What is George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’?

Anne Enright once said that every novel could, with minimal damage, be re-titled as Person Gets it Wrong. It is a gesture that would well serve George Eliot’s Middlemarch, as it is a novel primarily concerned with bringing even the most marginal of its characters’ ideals into collision with discommoding contingency. Although, it leaves us with the problem as to what to do with the subtitle, A Study of Provincial Life. There are a number of ways we could interpret this phrase, it could imply the narrator’s tendency to treat society empirically, as though it were one of Mr. Farebrother’s specimens beneath Mr. Lydgate’s microscope, according to the maxim that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. Before that though, it might be productive to consider the narrator herself.

The narrator is mostly sympathetic (‘I am sorry to add that she was crying’), though sometimes disapproving (‘apt to be a little severe towards her own sex’), often didactic (‘do not imagine’) and self-conscious; she reprimands herself for beginning a chapter from Dorothea’s perspective before taking Casaubon’s as a means of compensating. Who exactly is speaking at any given time can be difficult to pin down exactly, as she will often interleave the characters’ thoughts (‘mouldy futilities’, ‘insects’) with her own, more objective rendering of the situation. From when she speaks is also not without complication, as she seems to speak out of a foreknowledge as to which memories which will stay with characters for the rest of their lives. Although, a lot of these questions may be left by the by; the long, long sentences in which she writes, which tease out situations from almost every conceivable point of view according to breathtakingly elaborate analogies the nuances of which seem honed to the most minute details give Middlemarch its best moments. Feng and Hirst have written that the difference between a naturalist’s free indirect discourse and that of a modernist is that the former preserves grammatical coherence, so that the precise junctures at which one register slips in under the other can always be precisely detected. This is not a perfect definition, but we are less interested in prodding paragraphs until they rupture, and more in how the narrator’s methodology subverts itself in broader terms.

At one point, the narrator describes how her task is somewhat limited in its scope: ‘that light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe’. This universe which forms Middlemarch’s backdrop, is in the year 1829–1831, a period which witnessed a wide range of labour agitation in the form of mass demonstations and loom breaking; demonstrations of over 100,000 took place in Birmingham and London. Though drawing a single disposition across all those involved in these events would be quite impossible, one symptom of its cause, and certainly that aspect of it which had the closest approximation to broad range of support across all classes, was a push to extend the franchise to the more of England’s population. However, according to E.P. Thompson, those most public leaders tended to damp down the demands of the more radical artisans and other skilled or semi-skilled working men. This, in conjunction with the counter-revolutionaries of the time scared into action by events in France, was effective in quashing the most radical aspects of this movement.

Given this capacity to move between time and space, the narrator’s attention is strangely limited to that of individuals, and individuals who own land at that. Although, to be fair, Middlemarch takes place in a fictionalised version of Coventry, far from the industrial centres of the north such as Manchester or Birmingham. In The Making of the English Working Class,E.P. Thompson mentions that in Coventry, skilled labourers would have been ribbon-weavers and were often semi-unemployed. We may add to this, from what we see in the novel, a substantial rural labouring underclass of unskilled workers, and tanners, who we see disrupting Mr. Brooke’s liberal, reform-based speech when he stands for election. Apart from Mr. Brooke’s obvious discomfort amongst the working men, this crisis in labour remains muted in Middlemarch, manifesting itself in brief references to the Vincys being slightly harder up financially than they were expecting.

There are two exceptions to the narrator’s myopia, but they are likewise revealing. One, is in the form of an encounter with Dagley, a labourer with a small, neglected holding on Mr. Brooke’s land. Mr. Brooke requests that he keep his son’s dog under control as it is interfering with his coursing but Dagley is drunk, says he will not, and makes a number of warnings about the changes the voting reform bill will bring. The narrator explains Dagley’s behaviour by referring to his having engaged in ‘muddy political talk’ which can render the labouring poor idle and resistant to change. His education, here seems to have rendered him more ignorant. The second, is a group of harassing a number of railway agents. Mr. Garth, a local labourer surveying the area, chases after the men, threatening to report them to the magistrate, then tries to convince them how incorrect they are to oppose the railway. One among them, Timothy Cooper, provides the most articulate defense against the installation of the line, although, in a very thick dialect, descending to almost Elizabeth Gaskell levels of didacticism. The narrator furthermore describes Cooper as ‘having as little of the feudal spirit, and believing as little, as if he had not been totally unacquainted with the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man’. Thomas Paine’s books and other pamphlets were incidentally banned and in many areas, the police enacted violent reprisals on those who sold or disseminated his writings. This weighting the scales is all the more surprising considering how sympathetic or humanist Middlemarch is elsewhere. So sympathetic is the narrator, that we are in effect expressly forbidden from feelinging negatively towards Casaubon; for every paragraph explicating Dorothea’s anguish, we get Casubon’s sense of being peripheral to intellectual (‘unvenerated’) and social (‘unloved’) life. That these references to the labourers are demonstrative of a deeper conservatism, may be attested to by the narrator’s early summing up of the medical profession at the time: ‘disease in general was called by some bad name, and treated accordingly…as if, for example, it were to be called insurrection, which must not be fired on with blank cartridge, but have its blood drawn at once’. The brutality of counter-revolution at the time in which Middlemarch is set, not just at the infamous Battle of Peterloo, but also by police forces at various local levels sounds a rather sadistic and bloodthirsty note in the text, which shows up, I think, the limits of this emphasis on sympathetic narration.

Frederic Jameson writes of the realist novel as existing in a dialectical tension with its antecedent, the romance. While the novel in the mid to late ninteenth century might claim to see and to represent ‘the world as it is’, it remains partially dependent on the mechanics of the romance plot; techniques such as coincidences, letters and wills. John Raffles appears to me as one such throwback, a return of the Gothic repressed, his murder only partially re-constituted within the naturalistic novel’s machine by being plausibly deniable, due to intentional negligence with prescribed opiates, and accompanied by a transfer of capital which will redeem Lydate from bankruptcy. It is not revolution or reform that changes a community, rather the steady circulation of gossip through the rural community.

Without bringing any statistical reading to bear on Middlemarch I noticed on my reading a sequence of words which seemed to attach themselves to particular character. For Dorothea, it was ‘ardent’, for Rosamund, ‘neck’. For the workers, the incorrigible symptoms of inequality, it is ‘ignorance’, one which occurs in each of the instances mentioned above, as well as references to the social life at The Tankard on Slaughter Lane, the metonymic device by which the low life of Middlemarch is gestured towards, and I would so very much like to read a Middlemarch that did not feel the need to lean on these three words quite so often as it does.


‘Where is our gallant man’: The films of Pat Collins

Seven tourists are standing in an upper floor of a derelict tenement building, now preserved as a museum or installation space. A woman, acting as a pregnant mother in period dress, speaks in a Dublin accent about how she lives like the gentry here, not that the gentry are known for buying second-hand bonnets in Capel Street. As she speaks, coughing can be heard from a neighbouring room, and she wishes her children dead, so as to spare them their long, drawn-out illness. One or two of the tourists incline their heads sympathetically. She turns away from them as the wheezing becomes more pronounced.

One could say that Pat Collins is a filmmaker concerned with Irish identity, but this would not be quite right, as he is just as interested in Irish difference. His body of work to date, in its movement between essay, documentary, and biopic manifests the restlessness in idea in motion and thus appear to us remote from convention. His most recent film, Song of Granite represents something of a culmination of his work to date, and, with the recognition that it his is a career still underway, provides us with an opportunity to consider his major works in sequence.

