As he lay there, fragments of past states of emotion, fugitive felicities of thought and sensation, rose and floated on the surface of his thoughts. It was one of those moments when the accumulated impressions of life converge on heart and brain, elucidating, enlacing each other, in a mysterious confusion of beauty. He had had glimpses of such a state before, of such mergings of the personal with the general life that one felt one’s self a mere wave on the wild stream of being, yet thrilled with a sharper sense of individuality than can be known within the mere bounds of the actual. But now he knew the sensation in its fulness, and with it came the releasing power of language. Words were flashing like brilliant birds through the boughs overhead; he had but to wave his magic wand to have them flutter down to him. Only they were so beautiful up there, weaving their fantastic flights against the blue, that it was pleasanter, for the moment, to watch them and let the wand lie. — Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country (1913), Penguin Classics, 2006, p. 86. (via msodradek)
“…It is a singular reaction, this sitting still and writing, writing, writing,or ruminating at length, which is much the same, really.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Despair
Quite the cover design to be practically thrown away on a cheap paperback. Modern graphic design has to be the most profligate art that’s ever existed.
Bonus: vintageanchor’s selected quotation goes nicely with today’s Forster.
How can I tell what I think till I see what I say? —
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927), 152.
Fixed it. Yeah, I knew I was misquoting in the previous post. The quotation (and its context and attribution) raise some diverting questions about the process of (mis)quotation, which I guess is an odd little obsession of mine.
In his chapter on plot, Forster is discussing the extent to which the plot of a novel is, or should be, actually plotted ahead of time. Forster doesn’t put it this way, but the doubleness of the word “plot” begins to emerge: it is both that which isplanned and that which actually happens, it’s a scheme both prescriptive (a blueprint) and descriptive (a map). In the book, Forster has been discussing a passage in Gide’s The Counterfeiters which he interprets as endorsing the idea that novelists shouldn’t plot in advance, but should allow plot to emerge, “they should not try to subdue any longer, they should hope to be subdued, to be carried away.” He goes on,
Another distinguished critic has agreed with Gide—that old lady in the anecdote who was accused by her niece of being illogical. For some time she could not be brought to understand what logic was, and when she grasped its true nature she was not so much angry as contemptuous. ‘Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish!’ she exclaimed. ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’ Her nieces, educated young women, thought that she was passée; she was really more up-to-date than they were.
The full context prompts endless observations, but I will be merciful and try to make a finite number of them.
(1) Forster himself is quoting here. Whether it is a real-life old lady, a stock or “folk” old lady of anecdote, or an invention of Forster’s own, he doesn’t speak these words directly in his authorial voice. You see this quotation, or some version of it, now and again, and rarely is it framed as anything but direct speech from the mouth of Forster (as I did (error #2, I suppose) in my last post). This sort of misattribution is certainly not much more than a peccadillo, in most cases, but one should be careful. If a character in a novel is saying something, I think it’s usually advisable to convey that extra layer of quotation when citing, rather than attributing the statement and any attendant attitudes and beliefs directly to the author. Similar care should probably be taken with novels and other fictions, even when dealing not with reported speech but with that of the narrator who, named or not, is always also one of the characters in a book. (This is surely my New Critical training rearing its genteel head.)
(2) I should point out, this observation served as the punchline for varying anecdotes evidently making the rounds in English society in the 1920s. The internet tells me that Graham Wallas told a version of the story in his 1926 book, The Art of Thought, which predated Forster’s book by a year. In his telling, the oracle is a rather Alice-like child: “The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said, ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’” (As cited, in turn, by Donald Davidson, in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (Oxford UP, 2001), 15.) Note the presence of “know” in the place of Forster’s “tell.”
(3) What about the nature of this very convention, that is, a writer attributing a quotation to a character from “that old story”—not a book, with a named author, but a reference to some common cultural, usually oral, body of tales and scenarios? A little like the culture of joke-sharing. “Did you hear the one about…?” Sometimes, it’s a reference that the reader recognizes. But when you, as a reader, don’t recognize it, you should probably ask yourself if it might not be another fiction, another persona imagined by the author to voice an idea that he wants to try on for size—or else to distance himself from.
I suppose every time a writer uses quotation marks he is donning a mask; but occasionally one will refer vaguely to an old lady or old story as a bit of misdirection, simply to be able to say something he only half-believes, or else to say something experimental, controversial, or stupid (or something half-baked or pretentious, or too darned clever to claim for himself). Admittedly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Forster, given the presence of the Wallas version (whether Forster got the story from Wallas and altered it for his own purposes, or whether they each heard different stories that had a common progenitor).
