Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why you should read: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

I have Robert McCrum's article to thank for reminding me about Edgar Allan Poe's only novel. When I consider how many times I've read some of his shorter fiction, it's a wonder that I haven't attempted this novel sooner. But then most compendiums, including the volume of "nearly-complete" works of EAP I keep on my bookshelf, exclude The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket altogether. This is a shame, because Mr. Poe's debut novel not only shows clear signs of the interesting novelist he might have become, had it received better reviews, but is also a clever and hugely imaginative work in its own right.

Readers of Poe's short stories will recognise some of his favourite themes such as horror and the incredible. His psychological insight and uncompromising style render a vivid portrayal of the protagonist's experiences, and the circumstance and context - adventure on the high seas - make it easy to discern the novel's influence on authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville and Jules Verne.

Yet if we only saw it as adventure and horror combined into a longer narrative we might be forgiven for thinking that it is no more than a particularly long instance of his shorter fiction. This would be a mistake, and a quick explanation will hopefully illustrate why. The "Introductory Note" is signed off "A.G. Pym", and in it Mr. Pym refers to his recent travels and their fictionalisation by a writer, a certain "Mr. Poe". This conceit is very clever and raises unexpected questions about authorship and authenticity. In this Introductory Note, Mr. Pym says:

"This exposé being made, it will be seen at once how much of what follows I claim to be my own writing; and it will also be understood that no fact is misrepresented in the first few pages which were written by Mr. Poe. Even to those readers who have not seen the "Messenger," it will be unnecessary to point out where his portion ends and my own commences; the difference in point of style will be readily perceived."

Poe was no stranger to playing with readers' expectations, such as in the Balloon-Hoax a few years later, but this conceit is subtly different. The "Editor's Note" offered at the end of the novel to account for the abrupt end to the narrative reveals that, although we are offered the present story as fact, written by Mr. Pym rather than by Mr. Poe, Mr. Poe (the writer) doubts its authenticity - particularly in the latter parts.

"The gentleman [Mr. Poe] whose name is mentioned in the preface, and who, from the statement there made, might be supposed able to fill the vacuum, has declined the task - this, for satisfactory reasons connected with the general inaccuracy of the details afforded him, and his disbelief in the entire truth of the latter portions of the narration."

We are not told exactly which latter parts, but they would most certainly include the parts of the adventure where the protagonist had drifted into uncharted waters. In other words, the parts that are more clearly "fictionalised".

This instability in the text raises questions about narration, authenticity, and also the nature of experience. Did Mr. Pym really experience all that was related? If he hadn't, how could he still write so cogently about his deeply remembered feelings of terror and danger? Is the outside world merely a catalyst and stimulant for our inner worlds?

The novel's genre is difficult to pin down, because it exhibits elements of horror, adventure, and science fantasy. By adding questions about authorship to the mix, Edgar Allan Poe's only completed novel rises further above the level of genre-writing and mere narrative.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Love of Prufrock

- from raw material by T.S. Eliot

 Let us go then, you and I,
 When the evening is            against the sky
 Like a patient           upon a table;
 Let us go, through         half-deserted streets,
 The muttering
 Of          nights in           cheap hotels
 And sawdust             with oyster-shells:
 Streets that        like a tedious
    lead        an overwhelming question ...
                 "What is it?"
                    our visit.

             the women
         of Michelangelo.

 The yellow fog                         the window-panes,
 The yellow smoke                         the window-panes,
 Licked its tongue into                the evening,
 Lingered                           in drains,
 Let fall               the soot            from chimneys,
 Slipped by                   a sudden leap,
                 it was a soft October night,
 Curled                       and fell asleep.

 And indeed
     the yellow smoke             along the street,
                       the window-panes;
 There will be       there will be
            a face to meet the faces
 There will be         murder and
          for all the                   hands
 That          drop a                  plate;
      for you and      for me,
 And      yet for           indecisions,
     for           visions and revisions,
            taking      toast and tea.

