Paddy Likes to Know

The sun was too close. Paddy had never given time to consider the sun, but he was sure he could feel the thing in motion now, at work in attenuating the distance that there was between him and it. It was an encroachment, and it had the same honeyed quality of a gesture made by an overly-familiar acquaintance. A pat on the shoulder or arm, a light cuff on the head in the guise of remonstrance, either way, it was something you wish that they had kept to themselves. Paddy glowered upwards, and exposed the face beneath his hat to its bleaching rays, moving themselves over millions of miles of empty space, just to make themselves felt on the surface of his skin, and to scupper his ambitions for the morning. Perhaps this was extravagant. Maybe it was just the ambient pressure of the sky’s height, all the upwardness that there was above him. So much blue air, to exert itself downwards, and downwards onto him if it felt like it. As he looked, he could carve out a shape for it, see in it a long tusk of verdant distance moving into the heavens. His vision could set them next to one another, and then move between the two prospects. A vast and unconquerable mesa which hung suspended, and then something more manageable, something that could just as easily be made out of brick, but happened not to be. He did so, until the sky began to veer drunkenly under his gaze, and thoughts of mastery over that which he looked upon, turned and were gone with it.

Dublin’s clouds could have been the clouds of any month. The quandary could be tasted in the unseasonal humidity, the city breathing an air that was fat and immobile. The roads were slick with a glaze of rain from the final hours of the day before, and the leaves of trees were mostly unstirred by the paws the breeze would give them every twenty or so minutes. Paddy thought about the rain, and about stumbling home in it, with one of the lesser orbiters. The pavement of Baggot Street was too narrow for the both of them, and their shoulders kept finding their way into one another. Paddy wondered how this was possible, were they not different heights altogether? Drunkenness; it’s what it reduces you to.

— Howayeh Paddy.

— How’re yeh.
— Rain keeping off for now.

— Tis that.

His falsity bothered him, but he reasoned that he hadn’t really spoken. He hadn’t actually said anything, he just happened to be on one end of a conversation in which two men gave the other their default greeting, two mannerisms had just changed hands. His name, Montague, was a surname that was adroit, dense with vowels, the sort of name someone in a group of people you hadn’t been introduced to yet would have. He was surprised when the faces emerged from somewhere, none of them with an expression you could put a name on, as if they were waiting to understand how Paddy emptying a bottle of stout onto the Oriental rug was actually A Good Thing.

— Ah now Paddy, there’ll be no need for that at all.

— There’s, here’s what I think now, of your dirty Protestant carpet.

As the canal turned into his view, his hand raised itself to his forehead, as if to quell the half blush that expired there. That had been stupid, there had been no shortage of meals there in that dining room, or excuses made for his unwillingness to recite. He searched himself for some picot of memory ringed in clarity, some detail in which he would be vindicated. Perhaps someone had quoted that accursed blackguard on where it is that poets end up, that would’ve justified the whole bottle. No, that was in that other drawing room, FitzSomething’s, because remember Montague had left, had offered him board if he didn’t feel up to the walk home.

He lowered himself, with a cautious pliancy over the bench. He felt his mind, dim and befuddled, in the moment that he let his body lapse and fall onto it. A tree branch rattled, in anticipation of something about to touch ground. The street seemed perfect in its nascency, tailing off in the two directions on either side of him, in a way that seemed significant. A birth was about to take place. It would explode outwards, before settling, in the quietly dignified manner of transient surmise. But the canal lock, the walls, the bench, all remained quite still, and aloof from anything outside of themselves.

Forcing an epiphany was miserable work. He took from his pocket a ledger and pen. He felt as though there had been a time when he had been more of the world, more enmeshed in it. He had once felt things change, had felt things around him change. He was in it, ensconced in its restful fluxes. But if the world was still turning now, it turned without him. He lit a cigarette with his first match, but the smoke was too hot, too eager, and it rushed his throat so he doubled over to cough it off. As he apportioned ponderously the smoke on the exhale, he tried once more to mobilise his surroundings within his imagination, to behold and not to see, recalling as he did so the barest strains of the hum that used to manifest itself in his chest, trying in this mode of remembrance to induce it into reverberating once more. A barge moved into his purview and its bulk re-focused his eyes. So thoroughly did it occupy his sight, that he found it impossible to think about — he was startled when the bargeman nodded at him, but recovered in time to nod back.

