Imperative statements instruct, demanding immediate action, and thereby make gestures towards an instructor who stands as the source of the words on the page. When Blood Meridian bursts into being by latching onto a nameless boy, “pale and thin” and “wear[ing] a thin and ragged linen shirt,” the description that enables the reader to begin to perceive the boy is rendered subordinate to the instruction for the reader to simply perceive. “See the child” is the brusque demand with which the novel opens. “See the child,” it begins. “He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.” From where, from what, from whom, does that demand originate? What disembodied consciousness owns that imperative voice? What is this perceiving wraith, this unseen seer of other things, which must itself have seen the child in order to now instruct others to see?

The year is 1849 and the boy is restless. Although he has only just entered his teens, “in him broods already a taste for mindless violence” and so he drifts westward to fall in with men who feed his hunger for bloodshed. In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, in the wake of the Mexican-American War, the boy, “the kid,” finds a place in a posse charged with confronting the Indian raiders whose havoc has unleashed anarchy across the border settlements. The posse is led by John Joel Glanton, formerly a captain in the U.S. Army, and his remit is to claim bounty from the Governor of Chihuahua upon surrender of the scalps of slaughtered “heathen.” In time, however, the men of his posse come to see little difference between the scalps they are officially sanctioned to take and those of the settlers who dwell in the deserts far beyond civilisation. They begin attacking innocents in numbers that exceed belief but then, when their actions are brought to light at last, the predators find themselves preyed upon and blaze a trail of unspeakable carnage further west to California. Their journey ends in disaster. There are only two survivors, one of whom is the kid, and the novel comes to a close with his death at the hands of the other. So goes the story of Blood Meridian. Spectacularly cruel and sensationally violent, it is otherwise simple, straightforward, and slight. Surprisingly little actually happens as one page gives way to the next, and what happens happens largely without depth or complexity and without any sense of moment or meaning.

In Blood Meridian, then, the tale is overshadowed both by the voice in which it is told and by the nature of the consciousness that this voice implies. For this consciousness, of course, the very act of seeing becomes a significant preoccupation as it recurrently remarks on who among a crowd of people is watching the movements of others and how the observed appear to observers and which of them are or are not able to see this or that aspect of the world they inhabit. But how does the seer itself see this world and how does it use words to force readers to see? The issue of sight is, in this novel, inextricably bound to the issue of language insofar as the persona of the seer is manifest through not only the observations it makes of the world but also the selection and sequencing of the words it uses to make them. The qualities of its language have long attracted critical interest. Among its more remarkable features are what Dana Phillips calls “a strange equanimity of tone, strange because of the virtuosity with which [it] details what seems unspeakable and what once it has been spoken requires no further comment,” and the fluctuations of focalisation by which, as Steven Shaviro points out, the seer races forth and then retreats, “from the concrete to the abstract and back again,” and thereby “observes a fractal symmetry of scale, describing without hierarchical distinction and with the same attentive complexity the most minute phenomena and the most cosmic.” So how do these qualities play out on the page to create and impart its axis of vision?

On one level, the seer makes note of worldly detail with a vocabulary so expansive and recondite that it affords an almost irreducible precision of taxonomy, affixing to various aspects of the world names so specific as to lack synonyms. A hanged man is labelled a “parricide,” murdered by his own children. A club or cudgel wielded as a weapon is identified as a “shellalegh,” an Irish walking stick with a knob at one end. An old hermit is labelled an “anchorite,” a man whose sense of duty to God has driven him into reclusion, while a haggard old woman is a “beldam” and a stagecoach is a “diligence” and a horse’s hooves are not merely “bound” but are “spanceled” to where the beast casts its shadow across the ground. And even when the seer seems to lack a word as specific as those above, it observes worldly details with similar specificity but by way of descriptions of only slightly greater length. A quiver made of leather, for instance, is specifically made from ocelot skin, and a street bazaar whose attractions include a nest of snakes behind wooden bars is said to showcase a series of “stout willow cages clogged with vipers.” When it operates on a more abstract level, however, the seer forsakes this close observation of worldly detail in order to survey a more expansive scene with minimal attention to its finer elements. “[T]hey were very small and they moved very slowly in the immensity of that landscape,” it says of Glanton’s men when it adopts a sphere of sight so broad as to make them miniscule, and later it hovers above them to watch them “sketching on the plain below a blue cameo of such dream pilgrims clanking north.” “The earth fell away on every side equally in its arcature,” the seer notes as it rears up over the heads of these hopeless men, “and by these limits were they circumscribed and of them were they locus.”

