‘Where is our gallant man’: The films of Pat Collins

   
Seven tourists are standing in an upper floor of a derelict tenement building, now preserved as a museum or installation space. A woman, acting as a pregnant mother in period dress, speaks in a Dublin accent about how she lives like the gentry here, not that the gentry are known for buying second-hand bonnets in Capel Street. As she speaks, coughing can be heard from a neighbouring room, and she wishes her children dead, so as to spare them their long, drawn-out illness. One or two of the tourists incline their heads sympathetically. She turns away from them as the wheezing becomes more pronounced.

 

One could say that Pat Collins is a filmmaker concerned with Irish identity, but this would not be quite right, as he is just as interested in Irish difference. His body of work to date, in its movement between essay, documentary, and biopic manifests the restlessness in idea in motion and thus appear to us remote from convention. His most recent film, Song of Granite represents something of a culmination of his work to date, and, with the recognition that it his is a career still underway, provides us with an opportunity to consider his major works in sequence.

 

John McGahern: A Private World is the first of Collins’ portraits of artists living in remote parts of the country. Collins’ interest in the landscape is already manifest, with long, reflective shots of ferns, large bodies of water and McGahern walking through narrow laneways with his dog. These shots are imbued with the spaciousness and composition of footage one would expect to find in an installation, over which McGahern recalls his childhood, or reads selections from his prose. Despite the scenery, it is a film more concerned with the world within than the world without. When McGahern does speak of society at large, it is a distant and risible thing; he describes the banning of his novel The Dark as ‘foolish’ and says he did not appeal the decision because he thought the novel was not worth the effort. McGahern’s deliberate manner of speaking, only raising his voice in relaying the words of an embittered Irish emigrant in London, work in tandem with Collins’ tendency to ruminate upon landscape and allows the film to attain the stately atmosphere of McGahern’s fiction, serving just as well as an adaptation of McGahern’s works as it as does as a documentary on the man who wrote them.

Despite the film’s focus on isolated settings, politics begin to seep in, as McGahern mentions Free State failing to live up to the promise of the 1916 proclamation. In McGahern’s description of his adolescence in Leitrim, where guards patrolled ‘roads in which nothing happened…beside a phone that never rang’, we can discern a subterranean Irish history, one in which the functioning of the state was remote from people’s everyday lives. McGahern sees Ireland, not as the arms of government, but composed more of people and families, ‘thousands of little republics’. McGahern theorises that this has determined the shape of our literature, that at times when national identity is strong, the novel predominates, whereas when the individual identity is stronger, poems or short stories are the result. Given what he has said about families composing states in their own right, it is clear that McGahern’s sense of national identity, has little to do with Irishness.

At one point,McGahern reflects that while the Catholic church has faded as a fulcrum of Irish life, he’s too old to predict what might take its place. This is a question which Collins’ next film, What We Leave in our Wake takes as its starting point. The film opens on Croagh Patrick at dawn, to the sound of a crowd of people hiking up the rocks along the mountainside. The film begins to deteriorate, as scratches and other cinematographic artefacts appear at the edges of the frame. The nature of the pilgrimage itself is ambiguous, many of the pilgrims wear hiking gear and almost none of them are barefoot, suggesting the pilgrimage may not be strictly religious as a ritual. The crowd negotiating fragments of rock typifies What We Leave in our Wake, an inquiry into Ireland’s transitional state, awaiting the arrival of a new, potentially post-Catholic dispensation. Unlike A Private World, the discussion is dispersed and wide-ranging, taking in a series of historians, writers, authors and scholars who each discuss Irish life and Irish values, over long, lingering shots of rural landscapes. Collins also begins to make use of the archive. From a snippet of a documentary on punitive rehabilitation, we move to a close-up of Father Peter McVerry who speaks about the failure of the state to provide healthcare or economic security to emigrants, heroin addicts and the poor. McVerry then fades away, leaving only his voice, speaking over footage of distressed people on a dock waving goodbye to their relatives. One might think here, of the approach of British documentarian Adam Curtis who also makes use of suggestive footage in addition to his own, specially shot film. Unlike Curtis, however, Collins’ argument is often implicit and functions by subtle juxtaposition, the movement from one topic to another without the subsumption of everything to a polemic of epochal decline.

What We Leave in Our Wakeis far more attentive to the cultural than the economic,and promotes a modern revivalism whereby Ireland’s rich cultural history might remedy its political problems. Declan Kiberd, one of What We Leave in Our Wake’s foremost voices, cites William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney and James Joyce as examples of writers whose works have dug into Irish place and history, shaping the future by re-engaging the past. The crowds climbing Croagh Patrick return, with some people moving up and others moving down, the crowd seeming to form a coherent thread in their collective dialectical movement. Desultory speeches from former Taoiseach Brian Cowen about securing the future through austerity budgeting serve as reminders of the post-2008 regime, a time in which public life conceived the future, in variations on ‘there is no alternative’. What We Leave in Our Wake equivocates here, between these impersonal forces of managerialism and the growth of ‘permissiveness’, or individualism, which culminates in some uncharacteristically easy visuals from Collins, with the Celtic Tiger-era spire looming high over the statue of Jim Larkin, or a group of people waiting at traffic lights to cross onto O’Connell bridge (read: ‘the masses’), while a voiceover informs us how bovine and depoliticised they have become.

