Tag Archives: finnegans wake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Statistical Correlations in avant-garde prose writing

The question that this blog post sets itself is: What differences and similarities can be detected in modernist and contemporary authors on the basis of three stylistic variables; hapax, unique and ambiguity, and how are these stylistic variables related to one another?

I: The Data

The data to be analysed in this project were derived from an analysis of twenty-one corpora of avant-garde literary prose through use of the open-source programming language R. The complete works of the authors James 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 were used.

Seventeen of these writers were active between the years 1895 and 1968, a period of time associated with a genre of writing referred to as ‘modernist’ within the field of literary criticism. The remaining four remain alive, and have novels published as early as 1991, and as late as 2016. These novelists are known for their identification as latter-day modernists, and perceive their novels as re-engaging with the modernist aesthetic in a significant way.

I.II Uniqueness

The unique variable is a generally accepted measurement used within digital literary criticism to quantify the ‘richness’ of a particular text’s vocabulary. The formula for uniqueness is obtained by dividing the number of distinct word types in a text by the total number of words. For example, if a novel contained 20000 word types, but 100000 total words, the formula for obtaining this text’s uniqueness would be as follows:

20000/100000 = Uniqueness is equal to 0.2

I.III Ambiguity

Ambiguity is a measure used to calculate the approximate obscurity of a text, or the extent to which it is composed of indefinite pronouns. The indefinite pronouns quantified in this study are as follows, ‘another’, ‘anybody’, ‘anyone’, ‘anything’, ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘enough’, ‘everybody’, ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, ‘little’, ‘much’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘no one’, ‘nothing’, ‘one’, ‘other’, ‘somebody’, ‘someone’, ‘something’, ‘both’, ‘few’, ‘everywhere’, ‘somewhere’, ‘nowhere’, ‘anywhere’, ‘many’, ‘others’, ‘all’, ‘any’, ‘more’, ‘most’, ‘none’, ‘some’, ‘such’. The formula for ambiguity is:

number of indefinite pronouns / number of total words

I.IV Hapax

Finally, the hapax variable calculates the density of hapax legomena, words which appear only once in a particular author’s oeuvre. The formula for this variable is:

number of hapax legomena / number of total words

a bar chart giving an overview of the data

II: Data Overview

Even before analysing the data in great depth, the fact that these variables are interrelated with one another stands to a logical analysis. Hapax and unique are best understood as an indication of a text’s heterogeneity, as if a text is hapax-rich, the score for uniqueness will be similarly elevated. Ambiguity, as it is a set of pre-defined words, can be considered a measure of a text’s homogeneity, and if the occurrences of these commonplace words are increasing, hapax and uniqueness will be negatively effected. The aim of this study will be to first determine how these measures vary according to the time frame in which the different texts were written, i.e. across modern and contemporary corpora, which correlations between stylistic variables exist, and which of the three is most subject to the fluctuations of another.

more overviews for each variable

IV.I: The Three Groups Hypothesis

A number of things are clear from these representations of the data. The first finding is that the authors fall into approximately three distinct groups. The first is the base- level of early twentieth-century modernist authors, who are all relatively undifferentiated. These are Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. They are all below the mean for the hapax and unique variables.

boxplot of outliers for the unique hapax variable

The second group reach into more extreme values for unique and hapax. These are Djuna Barnes, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. Three of these authors are even outliers for the hapax variable, which can be seen in the box plot.

