Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality

A One-Sided Conversation

“The lemurs must have done it!”
“No, Jack, I did not make the lemurs eat your -”
“But I don’t give them peyote that often.”
“Stripy is not giving you the evil eye.”
“I will not use ritalin on them just because you -”
“Well, you could stop aggravating them for a start.”
“They wouldn’t be doing that if you hadn’t shot at them.”
“Yes, you can, Jack. It’s called self-control.”
“It might help if you saw someone about the phobia.”
“That could be because you keep killing the doctors.”
“Yes, we shall find one that isn’t a ‘monkey robot minion of the conspiracy’.”
“Look, you must try something, or one of these days...”
“Of course you may, but -”
“Jack, you should be able to deal with a few lemurs.”
“But I simply must have my pets!”
“I could… I suppose.”
“We really shouldn’t have to go through this every time.”
“Well, I would, if you stop bloody shooting.”

A Rough Schema of Modality

The above is a bit of fluff for the sake of examples. The rough schema of modalities below is based on the nine central modal auxilliary verbs with factives taken as markers of epistemic modality: did; do/is; must; may; might; can; could; will; would; shall; should. A broad division has been made into alethic (regarding theoretical possibility), epistemic (regarding actuality), deontic (regarding duty) and boulomaic (regarding desire).

(Note: while particular modal verbs have been used to characterise particular modalities, in practice they have much greater flexibility. “May” and “might” are often interchangeable. One modal verb may be used as indirect articulation of another. The implicit certainty of epistemic actuality allows “will”, for example, to be used as an indirect deontic prescriptive: “You will stop shooting the lemurs, Jack!” essentially says, “This will happen [epistemic future], because it must happen [epistemic necessity], because you must comply [deontic prescriptive]!”)

Alethic/Epistemic:
  • necessity: It must/must-not! “The lemurs must have done it!”

  • Epistemic:
  • past: It did/did not. “No, Jack, I did not make the lemurs eat your -”

  • simple present: It does/does not. “But I don’t give them peyote that often.”

  • present cont.: Is is/is not. “Stripy is not giving you the evil eye.”

  • future: It will/will-not. “I will not use ritalin on them just because you -”

  • Alethic:
  • possibility: It could/could-not. “Well, you could stop aggravating them for a start.”

  • contingency: It would/would-not. “They wouldn’t be doing that if you hadn’t shot at them.”

  • certainty: It can/can-not. “Yes, you can, Jack. It’s called self-control.”

  • Epistemic:
  • notion: It might/might-not. “It might help if you saw someone about the phobia.”

  • supposition: It could/could-not. “That could be because you keep killing the doctors.”

  • contention: It shall/shall-not. “Yes, we shall find one that isn’t a ‘monkey robot minion of the conspiracy’.”

  • Deontic:
  • prescriptive: It must/must-not! “Look, you must try something, or one of these days...”

  • permissive: It may/may-not. “Of course you may, but -”

  • restrictive: It should/should-not. “Jack, you should be able to deal with a few lemurs.”

  • Boulomaic:
  • conviction: It must/must-not! “But I simply must have my pets!”

  • reservation: It could/could-not. “I could… I suppose.”

  • disposition: It should/should-not. “We really shouldn’t have to go through this every time.”

  • selection: It would/would-not. “Well, I would, if you stop bloody shooting.”


  • Notes Toward a Theory

    Suspension-of-disbelief: Narrative is presented as having an epistemic modality of “did happen”, “is happening” or “will happen” (though the last is pretty rare). That modality serves as a baseline, the de facto modality of the narrative as a whole. Surrender to it, the pretence that the narrative is true, constitutes suspension-of-disbelief.

    Backstory: Narrative relates events that imply other events left unrelated. If a protagonist and antagonist are introduced as already enemies, for example, this implies that at some point in the past they have become enemies. Such implicit imports in the text construct a metanarrative, a narrative of extradiegetic context we can call backstory. Backstory has an epistemic modality of “has to have happened”.

    Punking: Where backstory is made explicit, related within the narrative, the epistemic modality usually becomes “did happen”. The narrative may however create a false backstory and then overthrow it with a revelation that it “did not happen”, that what “actually happened” is entirely otherwise. Where this takes place in the text the clash of “has to have happened” and “did not happen” creates a momentary punctura. The technique itself can be referred to as punking.

    Warp: The modal variation of a narrative created in the interplay of the baseline suspension-of-disbelief and other modalities. We can decribe the warp of a narrative as changing when different modalities are introduced in the import of sentences. We might also describe the general warp of the narrative as a whole in terms of what modalities predominate. The classic warp of horror narratives, for example, seems to be a distinctive blend of negative boulomaic disposition / conviction (“should not happen” / “must not happen”) and epistemic future / necessity (“will happen” / “must happen”).

    Quirk: Any feature which creates warp by introducing a modality that challenges suspension-of-disbelief. Quirks come in different flavours according to the modalities they impart to the narrative, the particular warp they create.

