Monthly Archives: December 2014

Jorge Luis Borges and the Vindications

A short fiction by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges  called ‘The Library of Babel’ uses the word ‘vindication’ in such a way that merits further discussion. (It would perhaps be more accurate to say that Borges’ translator, in this instance, James E. Irby uses the word in an interesting way).

‘The Library of Babel’ describes an infinite library. There are an infinite number of books that print every possible combination of twenty-five “orthographical symbols.” Namely, the alphabet, a space, a comma and a full stop. The Library is populated by automata without definitive gender, living in a state of monkish aestheticism. The dry, reserved tone of the fiction only contributes to this sparsity of a response in the face of infinitude.

It can be difficult to engage with this narrator and these ‘characters’ because of arid quality the prose has, but as this analysis will show, they do engage in a number of identifiably human behaviours. That is to say, the most fundamental human impulse, the determination to create meaning and order out of such an immeasurable amount of information that it can be said to amount to a conceptual nothingness. Throughout the fiction, the narrator tells us of various sects that have existed within the library who all formulate different, but decidedly reverential strategies in order to grasp this amount of text.

One group, called the Purifiers, declare entire shelves impure or blasphemous, and destroy them. Object fetishists who prefer ‘real books’ and shun e-books may blanch at such a manoeuvre, but as the narrator reminds us: “the Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal…every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma.”

Some modes of veneration go out of style, some sooner than others. One cult opts for a religion of chance to determine the sacred texts, desperate to find a point of departure or standard to compare the rest of the vast collection to. The narrator recalls seeing one of these enactors of the old faith: “in my childhood I have seen old men who, for long periods of time, would hide in the latrines with some metal disks in a forbidden dice cup and feebly mimic the divine disorder.”

It is with the use of the word ‘vindication’ that this fiction takes on its particularly haunting quality. If every possible combination of these twenty-five symbols appears in each book’s neatly formatted “four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines,” an idea takes root for another group, the searchers, that there exists Vindications: “books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in  the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future.” This narrator is blessed/cursed with old age and permitted to see these interpretative strategies for what they are, passing fads that become schemas to help the existentially confused deal with infinite meaninglessness and reminds the reader that though the Vindications do exist, “the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.”

This is possibly one of the most haunting lines I have yet come across in all the books that I’ve read as it posits the existence of the Vindications and, because of how infinity ‘works,’ one could be misled by the infinite number of personal Vindications with significant misprisions and erroneous information. Furthermore, it presents  me with the question as to, if I was faced with this library, would I be brave enough to not look at any of them, knowing how fruitless the search for my Vindication would be?

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark as a Civic Entity

If the citizens of Denmark in the late middle ages were in a position to make their opinions known today, I believe they would be grateful to King Claudius for poisoning King Hamlet, the late King of Denmark.

This is a bold claim, of course, for two reasons. Not only are we removed from them by four to five hundred years, give or take, but neither am I talking about an identifiable group of people that could have said to have existed at any time, because by the citizens of Denmark, I mean fictional characters in a play who never appear onstage. They are, however, referred to by King Claudius, when he explains that publicly executing Hamlet for the murder of Polonius would be impossible, because of how beloved he is among the people:

“the great love the general gender bear him,

Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,

Work like the spring that turneth wood to stone,

Convert his gyves to gyres, so that my arrows,

Too slightly timbered for so loud a wind,

Would have reverted to my bow again

But not where I have aimed them.”

 I was puzzled by these lines and it made me wonder what it was about Hamlet as an individual in a social and political milieu that people would find appealing. True, he is sensitive, intelligent and eloquent, but also criminally self-obsessed and standoffish. Though his cruelty to Ophelia and his killing of Polonius would not have been public knowledge, it remains difficult for me to comprehend this in the context of the play.

