Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hunting quackers in the shallows with Montaigne, with sevens


Sometime back there, maybe a decade ago, a reviewer grumbled about one of my books (it might have been Gaudeamus) in a fairly affectionate way:

"Linearity is not exactly Barnes's middle name."

This led to seven thoughts:

1.     Gee, I wish it were. I could use Lin as a nickname, which would be a lot less common than my first name, and stop being confused with the very large number of Johns Barneses I am not. (The count of just the ones I ran across one way or another is now up to about 70. And I’m still the only one of us that is me.)

2.     "J. Linearity Barnes" would make a much more interesting byline, anyway. Maybe next time I jump out of genre I'll use it.

3.     If I'd had a twin, he or she could have had "Collinearity" as a middle name.

4.     What sort of parent would give "Linearity" as a middle name? One who did fine at elementary algebra but bombed out in analytic geometry and trig, and has now become anti-calculus in perhaps the same way some people are anti-evolution?

5.     Of course there are a lot of people nowadays who invent names for their children based on mellifluous sounds, particularly sticking syllables they really like together, and it's possible that someone might invent that name without realizing it had any meaning whatever.

6.     Linearity does have kind of a nice Celtic-derived-sounding "arrity" at the end, like McGarrity or Moriarity.

7.     "Lini" is a very pleasing combination of syllables to the ears of many nations in Europe, whether you make that first syllable a short i or a long e. It could be a type of pasta, a picturesque town in Central Europe, a Mediterranean island, a microstructure inside some gland or other, or perhaps an interesting geological feature.

Now, for reasons I don't completely fathom, I find if I type seven observations and then start rambling on about them, I end up with a few thousand words that I like very much. Since the whole point of the blog is to have someplace to put words I like, in the hope that other people will like them too, it’s a pretty good trick and I should make myself do it more often.

I don't really understand why seven is such a good number, myself. Maybe because:

1. it's the number of registers, give or take, in human short-term memory,

2. it’s the lowest prime, and also the lowest positive integer, that isn’t a factor in the base of any culture's numbering system,

3. it’s the number of bins the majority of people in an open-ranking marketing survey will arrange a distribution of subjective quality into,

4. it’s the largest semistable number of competing unequal powers in Boulding’s theory of conflict,

5. it derives naturally from the interaction of the lunar and solar calendars,

6. Psychophysically, in Western culture, it underlies octaves and rainbows

7. It’s such a good number for wonders, warning signs, Santinis, sins, and dwarves.

See, seven interesting things about seven. I could go on. And on and on.

Nonetheless, onward again! ... now here are seven really interesting things (at least really interesting to me):

1.     In January I started reading Montaigne*, which I’ve never done before. I thought it might take a year, but my laziness and the intrinsic rewards of doing it slowly may make it take even longer. This project was triggered by Sarah Bakewell's terrific biography/summary of Montaigne, which I read the summer before, and which I highly recommend. Montaigne, the man who more than anyone else invented the essay in its modern sense, simply revels in digression and wanderings around the subject, backing and filling, not being sure of anything but always including a huge splendidly inconsistent pile of examples, drawing from his own time, classical antiquity, and a lifetime of deep, focused reading. Seeing how huge and open the possibilities of the essay are, as demonstrated by an author right at the core of our culture's understanding of it, is closely akin to the revelations about the novel I got from Fielding, Dickens, and Conrad, or about playscripts from Corneille, Euripides, or Chekhov.

2.      What is sometimes called linearity, sometimes "tight plotting," and in general means one-main-character-with-one-main-problem-and-nothing-else-so-get-on-with-it storytelling, bores the living shit out of me, even more in my reading than in my writing. If I know what the Major Dramatic Question (Grebanier terminology) or Thematic Statement (Egri terminology) or Polar Opposites (Hodge terminology) or agon (tons of scholars mis-explaining Aristotle terminology) is, at any time before about three quarters of the way through the story, thud goes the book into the do-not-finish-straight-to-Goodwill bin. If I a Syd Fields third act is inevitable before his midpoint or a Robert McKee Meaning of the Final Major Reversal is leaking out at the Climax ... no. No. No. In a 200-page book, if I know what it’s really about before page 150, it is not worth finishing; there is hardly an exclamation I enjoy exclaiming more than, “Oh, that was why that was there!” in the last ten pages, the way I did reading The Player of Games, A Prayer for Owen Meany, or The Hellfire Club. Show me a likeable hero/ine with a mythical resonating problem winning through an escalating series of challenges, and I'll show you the door.
This set of literary prejudices keeps me from wasting too much time in the bookstore's genre sections; I read a few pages at the beginning, flip the book over, and read the ending; sometimes I check random pages in the middle if necessary, but it seldom is. If I see how it all hangs together from that cursory flip-through, it's not interesting enough to read. ** If on the other hand the samples seem to come from different (but all well written by the same author) books, I'm on board.