 

There is something quite simplistic, too, in What We Leave in our Wake’s cleaving to the ancient past, or the 1916 Proclamation as sources of transformative change, without acknowledging the contradictions of authentic nationality in an Irish context. Indeed, Kiberd’s assertion that Ireland should embody a ‘mixture of forwardness and backwardness’ by providing the unborn and dead with votes, seems to partake far more of the latter than the former. Fortunately, these notions of Irishness come under pressure in Tim Robinson: Connemara. Tim Robinson, the subject of the film, is a cartographer and visual artist who lived for many years in the west of Ireland, writing psychogeographic accounts of the region and tracing local geographies and histories. Robinson begins the film by critiquing Celtic revivalists such as Yeats or John Millington Synge who came to the west of Ireland in order to mediate it for their Dublin audience. Rather than treating the landscape as an abstract Jungian archetype, to be excavated by poets or politicians, Robinson’s Connemara is abject; the story of a man losing his way on the way home from the workhouse and dying from exposure in a storm is emblematic. Collins’ camera is focused on the uneven and rocky terrain, in which Robinson seems diminished, relative to the scale of the landscape, which ‘no single science, not even all the sciences put together, can read’. Despite Robinson’s decades-long attempt to map the area, he believes the wholeness to be artificial: ‘Sometimes, rarely, a scrap of a voice can be caught from the universal damage, but it may be an artefact of the imagination, a confection of rumours’. Collins’ editing begins to ape Robinson’s theoretical mysticism by rapidly interleaving scenes of rural life; a conversation between two men sitting at a Marian grotto, families watching the television, church-going, rowing contests, youth club discos, graveyards, over an ambient soundbed interspersed with inaudible voices, shouting and calling, until all ascends into a voiceless confusion.

Collins’ first feature, Silence opens with a recording artist named Eoghan, travelling from Berlin to his childhood home, in the Irish north-west. In the first hotel he stays in, a bartender tells him about an island off the coast of Scotland, which has been uninhabited for fifty years. However, the starlings on the island have passed the man-made sounds of the island’s former inhabitants from generation to generation. Eoghan is uninterested, explaining that he is trying to record places as far removed from man-made noise as possible. However, the bartender’s anecdote remains troubling. Eoghan is enacting the inverse of folklore collectors travelling west in the early twentieth century, in trying to get away from people and their stories. But if man-made sounds embed and reproduce themselves in the natural world, is it possible to escape them? The Beckettian monologue which is delivered by Patrick O’Connor about the loudness of ancient places and the palimpsestic nature of the Irish landscape, suggests not.

Eoghan is a reticent figure. His conversation with his partner in Berlin is drowned out by a passing train and he often seems uncomfortable in the frame, wandering out of it, leaving the camera to linger on his ambient microphone. Though he rebuffs the bartender talking about starlings, as he moves closer to Tory Island, where he grew up, he begins to engage more with the people he encounters. A local in Ballycroy provides us with the most dialogue-heavy portion of the film, and most of the film’s thematising happens here. Eoghan avoids questions about his family, suggesting of a past he has yet to deal with. After dinner, the man encourages Eoghan to sing ‘The Rocks of Bawn’, but he does not know it. He can recite the verse of another Gaelic song, telling the story of a man who leaves island life for the mainland, only to return years later, to find his lover dead, and the community he once knew changed. It is in this potential loss of tradition in Silence that Collins’ revivalist melancholia re-asserts itself. However, it is asserted with a crucial difference. One section of the film is given over solely to archival footage, in which eight islanders, seven men, one woman and a dog, travel out on a boat. The boat travels out from shore for a while, while one of the men seems to be doing something with a stone and a rope. The dog is then thrown overboard. We see it struggling in place for a while, before the camera cuts back to the boat, and then back to where the dog was, reduced now, to a patch of disturbed grey water, beginning to smooth itself over. It’s a stark and upsetting sequence of images, but also an injunction against the kind of nostalgia that might otherwise hang over archival recordings, a depoliticised hauntology as in Reeling in the Years when film grain seems already to summon up a soundbed of yesteryear’s pop music. Collins’ refusal to present islander life, or the past, as better, or more pious for its remoteness enacts a break with the straightforward revivalism of What We Leave in Our Wake.

After visiting the Inishbofin heritage museum, and speaking to the woman who works there, about the trauma of moving to the mainland, Eoghan travels out into the woods and builds a fire, recording it and himself singing the fragments of the Irish song he remembers. Eoghan seems to have reconciled himself to a fusion between the natural world and human-led encounters, perceiving that one has the capacity to enhance the other. When Eoghan does return to his home on Tory Island, its status as a community is emphasised. People stepping off the boat are embraced by their families, and he has a warm conversation with an older man who remembers from yers ago. His childhood home resounds with man-made sounds, in the form of childhood remembrances and ghosts of the past, the rattle of cutlery, footsteps from upstairs, his mother calling. One thinks here Virginia Woolf’s ‘broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on pavement’. In Silence, the past is an agonistic multiplicity, and not something straightforward enough to just mourn or to be nostalgic for.

Living in a Coded Land is Collins’ second essay film, and considers, the post-colonial nature of lived experience in Ireland. This theme is introduced by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who addresses the camera directly, on the need to formulate a progressive Irish nationalism which breaks from the tradition of violence. Pádraig Lenihan then describes the sheer scale of the carnage at the Battle of the Aughrim in an idyllic farmland where the battle took place over three hundred years ago, interspersed also with footage of Orangemen marches, long funeral escorts and police trucks circling barricades. Collins’ archival quotes are becoming less allegorical and more recognisably argumentative, Living in a Coded Land also has clearer targets, with a digression on the architecture of the Protestant big house, followed by a shot of former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey exiting his own. After this, we see a well dressed assistant county engineer, Keating, descended from the great Irish historian Geoffrey Keating, former owner of the nearby Moorstown Castle, driving down a road in county Tipperary. Keating inspects the work of a local man named Michael Cleary, dressed in work clothes, while a voice chirpily informs us that ‘Michael’s ancestors might easily have worked for him’. One could go on, there are plenty of vignettes through which Collins sketches the vector of modern Irish history through the history of land ownership and capital accumulation. Thomas McCarthy’s contribution provides the film with its title, explaining how the Irish establishment takes shape: ‘those who wish to be part of the establishment soon learn how to live in a kind of coded life, they know what to criticise, they know what to praise…they know when to remain silent’. From these broad heights of four hundred years of modern history, to the most local perspectives possible, with Paddy Heaney talking about depopulation and successive governments failing to install requisite infrastructure in Ballymacadam, Living in a Coded Land is focused on Ireland’s haves and have-nots and how each sustain themselves.