John McGahern

John McGahern: A Private World is the first of Collins’ portraits of artists living in remote parts of the country. Collins’ interest in the landscape is already manifest, with long, reflective shots of ferns, large bodies of water and McGahern walking through narrow laneways with his dog. These shots are imbued with the spaciousness and composition of footage one would expect to find in an installation, over which McGahern recalls his childhood, or reads selections from his prose. Despite the scenery, it is a film more concerned with the world within than the world without. When McGahern does speak of society at large, it is a distant and risible thing; he describes the banning of his novel The Dark as ‘foolish’ and says he did not appeal the decision because he thought the novel was not worth the effort. McGahern’s deliberate manner of speaking, only raising his voice in relaying the words of an embittered Irish emigrant in London, work in tandem with Collins’ tendency to ruminate upon landscape and allows the film to attain the stately atmosphere of McGahern’s fiction, serving just as well as an adaptation of McGahern’s works as it as does as a documentary on the man who wrote them.

Despite the film’s focus on isolated settings, politics begin to seep in, as McGahern mentions Free State failing to live up to the promise of the 1916 proclamation. In McGahern’s description of his adolescence in Leitrim, where guards patrolled ‘roads in which nothing happened…beside a phone that never rang’, we can discern a subterranean Irish history, one in which the functioning of the state was remote from people’s everyday lives. McGahern sees Ireland, not as the arms of government, but composed more of people and families, ‘thousands of little republics’. McGahern theorises that this has determined the shape of our literature, that at times when national identity is strong, the novel predominates, whereas when the individual identity is stronger, poems or short stories are the result. Given what he has said about families composing states in their own right, it is clear that McGahern’s sense of national identity, has little to do with Irishness.

At one point,McGahern reflects that while the Catholic church has faded as a fulcrum of Irish life, he’s too old to predict what might take its place. This is a question which Collins’ next film, What We Leave in our Wake takes as its starting point. The film opens on Croagh Patrick at dawn, to the sound of a crowd of people hiking up the rocks along the mountainside. The film begins to deteriorate, as scratches and other cinematographic artefacts appear at the edges of the frame. The nature of the pilgrimage itself is ambiguous, many of the pilgrims wear hiking gear and almost none of them are barefoot, suggesting the pilgrimage may not be strictly religious as a ritual. The crowd negotiating fragments of rock typifies What We Leave in our Wake, an inquiry into Ireland’s transitional state, awaiting the arrival of a new, potentially post-Catholic dispensation. Unlike A Private World, the discussion is dispersed and wide-ranging, taking in a series of historians, writers, authors and scholars who each discuss Irish life and Irish values, over long, lingering shots of rural landscapes. Collins also begins to make use of the archive. From a snippet of a documentary on punitive rehabilitation, we move to a close-up of Father Peter McVerry who speaks about the failure of the state to provide healthcare or economic security to emigrants, heroin addicts and the poor. McVerry then fades away, leaving only his voice, speaking over footage of distressed people on a dock waving goodbye to their relatives. One might think here, of the approach of British documentarian Adam Curtis who also makes use of suggestive footage in addition to his own, specially shot film. Unlike Curtis, however, Collins’ argument is often implicit and functions by subtle juxtaposition, the movement from one topic to another without the subsumption of everything to a polemic of epochal decline.

What We Leave in Our Wakeis far more attentive to the cultural than the economic,and promotes a modern revivalism whereby Ireland’s rich cultural history might remedy its political problems. Declan Kiberd, one of What We Leave in Our Wake’s foremost voices, cites William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney and James Joyce as examples of writers whose works have dug into Irish place and history, shaping the future by re-engaging the past. The crowds climbing Croagh Patrick return, with some people moving up and others moving down, the crowd seeming to form a coherent thread in their collective dialectical movement. Desultory speeches from former Taoiseach Brian Cowen about securing the future through austerity budgeting serve as reminders of the post-2008 regime, a time in which public life conceived the future, in variations on ‘there is no alternative’. What We Leave in Our Wake equivocates here, between these impersonal forces of managerialism and the growth of ‘permissiveness’, or individualism, which culminates in some uncharacteristically easy visuals from Collins, with the Celtic Tiger-era spire looming high over the statue of Jim Larkin, or a group of people waiting at traffic lights to cross onto O’Connell bridge (read: ‘the masses’), while a voiceover informs us how bovine and depoliticised they have become.

There is something quite simplistic, too, in What We Leave in our Wake’s cleaving to the ancient past, or the 1916 Proclamation as sources of transformative change, without acknowledging the contradictions of authentic nationality in an Irish context. Indeed, Kiberd’s assertion that Ireland should embody a ‘mixture of forwardness and backwardness’ by providing the unborn and dead with votes, seems to partake far more of the latter than the former. Fortunately, these notions of Irishness come under pressure in Tim Robinson: Connemara. Tim Robinson, the subject of the film, is a cartographer and visual artist who lived for many years in the west of Ireland, writing psychogeographic accounts of the region and tracing local geographies and histories. Robinson begins the film by critiquing Celtic revivalists such as Yeats or John Millington Synge who came to the west of Ireland in order to mediate it for their Dublin audience. Rather than treating the landscape as an abstract Jungian archetype, to be excavated by poets or politicians, Robinson’s Connemara is abject; the story of a man losing his way on the way home from the workhouse and dying from exposure in a storm is emblematic. Collins’ camera is focused on the uneven and rocky terrain, in which Robinson seems diminished, relative to the scale of the landscape, which ‘no single science, not even all the sciences put together, can read’. Despite Robinson’s decades-long attempt to map the area, he believes the wholeness to be artificial: ‘Sometimes, rarely, a scrap of a voice can be caught from the universal damage, but it may be an artefact of the imagination, a confection of rumours’. Collins’ editing begins to ape Robinson’s theoretical mysticism by rapidly interleaving scenes of rural life; a conversation between two men sitting at a Marian grotto, families watching the television, church-going, rowing contests, youth club discos, graveyards, over an ambient soundbed interspersed with inaudible voices, shouting and calling, until all ascends into a voiceless confusion.

Collins’ first feature, Silence opens with a recording artist named Eoghan, travelling from Berlin to his childhood home, in the Irish north-west. In the first hotel he stays in, a bartender tells him about an island off the coast of Scotland, which has been uninhabited for fifty years. However, the starlings on the island have passed the man-made sounds of the island’s former inhabitants from generation to generation. Eoghan is uninterested, explaining that he is trying to record places as far removed from man-made noise as possible. However, the bartender’s anecdote remains troubling. Eoghan is enacting the inverse of folklore collectors travelling west in the early twentieth century, in trying to get away from people and their stories. But if man-made sounds embed and reproduce themselves in the natural world, is it possible to escape them? The Beckettian monologue which is delivered by Patrick O’Connor about the loudness of ancient places and the palimpsestic nature of the Irish landscape, suggests not.

