Come Back as a Human

I went this week to Queens. I came to visit with people and in order to write in the mornings while laying down. It is too hot in my non-AC apartment to do such a thing, but the Long Island City Courtyard Marriott was perfectly suited to horizontal writing. Out my window I could see a bunch of people doing construction, but if I walked right up to the window and look out of it at a very steep angle I could see the skyline of Manhattan.

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the view from Long Island City

I used to live in New York, where I was underemployed and because of this I really, really enjoyed taking a long time to get places. That was my time as a native peripatetic; now that I only come to visit, I still basically do the same thing. My days visiting are underbooked; I get off the Q at Union Square and walk to Prince Street. It was less fun these last few days in the heat, but not so much less fun that I knocked off doing it. Few subjects are as well trod (ha) as the great mystery of walking around in New York, and so even before I started writing this, even before I thought up of which, of the many New York City-centric sentences that I know, ought to serve as this post’s pith (and I’ll get to it in a bit), I begin to think a lot about cliches.

New York cliches seem to me to be the most prevalent cliches; partly because they are very represented (there’s a book of essays of people leaving New York, and a companion book of essays of people deciding to stay; I am sure either one could have multiple successor volumes), and partly because I am sure of self-selection bias (the runners-up for cliches that I recognize are Buffalo and Boston, two other places I’ve lived near). So because New York cliches are ubiquitous, and because I am riddled by what George Saunders would stylize as Acute Cliche Anxiety, I think about them a lot.

Cliche anxiety depends on an anxiety about iterability, about whether one is doing the same thing as something else correctly. There are lots of things that both the philosophical tradition and contemporary thinkers have to say on the subject of whether anything has ever been the same as anything, even once. Much of peoples’ lives are spent — or anyway much of my life is spent — trying to determine if I am doing things correctly by being like the people I wish to be like and then trying to back off at least, say 15%, so that I have not become a dreaded cliche of something (like somebody writing his heartfelt appreciation of walking around in Murray Hill). No one likes being a cliche.

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next to the Sly Fox

But of course no one wants to be unintelligible, either. The sentence itself is of course a unit with a deeply vexed relationship to its iterability, much more analyzable than my general commitment to only carrying myself 85% similarly to Richie Tenenbaum or Prof. Plum from Clue or whomever else I had decided represented the way of being in the world that I most wanted to take up. Unlike place-specific experiences, the whole point of sentences is that they need to be in some way portable, if anyone’s going to know what the person saying the sentence means. (Imagine saying “you had to be there” to not only describe why a sentence were funny or impactful or good, but what any of it meant at all; that this kind of thing does happen, is dire). So every sentence, when it’s working, is wrought out of the stuff that we all already know about.

And that’s why I’ve picked as a sentence to think about, while thinking about my time in New York, I thought of one that as far as I know has never been written down;  despite the existences of John Updike and EB White and Patti Smith and Hilton Als and all the other famous New York people, I thought of the sentence I heard one day while walking, to kill time, from 23rd and Broadway to the NYU library, which was:

“If I could come back as any animal, I would come back as a human, because humans can talk and shit.”

That sentence certainly starts with a cliche — the sort of icebreaker exercise of a putatively, but almost certainly not, revealing announcement of what animal you’d like to be — and then pays it the bizarre compliment of taking it seriously, of not wanting to stop talking in order to fly or have super-smell or whatever. It does not, as I did, attempt to overcome a cliche by sprinkling in just enough of what’s supposed to be originality (aha, but does Buddy Glass wear a HAT?!?); it transcends the cliche by paying genuine attention to it.

I told my friend — in Madison Square Park — this sentence I was thinking of writing on, and she smiled and said, “He’d have to come back for that?” This drew my attention, as it had not been drawn, to the coming back. The original sentence I overheard was of course based on a kind of pop version of reincarnation, but: coming back as any animal/coming back as a human can also describe the whole circling around cliches that I’ve been trying to describe. Even though millions of people have done it, even though at least tens of thousands of people have probably written about doing it, I keep going back to New York and doing the same things, which — since it’s mostly walking around and talking to people, might not be things to be so anxious about. It’s good to come back to New York, as a human; because humans can talk and shit.

Not Saying Frienemy

This sentence is a lot shorter than the last one; and unlike the last one, I don’t know who wrote it. It goes like this:

“N.B. Rakim is NOT saying ‘frienemy’.”

