11 January 2018

On some violence up here

I am on an airplane (again and alas. I do not like traveling though I travel). I am trying to maintain some semblance of my dignity though I why I am worrying about this status interests me, I am sitting in first class and that should be enough, I would like to think. I have carried on board my two volumes of reading materials: weighty tomes worthy of any self-proclaimed, would-be scholar. I’ve got my reading journal in which I would put my erudite thoughts with my blue-ink fountain pen (as opposed to my black ink fountain pen or my too fancy ball point).
     But it is for me hard to focus on the airplane because around me are very active screens on which films and tv shows are displayed and I am forever distracted. For example, on the screen one row ahead and to my right the gentleman is watching a film entitled The Hitman’s Bodyguard starring Samuel Jackson and Ryan Reynolds. He began watching before we even began taxiing and the film continues now through take off and meal service. And every time I lift my head and cast my glance over to his screen it explodes with incredibly violent images: the film began miles sago with a shootout in which I swear twenty or fifty people were killed.  I think that the plot line is I merely a ploy to sustain scenes of violence and bloodshed to be accompanied by flowing rivers of blood flow and cavernous images of at least twelve wounds a-gaping. It doesn’t seem to matter what happens as long as it is accompanied by shootings, bombings and mass carnage.
     Perhaps the action serves as a substitute for the mundane lives viewers think they live. Thoreau says our lives are not as mean as we think, but I think that these scenes of violence serve to exacerbate a dechromatization of our lives and make them seem even more dull. Full disclosure: I have seen all seasons of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire.  I know the joys of screen violence. I did use the violence to leave my life behind. I remember Thoreau declaring that at times he felt like consuming raw squirrel with his bare teeth. I do not think he indulged this fantasy, but it perhaps permitted him to exorcise some demons.
     These images do distract me from having to think very hard; indeed, to think at all.
Perhaps these films waste the energies of us so that we don’t have to manifest them in the public sphere where action would be certainly welcome. Like the spectacle of sports in large stadiums and on the television screens, violence in the movies takes people out of the public sphere and leaves them deposited where they remain will remain out of the way and thus, out of harm’s way. (I look up: another shooting and twenty people dead, though not Ryan Reynolds nor Samuel Jackson!!On the screen in the seat next to me Charlize Theron is beating up on two or three well-armed men. I think they don’t stand a chance!) I would imagine also that these films take one’s mind off the fact that we are eight miles high and a long way to touch down, though I recognize that these films are prevalent on the ground as well. In the theaters, I suppose these films distract us from the brutality prevalent every where else but very evident in the reports of the daily newspapers. No matter when I look, up here someone is getting blown up, and there is still fifty minutes to touch down.


08 January 2018

I digress


And I wonder why it takes so much time and exhaustive effort to read Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Not discounting the 18th century syntax and vocabulary (the OED is the dictionary most required and I wish I recalled better how to diagram sentences), I think that this is a book without a real plot but actually about what is thought about what ever occurs that approaches the idea of plot.  And as soon as Tristram begins thinking about what has happened and comments upon the action, he offers the context of that action relating it to the philosophical currents past or present; to instruct the reader how to perceive that action (or how not to perceive it); etc. Tristram Shandy is a book built on digressions and I cannot with any certainty situate myself anywhere in the text because at any one time there is no clear plot line to keep me on track. These digressions offer insight into character and time; without digressions the book lacks substance.  Indeed, without digressions there is no book—“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;--they are the life, the soul of reading;--take them out of this book for instance—you might as well take the book along with them . . .” I think sometimes that life, too, becomes meaningful in the digressions.
     A book, like a life, might be considered a skilled interweaving of plot and digression and a reader must learn to distinguish the presence of either. A digression stops the movement of the plot because it offers context for the plot; and the plot puts an end to digression because one can’t call up context in the midst of action.  This reminds me of Thoreau’s caution written somewhere that we can either live life or write about it: of course, the opposite holds true: if we write about life we cannot live it unless the writing becomes life.
     To read Tristram Shandy is to enter into the wonder of why and how to read at all: is reading the mere following of plot or is it the enjoyment of digression. How to make sense of the relationship between the two strategies of elaboration. If the former perhaps books might be terribly made shorter: as Joe Friday demanded, “Just the facts, madam.” If the latter then the plot can only be understood by the digression, but the reader must learn how to understand the connections between overt plot and digression: the reader must discover the relationships between the plot and digression. Readers must discern the role of the digression within the content and context of the book. Zuckerman, Phillip Roth’s fictional creation, accuses Roth of deceiving the reader in his autobiography, The Facts, by writing ‘only the facts’ and editing out “the one percent that counts—the one percent that’s saved for your imagination and that changes everything.” In The Facts, Zuckerman complains, Roth is too proper to be truthful, too well behaved and modest to be honest. Only in fiction, Zuckerman argues, can Roth be honest. Tristram’s digressions argue similarly: without them there is no book:  “that tho’ my digressions are all fair, --as you observe,--and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and often too as any writer in Great Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.” The story must go on, but the story is meaningless without the digressions. The digressions contain the plot by giving it context and therefore move it along; the plot needs the digressions to approach honesty. The author has to be attentive to “keep up the spirit and connection of what they have in hand.”

