Tag Archives: Anne Enright

How modernist are the contemporary modernists?

I initially began my doctorate with an investigation into a literary trend which was at that stage was already beginning to wind down, in favour of the resurgence of a critical theory inflected magical realism, which I would probably argue has now achieved hegemonic status. In and around 2014, five or so Irish and British writers, as well as their critics, were using the word ‘modernism’ to talk about their more recent work, and I’m thinking here in particular of Will Self, Eimear McBride, Anne Enright and Sara Baume. I was interested in investigating whether or not these trends could be detectable on a quantitative level and what words were indicative of the more obvious points of comparison, twentieth century modernism as compared to twenty-first century modernism, as well as the more implicit co-ordinates, such as twentieth-century realism or twenty-first century realism. For various reasons, primarily institutional, my area of study has changed quite significantly, but I feel I would be remiss if I did not in some respect answer the question I began with, now that I am actually equipped to do so from a logistical point of view. The following few paragraphs talk about the adopted method, so if you’re a stranger to some of this stuff or, like me a few years ago, you’re broadly ignorant of statistical and regression methods, feel free to skip to the results section.

Method

The first problem which confronts us in a study such as this is the definition of a baseline of modernist style, against which we can locate our contemporary modernists. Once we’ve done that, we can identify the degree to which any given text deviates from this ‘norm’. The most established means of quantifying the literary style of any given text, is to perform distance clustering on the normalised relative frequencies of a text, i.e., the percentage a particular word commands in the text’s overal length converted into z-scores. Transforming numbers into z-scores involves altering them such that their mean is 0, the standard deviation is 1, and each number basically indicates the number of standard deviations they reside from this mean. Peforming distance clustering on numerical vectors which represent novels is called the ‘Delta’ method and I talk a bit more about it and how well it works here. Below is an image of a frequency table which gives some indication of how these frequencies look.

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On the far left we see author, title and date of publication and in each of the cells we see the relative frequency for seven of the most frequent words in our corpus. As we would expect, these are words like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘to’, etc. If we look at the figure in the top left, we see that the word ‘the’ appears 3.65 times in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, whereas it appears 4.7 times in Louisa May Alcott’s A Modern Cinderella. As far as the word ‘the’ goes, then, A Modern Cinderella exists at a distance of 1.05 from Agnes Grey (4.7–3.65 = 1.05). Now imagine that this process happens for every word (5000) between every novel in the corpus (1173), divided by the total number of words we extracted (again, 5000). This is what is at the basis of Delta distance.

We have a relatively even spread of nineteenth century fiction (568) versus twentieth century fiction (605). There’s also one eighteenth century text, written by Maria Edgeworth, which I labelled as nineteenth. At an early stage I anticipated trying to divide these two categories into modernist, anti-modernist and proto-modernist as opposed to classical realist versus continuity realism, but given the current state of the discourse, wherein what was revanchist victorianism is now modernism etc., I decided not to, and to adopt time as a less contentious variable instead. Effectively then we are tracing the stylistic change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. This is a slight adjustment to the goal posts in terms of the aim of this study and reflects the assumption that what we trace when we analyse the change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century will organically correspond to a modernist signal. As far as the actual contents of the corpus goes, the contents in the image above are symptomatic, I’ve gone for standard bearers of nineteenth century and twentieth century literature, whoever you can name off the top of your head I probably have in there, Woolf, Dickens, Lewis, Barnes, Joyce, Conrad, Mansfield, Stein, Wells, Kipling etc. etc. It is quite skewed towards canonical texts, but in my defense, it’s almost impossible to find digital copies of texts by non-canonical authors.

Since we are interested in the words which come into prominence from one century to the text, one potential method which were considered are t-tests, which are used in order to assess whether or not the mean difference between two numerical vectors are significant. We could loop t-tests along our data, identifying whether from the twentieth century to the nineteenth century the words ‘the’, ‘we’, ‘of’, ‘days’ or ‘thought’ increase in their relative frequencies. We would then identify the words which do manifest a significant change, whether this is an increase or a decrease. However, there are complicating factors here, not least that we don’t have an equal number of samples from the nineteenth century, which is something that t-tests would require. If we are not interested in randomly sampling the twentieth century, we would have to omit them. Large numbers of t-tests also give us back large numbers of false positives, even with a false detection algorithm applied to our results after the fact.

Regression then, seemed to provide the best chance of a result, given that we are dealing with what is effectively an either/or problem; was this novel written in a style more indicative of century a or century b? Regression is a method for investigating the relationship which exists between one variable and another variable. We might, for example, wish to investigate the relationship which exists between the age and the height of fifty people. We plot the results of our data, then we place a regression line through the data. There is a very slight upward slope here, which would seem to indicate that there is a relationship between how old you are and how tall you are.

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This is a stupid example of course, but it gives an indication of what regression is supposed to do, namely, investigate the relationship between two variables and fit a line or model which offers the most robust explanation. If you look at how the data points scatter along the regression line, we can see that it makes a decent stab at predicting how 30–45% of the data falls out. It’s really wide of the mark at predicting that there is a 35 year-old in our dataset who is 3 feet tall, there is quite a significant distance there between the predicted value (4′ 10) and the actual observed value. This is called a residual. When all the residuals are summed and squared, they are referred to as the sum of the squared residuals and it is the aim of regression of this type to minimise the value of this figure as much as possible by coming as close as we possibly can to hitting as many of the observed values.

However, before throwing our data into a linear regression, we need to ask ourselves if this really suits the problem. As we can see, age is any number between 18 and 60, making it continuous, whereas our dependent variable is categorical, i.e. it is either ‘nineteenth’ or ‘twentieth’ century. This is an either/or problem, the answer is a probability between zero and one. Logistic regression is therefore the best means of approaching this problem. However again, complications remain. We have a large number of variables here (relative frequencies of about 5000 words) and we don’t know which ones are important and which ones are not. It’s relatively straightforward to regress for a categorical outcome when you have a relatively small sample of variables, but here we have a lot, all of which might be potentially interesting. If we throw thousands and thousands of variables into our logistic regression though, we will get what is referred to as an overfit model. Rather than creating a model which can capture and identify borderline cases, the corpus will separate absolutely into nineteenth and twentieth century, which sounds like it would be a good thing, but would actually result in an overly rigid template unfit to make actual judgements. Therefore we attenuate the influence of particular variables, reducing their value across the board to the same extent; this is called regularisation and the amount by which we regularise each variable is arrived at, again, by minimising the sum of the squared residuals and is embodied in the value attached to our lambda value.