    Alethic modality: The subjunctivity Delany describes in “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words” is recharacterised as alethic modality in this model. It is the theoretical (subjunctive) possibility of a narrative, as read by the reader, whether it “could” or “could not” have happened, be happening or happen. “The lemur ate the shoe,” has an alethic modality of “could have happened”. “The lemur ate the world,” has an alethic modality of “could not have happened”.

    Alethic quirks: There are four levels of possibility we might distinguish: logical; metaphysical/nomological; temporal; technical. In other words, events may be possible or impossible according to the strictures of logic, the laws of known nature, the details of known history, or the limits of known science. Where the narrative represents events that contravene these we have four flavours of quirk respectively (expanding on Suvin's coinage/exaptation of "novum" and following his naming strategy): sutura; chimera; erratum; novum.

    Mimesis: Any narrative may maintain an alethic modality of “could have happened” (or “could be happening” or “could happen”, according to the tense of the narrative). This process of mimesis entails presenting nothing that is contrary to the strictures of logic, the laws of known nature, the details of known history, or the limits of known science. Purely mimetic fiction may have warp in other respects, but it excludes alethic quirks.

    Weft (or mimetic weft): Where warp is introduced into a mimetic narrative by an alethic quirk, the alethic modality of “could have happened”, “could be happening” or “could happen” may be said to persist in effect, in so far as suspension-of-disbelief continues despite the quirk, or to be restored with a return to mimesis. The disrupted process of mimesis woven through the narrative can therefore be considered a binding (mimetic) weft.

    Worldbolstering: It might be argued that the presence of non-quirks like “lemur” and “shoe” in a sentence like, “The lemur threw the shoe at the unicorn,” might add to the weft, despite the warp created by the chimeric “unicorn”. The possibility of an action like “throw”, when divorced from the impossibility of the chimera it’s associated with, might also add to the weft. If so, the more of such detail the narrative is invested with, the thicker the weft.

    Worldbumphing: Oral and written narratives are objects that, absent any special quality that renders them impossible, will function as non-quirks within the narrative, the relation of events a thing that “could have happened”. As such the inclusion of faux documentation within a narrative — recitations of legend, excerpts from invented literary works — will add to the mimetic weft. This technique may well be employed not ot distance the reader by rendering the narrative metafictional but to reinforce suspension-of-disbelief.

    Credibility warp: In a past or present tense narrative, all four quirks will change the alethic modality of the narrative to “could not have happened” or “could not be happening”. A future tense narrative creates a special case: the limits of known science do not apply to what “will happen”, so the novum is not impossible and the alethic modality remains “could happen”. However, a future tense narrative may be considered a quirk in its own right as a vision of the future, a prophetic chimera or predictive novum, and so is likely to create credibility warp in and of itself. See tensewarp.

    Credibility threshhold: For different readers, different levels of credibility warp will be tolerated for different periods of time before suspension-of-disbelief collapses. Some may accept only minimal warp and only on a temporary basis; others may accept even the extreme and lasting warp caused by suturae.

    Strong/Weak: An additional alethic modality attaches to these quirks, distinguishing them into two strengths: the suturae carries an alethic modality of “could not happen ever”; the errata and nova carry an alethic modality of “could not happen now”. We can therefore talk about strong and weak alethic quirks. The chimera may be considerd strong or weak depending on whether one views the laws of nature as necessary or contingent.

    Conceit: With the weak alethic quirks, the “could not happen now” modality opens the door to contingency. Where an erratum contradicts the details of known history or a novum the limits of known science, the facts they contradict (e.g. “The Nazis lost WW2,” or “Robotics hasn’t achieved hard AI,”) can be negated (e.g. “The Nazis did ot lose WW2,” or “Robotics has achieved hard AI,”) to construct a conceit — the developments they are contingent on. The conceit is an implicit narrative of subtext: the quirk “would have happened” or “would happen” in the case of these developments taking place.

    Dewarping: Since these developments are backstory, the conceit has a modality of “has to have happened”. This forces a refocusing of the quirk on the compatible modality of “could have happened” or “could happen” it has in respect to the strictures of logic and the laws of nature. This neutralisation or masking of the “could not happen” or “could not have happened” modality is the basis of dewarping, the cancellation of warp (in this case credibility).

    Tensewarp: The novum points to a problem: this quirk still has the “could not have happened” or “could not be happening” modality in respect to the details of history; the developments it is contingent on are, by definition, future developments, so the conceit can only say that the quirk “would happen” if these come to pass; this is incompatible with the backstory’s past tense modality of “has to have happened”. The backstory is tensewarped.

    Base-shift dewarping: Base-shift dewarping resolves tensewarp by mapping the “could not happen now” alethic modality to the consequent “did not happen now” or “is not happening now” epistemic modality. Neither of these is incompatible with the baseline “did happen” or “is happening” epistemic modality if the narrative is situated in an elsewhen, adjacent to or ahead of the here-and-now — i.e. if we shift its base to a parallel or future reality.