Stubbing out the cigarette unfinished, he determined that he was deceived, that he was indeed in the grip of something, and that the premature extinguishing of the cigarette was a symptom of the something. He watched the strands of tobacco disperse unblackened, merrily trickle away, full of rue. He turned the ledger over and began to write a line. It was an ambling sort of a reflection, it quickly ran over its syllabic limit, but that was no matter, that could be fixed later. It would be a sonnet. He likes sonnets. One always knew where the turns came. He gave it a once over, noting the words that glinted diamante among the pitted particles. But Paddy’s attempts to marshal the line into stricture kept disintegrating, every time he thought he had it, the internal architecture was set, another word would arise out of, or descend into, the line. You could trick yourself into chasing a word you never had across a page for a lifetime. He turned his hat over his face and though sunlight crept in at the corners (and bathed the fringing lint in a luminescence that approached the divine, it struck him), it would serve.

***

— Afternoon sir.
— How’re yeh. A Guinness there.

— Right you are.

He dawdled on the spot, aware of his breathing. He and the bartender together watched the pint swell, and reach its first limit. It was set down then, left to settle away from the heat of his hand. Having no other task, he rested himself against the counter top, and looked at Paddy’s face.

— Still at the poetry I suppose.

— Ah, sure, when I’m able for it.

— Wouldn’t be for me.

Paddy said to this nothing directly, but proposed basic assent, or whatever it was that he was after. After a moment had passed, the Guinness was attended to once more.

sssssssssssssssssp

He reclined in a snug and gazed at the glass. He withheld from himself his first sip, reaching instead for the ledger, wishing to see his work anew. The wrench was always getting the words down, but once they were written, they could just be budged into place. But his fingers did not encounter what was not there, and his notebook remained where it was, on the bench’s seat. He drank, a measured but lengthy sup, waving off whatever hope he had for the day redeeming itself. He gazed at, and thought, for a good long while, about the suds which moved down the sides of the glass, restored to themselves.

— Paddy!

He was hailed by two arrivals, sharing their view of Paddy in his snug, and sharing too, some unspoken joe miller. It was Yer Man, giving the impression of standing maladroit, the lower half of himself lunging at the bar’s lip. Rotundity was a malady known to playwrights who made sudden leaps into means. The other was lankier, and good looking. The spit of Laurel and Hardy, the two of them. Paddy would have loved to land that line well, but he was in no way fit.

— Can I stand you one? Or are you just off?

Lanky laughed. At what, Paddy didn’t know, and he therefore submitted the line to an anxious scansion, for the trace of an insult. More a condescension than an insult, perhaps, for Yer Man to assume that Paddy, having bought a pint, just the one, just for himself, was now skint, and would rely on others in order to source his grog. Paddy didn’t like it, but Yer Man was right.

— A Guinness there, thanks.

***

— Have you seen his stuff yet, have you?

— I’d, I’d imagine his poetry, is like himself, not worth the least damn.

— That’s not what I asked you, Paddy, I asked if you’ve read the thing.

— Nothing published by that man is of any merit, whatsoever. It is perfectly useless to me.

— Mutual friend of ours, Yer Man explained to Lanky. Lanky laughed.
— Not up to Joyce, then?

— The reason that James Joyce was a successful writer in Ulysses was that he wrote out of his own life. The fact is that that man, that bespoke journalist, has no life of his own and therefore he is incapable of writing out of it, and, and out of anything at all.

— There’s a witticism in there Paddy, somewhere. I daresay it’s near suffocated by all the words, but.

He belched.
— Never read Ulysses.

***

One of the upstarts was introducing himself to Paddy, and it was some way into his greeting that he realised that it was taking rather a long time, running to the length of several minutes, as if in the manner of some deposition. This was a bold one, and novel as an means of introduction. Then Paddy saw Yer Man laugh out of step with the narrative, and realised that he was the one that was being spoken to. Better focus on this now. His speech has the strangest cant. Is he building up to song? O, it’s poetry. Near the end now, that’s a circulation.

Very few of the words caught. Yer Man managed a gruff disingenuity.