But, for example, the bard of golden-era advertising, Howard Gossage, used to do this kind of pseudo-citation, attributing his own witticisms to colleagues or famous people or anonymous strangers, usually, it seems, out of a certain mischievous modesty. Borges did something like this, too, and on a larger scale as well, though the motivation there was less a matter of modesty than an enchantment with the masquerade itself, that is, the masked ball of literature and lore, which Borges projects as a kind of torch- and candlelit Venetian carnival of role-playing, flirtation, seduction and abandonment, the self-referentiality of which recedes endlessly into the night.
(On that note of “turtles all the way down,” pet topic of mine: shouldn’t every pair of double quotation marks be set within a pair of single quotation marks, and that between double quotation marks again, and so on forever?)
(4) Isn’t every literary character—and in fact every mode, tone, trope or metaphor—an experimental voice for a writer, a mask, an alternate self? As such, doesn’t Forster’s use of the little old lady as a mouthpiece for delivering this idea in fact instantiate the idea itself? This analogy, this little parable, is an instance of the very process it describes: talking to see what you think. Still more of that endless self-reflection, the subject trapped between mirrors, which is perhaps the underlying trope of all of the literature of at least the past century. (Or, better, and more fantastical, the subject, his own skin a mirror, standing before a mirror.)
All of these devices are methods for discovering what the writer thinks. Not merely for uncovering what is hidden in his mind, but for shaping that mind. To speak it is not to reveal it, nor to create it, so much as to give birth to it, or to mold vague earth into something living.
All of this gets us back to the question: what does this quotation mean, and what does that say about the speaker, whoever that is? Of course I’ve gone on too long, my tone has shaded into purple, and I’ve retraced too many steps to now get anywhere today. So the commentary on this quotation will have a part II. The gloss must itself be glossed, like those books where the footnote runs onto an adjacent page, and in fact takes up more of that page than the text proper. Which calls to mind that delicious bit of Barcelonian dialogue that so well captures the absurdity, and possible delight, of living in an endlessly mediated age:
Fred: …one of the things that keeps popping up is about ‘subtext.’ Plays, novels, songs—they all have a ‘subtext,’ which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So ‘subtext’ we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?
Ted: The text.
Fred: OK, that’s right, but they never talk about that.
Re: Judd & the Patriarchs (not a band)
I think I get the distinction you’re making. But when women are cruel to other women because of how they look, is that always an instance of “patriarchy”? I’m suggesting, “No.”
I’m also definitely not arguing from biology that “that’s just the way things are, so deal with it. Animals cannibalize and rape. We’re animals. Weeeeeee! (Q.E.D.)” I wholeheartedly endorse the effort to rise above the amorality of the jungle. But I am suggesting that not all violence is ideological (at least not in a robust sense—which isn’t to say its not motivated, determined, purposeful, etc.). And when we describe human behavior specifically, we have to beware of post hoc characterizations of that behavior based on its ultimate ideological consequences.
When people gossip about Ashley Judd because her face looks funky and she may or may not be getting plastic surgery or using drugs, is this inherently sexist? It may be that it attacks and weakens a woman and thereby indirectly empowers men, but this is too simplistic, as though power were a zero-sum quantity distributed between men on the one hand and women on the other, with the sum total of all power deployed exclusively in a cosmic battle of the sexes. More to the point, does such behavior make culturally conscious women nervous because, in fact, it seems to validate certain patriarchal stereotypes about women?, i.e., “They’re all shallow and snippy bitches obsessed with physical appearance. How they look is all that matters—to men, and therefore to them.”
Similar situations arise with your example of race. So-called “black-on-black” crimes draw attention for the same reasons. If you see all of race as an us vs. them battle, then from the black perspective, these crimes effectively empower the enemy. But even if your thinking is more enlightened and less adversarial than that, such violence has ideological implications for race and racism, because, some people fear, it endorses certain racist tropes about black people: “They’re dangerous animals! Can’t even take care of their own!”
