Philip Roth on Politics in Art

From what I consider Roth’s best book, I Married A Communist:

“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other – they are also in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t to be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow the chaos. To let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself — for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized.”

Literature and Australia

There is no Australian literature, no Russian literature, no French literature; there is only literature. But over at the Age, Michael Hayward reveals, despite working in publishing, how parochial and uncritical he is:

In 2011, in not a single course in the whole country were students asked to read Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. This is the equivalent of not one Russian university teaching Anna Karenina, of Madame Bovary going untaught in France.

The real shame is that in literature departments, where people supposedly have a love of literature and have developed the ability to critically appraise it, they do not read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Hamlet and Don Quixote and The Leopard and American Pastoral and Love in the Time of Cholera as the basis for all courses. The real shame is that anyone could suppose that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony touches Anna Karenina and that they are both equally deserving of study in a literature department.

Perhaps to prove my point, the very next sentence in Michael Hayward’s piece is this:

It is a rampageous scandal, to borrow a coinage from HHR  herself.

Rampageous scandal is hardly a bon mot worth quoting, and one only hopes it’s not the most felicitous turn of phrase in Henry Handel Richardson’s oeuvre.

A Link Between Unphonetic Orthography and Homophony?

Considering the number of languages in the world, I really don’t have much to go on, but my impression is that the more homophonous a language’s lexicon, the more unphonetic its writing system.

Here are some languages that I have some acquintance with that I’ve grouped according to their relative homophony and orthographic phoneticism, from the least homophonous and most phonetic to the most homophonous and least phonetic:

Group 1: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Russian and Finnish.
Group 2: English and French.
Group 3: Languages using the Chinese writing system and Japanese.

This grouping I freely admit is purely impressionistic: I have no hard data on the amount of homophones in each language, although the relative phoneticism of the writing systems I can say with confidence is about right.

The link that I’ve conjectured, if it does indeed exist, would seem to make sense. Written and spoken languages are different — you don’t often say what you write and vice versa — partly (mostly?) to take advantage of the particular properties of pages and eyes, voices and ears; so it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that homophones need further elucidation on the page and a move away from pure phoneticism becomes desirable.

I think Korean would be one language to go against the presumed trend — its writing system, Hangul, is deeply phonetic while having to deal with a number of homophones that come from Chinese loanwords.

I also suppose that Korean illustrates another linguistic trend: the later a writing system’s invention or adaptation for a specific language, the more phonetic it is designed to be from the outset, and the less time has passed for the spoken language to have drifted from how it’s written down.

Of course, take this with a large, unsubstantiated grain of salt: it’s all speculation based on the private musings of a very amateur linguist, none of which is supported even by a Wikipedia page written by a prankster.

When a C is Just a C

A post from two years ago revived from a now defunct blog:

I’m not in for simplifying English’s orthography. The vestiges of languages and pronunciations long gone in the written appearance of English is a delight. That English is now a cross between logographic and phonetic styles of writing (phlegm looks suitably sicklier than flem) is something to be celebrated, never maligned. I usually consider George Bernard Shaw and Gough Whitlam to be my fellow travellers, but on the subject of spelling reform, there’s certainly a u of difference in the colour of our stripes (Shaw funded the development of Shavian, an ugly, other-worldly, 48-letter alphabet specifically designed so that English is efficiently and phonetically spelt; and, believe it or not, Gough Whitlam changed the Ministry of Health’s name to the Ministry of Helth!)

Nevertheless, my soft spot for the spelling of the English language has not precluded me from pondering on occasion that, of all the letters of the alphabet, c is the most insidiously power mad and undeservingly prevalent. I freely admit that I regularly curse the evil, usurping letter that so often stands in the way of k and s, and slowly over to the dark side of spelling reform I have crept, dreaming of the day c might get its comeuppance.

Happily I’m in Indonesia, and here c knows its place. With the advent of the colonial powers, Indonesian, in its earlier guise as Malay, was turned over to the Roman script from another adapted from the Arabic in the seventeenth century. This meant that the script adapters could do as crazed English spelling reformers have only dreamt of doing and apply the Roman alphabet to an unsuspecting language from scratch. And, quite rightly, these Roman-script appliers wrote a k for k, an s for s and left c with the sole responsibility of looking after its only irreplaceable purpose in English, that of tag-teaming with h so as to represent the sound written as ch. But in Indonesian, c does not usurp the representational rights of its alphabetical brethren, so c requires no h as back up when performing the only role it should be performing. Hence, cuci, the very excellent word for wash, is pronounced in Indonesian as if it were written as choochi in English, and no one is ever confused.

