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Archive for November 5th, 2009

“must be kept in one channel only lest no one gets anything and i am completely undone”

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Taught Conrad to the grad students yesterday. When I say taught, I mean it. I’m a little worried that my seminars turn into lectures, each and every time. Not because I’m reading from a stack of pages or anything. I basically go in and freform for two hours, a semi-conversation, not unlike what Marlow’s doing on the decks of the Nellie himself.

Hmm…

Anyway, they seem to like it. Or did last year on the evaluation forms, so I’ll not change. They scribbled and nodded often and insistently today as I ranted, so I’ll take that as a thumbs-up. Mostly, with HoD, we look at paragraphs like this one:

I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The rhythm of Marlow’s discourse is keyed to frantic oscillations just like this one. Back to work, back to work, no more thinking about my mad colleagues, no more thinking or seeing in general. (Remember from the start: “What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency.” Indeed – but saves us from what?) Then, then: the still. Do you see the pivot. “One must look about sometimes.” Uh oh. “I asked myself sometimes what it all meant” – no don’t do that! And from there it plummets into frantic pilgrims and corpse stink, a Wellsian space-invasion and a avant-Lawrentian apocalypse as Marlow’s eyes and mouth run away with him.

The whole novel works like that. As Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious, Conrad’s stuff is often about the obsolescence of vision, thought, subjectivity, and interiority in a world in which those things seem to have been just now invented. Modernist subjectivism is born under the sign of its own unsuitability, is born to the sound of a whispered wish that it would simply go away.

Anywho. I get quite ramped up when I teach stuff like this. Hard to keep quiet. Especially when there are things like this to talk about, from a letter from Conrad to William Blackwood, the editor at the magazine that had commissioned HoD in the first place:

And this is all I can say unless I were to unfold for the nth time the miserable tale of my inefficiency. I trust however that in Jany I’ll be able to send you about 30000 words or perhaps a little less, towards the Vol: of short stories. Apart from my interest it is such a pleasure for me to appear in the Maga that you may well believe it is not laziness that keeps me back. It is, alas, something – I don’t know what – not so easy to overcome. With an immense effort a thin trickle of MS is produced – and that, just now, must be kept in one channel only lest no one gets anything and I am completely undone.

Can you spot the HoD keywords lurking in the letter? I’ve given you one clue already. The last sentence is chocked with them, tho. Remember the “thin trickle of ivory” that comes out of the jungle in exchange for all the manufactured trinkets and other garbage they send up river? And the “one channel” is just slightly interesting, right, given the fact that he’s writing novel about a guy headed on a little boat up an increasingly narrow river?

The much-discussed politics of the novel are to be found in this sort of thing, I think… and have argued this much in print. If you want the rest, you’ll either have to use your google-fu until you find the paper or sign up for our MA programme. Preferably the latter, and especially if you’re from elsewhere, as we need the loose change.

It’s definitely the perversest possible point to take away from HoD, but I too am trying to keep myself and my energies in “one channel” lately, trying not to “look about,” not even “sometimes.” I am fantasizing this morning about a life lived clockworkwise – get up, read the paper and eat breakfast, play with kids, off to the bus same time every morning. Instantly to desk and computer on and typing with the time I have. No mooning about – no thinking about. Then home, then relaxation, then reading, then bed. If there was an operation, preferably non-painful and I guess reversable, that could extract the self-distracting, meaning-seeking part of the brain and put it in a beaker for a bit, I’d be the first on-line, if a bit reluctantly, just at the moment.

At any rate, I started working last night – as a stupid sort of hobby – on a short and sloppy little  book – one written in semi-blog style and which proposes some suggestions toward  a new prosaics. It’ll follow the rubric suggested by Aristotle in his Poetics – “Every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality – namely, plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, song.” I’m going to take up each of those aspects, translated into novelistic application of course. I’ll post things here as I write them – I have no idea what I’d do with this little book if I actually finish it. And just so you know which future posts are attached to this project, I’ll title them like this: prosaics x.x, indicating the chapter at hand and (roughly) where it might fit in that chapter. So:

0 = Introduction

1 = Plot

2 = Character

3 = Diction

4 = Thought

5 = Spectacle

6 = Song

7 = Conclusion

Let’s see what happens. Going to try to do a page a night, whenever possible. Might be interesting, this – and perhaps a slightly more pragmatic (and pragmatically programmatic) use of the time that give to blogwriting than disparate random stuff. As far as I can imagine it, the point of the book will be to look again at the lessons of modernist innovations, identify their persistence in the present, and then propose alternative ways forward.

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 5, 2009 at 11:12 am

raban on empson: slow reading

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Jonathan Raban on, among other things, learning to read via an early encounter with William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity:

The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think. This was easy because his own writing enforced it. A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming sleeping policemen: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next – and often one clause and the next – to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.

The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does (all writing, not just poetry; Empson illustrated his arguments with sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye and so on). On this, Empson was inexplicit except by inference, but as a fisherman, I saw it in angling terms. Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson – a scientist by early inclination, whose interest in science is a recurrent feature of his writing – was concerned.

Since I was brought up by latter-day Empsonians (Christ! No! Not my parents! My first instructors at university!), this is a fairly accurate precis of how I was taught to read, how I try to read, and how I try to teach my students to read. Go look at the piece – Raban has interesting things to say about the value of doing so…..

I’d like to say more about this soon. Recently had a young teacher sit in on a few of my classes – she’s French, but teaching over here, and she wanted to see how Anglo-Americans do the close reading thing in the classroom. Good intuition on her part, to sense that there’s a difference. For as much as we anglos tried to approximate, over the decades when most under the spell of the French, Gallic modes of explication du texte and the like, there’s a way that it’s never quite worked out for us, I think. I kept apologizing to her in advance, saying that I wasn’t sure she was going to find what she was looking for in my classrooms, that she was welcome to come along but that I was making no representations as to the usefulness of what she’d see, etc etc. Anyway, what I do, when I’m at my best, is something like what’s described above – just not with Empson’s idiosyncratic and precocious brilliance.

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 5, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in literature