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%.

The Ideology of Wonder Woman

Diana’s ideological apprenticeship begins in her childhood, when she inherits a Manichaean account of her history, both personal, and familial. According to the schema provided by Queen Hippolyta, all humans used to live in a golden age of conflict-free egalitarianism which was destroyed by Aries, the film’s intermittently real antagonist, who sewed discord in the hearts of men, and made them turn against one another. The Amazons were a superhuman race created by Zeus in order to mediate relations between men, and for a time this was apparently successful, until the Amazons rose up in a violent insurrection against this narrowly circumscribed role (which is compared with slavery), to establish a militaristic community on the island of Themyscira. The film gives no indication that it’s a collectivist society, but there’s no direct evidence of private property, and everyone seems to know each other. It also suits my argument to assume that it’s a communist utopia.

Diana’s objective on leaving the island with American spy-pilot Chris Pine is to kill Ares, the divine agent of conflict that she believes to be the only possible explanation for World War I. Once Ares dies, she believes, the war will come to an immediate end, as the corruption within men’s hearts will be done away with . Chris Pine indulges Diana in this regard for most of the film, but believes it to be unlikely that Ares truly exists in the way that Diana envisions.

When Erich Ludendorff is dispatched, the avatar, as Diana believes, of Ares, she is dismayed to find that the military-industrial infrastructure, and the great war more generally, seems to be proceeding anyway. Chris Pine then explains to Diana that the conflict is the inevitable outcome of mankind’s inherent flaws (tendencies towards violence, militarism), than the influence of Ares, though in his account, the number of squabbling aristocrats in Eastern Europe and nationalism don’t gets a mention, nor the Aristotelean account of the ways in which unequal societies are more unstable, a view Diana would be familiar with, given the extent of her erudition. I consider this within the context of Chris Pine’s general demeanour and/or blatant impatience when Diana challenges his analyses in any given context and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Chris Pine’s explanations for Anglo-American societal customs are unsatisfactory or simplistic; it’s indicative of a general condescension his character exhibits towards Diana.

It turns out that David Thewlis’ character, the seemingly benign member of Imperial War Cabinet, is in fact Ares, and I think what is at stake in this is the text’s perspective on revolutionary violence.

As Diana’s childhood understanding holds it, the struggle for a better society is a question of fights between the already empowered, the god Ares and herself. Ordinarily I would say this they are analogous to the landholder class, but Noam Chomsky’s impressionistically applied, and vaguely conspiratorial ‘masters of mankind’ category might be more adequate in this case. As such, the political struggle is a war of personalities, one which is, in Diana’s words, not about what one ‘deserves’, i.e. the fulfilment of the social compact, but what one ‘believes’, the sincerity of one’s desire to improve the world. That one’s intentions are sufficient justification for any given course of action in contrast to an appeal to inherent human dignity overlooks the fact that the Amazons initially emancipated themselves from slavery by violent means and further re-endorses the reactionary aspects of her binaristic childhood education of good v. evil, without leaving space for possible change in the future. Ares, as the linchpin of all evil, avarice and imperialism exists, a transcendental representation of evil, but no such space is provided for an aspiration to true good, only a belief, or faith, that one’s ‘good’ actions amount to an improvement, which is due to woman and man’s essential nature, as flawed.

In many ways this film traces the trajectory of a young woman moving away from home, finding her reality was not as straightforward as she imagined, but accepting a sequence of base level facts as a foundation for any further analyses or beliefs, facts provided by Chris Pine, that skulduggery and incrementalism are the only legitimate path to political change. Which is very open to argument.