Results

A lot of what I’ve been describing in the previous pararaph functions, for the most part, in the backend of R, most statistical libraries that carry out regularised regressions contain standard implementations. So, this is the type that we use, a cross-validated model obtained from glmnet, such that each variable is made regular according to what minimises our residuals. We can then extract the most significant predictors, the words which are best suited to identifying a text written in the nineteenth century as opposed to the twentieth. Initially we tried to use the predict() function, which would provide us with a figure between zero and one which would give us the certainty of a particular judgement. We would then correlate this vector of numbers with our word frequencies and identify which words are most closely correlated with relative certainty. Unfortunately in this instance there were no high effect sizes, so we looked at our co-efficients given optimal lambda; lambda which reduces the sum of the squared errors. Now, on some level we should be wary of these co-efficients, these are selected almost at random in order to explain the most data variation, but they’re better than nothing and furthermore interesting from the perpspective of content.

It is interesting to note first of all, just how parsimonious this model is; cv.glmnet() manages to reduce us down to just 138 words as opposed to the 5000 we present to the model. Secondly, it is interesting to note that there are far more predictors for the nineteenth century (82) as opposed to the twentieth (56). This suggests that the nineteenth century possesses a far more coherent style, whereas the twentieth century is obviously pulling in too many heterogenous directions to be summarised to the same extent. Before we talk about them in detail, in roughly descending order of importance, I’ll readily admit that yes, how we interpret these can vary, some nouns are verbs, some verbs are nouns, some are both and separating one for the other has everything to do with context, there are broad generalisations here on offer, but this seems to me to be both the fundamental hazard as well as the asset of CLS in general.

The nineteenth century vocabulary breaks down into a few different categories, the first are words to do with emotions, the overwhelming majority of which seem to be on the negative end, between ‘vexation’ , ‘reproach’, ‘despair’ ‘dismal’, ‘misfortune’, ‘sorrow’, ‘spite’ and ‘tears’, only ‘delight’ represents an exception to this rule.

Present-tense verbs, the sort of things most characters in these novels find themselves doing are difficult to synthesise but all seem within the realm of what people in novels spend most of their time doing: ‘entering’, ‘declaring’, ‘noticing’, ‘pointing’, ‘throwing’. We also have the infinitives of ‘resist’, ‘tread’, ‘wish’, ‘allow’, ‘deceive’, ‘fetch’, ‘comprehend’ , ‘give’, ‘take’, ‘lend’ and ‘induce’, all of which seem to suggest the general traffic of social interaction and interchange.

We have some past tense verbs including ‘proposed’, ‘treated’, ‘obtained’, ‘seated’, ‘ascended’, ‘fastened’, ‘obliged’, ‘expressed’, ‘consented’, ‘fancied’, ‘quitted’, ‘cried’, ‘accompanied’, ‘returned’, ‘took’, ‘darted’, ‘promised’ and ‘taken’. We also have ‘retired’, which I found very satisfying, being as it is within the realm of the sorts of verbs Joyce uses in his parodies of nineteenth century writing.

The nouns on offer in nineteenth century writing seem to vary slightly, breaking down into vague references to the immediate environment, with words such as ‘heap’, ‘circumstances’, ‘particulars’, ‘companion(s)’, as well as more clear references to social contracts and milieu ‘occupation’, ‘character’, ‘account’, ‘intellect’, ‘deal’, ‘manner’, ‘fortune’, ‘heir’, ‘prospects’ , ‘promises’ and ‘present.’ The adjectives break down into good: ‘earnest’, ‘good-natured’ and ‘respectable’ against bad: ‘low’. We also see a few more abstract or idealistic nouns associated with otherworldly values such as ‘temptation’.

Nouns to the fore in the twentieth century are far more concrete and seem to foreground a commodity economy, with the nouns less significant and opening up less to broader values with ‘moustache’, ‘electric’, ‘apple’, ‘hat’, ‘chimney’ and ‘wire’. More abstract tendencies are manifested in words like ‘jesus’, ‘adventure’, ‘problem’, ‘response’, ‘comment’, ‘personality’ and ‘humour’ and ‘vision’.

Present-tense verbs drop off quite significantly, and those that remain are far less active in any sense, we get far less moving around in an environment and much more in the way of ‘wearing’ and ‘slipping’. ‘Whistle’ also appears. Past tense verbs like ‘picked’, ‘faced’, ‘slipped’, ‘smiled’, ‘sighed’, ‘protested’, ‘knew’, ‘realised’, all emphasise social interchange, but also seem to point more towards a bit more of an inward focalisation.

Colloquial words like ‘anyhow’, ‘weren’t’ and ‘aren’t’ seem to be predictors here, as well as adjectives which are far more toned down aside from ‘amazing’, which is the exception, we have ‘normal’, ‘decent’, ‘grey’, ‘responsible’, ‘main’, ‘quality’ and ‘different’.

Finally, we have words which make overt references to the passing of time, such as ‘dusk’, ‘later’, ‘latest’ ‘afternoon’ and ‘spring’.

Grouping all these findings impressionistically, it would seem as though twentieth century literature can be defined i) by its attenuated affect, ii) more of an interior disposition iii) a movement away from physical action, iv) a concurrent movement away from the material facts of social relations in toto in favour of their symptoms in the form of a commodities, v) the introduction of colloquial language.