This requires some context. This is an annotation for the song “I Ain’t No Joke” by Eric B. and Rakim, on the website Genius.com, which used to be called Rap Genius and before that Rap Exegesis. I am not a head, but I really enjoy listening to hip hop, and go through occasional kicks of listening to older stuff, like Eric B. and Rakim. I know enough that I was able to guide my mother through most of the hip hop references in Hamilton. And I was listening to Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full a few months ago, and following along some of the words, and I was pretty sure that I heard Rakim say “frienemy”. (It would not have occurred to me, by the way, to put an i in frienemy; I usually spelled it “frenemy,” valuing ease of pronunciation over preserving the “frie” of friend. But I like the more letter based one and I’ll stick with it). So I clicked on the annotation for that line, and was instructed to note well that Rakim is NOT saying frienemy.

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Paid in Full

The line goes like this: “Another enemy, not even a friend of me/Cause you’ll get fried in the end when you pretend to be”. (“Frienemy” as a reading of what’s actually “friend of me” would make a lot less sense). Here’s more fun with “frie” and “friend” though — “fried” reads as being more like “friend” than it is (since it has a whole new vowel sound in the middle), but coming just before “end” it makes the constituents of “friend” and something that gets about as close to a repetition as you can get without repeating. It’s so good! This though is close to all I have to say for now about the song, as I turn again to the sentence that is the text of today’s blog. It’s somewhat obtuse, I guess, to write a post about Eric B. and Rakim in which I focus so much on an anonymous annotation instead; but the post is only accidentally about Eric B. and Rakim and is actually about attitudes of annotation. So here’s “I Ain’t No Joke” for your listening pleasure, and now here’s some more on the ideas of annotation and its ability to help or hinder the enjoyment of music.

One of my tics on the blog that I made the last time I tried to have a blog that made any sense was a kind of slide into oracular pronouncements, usually about language and some glob about the power of language to do whatever stupid thing. I will probably keep doing it. The usual thing about language’s power to do anything, though, is that it decreases insofar as it explains. “Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it” doesn’t really explain anything; its ubiquity is a testament to its power. In my less charitable moments I find myself making fun of Aristotle because of his willingness, in the Poetics, to explain it all: “A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be.” That’s nobody’s senior quote, but it explains something.

What’s striking about “N.B. Rakim is not saying ‘frenemy'” is that it combines the explanatory and the powerful, at least to me. The note is actually the second part of the annotation; it follows a straightforward gloss on what Rakim’s lines mean (“Don’t bother pretending to be R’s friend, cause once you’re found to be his enemy…game and career over.”) It sticks around — a friendly warning not to get your timeframes screwed up and assign anachronistic (and contextually nonsensical) portmanteaus to Rakim. It gets some of its power (and charm!) from its position, unlike the earlier gloss, that’s a little pulled apart: it’s not just explaining what Rakim meant, but connecting to us (to me!) the bad listener who naturally would assume that he was saying frienemy, and setting me straight.

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There is a strain of alleged humor that arises from using the language of scholarship to talk about hip hop writing, as though there is something inherently ridiculous in applying the language of Great Geniuses like I guess F.R. Leavis to schlumps like Slick Rick. I find this inherentness suspect; if there’s anything worthwhile in F.R. Leavis, it’s something that’s portable to any instance of language, and something that will only work insofar as it’s not ridiculous. Is “I hold the microphone like a grudge/B’ll hold the record so the needle won’t budge” less worthy of the English Department’s apparatus than “At the round earth’s imagined corners blow/Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise”? Obviously not. And Genius, when it was called Rap Genius, and when it had significantly less input from the artists who make up what it mostly tracks, had some dubious events in its orbit. These aren’t things to forget; but there is also the amazing and thriving community of annotators and of fascinating commentary on the site of verified commenters (i.e., the people who created this content in the first place). Without needing to say that Genius has transcended its tech-bro, casually-racially-insensitive-at-best-origin, I do think that it’s now the location for interesting and engaged exegesis — which is to say, people helping each other.

And that’s why I like “N.B. Rakim is NOT saying ‘frienemy'”. It might read as a little close to the intentional fallacy for some — “what if I hear ‘frienemy’?” — but really, it’s just trying to help you out. I get the feeling that that sentence has been there, too — that it heard frienemy and had to forewarn others — and in that I find great fellowship.