Joyce’s position as an extreme outlier in this context is probably due to his novel Finnegans Wake (1939), which was written in an amalgam of English, French, Irish, Italian and Norwegian. It’s no surprise then, that Joyce’s value for hapax is so high. The following quotation may be sufficient to give an indication of how eccentric the language of the novel is:

La la la lach! Hillary rillarry gibbous grist to our millery! A pushpull, qq: quiescence, pp: with extravent intervulve coupling. The savest lauf in the world. Paradoxmutose caring, but here in a present booth of Ballaclay, Barthalamou, where their dutchuncler mynhosts and serves them dram well right for a boors’ interior (homereek van hohmryk) that salve that selver is to screen its auntey and has ringround as worldwise eve her sins (pip, pip, pip)

Though Borges’ and Barnes’ prose may not be as far removed from modern English as Finnegans Wake, both of these authors are known for their highly idiosyncratic use of language; Borges for his use of obscure terms derived from archaic sources, and Barnes for reversing normative grammatical and syntactic structures in unique ways.

The third and final group may be thought of as an intermediary between these two extremes, and these are Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Beckett, Will Self and Anne Enright. These authors share characteristics of both groups, in that the values for ambiguity remain stable, but their uniqueness and hapax counts are far more pronounced than the first group, but not to the extent that they reach the values of the second group.

boxplot displaying stein as an extreme outlier for ambiguity

Gertrude Stein is the only author who’s stylistic profile doesn’t quite fit into any of the three groups. She is perhaps best thought of as most closely analogous to the first group of early twentieth century modernists, but her extreme value for ambiguity should be sufficient to distinguish her in this regard.

The value for ambiguity remains fairly stable throughout the dataset, the standard deviation is 0.03, but if Stein’s values are removed from the dataset, the standard deviation narrows from 0.03 to 0.01.

Two disclaimers need to be made about this general account from the descriptive statistics and graphs. The first is that there is a fundamental issue with making such a schematic account of these texts. The grouping approach that this project has taken thus far is insufficiently nuanced as it could probably be argued that McBride could just as easily fit into the third group as the second. Therefore, the stylistic variables do not adequately distinguish modern and contemporary corpora from one another.

IV.II Word Count

word count for the most prolific authors

It should not escape our attention that those authors who score lowest for each variable and that the first group of early twentieth-century author are the most prolific. The correlation between word count and the stylistic variables was therefore constructed.

Pearson correlation for word count and stylistic variables

Both the Pearson correlation and Spearman’s rho suggest that word count is highly negatively correlated with hapax and unique (as word count increases, hapax and unique decreases and vice versa), but not with ambiguity.

Spearman’s rho for word count and stylistic variables

The fact that the Spearman’s rho scores significantly higher than the Pearson suggests that the relationship between the two are non-linear. This can be seen in the scatter plot.

scatter plot showing the relationship between word count and uniqueness

In the case of both variables, the correlation is obviously negative, but the data points fall in a non-linear way, suggesting that the Spearman’s rho is the better measure for calculating the relationship. In both cases it would seem that Joyce is the outlier, and most likely to be the author responsible for distorting the correlation.

scatter plot displaying the relationship between word count and hapax density
Pearson correlations for word count and each stylistic variable

SPSS flags the correlation between hapax and unique as being significant, as this is clearly the most noteworthy relationship between the three stylistic variables. The Spearman’s rho exceeded the Spearman correlation by a marginal amount, and it was therefore decided that the relationship was non-linear, which is confirmed by the scatter plot below:

Spearman’s rho correlation for word count and stylistic variables

The stylistic variables of unique and hapax are therefore highlycorrelated.

VI: Conclusion

As was said already, the notion that stylistic variables are correlated stands to reason. However, it was not until the correlation tests were carried out that the extent to which uniqueness and hapax are determined by one another was made clear.

The biggest issue with this study is the issue that is still present within digital comparative analyses in literature generally; our apparent incapacity to compare texts of differing lengths. Attempts have been made elsewhere to account for the huge difference that a text’s length clearly makes to measures of its vocabulary, such as vectorised analyses that take measurements in 1000 word windows, but none have yet been wholly successful in accounting for this difference. This study is therefore one among many which presents its results with some clarifiers, considering how corpora of similar lengths clustered together with one another to the extent that they did. The only author that violated this trend was Joyce, who, despite a lengthy corpus of 265500 words, has the highest values for hapax and uniqueness, which marks his corpus out as idiosyncratic. Joyce’s style is therefore the only of the twenty-one authors that we can say has a writing style that can be meaningfully distinguished from the others on the basis of the stylistic variables, because he so egregiously reverses the trend.