This political reality Diana is re-construed within requires a Lacanian account. Wonder Woman relates Diana’s entry into a relation with the name of the father; a repressive and constrained reality beyond the complete pleasure and authentic relation with her mother/the broader community of Amazons on Themyscira, which runs parallel to the rather simplistic bildung maturity narrative. The scene where Diana quizzes Chris Pine about his penis size, then talks about his watch is the most revealing in this context, given that the watch was a gift from his father, it’s freighted with patriarchal baggage, which is bolstered by the fact of him giving it to her in the moment that he consolidates their relationship with his male speech act. Chris Pine’s watch, represents both mechanistic industrial and patriarchal time, and his phallus, and exists in contrast to the nostalgic eternal past of Themyscira, reflects Diana’s internalisation of a patriarchal capitalistic modality of existence. At a crucial moment in the film’s final battle, the film’s utterly spurious love-sex plot with Chris Pine, allows her to break out of a steel enclosure Ares forms around her, rather than for example, having her aunt/her mother/the fate of collectivism in Themyscira prove sufficient motivation. Further, when in London, the smoky, industrialised, poverty-striken landscape, her ‘feminine’ attributes come to the fore to a greater extent, she is drawn to a baby she sees in the street, for example.

Utopias in Wonder Woman are usually framed and evoked by the opposite of the London landscape; foliage and greenery, as in Themyscira, the moment that Ares reveals his own prospective vision of a conflict-free utopia to Diana, and in one of the final shots in the film, which features Diana and the soldiers, formerly on opposite sides in the war, embracing in a bombed-out airfield, framed by trees and the setting sun. This reflects a fusion of the industrialised, capitalist and patriarchal order and the soft, pre-industrial, earth mother that Diana and the Amazons embody.

The final point to grasp is that the film provides the audience with a personification of transcendental evil in the figure of Ares, but no means of grasping a transcendental good, because the evil is also present within people. People are capable of carrying out good acts, but only in the form of futile sacrifices of themselves as representatives of the lumpen or in moments of collective celebration as in London at the end of the war, but these cannot be translated into broader political action, or a societal paradigm.

Far from the usual case wherein, as a revolutionary communist, one identifies with ‘the bad guy’ in films such as these because of the extent to which these films endorse ownership of private property, these models of agrarian utopia do not provide a stable means of proceeding. If that utopia is in any way analogous to the one that prompted the Amazons to revolt, it’s fairly obvious that it will depend on female exploitation. The notion that the Amazons provide a curative for man’s hardness (industrialisation, time, violence) with their softness, is a binary construction, which is why Isabel Maru is the villain of the film; she is deformed, ugly, Other, she fails to live up to the soft feminine ideal and crosses over into monstrosity, due to her interest in science, industrial processes. Both women, of course, go weak at the knees over Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman proves that Maoism is the only true revolutionary struggle as it mobilises the lumpen, but after or during the revolution, you have to kill all the men.

Modelling Humanities Data Blog Post #2: Different Methods of Modelling data

This blog post will focus on the 1641 depositions project, based at Trinity College Dublin. The aim of the project was to digitise approximately 8,000 depositions dealing with the 1641 uprising in Ireland and provide them online, which amounts to 19,010 pages of text bound in 31 volumes. Each page was photographed in high-resolution, transcribed and marked up in TEI.

The transcription which was carried out preserved variant and incorrect spellings, as well as subsequent emendations, such as struck out words or marginalia. These are formatted in a way which emphasises their separateness from the ‘main’ text. These accounts were initially taken spontaneously, as a means of gathering information about the uprising from those who were affected by, or witnessed, the disturbances. This first wave of depositions are more discursive in character and were taken within two years of the initial events. Subsequent witness statements, taken in the 1650’s, were more focused on damage to property and loss of life with a view to charging those guilty of such acts in court. Though these statements were marked up in TEI, the code itself is inaccessible, due to concerns about people making use of the transcribed manuscripts without permission. This hinders the markup’s functionality, as it makes it impossible for scholars to search, process or analyse the text in ways that markup would otherwise allow.

The data schema that was used within the context of the  project website is also idiosyncratic in many respects. The tagging system which facilitates searches of the depositions uses twenty-four separate terms, among them, ‘apostasy’, ‘arson’, ‘captivity’, ‘witchcraft’ and ‘death’. There is a significant amount of overlap within this systems, the question arises as to what precise differences there are between ‘death’, ‘killing’, ‘multiple killing’ and ‘massacre’ as subjects. Further, tags such as ‘witchcraft’ disproportionately emphasise the sensational nature of some of the depositions; despite the fact that references to supernatural phenomena, feature in a relatively small number of depositions.

