Notes from New Sodom

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

Friday, January 22, 2010

Modality and Hamlet

The other day, a commenter on "Notes Towards a Theory of Narrative Modality" asked for some clarification to try and get their heads round the notions better, maybe some examples if possible. So I thought I'd go into the ideas with a bit more specifics, and bring it up front since the result is post-length rather than comment-length. Assuming you haven't read the post and can't be arsed going through it now, the gist of it is that narrative can be understood in terms of alethic, epistemic, deontic and boulomaic modalities, which is to say the sort of moods coded into modal auxiliary verbs (e.g. could, did, should, would,) which can be grouped in terms of whether they deal with possibility, knowledge, duty or affect; that a narrative has a baseline modality of "did happen" in so far as we're suspending our disbelief in it; that throwing other modalities into the mix creates an effect of tension I call warp; that warp can be described in terms of units I call quirks. Simple, eh? To illustrate, I thought I'd use Hamlet.

So, said commenter asks about the specifics of the different flavours of quirk, how the tension might be resolved -- the quirk "dewarped" -- going through the four groups one by one. That seems like a sensible line of attack to follow, so:

The Four Alethic Quirks

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.

The short answer is "yes". The long answer is just a tweak and twiddle of that "yes". How so? Well, the way I see it -- and the reason I call this type of dewarping argued dewarping -- is that the alethic quirk (the quirk of possibility) with its modality of "could not happen" sets off a chain of logical responses. This could not happen? But... but... but... Think of it as voiced in a truculent tone, as a protest; it's the response of that part of us that rejects "could not happen" as a valid objection, argues with it. Fuck you, geekboy, it's saying, I'm enjoying this story and I'm not going to be kicked out of it just because this event is, according to you, "impossible."

An example. Hamlet's father is spotted walking on the battlements, but Hamlet's father is dead. This is an alethic quirk, an impossibility. It "could not happen," our inner geekboy protests. It couldn't happen? another part of us responds. But...

So, the first challenge: But why could this not happen? The answer to this specifies the nature of the quirk -- novum, erratum, chimera, sutura: "Because it contradicts known science / history / nature / logic." Which is to say, the alethic quirk could be a technical, historical, metaphysical or logical impossibility. This leads into a transformation. It's a "how" question rather than a "why" question, I think, that we respond to this judgement with, in a second challenge: But how does it contradict known [x]? How, specifically? And this is where the critical challenge comes, because the specifics of this redirect us towards the resolution: So how could this happen? (I'm not saying we don't jump straight to the crux of it, or that we even ask this on any conscious level, of course. I'm just teasing out the details of the logic with as much rigour as possible.)

Hamlet's father is spotted walking on the battlements, but Hamlet's father is dead. This could not happen, we say. But we've been told it did happen, narratively speaking, so we can either throw our hands up in the air and bewail the whimsies of writers with no sense of reality, or we can deal with it by asking how could it happen? Will Rosencrantz and Guildernstern uncover a hidden hologram projector while searching for scooby snacks? No, it's not a novum. Is Hamlet's father wandering around, confused as to why everyone in this parallel reality thinks he's dead, when it was him who killed Claudius? No, it's not an erratum. Is Hamlet's father an anomaly of an entity existing on a "different plane" being perceptible on this one, an example of something physically aberrant, something which is not a part of nature and therefore not bound by its limits -- in short, a supernatural being? Yes, it's a chimera -- a ghost, to be exact.

Ah, so if the laws of nature allowed for incursions from the spiritual world into ours, then this could happen, we say. I don't believe it for a second, but I can continue suspending my disbelief.

To De- or Not to De-

So, yeah, a (more or less) satisfactory answer to that question (more or less) dewarps the alethic quirk. The answer to a "how could?" is less of a "because" than an "if," as I see it. If science takes the requisite step forward, this could happen. If history had taken this turn rather than that, this could happen. If nature had laid down a different topography of groundwork, this could happen. If the logic of events is more flexible than you give it credit for, this could happen. Novum, erratum, chimera, sutura -- each can be dewarped if you can entertain the relevant conceit.

A caveat. The sutura is a special case perhaps, because it runs the gamut from Pinteresque conversational/behavioural non sequiturs like in THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (where the disruption of conventional conversational logic is designed to force a re-evaluation of the system itself, a search for a truer logic of human interactions) to out-and-out breaches of causality like in BUFFET FROID. I'm not sure the latter is ever strictly speaking dewarped, because the conceit you're required to entertain is essentially: if the chain of events doesn't have to make sense as a chain-of-events, this could happen. Which is where people start saying, well, that's no longer a story, is it?