But we hardly needed an analysis of this kind to say Joyce writes differently from most authors, did we.

A Lacanian Theory of Literary Style


This post will begin, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a disclaimer. Any attempt to conclusively map Jacques Lacan’s theoretical network of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic onto my own notion of textual ontology, is likely to fall short, or fall to the kind of failure that Louis Althusser’s attempts to hybridise Marxist theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic framework was prone to. Althusser incidentally neglected to take account of the Real, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in understanding it. But this is to perhaps miss the point, none of these categories can be expected to give a full account of themselves, let alone phenomena that they could be mapped to. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:

each of these three orders is singularly ill-equipped to be a guarantor or even a responsible custodian of Truth. The would-be truth-seeker will find that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility.

This is not because Lacan’s theories are incomprehensible, I don’t believe that they are. But if they’re not, they’re just about to cross that boundary. The difficulty of applying these to the act of literary criticism, let alone the apprehension of literary style, has to pass over, to some extent, the degree to which Lacan was engaged in formulating a particular mode of clinical practice. Most of his seminars and lectures, as they appear in the collection Écrits at least, are motivated by the act of analysing a particular patient, partially subverting the popular notion of these French theorists fecklessly knocking back the absinthe while stewing themselves on the divan.

As the polemic aspects of his seminars make clear, Lacan was acutely aware of what we might call the Californian School, which had taken Sigmund Freud’s writings, in a commercial, lifestyle-oriented direction, which aimed to ‘heal’ the subject, de-fragment their psyches and ‘cure’ them of their neuroses. Lacan was horrified by the anti-intellectual tendencies of this school, as well as its simplistic ideation of ‘the ego,’ the actualisation of which the Californian school, and some other French analysts who should know better, took to be the aim of the psychoanalyst. Lacan’s writings, if we could treat them monolithically, therefore aim to complicate the notion of the ego, and undermine our sense of ourselves as a single, complete, individual subject.

The irony of this is that what is probably Lacan’s most well-known contribution to psychoanalysis, the mirror stage, has come to represent this very same tendency of egocentric psychoanalytic thought. The mirror stage is the point at which the human subject, in their first or second year of life, will understand themselves, in simplistic terms, as a singular being, or an autonomous self. It should be noted that no actual mirror is required for this to take place, it can occur in as simple a gesture of the baby moving their arm or something. Some might mistake this moment as something to be celebrated, the moment of the subject declaring itself, or developing a sense of mastery over its own body, but this would be an error. Instead, the mirror stage inscribes the tragic condition of the human subject, as it is not the ego that they identify with, but an ego-effect or Imaginary of the self, which now exerts power over them. In his words:

What is involved in the triumph of assuming…the image of one’s body in the mirror is the most evanescent of objects, since it only appears there in the margins.

This identification is a prelude to the subject’s fall into the Symbolic, an ever-extending network of exchanged meanings in consistent flux. This Symbolic order functions in much the same way as Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories regarding differential economies of signification. As we all know, no signifier (word or image) can be said to truly mean anything. If they do convey sense, it is in the distinction that exists between them and other signifiers, i.e. a tree is a tree because it is not a cat. This ego-effect instantiated at the mirror stage plays much the same role, and as a result it is fragmented, indecipherable and unknowable, as it is wrought out of milieu composed of everything that we understand it not be; it is how we, and our desires, remain mysterious and imperceptible, even to ourselves.

