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[AUGUST 2005.]

El Ingenioso Hidalgo (4)

I meant to close out these thoughts on Don Quijote, but I think the cat episode largely did this for me: you have a surprising and touching scene from Quijote followed by some grade-school antics, the knight’s reversion from a developed character into a comic automaton, and two possible reactions: a seventeenth-century reader chuckling at the slapstick, and a modern reader who feels unease and sadness at the shift. We can ask which reaction Cervantes intended; he was probably thinking of the former. So is the latter response a problem?

The simplistic model of authorial intention goes like this: Cervantes has an “intention” in his mind, which he then renders into written language, which we in turn use to reconstruct that “intention” in our minds. Put another way, the words on the page are the medium through which the private language of Miguel’s mind is translated into the private language of our minds. But you don’t need the Wittgensteinian big guns to understand the problem here; everyone from Wimsatt and Beardsley on knows that you’re treating the linguistic artifact in the public world rather than the mysterious electrochemical lattice of the proto-poem in the author’s skull. You’ve got some words. What are you going to do with them?

If we allow that the passage with the cats might be either sad or funny, and if we disclaim Cervantes’s presumed opinion as a guide to its emotional charge, that leaves us with indeterminacy. Everyone loves indeterminacy; everyone loves the text getting away from its author. We sense that this indeterminacy is somehow tied up with the irreducibility of aesthetic artifacts, the way that they seem to be more than the sum of their sentences; we also sense that this allows us to work as we like with the text. If someone wants to construct an Althusserian reading of Don Quijote where the knight is Capital and the cats are Symbolic Hegemony or something, I can’t refute it by appealing to the higher court of authorial intention. If someone wants to pull the book’s pages loose from their binding and glue them to a UHF antenna in order to construct an umbrella, I can’t refute that either. People do what they need with books, and some people need weird things.

That said, I like novels less because of the way you can make them mirror some account of society and more because of the way I think most people stand toward them, which is a mixture of how we stand toward people and how we stand toward our lives. We assign them moral qualities and personality traits, like the former; we find in them episodes of amusement and happiness and pain, like the latter. Neither comes with critical endnotes. Similar situations will seem hilarious to some and heartbreaking to others. A person or a life is not a sentence, and neither is a novel, even if it’s built of sentences; all you can do is get sentences out of them. Which sentences they are depend in part on you, and in part on the book—but note that this isn’t a Fishian account of utter indeterminacy, because I don’t think it applies to all written language. It applies to certain choice examples that represent people or lives as they are, by which I mean that they seem to shimmer with something of the unparaphrasibility that we find in the people we know and the lives we lead; it applies to those literary works that—if I can say it—are the good ones.

In my experience, novelists generally don’t know what is happening to their novels as they write, and sometimes they never figure it out. Cervantes planned to drop a sack of cats on Don Quijote; I don’t think he planned on the repercussions of giving Don Quijote a soul beforehand. I don’t think he could ever recognize the entirety of what he had done, because he didn’t have a novelistic tradition of several centuries (inaugurated, in large part, by Don Quijote) to inform and alter his reading. But within the episodic, sometimes slapdash, and wildly inconsistent narrative structure he had built, he also placed the figure of a human being; and he sculpted the lines of his form well enough that centuries later we find, in the midst of scenes intended to provoke laughter, a hollow of negative space precisely shaped to fit our pity.


Summer Is Over

We both finished reading In Search of Lost Time this evening. I don’t know if Pica’s going to try any kind of retrospective post; at the moment I don’t have anything that isn’t stupid. I do like the idea of Proust nearing the end of his book, going over the manuscript and saying to himself, “Given what I have so far, it looks like the structure of this book demands that it will have to end with forty or fifty pages of the best prose ever written. So I guess I’d better do that.” And then he goes ahead and does it, because he’s Proust.

Not ready for school, don’t want to talk about books. With a couple more months of quiet I could do something. That’s all anyone asks for, the couple more months of quiet. I continue to wonder at the logic by which the federal government will loan me money for rent and food only so long as I continue to badly execute arcane tasks for which I am not particularly well suited and which will provide no benefit either to the federal government or to anyone else. At least not until I start teaching, and teaching is frightening. I am a reptile, I can’t talk, and I am grateful that despite the work lying ahead this year, at least I don’t yet have to talk in that way. I don’t have to be responsible for all the talk in the room.