Eoghan is a reticent figure. His conversation with his partner in Berlin is drowned out by a passing train and he often seems uncomfortable in the frame, wandering out of it, leaving the camera to linger on his ambient microphone. Though he rebuffs the bartender talking about starlings, as he moves closer to Tory Island, where he grew up, he begins to engage more with the people he encounters. A local in Ballycroy provides us with the most dialogue-heavy portion of the film, and most of the film’s thematising happens here. Eoghan avoids questions about his family, suggesting of a past he has yet to deal with. After dinner, the man encourages Eoghan to sing ‘The Rocks of Bawn’, but he does not know it. He can recite the verse of another Gaelic song, telling the story of a man who leaves island life for the mainland, only to return years later, to find his lover dead, and the community he once knew changed. It is in this potential loss of tradition in Silence that Collins’ revivalist melancholia re-asserts itself. However, it is asserted with a crucial difference. One section of the film is given over solely to archival footage, in which eight islanders, seven men, one woman and a dog, travel out on a boat. The boat travels out from shore for a while, while one of the men seems to be doing something with a stone and a rope. The dog is then thrown overboard. We see it struggling in place for a while, before the camera cuts back to the boat, and then back to where the dog was, reduced now, to a patch of disturbed grey water, beginning to smooth itself over. It’s a stark and upsetting sequence of images, but also an injunction against the kind of nostalgia that might otherwise hang over archival recordings, a depoliticised hauntology as in Reeling in the Years when film grain seems already to summon up a soundbed of yesteryear’s pop music. Collins’ refusal to present islander life, or the past, as better, or more pious for its remoteness enacts a break with the straightforward revivalism of What We Leave in Our Wake.

After visiting the Inishbofin heritage museum, and speaking to the woman who works there, about the trauma of moving to the mainland, Eoghan travels out into the woods and builds a fire, recording it and himself singing the fragments of the Irish song he remembers. Eoghan seems to have reconciled himself to a fusion between the natural world and human-led encounters, perceiving that one has the capacity to enhance the other. When Eoghan does return to his home on Tory Island, its status as a community is emphasised. People stepping off the boat are embraced by their families, and he has a warm conversation with an older man who remembers from yers ago. His childhood home resounds with man-made sounds, in the form of childhood remembrances and ghosts of the past, the rattle of cutlery, footsteps from upstairs, his mother calling. One thinks here Virginia Woolf’s ‘broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on pavement’. In Silence, the past is an agonistic multiplicity, and not something straightforward enough to just mourn or to be nostalgic for.

Living in a Coded Land is Collins’ second essay film, and considers, the post-colonial nature of lived experience in Ireland. This theme is introduced by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who addresses the camera directly, on the need to formulate a progressive Irish nationalism which breaks from the tradition of violence. Pádraig Lenihan then describes the sheer scale of the carnage at the Battle of the Aughrim in an idyllic farmland where the battle took place over three hundred years ago, interspersed also with footage of Orangemen marches, long funeral escorts and police trucks circling barricades. Collins’ archival quotes are becoming less allegorical and more recognisably argumentative, Living in a Coded Land also has clearer targets, with a digression on the architecture of the Protestant big house, followed by a shot of former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey exiting his own. After this, we see a well dressed assistant county engineer, Keating, descended from the great Irish historian Geoffrey Keating, former owner of the nearby Moorstown Castle, driving down a road in county Tipperary. Keating inspects the work of a local man named Michael Cleary, dressed in work clothes, while a voice chirpily informs us that ‘Michael’s ancestors might easily have worked for him’. One could go on, there are plenty of vignettes through which Collins sketches the vector of modern Irish history through the history of land ownership and capital accumulation. Thomas McCarthy’s contribution provides the film with its title, explaining how the Irish establishment takes shape: ‘those who wish to be part of the establishment soon learn how to live in a kind of coded life, they know what to criticise, they know what to praise…they know when to remain silent’. From these broad heights of four hundred years of modern history, to the most local perspectives possible, with Paddy Heaney talking about depopulation and successive governments failing to install requisite infrastructure in Ballymacadam, Living in a Coded Land is focused on Ireland’s haves and have-nots and how each sustain themselves.

The film’s political analysis is most indebted to historian Conor McCabe, who with help from Seán Ó Faoláin and Heather Laird, describes the growth of the class which has historically directed state policy in Ireland. McCabe refers to them as the ‘comprador class’, arguing that they are present in every colonial regime as the intermediary between foreign capital and state resources. While initially they were large farmers in the midlands who exported capital, in the seventies, they became an urban class of stockbrokers, accountants and lawyers, replicating the pattern of most advanced capitalist states. Fortunately, Collins does pass over Ireland’s comparatively uneven relationship with other non-white settler states such as India, as can be the norm in discussions of Ireland and post-colonialism. This emphasis on exports and dependence on foreign investment rendered Dublin effectively a warehouse port; with no skilled workers or native industry, unskilled labourers were highly expendable to the production process. This outline of our unique precarity, which endures to this day, is outlined while Tony MacMahon plays traditional reels on the accordion for UCD students in the early seventies. Towards the film’s end, we hear the voice of folklorist Henry Glassie, who, in an interview with Vincent Woods, talks about the contextual and historical nature of art. Glassie speaks on the impossibility of bringing a universal vision of judgement and that everything requires interpretation in its own context.

It is a sentiment that exists in a certain degree of tension with Collins’ Song of Granite, a biopic of the folk singer Joe Heaney, though not a biopic in any straightforward sense. There is no attempt to reflect or to create the drama of Heaney’s life, rather it is a film more invested in feeling than biographical details. In addition to using archival footage of Joe Heaney he is played by three separate actors, one for each particular stage of his life. We begin with Joe’s childhood, which subverts in all respects what we might expect from a representation of Irish childhood, particularly one of such acute material deprivation, in Connemara in the twenties. However, the island community seems particularly close-knit, with houses full of people listening to folk tales, his teacher noticing his singing talent, or being taught to catch lobsters with his father. One finds waiting for the moment in which a drunken relative or abusive teacher might hit Joe, but it never comes.

Lisa O’Neill and Radie Peat

Rather than, as one might expect from conventional biopics, showing Joe getting his first big break, or having addiction problems, the film takes all of Heaney’s life at once as its subject. At one point, Heaney monologues about his place in a sweep of history, from the pre-Christian Partholón, to Newgrange’s construction, to the Mongol hordes to the USSR. This becomes most visible at a fifteen-minute or so section of the film given over to a session in a pub. At this point, Heaney is living in Glasgow with his family as a labourer point in Heaney’s life in which he worked in Glasgow as a labourer in the fifties. Heaney sings ‘The Rocks of Bawn’ alone and then a number of contemporary Irish musicians such as Radie Peat, Damien Dempsey and Lisa O’Neill, perform. After the session is concluded, and after being interviewed by a journalist on the nature of sean-nós singing, Heaney returns to his home in Glasgow. All the singers appear to be playing themselves, which presents the question, is this session happening in Glasgow, or in Dublin where it was shot? Is this whole scene a metaphor for the kind of timeless milieu that folk culture can engender, in which boundaries such as time and space are suspended? As with all art worth considering in detail, the answers to questions such as these are largely immaterial.