Some of these trends in macro detail on the barplot below:

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We then used this model trained in order to prise nineteenth and twentieth century literature apart on the contemporary modernists, the complete works of Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Will Self and Sara Baume (at time of writing) were presented to the model. Now, some of you may have noticed the problem with this approach. We have trained the model to differentiate nineteenth century fiction from twentieth, and therefore it’s hardly well set up to differentiate twenty-first century fiction influenced by modernism from twenty-first century fiction not influenced by modernism. It’s a fair point, and if I were writing my thesis on this subject, training a proper model would be what I was doing here. However, I’m not committing as much of a statistical no-no as might at first be thought. For instance, a key part of my analysis of this modernist resurgence has to do with its status as a revanchist, rather than a revolutionary, modernism. And I do mean this more particularly for Will Self and some of Eimear McBride’s most well-placed, and misinformed, critics, these are the only ones truly on record as saying ‘this is modernism’ ad nauseum. Take Self’s observation that post-modernism offers no classicism from which a truly novel aesthetic can be formulated. This is not an aesthetic which emerges concurrently with a period of social and political revolution which affords some degree of insight into the newly emergent bourgeois individual in the proletarianised urban environment, rather it attempts to scoop up the literary prestige associated with modernist literature, understood as Woolf, Joyce and one or two others, the hegemonic criterion by which literature departments, publishers and literary monthlies assess ‘worth’ and sell it back to you wholesale against YA, Netflix or whatever else it is you have to set yourself against in order to be a serious reader.

I expected that the passage of time would fill the gap and that all these novels would be judged as modernist, but in fact the opposite happened; only Anne Enright’s novel What Are You Like? came back as such. Trying to find out why this was the case, we used glmnet’s predict() function, which gives us a figure between 0 and 1 indicating the level of certainty one way or the other. We then correlated this figure with all the word frequencies we have, in order to identify where this certainty that all the contemporary modernists, are in fact quite traditional in their approach, originates.

Words which were decisive in identifying these texts as nineteenth century in the overwhelming majority of cases include their use of past tense verbs such as ‘walked’, ‘opened’, ‘married’, ‘tried’, ‘liked’, ‘talked’, ‘watched’, ‘decided’, ‘kissed’, ‘lifted’, ‘pushed’, ‘stayed’, ‘slept’, ‘slipped’, ‘ate’, ‘wiped’ and ‘spoiled’.

Adjectives like ‘easy’, ‘middle’, ‘clever’, ‘ordinary’, ‘foolish’, ‘fierce’, ‘sober’, and ‘irish’, pronouns such as ‘she’ and ‘herself’ and finally, nouns like ‘side’, ‘dress’, ‘floor’, ‘sorrow’, ‘blame’, ‘cloth’, ‘veil’, ‘rail’ and ‘treasure’.

In conclusion then, we might say that contemporary modernism in fact fails to embody modernism’s stylistic disposition in a key number of ways and in fact harkens back to a pre-modernist stylistic tendency in its investment in action verbs in the past tense. The relative abscence of modern also technology seems to be a feature here too and a more pronounced affective turn also seems to undermine these novels in their aspiration, real or formulated, towards a modernist aesthetic. It is finally interesting to reflect a bit on What Are You Like?, within Enright’s career it reflects a crux from the magical realism of her short stories and The Wig my Father Wore more towards quite an affectless reflection on identity and psychology. I’ll update this post with more examples once I have a copy of the book to hand, for the moment you’ll just have to trust me on that. Interesting to note as well, that towards the end of the novel the main characters’ mother delivers a soliloquoy from hell in a way quite reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, an encouraging parallel within a study of this kind.

Electoralism in Mike McCormack’s ‘Solar Bones’

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Mike McCormack’s novel Solar Bones can be regarded as of a piece with the resurgence of Irish neo-modernism, enacted variously by writers such as Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh and Claire Louise-Bennett. The motivations underpinning neo-modernism in other sectors, be it the academy, poetry, performance art and architecture, are highly varied and will not be treated in full here. I would contend that these writers in particular have advanced modernist aesthetics in the name of a feminist agenda, deterritorialising the masculinist stylistic tropes formerly associated with writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett et al. and putting it to radical political ends. McCormack’s modernism, I argue, aligns him more closely with his Anglophone peer Will Self, who tends to distillate their writing through quite academic notions of ‘what ‘proper’ modernism shouldlook like’. Self, in his war against the modern reader and their smartphone, seems to have adopted modernism as a rearguard action against post-modernity’s fallout, seeing it as the only means of producing ‘a new classicism’. This formalist objective has the effect that some of the texts in his modernist trilogy can take on the shape of a normative or flatpack modernism. Solar Bones, far from being as schematic as Umbrella,neverthelessengages very deliberately with the notion of the individual in society and how that broader ‘mass’ might best be understood from a narrative perspective, belying its distillation through quite scholarly theories of ‘what modernism is’.

It should be noted that, contrary to many, many reviews reporting the opposite, Solar Bones is not composed of one long sentence.Solar Bonescontains paragraphs, margins, and the rhythm is always subject to an intensely calculated amount of control, which renders the text an eminently readable one. What these paragraphs do facilitate, is a break with chronological time, and any given blank space might bring the reader anywhere from ‘the present’, an hour in the life of the novel’s protagonist Marcus Conway, to his childhood, his late adolescence, or an average working day before the event of his retirement. This disconnectedness exists less to fragment than to illuminate, to represent Galway as existing within a global totality, with references to news events such as the transmission of H5N1 across species barriers, car bombings in Baghdad, pessimistic economic forecasts, or the west of Ireland’s unconstructed water infrastructure inert on a drawing board in Ottawa. His games with time and space allow McCormack to realise in novelistic form, the impersonal political and economic forces which govern the life of every citizen in the state, as in this paragraph in which his daughter’s birth certificate is signed:

it fixed her within a political structure which undertook to spend a percentage of its GDP on her health and her education and her defence among other things and over twenty years later I can still feel something of that mysterious pride which swept through me as I sat there behind the steering wheel, the uncanny feeling that my child was elevated into something above being my daughter or my own flesh and blood — there was a metaphysical reality to her now — she had stepped into that political index which held a space for her in the state’s mindfulness, a place that was hers alone and could not be occupied by anyone else

The quotation above is indicative of a scope and ambition of Solar Bones, rarely glimpsed elsewhere in Irish fiction, which allows McCormack to delve into issues such as emigration, without dependence on prior convention, and present a convincing portrait of late-stage capitalism, a mode of production in which his son Darragh, has far less in the way of career prospects than he did, and the steady paternalist order which he represents, is slowly fading away. All of this serves to make McCormack a novelist as good as bringing politics into conversation with literature which refracts reality as anyone writing in Ireland today (Anne Enright aside).

