Monthly Archives: December 2012

Kundera, Borges and representation

I would suggest that in his otherwise brilliant books of essays, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera makes one serious error of omission. Both these books deal with the history and evolution of the European novel. I will briefly summarise his argument, before explaining my one reservation, and then discussing a very interesting issue about the nature of art, that is thrown up by his analysis.

For Kundera, the history of the novel can be divided like two halves of a football game that is presently in extra-time. The analogy is meant to highlight three clear eras, separated by clean breaks. The history commences with Rabelais and Cervantes in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first “break” occurs towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th. And the second, rather more ambiguous dividing line is located somewhere in the early-mid twentieth century.

The first era, of which the stand-out examples are Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, is characterised by a disconnect between the world of the novel and the world of reality. Kundera’s example is the amount of times Sancho Panza has his teeth knocked in. He would need four or five pairs of jaws to compensate for that, if he were a real person. Of course, you can replace this example by many similar ones. The episode of the thawing of the frozen words in Gargantua is one that I’ve never forgotten, for instance. In other words, it is not the novelist’s task, it is not the novel’s task, to conform to the laws of physics, the laws of mechanics, and various other laws – or at least, principles, to use a less rigid term – that govern human behaviour.

The second era, of which Kundera quotes Balzac as the paragon, is precisely the opposite, in that the novelist is expected and required to accurately represent the real world. His success is measured by how well he can do that. I haven’t read Balzac, but to my mind, the following two examples fit the bill: Dickens’ painstaking depiction of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and Victor Hugo’s sixty pages describing the Parisian sewers to the last detail in Les Miserables (you can think of Hugo’s descriptions in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well). This isn’t restricted to the physical world – characters must behave, act, talk in the way you would expect them to, if they were real people (hence, the idea of the “psychological novel”, of which the great Russians are undisputed masters).

So there, in essence, you have two radically opposed views about the novel. One that couldn’t care two hoots for the world, and the other that insists the novel is measured by how precisely it can represent the world.

“Extra time”, for Kundera, is that which has been initiated by the likes of James Joyce and Kafka in the 21st century, and carried on by the magical realists (he mentions Carlos Fuentes, and I’m quite sure he mentions Gabriel Garcia Marquez at one point). Their work rejects the idea of the novel-as-representation, and hearkens back to the freewheeling fiction of Rabelais and Cervantes. A quick recollection of Ulysses, or the bizarre, winding ways of The Trial and The Castle will illustrate the point that Kundera is making. You could never imagine any of that happening in real life.

Kundera pulls out all the stops. His is a dazzling way of arguing, his prose is (ironically enough) lyrical, and of course, he is controversial – especially in his suggestions about how to read Kafka.

But here is the serious problem: Kundera doesn’t even mention the person who, for me, is the single, most spectacular practitioner in the “extra-time era” of the “extra-time novel”: Jorge Luis Borges. It is surprising, for the magical realists, especially Marquez, have often acknowledged their debt to Borges. Borges’ short stories demonstrate exactly what Kundera is talking about. Think of The Garden of Forking Paths. Think of how it takes our conception of time, and twists it around like a rope, disorienting us entirely; think of The Library of Babel, and its utterly… illogical premise; or The Circular Ruins, and the manner in which it seamlessly blends reality and dream. You couldn’t have a more vehement rejection of the representation philosophy, a more fervent affirmation of the Quixote in us. And so, Kundera’s omission is very surprising.

It’s interesting also to note that Borges in fact makes a very similar point about the novel in his preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. The Invention of Morel is a brilliant, an absolutely mind-blowing short-novel that has never received the credit it deserves; it is also a classically Borgesian novel, taking our most basic conceptions of reality, like time and space, and making us view them through a glass, darkly. Borges, writing the preface to it, makes a very Kundera-esque distinction between “the psychological novel” and “the adventure novel”, and then, very much like Kundera again, makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies lie with the latter.