This is somewhat ironic considering the uses the depositions were put to at the time they were first written, as a means of fuelling anti-Catholic prejudice in England to further entrench the plantation project and justify the representation of Catholicism as ‘a proven tyrannical force’. This may have been done with a view to the potential impact of the project; Elizabeth Price’s deposition was dramatised on RTÉ presumably because it offers a vivid account of a massacre, though no attention was given in the broadcast to their unreliability as a resource. As the depositions were devised by a governing infrastructure attempting to prosecute insurrectionists and quell rebellions from non-compliant parts of the country, they could hardly be considered disinterested investigations.

There is an argument to be made that a panel of historical experts on Tudor and Stuart Ireland would be capable of devising a sequence of topics in order to provide a guiding mechanism for any prospective reader, particularly within the context of a digital scholarly edition such as this, in which there is such a huge amount of material. However, it is clear that in this case, this has not been achieved.

Bibliography

Canny, Nicholas, Making Ireland British 1580-1650 (Oxford University Press: 2003)

Foster, R.F., Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (Penguin: 1989)

Heffernan, David, The Emergence of the Public Sphere in Elizabethan Ireland (The Tudor and Stuart Ireland Conference 2012: 2012) https://soundcloud.com/history-hub/david-heffernan-the-emergence-of-the-public-sphere-in-elizabethan-ireland

Hughes, Anthony, The Stuart Post Office: Not Just for Delivering Letters (The Tudor and Stuart Ireland Conference 2012: 2012) https://soundcloud.com/history-hub/anthony-hughes-stuart-post-office-ireland Accessed: 4 May 2017.

Ohlmeyer, Jane, Bartlett, Thomas, Ó Siochrú, Micheál, Morrill, John, 1641 Depositions, Available at: http://ride.i-d-e.de/issues/issue-5/1641-depositions/ Accessed: 4 May 2017

Literary Cluster Analysis

I: Introduction

My PhD research will involve arguing that there has been a resurgence of modernist aesthetics in the novels of a number of contemporary authors. These authors are Anne Enright, Will Self, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. All these writers have at various public events and in the course of many interviews, given very different accounts of their specific relation to modernism, and even if the definition of modernism wasn’t totally overdetermined, we could spend the rest of our lives defining the ways in which their writing engages, or does not engage, with the modernist canon. Indeed, if I have my way, this is what I will spend a substantial portion of my life doing.

It is not in the spirit of reaching a methodology of greater objectivity that I propose we analyse these texts through digital methods; having begun my education in statistical and quantitative methodologies in September of last year, I can tell you that these really afford us no *better* a view of any text then just reading them would, but fortunately I intend to do that too.

This cluster dendrogram was generated in R, and owes its existence to Matthew Jockers’ book Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, from which I developed a substantial portion of the code that creates the output above.

What the code is attentive to, is the words that these authors use the most. When analysing literature qualitatively, we tend to have a magpie sensibility, zoning in on words which produce more effects or stand out in contrast to the literary matter which surrounds it. As such, the ways in which a writer would use the words ‘the’, ‘an’, ‘a’, or ‘this’, tends to pass us by, but they may be far more indicative of a writer’s style, or at least in the way that a computer would be attentive to; sentences that are ‘pretty’ are generally statistically insignificant.

II: Methodology

Every corpus that you can see in the above image was scanned into R, and then run through a code which counted the number of times every word was used in the text. The resulting figure is called the word’s frequency, and was then reduced down to its relative frequency, by dividing the figure by total number of words, and multiplying the result by 100. Every word with a relative frequency above a certain threshold was put into a matrix, and a function was used to cluster each matrix together based on the similarity of the figures they contained, according to a Euclidean metric I don’t fully understand.