A second caveat. Arguably, the other quirks are seldom wholly dewarped either, because we seldom want them to be; the incredibility is part of the fun, the drama. Sure, we can look at it from one angle, think of ourselves as having to actively maintain suspension-of-disbelief by dewarping, by selecting to indulge in a pseudo-rational conceit that, well, of course, if A, B or C were true, then X, Y or Z could actually happen. But we could equally well turn this around completely; we're already committed to the conceit that it did happen, already suspending disbelief, so maybe what we're really "indulging" is that little inner geekboy's conceit that it knows what's possible and what's not. Maybe the whole point of the alethic quirk is to poke him hard, because his gasp of shock -- but! but! but! that could not happen! -- is where the entertainment's at.

Look at it this way: If our suspension-of-disbelief is so tenuous, why have credibility warp in the first place? There would have been no credibility warp whatsoever if Hamlet had simply found a letter from his father saying, "If you're reading this it means Claudius has succeeded in killing me. You must now avenge me, but on no account harm your mother." Not suprisingly, Shakespeare chooses the more interesting option that has a higher impact on the audience. He opens with the chimera precisely because it creates credibility warp. Quirks are the very stuff that drama is made of. The feeling of incredibility is a feeling of stimulation, excitation, arousal. Ooooh! Weeeeeird! Actually wanting an alethic quirk fully dewarped? Personally I see that as... atypical. Some may be insistent on it in their fiction (as some may insist on the complete exclusion of alethic quirks,) but I challenge any assertion that it has ever been, or ever should be, standard practice in narrative.

The Epistemic Quirks

With epistemic quirks, it's another story. If credibility warp is about stimulation, determinacy warp is about the frustration of not having the whole story, not knowing everything. It's basically suspense and related effects, so it's only natural that we do want epistemic quirks dewarped. Again, yes, I think all of these can be (more or less) dewarped by (more or less) satisfactory answers to the questions that fill in the blanks. The four quirks we have here are based on unresolved tensions between positive and negative modalities: lacuna (did / did not happen), limina (might / might not happen), cryptica (could / could not happen) and prefigura (shall / shall not happen).

An aside. That blog commenter admits: "I seem to have difficulty seeing the particular differences between an alethic possibility and contingency, on the one hand, and epistemic notion and supposition, on the other." This is a niggly issue for many of us, but it's an important one. It's the difference between known possibility and unknown actuality. The first? Right now, it could be raining where you are. I don't mean that I don't know. I mean, regardless of whether I know or not, regardless of whether it actually is or not, it could be. Generally speaking, that's a possible behaviour of any local weather system for any given reader at any given time. The second? Right now, at the very moment I write this, it could be raining where I am. I don't know because the curtains are closed. Hang on a second. No, it's not raining. I've negated the epistemic supposition that it could be raining by establishing the actuality. The epistemic supposition is no longer valid. Crucially though, the alethic possibility is still quite sound. It so happens that my local weather system isn't behaving in a certain way right now, but it could be, hypothetically speaking.

The epistemic quirks -- as quirks of knowledge -- are maybe as good a way to get a handle on this as any example. If alethic quirks invite "how?" questions, epistemic quirks invite "what?" questions. With the lacuna we have an absence of any notion other than the vaguest hint, so we need to determine, "What did happen?" With the limina, the same question works just as well, but we do have a clear notion of what might have happened to focus on, so we can be more specific: "Did X happen?" With the cryptica we know that a set of events happened, an A and a B that seem incompatible, so we ask, "How did A and B happen together?" But actually, you can reformulate this as one big event Y, where the question is, "What X happened to cause Y?" The answer usually reconstructs A and B into a C and D that are compatible. With the prefigura, you really just have a trick of temporal perspective. We can ask the question "Will X actually happen?" but the resolution comes when we catch up with the foreshadowed future and it becomes the narrative past; as an outsider, seeing the text as a post facto construct, we could equally well phrase this as "Did X happen (in the end)?" So, you can see these all as different flavours of the same basic question: "What did happen?"

Examples? Suppose we took the scene between Hamlet and his father's ghost out of the play. We don't say it didn't happen, just don't show it on stage. Instead we show Hamlet walking out onto the battlements (offstage,) then returning, having gone through an experience that he does not (yet) relate. We now have a lacuna that we can build on by removing any explicit references to Claudius's crime, inserting in their place pointers to the unseen event -- which wouldn't actually be that hard to do given Hamlet's evasive crazytalk. Clues can be seeded, hints given, but essentially, the lacuna would become a negative space loaded with significance, a great blister of determinacy warp building until -- presumably -- the climactic confrontation where Hamlet revealed the truth imparted to him.

