Sunday, 1 December 2013

Kafka: the Beam of Fiction

“The onlookers go rigid as the train goes past”.

The sheer speed of the train steals their movement. As if it were a sudden metaphor for the collective force of the crowd. And their space - a determinate ‘scene’ - is sliced open for an instant, by this emissary of technology. Then:

“’If he should forever ahsk me.’ The ah, released from the sentence, flew off like a ball on the meadow."

These two sentences are at the opening of the published Diaries.

I sometimes wonder: Suppose you were to read Kafka’s Diaries, or his letters to Felice, under the impression that it was a work of fiction. How would such an assumption, what we might call the fictioanl beam, light up the pages in front of you? The two sentences above, for example, might appear as two perspectives on the 'theme' of movement and escape. Something breaks free from its frame. A word escapes from a sentence; a sound breaks free from a word. The body asserts its separateness and won’t be reigned in. These occasional moments of rude freedom punctuate the Kafka world. There is a brief flash of analogy between apparently disparate sentences.

Near the very beginning, there are several versions of the same passage concerning the narrator’s education – I must say that my education has done me great harm in some respects.

One of these passages alone would doubtless stand as a firm testament. Here, each version is jettisoned in favour of the next. Each reconfiguration of words and punctuation describes and constructs a new picture. Potentially, it is endless. No version quite ‘grips’ reality- each is 'revealed' as maddeningly provisional, the contours of one fade with and into its succesor. But the effect of this is that reality itself seems to dissolve into the kaleidoscope of language. Reality can only be restored by the arbitrary imposition of a ‘final version’. Again, the postponement of such a Word, and the consequent sense of suspended reality is hereby identified as a Kafka 'motif'.

By ‘education’ Kafka isn’t just meaning the schoolroom. He includes all educators, transmitters of law and language, a ‘multitude’ of people, an adversarial world, the Symbolic itself, we might now say. They have ‘done him great harm’ because they ‘tried to make another person of me’: they barred the self from emerging. And yet this bar was what let the self emerge and become conscious. This duality, too, is a theme, a herald of things to come. Read as fiction, it is no accident that the Diaries start this way. The repeated passages are the barred self stuttering, trying to reach the intimacies of diaristic writing.

The fiction of reading the Diaries as fiction produces identifiable ‘motifs’, signs, metaphors, correspondences. Particular sentences are suddenly antecedents or echoes of others. In fact, if you do this, if you bracket off the knowledge that this is a diary, or that the letters are to a real person, a whole new book is produced. From which we might conclude various things: that fiction is, in any case, perhaps always an act of such bracketing, or that reading fiction involves to some extent the ‘fiction’ that what you’re reading is indeed fiction. But also, and I think this might well be true of the letters to Felice, that writing was itself only an escape from events into their fictional equivalent.. Thus, the meeting with Felice and her Mother in the Hotel is simultaneously, a fictional meeting that any of us can step into. Writing is an extraction of the fictional template implicit in 'real'  facts and events.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Sherlock Holmes's Breakfast: Or, A World Full of Holes.

In philosophical literature on the nature of fictional worlds it’s striking how often Sherlock Holmes serves as the example. It's presumably more than coincidence. It's probably something to do with detective trick of building stories from scattered clues and traces, a rough analogy with what we do as readers, passing beyond the hieroglyphs to the ghostly persons demarcated therein.  And  crime scenes, as sites of a disappearance - as perhaps novels always are. But anyway, I recently came across two passages about fictional worlds, from two rather different philosophers. First, Slavoj Zizek:

Or think of the way the universe we reconstruct in our minds while reading a novel is full of 'holes', not yet fully constituted: when Conan Doyle describes Sherlock Holmes's flat, it is meaningless to ask exactly how many books there were on the shelves--the writer simply did not have a precise idea of it in his mind. What, however, if--on the level of symbolic meaning, at least--the same goes for reality itself?