The final matrix was 21 X 57, and compared these 21 corpora on the basis of their relative usage of the words ‘a’, ‘all’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘are’, ‘as’, ‘at’, ‘be’, ‘but’, ‘by’, ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘had’, ‘have’, ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘I’, ‘if’, ‘in’, ‘is’, ‘it’, ‘like’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘no’, ‘not’, ‘now’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘one’, ‘or’, ‘out’, ‘said’, ‘she’, ‘so’, ‘that’, ‘the’, ‘them’, ‘then’, ‘there’, ‘they’, ‘this’, ‘to’, ‘up’, ‘was’, ‘we’, ‘were’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘which’, ‘with’, ‘would’, and ‘you’.

Anyway, now we can read the dendrogram.

III: Interpretation

Speaking about the dendrogram in broad terms can be difficult for precisely the reason that I indicative above; quantitative/qualitative methodologies for text analysis are totally opposed to one another, but what is obvious is that Eimear McBride and Gertrude Stein are extreme outliers, and comparable only to each other. This is one way unsurprising, because of the brutish, repetitive styles and is in other ways very surprising, because McBride is on record as dismissing her work, for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

Jorge Luis Borges and Marcel Proust have branched off in their own direction, as has Sara Baume, which I’m not quite sure what to make of. Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have formed their own nexus. More comprehensible is the Anne Enright, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, F. Scott FitzGerald and Virginia Woolf cluster; one could make, admittedly sweeping judgements about how this could be said to be modernism’s extreme centre, in which the radical experimentalism of its more revanchiste wing was fused rather harmoniously with nineteenth-century social realism, which produced a kind of indirect discourse, at which I think each of these authors excel.

These revanchistes are well represented in the dendrogram’s right wing, with Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes having clustered together, though I am not quite sure what to make of Ford Madox Ford/Joseph Conrad’s showing at all, being unfamiliar with the work.

IV: Conclusion

The basic rule in interpreting dendrograms is that the closer the ‘leaves’ reach the bottom, the more similar they can be said to be. Therefore, Anne Enright and Will Self are the contemporary modernists most closely aligned to the forebears, if indeed forebears they can be said to be. It would be harder, from a quantitative perspective, to align Sara Baume with this trend in a straightforward manner, and McBride only seems to correlate with Stein because of how inalienably strange their respective prose styles are.

The primary point to take away here, if there is one, is that more investigations are required. The analysis is hardly unproblematic. For one, the corpus sizes vary enormously. Borges’ corpus is around 46 thousand words, whereas Proust reaches somewhere around 1.2 million. In one way, the results are encouraging, Borges and Barnes, two authors with only one texts in their corpus, aren’t prevented from being compared to novelists with serious word counts, but in another way, it is pretty well impossible to derive literary measurements from texts without taking their length into account. The next stage of the analysis will probably involve breaking the corpora up into units of 50 thousand words, so that the results for individual novels can be compared.

Re-reading Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

A book that I’m looking forward to reading, that doesn’t exist yet, is an academic account of how Irish contemporary fiction went, in such a short space of time, from social realism, to the precociously sentenced art writing with dissociative narrators that now composes the Irish literary milieu. It’s the sort of thing that was probably brewing for a long time, these trends tend to be, but I first became aware of it when Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2013. It caused a bit of stir in the literary press at the time, for its supposed uncompromising experimentalism, and its fraught, J.K. Rowling-esque publication history. Critics compared it to Marcel Proust or Samuel Beckett, but I don’t think there was a single review that didn’t mention James Joyce.

In the works of Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh or Claire-Louise Bennett, there are certainly comparisons to be made along these lines, but I think McBride is the novelist of the current generation who is suffering most egregiously under these comparisons. This leads to a kind of distortion that McBride has spoken about recently, saying that it’s ‘a way of not being seen’. Claire Lowdon, writing on McBride’s prose style in Areté, has used the Joyce comparisons as a way of demeaning the novel’s experimental qualities, saying that they are ‘redundant’ and ‘artificial’:

Having invoked Joyce, Joyce has to be McBride’s standard. She has taken all the difficulty and none of the brilliance.

Lowdon’s reading is important and thorough, but I have problems with it. The most significant one being that I think it’s nonsensical to say that just because a work is in some way formally indebted to Joyce has to be 1) as good, 2) as innovative and 3) as good and as innovative in exactly the same ways. I think it’s a very strange point to make that we should benchmark a writer relative to their influences , particularly when this is a comparison furthered more by the laziness of critics than something that McBride has taken upon herself. It’s also inadequate to assume McBride and Joyce’s modernisms are coterminous; I happen to think that they’re rather distinct in a number of significant ways.