The film’s political analysis is most indebted to historian Conor McCabe, who with help from Seán Ó Faoláin and Heather Laird, describes the growth of the class which has historically directed state policy in Ireland. McCabe refers to them as the ‘comprador class’, arguing that they are present in every colonial regime as the intermediary between foreign capital and state resources. While initially they were large farmers in the midlands who exported capital, in the seventies, they became an urban class of stockbrokers, accountants and lawyers, replicating the pattern of most advanced capitalist states. Fortunately, Collins does pass over Ireland’s comparatively uneven relationship with other non-white settler states such as India, as can be the norm in discussions of Ireland and post-colonialism. This emphasis on exports and dependence on foreign investment rendered Dublin effectively a warehouse port; with no skilled workers or native industry, unskilled labourers were highly expendable to the production process. This outline of our unique precarity, which endures to this day, is outlined while Tony MacMahon plays traditional reels on the accordion for UCD students in the early seventies. Towards the film’s end, we hear the voice of folklorist Henry Glassie, who, in an interview with Vincent Woods, talks about the contextual and historical nature of art. Glassie speaks on the impossibility of bringing a universal vision of judgement and that everything requires interpretation in its own context.

It is a sentiment that exists in a certain degree of tension with Collins’ Song of Granite, a biopic of the folk singer Joe Heaney, though not a biopic in any straightforward sense. There is no attempt to reflect or to create the drama of Heaney’s life, rather it is a film more invested in feeling than biographical details. In addition to using archival footage of Joe Heaney he is played by three separate actors, one for each particular stage of his life. We begin with Joe’s childhood, which subverts in all respects what we might expect from a representation of Irish childhood, particularly one of such acute material deprivation, in Connemara in the twenties. However, the island community seems particularly close-knit, with houses full of people listening to folk tales, his teacher noticing his singing talent, or being taught to catch lobsters with his father. One finds waiting for the moment in which a drunken relative or abusive teacher might hit Joe, but it never comes.

 

Rather than, as one might expect from conventional biopics, showing Joe getting his first big break, or having addiction problems, the film takes all of Heaney’s life at once as its subject. At one point, Heaney monologues about his place in a sweep of history, from the pre-Christian Partholón, to Newgrange’s construction, to the Mongol hordes to the USSR. This becomes most visible at a fifteen-minute or so section of the film given over to a session in a pub. At this point, Heaney is living in Glasgow with his family as a labourer point in Heaney’s life in which he worked in Glasgow as a labourer in the fifties. Heaney sings ‘The Rocks of Bawn’ alone and then a number of contemporary Irish musicians such as Radie Peat, Damien Dempsey and Lisa O’Neill, perform. After the session is concluded, and after being interviewed by a journalist on the nature of sean-nós singing, Heaney returns to his home in Glasgow. All the singers appear to be playing themselves, which presents the question, is this session happening in Glasgow, or in Dublin where it was shot? Is this whole scene a metaphor for the kind of timeless milieu that folk culture can engender, in which boundaries such as time and space are suspended? As with all art worth considering in detail, the answers to questions such as these are largely immaterial.

In addition to positing his place within a history that is not just Irish, but also universal, the film points to Heaney’s inscrutability as a subject. As the film continues, we witness not Heaney’s spiritual education or musical apprenticeship but his disintegration. We see him working as a doorman, standing attention outside an apartment building in New York, interspersed with archival footage of him performing at the Newport Folk Festival, or walking along a Connemara beach with the Clancy Brothers. When we return to New York, it is the Connemara waves, rather than the sounds of the urban environment which predominates. Joe does seem to return home to Connemara at the end of the film, specifically to a field in which we witnessed him tie a piece of string around a tuft of grass next to a bird’s nest the film’s first scene. Fifty years later the string has remained, and the eggs have hatched, leaving only their fragments. This is obviously unlikely, so the eggs more likely to serve as symbols of maturity and renewal. Heaney then encounters his younger self and the milieu is transformed once more, as his younger self becomes Finn MacCool, meeting his older self, and re-enacting the salmon of knowledge myth. At Song of Granite’s conclusion, folklore and reality have become wholly intertwined.

Song of Graniteconcludes with a hand, writing in Irish, in reference to a man mentioned earlier in the film who confesses his sins on his deathbed through a poem on his bedroom wall. The words, translated, appear as follows:

Birds don’t sing songs of glory,

wings of ice,

that’s my story.

While recognising that Song of Granite is not be Collins’ last film, there is a certain appositeness to regarding these lines as a summation of his work to date. Collins’ is a filmmaker attentive to loss; failed states, fading traditions, faltering lives, but does not give in, either to despair or pretension. His concerned with lived experiences, even as they pose probing and resonant queries about ourselves and the future of our country. There’s no one else making films like his; they are worth your time.

A Statistical Analysis of the narrators of ‘Ulysses’ or ‘why ‘Ulysses’ isn’t wisdom literature’

The second time I read Ulysses,in advance of an undergraduate seminar, it was around the ninetieth anniversary of the original text’s publication. The newspapers were printing archive material relating to the novel, extended supplements about its importance from the usual quarters, as well as reviews of recently published monographs from both young and established scholars. Unfortunately, the critical trend of the time was to read Ulysses as wisdom literature. Critics urged prospective readers of the novel to wrest Joyce from the scholars and bring him ‘back to the people’. This school of thought treated Leopold Bloom as a model of the way in which the contemporary urban subject should be living: aloof, polite, well-intentioned but not dogmatic on political issues. Moderately informed, but more often wrong, a reader, but not self-serious, an everyman. Ulysses’ structural indebtedness to cornerstones of The Canon such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Homer’s The Odyssey frequently undergirds this line of argument, demonstrative in itself of how easily high literary art and everyday life may be set next to one another. This generally requires critics to treat the characters of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as two opposites in need of the other. Each has a little to impart on life, love and literature, whether it be to reflect a little deeper on themselves or their marriage, move past their respective losses or to find in each other their lost son/father.