3.     My reading the ending before reading the book puzzles many people who don’t understand why I want plots that go somewhere interesting but don’t care if they are “spoiled.” The truth is, I don't care about spoilers and can't imagine why anyone does. I try to respect people's feelings on the subject and not "spoil" in much the same way I try to respect religious proscriptions on foods: all right, I won't serve you a cheeseburger or ask you to eat anything fried in bacon grease, but from where I stand, it makes about as much sense as the Monty Python mattress/dog kennel sketch. I suspect that’s just a deep psychological difference between people like me and people not like me (speculation about the sizes of those sets is gently discouraged. I like the process of getting to an interesting place. I don’t care if I already know where the road runs or have a good map or guidebook (sometimes it may help and I might not get there by other means; I have to admit that I’m reading Montaigne with Sarah Bakewell and M.A. Screech as my guides and I probably wouldn’t get a tenth out of it what I get with them showing me the way, even though it means I know where I’m going). The fun thing about a surprise, for me anyway, is to see how artfully it was constructed**, and it’s easier to see the second time through.

4.     "Tight plotting" and “linear plotting” are often lumped together but they are independent of each other. Plot can be:
tight without being linear (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Tom Jones, The Last Good Kiss, Appointment in Samarra, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Godfather, The Three Musketeers, The Hanging Garden)
 loose and yet quite linear (Wreck-It Ralph, the Iliad, Scaramouche, 'Salem's Lot, The Princess Bride, Butterfield 8, Rabbit, Run, A Tale of Two Cities, Shardik, Downbelow Station).
tight and linear (The Maltese Falcon, Heart of Darkness, Of Mice and Men, Merchanter’s Luck, The Great Gatsby)
loose and non-linear (A Confederacy of Dunces, Gone with the Wind, The Catcher in the Rye, Look Homeward Angel, Huckleberry Finn, The Dispossessed, From Here to Eternity, David Copperfield, Doctor Zhivago, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Robber Bride, The Cider House Rules, Lord Jim, The Odyssey, The Good Soldier). I suspect the ease with which I came up with so many examples of that last category reveals where my heart really is as a reader. (And I just realized that it wouldn’t take long to finish up an essay for The Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag on this very subject).

5.     I recently got around to reading Nicholas Carr’sThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doingto Our Brains, which gave me a certain smug pleasure in realizing that hey, at least I was still able to read Montaigne and think comparatively about large numbers of novels and I still write long rambling essays and not short punchy heresmypointsgimmeacookies. That smugness, in turn, gave way to the uncomfortable realization that when I’m on line, I do tend to do all the knowledge-avoidance and learning-prevention tactics that he points out the net is engineered to encourage. And the realization led to my implementing a few personal tactics, of which more once I know whether they work or not, for limiting internet damage to the brain and the mind. Most of them were based on things I know about ancient and medieval memory training systems (memory training is not the same as mnemonics; I don’t mean the Palace of Memory and such, I mean things that were thought to strengthen the memory).

6.     The one-star reviews of The Shallows on Amazon are without exception hilarious because they not only betray the problems Carr is saying the internet induces in the human command of attention that is necessary for learning, but do so in a sort of quacking defensiveness that insists on exhibiting the problem and having it declared the solution.*** These are the voices of the dipshits who passionately don’t want to learn or think but insist with fervor that their react-quacking must be rewarded in exactly the same way as learning or thinking. Some of them quack reruns of the rules for marketing copy, some quack populist everything-in-its-box right wing religious talking points, some just flutter their wings and honk a general furious medley of click to the tits. I have just decided that “click to the tits” is the phrase I will hear whenever someone asks for a cut to the chase.

7.      There is actually no intrinsic need for the world to speed up just because we’ve now got automated information search at high speeds. In fact, one of the reasons why Montaigne is a great essayist and most of what’s on the net is quack quack quack quack quack quack quack is that (did you go back and read each quack individually? Don’t you realize that they were all put in different typefaces and sizes and so on, so that you could get six times as much quack in the same time? Aren’t you quack quack quack quack quack quack better quacked than you’ve ever been quacked before?) oh, look, that was a closing parenthesis, now we’re getting back to the point: is that to find something he’d already read (and Montaigne was by the standards of his day spectacularly well read and had a huge personal library) and wanted to quote or think about more, he had to remember enough context about that bit to be able to find his way to the book and the page, and that context was his access path and was his knowledge and learning.