So, how can we make these theories, an amalgam of psychoanalytic discourse and theoretical linguistics pertinent to the reading of a literary text? Well, if we elaborate embroider our sense of the position of the reader somewhat, and transpose it into Lacan’s terms, we might be able to make something productive of the model. He saw the unconscious as not only constructed through language, but by the laws that govern our understanding of language, which explains his dependence on linguistics. We might quarrel with Lacan’s somewhat reductionistic take on the mind’s processes, and many did. The dead end that structuralist linguistics presented was too much for some, and Jacques Derrida gave him a sidelong rebuke once or twice but thereafter both remained too proud to overtly respond to the other. One could at least accept the fact that even if the unconscious isn’t structurally analogous to language, it must be outlined in these terms in the therapeutic encounter. Thereby, the repressions and other operations of the mind remain literary and rhetorical tropes.

One of Lacan’s concern in egocentric psychology was that the analysand was being overwhelmed and projected onto by the ego of the analyst, who, Lacan also believed, was insufficiently analysed themselves in the process. The myopia of both patient and analyst should be equally subject to these techniques, making the therapeutic process truly dialectical:

He communicates to the analyst the outline of his image through his imploring, imprecations, insinuations, provocations and ruses…as these intentions become more explicit in the discourse, they interweave with the accounts with which the subject supports them, gives them consistency…the analyst, who witnesses a moment of that behaviour, finds in it…the very image that he sees emerge from the subject’s current behaviour is actually involved in all of his behaviour.

In the apprehension of a literary text, I think, we see a similar process. Any given reader is driven to exert mastery over the textual materials; as we run our eyes over every word, we wish to understand them, to make them submit or yield themselves up to us. When they do not, we become frustrated. In pursuit of meaning, we also bring our own preconceptions, the discourses of which we are composed of and determined by; only very specific segments of the text’s meaning will be accessible to any given reader. To give an example, a reader of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway who is familiar with London’s topography, will come away with an acute sense of the novel’s landscape, and substantially more detail about Mrs. Dalloway’s position in the social hierarchy of the society of her time than someone who is not. This latter reader, from Paris say, who is familiar with impressionist painting, might notice a certain tendency in Woolf’s prose, to emulate the impressionist style of ambiguous expression, distorted subject and object relations and the use of interior sensibilities to depict reality. In this way, both readers are reading the same book, but very different ones at the same time.

And of course, both these readings develop their own momentum, and move irrevocably towards a certain conclusion. We notice phenomena that accord with our perspective, and gloss over material that contradicts it, especially when outlining an argument in a paper or blog post, as these media require demonstrative examples, rather than lengthy quotations. In this way, we come to identify with a textual imaginary, reminiscent of the ego imago of the mirror stage. Unbeknownst to us, the text is readily circulating through the Symbolic, iterating diffuse and infinitely referential meanings which are created and disbarred in our act of reading. In this schema, the Real would correspond with the unread sections of the text, that which is inaccessible or missed in the act of reading. It is important to say that the Real does not correspond to reality, Lacan means two very different things when he uses these words. In this case, I cannot give a direct example, as this would be antithetical to the notion; it’s slightly impossible to literalise as a phenomenon.

As a prose stylist in his own right, Lacan favoured digression, paradox and wordplay. Incoherence, excess, wordplay, these compose the lexicon of the experimental psychoanalyst.  He praised James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its supposed capacity to access the language of pure signification, without offering any footholds for the reader; in apprehending his style we are confronted with the impossibility of tracing the turning over of signifiers. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the Wake, but it nevertheless allows us to develop an idea of what we should be looking for when we interpret our novels, not merely pursuing similarity, or seeking in it our own reflections; such is the role of the naive positivist; not the serious interpreter. A unified textual style or meaning is therefore a consolatory myth, one which we erect as a buttress agains the impossible, overwhelming quantity of meaning which confronts us when we read a novel. But this is perhaps the point. Lacan’s sense of the ego depends on paranoiac knowledge and networks based on exclusion. Our very ‘selves’ are just images; our personalities alienated responses to indifferent forces.

Who is mediating Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls?’