    Ordinate reality: If one views the chimera as weak, the laws of nature as contingent, this quirk too can be refocused — on its compatibility with the strictures of logic. The conceit can be entertained that it “would have happened” were the laws of nature different. Base-shift dewarping can situate the narrative in an elsewhen displaced from the here-and-now in a third dimension. Orthogonal to the “side-to-side” axis of parallel realities and the “forward-back” axis of future realities, this can be characterised as an “up-and-down” axis of secondary worlds — ordinate realities.

    Chimeric kink: If one views the chimera as strong, the laws of nature as necessary, this base-shift dewarping is not possible. The “could not happen ever” modality means the chimera creates a palpable warp in the narrative — a kink. For some readers with low credibility threshholds, this is a limit of suspension-of-disbelief; the “did happen” or “is happening” modality can no longer be entertained. For others, chimerae may be dewarped by different means. For those with higher credibility threshholds, they may be accepted as a deliberate technique.

    Soft suturae: A fifth quirk can be identified, where credibility warp is a product of implausibility rather than possibility, a breach of the principles of reason as they cover relationships of contingency between events. The soft sutura is an absurd incongruity in the text, something that “would not happen” in such a context. It is, at the very least, distinctly not contingent on what “did happen” (a non sequitur); as this hardens to a contingency on such developments not happening, the soft sutura acquires a “could not happen” modality, becomes a sutura proper.

    Legacy quirks: Historically, the four levels of possibility have been parsed more intuitively, into the possibilities open to spiritual entities and those open to material entities, with the spiritual realm conceived as beyond the known world — i.e. the limits of natural, historical and scientific knowledge — both spatially and temporally. The flavour of alethic quirks in this model can be distinguished by whether they “could not happen here” or “could not happen now” — whether they are presented as exotica, dewarped via a spatial base-shift to the beyond of the unexplored world, or arcana, dewarped via a temporal base-shift to the beyond of the forgotten past. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    Legacy dewarping: Both of these dewarpings utilise conceits that what “could not happen here and now” is a spiritual possibility that “could happen” and “would happen” given a time or place with different limits of material possibility. Since spiritual possibilities are largely defined as chimeric powers over nature and even in apparent contradiction of reason (i.e. logic), both exotica and arcana occur across the full range of strengths we find in quirks resulting from the current model. The intuitive model may in fact be residual, with this strategy of dewarping still in effect. Which is to say, suturae, chimerae, errata and nova may also be, functionally speaking, exotica and/or arcana — c.f. the ancient, alien artifact.

    Argued dewarping: Using theory and detail of science, history or lore, the narrative can argue its conceit explicitly or implicitly. In its most extreme form this involves: explicitly and systematically establishing a foundation in known theory and detail — what “can happen”; explicitly and systematically establishing a coherent and comprehensive model of the developments — what “would have happened”; ensuring these are consistent except with respect to a minimal number of explicit points-of-deviation — what “could have happened”. In so far as argued dewarping maintains this approach it may be deemed tightly-argued, rigorous or “hard”; as it becomes less explicit and/or less systematic and/or more deviated, it may be deemed loosely-argued, non-rigorous or “soft”. Argued dewarping can also be termed worldbrokering.

    Evasive dewarping: A chimera may be recharacterised as a novum via the Paradigm Shift Caveat, the caveat that expanding the limits of known science may redefine the laws of nature. Essentially, the conceit is that our grasp of what “could not happen ever” is limited by theoretical science; that the theoretical development “has to have happened” in which the quirk’s modality has become “could not happen now”; and that the technical development “has to have happened” in order for the quirk to come to pass. Evasive dewarping may be tightly-argued in terms of theory that’s highly conjectural but still known (e.g. the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics), but it will likely lack detail and, since it is at odds with known science, is less likely to achieve complete dewarping.

    Ruptura: There is no guarantee that an alethic quirk will be dewarped at all. That which “could not happen” may be introduced into a narrative as a deliberate breach of the “way things are”. If there is base-shift dewarping at all, it may only be as a projection of a beyond from which the quirk may have come, as an intruder into our world, as a lurker on its threshhold, or as an inhabitant of its interstices. A superstitious or skeptical suspicion of conventional wisdom might allow one to maintain suspension-of-disbelief in the face of such rupturae — or simply an appreciation of the quirk’s significance in the narrative.

    Warp expectation: As a quirk is reused by strange fiction writers, it may become a conventional feature of one or more genres, part of the trope-set. The readers expectation of such tropes occuring in this or that genre automatically invests them with an epistemic modality of “might happen” — i.e. these fictive devices might or might not occur in this fiction. This does not necessarily dewarp the quirks but it renders the warp they create an anticipated disruption. The trope challenges suspension-of-disbelief enough to create an enjoyable credibility warp but not enough to collapse it.

    Warp depletion: As a trope is overused within a genre, the expectation that it “might happen” may become certainty— that it “will happen”. The predictability of the trope in and of itself may override any modality attached to the quirk, depleting its capacity to create credibility warp. The tired trope presents little challenge to suspension-of-disbelief and the quirk may barely function as a quirk at all. (One could argue that it ceases to be a quirk.)

