Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Say no more

So I punted commentary on Gombrowicz and Bacacay, which is up there with Ferdydurke, superior to Pornografia & Cosmos where the conceit falls short of extension to novella length. (a recent oeuvreview)

So I continued without pause to fill an important lacuna (not a much-needed gap) in my reading with late Beckett: Nohow On (Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho). A radical reduction, the mover now unmoved, but a progression nonetheless as even more is pared away. These texts have the uncanny property of reading you as you read them. The eye tears. The page tears. I had the most difficulty with the central term of the progression, where most seem to find the last hardest, but Worstward Ho seems to me more straightforward, working towards a climax encapsulating all:

Worse less. By no stretch more. Worse for want of better less. Less best. No. Naught best. Best worse. No. Not best worse. Naught not best worse. Less best worse. No. Least. Least best worse. Least never to be naught. Never to naught be brought. Never by naught be nulled. Unnullable least. Say that best worse. With leastening words say least best worse. For want of worser worst. Unlessenable least best worse.

Everything that follows this is the unsaying of all that preceded it, ending with the missaid unsaid.

It also led me to ponder how Sam might have rewritten something completely different: Evening. She's a goer. No. What I mean? Say no more. Nudge. Nudge. Does she go? Bet she does. Follow me. That's good. A nod good as a wink to a blind bat. Very good. Wicked. Say no more. Wicket? A sport? Bet she does. Likes games. Knew she would. Been around. No. What I mean? Asked knowingly. Snaps. Could be taken on holiday. Still. Insinuating? No. No. Yes. Been around. Done it. Slept. No. No more.



Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant (trans Simon Watson Taylor) (Exact Change '94): A 1926 anti-novel meant to provoke his fellow surrealists as much as the critics. I picked it up on spec a couple weeks ago, and brought off the shelf when I happened upon reference to it in Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project (which I've been reading between novels), not knowing how fundamentally it served as the impetus that sent Benjamin down the path towards creating that monument, or rather recreating the monument that appears on the summit in §XIII of Buttes-Chaumont. Much has been made of this (and much more behind jstor or other appurtenances), but his own words perhaps capture it best:

"If I insist on this mechanism of contradiction in the biography of a writer ..., it is because his train of thought cannot bypass certain facts which have a logic different from that of his thought by itself. It is because there is no idea he adheres to that truly holds up ... in the face of certain very simple, elemental facts: that workers are staring down the barrels of cannons aimed at them by the police, that war is threatening, and that fascism is already enthroned ... It behooves a man, for the sake of his dignity, to submit his ideas to these facts, and not to bend these facts, by some conjuring trick, to his ideas, however ingenious." Aragon, "D'Alfred de Vigny à Avdeenko," Commune, 2 (April 20, 1935), pp. 808-809. But it is entirely possible that, in contradicting my past, I will establish a continuity with that of another, which he in turn, as communist, will contradict. In this case, with the past of Louis Aragon, who in this same essay disavows his Paysan de Paris: "And, like most of my friends, I was partial to the failures, to what is monstrous and cannot survive, cannot succeed ... I was like them: I preferred error to its opposite' (p. 807). (N3a,4 trans Eiland & McLaughlin)

But if it is a failure, it succeeds brilliantly, and through "... error which demands that a person contemplate it for its own sake before rewarding him with the evidence about fugitive reality that it alone can give. Surely it must be realized that the face of error and the face of truth cannot fail to have identical features? Error is certainty's constant companion. And anything said about truth may equally well be said about error: the delusion will be no greater. Without the idea of evidence, error would not exist. Without evidence no one would even pause to think about error." (p7, "Preface to a Modern Mythology"). And so he gives evidence; not for him automatic writing, nor the exquisite corpse: "The inner meaning [le fonds] of a surrealist text is of the greatest importance, since it is that inner meaning that gives the text a precious revelatory quality. If you write dreary idiocies following a surrealist method they will remain dreary idiocies. Without possible excuse." (Traité du style, 1928)

Per that textual exhumer and architect, Benjamin, in a letter to Adorno: "I could never read more than two or three pages in bed at night before my heart started to beat so strongly that I had to lay the book aside" ("... excitable boy, they all said / and he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones ...") (speaking of cages, how it is that it was the Jardin des Plantes that housed both Rilke's panther and Nabokov's ape ["As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage." — afterword to Lolita]) (I'll be visiting an old friend at the Botanical Garden here next week myself) — where was I? Benjamin differentiates his project in convolute N, "On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress":

