Tag Archives: samuel beckett

Quantifying Modernism and the avant-garde

Introduction and Methodology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results

From realism to modernism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The modernism plot for deviation appears below:

The unlabelled entry between Faulkner and James is Hemingway

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

How big are the words modernists use?

It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*

*The previous graph had twice as many authors and was far too noisy, with not enough distinction between the colours to make it anything other than a headwreck to read.

In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.

As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.

Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.

By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.

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 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.

Dylan Moran’s Radio Play, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett

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I’ve been a fan of Dylan Moran’s stand-up for as far back as I can remember, since I saw his first stand-up special Monster. I think I was about twelve, and Moran’s misanthropic and depressive whimsy got lodged deep into my world view, and influenced me to try stand-up the few times that I did, aswell as slur the way I speak infinitesimally. I’m not sure if the way I speak now is my actual voice. I would obsessively Google clips in the hopes of finding bootleg gigs, as Moran has always been quite good modifying and improvising local and topical material unlikely to turn up in his one-hour specials, the best example of which is his commentary on the 2011 Irish presidential election in Roísin Dubh, Galway.

It was during one of these excursions into the vortex of ‘Related Videos’ that I turned up a radio play that Moran wrote for the BBC, entitled ‘The Expedition,’ in which the protagonist, Aidan Clarke, addressed his absent girlfriend Isabel, in a series of recordings. Their relationship seems to be reaching a breaking point, but nevertheless, Aidan updates Isabel on his progress on a hike with her brother Leonard, though, in the same manner of Eminem’s ‘Stan,’ it is uncertain how the protagonist will get the recordings will make it to her, and why also, he renders them episodically, if it is the case that he will play all of them to her when he returns from his hike.

I would be surprised if Moran didn’t have the drama of Samuel Beckett in mind here. The most obvious parallel is his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an ageing man, apparently a writer, pores over a directory of recordings that he has made on every one of his birthdays, and makes a new one. Rather than dwelling on the details which his young self imparts with most fervour, his aesthetic realisations about life, love, art and all that, Krapp is most interested in returning to recollections of his bygone sexual conquests. Krapp’s Last Tape is far more engaged with the medium in which the recordings are contained than Moran is; the only signal we have that what we are listening to is the imprint of a magnetic field is the click-click noise that each monologue begins with.

Like Krapp’s Last Tape, however, it does chart the decline of its protagonist, from getting nippy and passive aggressive with his partner to succumbing to psychosis and delusion in the play’s second half. Albeit psychosis with comedic intent. It is in these sections that the whimsy that characterises Moran’s act enters the play, the marrying of surreal situations, such encountering a camel in a blizzard on a mountain, with the quotidian experience of being a tourist out of water, trying to amiably make chat with a local. His increasingly choppy and erratic syntax, as well as his estrangement from conventionally expressed emotion may well recall Beckett’s later, scatty prose works: ’I want to say that I want to go home, the wind. The wind.’

It is a cliché generally observed in Irish comedy journalism that such acts driven by their loquaciousness and absurdist perspectives be compared to Flann O’Brien, in who’s writing we see similar things. And this is fine, Moran probably read him and I think Tommy Tiernan is a fan, but it ignores the fundamental aspect of stand-up, and what makes it a form worth discussing on its own terms; the performative element.

Moran’s comedy is primarily character-based; we respond to his material in ways that if another, more Apollo Theatre type stand-up were to make them, we wouldn’t, because he is, in a very short period of time, capable of conveying to an audience what kind of comedian he is. His coming onstage stage in Monster for example features a glass of wine, extravagant arm gestures, a half-hearted audience greeting, and a spot of bother with the mic stand.

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This affectation of partial incompetence or world-weariness is what makes his observations on boozing and drugs in his first special, and his take on family life in his second and those thereafter so good. In the former we see that he’s probably the type to have partaken his fair share of intoxicants. In the second, the absurdity is compacted, as he hasn’t quite shaken off the image of the perpetually drunk sexily dishevelled raconteur. In saying so, I don’t demean character-based stand-up. Stand-up, as traditionally practiced, requires repetition of material, glossed with the illusion of spontaneity.

Flann O’Brien is a very different creature. I’ve sometimes been at odds with his current critical reputation, which seems to me to depend more on his columns than his novels, The Third Policeman, At-Swim-Two-Birds and An Béal Bocht. Seeing him as an anticipator of contemporary Irish stand-up seems to miss how withdrawn he is as an author from his work, how hermetic and alienating his writing style is. In The Third Policeman for example, the bicycles seem more animated than the allegedly human characters, who barely seem to have advanced beyond the sentience of Syngean automata. Fintan O’Toole has spoken well on this peculiar sense of rootlessness in O’Brien’s writing, and wondered how it is possible for such an archetypal postmodern stylist to emerge from a society which hadn’t quite entered modernity yet.