That said, I think it’s fascinating to note that this debate is not in any sense restricted to the novel. You find it in ancient greek tragedy. For instance, Aristotle quotes Sophocles as saying that “he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides they are.” There is no doubt that Sophoclean characters (think of Oedipus, of Antigone, even Creon) are essentially larger-than-life, depicting human strengths and weaknesses on a Homeric-heroic scale; while Euripides’ characters are human, all too human. And this dichotomy was recognised and emphasised; it is emphasised by Aristophanes in The Frogs: the contest in the underworld between Aeschylus and Euripides for the crown of the greatest tragedian is conducted around the central question of whether Aeschylus’ epic portrayal or Euripides’ practical one constitutes better tragedy; it is certainly emphasized by Schlegel, when he savagely criticises Euripides’ art in his Lectures on the history of European drama. And then after Aristophanes the comedian, another Aristophanes, the Byzantine historian, would praise the playwright Menander in the following words: “O life and Menander! Which of you imitated the other?” Perfect imitation, worthy of supreme praise – to the extent that it was impossible to distinguish what was art and what, life.

This idea of the relationship between life and art is dealt with, I think, with surpassing and astounding brilliance by Oscar Wilde, in his four magnificent essays on the nature of art. Wilde rejects entirely the idea that art must imitate life, and instead turns it around entirely: life ought to imitate art! At first blush, this sounds like an absurd thesis. But is it, really?

Consider the beautiful ending of Victor Hugo’s poem, Boaz Endormi:

What summer reaper out of times unknown,
In leaving her so carelessly had thrown
That golden sickle in the field of stars?

This is a description of the moon. And Wilde’s point is that if we read this poem, and are affected by it in the way that good poetry affects us, when next we look upon the moon, we will see it differently from the way in which we’ve been seeing it before: we too will see it as a golden sickle in a field of stars. In other words, our world takes its colour, its definition, its characteristics from our art. We look at our world through the lens of our art. Every time that, for instance, that you look at something beautiful, and a metaphor springs unbidden into your mind, it is the world imitating art. “The moon was a ghostly galleon…” – you read that, and how many times do you look up into a stormy, cloudy night, and catch yourself thinking about ships in storm-tossed seas?

I hope to do more justice to Wilde’s argument by examining it in a separate post. But I’d also like to add here that this isn’t even restricted to literature. It pervades the arts. There was a time when it was believed that the best kind of painting was one that most accurately depicted reality. Escher and Dali, to name just two great painters, would take serious issue with that. And then again, interestingly, I recently read that one of the things the impressionists were praised for was how they managed to capture light and movement better than those before them; but also about how a major feature of their art was letting the viewer complete the scene with his imagination. An interesting duality.

I suppose the basic idea is, again, that it’s important to always keep questioning the premises and presuppositions with which we approach a work of art, no matter what type it is – and that includes our presuppositions of what is a work of art – the central and vexed question of identity. I have no categorical views on the representation debate either way, although with the likes of Kundera and Wilde as its spokesmen, I am inclined to cast my lot in with the practitioners of extra-time. But the debate itself, I think, and what it reveals about us and our art, is far more fascinating than whatever conclusion or resolution we arrive at.

Hugo’s Booz Endormi:

The wiki page for The Invention of Morel, by far one of the best books I have ever read:

Links to some classic Borges stories:

The Garden of Forking Paths:

The Library of Babel:

The Circular Ruins:

Oscar Wilde’s essays:

The Critic as Artist:

The Truth of Masks:

The Decay of Lying:

The Rise of Historical Criticism:


Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, J.L. Borges, Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera, Modernism, Oscar Wilde

Parry-Lord and Reading Homer

The other day, at my friend’s behest, I was watching the first part of Leonard Bernstein’s What is Classical Musicon Youtube. Like a good 1950s man, Bernstein begins with the question of the definition of classical music, in an Aristotelian framework of exclusion and inclusion. He considers epithets such as “good“, “serious“, “art” and even “long-haired“, only to reject them all. He finally isolates the essence of classical music in the comparatively minimal degree of freedom that it affords the performer of a piece, and the correspondingly greater degree of control that it vests in the composer. Bernstein then comes up with the following three adjectives to define classical music: “permanent, unchanging, exact“.

