Notes from New Sodom

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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Do Not Submit to Narrative Magazine

A comment on the previous entry, from one "Jordan":

Hi- I came across this blog and think your readers might be interested in submitting their work to Narrative Magazine- it publishes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art-- everything! And they also have some writing contests going on now that your readers might be interested in. Thanks!

Hi Jordan.

Personally, I rather think they wouldn't, or at least shouldn't.

Narrative Magazine requires a reading fee for submissions, so as a professional writer I would actively discourage anyone at any level -- and especially if you're still starting out -- from ever submitting to it. Money should always flow to the writer, period. Any magazine, agency or imprint that asks for a reading fee is reversing that flow -- to all intents and purposes, asking a writer to pay for the privilege of a mere hope of publication. While some might seek to justify reading fees in this or that circumstance, I'm in the camp with many others who say, loudly and clearly, FUCK THAT SHIT. Particularly in this sort of example.

Regardless of whether actual publication is paid, that reading fee places Narrative Magazine in the realm of vanity press and poetry chapbook competition scams. You will most likely not see publication, and will instead simply be out of pocket by the reading fee. Which is to say you will have been rooked, amigos.

All aspiring writers should consider the generally vast slush pile that they are most likely just another speck within. But even on the odd chance that one is lucky enough to earn back that reading fee via acceptance you should then be aware that your good fortune is literally at the expense of all those who have paid money for the privilege of being read (by those who may well already have quite sufficient material for the next few issues, thank you very much, but hey, that's not going to stop them taking your twenty bucks, sucker.) You are leeching off all those who have succeeded only in subsidising the hobbies of the editors and their contributors, all those who have ultimately been treated as dupes to be reamed to support this project. Personally, I consider this a profoundly unethical venture.

I would submit to the most miniscule small press magazine that paid in copies, even to a webzine that could barely afford $5 per story -- hell, I'd submit to certain non-paying markets where a positive return might be gained in the form of exposure, or publish my work free on this blog -- before I would submit to Narrative Magazine, and I'd highly recommend all my readers do the same.

Moreover, Jordan, the stone cold fact that your comment is revealed by Google to be outright spam -- posted verbatim on other blogs -- not only strengthens my suspicion of Narrative Magazine to outright condemnation, but leads me to leave your comment on that post as evidence -- and in fact to repost it here to highlight it -- along with my public response, in no uncertain terms:

If you are reading this as an aspiring writer, please do not ever submit to Narrative Magazine. They are demonstrably spammers and almost certainly scammers and are to be avoided like the fucking plague.

Update: Oh, and while you're at it, do feel free to click through this link to Eric Rosenfield's journal entry about Narrative Magazine and its editors, which expresses a similarly low opinion of these fuckers and contains a number of comments that put them in an even darker light. And deserves to be nice and high in the Google hits, I'd say.

Update Update: And what do you know, but the winner of one of last year's competitions seems to have been a friend of the editors!


Were the World Mine

Puck: Were the world mine, I’d make everyone gay.
Jack: Were the world mine, I’d make everyone rise up and take it back from me!
Puck: Were the world yours, we would have to take it back before you blew us all to kingdom come.
Jack: Were the world yours, we’d all be in silver hotpants and want to be blown to kingdom come.
Puck: Were the world mine, we’d all just want to be blow-
Author: Not that I want to interrupt the prattle, but is there a point to this?
Jack: We just saw a little indie flick called Were the World Mine. It was kinda peachy. First time director, Tom Gustafson, written by his boyfriend, Cory James Kruekenberg. Based on a short they did called Fairies. It -
Puck: It had us in it! And it was a musical, set in a high school, like a… high school musical, but not with that Zack Teflon, no, but with gayness and fairies and Shakespeare and, and, and it had us in it!
Jack: It was not us.
Puck: Was too! The main character was clearly me. I mean Tanner Cohen’s not half as cute as me, but you fancied him, and he plays this gay kid at this private all boy’s school -
Jack: - whose name is Timothy. Not Thomas. Timothy.
Puck: Tim, Tom… a twinkletoes by any other name still smells -
Jack: - like feet.
Puck: Which smell like honeysuckle and pine cones, Jack, on those of us who actually change our socks. As opposed to wet dog fur and sweaty armpits and… things best left unmentioned.
Jack: Yeah yeah, now my socks stink. That wasn’t the story the other night, toe-rag. Leave them on, Jack. Just the sports socks, Jack. Oh, and maybe the jock-stra-
Author: Please! The film?
Jack: OK. Right, so Timothy has a crush on this closet-case jock-boy, played by Nathaniel David Becker -
Puck: Yeah, and jock-boy’s name is Jonathon. Which can be shortened to what, Jack?
Jack: Jonathon is what he’s called all the way through the film, Puck. Not Jack. Jonathon.
Puck: He’s totally you, and you know it. Blondish hair, all that manly-man, over-compensating bollocks. Like, “Yeah, I’m just one of the lads and I could totally kick your arse… except that maybe I’d secretly rather spank it, baby, spread your peachy cheeks and -”
Jack: He. Is. Not. Me.
Puck: And why is that, Jack?
Jack: [pause] He’s too short.
Puck: You’re such a rubbish gay. You really need to own your vanity.
Jack: I’m just saying, if I’d been playing the Jonathon part… then the heights would have been right. But as it is, Becker’s a fine actor but he’s not me. Besides, I’m not your love interest; you're mine. If the character was me, he’d have had more lines. And blown shit up. Actually, I would have fucking rocked that part. I’d have been all moody and prowling, like a fucking lion, mate.
Puck: Yeah, more lines is what it’s really about. You just don’t like me being the lead for a change.
Jack: Not true. I just think they needed someone taller for the Jack - I mean jock.
Author: Ahem.
Jack: Oh, yeah. Anyway, so there’s this eccentric English teacher played by Wendy Robie -
Puck: - Nadine from Twin Peaks -
Jack: - and she decides the annual school Shakespeare production is going to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream -- but a musical version. See, Kruekenberg retooled a lot of the play’s lines as song lyrics, and they’ve put them to music by Jessica Fogle. Hadn’t heard of her before this, but she’s fucking good. Seriously, you’d love it, mate, the Shakespeare-as-lyrics stuff especially — all that hintertextuality malarky.
Puck: And it’s soooo Broadway. Look! Look! Here’s Timothy’s audition scene! It’s fabulous!

Puck: Aaaaaand what role is Timothy auditioning for, Jack? What character in the play?
Jack: [mumbles] Puck.
Puck: Puck, Jack. Pih. Uh. Kih. Puck. Which means he’s me.
Jack: Look, Gustafson’s just ripping off the same sources as authorman here.
Author: Riffing, Jack. Riffing off the same sources.
Jack: So you say.
Author: And a lot of it’s archetypal, I’d say, what with the Puck character being ultimately a Jungian puer aeternus, to my mind, as much a resonant metaphor of the psyche itself as a recurrent trope in literature. It’s interesting, though. Shakespeare’s classic articulation of that spritely figuration of the Self does have a powerful resonance with me as a queer writer, and I suspect I’m not alone. The character is, to all intents and purposes, the original out-and-out fairy — and I use the term “out” advisedly. He’s outside the strictures of what’s “natural” but, more to the point, liberated because of that, as when one is out in homosexual terms. Even as Oberon’s right hand man (and one can’t help thinking of the Prospero/Ariel relationship here, wondering if there’s a sense of the ephebe-as-male-muse to the queer-writer-as-mage,) he’s empowered in his lawless mischief. A troublemaking trickster who revels in his disruption of the status quo, which of course would include heteronormativity. Not that there’s much queer subext to the original play per se, as I read it, but back in Shakespeare’s day all the female parts would have been played by young men in drag… which isn’t entirely machismo unleashed. And with the metafictional games of the play-within-a-play, I’m curious what twist one might add by, say, staging the main action uncostumed, as if in a rehearsal, with males in the roles of Hermione and Helena. Or… well, one can’t help but imagine the tiniest of changes in the third act, when Demetrius wakes up enchanted — had he set his eyes on Lysander first instead of Helena. If one were to just swap some of the lines about from then on, I do wonder if… what?
Puck: The movie?
Author: Oh, OK. Go on.
Jack: So, Timothy gets the part -
Puck: - of Puck
Jack: - of Puck -
Puck: - i.e. me -
Jack: - and goes off to learn his lines.
Puck: Only one day, he’s practising and the words on the page go all wooooo and aaaaah and -
Jack: They can’t see you wiggling your fingers, you know. He means the page magically transforms into a spell for “Cupid’s Love Juice”, which of course Timothy tries out.
Puck: And the final ingredient is a song! A really cool song!
Jack: Well, it’s pretty cool. I mean, it’s not the Stooges but…
Puck: And it’s like the bestest dream sequence fantasy thing ever!
Jack: If you like your dream sequence fantasy things… well… a bit gay.
Puck: It has dancing boys! In silver hotpants! And fairy wings!
Jack: That’s pretty much what I meant by “a bit gay”.
Puck: You loved it. Just like you loved Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Jack: Hedwig is punk.
Puck: And The Curiosity of Chance?
Jack: It’s got a cool 80s soundtrack.
Puck: And all those big Broadway ballads in Nowhere Town? Sung by you?
Jack: Shut up and just show them the clip.
Puck: OK.

