Collocations in Modernist Prose

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 14.51.47I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.

Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.

Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:

young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland

Canonical modernist texts:

young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth

Contemporary texts, Enright, Self, Baume, McBride:

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time

Djuna Barnes

frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say

Eimear McBride

kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back

Elizabeth Bowen

mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard

Ernest Hemingway

robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said

F. Scott FitzGerald

new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back

Gertrude Stein

gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day

James Joyce

buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce

Marcel Proust

young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time

Samuel Beckett

said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor

Sara Baume

even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye

Virginia Woolf

miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened

Anne Enright

new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty

Will Self

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since

Flann O’Brien

father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty

Ford Madox Ford

henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw

Jorge Luis Borges

ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago

Joseph Conrad

mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones

D.H. Lawrence

young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day

William Faulkner

uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general

Angela Nagle’s ‘Kill all Normies’

It should be stated at the outset that the structure of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies deflects the inevitable critiques that will comes its way. Kill All Normies cannot be evaluated in the same way as other non-fictive socio-political texts, given the fact that it contains an anthropological investigation into a particular subculture with no references, no overall evaluation of sources, methodological reflection, statistics, ethnographic accounts, interviews, review of extant literature or even definition of terms. All too often, phrases which are evidently freighted with significance are deployed (e.g. ‘ultra Puritanism’) without clear explication. This indeterminacy at the level of the ideas the text aims to convey find reflection in the mechanics of Nagle’s prose, which manifests repetition, sentence fragmentation, typos, random capitalisations, poor formatting, etc. Kill All Normies is a book badly in need of an editor.

While we could attribute this to the nascency of the field, Nagle’s analysis is indebted to thinkers such as Frederich Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade and Antonio Gramsci, and furthermore, manifestations of a fervent, newly-emboldened right are not new, and it is on this basis that I would have appreciated an apologetic preface for such a decidedly impressionistic genealogy of the alt-right. Of course, to dwell on these points would be unfair, given that that it is the publisher’s aim, as I understand it, to get the book out while these issues remain topical. Given that Trump is the President of the U.S., things cannot be expected to remain in their current state for long.

Nagle clearly possesses a broad knowledge of the irredentist sect of the moment, and is very aware of how the fragmented 4chan, 8chan, the PUA, MRA movements initially developed, clashed, split and subsequently overlapped. As a catalogue of the horrors inflicted by the alt-right on women, Nagle’s book is very effective. Problems arise in Nagle’s attempts to correlate the growth of ‘This network,’ with the current American administration. Trump is a disaster on Twitter, of course, but it is important to understand him, not just as a troll, but as the son of a real estate developer and a reality TV star given a platform by a number of media outlets despite his abhorrent views, because he represents a revenue opportunity. Throughout the book, the collective actions of trolls is given far more credit than they deserve in bringing far right opinion into media discourse, at the expense of media outlet’s puff profiles on dapper Nazis, or consistent presentations of straight up bigoted views.

Another crux of Nagle’s argument is that contemporary manifestations of the left, with its sustained focus upon identity politics, is responsible for the aggressive tone of the alt-right. It’s at least slightly bathetic to come, after sustained research upon such a specific sub-culture that would seem to be possible only within the contemporary, networked media landscape to come away with a variation on horseshoe theory, i.e. ‘there’s extremes on both sides of the argument’. Nagle derives this point from her concept of the notion of transgression, which she traces through the writings of the de Sade and Nietzsche. According to Nagle’s account, the alt-right is both an avant-garde and the true inheritor of the taboo-busting tendencies of leftism of ‘the 60s’ in its ‘libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony and ultimately…nihilism’. In proving that the feminist movements of the sixties (civil rights movements going unnamed), derived at least some of their impetus from de Sadean notions of transgression, Nagle cites right-wing thinkers who believed feminism was out to destroy the nuclear family, not necessarily the sources I would defer to in characterising second-wave feminism.