In addition to positing his place within a history that is not just Irish, but also universal, the film points to Heaney’s inscrutability as a subject. As the film continues, we witness not Heaney’s spiritual education or musical apprenticeship but his disintegration. We see him working as a doorman, standing attention outside an apartment building in New York, interspersed with archival footage of him performing at the Newport Folk Festival, or walking along a Connemara beach with the Clancy Brothers. When we return to New York, it is the Connemara waves, rather than the sounds of the urban environment which predominates. Joe does seem to return home to Connemara at the end of the film, specifically to a field in which we witnessed him tie a piece of string around a tuft of grass next to a bird’s nest the film’s first scene. Fifty years later the string has remained, and the eggs have hatched, leaving only their fragments. This is obviously unlikely, so the eggs more likely to serve as symbols of maturity and renewal. Heaney then encounters his younger self and the milieu is transformed once more, as his younger self becomes Finn MacCool, meeting his older self, and re-enacting the salmon of knowledge myth. At Song of Granite’s conclusion, folklore and reality have become wholly intertwined.

Song of Graniteconcludes with a hand, writing in Irish, in reference to a man mentioned earlier in the film who confesses his sins on his deathbed through a poem on his bedroom wall. The words, translated, appear as follows:

Birds don’t sing songs of glory,

wings of ice,

that’s my story.

While recognising that Song of Granite is not be Collins’ last film, there is a certain appositeness to regarding these lines as a summation of his work to date. Collins’ is a filmmaker attentive to loss; failed states, fading traditions, faltering lives, but does not give in, either to despair or pretension. His concerned with lived experiences, even as they pose probing and resonant queries about ourselves and the future of our country. There’s no one else making films like his; they are worth your time.

A Statistical Analysis of the narrators of ‘Ulysses’ or ‘why ‘Ulysses’ isn’t wisdom literature’

The second time I read Ulysses,in advance of an undergraduate seminar, it was around the ninetieth anniversary of the original text’s publication. The newspapers were printing archive material relating to the novel, extended supplements about its importance from the usual quarters, as well as reviews of recently published monographs from both young and established scholars. Unfortunately, the critical trend of the time was to read Ulysses as wisdom literature. Critics urged prospective readers of the novel to wrest Joyce from the scholars and bring him ‘back to the people’. This school of thought treated Leopold Bloom as a model of the way in which the contemporary urban subject should be living: aloof, polite, well-intentioned but not dogmatic on political issues. Moderately informed, but more often wrong, a reader, but not self-serious, an everyman. Ulysses’ structural indebtedness to cornerstones of The Canon such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Homer’s The Odyssey frequently undergirds this line of argument, demonstrative in itself of how easily high literary art and everyday life may be set next to one another. This generally requires critics to treat the characters of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as two opposites in need of the other. Each has a little to impart on life, love and literature, whether it be to reflect a little deeper on themselves or their marriage, move past their respective losses or to find in each other their lost son/father.

This interpretation of the novel reads it along a linear trajectory, as Stephen and Bloom come together to form Blephen and Stoom. Through computation it may be possible to examine the writing style of later chapters, and determine whether or not they bear formal witness to this change in character. We must first however, consider the difficulty of locating where Joyce’s narrators actually are. Part of what makes Joyce’s writing style so unique is his use of free indirect discourse, a mode of writing in which the reality of the text is inflected by the consciousness(es) of the beholder(s). As such, putting a category on each episode of Ulysses as though it were narrated by one person or a combination of persons might seem reductive; it very much is. But in fusing computation and literature, certain assumptions have to be made.

In carrying out this analysis, I made use of R’s ‘Stylo’ package, which contains tools for breaking a number of texts into equal sizes, removing words which are not common to most samples, calculating the relative frequencies of these words, transforming these observations into new combinations of variables called ‘components’ with greater explanatory potential, and clustering them together. These words appear below:

These might seem like boring terms, as literary critics we tend to look past them to more evocative ones like ‘serpentine’ or ‘columbanus’ but unfortunately, in computational terms it is the relative frequencies of these ‘particles’ or ‘function words’ that provide the most secure means of modelling a writer’s particular idiom. These samples were then plotted on a correlation matrix, which can be taken as an index of similarity, based on where they cluster:

The six different narrators of Ulysses appearing in the index above are:

‘Anon’, who narrates the episode ‘Cyclops’

‘Blephen’, a composite delineation for episodes in which both characters feature, such as ‘Circe’, ‘Eumaeus’, ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Oxen of the Sun’

Bloom, who narrates ‘Hades’, ‘Calypso’, ‘Lestrygonians’ and ‘The Lotus Eaters’, Gerty, who narrates at least half of ‘Nausicaa’ (this is a controversial point within the literature, it might by Bloom who is narrating for her)

Molly, who narrates the book’s final chapter ‘Penelope’,

and finally Stephen, who narrates the first three episodes ‘Telemachus’, ‘Nestor’ and ‘Proteus’, as well as the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which has been thrown in here for comparison.

Here’s the same plot as above with the labels more clearly indicated

The first thing we could note is the gender divide. Molly and Gerty both spread over to the right, with Molly as an outlier. Both are more proximate to the A Portrait samples than any other, which are all taken from the earlier parts of the novel, suggesting that Joyce writes women and young children using the same number of words at the same rate. As the Gerty samples move through the episode, they move closer and closer to the Bloom cluster, visually conforming that the episode starts in Gerty’s voice before he takes over, and that Bloom doesn’t think much of women’s intelligence in the main either.

Overall we can say that there doesn’t look to be a fusing of perspectives here as such. Rather than the Blephen episodes meeting halfway between the Stephen and Bloom, Stephen and Bloom already seem quite comfortably clustered at the novel’s outset. Based on the divide between Stephen’s episodes of Ulysses and A Portrait, we might say that the way in which Stephen narrates A Portrait is very different from the way in which he narrates Ulysses.This is justified I think by how sensitive the analysis is to changes in narrator, demonstrated by the Gerty/Bloom example already discussed, as well as the fact that the earlier part of Aeolous, in which Bloom is present, clusters with his samples, whereas the second part, after Stephen’s entered, clusters with the Stephen samples.

Below is the plot with the Portrait samples removed:

Words Stephen’s narration is most likely to use in comparison to Bloom
Words Bloom’s narration is more likely to use in comparison to Stephen

There are a number of ways one could use these results to interrogate the notion of Ulysses as wisdom literature. We could begin by asking after the gendered aspects of the adjective ‘wise’, and ask why so many of these books which teach us how one might best live are written by men (and how tone-deaf this argument can sound because to read Ulysses one might almost think married women weren’t let out of the house) or we could ask what interests an Irish model of bourgeois respectability might serve, along the lines of an Irish ‘keep calm and carry on’ poster.

Ulysses as a guide to life risks rendering it a novel of parts coming together, the middle-class intellectual and the middle-class working stiff holding hands across whatever barricade is supposed to be dividing them. Not that I would go to the other extreme and frame it as one of dissolution. Ulysses’ shape is one I would be loathe to put a vector to in fact; to say that Stephen and Bloom’s relationship moves from a) state to b) state would be too easy by half.

What makes Ulyssesan interesting novel to me is its self-referentiality, the dialogue it establishes between the novel and its supposed referent of ‘real Dublin’, which is made most clear in ‘Circe’, but also in the book’s other failed attempts to understand itself, as in the cases of the characters referenced as being in particular places at particular times who may or may not be Bloom, the McIntosh mystery or the puzzle of crossing Dublin without passing a pub. In this context, I think ‘Eumaeus’ appearing as a stylistic outlier is significant.

