Ktismatics

30 April 2012

Extreme but not Laughably So

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:07 pm

From Guy Claxton, The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious, 2005:

Lancelot Law Whyte [Unconscious Before Freud, 1967] has demonstrated beyond doubt that ‘by 1870-1880 the general conception of the unconscious mind was a European commonplace, and many special applications of this general idea had been vigorously discussed for several decades.’ Fifty thousand copies of von Hartmann’s book on the unconscious were sold in Europe in the 1870s, and it was as widely discussed as, say, the works of Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould are today. During the two hundred years before Freud dozens of thinkers, possibly as many as a hundred, had published a wide variety of ideas about unconscious processes. Yet shortly before his seventieth birthday, Freud was still insisting that ‘the overwhelming majority of philosophers regard as mental only the phenomena of consciousness’. Whether his amnesia for all the sources that were saying otherwise was feigned, deliberate or itself unconscious, we can only surmise.

Though Freud, in the end, may have added few if any truly novel ingredients to our understanding of the unconscious, he drew a number of strands of thought together, and packaged them in a way that was at once accessible, salacious and seemingly scientific. He appealed to people with tabloid interests and broadsheet intellects, and gave a repressed European society an impersonal language with which to talk about the desires and failings which their upbringings had taught them to hide.

Advertisements

27 April 2012

Personal Hygiene

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:16 pm

In the shower I use a washcloth but no soap. I gave up the soap over a year ago and neither I nor my loved ones have noticed any unpleasant consequences. I do shampoo regularly.

I shave with a disposable razor and canned shave cream. I used to use a shaving brush and shaving soap but I think I threw the brush away the last time we moved. I gave up on shaving gel because it felt too cold when I smeared it onto my face. It’s my understanding that some men shave before showering, though I have no idea why.

I cut my own hair using an electric trimmer with the three-eighths inch attachment. Usually I do this outdoors so I don’t have to sweep up the clippings. The hardest part is getting the back of the neck even.

I remove unsightly nose and ear hairs as needed with an electric rotary trimmer.

24 April 2012

Dracula by Stoker, 1897

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 6:57 pm

Dr. Van Helsing’s Memorandum

I knew that there were at least three graves to find, graves that are inhabit. So I search, and search, and I find one of them. She lay in her Vampire sleep, so full of life and voluptuous beauty that I shudder as though I have come to do murder. Ah, I doubt not that in the old time, when such things were, many a man who set forth to do such a task as mine, found at the last his heart fail him, and then his nerve. So he delay, and delay, and delay, till the mere beauty and the fascination of the wanton Undead have hypnotize him. And he remain on and on, till sunset come, and the Vampire sleep be over. Then the beautiful eyes of the fair woman open and look love, and the voluptuous mouth present to a kiss, and the man is weak. And there remain one more victim in the Vampire fold. One more to swell the grim and grisly ranks of the Undead!…

There is some fascination, surely, when I am moved by the mere presence of such an one, even lying as she lay in a tomb fretted with age and heavy with the dust of centuries, though there be that horrid odour such as the lairs of the Count have had. Yes, I was moved. I, Van Helsing, with all my purpose and with my motive for hate. I was moved to a yearning for delay which seemed to paralyze my faculties and to clog my very soul. It may have been that the need of natural sleep, and the strange oppression of the air were beginning to overcome me. Certain it was that I was lapsing into sleep, the open eyed sleep of one who yields to a sweet fascination, when there came through the snow-stilled air a long, low wail, so full of woe and pity that it woke me like the sound of a clarion. For it was the voice of my dear Madam Mina that I heard.