I nodded when I heard this for the first time. Permanent, unchanging. Makes perfect sense.

And yet, does it? Notice one thing. “Permanent” and “unchanging” are not synonyms. We normally agree that something is permanent as long as its essence remains the same – the thing itself can modify and evolve over time. And then again, something can be unchanging, but only temporarily. Why then does it seem natural for Bernstein – and for us – to run the two words together, as though it was simply… natural? We know from Foucault, after all, that words only take their meaning through other words; and as the great legal philosopher, Dworkin, points out, our language both constructs and protects a certain social environment. Is it, then, a human need for constancy (and notice, here, that “constant” is closer in meaning to both “permanent” and “unchanging” than they are to each other) that makes it natural for us to view these words in mutual company?

I bring this up because it is an idea bridge to discussing something that I read this summer, one of the most fascinating pieces that I have come across in recent times. I refer to Albert Lord’s book, The Singer of Tales. The theme is oral epic; in particular, Homer.

Homer and I have had a long and troubled association. Apart from a personal reminiscence, however, I think it reflects a broader, more interesting point. Like any child growing up with even the slightest interest in literature, I would hear ad nauseam about the greatness of Homer, the first and the best ever. Consequently when, as a callow youth of twelve, I took up The Iliad, I was already telling myself that I would have to enjoy it; anything else would reveal a serious lack in me. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t enjoy it. The catalogue of ships in Book II bored me to tears. The seemingly endless repetitions of different people dying in the same violent and graphic way made little sense. Even the climactic Achilles-Hector battle was decent, at best. I blamed it on Samuel Butler’s turgid prose. Then I read Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, and was utterly smitten. Convinced that the fault lay not in my Homer but in my Butler, I scoured the Delhi bookshops for the man who, speaking out “loud and bold“, had made the great romantic feel like both an astronomer and stout Cortes, by turn. I finally got my hands on Chapman’s translation, and started with the Odyssey. By Book IV, I was so put off by the forced rhyming, that I cursed Keats, and abandoned it. One thing in Homer made perfect sense to me: the imagery. There was no doubt that the Iliad’s imagery is special. I recall, for instance, as a too-sentimental teenager of 19, in the first throes of rejected love, declaiming in the room of a friend, another self-confessed Homer fan, the lines “surely the grey sea bore her, and the sheer cliffs begot her, so cruel and remorseless is she!” But apart from that, I resigned myself to never quite understanding what was so special about Homer, that they all acknowledged him King and master. And I think many of my friends have had a similar experience with Homer – almost universally, for instance, we prefer Virgil to Homer (caveat – none of us know Latin, we can only read translations).

Until I read Lord’s The Singer of Tales, and understood that I was doing it all wrong. I was approaching Homer with a set of assumptions and presuppositions that were simply inapplicable, like trying to play football while following the rules of hockey. You’ll be playing something that resembles football, but which it isn’t football at all. So too for Homer. Let me try and explain.

We’ll start with the vexing Homeric question: how is it that the first practitioner of the art of epic was also its greatest? The beginning of any art form is riddled with flaws, a certain consequence of experimentation. It is only after trial and error, constant evolution, frequent regression, and the trial of years that an art form reaches its apotheosis (think of the evolution of perspective in art, for instance, from 13th century Italy to the paintings of Carlo Crivelli at the peak of the Renaissance). So how on earth did Homer stand at the beginning of epic, and also at its head? Well, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, after years of research and fieldwork, came to the startlingly simple conclusion: Homer wasn’t an epic poet who wrote the Iliad. In fact, the Iliad wasn’t, at first, written at all. Homer was an oral poet, who was part of an ancient and flourishing tradition of oral epic poetry, which was fundamentally different, in every conceivable way, from the written word.

