Sunday, October 04, 2015

A Look at Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child

SPOILER ALERT! This post discusses the final novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Saga and deals with plot points without warning or discretion. If you haven’t read the series up to the end and do not want plot spoilers, stop reading here.

Introduction


So much happens in The Story of the Lost Child and there are so many surprises that a good way to make sense of it is to begin at the end and consider what we know by the final stages of the book. Before I do so, however, a few preliminaries are in order.

Firstly, Elena analyses her own behaviour, and this layer of analysis illuminates her and others’ behaviour. I will try not to repeat the obvious. Secondly, the final novel veers off into territory I had not anticipated in my analysis of the first three. I am glad. As a reader I tend to prefer the Lila-centric parts of the novels over the Elena-centric parts of the novels, probably because they are the extraordinary ones. It also means that some of my observations were not conclusive. I will comment on a couple of these, but I won’t harp on about it.

The Lost Child


Until Tina’s disappearance, we are led to think of Imma as the lost child, because of her inability to adjust. She is an emotionally lost child. This turns out to be a clever ploy by the author to keep us ensconced in the joy of those Halcyon days before the cruel blow is delivered. Whether intended or not, the care with which Tina was made the focal point of the photoshoot signalled to me a symbolic exchange of destinies and, indeed, I feared for the worst. I had a sleepless night after Michele punched Lila in the face and sensed a terrible tragedy in the lives of the Lila and Enzo.

Yet by the end of the novel Tina’s fate is magnified in other characters and perhaps in almost all the familiar characters of the neightbourhood. Lila and Gennaro are both lost children. Gennaro, like Imma, is emotionally lost and weak willed. He never really grows up. Elena treats him like a stupid boy at the very start of book one. Lila herself is a lost child. Her precocious talents as a child have all stilted and repressed by adult responsibilities, an adult world, through work, through hardship, and now through tragedy. Yet the child inside never gave up, always held fast in some hidden corner. This child held fast to hope, and this hope is for the longest time connected to Elena, whose life was meant to justify Lila’s suffering. Once Elena’s activist efforts in the neighbourhood fail, and especially after Tina disappears, even this hope fades. Lila is disappointed in Elena.

The truth about Elena’s doll Tina, like a voodoo doll representating Elena, remains hidden inside Lila until the novel’s resolution. At the same time Lila herself remains tucked inside Elena’s soul. This hidden knot binds the two friends for a lifetime, and is the edifice on which the novel is built. Like those Neapolitan churches that come to fascinate Lila, and that commemorate forgotten atrocities, Elena’s story is a literary monument that exists because of the horrible events that caused suffering in their lives.

To clarify this point, let’s ask a question. Would there have been a story or indeed the need for one, if Lila’s life had proceeded according to her childhood promise? Yes! There would almost certainly have been a need for it, but chances are that she would have written it herself, even if that life unfolded side by side with Elena’s.

The lost child from Elena’s point of view, therefore, is Lila, and if Lila once admonished Elena for writing “ugly things” (in that second novel that only belatedly gets published, and then to great fanfare) it can be understood from this viewpoint: that Lila’s hidden child wanted beautiful things, and that Lila’s hidden, lost child wanted Elena to transform the world into beautiful things. Instead, Elena merely reflected the ugliness of their world. It is a world from which Lila never tried to escape, trusting Elena would help her to transform it, even if only in literature. Yet in old age, after even Elena disappointed her, she finally shifted out of Elena’s range. Lila’s hidden child is lost first because she is left behind, and second because Elena disappoints her, doesn't help her escape the ugliness. Tina’s disappearance is the symbolic reinforcement, or realisation, of this “lostness” - of being lost.

Elena suffers in the absence of Lila. It is a type of mourning that refuses acceptance. It is an angry suffering. Acceptance comes only at the very end. Elena’s suffering in the absence of Lila mirrors the suffering Lila felt in the absence of Tina. It is a suffering that results from not knowing whether she is dead or alive. This suffering finds further fertile ground in the imagination of the reader, who knows about Lila’s disappearance from the start, and learns about her tragic life only through the eyes of Elena. As readers we are outraged at Lila’s fate, but also at the fate of all the downtrodden characters.

The significance of the dolls have a direct connection to the lost child(ren), but I discuss them more fully in the next section. For now, let’s complete the round-up of “lost children” by acknowledging with Elena that, although the Solaras have been almost universally hated, they also did their bit for the neighbourhood, to make it what it is - even its good aspects. Alfonso, Rino, Gigliola, Gino, Bruno are all children who got lost somewhere on the way. They stand for the loss of innocence, of hope, of childhood in general. In their place Elena writes her literary monument that remembers all their lives - not just her and Lila’s.

More specifically, through the loss of little Tina, Lila’s suffering is the suffering of the whole neighbourhood. By disowning Lila and forgetting, the people in the neighbourhood disown themselves, and thus their redemption becomes truly futile. Lila realises that the neighbourhood cannot be truly changed - not even by her and Elena.

It is not an optimistic vision, but it is rooted in a reality that has an emotional authenticity that is difficult to dispute.

The Dolls


Now that we have considered the Lost Child of the title, what should we make of the dolls and their return at the end? Elena receives the two little dolls from their childhood, Tina and Nu, in an unmarked newspaper package together with her post. No addressee, no return address.

The first conclusion we can draw is that Lila is alive and well somewhere, which indeed is the possibility that Elena herself entertains:

“Maybe those two dolls that had crossed more than half a century and had come all the way to Turin meant only that she was well and loved me” - p. 473.

We see here Elena’s need for validation and approval on clear display (“she … loved me”), but it is the strong possibility that Lila is alive that is of primary interest to us. Lila could have committed suicide and planned it that way, but it would not be consistent with the lost child who has finally found a new life for herself. That child was too curious and irrepressible. That child, now lost to Elena, has been recovered by Lila unto herself. 

Secondly, it is an admission by Lila of the role - unspoken up to now - Elena has played in providing courage to her in the face of overwhelming fears, such as those she confessed to in the aftermath of the earthquake. When they went up to Don Achille to confront him - one of the scariest moments of their childhood - and Lila looked so brave she was partly brave because Elena was there beside her.

This fear-courage duality is part of the secret knot of their friendship alluded to in the previous section. It is not just that “Lila has let herself be seen so plainly” (p. 473), but the very knot of their relationship has been made plain. By being made plain it now also loses its power, because Lila has relinquished it. Lila no longer needs Elena to give her courage - she has made a leap, on her own, that we know nothing of.

Thirdly, by relinquishing it, Lila also releases herself. The suppressed confines of her life finally lifts and she is free. We don’t know anything about it, but we can perhaps imagine her: a cantankerous old woman no one would pay any attention to, yet whose intelligence is still sharp and inquisitive at nearly 70 years of age, and who still has a few years left to live and enjoy life without the neighbourhood, without children, without men, without Elena, without the expectations of her childhood - without even the expectation and intrusion of us as readers (here we are reminded of the contrast between the real author, Elena Ferrante, who prefers to live anonymously rather than riding the wave of fame the way Elena of the novel did for the sake of her career; in other words, Ferrante is more like Lila in this respect).

The returned dolls means Lila has gone beyond the pale, and beyond even the bounds of Elena’s tale.

Fourthly, since dolls are often stand-ins for babies in the cultural environment in which several generations of girls have grown up in, the return of the dolls also reflect on the motherhoods of Elena and Lila. Although Lila lost Tina, and Gennaro was a disappointment, she was nevertheless a responsible, dedicated mother - even to Elena’s children until adolescence. Elena was a far better mother than Nino was a father, but she still suffers from her own children’s admonishment that she was too absorbed in her own work. Lila filled this gap.

By returning the dolls, Lila relinquishes her own role as surrogate mother completely, as well as being mother to Gennaro. Their roles have reversed, and on Elena's side of the fence the story hasn't quite ended. She has three children, plus Lila had made Elena promise all those years ago. Elena is  now responsible for Gennaro.

Fifthly, the loss of those dolls were the stuff of childhood emotions. They chucked each other’s dolls into the cellar in a jealous rivalry, a dynamic pattern that repeated itself over many years. The return of those dolls means the end of that dynamic. No more jealousy, no more rivalry. Elena, however, thrived on that competition, and her career was ignited by it.

Finally, the timing of the dolls’ return suggests a simultaneous discovery and loss of Lila’s inner child. Elena wanted Lila to hack* into her computer and read the novel. It is not inconceivable that this actually happened, and that Elena’s conclusion to the contrary is simply more evidence of her inability to see coincidences and the connections between events. The novel is finished, and soon after the dolls arrive. Perhaps Lila, herself finally free, read eagerly and realised that what Elena wrote is actually good, even if not exactly beautiful. Lila no longer needs it to be beautiful. She sees something of herself, and perhaps above all she sees Elena. She takes mercy, and frees Elena.

* Readers may have noticed more than a passing resemblance between Lila’s character and that of Lisbeth Salander. I know that I have.

Elena and Lila


Where does this leave Elena? There are many things we don’t know about Elena’s day-to-day life, but she has told us about most of the truly important events. We know that for significant periods she thrived on the competition and inspiration Lila provided. That force has now faded from Elena’s life, and she can enjoy what’s left - children and relative fame - without that pressure, without that interference. Perhaps she can mend her relationships with her children, perhaps Gennaro will take up some of her time. Either way, it is without a doubt the end of an era.