Impatience is the great temptation with this novel manuscript. I want it to be finished like I used to want love; it’s a corrosive desire and if I don’t watch out it will ruin the book. All week it has been sitting cold inside the hard drive, and a hundred tiny links have begun to snap closed in my mind. The book is long and will find its form only through these hundred links. I try to ignore the voice that asks when; and again, when. The only thing that voice wants is money. But the only thing I’ve ever bought with money is quiet.

We hope that you have backed up the novel onto another hard drive, or a server somewhere, or a CD, or a floppy disk, or at the very least an enormous stack of paper.

Yes, several of those things! If a cataclysm were to wipe out our civilization this afternoon, while I was again trying to learn basic Perl, future paleo-critics would be able to reconstruct my novel from its fossilized remains. They would conclude that it was a warm-blooded reptile that had to eat a thousand tons of vegetation a day to maintain its metabolism and defended itself from Michiko Kakutani with its fierce zygomatic spikes.


The Literary Wittgenstein: but didn't he read detective magazines?

I got this collection of essays back from the fellow who borrowed it in time to anticipate most of the discussion on The Valve, and man, I wish it were a better book. It’s not that there aren’t any good essays in there, but the stated project of a “Wittgensteinian” criticism just doesn’t pan out. Joseph Margolis sums it up pretty well in his dissenting essay at the end.

I venture to say that, in the Investigations, Wittgenstein is obviously drawn to the flux of language: not by any means to linguistic chaos (because of course he makes meticulous distinctions) but more because of a profound mistrust of grand generalizations and the familiar philosophical longing for fixed essences. His teaching “method” is decidedly elenctic, in a way that invites comparison with the “method” of the early Platonic dialogues (which he seems to have discounted). But if so, then we begin to understand why it is so difficult to apply his “method” specifically in aesthetics: the truth is, there is no method, and where we might require “doctrinal” direction, Wittgenstein erases as much as he can of the explicit traces of the doctrines that have guided his own account.

To look for a method in the Philosophical Investigations is to reduce it to a manual for hunting out “grammatical confusion” in texts—essentially, you turn Wittgenstein into another theorist. It’s the same process that reduces Derrida’s writings to a Geiger counter for “binarisms,” or Benjamin’s to a crude call for revolutionary art, or Lacan’s—well, who the hell knows about that. The point is, it’s regrettably easy to take philosophical writings with little or no bearing on literature in particular, extract a few key terms, and turn them into a paint-by-numbers kit. I like Wittgenstein’s philosophy better than a lot of the others, but he’s not immune.

The worst offender in this bunch is probably Rupert Read’s essay on Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Poor Benjy has been a whipping boy for any number of theories (e.g., he bellows for Caddie when the golfers yell “Caddy”—he’s assuming an essential connection between signifier and signified, the dummy!) and here Read for some reason conflates Benjy’s experience with the experience of schizophrenia, claims that both are incomprehensible by our standards of rationality, and that therefore the words on the page, which we do understand, do not communicate Benjy’s “experience” but instead—well, Read isn’t very clear about this. (The essay is here and a good counterargument from the Valve is here, if you want to go deep.) Meanwhile, there are no fewer than two essays trying to fix the logical status of fiction according to the Tractatus, which is as bad as asking whether capital belongs to the Lacanian Real, or what are the numbers and qualities of the orders of archangels.

Even the more considered essays don’t hold out much hope for turning Wittgenstein into the new cottage industry of English departments. Garry L. Hagberg offers an essay about private experience and autobiographical writing which amounts to a lucid summary of Wittgenstein’s writings on private experience, interspersed with occasional gestures toward “autobiographical writing is like this too.” It’s a fine synopsis if you don’t know the arguments, but there isn’t really anywhere to take them. Conversely, James Guetti writes a good essay on skepticism and Heart of Darkness, but his insights come out of a fairly straightforward critical reading and quotes from the Investigations simply pop up as window dressing. You can read literature or you can talk Wittgenstein, but trying to do both at the same time is like juggling on a unicycle—outside the circus, what’s the point?

