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Archive for May 2011

“overgeneral memory” / depression / flaubert

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From the NYT:

OXFORD, England — The task given to participants in an Oxford University depression study sounds straightforward. After investigators read them a cue word, they have 30 seconds to recount a single specific memory, meaning an event that lasted less than one day.

Cues may be positive (“loved”), negative (“heartless”) or neutral (“green”). For “rejected,” one participant answered, “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”

The second answer was wrong — it is not specific, and it refers to something that took place on several occasions. But in studies under way at Oxford and elsewhere, scientists are looking to such failures to gain new insights into the diagnosis and treatment of depression. They are focusing not on what people remember, but how.

The phenomenon is called overgeneral memory, a tendency to recall past events in a broad, vague manner. “It’s an unsung vulnerability factor for unhelpful reactions when things go wrong in life,” said Mark Williams, the clinical psychologist who has been leading the Oxford studies.

Want to come back to this when there’s more time, but it’s interesting to think about this in relation to certain “trick” temporalities in modern narratives. Here’s an extract from the thing I’m (interminably) working on (footnotes below main text):

And it is fitting that when Emma meets Rodolphe again, they make love in the same forest, with Emma “lui demandait, en le contemplant les paupières demi closes, de l’appeler encore par son nom et de répéter qu’il l’aimait” (1, 440). [1] The relationship quickly slides into pure repetitiveness, repeat performances of the same romantic gestures and acts of love, as Flaubert renders in brilliantly irregular verb tenses in paragraphs such as the following:

Les rideaux jaunes, le long des fenêtres laissaient passer doucement une lourde lumière blonde. Emma tâtonnait en clignant des yeux, tandis que les gouttes de rosée suspendues à ses bandeaux faisaient comme une auréole de topazes tout autour de sa figure. Rodolphe, en riant, l’attirait à lui et il la prenait sur son coeur.

Ensuite, elle examinait l’appartement, elle ouvrait les tiroirs des meubles, elle se peignait avec son peigne et se regardait dans le miroir à barbe. Souvent même, elle mettait entre ses dents le tuyau d’une grosse pipe qui était sur la table de nuit, parmi des citrons et des morceaux de sucre, près d’une carafe d’eau. (1, 441)[2]

This is one of Flaubert’s trademark techniques for rendering the everyday. Here, he describes a highly detailed action, too detailed to be precisely repeated again and again, in the imparfait tense, as if they were habitual actions. [3] Passages such as these are challenges for translators, since they border on the absurd: were drops of dew really often hanging in Emma’s hair “like a topaz halo around her face”? These magical moments of illicit love just keep happening, or so we are told, and it is no wonder that the thrill begins to fade almost immediately, especially for Rodolphe. After six months of this sort of thing, their romance has itself become like a marriage: “quand le printemps arriva, ils se trouvaient, l’un vis-à-vis de l’autre, comme deux mariés qui entretiennent tranquillement une flamme domestique” (1, 447). [4]


[1] and watching him with eyes half shut, she insisted that he speak her name again, that he repeat the words of love (131).

[2]             The long yellow curtains, over the windows, softened the light to a dense golden blur. Emma would grope her way, eyes blinking, and the drops of dew hanging in her hair were just like a topaz halo around her face. Rodolphe, with a laugh, would draw her to him and press her to his heart.

She would explore his room, opening the drawers, combing her hair with his comb and looking at herself in his shaving-mirror. Often she would pick up the big pipe from the bedside-table, where it lay beside a carafe of water, among pieces of lemon and lumps of sugar. She put the stem between her teeth (132).

[3] Flaubert uses this technique, writing what would seem to be a unique and highly specific event in the habitual and repetitive tense of the imparfait, throughout the novel. A brilliant example of this approach comes early in the novel, during Charles’s first meetings with Emma while he is treating her father:

Elle le reconduisait toujours jusqu’à la première marche du perron. Lorsqu’on n’avait pas encore amené son cheval, elle restait là. On s’était dit adieu, on ne parlait plus ; le grand air l’entourait, levant pêle-mêle les petits cheveux follets de sa nuque, ou secouant sur sa hanche les cordons de son tablier, qui se tortillaient comme des banderoles. (I, 307)