Alternatively, suppose we remove any suggestion that others have seen the ghost, or indeed explicitly present it as visible only to Hamlet (as the ghost of Banquo is visible only to Macbeth). An unstable Hamlet, still grieving his dead father, resentful of Claudius, and bitter at his mother's hasty remarriage, returns home and sees his father's ghost, which tells him his resentment is founded. We now have a limina, a visitation that might have actually happened or might have been entirely imagined by a Hamlet on the edge of madness. Again, it would not be that difficult to push the play in this direction. The obvious extension of this would be to render the culpability of Claudius and Gertrude equally indeterminate, to allow for the possibility that they are entirely innocent.

Actually, with this example of a limina, thinking about it, it seems that we might well prefer the determinacy warp unresolved, the quirk left dewarped. Would we want the ghost to reappear at the climax, and reveal itself to everyone, thus establishing Hamlet's sanity and Claudius's guilt? Or would we want some dying revelation from Laertes that it was he who had murdered Hamlet's father? Or would it be more powerful to leave the truth unknown, leave the play in equipoise, an exemplar of Todorov's fantastique? In fact, Shakespeare essentially does create an unresolved limina around the question of Gertrude's involvement in the murder. She might or might not have been culpable. We just don't know.

A little tweaking and we could make this a cryptica by seeding the text with clear indications (e.g. in conversation with Hamlet) that she could have been involved, but equally clear indications (e.g. in conversation with Claudius) that she could not. This is, of course, the clash of modalities at the heart of any murder mystery or occult thriller, and it's interesting to note how those cryptica often skirt with full-on alethic impossibility (e.g. the corpse found in a locked room,) and how there's an overlap of readers and writers, even the idioms themselves. It's no coincidence, I'd say, that Isaac Asimov wrote both science fiction and murder mysteries, or that the Illuminatus Trilogy and similar works appeal to many sf readers, or that noir is everywhere in strange fiction these days, even secondary world fantasy.

But Shakespeare's play is not Hamlet and Yorrick (Deceased,) so it's not the best example for the cryptica. It is however a prime example of the prefigura, the ghost of Hamlet's father a classic omen, a portent of doom and openly described as such, explicitly compared to the signs and omens reputedly seen in Rome before Caesar's murder. When the dead walk at night, we know something bad is going to happen. Doom is almost certain. Death is pretty high up on the list of possibilities. Hamlet is top of the list of candidates. This is only the crudest and most obvious prefigura in the text though. I think one could well argue that Shakespeare slowly but surely crafts a more subtle prefigura of Gertrude's death, weaves it through the interstices. That's a whole essay in itself though, and the point here is not to analyse Hamlet, but to use it as illustration.

Moving on then.

The Deontic Quirks

My commenter asks:

With the deontic and boulomaic quirks... 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?

Actually, what I mean is closer to the idea that Hamlet, in his own mind, has the duty to kill his uncle but the right not to, and the duty not to hurt his mother but the right to do so. But I'll explain that below. First... I'm not sure these paraphrases work, because the "will" transforms them into epistemic modalities and thereby misses the essential dynamics of equilibrium warp, the essential instability it adds to the drama. Equilibrium warp creates a forward momentum precisely because the destabilisation of the situation requires some sort of corrective response on the part of a narrative agent. And while that agent is subject to the equilibrium, their action is unlikely to be defined so... programmatically by it, else the story would be rather dull. Their very agency, in fact, turns on the fact that the modalities of "must" (dictum,) "may" (licentia) and "should" (determina) are not straightforwardly transformable to "will".

That sort of transformation is fine as a rhetorical trick with dicta, is actually a commonplace of everyday speech -- c.f. the example at the top of the "Notes Towards a Theory of Narrative Modality" post:

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]!”

But the obvious rhetorical response here is, "No I will not!" This essentially says, I hear your deontic prescriptive, but it does not translate to an epistemic actuality, because there's an alethic possibility: I could not comply. In fact, I reject your (absolutist) authority and take your dictum -- that sneakily hidden deontic "must" -- as a mere determina -- a deontic "should." In fact, there's a competing determina saying I should not comply. In fact, this is the dicta that actually binds me -- my own sense of what I must do. So I respond to your epistemic actuality with one of my own: I will not.