As for herself, Lila has finally freed herself of the burdens and responsibilities that had taken up her whole life. She gives up Gennaro, she gives up Elena, the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood had given up on her over the years, but she had always been a fixture, an anchor. In the final instance, her energy and inspiration had also gone into the novel we've just read. In this way she served Elena's career, albeit frequently in her own interest. Now, finally, she was free. She who had always been afraid had finally done what she could never do before: be completely independent - even independent of Elena, of the novel. True to her nature, there is no tying her down, and no knowing who she really is.

Nino


The Neapolitan saga is full of characters struggling to escape the influence of their parents, only to find themselves emulating them in one way or another. Nino epitomises this theme. He hated and rejected his father throughout his adolescence, yet ended up taking womanising to a whole new level. We saw the first part coming, even if Elena did not. Yet when she finally processes his legacy, she judges him “disappointing”. Of course, Lila got there first and understands the nature of his character all too well. She judges him worse than herself because, she says, he is superficial. Guido Airota makes a separate observation about him, namely that he is “intelligence without tradition”. A talented man without roots, who has nothing to lose, and is all too eager to be someone. At the end of the saga Nino sings his own praises, but those who loved him from close up have all realised that he is an unreliable, lightweight human being.

What, therefore, should we make of Elena’s longstanding crush on him? She herself realises that she had created a fantasy, and that the person who showed up at her book reading in Milan had nothing to do with that fantasy. They were separate entities. However, fantasy and reality corresponded sometimes. For instance, his behaviour as an adolescent was real. She saw him as cool and untouchable, unaffected by the opinions of those around him. His head was somewhere else. That trait turned out to be a flaw, a disregard for everyone around him, even those who adored him and whom he sporadically loved in return when it suited him.

He had intelligence, charisma, and good looks. He seemed untouchable, smooth in all situations. When he showed up at the book reading he was a knight in shining armour, rescuing her from the attacks of a stuffy intellectual. What Ferrante is doing, as Nino’s character unfolds in all its mirage-like glory, is turn the literary convention of the hero - reminiscent of, say, Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch - on its head. She is taking a longer view. Book 3 could have ended with Nino willing to reform for the sake of his “true” love for Elena. We could have been told that “they lived happily ever after”. Instead, we got the bombshell that is book 4. Nino is a warning that many of the classics are perhaps guilty of building fantasies and gender stereotypes rather than looking at the genuine commitments to gender role realities that are implied by marriage and long term partnerships. It is a stunning critique.

If I had expected Nino’s general infidelity, his ongoing marriage to Eleonora was more of a surprise. It is a cleverly disguised plot device that all but defines his character. It anchors his tendency to put every relationship in service of his career ambitions. It provides him with monetary stability and a conservative societal esteem, namely of keeping a family. It also characterises his inability to finish off any relationship. In his personal life he is a politician: not a conviction politician, but one who goes where the grass is green.

Another surprise was the amount of time it took for Elena to get rid of him. In her case, also, we see what she is willing to sacrifice for her career - in her case her human dignity. For a while she lives the life of a concubine. Yet it’s not just a career, it’s also the children and the roof over their heads. She’d created a complex set of responsibilities for herself, and she was keeping herself entangled out of necessity.

It takes her even longer still to realise that his interest in her was due to the prestige she reflected back on him. This tendency in a man is so unusual that she couldn’t see it for what it is.

Only Lila put Nino’s life at risk by being of no use to his career. Lila is therefore in a league of her own.

“She stood out among so many because she, naturally, did not submit to any training, to any use, or to any purpose. All of us had submitted and that submission had - through trials, failures, successes - reduced us.” - p. 403

If Lila’s capacity for suffering is bottomless, Nino’s suffering is like a sulking child’s when it cannot gets its way. When he gets the upper hand once more, it is water off a duck’s back. By the end of the novel Nino is nothing but an annoying stranger whom Elena finds “large, bloated, a big ruddy man with thinning hair who was constantly celebrating himself” (p. 470).

By the end of the saga, Elena herself is leaning more towards traditional values again. She recognises that Pasquale is “much better preserved than Nino”, and speaks fondly about the values he took over from his father and that he upheld at great personal cost. Indeed, even the passing of the Solaras are met with a balanced sense of loss. Elena may share something of Nino’s flightiness and ambitious disregard for those close to her, but she recognises the love she had for her old friends, for the neighbourhood, for all the families that lived there - even for her own mother. We don’t truly know Nino anymore by the end of the saga, but his lack of interest in his own children speaks volumes.

I return to Nino a little later for a final look at his character.

Pietro


Pietro, who resembles MiddleMarch’s Casaubon and Wuthering Heights’ Edgar Linton in the during the earlier novels, in book 4 emerges as a far better partner and father than Nino. He never shirks his responsibilities, he is tender and observant (as when he advises Elena sensitively about Lila), and despite his general physical deficiencies, Elena judges him worthy of her bed one last time before he leaves for America. Elena recognises his selfish need to spend his personal time with his work, yet accepts it more readily later in life, since she recognises the similarity to her own character. In short, she endorses him as a good former husband, even if she has no desire to start something new. In all these respects Pietro also turns the classic literary stereotype somewhat on its head.

With both these male characters Ferrante is taking our common literary canon to task.

Alfonso


One of the great satisfactions of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan saga is the way in which the story lends itself to analysis. There is enough substance for a thesis, and a blog post can really only hope to probe a few angles. We have not even taken a look at the Solaras, and we should.

One perspective from which to tackle the changing fortunes of the Solaras in book 4 is via the prism of Alfonso. Alfonso is a gender bender who mediates between the destructive masculine energy represented by the Solaras, and Lila’s near-indestructible counterpoint of female energy. He is both a gay man and a cross-dresser, and his muse is Lila. Not only that, he wants to become Lila. The result is that he begins to resemble Lila even more than Lila herself.

Michele Solara, always the more dangerous of the two brothers, has lost the upper hand in his dealings with Lila since she established Basic Sight with Enzo. She and Enzo have become self-sufficient. Michele’s deep respect and yearning for Lila means that this energy now spills out over a cliff and he needs a surrogate for his obsession, which the shape shifting Alfonso provides. They become a type of couple, albeit covertly. (Marcello is furious, although there is nothing he can do.)

The Solaras epitomise a type of macho male energy that simply cannot co-exist with a true female energy. Michele is obsessed by his opposite, but it is also his downfall. Their violence is not compatible with equal distribution of male and female energy. They require submission. Lila and Enzo, on the other hand, embody the only example in the neighbourhood of a different, balanced model of male and female partnership.

As Michele and Alfonso get closer to each other, the Solaras are weakened. At the same time Lila and Enzo become stronger, especially after the return of Elena, and the birth of both their daughters. Masculine and feminine energies find a kind of equilibrium in Lila’s family life perhaps for the first time, and the result is a temporary happiness and harmony (which, after the loss of Tina, never returns). During this period Michele is reduced to a tentative, nervous man who can no longer act with vigour. Whereas Alfonso now embraces his own newfound identity of a woman in a man’s body, modeled on and inspired by Lila, Michele is completely at odds with himself.

We don’t really know what happens between Michele and Alfonso, but it seems that Alfonso overshoots his privileges and Michele kicks him out. The entire balance of masculine and feminine forces in the niehgbourhood are once again in jeopardy, stacked in favour of the destructive masculine element once more. Alfonso loses his feminine appearance, he becomes unreliable, and the whole sorry saga ends with his death at the hands of unknown assailants. It is the beginning of the end.

Tina’s disappearance is the visible culmination of this multi-generational journey. Whereas we are never sure who took Tina, the flow of energies suggests the Solaras were behind it, except that they thought it was Elena’s child - not Lila’s.

Everything from then on - even the death of the Solaras - suggests to Lila that nothing will ever really change in the old neighbourhood.

Nino and Elena

While we are on the topic of contrasting energies we should take a last look at Nino and Elena.

Nino exhibits a strong blend of the feminine and the masculine. His willingnes to sleep with influential women in order to get to the top is a strategy more commonly associated - rightly or wrongly - with ambitious women in society. Combined with his intelligence, charisma, and good looks, this is a killer strategy. He appears to have disguised his stereotypically Southern tendencies behind an alluring, more acceptable Northern veneer. His masculine aggression, paired with a keen feminine sensibility, which is to say an ability to tune into women’s emotions, makes him an effective and well rounded talent. Unfortunately it is almost completely erased by his lack of commitment to his roots, or indeed to any place where he puts down new roots - except where there is power. He sows the wild oats and moves on.

Elena comes across as conservatively feminine during most of her adolescence, but her ambition passes through masculine territory via her academic learning of the classics. She breaks out of academia and attempts, with Lila as inspiration, to marry her feminine and masculine sides to great subversive effect.

If the masculine and feminine are played off against each other, so are the Northern and Southern cultures. In this case Nino and Elena are the clearest examples of this co-habiting duality, since both rise high above their origins. Indeed, at times they mirror each other. However, unlike Nino, Elena increasingly recognises her roots and turns to the neighbourhood of her and Lila’s youth for inspiration. Even so, she moves to Turin in the North for her retirement.

Conclusion


As epitomised by Lila’s life throughout most of the saga, any equilibrium of opposing forces is extremely hard to maintain. Each character in his or her own way tries to find such an equilibrium, and success tends to come at the cost of others, or at the cost of social cohesion.

The Story of the Lost Child resolves the main plot points in often startling ways, but it is the openended implications of the ending that ensures the reader will continue to reflect on the rich material provided.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Towards a Reading of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Saga

SPOILER ALERT! This post contains spoilers, so if you've yet to read all three novels you may want to skip this post. However, if you're looking for a fresh angle on the novels, this is for you :)

I've read a number of reviews of the novels recently, especially since finishing Book 3 last week, and I have yet to see a serious critical assessment. It could well be that I just haven't looked enough. A few themes are typically mentioned - the saga of an enduring friendship, the tension between the North and the South of Italy - yet these are themes that could be true of other novels too. What's unique about Ferrante's gripping saga? It is especially disappointing when so much could be said about the novels, and when one considers that most reviews already assume spoilers. There really is no need for holding back.