I have not read enough history or theory to cast informed doubt on the notion that second-wave feminism was ‘very much on the side of the transgressive tradition of de Sade,’ nor to what extent it was on the de Sadean / Rousseauist binary, as Nagle argues, but I am definitely uncertain, as to whether the struggle for feminism ‘is essentially a moral one,’ as Nagle contends. Perhaps within some sectors it is, but I would think that the struggle for equality is more a matter of political economy than morality, and that a substantial section of feminist theory would dispute that any one morality motivates it, due to its patriarchal overtones. I am of course, open to being corrected on this point, but this is one of the most glaring instances in which sources are lacking and broad, indistinct cultural trends are being made to bear a significant burden of proof. For example, I have no notion what phrases such as ‘racial politics that has held since WWII’ are supposed to amount to, or mean.

The chapters in which these arguments are made would probably have benefitted from more systematic, and perhaps chronological account of the left from the sixties to the present day, rather than Nagle’s tendency to move back and forth between the sixties, nineties or the eighteenth century. An analysis rooted in chronology might have focused Nagle’s attention on trends such as lapses in class consciousness, (expedited by anti-union policies enacted by British and American administraions), the war on drugs, (a veneer for a sustained assault upon communities of colours’ capacity to organise themselves) and globalisation, economic developments I would identify as more pertinent to political trends than semiotic of the transgressive.

In identifying particular trends within intersectional leftist discourse Nagle identifies the calling out of racism and sexism as ‘crying wolf’, false calls for help which presaged the arrival of ‘the real wolf’, of the alt-right. Nagle also characterises the movement by focusing on tumblr sub-groups such as otherkin, spoonies, and people who get their limbs surgically removed [citation needed] because they identify as disabled, rather than sustained attention to the writings or activism of bell hooks or Angela Davis. By defining intersectionality as people identifying as dragons (which isn’t to throw them under the bus, identify as whatever you want, I don’t mind) undermines the very real struggles of trans people seeking to eke out safe existences for themselves. To take just one guardian story from yesterday, 50% of trans teens have attempted suicide. Personally I think proclaiming solidarity in the struggle for their rights is a good thing to do, I’m not sure a leftism willing to relegate trans or race issues to second place is a leftism worth having, which is why the polarity Nagle upholds at one stage: ‘Milo and his Tumblr-dwelling gender fluid enemies’, is so mystifying. Milo’s enemies could just as easily be described as women of colour in the real world, or the trans folk he was planning to out during his campus tour.

Nagle’s argument that the alt-right developed in opposition to the left seems peculiar, as it seems that racism, anti-semitism, isolationism emerges from a political tendency that is readily identified. Further, rather than taking Milo seriously when he says things like this, one could argue that these figures foremost within the alt-right have opportunistically identified a number of demographic scapegoats which media platforms are not above bashing now and again, or persistently. Perhaps longer term historical trends such as racism or the war on terror might be more to blame for these views entering the mainstream than the left, or Gramscian theory.

It is unfortunately typical for Nagle’s analyses to take insufficient account of power relations, providing sympathetic points of departure for alt-right agents, such as male suicide rates and an ‘intolerant’ or ‘dogmatic’ feminists, but not leftist contingents composed of BAME groups or the disabled. On the one hand Nagle summarises the left as represented by performatively self-abnegating comments of no-marks such as Arthur Chu, monolithically useless, disengaged, ineffectual, on the other their Chomskyian logics have created and been co-opted by an alt-right that have taken over the US presidency. A greater focus on class from the liberal left would be a good thing to see, but I would argue it is not to be found here.

The iron rule holds true; never trust a writer who cites the Sokal hoax.

The Ideology of Wonder Woman

Diana’s ideological apprenticeship begins in her childhood, when she inherits a Manichaean account of her history, both personal, and familial. According to the schema provided by Queen Hippolyta, all humans used to live in a golden age of conflict-free egalitarianism which was destroyed by Aries, the film’s intermittently real antagonist, who sewed discord in the hearts of men, and made them turn against one another. The Amazons were a superhuman race created by Zeus in order to mediate relations between men, and for a time this was apparently successful, until the Amazons rose up in a violent insurrection against this narrowly circumscribed role (which is compared with slavery), to establish a militaristic community on the island of Themyscira. The film gives no indication that it’s a collectivist society, but there’s no direct evidence of private property, and everyone seems to know each other. It also suits my argument to assume that it’s a communist utopia.