    Warp hunger: Warp expectation may be scaled up, applied to the genre as a whole, as an anticipation that quirks will be employed to create an enjoyable credibility warp. When warp depletion sets in, this anticipation acts as a pressure for fresh quirks — warp hunger. Where the chimera is viewed as strong, this may in turn act as a pressure for evasive dewarping as writers mine highly conjectural theory for original ideas.

    Warp rationing: The conflict between warp hunger and low credibility threshhold — manifest in a view of the chimera as strong and/or a desire for tightly-argued dewarping — may lead to a compromise of warp rationing. The One Impossible Idea Caveat is an example of such — the allowance that one (but only one) chimera may be present in a narrative. The restriction to only one point-of-deviation in tightly-argued Alt-History is another case (and a more extreme one).

    Credibility shift: Mappings are possible between alethic and epistemic modalities. If it “could happen” theoretically, then it “might happen” actually. If it “would happen” theoretically then it “could happen” actually. Where a narrative employs tightly-argued dewarping, this may lead to the dewarped quirk acquiring not just the epistemic notion modality of “might happen” but the supposition modality of “could happen”. With this credibility shift, while the reader knows that the narrative itself is fiction, the abstract conceit of the backstory may even crystallise into a certainty: that the quirk “can and shall happen”.

    Idea advocacy: Credibility shift may be a deliberate aim, “one of the traditional functions of science fiction” being described in Gary Westfahl’s review of Moon as “explaining and promoting an innovative scientific idea”, inspiring research “in the manner of Hugo Gernsback's original vision of science fiction as a force that could make the world a better place to live in.”

    Gapstory: The unrelated events that constitute backstory may be left obscure. The story narrative itself will also elide events that are irrelevant, constructing the narrative from a stitching of scenes. As the story is read, the events left absent or obscure within the narrative, (including that which is as yet unread,) invite the reader to project into them another metanarrative, a narrative of non-text we can call gapstory. Gapstory has epistemic modalities of “might have happened”, “might be happening” or “might happen” depending on its relationship to the point within the narrative where warp is created.

    Determinacy warp: Where alethic quirks defy credibility, epistemic quirks defy determinacy. Where the absences and obscurities set the epistemic modalities of the gapstory into unresolved tension we get four key quirks: lacunae that “did and/or did not happen”; limina that “might and/or might not” have happened, be happening or happen; cryptica that “could and/or could not” have happened, be happening or happen; prefigurae that “shall and/or shall not” happen.

    Solid/Diffuse: Epistemic quirks may be solid or diffuse, erupting into a narrative or emerging gradually through it. A lacuna may be a marked hole in the narrative that we encounter directly, or a space that only slowly gains significance as the continuing narrative refers back to it. A prefigura may be a direct revelation of what is yet to be told or a foreboding that coalesces as the narrative signals its path. Limina and cryptica may be distinct events in a narrative that defy explanation or constructs of multiple events into a scenario that defies explanation, its ambivalence or inconsistency becoming apparent. In a mixture of the two approaches, quirks may be largely diffuse but with a kernel of solidity in the shape of a key signifier. A Chekhov’s Gun can be understood as any object likely to be read as the kernel of a prefigura.

    Warp morphing: The credibility warp of an alethic quirk may be translated to determinacy warp by interrogating the actuality of appearances. Apparitions and vanishings are chimerae but both can be recast as illusions. The former is rendered liminal in fantastique, where a sighting of a ghost, for example, has a modality of “might and/or might not have happened”. The latter is rendered cryptic in mystery fiction, where the vanishing of a murderer from a locked room, for example, has a modality of “could and/or could not have happened”.

    Partial/Total: Conventionally, fantastique employs partial warp morphing, placing credibility and determinacy warps in equipoise, while mystery fiction employs total warp morphing, recasting all alethic quirks as cryptica. The development of cryptica in the latter, in fact, is generally synchronous with the development of a prefigura, the event that “shall happen” being the resolution of what “could and/or could not have happened” into what “could and did happen”.

    Story: Narrative relates events in a significantly structured manner. If a narrative relates a protagonist’s conflict with an antagonist, for example, it frames the conflict shown in terms of beginning and ending actions. As events are abstracted to structural components, the result is a metanarrative, a summary narrative of the narrative as an articulated but singular event in and of itself, a story.

    Substory: As story is further abstracted to a general articulation, the result is a metanarrative of themes and subtexts, of which the story is considered a demonstrative example. This is substory. Substory becomes distinct from story where it is abstracted enough from specifying detail to acquire an alethic modality of “can happen”, when “This did happen to resolve this conflict” becomes “This can happen to resolve this type of conflict”.

    Equilibrium warp: Equilibrium can be considered the state of the substory at any point where what “can happen” carries deontic and/or boulomaic modalities that effectively neutralise each other — i.e. where it “may and/or may not happen” — or that dynamically counterbalance each other — i.e. where it “should and should not happen”. The stability of such a state is what renders it a situation. The disruption or absence of it — which is to say where what “can happen” carries uneven deontic and/or boulomaic modalities — is equilibrium warp.