The rhetorical transformations of deontic modalities are pertinent to the analysis of narrative, but reformulating duty as actuality is not a good starting point. Any paraphrase needs to take into account the limina of the as-yet-unread outcome we, as readers, are constructing from our expectations of how the dynamics will play out. So:

Dictum -- We realise that a character might/might not do X; in so far as as they are bound by authority, they are morally compelled to, but as an agent in the narrative they could choose not to.

Licentia -- We realise that a character might/might not do X; they are morally allowed to but as an agent in the narrative they could choose not to.

Determina -- We realise that a character might/might not do X; they are morally exhorted to but as an agent in the narrative they could choose not to.

The key thing with the first flavour of deontic quirk is that an agent can be caught in a tortura-- the pincer action of two incompatible dicta. The key thing with the latter two is that they're implicitly complementary. A licentia says you're allowed to do X, but subtly implies (the possibility) that it is preferable that you do not. Which is to say, it implies the determina that you "should not". Likewise, a determina says it is preferable that you do X, but subtly implies (the possibility) that you are allowed to not do it. Which is to say, it implies the licentia that you "may not." (Where "may not" means allowed to not do rather than not allowed to do, the right to refrain rather than the absence of right.) Licentiae can certainly be rephrased in terms of rights, but the determina is distinct from the dictum precisely because it is... a charge rather an obligatory duty.

Rhetorics and Dynamics

A good example can be seen at the beginning of Hamlet. Here, Hamlet has every right to mourn his father but is exhorted to get over it by Claudius. The gist of Claudius's speech contains an implicit licentia -- that Hamlet may carry on like this if he so chooses -- though it's the complementary determina -- that he really should not -- which is the main thrust. The complementary nature of these quirks, however, allows Shakespeare to do something more subtle, in what can be read as an invitation to turn Claudius's sentiments completely inside out. Because that's kind of how Claudius constructs his argument.

"'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet," Claudius's speech begins, "To give these mourning duties to your father." (My italics, natch.) That "duties" tacitly acknowledges a determina of appropriate grief, acknowledges that Hamlet has been doing what he should have been doing. Claudius follows this with a sophistic argument -- "But you must know your father lost a father" -- which functions as a licentia. This is the way of things, he's saying. "That father lost lost his." The cycle turns and we move on. The survivors are only "bound, / In filial obligation, for some term, / To do obsequious sorrow." The implication functioning as invitation, Claudius's suggestion is that Hamlet may (repeat, may) consider that term complete. It's not hard to see Claudius here as exploiting the dynamics, inviting Hamlet along a rhetorical path from "should" to "may not." And once he's established that Hamlet has a licentia to cease his mourning, he plots the next point, from "may not" to "should not," characterising grief that carries on beyond the obligatory period as "impious stubbornness," as "a fault against the dead, a fault to nature."

So, what we end up at is a determina that Hamlet should "throw to earth / This unprevailing woe," that he should abjure his own grief. With an unspoken licentia cause he can't very well deny Hamlet his right to mourn his own father.

This is just one minor example. The point is, in many cases you have a licentia where you "may but should not" or a determina where you "should but may not". It's worthwhile distinguishing these two-faced quirks as pressurae though, and treating the base quirks as distinct, because you could have a licentia which says you're allowed to do X and where it is also preferable that you do (as Claudius tries to persuade Hamlet that he may and should stop his mourning now.) Conversely, you could have a determina which says it is preferable that you do X where it is also not allowed for you to do otherwise; except that this latter is basically just the definition of a dictum -- i.e. a dictum is essentially a determina with the complementary licentia explicitly denied. On a low level, you can trace the dynamics of transformations -- dictum weakened to determina, determina flipped to licentia, licentia loaded to determina, determina strengthened to dictum -- in dialogue such as that of Claudius. On a higher level, pressurae are an excellent handle on a character's general motivation.

What I'm suggesting with Greek Tragedy is that it's based on (at least on one level) the tortura of two irreconcilable dicta, but that Hamlet, in his modernity, translates this into two opposing pressurae. In traditional tragedy terms, he must avenge his father, but to do so entails harming his mother. He must not harm his mother, but not doing so leaves his father unavenged. In traditional tragedy, these are prescriptives; the imperative is absolute -- must, not should. But Hamlet recognises his own agency, that he is an ethical being without an absolute moral authority to trust in. In his awakening to the existential uncertainty of the modern tragic hero, he gets that these are really determinae: he should avenge his father even if doing so entails harming his mother; he should not harm his mother even if not doing so leaves his father unavenged. Should, not must.