Diana’s objective on leaving the island with American spy-pilot Chris Pine is to kill Ares, the divine agent of conflict that she believes to be the only possible explanation for World War I. Once Ares dies, she believes, the war will come to an immediate end, as the corruption within men’s hearts will be done away with . Chris Pine indulges Diana in this regard for most of the film, but believes it to be unlikely that Ares truly exists in the way that Diana envisions.

When Erich Ludendorff is dispatched, the avatar, as Diana believes, of Ares, she is dismayed to find that the military-industrial infrastructure, and the great war more generally, seems to be proceeding anyway. Chris Pine then explains to Diana that the conflict is the inevitable outcome of mankind’s inherent flaws (tendencies towards violence, militarism), than the influence of Ares, though in his account, the number of squabbling aristocrats in Eastern Europe and nationalism don’t gets a mention, nor the Aristotelean account of the ways in which unequal societies are more unstable, a view Diana would be familiar with, given the extent of her erudition. I consider this within the context of Chris Pine’s general demeanour and/or blatant impatience when Diana challenges his analyses in any given context and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Chris Pine’s explanations for Anglo-American societal customs are unsatisfactory or simplistic; it’s indicative of a general condescension his character exhibits towards Diana.

It turns out that David Thewlis’ character, the seemingly benign member of Imperial War Cabinet, is in fact Ares, and I think what is at stake in this is the text’s perspective on revolutionary violence.

As Diana’s childhood understanding holds it, the struggle for a better society is a question of fights between the already empowered, the god Ares and herself. Ordinarily I would say this they are analogous to the landholder class, but Noam Chomsky’s impressionistically applied, and vaguely conspiratorial ‘masters of mankind’ category might be more adequate in this case. As such, the political struggle is a war of personalities, one which is, in Diana’s words, not about what one ‘deserves’, i.e. the fulfilment of the social compact, but what one ‘believes’, the sincerity of one’s desire to improve the world. That one’s intentions are sufficient justification for any given course of action in contrast to an appeal to inherent human dignity overlooks the fact that the Amazons initially emancipated themselves from slavery by violent means and further re-endorses the reactionary aspects of her binaristic childhood education of good v. evil, without leaving space for possible change in the future. Ares, as the linchpin of all evil, avarice and imperialism exists, a transcendental representation of evil, but no such space is provided for an aspiration to true good, only a belief, or faith, that one’s ‘good’ actions amount to an improvement, which is due to woman and man’s essential nature, as flawed.

In many ways this film traces the trajectory of a young woman moving away from home, finding her reality was not as straightforward as she imagined, but accepting a sequence of base level facts as a foundation for any further analyses or beliefs, facts provided by Chris Pine, that skulduggery and incrementalism are the only legitimate path to political change. Which is very open to argument.

This political reality Diana is re-construed within requires a Lacanian account. Wonder Woman relates Diana’s entry into a relation with the name of the father; a repressive and constrained reality beyond the complete pleasure and authentic relation with her mother/the broader community of Amazons on Themyscira, which runs parallel to the rather simplistic bildung maturity narrative. The scene where Diana quizzes Chris Pine about his penis size, then talks about his watch is the most revealing in this context, given that the watch was a gift from his father, it’s freighted with patriarchal baggage, which is bolstered by the fact of him giving it to her in the moment that he consolidates their relationship with his male speech act. Chris Pine’s watch, represents both mechanistic industrial and patriarchal time, and his phallus, and exists in contrast to the nostalgic eternal past of Themyscira, reflects Diana’s internalisation of a patriarchal capitalistic modality of existence. At a crucial moment in the film’s final battle, the film’s utterly spurious love-sex plot with Chris Pine, allows her to break out of a steel enclosure Ares forms around her, rather than for example, having her aunt/her mother/the fate of collectivism in Themyscira prove sufficient motivation. Further, when in London, the smoky, industrialised, poverty-striken landscape, her ‘feminine’ attributes come to the fore to a greater extent, she is drawn to a baby she sees in the street, for example.