    Sway: While credibility warp and determinacy warp are qualities of the narrative as read, it is a practical shorthand to talk of them as features in the text itself. Equilibrium warp too may be discussed in such terms, as a product of themes and subtexts, as a feature of substory. As a metanarrative of a metanarrative however, it may be more correct to locate all of these in the reader’s response and understand quirks not as textual features per se but as the dynamic effects of textual features, as forces rather than forms. Particularly with deontic and boulomaic modality what we are really talking about is the manipulation of a reader’s attitude to the narrative, the sway experienced in the reading.

    Authoritative warp: Deontic quirks create equilibrium warp by introducing the sway of authority. The basic modalites manifest as quirks in and of themselves — dicta, licentia and determina. More complex quirks may be identified: rupturae, where events that “did happen” transgress a dictum that they “must not”; torturae, where events both “must happen” by one dictum and “must not happen” by another; pressurae, where licentiae and determinae conflict in events that “should but may not happen” or “should not but may happen”.

    Active/Passive: To what extent does the narrative seek to sway the reader by actively ascribing these modalities, in the hope that the reader will agree, and to what extent to does its sway consist of drawing the reader into an immersive engagement where they ascribe the modalities, in the hope that the reader will apply expected values? Can and should we distinguish between active and passive sway, reckoning and rapport?

    Affective warp: Boulomaic quirks create equilibrium warp by introducing the sway of affect. Where events carry modalities of conviction or disposition — “must/must-not happen” or “should/should-not happen” — it may be more useful to treat this a strong/weak distinction, and take the flavour of the quirk as a product of its positive or negative loading: that which we revere may be termed a numen; that which we abhor may be termed a monstrum.

    Rapport: Quirks of reservation and selection might be suggested as demonstrating the importance of passive sway: we could talk of the tremulum and the staccatum as quirks of character attitude, where an action is something they “could do” or “would do” respectively; but are these more usefully situated in a reader’s attitude, where the action is something they “could do” or “would do”?

    Cornelian dilemma: The creation of equilibrium warp in a clash of affective and authoritative warps is so conventional as to have acquired a name, the Cornelian dilemma, from the torturae of Rodrigue in Pierre Corneille’s play Le Cid, born in the choice between rupturae (the failure to avenge his father) and monstrum (the loss of his love Chimène.)

    Miasma: The miasma of Greek tragedy can be seen as a sort of… ruptura monstrum. It is the monstrous pollution left by a rupturing of mores, the blood staining the ground, the infection of the wound. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia there is a miasma in the backstory — Agamemmnon’s filicide of his daughter, Iphigenia — but this is itself only the last in a chain of rupturae monstrum — his father Atreus’s fratricide of Chrysippus, his father Pelops’s betrayal of Myrtilus, and his father Tantalus’s filicide of Pelops. The narrative begins with equilibrium warp, we might well argue, flouting Todorov’s model of conventional narrative (as a five-stage structure of equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction, restitution); it is better viewed as presenting the pseduo-equilibrium of a vicious cycle, the stability of a story (or a substory) of revenge being played over and over. Miasma creates miasma creates miasma.

    Aeschylus’s trilogy of tragedies tells of Clytemnestra’s mariticide of Agamemmnon, and of Orestes’s matricide of Clytemnestra, presenting these as torturae for the tragic protagonists — revenges that “must happen” and killings of kin that “must not happen”. Aeschylus shapes these warring dicta into torturae monstrum, in fact, in Orestes’s understanding of his situation, a double-bind that in itself “should not happen”. It should not, but it does. Orestes murders his mother, and the cycle turns again; but something new has been introduced. The new ruptura monstrum, the new miasma that stains Orestes, renders him subject to the vengeance of the Furies, is set against our sympathy, against the affective warp that cries out for a numen, the solution that “should happen”. That solution is Athena taking on the role of judge in place of the Furies, establishing justice in place of vendetta. The whole trilogy becomes an argument by demonstration that the resolution of a ruptura monstrum does not come from another ruptura (and another and another) but from the complementary response of a dictum numina. A divine decree of mercy. A law of pity.

    The story of the Oresteia is the Athenian myth of how justice came into being. It doesn’t really matter though how much the audience might have believed that this is how it “did happen”. Far more important is the substory, as relevant now as then, that this is how it “can happen”.

    Horror: The mode of horror is all about the ruptura monstrum. The miasma cries out in the opening of Dan Simmons’s The Song of Kali:

    Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place. Before Calcutta I would have laughed at such an idea. Before Calcutta I did not believe in evil, certainly not as a force separate from the actions of men. Before Calcutta I was a fool.

    After the Romans had conquered the city of Carthage, they killed the men, sold the women and children into slavery, pulled down the great buildings, broke up the stones, burned the rubble, and salted the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again. That is not enough for Calcutta. Calcutta should be
    expunged.