It is in this episode that we get information about a sequence of coincidences, and resonant differences between Bloom and Stephen’s lives. The depth of these coincidences (which I won’t provide a summary of here, because I think they’re among the most poignant parts of the novel) gesture towards something a bit more cosmically ordered than the rest of the novel even as they take place within the circumscribed rituals of Irish urban middle-class life in the early twentieth century. ‘Eumaeus’ is written in a chill tone which most closely resembles that of a scientific paper, eliding the indirect discourse which ostensibly defines the rest of the text, and it is the fact that these connections are raised here rather than anywhere else that the true interest in their relationship, such as it is, is to be found.

These connections which remain unrealised by the two, rather than bring us to some Forsterian notion of connection should raise instead questions of alienation and of their unity in separation. It presents problems both epistemological and political, about how our reality is structured, the means through which it is circumscribed and how it is more defined by how little of it we are aware of rather than how much. Rather than teaching us ‘how to live’ Ulysses shows us how we do not live, how we probably won’t live and how it could so easily have been otherwise. It is no more an explanation for life as it is an explanation of itself, or Homer, or Ireland.

Literary Style and the dialectic

The notion of literary style is a fraught matter for critics. This is not just since the cultural and textualist ‘turn’ of the sixties and seventies, when post-structuralist methodologies became commonplace in university departments. Rather, the origin of style brings us to the origin of the individual and it is for this reason that Frederic Jameson believes ‘style’ to be a bourgeois concept. In an account which accords with Hans Georg-Gadamer’s, which locates the word’s origin in the context of jurisprudence, Jameson argues that style owes its existence to the classical notion of rhetoric, as interpreted in nineteenth-century pedagogy, the means by which an orator might speak in a form which is appropriately ‘high’. In both of these accounts, style’s interconnectedness with the rise of bourgeoisie or liberal state-capitalist formations of the age of Enlightenment is emphasised.

Here, we see a socio-historical account of style, one which might have taken Barthes’ theory as its foundation; that it is impossible to have a theory of pure style, as it is fundamentally an historical phenomenon. Jameson is similarly sceptical, but writes also that any literary criticism worthy of the name is obligated to consider ‘sentences themselves’. How these two methods could be productively fused is as something of a fissure in literary studies, between those who would treat literary texts in formal terms, the stylistic reductionists, and others, who would read it according to a sociological or Marxist schema. We might refer to this latter category as culturalists for the sake of ease. Of course, dialectical methods of reading are so ingrained into how we are trained to think about texts as scholars, whether we happen to be constructing a dialogue between a text and its context, or interrogating our own biases, it can be difficult to conceive of what a purely formalist literary criticism might look like. Despite conventional wisdom holding there were plenty around Cambridge in the thirties who were invested solely in words on the page, one cannot help but find indications of their broader and more wide-ranging interests in their actual writings. Likewise, culturalist critics might well concede that stylistic components, such as particular words, lengths of sentences, play a role in forming the style of a literary text, but there is a difficulty in deciding at which point a sufficient number of these discrete linguistic signals aggregate to achieve a structural significance or scale. It is for its treatment of style as an abstract system which cannot be rationalised down to its concrete manifestations that Jameson charges Anglo-American literary criticism as being undialectical.

In parsing this particular issue, we might turn to Adorno’s writings in Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which he theorises the distance between the individual stylistic marker and the entire work, in the context of a socio-economic and cultural totality. Adorno’s analysis is mostly concerned with the cultural changes which have been wrought by the existence of the cultural industry within late-stage capitalism, the ‘iron system’ in which

the maintenance of forms and the preservation of individuals coincide only by chance.

By Adorno’s account, the technologies of commercialised society have so irreparably transformed all social and cultural institutions to the extent that art now serves a solely industrial function. There can be no such thing as amusement under late-stage capitalism; we have leisure only so that we can be more productive. These changes have come about, of course, due to the higher-order industries on which the culture industry depends, as well as the actions of individual managers within these industries, ‘the people at the top’ whose behaviours reproduce these higher-order systemic changes. The subject no longer has thoughts but rather is thought herself by the system, she registers signals in the form of physical, psychic automatisms, but continues to assume as though her own autonomy exists; that this is beyond the reach of the external network of circumstances, economic, historical, social, which in fact radically proscribe the remit of her behaviours.

This loss of freedom in society finds its corollary in the degree to which the culture of industrial society has been homogenised: ‘Under monopoly all mass culture is identical…Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight’. This determinism is one of the defining features of Adorno’s thought; even that which violates the tenets of cultural industry will merely replicate this same homogeneity overall. If for example, Orson Welles was to violate the terms of the industry,

he is forgiven because his departures from the norm are regarded as a calculated mutation which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system.

These innovators are co-opted once again by the same system, and Adorno witheringly compares them to state-capitalist land-reformers. So repetitive are most films produced by the Hollywood studio system of Adorno’s time, he claims the attentive film-goer will know the ending of the film within the first few minutes, but, as before, if the attentive film-goer is wrong-footed by a surprise twist, this just confirms the banality of the enterprise.

Many have argued that Adorno’s undialectical anglophone readers have, in their eagerness to claim popular culture as an object worthy of scholarly attention, over-emphasised and caricatured his curmudgeonly tendencies. A charitable reading might present Adorno as being concerned predominantly with the superstructure, but there is, I think, a little too much of the grumpy old man to his claim that a perfection of formal technique be it in the context of Hollywood film or jazz, may be claimed as just another symptom of the cultural industry’s failure to create truly great art, because these perfections of technique are buttressed by deliberate ‘blunders’. I think Adorno is sufficiently correct for his work to be analytically useful, but it rather ironically lacks the ability to tolerate contradiction, and such a view runs the risk of lapsing into non-dialectical territory. Adorno is, after all, presumably referring to actual films he’s seen, actual jazz renditions of classical compositions, and treating these within his analyses as socially/historically embedded would do greater justice to his schema. Examples of how apparently individual agents incline towards producing the interests of capital without abandoning Adorno’s analytical pessimism are plentiful, but I’ll single out Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream, or this podcast here.

Treating the history of literature in dialectical terms would be less invested in the individual stylistic innovations perpetuated by writers, and heed ‘the sheer quantity of words with which a given historical period is saturated’ to a greater extent. In a commercial society, for instance, in which the subject is bombarded constantly with advertisements, newspapers, articles, tweets, the author of literature is obliged to administer to the reader a sequence of shocks in order to gain their attention, and it is this which serves to colour our literary culture and why modern poetry maintains an interest with density in language rather than transparency. This might go some distance to accounting for the disappearance of organised novelistic form, but such claims would benefit from an awareness of popular trends of consumption, those which undermine theories constructed by scholars operating in a relative vacuum, in order to avoid falling into Adorno’s conservatism, and in maintaining one’s pursuit of the dialectic (however defined).

Quantifying Modernism and the avant-garde

Introduction and Methodology

(Skip to results if you want to miss the boring parts, or look here for a more granular, in depth account, including the code itself. If you code, yeah, I’m so sorry, I’ll make it more elegant soon)

This post will document a statistical analysis which was carried out on a corpus of 500 novels. 250 of these texts are generally categorised as ‘realist’ and will be used as a benchmark against which we might define modernist literary style, a mode of writing which arose in the early twentieth century, (though it should be noted that this chronology is increasingly subject to revision due to the work of new modernist scholars).

The first novel in the naturalistic corpus, chronologically speaking, is Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan, and was written in the year 1794. The final one is Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, which was published in 1895. This corpus contains the complete prose works, a phrase here encompassing novels, novellas and short story collections, of fifteen writers, Jane Austen, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte, Stephen Crane, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, William Makepeace Thackeray, Leo Tolstoy and Émile Zola.