Utopias in Wonder Woman are usually framed and evoked by the opposite of the London landscape; foliage and greenery, as in Themyscira, the moment that Ares reveals his own prospective vision of a conflict-free utopia to Diana, and in one of the final shots in the film, which features Diana and the soldiers, formerly on opposite sides in the war, embracing in a bombed-out airfield, framed by trees and the setting sun. This reflects a fusion of the industrialised, capitalist and patriarchal order and the soft, pre-industrial, earth mother that Diana and the Amazons embody.

The final point to grasp is that the film provides the audience with a personification of transcendental evil in the figure of Ares, but no means of grasping a transcendental good, because the evil is also present within people. People are capable of carrying out good acts, but only in the form of futile sacrifices of themselves as representatives of the lumpen or in moments of collective celebration as in London at the end of the war, but these cannot be translated into broader political action, or a societal paradigm.

Far from the usual case wherein, as a revolutionary communist, one identifies with ‘the bad guy’ in films such as these because of the extent to which these films endorse ownership of private property, these models of agrarian utopia do not provide a stable means of proceeding. If that utopia is in any way analogous to the one that prompted the Amazons to revolt, it’s fairly obvious that it will depend on female exploitation. The notion that the Amazons provide a curative for man’s hardness (industrialisation, time, violence) with their softness, is a binary construction, which is why Isabel Maru is the villain of the film; she is deformed, ugly, Other, she fails to live up to the soft feminine ideal and crosses over into monstrosity, due to her interest in science, industrial processes. Both women, of course, go weak at the knees over Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman proves that Maoism is the only true revolutionary struggle as it mobilises the lumpen, but after or during the revolution, you have to kill all the men.

Literary Cluster Analysis

I: Introduction

My PhD research will involve arguing that there has been a resurgence of modernist aesthetics in the novels of a number of contemporary authors. These authors are Anne Enright, Will Self, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. All these writers have at various public events and in the course of many interviews, given very different accounts of their specific relation to modernism, and even if the definition of modernism wasn’t totally overdetermined, we could spend the rest of our lives defining the ways in which their writing engages, or does not engage, with the modernist canon. Indeed, if I have my way, this is what I will spend a substantial portion of my life doing.

It is not in the spirit of reaching a methodology of greater objectivity that I propose we analyse these texts through digital methods; having begun my education in statistical and quantitative methodologies in September of last year, I can tell you that these really afford us no *better* a view of any text then just reading them would, but fortunately I intend to do that too.

This cluster dendrogram was generated in R, and owes its existence to Matthew Jockers’ book Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, from which I developed a substantial portion of the code that creates the output above.

What the code is attentive to, is the words that these authors use the most. When analysing literature qualitatively, we tend to have a magpie sensibility, zoning in on words which produce more effects or stand out in contrast to the literary matter which surrounds it. As such, the ways in which a writer would use the words ‘the’, ‘an’, ‘a’, or ‘this’, tends to pass us by, but they may be far more indicative of a writer’s style, or at least in the way that a computer would be attentive to; sentences that are ‘pretty’ are generally statistically insignificant.

II: Methodology

Every corpus that you can see in the above image was scanned into R, and then run through a code which counted the number of times every word was used in the text. The resulting figure is called the word’s frequency, and was then reduced down to its relative frequency, by dividing the figure by total number of words, and multiplying the result by 100. Every word with a relative frequency above a certain threshold was put into a matrix, and a function was used to cluster each matrix together based on the similarity of the figures they contained, according to a Euclidean metric I don’t fully understand.

The final matrix was 21 X 57, and compared these 21 corpora on the basis of their relative usage of the words ‘a’, ‘all’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘are’, ‘as’, ‘at’, ‘be’, ‘but’, ‘by’, ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘had’, ‘have’, ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘I’, ‘if’, ‘in’, ‘is’, ‘it’, ‘like’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘no’, ‘not’, ‘now’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘one’, ‘or’, ‘out’, ‘said’, ‘she’, ‘so’, ‘that’, ‘the’, ‘them’, ‘then’, ‘there’, ‘they’, ‘this’, ‘to’, ‘up’, ‘was’, ‘we’, ‘were’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘which’, ‘with’, ‘would’, and ‘you’.