Then we have Daniel Dennet in Consciousness Explained. After reporting on a particularly vivid episode of conscious experience, he writes (of himself but in the third person):

There are plenty of unrecoverable but genuine facts of the matter about which of these details got discriminated where and when by various systems in his brain, but the sum total of those facts doesn’t settle such questions as which of these he was definitely, actually conscious of.. and which were definitely in the background.. . Our tendency to suppose that there has to be a fact of the matter to settle such questions is like the naive reader’s supposition that there has to be an answer to such questions as: Did Sherlock Holmes have eggs for breakfast on the day that Dr. Watson met him? Conan Doyle might have put that detail into the text, but he didn't, and since he didn't, there is simply no fact of the matter about whether those eggs belong in the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. … There is simply no fact of the matter about whether in the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes, the world constituted by the published text we actually have, he had eggs for breakfast.

Now, we are familiar with ways in which fictions can turn in on themselves. Schulz’s Father spinning his incomplete creatures while being such a creature himself (the Father as a figure for the author). Or folding the reader inside the text as, I think Poe does in ‘Man of the Crowd’, where the man following the stranger is a figure for the reader following the story.

But in Zizek and Dennett, quite the opposite happens. In both cases, the ‘holes’ of fiction are not confined to books. Indeed, the ‘holes’ in the fictional universe serve as something more than analogues for the incomplete nature of the universe we actually do inhabit.
Let’s take an example from Dennett, the ‘Phi’ phenomenon:

.. if two or more small spots separated by as much as 4 degrees of visual angle are briefly lit in rapid succession, a single spot will seem to move back and forth.[..]In an experiment where “the two illuminated spots were different in colour [..] the first spot seemed to begin moving and then change color abruptly in the middle of its illusory passage toward the second location.

There would be questions we couldn’t ask about the chromatic and other properties of this changing spot, precisely because there isn’t a spot; questions we couldn’t ask about the 'movement', because there is no movement. Or if what we take to be the 'self' is a kind of spun-story, rather than a permanent substance, there are impermissible questions in the same way that there are with regard to Sherlock Holmes's breakfast. 

The phenomenal world we inhabit, in other words, consists of all kinds of ‘Phi phenomenon’, which are the product of all kinds of ‘real’ processes (as the novel is the product of the typewriter) which we can’t simply turn round and look at. And these phenomena are ‘full of holes’ in the same way that a fictional world is.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Pandemonium of Word Demons

The common sense model of what happens when we speak is perhaps something like this: an intention  (e.g. to say something encouraging) is cut and shaped by a ‘formulator’ into appropriate words which are then given the nod (by a kind of adjudicator) to be spoken out loud. A univocal intention passes into an equally univocal statement (“Hi, there! Your were great, I really loved the play”)
In Daniel Dennet's Consciousness Explained, by contrast, we find* a 'Pandemonium' model of language, whereby:  “Words and phrases from the lexicon, together with their sounds, meanings and associations, jostle with grammatical constructions in a pandemonium, all trying to be part of the message.” There is something like a pre-personal circuit of word-forms - or "word demons" - and thoughts, a congerie of different phrases which are also the bearers of different kinds of intention:

-to shock
-to conform
- to ‘say the right thing’
-to say something witty
-to upset the apple cart
-to say something that sounds good
-to repeat a favourite word or phrase

The word-demons are, as it were, free-floating intentions. They intend only their own vocalisation. Each word or formulation is a demon urging that it be uttered. What determines which word-demon gets spoken is perhaps only a force of desire. That is, each demon is also a desire and whichever is the strongest desire (in this pandemonium) makes it to vocalisation. Sometimes, as in the ‘Freudian slip’, one word demon will usurp the other - ‘flatten’ for ‘flatter’ or whatever. But the usurper is not the privilaged bearer of my 'real' intention.