    Before Calcutta I took part in marches against nuclear weapons. Now I dream of nuclear mushroom clouds rising above a city. I see buildings melt in lakes of glass. I see paved street flowing like rivers of lava and real rivers boiling away in great gouts of steam. I see human figures dancing like burning insects, like obscene praying mantises sputtering and bursting against a fiery red background of total destruction. The city is Calcutta. The dreams are not unpleasant. Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.


    Calcutta, Simmons tells us, is a ruptura monstrum in and of itself, a transgression so abhorrent it demands expunging. It “must not” be. It “must not” have ever been. There is no Athena to order off the Furies for Calcutta, no merciful justice, no dictum numina. This is not a narrative that begins in equilibrium, but one that begins with equilibrium warped as much as it can be, authoritative warp and affective warp written into the text with every ounce of prescriptive conviction the narrator can summon. And, in the classic mode of horror, the only conceivable response to this is the monstrum dicta of annihilation. Look at the litany of atrocity he invokes in the second paragraph, of horrifying crimes against civilisation and humanity. “After the Romans had conquered the city of Carthage [ruptura monstrum], they killed the men [ruptura monstrum], sold the women and children into slavery [ruptura monstrum], pulled down the great buildings [ruptura monstrum], broke up the stones [ruptura monstrum], burned the rubble [ruptura monstrum], and salted the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again [ruptura monstrum].” And what does he tell us then?

    “That is not enough for Calcutta.”

    Monstrum dicta.

    But there’s more going on here. Between the first two sentences of the third paragraph, the narrative creates gapstory, tells us that there is “Before Calcutta” and there is “Now”, and between them is… what? The whole story, actually, untold as yet, a lacuna for the moment, but with the unravelling of its significance promised. Between those two sentences then is not just a lacunae, but the kernel of the prefigura that manifests through the entire prologue, from “Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist,” to “Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.” This is to be expected in a horror narrative. It might well be argued that ruptura monstrum and prefigura of ruptura monstrum in horror fiction take the place of cryptica in mystery fiction and limina in fantastique, that horror becomes distinct from the former largely by situating the key ruptura monstrum as resolution rather than narrative trigger and distinct from the latter largely by collapsing equipoise, presenting events as determined.

    Ruptura numen: In The Bacchae by Euripedes, we have the monstrum dicta of Pentheus the tyrant, King of Tears, who has denied the god Dionysus his due. To be sure, Pentheus hubristic decrees forbidding the Bacchic rites to take place in his city are transgressions of the natural order, rupturae on a higher level. We can see hints of miasma too, again in the backstory, in the death of Semele and her pointedly untended grave. But it is his proclamations that doom Pentheus, his rationalist disdain of mystery, the fact that he has Dionysus thrown in chains. He is the King of Tears because drink is the cure for sorrow. He is reason in the shape of a man, the monstrum dicta personified. No wonder then that he loses his head, both metaphorically and literally. As the dictum numina resolves the ruptura monstrum in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, here the monstrum dicta is resolved by its complement — Dionysus as the ruptura numen, in all his transgressive glory.

    Tremulum: Hamlet does not have a “tragic flaw of indecision”. Hamlet knows he is in a tragedy. He understands that his father’s ghost is the ruptura monstrum of this backstory, but knows also that this ruptura of credibility is also the prefigura of bloodbath. The tortura of dicta is quickly established in his father’s explicit injunctions: Hamlet “must” avenge his father, but he “must not” harm his mother. The drama takes that tortura as its start point however rather than its focus. Hamlet is not Orestes in an archaic world of divine law, of miasma and Furies; he is a mortal man (and a modern man) for whom those injunctions are contingent, twinned pressurae rather than inviolable decrees: he “should but may not” avenge his father; he “should not but may” harm his mother. So the question becomes: could he? The bulk of the play is an exploration of this tremulum, resolved at the end with the staccatum of his slaying of Claudius, a killing that happens as much because it “should” — as the determina born of his mother’s death — as much it “must” — as the dicta born of his father’s. Even then the tremulum is not wholly resolved: “Had I but time, as this fell sergeant Death / Is strict in his arrest, O I could tell you— / But let it be.”

    Farce: Farce is structured as horror, but with soft suturae in place of rupturae monstrum.

    The Absurd: The soft sutura is the quirk of the absurd. Outside comedy, where the credibility warp is not transformed into humour, the absurd tends to generate equilibrium warp, to become unsettling. Even within comedy, in some forms, a subtle sense of monstrum may be maintained. Humour seems deeply associated with cruelty.

    Sutura monstrum: We might speculate from this, ask what bearing the presence/absence of monstrum has on the nature of humour. Where Avicenna views comedy as the art of reprehension, we might wonder if this implies a fundamental recoognition of determina/monstrum, of that which “should not” happen. Where Aristotle relates humour to ugliness that does not disgust, we might wonder to what extent this posits humour as a dewarping of the monstrum, a coping mechanism that defuses the affective warp. Where Kant claims that the comic is an expectation that comes to nothing, this is to posit humour as pnctura. Where Plato views ridicule as exploiting an ignorance in the weak, an inability to retaliate to wit, we might wonder if this suggests a mechanism of demonstrating incapacity, establishing what that which we “should not” be (i.e. the monstrum) “can not” do. More modern theories have rooted humour in incongruity, the juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together (Morreall), or in cognitive shifts of problem resolution (Latta) or from seriousness to play (Boyd). We might speculate that all these views are identifying different aspects of a (soft) sutura monstrum, that what they point to is a strategy of rendering the monstrum dysfunctional by binding it to a sutura with a modality of “would not happen”. The comic might, in this model, be understood as the acceptance of credibility warp — the suspension of suspension-of-disbelief — as a means of neutralising affective warp.