Anyway, now we can read the dendrogram.

III: Interpretation

Speaking about the dendrogram in broad terms can be difficult for precisely the reason that I indicative above; quantitative/qualitative methodologies for text analysis are totally opposed to one another, but what is obvious is that Eimear McBride and Gertrude Stein are extreme outliers, and comparable only to each other. This is one way unsurprising, because of the brutish, repetitive styles and is in other ways very surprising, because McBride is on record as dismissing her work, for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

Jorge Luis Borges and Marcel Proust have branched off in their own direction, as has Sara Baume, which I’m not quite sure what to make of. Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have formed their own nexus. More comprehensible is the Anne Enright, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, F. Scott FitzGerald and Virginia Woolf cluster; one could make, admittedly sweeping judgements about how this could be said to be modernism’s extreme centre, in which the radical experimentalism of its more revanchiste wing was fused rather harmoniously with nineteenth-century social realism, which produced a kind of indirect discourse, at which I think each of these authors excel.

These revanchistes are well represented in the dendrogram’s right wing, with Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes having clustered together, though I am not quite sure what to make of Ford Madox Ford/Joseph Conrad’s showing at all, being unfamiliar with the work.

IV: Conclusion

The basic rule in interpreting dendrograms is that the closer the ‘leaves’ reach the bottom, the more similar they can be said to be. Therefore, Anne Enright and Will Self are the contemporary modernists most closely aligned to the forebears, if indeed forebears they can be said to be. It would be harder, from a quantitative perspective, to align Sara Baume with this trend in a straightforward manner, and McBride only seems to correlate with Stein because of how inalienably strange their respective prose styles are.

The primary point to take away here, if there is one, is that more investigations are required. The analysis is hardly unproblematic. For one, the corpus sizes vary enormously. Borges’ corpus is around 46 thousand words, whereas Proust reaches somewhere around 1.2 million. In one way, the results are encouraging, Borges and Barnes, two authors with only one texts in their corpus, aren’t prevented from being compared to novelists with serious word counts, but in another way, it is pretty well impossible to derive literary measurements from texts without taking their length into account. The next stage of the analysis will probably involve breaking the corpora up into units of 50 thousand words, so that the results for individual novels can be compared.

Re-reading Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

A book that I’m looking forward to reading, that doesn’t exist yet, is an academic account of how Irish contemporary fiction went, in such a short space of time, from social realism, to the precociously sentenced art writing with dissociative narrators that now composes the Irish literary milieu. It’s the sort of thing that was probably brewing for a long time, these trends tend to be, but I first became aware of it when Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2013. It caused a bit of stir in the literary press at the time, for its supposed uncompromising experimentalism, and its fraught, J.K. Rowling-esque publication history. Critics compared it to Marcel Proust or Samuel Beckett, but I don’t think there was a single review that didn’t mention James Joyce.

In the works of Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh or Claire-Louise Bennett, there are certainly comparisons to be made along these lines, but I think McBride is the novelist of the current generation who is suffering most egregiously under these comparisons. This leads to a kind of distortion that McBride has spoken about recently, saying that it’s ‘a way of not being seen’. Claire Lowdon, writing on McBride’s prose style in Areté, has used the Joyce comparisons as a way of demeaning the novel’s experimental qualities, saying that they are ‘redundant’ and ‘artificial’:

Having invoked Joyce, Joyce has to be McBride’s standard. She has taken all the difficulty and none of the brilliance.

Lowdon’s reading is important and thorough, but I have problems with it. The most significant one being that I think it’s nonsensical to say that just because a work is in some way formally indebted to Joyce has to be 1) as good, 2) as innovative and 3) as good and as innovative in exactly the same ways. I think it’s a very strange point to make that we should benchmark a writer relative to their influences , particularly when this is a comparison furthered more by the laziness of critics than something that McBride has taken upon herself. It’s also inadequate to assume McBride and Joyce’s modernisms are coterminous; I happen to think that they’re rather distinct in a number of significant ways.