All the Amplifications of Rhetoric

The first thing that I thought to be about, when I decided to begin this venture of sentence analysis, which is to be published twice a week, was looking into Dr. Johnson’s The Rambler, and quoting from the first issue of his twice-a-week publication, to claim a sort of pedigree; the second thing I thought was that that was presumptuous, so I eased off a little and start with a sentence from the second Rambler. (I only eased off a little; it’s the first sentence from Rambler No. 2).

“That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power, to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked; and as this practice is a commodious subject of raillery to the gay, and of declamation to the serious, it has been ridiculed with all the pleasures of wit, and exaggerated with all the amplifications of rhetoric.”

(One of the frequent citations of this weblog will be my student, Lauren, who, when I substitute taught her eighth grade class and informed them of my favorite sentence [on which much more to follow], told me that a sentence needs sayable in one breath. I showed her, by saying my very long favorite sentence in such a breath; I am not sure I could do so with this one here). Anyway, what is Johnson saying? And what do I want to say about it, and why does this blog exist?

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The author, with his sister and a statue of Samuel Johnson’s cat

I am a graduate student, at Brandeis University, in the English Department; between the fourth and fifth years of my program; about to spend two years writing down what I think about a number of American novels from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in a very slow way; and so I have decided to write alongside that, in a way more connected to clock time, about some sentences I encounter. I plan to write about sentences from wherever: books, articles, interviews, songs, people sitting next to me at restaurants. I hope to avoid as much as possible using sentences that I made up, though who knows. I plan to take a tack almost totally antithetical to the stringent one suggested by my blog’s title, which I opted for mostly because of the sound it makes (those nice open o’s, that sprightly pace of one b per word), by picking probably few sentences that zip along in easy subject verb object order. I tend to like sentences that are long, and often ones that seem to have something wrong with them. This blog will be a different sort of thing from my twitter account and my facebook page and my instagram captions, all of which make up a sort of Matthew Schratz internet inscrutability archive. Here, I hope, will be scrutiny. Scrutinizing sentences is something that I do professionally as well as compulsively in my everyday life, and I hope that by getting through some manageable chunks of language I will be able here to do some good work in the constant and difficult process of sorting out what things mean and how they do it.

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Some books by/about Dr. Johnson

All of these hopes — and the bad ends to which the hopes of writers so often come — are what Johnson wants to talk about in Rambler No. 2. Imagine Johnson, the man who wrote the dictionary, following up the great self-disavowing introductory of Rambler No. 1. (He keeps saying in Rambler No. 1 the kinds of introductions he wishes he could make, and complains about how easy the epic poets have it). One of the things I find so striking about this sentence is what it doesn’t do — that it doesn’t unhinge, as so many of my sentences do, into a spiky mess of clauses that point different ways, only kind of shepherded by the capital letter at the beginning and period at the end of the sentence that they make up. Johnson’s sentence looks like it might do that — it’s long! — but Johnson does stay resolutely on the matter at hand, in a sentence of impressive balance, both into thirds (breaking up along the semicolons) and into two units of discussion (broken up into the first two thirds, which are on the infelicities of the mind, and the final third, which is on the commodious way in which these infelicities have been treated). It’s an impressive, ordered performance.

And yet, the mind is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it. The charm and challenge of Johnson’s sentence exists, I think, in the fact that its highly wrought and really lovely grammar is belied by the psychological fact on which that grammar aims to report. That baroque sentence can only barely keep on the rails the dissatisfaction that it announces off the top, and the desire of movement to a new topic — which is one version of hope — remains the sentence’s motor even with the notation of all the raillery and exaggeration. Johnson’s sentence makes sense — it’s really just precisely announcing what some other people have said about this subject — but its sense, the fact that it has such a curlicue of a plan behind it, teeters in the face of the need to go beyond the objects immediately before one. For such a precise introductory sentence, it’s one of great tension.

And that tension — between sense and energy, between plans and the need to be dissatisfied with what’s in front of you — is a hallmark I think not only of so many of the sentences I love, but of the project of bearing down on sentences in general. Many of the sentences that I will look at in the future will be less balanced, or shaggier, or weirder than Johnson’s introduction to Rambler No. 2. But they all operate on, or at least all interest me for appearing to operate on, this tension, between the need to express something (to be able to then break away from the present moment, whether to something greater or past something achieved) and the desire to express it well in the way that “we” know how to make sentences work well (to make use of grammar and balance). Few people knew better than Dr. Johnson how to make a sentence work well, because he was smart. But few people put so much of this tension around expression into their smartly working sentences as Dr. Johnson, because he knew a thing or two.