The main exception appears to be James Woods' 2013 overview of Ferrante's work in English (including "My Brilliant Friend"), which touches on some of the "feminist" themes that are, I believe, at the heart of these novels.

Another informative pointer is Victoria Zhuang's observant article at the Harvard Review, in which she notes that the Neapolitan saga has something in common with George Eliot's MiddleMarch, a thread on which I will expand.

This post is not a thorough overview or analysis by any stretch of the imagination. A series of novels this rich deserves much more attention than I am able to stick into a blog post. Instead it expands on a few impressions and thoughts that occurred to me while reading - or lying awake at night, as the case may be - and which I hope will be of use to others while considering the works for analysis.

Part of my discussion will involve arguing against the view that this is simply a bildungsroman, where that is understood to be a type of coming-of-age novel "that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age), in which character change is extremely important." (Wikipedia). Yes, of course, the Neapolitan Saga is at least partly that, and perhaps when James Woods first mentioned it he did so with "My Brilliant Friend" in mind, which we know is merely a foundation for the heartbreak to come. However I do fear that if the whole saga becomes branded as a bildungsroman then its real value could be missed. There is more to it, as I hope to show. So stick with me. I start with Elena and Middlemarch, and come to Lila and more feminist themes later on.

Introduction


Towards the end of "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" we are confronted with this remarkable passage, related by Elena:

"We were therefore at this point: my husband's sister considered my marriage a mistake and said it to me frankly. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, it seemed to me the ultimate and unbiased confirmation of my conjugal unease. Besides, what could I do about it? I said to myself that maturity consisted in accepting the turn that existence had taken without getting too upset, following a path between daily practices and theoretical achievements, learning to see oneself, know oneself, in expectation of great changes. Day by day I grew calmer. My daughter Dede went to first grade early, already knowing how to read and write; my daughter Elsa was happy to stay alone with me all morning in the still house; my husband, although he was the dullest of academics, seemed finally close to finishing a second book that promised to be even more important than the first; and I was Signora Airota, Elena Airota, a woman depressed by submissiveness who nevertheless, urged by her sister-in-law but also in order to fight discouragement, had begun to study almost in secret the invention of woman by men, mixing the ancient and modern worlds. I didn't have an objective; only to be able to say to Mariarosa, to my mother-in-law, to this or that acquaintance: I'm working." - p. 353.

This passage summarises the dark hour of Elena's soul just before the dawn: in the very next chapter - a chapter with the prescient number of 100, like the gateway to a new journey - Nino is reintroduced into the story.  She finally judges her own marriage as Mariarosa does - a failure, with little to commend it. Even children bring her no real joy, despite their cleverness and obedience. They're just reminders of her own obedient, yet clever, nature.

Middlemarch


This is a good moment to turn to MiddleMarch. We find in Pietro hints of a more modern version of Casaubon, whom Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch marries and devotes herself to. Unlike Dorothea, Elena doesn't exactly devote herself to Pietro or his work. That level of idealism is never really present in Elena. Nevertheless, there is a hardworking academic bookishness that envelopes both Pietro and Elena's lives that initially pull them closer together. Pietro, as a professor of a dead language - Latin - approximates the Casaubon who busied himself with academic questions that no one else required answering any more.

In Middlemarch it is Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's younger cousin, who opens Dorothea's eyes to the fact that Casaubon's efforts - his life's project - and therefore also hers, may be in vain: those academic questions he deemed so important may have already been superseded.

Elena's situation is not as idealistic and extreme. She takes no interest in Pietro's work, and despite his professorial status, doesn't even trust his opinion of her own writing. But let's not forget that her childhood ideals included the semblance of what she now had attained. I will return to this later. One could argue that the gears of this existence are so well-oiled that Pietro's their influence in each other's lives is superfluous. Patriarchy's silent tentacles means she is still living out the recipe of patriarchy even while they lead separate lives: a submissive wife who looks after two perfect children while her husband goes out to improve his career and standing in the world. Meanwhile, she languishes.

Although it is tempting to want to judge Pietro the way one does Casaubon, he also has a humane side more reminiscent of another literary character - Edgar Linton - to whom I return later. Pietro is a complex intellectual man, isolated in his own thoughts. In other words, the opposite of what the rest of his family likes: a politically engaged intellectual, like Mariarosa, like Franco Mari, like Nino. This predilection makes them seem more alive, and Pietro pale and lifeless. Yet he has a tender side which comes to life with Elena's mother, with Nino, with Lila, and the life of his mind - although not demonstrated - is clearly vivid. In his own way he has rebelled against the norms of the Airota family, even as he upholds the status quo. His rebellion, therefore, is perhaps futile as much as Casaubon's ambitions were futile.

His choice of wife, Elena - the girl from Naples, from the poor neighbourhood - also shows his wilder, less predictable side. When things go wrong between Pietro and Elena, he turns out to be capable of coming unhinged, and of showing passion. Elena, for her part, naively hoped he would continue exhibiting that paternalistic reason, but he turns out to be flesh and blood after all. What Elena dislikes about him may in part include her increasing dislike of ivory tower patriarchal academia, but certainly an important part of what she loathes in him is what she also loathes in herself: the inability to act, to change. She has always relied on others for action: on Lila, on Nino. Thus, when Nino stays with them, she speaks of "the excitement - maybe yes, it was excitement - that gripped me in seeing, in hearing, how an Airota, an extremely well-educated Airota, lost ground, was confused, responded feebly to the swift, brilliant, even cruel aggressions of Nino Sarratore, my schoolmate, my friend, born in the neighbourhood, like me." (p.378).

Pietro's fortress turns out to be rather vulnerable to Nino's Trojan horse from the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is Pietro's undoing, just as the political perturbations that have reached even Florence and the university, disturbs him deeply. He prefers the quiet life.

For her part, Elena sees in Pietro's steadiness under fire not a virtue, but a status quo to be toppled and overcome. By the time Pietro has come to a decision to tell her about his resolve (which is balanced and principled) regarding the police's questions that he faced at the university, Elena no longer knows what he is talking about. He is left with his principles while her heart has moved on.

The tragedy of Elena and Pietro's relationship is that she never wanted him passionately, that they've never even really understood each other. The signs were there, but she walked into it. He sort of happened to her, and she was happy to be brought into his circle of influence. His family and all the surrounding excitement compensated - at least at first - for his own relative "dullness" - even when compared to Franco Mari. She could overlook even his conservative demands towards her. Meanwhile, she has never successfully exorcised Nino from her heart, and he still lurks there, waiting for the right moment to appear - or rather, pounce. She herself doesn't know how to pounce. The reader has suspected what might happen - although Ferrante's superb writing places everything in doubt, constantly - even if Elena herself has never completely believed in it.

Nino in Elena's life not only parallels the influence of Will Ladislaw in Dorothea's life, but also exceeds it in terms of the history he shares with her, by having known her since childhood, by being from her neighbourhood, and by being the one that she herself has always known she loved. We know that Nino's marriage is one of convenience for him (although not for his wife Eleanora) and he is conscious of his situation. Despite his intellectual appearance he is savvy and streetwise, and even his choice in marriage shows this. But he is also an incurable romantic, just like his father Donato, and when he loves he loves with total abandon. For a while anyway. He is aware of his own worth, and unlike the women in his life who usually have nowhere else to go to - Lila gave up everything for him - he manages to escape via education to save himself.

Nino's passionate volatility is likely to be his and Elena's undoing. Ironically, his initial request that they remain lovers is actually the more realistic alternative. But that would never satisfy Elena, who has always loved Nino and is fed up with her marriage anyway. She wants a new adventure, one way or the other.

If Nino is true to type - and I can only speculate, since I have yet to read the fourth installment, due out this week - I predict he will become bored with Elena sexually, and so be unfaithful to her. It won't happen immediately, but it will happen soon enough. The result? She will leave him, her dreams shattered, and she will become stronger for it in the long run. He may cheat on her against his better conscience, since he insinuated that he loved Elena even when he got involved with Lila, that he merely substituted Elena with Lila; but we also know that he is a somewhat unreliable narrator of his own life (eg., he "forgets" what he said about Lila's love-making back in Milan after the book-signing), and tends to think with his passions, at least when it comes to women. It's what makes him attractive, and it's also what makes him dangerous. He is a free spirit or a loose cannon, depending on where you are standing.

So with the clues there for us as readers, I foresee tears. Yet the reader can't outsmart Elena Ferrante, she's always ahead of us, and so I expect the journey to be more nuanced, and certainly more compelling than my prediction.

Lila


There is also the sense that Ferrante doesn't really do happy endings, but let's for a moment pretend that the end of "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" really is the end of the saga. Some called it a trilogy, and perhaps it could stand on three feet. Just.

I have thus far left out the most important character of all: Lila. The novels start out with her disappearance, and the novels are a way of inscribing her reticent yet forceful nature into existence. This goes more than skindeep, and I can now return to the quote I started with, as it now comes into its own:

"I was Signora Airota, Elena Airota, a woman depressed by submissiveness who nevertheless, urged by her sister-in-law but also in order to fight discouragement, had begun to study almost in secret the invention of woman by men, mixing the ancient and modern worlds."