In fact, he gets that these are pressurae: he should avenge his father, but he may not if he so chooses; he should not harm his mother, but he may if he so chooses. Why? Because morality is a social construct, and the entire society is based on lies. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The authority, the king, God's representative on earth, has no legitimacy. He may not avenge his father (i.e. he is allowed not to) because in the morally bankrupt Denmark, with Claudius in charge, he can carry on as if nothing happened, just like everyone else, and be lauded as the dutiful stepson. On the other hand, he may harm his mother because she is complicit in that moral bankruptcy, and if he ousts Claudius, clears out the rot, when nobody else is willing to step up, he will be lauded as the dutiful heir.

With the unresolved limina of Gertrude's involvement only fuelling his existential crisis, trapped in a tangle of determinacy and authoritative warp, Hamlet has only his affective judgement to fall back. Which brings us to the boulomaic quirks:

The Boulomaic Quirks

The offered paraphrases:

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

I'd take out the justification of benefit to self that's attached to the numen/monstrum here; it's a rationalisation of affect that I don't think we need, not when the numen or monstrum may be nothing to do with pragmatic benefits or even with the self at all. Similarly, the caveat in the example of a staccatum given in the original post (“Well, I would, if you stop bloody shooting.”) is perhaps a little misleading. I might just as easily have exemplified the selection without that caveat: "Well, I would." To explain what I mean a little better (hopefully,) I'd tend to put these in a similar terminology to that with which the base deontic quirks are articulated. Think of them as somewhat comparable emotional judgements.

Numen/Monstrum – Facing an event that did happen (or the prefigura of an event that could happen); projecting ourselves into the characters or imagining such an event happening to ourselves, or coming about by our action, in so far as we desire/fear such an event, the strength or weakness of that quirk is the strength or weakness of our affect, positive or negative. Whether we're dealing with a disposition or a conviction, there is utter clarity in the selection between "yes!" and "no!"

Tremulum – Considering a potential action in a certain situation, we may simultaneously desire and/or fear the situation, the action and its consequences. It's not that our disposition is uncertain as that it's complex, conflicted, and so we reserve judgement. We desire the action to be in our nature but fear that it is not, or desire it to not be in our nature and fear that it is.

Staccatum -- Considering a potential action in a certain situation, we may simultaneously desire and/or fear the situation, the action and its consequences. However, we make a judgement, selecting on the basis that the action is or is not in our nature. Here, our disposition is still complex, still conflicted, but a resolution is imposed on it, a decision on the self-image we conform to (or at least believe that we conform to).

These paraphrases are nowhere near as succinct as I'd like, but essentially we're dealing with modalities of affective judgement -- states of conviction (must), reservation (could) and selection (would) -- that are complex products of positive and negative inclinations as regards multiple factors. These are overall emotional judgements on self and environment. If it helps, the dynamic relationships we have here are very similar to those of the dictum, the licentia and the determina, as I see it. The tremulum says you feel a pressure to do X but subtly implies (the possibility) that this selection is not in your character: "I could... but I would not" or "I could not... but I would." (Where "could not" means "capable of not doing" rather than "not capable of doing.") The staccatum says that doing X is in your character but subtly implies you feel a pressure not to: "I would... but could not" or "I would not... but I could". The numen or monstrum, as it pertains to a potential action, is the staccatum rendered absolute, just as the dictum is the determina rendered absolute, stripped of any potential alternative.

Hamlet's Horrors

Where tremulum and staccatum are most applicable when it comes to character motivation, it should be noted, numen and monstrum may well be constructed entirely from the reader's disposition/conviction. The deaths of Polonius and Ophelia are monstrous, it seems fair to say, and of course there's poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but the extent to which these are monstra in Hamlet's mind is arguably of less import than the extent to which they're monstra in the reader's mind. The writer -- the strange fiction writer in particular -- can gain a lot of mileage from simply pushing the reader's wonder and horror buttons, while the characters who confront these numina and monstra take them entirely in their stride.

But with narratives designed to enact reader/writer wish-fulfillment and paranoid neuroses, the role of monstra and numina is pretty self-evident; it's of more interest when these quirks are part of the narrative dynamics.

In tragedy, the dictum and the monstrum go hand in hand. So it is in Hamlet, the play framed by two monstra: in the very first scene, we have the hoary spectre of fratricide; in the very last, we have a bloodbath. As in The Oresteia, that initial monstrum starts the drama off in a state of equilibrium warp. As in most revenge tragedies, it is the dictum of vengeance that drives the narrative toward an equal or worse monstrum as resolution. Like a deconstruction of the revenge tragedy form itself though, Hamlet gives us a tragic hero for whom awareness of his role takes it to a new level, in the tortura of affect, the double-bind of monstra attached to his own life/death, "To be or not to be" and all that. Forget the rules of revenge; this is a psychodrama.