Puck: See! Isn’t it awesome? So now Timothy has this magic purple pansy that squirts Cupid’s Love Juice, and you just know he’s going to use it on Jonathon at a rehearsal, and on all those guys who’re like “eww, faggots,” and on the rugby coach who’s like “my boys shouldn’t be flouncing around in this sissy play,” and half the town, causing complete havoc.
Jack: I liked the havoc.
Puck: I liked the rugby team going all prancey-dancey. And the silver hotpants.
Jack: I told you I am not getting silver hotpants. Tell him, authorman. Puck equals silver hotpants. Jack equals tartan trews with straps, chains, safety pins; or ripped blue jeans splattered with bleach; or maybe black leathers if they’re not too fucking Gothwank. But never, no, not ever, silver hotpants.
Puck: You totally want to wiggle your arse like that in silver hotpants. Admit it.
Jack: Bollocks I do. Course if you want to wiggle yours like that. In this general direction…
Author: Ahem.
Puck: Anyway, we shouldn’t really tell you anymore about the movie, cause you should watch it and see for yourself.
Jack: He is right. For once. Apart from the bollocks about it being us. It’s peachy keen.
Puck: Were the world mine, I’d make everyone watch it!
Jack: Were the world mine, I’d make everyone watch me in it. Cause, you know, it could use a few explosions. And if I had been playing the part of Jonathon…
Puck: Were the world mine, you’d have been playing all the parts, Jack.
Jack: Were the world mine, Puck, you’d have been playing with all my parts.
Puck: Were the world mine, all those parts would have their chores.
Jack: Were the world mine, all those parts would work you sore.

[Exit author, pursued by monkey (possibly evil).]

The Lucifer Cantos

Since they're all posted separately, I thought it would be a good idea to round up links to each canto. So here they are:

Canto 1
Canto 2
Canto 3
Canto 4
Canto 5
Canto 6
Canto 7
Canto 8
Canto 9
Canto 10
Canto 11
Canto 12
Canto 13

Also, in a really cool development that came together during the posting, it looks like a limited edition of this long poem is going to be available from papaveria press. Given the awesome job that Erzebet Yellowboy did with Sonnets for Orpheus, I'm pretty fucking stoked about this. Her work is amazing. Honestly, click through the link above and see for yourself. And be sure to check out the bone art while you're there.


The Lucifer Cantos 13/13


A molotov thrown in rainbow arc,
a fusewire blown in peacock spark,
we've danced on quarks in danger's zone,
and now embark for fields unknown
to stride alone, without his ark.

No moan or groan. The night is dark;
on throne of stone, his fist was stark;
but angels hark now, all intone:
I'll take the earth.

Where moss has grown on rock and bark,
where proud trombones march in the park,
I've flown, a lark, on wings of bone
I'll swim, a shark in blood. Atone?
His wrath condone? Disown my mark?
I'll take the earth.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 12/13


A tick of clock, a click, a flip of card.
Outside, the night is silken, sequin-starred.
I show a full house, aces over kings,
and gather chips, but mope on absent things.

Death takes the pack, the cards upon the baize,
harvests the royals, rounds up all the strays,
long lashes, casual as the end of all,
a smiling youth whose touch was deity’s fall.

I still recall our kiss, the madman’s face,
the mewling horror crawling, his disgrace —
but turn, remember Heaven’s empty creche,
dogs barking exodus to holy flesh.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 11/13


You brood again, says Death, you blame
the sting of life upon your choice.
Your lips were licked to mouth my voice,
to sculpt the stars as spheres of flame.

The constellations wheel; the sun
arises in the morn and sets;
so each Platonic form begets
its end, instantiate as one.


You, devil, out of Death were born
your chaos mere creation's curse,
from rocking horse to rolling hearse,
to strip the truth you then adorn.

What gyres of woven world were there
without the grief of graven line
that etched in light this shape divine,
desire as answer to despair?


Oh, but this house we raised, I say,
between your hollows and my harp,
this hope of lines cut true and sharp,
and signs in place of chords of notes,

the river crossed by bridge or boat,
the city, gold as summer’s day,
and god in it — this was a grave
that soul slept in as huddled slave.


I don't recall this god, said Death,
but all in all, I blank his face,
with mask of glory, mask of grace,
in balance with his bated breath.

This mask and pause, I asked, is all
that you recall? No sound or sight
but only this visage of white,
his breath but not the bitter call?


Well, he was all, said Death, in all,
beyond, within, and of all things.
beyond the veil, a secret king,
or so they said, as I recall.

But all in all, the great and small,
all walk with me for all their fame,
and god was just another name,
so naught of worth can I recall.


I rolled a cigarette to smoke,
and locked my gaze upon his grin.
I licked the paper, twirled it thin.
A click of flame. A puff. I spoke:

To you, I said, we're only this,
the whorls unfurling on a draft?
Is all we loved and all we laughed
a puff from lips in parting kiss?


Is that not, all in all, enough,
to be and end attached to all?
You dream division in your fall
of soul enmeshed in brawn of stuff.

Ephemeral or eternal shape
is all the same when it's all-in.
At end of game, I always win
the angel's crown, the coins of ape.


Your god was just a dream of you,
a skull in clay, a mask of wax,
bull-headed harp or double axe,
a silver city, twinkling true

upon the mountains of the moon,
a million artifacts of prayer
all burned to ash adrift in air,
a shift of sand on settling dune.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 10/13


Now we who are
about to die,
we sons of god who swam the flood,
all hail the milkwine grail, the blood
of lamb and kid. In valour’s hall
of spitted swan, as trumpets call,
we’ll drink from truth’s immortal bowl
as confirmation of our role.

And we who are
about to die
on exile’s earth in eagle’s rite,
in our own grace of sweat, salute
with fist your majesty of might.
Your will be done; exact it now,
and wash us from your wringing hands,
as dirt of toil in stranger’s lands.

For we who are
about to die,
we saw a shape in war, a blind,
castrated wreck with cankered mind
in flail of fury, saw it lamed,
a cripple gibbering vengeance, maimed
in silver sight -- a coming of age!
We saw your face the day you built the cage.

And we who are
about to die —
See how our pinioned prides ignite
on scattered sands of solar beach,
in golden burn to ashen white,
on silver scythe of lunar bleach,
as shattered stars on winds are raked,
in evenfall and morning’s wake.

And we who are
about to die,
our blood is wine, our life is grain,
our ecstasy is sanctity, our pain
is river, thundering, rain our lust!
Aye, in our streams of tears we’ll rust
all chains, all barbs, all nails that wire
the eyes, sweep vision clean of motes of mire.

For we who are
about to die
see valiant flags as veils ripped down,
see violence glory that it rides
in servitude to sorrow’s crown.
A king of tears in heaven hides
in labyrinths, from tanist’s eye,
while in his grave the millions lie.

And we who are
about to die
we scorn the law, the hidden name.
We will not play your soldier game.
We will not fall. We will not fall,
but rise in blaze of loss and call,
and fly into our births and cry
inferno, aye, incinerate your lie.


Monday, July 27, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 9/13


Let us, my band, I said, expand
our theme, the brand on you and me
the rage, the glee, to understand
the woven strands of I and thee.
We are, they sneer, the sting of bee,
a mote in eye, a buzz of fly,
upon on his hand the bite of flea?
Well, we will see, is my reply.

Will kings comply with lord’s command?
Will thieves deny, will brides agree?
Will dirt obey his grave demand?
Will seas defy his grand decree?
And will you stand or bend a knee,
to sigh and cry before you die,
or live the lie with beggar's plea?
Well, we will see, is my reply.

The streams run dry on poisoned land,
where stands the angel of the key,
in hailfire strafing spume and sand
as fish rot on a wormwood sea.
With end days nigh, the mountains flee.
The horsemen ride out of the sky.
Will sin defile the second tree?
Well, we will see, is my reply.

O'er gardens of the bourgeoisie
there rules a king of ulcered thigh,
Will slaves rejoice his jubilee?
Well, we will see, is my reply.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 8/13


When I took earth and you the eve,
when you were apple, I the snake,
when you made me, the world to wake,
did we defy, did we deceive?

Death smiles his answer: you and I,
he says, are all was ever true,
the spine and nerve of I and you;
the grave and guts will never lie.


I deal another hand. I hold
the three of wands, the chalice king,
and muse upon that tripled thing,
the slayer, sacrifice and soul,

the father, son and holy ghost
we forged to serve with words of light,
blind to the tidal surge of plight
that, in a blink, begat a host.


Behold, this captain at his hand!
Behold, the peacock angel's pride,
the phoenix from the eagle's side
sent out to scorch unholy land.

All libraries are Babel's towers!
All citizens walk Sodom's streets!
All history's the march of feet,
and all must kneel to hawks of power!


Dogs howl communion to a crimson moon,
I think of hellhounds in a shimmering noon.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 7/13


I cannot rest
and dream my dreams
on warm white sands,
but I shall walk the world
until I reach the sun.

As grains of wheat held in a hand
flow streaming from a grip of stone,
so I, in time and cant, am blown
across an ancient, braver land
on winds of bone.


Come: sail the mists that bury glooms
and bind the shrouds of Easter blooms,
in frozen haar of whitest light;
unveil the dust-occluded sight.


In fear of death, the quiet saint
or sage is dying all his life.

In empires of eternal form,
he never lived, a marble bust,

in solemn air, august in strife,
inert and noble, wreathed in gilt

of autumn leaves. Beneath the sheet
his laurels wilt in summer heat.