 In the room
         of Michelangelo.

     indeed there will be
            "Do I dare?" and
         turn back              the stair,
      a      spot in               my hair--
                      his hair
 My         coat, my                               chin,
 My necktie                                  a simple pin--
                          his arms          are thin!
         the universe
 In a minute
                                            will reverse.

 For I have known                 , known them all:
            the evenings,           afternoons,
 I have              my life with coffee spoons;
 I know the                           fall
                   from a farther room.
   So how should I
       have known the eyes          known
 The eyes
                           sprawling on a pin,
           pinned               on the wall,
      how should I
    spit out                      my days
   And how should I

       have known the arms          known them all--
                              white and bare
                               with light brown hair!
 Is it              a dress
 That makes me    digress?
 Arms that lie along          or wrap about
   And should I             ?
   And how should I      ?

           *         *         *         *

              I have gone at dusk
 And watched the smoke
 Of lonely men

 I should have                       claws
 Scuttling across the floors

           *         *         *         *

     the afternoon               sleeps
 Smoothed by      fingers,
 Asleep                  it malingers,
 Stretched                       beside you
 Should I, after                   ices,
                      force                         its crisis?
            I have wept and         wept and
               seen my head
 I am no                        great matter;
 I have seen                     greatness flicker,
 And             the eternal Footman                   snicker,
 And           I was afraid.

 And would it                            after all,
 After                          the tea,
 Among the porcelain                         and me,
 Would it have
                                                a smile,
 To have squeezed              into a ball
                   some                         question,
 To say: "I
                                             shall tell you all”
 If                           her head,
   Should say: "That is not what I meant
                   at all."

 And would it have been
                    worth while,
       the sunsets                                the           streets,
       the novels,                                 the skirts

           and         more?--
                               what I mean
                           threw               patterns on a screen:
                         worth while
 If one, settling                          a shawl,
 And turning                    should say:
   "That is not
               what I meant, at all."

           *         *         *         *

              Prince Hamlet      was meant to be
                           that will do
    swell a progress,       a scene or two,
                    no                tool,
              glad to be
 Politic            and meticulous
 Full of         sentence
                   almost ridiculous--

 I grow old
 I       wear                my trousers rolled.

 Shall I part my hair       ? Do I dare               ?
 I shall                                       upon the beach
              the mermaids               each to each.

   do not            they      sing to me.

             them riding                  waves
 Combing                         waves
          wind blows the water
 We      lingered in                 the sea
 By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed
 Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Roland and the Dark Tower: An Inverted Oedipus Complex


Stephen King does both horror and sympathy exceedingly well. For those who know him better for his reputation as "America's Shlockmeister" it is worth pointing out his uncanny ability to sympathise with and inhabit the worlds of his characters. This is seen and felt very clearly in some of his famous non-horror stories, such as Rita and the Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (if I had a pound for every time I mentioned that Stephen King wrote the story for The Shawshank Redemption, and people responded: "Really?!" then I could probably feed Hackney's homeless for a day), and also his early work Blaze (a re-discovered "trunk novel" published in 2007).

In this respect the type of stories King writes, both of the horror and the non-horror kind, actually fits quite well with the legacy of Romantic fiction in America. It is in spirit akin to Poe, and shares his deep sympathy of the soul. Whereas I'd noticed these traits before, and Bag of Bones in particular is a remarkable blend of the romantic and the supernatural, it was after reading Wizard and Glass that I felt compelled to make a few observations in this regard. Whereas Wizard and Glass compelled me to start writing this, it was The Wind Through the Keyhole that allowed me to complete it. So at this point, anybody who hasn't read The Dark Tower up to The Wind Through the Keyhole, or Salem's Lot, and don't want any PLOT SPOILERS, do stop reading now.