The tortura of duty is still there, but it's doubled -- or squared, even -- by the horror that mirrors it. If morality is telling Hamlet that he must avenge his father, even if it means hurting his mother, but that he must not hurt his mother, even if it means not avenging his father, his own affect, it seems to me, has constructed a double-bind that inverts this. This young student prince, this melancholic intellectual, seems horrified by the role of avenger. To become that classic instrument of revenge is to become a brutal monster, not least because emotionally his mother has become as much of a target as Claudius. He must not bring about the monstrum of matricide. But to leave Claudius on the throne, to leave his father a grisly spectre walking the battlements, to leave the rot in Denmark, this too would be a monstrum. And the very blame he lays on his mother, the rage he barely represses, makes her survival part of that monstrum. That Gertrude must die, in Hamlet's mind, is a clear conviction articulated in every shred of subtext. It is a key significance of the play, I think, that we have this prefigura of a monstrum that does not come to pass -- or not quite the way we expect it to -- in so far as the text is wrought with the undercurrents of Hamlet's potential matricide of Gertrude. And how much of this turns on the liminal nature of her guilt?

But this isn't meant to be an analysis of Hamlet, as I say. It's about using Hamlet to illustrate examples of quirks -- so maybe what exactly I mean by the tremulum can be fleshed out here. See, Hamlet is not in a state of ignorance, not knowing what he wants to do. The extent to which he is rebelling against all the imperatives heaped on him, including the emotional ones, is a marker of this knowledge. The extent to which he is (presented as) repressing his fury at his mother is, I'd argue, in direct proportion to the extent to which he knows he wants to slay her. So he's not trying to figure out what he wants to do. He's caught in a situation where he's intensely aware of each individual desire to carry out each of these mutually incompatible actions. You could trace a limina in that, sure, an uncertainty, with that "To be or not to be" speech seen as a weighing of options aimed at establishing the truth (i.e. epistemic actuality) of what he most wants to do. But it's worthwhile, I think, to see him as following the logic through. The question he's asking himself is not just "Should he?" It's "Should he? Could he? Would he?"

As with deontic quirks, you can see this in terms of rhetorical transformations. The emotional torturae are clear to this most cerebral of tragic heroes; he knows what all the "musts" (or rather "should but may nots") are. But how to translate that into action? That's where the tremula come in, I'd say. The core tremulum in Hamlet might be articulated as "I could kill my mother." but other related tremula can be identified too: I could kill Claudius; I could do nothing; I could get out of this role of tragic hero by dying, by going mad, or by just walking away from it all, going back to university and pretending nothing happened; (and most of all) I could become a murderer. And as with the licentiae and determinae, such tremula subtly imply (the possibility) that the reservation is based on a selection against that action, a negative staccatum -- "but I would not."

Here's the thing: Where the modalities of duty allow one to slip or flip from "must" to "should" to "(but) may not" to "should not" (to tread the path Claudius is trying to lead Hamlet down,) the only path to a modality of actuality there is that conflation of deontic "must" with epistemic "must". A character who follows that route is basically surrendering their agency. With boulomaic quirks, the path out of the maelstrom of affective warp is via the tremulum of "could": I could do this but would not; I would not do this... but could; I would that I could not, but could... and would; I would and will. Which is to say, that Shakespearean "would" is the pathway to a modality of actuality here, in the conflation of boulomaic "would" and epistemic "would". It denotes desire (c.f. the Biblicial "I would that you were cold or hot,") but slides into a statement of fact ("I would challenge to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed"). An assertion of atitude, "I would you did, sir," becomes an assertion of intent, "I would have such a fellow whipped." An assertion of -- and apologies if this is so obvious a point it's insulting -- will.

Hamlet's madness can be understood as an enaction of those tremula, I think, a testing of his capacities which, as he pushes the boundaries further and further, becomes ultimately a test of his capacity to be monstrous. In his relationships with everyone around him, he's role-playing the tremula, going along with the "I could" so that, in his erratic actions he ends up sealing the deal, proving to himself that, yes, he could; it's in his capacity. He could treat someone he loves with the contempt required to destroy her. He could kill someone with his own sword. He could and he would.