Zooming in and zooming out, retreating from a concentrated deepening of vision to radically expand the horizon of its purview, the seer’s omniscient gaze appears to oscillate between a circumspective atomic particularisation of that which comprises the world and an existential totalisation of the world itself. More impressively, though, the seer is able to fix its gaze upon a plurality of spatial and temporal positions all at once. “In the predawn light,” it notes as it follows the kid through the desert, “he made his way out upon a promontory and there received first of any creature in that country the warmth of the sun’s ascending.” Beyond exclusively observing the movements of the kid, then, it simultaneously observes every other sentient being around him without regard for how or where each may be concealed. Later, too, as it follows the movements of Glanton’s posse, it notes that Glanton’s men “did not know that they were set forth in that company in the place of three men slain in the desert,” and it easily traverses both space and time when it observes one man alone, fleeing the desert on foot, as he strikes out “beyond where four hundred miles to the east were the wife and child that he would not see again.” It repeatedly makes a point of its ability to see what cannot be seen by the characters it details, such as when it observes two men whose futures are read with tarot cards and focuses on the one card “that they would not see come to light,” and it likewise looks into the future with offhand references to “the scene to come” or to events that will occur “[w]ithin a week” or “before the month [is] out.” In one instance, it even stands motionless in space to watch a succession of torturous days cluster together into a single moment. Finding some horses dead in the desert, “parched beasts [that] died with their necks stretched in agony,” it remarks on how their open mouths now leave them “howling after the endless tandem suns that passed above them.”

Continued in the following post.

Deleterious and Malignant

September 24, 2013

She wondered what sort of herbs they were, which the old man was so sedulous to gather. Would not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy of his eye, greet him with poisonous shrubs, of species hitherto unknown, that would start up under his fingers? Or might it suffice him, that every wholesome growth should be converted into something deleterious and malignant at his touch? Did the sun, which shone so brightly everywhere else, really fall upon him? Or was there, as it rather seemed, a circle of ominous shadow moving along with his deformity, whichever way he turned himself? And whither was he now going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance? Or would he spread bat’s wings and flee away, looking so much the uglier, the higher he rose towards heaven?

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Speed Reading

August 9, 2013

Midsummer was an interesting time for online discussions of literature and the reasons for which readers of literature actually read. Kevin Hartnett and the team at The Millions were the first to kick the hornets’ nest when they “asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest.” Mission accomplished, especially when Tom Ferraro, Associate Professor of English at Duke University, nominated Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as the Great American Novel:

The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?

When the comments section at The Millions exploded with dissents and disagreements, the discussion spilled over onto The Daily Dish, the blog of Andrew Sullivan, where one of Sullivan’s readers was given prime position to offer backup to Ferraro and take down the naysayers:

No surprise there’s backlash against the inclusion of The Godfather. Academics and those who think of themselves as literary types can’t give credit to any novel that isn’t either “beautifully” written or previously endorsed by the academic/literary community. It’s easier to harp on sentences and metaphors than to talk about mythic story, plot, character, and theme.

Meanwhile, in a separate but related discussion, Ted Gioia attracted an audience with his paean to the rise of what he calls a new breed of fragmented novels:

Instead of relying on fragmentation as a means of disjunction and dissolution, as many experimental novelists ha[ve] done in the past… the new fragmented novel is holistic and coalescent. … The comparison with musical polyphony is fitting because, as with the counterpoint, the voices in these recent novels are made to fit together with a virtuosity akin to that demonstrated by the great contrapuntal composers.

“Instead of ‘messy cacophony,’” Gioia continues, “these novels delight with their complicated coherence.” He then names fifty-seven individual titles that fit the bill and claims that each one in some way “resists disunity, even as it appears to embody it,” giving extraordinary care to narrative sophistication but burying both the care and the sophistication beneath what is, for Gioia, an ultimately superficial facade of stylistic and structural complexity:

These novels do not simply delight us with their contrasting voices. They also send us through an enjoyable labyrinth… filled with sharp turns and apparent dead ends, yet we always reach our final destination. Their authors are… showing off their ingenuity in building coherent narratives out of starkly juxtaposed bits and pieces.

But, striking a kinship with Sullivan’s reader, Gioia bemoans the waywardness of those who dare to see the style and structure of those novels as somehow more stimulating than their stories:

When I was a student of literature, my professors — who were academic literary critics, not fiction writers — almost never mentioned these [narrative-oriented] elements of craft. I remember one professor even going on a rant in class about students who paid too much attention to the plot of the novel. He had more important matters in mind when he read a book than the actual story.

Thankfully, another of Sullivan’s readers was given space on The Daily Dish to respond to the previous reader by noting the obvious flaw in that reader’s line of thinking, and in Gioia’s as well:

[T]he reader doesn’t defend Puzo’s writing. S/he just tries to pretend it doesn’t matter by diverting attention from it to what the previous posts had already readily acknowledged: that The Godfather is a great story. For my money, though, if something is going to be labeled the Great American Novel, it had better damn well be a great story and be fantastically written. No amount of story greatness can make up for shit writing, and vice versa.