Firstly, it’s clear that A Girl is more formally aligned with the Wake than with Ulysses, but taken relative to the former, A Girl manifests far less attention to the materiality of language. In A Girl, there’s less puns, there’s less references, there’s less leitmotifs. It’s also possible to make sense of A Girl without reference to other works. But it’s a mistake to regard this as McBride’s failure to live up to her twentieth century modernist aesthetics. An example from the novel’s opening that Lowdon cites reads as follows:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

‘Wait and hour and day’, carries with it the vague association with the phrase ‘a year and a day’ but it doesn’t strictly make sense in that context, there’s no clear reason for the semantic distortion. But there’s also no requirement that there is, nor that it add up to some enormous mythic framework in the same way that the Wake does. I think that once we approach the novel from this position, one which takes account of McBride’s actual concerns, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated understanding that doesn’t amount to downgrading her because of her perceived inadequacy in relation to Joyce.

By her own admission McBride retains an interest in nineteenth century novels with less self-consciousness about their language or processes of meaning-making. She has cited the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as significant, particularly as an example of proto-modernism, or modernism in a nascent stage of its development, wherein human intersubjectivity was beginning to make itself known within the novel while the tenets of realistic fiction was still trying to accommodate it. Being aware of the fact that The Lesser Bohemians is not the novel under discussion, it’s important to note the way in which it demonstrates this interplay. Within the context of what has been referred to by the author as a ‘modernist monologue’ there is a very sensationalistic narrative in which a character lays out their life story in a very direct and straightforward manner in the same way that you might find extended and directly rendered narratives nested within nineteenth century novels. McBride has said that this is a very deliberate formal mechanic which is pertinent to the text’s thematic concerns, as it is a novel about relating to another person in spite of one’s traumatic past:

In the end you tell a person and you have to use the words that they’ll understand.

What makes McBride’s modernism distinct then, is the centrality it gives to the conveying of narrative information, deploying it as a means of bringing the reader closer to

physical experience, to write about the female experience…the reader can partake in the experience.

McBride has said that the language of A Girl, was written in a way that would create a physical experience for the reader, an immediacy on the page that is reminiscent of theatre. She’s expressed frustration at the content of many of her reviews which have emphasised the quality of the language at the expense of the novel’s content, which she regards as very significant. This stands in contrast to the tradition of the Wake or other modernist works famed for their unintelligibility, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is a novel that she has spoken about dismissively for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

This stated interest in what the book is ‘about’ and a reader-centric ethic, is I think at least a partial reversal of expectations within the modernist tradition. McBride’s modernism is therefore conceptualised, not as a constructed textual estrangement from reality, but an attempt to bring it closer, to a dwelling-place of authentic being. Not that it’s likely to close off such comparisons in the future.

Re-Reading Anne Enright’s ‘The Gathering’

When it comes to reading Anne Enright’s novels, I am guilty of teleological thinking. This is because I believe her most recent novel, The Green Road, to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read and until I’d read that, I believed The Gathering to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read. So, there is an extent to which I have come to view her oeuvre as an inexorable movement towards the twin apotheoses of these two works.

What is interesting then, about the history of The Gathering’s composition, is that is seems to have begun almost as a run-up to The Green Road. It was initially Enright’s intention to make The Gathering a Faulknerian 500-some page novel that would follow three generations of the Hegarty family through a century of Irish history, from the early 1900’s to the early 2000’s. The section in the novel in which the whole family is gathered for their brother Liam’s funeral, certainly seems to emulate the set-piece of The Green Road’s Christmas dinner, albeit with substantially less information given about each family member. The Gathering apparently ‘fell apart’ in the drafting process, and became the far more fragmented work we now have, one which is at war with its own historical consciousness, an allegory of modern Irish history which acts as the novel’s framework.

Take Veronica’s account of her very Irish family, which is at once a detailed account of her own, as well as Irish families in a more general sense:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. There are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift.