So what good are the good essays? Well, if instead of reading literary texts you want to refute bad philosophical arguments about literary texts, you couldn’t have a better friend than Wittgenstein. Sonia Sedivy and Martin Stone take similar and satisfying tacks against the current dogma that every reading of a text is in some sense an interpretation, while Bernard Harrison and John Gibson ably enough discuss how literature’s being about itself doesn’t mean that it can’t also be about the world—though I think fewer people are asserting that one nowadays. Cora Diamond’s contribution about literature and moral philosophy is also fine, though it seems to have wandered into the volume by mistake.

But for my money, the best of the batch are those that talk about the Investigations as a work of literature. These would be Stanley Cavell’s piece on the book as a modernist artifact, Marjorie Perloff’s on the strangeness (you guessed it, unheimlichkeit) of ordinary language, and Timothy Gould’s on the narrative form of the Investigations. Taken together, these provide a good account of how aphorism, indirection, and narrative and stylistic strategies can produce philosophical insight without the usual structure of argument and proof, thus implicitly suggesting how literature in general can do these things. For me, the experience of reading the Investigations was a lot closer to reading Ulysses than, say, the Critique of Judgment; it’s nice to see those aspects of it addressed, since it’s precisely these aspects that are lost in the attempt to extract doctrines and methods for use in systematic criticism.

Basically, I think that Wittgenstein can do literary critics a lot of good, but mostly in an intuitive way. It’s only a few months since I read the Investigations for the first time; it made me far more alert to certain kinds of badly framed argument and turned my picture of language on its side. So of course the first thing I did—full disclosure here—was to run off and write a bunch of papers on Wittgenstein and literature pretty much like the ones I just attacked above. This was a mistake. It was a beautiful book, and I loved it in a way that I feel powerless to articulate, but the very qualities that made it so wonderful and strange also suggest that its influence might best be kept under the surface. As a careerist, I’m disappointed that Wittgenstein is ill suited to becoming the Next Big Thing and landing me a fancy job; as someone saddened by the misappropriation of the things he loves, I am relieved.


The Anal Stage

A small Shop-Vac recently came into my life, courtesy of my mother, who was worried about the upkeep of my house. (I’m basically twelve.) After using this device I feel better equipped to understand the continuing optimism of American culture. The machine is messianic. It redeemed my house. It sucked my troubles away to a placeless place—the interior of the Shop-Vac not being on my cognitive map. Here there be dragons composed entirely of cat hair.


El Ingenioso Hidalgo (3)

Previous episodes of our Don Quijote miniseries concluded with the severing of an ear and two possible responses thereto, either thigh-slapping or alarm and unease; and then with an attempt to connect these divergent responses to divergent reading practices, the first a kind of picaresque reading where each jolly episode stands more or less on its own, and the second a more character-focused reading that requires a larger structure. We closed with the portentous observation that Don Quijote might stand midway between these modes.

Moving on, we reach at the duke and duchess in the second part of the book. I know it’s a critical commonplace to figure actions within a book as acts of reading, where the characters “interpret the text of their surroundings” and so on; that said, Part II of Don Quijote really is asking for it. The duke and duchess have already read Part I. When they run across Don Quijote and Sancho in a meadow, they go into ecstasies at having met the genuine articles; they promptly spirit them home to their castle and, with the help of their servants, concoct a whole series of sham situations out of courtly romances for the sheer glee of deceiving our heroes.

Knowing Nabokov’s criticism as we do, it should be no surprise that he considers these episodes to be execrable acts of mental cruelty, possibly worse than the physical cruelties of Part I. The duke and duchess are two smiling tigers; the castle is a torture chamber whose turrets and cornices are claws and fangs. If at first these figurations seem excessively harsh, after a couple hundred pages of these antics—among other indignities, the two are convinced to sit on a “magical” wooden horse packed with explosives, and Sancho is directed to whip his own bare ass three thousand times—one starts to see Nabokov’s point.