The corpus of 250 modernist novels begins in the year 1869, with Henry James’ first bloc of short stories, and continues all the way to Samuel Beckett’s 1988 novella ‘Stirrings Still’, so there is some overlap between these two corpora’s starting and end points. This modernist corpus otherwise consists of the complete works of nineteen writers such as Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Elizabeth Bowen, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, F. Scott FitzGerald, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kakfa, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Flann O’Brien, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf.

This disproportion between the two corpora, with fifteen realists versus ninteen modernists, may seem disconcerting at first, but what is required in order for the statistical analyses to function is for the number of observations to be equal, rather than the number of novelists. Unfortunately, realist authors wrote more novels than modernist authors, and this compromised our ability to retain the same number of authors on each end of the generic spectrum.

One other aspect to consider is the international dimension. The realist corpus includes ten novelists who wrote in English, but there are also two Russian and three French realists, two of whom, Zola and the aforementioned Balzac, were far more prolific than any other writer in either corpus. Zola and Balzac composed 86 and 34 novels, short story collections or novellas respectively. This has the consequence that well over half of the realist corpus is in translation from another language in comparison to just under 10% of the modernist corpus. I intend to address this when I am at a later stage in my research. There has been some work published on the issues surrounding the quantification of literature in translation and across language, but I do not yet possess a sufficient breadth of knowledge in this field to comment intelligently on the matter. I do think it is important to have French and Russian writers included in the realist corpus on the basis that many of them, be they Tolstoy, Flaubert or Balzac, exerted a significant influence on their modernist successors.

Whether or not these are ‘the best’ or most accurate translations is sort of beside the point, from the reading I have done around the issue of literary translation, their being subject to change over time is in the nature of how text is received and re-constituted in different eras for different communities of readers (this discussion between Will Self and Kafka’s translators is particularly illuminating in this context, please do not be put off by Self, he gives the translators so much space to discuss the process, you really should watch it). The germane point here is that the translations being analysed in this instance could not be considered to be the most contemporary. There might be an argument for retaining these older translations on the basis that they are more likely to be the versions of the text which would have been circulating in the early twentieth century and therefore the translations modernist authors would have been more likely to have read, but making this claim would require a greater burden of proof, such as what languages each author read novels in and what their reading habits were more generally.

So, to turn to the analysis. My research is directed towards the quantitative analysis of grammar, the rationale being that we could, by examining varying quantities of particular categories of words, such as verbs, adjectives or prepositions, develop an understanding of how literary fiction changes from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, and, more specifically, how literary modernism departs from, or, perhaps remains contiguous with, this previous generation of novel writing. This was carried out using a POS tagger from the Natural Language Toolkit in Python.


From realism to modernism:

  • average sentence length decreases by 4 words, from an average 22 words to 18 words per sentence.
  • Personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, and them) increase by 1% from 5% to 6%. Interrogative pronouns (who and where) also decrease by 0.01% from 0.03% to 0.02%
  • Verbs in the past tense increase by 1% from 6% to 7%.
  • Adverbs increase by 0.5% from 4.5% to 5%.
  • Prepositions, (after, in, to, on, and with) decrease by 0.4% from 10.9% to 10.5%
  • Wh Determiners (words beginning with wh, such as ‘where’ or ‘who’ acting to modify the noun phrase) decrease by 0.2% from 0.6% to 0.4%.
  • Particles (parts of speech with grammatical function with no meaning such as ‘up’ in the phrase ‘I tidied up the room’) increase by 0.1% from 0.4% to 0.5%.
  • Non third-person singular present verbs (verbs in first or second person) decrease by 0.1% from 1.6% to 1.5%.
  • Existentials (words such as ‘there’ which indicates that something exists) increase by 0.04%, from 0.17% to 0.21%.
  • Superlative adjectives (adjectives such as ‘best’, ‘biggest’, ‘worst’) decrease by 0.01% from 0.14% to 0.13%.

It will not have escaped your attention that a lot of these percentages are quite small. The extent to which any given text is made up of this hyper-specific categories is pretty minimal in the first place, so this is why many of these quantities seem so laughably tiny. Rest assured that they are statistically significant, this does not mean that they are important, this requires a greater burden of proof, more analyses, more exploration, but that they are noteworthy considering the quantities involved.

One boxplot which might be of interest, is the one below, which shows the ‘spread’ of the data for average sentence length between realism and modernism.

What we see on the left is the variation of the sentence length data (the term ‘variation’ here meaning the general ‘dispersedness’ of the data) for realism, which goes from 10 to roughly 35 words per sentence with an outlier or two on either end, whereas if we consider modernism, we have everything from zero (Samuel Beckett’ novel How It Is which has no full stops in it) up to forty-five, with far more outliers on the higher end. Higher outliers, are data points with values greater than 1.5 times the interquartile range above the third quartile, lower outliers, of which there are three, are more than 1.5 times below the first quartile. For one’s own general knowledge, the modernist outliers for sentence length are

  • William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (46.4), and Intruer in the Dust (42.3)
  • Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (42.9), In a Budding Grove (40.2) In a Budding Grove (40.2), Time Re-gained (38), The Prisoner (37.2) and The Captive (35.7) The Guermantes Way (34.1) and Sodom and Gomorrah (30.9).
  • Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and The Unnamable have 40.5 and 32.9 words per sentence respectively
  • Gertrude Stein’s novels The Making of Americans and Everybody’s Autobiography have 33.9 and 33.5 respectively.
  • Henry James’ The Ivory Tower and The Young Lovell score 31.8 and 29 respectively.
  • The three lower outlier values for sentence length are all written by Beckett, such as the aforementioned How It Is and also Worstward Ho (4.9) and Ill Seen Ill Said (7).

It can be tempting I think, when we see these sorts of names surface so prominently, in conjunction with a visual confirmation of the existence of an avant-garde to think that modernism in its most pure form was a kind of relentless maximalism, an uncompromising movement towards longer sentences, more pronouns, and that all other manifestations of it are inadequate or insufficient in some way. This is a kind of a boring and masculinist overview of the genre, which takes, I think, too many of the claims made by its most dogmatic adherents at face value, and it’s not a modernism I’m particularly interesting in defending or instantiating. There can also, of course, be a regressive or rearguard aspect to modernism, which is perceptible in the following boxplot, which displays the distribution of past tense verbs.

As was pointed out above, modernism displays an increase in past tense verbs overall, but here we see a large number of outlier values moving against the overall trend. These novels are:

  • James Joyce’s Ulysses (4.3%) and Finnegans Wake (2.7%)
  • William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (4.2%) and Requiem for a Nun (3.6%)
  • Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies (3.9%), Fizzles (2.5%), Company (2%), Texts for Nothing (1.8%), The Unnamable (1.7%), Worstward Ho (1.6%), Ill Seen Ill Said (1.4%) and a corpus of his miscellaneous and unpublished short fiction (2.2%).
  • Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s collaborative novel The Nature of a Crime (2.6%)
  • Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (2.4%)
  • Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1.7%)

The higher modernism outlier is Virginia Woolf’s 1937 novel The Years (10%) and the lower realism outlier is Balzac’s 1841 novel Letters of Two Brides (2.7%)

In this way we can see that modernism is not just a unidirectional commitment to a narrow sequence of stylistic changes. Instead, it’s a contradictory movement in which a number of different stylistic markers jostle against and subvert one another. In this particular instance, for example, we can perceive the authors most generally understood to be among the most uncompromising; Joyce, Beckett, Stein, Woolf and Faulkner, resisting the overall trend.