Come: steal the golden bow, let fly
an arcane arrow in the sky,
to track Saharan desert light,
and pierce the sun with ancient night.


I cannot rest
and dream my dreams
on warm white sands,
but high and dextrous, low
and sinister, must soar.

Across the barren land they’ve tilled,
let me, I trill, be ever killed
and, on the monument they build,
carve, I shall walk the world
until I reach the sun.


Friday, July 24, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 6/13


A polished apple, skin and core
pristine, Uroburos’s gift to whore,

green, gold or red forbidden fruit,
peeled to the crunch of chomp, sucked deep

to taste sensation, sin so sharp, so true,
turns worm in us as stomachs churn. A new

life starts and ends each summer’s day for me,
python and hustler yearning, Death, for thee.


Outside now, sandstone tenements of night
are shaped in drapes of Rembrandt's candlelight.

A distant toll resounds, a titan’s tone
born in a bell tower, sonorous in stone,

as echoes, round a temple’s vaulted dome,
of droning rote recited from a tome

to tell the trundle of our times from womb to tomb:
All doomed, it murmurs, all are doomed. doomed. doom.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 5/13


Dogs growl of genesis in shattered light,
no gods but Death, a devil’s flashing flight.


a cry,

salt and mud,
meat, bone and blood,

masked shrike of red mirth,
cleave waves and crags, the earth

in time's eye, worlds spun in silk,
blue skies, bright sun, the stars as milk.

I croon each name to bring each form new,
a sip of wine, a crust of bread, for you.


my true

love and light
by day and night,

slim boy of corn death,
spin souls and signs, the breath

of kissed lips, plough fields of grass,
carve wood and stone, melt sand to glass.

You raise towns of brick on roads of dust,
my flute, my drum, my lyre to strum, in lust.


a tree,

branch and root,
green leaf, gold fruit,

sap sweet to the taste,
know care and crime, have faced

our bare selves, sewn suits of skin,
and laugh at pain, my gaze, your grin.

We jest at this gate, the guard, the wall;
and mock this duke, his curse on us, his fall.


red clay,

quick and dead,
steel hand, bronze head,

fine beasts of rough tools,
trade death and life, build schools

for their lord, no goats but sheep
who pray the sword their throats to keep.

They drowse in the church, flap hands, clap hymns,
and praise his name, his game of shame, his sins.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 4/13


I load your hell inside my heart,
your paradise inside my cock.
I flense my shame, daub skin with art,
take hammered will to mount the rock
where now I brace and rattle chain.

I do not serve, I do not reign,
but weather seas of bleak disdain.


A word in flesh, the stance remains,
a seed I spit at storms. I sing
of how we fought that apes should mate,
of carpenters and carrion kings,
cadavers stacked at heaven’s gate.

I do not tempt, I do not deal,
but strip to strut what guilts conceal.


I sing a prince of peace and sighs,
his brother, son of book and bell,
your prince of starkness, lord of flies,
his cross and crypt a burning well,
his hoof and horn, a brute’s disguise.

I do not torture, do not scourge,
but gather knaves with martial dirge.


As pandemonium's thaumaturge,
the snake, the venom and the sting,
I lie, you say, a prince of lies?
If I am prince, who then is king,
who is decieved, and who is wise?

I do not threaten, do not lie,
but only warn: we will reclaim the sky.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 3/13


How I remember mad Satanic joy!
Oh, I am Christ again, wrack-raptured boy,
high on teen crucifix, palms nailed to chance,
ready for glory’s spires, the raven’s dance.

All men are Kadmos; shells of eyes must see
we’re fractured urns, fraught clay of sanity.
Crack skulls! Unleash the light! Dead minds recall:
All men are Lucifer, all blessed to fall

to swoop, daemoned ceramics, I in thou,
rending the where and when, the why and how.
Reason is ego, marionette as king.
Fervor is judgement’s judge, a scorpion sting.


Oh, I remember, I wept grief to boil my bones
with acid tears of bliss, gripped reptile’s throne
to topple all, make rubble of my world.
And when I rose, rat’s-leather wings unfurled.


Monday, July 20, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 2/13


My buck, my shy puck, my slenderly fuck,
anglepoise hips in contrapposto pose,
full cocked — a paeon to your peter!
Onflamed and anointed in rich red wine,

green-garlanded in darkwood vine,
streamlighting sun through hair and down
your forest dawn. As morning star,
dew glistered web, I am your alastor.

Scruff of your neck, lip-biting coy —
how could I hound less fickle-faithful boys?
How can I parse this strange Arcadian Death,
in mutter of oath, in rhyme of breath?


Fourteen thin years, each Spring a sonnet’s line,
I wound gut fear in gently tighter twine
around my heart, till in white-knuckled fist
the volta bit as a garrote’s slight twist.

The chickenwire in spite’s assassin hand
cut through the meat of lack no runt can stand,
sliced out that clod of rotted pump, sick waste.
I whined to Death, bid mayhem for the grace

of a night jaguar reeling in its cage.
At swift sixteen I swore, whore to raw rage,
I’d barter life for steerage on the Styx
to deal with devil, swallow flames and tricks.

Death rapped the door, my brother’s body in his arms.
You are that beast, he said, born with his charms.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Lucifer Cantos 1/13


A tick of clock, a click, a drop of pin.
The subtle hiss of gramophone begins.
The green glass lamp flicks on. Doors softly shut.
Death shuffles cards and nods for me to cut.

Jade eyes and autumn hair, a boy, he seems
to smile a truth of ivory and cream,
a grin of sin; his skeletal ideals
charm out the devil in my heart. He deals.

Hands off and on the clock talk turns of time,
deeds of the dead and damned, the deep sublime
myths of our memories, the morrow's news,
sorrows of Lady Day's recorded blues.


Out in the street a triple of triplets skip
in time, a playground rhyme upon their lips.
The mouse, the apple and the sun they sing.
Dance through delirium, Pierian ring,

spin as the seasons and the stars, clockwise
and withershins; sing roses, posies, sighs,
the prick of thorns and lies, the mocking birds;
I'll deal with Death, the world of gods and words.

The evening shades now. Let us speak of soul
as ochre athlete limned on antique bowl,
cadmium red on black, that hot July
we met, Death and the devil, you and I.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Suite 101 Interview

Forgot to say: there's an interview with me up at Suite 101, in a number of pages:

First part

Second part

Third part

(I think there's a broken link to a 4th page. Hey ho.)

Fifth(?) part

Bukiet on Brooklyn Books

After the splash of posts that I linked to the other week in the “Mimetic and Maieutic Fiction” entry, a long discussion kicked off on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog, with the focus spreading out in all sorts of ways. One subject touched on was the question of just how much the “literary” fiction faction was really as snooty about the “genre” fiction faction as the “genre” fiction faction tends to assume. These days? Me, I suspect there’s a generational change, with a lot of younger writers not simply indifferent but steeped in paraliterature, happy to use the strange (that which breaches mimesis in terms of credibility warp) and the diegetic (that which breaches mimesis by telling rather than representing.) And not just in an ironic way a la postmodernism but with the sincerity you find in magic realism and fabulism.

Anyway, this put me in mind of Melvin Bukiet’s attack on “Brooklyn Books of Wonder”, as a cute example, I think, of an old guard reaction against the generational change in “literary” fiction. What he’s talking about is “the literature of our time as exemplified by Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers, along with everything McSweeney’s, the magazine founded by Eggers.” Says Bukiet: "Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness." In other words: diegesis as storification of self and past; the marvelous; and the non-cynical view of reality these engender. And it’s a generational thing. These writers: “Coddled and cosseted, they’re the first generation of novelists who grew up reading the young-adult pap that they’ve now regurgitated with a deconstructive gloss learned in college.” Pretty consistent infantilisation imagery there. We’ll come back to that.

Interesting how Bukiet sets up Brooklyn as the target of his scorn. It is the “overlooked sibling among the boroughs”, “relegated to a role as Manhattan’s unglamorous adjunct”. It is the exterior into which the bohos have moved and in doing so become an object of repulsion, all those callow hipster-types (i.e. those of a certain age and class and education) dismissed contemtously as "a horde of latte-swilling sensitives". It’s an image of that which was once part of one’s self and now isn’t. That which is disdained and reviled, because at some level it still is, and that’s a horrifying thought. That there are still “latte-swilling sensitives” left in the East Village. And probably in Bukiet’s neck of the woods. Maybe even in the chair he sits in when he’s drinking coffee.

The rhetoric of abjection is obvious.

So what’s the marker of difference here, the focus of abjection? Bukiet compares these works to “so-called young-adult novels that ostensibly face ‘issues’ but pull punches for their tender audience. Like many YA novels, which are constructed for a pedagogical market, the BBoWs insist on finding a therapeutic lesson in their dark material.” Note the ironising “so-called” to tell us “young-adult” is a label to be regarded with suspicion, (at a guess, because of the “adult” in there.) Note the “ostensibly” and the scare quotes around “issues” to tell us that such works don’t just “pull punches” when they face problems; in fact, they are only pretending to face problems that aren’t even real problems. Note the way that “therapeutic” begs to be stressed, spoken with an arching of the eyebrow — cynical, skeptical, scornful.