 Knowing where you got it, what it fit in with, where you cut it away from its surrounding matrix and what used to be there, what you are abstracting it from, is not just an unnecessary burden of trivial stuff that the internet sweeps out of your way; it is very often the reason for knowing in the first place, the embodiment of the process of thought, and the whole point of having been there.
More people seem to see this in a context of hiking—a view or a fishing stream you take a bus to is not the same thing as one you climbed or hiked to—or getting to know a neighborhood: Google directions are great if you just want to get to the supermarket and back, but asking directions allows you to meet several of your neighbors and hear how they interpret the neighborhood’s topology; you save time with Google, you know more with your neighbors.

Well, I suppose by current standards that was about seven blog posts right there, but now that I’ve warmed up a bit, let’s range around and talk about where all this stuff hooks and hangs together. Naturally I like finding that Montaigne rambled and wandered through things, and that centuries of readers have enjoyed wandering with him. First of all it at least means that some people get away with writing what I like to write, and they can’t all be the sort of polymathic genius Montaigne was. Secondly it generally validates my take on what real learning/intelligence/book-smarts/humanistic knowledge is all about: it’s not about being able to access facts, but about the way things all go together.
Why do I think so highly of that kind of reading/thinking, other than having spent a lot of years of my life in training to do it well? Because most online discourse reminds me of why I hate being at writer and literary parties generally: one is surrounded by people who are trying to use having a stock attitude (snark, which I hate, or political sincerity and high-mindedness, which I loathe, or intense concern about feelings and relationships, which I find deeply intrusive, or superficial brittle gaiety, which is amusing but exhausting) plus a set of one liners for all subjects, in order to pass themselves off as bright and thoughtful.
Online people,like people in the literary-publishing world, are very facile with words.  They have to be or you wouldn’t see them. But communicating with them is like talking to an Eliza program, i.e. they’re just sending the words back over the net, linked to the connection they know for that word. Some genuinely interesting people with good minds and an interesting take on the world support themselves by writing, and some splendid minds are online at any given moment, and  it’s always fun to meet them.
  But in and among those saving people are a significant number of facile quackers, and talking to them is like being trapped at the DMV with only a smartphone for amusement—you have to sit there awkwardly pushing, sliding, and trying to connect in order to have something occasionally interesting pop up, and if it does, something else (usually an attempt to sell you something) will leap up in front of you again.
And in a quack-rich environment, nothing is treasured like getting to the point. Getting to the point is the torn up stale white bread of online and literary-party discourse; gulp it down, resume quacking, and leave it behind you in slimy little piles that will be gobbled by the next duck, and the one after that.
Novels can have points, but if they do, good ones  have many mutually contradictory points.  They are more like what The Shallows advocates and Montaigne is. They wouldn’t have a middle name of Linearity except as a joke, and then they’d lie about it and have several other middle names too.
The major thing I like about the novel is that it’s the narrative form where there’s enough space to get lost. Short stories are delivery systems for points, ideally for subtle clever well thought out points , but points nonetheless. The classic surprise-ending short stories like “The Open Window,” “The Lottery,” “All You Zombies,” “Clothes Make the Man,” “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” and “Two Bottles of Relish” deliver a jolt that is the point (and some jolts, let me add, like the ones in all those stories, are delicious). Revelation-about-the-world short stories like “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” “A&P”, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “Rachel in Love,” “A Man Called Horse,” and “A Letter from the Clearys” open like windows into mirrors at their ending, suddenly shining back at you with a vision you hadn’t expected to have. Develop-a-mood short stories like “The Brute,” “Big Blonde,” Heinlein’s “Requiem,” “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” “It’s a Good Life,” “The Conversion of the Jews” and “The Ugly Little Boy” deliver a pure wallop of feeling. But no matter what, that’s the job the short story does: shoots something or other into you, puts the package on your doorstep and watches while you open it, or gives you a good kick in the brain.
In that regard, the short story is really not a literary form (i.e. having to do with literature, which is to say “letters”, which is to say reading for its own sake) any more than movies are a form of photography or broadcast radio is a form of electromagnetic radiation. That is, of course they are, in terms of how the information is moving, but in that case the medium is merely the medium. Short stories are about “something that happened to someone sometime” (as Rust Hills put it; I would add that every time you can put “interesting” after a one of the indefinite pronouns, you’ll have improved the story a bit). It is thus a dramatic form, in the strict Aristotle sense of “the imitation of an action.” It merely happens that the medium of imitation is written words and the method of decoding is reading, but the short story has more in common with a movie, graphic novel, or stage play than it does with the novel.
Now, some novels, particularly short tight linear ones, do something similar to the short story, and are more dramatic, but the big rambling monsters I love are a literary form. To read and understand them in a literary way, you have to process them the same way you do the general world of knowledge, the way you would a Montaigne essay or a long conversation with interesting people or a season of your life. Things link forward and back and it’s up to you to make those links, depending on your will to do it, your skill at doing it, how many of them the writer created the possibility for, and how much you want to have a world rise around you.
The literary novel is not properly a sequence of scenes (as short stories are or as “action novels” are) but a landscape to be explored. Huck Finn is a lost, innocent kid who falls into Tom Sawyer’s silly pretend games, the Duke and the Dauphin’s crooked con games, and the feuding family’s lethal games with the same resigned spirit of “if the people around me, who tell me they know more than I do, are doing this, it must be right.” It’s that pattern that leads him to the brink of a final betrayal of Jim, and then to the realization that he has to reject his notion of “right is what the people who know more than me know”—which he can only phrase as a decision to be wicked. 
As readers, it’s up to us how much to compare those disparate things and how closely to weave them together. We decide, on this trip down the river with Huck, whether it is more interesting that a kid who grew up accepting slavery as natural finds a way out of that, or that a wildly distrustful kid who falls for anyone’s line learns to harness and apply his distrust, or whether Twain’s way of putting so many of the interesting facts in our way while pretending to be a naive kid is the point.