ErnestHemingway.jpgErnest Hemmingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a peculiar text for a number of reasons. First among which is the tension residing in the novel’s style. Hemmingway’s prose is among the most identifiable of the twentieth century, not just because he’s a canonical mainstay, but because of his commitment to shearing his works of all ‘unnecessary’ verbiage. His work is easily parodied as a result, just avoid adverbs, sub-clauses and never use a poly-syllabic word when a mono- will do.

Hemmingway’s sparse approach is the reason why websites such as http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ exist, which allow you to ‘write like’ Hemmingway, by highlighting complicating phrases that you should trim. We all await the first Booker-prize winning novel written with the help of this tool, I am sure.

It might sound strange to posit that For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about an American, Robert Jordan, volunteering to fight a leftist guerilla war against the Spanish fascists, is a novel about its own stylistic restraint, but this is my blog and I’ll say what I damn well please.

But I see your point, Hemmingway does permit himself occasional exuberances, or at least exuberances by his standard. These occasionalities cluster around moments of physical contact between Jordan and his Spanish lover, Maria:

Now as they lay all that before had been shielded was unshielded. Where there had been roughness of fabric all was smooth with a smoothness and firm rounded pressing and a long warm coolness, cool outside and warm within, long and light and closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happy-making, young and loving and now all warmly smooth with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness that was such that Robert Jordan felt he could not stand it

The Hemmingway app, incidentally, doesn’t like this sentence. It’s easy to see why. The pronouns repeat and clump together, (‘closely,’ ‘closely,’ ‘lonely,’) though perhaps repetition is inaccurate or insufficiently nuanced, they sort of rhyme, rather than repeat, ‘smooth/smoothness’ ‘coolness/cool,’ ‘warm/warmly,’ almost as if the words are working through their various grammatical permutations rather than changing into something more apposite. This results in some hyphenated neologisms that could summon up a Montessori Finnegans Wake, i.e., “happy-making.” So within this veritable explosion of linguistic energy, Hemmingway is still restraining himself by limiting his vocabulary.

The fact that it is at these points, the points at which Jordan is particularly botheredly hot-making is significant, as almost all of Jordan’s time, when in solitude, represents him as tussling with his doubts, subduing his panic about his outward presentation of stoic restraint. His self-recriminations power the narrative’s quieter moments, and make a poignant contrast with the admirably suspenseful shoot-outs that come towards the novel’s end. Therefore, restraint, both in emotion and in prose style serve a coterminous goal, and are mutually raised to the level of a moral imperative.

The elevation of a plain style to a moral realm comes into play also in the novel’s use of language. The dialogue is rendered as clunky and old-fashioned style, making use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee,’ which I think serves at least two purposes. First, it imbues the novel with a old-world grandeur. One’s mind immediately goes to the early modern English of William Shakespeare’s plays, an association that no novelist, however bare they wish their works to be, would resist. Second, Hemmingway wishes to preserve the spirit of demotic Spanish in which the dialogue is putatively being spoken, and therefore has them speak as if their words are being translated literally, which is strange, since the Spanish words which crop up, Inglés, qué va, are italicised, and are written as they are spoken. I wonder if the Spanish translation of the novel reads more naturally.

But it is the treatment of ‘bad’ language that sticks out the most. Rather than having his characters say ‘fuck,’ ‘damn,’ or their continental equivalents, they will say things like ‘I obscenity in the milk of thy shame’ or the narrator will intrude: ‘He said unprintable.’

I confess to ignorance on how difficult or easy it was to print cuss words in novels in the early twentieth century, but this does seem like a particularly convoluted solution, if they did indeed present a problem. I’d rather think of it as another instance of Hemmingway keeping his character’s on a leash, letting the moments in which physical desire and emotion intertwine be the only ones allowed to run rampant on the page, and open up an aspect to Hemmingway’s writng we wouldn’t normally see.