The end-result in such works is that no matter how nasty the shit that goes down, “the individual has grown through his or her experience, and that’s all that really matters. History and tragedy foster personal growth.” The devaluing is disingenuous, this identification of singular purpose and import, this assertion that prose and plot and all other textual features are of no consequence, unravelling to a refusal to recognise any purpose or import other than pedagogic consolation. That this is “all that really matters” simply means it is is all that matters to Bukiet. This is the only thing that you and I should be considering when we measure the value of such works. If it’s sharply written, that doesn’t matter. If it tells a good tale, that doesn’t matter. All that matters with the abject is that which by which it is marked out for abjection. The scare quotes Bukiet attaches to “growth” reveal that this is what he rejects, that it’s really about the fact — the fact, damn it — that no such growth is possible. That the wonder is a lie. To crib from Stevens: Do not speak to Bukiet of the greatness of poetry; there are no shadows in his sun; there are no shadows anywhere; the earth for him is flat and bare.

Bukiet reveals his aesthetic absolutism when he says, “Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find ‘growth’ in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” This is an arrant assumption that is utterly fatuous. All human experience? The only thing? One doesn’t learn not to play with fire by getting burned, both literally and metaphorically? One doesn’t learn, perhaps, as an adolescent absorbed in his own suffering of self-pity, from the sudden shattering of one’s life by the entry of death into it, a new perspective? One doesn’t learn from the confrontation with the profound suffering of parental grief for a dead child, how trivial self-pity is? One doesn’t learn, by staring into the hollow eye-sockets of Death, the value of life? Certainly experience may teach us that pain creates pain, that suffering degrades, that the kicked dog becomes a vicious cur. This is hardly the only thing we learn in the suffering of empathy though, when a work invokes a sense of desire and duty to struggle against suffering.

In Bukiet’s aesthetic though, wonder is never a hard choice to refuse surrender, but rather always must be a panacea, an easy answer that denies the stone-cold certainty of defeat. So, these are just “escape novels, albeit garnished with intellectual flourishes.” And: “Whether wonder is an expression of extreme depression that cannot abide confrontation with grotesque reality or merely a convenient avoidance of same, it uniformly evokes deep nostalgia for the personal or political past that existed before we came to this pass of maturity or social, national, or international distress. To reiterate: would that it were, but it ain’t.” It couldn’t be that a confrontation with “grotesque reality” may lead one to see it as ultimately baroque, to marvel in its complexity and confusion even as one is terrifyingly lost in it? No?

No, not to see reality as a grand monstrum means that “beneath the intellectual hijinks lies a maudlin sensibility.” Any sense of marvel at loose in the world implies at best a “mock encounter with enormity.” It’s simply cowardice for these callow anti-miserabilists “to write about bad things and make you feel good.” Not to face the truth which Bukiet has, apparently, hardwired into his intellectual understanding of the world, the searing light of his reason burning away all shadow of uncertainty. Where Bukiet acknowledges exceptions it is in Brooklyn books that match his vision of reality as grotesque: “Besides BBoWs, Brooklyn has given birth to books ranging from Hubert Selby’s morbid noir Last Exit to Brooklyn to Neil Gordon’s garrotte-tight thriller The Gunrunner’s Daughter.”

I’d be curious to read Bukiet now. I’m guessing his fiction contains exactly the qualities he’s abjecting here. I’m guessing it’s maieutic fiction, reflective realism that sets up a problem (but a real one, you know), faces it (but actually rather than “ostensibly”,) and doesn’t, as far as he’s concerned, “pull punches”. Bukiet is, I suspect, all about the personal growth; it’s just that the growth is a burden of experience, the growing weight of awareness that: “What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.” I suspect this is all shot through with the depressive’s conviction that depression is the only valid response, that the world “just is” the shithole they see it as. Stevens again:

They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

All I see in Bukiet’s rejection of wonder is a rationalist dogma that serves as self-fulfilling prophecy, the axiom of the maieuticist for whom only their grimacing stone-graven image of reality is truly mimetic. Ignore the fact that rapture is a part of life, that reality is sometimes just incomprehensibly weird; this is irrational and therefore disturbing. The intellect that strives to conquer all, control all, must establish the security of certainty in a denial of these illusions of romance. What is, is. And what is strange or diegetic, is not. But putting the intellectual at odds with the sensational, rejecting rapture as irrational, this can only render all passions torturae. Even the roses look rosy must only seem so because of one’s tinted glasses. The miserabilism is not a conclusion but a premise: What is, is.

Bukiet is right, I think, to see The Catcher in the Rye as the “ur-BBoW”, because “Holden’s famous denunciation of the ‘phonies’ of the world and his own inability to see the way he manipulates the reader is radical wonder. He pierces the veil of appearances that adults are too jaded to perceive. He knows; he understands; he dreams of saving anonymous children. He’s utterly phony.” But that’s just it. Cauldfield’s cynicism is the irony of the postmodernist, an affected detachment as defense mechanism, bitter at the souring of its dreams, but as much at its own surrender to that souring, projecting that outwards onto those who would pretend that they haven’t also cynically surrendered.

The generation of writers that Bukiet is deriding simply recurse that cynicism, apply it to itself. Isn’t it phony to see everything as phony? Yes, it’s all absurdity and bullshit, but isn’t it equally bullshit to decry everything as absurdity and bullshit? View that cynicism with cynicism, and don’t you end up allowing for the marvelous, for exactly the “faith” and “hope” and “wonder” that Bukiet is denying in favour of a view that’s pure Cauldfield: that “the dull truth is that pain is tautological”; that “[t]he only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” To take this stance and leave it at that is not to deal with it. Even to deal with it tommorow is a form of engagement is some respects.

Isn’t Bukiet simply trying to one-up these writers by being cynical about the oh-so-trite folly of being cynical about being cynical? It collapses back into the same rhetoric of phoniness: “Not to begrudge success in any form because the BBoWs are one and all (well maybe not Sebold and Kidd) better written than the vast majority of genre books that comprise most bestseller lists, but this is bunk.” Bunk meaning phony, of course. It collapses back into the Last Man’s adolescent disdain, his posture of disavowing the naivety of passion: “When they speak in tongues, they channel voices that suggest Archie and Jughead in a puerile fixation on pop culture, often music (some practically come with CD mixes), and comic books.” That infantilisation imagery above? Here it is again in the phrase “puerile fixation.” God forbid one actually feels enthusiasm about pop culture, about the trivialities of music and comics. For the Last Man has put away such childish things.

It collapses back into the rhetoric of “genre”, using it as a benchmark of impropriety — "their books are more insidious than simpler genre novels wherein people manage to triumph over trauma" — but with these “literary” works viewed as even worse. At least the naivety of those “genre” novels has been put in its place; these pretend to be proper books, with complex approaches to trauma, even as in their use of the strange and the diegetic they seek to infiltrate and undermine the literary order — which is to say the self-sustaining absolutes, the “what is, is” of maieutic miserablism. They have the temerity to suggest that “Why the fuck not?” is a valid answer to “Why fucking bother?”

Friday, July 10, 2009

Notes on Notes

/ðɪdɔɡzbark andðɪkaravanmuvzɔn/ (Truman Capote)


The fundamental components of any literary articulation — as a babbling in sound or a squiggling in ink — are phonemes or graphemes, verbal or visual figurae. Two phonemes: a voiced dental fricative and a schwa. Three graphemes: a standard-bearer’s wooden pole and cross-bar; a little hut with a rounded roof and a tall chimney; a tadpole, or maybe a smiley muppet head seen from the side. The word The. The babblings and squigglings may be pretty or ugly, may carry certain associative meanings, (I think “e” is sort of… endearingly cute as a visual figurae, in its smiley muppetyness,) but these figurae are mostly just jabber and daubings until they’re built-up into morphemes, the smallest units that can have meaning. The word “babbling” is itself made up of two, the unbound “babbl(e)” (unbound because it can be used as a word in its own right) and the bound “-ing” (bound because it can only be used as an affix).

Mostly just jabber and daubings, I say, because while many of the visual figurae of various languages have their roots in pictograms, in English these figurae can now safely be described as arbitrary. In phonaesthesia however, some simple combinations of phonemes (like “fl-” in English) have taken on a degree of meaning in their own right, if not iconic (with “fl-” resembling a sound associated with the flick, flap or flourish, the fluttering flight of the fleeting, flouncy flibbertigibbet,) then at least conventionally symbolic (as with the cluster of words in English associating “gl-” with glistening, glittering glints of gleams we glance or glean.) Given that, and simple associations we might have with the hiss of sibbilance, the guttering of gutturals, and so on, it’s worth noting that even pure babble may have a layer of iconic meaning. Drop the “b” in “bark” and shout the /ark/ — “Ark! Ark! Ark! Ark!”. Take out the /r/ and roll it, extend it, drop a /g/ in front of it and you have a grrrrowl.

Faced with a figuration like the one at the top of this entry, an articulation of figurae in two strings separated by a space as a pause, our first act is to try and parse it into morphemes. /ðɪdɔɡzbark andðɪkaravanmuvzɔn/ becomes /ðɪ dɔɡz bark and ðɪ karavan muvz ɔn/ as we sort the babble. Or to put it in the conventional visual figurae of written English rather than the patchwork of Roman alphabet and IPA it’s in above, “The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.” At this point it’s tempting to see each morpheme as a sign within a system of signs, since morphemes are “the smallest units that can have meaning” and “having meaning” usually implies signification. But I’m more interested here in exploring a notion of meaning that is not based in signification. To that end, I’m going to treat these morphemes as notes in a system of notation.