Delimitation of the tendency of this project with respect to Aragon: whereas Aragon persists within the realm of dream, here the concern is to find the constellation of awakening. While in Aragon there remains an impressionistic element, namely the "mythology" (and this impressionism must be held responsible for the many vague philosophemes in his book), here it is a question of the dissolution of "mythology" into the space of history. That, of course, can happen only through the awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been. (N1,9)

For all this, Benjamin's skeletal construction is built on generalities, the abstractions of others taken as particularity, as elemental fact, which can lapse grandly into error: "'The truth will not escape us,' reads one of Keller's epigrams. He thus formulates the concept of truth with which these presentations take issue." (N3a,1) Rolf Tiedemann's note: "This sentence could not be found among Keller's epigrams." But there is a more comprehensive error, a conflation of infrastructure with superstructure, non-recognition that interpretation is contained within interpenetration:

Obviously, there can be no true sense of the unconscious, if we limit ourselves to the general conception of this faculty. At least, one could not have more than an abstract knowledge, or rather, a logical intuition, of it. But if we consider that the conscious can derive its elements from no other source than the unconscious, then we are obliged to agree that the conscious is contained within the unconscious. It is thus a preliminary sense by the conscious of the unconscious, a sense (of direction) which starts off figuratively but extends itself logically* [*A sort of sentimental backward march.], and which in this way occupies the whole mind, that we may justifiably name the sense of the unconscious. Bearing in mind the definition I gave of myth, it will be seen that this sense is in every respect identical with the mythical sense, that it is indeed the mythical sense. And its description explains to us its power and its effects. (p125, "A Feeling for Nature in the Buttes-Chaumont")

Yet it was Benjamin whom Adorno criticized for Jungianism. But I am presenting this as if there were some dialectic operating between Aragon and Benjamin, when in fact even within the confines of Benjamin's dialectical treatment of historical materialism, there is hidden agreement:

Scientific progress — like historical progress — is in each instance merely the first step, never the second, third, or n + 1 — supposing that these latter ever belonged not just to the workshop of science but to its corpus. That, however, is not in fact the case; for every stage in the dialectical process (like every stage in the process of history itself), conditioned as it always is by every stage preceding, brings into play a fundamentally new tendency, which necessitates a fundamentally new treatment. The dialectical method is thus distinguished by the fact that, in leading to new objects, it develops new methods, just as form in art is distinguished by the fact that it develops new forms in delineating new contents. It is only from without that a work of art has one and only one form, that a dialectical treatise has one and only one method. (N10.1)

Compare with Aragon's prefactory conclusion, his defining myth, to see whether the face of truth and the face of error share the same features:

I no longer wish to refrain from the errors of my fingers, the errors of my eyes. I know now that these errors are not just booby traps but curious paths leading towards a destination that they alone can reveal to me. There are strange flowers of reason to match each error of the senses. Admirable gardens of absurd beliefs, forebodings, obsessions and frenzies. Unknown, ever-changing gods take shape there. I shall contemplate these leaden faces, these hemp-seeds of the imagination. How beautiful you are in your sand-castles, you columns of smoke! New myths spring up beneath every step we take. Legend begins where man has lived, where he lives. All that I intend to think about from now on is these despised transformations. Each day the modern sense of existence becomes subtly altered. A mythology ravels and unravels. It is a knowledge, a science of life open only to those who have no training in it. It is a living science which begets itself and makes away with itself. I am already twenty-six years old, am I still privileged to take part in the miracle? How long shall I retain this sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence? I see it fade away in every man who advances into his own life as though along an always smoother road, who advances into the world's habits with an increasing ease, who rids himself progressively of the taste and texture of the unwonted, the unthought of. To my great despair, this is what I shall never know.

Aragon is very particular in his explication of detail in "The Passage de l'Opéra", less so in "A Feeling for Nature ..." but still well-grounded underneath his 'vague philosophemes'; these are framed by "Preface to a Modern Mythology" and "The Peasant's Dream", dissolving into a series of maxims. Paris Peasant, which does not depend on Benjamin's use of it for its value (though perhaps for its readership), remains unacknowledged as anti-novel, only mentioned as proto-anti-novel at best, another measure of its success.

In my own case, the bookshop is the arcade.