One might almost frame the style as the realisation of the dialectic in literary form, minutely tuned to the mechanics of action, reaction, stimulus and response. This is not to say that it is immune to being overcooked at times, ‘giddy fit of enraged irrationality’ being just one example. McCormack’s cadences can be so expertly balanced that he winds up in a compulsive even-handedness. Solar Bones thereby becomes a machine for the reproduction of its own style, which enacts in turn a significant number of exclusions, constructions and silences. The political ramifications of this are most visible when Marcus describes his son’s concept of a role-playing game based on the H-Block hunger strikes in the eighties:

all his night spent poring over accounts of the hunger strike till he had amassed a broad and detailed comprehension of the background material and the complex political context in which the strike occurred with all its ebbs and flows, all its moves and countermoves

All these ebbs, flows, moves and countermoves produce a gentle and rocking inflection which imply that the conflict was in some sense equal, rather than determined by coercion exerted by the British state and the desperate strategies which arise in response to occupation. Another example, when Marcus speaks about his voting preferences:

I have, through the years, voted left, right and centre, each time doing so with some shade of that solemn meeting at the gable of the house renewing itself and prompting me, time and again that sense of consequence which attends putting a stroke on a ballot paper coming to me in the prvacy of the voting booth as it did

Here we see the return of the gentle, rolling and rollicking, and elegant dip and bend, precise whirling and turning and ripping and riving and jumping and jiving of the sentence almost weaving in and out before our eyes, as though the choices being weighed up in the voting booth were somehow neutral; when society is viewed as being interconnected, and subject to thermodynamic laws of reaction/counter-reaction, everything is flattened, and class struggle is nowhere to be seen.

It is through Marcus’ vocation as an engineer and his increasing disenchantment with Irish politics, its failed attempts to make manifest an authentic spirit of social democracy that the book’s political disposition is most legible. Twice in the text, Marcus’ expertise is frustrated by gombeen men, aspiring parliamentarians and councillors pushing a parish-pump agenda, trying to get their photographs taken on the front of local newspapers to secure re-election rather than building a sustainable infrastructure. At one point the gombeen politician begins to sound like Marcus’ parochial cosmology, which I don’t think was the intended effect:

I’ve spent the last three years trying to build an electoral base in the south-west corner of this county, the largest and most far-flung constituency in the whole country — leaflets, clinics, church gate collections — the whole lot, anything to harvest a quota of first preferences in an area with no major urban centre, just a few scattered villages, an area which is, by and large covered with some of the wildest bogs and the highest mountains in the whole province, an area populated in the main by black-faced sheep, none of whom, to the best of my knowledge has the vote, because if they did I would be sitting on a nice fat surplus…till then I have to take to the highways and the byways of this country for funerals and festivals

highways/byways, funerals/festivals, ebbs/flows, moves/countermoves…

This even-handedness is most detectable in the novel’s representation of the 1977 general election, the year in which the Fine Gael/Labour coalition was wiped out by Fianna Fáil under Jack Lynch. However, no party, nor key political figure is named. Instead we get euphemisms such as ‘law and order party’, ‘blue and green’. This may sound unfair on McCormack, and may well be due to Ireland’s libel laws, but I feel very strongly that it is a tremendous loss to Irish literature that Liam Cosgrave does not appear in a televised address during the biggest failure of his political career, or indeed during the campaign when he pledged to run down English elements of our commentariat like ‘mongrel foxes’, which is to say nothing of how much hay he could have made with Labour TD James Tully’s catastrophic attempts to re-draw the national constituency boundaries in advance of the election. In occasions such as this the form of the novel seems to be at odds with its attempt to make a serious political intervention; while the novel does the local and the global well, the national between these layers seems to be missed.

I find this novel’s choice to elide all the systems at work on the national level, while representing and naming two incompetent and cynical gombeen men and thereby implicitly diagnose irish politics’ problem as a populist spirit aiming at fulfilling the grubby wishes of unwashed rural voter unfortunate, and too much an outgrowth of views expressed in many sectors of our media, both national and private. Marcus isn’t a saint, but i’d argue the novel positions him as a benevolent philosopher king, capable of making long-term decisions that our political system of proportional representation cannot. This is attested to by his narrative ability to zoom out and ‘go cosmic’, both throughout the body of the novel (the mundane nature of everyday reality and memory considered through the screen of modernist sentencing expanding and expanding until its takes on the shape of a window into the universal) and at its end, when he begins to sense the beginning of a communion with God, ‘a fellow engineer’.

This is underlined by the fact that his wife remains, like Molly Bloom, very much rooted in the physical, the only time she touches the face of the divine is, quite revealingly in my view, in the context of ‘fucking the world into redemption’. Her being infected with the cryptosporidium parasite (her various physical ailments, discharges receives no small amount of narrative attention) places her in the realm of the fleshly, which is to say nothing of the young attractive waitress Marcus eyes up for a bit too long in a café towards the end. (Please, please, please, can I never read another novel where a middle-aged man lustily eyes up a young woman). Women have bodies, they are flesh, associated with food, sex, sickness and warmth, men are cold, have thoughts, think about politics, eventualities, the future, what roads are made of, they’re Angry, but in a way that’s somehow Important. Men’s thoughts are the stuff of novels, while women undress themselves, parade naked in the streets performing inscrutable (and perhaps frivolous) performance art and create installations.