Perhaps Hamlet is popular because by virtue of his father’s murder and his uncle’s ascent to the throne means that he has been partially usurped. One should be aware that being in the place of the opposition in a time of turmoil is in some ways a privileged position. One is free to castigate those in power at every opportunity and assimilating public cynicism by making exactly the kind of pointless criticisms that one will endure in turn when in power. One can see Hamlet occupying this role rather well, having a talent for insulting turns of phrase:

Osric. I commend my duty to your lordship.

Hamlet. Yours. ‘A does well to commend it himself.

[Exit Osric.]

There are no tongues else for’s turn.

Critical commentary around Hamlet’s character has focused on how conflicted he is. His soliloquies bear witness to how conflicted he is and his thoughts, feelings and actions are entangled in a complex palimpsest of self-contradiction. However, I would contend perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, that Hamlet is too identical with himself.

He marks himself as an outsider from the start of the play and confesses to being unable to participate in the kind of drunken revelry that is culturally ubiquitous among his fellow Danes:

“But to my mind, though I am native here

And to the manner born, it is a custom

More honoured in the breach than the observance.

This heavy-handed revel east and west

Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations.”

One is reminded of the fact that politicians of today make the decision to live a contradictory life. Regardless of how they may really feel, they must be acutely aware of their audience at all times, particularly at a time when everyone carries at least one recording device on them at any given time. Furthermore, they must watch their words for fear of either destabilising financial markets or a 24-hour Twitter outrage machine with a disproportionate share of media focus. King Claudius would make an effective politician, not only because of his mercenary attitude in deposing his brother but because of his ability to maintain a public façade to mask his true feelings.

One thinks of the scene in which Hamlet is riddled by guilt, unable to murder him while he prays. Hamlet represents his angst in an extended monologue, rich in rhetorical devices and allusion before departing the stage.

“Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;

And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;

And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:

A villain kills my father; and for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven.

O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

He took my father grossly, full of bread;

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?


Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At gaming, swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:

This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.”

While Hamlet self-verbalises, he is totally unaware that King Claudius is just as tortured as he, but simply able to hold his emotions in check for the benefit of the office that he holds:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Hamlet is, to his detriment, only himself. He is honest in his rejection of Ophelia, and makes clear the extent to which his self-loathing would make a relationship between them impossible. He does not disguise his scorn for Polonius or Osric, it is only their own guilelessness that leads them to either declaring Hamlet to be insane, or not noticing at all. In short, he would make a terrible politician.

If Hamlet takes after his father, the Danes would probably thank King Claudius for poisoning him.

Hypertext and Textuality

The current trend within literary studies is to define a text as being a discontinuous, contradictory and open-ended entity. In Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), George P. Landow argues that there is a continuity between these traits that are ascribed to text, as put forward by theorists such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and how hypertextual literature actually functions. For Landow, what these theorists have in common in that they “argue we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of centre, margin, hierarchy and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks.”[1] This nebulous approach  as regards hypertext is fitting because what is innovative about hypertextual narrative is that it contains links that allow a reader to click on a particular word and arrive at a different part of the text. Other navigational aids can also be a part of a hypertext’s interface. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) allows the reader can click on different parts of the Patchwork Girl’s anatomy. The reader is exposed to different lexia or units of text depending on how they navigate and therefore, each reader could ostensibly have a quantifiably different experience of reading the narrative. For Landow, this constitutes a breakthrough in textual theory and means that the theories of the poststructuralist critics mentioned above are vindicated.

Landow identifies Barthes writings in S/Z as productive in describing how hypertext creates meaning. For Barthes:

the good of literary work…is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterised by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of its text and its user…between its author and its reader.[2]

What Barthes is describing here is the familiar idea of the death of the author. Under this schema, the intention of the author in the creation of meaning is marginalised in favour of the reader’s ability to read the text in a more unrestricted way. When reading a hypertext, the reader is allowed freedom of movement within a textual network. The reader is allegedly emancipated from the tyranny of linear, sequential reading and is free instead to plot their own course and develop their own understanding.