Some other orbiter commented on the speaker’s departure, but did so in a well- paced and conical mode, that devolved balletically before redeeming itself bathetically, missing the ictus. It was maddening, the feeling of a sentence’s rhythm imposing itself on you like that.

— Here, you, said Paddy. — Say it again. What was that?

— Ah that’s something he’s been having fun with today, some pseud in a London trade. Give us it. Brian reckons he knows the lad. Where’s it, where’s it, just here…ahhhh…I had it there awhile ago…yes, ‘the ‘altitudinous’ complacency of the Victorian Gael.’

There was a collective silence in observance of the fact of its quality if not sentiment. It was, after all, a very good sentence. But there were more eyes on Paddy, for the arrival of his stated view.

— The ballocks.

— Paddy seems to be taking that one a bit personal, what?

— He’s a ballocks, whoever he is, anyway. Just a, just an old ballocks with no merit on him, no merit on him at all.

— And with that chaps, I’ll be off. Someone please do make sure that Paddy gets himself home to bed alright.

Paddy watched him go, followed by Lanky and what possibility there remained of his next few pints. Best just sit here and let myself be consumed by this pack of bloodsuckers. I’ll listen to a poem for a pint. I’ll listen to your fifteen-book epic on each of the noble truths for a pint. Paddy stood up. Either one of his legs caught incorrectly in the final stages or his condition was such that he could not get off a stool correctly, the net result was that his seat began to fall. One of the others gave a shout and caught it, so Paddy nodded his thanks and slumped himself down at a table, populated by at least one face that didn’t look unfamiliar. No one greeted him, but Paddy wouldn’t have been aware of it if they had, being occupied at a point at which the leg of the table encountered the floor. He did not hear the company’s words, but they were cleansing as they moved through the air all the same. They existed without him, and he could depend on them being there.

— Heard they’re knocking it down, there’ll be a riot from the lot here.

— Why’s that? Sure this lot won’t have read it.
— Ah, you wouldn’t know.
— I would, no one’s read it. You wouldn’t take the trouble with it.

— I got a few chapters in.

— There y’are now, y’eejit, they’re not even chapters they’re episodes and if you got past the third one I’ll eat my foot.

— I’d say more here have read it than the average.

— Do you now? Watch this now, you’ll see the priorities of these lads. Paddy! Paddy, d’you hear me? Did you hear they’re knocking down the Joyce house on Eccles Street for the new hospital? Did you hear about that? D’you give a fig for it, Paddy? D’you think they should preserve it, the gaff I mean, for posterity, like?

Paddy did not speak, still fixated on the aforementioned juncture of leg, floor.

— I don’t see what that proves. He’s locked, sure.

Paddy stood without trouble, as he had this time chosen a low stool. He made to drain his pint to the lees, but he had none. This crowd, on his arrival, had begun to guard theirs with a proprietary hand, so he made for the door.

Double-stopping down O’Connell Street, he would right himself occasionally against the wall of a building, as if it were constructed for just such a purpose. He moved in this over-exerted dawdle, like an insect observed from above, until he came to the dark house on the resonant lane.

He confronted the door. His fingers pressed its surface, seeking a position from which it might be induced to budge. He dug his nails into the grike between the wooden frame and the brass panel, less to succeed, than to force the day into bearing witness, and he swore as the edges of the metal ate into the flesh beneath his nails. He applied pressure with his shoulder, once, twice, and then stopped. He wished it was the doorstep of his house. He might have fallen asleep there, half-slumped over his folded legs. He had once known the convenience of waking in a gutter, not far from his home, and it made sense, stretched on the roadside, to stand, and climb into your own bed. This was as easy as rolling over, when you had woken before the full span of your inebriation had been exhausted. The road cantered away from him, as he had risen too fast, and he gave the door a kick or three as he departed. But there was something in the lower half of the door’s response, neither an echo, nor a groan, but some reply. He directed the next two more consciously, then tried to leverage it, and then it was onto him, the weight of it, and some part of his spine’s assemblage made its defeat known with a pop.

The lovely light drizzle of euphoria was dulled by the ungainliness of the thing in his arms. He had to stop often to balance it against the pavement, to make an attempt to close his grip around it. When he moved, the furthest corner was just inches shy of the path. He strode past St. George’s church. What would they make of all this down the road? They would stand him a pint, at least one, at least.