Is the attraction to evil that we feel when we enjoy those scenes in The Godfather (you know which scenes. The ones you wish you didn’t enjoy) the same as young Vito Corleone’s, as Michael’s, as Kay’s, or as Tom Hagan’s? Do their attractions comment on ours or undercut them or have nothing to do with it? Do you separate honest (Sonny, Clemenza) from perverse (Luca Brasi) brutality, or unite and compare them?
And which the hell side is Joseph Conrad on in The Secret Agent or Nostromo, after all?
The sort of nonlinear, not-always-tight novel that I love best is like a big park with some marked trails and obstacle courses,  and permission to just follow a stream or climb a hill that happens to be there. It’s got more life and experience more densely interconnected than you can get on one trip through. 
There may be a great chase in there, but you don’t have to cut to it, and if the author does, s/he may be cheating you. Or using my newly preferred terminology, there might be some very interesting metaphorical tits in there, and reading a novel by trying to get to the good bits as fast as you can is very much like “exploring the net” by Googling “massive bazongas,” or for that matter like the activities of those strange obsessive souls who sift through the whole filmography of every star looking for a few square inches of flesh to pop out.
It’s got a great deal to do with people’s models of education, about which Montaigne has more than a little to say. Montaigne’s idea was that the more trivial stuff could be looked up; there were charts and compendia and so forth even in his day. What he thought a child should learn to do is to read and experience the world of books in a virtuous way, by which he seemed to mean, consciously taking and processing the diverse materials in front of him/her into something s/he would choose to make a part of herself, or to isolate from herself, or to understand but not join, according to the precepts and approach of a good person.
Now, you can’t do that easily with the internet, because the internet is all built around distracting you with the next shiny bit. Literary learning is more about constantly looking at the last ten things you learned, considering them all as candidates for belief (partly by doing what Carr calls “reading deeply,” i.e. shutting the fuck up and letting those thoughts sit in your mind to see if they are comfortable there). Then there’s picking from among those candidates the two or six or ten or zero that are worthy of further consideration (based not just on how comfortably they sat in your own mind, but on whether you want them to be comfortable where they are). After that, you bang on them, revising them till you really incorporate them into yourself because you and the ideas now have matching dents and lumps, and repeating the process endlessly through your life. This is of course an analogy to how we learn from life itself, The internet can often tell you the way to San Jose, but you don’t really know it till you’ve been away too long, lost your way, found it again, discovered it’s different, discovered it’s the same, reconnected with the old friends. The internet is a great big freeway and it’s great if you’re going to be a star in a week, but you don’t know San Jose till you’ve crashed on a friend’s couch there. (Luckily, he has a lot of space).
(Aside from just having fun with an old song there, I do think it’s amusing that nowadays San Jose is right in Silicon Valley, the only place phonier than LA).
You can much more easily do that kind of literary back-and-forth, chew-and-digest, accept-change-delete process with The Shallows, which is fairly light pop nonfiction (although a surprising number of people seemed to be unable to follow the unusually clearly laid out through line of the argument and threw hissy fits about critical arguments and examples that they perceived as digressions. Some of them also having decided what he was going to say, managed to see whatever they had decided on in places where he doesn’t say it at all. As I mentioned, the parts of it I provisionally think are true are altering both how I analyze the world around me and what I do to interact with it.  
Now, the incorporation/digestion/choice process is really the only way to read Montaigne; if you just run your eyes over it so you’ll know where to look up isolated quotes, or so that all the words will have passed through your head, you’ve missed everything that makes him great. You have to consider and recall and reconsider not just his formulation of the idea, but the formulations he rejects and critiques as well, and the ideas next to it, and some of his history of how he came to think that way. Then once that swarm of quarreling ideas is enough yours to fit into your mind, you have to import the whole swarm and continually interrogate his connections between all of them. When you can’t think of this subject again without thinking of Montaigne, that’s the moment when you start to “get” him. 
That kind of literary consciousness is what used to be thought of as the whole point of liberal education. For the nitwits for whom history began last week, I should probably point out that although some and perhaps many humanities teachers are “liberals” it is called liberal education because it is education which is appropriate to free people (as opposed to training, which was appropriate to slaves. Since we hope that the world will be done with slavery as soon as it can be, liberal education is appropriate for everyone.  Even pigheaded conservatives, so long as they choose to be free, or think they are, or aspire to be.). 
When you practice that expansive, exploratory, memory-and-connection-rich literary process with the work in front of you, you take a few more steps in the direction of being able to really consider what life might be about (or that it might not be about anything).
And that literary way of thinking just can’t run/grow/become on “access.” The points have to be active in working memory with each other, alter and merge and mutate there, return to long term memory to be called up in their new form, and so on, and it is this kind of literary reading (I think, if I understand him) that Montaigne regards as vital to the training of a good mind (as opposed to what I would call a good quacker****).
 That sort of literary reading is the sort that, ideally, we do when we read a novel that is worthy of that kind of reading, by which I mean that it rewards it. The right match between individual and novel at any point in time is highly individual, of course, and there’s nothing at all wrong with reading for other purposes. Also, dramatic reading is not necessarily inferior to literary -- it’s just for different purposes -- and if you pick a theme, say, the hollowness of material success for its own sake, it’s by no means clear that Babbitt or Less than Zero are better or worse expressions of it than Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glenn Ross.
 But nonetheless, the Montaigne way of reading, writing, and thinking, it seems to me, is undervalued and underused in the modern world, and a sizable number of people who would at least have been pressured to try it in past generations are now growing up without really ever seeing it as a possibility. And since, if I am right, that sort of reading and processing is what the novel is about, as a novelist, it saddens me (I guess I’ll be writing more ad copy) and as a citizen, I find myself dreading the day when my fellow, sovereign citizens, in their wisdom as voters, are responding to the short, punchy message from page three, and not to the slow deep rhythms of incorporated experience. The noosphere, as much as the ecosphere, needs to be diverse and complex and madly inefficient, and a good place for aimless wandering, if it is going to feed and support us all.