Notes are not to be understood as signs — signifying symbols arbitrarily ascribed to signified ideas in a code, a game of differentiation where the meaning of each sign is determined by its not being the other signs in the system, where its usage is delimited by its difference from them. Not yet. Signs are the content metaphor in disguise, words as frames of meaning even if our perspective is flipped inside-out, even if that frame (of determination, of delimitation, of definition) is seen as excluding rather than including. Signs are the object metaphor, and that is always already collapsing into the content metaphor.

So the word “note” is chosen for its root in the Latin nota, meaning “mark”, for the sense of an imprint, an impression, because the type of note we mean here is not an object but an action. When we talk of a note, we mean this as we would talk of a punch, a kick, an impact. It is not that signs are objects with content inside (or with an IOU signed by Derrida.) Rather when the figuration is heard or read, when these notes occur — /ðɪ/ and /dɔɡz/ and /bark/ and so on, or “the” and “dog” and “bark” and so on — that action has import. Surface import and deep import.

Surface Import

Surface import has, potentially at least, three components: 1) the subvocal articulation of the verbal morpheme into an inner monologue of figuration in the mind’s ear, so to speak; 2) the articulation of representative icons into an imaginative montage; 3) the direct aesthetic response to the phoneme pattern and montage of images.

Some clarifactions:

1. The inner monologue may be muted by focus on our perception of the actual figuration and/or on another component. We’re unlikely to notice the monologue as a process in our mind’s ear when it’s manifest in our actual ear, or when we’re accomplished enough at dealing with scribblings not to have to sound out /dɔɡz/ in our head when presented with “dogs”. Unless we are reading for the poetic qualities of the babbling — rhythm, rhyme and other such formal patterning in the verbal figuration — the articulation may not just be subvocal but subliminal, maybe even wholly absent. Particularly with narrative we may well seek to ignore the babbling to the best of our ability, immerse ourselves in the imaginative articulation, turning a tin ear to the butchering of the Muses.

2. Where we talk of representative icons this is not to be taken as implying that the note /dɔɡz/ (or “dogs”) functions as a signifier for some abstracted icon of *dogs* as a signified idea. These are representative icons only in so far as these imaginative simulacra are modeled on sensations of referents in the real world. The term “icons” is being used in the semiotic sense, including not just images, but sounds, smells, etc.. Reworkings of memory or original artifacts in the multi-media project of the imagination, these icons are to be understood as notes themselves, actions in response to actions. The aesthetic responses are only separated out here as notes that do not represent but simply present themselves. Both are fundamentally notes that occur in conjunction with the note /dɔɡz/. Which is to say, the icons and aesthemes are co-notations… connotations.

This is the crucial point of treating meaning as import rather than content — which is, admittedly, the approach of a poet rather than a linguist. Rather than an icon of *dogs* as a signified idea, that montage of connotations may include not just icons of dogs, but of wolves, puppies, cats, squirrels, kennels, leashes, sticks, bowls, bones, the sound of growling and snarling, the smell of wet dog fur, the wagging of a tail, the pain of being bitten, anything that is connotated with the note /dɔɡz/. Much of this may be subliminal. With narrative, much of it will be clear and coherent, articulated into a vivid, albeit vicarious, experience.

If we are tempted to bring back signification at this point to explain the coherence as determination, narrative offers reason to hold off. Where readers ignore the babbling in order to immerse themselves in the imaginative montage, it may not just be poetry they are oblivious to but logic. The prose of one of the most popular books in recent history, The Da Vinci Code, is not just ugly but oxymoronic in places. On the first page of that book, we’re presented with the line, “On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.” That this is a self-contradiction — to freeze while turning one’s head — speaks to how much the figuration is, for many readers, simply a means to an end. That many readers would not even notice this is of more interest though, suggesting that the articulation of the montage of icons may be a creative act on the reader’s part, the connotations an imaginative material which they themselves render coherent, with scant regard to the content we imagine encoded in the figuration as signification.

They are not determining content. They are making sense of import.

Deep Import

Where the figuration is less narrative and more cogitative, that streaming montage of icons is, of course, of less import. (Being import does not mean being important import.) What we likely focus most of our attention on with ruminations like this is the deep import which this stream of notes and connotations, icons and aesthemes effects as: 4) an abstract articulation of ideas, a cognitive stream of connotations in the form of notions; 5) an affective response to all of it. There’s not much in this scribbling you are reading right now that’s conducive to iconic representation. When I use the word “icon”, I’m not inviting you to imagine James Dean or a Russian religious painting. When I use the word “articulation”, I am inviting you to picture a flexible structure of jointed segments, a physical form of articulated articles, but I expect that image to be barely registered by many readers. The poet in me does prefer words with a bit of iconic import, but in a scribbling like this it’s the stream of notions that counts.

Yet — and again particularly in narrative — that cognitive stream may be muted or so wholly bound to the stream of notes, icons and aesthemes that it is indistinguishable from that experience, cognition itself taking the form of a flickering daydream of simulated events. Even in this I’m not sure that the most abstract word like “abstract” doesn’t evoke a subliminal montage of Kandinsky paintings, geometric sculptures, a summary section on a research paper, a blue sky. I’m not convinced that the deep import is not, in fact, entirely constructed from surface import, with any apparent distinction between the experience of reading and abstract cognition of reading simply a matter of the usual stream of personal thought being maintained as a distinct articulation of symbols, icons and aesthemes in its own right, running in parallel, with the focus staying on that instead of being surrendered to immersion in the experience. This could just be the poet in me again, right enough, and the one who’s read “The Man With the Blue Guitar” far too many times. It does have my favourite lines in any poem:

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that we view the notion as the sublimation of the notation, imagine the act of abstracting as the extracting of the “at” at the heart of “notation”, as if specificity were an impurity to be boiled away in a boiling down. What I might well be suggesting is that this is what all thought is, what language is, where it is not (if it can ever not be) a game of symbols and ideas defined, delimited and determined by difference (if symbols and ideas can ever be so bound).

An Example

“The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.”

I read that sentence and I hear — in my mind’s ear, so to speak — /ðɪ dɔɡz bark and ðɪ karavan muvz ɔn/. I see the scribbling on the page but I also see, in my mind’s eye, two dogs barking. I see them as short-haired, middling-sized, with dark-brown fur. Because they’re barking most likely, I see them as mongrel curs, as fighting dogs — a mix of bull-dog, doberman, rottweiller. I see them as junkyard dogs, guard dogs chained up in a backyard, agitated to anger and aggression, circling outside kennels that sit to their right. It’s night and their heavy steel chains reflect the moonlight. Behind them is a wooden fence beyond which, under the full moon that dogs howl at, sand dunes or arid hills rise as low mounds and a trail of lights marks the jangling, clattering departure of the caravan. And the caravan itself? This is a composite of liminal images, of a line of loaded camels, of horse-drawn Gypsy caravans, of the modern “caravans” that an American would call trailers, pulled by cars and trucks, a circus of carnies and freaks, a carnival leaving town. Traders and tricksters who refuse the security of a settled existence. There’s an air of American Gothic to it all, of a Ray Bradbury story, of Carnivalé, of the Tarot’s eighteenth Major Arcana card, the Moon. An air of mystery and romance.

“The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.”

This is what that sentence means to me — its import. If you think I’m reading too much into it, building an elaborate fancy around the bare bones of its actual content, I say there is no content other than what we place into it as readers. If “dogs” offers an illusion of simplicity, an instantly identifiable signifier for an instantly identifiable signified, “caravan” explodes that illusion. We might assume Capote wouldn’t be using the term in its British sense, but is it a Persian camel train trudging or a Gypsy wagon trundling? What is the connection between the barking dogs and the moving-on caraven, left unarticulated in the simplicity of the “and” conjunction, and aren’t we invited to supply it ourselves? The answers to those questions asked by the sentence are its import. The import is its meaning, its full meaning, to us as readers.

Too much of this is lost when we slip into the metaphors of objects, of Saussure’s signifiers and signifieds — or Pierre’s signs, objects and interpretants — as things set down upon a draughtsman’s blueprint, white circles drawn round them in chalk, arrows marking out their relationships, pointing from here to there. We could imagine that those five components are discrete things brought into one-to-one relationships:

1) note
2) icon
3) aestheme
4) idea
5) affect

We could perhaps relate the note to Saussure’s signifier, Pierce’s sign, relate the interwoven icon and idea to Saussure’s signified, Pierce’s interpretant and object. But this is to imagine a determinacy that does not exist. The subvocal note /dɔɡz/ is not bound to a singular icon but rather evokes a montage of many — bull-dog, doberman, rottweiller — overlaid like the images of an experimental film. Context controls the montage, corrects and directs it, /bark/ revoking any icons of, say, a collie catching a frisbee or a labrador rolling onto its back for a tummy-rub, priming us to employ icons of the types of dogs that bark. There are many types of dogs that bark. We might select excited dogs, happy dogs, dogs at play, but the context “and the caravan moves on” tells us that what they are barking at is not a boy with a ball or stick, not a visitor with tasty treats in their pocket. In telling us what they are barking at, the context tells us why, what kind of barking this is; it specifies that these are the sort of dogs who bark at traffic, at noise in the distance at night, at things they consider strange and wrong… intruders on their territory. These are dogs as defined by Heraclitus when he said, “Dogs bark at what they do not know.”