Roland and Ben, they walk away

A part of the plot line in Salem's Lot, Stephen King's 1975 vampire novel set in the small town of Jerusalem's Lot, involves Ben Mears' relationship with Susan Norton. Susan, unfortunately, falls prey to Barlow, the resident vampire overlord of Jerusalem's Lot. As a result she dies - first as the human Susan at the fangs of said vampire, and again later, as vampire, at the hands of Ben Mears. There's a memorable moment in the film version where Ben heads away from the burning mansion and mutters something like "sorry Susan" before leaving the cursed town behind.

There is something similar at work in Wizard and Glass, and this got me thinking a little bit. In this case it is Roland of Gilead who, lured by the Dark Tower, walks away from Susan. She is captured and dies at the hands of the town folk due to her association with Roland. It is interesting, if not necessarily intentional, that both Susan Norton and Susan son of Pat share the same name.

We know that, due to what the orb revealed to him after Roland takes it from Eldred Jonas, Roland saw that Susan is not in his future. As a result he became less concerned with her as the love of his life, and more and more pre-occupied - nay, consumed - by the Dark Tower. He later speaks to his friends of a choice he was offered. There were two alternatives: family life with Susan on the one hand, and pursuit of the Dark Tower on the other. He reasons - or rationalises - that he and Susan would have had no future if the Dark Tower was not saved, so he chose the pursuit of the Dark Tower. This choice, brought on by the glimpse offered by the orb, coincides with him losing Susan to death. He had underestimated the orb and Rhea, and by focusing his attention on the Dark Tower the orb had led him away from protecting the one he loved. 


Roland's Guilt

Now we skip forward a bit. It is revealed that Roland unintentionally killed his own mother. Roland is consumed with guilt. Roland, naturally, thinks he is responsible for his mother's death, even though it was probably a trick played on him by the orb. The irony, of course, is that it happens exactly when Roland goes to beseech his mother to "change her ways". On the other hand it may have been predestined. "Ka," as Eddie remarked. "Ka like a wind."

In both cases, his mother's and Susan's, Roland suffers because he believes he had a hand in the victim's death. In the case of Jake, again, he has the option of saving Jake or pursuing the Dark Tower. He chooses the latter, and suffers for it as Jake dies. He suffers terribly ... and so does Jake.

An Inverted Oedipus Complex

Roland's story is a partial inversion of the ancient Oedipal archetype. Recall that King Oedipus runs away from Corinth to escape his foretold destiny (he believed his parents in Corinth to be his real parents) and inadvertently kills his father on the way back to Thebes, his real home. After solving the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus is entitled to marry the queen - who actually turns out to be his own mother. Much later he realises his true identity, and therefore that he murdered his own father and is sleeping with his mother, and is so consumed by guilt that he pokes out his own eyes.

Roland's story goes the opposite way. Firstly, it is not his father who is killed by his hand, but his mother. In addition Susan Delgado, his love, also dies due to a choice he makes (when he chooses to pursue the Dark Tower). In the Oedipus complex, destiny brings Oedipus closer to his mother (who also becomes his lover), whereas Roland's destiny takes him further away from both his mother and his lover.

The Evolution of Consciousness


1. The Uroboros

In the history of world mythology there are recurring patterns and mythical images, which Erich Neumann (a student of Carl Jung) correlates with the evolution of consciousness. Western civilisation as an evolving consciousness, he argues, started with the Uroboros, the self-contained circle that encapsulates both masculine and feminine opposites. It is the self-begetting circular snake that bites its own tail. This early state is what Neumann calls in his work The Origins and History of Consciousness the "dawn state, showing the infancy both of mankind and of the child" (p. 11). Compared to the world as it became once it had "moved on", Roland's time in Gilead seems idyllic and self-contained, like the Uroboros.