From the two boxplots I’ve generated so far, you might have noticed that in, modernism tends to generate a greater number of outliers, and I can confirm that this trend of a greater degree grammatical heterogeneity manifesting itself in modernist novel-writing than naturalistic novel-writing persists across the other categories of grammar, which you can validate by looking at the complete analysis here.

This struck me as important development, so I quantified the extent of each data point’s outlier-ness, and then grouped them according to author. These values were then divided by the number of outlier data points, because some of these novelists only have a small number of novels in the corpus versus others. Austen’s complete works would be totally outnumbered by Balzac’s for instance. The results appear below:

Please do note the values on the y-axis; Jane Austen is barely above zero because the only outlier text she wrote is Mansfield Park, which marks itself out for its disproportional use of adjectives. I thought it better to not exclude her from the plot though, because, I didn’t want it to turn into even more of a boy’s club than it might otherwise be. It would be useful, and exciting I think, to conceive of this plot as an indication of early breaches with conventional form, perhaps some nineteenth century anticipations of modernism. Reading Dostoevsky, Zola and Balzac in this manner would all be coterminous with changes taking place in the study of modernism now, but reading Thackeray and Eliot in these terms might be a more surprising development, and I’d be interested to read these texts in light of what we’re seeing here.

The modernism plot for deviation appears below:

The unlabelled entry between Faulkner and James is Hemingway

From this plot we can see that the most avant-gardist prose writers, considered from the perspective of their grammar, appear to be Beckett, Stein, Woolf, Conrad and Joyce. Of course, this is nowhere near a definitive answer as to what modernist style is, or who its most innovative practitioners were; these measurements are atomistic and are quantifying individual words. But style is not just words in isolation, style is agglomerations of words, spaces between words, the clandestine networks and relations the phrases these words add up to compose in the mind of the reader, and, if these digital methodologies are to have any chance of illustrating this shift (an inadequate term in the first instance, since it is more an accumulation of changes distributed over a broad corpus than a sudden or transformational one that we are here concerned with) it is in these cumulative terms that style must be quantified, in order to avoid drifting into the reductive and schematic scientism that numerical analyses of this kind are frequently accused of perpetuating.

Joanna Walsh’s ‘Seed’

The first thing one notices about Joanna Walsh’s online novella Seed is the quality of the design. Seed’s aesthetic is very consistent, and was obviously designed with an eye to the material at hand. For all this we have its illustrator Charlotte Hicks to thank, as well as the digital publishing company responsible for designing the platform on which the text is hosted. Seed is optimised for iOS, and, as the site tells us, is probably better viewed there, but it can also be read on a laptop or a PC.

The reader begins by being presented with seventeen different plants which open up onto different lexia, with suggestive and minimalistic titles such as ‘Baby’, ‘Touch’ or ‘Red’. Each one gives a brief insight into the life of an eighteen year old woman living in a middle-class housing estate in suburban England, coming to terms with herself, her environment, the people around her and the reality of her incipient young adulthood. By presenting the reader with seventeen different starting points (ignoring the opening explanatory remarks for a moment), and the means of proceeding in any way they might choose, the text emulates the same provisional and tentative steps that the narrator concurrently takes in the development of her own identity. In an interview, Walsh explains that the rhizoidal orientation of the text provided her with the opportunity to disorientate the reader, and perhaps engender in them the same uncertainty that the protagonist of the novella may be feeling at any given time, so that the reader has:

no sense of reading left to right, of the weight of the book, of how far they were through, or, sometimes, of the direction within the narrative.

Seed is therefore doing very deliberate and self-conscious things with the particularities of its format, typical of texts which, overtly or otherwise, draw attention to their digitality. Insofar as a firm distinction can be drawn between these two facets of the work, Seed therefore introduces a coherence/tension between its form and its content.

In a design quirk which enables this sense of openness that Seed conveys, the reader has the option of changing the text’s visual interface in order to display differently-coloured vines intertwined between each of the plants. The colours refer to each lexia’s subject matter, and inverts the standardised and industrial nature of colour-coding, a tendency, or obssession, that the narrator exhibits throughout the text:

Fruits in the supermarket. They’re a different species. Those strawberries all white in the middle all the year round, like crunchy peaches. Everything so shiny. Not a speck of earth anywhere. Why would there be? It goes straight from the formica shed to our formica kitchen. Once cut my mother wraps it in cling film and puts it in the fridge.

The narrator’s sustained attention to post-industrial artefacts, the symptoms of contemporary, or then-contemporary suburban living, is the strongest aspect of Seed. The narrator’s oscillation between a tone of matter-of-fact inventory and syntax-rupturing anxiety, enacts the very process of interpretation and the fact that so much narrative time is deployed in coming to terms with such quotidian objects, made to seem strange by their presence in a narrative medium known for attention to other, less strange things, intensifies the effect:

The doves in our garden say something else no they say somewhere else from their tall perspective looking down on lawns mowed with stripes, somewhere nature isn’t the same kind we have round here.

The site’s drawing together of Seed’s structure and content, finds a corollary in the text’s actual word usage. Walsh uses leitmotifs, particularly the names of plants or descriptions of colours in order to string each unit of text together with one another in more subtle ways, without making use of an overt visual interface.

It should be noted that the text is not as radically discontinuous as it might at first seem, or certainly was not regarded as such by Walsh, who said the following in an interview:

I’ve been thinking about the authority I’m still claiming as an ‘author’ in Seed; despite the degree of reader-control offered by the project, it’s still a fairly traditional ‘authorial’ work.

I had to write Seed as a linear text to ensure it will read ok for anyone who wants to follow the temporal narrative. That said, I never write in a ‘linear’ fashion, but in one that resembles the Seed reading experience: I write phrases, notes, paragraphs, then brings them together on shuffle, until they work.

Walsh’s comments may be surprising for those familiar with her writing methodology, which involves the use of cut-ups, or other aleatoric methods which introduce an element of chance into the composition process. It is surprising also, for those who are familiar with the somewhat niche history of digital or hypertextual literature. For many of hypertext’s trailblazing practitioners, such as Shelley Jackson or Michael Joyce, the crux of hypertextual literature was the game-playing that new digital formats allowed the author to engage in as an absent centre of meaning, which expedited the then-extremely trendy dalliances with post-structuralist philosophy and critical theory in a digital context. Within Seed’s units of text after all, there is no opportunity for interaction, except insofar as the text requires you to turn the page. In an interview with Review31, Walsh described how Seed barely resembles a hypertext in the original sense of the term at all, and that it is much better understood as a traditional work focalised around the author’s vision.

This is true, firstly for the structural reasons already outlined, but also because Seed’s formal architecture is best understood as functioning in the same way as literary works in print do, in that they imply, or gesture, far more readily than they state directly. This is axiomatic for all novels worthy of the name, but it presents an interesting means of thinking about how narrative works in the context of Seed in particular. While it might seem to present some amount of freedom or capacity for interaction, Seed is in fact circumscribing you even as it offers the chance of liberation. This has a nice visual metaphor in Seed’s visual interface which deliberately places a number of other flowers beyond the reader’s reach in darkness, suggesting both the thwarted ambition to move beyond the text that we’re presented with, and, as I’ve said already, the myopia of the narrator in her own environment:

it’s a fairly tight work, and I’ve said what I wanted to say in it. I love the idea of locked passages: part of my intent was to create a feeling of implied space beyond what is described (isn’t that the intent of most novels, to create, in however abstract a sense, a ‘world’, even if ‘world’ means a set of conceptual parameters?). I’d like to do a print edition to see if and how the circle of nonlinearity could be squared.

