Quote: Indicative mood, subjunctive mood, and narrative

In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.

Ursula Le Guin, “Some Thoughts on Narrative”, Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 44


What Ursula K. Le Guin has taught SF

(Or, on two kinds of science fiction): With Worlds of Exile and Illusion, Ursula K. Le Guin presents us with an alternative notion of what science fiction can be. In a previous post, I was somewhat concerned about setting up a gender-based dichotomy of this genre, but this doesn’t worry me so much now. As such, I want to suggest that Le Guin gives us an alternate vision, a departure from traditional space operas, those great books that extoll the great works of great men.

In giving us tales in this collection of Hainish cycle novels (namely: Rocannon’s WorldPlanet of Exile, and City of Illusions), we read about an interstellar civilization, and we would superficially appear to be in a realm similar to Asimov, Banks, or Simmons. But we are not privy to the thoughts and memories of galactic administrators, generals, or politicians, those most powerful in our imagining. What we get are not the great ceremonial city squares, the heraldry, the displays of might that cross the gulf of immeasurable distance (in time, space, imagination). Instead, we are told of the weeds growing up between the flagstones in these grand civic spaces, the forgotten semi-sanctioned research foray, and of those who have escaped the attention of Greatness.

This is a rueful SF, possessed of a knowledge that the greatest effort of all is not to be found in priapic  displays of techno-prowess, but in attempting ever greater fidelity to discovering what the human is. Unlike some other SF authors, Le Guin is not interested in trouble-shooting the implications of products which have not yet been invented. She does not mine as yet undeveloped markets for narrative fodder (nor in so doing, hasten their coming). She treats us as essentially human, rather than incidentally so. She treats the human as an end in itself. By doing so, her readers are considered with greater respect than by any other author I can currently think of. This is the animating spirit of everything Le Guin writes, never way-laid or silenced for cheap pay-offs or lazy plot effects.

In this reading experience, we are not played, nor led, nor otherwise dictated to. Authorial imperiousness is nowhere to be found – and what a relief this is. There is no “LOOK AT ME. Amn’t I terribly clever?” which can infect this genre of ideas. Curiously, Le Guin’s authorial voice is one that listens, and one which encourages us to do the same through its willingness to quieten itself. It is silent in that manner of walking along a path with a companion, and having our conversational gambit go unanswered. We look askance at our friend, but in that precious moment we see, and hear their attention directed away from us. So we stand in silence – and listen. With Le Guin, we quieten the din that accompanies living and reading. We still the contact between author and reader, moving beyond trust to something else. This something else, this elsewhere, this otherwise, these fringes, these lapidary shards of the previously unnoticed are why we should read Le Guin.

Open question: the interplay of narrative and the physical text

In any story, there is a tension between its content, the narrative flow on one hand, and the actual object by which it is conveyed on the other. The ‘immaterial’ informational content has a medium of material conveyance (to such an extent that calling information immaterial is moot to my eyes). A tale may appear to be coming to its resolution, but the thickness you hold in your right hand, the individual pages combined together to make up ‘the-rest-of-the-book’, belies this sense of an ending. It is a curious feedback, manifested in physical form, between the world of fiction, and the real world of the reader.

Which has the greater claim on us? Do we extend the suspension of disbelief into reality? Do we temporarily dissociate ourselves? My question is whether anybody else has written of this or engaged with this question at greater length? Of course, the McLuhans spring to mind in terms of a medium/message tension, but even in the Laws of Media I couldn’t find anything on this. Likewise, I assumed that in literary theory and criticism, the ‘reader response‘ theorists might have something on this, and ought to have discussed it. All I could really find of use was from Wolfgang Iser‘s The Act of Reading, when he discusses that literary texts do not ‘serve merely to denote empirically existing objects.’:

Even though they may select objects from the empirical world – as we have seen in our discussion of the repertoire – they depragmatize them, for these objects are not to be denoted, but are to be transformed. […] The literary text, however, takes its selected objects out of their pragmatic context and so shatters their original frame of reference; the result is to reveal aspects (e.g., of social norms) which had remained hidden as long as the frame of reference remained intact. (p.109)