Contrast this with Lila's speech less than ten pages earlier (italics in the original text):

"You see how things change: if I had remained Signora Caracci I would be ruined, I would have ended up with my ass on the ground like all the Carraccis; instead I am Raffaella Cerullo and I'm the technical director for Michele Solara at four hundred and twenty thousand lire a month" - p.344

If we gloss over the technical hindrance of Lila's relationship with Michele Solara ("I'm using him, not him me", she says), what we are left with is an assertion of Lila's independent selfhood. She refers to herself by her birthname, Rafaella Cerullo, and then goes on to indicate how her whole family has forgiven her and now depends on her. In other words, she is the boss, she is the master of her own world.

Even Lila's relationship with Enzo is beyond marriage convention, and we may well look there for clues to a true respect not marred by all-consuming passions, which inevitably destroy as much as they create. It was that mutual respect that helped her to restore herself to herself after the violent and humiliating experience of her marriage and, to some extent, her life in the sausage factory (she nevertheless considers the sausage factory a way of earning independent income, so that she wouldn't be dependent on Enzo).

The timing of these two speeches, the one from Lila to Elena, and from Elena to us, is poignant because soon in chapter 100 Nino returns to the narrative in a starring role, and although we started with Lila as the driving force in Book 1, Book 3 ends with Elena and Nino on an airplane, metaphorically embarking on an exclusive journey, a great leap, with no solid ground beneath their feet. It also echoes Dorothea and Will falling in love in Middlemarch, that much is clear, but where on earth is Lila? She is mentioned briefly towards the end, talking about Manuela Solara's murder, and the effect this is having on the Solaras and even Lila's job. But otherwise she is neglected. What does it mean?

For the first time, Elena has made an independent decision that takes her beyond societal convention - even that of the middle classes into which she has married. Affairs are tolerated (like those of Pietro's mother Adele), but to break ranks and flee with one's lover, that is not common. In other words, Elena Airota is acting on behalf of Elena Greco, and like Lila - Lila her muse and inspiration, Lila her biggest influence, Lila her model of independent action - is restoring a sense of wholeness to herself by following her heart for the first time in her life.

Now we can begin to move backwards to the start, towards Lila. If the story ended here, after 3 books, we might be able to say something like the following: Lila's reticence requires mediation, but the model set by Middlemarch (for instance) is not enough. Dorothea Brookes is still "the invention of woman by men" (note the singular woman versus the plural men). Lila, on the other hand, embodies subversion of female stereotypes. Most reviews I read note that she is feral and catlike. This is quite apt. She is outside Italian, outside cultivated language, and her observations in or on language - "The Green Fairy", or her rhapsodic description of Beckett's play -  are highly original. She is also uncompromising, and has the ability to refuse without withdrawing. Unlike Elena, who withdraws and leaves, Lila's desire to be present, to assert herself, always overcomes her own attempts to withdraw and to escape. Her strength, her ability, her sheer alpha female quality exceeds words, and if Elena succeeds in describing Lila vividly it is likely also because Elena, by the time of writing, has restored and realised in her own self a fiery, independent self she first saw and recognised in Lila.

Reviewers, with some justification, have been intent (probably following James Woods) on calling these novels a bildungsroman. If we read the process of character construction as described above, then Lila is on the one hand herself (a force of nature, a femaleness outside the capabilities of both men and women to tame or integrate, at least for long, in part because they all represent a failed patriarchy with whom she cannot feel connected) and on the other hand this aspiring self of Elena, this part that she never knew she could become or at least approximate, but has finally taken the first major step into doing so by eloping with Nino. A woman who follows her heart and her dream.

The Lila that is "herself" is the one that remains to some extent beyond language, and which Elena's writing-Lila-into-existence problematises. It is one way of perceiving the feminist discourse taking place here, namely the circumscribing and engraving onto language and culture of the nature of Lila, of Rafaella Cerullo, of this force of nature whose arrival in the world is a unique event in literature. An event, in the Badiouan sense, as it can set in motion an attempt at truth procedures - such as this one - and inspire a fidelity to understand it. This fidelity is emotional, and Ferrante's brilliance lies in intimately connecting us to the lives of these characters, and especially Lila's character. In short, it is the inscription of a woman, by a woman.

Lila speaks in dialect nearly all of the time, and we are reading about her in English, with 99.9% of the intermediary Italian translated, so clearly we are not in a position to say anything definite about Lila, only what has been inscribed ... and yet here, even here, Elena has never been given genuine authority to write about Lila, or even about the neighbourhood:

"All right", she said, "write, if you want, write about Gigliola, about whoever you want. But about me no, don't you dare, promise."
"I won't write about anyone, not even you."
"Careful, I've got my eye on you."
"Yes?"
"I'll come look in your computer. I'll read your files, I'll erase them."
"Come on."
"You think I'm not capable of it?"
"I know you're capable. But I can protect myself."
She laughed in her old mean way.
"Not from me." - p.29

So the saga is a work written in anger, a furious love letter, a proof that Lila existed, despite Lila's desire to disappear.

Education


Elena is Lila's mediator by virtue of being her only real confidante over the years, and the only known woman she respects personally. When Elena declares that she is leaving Pietro, Lila shouts:

"Why did you study so much? What fucking use has it been for me to imagine that you would enjoy a wonderful life for me, too? I was wrong, you're a fool." - p. 417

Is Lila overreacting, finally reaching the limits of her influence over Elena, or is her judgement - "you're a fool" - prescient, a sign of drama to come?

Part of the answer lies a page earlier. Lila wants to send Gennaro to Elena to look after him, adding her reason by the by: "you're the only person I trust" (p. 416). For her own part, Elena doesn't speak her thoughts immediately, but thinks "You're the only person I trust. I felt like smiling, she still didn't know that I had become untrustworthy".

Elena is of course thinking of her own sudden decision to go with Nino and leave her life with Pietro - even her children - behind. She had become untrustworthy. She has always represented something firm, something - perhaps - controllable to Lila. For the first time she has upset and subverted Lila's own expectation. She has become untrustworthy. Lila, for her apparent strength, needs solid things in her life - Enzo's firm, unchanging character, even when he is distant at work, and Elena's unchanging intellectual virtuousness.

A part of Lila's happiness lives through the ideals she has seen realised in Elena's dependable progression through school and as the wife of the young professor Airota: "Why did you study so much? What fucking use has it been for me to imagine that you would enjoy a wonderful life for me, too?".

We hear a different version of that lament earlier, after Lila finished reading Elena's second novel:

"she almost cried: You mustn't write those things, Lenù, you aren't that, none of what I read resembles you, it's an ugly, ugly book, and the one before it was too." - p.273

Can it be that, all this time, Elena's life has represented a truer success to Lila than it has seemed to Elena herself? The perceived liberating role of education in these novels should not be underestimated, and resonates beyond the page even to our own world. It is a an idealism that is also  a realism, an aspirational pragmatism. Lila's pain at not being allowed to proceed beyond elementary school influenced her whole life from then onwards. That door that closed in her face placed her firmly under the influence of the neighbourhood, of courtship, marriage, and led to all her later disappointments. The wounds go about as deep as one can imagine.

Education lifts people out of poverty into a more comfortable life. Lila, like Elena, bought into that dream, and the evidence, at least on the surface, suggests that they were not wrong to do so: Elena is generally considered the most successful person from the neighbourhood, and Lila, were it not for her extraordinary precociousness, with a bit of help from Enzo and Elena, she would never have been able to earn the living enabled by her work as a programmer. Anyone with less ability - like most of those in the neighbourhood - have a hard life with few opportunities in life to look forward to. Yet with a better education, what greater heights could Lila have reached?

So Lila, the hardboiled girl from the neighbourhood, turns out to be a bit of an idealist herself, in what is an unlikely echo of the idealism of Dorothea Brookes. Her aspiration finds an outlet in Elena - indeed, in these novels - because they are ultimately the release of her demons, of her blocked ambition at the age of 13. When she chucks The Green Fairy into the fire at the end of Book 2, make no mistake, she is in hell.

Wuthering Heights


If we want to find a literary equivalent for Lila we must leave the neat environment of Middlemarch behind and head to the moorlands, to the land of Catherine Earnshaw ... and Heathcliff. It is Heathcliff, forever outside society, who resembles more closely the forceful, uncompromising and inventive nature exemplified by Lila. Like Heathcliff in Brönte's novel, Lila has a habit of reinventing herself. Their circumstances may be different, but they both share that survivor's mentality, and the ability to adapt when the chips are down. Both are also inscribed into language and culture by a mediator, and in a cultural space that they themselves both resist and are barred from.

Edgar Linton as Heathcliff's foil, and representative of culture and cultivation, is mirrored by characters like Pietro and cultivated ivory tower academia in general. Edgar Linton's weakness in the face of Heathcliff's (and Cathy's) raw passion is echoed in Pietro's inability to face off Nino's street smart aggressions. The tension between the benefits of cultivation, and the raw rootedness of passionate nature (in Wuthering Heights) never really resolves, and we may reasonably expect this to be the case in Ferrante's saga too. Elena shares with Catherine Earnshaw this entanglement, but unlike in the case of Cathy and Heathcliff, we get the story firsthand from Elena. One mediator less.

Not a Bildungsroman


If we follow the emotional logic of the Neapolitan trilogy strictly as a bildungsroman and consider Lila as an ingredient - albeit an important one - for Elena's own character building as she develops into a strong independent woman, in contrast to Elena's perception of herself as timid and passive, then it follows that Lila's influence should begin to disappear when Elena finds her own feet. This is indeed what appears to happen towards the end of "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay".