Witold Gombrowicz, Bacacay (trans Bill Johnston): Answering the question of what one could possibly read after that. What can I say?


Two books and a library journal

Two excellent novels, perhaps not appreciated (by me or by most, who's to say?) for the right reasons:

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart: Now more highly regarded for its subject than its form, which seems less remarkable, but which then posed a particular problem, as the novel was an exogenous, assimilative Western structure. (To what extent does this reflect return from exile to find one's land banished?) But, per Achebe, on writing in English: "... in the logic of colonization and decolonization it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours. English was the language of colonization itself. It is not simply something you use because you have it anyway; it is something which you can actively claim to use as an effective weapon, as a counterargument to colonization." (from subscription-only Atlantic; cf 1994 & 2007 interviews). The cultural argument hangs on religion as wedge and fulcrum; 50 years on, the African bishops are a dominant conservative force in the Church. Go figure.

Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker: Continuing/bringing up to date my reading on Haiti (Carpentier, Green — her preface to the former put her on my list), here with a diaspora disfigured by what is inescapable, memory and identity, unusual in that the exiles constitute both oppressed and oppressor; unusual too in that the strongly interconnected short stories fully work stand-alone as well. (I was glad to have interposed both Kiš & Pekić: the latter's "The Time of Miracles/of Dying" corresponding to if not with Danticat's "The Book of the Dead/of Miracles" — Vodou is sublimated throughout.) Haiti (not just the land) bears a multitude of scars, some within. (Interview.)

On to other matter: I attended the Thursday night NBCC panel at HousingWorks' UsedBookCafe in Soho (helping alleviate homelessness and HIV) on literary magazines disappearing into the aether at libraries; another attendee describes the proceedings (via EdRants) so I don't have to; I'll merely note that much of the discussion about aesthetics and other differences between print and screen and other shortsightedness is long established territory, and amend with a couple further questions from the audience:
Q: To the librarians on the panel: How many lit mags do your libraries subscribe to in print? A: NYPL, 800-1,000; Manhattan CC/CUNY, 5.
My Q: Can Print-on-Demand technology, perhaps non-profit driven, help? A: POD carries a number of other problems, beyond the current state of the technology, such as associated rights etc ...

While this issue is auxilary to the broader NBCC campaign, it is to my mind more important: Much of what appears may be as ephemeral as newspaper, but a much larger proportion (however small, not negligible) lasts. As it is with authors, there are always more small presses than can economically serve readers. Costs are shared across many institutions which are being squeezed, libraries not least among them. But the technological solution for reducing costs does not work as well as it may for scientific or scholarly work (where abstracts provide the browser the gist). It was also a pleasure to put a face to the writings of Scott McLemee, who added this site to his blogroll on the occasion of my dismissive comment there (along the lines that newspapers are market-, not issue-driven) on the broader campaign.


Nouvelles en trois lignes

In 1906, tall, skinny anarchist Félix Fénéon took France's measure, an eyebrow raised, brought up short when it came up short.


I began a comedy

John Crowley, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land: An imagining of Byron reimagining himself in novel form, exploring variations on established formats by both Byron & Crowley (as both are wont to do). "The Evening Land", annotated by his daughter Ada Lovelace, comes to light through rediscovered papers, comprising a parallel armature, an e-pistolary story which, though refracting Byronic attributes into modernity, functions primarily as didactic apparatus. The compulsion to explain belies a lack of confidence in the art or in the audience, which, for the former at least, is unjustified; similar purpose could have been better served by bracketing by modern introduction (here at the end) and afterword, and further development of Ada's notes. But the core, ventrisoliloquizing Byron, makes up for all that. (Post title from epigraph, from Byron's journal: "I began a comedy, and burnt it because the scene ran into reality—a novel, for the same reason. In rhyme, I can keep more away from facts; but the thought always runs through, through . . . yes, yes, through." And I was amused by Harold Bloom's blurb, given his appearance in the armature, and nearby, by Crowley's anagrammatic agent Roony J. Welch, rather close by the by to that of a Columbia [sometimes even District of] bookreviewer of my cyberacquaintance.)


Daniel Dennett exceeds his competence ...