Then I braced myself again to my horrid task, and found by wrenching away tomb tops one other of the sisters, the other dark one. I dared not pause to look on her as I had on her sister, lest once more I should begin to be enthrall. But I go on searching until, presently, I find in a high great tomb as if made to one much beloved that other fair sister which, like Jonathan I had seen to gather herself out of the atoms of the mist. She was so fair to look on, so radiantly beautiful, so exquisitely voluptuous, that the very instinct of man in me, which calls some of my sex to love and to protect one of hers, made my head whirl with new emotion. But God be thanked, that soul wail of my dear Madam Mina had not died out of my ears. And, before the spell could be wrought further upon me, I had nerved myself to my wild work. By this time I had searched all the tombs in the chapel, so far as I could tell. And as there had been only three of these Undead phantoms around us in the night, I took it that there were no more of active Undead existent. There was one great tomb more lordly than all the rest. Huge it was, and nobly proportioned. On it was but one word.

DRACULA

This then was the Undead home of the King Vampire, to whom so many more were due. Its emptiness spoke eloquent to make certain what I knew. Before I began to restore these women to their dead selves through my awful work, I laid in Dracula’s tomb some of the Wafer, and so banished him from it, Undead, for ever.

Then began my terrible task, and I dreaded it. Had it been but one, it had been easy, comparative. But three! To begin twice more after I had been through a deed of horror. For it was terrible with the sweet Miss Lucy, what would it not be with these strange ones who had survived through centuries, and who had been strengthened by the passing of the years. Who would, if they could, have fought for their foul lives…

Oh, my friend John, but it was butcher work. Had I not been nerved by thoughts of other dead, and of the living over whom hung such a pall of fear, I could not have gone on. I tremble and tremble even yet, though till all was over, God be thanked, my nerve did stand. Had I not seen the repose in the first place, and the gladness that stole over it just ere the final dissolution came, as realization that the soul had been won, I could not have gone further with my butchery. I could not have endured the horrid screeching as the stake drove home, the plunging of writhing form, and lips of bloody foam. I should have fled in terror and left my work undone. But it is over! And the poor souls, I can pity them now and weep, as I think of them placid each in her full sleep of death for a short moment ere fading. For, friend John, hardly had my knife severed the head of each, before the whole body began to melt away and crumble into its native dust, as though the death that should have come centuries ago had at last assert himself and say at once and loud, “I am here!”

20 April 2012

Triumph of At Will

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:20 pm

It’s been a long time since I worked a regular job; mostly I’ve been a consultant, a small-business owner, a free-lancer. (Some of these gigs paid better than others, while some didn’t pay at all, but that’s not the point.) Only yesterday did I realize something about employer-employee relationships in the US. Per Wikipedia:

At-will employment is a doctrine of American law that defines an employment relationship in which either party can break the relationship with no liability, provided there was no express contract for a definite term governing the employment relationship and that the employer does not belong to a collective bargaining group (i.e., has not recognized a union). Under this legal doctrine, any hiring is presumed to be “at will”; that is, the employer is free to discharge individuals “for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all.”

At-will employment has been the norm in this country for more than fifty years. The United States is the only major economic power in which at-will employment is the rule rather than the exception. Other countries stipulate that workers can be discharged only “for cause,” though I understand that in the UK redundancy and outsourcing constitute cause. In the US, you can be fired merely because your boss doesn’t like you, or because you don’t agree to changes in working conditions, reduction in working hours, or reduction in pay. Some companies maintain corporate policies specifying acceptable causes for dismissing workers. Unions typically include a “dismissal for cause” clause in their labor agreements with employers. Otherwise, companies rarely deviate from at-will employment arrangements, with the notable exception of high-level employees.

After finishing grad school I worked as an employee for three different companies. In each case I held a high-level position. I don’t recall negotiating a “for cause” clause into any of those employment agreements, but I suspect that they were already in place — the bosses have each other’s backs.

The only reason I’ve become alerted to the triumph of the “at will” provision is that Anne is being subjected to it. For two years she’s been working as a volunteer for a non-profit startup that provides overnight shelter for homeless people. For a year she was Chair of the Board, stepping down only last month. She’s focused much of her effort on putting together a short-term convalescence program for homeless people being discharged from the hospital or the emergency room — people who would otherwise be back on the streets recovering from surgery or fighting a virulent infectious disease. Anne ran a pilot demonstration project, raised some grant money and contributions, and negotiated a contract with the local hospital to pay for this program. In other words, she has put this whole program together from scratch. Now she’s wanting to get paid. The new Chair is an asshole a guy whom Anne brought into the organization about six months ago. He’s an attorney, so he’s been useful in establishing policies and procedures and so on. But he spent most of his career as a corporate counsel, advocating on behalf of investors and management. So when he writes up an employment contract for Anne he inserts the “at will” provision as a matter of course. Anne begs to differ and won’t sign; the Chair says she’s being “uncooperative.”