This presents the question as to whether pre-hypertextual narratives did not allow the reader free reign of interpretation. A pre-digital or analogue text that may prove illuminating in this context is J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country (1977). The novel is narrated by Magda, an unmarried South African woman living in the veld. Magda is an unreliable narrator and often informs the reader directly that what she is saying is not necessarily to be believed. It is also possible for the reader to notice inaccuracies for herself. On more than one occasion, Magda describes murdering or assisting in the murder of her father in a number of different ways, yet he appears to be alive at points following on from these various murders and also by the end of the narrative. The novel is arranged into lexia in much the same way that hypertexts are. They are rarely longer than a few paragraphs and are numbered, from “1.,” at the start of the novel, to “265.” at the end. Also, like hypertexts, they are non-sequential; the narrative thread that the reader follows depends on their own view of the events that Magda narrates. Perhaps Magda did succeed in murdering her father at the start of the novel and everything that follows after is a contrivance, a justification or a fantasy. Or maybe it is the other way around, and Magda is, as he suggests that she is at times, making the whole thing up.

At first glance In The Heart of the Country may not be visibly replete with links or concordances in the same way that Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story (1990) is but this is to underestimate the ability of the reader to recall links that in analogue novels are more subtly embedded, in descriptive motifs or in imagery. For example, when Magda is narrating, she will often use language that relates to knitting or braiding textiles: “When I was a little girl (weave, weave!)”[3] and “More detail I cannot give unless I begin to embroider, for I was not watching.”[4] This is used to draw attention to the gap that exists between events as the really happened and how amenable they are to being related in narrative form. If In The Heart of the Country was to have a hypertextual interface, uses of the word ‘weave,’ ‘braid’ or ‘embroider,’ would presumably be linked, in the same way that the hypertextual concordance of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is. This would have the effect of concretising or making overt the more subtle connotations of word usage. In short, it would be an interpretative mechanism that would, rather than lift the restrictions on the reader to form individual impressions of the text, coerce them into particular readings that are pre-ordained by being constructed within the hypertext.

Landow conceives of hypertexts as having an encyclopaedic functionality, wherein each word would provide the reader with related information that would in turn branch off in different directions ad infinitum. One of the examples he presents is a hypertextual edition of a novel by Charles Dickens that would provide a historical background, such as information on child mortality, harsh conditions within factories of the time and a history of nineteenth-century London that informs so much of Dickens’ writing. What is problematic about this amount of information being contained within a hypertext is a similar one to the point raised about the overt interleaving of words with one another; it is an interpretative act that would incline the reader towards a socio-historical or Marxist critique of the text. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, but rather than leaving the reader open to pursuing their own autonomous lines of inquiry, interpretations are instead codified into the structure of the text they are reading.

Despite hypertext seeming to be a proof for literary critics who in their theories view text as having neither centre nor periphery, the question is whether hypertext really is a proof, or indeed if this really needs to be proven. Is it instead the case that hypertext is codified to be labyrinthine and interconnected and therefore a visualisation of the kind of text that Barthes describes in S/Z. This is not to say that hypertext is wholly without merit or does not present the critic with useful means of analysing texts, particularly literary works that pre-date the advent of computation to which hypertexts are heavily indebted. The aforementioned Patchwork Girl contains references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) by L. Frank Baum and also includes a number of quotations from the writings of Jacques Derrida. The title of Afternoon, a story (1990) is derived from a line in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), a short story about contingency, infinity and concatenation.[5] The sustained engagement of authors of hypertexts with canonical predecessors can be seen in more recent examples of the form, as in Will Self’s digital essay Kafka’s Wound (2012), which borrows both from Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller. While hypertext may not have much to offer to contemporary textual theory other than a fabricated proof of the infinite referential potential of any given signifier and differential networks of meaning et al., it is perhaps in theories of media or film theory in which it can prove rewarding or productive. Kafka’s Wound, as an example of hypermedia rather than hypertext may serve as a good example of the kind of meaning that is generated when different forms are so closely interlinked and connected, something that could be understood as being truly innovative or at least to some extent without precedent.