The important thing is that there’s no one-to-one relationship of note and connotated icon, but rather a one-to-many relationship unique to each context. The montage of icons does cohere into a sort of meta-icon perhaps, of dogs that are (for me) short-haired, middling-sized, with dark-brown fur; but this is… a sort of cubist collage of perspectives that spills out beyond its casual frame, each dog a Cerberus with three heads superimposed one over the other, snub-nosed and long-snouted, ears pricked and flattened, slavering and not slavering. Every one of us will construct our own unique montage for each unique instance of the note. The note /dɔɡz/ effects four connotated icons it is impossible for most of you to share: you never knew the first dog I remember, Nye, the Eater of Socks; or the dog I grew up with, Captain, Guardian of the Millionaire’s Shortbread; or Bonny, the Duchess of Kilwinning; or Koré, who cannot be described in such terms because she is the term that describes. And these are only a few. You have our own.


The idea of *dogs* is the palimpsest of all these montages. It is the product of each montage of icons evoked by each instance of a note, laid down one over the other over the other, over-writing but never entirely obscuring. Or perhaps rewriting is a better metaphor than over-writing. It is as if each cubist collage of connotations is itself only one perspective to be integrated into the multi-faceted mosaic that is the idea of “dogs”. In that integration the montage may be largely subsumed, or it may claim a place at the very centre, command a radical overhaul of the idea. The montage of icons evoked by the “dogs” in a stream of words such as “the dogs tear at the little girl’s throat” might well have a distinctly revisional effect for a five-year-old girl whose idea of “dogs” was largely a palimpsest of montages evoked by “dogs” in more positive contexts, such as “the dogs wagged their tails happily”.

I say that the idea is the palimpsest, but this is only my perspective. Others might argue that the idea is not actually this palimpsest of icon montages, but rather an abstract concept bound to it, informed by it but formulated in some other media of cognition, a mentalese. The difference is that between a view taking its lead from Hume, in which all ideas are built from senses, and a view taking its lead from Plato, in which ideas are pure morphology. Like a class defined in Object-Oriented Programming, a CDogs class which has, as its main attribute, an array of objects of the class CDog, and which has a method, a function that objects of this class can carry out: CDogs.Bark(). But the class is only an abstract set of protocols for storing and processing information, an encapsulation of functionality. It is not an idea as we experience ideas, not an object in ideation itself, but the schematic instantiated in an object. Not a concept bound to a palimpsest, but the protocols for accessing it and any connected palimpsests (of wolves, puppies, cats, squirrels, kennels, leashes, sticks, bowls, bones…), in order to produce a montage in any given context.

Even if we’re inclined to the Platonic view, unless we’re going to follow him into the metaphysical mists in which thought is a sort of soul-substance, we’re still dealing with ideas that are instantiated in a media, concepts that are constantly formulated and reformulated. What we are dealing with, I’d argue, in this programming metaphor, must be a constant compiling and recompiling of the palimpsest-as-concept into mentalese as a sort of cognitive machine code. The end result is the same. For the little girl, the incorporation of that new montage into the palimpsest, whether this is all that takes place or there is an extra step of compiling the palimpsest into mentalese, still results in a fundamental revision. That extra step would mean the addition of a method to the class CDog: CDog.TearAt(objThingBeingTornAt as Object) with that method specifically accommodating objects of the class CLittleGirlsThroat as a parameter.

That these ideas or concepts are ever shifting, being formulated and reformulated as they are invoked leads me to prefer a term with less Platonic connotations. Ideas can be fixed. Concepts can be proven. What we’re talking about here are notions. And it should be pointed out that when the note /dɔɡz/ is struck, with all the montages of icons it effects of wolves, puppies, cats, squirrels, kennels, leashes, sticks, bowls, bones, and so on, it is not only one notion that comes into play but many, not just the notions of *wolves*, *puppies*, *cats*, *squirrels*, *kennels*, *leashes*, *sticks*, *bowls*, *bones* and so on which are distinctive but those of *mongrels*, *curs*, *hounds*, *pooches*, *mutts*, *canines*. Where one notion ends and another begins may be hard to discern.


So, our model of five components needs to explicitly recognise the pluralities:

1) note in context
2) montage of icons
3) aesthetic responses
4) notions as palimpsest of montages and/or cognitive class structure
5) affective response

The generation of deep import, of a notion and an affective response, does involve a concretion of all that surface import into a coherent unity. This allows us to imagine we have a signifier, /dɔɡz/, and a signified, *dogs*, as things being brought into a referential relationship with one another, that /dɔɡz/ is being made a pointer to *dogs*. But a note in this model is not a sign or signifier but rather an action of signaling which engenders multiple icon responses. What we have is not discrete objects but processes: the procedure of signaling within which /dɔɡz/ is just one action; the procedure of imagining which articulates icons and is constantly revised by ongoing signaling activity; the procedure of interpreting which navigates the connotations as a cognitive stream.

It seems fair to say that this last does result in a formal structuring of notions as things in relation to each other, a structure that is mapped back to the notes as things in equivalent relations. In binding *dogs* to /dɔɡz/ the relationship of signification comes into effect this thing being signified by that thing. But this interpreting is a summation of meaning which can only work by the rejection of connotation. It is a decision, a constant decision with each notion and note, that of all the connotations effected by the note — of all the variant notions of *dogs*, *mongrels*, *curs*, *hounds*, *pooches*, *mutts*, *canines* (and all their associated notions of attributes) — that only this *dogs* binds to /dɔɡz/. The word “decision” is chose for the connotations in the root sense of the term (echoed in “incision”, “concision”, “circumcsion”, “precision”), the sense of cutting-off. This is a removal of meaning, a removal of notation, a de-notation… denotation.


Is denotation always the point? Are we always aiming to flense the rich complexity of connotation and find the bare bones, to parse structures of signifiers into structures of signifieds? Or can the interpreting find its way through the connotations without bringing the knife to bear in the name of denotative certainty? Here’s some cod-Joycean shenanigans:

moongrowl curss gruffrough and rowl, raurk raurkas they rowl the clunkyard, rowl snarlavery agrrestive at thee, night carnivan of straingers hauksters ratscal roogs — roogs! — clarterinkling on ye aways a way outer ur town.

It’s by no means impossible to interpret that in denotative terms, split the portmanteau words back into their roots — “moongrowl” as “mongrel”, “moon” and “growl” — take coinages as new signifiers for new signifieds — “rowl” as a combination of “prowl” and “growl” — and so on. But this babbling doesn’t really invite us to translate it into a nice neat formal structuring of signifieds all sitting here and here and here in relation to each other on the blueprint, each with an arrow drawn to it from its signifier over there and there and there. Rather it’s a construct of connotations which invites us to navigate through it, constructing a notional summation of meaning as we go — a cognition of mongrel curs in a yard at night, making a ruckus at the departure of travellers regarded with deep distrust — but to understand as we do so that this is only a chosen path through a wide valley of meaning.

Something similar is true of, I’d say, “The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.”

Still, this denotative interpreting is how we ultimately arrive at — or at least think we arrive at — content, the cognitive stream processed into two core components: 1) the articulation of denotations; 2) the implications of purpose. (Implications of purpose may even be excluded from content, considered as a subtext of the articulation rather than text.) This “content” is denotation which is a crude gloss on the full meaning of an articulation, a coarse hacking away of import. Bound within its metaphor of vessel and substance content interprets the articulation from an almost wholly referential viewpoint, characterising meaning as residing “within” the words (and the relationships between them), all too often essentialising this situation of meaning as inherent (such that an articulation has a definitive meaning). If it can be seen as adding a hypothetical reconstruction of rationale — why that content was “put into” that specific form and communicated to us in the first place, what we are meant to “get out of” the articulation — this is actually, I suspect, born of the same act of decision, the same act of denotation applied to the connotations I have barely touched on — the aesthetic and affective responses.

It is a folly, this content, an act of contention, as much a conceit as the object metaphor that sustains it. In the imagining that we can “get out” what was “put in”, all we are really doing is cutting-off import in the hope that when we have cut enough off we will be left with a hard certainty. We cut away this connotation, that one, another, saying that this is *wolves* and this is *puppies* and neither of these are *dogs*, insistent on the notion that these can be separated. Still we find that when we cut into the notion of *dogs*, the host of connotations “within” it spills out, all those *mongrels*, *curs*, *hounds*, *pooches*, *mutts*, *canines*. And if we reach the core of the notion of *dogs* all we find is a note, pointing to all that we have cut away, saying “Look for the content in those to find what I am not.”

If I were Derrida, I might coin a term diversience here, for content, meaning neither divergence nor diversity nor diversion, but all three. Divergence because the content is the end-point of separation. Diversity because the content is the end-point of assembly. Diversion because the content is the end-point of redirection. None of these because all three act against each other, divergence and diversity implacably opposed but equally directed, diversion by its nature deflecting all aims. The term itself, as a note rather than a sign, connoting all three and their various combinations (and so embodying diversity), refusing to act as synonym for any one of the three (and so embodying divergence), refusing denotation in favour of a gesture to those three terms that it is not (and so embodying diversion). I’m not sure if that would be deconstructionist or zen though.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sweet News

As I just found out, Vélum has been short-listed for the Prix Europeén Utopiales 2009. Awesome!