... in a Technology Review piece on chess & AI, performing a reductio ad absurdam on his own argument, which belies a cluelessness at several levels, not least in provocateurship. As with much polemic, it is seeded with some reasonable observations but is distorted by tendentiousness and weakness of argument buttressed by spleenful rhetoric. It would deserve a thorough fisking, were it to rise to that level; but the interesting questions that could be raised and investigated, such as What is cognition? what is thought? what is intelligence? what is consciousness? and how do they depend upon one another? are not attributes displayed by Dennett here, much less broached. So I'll do so only in part. I don't have any brief against Dennett or his views generally; I just think that he here gives more comfort to the other side of the question. While he somewhat justifiably claims that critics have moved the goalposts, he then proceeds to do so himself, more radically, complaining all the while, and in the process scoring an own goal.

"Chess requires brilliant thinking, supposedly the one feat that would be--forever--beyond the reach of any computer. But for a decade, human beings have had to live with the fact that one of our species' most celebrated intellectual summits--the title of world chess champion--has to be shared with a machine, Deep Blue, which beat Garry Kasparov in a highly publicized match in 1997."
Error of fact: The title of world chess champion was never at stake in an exhibition match. And the premise that chess requires brilliant thinking rather than massive computation would be just what Deep Blue's accomplishment refutes. (Oh, but we're in the popular imagination. So massive computation is brilliant thinking.)

"The best computer chess is well nigh indistinguishable from the best human chess, except for one thing: computers don't know when to accept a draw."
Um, no. The best computer chess makes moves inexplicible to a human, moves which may well be objectively best but which come from no formulation of a strategic plan. The best human chess paradoxically often arises from recovery from earlier less-than-best moves (e.g., deceiving the opponent along a false trail). The bit about not knowing when to accept a draw is specious, since it is a matter of convenience in play versus humans.

"When Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1997, many commentators were tempted to insist that its brute-force search methods were entirely unlike the exploratory processes that Kasparov used when he conjured up his chess moves. But that is simply not so. Kasparov's brain is made of organic materials and has an architecture notably unlike that of Deep Blue, but it is still, so far as we know, a massively parallel search engine that has an outstanding array of heuristic pruning techniques that keep it from wasting time on unlikely branches."
Seizing upon the entirely unlike, this commentator is tempted to insist that the process is exactly the same, except for the differences? This is pruning an argument rather close to topiary. What matters is not whether the heuristic is explicit or implicit, what matters is whether the heuristic is imposed or self-generated.

"The fact is that the search space for chess is too big for even Deep Blue to explore exhaustively in real time, so like Kasparov, it prunes its search trees by taking calculated risks, and like Kasparov, it often gets these risks precalculated. Both the man and the computer presumably do massive amounts of "brute force" computation on their very different architectures. After all, what do neurons know about chess? Any work they do must use brute force of one sort or another."
The fact is that computers exhaust a large fraction of the search space locally, while the human chessplayer's subconscious calculation is highly inexact (though refined by pattern recognition honed by experience) and of course the conscious calculation only traverses a sliver of the search space, and even that not fully. There is a difference (and interplay) between filtration and selection. But define "brute force" broadly enough, and everything is merely a matter of computation -- welcome back to the clockwork universe.

"It may seem that I am begging the question by describing the work done by Kasparov's brain in this way, but the work has to be done somehow, and no way of getting it done other than this computational approach has ever been articulated. It won't do to say that Kasparov uses "insight" or "intuition," since that just means that ­Kasparov himself has no understanding of how the good results come to him. So since nobody knows how Kasparov's brain does it--least of all Kasparov himself--there is not yet any evidence at all that Kasparov's means are so very unlike the means exploited by Deep Blue."
Yes, begging the question. No, there is abundant evidence that Kasparov's and Deep Blue's means differ substantively, even though we can specify little of the former. Drawing analogies between mental and computational processes can help elucidate the former, but the ability to draw analogies is one distinguishing characteristic of intelligence, however defined. Add a meaningless pawn to a chess position, and the human recognizes the similarity while the computer relaunches a full analysis. (Add a meaningful pawn and the human may well be misled.)

But Dennett proves incapable of analogizing, relying instead on the brute force of rhetoric. The whole silicon/protein dichotomy is a red herring: The difference between emergent behaviors of designed algorithms versus adaptive systems is what's in play. (Should some cellular automata be considered more intelligent because they give rise to more complex behavior? Or simpler?) The latter may or may not reduce into a some algorithmic architecture, and might usefully be modelled by such. But there is no evidence that they must be algorithmic, much less designed.

(Older speculations around this topic, in fact and fiction.)