2. The Great Mother

The next stage of the feminine is the Great Mother, also called the Terrible Mother because she overpowers men and literally drives them mad. Both personality and body are dissolved. In early cultures the Great Mother was attended by eunuchs with weak egos. But the Great Mother is also a powerful sorceress who "transforms men into animals" (p. 61). Rhea is an echo of the Terrible Mother, and is in a sense Roland's nemesis in Wizard and Glass (in contrast to Maerlyn, who turns out to be a rather tame obstacle). According to the logic of the evolution of consciousness, she is the unconscious aspect of the Great Mother, who has been split out into the Good Mother (Roland's own mother at the point of her death, when she wanted to appease) and the Terrible Mother, which is relegated to the unconscious. It is therefore apt that Roland's mother's image in the glass orb shows up as Rhea. They are two sides of the same coin. (One could argue that Roland's mother's unfaithfulness is a dark side he cannot accept, and therefore would prefer to repress. Yet it surfaces just as Rhea appears, which provokes his own violent unconscious urges and results in his mother's death.)

3. The Hero

It is only much later in the evolution of consciousness that the heroic figure comes to pass. The hero signifies a progression in consciousness as the male principle is split away from the female, and femininity becomes suppressed in culture. The rise of the hero corresponds with the domestication of the female (suppression of femininity) and the subsequent relinquishing of female goddess worship in favour of male god worship. 

As Neumann says: "The individual has in his own life to follow the road that humanity has trod before him." Roland can be construed as a heroic figure who must live through various unconscious phases. We've already seen that he enacts a curious mirror image of the Oedipus myth (by killing his own mother), but there is more: he is also a harbinger of awareness. He himself is more intuitive than intellectual, more romantic than rational. But his eyes, set on the Dark Tower - and a tower has ever been a symbol for human aspiration, achievement, intellect and also folly (think of the tower of Babel) - is a journey towards awareness. We may therefore say that Roland chooses consciousness over the alternative, which could be called the domestication of his own passions and unconscious, but according to him also the very destruction of reality. This decision results, not in domestication and repression of the feminine, but in death for his mother and for Susan. Potentially also resurrection, just as in the myth of Osiris, who after he is murdered by his brother Set, is resurrected by Isis. But about that we will have to wait and see...

The Myth of Osiris

The Osiris myth is also instructive in other ways. In the myth, Osiris is murdered by Set. Isis then resurrects Osiris and conceives a son with him, a boy called Horus. Horus is now in direct competition with Set for the throne. Here we find further parallels with Roland's story (as well as deviations). We see hints of Horus in Roland, of Osiris in Gabrielle, and of Set in Marten Broadcloak. In particular, Marten knows that the young Roland is a threat to him, and provokes him to try to earn his guns prematurely. This strategy backfires, as Roland succeeds. At this point in the story, Roland is not yet the hero figure, but still a struggling consciousness that is only beginning to emerge from opposing forces.

Roland's family drama also deviates from the Osiris myth in that Marten Broadcloak seduces Gabrielle, rather than trying to kill Steven Deschain directly. Roland's father Steven is emasculated psychologically just as Isis was emasculated physically (in the myth, Isis' penis is the only part of him that Osiris could not recover), even though Steven Deschain remains an important part of his life and a wise mentor. The seduction poses questions about Gabrielle. In the Osiris myth, Isis' role is unequivocally on the side of Horus. Yet Gabrielle has allied with the "enemy", even if unwittingly, and this complicates things. Whereas most characters in the Dark Tower are clearly delineated as good or evil, Gabrielle's role puts her in an ambiguous position. It also leaves a residue of consciousness that is a wildcard in Roland's quest for the tower.


Nevertheless, the revelation at the end of The Wind Through the Keyhole resolves this potential anomaly more or less elegantly. SPOILER WARNING! Gabrielle Deschain, it turns out, was foretold the fate of Gilead, and also her own ("you die at your brat's hand") by Marten Broadcloak during a much earlier stay at Serenity. She wrote what she heard in a message to be kept safe by Everlynne, to be given to Roland one day when ka finally brings him to Serenity (an event that is effectively the main story of The Wind Through the Keyhole).

All of the letter is significant, but the final words are the most important:

"I forgive you everything. Can you forgive me?"