Firstly, it’s clear that A Girl is more formally aligned with the Wake than with Ulysses, but taken relative to the former, A Girl manifests far less attention to the materiality of language. In A Girl, there’s less puns, there’s less references, there’s less leitmotifs. It’s also possible to make sense of A Girl without reference to other works. But it’s a mistake to regard this as McBride’s failure to live up to her twentieth century modernist aesthetics. An example from the novel’s opening that Lowdon cites reads as follows:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

‘Wait and hour and day’, carries with it the vague association with the phrase ‘a year and a day’ but it doesn’t strictly make sense in that context, there’s no clear reason for the semantic distortion. But there’s also no requirement that there is, nor that it add up to some enormous mythic framework in the same way that the Wake does. I think that once we approach the novel from this position, one which takes account of McBride’s actual concerns, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated understanding that doesn’t amount to downgrading her because of her perceived inadequacy in relation to Joyce.

By her own admission McBride retains an interest in nineteenth century novels with less self-consciousness about their language or processes of meaning-making. She has cited the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as significant, particularly as an example of proto-modernism, or modernism in a nascent stage of its development, wherein human intersubjectivity was beginning to make itself known within the novel while the tenets of realistic fiction was still trying to accommodate it. Being aware of the fact that The Lesser Bohemians is not the novel under discussion, it’s important to note the way in which it demonstrates this interplay. Within the context of what has been referred to by the author as a ‘modernist monologue’ there is a very sensationalistic narrative in which a character lays out their life story in a very direct and straightforward manner in the same way that you might find extended and directly rendered narratives nested within nineteenth century novels. McBride has said that this is a very deliberate formal mechanic which is pertinent to the text’s thematic concerns, as it is a novel about relating to another person in spite of one’s traumatic past:

In the end you tell a person and you have to use the words that they’ll understand.

What makes McBride’s modernism distinct then, is the centrality it gives to the conveying of narrative information, deploying it as a means of bringing the reader closer to

physical experience, to write about the female experience…the reader can partake in the experience.

McBride has said that the language of A Girl, was written in a way that would create a physical experience for the reader, an immediacy on the page that is reminiscent of theatre. She’s expressed frustration at the content of many of her reviews which have emphasised the quality of the language at the expense of the novel’s content, which she regards as very significant. This stands in contrast to the tradition of the Wake or other modernist works famed for their unintelligibility, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is a novel that she has spoken about dismissively for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

This stated interest in what the book is ‘about’ and a reader-centric ethic, is I think at least a partial reversal of expectations within the modernist tradition. McBride’s modernism is therefore conceptualised, not as a constructed textual estrangement from reality, but an attempt to bring it closer, to a dwelling-place of authentic being. Not that it’s likely to close off such comparisons in the future.

Re-Reading Anne Enright’s ‘The Gathering’

When it comes to reading Anne Enright’s novels, I am guilty of teleological thinking. This is because I believe her most recent novel, The Green Road, to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read and until I’d read that, I believed The Gathering to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read. So, there is an extent to which I have come to view her oeuvre as an inexorable movement towards the twin apotheoses of these two works.

What is interesting then, about the history of The Gathering’s composition, is that is seems to have begun almost as a run-up to The Green Road. It was initially Enright’s intention to make The Gathering a Faulknerian 500-some page novel that would follow three generations of the Hegarty family through a century of Irish history, from the early 1900’s to the early 2000’s. The section in the novel in which the whole family is gathered for their brother Liam’s funeral, certainly seems to emulate the set-piece of The Green Road’s Christmas dinner, albeit with substantially less information given about each family member. The Gathering apparently ‘fell apart’ in the drafting process, and became the far more fragmented work we now have, one which is at war with its own historical consciousness, an allegory of modern Irish history which acts as the novel’s framework.

Take Veronica’s account of her very Irish family, which is at once a detailed account of her own, as well as Irish families in a more general sense:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. There are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift.