This is an approach to my question, but it remains in the realm of the literary text, or the text as literary, rather than the text as literary and as material. Theory and thought may have been considering itself as immaterial for rather too long, if there is no repertoire of ideas through which we might confront this. I am sure, however, that this question has been addressed by somebody out there, given the new status of the narrative in the time of Kindle and Kobo e-readers, as well as tablets on the whole. There the status of the narrative vector is to be found in the “X of Y pages”, or the sliding bar indicators of one’s reading progress. Indeed the fact that to display reading progress in this matter is simply a choice, a merely technological decision, would have interesting implications if an author decided to do away with this “40 of 200 pages read” option for their works. In that manner the reader would be engaging with the narrative in a rather different manner than those reading it as a physical, paper book. There are also analogies to be made with the previous model (such as with Dickens) whereby a novel was serialized. Anyway, all comments and suggestions of people to be read are most welcome! Just put them in the comments below.

Rilke’s angels and metaphor

Are we seeing a theme emerge? A lot of thinking about figurative language lately. William Empson writes, in The Structure of Complex Words, of metaphor as the sudden perception of an objective relation:

It is clear that we may do this before we can explain it […] Original pieces of thinking have, I suppose, nearly always been started on metaphor, and so far from being peculiarly “emotive” and indulgent of folly, a metaphor is often a loophole for common sense.

We have all read of engineers and scientists, as well as poets and artists having this sudden perception of an objective relation, of a connection that appears to have always been so. If we ask this type of language and thought a question, if we ask “what is metaphor… for?” where does this lead us? This may require expansion, so when do we employ metaphor, and to what end? True, all language contains metaphorical elements, or shows itself to be a sedimented cross-section of previous ages’ figurative language, petrified into varying degrees of literalism. Continue reading

A formal approach to poetry

How close does the “history of ideas” approach come to data-mining as the study and criticism of literature? I was rereading Christopher Tilmouth’s Passion’s Triumph Over Reason, and I began thinking about this. I met the author a few years back, in his Cambridge room in a turret of Peterhouse, when I was planning on undertaking a PhD (on the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester) there. We discussed the various approaches that are common now, and while he is not necessarily a party to the more theory-laden schools of thought, he certainly was familiar with their content and understood their attraction to many. I was there to talk to him about the possibility of taking a more formal approach to literature (which is in keeping with my techno-functionalist interests in philosophy!), one which did not make the text merely a conduit to discuss a particular theory of discourse, one which, incidentally might be anachronistic. At the same time, however, I felt that there was something about the historical scholarship approach to poetry that didn’t resonate for me. Continue reading

Reading through allegory and metaphor

Homeric allegoresis had come into existence as a defense of Homer against philosophy.

E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, p.205

This is still true, for few modern students of literature allow themselves to be simply readers; there is the fear which I below called the unliterary, which leads us into the temptation to read literature as a key to something else. This can be sociology, politics, psychology, etc. via the poem or book or painting or film. Those who are literary readers can be either aesthetic or antiaesthetic. An old fashioned (indeed, regarded as antediluvian by most) example of the former would be Harold Bloom, and the boa-deconstructionists of Deconstruction and Criticism (Geoffrey Hartmann, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller) are occasionally the latter. Most often they are allegorists manqué, and their allegory seeks to elucidate their god of the textual gaps.  Continue reading

Literary and unliterary reading

For myself, I split the reading of literature into two broad groups, namely the literary and the unliterary. The unliterary reader approaches a piece of fiction, or a poem, the way they would if it were any other text. They are epistemic and systematic, and so we can perceive the impact a book (etc.) has on them almost immediately, since their experience of it is not mediated by other concerns beyond “what does this tell me”. The literary reader’s experience is reflected, however, and so a text can fruitfully be read and reread. It is in this sense, like Montaigne in his tower, reading his 5,000 book library over and over, a little at a time, that such literary readers may be considered gnostic. It is the continued experience of the text that defines them, because they are an element of a community of interpreters. This goes for all readers of texts, including films, comics, magazine articles, etc. If you have at any stage debated the merits of a particular text, or suggested “what if they had casted X rather than Y”, or played some variation of “name your top 5 villains of all time, and say why”, then you are a member of this interpretive community. You are a literary reader.  Continue reading