However, if we did this, we would also be confronted with an apparent contradiction: Elena's world (of language, of culture, of middle classness, of mediated desires, of retreat into private life, of disconnection with the neighbourhood) would form a kind of Hegelian thesis to the antithesis of Lila's world (of raw dialect, of coarse manners, of working class suffering, of violence and forced sex, of the invasiveness of never-ending community and public life). If the restoration of her wholeness is brought about when she becomes "untrustworthy" and follows her heart, by rediscovering who she was even before she fell into culture, then here at the end of Book 3 we find that synthesis. Nino certainly fuses both culture (he's a published, respected intellectual in his own right) and the neighbourhood, and by uniting with him she is, we might conclude, securing for herself a new wholeness, a new synthesis. The best of all worlds. Or is it?

Wouldn't that be too Hegelian? That strikes me as a problem, because Hegel comes in for cutting commentary about two thirds into Book 3, in one of the most striking passages in the entire novel, just as  Elena discovers feminist literature. She reads an essay entitled "We Spit on Hegel":

"Spit on Hegel. Spit on the culture of men, spit on Marx, on Engels, on Lenin. And on historical materialism. And on Freud. And on psychoanalysis and penis envy. And on marriage, on family. And on Nazism, on Stalinism, on terrorism. And on war. And on the class struggle. And on the dictatorship of the proletariat. And on socialism. And on Communism. And on the trap of equality. And on all the manifestations of patriarchal culture. And on all its institutional forms. Resist the waste of female intelligence. Deculturate. Disacculturate, starting with maternity, don't give children to anyone. Get rid of the master-slave dialectic. Rip inferiority from our brains. Restore women to themselves. Don't create antitheses. Move on another plane in the name of one's own difference. The university doesn't free women but completes their repression. Against wisdom. While men devote themselves to undertakings in space, life for women on this planet has yet to begin. Woman is the other face of the earth. Woman is the Unpredictable Subject. Free oneself from subjection here, now, in this present. The author of those pages was called Carla Lonzi." - p. 280
Don't create antitheses. Is Elena in danger of having created an antithesis in Lila for her own sake? Is that why Lila always resists assimilation, that she understands this danger instinctively and cannot be a mere stepping stone for another - not even for her friend Elena? A response of sorts is formulated soon after in the same paragraph (my italics):

"I - after so much exertion - don't know how to think. Nor does Mariarosa: she's read pages and pages, and she rearranges them with flair, putting on a show. That's it. Lila, on the other hand, knows. It's her nature. If she had studied, she would know how to think like this." - p.281

Thus we return here to the question of Lila. She cannot be assimilated, and the fact that we get a sense of her through Elena's telling is already a kind of miracle. Education too, it seems, is not all it is cracked up to be. Yes, it can raise people out of poverty, but it also colludes with patriarchy, and hence is full of traps - and that is really the story of Elena's life from secondary school until she leaves Pietro.

Education, therefore, is best suited to those who have the right innate capacity for it. Someone like Lila. It's her nature ... She would know how to think like this. This assertion has an interesting parallel to Nietzsche's thinking, which also subverts Hegel's master-slave dichotomy by standing firmly on the side of a master morality, and deems slave morality a form of resentment. One wonders what he may have made of a character such as Lila. Most likely, he would have been impressed by her keen intelligence, resilience and creativity, and her innate resistance to any type of slave mentality.

Conclusion


Thus, in conclusion, I resist the temptation to call this saga a simple bildungsroman. Lila's character does not permit easy integration either into language or culture, and yet this series of novels is all about her. If Elena finds her an inspiration, so much the better for her. But labelling it a bildungsroman, at least one in the traditional sense, could make a mockery of the aspirations at the heart of this novel.

Lila tends to know what she wants - or more frequently, doesn't want - in any given situation, and so outpaces Elena when it matters: in matters of the heart, in matters of life. In that sense we get to know Lila belatedly, through Elena's eyes. Via Elena she appears like the woman of Carla Lonzi's proclamation that "Woman is the Unpredictable Subject". She has the uncanny ability to surprise, and as Elena says, with her there was never a way to feel that "things were settled."

But if Lila often surprises Elena - and us, as readers, via Elena - Lila herself seems less surprised at how things around her develop, at the ways of the neighbourhood, of events on the ground, at herself. When they happen, she knows what to do. Desire and violence, they have a logic. This logic might even eventually be discernable to the reader, in the afterglow of Elena's narration, even though its immediacy remains foreclosed as part of Lila's resistance. Yet one thing is for sure: that of which Lila is master follows, for her, as surely as a computer programmer's flow chart.

In the final instance, perhaps this: Lila as an anchor for a certain femaleness, a reference and a benchmark, and a reminder not to compromise. If patriarchy's strategy is to divide and conquer - through marriage, through children, through the oppression of domesticity - Lila, via Elena, shows what is possible when one becomes two, and two becomes many.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Adverbs Do Please King not Greatly

You gotta love Stephen King's advice to writers. It is second to none, and he's such a good storyteller and has written so much that I'll trust his advice over that of any theoretician like Harold Bloom (who criticised the National Book Foundation for giving the award to King), and famously failed to execute his own ideal model of the book. That's not to say sensitive theoreticians don't have good writing advice to give - witness John Gardner - it's just that the inside track has the uncanny ability to draw us closer to the source.

Brainpickings recently highlighted King's advice on adverbs. In short, don't use them. They are generally timid, with few opportunities for redemption.
"Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind."

He goes on to provide convincing examples that demonstrate why they are so frequently redundant.

This got me thinking. The first line of William Blake's "The Tyger" goes "Tyger Tyger, burning bright", which ends in an adverb. And I can't really imagine that line without it. The adverb bright, even more so than the verb burning, is what sets the brain on fire.

"The Tyger" is a poem of course, and Stephen King writes novels. Long novels, most of the time. There is plenty of space to create context, to slither in the emotion and let the action grab its tail and shake it. A shortish poem, on the other hand, needs all the leverage it can get. Adjectives and adverbs - they're all context.

But that's not the full story. There is the poetic device of alliteration, and also the rhythm: "brightly" vs. "bright". Why did Blake use "bright" and not "brightly"? Well, for one, it wouldn't exactly rhyme with night, now would it? For another, as a convention masculine rhyme is simply the more common. Way more common. Yet it is also true that "bright" sets the tone of heightened action that reverberates throughout the poem. "Brightly", a feminine rhyme, just won't cut it.

This made me wonder whether King would agree that an adverb with a masculine rhythm has a more pronounced effect that could dispel timidity. On the other hand, if it's not needed, why bother at all?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Poetry Technology Goes Liftoff!

PoemCrunch has gone live and I can finally explain what it’s all about.

So, what is PoemCrunch? Is it a text-bending exercise involving the classics? Is it an exploration of poetics with the aid of computing? And, does it have a point? Yes, Yes, and - good question: Yes!

In short, PoemCrunch showcases a particular type of computer aided poetry, namely those templated from various classic poems with a formal structure called Context Free Grammar (a linguistic concept pioneered by Noam Chomsky), and subsequently automated using the modern art of computing. That’s PoemCrunch in a nutshell. How it ended up that way, however, requires a bit more explanation.

Some time ago I talked about the need for Poetry Technology and argued for its wider adoption. At the time I'd had PoetryDB up for a while and was looking at new ways to create poems from existing material, with the aid of - as I called it - Poetry Technology.

I looked at the available tools and got the impression that creating Poetry Technology that produces good poetry will be a Hard problem to solve. There are plenty of NLP (not Anthony Robbins' stomping ground, but Natural Language Processing) tools available, ranging from low level and specific (lemmatisers,  tokenisers, persers, stemmers) to higher level and use case oriented (text summarisers, article writers, etc.). I could see they'd be useful tools to play with, especially the low level tools, but where do I go from there?

Before getting ahead of myself, I identified three broad areas to explore, which can be categorised loosely as Easy, Harder, and Really Hard. Easy represents the lowest barrier to entry, the proverbial "lowest hanging fruit". Techniques in this space involve various venerable home hacks such as cut-ups, chained n-grams, and the like. They are fairly easy to get to grips with, and yet capable of surprisingly interesting results. Unfortunately, the drawbacks are considerable too. They provide little or no control over semantics and structure, and the results require a healthy dose of editing and curation to be of interest to a real consumer.

The Really Hard group is a space that I associate with IBM’s Watson, deep machine learning and Huge gulps of Language Data. Whatever the holy grail of language processing looks like, it lies somewhere on the road to that misty, mythical place where fabulous new poems and major works of literature will one day be spawned in the depths of a data lake. It is also a world I don’t know very well yet and, if I ever want to reach it, I have much - much - to learn.

Luckily for me, a journey is not made up of giant leaps. In the meantime, there is plenty to explore beyond the green fields of Easy, in the wet marshes of Harder.  Our sustenance here, so I figured, would be a selection of the NLP tools already on offer, a willingness to dabble in linguistics, and ultimately, a desire to see the literary emerge from the primordial soup of language, life ... and data.

Back to my story. As may be imagined, I started out looking for easy pickings. I was still in the Easy phase. I experimented with the data available to me on PoetryDB, which is a wealth of some of the best poetry in the English language up to about a century ago, easily consumable via an API. I tried various angles. A simple, and not uninteresting, approach was to use, say, all the sonnets of Shakespeare and create new sonnets at random. With fairly simple code I could combine the first line of Sonnet X with the second line of Sonnet Y with the third line of Sonnet Z and so forth until voilà! a new sonnet. There are 154 sonnets by Shakespeare on the site, so plenty of permutations are possible.