I am, in case this is not clear, talking about Marcus’ daughter, Agnes. Agnes is a visual artist, whose major work takes the form of a sequence of excerpts from local newspapers:

when I got him to the ground, Your Honour, I administered

we have stood by him even though he has caused us untold grief

a series of consecutive slaps, Your Honour

which appear to Marcus as follows:

the red script which covered the entire gallery from ceiling to floor along its length, handwriting in various types and sizes, a continuous swathe of text…all dealing with court cases which covered the full gamut from theft and domestic violence to child abuse, public order offences, illegal grazing on protected lands, petty theft, false number plates, public affray, burglary, assault and drink-driving offences…rising and falling in swells and eddies through various sizes and spacings, congested in the tight rhythms of certain examples only to swell out in crashing typographical waves in others, a maelstrom of voices and colour

Now, for me, this description amounts to nothing less than the text’s repressed stylistic unconscious, and its attempts to put a shape onto the restlessness of postmodern experience breaking through the polished, male, modernist veneer. The maelstrom of voices, the subterranean accounts of voiceless victims of state exclusion battling with The Great Narrative of the Declining Man; it’s no wonder Marcus nearly gets sick and has to leave the gallery. Marcus is an old-fashioned realist, who dislikes his son use of the term ‘onto-political’ and rubbishes revolutionary proposals for political change because he views it as impossible to get hard-nosed rural voters on board with workers’ soviets. He prefers instead the causality of modernist time, the supra-structure, after which the novel is named:

upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible from the moment I get up in the morning and stand at the kitchen window with a mug of tea in my hand, watching the first cars of the day passing on the road, every one of them known to me

It would be great to see McCormack’s next work take on issues related to the troika and the recession, one in which would require him to name names, and might pressure a narrator such as Marcus to investigate the root causes behind the normative governing structures of the country he’s representing being put under greater and greater levels of pressure.

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.

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

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.

Can a recurrent neural network write good prose?

At this stage in my PhD research into literary style I am looking to machine learning and neural networks, and moving away from stylostatistical methodologies, partially out of fatigue. Statistical analyses are intensely process-based and always open, it seems to me, to fairly egregious ‘nudging’ in the name of reaching favourable outcomes. This brings a kind of bathos to some statistical analyses, as they account, for a greater extent than I’d like, for methodology and process, with the result that the novelty these approaches might have brought us are neglected. I have nothing against this emphasis on process necessarily, but I do also have a thing for outcomes, as well as the mysticism and relativity machine learning can bring, alienating us as it does from the process of the script’s decision making.

I first heard of the sci-fi writer from a colleague of mine in my department. It’s Robin Sloan’s plug-in for the script-writing interface Atom which allows you to ‘autocomplete’ texts based on your input. After sixteen hours of installing, uninstalling, moving directories around and looking up stackoverflow, I got it to work.I typed in some Joyce and got stuff about Chinese spaceships as output, which was great, but science fiction isn’t exactly my area, and I wanted to train the network on a corpus of modernist fiction. Fortunately, I had the complete works of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence to hand.

My understanding of this recurrent neural network, such as it is, runs as follows. The script reads the entire corpus of over 100 novels, and calculates the distance that separates every word from every other word. The network then hazards a guess as to what word follows the word or words that you present it with, then validates this against what its actuality. It then does so over and over and over, getting ‘better’ at predicting each time. The size of the corpus is significant in determining the length of time this will take, and mine required something around twelve days. I had to cut it off after twenty four hours because I was afraid my laptop wouldn’t be able to handle it. At this point it had carried out the process 135000 times, just below 10% of the full process. Once I get access to a computer with better hardware I can look into getting better results.

How this will feed into my thesis remains nebulous, I might move in a sociological direction and take survey data on how close they reckon the final result approximates literary prose. But at this point I’m interested in what impact it might conceivably have on my own writing. I am currently trying to sustain progress on my first novel alongside my research, so, in a self-interested enough way, I pose the question, can neural networks be used in the creation of good prose?

There have been many books written on the place of cliometric methodologies in literary history. I’m thinking here of William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups, Mallarmé’s infinite book of sonnets, and the brief flirtation the literary world had with hypertext in the 90’s, but beyond of the avant-garde, I don’t think I could think of an example of an author who has foregrounded their use of numerical methods of composition. A poet friend of mine has dabbled in this sort of thing but finds it expedient to not emphasise the aleatory aspect of what she’s doing, as publishers tend to give a frosty reception when their writers suggest that their work is automated to some extent.

And I can see where they’re coming from. No matter how good they get at it, I’m unlikely to get to a point where I’ll read automatically generated literary art. Speaking for myself, when I’m reading, it is not just about the words. I’m reading Enright or Woolf or Pynchon because I’m as interested in them as I am in what they produce. How synthetic would it be to set Faulkner and McCarthy in conversation with one another if their congruencies were wholly manufactured by outside interpretation or an anonymous algorithmic process as opposed to the discursive tissue of literary sphere, if a work didn’t arise from material and actual conditions? I know I’m making a lot of value-based assessments here that wouldn’t have a place in academic discourse, and on that basis what I’m saying is indefensible, but the probabilistic infinitude of it bothers me too. When I think about all the novelists I have yet to read I immediately get panicky about my own death, and the limitless possibilities of neural networks to churn out tomes and tomes of literary data in seconds just seems to me to exacerbate the problem.

However, speaking outside of my reader-identity, as a writer, I find it invigorating. My biggest problem as a writer isn’t writing nice sentences, given enough time I’m more than capable of that, the difficulty is finding things to wrap them around. Mood, tone, image, aren’t daunting, but a text’s momentum, the plot, I suppose, eludes me completely. It’s not something that bothers me, I consider plot to be a necessary evil, and resent novels that suspend information in a deliberate, keep-you-on-the-hook sort of way, but the ‘what next’ of composition is still a knotty issue.

The generation of text could be a useful way of getting an intelligent prompt that stylistically ‘borrows’ from a broad base of literary data, smashing words and images together in a generative manner to get the associative faculties going. I’m not suggesting that these scripts would be successful were they autonomous, I think we’re a few years off one of these algorithms writing a good novel, but I hope to demonstrate that my circa 350 generated words would be successful in facilitating the process of composition:

be as the whoo, put out and going to Ingleway effect themselves old shadows as she was like a farmers of his lake, for all or grips — that else bigs they perfectly clothes and the table and chest and under her destynets called a fingers of hanged staircase and cropping in her hand from him, “never married them my said?” know’s prode another hold of the utals of the bright silence and now he was much renderuched, his eyes. It was her natural dependent clothes, cattle that they came in loads of the remarks he was there inside him. There were she was solid drugs.