I tell Anne that she should invoke the high-level position exception for herself. But she wants to replace the “at will” provision with a “for cause” clause that would apply to anyone hired by this organization, which mostly includes homeless people working part time for minimum wage. Sheesh, what a do-gooder!

17 April 2012

Ouroboros

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:31 pm

[Ouroboros image by Saki BlackWing]

On my morning walk I saw a real live ouroboros. Well, it was real dead actually, lying right on my path. Stretched out straight the snake was probably less than a foot long. But it wasn’t straight: it was configured in a circle, the head just nudging the tip of the tail.

Maybe two years ago I was writing a scene in which a character stood in front of the bathroom mirror removing her gold necklace. I was trying to picture her taking it off. Would she slip it over her head? No: the chain wasn’t that long. A clasp then. What sort of clasp? How about a snake head biting the tail? Now I could picture this chain with the reptilian scaly golden skin slithering off her neck and coiling itself inside a gold mesh bag…

Three posts ago I wrote something about the Order of Melchizedek, where the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees Jesus foreshadowed in the legendary priest-king of Salem, mediated by a messianic verse from the Psalms. Earlier in this same epistle the writer executes the same maneuver: Jesus as fulfillment of an ancient legend, mediated by the Psalmist. This time though the sequence doesn’t just go back in time, because this time it turns out that the past is the future — a temporal ouroboros. Here’s how it works.

The writer of Hebrews is trying to show that Jesus is more powerful than the angels. Curiously, his argument isn’t predicated on Jesus being God, but on his being man. Here is Hebrews 2:5-9…

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,

WHAT IS MAN, THAT YOU REMEMBER HIM?
OR THE SON OF MAN, THAT YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT HIM?
YOU HAVE MADE HIM FOR A LITTLE WHILE LOWER THAN THE ANGELS;
YOU HAVE CROWNED HIM WITH GLORY AND HONOR,
AND HAVE APPOINTED HIM OVER THE WORKS OF YOUR HANDS;
YOU HAVE PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET.

For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9)

This looks like an apocalyptic prophecy in which Jesus the Messiah will one day come back to rule the world. The capitalized portion of the text cites Psalm 8, so we flip back from New Testament to Old to find the source document:

O Yahweh, our Lord,
          How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
          Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!
From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength
          Because of Your adversaries,
          To make the enemy and the revengeful cease.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
          The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
          And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God [or than the angels; literally than the gods],
          And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
          You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
          And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
          Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
O Yahweh, our Lord,
          How majestic is Your name in all the earth!

The writer of Hebrews got the citation right, but in the original context the passage doesn’t seem to apply to some specific man but rather to man in general, to mankind. The Psalmist marvels at the magnificence of the moon and the stars, and then he turns his gaze on puny humanity. Why, he wonders, does God bother with the human race? Not only does He bother; He appoints man as ruler over the whole world, over sheep and oxen, beasts and birds and fish… And now it begins to dawn on the reader: haven’t I read this litany of creatures great and small before?

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

This is day six from the Creation narrative. The writer of Hebrews points back to the Psalm, and the Psalmist points back to the writer of Genesis, who points all the way back to the beginning of time. But wait a minute. Go back to the Hebrews passage and its introduction to the Psalm quotation:

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying…

“The world to come”? I thought that the Psalmist was testifying to the world of the deep and legendary past, when humans ruled the world, before Eve listened to the serpent and she and Adam ate the forbidden fruit and God threw them both out of the Garden. Is this the Hebraist’s story, that Jesus will restore to mankind the power and glory lost in the Fall? That’s not what he says:

But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

“Not yet”? “The world to come”? Isn’t this writer, the author of a canonical New Testament text, saying that the Genesis 1 narrative refers not to the past but to the future? The world wasn’t created seven thousand years ago, or seven billion years ago. It hasn’t even been created yet.