And that’s why a bleedin’ app isn’t the only thing you need to be a good writer.

Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and the difficulty of endings

For novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, or novels within the tradition of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, where the length or complexity thereof acts to a certain extent as a deterrent, endings are difficult things. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses or Infinite Jest are densely referential, intricate and occasionally intractable narratives and the very notion of ending them can seem antithetical to the impulse that motivates an author to write a book that brushes up against a thousand pages.

For each of the novels I’ve named above, different strategies are adopted where the notion of an ending is elided or dodged. Those who are familiar with Finnegans Wake will know that Joyce deliberately constructed the novel to have a circular structure, where the ending, in theory, brings the reader back to the beginning. I say ‘in theory.’ I have to doubt myself that any reader who, having made her way through the Wake in its entirety finds herself now naively leafing back to the front page, on and on ad infinitum. This is to leave aside Joyce’s final inscriptions on Ulysses and the Wake with the city he wrote the novel in, and the years spent writing it. As such, the circularity of the Wake can only really be conceptual. All novels have to end, so it is, as I said, a dodge. But an interesting dodge.

The final lines of the Wake read as follows:

“We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the”

The beginning reads:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

If we were to read these lines sequentially, we can detect a definite shift in tone, the ending is told in almost a fervent hush, lots of haitch sounds and staccato repetitions. I’m never usually one for syllabic analysis, but ‘grass behush the bush to’ seems to insist on a certain mutedness, a sense of petering out. So too the elegiac ‘Coming, far! End here. Us then’ Equally I suppose, it could summon memories of Father Ted‘s ‘small, far away’ schema. The final ‘sentence’ ‘a way a lone a last,’ seems particularly evocative, rather than serving an adjectival function, as in ‘alone’ or ‘away,’ they become nouns, alone-ness or last-ness incarnated, before we are rushed forward into the panorama of Dublin Bay once again, Howth Castle and Environs where Bloom proposed to Molly, and at the same time evoking the generative, fertile image of H.C.E., which stands for a lot of things in the course of the Wake, but may as well, for the moment, mean Here Comes Everybody.

Speaking of the Blooms, in Ulysses, Molly is permitted to close things out, with an extended soliloquy of sixty some pages, with about eight full-stops. It’s an ingenious structural technique, especially after the comparatively ‘dry’ episodes that precede the final ‘Penelope’ episode, ‘Eumaeus,’ and ‘Ithaca,’ the latter of which takes the form of a series of questions and answers that seem to pride themselves on the cool detachment, pedantry of their tone. In this way, Molly’s closing sentences seem more like a celebration of the fecundity of language and the body, without wishing to get too Earth Mother about it.

“then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

One should note that Molly have Bloom’s proposal in mind as she thinks this, equally, she might be thinking about her other great love when she was younger in Gibraltar. Either this is an affirmation of her relationship with Bloom, that there may be hope for them to re-kindle their ailing (depends on how you look at it, all the same) relationship, or she might continue to feel nostalgia for past loves, what might have been. Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. On a final note, that ‘s’ sound transmutes fairly easily into the opening salvo, ‘Stately plump Buck &c.’

Infinite Jest presents us with an interesting negotiation of this issue, its one hundred pages of footnotes means we have a choice when deciding what ‘the ending’ is. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, but I think I remember the last footnote being arch and self-aware in some way. The final sentence of the prose narrative proper, takes place I think a few years, maybe a decade before the thrust of the actual narrative gets underway, it consists of a flashback of a extended drug binge the venerable Don Gately indulges on in some point during his years spent in the Massachusetts drug scene. But Foster Wallace has us in deciding on a beginning too, the start of the novel takes place a few months after the main events of Infinite Jest have concluded, long after the Quebecois separatists have shown up at the Enfield Tennis Academy and after the dust has settled with everything regarding the samizdat, that great scene with Hal Incandenza failing to make himself understood to a panel of interviewers working in the University of Arizona. With all these conflicting, interwoven chronotopes based around establishing the novel’s beginning or ending, Foster Wallace seems to have pulled off a successful elision of finishing Infinite Jest; the novel ends more or less arbitrarily, leaving the reader to try and figure out the chronology of the action-packed climax that the novel has supposedly been building to. Not only does Infinite Jest not have a proer beginning or end-point, there isn’t really a coherent middle-point to speak of either.

