of this person.’ But Montaigne sensibly condemns the opposite vice of imprudent negligence, since an unexpected letter from an emperor probably deserves immediate attention, if one has any instinct for self-preservation. (Rusticus was afterwards put to death by Domitian.)

But what lesson can we learn from this about modern manners? I think the etiquette must be that texts and calls received during conversations or meals should not normally be answered, except when they come from an emperor, or person of equivalent rank.

December 19, 2008

Codes, and literature

Reading John B’s post on Number Stations yesterday got me thinking about the tangentially related subject of literary codes. I’m not thinking specifically of narratological theories of the codification of narrative, of the kind associated primarily with Roland Barthes, but of the ways literary texts have been put to use as second-level codes.

I remembered reading about the wartime use as a code of this beautiful poem by Verlaine:
Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.
(Various translations here.)

To me, Verlaine is the greatest modern practitioner of the chanson form, which combines simplicity of form and matter in a way that attains the most perfect expression of melancholy moods. Another beautiful example of the form is his perhaps equally famous poem Il pleure dans mon coeur.

It seems that the Allies transmitted the first part of the first stanza of the poem to the Resistance to warn of the imminent Normandy Landings. The operation would take place immediately after the transmission of the second part of the stanza. Strange that the phrase ‘blessent mon cœur’ (wound my heart) was wrongly reproduced as ‘bercent mon cœur’ (rock/soothe my heart)…

Another famous example of a wartime poem code is this one, composed specifically for that purpose, by Leo Marks:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours
And yours.
This also is a very beautiful poem, I think.

Literary texts have been used variously for transmission of what I’m calling secondary coded messages (no doubt there is a better term). Not codes written into the text by some steganographical operation, such as those (supposedly) put into books like the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna, or the Gargantua by Rabelais, or the Bible by…er, God. Rather, the use of literary texts as the base material to which a previously agreed-upon cipher is applied. There was an example of this in the recent movie The Baader-Meinhof Complex, in which the eponymous members of the Red Army Faction transmitted coded messages to each other in their jail cells using an edition of Moby-Dick as their base text.

This method is much more likely to be effective within closed communities that have their own markers of inclusion and literary shibboleths. Perhaps, because of the wider range of texts to which we have access today – paradoxically – there are fewer markers of this type available to us than there were for the literary communities of past times. For the members of the international Republic of Letters during the Renaissance, the boundaries of the common cultural property were more clearly demarcated; and the personal or familiar letter, being pretty much the only private communication technology available, could be used as a mechanism for the transmission of coded information.

I remember reading that the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives recommended, somewhere in one of his epistolographical works, that the ‘familiar’ letter should be used to transmit secret information intended only for a particular reader. This should be done by encoding in the text allusions to myth, to history, to proverbs, and quotations from the classical authors whose meaning will not be noticed by a secondary reader (the letter was never exactly a private mode of communication – especially if you were writing it with a eye on a future print publication), but will be easily decoded by the intended recipient.

This sort of erudite game-playing is right on the boundary between the use of literary texts as the raw material for ciphers, and the more usual kind of decoding we are always doing to texts when we read them as educated members of a common culture.

December 08, 2008

Other-striving

In a 1926 monograph on a little-read French rhétoriqueur poet, Jean Lemaire de Belges, Paul Spaak made in passing the following remarkable claim:
The trends in different art forms in any given period are in fact always identical, and nothing resembles more closely the painting of an age than its poetry or its music
Perhaps this claim is in fact not at all remarkable to anyone who’s been paying attention, or who reads German; but to me, who have not, and do not, it was like a thunderbolt from the blue. Actually more like a theatrical simulation of a thunderbolt manufactured with magnesium flash and kettle drum, because if it struck me, it struck me as completely false.

Lately I’ve been reading Bruno Schulz, one of the most astonishing prose artists produced in that amazingly fertile period between the wars. More on Schulz in my next post, I hope, but I mention him here because of a back-cover quote that caught my eye: Schulz’s writing, one critic pronounces, is (somehow) just like the painting of Chagall.