28 December 2017

On Reading


Reading Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. I had studied this 18th century novel during graduate studies and seem to recall having written a paper discussing the influence of Hamlet in the novel. I had a colleague at the time who, too, had a familiarity with Tristram and we enjoyed sharing our common interest. I do not know what has led me to pick up this book again because it is a difficult read: 18th century grammatical structures and vocabulary the obvious obstacles to clarity. More interesting, however, is the narrative style. I intend not to construct another paper for another graduate English class, but I would like to entertain some points of interest to me. The first item to be considered is Sterne’s invention of the reader: the narrator—Tristram Shandy himself—speaks directly to the reader who is sometimes a woman and sometimes a man. This type of address might be a convention of 18th century literature, but Sterne at least one motive for this direct address is that Tristram informs his reader how to read the book! He addresses a reader’s concerns and questions, and advises the reader what he and she might expect from the narrative (such as it is) and offers motives for his direct address. For example, Tristram writes, “In the beginning of the last chapter,” Tristram writes, “I inform’d you exactly when I was born;--but I did not inform you, how. No; that particular was reserved entirely for a chapter by itself;--besides, Sir, as you and I are in a manner perfect strangers to each other, it would not have been proper to have let you into too many circumstances relating to myself all at once.—You must have a little patience . . . As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that unless one of us in in fault, will terminate in friendship.” This invitation (and caution) not only creates the reader but also directs him or her how the book is written and therefore how it must be read. Tristram also chastises the reader for not paying sufficient attention to the narrative. “How could you, Madam, be so inattentive in reading the last chapter?” he censures. The reader’s inattentiveness Tristram accuses, is a result of the habit of reading for plot and not for meaning. . I wish the male-reader has not pass’d by many a one [intellectual and moral point], as quaint and curious this one, in which the female-reader has been detected. I wish it [his caution]may have its effects;--and that all good people, both male and female, from her example, may be taught to think as well as read.” If reading does not lead to thinking, then the reading is inadequate! It is not a long step to Thoreau’s dictum that a good book requires one to stand on her tiptoes to read it!
    I have considered for a time that opening a new book is an act of estrangement and that the reticence to read we often find in children and adults might be due to a discomfort with entering a strange world and meeting new people. The reader enters a world that might be somewhat familiar but ought not to be wholly so, and the characters are, indeed, strangers to her. We enter with caution and sometimes even suspicion. Beginning a new book feels somewhat like jumping into the cold waters of a lake: shocking the system. Sometimes setting out in a new book is like entering a darkened forest; and sometimes it is like joining a party already in full session in an unknown strange house with nothing but strangers in attendance. “Who are these people? Where am I? Who invited me, after all? What am I doing here?” Often the incipient reader will turn and flee.
     Sterne appears to have prepared for this possibility at least by offering the reader entrance into the book. In the very first chapter Sterne places the reader into the book and even allows him or her to ask directly of the narrator, “Pray, what was your father saying?” which really asked when your father spoke what did he mean? The novel Tristram Shandy will be at the least a conversation between narrator and reader, and the reader is early cautioned not to remain blithely passive. Throughout the narrative Tristram tells us how the book is written and therefore, how the book must be read. For example, chastising his female reader for inattention, Tristram cautions, “’Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has which has crept into thousands besides herself,--of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventure, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them.” Of course, what he advocates is that one read not merely for plot but for meaning. Meaning derives from reflection. And to prevent a linearity that would obviate thought, Tristram keeps interrupting the narrative with digressions. “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;--they are the life, the soul of reading;--take them out of this book for instance,--you might as well take the book along with them.” What this means is that the steady (and anticipated) movement of plot suffers continual interruption and the reader must attend carefully to her or his reading because the reader can’t expect to know exactly what is to come next. Of his method Tristram says, says, “I set no small store  . . . that my reader has never yet been able to guess at any thing. And in this, Sir, I am of so nice and singular a humour, that if I thought you was able to form the last judgment or probably conjecture to yourself, of what was to come in the next page,--I would tear it out of my book.” What Tristram argues is that the digressions are absolutely necessary because no occurrence can be understood outside of the context in which the event occurs, and the digressions often offer that context.
     Reading Tristram Shandy is not about plot at all—though the book begins on the subject of Tristram’s birth, with all of the digressions it takes almost 80 pages until he is actually born! Without digressions, Tristram says, there is no book: “they are the life, the soul of reading.” I think one delight in reading Sterne’s novel is following the digressive narrative that finally includes all of life that could not ever be contained by a steady, rational progress of plot!