Take, also, Veronica’s name. The biblical Veronica wiped Jesus’ face witha piece of cloth, and took its imprint. A heavily freighted name, and one which carries with it the burden of creating truly mimetic art, an aspiration towards the re-creation of causality on the page which Veronica mostly fails to live up to. Veronica is conscious of all this, making fun of her mother in the following aside: ‘Such epic names she gave us — none of your Jimmy, Joe or Mick.’

The allegory also manifests itself in the novel’s portrait of the hundred years of Irish history from below. There is a suggestion that Veronica’s grandmother was a sex worker, part of the generation of ‘reformed’ prostitutes put into halfway houses by the church to dry out until they were deemed fit to re-join society. Veronica theorises that her grandmother was one of these, in an attempt to explain her brother’s suicide, and her family’s general fucked-up-edness, but casts doubt on her account even she advances it, dismissing it as ‘A dusty, middle-class fantasy, of crinkled stockings and TB, and hunkering to wash over a basin on the floor’.

Her narrative fails to account for Liam’s suicide. No shape that she puts on the narrative remains secure because Liam, her grandmother and her uncle, (institutionalised due to his being abused), are not victims in isolation, they are part of a far broader generation of victims over the state’s history, whether they be ‘fallen’ women put into Magdalene laundries, rape victims institutionalised on the suggestion of their rapists (who were often family members) or children molested and beaten in industrial schools. It is only after these testimonies begin to surface in public life that Veronica remembers witnessing Liam’s abuse, and places it within a national chronology:

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family — a whole fucking country — drowning in shame.

Over the next twenty years the world around us changed and I remembered Mr Nugent. But I never would have made that shift on my own if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes.

Of course, The Gathering is just one attempted explanation, for just one victim, and it can’t be expected to take the burden of just how many there were. This is highlighted at a stage in the novel in which Veronica visits as mass grave at a mental institution that has been recently closed:

Just one cross — quite new — at the end of a little central path. A double row of saplings promise rowan trees to come. There are no markers, no separate graves. I wonder how many people were slung into the dirt of this field, and realise, too late, that the place is boiling with corpses, the ground is knit out of their tangled bones.

Throughout the text, bones are associated with the act of narration, Veronica comforts her hand with the neat ‘arc’ of a cuttlefish bone, and feels for her children’s bones when she embraces them, enjoying their symmetry and their apparent lack of complication. The image of ‘tangled’ bones provides little hope of ever reaching closure for the innumerable victims of the Irish state’s negligence and cruelty.

To what extent The Gathering is about the history of systematic female oppression might all be Veronica’s contrivance, or Enright’s; she is not a heavy-handed novelist, and it is not just Veronica’s uncertainty that would prevent us from taking this reading up wholly, but Enright’s subtlety. (The one scene we might quibble with is one set in an asylum named St. Ita’s, a brief history of the saint’s role in embodying a feminine ideal is given also).

Perhaps any account is doomed to failure, knowing how pockmarked the historical record is by aporia and silence, enforced or otherwise, the extent of the suffering will be passed over, particularly as long as the state’s policy is to remain stingy with the provision of compensation or the bodies responsible continue to ‘deny till they die’.

I add it in to my life, as an event, and I think, well yes, that might explain some things. I add it into my brother’s life and it is crucial, it is the place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of an x. In a way, it explains too much.

Can a recurrent neural network write good prose?

At this stage in my PhD research into literary style I am looking to machine learning and neural networks, and moving away from stylostatistical methodologies, partially out of fatigue. Statistical analyses are intensely process-based and always open, it seems to me, to fairly egregious ‘nudging’ in the name of reaching favourable outcomes. This brings a kind of bathos to some statistical analyses, as they account, for a greater extent than I’d like, for methodology and process, with the result that the novelty these approaches might have brought us are neglected. I have nothing against this emphasis on process necessarily, but I do also have a thing for outcomes, as well as the mysticism and relativity machine learning can bring, alienating us as it does from the process of the script’s decision making.

I first heard of the sci-fi writer from a colleague of mine in my department. It’s Robin Sloan’s plug-in for the script-writing interface Atom which allows you to ‘autocomplete’ texts based on your input. After sixteen hours of installing, uninstalling, moving directories around and looking up stackoverflow, I got it to work.I typed in some Joyce and got stuff about Chinese spaceships as output, which was great, but science fiction isn’t exactly my area, and I wanted to train the network on a corpus of modernist fiction. Fortunately, I had the complete works of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence to hand.

My understanding of this recurrent neural network, such as it is, runs as follows. The script reads the entire corpus of over 100 novels, and calculates the distance that separates every word from every other word. The network then hazards a guess as to what word follows the word or words that you present it with, then validates this against what its actuality. It then does so over and over and over, getting ‘better’ at predicting each time. The size of the corpus is significant in determining the length of time this will take, and mine required something around twelve days. I had to cut it off after twenty four hours because I was afraid my laptop wouldn’t be able to handle it. At this point it had carried out the process 135000 times, just below 10% of the full process. Once I get access to a computer with better hardware I can look into getting better results.

How this will feed into my thesis remains nebulous, I might move in a sociological direction and take survey data on how close they reckon the final result approximates literary prose. But at this point I’m interested in what impact it might conceivably have on my own writing. I am currently trying to sustain progress on my first novel alongside my research, so, in a self-interested enough way, I pose the question, can neural networks be used in the creation of good prose?

There have been many books written on the place of cliometric methodologies in literary history. I’m thinking here of William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups, Mallarmé’s infinite book of sonnets, and the brief flirtation the literary world had with hypertext in the 90’s, but beyond of the avant-garde, I don’t think I could think of an example of an author who has foregrounded their use of numerical methods of composition. A poet friend of mine has dabbled in this sort of thing but finds it expedient to not emphasise the aleatory aspect of what she’s doing, as publishers tend to give a frosty reception when their writers suggest that their work is automated to some extent.

And I can see where they’re coming from. No matter how good they get at it, I’m unlikely to get to a point where I’ll read automatically generated literary art. Speaking for myself, when I’m reading, it is not just about the words. I’m reading Enright or Woolf or Pynchon because I’m as interested in them as I am in what they produce. How synthetic would it be to set Faulkner and McCarthy in conversation with one another if their congruencies were wholly manufactured by outside interpretation or an anonymous algorithmic process as opposed to the discursive tissue of literary sphere, if a work didn’t arise from material and actual conditions? I know I’m making a lot of value-based assessments here that wouldn’t have a place in academic discourse, and on that basis what I’m saying is indefensible, but the probabilistic infinitude of it bothers me too. When I think about all the novelists I have yet to read I immediately get panicky about my own death, and the limitless possibilities of neural networks to churn out tomes and tomes of literary data in seconds just seems to me to exacerbate the problem.

However, speaking outside of my reader-identity, as a writer, I find it invigorating. My biggest problem as a writer isn’t writing nice sentences, given enough time I’m more than capable of that, the difficulty is finding things to wrap them around. Mood, tone, image, aren’t daunting, but a text’s momentum, the plot, I suppose, eludes me completely. It’s not something that bothers me, I consider plot to be a necessary evil, and resent novels that suspend information in a deliberate, keep-you-on-the-hook sort of way, but the ‘what next’ of composition is still a knotty issue.

The generation of text could be a useful way of getting an intelligent prompt that stylistically ‘borrows’ from a broad base of literary data, smashing words and images together in a generative manner to get the associative faculties going. I’m not suggesting that these scripts would be successful were they autonomous, I think we’re a few years off one of these algorithms writing a good novel, but I hope to demonstrate that my circa 350 generated words would be successful in facilitating the process of composition:

be as the whoo, put out and going to Ingleway effect themselves old shadows as she was like a farmers of his lake, for all or grips — that else bigs they perfectly clothes and the table and chest and under her destynets called a fingers of hanged staircase and cropping in her hand from him, “never married them my said?” know’s prode another hold of the utals of the bright silence and now he was much renderuched, his eyes. It was her natural dependent clothes, cattle that they came in loads of the remarks he was there inside him. There were she was solid drugs.

“I’m sons to see, then?’ she have no such description. The legs that somewhere to chair followed, the year disappeared curl at an entire of him frwented her in courage had approached. It was a long rose of visit. The moment, the audience on the people still the gulsion rowed because it was a travalious. But nothing in the rash.

“No, Jane. What does then they all get out him, but? Or perfect?”

“The advices?”

Of came the great as prayer. He said the aspect who, she lay on the white big remarking through the father — of the grandfather did he had seen her engoors, came garden, the irony opposition on his colling of the roof. Next parapes he had coming broken as though they fould

has a sort. Quite angry to captraita in the fact terror, and a sound and then raised the powerful knocking door crawling for a greatly keep, and is so many adventored and men. He went on. He had been her she had happened his hands on a little hand of a letter and a road that he had possibly became childish limp, her keep mind over her face went in himself voice. He came to the table, to a rashes right repairing that he fulfe, but it was soldier, to different and stuff was. The knees as it was a reason and that prone, the soul? And with grikening game. In such an inquisilled-road and commanded for a magbecross that has been deskled, tight gratulations in front standing again, very unrediction and automatiled spench and six in command, a

I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking that there’s some merit in parts of this writing. I wonder if there’s an extent to which Finnegans Wake has ‘tainted’ the corpus somewhat, because stylistically, I think that’s the closest analogue to what could be said to be going on here. Interestingly, it seems to be formulating its own puns, words like ‘unrediction,’ ‘automatiled spench’ (a tantalising meta-textual reference I think) and ‘destynets’, I think, would all be reminiscent of what you could expect to find in any given section of the Wake, but they don’t turn up in the corpus proper, at least according to a ctrl + f search. What this suggests to me is that the algorithm is plotting relationships on the level of the character, as well as phrasal units. However, I don’t recall the sci-fi model turning up paragraphs that were quite so disjointed and surreal — they didn’t make loads of sense, but they were recognisable, as grammatically coherent chunks of text. Although this could be the result of working with a partially trained model.

So, how might they feed our creative process? Here’s my attempt at making nice sentences out of the above.

— I have never been married, she said. — There’s no good to be gotten out of that sort of thing at all.

He’d use his hands to do chin-ups, pull himself up over the second staircase that hung over the landing, and he’d hang then, wriggling across the awning it created over the first set of stairs, grunting out eight to ten numbers each time he passed, his feet just missing the carpeted surface of the real stairs, the proper stairs.

Every time she walked between them she would wonder which of the two that she preferred. Not the one that she preferred, but the one that were more her, which one of these two am I, which one of these two is actually me? It was the feeling of moving between the two that she could remember, not his hands. They were just an afterthought, something cropped in in retrospect.

She can’t remember her sons either.

Her life had been a slow rise, to come to what it was. A house full of men, chairs and staircases, and she wished for it now to coil into itself, like the corners of stale newspapers.

The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it is a lot shorter. I started off by traducing the above, in as much as possible, into ‘plain words’ while remaining faithful to the n-grams I liked, like ‘bright silence’ ‘old shadows’ and ‘great as prayer’. In order to create images that play off one another, and to account for the dialogue, sentences that seemed to be doing similar things began to cluster together, so paragraphs organically started to shrink. Ultimately, once the ‘purpose’ of what I was doing started to come out, a critique of bourgeois values, memory loss, the nice phrasal units started to become spurious, and the eight or so paragraphs collapsed into the three and a half above. This is also ones of my biggest writing issues, I’ll type three full pages and after the editing process they’ll come to no more than 1.5 paragraphs, maybe?

The thematic sense of dislocation and fragmentation could be a product of the source material, but most things I write are about substance-abusing depressives with broken brains cos I’m a twenty-five year old petit-bourgeois male. There’s also a fairly pallid Enright vibe to what I’ve done with the above, I think the staircases line could come straight out of The Portable Virgin.

Maybe a more well-trained corpus could provide better prompts, but overall, if you want better results out of this for any kind of creative praxis, it’s probably better to be a good writer.