Simile of Semiosis

Gregory Ulmer in his essay in The Anti-Aesthetic [ed. by Hal Foster] pointed to the distinction between allegoresis and allegory as marshalled by Maureen Quilligan. The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre. [Cornell University Press, 1979].

The difference is characterized like a misread map with a determination to respect boundaries.

The inappropriate terminology of allegoresis (verticalness, levels, hidden meaning, the hieratic difficulty of interpretation) continues to contaminate the reader's appreciation of the peculiar processes and values of narrative allegory. Hunting for one-to-one correspondences between insignificant narrative particulars and hidden thematic generalizations, he is frustrated when he cannot find them and generally bored when he can. This state of affairs leads logically to Coleridge's strictures against an inorganic, mechanical, and thoroughly unappealing kind of literature.

We need to develop a new set of critical terms derived not from allegoresis but from the process of reading allegorical narratives. Only in his way can we hope to retrieve for intelligent reading and consideration that species of narrative we have called allegorical. And only by looking closely at individual narratives, without imposing any preconceptions on their paratactic development, shall we be able to trace the complicated patterns of interconnected meaning which spread like a web across their horizontal verbal surfaces. Then we may easily sense the essential affinity of allegory to the pivotal phenomenon of the pun, which provides the basis for the narrative structure characteristic of the genre. [32-33]
Later we encounter an overblown simile creating distance between fidelity and overinterpretation...
The nineteenth century is not the century of allegorical narrative; on the contrary, denoted [demoted?] in favor of "symbolism," allegory was labeled a mechanical contrivance of the "fancy" whereby an author with a thematic statement to make hunts down a serviceable vehicle and tows a veritable dirigible of overrriding meaning down an all too predictable road. This definition of allegory, which actually describes an analogy stretched as thin as it will go, was inherited by the twentieth century, and this definition is the one that recent books on the subject have sought to deflate. [193]
Note the word play on dirigible and deflate which is surely akin to the characteristic pivotal pun. I am interested however in the link between airship and the work of allegoresis which is a reading that according to Quilligan is absorbed in verticalness and levels of meaning whereas a critical reading of allegory is horizontal and attentive to the unfolding of story and ever complicating patterns of relationship. The "mechanical contrivance" is in a matter of speaking ideal for going higher and higher in raptures of interpretation but equally for going further and further over the horizon like an airship out of Verne or the anachronistic machinations of steampunk...

If allegoresis is reading as if allegory (a speaking otherwise) is involved, we have at play a certain ventriloquism. Reading as puppetry. And I for one am prepared to follow Quilligan in her interpretations, especially of Melville's The Confidence Man, to the point where allegory arrives in the end at an invitation to reflect upon the reader's act of reading which (and here I am extrapolating) is a type of encounter with the mask. The prime question in engaging literature (allegorical or not) is which face will I as reader prepare to face the quiddity before me. Where will the search end: what quiddity will I uncover or what mask drop, which face save?

And so for day 1187

liminal deployments

An exhibition gave rise to an editorial.

Stanley Schmidt in "Technology and Taste" takes his cue from a travelling exhibition about the life and work of William Morris.

The Earthly Paradise: Arts and Crafts by William Morris and His Circle from Canadian Collections. / Le paradis terrestre. L'artisanat d'art selon William Morris et ses disciples dans des collections canadiennes.

Beginning by commenting on the ironies of artisan production being unaffordable to the working class, Schmidt goes on to argue that mass production has improved affordability and quality and that what stands in the way of realizing Morris's vision is not technology but the social and economic factors involved in its deployment. He observes:

Products of quite respectable quality can be made under decent working conditions and without wrecking the environment. Yes, shoddy workmanship, poor working conditions, and waste and pollution are still all too easy to find. But now the blame must be placed on manufacturers too cheap or unscrupulous to do things right not on the intrinsic inability of machines to do a decent job.
This from Analog April 1995. In the same issue of the magazine one finds a story by Julia Ecklar "The Human Animal" in which an explanation about how humans are animals and that we look the same from baby to adulthood, that is we do not progress from larvae to pupae to adult stage, is told to a race of beings with such distinct stages is interpreted as less about out nurturing instincts and more about insatiability:
You told her worse than that [...] You told her that humans are unChanged children, abominations who would feed themselves to the destruction of everything else around them. You told her that humans cannot be lived with or trusted.
Interesting take on what it may mean to grow up and live responsibly and do a decent job. Time to become changelings.