Today we read a text written two thousand years ago, which cites a poem written a thousand years before that, which cites an even more ancient legend that goes all the way back to the beginning, and the beginning is in the future. Ouroboros.

16 April 2012

The Art of Fielding by Harbach, 2011

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 8:41 am

Affenlight was still seated between the two baseball men.

“Blass,” Dwight Bogner began, breaking a long and awful silence. “Sasser. Wohlers. Knoblauch. Sax.”

“I played against Mr. Sax for years.” Aparicio’s voice was always soft, so you had to lean in to listen, but even more so now. “A good man, though of dubious politics.”

“Chuck Knoblauch and I were teammates. His only full year in the minors — one of my ten.”

Aparicio nodded.

“And then Rick Ankiel, of course, from our organization.”

Affenlight didn’t know the names. They proceeded from Dwight’s tongue with respectful reluctance, like a litany of friends killed in war.

“They call it Steve Blass disease,” Dwight explained to Affenlight. “After the first player it happened to. A pitcher for the Pirates. That was a little before my time.”

“Those were the Pittsburgh teams of Clemente,” said Aparicio. “They won the Series in seventy-one. Clemente was named Most Valuable Player, but the honor could easily have gone to Mr. Blass. He had an exceptional ability to control the baseball.

“A year later, on Christmas Eve, Clemente was killed in a plane crash while delivering aid to Nicaragua. When spring training began, Mr. Blass could no longer do what he’d always done. It happened very suddenly. Walks, wild pitches. One year later, only two years removed from the height of his career, he decided to retire.”

“You think this was related to Clemente’s death?” Affenlight asked.

Aparicio touched his chin. “I suggested as much by the way I told the story, didn’t I? But in truth I have no idea. Clemente’s death affected me deeply, and I never met him. But I was a child, a child from that part of the world. Clemente was a hero to us. Teammates are not inevitably so interested in one another.”

The Coshwale batter laid down a bunt. Rick O’Shea, remarkably spry for his size, charged and fielded it neatly, but his throw to third sailed wide, and the left fielder failed to back up the play. Two more runs scored. It was now 5 to 2 in favor of the VI ITORS.

“Your pitcher is throwing his heart out,” Dwight said, as Adam Starblind banged his glove on his thigh in disgust. “Talented guy too. but the rest of the team looks done for.”

They were sitting directly behind the Westish dugout, so that they couldn’t see Henry inside. “Do they ever recover?” Affenlight asked. The players with this disease?”

“Steve Sax did. Of the big names, he might be the only one. Knoblauch moved from second to the outfield, where the longer throw gave him less trouble. Ankiel moved to the outfield too.”

“But a longer throw is harder,” Affenlight pointed out.

Dwight shrugged. “Sometimes harder is easier.”

It comforted Affenlight to have this conversation, to try to wrap his mind around what had happened to Henry, to try to contextualize it, but Aparicio’s eyes were quietly trained on the field, even the eager and garrulous Dwight seemed reluctant to say much, and it seemed clear that to discuss such matters at length, in such proximity to someone to whom it was actually happening, violated one of baseball’s codes. He decided to risk one last question.

“Did it really never happen before that? Before seventy-three?”

Aparicio breathed in and out — a kind of ethereal idea of a shrug. He waited a very long time before answering, as if registering a dignified protest against the demand Affenlight had placed on him. “How many times does something happen before we give it a name? And until the name exists, neither does the condition. So perhaps it happened many times before but was never named.

“And yet. Baseball has many historians, including among its players. There are statistics, archives, legends, lore. If earlier players had experienced similar troubles, it seems likely the stories would have been passed down. And then the name would be applied in retrospect.”