“I’m sons to see, then?’ she have no such description. The legs that somewhere to chair followed, the year disappeared curl at an entire of him frwented her in courage had approached. It was a long rose of visit. The moment, the audience on the people still the gulsion rowed because it was a travalious. But nothing in the rash.

“No, Jane. What does then they all get out him, but? Or perfect?”

“The advices?”

Of came the great as prayer. He said the aspect who, she lay on the white big remarking through the father — of the grandfather did he had seen her engoors, came garden, the irony opposition on his colling of the roof. Next parapes he had coming broken as though they fould

has a sort. Quite angry to captraita in the fact terror, and a sound and then raised the powerful knocking door crawling for a greatly keep, and is so many adventored and men. He went on. He had been her she had happened his hands on a little hand of a letter and a road that he had possibly became childish limp, her keep mind over her face went in himself voice. He came to the table, to a rashes right repairing that he fulfe, but it was soldier, to different and stuff was. The knees as it was a reason and that prone, the soul? And with grikening game. In such an inquisilled-road and commanded for a magbecross that has been deskled, tight gratulations in front standing again, very unrediction and automatiled spench and six in command, a

I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking that there’s some merit in parts of this writing. I wonder if there’s an extent to which Finnegans Wake has ‘tainted’ the corpus somewhat, because stylistically, I think that’s the closest analogue to what could be said to be going on here. Interestingly, it seems to be formulating its own puns, words like ‘unrediction,’ ‘automatiled spench’ (a tantalising meta-textual reference I think) and ‘destynets’, I think, would all be reminiscent of what you could expect to find in any given section of the Wake, but they don’t turn up in the corpus proper, at least according to a ctrl + f search. What this suggests to me is that the algorithm is plotting relationships on the level of the character, as well as phrasal units. However, I don’t recall the sci-fi model turning up paragraphs that were quite so disjointed and surreal — they didn’t make loads of sense, but they were recognisable, as grammatically coherent chunks of text. Although this could be the result of working with a partially trained model.

So, how might they feed our creative process? Here’s my attempt at making nice sentences out of the above.

— I have never been married, she said. — There’s no good to be gotten out of that sort of thing at all.

He’d use his hands to do chin-ups, pull himself up over the second staircase that hung over the landing, and he’d hang then, wriggling across the awning it created over the first set of stairs, grunting out eight to ten numbers each time he passed, his feet just missing the carpeted surface of the real stairs, the proper stairs.

Every time she walked between them she would wonder which of the two that she preferred. Not the one that she preferred, but the one that were more her, which one of these two am I, which one of these two is actually me? It was the feeling of moving between the two that she could remember, not his hands. They were just an afterthought, something cropped in in retrospect.

She can’t remember her sons either.

Her life had been a slow rise, to come to what it was. A house full of men, chairs and staircases, and she wished for it now to coil into itself, like the corners of stale newspapers.

The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it is a lot shorter. I started off by traducing the above, in as much as possible, into ‘plain words’ while remaining faithful to the n-grams I liked, like ‘bright silence’ ‘old shadows’ and ‘great as prayer’. In order to create images that play off one another, and to account for the dialogue, sentences that seemed to be doing similar things began to cluster together, so paragraphs organically started to shrink. Ultimately, once the ‘purpose’ of what I was doing started to come out, a critique of bourgeois values, memory loss, the nice phrasal units started to become spurious, and the eight or so paragraphs collapsed into the three and a half above. This is also ones of my biggest writing issues, I’ll type three full pages and after the editing process they’ll come to no more than 1.5 paragraphs, maybe?

The thematic sense of dislocation and fragmentation could be a product of the source material, but most things I write are about substance-abusing depressives with broken brains cos I’m a twenty-five year old petit-bourgeois male. There’s also a fairly pallid Enright vibe to what I’ve done with the above, I think the staircases line could come straight out of The Portable Virgin.

Maybe a more well-trained corpus could provide better prompts, but overall, if you want better results out of this for any kind of creative praxis, it’s probably better to be a good writer.

The Political Economy of the New Modernists

 

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A few weeks ago I saw the inaugural event of the Dublin Book Festival, which was a panel discussion between the novelists Anne Enright, Lisa McInerney and the poet Pat Boran. They were speaking on the publication of a book entitled Beyond the Centre, a collection of 26 essays reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Irish Writer’s Centre, from the perspective of various figures from within Dublin’s literary scene. It was a great panel, and Seán Rocks did one of the best jobs as a moderator that I can recall seeing. Enright was caustic and witty, going off on how The Irish Times will commission hundreds of articles by female writers about being a woman watching the US election, but none about policy, how she doesn’t think men have a gender, and her recollections of the younger writers of her generation being shunted into the backs of vans at the start of their careers while the Johns Banville and McGahern were driven around in limos.

As someone writing a doctorate which involves an analysis of Enright’s fiction, I was hoping that the things she said would stray into areas pertinent to my work. I knew she was unlikely to talk about quantitative analysis, and the sorts of things that my dissertation will actually be pivoting around, but if at all possible I hope to cram some stuff about the socio-economic milieu that the new modernists come out of, into my dissertation, as a refutation to the infuriating yet pervasive canard of industrialisation + world war = first-wave modernism.

Enright obliged, and I got a substantial amount of notes on how the currently established generation of authors got a leg up early in their careers from a cultural exchange in the nineties arranged by the then Irish and French presidents, Mary Robinson and François Mitterand. Enright has written in the past on what it was like to live in the Ireland of the 80’s, with the intensifying contradictions between the Republic of McQuaid, with its laws against suicide, contraception, homosexuality, and the newly globalised, open to foreign investment Ireland, beginning to become apparent in our public discourse.