And so for day 1186

Pearls, Stars and Selves

Lost selves found in symbol.

Fadi Abou-Rihan upon reading the entry about Gwendolyn MacEwen's translation of the Yannis Ritsos poem "Helen" suggested the play by Carole Fréchette Helen's Necklace. The play has been translated by John Murrell. As the back cover to the Playwrights Canada Press edition indicates "Helen's world is irrevocably changed by her search for a trinket." I like how the emphasis is not on loss but upon search.

The play is set in an unnamed Arabic city devastated by war. The play is built upon Helen's search for a lost necklace. In that search she encounters others who have lost far more: homes and children. Through these encounters she becomes more self-aware and eventually finds an appropriate symbol giving her more than what she has lost.

One important stage in this quest, is the exchange of names. In this process, Helen references her namesake of Troy.

Helen: Your name? My name is Helen.

Nabil: Ellen?

Helen: No, Helen, like the woman who caused the war. You understand?

Nabil: The war?

Helen: Some people say she was just a plaything of the gods, that it wasn't really her fault, but others say she was guilty, and that she was just a responsible for what happened as if she had wanted it to happen. Helen of Try. You understand?

Nabil: You are "Helen of Troy," yes?

Helen: No. Just Helen. Helen of the North. Helen who didn't cause a war. Helen who doesn't know anything about war. And you are? ... Mounir? Walid? Youssef?

Nabil: Nabil.
Helen who must learn about the aftermath of war if she is to recover that which she has lost if only in a symbolic fashion. She eventually finds her way to the sea's edge and there as footprints vanish in the wet sand she comes to this realization:
On the frothy crest of a wave, all of a sudden I see my necklace appear for a moment, something ridiculously small and delicate which boils up for a moment and evaporates just as quickly. I reach out to grab it. Ridiculous. My arm is much too short. I close my hand around emptiness, like that. I open my fist. Nothing.
This is not the end of the play but is the end of misprision. Around this kernel of nothing springs greater understanding.

Fréchette's play reminds me of a Heine poem "Das Meer hat seine Perlen" to be found in German and various translations including English ones at LiederNet. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned his hand at a version and his begins:
The sea hath its pearls,
The heaven hath its stars;
Heine's poem ends in a moment of plenitude akin to a dissolution. See it here rendered by Emma Lazarus
My heart, and the sea, and the heavens
Are melting away with love.
A fate similar to the pearls of Helen's Necklace.

And so for day 1185

The Great Through The Small

There are these lines from the handsome edition (designed by Tim Inkster and typeset at The Coach House and published by Exile Editions) of Gwendolyn MacEwen's translation of Helen, a poem by Yannis Ritsos, these lines that take on the mystery of what is remembered...

Now and again I can still sense that aroma — I mean, I remember it;
isn't it strange? — those things we usually consider great, dissolve, fade away —
some other things remain, unimportant, meaningless things; I
     recall seeing one day
a bird perching on a horse's back; and that baffling thing
seemed to explain (especially for me) a certain beautiful mystery.
And between these two observations is a description of a necklace sent to Helen. The necklace which our speaker claims as being forgotten came to her after the slaughter of Clytemnestra, a necklace she never wore but is able to describe in minute detail "made / from small golden masks, held together by links / from the upper tips of their ears". What would appear to be a dichotomy between the great and the meaningless becomes upon closer examination a relation of accessibility: access to the great comes through remembering small details. It is all that remains.

And so for day 1184

From Framework to Frame

Amusing anecdote.

Jonathan Warren. "The Lessons of the Living Dead: Marcel's Journey from Balbec to Douville-Féterne in Proust's Cities of the Plain: Part Two". Studies in 20th Century Literature Volume 19, Number 2, Summer 1995.

Note 5

I am grateful to François Lachance who first suggested the alignment of Lot's wife and Kristevan statuary character to me.
How I did so involved a wee bit of mischief. I was one of the translators of Julia Kristeva's lectures for the Special Seminar in Comparative Literature: Proust and Perceptible Time held at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto, in 1992. I dutifully translated but added a running set of footers (very easy to do in a document-centred program like Wordperfect; less so in a page-centred program like Microsoft Word). Sometime later I published those running footers as lines in a poem called Metropole in Tracking the Remembrance of Touch. The lines reference Lot's wife as "but a pile / of dysfunctional electrolytes / the unnamed wife" and make of her a forerunner of Antigone who also is not named in the poem. The poem also plays with the notion of foreclosure. As I recall Jonathan was a student in the seminar and liked the trick with the footers and he very kindly sent me an autographed off-print of his article which has surfaced among my Proust books and led me to recall those days of the early 90s where and when we worked the interstices.

And so for day 1183

Directions Separations

In this odd little text set in courier there is a neat trick of severing words with «guillemets» (French quotation marks). There are only two instances.

(details, the rest

s » weep
The next and final instance swerves almost to rewind.
I was s « aying
what is interesting is that in this boundary challenging use of quotation (never really opening or closing) nathalie stephens in Species: Ex(hib)it is working through a kind of s ‹ addness to arrive at yes and affirmations and a set of ampersands & & & built upon syllables so s ‹ light and labile

And so for day 1182

Fluctuations in Verbal Moods

What struck me in the poetry of Alice Burdick is the mixing of verbal moods. She shifts within one poem or another between the indicative and the imperative. I will not quote her but will note here that the title of one of her collections (Flutter) can be read both as a noun describing a type of action and as a verb inciting us to that action. Instead here is a little homage.

Water freezes.
Freeze water.

To observe
To intervene
What I have learnt in in the end is that what subtends the shifting between imperative and indicative is the infinitive. And what one learns from the surreal moments of Burdick's poetry is fluidity in even the what appear to be the most stable monuments. Monument betokens movement. Burdick launches us as she arrests. Witness the ending of "I circuit hot foot"
All closed doors shall eventually open. Stale time shall go. Corners of dust shall release old secrets into tunnel of sunshine. Large murderous buildings shall tilt and bend and lighten up. Why did we take it all so seriously?
We are frozen as we freeze. Erode is the principal mode.

And so for day 1181

Taming the Cultural Beast

Adam Gopnik in The Museum Today (Eva Holtby Lecture on Contemporary Culture No. 1) adopted for a piece in Walrus as "The Mindful Museum" arrives at his masterful proposal for the experience and the institution through a contrast between two types.

The secular ritual of museum-going historicizes art, even as it humanizes anti-art.
The key here is "secular ritual" and what follows is a sort of "apprivoisement" which to the discerning eye is not the equivalent of domesticization.

And so for day 1180

Naming Names

It was upon a second reading of Mark Merlis American Studies that it struck me that a key chapter is built upon a structure of "naming names" which is of course in keeping with the theme of the book which looks back to the years of witch hunting during the McCarthy era. The exquisite pain of the inquisition is heightened by the mock gentility offered by the academic setting: the disclosure is orchestrated in the office of the president. He asks the informant, a professor reporting on the dalliance of another faculty member with a student:

"Of course these are unusual times. As we were saying. Maybe the most important thing, just now, is finding someone who'll put the interests of the university ahead of anything else." He lets that sink in a moment. "This student, I suppose you could find out his name if you wanted to."

Fuzzy swallows. "I suppose I could."
And so the curtain is drawn on that interrogation only to be followed later in the chapter by the the revelation of the name of the student when a recording is played back to the subject of presidential scrutiny. This concludes in good tragic fashion the chapter:
"I think you had better start by saying your name."

"Do we really need to —" Tom cannot identify the voice. Which member of the study group is it? He just cannot place the voice squawking out of that primitive machine.

"What is your name, please."

"James Stivers."
So oddly formal since previous to this the readers knew him as "Jimmy" sans surname. There is more detail about the creation of the recording and the reaction to the betrayal elsewhere in the novel but this naming moment starkly stands out.

And so for day 1179

Reputation Rich Cash Poor

Under the sign of Petronius, the arbiter of taste, we place this quotation for your delectation:

Places like the Waldorf [New York] or Drake [Chicago], even thought they're desired by wealthier people, tend never to appear on the Top 10 lists, while the creative class, many of whom make much less money and have precarious employment, enjoy, at least the spoils of social capital that come with being tastemakers, and attend the restaurants that do get the attention. Too bad social capital can't be transferred into a pension or property.
Shawn Micallef. The Trouble with Brunch: work, class and the pursuit of leisure.

And so for day 1178