This impersonal note sounded in O’Brien’s fiction is almost antithetical to the notion of comedy as practiced by Moran, who’s stage persona manages to be vital, even when channeling Beckett.

Ten Year Anniversary of Garrett Phelan’s Black Brain Radio @IMMA

Content warning: Post contains excessive, undue use of the first person pronoun.

I really like Arts Tonight on RTÉ. Its quiet pace, insider baseball language and uncompromising commitment to taking a deliberate, intellectual approach to the arts would be easy to parody, but because of its informativeness and tendency to source academics for its panels, it is among the best arts programmes in radio, and I mean the best from both RTÉ and the BBC. I find that the BBC, In Our Time aside, too often goes in for either Today Programme ebullience, in demanding straightforward-one-word, no-nonsense answers to weighty abstract questions or a whimsically boisterous tone, in pursuit of an imagined layman. It is sadly the case that it may be the among the only remaining serious arts programme left on the radio.

On a recent episode, on the subject of a book taking a retrospective view on five hundred years of Irish sculpture, Vincent Woods spoke on a particular work he once saw. What seems to have made this piece distinctive for Woods was its temporary nature and this allowed him to strike a personal note, which is welcome, and definitely rare in a programme that wears its occasional staidness with pride. Woods described ‘a sculpture trail in Achill, I think it was in 1996…I was lucky enough to see it and I’ll never forget, even some of the sounds, the sound of a cement mixer in an abandoned concrete house on the Edgewood Cliff…and a series of mirrors on Corrie Lake which just sat like petals, floating on the water…those sorts of images stay.’

Woods’ comments made me think of my own relationship with art that engages with its spatial component to such an extent that it often can’t be replicated elsewhere, or at least without inducing a logistical nightmare, such as site-specific or public art. I can always pick up a Yeats poem that made me feel something, or recall a sentence in The Green Road that makes something cold break over my spine and disseminate itself in my nerves, but I can’t summon up the way that Owen Roe reads an Oscar Wilde story, or Barry McGovern performs Beckett. Installation has that effect too, perhaps accentuated because of my relative ignorance when it comes to contemporary art in general, which may be an asset, because I haven’t yet lost that sense of challenge that confronts one when standing in a space with a thing that has a mass, that one has to mobilise oneself around, perhaps through, in order to grapple with it adequately.

With this in mind, around this time ten years ago I went to IMMA, and saw an installation that I’ve probably been thinking about ever since. The installation occupied one of the many white, airy rooms in the museum and it was on this occasion, that it was sparsely adorned and contained only a vintage-seeming radio, perched on a makeshift metal platform. One of the corners of the room was spray-painted black.

The installation was Black brain radio, and in a wider sense, beyond the confines of the room, it was a sequence of audio pieces recorded, collated and arranged by the artist Garrett Phelan. The pieces were broadcast for about thirty days in early 2006 on the 89.9 FM frequency and touched on topics as varied as the presidency of George W. Bush, the evolution/creationism debate and self-actualisation, albeit in each case, very obliquely. Phelan recorded himself reading reams of material from newspapers, books, or transcribed conversations from commercial radio. However, Phelan didn’t inflect his speech to suit what it was that he was reading, nor did he ‘produce’ his recording in the usual sense. His recordings were no-frills, highlighted by time he took to cough, yawn into the microphone or stop in the middle of a sentence.

I listened to it constantly for as long as it was broadcast, struck primarily by its strangeness and motivated by some desire to understand what the broadcast was adding up to. I think I knew it was mostly nonsense, or too fragmentary to be a whole, but I didn’t realise the extent of its aleatory qualities at the time. Phelan had cut his recordings into two-minute chunks, and randomised the broadcast on an MP3 player, so whatever sequentiality Black brain radio developed was always accidental, always provisional.

Since becoming conscious of how possible it is to purchase just about anything on the internet, I’ve been searching for some hard copy of Black brain radio, and I was thrilled to eventually find it on Discogs; a guy in Holland owned one of the 200 pressings of the broadcast issued by Nine Point records. I was disappointed to realise that the CD doesn’t contain the entire broadcast, but of course, that would’ve been too easy and insufficiently conceptual. My copy has two, apparently random, 30 minute chunks.

The product itself contains a fairly lengthy essay in its sleeve which makes some gesture towards enclosing the meaning or significance of Black brain radio. Of course, it makes no such claims for itself, but it’s hard not to regard it as a manifesto for the work, outfitted with Dadaistic murals and slogans, positing radio as a more immanent mode of dissemination than television; its history more implicated with the opposed forces of revolution and fascism. It’s a slightly essentialist history, it claims radio has a power to foster community while running counter to globalisation, but it’s a well-written and a competent anatomising of the project, and how it aims to transcend fascistic taste-makers of art and democratise its appreciation. Now I will criticise it. I don’t think that Black brain radio quite rose to the heights of anti-globalisation, de-naturation of self and disarticulation of the simulated nature of community that the essay posits, nor do I see the kind of engagement with manufactured consent, the point at which opinions are generated by our encounters with mass-media outlets. Rather, I see it as definitively located within a critique of the artifice of commercial radio.