The sentiments of that statement echoed those of the question that had been occupying my mind while I watched these discussions unfold. If someone reads a piece of writing solely for the story it contains, not for the quality of the writing itself, why waste time on reading it at all? Film adaptations and summarisations offer far more expedient means of ingesting the same narrative information that one would glean from reading anything lengthier for story alone. Surprisingly, the issue of expediency cropped up in the comments at The Millions when “Mr. C” chimed in:

Nice to see The Godfather on the list. Someone gave the book to me years ago, I don’t even think I knew the movie was based on a book. I was hooked in minutes and finished it over the weekend. As a heavy reader friends will ask me for a good book to read and many times I will say “The Godfather,” they will look at me with skepticism and I’ll just say give it a try. Every one of them has returned the book a week later and said that was a great read.

But why is it considered a virtue of The Godfather that one can have it all over and done with, read and appraised and appropriately admired, in only seven days? And why would Stuart Burrows, Associate Professor at Brown University and one of the nine English scholars commenting at The Millions, concede that the list of novels he and the other respondents produced was “unusual” because someone else nominated Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a novel that “very few people have the patience to make it through”? By what logic can it be possible that, on the one hand, the value of a novel lies partly in its capacity to be read at speed, and that, on the other hand, the novel should be read for story alone even though the artform of the novel is the least speedy means by which a reader can access the story? Even when readers purport to read novels for nothing more than the pleasures of story, there must be some other quality to those novels — some quality of style or structure — that induces the reader to prefer to access the story through them rather than through an adaptation or a summarisation or something else altogether. My sense is that this other quality is the sophistication of those elements of the novel that tend to be glossed over in celebrations of Puzo’s The Godfather and that Gioia acknowledges in his essay only in order to downplay their affective impact.

Literature is, by definition, abstract, and therefore complex, and therefore intensely demanding of those who choose to engage with it. Story is everywhere — in literature, yes, but also in film, on television, on stage, in opera, in pop music, in comic books, on blogs, in tweets, in reportage, everywhere — and it is therefore readily available in countless venues that are far less demanding, complex, and abstract than literature. On some level, then, to turn to literature is to choose abstraction over immediacy, complexity over simplification, and demands over simple accommodations — and, moreover, to engage with literature beyond the point of turning to it is to seek stimulation from each of those choices. Those who genuinely seek out story alone probably don’t turn to literature at all, and this remains the case, I think, even if one believes that one turns to literature solely in search of story. Once we acknowledge as much, once we concede that story alone may spark an engagement with literature but cannot fuel its continuation, the primacy of the story, its value above and beyond all other elements of the literary work, disintegrates in the steady flow of the words across the pages and gradually descends like debris overawed by a flood as the pages turn. What remains afloat on the surface of our literary experience are those elements of the work that arrest our attention in the moments after the story attracts it, and these, in my experience, offer stimulation and reward enough to last much longer than a week.

This year has been for me, in a sense, the year of Much Ado About Nothing. Back in November, I began helping a couple of colleagues to direct our students in a performance of the play. We spent November and December closely reading the text, then we spent January and February intensively preparing for the stage. We also paid careful attention to both Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation and the 2011 West End production starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. And although we pulled the trigger too soon to catch Joss Whedon’s more recent take on Shakespeare’s material, I saw his Much Ado when it hit cinemas this summer and I’m convinced that it is the best of all those I have seen. It could have just as easily gone the other way. Whedon shot the film in only twelve days, while in the middle of post-production on The Avengers, using his own house as the set and restricting himself to a grainy monochrome palette. It could have been a sloppy, rushed, underdeveloped mess. But it isn’t. Why not?

Fran Kranz as Claudio in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Fran Kranz as Claudio in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Part of the film’s success resides in the minor changes Whedon makes to Shakespeare’s original text and in the talents of some first-rate cast members who do full justice to those parts of the play that Whedon doesn’t tinker with. Most notably, I think, Whedon’s decision to transform the ancillary character of Conrade from a female role into a male role works wonders not only for that character but also for the more crucial character of Don John. Whereas Shakespeare’s pages render Don John a “plain-dealing” villain who turns out to be so pathetic and paper-thin that he barely warrants the stage time allotted to him, Whedon’s film shows he and Conrade involved in a sexual relationship which subtly reconstrues his motivation for manipulating the other characters and kickstarting the plot. Now, rather than having no stronger basis for his villainy than bitterness over the bastardy that keeps him in his brother’s shadow, his cruel machinations appear to be more the result of a purely opportunistic and misguided attempt to live up to his lover’s perceptions of his masculinity. Whedon also does a skilful job of eliding the character of Balthasar and reworking Balthasar’s into pop songs that better suit the film’s contemporary setting, and his decision to allow Nathan Fillion free reign as the bumbling Dogberry has produced not only the best available performance of that character but, perhaps, the best conceivable performance as well. I don’t see what any other actor can do with Dogberry from here on out except imitate Fillion’s line delivery and physical buffoonery as accurately as possible. Only the excision of the character of Antonio seems to me to be a misstep on Whedon’s part, particularly since Antonio’s absence prohibits the staging of one of Shakespeare’s best and most dynamic scenes, equal parts hilarious and devastating, when Antonio and the aggrieved Leonato confront and threaten Don Pedro and Claudio over their accusations against Leonato’s daughter, Hero.