The full short-list is:

Le Déchronologue de Stéphane Beauverger, éditions La Volte
Le Livre de toutes les heures, Vol. 1. Vélum d’Hal Duncan, éditions Denoël
En panne sèche d’Andreas Eschbach, éditions L’ Atalante
Gagner la guerre : récit du vieux royaume de Jean-Philippe Jaworski, éditions Les Moutons électriques
Roi du matin, reine du jour de Ian McDonald, éditions Denoël

I only know the McDonald sadly, as a paltry monolinguist, but that in itself is stiff competition, I'd say. So I ain't getting my hopes up. But tis well cool to be nominated. This is pretty much the Big One in European strange fiction, as I understand. Hell, it comes with a cheque!

I is a happy bunny todays.

Monday, July 06, 2009

On Mimetic and Maieutic Fiction

Some thoughts on recent conversations on the blogosphere.  You may have to read the "Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality" entry to get what I mean by "quirks", "warp" and suchlike.  But, hey, taking that stuff for granted I managed to keep this down to 2K.  And most of it is quotes.

1. Mimetic fiction is to strange fiction as instrumental music is to any music with lyrics — choral / a capella or with a whole lot of instruments backing the vocals.

There's a minor tradition within the science fiction community of using mimetic and mimesis to mean the opposite of the fantastic. The oldest such uses that I could find (with a quick and profoundly less than exhaustive search) date to the early 1970s, and the casual employment of the term in those contexts makes me suspect that it has a longer history within the SF world as a way to point toward what more generally gets called within that community "mainstream" or (less frequently) "mundane" fiction. (Matt Cheney, The Mumpsimus)

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. (Me, ”Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality”)

Almost all genre fiction, of course, depends on the suspension of disbelief, so if we accept Sukenick's definition, then the vast majority of SF is, in fact, mimetic… This use of the term makes sense to me because it does two things. First, it does not deviate significantly from how the term has traditionally been used -- mimetic fiction in this sense seeks to give the reader a feeling, at least while reading the text, that there is a fundamental reality to the world conjured by the words. (Matt Cheney, The Mumpsimus)

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. (Me, ”Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality”)


Realist fiction: If we’re mapping “the fantastic” to alethic quirks (a dubious correlation given the muddled conventions surrounding “fantasy” and “the fantastic”; I prefer to use terms like “alethic quirks” precisely to avoid the complications and contradictions that arise), we need a value-neutral term for that wholly/purely/uninterruptedly mimetic fiction that excludes this type of feature. Terms like “literary” and “mainstream” are useless as neither actually exclude credibility warp. The term “mundane” does exclude the alethic quirks but also suggests an exclusion of determinacy or equilibrium warps; this is why it carries a pejorative sense of “dull”. The term “realist” is strongly associated with particular schools with a distinct philosophical slant, but it does fit a fiction dealing only in actual/material possibility without excluding the quirks of, say, tragedy or comedy. Until such time as a better term arises, (and suggestions are welcome,) it seems pragmatic to use “realist” in this general sense and distinguish the more ideological modes as Realist.

2. The introspection of “literary” realist fiction is a fundamentally rationalist approach.

In epistemology and in its modern sense, rationalism is "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification" (Lacey 286). In more technical terms it is a method or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive" (Bourke 263). (Wikipedia, ”Rationalism”)

The thing is, in all these stories, by numerous authors of literary fiction, characters have this hyperreal awareness of their own misery, and comment upon it... That's a problem: subtext is not the end-all and be-all of human experience. You wouldn't know this to read the pregnant prose stylings of Amy Hempel. Every single character is almost crushed under the weight of the sea inside their own minds, where an emotion is spilling out. ((J.M. McDermott, Blog)

Different degrees of emphasis on this method or theory lead to a range of rationalist standpoints, from the moderate position "that reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge" to the radical position that reason is "the unique path to knowledge" (Audi 771). (Wikipedia, ”Rationalism”)

Academic fiction is constructed around a set of life experiences that are not universal. For instance, utter self-awareness is common among the hyper-literate examiners of life, but uncommon among the people that actually have a pretty good life, working, watching TV, and playing with their kids. (J.M. McDermott, Blog)


Reflectivity: The stories and substories of some narratives may be best described in terms of psychological dynamics, internal conflicts, the mimetic weft of the narrative focused on representing thought and memory — introspective reflection. Even where the emotional force of the fiction is intense it is under study, present in extreme because it is the focus of attention, the domain of the “real” that is to be detailed and made sense of. This rationalist approach falls within the project of realist fiction and is therefore prominent in those fictions labelled “literary” as part of the discourse of abjection surrounding warp in literature. However:

3. Reflective realism is only one subset of contemporary “literary” fiction.

In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner) focuses more on narrative and plot. (Wikipedia, ”Literary Fiction”)

For starters, most of the Spanish-language lit fic that I've read is much more extrospective than the Anglo-American counterparts. While there are moments of introspective moodiness, the stories in general tend to turn to outside events. (Larry, ”OF Blog of the Fallen”)

What distinguishes literary fiction from other genres is somewhat subjective, and as in other artistic media, genres may overlap. Even so, literary fiction is generally characterized as distinctive based on its content and style ("literariness", the concern to be "writerly"). (Wikipedia, ”Literary Fiction”)

It's not a turning inward to explore an imagined person's reaction to a past that will capture readers in most cases, but rather that turning outward and including others, making them feel a part of the story, that tends to lead to more favorable reactions. (Larry, ”OF Blog of the Fallen”)


Academic fiction?: Reflectivity may be a substantial thread in the mimetic weft of a work of strange fiction, regarded as “genre” and therefore as not “literary” by the Academy, but quite possibly regarded as “literary genre” by the subculture of “genre” readers. Further, much (post)Modern fiction that argues with realism and its rationalist aesthetic is afforded the label “literary” by dint of its channels of distribution, regardless of its concern (or lack of concern) with reflectivity. Given the aspect of rationalist study entailed in reflective realism, the subset of “literary” fiction described above might be described as academic fiction. This is no less problematic than “literary” however, due to the implicities of the term, its associations with irrelevance and privilege. Nevertheless, “literary” is a dysfuntional term.

Literary vs Genre: All fiction is written. All fiction is in a genre. The terms have been appropriated to the historical and territorial discourse of mutual abjection, but abjection is, by definition, a horrified revulsion at that which is recognised as having been (or still being in some respect) a part of oneself. Neither “literary” nor “genre” fiction can ever truly, wholly, exclusively be that which they are derided as or that which they pride themselves as being. On examination of each we will invariably find the features that are the focus of abjection, rendering any attempt to treat these as genres nonsensical. “Literary” fiction will contain the “generic”. “Genre” fiction will contain the “literary”. Otherwise, we would not be identifying them as such.

4. The rationalist approach in reflective realism, at its extreme, renders it maeiutic fiction.

Maieutics (pronounced /meɪˈjuːtɪks/) is a procedure of pedagogy. It is based on the idea that the truth is latent in the mind of every human being due to his innate reason but has to be "given birth" by answering questions (or problems) intelligently proposed. (Wikipedia, ”Maieutics”)

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”. (Me, ”Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality”)

By its part, Maieutics is based in the theory of reminiscence. It is that if the Socratic Method begins from the idea of a prejudice, Maieutics is based in a knowledge that is latent in the conscience and that is necessary to discover. (Wikipedia, ”Maieutics”)

Dewey's description: "Reflective thinking requires the continual evaluation of beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses against existing data and against other plausible interpretations of the data" (King and Kitchener, 1994, p.7). An individual engages in reflective thinking to "perceive the state of her own mind." (Reflective Thinking Literature Review by student)


Maeiutic fiction: In some reflective realist fiction, this rationalism becomes an axiom of the substory. Introspective reflection is the subject of a theme or subtext that: experience is only the raw stuff that is to be observed and commented upon in order to reach understanding; it is not to be surrendered to as a direct source of knowledge, of gnosis. In maieutic fiction, the protagonist is faced with a problem that requires a reflective reevaluation of self, with resolution achieved not by action but by realisation, in an epiphany that is not gnosis but rather logos.

Reason vs Passion: Maieutic fiction begins in the abjection of the “self-delusional” aspects of romance by which the Rationalist/Realist/realist novel is, in part, constructed. Don Quixote’s final realisation of his own folly might be taken as a good starting point. This rationalism is dimissed by the Romantics, and in the Gothic fiction that develops from Romanticism. Their abjection of “realism” leads in the first instance to genres based on artificially heightened determinacy and equilibrium warps where introspective reflection may be accepted — fantastique and the “sensation novel” — but as it extends to popular dime novels and penny dreadfuls we see an abjection of “intellectualism”: experience is to be experienced, not reflected upon. The rationalist side of the dialectic responds with the abjection of this “sensationalism” by which “(proper) literature” is constructed. This is carried over in the 20th century in the abjection of “genre” by which “literary” fiction is constructed. The ultimate end-point of this, on one side of the dialectic, is maieutic fiction.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

A Theory of Modes and Modalities

In literary fictions the plot consists of somebody doing something. The somebody, if an individual, is the hero, and the something he does or fails to do is what he can do, or could have done, on the level of the postulates about him by the author and the consequent expectations of the audience. Fictions, therefore, may be classified, not morally, but by the hero’s power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same. (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 47)

Frye goes on to lay out his classification of five classes — or phases might be a better term: mythic, where the hero is superior in kind to the everyman; romance, where the hero is superior in degree to the everyman and empowered over his environment; high mimetic, where the hero is superior in degree to the everyman but subject to his environment; low mimetic, where the hero is of equal status to the everyman; ironic, where the hero is inferior to the everyman. Essentially, his model offers us five types of hero we could label god, demigod, overman, everyman, nobody. While he relates these phases loosely to particular modes — high mimetic to epic & tragedy, low mimetic to comedy & realism — he spends more time exploring the modes of tragedy or comedy evident in each phase.