It is hard for me to see the point of this comparison. It seems to me that Schulz, despite the strong presence of elements of the visual arts in his work, is interested in making everything – not like a picture – but like a book. And if his writing does often reach for synaesthetic heights, what is pervasively clear and true in it still is that such effects are achievable only through writing, that there is something irreducibly written about the written word.

But to see an equivalence between the different art forms of an age is not just pseudo-profundity, it is not only the meaningless shorthand of lazy literary criticism. It is built into literature itself, the drive to transcend the form and aspire to the condition of other forms, beyond the written.

Everybody knows that all art aspires to the condition of music. But in the essay from which this aphorism is taken, Walter Pater begins by saying: ‘It is the mistake of much popular criticism to regard poetry, music, and painting – all the various products of art – as but translations into different languages of one and the same fixed quantity of imaginative thought.’

It is ‘the beginning of all true aesthetic criticism’ to recognize that the ‘sensuous material of each art brings with it a special phase or quality of beauty, untranslatable into the forms of any other’.

I suppose this does not quite directly contradict the claim I quoted at the top of the page – which itself, taken in context, was really meant to say not much more than that the techniques of late-medieval Flemish painting are reflected in the writings of Burgundian court poets of that age. But it does make me wonder how useful it can really be to talk about one art form in terms of another.

Pater himself writes so wonderfully that I can easily see how all art aspires to the perfect interpenetration of form and content that is the condition of music. And he pinpoints an exact truth, which is not that art forms all resemble one another, but that they appear constantly to be striving to become other than they are. This Anders-streben (a Hegelian-looking term if ever there was one, but not in fact one of Hegel’s, it seems) I think expresses perfectly a very basic truth about art.

Artists and writers – especially writers – have always tried to express their own art in terms of other forms. ut pictura poesis. enargeia: the word-picture. In the work of Ovid this transformative tendency is distilled and is itself transformed into theme and structural principle. Ovid not only represents bodies changed into new forms, but transforms his own art into different arts: into sculpture, into picture, into music. Pygmalion, Arachne, Orpheus stand as figures for the poet; and in turn their arts are translated back into the poetry of Ovid’s text. They were always bounded by textuality, which constitutes the supreme Ovidian illusion. Ovid’s book has furnished the material for new transformations, in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, in Titian’s Actaeon, or in any of the innumerable Renaissance ‘figurations’ of the work.

Schulz (to come back to him, if I may) is a true successor to Ovid in that his art represents the inner tendency of things to strive to become unlike themselves – or rather, to become more like themselves by becoming other. This tendency is I think what becomes manifest through the transformative power of the poetic word.

Reading Pater and Schulz in parallel is a rewarding experience. Where Pater writes that ‘in its primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall or floor’, it can be read as a anticipatory gloss on Schulz’s ‘squares of brightness dreaming their intense dreams on the floor’.

Schulz writes of the life of things: an anthropomorphism not only of animals and objects, but of a square of light, a stretch of time, the wind. Of transformations that go beyond even Ovid’s metamorphoses: a man into an electric doorbell, a woman into paper and ash, the world into a book.

It is clear to me that Schulz, no less than the man of whom Pater wrote these words, could discern the correspondences between things and between words and things, the correspondences ‘through which, to eyes opened, they interpret each other’; and it may well be that ‘he seemed to those about him as one listening to a voice, silent for other men.’

September 23, 2008

Paris with a Baedeker

In preparation for a month long working visit to Paris in July (yes I know, it’s a hard life), I did what any self-respecting tourist would have done a century ago, and snaffled up a Baedeker. There are loads of these old travel guides floating about, and I acquired my 1898 edition of Baedeker’s Paris and Environs for about six quid.

Paris has not changed so much since 1898 to render Baedeker’s street maps obsolete, and I found them very useful (despite the absence of any Metro stations). It would have been a different story, of course, if I’d been dealing with a guide to pre-Haussmann Paris. But I like causing difficulties for myself, so I also took along a print-out of the 1552 ‘Plan de Bâle’. Despite the name, this is in fact a map of Paris. It might as well have been a map of the town in Switzerland though, and my attempts to walk the medieval streets of Paris in the modern city were not very successful – even when I tried to triangulate by means of a copy of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.