Gabrielle foresaw Roland's torment, and knew that he had to reconcile his guilt in order to fulfill his own destiny. Yet it also required great moral courage from him, because it asks him to forgive her in turn. Indeed, it requires compassion.
Once Roland reveals the words to his ka-tet, Susannah asks Roland: "And could you, Roland? Did you?" To which he answers unequivocally: yes.

As if to emphasise the great importance of this act of forgiveness, Stephen King treats readers to a short afterword, which we must read as the very last word on the Dark Tower if we consider the chronology in which the Dark Tower books were written. These final words of the afterword are:

"The two most beautiful words in any language are: I forgive"

We are left in no doubt as to their importance.

Reconciliation through forgiveness would clear Roland's mind of the cobwebs of guilt and confusion, and focus his mind on the true task at hand, which is to reach the Dark Tower. In the letter Gabrielle reveals she was also warned by Marten not to return to Gilead. Yet her intuition told her it was ka to go back to Gilead. So she did, a fact that restores Roland's mother's dignity. It reveals her to be someone who acted according to her own convictions. She was therefore not just a helpless pawn of history, even though she could not change her own destiny. (Bear in mind that it would probably have been a great convenience to Marten Broadcloak if Gabrielle had stayed on in Serenity.)

Most of all forgiveness, and therefore compassion, hints at the unity of consciousness that is an increasing feature of Roland's world. It binds the ka-tet, and also connects characters across the various worlds.


It is perhaps apt that this post should end where it began. I observed that Susan Norton's  relationship to Ben Mears in Salem's Lot, and her subsequent fate,  was an interesting precursor to Susan Delgado's relationship to Roland (and her subsequent fate).

I was therefore more than a little surprised to find Father Callahan, also from 'Salem's Lot, making his return in Wolves of the Calla (which I recently started reading). Not only that, but Father Callahan's retelling of the story of Jerusalem's Lot has Eddie, Roland and Susannah finding parallels with their own ka-tet. In a sense, the world of The Dark Tower is also Stephen King's metaphor for the connections and parallels between his own various fictional creations.

To conclude, I wondered what - if anything - it means that Roland's relationship to Gabrielle and Susan inverts the old Oedipus complex. The Oedipus Complex (a proposal by Freud) concerns desire for the parent of the opposite sex and competition with the parent of the same sex, and we likewise see Roland desiring Susan and competing with Marten Broadcloak. The Dark Tower represents Roland's search for the truth about the state of the world (and to fix it), but his real evolution of consciousness happens while he becomes more compassionate and draws his ka-tet around him (the Dark Tower novels don't actually reveal all that much about what is really happening to Roland's world, and in fact are much more about the various people and their stories).

If it is suggestive of anything, perhaps it is that Freud's (now often considered defunct) proposal harks back to an earlier stage of Anglo-European civilisation wherein the intellect dominated. In Roland's world intuition and surprising synchronicities are more the order of the day than empirical and analytical certainties. In this perspective, The Dark Tower is a story about that stage of civilisation entering its last days. The Oedipus complex is replaced by a different family interaction that reflects the need for compassion and intuition over intellectual and technological achievement.

And now I can't wait to read the rest ...!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Onyaidzams by The Combed Thunderclap

Why would anyone bother to rewrite Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias as a case of typoglycemia? Other than for the hell of it, maybe none. But the exercise revealed a few interesting things.

Firstly, with an eye on the slow reading counter-trend, this is a playful way of letting the reader "discover" the original words by paying a little more attention than usual.

Secondly, as not all the words are easy to unscramble, a reader who does not have the original clearly in mind may have some trouble and even discover a slightly different text, owing to the associations that arise en route to a settled word or meaning.

Thirdly, it raises the question about what a text is. Is it the words on the page, or an "original" in the reader's mind? Relatedly, can a mere re-arrangement of the letters of some words be considered a sufficient gesture to constitute new authorship? Read and decide for yourself.