He jammed its corner into the pub’s entrance to guide it and himself in, the threshold being too narrow for him to be out in front. When the door was there, standing uneven, and guilelessly sloped, only halfway visible to whoever was there to see it, he called:

— I have it! I have the thing!

Angela Nagle’s ‘Kill all Normies’

It should be stated at the outset that the structure of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies deflects the inevitable critiques that will comes its way. Kill All Normies cannot be evaluated in the same way as other non-fictive socio-political texts, given the fact that it supposedly presents an anthropological investigation into a particular subculture with no references, no overall evaluation of sources, methodological reflection, statistics, ethnographic accounts, interviews, review of extant literature or even definition of terms. All too often, phrases which are evidently freighted with significance are deployed (e.g. ‘ultra Puritanism’) without explication. The resulting indeterminacy of the ideas the text aims to convey find reflection in the mechanics of Nagle’s prose, which manifests repetition, sentence fragmentation, typos, random capitalisations, poor formatting, etc. Kill All Normies is a book badly in need of an editor.

While we could attribute this to the nascency of the field, Nagle’s analysis involves discussing the work of thinkers such as Frederich Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade and Antonio Gramsci. Furthermore, manifestations of a fervent, newly-emboldened right are hardly new, and it is on this basis that I would have appreciated at least an apologetic preface to account for the reasons why this genealogy of the alt-right is so decidedly impressionistic. Of course, to dwell on these points would be unfair, given that that it is the publisher’s aim, as I understand it, to get the book out while these issues remain topical. While Donald Trump is the President, things cannot be expected to remain in their current state for long.

Nagle clearly possesses a broad knowledge of the irredentist sect of the moment, and is aware of how the fragmented 4chan, 8chan, the PUA and MRA movements initially developed, clashed, split and exist in their current, fragmentary state. As a catalogue of the horrors inflicted by the alt-right on women, Nagle’s book is very effective. Problems arise in Nagle’s attempts to correlate the growth of ‘this network,’ with the current American administration. Trump is a disaster on Twitter of course, but it is important to remember that he is not just as a troll, but as the son of a real estate developer and a reality TV star given a platform by a number of media outlets despite his abhorrent views, because he represents a revenue opportunity. Throughout the book, the collective actions of trolls is given far more credit than it deserves in bringing far right opinion into mainstream media discourse, at the expense of media outlet’s puff profiles on dapper Nazis, or their consistent expressions of bigoted views.

Another crux of Nagle’s argument is that contemporary manifestations of the left, with its sustained focus upon identity politics, is responsible for the aggressive tone of the alt-right. It’s at least slightly bathetic to come, after sustained research upon such a specific sub-culture that would seem to be possible only within the contemporary, networked media landscape, to come away with a variation on horseshoe theory, i.e. there’s extremes on both sides of the argument. Nagle undergirds this line of reasoning from her concept of the notion of transgression, which she traces through the writings of de Sade and Nietzsche. As Nagle would have it, the alt-right is both an avant-garde and the true inheritor of the taboo-busting tendencies of ‘the 60s’ (how leftist activism in its entirety is being encompassed in this case is not clear) in its ‘libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony and ultimately…nihilism’. In proving that the feminist movements of the sixties (civil rights movements are not discussed in any depth), derived at least some of their impetus from de Sadean notions of transgression, Nagle cites right-wing thinkers who believed feminism was out to destroy the nuclear family, not necessarily the sources I would defer to in characterising second-wave feminism.

I have not read enough history or theory to cast informed doubt on the idea that second-wave feminism was ‘very much on the side of the transgressive tradition of de Sade,’ nor to what extent it exists upon a de Sadean / Rousseauist spectrum, as Nagle argues, but I am definitely uncertain, as to whether the struggle for feminism ‘is essentially a moral one,’ as she contends. Perhaps within some sectors it is, but I would think that the struggle for equality is more a matter of political economy than morality, and that substantial contingents of feminist theory and praxis would dispute that any one morality constructed via any one text or male thinker ones, is adequate in characterising what motivates its activists. I am of course, open to being corrected on this point, but this is one of the most glaring instances in which sources are lacking and broad, indistinct cultural trends are being made to bear a significant burden of proof. To give a final example, I have no notion what phrases such as ‘racial politics that has held since WWII’ are supposed to amount to, or mean.