So in Indonesia, I’m mostly at ease whenever I look over a piece of text. Sure, I can’t for the most part understand what’s written, but I know that a c is a c and it’s pronounced as if it were ch in English. Of course, now that I’ve got what I wanted, now that I know that Indonesian spelling is far more equitable than English’s and there is no unwarranted trespassing going on, I miss scissors, I miss cents and scents, I miss concision and I miss cholera. There’s a humdrum utilitarianism in Indonesian’s spelling regime, a utilitarianism that has certainly been most helpful over the past couple of weeks since I’ve arrived in Jakarta, but a utilitarianism that has left me longing for the drama of the logographic and the etymological, where words have colour, not kulla, and from miles away I can spot a Greek influence in my chrysanthemums.

On How to Read Shakespeare

Take any text that introduces Shakespeare to the beginner, and ever so shamefully little mention will be made of meter. Instead, time will be spent speaking about themes, about characterisations, about motives. Rather than bringing into relief one of the fundamental tools of Shakespeare’s trade and training the ear to hear, what can be idly “discussed” to and fro for arguable gain are emphasised. Sadly, such a sorry situation is made worse by actors often taking liberties with the meter in performance.

Puck’s epilogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is yet another moment of Shakespearean brilliance and a fine example of how Shakespeare employs meter to reinforce meaning (stressed syllables are underlined):

If we shadows have offended
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearn-ed luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Puck, the merry prankster, is here speaking not in pentameter, but in the more playful and fun-loving tetrameter. So instead of every line containing five stressed syllables or beats, as Shakespeare usually writes his verse, Puck speaks predominately in four-beat lines of rollicking merry glee.

Shakespeare also sets up a call and response by making Puck’s first two lines end on weak beats that are emphatically answered with the lines that follow, each of which ends on the strong beat and feature one less syllable to accentuate the last word of each line.

Those lines are unevenly syllabled for another reason too. Each line of verse is ordinarily even-numbered in length, so the lines’ seven syllables go hand in hand with the sense that something does indeed need amending, as Puck confesses.

And the pièce de résistance, the thing that makes Shakespeare the king of verse, is the final two lines of the epilogue that turn from seven-syllable lines of trochees (DA-dums) to eight-syllable lines of iambs (da-DUMs). Iambic is the predominant rhythm of English prosody, the natural flow of an Anglophone’s speech, and just as Puck promises to restore amends, he himself reinforces what he says by turning from uneven trochees to well-balanced iambs and speaking in English’s natural rhythm.

In Puck’s epilogue, Shakespeare deftly works the meter to support the text’s meaning, all of which go over the head of the beginning student whose introductory books speak only of grander subjects and ignore the humbler merits of musical meter. Shakespeare is perhaps more for the ear than he is for the insights into human behaviour, and ignoring the ear’s joys is as silly as swallowing whole a blueberry cheesecake without it even brushing past the tongue.

Hemingway and The Truth

I found myself reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast only last week and remembered again why I find what he writes about so juvenile. I say what he writes about rather than his writing because, while I concede that appreciating someone’s writing style can be largely subjective after a certain point, what someone writes about — the topics, the themes — can be discussed profitably and even perhaps be sprinkled with nuggets of that much dreamed-of gold of El Dorado, objectivity, if done carefully.

Now, Hemingway and juvenilia are inextricably linked in my imaginings because of the author’s clear-eyed view of stunning vistas of truth, a quasi-mystical vision that pervades his literature and excites the blessed pure of heart. In one’s youth, these stunning vista are revealed almost daily and knowledge and truth do seem declarative — carbon has six protons, chien is French for dog; the truth is mine, ye evil deniers of wisdom! Soon, the unchecked fire of the gonads engulfs the brain and moral indignation runs wild: here be change, a new world order, the overthrow of the wicked and the righting of countless wrongs via the embracing of what’s certain, what’s true: carbon has six protons and chien is French for dog, ye blackguards of untruth, and the light of the good guides us in our reshaping of the world!