For the further suggestion is that none of these word-demons are emissaries of our "one true self". And this should partially expunge any guilt we feel when the urge to insult importunes us as we speak to a friend or relative. Perhaps it's just a particularly choice formulation, pleased with its own eloquence, and aggressively pressing its case to be said. It is not the ‘real’ desire of our ‘real self’. In this tumult of possibles, importunings, this zone of creative volatility, there is perhaps no executive authority that stays in one Olympian place (or lays down at night when the word-demons of misrule assume soveriegn rights). The prize of vocalisation is more like a sceptre seized by different demons.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Plumptuous Flustration

In conversation, my mum comes up with coinages like ‘plumptuous’ and ‘flustrated’. It’s as if one word opportunistically hijacks the other. This ‘hijack’ typically needs some kind of phonetic link - ‘frustrated’ can be hijacked by ‘flustered’, but probably not by ‘agitated’.  What an utterance like ‘flustrated’ suggests is that, prior to utterance, a number of words are obscurely present,  a kind of congerie of words bound together  by etymology, assonance, idiosyncratic association. Ordinarily, one of these is chosen. In my mum’s case, two twist into one.

In the world of literature, Lewis Carroll called such coinages ‘portmanteau words (e.g., “where "slithy" means "lithe and slimy"). But often something happens whereby the new word is more than the sum of its parts - a new sense emerges. 'Flustrated' doesn't just disassemble into ‘frustrated’ and ‘flustered’; it’s a certain kind of frustration, more corporeal and perhaps slightly comic. Similarly, ‘slithy’ is rather more slippery than either ‘lithe’ or ‘slimy’. And of course ‘slither’ is there in the mix as well, just as ‘fluttered’ and ‘flushed’ may circle round ‘flustrated’. Once words have been split and recombined, the new word is leaky, more open to the occult word-congerie from which words arise. 

'Plumptuous,' or any one of innumerable puns and spoonerisms offer a brief shaft of light into the zone of occult instability that precedes the univocity of utterance. In this zone, there are, perhaps, words and phrases with different intentions, moving and colliding, before the commanding 'onset' of consciousness. And it is this zone that certain modern writers have tried to inhabit, or allow in: from Mallarme, 'ceding the initiative' to the mobility of words, to Joyce - most intensively in Finnegan's Wake.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Fictional Creatures; or, sympathy for the golem

[This refers back to the previous post on the 'incompletness' of imaginary beings.]

It's enough to will it, I'll will it, will me a body, will me a head, [...] There you are now on your feet, I give you my word, I swear they're yours, I swear it's mine, get to work with your hands, palp your skull, seat of the understanding, without which nix, then the rest, the lower regions, you'll be needing them, and say what you're like, have a guess, what kind of man, there has to be a man, or a woman, feel between your legs, no need of beauty, nor of vigour, [..] And to start with stop palpitating, no one's going to kill you, no one's gong to love you and no one's going to kill you, perhaps you'll emerge in the high depression of Gobi, you'll feel at home there.
This is from Beckett's Texts for Nothing. The fictional creature appears underneath our eyes.We witness some malformed golem patched together from (what Beckett elsewhere calls) 'wordshit', taking shape infront of us, pathetically incomplete, 'poor in being' as are all fictional entities, lacking the ballast of existence.

The fictional being, like Morpheus, can take any shape and no shape, traverse all space and time.. ("you'll emerge in the high depression of Gobi"). But this comes at the price of a painful insufficiency. This fictional being, particularly in Beckett's Texts, is a Struldbrug  who cannot die, resurrected by every eye and voice and ear of every scattered reader.

The twist in Beckett, as perhaps in Bruno Schulz, lies in a kind of identificataion with such creatures, who in their very incompleteness and indigence act as the most fitting and exact analog for human existence. It is as if the "I"finds echo and confirmation not in the mirror (where hangs only the passport photo that others use to identify you) but in the fragile, misshapen and unrealised creatures who emerge eternally on the page.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Poetry: "A silent adventure of the soul"

"Flaubert is categorical: poetry is a silent adventure of the soul, a lived event that has nothing in common with language; more precisely, poetry takes place against language." Sartre, The Family Idiot

What might this mean? that poetry disturbs language, like a wind making a curtain flutter. Poetry is a force of silence inside language itself.