To make explicit an obvious correspondence, the duke and duchess are like the author of Part I, engineering a series of situations for Don Quijote and Sancho’s standard deluded-chivalric shtick. They are also like the reader of Part I, at least the picaresque reader—they want Don Quijote and Sancho to be reliably amusing automata, and their oft-mentioned smiles and glee at these episodes are a laugh track prompting the reader to join in the fun. Perhaps. What is worth note is that Cervantes does not always allow his characters to play along. Sancho has gotten smarter since his adventures began, and when the duke and duchess pretend to give him the governorship that Don Quijote has been promising him all along, not only does he run his territory better than anyone expects, he also very quickly reaches the sensible conclusion that jobs in civic administration are for suckers. And when one of the female servants decides to get a laugh out of pretending to be in love with Don Quijote, he responds with one of his most affecting moments.

Sancho is off governing his island and Don Quijote goes to bed alone, sad and old, mourning his poverty, his wrecked body, his torn clothes. In the midst of these sorry meditations the damsel Altisidora carts a harp beneath his window and commences to declare her love for him in song.

Aquí dio fin el canto de la malferida Altisidora, y comenzó el asombro del requerido don Quijote; el cual, dando un gran suspiro, dijo entre sí:

—¡Que tengo der ser tan desdichado andante, que no ha de haber doncella que me mire que de mí no se enamore...! ¡Que tenga de ser tan corta la ventura la sin par Dulcinea del Toboso, que no la han de dejar a solas gozar de la incomparable firmeza mía! ¿Qué la queréis, reinas? ¿A qué la perseguís, emperatrices? ¿Para qué la acosáis, doncellas de a catorce a quince años?

[Ormsby translates] Here the lay of the heart-stricken Altisidora came to an end, while the warmly wooed Don Quixote began to feel alarm; and with a deep sigh he said to himself, “O that I should be such an unlucky knight that no damsel can set his eyes on me but falls in love with me! O that the peerless Dulcinea should be so unfortunate that they cannot let her enjpy my incomparable constancy in peace! What would ye with her, ye queens? Why do ye persecute her, ye empresses? Why do ye pursue her, ye virgins of from fourteen to fifteen?”

The obvious joke, encouraged by this slightly clunky lament, is to laugh at Don Quijote’s delusion in thinking that everyone is in love with him; and yet coming on the heels of his other laments, it’s not much of a joke. It’s hard to laugh along with this particular laugh track, and our unease increases the next night, when Quijote decides to respond in kind. Accompanying himself on guitar, he sings a song of his own composition out the window in order to dissuade the besotted maid from her passion. The song’s message might not be anything special, but it’s touchingly executed, and all the more so in context. In a castle full of overgrown and somewhat mean-spirited children, Don Quijote is the only person acting out of ethical considerations. This reversal isn’t exactly the same as Sancho’s island, where they expect him to screw up and he instead acquits himself nobly. Rather, Quijote is behaving exactly as we expect, staying true to his self-imposed chivalric code, and yet he’s found room within it to be more than a joke; as a moral agent, he easily trounces anyone around him. But this strange and transcendent moment is not permitted to last.

Aquí llegaba don Quijote de su canto, a quien estaban escuchando el duque y la duquesa, Altisidora y casi toda la gente del castillo, cuando de improviso, desde encima de un corredor que sobre la reja de don Quijote a plomo caía, descolgaron un cordel donde venían más de cien cencerros asidos, y luego, tras ellos, derramaron un gran saco de gatos, que asimismo traían cencerros menores atados a las colas. Fue tan grande el ruido de los cencerros y el mayar de los gatos, que aunque los daques habían sido inventores de la burla, todavía les sobresaltó; y, temeroso don Quijote, quedó pasmado. Y quiso la suerte que dos o tres gatos se entraron por la reja de su estancia, y dando de un parte a otra, parecía que una región de diablos andaba en ella. Apagaron las velas que en el aposento ardían, y andaban buscando por do escaparse. El descolgar y subir del cordel de los grandes cencerros no cesaba; la mayor parte de la gente del castillo, que no sabía la verdad del caso, estaba suspensa y admirada.