There is indeed something noble in such an attitude. The austere clarity of the unspoiled truth is alluring and inspiring, the kind of thing that gets people on soapboxes spouting glib wisdom. Of course, a bout with quantum mechanics — protons are spin-½ fermions composed of three quarks!? — and the discovery that languages have histories, fuzzy bounds and uncharted byways — chien might mean dog in certain respects, but a dog of a day and un chien d’un jour shows that’s certainly not in all respects — puts paid to the old notions of what’s true.  The messiness of reality rears its sullying head, and those who can bear to look turn from youthful, simplifying idealism towards a mature, do-as-best-as-one-can pragmatism. Others, however, remain oblivious to reality and cling to the adolescent’s truths.

Bono professes to write songs containing no more than “three chords and the truth”, and it’s that naivete that makes Bono so downright embarrassing as he struts about attempting to right the world’s ills, no matter how noble his intentions might be. In Hemingway and his offspring, those ever so earnest Beats, we find that same attitude, that same superficial certainty masquerading as mystical profundity that excites simplicity’s yearners and sticks in the side of complexity’s acolytes. And in Moveable Feast we find Hemingway’s awkwardly juvenile paean to his muse, Austere Truth, who sheds her glib grace on her patient, obeisant faithful:

But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was a good and severe discipline.

Poshlost and Nabokov

Nabokov reproduced his “interview” (Nabokov generally replied in writing to interview questions — he claimed that he couldn’t speak well off the cuff) for the Paris Review in October, 1967, in his Strong Opinions. In the interview, he explained poshlost, the art of the charlatan and the mountebank, in that humorously withering way of his:

What is most characteristic of poshlust in contemporary writing? Are there temptations for you in the sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen?

“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishnest pseudo-literature — these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma”, “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet, and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost’s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannon balls, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wallpatterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots — all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Moms” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple — she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.

The Case for a More Distinctive Vocative or Imperative in the English Language

I had never been able to wrap my head around the title of Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory. My problem: I was reading it as a list. I had it in my head that if Nabokov were to release an expanded version of his autobiography, it could well have been titled Speak, Memory, Nose, Throw, Panhandle.

I got my hands onto Speak, Memory recently (St Kilda public library system, how I do love thee), and upon reading the introduction, a moment akin to the breaking of day brightened up my benighted existence: Nabokov is enjoining his memory to speak! In the absence of something more distinctive morphologically to signal the vocative noun or the imperative verb, I scrambled in vain for a meaning and was bemused for years.

You could rightly accuse me of thickheadedness. There is a difference in the imperative and present tenses of the verb to signify what Nabokov was getting at in English — Speak, Memory and Speaks, Memory are clearly distinguishable. Nevertheless, I didn’t twig. Doubly nevertheless, I blame English, not my own failings.

English is more predisposed to marking a verb’s tense than it is a noun’s case, so avoiding ambiguity by marking the imperative definitively seems the option most apt. And if one were kind enough to assume I am no ament, between you and they speak; everyone should, would, could, will and did speak; and I beseech thee “Speak!”, it really is little wonder I could confuse myself so wondrously. English needs the imperative to be marked by a less promiscuous form, and in honour of Nabokov’s native tongue, I propose that new marking to be tchaya.

Spreadtchaya the word!

Nabokov vs. Forster

On a long trip to Brazil, that most lusophone of places, I had scant English reading material to amuse myself with, so I persisted in reading EM Forster’s A Passage to India right to the mock shocking end — the natives aren’t so bad after all! — rather than stare vaguely out into the distance. And my, hasn’t that persistence finally paid off handsomely: had I not read the damn thing, I would never have felt the frisson flitter through me upon finding myself face-to-face with the following fine Nabokovian verbal barb directed towards that most beastly of novels:

EM Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathises with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

Hemingway and the Kings of Leon

Yes, I am indeed one of those musical snobs who thinks Kings of Leon did a Black Eyed Peas and turned from what was enjoyable and creditable if not life-changing towards shiny, bland pap.

And as one would expect from a respected member of the holier than thou, I happened to be reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I still retain fond memories of the Kings of Leon’s first album, so I was pleased to have it rush back to mind upon discovering from where the band lifted the album’s fantastic title, Youth and Young Manhood:

I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another.