For Flaubert, language is always a foreign substance introduced into one's being,  a socially stamped material imposed on the soul. The silence of poetry is the rebellion of this mute soul against the foreign power. The affirmation of a silence within and against language is the affirmation of the unique soul. This soul is only visible in the warp and ruffle it introduces into the general order of language.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Imaginary Beings: Sartre and Schulz

In Sartre's War Dairies he reflects on the chief protagonists of his fictions Nausea and Age of Reason:

Why is it that Antoine and Roquentin and Mathieu, who are me, are indeed so gloomy? – whereas, Heavens!, life for me isn’t all that bad? I think it’s because they are homunculi. In reality, they are me, stripped of the living principle. The essential difference between Antoine Roquentin andme is that, for my part, I write the story of Antoine Roquentin [..]
I stripped my characters of my obsessive passion for writing, my pride, my faith in my destiny. My metaphysical optimism – and thereby provoked in them a gloomy pullulation. They are myself beheaded. And since one cannot touch a synthetic whole without causing it to die, those heroes are unviable. I hope they aren't entirely so as imaginary, fictional creatures; but they can exist only in the artificial milieu I've created around them to sustain them. Apart from the sadness of disintegration which I just mentioned, they have another still deeper kind: the sadness filled with bitterness and reproach of Homunculus in his jar. They know themselves to be unviable, sustained by artificial feeling – and insofar as the reader constitutes them with his time, he feels pervaded by the metaphysical sadness of prehistoric animals doomed to imminent extinction  by the inadequacy of their constitutions.
In one sense Sartre is talking about his fictions - Stendhal, he says, creates 'viable' characters. But in another sense, Sartre perhaps implies something about all fictional entities: they are deficient, lacking, 'isolated from the world', condemned endlessly to repeat the same fate, dependent on the 'generosity' of the actor or reader to breath into them a simulacrum of life. They are replicants. Of course, it is a background property of all fictional entities - objects or people - that they are incomplete, partially constitued. We can not ask of them the same rigrorous questions that real things can answer (how tall is Hamlet etc). They are coextensive with their description. But in Sartre, it is as if these background properties have corrupted or seeped into the very soul of his creatures. Or as if the beings of those worlds are dimly aware of their inviolable solitariness, their irreparable lost contact with the real world.

Something similar happens in Bruno Schulz. The partial and 'deficient' nature of fictional worlds becomes quite palpable, and surrounds everything with a kind of nimbus of melancholia:
We are not concerned with long-winded creations, with long term beings. Our creatures will not be heroes of romances in many volumes. Their roles will be short, concise; their characters- without a background. Sometimes, for one gesture, for one word alone, we shall make the effort to bring them to life. [..] Our creations will be temporary to serve for a single occasion. If they be human beings, we shall give them, for example, only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed for their role. It would be pedantic to bother with the other unnecessary leg. Their backs can be made of canvas or simply whitewashed. [..]
This is the Father's aesthetic manifesto. He speaks of creating a universe where beings would exist, would be conjured into life, only for the sake of a single gesture, act or pronouncement. But perhaps Schulz here places in the mouth of this mad aphasiac father his own aesthetic manifesto: the creation of uncanny puppets, monsters, dwarfs and cripples – one legged, bodiless, coming towards us out of the fog of the Possible before recoiling into silence.

But this is fiction as such. We read a description of a woman in a cafe, porceline skin, a black immaculate bob. Drawing in a sketch book. But the narration moves on elsewhere. She exists only as a brief profile without any other substance, subordinate to a scene into which she disappears as a gentle tributary element.

Modernism is constantly drawing attention to the fictionality of its stories. This can be clever, playful, cerebral, or political (Brecht). But there is also a tendency whereby the partiality of fictional beings is synonymous with a kind of pityful sadness. But there is a further move, whereby it is precisely on account of this, this incompleteness, this deficiency, that we identify with them, that they are the most fitting emblem of our own prediciment. [I hope to write about this a little more, with reference to Beckett].