I cannot describe, in any kind of details, the arguments that Lord puts forward for the Parry-Lord hypothesis in his book. I’ll come straight to the crucial differences between oral epic and the written word. First, and most importantly, the written tradition, ex hypothesi, assumes the existence of an original, a uniquely identifiable piece of text that is the work. There can be many translations of The Aeneid, and many interpretations, but there is only one Aeneid, what Virgil wrote. Scholars may divide forever over how best to understand Sailing to Byzantium, but nobody divides over what the poem is. It is what Yeats wrote (in a brilliant essay called What is an Author?, Foucault tries to question this fundamental premise with which we approach literary texts, but I, for one, don’t think he manages to make any dent in that mode of thinking – how could he?).

But that is not the case for oral poetry. There is no original, no “standard”, no “model”. Every performance is an act of individual creation. Yes, there exists a set of themes and motifs that can be loosely called The Iliad. But as an oral poet, whenever I sing the song of Achilles and Hector and Priam and Ajax, I am not imitating/interpreting/adapting/modifying a defined original, but rather, I am creating or composing something new. To use Bernstein’s terminology: a written text is permanent, unchangeable. Oral tradition is the very antithesis of that.

Secondly, oral poetry is composed under a set of conditions that differ radically from that of written works of art. Oral composers are performing for an audience; their primary concern is with holding the attention of their listeners. This has a number of consequences. Primarily, speed. Oral composition needs to be continuous. The problem, however, is that it also needs to adhere to a strict metre (the Iliad, for instance – dactylic hexameter; the yugoslav oral epics that Parry and Lord examine – lines of ten syllables, divided into half lines of 4 – 6). How on earth is the poet going to compose metrical verse on the spot? The answer lies in a stock of formulaic phrases and epithets that form part of the oral tradition, which every poet learns during his apprenticeship, and which he can draw upon as he sings. These “formulae” are designed specifically for adhering to the metrical form – for instance, for a four-syllabled half line, you will have a number of three-syllabled words that you can join with an “a” or a “the” or a “said”, or something of that sort. The skill of a great oral poet, therefore, lies in how he can manipulate the stock of formulas at his disposal – because all poets will have the corpus available to them – to create verse of great and enduring beauty. This, then, explains the constant repetition in Homer – if you already have a metred formula that describes death in battle, you don’t need to go out on a limb and find a new way of describing it each time. Originality, which all of us value so highly, simply isn’t a consideration here.

While formulae exist at the micro-level of lines and half-lines, they also exist at the macro level of themes, and how themes succeed each other. Lord talks about how the theme of an “Assembly” is extremely common throughout ancient epic – there are four assemblies in the first two books of the Iliad – and often, these are linked with speeches by heroes, by gift-giving, by the arrival of heralds, and by the declaration of war. This, again, explains why so many themes and motifs recur throughout Homer.

Thirdly, oral poetry is performed within a small-ish group (remember, we’re talking of pre-writing societies here) all of whom are aware of – and operate within – the tradition. Furthermore, the essentially fluctuating and variable nature of the performance means that standard requirements of coherence and consistency are entirely inapplicable. This allows us to come at the vexing catalogue of ships in Book II from two angles: first, the names and places Homer is mentioning would have been thoroughly familiar to his audience, and they would have been able to make the associations and connections that we cannot now – Homer was not writing for readers through time, but performing for a specific audience at a specific place at a specific time (unlike Virgil – compare Book VII of the Aeneid – the description of the Latin heroes – with the catalogue of ships; Virgil, writing an epic for contemporary Rome, knows that he cannot simply describe them like Homer, and leave the rest to the imagination of his audience; so, he punctuates his descriptions with passages of individual poetic beauty. Adam Parry points to one in particular – the mourning landscape that laments the death of Umbro: Te nemus Angitiae, vitrea te Fucinus unda,/ Te liquidi flevere lacus – For you the grove of Angitia mourned, and Fucinus’ glassy waters,/ And the clear lakes. Homer needs no such device, and has no use for it.)