In that context, I'd see the deaths of Ophelia and Polonius as essentially Hamlet forcing his own hand, (albeit perhaps unconsciously so.) These are... steps on the way to the staccatum of the end, circuitous and neurotic tricks for redefining himself as someone who not only could but would take a life. He could and would take a life by "accident". He could and would drive someone to take their own life. He denies it to Laertes, of course, characterising his madness as the actual culprit, literally saying it was not him: "If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away, / And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes, / Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it." Maybe we ought to see Hamlet's madness as a tremulum in itself, that which could do what he could not. And maybe it's significant that the staccatum of the killing of Claudius comes after Laertes's declaration, "Hamlet, thou art slain." Is it simply a rhetorical device that Hamlet says, "I am dead, Horatio" rather than "I am dying," or is that Hamlet would not kill, but now Hamlet is slain, dead, that which is no longer Hamlet would?

A Final Question

Would it be possible for "equilibrium dewarping questions" to be formulated for the deontic and boulomaic quirks as well?

I'm not sure. Part of what makes equilibrium warp thornier and harder to explain is that with credibility and determinacy warp you're dealing with possibility and actuality, challenges to which can be resolved by filling in gapstory, rendering the story choate. It is action being represented or left unrepresented that causes the warp, and any dewarping that takes place will always be ultimately aimed at creating a sense that "this could and/or did happen". The questions that aim at establishing that -- How could it happen? What did happen? -- are logical responses.

With authoritative and affective warp, you're dealing with duty and desire, the ethical and emotional impetuses that are driving the narrative, challenges that confront the character with a clusterfuck of deontic and boulomaic quirks, or quirks that are themselves responses to that clusterfuck. The logical responses to these are not necessarily dewarping questions, I think, but questions that invite rhetorical transformations:

Dictum -- I must > Must I really?

Licentia -- I may > But should I?

Determina -- I should not > But may I?

Numen/Monstrum -- I must > Must I really?

Tremulum -- I could > But would I?

Staccatum -- I would not > But could I?

It seems to me that maybe even with the alethic and epistemic quirks there are similar relationships we could tease out. I have an inkling that a narrative dynamics based in modality could be factored up to a narrative logic, an informal logic that I'm sorely tempted to call a "suppositional calculus". (The propositional calculus, after all, is basically limiting yourself to a single modality of "must," every "If A then B" an assertion of alethic/epistemic necessity.) Rather than just dewarping an alethic quirk -- a giant robot, for example -- by finding an answer to the "How could this happen?" question, the reader might more commonly be responding to it as a numen, parsing it as something that should happen -- cause giant robots are cooooool! -- and being slingshotted into an exactly inverted credibility warp: "How could this not happen?" In commercial strange fiction exploiting/manifesting wish-fulfillment and paranoid neuroses that seems fairly common. As I say, maybe the warp is where the entertainment's at.

Basically, I don't think that dewarping the quirk is the point so much as working through the narrative logic is. And as for that narrative logic itself? I do think this notion of narrative modality might be good groundwork, even if it is just the groundwork.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hal, thank you so much for the clarifications! They really helped! :)))

Just a question concerning the could/would of boulomaic modality:

It means a possibility of action that has entered the character's mind and the affective warp results from his tremulations about whether he's got it in him to do it, correct (or to abstain from doing it, although he knows he's got in him)? In other words, to turn the "would I do it/not do it" to "I will (not) do it!".

If so, how would an exploration and resolution of a *staccatum* look like (that last "I wouldn't - But could I?" transformation)? Or the staccatum is the resolution of a tremulum and that's its only function?

And also - you say that tracing these modalities in a narrative could be a solid groundwork for further analysis; but wouldn't you say that it is actually going a bit further than that, since uncovering these dynamics would entail a rather rigorous rhetorical analysis beforehand, turning text into subtext and abstracting from it the moods, associated with the author's rhetoric?

That question actually came about as I was reading Scott Bakker's "The Judging Eye", which struck me as almost excruciatingly high-flown and verbose, a cataract of metaphoric language (I'm talking almost every single line of text here, literally!) and philosophical assertions, which seems to me would be extremely difficult to parse, if indeed there is any underlying common structure to the book's language...

Anyway, thanks again for taking the time and effort to clarify! :)


8:21 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Yes, that's a pretty fair summation of the tremulum, I think. With the staccatum -- it's a long time since I read it, so this interpretation is sketchy and tentative, but Coriolanus strikes me as a possible example of a text that explores that quirk. The character of Coriolanus feels to me like a veritable construct of staccatum -- c.f. the Wikipedia article:

"Readers and playgoers have often found him an unsympathetic character, although his caustic pride is strangely, almost delicately balanced at times by a reluctance to be praised by his compatriots and an unwillingness to exploit and slander for political gain."