Ben Anderson praises the vitality and capacity of radio to create communities through voice, but Black brain radio seems far too drained, or doubled back on itself to be indicative of a community spirit being generated in this way. Rather, I see or behold in Black brain radio an antiquarian anxiously parsing transcripts of an irretrievably lost past with no sense of its context, or even how it should be read. Phelan speaks in a cold, blank drawl and what springs to mind of course is Beckett’s radio plays, but without Beckett’s rhythm or bursts of lyricism. This is highlighted all the more by the sardonic intrusions of the overplayed radio hits of the day used occasionally as an audio bed (albeit without the high standard of production one would expect from a ‘normal’ broadcast). Snoop Dogg’s tune Signs (feat. Justin Timberlake & Charlie Wilson) features, followed by the usual senseless over-production, overheard from FM 104 that Phelan leaves on while he’s recording, that leavens mass-media artefacts. ‘Fun fact’ type segments wherein tedious information is rehearsed also, interspersed with milquetoast banter from co-hosts in the same lifeless, blank tone of an over-long exhalation.

Five years and counting of higher education, have prepared me to approach all manifestations of a creative impulse with a scalpel, murdering to dissect and to have a thing to say, for fear of coming away feeling like a dope. In his introduction to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, William Gass offers the critic an alternative:

“No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.”

This is increasingly coming to my mind when I listen to academic papers, Arts Tonight or when I read the essay that accompanies the CD, written by Sarah Pierce. It doesn’t matter what’s under discussion, the history of the Irish Sea, Leda and the Swan, or the errant jotters of Leonardo da Vinci, almost everything discussed features some variation on limits, peripheries, narratives, stereotypes, re-conceptualisations, differential networks of meaning, straw man paradoxes, etc, this programmatic patter that smothers what is unique about everything, and makes it the same tortured play of nothing. I’m not opposed to criticism, I never will be, but I’m sure we all recognise the patterns of reductionism, and recognise too, real, dynamic, elevating critiques every bit as vital as their subject.

This sense of wonder, this physical reaction that certain works of art can engender in us is not a mysterious quintessence antithetical to its explanation; criticism as its best can intensify, even prompt it. These received routes of understanding should be eschewed and replaced by something amazing.

The Life-Cry of Don De Lillo’s Ratner’s Star

The novel Ratner’s Star was pitched to me, in the few outlets that have posted their reviews of the text online, as a Menippean satire, a work that is usually in prose, multi-perspectival, in that it makes ideology or interior mental states targets of fun rather than individuals, and I can’t conjure a third trait to complete the Rule. It strikes me that this is a useful means of taxonimising a good heft of the post-war American literary milieu, at least those who I’ve read enough of in order to identify what they have in common with De Lillo. I won’t name them here because it should be fairly clear that when I talk about maximalist male authors with more interest in critiquing systems/order than the steady clockwork of characterisation, that I’m hardly talking about Franzen.

This is an abstruse way into Ratner’s Star, because I’m a little stumped for what to talk about. Spelling out the satire of the novel, its brilliant deconstruction of the mechanisms of scientific enquiry, its shortcomings, its ideological blind spots, would be too programmatic, not to mention futile in its re-hashing of the case, though I do think it’s worth mentioning that the hermetic, dry humour of the novel (its re-hashing similarly useless), is as funny, smatteringly laughing out loud in places funny as Beckett or Douglas Adams.

I may just have to quote from a characterless invective towards the novel’s close that takes a global view of an eclipse forecasted by an ancient civilisation wiped out by nuclear war before our current ‘civilisation’ rose in its wake, and essentially spells out some of what the novel’s mission statement may be taken to be:

“To be Outside is to know an environment infinitely less complex than the one you left. Far from wishing to revisit misery, you are nonetheless able to experience once again some of the richness of inborn limits. You see our rapt entanglement in all around us, the press to measure and delve…Why are you here? To unsnarl us from our delimiting senses? To offer protective cladding against our cruelty and fear? The pain, the life-cry speak our most candid wonders. To out-premise these, by whatever tektite whirl you’ve mastered, would be to make us hypothetical, a creature of our own pretending, as are you.”

To quote, “Excuse me, but what the fuck is going on there?”

The paragraphing there is non-existent, the words of the section of which the above forms a part just spills and spills for pages. The rhythm is compulsive, the outlook is unrelenting, visceral, all the more so for its stepping out of the familiar novelistic framework, for its purging of all characters and scenarios we’ve been acclimatised to and for its filming a close-up of De Lillo’s monologuing face. Any other novelist would’ve been well advised to quell such faffery, as it is more likely than not to be heavy handed Malicking, but he pulls it off, and its pretty damn astounding.