The ending to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow takes a different, no less self-conscious tack. Much of the novel’s arc is concerned with Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of an experimental V-2 rocket, and a component thereof known as the Schwarzgerät, or ‘black device.’ Many, many other things happen too, this being a Pynchon novel, but I will endeavour to keep myself focused on the ending, which relates the actual launching of the device at a cinema, a real-life actual event in Antwerp, where 567 people were killed. Just as the rocket is about to strike, the jovial correspondent narrator halts its momentum in mid-air:

“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely forever and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.

There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs…or, if a song must find you…here’s one…sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:

There is a Hand to turn the time,

Though thy Glass to day be run,

Till the Light that hath brough the Towers low

Find the last poor Pret’rite one…

Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,

All through our crippl’d Zone,

With a face on ev’ry mountainside,

And a soul in ev’ry stone…

Now everybody-“

I don’t think it’s too extravagant to view these last two words as an invective to the reader, to every potential reader, to partake in the communal sing-song, one that is quite morbid, not to mention laden with references to the narrative that precedes it. The fact that it takes place in the briefest moment before the rocket’s impact adds to the poignancy, and casts all the other apparently whimsical vaudeville old-Hollywood sing-alongs in an altogether different pall, perhaps they are just for the purposes of distracting ourselves from our own demise, whether it be for the onanist or the happily coupled. In the pages leading up to this, we get a throwaway reflection on the nature of endings:

“He thinks of their love in illustrations for children, in last thin pages fluttering closed, a line gently, passively unfinished,”

which is of course what we get in the above hyphen. It would be a straightforward matter, also, to link this with the Hansel & Gretel pantomime that Roger Mexico and Jerssica Mossmoon attend with Jessica’s nieces, during the production, (significantly, just before Gretel is about to dispose of the witch by beating her into the furnace) the Germans bomb a building down the street. The children become distressed, and the actor playing Gretel leads the crowd in another, seemingly innocent tune, which addresses the fact of our existences as transitory and contingent:

“And the lamps up the stairway are dying,

It’s the season just after the ball…

Oh the palm trees whisper on a beach somewhere,

And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,

And the voices you hear, Girl and Boy of the Year,

Are of children who are learning to die…”

This is only an excerpt of the song, and there is plenty of it to unpack, but I’ll stick to the topic for the moment. The fact that Gravity’s Rainbow‘s ending is caught in a moment of indefinite postponement, a kind of narrative caprice, is crucial, bearing in mind what Pynchon encourages the reader to dwell upon in the moments leading up to it, and in sections of the novel that anticipate the ending. Namely, death. Which is omnipresent, and inescapable. We all know this, and singing songs about it are all very well and good to distract us, but Pynchon seems to be focusing on the ending as an instrument through which we can re-assimilate our understanding. Death is an ending, of course, but an ending doesn’t have to be death. It, like the moment of Molly Bloom’s yes, can be just as affirmative and celebratory as a story’s beginning.

Lucia Joyce Radio Documentary

Plenty I wasn’t aware of regarding Lucia Joyce’s life laid out in this documentary. Lucia’s involvement  in bohemian Paris, how her psychosis may have been barbiturate withdrawal, and how Joyce was her primary advocate for Lucia’s welfare in the family. Lucia’s strained relationship with Nora and Giorgio meant she was to become isolated after his death in 1939.

Has a nice reading from Finnegans Wake also, but not, sadly, her novel, which was destroyed, and I mourn for.