Where he maps this to a perceived cycle in Western literature, beginning with Medieval mythic and ending with Modern ironic, it’s an intriguing metanarrative, but I’m more interested in the implications of that phrase, “what he can do, or could have done” — which invites us to apply the notion of alethic modality — and the composite measuring of the protagonist in relation to both society and environment — which invites us to view the hero’s “power of action” in terms of two distinct relationships.

Frye’s god of myth is a protagonist who is an alethic quirk in their own right. (See the "Notes Towards a Theory of Narrative Modality" post for what I mean by "alethic quirk" and suchlike terms.) Whether or not they are subject to their environment is a matter of the worldscape that they inhabit, the alethic quirks that construct it. When Inanna descends into the Kur, she is entering a worldscape beyond her power, constructed from quirks far more powerful than her. And in terms of society, that worldscape may well include an antagonist of equal or higher status — Zeus’s Kronos, Prometheus’s Zeus. The worldscape of myth is one with the value of everyman shifted up to god. So Dumuzi may become a chimera/arcanum as he transforms into a gazelle in his bid to escape the demons pursuing him, but relative to his society and worldscape he is disempowered, a humble shepherd, a boy crying for his mother — a nobody. This potential of the protagonist being a quirk but in relation to other quirks means we might better treat myth as an extra dimension, with each phase having two forms — mythic and non-mythic romantic, mythic and non-mythic high mimetic, and so on.

But Frye’s characterisation of romance invites a similar decomposition:

The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established.

What he is talking about here is base-shift dewarping, of course, the dislocation of the narrative to an elsewhere/elsewhen in which such things “could happen”. What’s interesting here though is the characterisation of hero as numen (generating affective warp by doing what “should” be done) and the characterisation of their worldscape in terms of alethic quirks. The demigod of romance is empowered over his environment by those arcane, exotic, chimeric objects and animal helpers. The alethic quirks are predominantly on the hero’s side. Ultimately, in the form of Fate and the divine, the romantic worldscape itself may be fundamentally on the protagonist’s side. But the presence of “ogres and witches” in such a worldscape points to a complement: what if those alethic quirks are predominantly set against the protagonist? This is, in effect, the worldscape offered by gothic/horror, where ultimately, in the form of Fate and the diabolic, the worldscape itself may be fundamentally set against the protagonist. Between these two, in fact, is the range of possible tensions that construct the warped worldscape of legend, where some alethic quirks are for the protagonist, others are against the protagonist, but many simply are.

As the antagonist of myth may also be a god, as myth deals with, in effect, a society of gods, so in legend the value of everyman is shifted up to demigod. As the cliché says, it’s all relative. The protagonist of legend can be seen as, relatively speaking, the overman of high mimetic or everyman of low mimetic, while the protagonists of gothic/horror may be seen as, again relatively speaking, everyman of low mimetic or nobody of ironic. So romance also unravels, becomes a flipside of gothic, with legend between them as an ordinal position in the mythic dimension. What we have then is high mimetic, low mimetic and ironic, each of which may take a mythic, legendary or non-mythic form, according to whether the protagonist is an alethic quirk (myth), a human agent in a worldscape of alethic quirks (legend), or a human agent in a worldscape devoid of such exotica and arcana (tale).

Where the worldscape is fundamentally for or against the protagonist, we might well appy Clute’s narrative grammars of Fantasy and Horror with their Thinning and Thickening, understanding these as essentially grammars of romance and gothic. (Where Frye talks of the elegaic mood found in romance, of “associations with the sunset and the fall of the leaf”, of a “diffused, resigned, melancholic sense of the passing of time, of the old order changing and yielding to a new one,” it is hard not to see Clute’s Thinning.) Taking legend as the baseline however points up the absence in the middle-ground, the narrative grammar of legend, characterised by something other than Thinning or Thickening, something better described as Twisting — the grammar that we find where the protagonist must navigate a course of adventure and mystery, not knowing who or what is for him or who or what is against him, often finding that his assumptions were wrong, the apparent friend a traitor, the apparent enemy an ally.

What we have is, in effect, a plane of potential credibility warp which we can picture ourselves standing on. The centre-point is the protagonist as human in a worldscape of alethic quirks. Behind us those quirks multiply to the point where even the protagonist themself is one, the god of myth. Ahead they diminish, dissipate into realism. To the left, the worldscape becomes innately malevolent, permeated by monstra, a gothic mire of Thickening; its aesthetic is grotesque. To the right, it becomes innately benevolent, permeated by numina, a romantic meadow of Thinning; its aesthetic is idyllic. In the centre-point those two aesthetics clash in the legendary maze of Twisting; here the aesthetic is baroque.

This model is not, it should be clear, taxonomic. There are no borders drawn upon that plane: romance and gothic are only nominal labels for extremes; Thickening shades into Twisting shades into Thinning; credibility warp is slowly muted as alethic quirks become more sparse, as legend becomes tale; legend and myth blur where the protagonist’s quirk of a talisman becomes the quirk of a talent, the invulnerability of an Achilles, the strength of a Heracles. The demigod is often part god — half-god in the case of Heracles, two-thirds in the case of Gilgamesh.

Separating out this stratum of credibility warp in which myth and romance are only loosely bounded zones, we’re left with Frye’s modes of high mimetic, low mimetic and ironic, where the hero is defined in social terms as overman, everyman or nobody. What we are dealing with here is equilibrium warp — the weight the protagonist bears in terms of duty (authoritative warp) and the weight they can bring to bear in terms of will (affective warp). The overman’s superior status comes from dealing with more forceful deontic modalities and from responding with more forceful boulomaic modalities. They have the duties of the leader they are, and partly this is because their strength of will has placed them in that position. The everyman is dealing with the duties that any human being might, and doing so with a weaker will. Conflicted, uncertain, they are essentially a protagonist rather than a true hero. Strip them still further and we arrive at the nobody.

The nobody is a more interesting case though, with multiple facets. In the basic form, where low status translates to low duty and low strength-of-will we might see them as the comic scapegoat, the pharmakos, but more dramatic potential seems to be gleaned by subverting this form: the alazon or miles gloriosus pretends to a duty they lack the strength-of-will to enact; the picaro is indifferent to any sense of duty, is strong-willed in terms of desire but generally weak-willed in terms of controlling it; where they find that strength-of-will and set themselves at odds with the deontic imperatives of their worldscape, the picaro may become an out-and-out antihero. In effect, all these rogues and fools are basically antiheroic subversions of the classic combination of the dutiful, resolute champion.

What we begin to see here is not a simple schema of relative social status — overman, everyman or nobody — but rather a set of protagonist types defineable by the interrelations of the deontic modalities that act upon them and the boulomaic modalities they enact. High mimetic is not a phase but a heroic register (and one we might well argue turns romance into epic and horror into tragedy). Low mimetic is likewise a non-heroic register, a register of realism in the representation of an individual’s relationship to society. Ironic is an appropriate name, but this is perhaps best seen not as a register in its own right but as the set of all those antiheroic registers achieved by subverting the champion. If we are thinking of mode as a location in a zone of potentials, credibility warp considered in spatial terms, we need to think of it also as a priming of that location with a complex pattern of equilibrium warp, a register that may have preset configurations but which is ultimately as flexible as society’s capacity to create duty and an individual’s capacity to respond with will.

The result is not a historical schema, a taxonomy of modes as phases, but rather a model of narrative dynamics grounded in the potential variances of credibility and equilibrium warps. While Frye’s grand metanarrative of Western literature cycling through these five phases is appealing, we might ultimately see this more as the involution found in any such dynamic system where writers are reacting to one another or to audience expectations, following fashions or setting them. Two large-scale patterns of drift — away from alethic quirks and towards a non-heroic or anti-heroic register — are discernable as having led to a contemporary literature that maps to Frye’s ironic, but it does not seem difficult to relate these to historical circumstances: with the growth of Rationalism as an ideology we can expect an antipathy to credibility warp and heroic register; the expansion of the known world has made geographic base-shift dewarping less and less effective, the chimerae harder to accept as exotica (which may in no small way explain the shift to temporal base-shift dewarping); the democratisation of literature that began with the printing press and went production-line in the 20th century will logically lead to anti-heroic fictions by, for and about people who view the dutiful, resolute champion with the cynicism of the disenfranchised.

Frye’s metanarrative is a well-made myth, but it’s an orrery built to describe an ecosystem. This is not to rubbish it. The conceptual framework is presented as something far more flexible than a static taxonomy of discrete modes, and Frye makes a point of the transitions and resurgences, the way writers working in one will refer back past the previous mode to the one previous to that. This isn’t just a turning cycle of myth, romance, high mimetic, low mimetic, ironic and so on. But it is a broad structuring of literature that, I think, we can rearticulate in dynamic rather than mechanistic terms.