Onyaidzams by The Combed Thunderclap

I met a traelvelr form an ainutqe lnad
Who siad: 'Two vsat and turnklses legs of snote
Satnd in the dreset. Naer tehm, on the snad,
Hlaf snuk, a srttaeehd vgiase lies, wohse fworn,
And wnelirkd lip, and sener of clod cmnomad,
Tlel taht its spulcotr well thsoe psnaoiss raed
Whcih yet survvie, sptmead on thsee lfielses tghnis,
The hnad that meokcd tehm and the haert taht fed.
And on the pedastel tehse wrods appaer --
"My nmae is Onyaidzams, knig of kgnis:
Look on my wrkos, ye Mghtiy, and desaipr!"
Nnohtig beidse rnaeims. Rnoud the daecy
Of taht coosslal wreck, blunesods and brae
The lone and leevl sdans stcerth far aawy.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Kenneth Goldsmith and Uncreative Writing part 2

This is a follow-up post to my first encounter with Kenneth Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing.  In the present post I would like to highlight, as much for my own benefit as others', some of the influences from whom he suggests we, as new writers of the digital age, can learn.

To recap, Goldsmith advocates the use of text as material, rather than as expression. He rephrases Douglas Hueber, saying "The world is full of texts, more or less interestimg; I do not wish to add any more". 

Writing, Goldsmith believes, is at the juncture that painting was when photography arrived. As a result

"writing's response [to the internet] - taking its cues more from photography than painting - could be mimetic and replicative, primarily involving methods of distribution, while proposing new platforms of receivership and readership. Words very well might not only be written to be read but rather to be shared, moved, and manipulated, sometimes by humans, more often by machines".  (p. 15)
The internet is a vast archive that's ripe for literary exploitation, to be used as material.

What he leaves unstated, perhaps because it is out of scope for his thesis, is that text will increasingly be processed by computers for commercial and business purposes.  Big Data methods will look at the same text the new writer looks at when he or she searches for raw material, but instead use it to learn about the online habits of users in order to monetise their interests and desires. The textual territory is therefore no virgin wilderness, but a problematised space in the service of commercial and other influential interests. The flipside is that the writer-artist is no more privileged than any other user to distinguish between "authentic" text and text inserted specifically to serve commercial and business interests. This includes marketing material camouflaged to look like casual commentary, and other tricks of the trade.

However, this does not invalidate Goldsmith's suggestion. If anything, it suggests we may have to look even deeper into the workings of the medium to see beyond the inevitable onslaught of digital politics, commerce and ideology. This would be a continuation or parallel development to the situationists' critique of capitalism and consumption. Understanding the medium (the technical side of information and technology) and its stakeholders (commerce, politics, consumers) will become of paramount importance to the new writer. That, however, would have to be explored in greater detail, and may eventually form the topic of a future post.
Without further ado, let us look at the influences Goldsmith recommends. My approach has been to leave out unnecessary explanation, and where possible to link to an authoritative resource. Headings are those in the book.


Chapter 1: Revenge of the Text

Chapter 2: Language as Material

  • Materiality as primary goals: concrete poetry and situationists
Situationists, 1950s:
Concrete poetry:

Chapter 3: Anticipating Instability

Chapter 4: Towards a Poetics of Hyperrealism

Chapter 5 : Why appropriation?

Chapter 6: Infallible Processes

Chapter 7: Retyping On the Road

Chapter 8: Parsing the New Illegibility

Chapter 9: Seeding the Data Cloud

Chapter 10: The Inventory and the Ambient

Chapter 11: Uncreative Writing in the Classroom

  • The Hitler Downfall Meme
  • Retype 5 pages
  • Transcribe a Short Piece of Audio
  • Transcribing Project Runway: transcribe TV show in chatroom with other classmates
  • Retro graffiti: take old political slogans and graffiti non-permanently in public space
  • Screenplays: take a film or video that has no screenplay and make one for it

Chapter 12 Provisional Language
  • Words are cheap, language is the new frontier