*For those of you not acquainted, what there is of Michel de Montaigne is one gigundous whacking collection of essays, so to "read Montaigne" means making your way through the Essays. Indeed, the modern concept of the essay begins with Montaigne; he can be fairly said to have named the form. If you're not acquainted, then you missed out on a bit of cultural-literacy trivia which is fully on par with Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame," Einstein having said that God doesn't play dice with the universe, and the Scarecrow-brain/Tin Man-heart/Lion-courage triplet. Look up Michel de Montaigne on Wikipedia; he's a splendid addition to anyone's repertoire of authors to pretend they've read. I decided, by the way, to cheat severely, by reading in translation; I'm using M.A. Screech's translation, which has the side benefit of extensive footnoting from Screech, who is lucid about translator issues and, if not perfect, is still surely more likely to be right than my own very rusty reading French.

** This might explain, come to think of it, why my favorite mystery writers are Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, and Ian Rankin, after having been schooled in appreciating the modern mystery by James Crumley, whom I knew and who could talk technique better and more lucidly when blind stumbling drunk than the average contemporary editor could with two auxiliary brains and a lifeline to a panel of geniuses.  All those writers write nice twisty-turny plots but you don’t have to be surprised by the twist to enjoy it (in fact it’s more fun the second time when you see how carefully it was prepared).

*** The 2-star reviews are intellectually a much more mixed bag, with some pretty astute notes from some people who actually know something and a couple things that are even goofier than the 1-stars.

**** Two senses of good here, and I’m going to treat myself to alluding to G.K. Chesterton’s valuable distinction that a man who drops his grandmother with a single head shot at 500 yards is a good shot but not a good man, an allusion I am too fond of and use too often, in part because Chesterton and a dozen other writers between 1860 and 1920 created a fad for aphorism that I wish would revive, and that's such a nice vivid and obviously true aphorism.