Though we have the ability to read Seed in any order we might like, each section is up to five pages long, and therefore requires us to read chronologically for a far greater length of time than hypertexts of the nineties do. Whether this can be attributed to the now mainstream nature of micro-textual formats, which requires literature to aspire to something else is probably a question for others to answer. Personally speaking, if writers working digitally can produce works as good as Seed, I won’t be unduly detained by the sociological reasonings why.

The formal constraints of William Gaddis’ ‘JR’

The opening sentence of the Dalkey Archive blurb for William Gaddis novel JR reads as follows:

First published nearly forty years ago, JR is about the many ways in which American capitalism runs wild and becomes dangerous.

I detect in this sentence, which stands in an ignoble tradition of jacket quotes on Gaddis novels, a certain amount of equivocation, particularly as it suggests that Gaddis’ critique in JR is limited to the dangerous aspects of American capitalism under specific conditions. I found JR’s social critique to be in no way measured or subtle but instead a relentless skewering of every facet of American life. It made for an interesting text to read in conjunction with Matthew Kenner’s recently published Geohell: Imagining History in the Contemporary World, for the reason that JR frequently describes the destructive impact of centralised state-capitalist formations on the global south, a process facilitated by the ignorant in the west’s urban centres (in this case, Manhattan), who lack even the most basic language to conceptualise these processes within long-term historical perspectives.

Much like his earlier novel The Recognitions, JR is a novel far more invested in its ideas than its characters. Each is a one or two-dimensional archetype, be it artist, businessman, cuckold, nagging wife, etc, but none are fully-fledged subjects in any real sense. The novel is told primarily in a sequence of roughly three to twelve page ‘scenes’ in which a restricted number of characters speak to one another. The narrator has withdrawn almost completely, to the point that each of these scenes are exclusively composed of dialogue. They are linked, or segue into one another, by panoramic accounts of the changing environment, because the narrator is not there, and as a result debarred from moving us through time or space, which unfurl in paragraph-long sentences written in disjointed syntax:

He wiped a hand down his face and sank lower, knee thrust more sharply into the seat ahead and eyes on the serge elbow draped over ti close enough to bite, it shook, ruffling a newspaper, and the buildings on both sides began to swarm with fire escapes, rising from sight as they dropped in a culvert, dropping back as they rose, until the tunnel enclosed them like a blow. Lights came on, and ahead the door clattered open on the young conductor and closed behind him, down the aisle claming the mustache wisp with a finer tip, brushing the protruding shoe, eliciting a muttered — heil!

Gaddis’ chosen methodology, therefore requires the reader to abandon their normative reading practices and perhaps even introduce their own punctuation in order to make sense of the material. As a letter, which appears as an aside in The Recognitions reads:

The hand had defeated its own purpose: for those lines written in frantic haste took time to interpret; while it was quick work to go through those written with careful painful pauses, written slowly, to compel the reader to read slowly and attentively, a habit she might have made in conversation.

However, this repudiation of convention brings with a different kind of constraint. In order to give the reader some means of differentiating the characters, Gaddis provides each of them with distinctive verbal tics. One of the novel’s characters, JR, says ‘holy’ and ‘damn’ a lot. The composer Edward Bast and the physics teacher Jack Gibbs, both speak haltingly and get interrupted a lot. Another, Rhoda, says things like ‘cat’ and ‘goddamn’. Unfortunately, Gaddis is not sparing in his use of these tics, and they will often appear three to four times in a single sentence, which lends the dialogue a particular cadence that is totally singular in terms of any prose writing I’ve ever encountered, but also grates after prolonged exposure. It may seem ridiculous to criticise a writer such as Gaddis, one with a reputation for difficulty, for signposting his writing gratuitously but this is precisely the issue. Gaddis spends a huge amount of the novel generating his own system of scaffolding with a view to compensate for an abscence of novelistic device. Rather than devising his way back out of the system he’s created, I’d prefer if he left us to it.

This effect was unfortunately compounded, for me at least, by the missing narrator. Because the text is rendered through dialogue, the narrator can’t say, ‘Bast barged into JR and spilled both of their coffees’. Instead characters have to verbally observe what’s happening, often in laughably unrealistic ways:

— What you spilled both of ours?

To take another example, we’ll be told during one of the prolongedly undulating descriptive passages that Emily Joubert is eating a sandwich. For the remainder of the scene, every line of dialogue tagged with ‘said through sandwich’ or ‘said through bread’ is Amy Joubert. This all seems to me like a very long way around Gaddis’ initial problem, which is his attempt to transcend the formulaic habits engendered by ‘x said, y said’. JR re-trains us in reading, but does so by bringing us through huge amounts of textual redundancy.

If we were to try to redeem Gaddis on this account we could do worse than relate it to his critique of the American education system; these are the points in the novel that I think he is at his strongest. Gaddis was extremely prescient in identifying the increasing proximity of the education system to private capital as an utterly toxic development and correct in regarding it as a ponzi scheme for the funneling of public money into private enterprise in the form of subsidies. Principal Whiteback spouts nonsensical managerial techno-speak about upskilling, betraying his misplaced faith in ambitious investments:

— Right Dan, the norm in each case supporting, or we might say being supported, substantiated that is to say, by an overall norm, so that in other words in terms of testing the norm comes out as the norm or we have no norm to test against, right? So that presented in thse terms the equipment can be shown to justify itself, in budgetary terms that is to say.

Gaddis does not overlook the complicity of the artist in all this. Bast is a talented composer living in poverty, but is recruited by the school’s investment programme with a view to imbuing it with his artistic nous. Gaddis clearly regards the television, screen-dependent technologies and the growth of visual based media as utterly detrimental to education, and even if his grasp on these issues is not particularly nuanced, his identification of automated teaching as playing into the interests of private capital was bang on. For instance, Principal Whiteback observes that in an education sector under austerity budgeting, books are the first thing to go. Perhaps these characters’ comments on straightforward textual actions could be the symptom of a cultural movement from codex to image, one where there is no ambiguity, no room for thought, just the endless proliferation of image.

But the notion of a woke Gaddis can only take us so far based on how his vision of a society obssessed with appearance relates to his representation of women, who are described only in physical terms. Be it breasts, nipples, asses, décolletage, throats or thighs, the amount of body parts circulating when a woman is involved is deeply wearying, particularly when none of the women are afforded the space to be the sensitive soul artist types like Bast and Gibbs, but are all instead shallow, appearance-obsessessed or lascivious. His treatment of one particular gay character is also jaw-droppingly insensitive and clichéd. If we were to take Jonathan Franzen at his word (never wise) and regard Gaddis as the primary architect behind a particular kind of bleakly comic, imperial postwar Amerian novel-writing, we can see in Gaddis the roots of much of the misogyny which characterises the writings of David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover etc. No matter how radical the epistemological critiques of these authors, or the sophistication of their understanding of systems, their writing indulges time and time again the male gaze.