Secondly, it helps us understand that the standard Aristotelian presuppositions with which we approach a text – unity of time, place, action do not apply to oral poetry. Homer is not concerned with presenting to us a tightly bound, internally coherent, economical narrative. Digression is no evil. There is no “central plot theme” that we expect from a novel, no core idea that binds the rest together. And that is why The Iliad is full of what we consider to be irrelevancies, random digressions, inexplicable departures from what we see to be the “main theme” – the siege and battle for Troy. There is no main theme in the first place, there is no logic of the narrative that dictates what is to happen next, and how.

In these few paragraphs, I have done little or no justice to the complexity, the ingenuity, the sheer wealth of detail and the brilliant argumentation of the Parry-Lord hypothesis. Their book is a beautiful work, argued with passion and flair. I cannot now think of reading Homer, or any of the major oral epic works, without having first read this book. It is honestly like trying to read a foreign language without knowing its linguistic structure.

But what this makes me think of that fundamental question. How ought we to approach a text? So far, I was reading Homer with all the presuppositions of a twenty-first century reader who has lived in, and has had his thought structured by, a world where written texts are the norm without exception. Now that he has learnt this was not the environment in which Homer composed, how should he proceed the next time he takes up the Iliad?

And this is THE classic debate in hermeneutics, one that is applicable not only to literature, but also, as far as I know, to history and to law, to take two areas I have a vague knowledge of. William Dilthey believed that it was possible to entirely overcome the limitations that existed in trying to understand/interpret texts from different eras and cultures. He argued that one could rise above one’s own bounded position, and understand texts entirely in their own terms – that there was this place (think of E.H. Carr’s image of the eagle on a crag, looking down upon the march of humanity) where all prejudices and all boundedness simply dissolved, and we could dispassionately examine and analyse anything, and arrive at the truth of its essence. In Truth and Method, Gadamer rejected this position, and along with it, rejected “prejudice” as something that one should strive to overcome in the first place. Gadamer’s prejudice is responsible for our fore-understanding of a text – that is, a Heideggerian notion of the understanding we bring to it before we have even read it. This “prejudice” is formed by our social and cultural environment. But crucially, for Gadamer, this is something to be welcomed; it does not cloud the truth, but rather, helps to reveal it. The horizon, he says, is only all that we can see from a particular point of view. And truth in interpretation is arrived at by achieving a merging of horizons. Habermas, in his turn, criticised Gadamer for simply accepting prejudice, and refusing to subject it to a critical examination. For Habermas, it is vital to examine the presuppositions and assumptions that constitute our fore-understanding in the first place.

It is hardly my place – and nor am I remotely competent – to present some kind of adjudicatory opinion on the merits of these positions. What I think this does demonstrate, however, is that even once we know the Parry-Lord hypothesis, it isn’t an open-and-shut case, how best we should read Homer. We need to think about what we are reading forwhy we are reading, what the point of literature and the aesthetic experience is, if we are to come to a conclusion about whether and to what extent we ought to try and put ourselves in the shoes of a sixth-century Greek listening to a singer around a fireside, to what extent it is even possible, if at all.

For my part, I will keep Parry-Lord at the forefront of my mind, the next time I take up The Iliad, because my first objective is to get past the catalogue of ships without feeling intensely put off!

The wiki entry for The Singer of Tales:

Keats’ brilliant poem that is also, in my opinion, a grave error of aesthetic judgment:

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Filed under Epic, Homer, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Milman Parry & Albert Lord

Musings on the Aeneid – I

I will start by discussing one of my favourite lines in all of poetry.

Arva neque Ausoniae semper cedentia retro 

(Virgil, Aeneid, Book III, 496 – 7)

My Fitzgerald translation has this down as:

No quest for dim lands of Ausonia/ Receding ever.