As Diarmaid Ferriter writes in his book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970’s, these signs of ‘increased modernisation, secularisation, Europeanisation and consumerism have to be placed in the context of a republic that…had ultimately created a conservative, authoritarian governing culture, that…created a very wide definition of dissent’. There is in this quotation, a nuanced and useful reading of these two different Irelands in tandem with one another, rather than as divergent. Too often in cultural studies of Ireland, I’m made aware of the phenomenon of the ‘time warp,’ and the ways in which parts of the Irish political landscape seem to be rooted in truisms not from the last century, but the one before that. Ferriter’s take is more subtle than this, thankfully.

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The time warp is a conceptual tool that tries to account for the ways in which Ireland as a state can simultaneously manage to be the beneficiary of an economic boom powered by the development of information technologies on the West coast of the United States while being complicit in the captivity and enslavement of women, to give just one example. As we well know, the capitalist nation state, both historically and in our present moment, is not a static enough concept to abhor contradictions of this kind. It might even be said to thrive on them. It is for this reason that the concept of the time warp is a bit useless, in that it instantiates a notion that we are always moving forward in some way; despite the appearance that some of these ‘kinks’ might give off, they’ll be ironed out in good time. (There’s a well-meaning senator with a report on the matter brewing in some back office on Kildare Street for nigh on half the term of the currently sitting government, and a seventieth of the Dáil might even show up on the day it’s to be discussed, just sit tight.) In order for particular ideologies to function, pockets of our society in which the most vulnerable reside must have their existences subject to relegation or dismissal as time warps, as if artefacts of the nineteenth century have the habit of peskily colonising the twenty-first. This gesture allows us to dispense with aspects of our national identities which might otherwise bring us to a point of contradiction. To take one example, Ireland can simultaneously believe itself to be a nation that is charitable, and LGBT-friendly, while placing many of those fleeing persecution (sometimes for their sexual orientation) in detention centres for an indefinite span of time.

Enright, among other things I’m sure, considers herself a product of this particularly Irish cultural discord, writing rather brilliantly in her work, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, about a particularly divisive time in Irish public life, the eighties, and its role in her attempted suicide, which I will now quote from at length:

I fell out of the world, temporarily, on Easter Monday 1986…Maybe I had Seasonal Affective Disorder, maybe it is genetic, maybe it was me being in my twenties, maybe it was Ireland being in the 1980s.

The older I get the more political I am about depression, or less essentialist — it is not because of who you are, but where you are placed. Ireland broke apart in the eighties, and I sometimes think that the crack happened in my own head. The constitutional row about abortion was a moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes — including my own — with unfathomable bitterness. The country was screaming at itself about contraception, abortion, and divorce. It was a hideously misogynistic time. Not the best environment for a young woman establishing a sexual identity, you might say, especially one with adolescent morbidity and tendencies towards ecstatic suffusions of light, one who was over-achieving, but somehow in all the wrong ways, one who was both maverick and clever. I mean, what do we need here, a diagram?

…I…wrote some books. They were fragmented books, because this is what I knew best, but also, I fancied, because I lived in an incoherent country. They were slightly surreal, because Ireland was unreal. They dealt with ideas of purity, because the chastity of Irish women was one of the founding myths of the Nation State (well that was my excuse). But they were also full of corpses. Beautiful ones, speaking ones, sexual ones, bitter ones; corpses who did not forgive, or rot. Who was the corpse? It was myself, of course, but also Christ, the dead body on a stick. And it is the past that lies down but will not shut up, the elephant in the national living-room.

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To read these paragraphs, and the other paragraphs in the same chapter (do pick it up, it is so, so good) is to become aware of how irrelevant women’s health and their autonomy was to the Irish establishment of the time. It’s no surprise then, that the Irish literary establishment was mostly suspicious regarding the raft of new wordists who came to a kind of prominence in the late eighties and early nineties, the vanguard of whom was probably Roddy Doyle, though Enright also named Patrick McCabe as a trailblazer. This generation’s early novels weren’t reviewed, and when they were, they were eviscerated. This apparent lack of a domestic audience, or the unwillingness of the tastemakers to cultivate one, required that Irish authors sell themselves abroad, and only then, by commodius vicus of recirculation, return to the domestic market. This route generally led to euphemistic conversations about formal qualities such as ‘lyricism’ and other such words acting as stand-ins for question marks over one’s authenticity.

This is why the cultural exchange’s timing was so opportune, and made, by necessity, Irish authors far more permeable to international influences. They all gained hugely from it, ‘they’ meaning, I assume Enright, Joseph O’Connor and Deirdre Madden.

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Donal Donovan and Antoin C. Murphy’s study, The Fall of the Celtic Tiger: Ireland and the Euro Debt Crisis requires us to take a leap forward about by just under two decades and outline the ways in which Ireland’s position changed from a peripheral, insufficiently industrialised state, ‘the poorest of the rich,’ to a contemporary globalised market economy within the framework of the European Union. No Irish citizen who remembers the eighties will be unaware of the effect that this union has had on our general standards of living. I think. I wasn’t alive at the time. But I am interested in what this change from peripheral backwater to post-modern globalised economy has on our self-perception. It is perhaps inevitable that we encounter the time warp once again, albeit in the context of Ireland’s leap into means:

while the ‘catch-up’ paradigm explains part of the story, the speed and extent of Ireland’s transformation was primarily driven by high-tech multinationals, the vanguard of a major worldwide revolution in information technology…in the post-industrial high-tech world, these concepts had started to become anachronistic.

So too do many governing metaphors of the literary landscape become de-legitimised. The matter of literary influence in particular, becomes increasingly knotty in a global marketplace. Brian Dillon writes in the London Review of Books that if there is a modernist resurgence in Irish literature today, it is less a return, than a demonstration of the extent to which authors today can draw from any number of traditions, even experimental ones. As such, it is less important to talk about the new modernists because they’re Irish, but what this literary self-identification signifies. Not all of this is voluntary, of course; just being a female novelist in Ireland has a profound political resonance, as anyone familiar with the career of Edna O’Brien will know.