The chapters in which these arguments are made would probably have benefited from more systematic, and perhaps chronological account of the left from the sixties to the present day, rather than Nagle’s tendency to move back and forth interchangeable between the eighteenth century, the nineteen sixties/nineties. An analysis rooted in chronology might have focused Nagle’s attention on trends such as lapses in class consciousness, (expedited by anti-union policies enacted by British and American administrations), the war on drugs, (a veneer for a sustained assault upon communities of colours’ capacity to organise themselves) the recession of the early 2000’s or globalisation, economic developments I would identify as more pertinent to political trends on the left than semiotics of the transgressive.

In portraying specific trends within intersectional leftist discourse Nagle identifies the calling out of racism and sexism as ‘crying wolf’, false calls for help which presaged the arrival of ‘the real wolf’, or the alt-right. Nagle also characterises the school of thought by focusing on how it manifests itself within tumblr sub-groups such as otherkin, spoonies, and people who get their limbs surgically removed [citation needed] because they identify as disabled, rather than sustained attention to the writings or activism of bell hooks or Angela Davis. By delineating intersectionality as people identifying as dragons (which isn’t to throw them under the bus, identify as whatever you want, I don’t mind) undermines the very real struggles of trans people seeking to eke out safe existences for themselves. To take just one Guardian story from yesterday as indicative, a survey of young LGBTQ+people arrived at the finding that 50% of trans teens have attempted suicide. Personally I think solidarity in the struggle for their rights is a good thing and I’m not sure a leftism willing to relegate trans or race issues to second place is a leftism worth having, which is why the polarity Nagle upholds at one stage: ‘Milo and his Tumblr-dwelling gender fluid enemies’, is so mystifying. Milo’s enemies could just as easily be described as women of colour in the real world, or the trans folk he was planning to out during his campus tour. It is unfortunately typical for Nagle’s analyses to take insufficient account of power relations, providing sympathetic points of departure for alt-right agents, such as male suicide rates and an ‘intolerant’ or ‘dogmatic’ feminists, but not leftist contingents composed of BAME groups or the disabled.

Nagle’s argument that the alt-right developed in opposition to the left is also peculiar, as it seems to me at least that racism, anti-semitism, isolationism emerges from a political tendency that is readily identified. Further, rather than taking Milo seriously when he says things like this, one could argue that these figures foremost within the alt-right have opportunistically pinpointed a number of demographic scapegoats which media platforms are not above bashing persistently. Perhaps longer term historical trends such as racism or the war on terror might be more to blame for these views entering the mainstream than the left, or Gramscian theory.

In closing, I will note that Nagle maintains the irksome canard, of failing to meaningfully distinguish liberalism from leftism. This intermittently makes for entertaining reading when she attempts to represent the performatively self-abnegating comments of no-marks such as Arthur Chu as symptomatic, while simultaneously implying that leftist academic discourse, summarised relative to Noam Chomsky and Gramsci, has been co-opted by a right-wing insurgency and was instrumental in deciding the 2016 presidential election. Whether leftism was responsible for Trump, or is pathologically incapable of forming coalitions of power, progressive or otherwise, Nagle never seems quite sure.

The golden rule holds true; never trust a writer who cites the Sokal hoax.

Collocations in Modernist Prose

I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.

Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.

Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:

young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland

Canonical modernist texts:

young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth

Contemporary texts, Enright, Self, Baume, McBride:

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time

Djuna Barnes

frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say

Eimear McBride

kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back

Elizabeth Bowen

mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard

Ernest Hemingway

robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said

F. Scott FitzGerald

new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back

Gertrude Stein

gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day

James Joyce

buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce

Marcel Proust

young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time

Samuel Beckett

said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor

Sara Baume

even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye

Virginia Woolf

miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened

Anne Enright

new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty

Will Self

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since

Flann O’Brien

father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty

Ford Madox Ford

henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw

Jorge Luis Borges

ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago

Joseph Conrad

mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones

D.H. Lawrence

young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day

William Faulkner

uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general

How big are the words modernists use?

It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*

*The previous graph had twice as many authors and was far too noisy, with not enough distinction between the colours to make it anything other than a headwreck to read.

In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.

As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.

Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.

By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.