    9 Comments:

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    8:16 pm  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Mr. Duncan (Hal?), reading (with a good deal of fascination, I must say) your writings on literary theory, I would like to ask you if you are familiar with the writings of Northrop Frye, and more specifically, The Anatomy of Criticism.

    Personally, I hold to a somewhat optimistic - and rather unfashionable in the present age of clamorous and overassertive Deconstructivism - view that system and structure (and consequently - progress and consolidating knowledge), as far as literary theory is concerned, are not dirty words.

    From what I see in your writings on the matter, I believe you hold a similar view, so I was wondering if you are familiar with the essays and books of Frye. He doesn't deal with strange fiction directly, but I find his insights and arguments extremely pleasing aesthetically and also extremely sensible. The polemical introduction to Anatomy of Criticism makes a few very good points about the critic's place in literature, and criticism's relation to the art.

    Having said that, I'm still wrestling with some of the snags in your notes toward a narrative theory, modality has always been a tricky linguistic category to me :) Part of the problem for me is the relative lack of concrete examples, however funny the one-sided conversation at the beginning was :D

    P.S. I'm sorry if I sound too stiff, English isn't my native language :)

    10:55 pm  
    Blogger Hal Duncan said...

    Hi... um... Anonymous,

    (And it's "Hal", please. We don't stand on ceremony here. :) )

    I only know Frye second-hand, I'm afraid. What I know of his grand theory of literature in The Anatomy of Criticism sounds very much like the sort of abstract model I'd be fascinated by, but also the sort of model I'd probably argue intensely with. He seems to be taking a top-down approach, where I come at it from the bottom-up. It's no accident that I use terms like "quirk" and "flavour" with their obvious nods to sub-atomic particles. I might end up in a similarly systemic view, but I tend to view things like mythos, ethos and dianoia, or Tragedy and Comedy, or mythic, romantic, mimetic and ironic modes as... epiphenomena. High-level glosses on low-level features. Sub-structures which may not be "structure" at all.

    I mean, I riff off Todorov and Clute, who seem to be riffing off Frye in their ideas of "narrative grammar". (Which really means I need to get my teeth into TAoC at some point.) It's just that my own approach is... "dynamicist" rather than structuralist, which means I do have some sympathy for deconstructivist and post-structuralist approaches, I guess. When I talk about "warp", this is sort of an attempt to suggest that the model might just as easily be flipped to view narrative in terms of "forces" and "fields" rather than "forms" -- waves rather than particles, so to speak.

    As for modality: yes, I was looking for a nice neat definition, but everything I found seemed rather fuzzy. I may well try and clarify what I'm getting at with more textual examples in subsequent posts. I'm reading Simmons's The Song of Kali at the moment, and that has a lot of scope for applying this sort of analysis, I reckon.

    5:30 pm  
    Anonymous Emo said...

    It's Emo, Hal (comes from Emanuil), sorry for failing to introduce myself the first time :)

    I would suggest that you read Frye's essay "The Archetypes of Literature" first, if you can find it, it preceeds TAoC and lays out its basic assumptions.

    The main thing that fascinates in Frye is exactly his basic assumption - the quasi-anthropological approach he takes to literature, tracing its beginning to the two sides of an endlessly spinning coin - ritual and prophetic epiphany, and how they gave rise to mythmaking, and later - to the more familiar conventionalized forms of literature.

    As for the "epiphenomena" - at least the ones Frye postulates, since mythos, ethos and dianoia are Aristotelian terms, as far as I'm aware (and also somewhat more abstract and complex than their modern counterparts "plot", "character" and "idea") - Frye himself tack them on as names of categories containing the low-level features you probably have in mind and admits that they often interpenetrate.

    The whole book, in a way, is a description of the beginnings of a framework that could possibly include every approach to literature (except possibly that of Deconstruction, as it is more a tool of interrogation (not in the negative sense (is there a point, in putting parentheses within parentheses, beyond which it becomes annoying and in bad taste? (sorry if I have gone beyond it :)))) than a systematic theory of literature).

    By the way, I read TAoC equally as a piece of literary scholarship and as a piece of mythmaking in itself, and as the latter it is indeed fascinating; I hope you can enjoy that aspect of it as much as the quality of its argument :)

    One of the things I loved the most was its optimism as to the possibility of creating a systematic and coherent body of knowledge and a kind of understanding about literature that goes beyond the tottering heap of layer upon layer of transient critical taste, collected in magazines, blogs, and other kinds press throughout the centuries.