She always went with him as far as the doorstep. Waiting for them to bring his horse, she stood there by him. They had said goodbye, they had no more to say; the fresh air wrapped all about her, fondling the stray locks of hair at the nape of her neck, or tugging on the strings of the apron around her hips, fluttering them like streamers. (17)

Or another, which captures Emma’s voluptuous boredom early in her marriage and which concludes with a line brilliantly evocative of her ambivalence toward her everyday life:

Elle portait une robe de chambre tout ouverte, qui laissait voir, entre les revers à châle du corsage, une chemisette plissée avec trois boutons d’or. Sa ceinture était une cordelière à gros glands, et ses petites pantoufles de couleur grenat avaient une touffe de rubans larges, qui s’étalait sur le couvre-pied. Elle s’était acheté un buvard, une papeterie, un porte-plume et des enveloppes, quoiqu’elle n’eût personne à qui écrire ; elle époussetait son étagère, se regardait dans la glace, prenait un livre, puis, rêvant entre les lignes, le laissait tomber sur ses genoux. Elle avait envie de faire des voyages ou de retourner vivre à son couvent. Elle souhaitait à la fois mourir et habiter Paris. (I, 346)

She would be wearing her dressing-gown unbuttoned, revealing, between the copious folds of her corsage, a pleated chemisette with gold buttons. Round her waist she had a cord with big tassels, and her little wine-red slippers had large knots of ribbon, spreading down over the instep. She had bought herself a blotting-pad, a writing-case, a pen-holder and envelopes, though she had nobody to write to; she would dust her ornaments, look at herself in the mirror, pick up a book, then, dreaming between the lines, let it fall into her lap. She yearned to travel or to go back to living in the convent. She wanted equally to die and to live in Paris. (56)

[4] when spring came around, they were, with each other, like a married couple tranquilly nourishing a domestic flame (138).

Anyway, I’d like to say more soon about this, actually draw out the connection between the one and the other…

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May 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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Ah, an invitation to participate in a bit of Mass Observation tomorrow.

(Actually, it’d be interesting if we posted them on-line… As you might imagine, I love that sort of thing, dailiness etc…)

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May 11, 2011 at 10:04 am

Posted in mass observation

the tapeworm

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One of a series of stories that (if I follow) Lydia Davis wrote using language borrowed from Flaubert’s letters to his lover Louise Colet:

The Coachman and the Worm

A former servant of ours, a pathetic fellow, is now the driver of a hackney cab—you’ll probably remember how he married the daughter of that porter who was awarded a prestigious prize at the same time that his wife was being sentenced to penal servitude for theft, whereas he, the porter, was actually the thief. In any case, this unfortunate man Tolet, our former servant, has, or thinks he has, a tapeworm inside him. He talks about it as though it were a living person who communicates with him and tells him what it wants, and when Tolet is talking to you, the word he always refers to this creature inside him. Sometimes Tolet has a sudden urge and attributes it to the tapeworm: “He wants it,” he says—and right away Tolet obeys. Lately he wanted to eat some fresh white rolls; another time he had to have some white wine, but the next day he was outraged because he wasn’t given red.

The poor man has by now lowered himself, in his own eyes, to the same level as the tapeworm; they are equals waging a fierce battle for dominance. He said to my sister-in-law lately, “That creature has it in for me; it’s a battle of wills, you see; he’s forcing me to do what he likes. But I’ll have my revenge. Only one of us will be left alive.” Well, the man is the one who will be left alive, or, rather, not for long, because, in order to kill the worm and be rid of it, he recently swallowed a bottle of vitriol and is at this very moment dying. I wonder if you can see the true depths of this story.

What a strange thing it is—the human brain!

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May 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Posted in flaubert

houellebecq on coetzee

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From a recent Paris Review interview:


And what do you think of this Anglo-Saxon world?