[1]Landow, George P., Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (The John Hopkins University Press: 1992), p.2

[2]Ibid, p.4

[3]Coetzee, J.M., In The Heart of the Country (Vintage: 1999), p.6

[4] Ibid, p.1

[5] Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (Penguin Classics: 2000), p.48


Primary Sources

Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (Penguin: 2000)

Coetzee, J.M., In The Heart of the Country (Vintage: 1999)

Jackson Shelley, Patchwork Girl (Eastgate Systems: 1995)

Joyce, James, Ulysses (Vintage: 1993)

Joyce, Michael, Afternoon, a Story (Eastgate Systems: 1990)

Self, Will, Kafka’s Wound: A Digital Literary Essay by Will Self (London Review of Books: 2012)

 Secondary Sources

Gabler, Hans Walter, ‘The Segments and the Whole: An Aspect of Joyce’s Art of Construction,’ (Modernist Versions Project: 2012)

Greetham, D.C., Theories of the Text (Oxford University Press: 1999)

Landow, George P., Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (The John Hopkins University Press: 1992)

Schreibman, Susan, Siemens, Ray & Unsworth, John, A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Publishing: 2004)

Siemens, Ray & Schreibman, Susan (Editors), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell Publishing: 2007)

‘William & Catherine Blake’s Lesson in reading Finnegans Wake’ or ‘In Praise of Stichomancy.’

There is an interesting section in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of poet and visual artist William Blake in which his wife Catherine, (née Boucher) practices the art of stichomancy. Stichomancy is the secular variant on bibliomancy, the opening of the Bible on a random page either in order to divine the future or to gain some spiritual insight. Blake recorded Catherine’s attempt in his notebook: “My Wife was told by a Spirit to look for her fortune by opening by chance a book which she had in her hand it was Bysshes Art of Poetry.”

As those who have practiced stichomancy will know, it rarely fails to produce something of interest or personal significance. From Blake’s account, it was a text by Aphra Behn, a Restoration-era dramatist and poet. Presumably, the erotic poem On a Juniper Tree Cut Down to Make Busks. The poem is just over one hundred lines long, but the following excerpt will be sufficient to give an impression of the overall work:

Kind was the Force on ev’ry Side;

Her new Desires she could not hide

Nor would the Shepherd be denied.

Impatient, he waits no Consent,

But what she gave by Languishment.

The blessed Minute he pursued,

Whilst Love her Fear and Shame subdued;

And now transported in his Arms,

Yields to the Conqu’ror all her Charms.

His panting Breast to hers now joined,

They feast on Raptures unconfined,

Vast and luxuriant, such as prove

The Immortality of Love.

Blake was pleased by the result, probably because of his view of the poem’s moral. For Blake, it was a vindication of the eternal nature of love. It is available here and contemporary readers will probably find it far more problematic than Blake did. He transcribed the poem and then made his own attempt, using John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Ackroyd writes that he locates a passage concerning a tree that withstands the elements because of how deeply fixed its roots are. The exact passage is somewhat difficult to locate, as Virgil uses the image of the tree as an emblem of stamina in the face of adversity a number of times throughout the Aeneid. The following is my best guess.

As, when the winds their airy quarrel try,

Justling from ev’ry quarter of the sky,

This way and that the mountain oak they bend,

His boughs they shatter, and his branches rend;

With leaves and falling mast they spread the ground;

The hollow valleys echo to the sound:

Unmov’d, the royal plant their fury mocks,

Or, shaken, clings more closely to the rocks;

Far as he shoots his tow’ring head on high,

So deep in earth his fix’d foundations lie.

No less a storm the Trojan hero bears;

Thick messages and loud complaints he hears,

And bandied words, still beating on his ears.

Sighs, groans, and tears proclaim his inward pains;

But the firm purpose of his heart remains.