In other cases I took lines from different poets and mixed them together. This was even more interesting. The results can be both quirky and cohesive, as can be seen in the following example, which mixes William Shakespeare with Alexander Pope. A sonnet rhyme scheme was used to guide the selection of lines, and the result actually hangs together quite well:

   And agents from each foreign state
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
  Merchants unloaded here their freight,
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
Since no reprisals can be made on thee.
In so profound abysm I throw all care
They parch'd with heat, and I inflamed by thee.
  As any she belied with false compare.
Without a pain, a trouble, or a fear;
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
See what delights in sylvan scenes appear!
From his low tract, and look another way:
  The sun, next those the fairest light,
Do paint the meadows with delight,
This was good fun - up to a point. For every case like this there were also cases that didn’t work very well. How do we let the tool decide when a poem is decent and when it is not? We have to teach it the skill of judgment, of poetry aesthetics - or at the very, very least, the skill of deciding when a sentence or series of sentences are grammatically correct. I began wondering about machine learning's capabilities at this point, but it is linguistic NLP that drew me in first.

All roads eventually lead to NLP tools, and the prince of NLP tools is the Python NLTK (Natural Language Toolkit). Be that as it may, it is not the first one I became aware of. Being more of a Rubyist myself, I stumbled upon diasks2’s excellent page of links to Ruby NLP tools. This was both fortuitous and ultimately sobering, but more about that in a minute.

At this point I was still on the first leg of my journey, the “looking for quick wins” phase, but I was on the verge of embarking on the second. This transition occurred after my initial foray into NLP automation, which ended up being a bit of a disaster...

Now, linguists and NLP'ers commonly talk about something called Part-of-Speech tagging (POS tagging for short), which is a way of saying sentences are comprised of linguistic elements like nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and so on, and we can can "tag" (or create metadata for) all those elements in a sentence, in a paragraph or in a full text. It's something I'd played with before, based on Zachary Scholl's work, without quite knowing that it was a widely used technique or that numerous NLP tools cater for it.

There were several Ruby tools in diasks2's list, and I approached them with gusto. After playing with various tools, the possibilities of automated tagging looked rather fun. In fact, I got so excited that I decided to brute force tag most of the poetry available to me via PoetryDB (i.e., quite a lot of poetry), and build a kind of “poetic dictionary” of nouns, verbs, etc., and finally build new poems by interpolating this vocabulary with the templates of the original poems. What a great idea. What could possibly go wrong?!

In case you hadn't guessed: just about everything!

To begin with, poetic language is well ahead of prose when it comes to bending the rules of language, and it laps journalism and scientific writing comfortably on that same account without even breaking a sweat. In short, it beats all comers hands down. Yes, sometimes even healthy folk, otherwise at ease with urbanspeak and text talk, break out in a rash when confronted with Shakespeare, or the evergreen Chaucer. Evergreen he may be, but we nolite talken like that no-more…

You get my point. The phrase “poetic license” was coined for a reason, and here I was, trying to run Part-Of-Speech tagging over the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Byron, Dickinson, Browning and the results were OMG?! This initial mistake obscured an even deeper problem, which I’ll come to in a second, and which is when I fully and truly had to leave those Halcyon days of the low and ripe fruit behind.

Once I’d narrowed down the types of poetry I used to the more understandable language of poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I began to see slightly better results - but not much. It was depressing. "Where am I going wrong?", I wondered in frustration.

All this time I was resisting the nagging feeling that I might have to give up on a fully automated process, from vocabulary through to templating to new poem generation. I really wanted to have my cake and eat it too: I wanted to use all the best poetry available as my input, I wanted to use available NLP tools to extract all the linguistic nutrients, and I wanted to do all this in an automated fashion without human intervention to see where the best results would come from. If only. Without fail, nearly all the results were dismal. Here and there was a little glimmer of brilliance, but mostly they were few and far between.

I was effectively not really in control of the process, trusting that the tools were as good as I wanted them to be. I had delegated my trust. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between excitement, overconfidence, and foolishness. I was learning the hard way that not only was the poetry too varied and “poetic” to be reduced to one dimensional categories of speech, but likewise the tools were far too blunt.

At this point I really want to single out the idea of Part-Of-Speech tagging. It is a particularly misleading concept in the context of poetry. Part of speech really is part of nothing here, because in poetry, where the language is often interlinked, if you poke in one place, you poke everywhere - it is a ball of nerves. It is misleading because it is on the one hand not granular, nuanced enough, and on the other hand not wholistic, interdependent enough. It gives the illusion of grasping language, of having grasped elements of the poem. In reality it is more like grabbing a delicate butterfly by the leg, and finding you’ve torn it off.

This realisation shouldn't obscure the fact that the idea was useful. What it meant in practice though was that I'd have to invent my own categories over and above the existing ones. More than that, I'd have to start looking at the actual structure of the poems and describe, on a metalevel, how linguistic parts interlink with each other. So it is not just a case of seeing a "verb" here and an "adjective" here, it is also about understanding that the speaker is trying to describe, say, a feeling. What other ways are there to describe that feeling? And how does it relate to other parts of the poem? Easier said than done, and really, this is a challenge that still remains. Today's PoemCrunch release is still just the first milestone.

I started with Yeats' “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”. The first challenge, which was a step beyond POS tagging, was to interlink the various pronouns: I -> my -> me, their -> them, etc. and find ways to exchange this for alternatives: he -> his, we -> our etc. (You can still see this process happening on PoemCrunch, where the latest incarnation has found its home). I refined the parts of speech and tinkered with the vocabulary. It was interesting, and the results were improving, but I still felt slightly underwhelmed. I knew I had to refine the process, but I was still surprised at how slowly the poem was giving up its secrets.

I decided to try a different tack. Perhaps the poems were too complex, and I was being too ambitious. I tried a couple of simple poems, and even wrote a few simple rhymes myself. No luck. The results were noticeably worse. What the hey?! Now at this point I might be forgiven for thinking that it could be time to move on and try a totally different angle. Were it not for that little voice in the back of my mind saying "but it has got to work!!", despite evidence to the contrary, that's probably what I would have done. But instead I decided to try once more and apply the same process to Shelley's Ozymandias. Ozymandias is in some ways a more complex bit of clockwork, and I really didn't expect much at all. Imagine my surprise, then, when I immediately saw several signs of improvement. How was it possible?

I refined the template further, and for the first time I was beginning to see genuine progress. It was also becoming clearer that some poems were more suitable to the treatment than others. (I returned to Yeats’ poem in the end, but only after I’d learned a few more lessons that I could apply.) It’s too early to say, even now, but there is some indication that some of the “incontrovertibly great” traditional poems like "Ozymandias", and "Sonnet 18" actually work really well, and that it might be because their inner workings are so precise that they are amenable to having the individual parts exchanged out.

At this stage I was still searching for a tool that could at least correct simple grammatical errors, and I found one in Gingerice. Its services came at a considerable performance penalty, but it sometimes (not always) rescued sentence segments that were otherwise problematic, and I was willing to live with the performance hit. The fact that I’ve now been able to phase it out almost completely is a tribute to the fact that the overall process has improved dramatically.

One of the biggest tangible lessons I learned during this process was not to rely on the existing NLP way of doing things like POS tagging. I repeat this point because in literature it is all about how you say things, not just what you say, and I realised I will have to start creating my own tags - which I soon did. I now work with a vocabulary set that has over forty non-standard tags, including different categories of nouns:  nouns of people (policemen, teachers, actors, etc.), nouns of animals (bears, elephants, birds etc.), the list goes on. (A special shout out must go to Enchanted Learning, whose lists of words proved invaluable). This is still just scratching the surface. What if I wanted to write something with a specifically steampunk flavour? I will need to provide a dictionary that caters to that genre, with adjectives, nouns, phrases, idioms that evoke those steam punk elements. This is very exciting.

The results were getting better and better as I refined the process, and it strongly pointed to having more - rather than less - control over poem segments. This was the total opposite of where I'd started, when I basically wanted an unsupervised process to take care of things. In fact, it is a lot more like writing "normal" poetry (which is to say, without programmatic intervention), and I would say the lines will blur more and more in future. The naysayers will probably go quiet at that point, but hey, let the poetry do the talking. There is a still a good way to go before that will happen. PoemCrunch has reached its first milestone, yet there are many ways in which the process can still be enhanced. Language errors do creep in, sometimes because the underying NLP tools do not provide correct results, sometimes because the structural interaction of various poem components is still at an early stage. Then there is the data. Building a good vocabulary, for one, is time-consuming, and it is becoming clear to me that they have to be tailored to work well. The extent of that tailoring depends on many factors, and one always wants to leave enough unpredictability to keep things interesting.

Another interesting outcome of the whole process was that, although I hadn't set out to cover the same ground as Zachary Scholl, I was nevertheless coming to similar conclusions. For instance, I found that due to the heuristics our brains apply, it makes sense to group words according to emotional tone (eg. words that are positive or negative in tone). Likewise, I had begun to create custom tags in response to the limitations of "standard" tags. It probably suggests that there is often convergence along the path of evolution given certain starting conditions - in this case the parameters of a context free grammar in relation to English poetry.

Although there are still exciting improvements to be made, the consistency with which I was achieving interesting results suggested I was reaching a milestone. It was time to share those results. That's when I started work on setting up PoemCrunch. It was conceived as a showcase of “new poems” generated from the templates of those old classics, via the process described above. To this end I have selected 5 poems: “The Tyger” (by William Blake), “Sonnet 18” (by William Shakespeare), “Ozymandias” (by Percy Bysshe Shelley), “Do not go Gentle into that Good Night” (by Dylan Thomas), and “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” (by William Butler Yeats).