You can read a good account of the history and mythos of the Baedeker guides here. It recounts the no doubt apocryphal but appealing tale of Kaiser Bill taking pains to time his public appearances so as not to disappoint Baedeker’s eager readers. It also relates the less palatable but probably equally apocryphal story that the Nazis relied on Baedeker’s maps for their invasion of Norway, and that Hitler commanded the Luftwaffe on bombing missions in Britain to ‘flatten everything to which Baedeker gives two stars’.

It appears Baedeker did not much like France or the French, and that this is the reason why he delayed so long in publishing the Paris guide. This dislike seldom comes through in the text, but Baedeker (and here I use the name to refer both to the man himself and to the subsequent updaters of his handbooks) is a discriminating guide who has little time for anything that does not meet his exacting standards. Here, for example, he advises travellers to avoid the towns of Northern France, whose scenery is ‘seldom so attractive as to induce a prolonged stay’ and whose identikit collections of boulevards, jardins des plantes and cafés are ‘feeble reproductions’ of their Parisian models, making them ‘mere repetitions of the metropolis on a small scale’.

I think Baedeker is right to say that the architecture that resulted from the ‘vast schemes of improvement carried out in our own days’ (the old Paris was still a recent memory), though imposing, ‘exhibit[s] an almost wearisome uniformity of style’. But I’m not entirely sure that I agree with his estimation of the French character, when he says that the Parisian, ‘accustomed by long usage to [the presence of tourists], is skillful in catering for their wants, and recommends himself to them by his politeness and complaisance.’

Baedeker complains that the tranquillity of the central quarters of the city is often rudely interrupted by the discordant cries of the ‘“old clothes” men’, the ‘crockery-menders’, and the ‘dog-barbers’. Fortunately, these persons are for the most part ‘self-respecting and devoid of the squalor and ruffianism which too often characterise their class’. I was however compelled to disallow the female members of my entourage to accompany me on a stroll around Montmartre, since Baedeker explicitly states that the establishments to be found there are not suitable for ladies.

But my purpose is not to point and laugh at the quirks of our forebears, naïve children that they were and ignorant of the lessons of maturity to be learned by their future and our present. (As if.)

I love the fact that among the many charts and lists included at the back of the book is a lengthy index listing ‘the most important Artists mentioned in the Handbook, with a note of the schools to which they belong.’ You don’t get that in Lonely Planet. And in spite of the desuetude of some of the practical information, one sometimes chances upon pointers in the guidebook that appear to have swung full circle through irrelevancy and back again: for example the instruction that ‘smoking is generally prohibited at the cafés unless there be chairs outside’. (Since the introduction of the smoking ban last year, Parisian café culture now seems to take place more outside than in.)

Included also, in a section entitled ‘Distribution of Time’, is a fiendishly complex table whose calculations derive from arcane algorithms which take into account length of visit, days and times of opening for the various attractions, and estimated expenditure. This was clearly of great use to Baedeker’s readers, and in my edition (whose past owners include a certain K. F. Robinson, and a G. J. Ingles of Whiteladies Road, Clifton) there are marks by two different hands to show which attractions the users intended to visit. These are the only marginalia to be found in the book, unfortunately.

Baedeker will tolerate no half measures, as is apparent from his advice to theatregoers: ‘An intimate acquaintance with colloquial French, such as can be acquired only by prolonged residence in the country, is absolutely necessary for the thorough appreciation of the acting; visitors are therefore strongly recommended to purchase the play to be performed, and peruse it beforehand.’

The Baedeker ethos is pretty far removed from the attitude prevalent among today’s Lonely Planet travellers, whose badge of honour is awarded for having ‘done’ as many countries as possible, as quickly as possible. There is an intensity of purpose that may seem strange to us in Baedeker’s insistence that tourists have a sort of moral obligation not to passively enjoy mere superficial pleasures, but to invest all of their intellectual energies in their experiences.

Speaking of which, I’m reading the great Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel books on Greece at the moment. I’m sure I’ll have something to say about them in due course, if anyone’s interested.