This interpretation of the novel reads it along a linear trajectory, as Stephen and Bloom come together to form Blephen and Stoom. Through computation it may be possible to examine the writing style of later chapters, and determine whether or not they bear formal witness to this change in character. We must first however, consider the difficulty of locating where Joyce’s narrators actually are. Part of what makes Joyce’s writing style so unique is his use of free indirect discourse, a mode of writing in which the reality of the text is inflected by the consciousness(es) of the beholder(s). As such, putting a category on each episode of Ulysses as though it were narrated by one person or a combination of persons might seem reductive; it very much is. But in fusing computation and literature, certain assumptions have to be made.

In carrying out this analysis, I made use of R’s ‘Stylo’ package, which contains tools for breaking a number of texts into equal sizes, removing words which are not common to most samples, calculating the relative frequencies of these words, transforming these observations into new combinations of variables called ‘components’ with greater explanatory potential, and clustering them together. These words appear below:

These might seem like boring terms, as literary critics we tend to look past them to more evocative ones like ‘serpentine’ or ‘columbanus’ but unfortunately, in computational terms it is the relative frequencies of these ‘particles’ or ‘function words’ that provide the most secure means of modelling a writer’s particular idiom. These samples were then plotted on a correlation matrix, which can be taken as an index of similarity, based on where they cluster:

The six different narrators of Ulysses appearing in the index above are:

‘Anon’, who narrates the episode ‘Cyclops’

‘Blephen’, a composite delineation for episodes in which both characters feature, such as ‘Circe’, ‘Eumaeus’, ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Oxen of the Sun’

Bloom, who narrates ‘Hades’, ‘Calypso’, ‘Lestrygonians’ and ‘The Lotus Eaters’, Gerty, who narrates at least half of ‘Nausicaa’ (this is a controversial point within the literature, it might by Bloom who is narrating for her)

Molly, who narrates the book’s final chapter ‘Penelope’,

and finally Stephen, who narrates the first three episodes ‘Telemachus’, ‘Nestor’ and ‘Proteus’, as well as the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which has been thrown in here for comparison.

Here’s the same plot as above with the labels more clearly indicated

The first thing we could note is the gender divide. Molly and Gerty both spread over to the right, with Molly as an outlier. Both are more proximate to the A Portrait samples than any other, which are all taken from the earlier parts of the novel, suggesting that Joyce writes women and young children using the same number of words at the same rate. As the Gerty samples move through the episode, they move closer and closer to the Bloom cluster, visually conforming that the episode starts in Gerty’s voice before he takes over, and that Bloom doesn’t think much of women’s intelligence in the main either.

Overall we can say that there doesn’t look to be a fusing of perspectives here as such. Rather than the Blephen episodes meeting halfway between the Stephen and Bloom, Stephen and Bloom already seem quite comfortably clustered at the novel’s outset. Based on the divide between Stephen’s episodes of Ulysses and A Portrait, we might say that the way in which Stephen narrates A Portrait is very different from the way in which he narrates Ulysses.This is justified I think by how sensitive the analysis is to changes in narrator, demonstrated by the Gerty/Bloom example already discussed, as well as the fact that the earlier part of Aeolous, in which Bloom is present, clusters with his samples, whereas the second part, after Stephen’s entered, clusters with the Stephen samples.

Below is the plot with the Portrait samples removed:

Words Stephen’s narration is most likely to use in comparison to Bloom
Words Bloom’s narration is more likely to use in comparison to Stephen

 

There are a number of ways one could use these results to interrogate the notion of Ulysses as wisdom literature. We could begin by asking after the gendered aspects of the adjective ‘wise’, and ask why so many of these books which teach us how one might best live are written by men (and how tone-deaf this argument can sound because to read Ulysses one might almost think married women weren’t let out of the house) or we could ask what interests an Irish model of bourgeois respectability might serve, along the lines of an Irish ‘keep calm and carry on’ poster.

Ulysses as a guide to life risks rendering it a novel of parts coming together, the middle-class intellectual and the middle-class working stiff holding hands across whatever barricade is supposed to be dividing them. Not that I would go to the other extreme and frame it as one of dissolution. Ulysses’ shape is one I would be loathe to put a vector to in fact; to say that Stephen and Bloom’s relationship moves from a) state to b) state would be too easy by half.

What makes Ulyssesan interesting novel to me is its self-referentiality, the dialogue it establishes between the novel and its supposed referent of ‘real Dublin’, which is made most clear in ‘Circe’, but also in the book’s other failed attempts to understand itself, as in the cases of the characters referenced as being in particular places at particular times who may or may not be Bloom, the McIntosh mystery or the puzzle of crossing Dublin without passing a pub. In this context, I think ‘Eumaeus’ appearing as a stylistic outlier is significant.

It is in this episode that we get information about a sequence of coincidences, and resonant differences between Bloom and Stephen’s lives. The depth of these coincidences (which I won’t provide a summary of here, because I think they’re among the most poignant parts of the novel) gesture towards something a bit more cosmically ordered than the rest of the novel even as they take place within the circumscribed rituals of Irish urban middle-class life in the early twentieth century. ‘Eumaeus’ is written in a chill tone which most closely resembles that of a scientific paper, eliding the indirect discourse which ostensibly defines the rest of the text, and it is the fact that these connections are raised here rather than anywhere else that the true interest in their relationship, such as it is, is to be found.

These connections which remain unrealised by the two, rather than bring us to some Forsterian notion of connection should raise instead questions of alienation and of their unity in separation. It presents problems both epistemological and political, about how our reality is structured, the means through which it is circumscribed and how it is more defined by how little of it we are aware of rather than how much. Rather than teaching us ‘how to live’ Ulysses shows us how we do not live, how we probably won’t live and how it could so easily have been otherwise. It is no more an explanation for life as it is an explanation of itself, or Homer, or Ireland.

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.

A (Proper) Statistical analysis of the prose works of Samuel Beckett

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Content warning: If you want to get to the fun parts, the results of an analysis of Beckett’s use of language, skip to sections VII and VIII. Everything before that is navel-gazing methodology stuff.