So the more disturbing question is whether, in these examples, female commentators and African-American criminals are themselves enacting a role that has been scripted for them by, on the one hand, a patriarchal society, and, on the other, a racist one? Are women behaving this way, in part, because it’s what men expect? Are they unconsciously playing to (stereo)type? Is it that much easier for those “young black men” to kill each other due to internalized racism, because the culture has sent them the message that black lives are of little worth, and that being a criminal is what a black person does best? I think we have to acknowledge that precisely this kind of indoctrination does play a role in these oft-repeated cultural displays. In most people, this indoctrination is 99% unconscious and unintended, both on the part of the subjects (young women or young black people) and that of the “teachers” (society as a whole). And it’s all the more insidiously dangerous for being so.
But are those women who mock Ashley Judd thereby patriarchalists (I don’t even know if that’s the term, which shows how much I’m out of my depth)? Are black people who kill black people white supremacists? I think not. To say “Yes”—and maybe this is my point—would be to play fast and loose with language, to exaggerate and to over-generalize, precisely in the place where we need close analysis, careful distinctions, and nuanced reconstructions of cultural etiologies.
My suggestion is that internalized racism or sexism does grease the wheels of certain bad behaviors. But there are other motivations, at least as powerful, at work. For the criminals, crime pays, and other career options are lacking. For the Judd-haters, cruelty is fun, and social standing is relative. If you can bring your rival or idol down a notch, you can effectively raise your own position. This is where I was going with the evolutionary argument thing yesterday.
According to my hypothesis, what was driving the nasty behavior wasn’t so much sexism as sexual competition. And maybe not so much sexual competition, even, so much as a deeply ingrained instinct for sexual competition. But to compete for the attention of the opposite sex in this way is selfish rather than self-hating—that is, it’s not inherently hateful toward one’s own sex. Which is not to deny that in piling on Ashley Judd, those dirt-dishing hacks weren’t also enacting stereotypes, playing a role that a male-dominated society had taught them to play, and thereby effectively reinforcing patriarchal tendencies within society.
Am I off-base here? As you can see, I’m thinking things through as I write. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I have to say?”
I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one’s opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that they have not convinced us. — From Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in The Waste Books (Notebook E, 1775-76)
(Source: mangans.blogspot.com, via my-ear-trumpet)
Some of the worst analogies written by high school students.
*some of the best analogies ever written by high school students.
#4 is actually trenchant social criticism, if read as a spoof on defanged pop-culture despair. And #10 is legitimately good.
That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. —
Lust For Lascaux: Ashley Judd Slaps The Media for its Misogyny
Eventually, though, you need a new term. Why not just call it “misogyny” rather than “patriarchy”? Obviously women can be committed to the perpetuation of patriarchy, just as they can engage in misogyny by implicitly or explicitly hating on themselves and each other as women, and by mocking and cheapening womanhood generally. But is the aim here the rationalization and perpetuation of male power? If such a reinforcement of patriarchy comes about primarily as an unintended consequence of the behavior, then plain old “misogyny” might be a better word. It might even be less ideological than that:
If men put each other down for being weak or impotent or generally unattractive to women, does that make them proponents or minions of matriarchy? Or just sexual rivals? If women criticize or mock the appearance of other women, it is not necessarily an endorsement of male dominance, or a surrender to the supremacy of the male gaze. It might just be a very primitive impulse, genetically reinforced via natural selection, to attack, weaken and dominate one’s sexual competition. Women try to decrease the relative attractiveness of their same-sex rivals for male attention. And vice versa. (And of course gay men do the same thing to each other; gay women likewise.) It’s not an endorsement of the opposite sex’s domination so much as a selfish tactic in the battle for sexual partners.
Obviously we aim to sublimate and “rise above” raw, selfish sexual instinct. But the point is, it’s not necessarily all that ideological, and not necessarily so self-hating and oppression-endorsing as “patriarchy” or even “misogyny.” It’s just (“just”) sexual competition, which doesn’t inherently elevate or empower either sex at the expense of the other. Sometimes it’s just a skirmish over a prom date. Or arm-wrestling in front of the girls.
Inception: A Grief Observed -
Hardly a smoking gun. Lewis’s observation that the grieving person ends up with an image of the beloved made false by the very process of remembering (while beautifully articulated) is now almost a cliche of “grief narratives” and grief counseling books. The evolving science of memory also validates this phenomenological description, as we learn that memories in the brain are dulled and distorted every time we fondle and fantasize over them; every time we play the video tape back—rewind it—pause it—slow mo—it gets more warped, more fuzzy, more brittle. And less and less faithful to the thing—or person—it recorded.
All memories are memories of loss.
We may worship the sun, but we love the moon.
Photo credit: Anthony Ayiomamitis. Must see.
“Moon illusion” at Wikipedia.