The Irish free State made clear its suspicion regarding modernism and modern art in general, by introducing film censorship in 1923. The first Irish review of Ulysses was also blocked by the printer of The Dublin Magazine, forcing its author, Con Levanthal, to set up a one-off journal, Klaxon. The Catholic Truth Society took an active role in Ireland’s cultural life over the next few decades by stymieing the dissemination of anything perceived as indecent, modern, or Protestant. Those of the literary world reacted to this with outrage, as these bans generally effected avant-garde works rather than pornographic ones, but their objections never translated into popular political support. David Dickson, in Dublin: The Making of a Capital City,points out that this emphasis on censorship can ignore the extent to which musical and theatrical forms often thrived, but for the most part, Dublin was a place to leave in favour of other urban capitals, where one was more likely to obtain a patron, public or private.

This policy didn’t make for good neighbours, of course. As Eavan Boland wrote, ‘No two establishments in this community regard one another with more suspicion than those of the Arts and the State.’ This was due to the fact that the Free State’s scepticism regarding modernism extended, to the arts in general. The Arts Council existed, in name only, up until its role was formalised in the late seventies. Up until then, it provided cheques to artists on a hand to mouth basis, had no women on its board and had no particular remit or code of behaviour. Public funding for the arts was also about 30% less than in the United Kingdom.

Related to this, (I know I’m moving around a lot, but it’ll come good in the end), Garret FitzGerald’s analysis of Ireland joining the EU was as follows:

Our independence was won for us just in time to enable most of Ireland to enter to European Community as one of Europe’s ancient nations, rejoining once again the Europe from which for so many centuries she was cut off by the imposition of British rule. We shall negotiate our entry as a sovereign state…the voice of Ireland will be heard in Europe in the decades ahead. But for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been. We have the right to believe that they will feel as they view this prospect that their sacrifices were not all in vain.

Despite the gloss that FitzGerald puts on Ireland’s joining the union as in a continuity of Irish independence movements, Ferriter argues that Ireland joined primarily because England was joining. The dominant understanding of Ireland’s membership is one of economic, social and cultural gain; lucrative agricultural grants, social justice legislation, worker protections, consumer and environmental regulation, all have their origins in EU initiatives. In a cultural sense however, it can be seen an inducing another form of peripherality, relative to the wider continent, rather than to England. Ireland is, after all, a relatively small state in a union driven by larger nations. Joe Lee has argued that joining the union has had the effect of encouraging our leaders to continue to apportion blame for their failures to external factors, rather than scrutinising and reforming our own industries and regulatory frameworks. The playwright Brian Friel viewed the Irish state around this time as a ‘tenth-rate image of America’ and indeed, there seemed to be little to distinguish the Ireland open to multi-national capital and foreign direct investment, a consumer-driven economy in the post-modern sense, from any other Western city.

Works from Enright’s oeuvre such as The Portable Virgin, The Wig my Father Wore and The Forgotten Waltz, all fit rather nicely within this interpretation, and inventively engage with the conversation between traditional mainstays of Irish identity and the post-modern market economy which had grown up around them, which made the old certainties complicit, as much as it ‘unsettled’ them.

I’ll talk about the ending of the short short story ‘The Portable Virgin’ because it seems to encapsulate a lot of what I’m talking about:

I am sitting on Dollymount Strand going through Mary’s handbag, using her little mirror, applying her ‘Wine Rose and Gentlelight Colourize Powder Shadow Trio’, her Plumsilk lipstick, her Venetian Brocade blusher and her Tearproof (thank God) mascara.

My revenge looks back at me, out of the mirror. The new fake me looks twice as real as the old. Underneath my clothes my breasts have become blind, my iliac crests mottle and bruise. Strung out between my legs is a triangle of air that pulls away from sex, while my hands clutch. It used to be the other way around.

I root through the bag, looking for a past. At the bottom, discoloured by Wine Rose and Gentlelight, I find a small, portable Virgin. She is made of transparent plastic, except for her cloak, which is coloured blue. ‘A present from Lourdes’ is written on the globe at her feet, underneath her heel and the serpent. Mary is full of surprises. Her little blue crown is a screw-off top, and her body is filled with holy water, which I drink.

The narrator is having an affair, the ins and outs of which we can never be totally certain -each player’s identities remain fluid throughout the story. Dollymount Strand is a significant enough place to consider sumjex and objex, but when one’s extra-marital activities have been ironically genuflecting before a Judi Dench costume drama, also about infidelity and inappropriately stately furniture, the stakes feel as though they have been heightened. The various accoutrements of contemporary female identity ‘Gentlelight Colourize (note the American zee) Powder Shadow’ are to the fore, and while the tacky symbolic representation of old Ireland has been discoloured by the errant make-up, it’s still there. At least until it’s sent surging out to sea at the end. Enright, being a sophisticated as well as an intellectual novelist, doesn’t foreground this sort of thing, that is to say, it doesn’t place demands on the reader as such, it never gets in the way of the fun.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, with its profound sense of formal dislocation, and an origin point within the economically depressed, culturally stifled Ireland of the 1980’s, is another important node of discussion here; McBride has encouraged such analyses by making reference to it as a sort of a refracted autobiography. But while tracing over the wrecked and bloodied sockets of a fragmented subjectivity, it also aims to revivify the cornerstones of the institutionalised modernisms as practiced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. No part of the novel makes this point clearer than the novel’s beginning, because it is its beginning, and uncompromising off the bat:

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.

Not as much to ‘play’ with as Enright might give us, shorter sentences, shorter words, less things, but more baggage, meaning this, of course, in the best possible way. What we have is a swift and deep immersion into the materiality of language, all the rhymes, assonances, repetition and rhythm of which it’s capable, which, in an increasingly bland literary marketplace, is revolutionary. After having read The Lesser Bohemians, and Claire Lowdon’s review of the two of them, I’m slightly loathe to praise it without clarifiers, but I do think there is a lot that it is good in its incorporation of the elements familiar to the Irish misery memoir within a high modernist register. Because misery is for life, not just for the realists.

I hope it will be clear from all this that contemporary modernists draw on a history of formal experimentation, regarded with suspicion by the Irish state with a view to challenging the received wisdom of its theocratic tendencies, marginalisation and violent oppression of women.