If you want to know how I carried out my analysis, and utilise my code for your own purposes, here’s a link to my R code on my blog, with step-by-step instructions, because not enough places on the internet include that.

I: Things Wrong with my Dissertation’s Methodology

For my masters, I wrote a 20000 word dissertation, which took as its subject, an empirical analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett. I had a corpus of his entire works with the exception of his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which is a forgivable lapse, because he ended up cannibalising it for his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.

Quantitative literary analysis is generally carried out in one of two ways, through either one of the open-source programming languages Python or R. The former you’ve more likely to have heard of, being one of the few languages designed with usability in mind. The latter, R, would be more familiar to specialists, or people who work in the social sciences, as it is more obtuse than Python, doesn’t have many language cousins and has a very unfriendly learning curve. But I am attracted to difficulty, so I am using it for my PhD analysis.

I had about four months to carry out my analysis, so the idea of taking on a programming language in a self-directed learning environment was not feasible, particularly since I wanted to make a good go at the extensive body of secondary literature written on Beckett. I therefore made use of a corpus analysis tool called Voyant. This was a couple of years ago, so this was before its beta release, when it got all tricked out with some qualitative tools and a shiny new interface, which would have been helpful. Ah well. It can be run out of any browser, if you feel like giving it a look.

My analysis was also chronological, in that it looked at changes in Beckett’s use of language over time, with a view to proving the hypothesis that he used a less wide vocabulary as his career continued, in pursuit of his famed aesthetic of nothingness or deprivation. As I wanted to chart developments in his prose over time, I dated the composition of each text, and built a corpus for each year, from 1930–1987, excluding of course, years in which he just wrote drama, poetry, which wouldn’t be helpful to quantify in conjunction with one another. Which didn’t stop me doing so for my masters analysis. It was a disaster.

II: Uniqueness

Uniqueness, the measurement used to quantify the general spread of Beckett’s vocabulary, was obtained by the generally accepted formula below:

unique word tokens / total words

There is a problem with this measurement, in that it takes no account of a text’s relative length. As a text gets longer, the likelihood of each word being used approaches 1. Therefore, a text gets less unique as it gets bigger. I have the correlations to prove it:

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-12-18-03There have been various solutions proposed to this quandary, which stymies our comparative analyses, somewhat. One among them is the use of vectorised measurements, which plot the text’s declining uniqueness against its word count, so we see a more impressionistic graph, such as this one, which should allow us to compare the word counts for James Joyce’s novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his short story collection, Dubliners.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-13-28-18

All well and good for two or maybe even five texts, but one can see how, with large scale corpora, this sort of thing can get very incoherent very quickly. Furthermore, if one was to examine the numbers on the y-axis, one can see that the differences here are tiny. This is another idiosyncrasy of stylostatistical methods; because of the way syntax works, the margins of difference wouldn’t be regarded as significant by most statisticians. These issues relating to the measurement are exacerbated by the fact that ‘particles,’ the atomic structures of literary speech, (it, is, the, a, an, and, said, etc.) make up most of a text. In pursuit of greater statistical significance for their papers, digital literary critics remove these particles from their texts, which is another unforgivable that we do anyway. I did not, because I was concerned that I was complicit in the neoliberalisation of higher education. I also wrote a 4000 word chapter that outlined why what I was doing was awful.

IV: Ambiguity

The formula for ambiguity was arrived at by the following formula:

number of indefinite pronouns/total word count

I derived this measurement from Dr. Ian Lancashire’s study of the works of Agatha Christie, and counted Beckett’s use of a set of indefinite pronouns, ‘everyone,’ ‘everybody,’ ‘everywhere,’ ‘everything,’ ‘someone,’ ‘somebody,’ ‘somewhere,’ ‘something,’ ‘anyone,’ ‘anybody,’ ‘anywhere,’ ‘anything,’ ‘no one,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘nowhere,’ and ‘nothing.’ Those of you who know that there are more indefinite pronouns than just these, you are correct, I had found an incomplete list of indefinite pronouns, and I assumed that that was all. This is just one of the many things wrong with my study. My theory was that there were to be correlations to be detected in Beckett’s decreasing vocabulary, and increasing deployment of indefinite pronouns, relative to the total word count. I called the vocabulary measure ‘uniqueness,’ and the indefinite pronouns measure I called ‘ambiguity.’ This in tenuous I know, indefinite pronouns advance information as they elide the provision of information. It is, like so much else in the quantitative analysis of literature, totally unforgivable, yet we do it anyway.

V: Hapax Richness

I initially wanted to take into account another phenomenon known as the hapax score, which charts occurrences of words that appear only once in a text or corpus. The formula to obtain it would be the following:

number of words that appear once/total word count

I believe that the hapax count would be of significance to a Beckett analysis because of the points at which his normally incompetent narrators have sudden bursts of loquaciousness, like when Molloy says something like ‘digital emunction and the peripatetic piss,’ before lapsing back into his ‘normal’ tone of voice. Once again, because I was often working with a pen and paper, this became impossible, but now that I know how to code, I plan to go over my masters analysis, and do it properly. The hapax score will form a part of this new analysis.

VI: Code & Software

A much more accurate way of analysing vocabulary, for the purposes of comparative analysis when your texts are of different lengths, therefore, would be to randomly sample it. Obviously not very easy when you’re working with a corpus analysis tool online, but far more straightforward when working through a programming language. A formula for representative sampling was found, and integrated into the code. My script is essentially a series of nested loops and if/else statements, that randomly and sequentially sample a text, calculate the uniqueness, indefiniteness and hapax density ten times, store the results in a variable, and then calculate the mean value for each by dividing the result by ten, the number of times that the first loop runs. I inputted each value into the statistical analysis program SPSS, because it makes pretty graphs with less effort than R requires.