Levantóse don Quijote en pie, y poniendo mano a la espada comenzó a tirar estocadas por la reja y a decir a grandes voces:

—¡Afuera, malignos encantadores! ¡Afuera, canalla hechiceresca; que yo so don Quijote de la Mancha, contra quien no valen ni tienen fuerza vuestras malas intenciones!

[Ormsby translates] Don Quixote had got so far with his song, to which the duke, the duchess, Altisidora, and nearly the whole household of the castle were listening, when all of a sudden from a gallery above that was exactly over his window they let down a cord with more than a hundred bells attached to it, and immediately after that discharged a great sack full of cats, which also had bells of smaller size tied to their tails. Such was the din of the bells and the squalling of the cats, that though the duke and duchess were the contrivers of the joke they were startled by it, while Don Quixote stood paralysed with fear; and as luck would have it, two or three of the cats made their way in through the grating of his chamber, and flying from one side to the other, made it seem as if there was a legion of devils at large in it. They extinguished the candles that were burning in the room, and rushed about seeking some way of escape; the cord with the large bells never ceased rising and falling; and most of the people of the castle, not knowing what was really the matter, were at their wits’ end with astonishment. Don Quixote sprang to his feet, and drawing his sword, began making passes at the grating, shouting out, “Avaunt, malignant enchanters! avaunt, ye witchcraft-working rabble! I am Don Quixote of La Mancha, against whom your evil machinations avail not nor have any power.”

From here the predictable happens. Don Quijote swings his sword at the cats, shouting imprecations, the cats claw his face, and we’re back in the slapstick of Part I. As with the ear, this scene is presented as wildly comic, and yet coming after one of our knight’s noblest moments, it leaves us sad and uneasy. Don Quijote indeed inhabits a world unworthy of him, but this world is not only a contemporary Spain that has no use for knights-errant. It’s also a comic novel whose structure demands that he continue to be put through these degrading paces.

[some kind of wrap-up to follow]

Ray Davis writes:

I hope this doesn't blow your punchline, but "Avaunt, malignant enchanters! avaunt, ye witchcraft-working rabble! I am Don Quixote of La Mancha, against whom your evil machinations avail not nor have any power." actually seems like a fairly acute summing up of the situation.

It's true; there are enchanters, and then there are enchanters. (I don't have a punchline yet, so no worries on that score.)


Keel Scraping

My novel has run aground at an obscene length. The draft is not finished in the sense of being readble by anyone but me, but it does go through to the end. It will have to remain in this state for a little while, in cold storage; I can't look at it any more.

As a lot of you already know, most of it is set in Guatemala and its central events are loosely based around actual massacres that happened in early 1982, during the country’s civil war, wiping out a village whose presence impeded the construction of a hydroelectric dam. A few days ago I discovered through the news archives that last September several hundred massacre survivors and otherwise displaced people, including several people I met, took over the dam and threatened to shut off power completely unless their demands for compensation were addressed. (PDF article, including photos: scroll down.) After twenty-four hours the government agreed to negotations; it has since pressed charges of crimes against national secutity. Meanwhile I was complaining about bad textual criticism on Emily Dickinson.


Graffiti from Pompeii

Awesome! I wish the messages were up in the original for you Latinists; as is, you’ll have to handle translations that oscillate between colloquial and stilted, e.g., “Two friends were here. While they were, they had bad service in every way from a guy named Epaphroditus. They threw him out and spent 105 and half sestertii most agreeably on whores.” The human spirit endures; most of these would decorate Berkeley public restrooms just fine, if you changed the names and threw in the odd reference to capitalism. (From the Horn Farm Paste Mob).


Blinded by Grammar (2)

I have found “die” and “der” Sessel. Maybe I am crazy. Or retarded. Or senile. Or all of the above

Not in the least!

der Sessel: the chair
die Sessel: the chairs

Unless der Sessel appears in a genitive construction, in which case it means “of the chairs,” more or less. Expect more fun with articles when this thrilling website turns its eagle eye on Das Boot!


Blinded by Grammar

Says an interlocutor:

This is driving me crazy — it should be “eine Sessel,” not “ein Sessel!”

My edition of Philosophical Investigations has “ein Sessel” (section 80), and my dictionary says it’s masculine. But is there something I don’t know?


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