Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crime Doesn't Pay

Ok, so I am almost done with the conclusion of the book, so here's something completely irrelevant (to that).

The fictional motorcycle gang depicted on "Son of Anarchy" are gun-runners. They have a highly lucrative business distributing guns from the IRA to other criminal organizations.

Yet they drink Miller Lite, not single-malt scotch. They live in ordinary-looking California ranch houses. They don't take European vacations or drive elegant cars. They don't have nice clothes, wearing instead their leather and denim motorcycle gear. Most of the time, they just ride around on Harleys in order to intimidate or kill people from other gangs. They have power and money, but these are only relevant in relation to their criminality. For example, their power is relative power, in relation to that of the black gang, the Mexican gang, other white gangs (neo-nazis, etc...), and the IRA itself. If they were to stop being criminals, they would not need this power. They have power by bribing local law enforcement, but they only need to bribe the police because they are criminals.

Their possibility of meeting a violent death is quite high. They are also frequently kidnapped, as are their family members. They derive no enjoyment from their supposed wealth, living instead the perfect lower-middle class life-style when they aren't killing or getting killed. Sometime they can't even sleep at home because they have to lock themselves in the clubhouse for protection. They get to ride their motorcycles around, which might be fun, sure, but they could do that in the same exact way if they simply ran their "front" organization, which is an automobile and motorcycle repair shop. I suppose they could do their other hobbies on the cheap too, like getting into fist fights with one another or getting tattoos.

***

The leader of the gang has the noble ambition of getting it out of serious crime, or at least making its "legitimate" businesses semi-legal escort services and pornography, instead of arms trafficking. It turns out that getting out of crime is just as dangerous, because it upsets the balance of power, so the plan to go straight leads to further violent deaths and dismemberments. Members of his MC are killed, and they have to kill others as well. The conceit is that one last massacre is needed in order for the Sons to go legit. Of course, the violence just gets worse.

The show has you identify with the leader of the gang because he is "nobler" than anyone else in a similar position, and because the other gangs are more brutal than his own. He is modeled after Prince Hamlet, in a pretty obvious way, and like Hamlet leaves carnage in his wake.

"This is a book which complains about bad writing in the Social Sciences."

That, not unexpectedly, is the first sentence in a book about bad writing in the social sciences. (H/t to Leslie.) It is itself an example of execrable writing, although the author was probably proud of it, since he avoids the passive voice and is clear in his ideas.

What is hideous about it is its utter tone-deafness. It sounds robotic and unidiomatic, and the third person verb weirdly places the authorial voice off to one side. It is his book after all! The author is probably the victim of Orwellian advice about avoiding extra words and forms of the verb to be.

The rest of the first paragraph is just as bad. He switches from "the author" to "I" to "somebody," to "anybody," back to "the author" with no rhyme nor reason:
The author is not someone who is offering criticisms as an outsider looking in upon a strange world. I am an insider, a social scientist, and I am publically criticising my fellows for their ways of writing. Anyone, who does this, can expect to have their motives questioned. Readers may wonder whether the author is embittered, having seen younger colleagues overtake him in the race for academic honours...
The "anyone" with singular "their" is ok, I guess. Pullum and Liberman have convinced me so. Still, it seems infelicitous in this context, with all the other shifting going on.

What is lacking in such writing, very simply, is the "ear." If he had read the paragraph aloud to himself the "author" would have been struck by the awkwardness of "ways of writing"; he would have eliminated the commas around the phrase "who does this." He might have been struck by the stark contrast between a too-pithy opening and a wordy, redundant restatement of it a sentence later: "I am publically criticizing my fellows for their ways of writing." Fellows sounds off to me, but that might be a Britishism.

The concern with false motives is distracting. First, the hypothetical reader thinks that it is written from the perspective of an outsider. Once that concern is dispelled, the reader will think that it is an embittered insider. I guess this is another British strategy of self-effacing humor that I don't appreciate. Why not go directly to the point?

***

The ear, then, is the writer's inner guide to rhythm, tone, perspective. It might be the grammatical ear of the native speaker, the prosodic ear of the poet or master prose stylist.

My revision?
Writing in the Social Sciences is notoriously bad. The aim of this book is to diagnose this malady and suggest some possible remedies. My perspective is that of a veteran insider in the field...

Bible Interpretation

In this dream I was at a table in a restaurant or coffee shop and I explained quite eloquently to a small group of people I didn't know why Christians did not know how to interpret the Bible, especially those involved in "Bible Study" groups. I said that they imposed their theology unto it in a way they had been taught and used Bible passages as "proof texts," without reading in context. They didn't know how to read.

This is really what I think, and my explanation of it in the dream was correct and coherent. The group of people neither accepted nor rejected my explanation, since my dream took another turn after that.