VII: Results

I used SPSS’ box plot function first to identify any outliers for uniqueness, hapax density and ambiguity. 1981 was the only year which scored particularly high for relative usage of indefinite pronouns.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-12-27-38

It should be said that this measure too, is correlated to the length of the text, which only stands to reason; as a text gets longer the relative incidence of a particular set of words will decrease. Therefore, as the only texts Beckett wrote this year, ‘The Way’ and ‘Ceiling,’ both add up to about 582 words (the fifth lowest year for prose output in his life), one would expect indefiniteness to be somewhat higher in comparison to other years. However, this doesn’t wholly account for its status as an outlier value. Towards the end of his life Beckett wrote increasingly short prose pieces. Comment C’est (How It Is) was his last novel, and was written almost thirty years before he died. This probably has a lot to do with his concentration on writing and directing his plays, but in his letters he attributed it to a failure to progress beyond the third novel in his so-called trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt (Malone Dies) and L’innomable (The Unnamable). It is in the year 1950, the year in which L’inno was completed, that Beckett began writing the Textes pour rien (Texts for Nothing), scrappy, disjointed pieces, many of which seem to be taking up from where L’inno left off, similarly the Fizzles and the Faux Départs. ‘The Way,’ I think, is an outgrowth of a later phase in Beckett’s prose writing, which dispenses the peripatetic loquaciousness and the understated lyricism of the trilogy and replaces it with a more brute and staccato syntax, one which is often dependent on the repetition of monosyllables:

No knowledge of where gone from. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of whence come to. Partly to. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of anything. Save dimly of having come to. Partly to. With dread of being again. Partly again. Somewhere again. Somehow again. Someone again.

Note also the prevalence of particle words, that will have been stripped out for the analysis, and the ways in which words with a ‘some’ prefix are repeated as a sort of refrain. This essential structure persists in the work, or at least the artefact of the work that the code produces, and hence of it, the outlier that it is.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-12-55-13

From plotting all the values together at once, we can see that uniqueness is partially dependent on hapax density; the words that appear only once in a particular corpus would be important in driving up the score for uniqueness. While there could said to be a case for the hypothesis that Beckett’s texts get less unique, more ambiguous up until 1944, when he completed his novel Watt, and if we’re feeling particularly risky, up until 1960 when Comment C’est was completed, it would be wholly disingenuous to advance it beyond this point, when his style becomes far too erratic to categorise definitively. Comment C’est is Beckett’s most uncompromising prose work. It has no punctuation, no capitalisation, and narrates the story of two characters, in a kind of love, who communicate with one another by banging kitchen implements off another:

as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom

VIII: Conclusion

I would love to say that the general tone is what my model is being attentive to, which is why it identified Watt and How It Is as nadirs in Beckett’s career but I think their presence on the chart is more a product of their relative length, as novels, versus the shorter pieces which he moved towards in his later career. Clearly, Beckett’s decision to write shorter texts, make this means of summing up his oeuvre in general, insufficient. Whatever changes Beckett made to his aesthetic over time, we might not need to have such complicated graphs to map, and I could have just used a word processor to find it — length. Bom and Pim aside, for whatever reason after having written L’inno none of Beckett’s creatures presented themselves to him in novelistic form again. The partiality of vision and modal tone which pervades the post-L’inno works demonstrates, I think far more effectively what is was that Beckett was ‘pitching’ for, a new conceptual aspect to his prose, which re-emphasised its bibliographic aspects, the most fundamental of which was their brevity, or the appearance of an incompleteness, by virtue of being honed to sometimes less than five hundred words.

The quantification of differing categories of words seems like a radical, and the most fun, thing to quantify in the analysis of literary texts, as the words are what we came for, but the problem is similar to one that overtakes one who attempts to read a literary text word by word by word, and unpack its significance as one goes: overdetermination. Words are kaleidoscopic, and the longer you look at them, the more threatening their darkbloom becomes, the more they swallow, excrete, the more alive they are, all round. Which is fine. Letting new things into your life is what it should be about, until their attendant drawbacks become clear, and you start to become ambivalent about all the fat and living things you have in your head. You start to wish you read poems instead, rather than novels, which make you go mad, and worse, start to write them. The point is words breed words, and their connections are too easily traced by computer. There’s something else about knowing that their exact correlations to a decimal point. They seem so obvious now.

Anne Enright ‘Taking Pictures’

2860066Just below there, I talked about Anne Enright’s use of the short story forms as a means of affording space for thought and/or contemplation, signalled by Enright’s self-consciously retrospective focalising. I didn’t mean for this to sound too mindfulness-y, but that’s perhaps inevitable when talking about such things. The reason I think this is relevant to Enright, all the same, is for a particular reason.

When I was reading one of the stories, the salaciously entitled ‘In The Bed Department,’ Kitty, manages to find time between her two adolescent sons and her job to have a brief relationship with a man she meets in a local theatre group. Reading this story, I was reminded of what the poet Marianne Moore once said about unfair aspects of life to the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “One is always having to go to market or drive the children somewhere. There isn’t time to wonder, is this right or isn’t it?” Kitty is trying to work that out for herself, the escalators in the department store in which she works are a striking metaphor for how we order experience and how we categorise what happens to us as good or bad:

“Kitty was suspicious of the escalator, or more properly the escalators, as there were two of them, one falling and one rising…She disliked the push of the motor, and under that, the loose, light clacking sound of something she could not analyse. A chain perhaps, that ran freely deep in the machine.”

David Foster Wallace, speaking on surrealism in the David Lynch film Blue Velvetand in his own writing once said:

“being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities. But in fact it upped them…whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real…most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra realism, it’s something on top of realism.”

In this schema, surrealism is a super-imposed topos, hovering just above the realness of the world, which bears most of the burden of proof.

In Enright’s fiction, it’s almost the other way around, as if Dali-esque archetypes, abstract interiors without individuation find themselves in relatively affluent South Dublin suburbs and “normal” family environments, or at least, in family environments where normality is expected.

As is her wont, Enright returns to the escalator metaphor:

“She could not bear the lopsided sight of the stalled steps, like someone endlessly limping at the other end of the shop floor…They packed around the central pivot like big slices of metal pie, then separated out on the way up, dangling their triangular bases into space.”