As one will often find oneself doing when practicing stichomancy,  Blake interprets the passage, as having revealed some inner truth, and as he is never far from making proclamations of this kind, declares that he is: “in Gods presence night & day.” This anecdote appears towards the end of Ackroyd’s biography, at which point the reader will be aware that Blake occupied a liminal space in the milieu of the eighteenth century literary scene in his lifetime. He spent much of his life living almost in poverty, his poetry and his paintings went largely unappreciated, partly because of his pusillanimous character and partly because of how uncomfortably his oeuvre sits relative to those of his contemporaries. Even Romanticism, a literary movement noted for its excess of feeling and visionary tendencies, falls short when labelling an author such as Blake. For a man who spent his life in the shadow of less notable peers, this section from Virgil by way of Dryden no doubt provided some level of consolation, especially for a man who invested so much of himself in a belief in the power of imagination and visionary insight to augment a more mundane reality.

It is with this in mind that I propose reading James Joyce’s anti-novel Finnegans Wake stichomantically. Having never found myself capable of reading it in anything other than short bursts, I hope that this technique will provide a door through which one can finally enter. Stichomancy in relation to the Wake has the added bonus of allowing one to bypass the linear drudgery of page after page of sometimes incomprehensible text. This is a book that is kaleidoscopic enough that consuming it sequentially is not mandatory.

The page that I opened the Wake to was page 537 of my Wordsworth edition, a page in chapter III.3 beginning with “mens in gladshouses they shad not peggot stones.” Those of us who have been paying attention to the news in recent years will have noticed and will have become bored by the frequent appearance of the narrative of a public figure saying (or, in the case of Emily Thornberry, former Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, apparently implying something) being called out for it by an amorphous Twitter outrage machine, denying having said it, apologising for having said it and then losing their job over it.

The voice in this section, who I assume to be Henry Chimpden Earwicker, protagonist of the Wake, is apparently making some form of public apology for a perceived indiscretion, the nature of which, is licentious in nature, but not stated directly by the narrator. Joyce’s satirical instincts are in flying form as he represents perfectly the tone of the public apology. Earwicker is both humble and defensive. He appears contrite and yet he is also quite self-aggrandising. As one can see above, he makes a number of references to the nineteenth-century British and Irish political landscape, invoking the liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and refers to the Parnell letters forged by journalist Richard Piggott in an attempt to destroy Parnell’s career. These are issues, arguably of a wider significance than Earwicker’s perceived public improprieties. He makes the link nevertheless.

Furthermore, he seems determined to impose upon those listening, (one thinks of the hapless Leopold Bloom being prosecuted by an angry rabble in ‘Circe’) the narrative of having had a road to Damascus moment, his apology is often framed in terms of a Christian redemption narrative: “allbe I discountenanced beallpersuasions, in rinunciniation of pomps of heretofore…” Earwicker has a penchant for overstatement, promising such an extravagant change in character that it can be considered comparable to the conversion of Ireland from sun-worshipping Paganism to Christianity: “when I will westerneyes those poor sunuppers and outbreighten their land’s eng.” Earwicker is obviously pandering to his audience and despite his pledged renunciation of “pomps,” there remains a sordid undertone to Earwicker’s contrition: “(here incloths placefined my pocketanchoredcheck),” suggesting that this is a mercantile exchange, an attempt to buy bribe the public into approving of him once more.

I will finish this slapdash analysis by drawing attention to one of Joyce’s ingenious palimpsestic neologisms, which combine words into multi-layered puns. On this page, on such example is ‘grubstake.’ A ‘grubstake,’ is firstly, an investment, given to an entrepreneur, with the expectation that the investor will share in the dividends of a particular enterprise. Furthermore, one can detect a reference to Grub Street, a street in East London, known for the density of its population of poets and writers, who would often take on journalistic hack work. What we see in this word, is therefore a synecdoche of one of the themes of this page in general, how mercantilism pervades every aspect of public life and how it is in this environment that public gestures, such as apologies, can often seem contrived. While this reading of the Wake may not prove conciliatory in the same way that Blake’s did, it does prove an effective means of parodying the inauthenticity and the transparently self-interested nature of the public apology.