Most of the film’s success, however, seems to me to reside in something less immediately identifiable, something that sets Whedon apart from the other film directors who have been drawn to Shakespeare since the 1990s. The films of Kenneth Branagh present lavish stagings of Shakespeare’s plays with the ultimate aim of clearly conveying the dramas that Shakespeare orchestrates by way of enunciating and thus foregrounding his language, which basically involves Branagh pointing a camera at a group of accomplished actors and simply letting them do their work. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet takes the opposite approach, forcing flashy camera movements and ritzy editing to convey the drama while the actors enunciate monologues and soliloquies but employ more physical techniques for communicating the content of minor dialogue, and the films of Julie Taymor offer some compromise between, or combination of, Branagh’s and Luhrmann’s approaches to Shakespeare. In each case, though, the result is an admixture of three languages: the language of Shakespeare, comprising the dialogue; the language of the staging, comprising setting and set design, props, and costuming; and the language of cinema, comprising camera movements, editing, and soundtrack scoring. In each case, too, the language of Shakespeare is the dominant element whose occasional weaknesses or infelicities, as the directors perceive them, determine when and how much compensation should be made using the languages of staging and cinema. Whedon, however, does not let the language of Shakespeare dominate Much Ado About Nothing. His film allows the language of staging to dominate while the language of cinema that supplements the staging and the language of Shakespeare follows on from, and is at the mercy of, the other two.

In practice, this means two things. First, it means that Whedon uses the distinct capabilities of cinema as an artform to avoid simply producing a stage version of Much Ado that happens to have been performed in front of a camera. Utterly unlike Kenneth Branagh, for instance, he rarely allows a character to deliver more than a few lines of dialogue — even during monologues and soliloquies — before cutting to reaction shots of other characters and, almost as frequently, intercutting a dialogue delivery with action from another scene that takes place elsewhere and at a different time but nevertheless speaks to the content of the dialogue. Second, it means that, when Whedon sets his Much Ado in a villa in contemporary Los Angeles, he has his actors deliver their Shakespearean lines almost the way they would deliver them if they were performing a role in that setting without any Shakespearean language at all. There is very little showiness and glamour to the delivery of dialogue, and sometimes even a deliberate rebuke to the way we might expect dialogue to be delivered. Eloquent lines are mumbled, pithy lines are drawn out, witty lines are dampened and drained of their buoyancy, and there is often a tinge of emotional equivocation to lines that seem to be, on the page, either outrageously joyful or desperately cruel. These things are particularly true of all the lines delivered by Fran Kranz as the besotted Claudio when in conversation with Jillian Morgese as his lover, Hero, to such an extent that those two actors, solely by way of body language and tone of voice, reconstitute the meaning of words that literally refer to virginity and maidenhood and force upon them new meanings relating more broadly to infidelity, promiscuity, and betrayal. And these things are likewise true of the lines delivered by Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice, between whom there seems to be not so much a “merry war,” a bantering battle of witty words, but a real and deep bitterness over the failure of a bygone romance — so much so that the sparring exchanges which advance a largely intellectual one-upmanship in Shakespeare’s text now obtain an element of malice intended to open emotional wounds. The result, on the whole, is a decidedly different but impressive take on Much Ado About Nothing. By bringing Shakespeare’s characters into a setting that suppresses and attenuates the crackling repartee of their words as written, Whedon harnesses the energy that those words only sporadically release on Shakespeare’s pages and transforms it into an edgy, bristling, abiding susurration that undergirds every frame of his film.

The texts’ narrative amorphousness and mixed media — what Randall calls “hybrid forms” (3) and what Daniel Davis Wood calls a revival of the avant-garde nouveau Roman post WWII European postmodernism — clearly represent the unsure approach to new ways to make sense of the trauma. The canon of such experimental 9/11 fiction is continually being set by cultural and literary critics.

My remarks on the rebirth of the nouveau roman cited in an MA thesis by Brian J. Phelps.

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