That "balance" of pride with a rejection of praise and a refusal to play status games actually makes perfect sense if one understands his ethos as (a poet's version of) a warrior code of honour -- *not* as respectability/glory but as *integrity*. What I mean is that the term "integrity" is deliberately selected here for its sense of structural cohesion and unity -- as in the integrity of a ship's hull, right? A personal ethos could be seen as the model of self constructed from all those "I would" and "I would not" statements. And that's what Coriolanus is all about. He's not willing to compromise the integrity of his self-image, no matter what anyone else thinks of him.

So he's someone who doesn't question, just acts -- almost a polar opposite of Hamlet. In any given situation, he just goes straight to the staccatum, and damn the consequences. He's working with a sort of Aristotelian ethics where it doesn't matter a jot what society says you should/should not do; all deontic pressurae are subsumed into a single imperative, not to breach his self-image. Despite his virtually sociopathic attitudes, I find him actually quite subtly sympathetic because he's the sort of person who does what they should, not because they know/feel they should but because they literally *would* not do otherwise.

It's interesting -- to me, at least -- to cross-reference this binding of ethics and identity to John Proctor's "leave me my name!" in The Crucible, the way that name functions as a symbol of self, the way he will (indeed *does*) give the confession he's compelled to, but *will not* allow it to be presented *as* an act of will. One could view him as baulking at the public display, at the loss of his name as a loss of reputation, a shaming in the eyes of others. How could he teach his children "to walk like men in the world," he asks, if he's sold his friends? But that outburst referred to by Miller as a "cry of his soul" in the stage direction is, I reckon, more about personal integrity. To lose his name would be to abrogate his ethical agency. Broken and beaten down beyond the point of surrender, he nonetheless finds a staccatum within himself. He will say whatever they want him to. He will even sign the false confession. But he will not go along with the pretence that he does this willingly.

But that's staccatum as a climactic resolution again, not the quirk being explored in its own right. I'm only pointing to it because of the way it highlights the role played by identity in all this.

Another full-on exploration of the staccatum might be found in Patrick McGoohan's Number 6 in The Prisoner. The whole show begins (every week) with the staccatum of his resignation, his "I will not!" He even articulates his own role *as* a staccatum: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!" And what do you know, it's all about identity again, the Village stripping off names and replacing them with numbers as a first step in breaking the will of its residents.

10:40 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

In terms of groundwork... I meant more that this theoretical model of quirks was a good base for a more gnarly theoretical model that would get to grips with how such quirks worked together as elements of a system. What I mean is, I guess, that where Todorov talks about a vague "disruption" of an equally vague "equilibrium," this model grounds that in the specifics of modality and thereby allows us to identify distinct types of disruption -- the various flavours of quirk. But the model as yet doesn't really tackle the impact such quirks could have on a narrative, not beyond "they create warp". There's a lot more to be said, I think, about how quirks might interact with each other and how such interactions might be understood as the basic "stuff" of narrative.

In terms of practical application, how far that necessarily goes as analysis, how far it depends on a thorough rhetorical analysis beforehand... I'm not sure. For me it feels a bit more like having a toolkit of notions that can be brought to bear as one the start-point of analysis. Like you might read a Greek play and initially identify the basic agon and the key moment of anagnorisis, you might read an SF short story and initially identify the most obvious alethic quirks. So you read Bradbury's "The Veldt" and you have the viewscreen which starts out as a novum but ends up as a chimera (when the hologram lions actually eat the parents,) as a monstrum, in fact. With deontic and boulomaic quirks, I'm kinda thinking that uncovering the dynamics would *be* a rhetorical analysis, or go hand-in-hand with it, that partly you'd be turning text into subtext and abstracting from it the moods, but partly you'd be taking an abstract sense of warp and looking for where it's articulated or implied in the text. If that makes sense.

11:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, it does :)

Analysis of a literary work (why does the word analysis mean something bad in the ears of so many people?...) *is* exactly the kind of process you describe. It goes from general intuition to specific observation and then back again.

And you're right that with alethic quirks it's possible to *start* with the observations of modality instead of abstracting it.

Thanks for the Coriolanus example, I had something similar in mind, but not as clear :)

I'm looking forward to your theoretical writings and/or analyses of texts, they're always a blast to read, almost as much as your fiction :)

9:28 am  

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