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Before and after "I love you": Kafka and Betrand Russell

“It is incorrect to say that I have known the words “I love you”; I have known only the expectant stillness that should have been broken by my “I love you”, that is all I have known, nothing more.” Kafka

"It was late before the two guests left and Russell was alone with Lady Ottoline. They sat talking over the fire until four in the morning. Russell, recording the event a few days later, wrote, "I did not know I loved you till I heard myself telling you so--for one instant I thought 'Good God, what have I said?' and then I knew it was the truth." Ray Monk's Biography

The utterance “I love you” is in the second instance a kind of self-disclosure. You don’t know the truth of something until you say it, until it’s ‘out there’. The utterance (etymologically, the word is about making something ‘outer’) is both risk and clarification: you put yourself at stake in a form of words which is a kind of litmus test of the truth of what you are. The Word makes it actual and irreversible. Kafka, by contrast, suggests that he lives in a kind of pre-Word. He dwells in the preliminary moment before utterance precipitates you into the world, the world of consequence and realisation. The moment when the Word completes or actualises him never arrives.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Beginnings in Beckett

So often, Beckett is not someone who begins but instead somone who 'goes on', continues. There is a sense in which his works start 'in the middle', as if intercepting an always prior voice. "I Open" (Cascando)doesn't necessarily mean "I begin", but rather "I disclose..," i unstopper the voice. We have the sense of opening a portal behind which a voice was murmuring, or we remove the bin lid and the age-old speaking head pops up. But the Beginning, the decisive enunciation whereby an "I" rises up to speak, discloses itself, places itself at the origin of the sentence and of action... this seldom occurs.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Philosophical Fictions

"The primitive forms of our language: noun, adjective and verb, show the simple picture into whose forms language tries to force everything." Wittgenstein

"to language, then - to language alone - it is, that fictitious entities owe their existence, their impossible, yet indispensible existence." Jeremy Bentham.

Because language is the cause and underwriter of embedded fictions, because it has clamped reality into its shapes without us really noticing, the imperative for the philosopher is to create counter-fictions. Wittgenstein:
Nothing is more important than the construction of fictional concepts, which will teach us at last to understand our own.

We need to look at the problem afresh, as it were from a different angle. In fact, this is all that we need in philosophy; we do not need a new discovery...a new explanation...[or] a new theory; what we need is a new perspective, a new metaphor, a new picture.

This is not so far removed from literature’s starting point, as Proust defines it:
“If God the Father created things by naming them, it is by taking away their names or giving them others that the artist recreates them.”

The task is to make the world available in a new way, to take what is recognizable and disgorge from within it something radically unfamiliar, counter-intuitive, problematic.. but truer.

The writer, in creating something new, necessarily reinvents language. And to create is also to pervert or destroy the old forms. The philosopher, in thinking something new, must brush against the available linguistic forms in order to show the sleeping concepts folded inside them. Hence, in twentieth century philosophy, the proliferation of philosophical neologisms, the experimentation with aphoristic and parabolic means of expression. Or Wittgenstein’s insistence on the production of ‘fictional concepts’ that will also make visible those older concepts that have so saturated our thinking that they appear to be merely the map which the world has drawn of itself. More recently Daniel Dennett has tried to drag into the open the embedded figures - of the homunculus, the Cartesian Theatre etc which so profoundly steer our thinking about consciousness. 
This project of defamiliarisation, linguistic innovation and the production of fictions is perhaps a rather modern image not only of what literature is about but also of what philosophical activity is about. Plato wouldn’t have thought of himself doing this. And yet Plato’s Forms, from our point of view, are precisely such fictions, able to empty reality of its plenitude and create a frame through which certain problems can be seen as if for the first time – in Plato’s case, the problem of the particular and the universal, repetition, simulation etc. And contemporary philosophers still use the Platonic frame to gain first vantage on these problems.

Eventually, philosophical systems or ideas are emptied of their truth and their urgency. For nobody today is there a debate on whether there are Forms or Monads. Yet we can still marvel at the force of such fictions – they remain, precisely, fictional concepts, which will teach us at last to understand our own.