    Not that the heap isn't useful or fascinating in its own right (I also contribute to it, as a matter of fact, and also to the heap of fiction-that-better-be-forgotten, which is much larger), or that I would ever be able to go deep enough into literary scholarship to actually really feel the "oneness" that Frye is talking about; but just believing that such a "oneness" is possible makes me all warm and fizzy-ticklish inside :)

    As for deconstructivist approaches - I also have sympathy for them. I believe the kind of critical thought they offer is healthy and necessary. I just don't hold much to the ideologies built around them :)

    By the way, is "The Song..." good? I generally like Simmons very much, but I've read none of his horror books (Currently I'm happily discovering the joys of Terry Pratchett - at 23 I'm already late, considering all my friends have read all of him, but I let the jeers pass around my ears - ouch, sorry for the unfortunate rhyme).

    And lastly, considering your narrative model would probably be quite appropriate for more complex works of strange fiction, are you familiar with Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun? It's among the strangest of strange fictions out there, and, I think, a very fertile ground for a mind such as yours (and it's also a brilliant book and a joy to read :))

    P.S. Sorry if parts of this comment sound as if I'm talking to myself in long sentences with gnarled and possibly incorrect syntax in a language not my own, but if does, it's only because I probably am...

    9:55 pm  
    Blogger Hal Duncan said...

    Still haven't got round to The Book of the New Sun, I have to confess. I really need to at some point. On the other hand, I did manage to find a pdf of the Frye put out for free by Princeton. Which is handy.

    The Song of Kali? I've only read the first few chapters. It looks like being all it's cracked up to be, but that does include the subtext that's probably... somewhat questionable from a post-colonial viewpoint.

    4:05 am  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Hi, Hal :)

    I think I've reread the modality notes at least 3 times now, and I find them fascinating. Still, I cannot but join Emo there and ask for some more conrete examples explaining whichever notions are clearest in your head - if you're still interested in that theory of yours, that is :) I would be really happy to have a firmer grasp on it :)))

    1:51 am  
    Blogger Hal Duncan said...

    Hi... you :)

    I've been thinking Bradbury's "The Veldt" might be a good illustration of exactly what I mean here; it's sort of a textbook example of quite a few of the ideas. Soooo, if I have the time I'll maybe write up a post on that and put a link to it here. If you haven't read it, it was available online the last time I looked.

    2:49 am  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Ah, that would be wonderful :)


    And to put my own words above in more concrete terms -

    Concerning alethic quirks - could it be said that they are dewarped by a more or less satisfactory answer to the question "Why can/could it happen?"

    For a novum the answer would be more or less along the lines of "Because at some point in the future/on a different planet this and this branch of that and that science have produced/could produce a particular technological advancement and its attending consequenses"

    For a chimera: "Because in that alternate/secondary reality the laws of nature are such and such and allow for this and that to exist"

    For an erratum: "Because if at some point in the past something else had happened instead of what actually happened then we would have a world resulting from that which happened instead"

    For a sutura: "Because it is one of the numerous things that could happen if you suspend your belief (your belief being equal to your suspension of disbelief when it comes to fiction) in the necessity of strictly logical concatenation of events in a story.

    Concerning epistemic quirks -

    are they dewarped by more or less satisfactory answers to the following questions:

    for a lacuna - "What happened?"

    for a limina - "Did it happen or not?" (and if yes, does it apply only for events that the characters have possibly experienced, or for events that they've heard of too?)

    for a cryptica - "How did it happen?"

    for a prefigura - "What will happen next?"

    With the deontic and boulomaic quirks I have to admit I'm a bit confused...

    for example, could the deontic quirks be paraphrased as:

    Dicta – You will do it, because you have no other choice but to obey

    Licentia – You will do it, because it's you have the right

    Determina – You will do it, because it is your obligation/duty

    If these paraphrases are correct enough, how is it that Hamlet, in his own mind, has the right (he may) to hurt his mother, but not the duty/obligation (he should not), and the duty/obligation to kill his uncle, but not the right?

    and the paraphrases for the boulomaic quirks:

    Weak/strong numen/monstrum – I do/don't want to do it/for it to happen, because it is very good/essential for me.

    tremulum – I don't know if I want to do it/for it to happen

    staccatum – I will want to do it only in certain circumstances


    Would it be possible for "equilibrium dewarping questions" to be formulated for the deontic and boulomaic quirks as well? (assuming I'm at least vaguely right to rearticulate the alethic and epistemic ones in the form of questions)

    And a final question:

    I seem to have difficulty seeing the particular differences betwenn an alethic possibility and contingency, on the one hand, and epistemic notion and supposition, on the other. I would be very grateful if you could explain it.

    I am sorry if this sounds very opaque, but I'm just groping for some particularity, to help me visualize, more or less, your model :)

    Anonymous

    3:52 am  
    Blogger Hal Duncan said...

    I ended up thrashing it out some more with reference to Hamlet:

    http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/2010/01/modality-and-hamlet.html

    Maybe that wil clarify it a bit.

    6:21 am  

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