Addendum: On second thought, I'll save you a click on the first link:
Early attempts to replicate human modes of analysis were (and still are) an abject failure. The way forward was to make the best use of what computers do best, iteration and computation. (And a third component, memory, as applied to opening play and checking endgames against known results.) Iteration involved building a tree of all possible moves from a given position, defining a search space, but the combinatorial explosion in potential moves limits how far out this can go. The computational aspect is in evaluating the resulting positions in terms of balance (not just material, but control of space and other tactical and positional factors) and stability (to determine whether to evaluate positions further down the tree; for a simple instance, if there are checks available to either side). Optimizing the interaction between iteration and computation is what lends strength to the result; it also governs strategies for human play against computers, in which long-term strategic considerations, beyond the horizon that such iterated computation can detect, become the tactic.
To which I'll add: Consider chess problems of the "mate in n moves" variety. Computers have outperformed humans in solving these for decades; computers exhaust the search space as a first resort, humans as a last resort. Is this then the same process?


For Thine is the Boredom

Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S.Eliot: A study investigating the musicality of "The Four Quartets", extended into a consideration of all Eliot's poesy, which lacks the tautness and sharp insight of the original study. I read this with half an eye to Pale Fire, in which reference to both "The Waste Land" and "The Four Quartets" plays its part (cf prior posts on poet/critics and poetic criticism); the fact that the gardener has a key role in PF made it seem more than likely this was no coincidence; but as it turns out, it was (even though Maud Bodkin gets a footnote). Where Gardner begins to go off the rails is when she takes on Eliot's career, and approach to faith, in the light of comments he made on Matthew Arnold in "The Use of Poetry", in particular:
...We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for the poet is not, to have a beautiful world with which to deal; it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory. The vision of the horror and the glory was denied to Arnold, but he knew something of the boredom.
Gardner hones in on "the boredom, and the horror, and the glory" as the trajectory of Eliot's development. But she misses the consonance with "the kingdom, and the power, and the glory", and so the significance with respect to both Arnold and Eliot. On the other hand it did lead me to Donald Justice's take in memory of the unknown poet ... but as a "landmark study" this is just a historical landmark.


Better that it had never been written

Borislav Pekić, The Time of Miracles (trans Lovett F. Edwards): Lest the header mislead, this is an excellent book; Pekić seems something of a Serbian Saramago (whose Gospel According to Jesus Christ I have yet to read, but it's on the list). Pekić's foreword opens with a passage from Ecclesiastes, then recapitulates the Old Testament up through Isaiah's prophecy, concluding
And behold, the Scripture was fulfilled.
He came during the reign of Octavian Augustus.
This is the true story about him, his teaching and his disciples, his miracles and his passion. This is the true tale of how his new kingdom above all kingdoms was born. [...]

The story asks (sorry, interrogates) for whom were the miracles performed? the prophecies fulfilled? and against whom? and the sacrifices? in whose service?

The book is split into two parts, "The Time of Miracles" and "The Time of Dying", each part limited omniscient narratives (of miracles, of deaths) bracketed by first-person accounts (or testaments): "Simon, son of Jona, by the Lord's will Peter, apostle and servant of Our Lord Jesus Christ" opens, and "Hamri Elcanaan, servant and friend" of Lazurus closes the first part, while Judas' bookkeeping, the longest chapter of the novel, begins the second part, which ends with the account told from the cross (the only chapter in which the idea exceeds the execution). Judas' insistence that the prophecies be carried out to the letter is the driving force behind the story; thus, the title to this post, so it is written.

So, too, an afterword. According to Angela Richter, in Serbian Studies 15.1 (Pekić issue [spoilert]), in a '91 interview, asked whether in retrospect he would configure Christ differently than in '65, he answered:
Certainly I would. Nowadays, I wouldn't write this book. I wouldn't commit such a sin, not because of my religious beliefs but because of a human being's point of view, because even back then I believed in God—the only problem I had was with the holy nature of Christ. If I would have chosen for my literary effort to get straight with the communist Messianism, with every ideological Messianism, or any other historical paradigm, then I would have expressed my truth using Aesop's language, which, at that time, was the only language I had access to. I made the worst choice possible. For a long time I wanted to distance myself from the book. However, I recognised that such acts are worthless. What's done is done. You cannot delete something that has become part of the Book of Life.

(Excerpts from Parts I and II, courtesy of his widow, Ljiljana Pekić.)