Menard

I believe conventional interpretations of "Pierre Menard" are mistaken. The point was that creativity belongs to the reader rather than the writer. (This was what we were taught in the 80s.) Menard's version becomes more interesting than Cervantes's because it comes from an early 20th century writer. This is what we learn from Rodríguez Monegal and other interpreters, but it is utterly wrong.

(The reproduction or "transcription" of the text is a narrative device that Borges needs to explain that Menard does not copy the text, but somehow comes up with it through another, unexplained method. This device is necessary to the story, since otherwise the Quijote of Menard would be dull copy with no interest at all. It is not true, as Thomas suggests, that "The point (I thought) was that he writes it in the ordinary way after having gotten his own mind exactly where Cervantes' had been." The point is that his text is identical to that of Cervantes's but his "mind is completely different. In other words, he does not "become" Cervantes.)

The first thing people miss is that the narrator is not "Borges," but an anti-semitic Frenchman. He makes nasty remarks about the other interpreter of Menard's legacy, a woman who has had the misfortune of publishing in a journal known for its philosemitism. This is the France of the Dreyfus affair.

Menard himself is a minor follower of the poet Paul Valéry. The list of his publications is quite extensive and interesting. Curiously, the standard interpretations miss the fact that his "visible" publications are a kind of compendium of Borges's own translation and author theory.

Anyway,the overt argument of the anti-Semitic narrator is that Cervantes's own text is somewhat dull. The example used is the discourse about the superiority of arms over letters. This conventional early modern wisdom is turned on its head by Menard, who certainly cannot hold these beliefs ironically. Voilà, the text means something different when ascribed to a different authorial subjectivity.

This is wholly wrong, though. Cervantes's characters already speak ironically, even when they spout conventional wisdom, since Cervantes is engaged in satire or the skewering of this wisdom. Of course, the discourse on the superiority of arms to letters is put in the mouth of a fictional character, so it is not "Cervantes" saying this.

Furthermore, Borges is a great admirer of Cervantes and, especially of Cervantes's metafiction. See "Magias parciales del Quijote." The choice of a seemingly conventional part of his discourse, the explanation of why it is more noble to bear arms than to read books, is a deliberate misdirection.

To really understand "Pierre Menard," you have to be more Borgesian than Borges, in other words, don't accept the facile interpretation of the text. He was a man unfit for military action whose works evince a strong nostalgia for the violent exploits of his compatriots and ancestors. That places the conflict between arms and letters in a different context.





Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Writerly Ego

I'm collecting all my dreams in a sort of chapbook. In doing so, I realized that quite a few of them are manifestations of the writerly ego in its pure state. I have either childish success presenting my writing in public, or abject failure. Really, the dreams of success and failure are not any different in their relation to the ego.

The book of dreams is itself a manifestation of the same ego, I now realize. For the reader, someone else's dreams can't help sounding inane.

Here's a typical example:
CELLO

I was walking down the street and a woman approached me and said: “you have a good chance of getting the violoncello seat in the orchestra now. There has been a lot of attrition.” I tried to tell her I didn't play the cello. She had confused me with someone else.
The double play of the ego is 1): the fantasy (playing in the orchestra) 2) the embarrassment (of course I could not do this). How transparent this all is. (That's a further embarrassment.)

I found this poem on my blog from 10 years ago; I think I wrote it

Homage to An Eastern European Poet

The annals of my idiocy would require multiple volumes--
my symphonic flatulence, not to mention I was a fucking commie for a spell.

And that's just volume I (and half of II.) Like a moth to the flame--
if you'll permit me that cliché--I sinned against self-awareness.

Even if I'd known, I'd have done it the same way.
I encouraged leaden-footed translators

named Bob, for Nobel dreams, and all because of desire.
The same desire you have, hypocrite lecteur,

mon semblable, mon frère
. Actually I won't write this
prologue to a 20-volume suicide note.

The plumbers are here, destroying my house to save it.
It's late and I'm tired. And what good would it do anyway?

Claudio

A fragment of a long series of dreams I had last night.

I was taking a walk in the countryside with the Spanish poet Claudio Rodríguez. I was trying to communicate with him but he was walking fast, ahead of me. I told him that he had told us in class that someone's profession, being a carpintero or a torero, would mark his body. I told him that I did not recognize the significance of this observation at the time, but that recently I had re-remembered it. I wasn't sure of his response to this, but he seemed to acknowledge it in some way.

Now this much is true: he did talk to us in class one day about this, using the bullfighters way of walking as one example. I did realize the significance of this within the past two years or so, after not thinking about it too much between 1980 and 2012. Rodríguez did take long walks in the countryside and composed his poetry in his head on his walks.