The result is a series of poems that have much in common with their illustrious parents - not least the rhythm and rhyme scheme - but also reveals to what extent the strength of those classics lies in their magnificent scaffolding, against which new bricks can be laid, new windows can be installed, and a new facade can be erected.

Enjoy!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Road to PoemCrunch

PoemCrunch has gone live and I can finally explain what it’s all about.

So, what is PoemCrunch? Is it a text-bending exercise involving the classics? Is it an exploration of poetics with the aid of computing? And, does it have a point? Yes, Yes, and - good question: Yes!

In short, PoemCrunch showcases a particular type of computer aided poetry, namely those templated from various classic poems with a formal structure called Context Free Grammar (a linguistic concept pioneered by Noam Chomsky), and subsequently automated using the modern art of computing. That’s PoemCrunch in a nutshell. How it ended up that way, however, requires a bit more explanation.

Some time ago I talked about the need for Poetry Technology and argued for its wider adoption. At the time I'd had PoetryDB up for a while and was looking at new ways to create poems from existing material, with the aid of - as I called it - Poetry Technology.

I looked at what tools were freely available, and my early impression was that good Poetry Technology will likely be a Hard problem to solve. On the one hand there were plenty of widely available NLP (not Anthony Robbins' stomping ground, but Natural Language Processing) tools available. Some were quite "low level" in the sense that they attempted to solve particular language and linguistic problems (with varying degrees of success). Others attempted higher level functionality, for instance by creating text summaries. This is not the right blog post in which to survey them all properly, but suffice it to say that they ranged from the fairly simple to the really complex.

What's more interesting, perhaps, was seeing what others had already done. Since I've talked about some of that in the earlier article I won't rehash the results, but on the whole it became clear that people were starting to explore this, especially for producing website content. Article writing software such as Article Builder and summary writing software like Smmry are more or less par for the course.

Back to Poetry Technology. I saw three broad areas to explore, which can be categorised loosely as Easy, Harder, and Hard. Easy represented the lowest barrier to entry, the proverbial "lowest hanging fruit". Techniques in this space involve various venerable home hacks such as cut-ups, chained n-grams, and the like.

The Easy methods are fairly easy to get to grips with, and yet capable of surprisingly interesting results. The drawbacks, however, are considerable too. There is little or no control over semantics and structure, and the results often work best with a healthy dose of curation. I'm also conscious that it can suffer from YAB (Yet Another Bot) saturation once the novelty wears off.  That is not a reflection on quality as such. It is more of an image problem. We don't want to tarnish it prematurely. We need quality.

The Hard part is a space that I associate with IBM’s Watson, deep machine learning and Huge gulps of Language Data. Whatever the holy grail of language processing looks like, it lies somewhere on the road to that misty, mythical place where fabulous new poems and major works of literature will one day be spawned in the depths of a data lake. It is also a world I don’t know very well yet and, if I ever want to reach it, I have much - much - to learn.

Luckily for me, a journey is not made up of giant leaps. In the meantime, there is plenty to explore beyond the green fields of Easy, in the wet marshes of Harder.  Our sustenance here, so I figured, would be a selection of the NLP tools already on offer, a willingness to dabble in linguistics, and ultimately, a desire to see the literary emerge from the primordial soup of language, life ... and data.

Back to my story. As may be imagined, I started out looking for easy pickings. I was still in the Easy phase. I experimented with the data available to me on PoetryDB, which is a wealth of some of the best poetry in the English language up to about a century ago, easily consumable via an API. I tried various angles. A simple, and not uninteresting, approach was to use, say, all the sonnets of Shakespeare and create new sonnets at random. With fairly simple code I could combine the first line of Sonnet X with the second line of Sonnet Y with the third line of Sonnet Z and so forth until voilà! a new sonnet. There are 154 sonnets by Shakespeare on the site, so plenty of permutations are possible.

In other cases I took lines from different poets and mixed them together. This was even more interesting. The results can be both quirky and cohesive, as can be seen in the following example, which mixes William Shakespeare with Alexander Pope. A sonnet rhyme scheme was used to guide the selection of lines, and the result actually hangs together quite well:

   And agents from each foreign state
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
  Merchants unloaded here their freight,
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
Since no reprisals can be made on thee.
In so profound abysm I throw all care
They parch'd with heat, and I inflamed by thee.
  As any she belied with false compare.
Without a pain, a trouble, or a fear;
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
See what delights in sylvan scenes appear!
From his low tract, and look another way:
  The sun, next those the fairest light,
Do paint the meadows with delight,
This was good fun - up to a point. For every case like this there were also cases that didn’t work very well. How do we let the tool decide when a poem is decent and when it is not? We have to teach it the skill of judgment, of poetry aesthetics - or at the very, very least, the skill of deciding when a sentence or series of sentences are grammatically correct. I began wondering about machine learning's capabilities at this point, but it is linguistic NLP that drew me in first.

All roads eventually lead to NLP tools, and the prince of NLP tools is the Python NLTK (Natural Language Toolkit). Be that as it may, it is not the first one I became aware of. Being more of a Rubyist myself, I stumbled upon diasks2’s excellent page of links to Ruby NLP tools. This was both fortuitous and ultimately sobering, but more about that in a minute.

At this point I was still on the first leg of my journey, the “looking for quick wins” phase, but I was on the verge of embarking on the second. This transition occurred after my initial foray into automating various NLP tools ended up being a bit of a disaster...

Now, linguists and NLP'ers commonly talk about something called Part-of-Speech tagging (POS tagging for short), which is a way of saying sentences are comprised of linguistic elements like nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and so on, and we can can "tag" (or create metadata for) all those elements in a sentence, in a paragraph or in a full text. It's something I'd played with before, based on Zachary Scholl's work, without quite knowing that it was a widely used technique or that numerous NLP tools cater for it.

There were several Ruby tools in diasks2's list, and I approached them with gusto. After playing with various tools, the possibilities of automated tagging looked rather fun. In fact, I got so excited that I decided to brute force tag most of the poetry available to me via PoetryDB (i.e., quite a lot of poetry), and build a kind of “poetic dictionary” of nouns, verbs, etc., and finally build new poems by interpolating this vocabulary with the templates of the original poems. What a great idea. What could possibly go wrong?!

In case you hadn't guessed: just about everything!

To begin with, poetic language is well ahead of prose when it comes to bending the rules of language, and it laps journalism and scientific writing comfortably on that same account without even breaking a sweat. In short, it beats all comers hands down. Yes, sometimes even healthy folk, otherwise at ease with urbanspeak and text talk, break out in a rash when confronted with Shakespeare, or the evergreen Chaucer. Evergreen he may be, but we nolite talken like that no-more…

You get my point. The phrase “poetic license” was coined for a reason, and here I was, trying to run Part-Of-Speech tagging over the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Byron, Dickinson, Browning and the results were OMG?! This initial mistake obscured an even deeper problem, which I’ll come to in a second, and which is how I fully and truly had to leave those Halcyon days of the low and ripe fruit behind.

Once I’d narrowed down the types of poetry I used to the more understandable language of poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I began to see slightly better results - but not much. It was depressing. "Where am I going wrong?", I wondered in frustration.

All this time I was resisting the nagging feeling that I might have to give up on a fully automated process, from vocabulary through to templating to new poem generation. I really wanted to have my cake and eat it too: I wanted to use all the best poetry available as my input, I wanted to use available NLP tools to extract all the linguistic nutrients, and I wanted to do all this in an automated fashion without human intervention to see where the best results would come from. If only. Without fail, nearly all the results were dismal. Here and there was a little glimmer of brilliance, but mostly they were few and far between.

I was effectively not really in control of the process, trusting that the tools were as good as I wanted them to be. I had delegated my trust. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between excitement, overconfidence, and foolishness. I was learning the hard way that not only was the poetry too varied and “poetic” to be reduced to one dimensional categories of speech, but likewise the tools were far too blunt.

At this point I really want to single out the idea of Part-Of-Speech tagging. It is a particularly misleading concept in the context of poetry. Part of speech really is part of nothing here, because in poetry, where the language is often interlinked, if you poke in one place, you poke everywhere - it is a ball of nerves. It is misleading because it is on the one hand not granular, nuanced enough, and on the other hand not wholistic, interdependent enough. It gives the illusion of grasping language, of having grasped elements of the poem. In reality it is more like grabbing a delicate butterfly by the leg, and finding you’ve torn it off.

This realisation shouldn't obscure the fact that the idea was useful. What it meant in practice though was that I'd have to invent my own categories over and above the existing ones. More than that, I'd have to start looking at the actual structure of the poems and describe, on a metalevel, how linguistic parts interlink with each other. So it is not just a case of seeing a "verb" here and an "adjective" here, it is also about understanding that the speaker is trying to describe, say, a feeling. What other ways are there to describe that feeling? And how does it relate to other parts of the poem? Easier said than done, and really, this is a challenge that still remains. Today's PoemCrunch release is still just the first milestone.

I started with Yeats' “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”. The first challenge, which was a step beyond POS tagging, was to interlink the various pronouns: I -> my -> me, their -> them, etc. and find ways to exchange this for alternatives: he -> his, we -> our etc. (You can still see this process happening on PoemCrunch, where the latest incarnation has found its home). I refined the parts of speech and tinkered with the vocabulary. It was interesting, and the results were improving, but I still felt slightly underwhelmed. I knew I had to refine the process, but I was still surprised at how slowly the poem was giving up its secrets.

I decided to try a different tack. Perhaps the poems were too complex, and I was being too ambitious. I tried a couple of simple poems, and even wrote a few simple rhymes myself. No luck. The results were noticeably worse. What the hey?! Now at this point I might be forgiven for thinking that it could be time to move on and try a totally different angle. Were it not for that little voice in the back of my mind saying "but it has got to work!!", despite evidence to the contrary, that's probably what I would have done. But instead I decided to try once more and apply the same process to Shelley's Ozymandias. Ozymandias is in some ways a more complex bit of clockwork, and I really didn't expect much at all. Imagine my surprise, then, when I immediately saw several signs of improvement. How was it possible?

I refined the template further, and for the first time I was beginning to see genuine progress. It was also becoming clearer that some poems were more suitable to the treatment than others. (I returned to Yeats’ poem in the end, but only after I’d learned a few more lessons that I could apply.) It’s too early to say, even now, but there is some indication that some of the “incontrovertibly great” traditional poems like "Ozymandias", and "Sonnet 18" actually work really well, and that it might be because their inner workings are so precise that they are amenable to having the individual parts exchanged out.

At this stage I was still searching for a tool that could at least correct simple grammatical errors, and I found one in Gingerice. Its services came at a considerable performance penalty, but it sometimes (not always) rescued sentence segments that were otherwise problematic, and I was willing to live with the performance hit. The fact that I’ve now been able to phase it out almost completely is a tribute to the fact that the overall process has improved dramatically.

One of the biggest tangible lessons I learned during this process was not to rely on the existing NLP way of doing things like POS tagging. I repeat this point because in literature it is all about how you say things, not just what you say, and I realised I will have to start creating my own tags - which I soon did. I now work with a vocabulary set that has over forty non-standard tags, including different categories of nouns:  nouns of people (policemen, teachers, actors, etc.), nouns of animals (bears, elephants, birds etc.), the list goes on. (A special shout out must go to Enchanted Learning, whose lists of words proved invaluable). This is still just scratching the surface. What if I wanted to write something with a specifically steampunk flavour? I will need to provide a dictionary that caters to that genre, with adjectives, nouns, phrases, idioms that evoke those steam punk elements. This is very exciting.

The results were getting better and better as I refined the process, and it strongly pointed to having more - rather than less - control over poem segments. This was the total opposite of where I'd started, when I basically wanted an unsupervised process to take care of things. In fact, it is a lot more like writing "normal" poetry (which is to say, without programmatic intervention), and I would say the lines will blur more and more in future. The naysayers will probably go quiet at that point, but hey, let the poetry do the talking. There is a still a good way to go before that will happen. PoemCrunch has reached its first milestone, yet there are many ways in which the process can still be enhanced. Language errors do creep in, sometimes because the underying NLP tools do not provide correct results, sometimes because the structural interaction of various poem components is still at an early stage. Then there is the data. Building a good vocabulary, for one, is time-consuming, and it is becoming clear to me that they have to be tailored to work well. The extent of that tailoring depends on many factors, and one always wants to leave enough unpredictability to keep things interesting.

Another interesting outcome of the whole process was that, although I hadn't set out to cover the same ground as Zachary Scholl, I was nevertheless coming to similar conclusions. For instance, I found that due to the heuristics our brains apply, it makes sense to group words according to emotional tone (eg. words that are positive or negative in tone). Likewise, I had begun to create custom tags in response to the limitations of "standard" tags. It probably suggests that there is often convergence along the path of evolution given certain starting conditions - in this case the parameters of a context free grammar in relation to English poetry.

Although there are still exciting improvements to be made, the consistency with which I was achieving interesting results suggested I was reaching a milestone. It was time to share those results. That's when I started work on setting up PoemCrunch. It was conceived as a showcase of “new poems” generated from the templates of those old classics, via the process described above. To this end I have selected 5 poems: “The Tyger” (by William Blake), “Sonnet 18” (by William Shakespeare), “Ozymandias” (by Percy Bysshe Shelley), “Do not go Gentle into that Good Night” (by Dylan Thomas), and “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” (by William Butler Yeats).

The result is a series of poems that have much in common with their illustrious parents - not least the rhythm and rhyme scheme - but also reveals to what extent the strength of those classics lies in their magnificent scaffolding, against which new bricks can be laid, new windows can be installed, and a new facade can be erected.

Enjoy!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Inverted Subject: Lacan, Nietzsche, and the Possibility of The New

"Is that not a reason not to abandon the term 'subject', now that the time finally has come to invert its usage?"

This dramatic cliffhanger marks the final words in Lacan’s lecture entitled "My Teaching, Its Nature and Its Ends". It is tempting to dismiss it as mere rhetoric, but that would be to overlook the structure of the lecture, including a poignant reference to Hegel at the penultimate as "the man who is regarded as the pinnacle of the philosophical tradition" - a reference we should see as a structural or topological reference, and not as a superficial judgement of philosophical rank.

Lacan's aim, in invoking Hegel, is precisely to bring to bear the Spinozist Substance thought also as Subject: "substance is already the subject, before it becomes the subject". This in turn echoes an even earlier meditation in the same lecture on Freud's familiar dictum "Wo Es war, soll Ich werden" [where It was, I shall be]. So what we are asked to consider, beyond doubt,  is a particular configuration of thought, in other words the structure itself.

The reference to Freud is itself echoed backwards, since Hegel, of course, precedes Freud chronologically speaking, but also because this is where we are on the rollercoaster: on the cusp of a descent. In short, it is a kind of unraveling. What we thought was the end is actually a kind of beginning: or perhaps merely a temporal edge in the middle after building up a head of steam.

Computer programmers may be reminded of "popping the stack", but without doubt this is a far more entangled, far less elegant situation. So much so that it is a wonder that a claim can even be made regarding this unique moment. Yet there it is, the question, poised like a ballerina. And here we are, the living audience, full of jouissance, ready to keep on popping and making history, even though we are clearly lost, unable to tell in which direction we will be going. We weren't even there when it started.

Baudrillard says it well when he refers to Elias Canetti, in his lecture "The Murder of the Real", and that unrecoverable moment when we had entered the virtual, a moment that broke History when we entered a virtual that is now the territory of our lives, but which is also a map in which only fragments of the Real are still floating.

The Real hasn't disappeared. Its configuration is mathematical yet imprecise and promiscuous, virile as well as viral. Here, more than anywhere, Truth appears as a discourse, because She has been unveiled and She is completely naked and - can it be - She is not a woman! In the Truth, fragmented, swirling, continually sprouting from an unseen Dark Matter - which is nothing other than our excess - everything is an expression, but every expression is loosened from the mast. The roots are unrecoverable or, at least, interchangeable. Indeed, we ourselves are lost, and with it Truth first overwhelms, then passes over us like a wave that unsettles even further, and reaches no shore.

Let's try to put it differently: Is it not perhaps the case that we are not thinking anymore, but are now heavy with a certain excess that propels us within thought? And here, the map keeps changing. We are moving without knowing which way, and when we encounter the Real, or worship at Her feet, we continue express. But there was another time - the time of History - when we expressed because we did not recognise anything, not even reality. It was all a big surprise, which we expressed. Now, those rituals, those expressions sound empty, and in themselves merely signify ad infitum.

It would be easy to fall into simulated melodrama and imagine that we can reinhabit the hollow left behind by the excess that came before, but in fact thoughts are the very fabric that our jouissance encounters, and jouissance no longer produces anything New, it only configures differently. Or rather, even the new is diverted into the same, and has no effect. Jouissance exceeds every thought and is neutralised in the same instant by the mirror image of its thought. How long can this vortex continue?

It is therefore certain that the libidinal economy is not exhausted, not in the least and it would gross misunderstanding to think so. It has merely been contained, like a hamster on a wheel, with its dangerous remainder. But every thought exists, or at least every thought unto the horizon, and now the horizon also approaches us, it no longer opens onto the unknown.

Everything is already available to us. This is what Kenneth Goldsmith means when he says that we have entered an era of language as material. Of course we are still capable of expression in the traditional sense, and to suppose any differently amounts to a kind of denial. But what has changed is the velocity of our excess. Or rather, the density of what has come before us. We are spoilt for riches, and our riches spoil us.

Our velocity exceeds our ability to anchor our thoughts. Even the slowest movement passes over countless objects in which those who came before have left their living marks. We would have to burn our books, destroy our data, and keep silent for a generation to forget every object, to lull to sleep the serpent of our living past. But considering our infrastructure and architecture, which is the shape of our lives that outlives us, and our dreams, which speaks a language we cannot control, maybe even that is not enough. Besides, wouldn’t it be murder?

In the midst of this reverse pressure, of a “tyranny of knowledge”, this symbolic Matrix of Thought in which everything is composable, can we still find the New? This is the question that Nietzsche seeked to answer. And, as Zupančič asserts, it is in the event Nietzsche, Nietzsche as the event, that we already find a new configuration, a declaration of the Real that blasts a vacuum within thought, to create the possibility for the New.

It may well be that creatures like us cannot cope with the pressure of so many objects inscribed with ourselves, with so much much History, and the only act of forgetting that is equal to the measure of the task, can be found during the most radical shift in which we shake loose this mortal coil in order to redically decentre. An act dictated by our new centre, an act always dreamed of in Religion, but only realizable in the age of Data. A centre outside ourselves and yet ourselves - our future - which is our selves to come. Nietzsche’s dynamite: to become who we are by “staging … the Real by means of the Symbolic” (Zupančič).

To invert the Subject, or turn Freud's dictum upside down, "Wo Ich war, soll Es werden" [where I was, there It shall be] means to disappear completely, and yet to live. Its realisation is the subject extracted from substance. It is Baudrillard's virtual that stands on its own feet, and looks at Us, sees Us as “ein Tod mit wachen Augen”. To become Death staring with waking eyes.