She then buttresses it further with boisterous working-class repair men who leave Kitty ambivalent. Such seemingly extraneous detail takes the rather straightforward escalator/categorising of experience metaphor from us and leaves us with a far more intricate and over determined vehicle, never mind all the interrelations of the organic/inorganic in the metal pie, or the radicalism of using such a pedestrian (literally, pedestrian) machine to characterise an inner state.

But Kitty is never stifled by all this. She becomes pregnant as a result of the aforementioned fling, but she doesn’t tell anyone. Most importantly, she deliberately doesn’t tell the man, who makes an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to follow up on their affair in a bungled phone call.

The final paragraph reverses the trajectory of Veronica at the end of The Gathering, who rather spectacularly concludes with: “I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”

Kitty: “Her life was changing, that was for sure, though she seemed to be standing still. But, ‘Up or down?’ she wondered. ‘Up or down?’ The children threw the plane back in the air and circled again on the end of its wire. Kitty walked on. It had been a baby, she knew it. She had been visited. How could it be down, when she felt such joy.”

Anne Enright’s ‘The Forgotten Waltz’

enrightstory1_1882708f41bsngw94olThe Forgotten Waltz is narrated by one Gina Moynihan, writing about an affair she embarks on with Seán, a man she meets both through her sister and in her ‘in IT, sort of’ job. Most reviewers have this pegged as a sort of post-Celtic Tiger novel, narrated as it is in the first person in the winter of 2009 in retrospect, when ‘things’ had well and truly ‘slowed down’ and there was a lot of bad snow and the guy slipped on the news.

From Gina’s stately viewpoint, the era of the Celtic Tiger becomes a time of lost innocence. Each chapter is named after a saccharine, nostalgia infused ballads from the fifties, ‘There Will be Peace in the Valley,’ ‘Love is Like a Cigarette,’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow.’

There is a kind of irony in this proscribed soundtrack, not least because Gina’s acerbic tone is present throughout, (despite her professed love for Seán, she never seems to have fallen for him), because the Celtic Tiger doesn’t usually get represented as a bygone day of innocence, so much as a tacky era of indulgence and reckless deregulation for which deserved punishment was received. ‘We all partied,’ etc.

With a Bret Easton-Ellis-esque turn, designer label names are sprinkled throughout. Gina’s sister Fiona notices the brand of shoe a lawyer is wearing and Seán’s wife is at one point referred to as ‘Missus Issey Miyake.’ I panicked when I read it as I remembered no character named something so distinctive.

Another thing to notice is how prevalent alcoholism is. In a recent interview, with Miriam O’Callaghan, Enright, speaking on the past quarter-century, says that she hopes that the Irish will one day develop a grown-up view of themselves. I reckon that the prevalence of booze in  The Forgotten Waltz bears this at least partially adolescent quality to Irish society out. No matter how fancy the shoes, tiled kitchens and holiday homes in Ballymoney get, alcohol as hobby remains. It is generally fancy, European booze though, like Campari, Krug and ‘Canadian ice-wine.’ When people drink at the time in the book that I presume in the eighties, it’s just generic naggins of gin or vodka. Guinness never appears, which is progress, I suppose.

Published as The Forgotten Waltz was between The Gathering and The Green Road, its content straddles both. Like The Gathering it takes the form of a sort of an extended justification or witness statement, with the same narratorial self-consciousness that Veronica has. Gina sees the world a lot like Veronica does, but interacts with it very differently. I can’t see Veronica ever saying “Those mango slices are a crime!” at a New Year’s party or anywhere else.

Scenes like the party at Fiona’s house are new territory for Enright, a movement into less claustrophobic environs, from the tortured Nabokovian first person, to third-person comedy set-piece, like the Christmas dinner in The Green Road and its fallout.

James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

41fnjdd740lIn the previous post I confessed to having a first-year-of-undergraduate-itis when it came to annotating books that I was reading, taking up space in margins that should probably be reserved for my future self who (hopefully) knows a thing or two more about a thing or two than I do.

In the library, it’s generally the texts that are prescribed in first year that are in the worst nick, not least for the often jaw-dropping levels of hubris exhibited by its readers. If you want to see a sequence of teenagers who have recently encountered Karl Marx for the first time quibble uselessly with Terry Eagleton about his definition of a novel, you’ll know where to look. It sometimes impresses me that students in later years make an effort to respond; as if the page functions as an analogue comment board and that the conversation is some way ongoing.

As was made clear below, I wasn’t immune from the tendency myself, I also once explained Roland Barthes’ theory of the honest sign as reminiscent of the way Heath Ledger’s Joker moves in the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight. But occasionally my notes aren’t as oppressively baffling, as I found in my copy of James’s Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The paragraph in question reads as follows:

“Now it seemed as if he would fail again but, by dint of brooding on the incident, he thought himself into confidence. During this process all those elements which he deemed common and insignificant fell out of the scene. There remained no trace of the tram itself nor of the tram-men nor of the horses: nor did he and she appear vividly. The verses told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon. Some undefined sorrow was hidden in the hearts of the protagonists as they stood in silence beneath the leafless trees and when the moment of farewell had come the kiss, which had been withheld by one, was given by both. After this the letters L. D. S. were written at the foot of the page, and, having hidden the book, he went into his mother’s bedroom and gazed at his face for a long time in the mirror of her dressing-table.”

My note helpfully notes: “Women, Freud, Lacan.”

What set me of on this trail was the presence of the mirror in the above scene, a bit of home décor that can get the interpretative ball rolling in any novel handily.

This is due to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, a juncture in a person’s life in which their self begins to exist. According to Lacan, this happens when a child first perceives themselves as an individual subject, a being that is distinct from their mother. It doesn’t necessarily involve an actual mirror.