Nineteen seventy-three. In the public imagination it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam. Gravity’s Rainbow. Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream — the year it entered baseball? It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation — the Modernists of the First World War — would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of the utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport. In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodern era: when even the athletes were anguished Modernists. In which case the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his arm.

Do I dare, and do I dare?

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed. Then he glanced at Aparicio, hands folded mournfully in his lap, and his excitement curdled to embarrassment. Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

“Doubt has always existed,” Aparicio said. “Even for athletes.”

14 April 2012

The Lee Shore

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 11:35 am

Chapter 23

Some chapters back, one Bulkington was spoken of, a tall, newlanded mariner, encountered in New Bedford at the inn.

When on that shivering winter’s night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves, who should I see standing at her helm but Bulkington! I looked with sympathetic awe and fearfulness upon the man, who in mid-winter just landed from a four years’ dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorching to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God–so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

8 April 2012

The Order of Melchizedek

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 7:38 am

Thou art a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek
– Psalm 110:4, quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews 5:6

Just for Easter/Passover, imagine that the Biblical texts are historically accurate. The Messiah was prophesied to be king of Israel; Jesus, being of the house of David and thus the tribe of Judah, could fulfill the criteria for being messianic king. But Psalm 110 presents a priestly Messiah, and according to the Law the priests must come from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. But the Psalmist clarifies: the Messiah is to be both king and priest, like Melchizedek, and Melchizedek’s priestly order is not predicated on being a Levite.

An enigmatic figure, Melchizedek makes his brief onstage appearance in the Book of Genesis, before the formation of Israel and long before the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt when Moses brought the Tablets down from Mount Sinai and his older brother Aaron established the Levitical priesthood. In Genesis 14 the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela are arraying themselves for battle against the kings of Elam, Goiim, Shinar, and Ellasar. After the four kings defeated the five in the tar pits of Siddim, the remnant of the conquered armies fled into the hills, taking with them their spoils and captives from the sack of Sodom and Gomorrah, including Lot, Abram’s nephew, who had been living in Sodom at the time. When word reached Abram he marshaled his trained men, three hundred eighteen in number, and defeated the straggling captors, pushing them back to the north beyond Damascus.

And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people. Then after his return from the smiting of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him in the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And he gave him a tenth of all. And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to Yahweh God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshol, and Mamre; let them take their share.” (Genesis 14:17-24)

Melchizedek was king of Salem, which I had always presumed was one of “the nations” later positioned in contrast and opposition to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. After doing a bit of investigation I discovered that in all likelihood Salem = Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2), a city that was ancient even back in Abram’s time. Melchizedek was both king of Salem and priest of “the God Most High” whom Abram also served.The land that Yahweh promised to Abram and his seed was situated in the shadow of a capital city that already honored Yahweh. A footloose Babylonian, Abram had by this time settled in Canaan for the second time, so he would have been familiar with Salem, by reputation if not by direct experience.

So here’s something I’d never considered before. After Abram became “exalted father” Abraham, after his great-grandson Joseph moved the family to Egypt, after the family had over many generations been fruitful and multiplied, after Moses led them out of Egypt into the desert, after they became a wandering nation founded on the Law and the Levitical priesthood, when at last Joshua led them across the Jordan, the people of Israel would have experienced their arrival in Canaan as the return to an ancient, nearly mythic realm that in ages past had been presided over by the legendary Melchizedek, a king and priest who had served the God of Israel before there even was an Israel. Finally, many generations later, when King David conquered (Jeru)Salem, the restoration was complete, with David and his heirs becoming the titular successors to Melchizidek, storied priest-king of the God Most High.

6 April 2012

Robbe-Grillet and the Refusal of Intentionality

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:39 am

Thinking abstractly about The Argument from Neuropath, discussed in the preceding post, which is the theory that human intentionality is an illusion, that humans are always only caused to do what they do by forces inside and outside of themselves… It should be possible to write a story in which characters’ motives are never acknowledged: they just say and do things. This need not even be an imaginary story. After all, we never directly observe the reasons why people do and say what they do: we infer their motives, or take their word for it. Hemingway gets close to this sort of cause-effect observational account of people’s actions, though he expects his reader to infer the characters’ motives.

Robbe-Grillet takes the experiment, or The Argument, even farther. Here’s a passage from Jealousy, selected by randomly opening the book, which in this instance caused me to land on page 119:

“The lady, she is angry,” the boy says.

He uses this adjective to describe any kind of uncertainty, absence, or disturbance. Probably he means “anxious” today; but it could just as well be “outraged,” “jealous,” or even “desperate.” Besides he has asked no questions; he is about to leave. Yet an ordinary sentence without any precise meaning releases from him a flood of words in his own language, which abounds in vowels, particularly a’s and e’s.

He and the messenger are now facing each other. The latter listens, without showing the least sign of comprehension. The boy talks at top speed, as if his text had no punctuation, but in the same singsong tone as when he is not speaking his own language. Suddenly he stops. The other does not add a word, turns around and leaves by the same route he came in, with his swift, soft gait, swaying his head and hat, and his hips, and his arms beside his body, without having opened his mouth.

After having set the used cup on the tray beside the coffee-pot, the boy takes the tray away, entering the house by the open door into the hallway. The bedroom windows are closed. At this hour A . . . is not up yet.

She left very early this morning, in order to have enough time to do her shopping and be able to get back to the plantation the same night. She went to the port with Franck, to make some necessary purchases. She has not said what they were.

Once the bedroom is empty, there is no reason not to open the blinds, which fill all three windows instead of glass panes. The three windows are similar, each divided into four equal rectangles, that is, four series of slats, each window-frame comprising two sets hung one on top of another. The twelve series are identical: sixteen slats of wood manipulated by a cord attached at the side to the outer frame.

The sixteen slats of a series are continuously parallel. When the series is closed, they are pressed on against the other at the edge, overlapping by about half an inch. By pulling the cord down, the pitch of the slats is reduced, thus creating a series of openings whose width progressively increases.

When the blinds are open to the maximum, the slats are almost horizontal and show their edges. Then the opposite side of the valley appears in successive, superimposed strips separated by slightly narrower strips. In the opening at eye level appears a clump of trees with motionless foliage at the edge of the plantation, where the yellowish brush begins.

In describing the blinds in such painstaking detail, it’s as though Robbe-Grillet is designing a set for a film noir. Next he would specify the angle and width of the alternating stripes of white and dark shining off the furniture in the bedroom. But he never specifies the mood he intends to instill in the viewer by the carefully engineered lighting effect: he merely describes the surfaces and structures. The only place intentionality appears in this extract is in the woman’s early morning excursion: she left “in order to…” Even so, our reporter doesn’t know what it is she intended to buy. Hemingway mistrusted adjectives, probably because they took away the reader’s freedom to interpret meaning and motive. Robbe-Grillet’s observer mistrusts the boy’s adjective because it doesn’t really explain anything. Ultimately even language must be described only at the level of its component sounds.

I turn to the introduction to my paperback edition, which cost $7.95 new but which has a price of $3 written by hand on the frontispiece: that must be what I paid for it at a used book store. In this essay, first published in a 1958 French journal article and reprinted in this 1965 paperback, Bruce Morrissette alludes to a satirical book by Jean-Louis Curtis entitled À la recherche du temps posthume, in which Marcel Proust, returned from the dead, investigates the current state of French literature.

In the milieu where the master of the psychological novel had expected to hear discussions of Henry James and his disciples, Marcel is astonished to find even Gilberte Swann agreeing that “today we ask something quite different of the novel,” and that “psychology nowadays is out of style, obsolete, no longer possible,” since modern readers have only scorn for the sacrosanct “characters” of the modern novel. To prove to Marcel redivivus that the modern novel “can no longer be psychological, it has to be phenomenological,” Mme. de Guermantes introduces him to Robbe-Grillet.

Robbe-Grillet saw no need for surgically removing intentionality from his characters, or from his inquisitive narrator. The narrator simply reports what he sees and hears going on around him.

Blog at WordPress.com.