Here is the full context: Aeneas has escaped from the sack of Troy, and has been charged with the burden of founding Rome (Virgil sums up the gravity of Aeneas’ task with another line, beautiful for its brevity – “Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem” (Bk I, 33), translated by Fitzgerald as “so hard and huge/ A task it was to found the Roman people). He has been sailing the seas, seeking Italy, the pre-destined place, the only place where he can come to land permanently, and he has been meeting one peril and misfortune after another. At length he arrives in Epirus, where his kinsman Helenus has established himself, and rules in peace and plenty. He is also an augury, and he predicts a long and troubled journey for Aeneas before he can succeed in his task. When the time then comes to say farewell, Aeneas can scarce forbear to weep; and he laments:

‘Be happy, friends; your fortune is achieved,/ While one fate beckons us and then another./ Here is your quiet rest; no sea to plow,/ No quest for dim lands of Ausonia/ Receding ever.‘”

In his beautiful article, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid“, Adam Parry cites this as one of the examples of a “private voice” in The Aeneid, that sets itself up in opposition to, and regularly subverts the dominant, commonly understood “public voice”, that is, the paean to Augustus Caesar and the Roman Empire. In this line, the private voice suggests that although, of course, Aeneas will eventually reach Italy and establish Rome, in another, more meaningful sense, his labours are destined to have no ending, and, in Parry’s words, the “end… will see him as far from his fulfillment as his beginning. This other Italy will never cease receding into the distance.” (Parry, 1963). I’ll take the truth of this argument as my starting point.

Let me try to explain my response to this understanding of the lines by quoting one of my most-loved poets, Lord Byron, at his most Byronic:

Man’s greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection that he cannot attain.”

This, of course, is the tragedy of Manfred, maybe of Childe Harold, in parts, and certainly of Byron, in his last poem, “On This Day, I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year.” Byron’s words are simple, blunt, almost brutal – and for that reason, utterly compelling. Their power, I think, lies in the fact that they identify the truth, and present it to us unvarnished and unadorned. For anyone who has ever struggled with anything that seems greater than himself, be it the writing of a poem or the building of a bridge that for all its elegance, still seems incomplete in some unidentifiable way (take any other example here – details don’t matter) cannot, I feel, fail to be profoundly moved by this line. Camus understands this aspect of the human condition perfectly when he makes one of his characters, throughout all the pages of The Plague, struggle with the opening line of his planned novel, struggling for a perfection that he knows exists, but which always evades him, eludes him, flees from him even as he grasps futilely for it. He dies of plague before he can finish the first page.

What Byron achieves through a perfect phrase and Camus through a perfect example, Virgil does in an infinitely more powerful way – through a perfect image. In that one line and a bit, by presenting a single picture of your destination that is receding from you even as you’re striving to reach it, he enters your soul. The Ausonian fields are a metaphor for life. You are always striving, striving for that goal, that destination, a destination that, like those Ausonian fields, you know nothing about apart from the fact that you’re striving for it, and like the horizon, it always recedes from you, so that it doesn’t matter how fast and how long you run, how determined and resolute – or lucky – you are. There it is, at the edge of your vision, so that you always know that it exists, and you’re always reaching, trying, running (sigue corriendo!), and yet deep inside you, you’re aware of the Sisyphean futility of the endeavour, because the horizon will always remain as far away as it is when you begin.

And that, I think, sums up the greatness of Virgil. A single line and a word. A perfect image. And you come out of it deeply affected, deeply troubled, and deeply moved.

Of course, not all poets are so pessimistic. C.P. Cavafy, in his brilliant – and justly famous poem, Ithaka, compares life to Odysseus’ journey home after Troy. Only, Cavafy’s traveler faces no Scylla or Charybdis, no annoying sorceresses with a penchant for turning people into pigs, and no terrifying one-eyed cannibalistic monsters. On the contrary, there are summer mornings of pleasure and joy, when you discover new harbours, Phoenican traders with exquisite wares, and Egyptian cities with great scholars. And in the end, you do reach Ithaka, in your old age, and the journey has made you rich beyond your dreams.

It is a beautiful poem. Cavafy inspires and makes us dream. But Virgil, I feel, plumbs the truth.


Byron on his 36th:

They are both brilliant poems, although in very different ways. Much recommended

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Filed under Camus, Epic, Existentialism, Lord Byron, Romanticism, Virgil