You can tell that this is the world that invented capitalism. There are private companies competing to deliver the mail, to collect the garbage. The financial section of the newspaper is much thicker than it is in French papers.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that men and women are more separate. When you go into a restaurant, for example, you often see women eating out together. The French from that point of view are very Latin. A single-sex dinner would be considered boring. In a hotel in Ireland, I saw a group of men talking golf at the breakfast table. They left and were replaced by a group of women who were discussing something else. It’s as if they’re separate species who meet occasionally for reproduction. There was a line I really liked in a novel by Coetzee. One of the characters suspects that the only thing that really interests his lesbian daughter in life is prickly-pear jam. Lesbianism is a pretext. She and her partner don’t have sex anymore, they dedicate themselves to decoration and cooking.

Maybe there’s some potential truth there about women who, in the end, have always been more interested in jam and curtains.


And men? What do you think interests them?


Little asses. I like Coetzee. He says things brutally, too.

I’ve searched Disgrace on Amazon and can’t find the reference to jam as a marker of lesbian sexlessness in question. Prickly-pear jam comes up, but not that way… Anyway, there’s MH for you… And it all leads me to thoughts about the forms and intensity of what we might call willful stupidity that certain novelists indulge in, perhaps have to indulge in.

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May 10, 2011 at 11:24 am

Posted in coetzee, houellebecq

pay as you go

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Things just keep getting better and better in the UK Higher Ed sector.

Universities could be allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of UK undergraduates who are able pay their tuition fees upfront under plans being considered by the coalition government.

The idea, which Times Higher Education understands is likely to be explored in the upcoming White Paper on higher education reforms, would remove students who do not take out state-funded loans from an institution’s cap on numbers.

Currently, about 14 per cent of home students do not take out a fee loan. But if they are undergraduates taking a first degree, they still count towards the limit on numbers for universities, which is imposed to ensure that public spending is controlled.

However, with ministers keen for ways to allow universities to expand without additional costs to the Treasury, it is understood that the White Paper may be used to float the idea of removing self-funding students from the cap.

This at least puts to final rest any sense that the “reforms” currently happening here are part of a process of “Americanizing” British universities. Whatever the other problems with them, all but a tiny handful of US universities run “need blind” admissions systems. The UK seems to be heading toward a very much “need wealth aware” system. And just in case you might be thinking that this will be a minor, top-up sort of change: my university, a very very good one, is currently doing everything it can to increase overseas enrollment, often at the expense of home students even when they will be paying the new £9000 fee.

And to think that when I decided to take a job here I was proud to be joining a more egalitarian system than the one that I’d come from…. Here’s more:

The “off-quota” proposal was raised by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, in a speech to Universities UK’s spring conference earlier this year.

He asked how it could be achieved in a “needs-blind” and “socially progressive” way, although the precise detail of what he was referring to was not mentioned.

Well, the precise detail wasn’t mentioned because it’s actually in fact absolutely impossible. Nonetheless, the BBC this morning (reading apparently from some spin-doctored lie-sheet government press release) headlined the news as a progressive move, designed somehow to “free up publicly subsidised university places for poorer students.” Jesus….

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May 10, 2011 at 10:21 am

Posted in academia

aristotle on aggregation

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From Aristotle’s Poetics: 

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen – what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.

Implicit in the construction of the fictional character is the notion of probability, estimation, aggregation. This becomes explicit, or at least more explicit, at certain moments of literary history, for instance the 18th-century when the novel as a form veers away from both factual reportage on “real people” (even if they’re fake) and fantasy. Characters at that point (as with Aristotle) become particular instantiations or condensation of a presumed group….

I’ve been reading Catherine Gallagher’s fantastic “The Rise of Fictionality” in Franco Moretti’s compilation The Novel – pretty much everything I’m saying here comes from that save, I guess, for the word “aggregation.” The essay is on the emergence of fictionality as a concept during the 18th Century, and the way that it takes a more complex shape than we generally have thought. (In short, rather than simply distinguishing itself from factuality, it further has to distinguish itself from fantasy as well… In doing so, it relies upon / informs the development of a new model of truth, one that moves toward verisimilitude and probability rather than the simple and literal. And the entire operation hinges on a different notion of character. As Gallagher writes, “novels are about nobody in particular. That is, proper names do not take specific individuals as their referents, and hence none of the specific assertions made about them can be verified or falsified.”

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May 5, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Posted in aggregate, fiction

they suck your blood

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For anyone still unaware of how bad things can be and generally are in the US with health care, SEK nails it here.

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May 5, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Posted in america