This is fitting and is a loaded scene because of how Portrait is a novel concerned with how its precocious child Stephen Dedalus grows into a pretentious aesthete.Portrait is an extended exploration of Dedalus’ mirror stage, as he begins to see himself ‘mirrored’ as a literary artist. This can be seen in Dedalus’ emulation of Narcissus, cosying up to his new self-image as a writer.

Anne Enright once said that becoming a writer is to adopt a position of importance. Dedalus’ swollen ego certainly comes across in his preening, gazing and autographing a piece of juvenilia with his whimsical pseudonym “L. D. S.,” as if mindful of future antiquarian Christmas addicts who will come calling for the relic of the author’s manuscripts.

Joyce is ambivalent about his creature, not just in the above quotation, but in this novel in general. Throughout, he leans a bit more heavily than he does inDubliners on the irony dial, giving us plenty of hints that the reader shouldn’t be taking the antics of this aesthete seriously. Far from a budding Joyce, Dedalus may be what Joyce was at risk of becoming, if his self regard and consciousness had overwhelmed his capacity to write anything of note.

The rather ingenious way that Joyce has this come across in this scene is the fact that Dedalus’ mirror stage takes place while he inspects his reflection in his mother’s mirror, after having written what sounds like a horrendous poem.

It is just as likely that Dedalus’ mirror stage marks the futility of his adolescent declaration of “Non serviam!” He pinched the line from Milton anyway.

James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’

One of the guilty pleasures/occasions for misery that comes from re-reading a book is the re-inspection of old marginalia. It allows for the momentary solemn reflection on how far you have indeed come since those long gone dearly departed days, while simultaneously and no less solemnly jotting down new observations, truly the best observations that any observer has ever observed while reading James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners on the 130 bus.

However, occasionally a note from the undergraduate days, those long gone dearly departed undergraduate days, when an interpretation will strike one by virtue of its idiocy. I found one such the other day in the short story ‘Clay’ and it merits this public self-flagellation.

The paragraph reads as follows:

“But wasn’t Maria glad when the women had finished their tea and the cook and the dummy had begun to clear away the tea-things! She went into her little bedroom and, remembering that the next morning was a mass morning, changed the hand of the alarm from seven to six. Then she took off her working skirt and her house-boots and laid her best skirt out on the bed and her tiny dress-boots beside the foot of the bed. She changed her blouse too and, as she stood before the mirror, she thought of how she used to dress for mass on Sunday morning when she was a young girl; and she looked with quaint affection at the diminutive body which she had so often adorned. In spite of its years she found it a nice tidy little body.”

At the point in which Maria sets her alarm, I had written: “mastery over time. Derrida?”

Analysing the note, I find it to be indicative of the kind of critics I was into at the time. I wanted to find whatever critical approach, no matter how ostentatiously difficult, that would help me fashion a chart in which I could look up any book and therefore be able to stop worrying about how little I understood in the books I was reading.

I bought a book on metre in poetry and rigidly memorised the definitions of the terms ‘dactyl,’ ‘anapaest’ and ‘pyrrhic’ with the same intention. This all missed the crucial point in the application of a schema. What I didn’t learn until much later was that a character setting an alarm, a pyrrhic emphasis does not always mean the same thing in every situation. What is really at stake in the context in which these tropes are deployed.

Which is why the marginal note above is so fabulously ridiculous. Rather than reflecting a supposed mastery over time, a point at which one could bring in Mr. Derrida’s assault on the sacred cows of Western metaphysics, Maria’s setting of the alarm is intended as an assertion of utmost mundane-ness, just another part of her daily ritual of little, nice and tidy propositions.

Like the proverbial boiling frog (and the metaphor is particularly apposite, bearing in mind Joyce’s malevolence towards his creatures in this sequence of fifteen stories) each of ‘the Dubliners,’ are steeped in mundane details that are the unsung gems of the novel, stacked neatly and with admirable restraint before the apex/nadir of the epiphany. These are the hands of Maria’s clock, the bookshelf of James Duffy and the petit bourgeois existence of Jimmy Doyle’s father. Beyond the book’s famous snow, they deserve attention.

Samuel Beckett’s ‘How It Is’

50216In his review of Beckett’s final novel, How It Is V.S. Pritchett concluded that Beckett had paid “a heavy price in obscurity, pretentiousness and awful boredom.” Evidently Pritchett was not a fan of Beckett’s free-wheeling with punctuation, lack of a plot and experiments with language. Blasphemous as it is, it’s possible to see his point of view, reading about the exploits of someone traversing a barren desert landscape with a bag of tins around their neck, seeking an other to rhythmically mash with a can-opener isn’t everyone’s idea of a good story.

Well now that I think of it, it’s mine and that sounds like a great premise for a novel. Forget what I said about seeing Pritchett’s point of view.

I jest I jest, Pritchett’s perspective on Beckett is one not far from the pulse, as he qualifies his critique with the point that there are ‘lyrical glints’ aplenty that mollify his more righteous instincts in his crusade against all things pretentiously boring and obscure. This can sometimes reflect the experience of reading texts that are in some ways manufactured to be monotonous and alienating, the Pritchetts of the world soldier vainly onward like the quoteunquote protagonist Pim on his face in the dirt, (‘mouth opens the tongue comes out lolls in the mud and no question of thirst either’) tongue lolling outwards, thirsty for some more ‘lyrical glints’ amid the discordant grikes.

The following is one such lyrical glint:

“we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away”

Pritchett is correct in pinpointing these as one of the stand-out features of the novel, they are indicative of a certain kind of childhood memory that circulate throughout the text and occur compulsively, saturated in the sepia of nostalgia.  But what makes them that much more poignant is the contrast with Pim’s reality, the seeming intensity of his inner life at one point, (whether it can be said to be dormant or a remnant of what it once during the narration of How It Is is somewhat moot) makes the degradation of his current state all the more incomprehensible and, though one shouldn’t be prone to making these sort of value judgements on a novel that repudiates the mechanism of characterisation, upsetting.

For example, a section of his monologue rendered below. Words that are capitalised are ones he is communicating to his ‘companion’ Bom, by smacking him with a can-opener.

“as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom”