Nothing Against Heaven

“This is without doubt, but nothing against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.”

Now there’s a verb I think about all day! “Means”. The scale of meaning is screwed up. Everything means too much, except for things that mean too little. The confederate flag, to people who want to like it: “oh, it doesn’t mean support for a slave-owning plantocracy!” (Of course it does). This is in large part a question of how much of what we say we are obligated to mean, and it — and its opposite problem, of meaning too much — is something that keeps me up all night and improperly focused on other things all day, so I am going to try to talk about it here.

The opposite problem I think about the most when I think about sports, which is too often. Tom Brady is one of, and possibly, the best quarterback of all time. But to a lot of people one of the things that “mean” that he is a great quarterback is that he has won four Super Bowls and only lost two. The most recent one that he won seemed like it might go into the L column, until Malcolm Butler (who is not Tom Brady) intercepted a pass from Russell Wilson (who is also not Tom Brady). Nevertheless, for a particular way of making meaning, this sequence of events was extremely important for the question of whether Tom Brady is a great quarterback (4 Super Bowls!) or (somehow?) not so great (he’s won as many Super Bowls as he’s lost!).

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Sports!

This is related, I think, to my ongoing suspicion — voiced earlier here on my sentence analysis blog — of knowing too quickly, at the beginning of a sentence one’s reading, where things are going to go. The more you can assume about how a sentence ends from how it begins, the less work you have to do, which is normally helpful and normally fine. Outside of growing bored during bar sports arguments, it doesn’t really matter if someone tells you that Malcolm Butler’s interception made Brady a better quarterback. “A championship type quarterback” is a thing that is easy to talk about, easier than getting into whatever specifics make up the Tom Brady story. And life is hard! Lots of things are good to do the easy way.

And yet: it does rankle, this gravitation toward the smoothly narratable, the desire to sand the edges of something that one has come across until all of a sudden it matches something we already know about and then we can fit it into a name we know. The struggle to make meaning is often the struggle to get something to fit under a meaning that is in our armature, and then to move on to something else. In both directions: this flag only means this, this interception entirely means that. I spend most of my life trying to figure out the right level of meaning to ascribe to everything, and I assume that I am almost never not wrong.

Professionally, I am supposed to be in the camp where anything can mean enough if we put enough into it. I spend a good chunk of each semester trying to get eighteen year olds on board with this idea. Why, I ask them, do they think that Nell Zink decided to have the protagonist of Mislaid decide to pass as an African-American woman? “Just because,” they say. “The book would be too short if she didn’t.” Which: true. But on the other hand: we are not yet utterly committed Wittgensteinians; we have not decided yet that there is nothing we can speak on and that all we can do is be silent. So we ought to say something; which runs into my troubles in civilian life, when I am constantly suspicious that things mean too much, that the right attitude is closer to a kind of Wittgensteinian quietism.

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This is a cat named Kafka, who presumably does not like crows

This long excursus on mostly sports has been in the service of talking about the sentence above, which is the second half of an entire story by Franz Kafka*. The first half of the story goes like this: “The crows maintain that anyone of them could destroy heaven.” And in case you’ve forgotten the sentence that we’re here to talk about, it is: “This is beyond doubt, but nothing against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.” And because of what I think about all day, as I’ve tried to describe in the foregoing, I am so keenly interested in, and half in love with, Kafka’s “means” there. What could this possibly mean, that heaven “means precisely” (precisely!) the impossibility of crows? 

*(One of these days, I might have something to say about a story of Kafka’s that is only one sentence long, and which the great Donald Barthleme used to demonstrate what good sentences ought to do; as a sneak peek, it’s about leopards and has, if I remember rightly, two semicolons).

 

Obviously it does not work the same way as the confederate flag meaning what it means, or Malcolm Butler’s interception failing to mean what it is purported to mean. The abstract condition is introduced last, even though it is the title of the story (“Impossibility of Crows”); it is preceded not only by an outrageous threat — the destruction of heaven — but also by the marvelous announcement of the belief maintained by the crows, and also by the wonderfully forgiving dismissiveness with which the speaker grants the crows their long maintained belief. (I am putting a little plug here to once more announce that someday soon I will write about my favorite sentence, but also to point out that this gem from Kafka might be my second favorite sentence). And it all comes down to what heaven means, which is the impossibility of crows. What could meaning there possibly mean — as a metaphor? a metonymy? an allegory? I have no idea. And that is why I love so much this sentence, and its rich resistance to meaning too much or too little.

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In the names of vintage wines or plump courtesans

“Do you like quotes?” says Mary Svevo, Kirsten Dunst’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She does; she rattles off some good ones from Pope and from Nietzsche. I do, too, although on the face of it there’s something weird about liking quotes. It’s like liking laws, or food. Surely one should like some, and not others? And is it different to like quotes than to like sentences? It certainly is, based on the practice that I have observed and never fully understood, often carried out by the people who make greeting cards and those tiles you can hang up in your kitchen* and various internet-based sites of inspiration, which is that they put some quote up and attribute it to “anonymous”. The quote’s the important thing, not even whose quote it is. The person creating these sites of inspiration seems to think: It’s not important that you take Eleanor Roosevelt or Dr. Seuss or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s word for it; it’s only important that you don’t have to take mine.

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*(I at first tried searching for an instance of this by googling “anonymous quotes” and I received instead, as I should have guessed, a bunch of stuff about nonconformity with pictures of Guy Fawkes masks, Anonymous having gone through a weird verbal process and become, at least on the internet, a name; something like Odysseus with the cyclops.)

Anyway here’s a quote:

Such titles display a specious glamour acceptable maybe in the names of vintage wines or plump courtesans but degrading in regard to the talent that substitutes the easy allusiveness of literacy for original fancy and shifts onto a bust’s shoulders the responsibility for ornateness since anybody can flip through A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, or, perhaps, the Sonnets and take his pick.

That’s Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote, in Pale Fire, being the special kind of idiot that Kinbote is. I don’t think he would get the impulse toward anonymized tagging either; he might not even like quotes. Why not? What separates Kinbote from me and Mary Svevo?

First some background on the various shot through Kinbote’s complaint: this long sentence comes in Kinbote’s footnote to a line in the poem he’s supposedly annotating (Kinbote’s delusional, self-obsessed misreading of the poem “Pale Fire” make up most of the novel) that refers to a volume of poetry by John Shade, the author of “Pale Fire.” Kinbote doesn’t like that Shade has named one of his books of poetry The Untamed Seahorse*, which is a reference to “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, and, unsatisfied with pointing out the reference, grumbles in that fun, long, dismissive sentence about the kind of people who title things after references to well known

*Nabokov has a weird genius, in Pale Fire and in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight particularly, of coming up with book titles — like The Untamed Seahorse — that sound, more than anything else, like the names of book fictional book titles. The essence of these titles, their family resemblance, is something that I would be very pleased indeed if I could one day describe better than just listing them off.

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My favorite accidental piece of (near) Nabokovania

And so here of course are the jokes: this novel and this poem are actually of course titled after a line from Shakespeare; only it’s not a line from something like the Sonnets or Romeo and Juliet, it is from Timon of Athens, which is not really a Shakespeare play much beloved or known by non-experts (the “anybody” at the end of that sentence getting some qualification in Nabokov’s own case). The fact that it is from Timon of Athens leads to a series of other narrative high jinks and low jinks that I will avoid describing here and merely direct the unfamiliar reader who likes that kind of thing to Kinbote’s endnotes themselves.

Kinbote is an annotator, and so I am, I guess, so it is up to me to try to learn things from how bad at his job he is. One reason that I always think of this sentence — the “shifts onto a bust’s shoulders” sentence — so quickly when I think about Kinbote* is that it does so much of what he does that is awful: it is dismissive, fussy, it outlandishly misses the point of the things he’s supposed to be annotating. And yet it’s a kind of a delightfully formed sentence. His examples — the vintage wines and plump courtesans — are funny, and they come after both “acceptable maybe” and then the staccato monosyllables of “in the names of,” which set them up with the maximum amount of amusing derision (it amused me, anyway). Mary-Svevo style quotation would slow Kinbote down and screw him up and detract from what he thinks he is doing.

*(which is kind of often; the other sentence I usually think of, in obvious circumstances, is his early non-sequitur outburst, “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.”)

That sentence also has almost no commas. There is no comma in that sentence between “ornateness” and “since,” speeding it up a little more than it ought to be sped, as if Kinbote were so worked up that he had to get to his fussy condemnation of the more popular of Shakespeare’s plays (and his implicit denunciation of Shade and Shade’s wife) as quickly as possible while still maintaining his verbal delight in rattling through all those paratactic clauses. I know this because when I was typing the sentence above from my copy of Pale Fire I kept putting the commas in and then I had to go back and delete them.

I am myself, I confess, a fussy man. I like the contemptuous rush of that sentence probably for reasons not unlike those that Kinbote does. I am not averse to a good “acceptable maybe” type construction. However, Kinbote is terrible, and the temptations of his swift and seductive prose ought to be mostly resisted, and I plan to do resist. One reason that he is so inviting is that he goes so engrossingly fast; that he will not break for commas. What I will do, to make myself tolerable and to try to live decently, will always be to insist on inserting my own commas.

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.