Take, also, Veronica’s name. The biblical Veronica wiped Jesus’ face witha piece of cloth, and took its imprint. A heavily freighted name, and one which carries with it the burden of creating truly mimetic art, an aspiration towards the re-creation of causality on the page which Veronica mostly fails to live up to. Veronica is conscious of all this, making fun of her mother in the following aside: ‘Such epic names she gave us — none of your Jimmy, Joe or Mick.’

The allegory also manifests itself in the novel’s portrait of the hundred years of Irish history from below. There is a suggestion that Veronica’s grandmother was a sex worker, part of the generation of ‘reformed’ prostitutes put into halfway houses by the church to dry out until they were deemed fit to re-join society. Veronica theorises that her grandmother was one of these, in an attempt to explain her brother’s suicide, and her family’s general fucked-up-edness, but casts doubt on her account even she advances it, dismissing it as ‘A dusty, middle-class fantasy, of crinkled stockings and TB, and hunkering to wash over a basin on the floor’.

Her narrative fails to account for Liam’s suicide. No shape that she puts on the narrative remains secure because Liam, her grandmother and her uncle, (institutionalised due to his being abused), are not victims in isolation, they are part of a far broader generation of victims over the state’s history, whether they be ‘fallen’ women put into Magdalene laundries, rape victims institutionalised on the suggestion of their rapists (who were often family members) or children molested and beaten in industrial schools. It is only after these testimonies begin to surface in public life that Veronica remembers witnessing Liam’s abuse, and places it within a national chronology:

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family — a whole fucking country — drowning in shame.

Over the next twenty years the world around us changed and I remembered Mr Nugent. But I never would have made that shift on my own if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes.

Of course, The Gathering is just one attempted explanation, for just one victim, and it can’t be expected to take the burden of just how many there were. This is highlighted at a stage in the novel in which Veronica visits as mass grave at a mental institution that has been recently closed:

Just one cross — quite new — at the end of a little central path. A double row of saplings promise rowan trees to come. There are no markers, no separate graves. I wonder how many people were slung into the dirt of this field, and realise, too late, that the place is boiling with corpses, the ground is knit out of their tangled bones.

Throughout the text, bones are associated with the act of narration, Veronica comforts her hand with the neat ‘arc’ of a cuttlefish bone, and feels for her children’s bones when she embraces them, enjoying their symmetry and their apparent lack of complication. The image of ‘tangled’ bones provides little hope of ever reaching closure for the innumerable victims of the Irish state’s negligence and cruelty.

To what extent The Gathering is about the history of systematic female oppression might all be Veronica’s contrivance, or Enright’s; she is not a heavy-handed novelist, and it is not just Veronica’s uncertainty that would prevent us from taking this reading up wholly, but Enright’s subtlety. (The one scene we might quibble with is one set in an asylum named St. Ita’s, a brief history of the saint’s role in embodying a feminine ideal is given also).

Perhaps any account is doomed to failure, knowing how pockmarked the historical record is by aporia and silence, enforced or otherwise, the extent of the suffering will be passed over, particularly as long as the state’s policy is to remain stingy with the provision of compensation or the bodies responsible continue to ‘deny till they die’.

I add it in to my life, as an event, and I think, well yes, that might explain some things. I add it into my brother’s life and it is crucial, it is the place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of an x. In a way, it explains too much.

So Enda wrote a poem about homelessness

Automatic Writing

Camden Street, Harcourt Street, George’s Street, Smock Alley.

No bells from the churches, no urban foxes, no first snowflakes.

Just the boom-boom of a bass, somewhere in the distance.

Rats skittering, across sodden blankets, beds of needles.

On our journey, people laughing, having the craic.

Making the most of their night out, under Christmas lights, strung high on streets, over strung-out people.

On Grafton Street, a Gucci sign beams over the remnants of humanity.

(Source)

What does this poem say?

It begins with four street names. A sense of placement and of movement: a short stroll round Dublin’s Southside.

Then three negations: “no… no… no…”. What is missing? Church bells, foxes, winter’s first snows. A Christmas card scene, an idyllic picture of Dublin, present in the form of an absence: a haunting.

Then contrast. A bass throbbing in the distance, no poetic quality, no imagery, just onomatopoeia: “boom boom”. The vulgarity of nightlife…

View original post 886 more words