Thursday, January 02, 2014

"I return to sentences as a refreshment": Ambience, Consecution, the Open

I began writing what became Beautiful Soul simply as a series of sentences. Very long sentences, as it happens, with enough comma splices to risk revocation of my license as an English professor. A poet works in phrases and above all in lines; sentences are exotic. Nearly as seductive to me are paragraphs, very long paragraphs, the sort of long paragraphs one encounters reading Proust and Adorno and Saramago. Stanzas and strophes have nothing on paragraphs for their elasticity, their infinite yet tensile capacity. "Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are," says Gertrude Stein. But the problem with sentences and paragraphs is not that they are emotional or unemotional. It's that they say things. And saying things, as I like to remind my writing students, is not what poetry is for.

Mallarmé: "I say: a flower! and, out of the oblivion into which my voice consigns any real shape, as something other than petals known to man, there rises, harmoniously and gently, the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all earthly bouquets." Poetic voicing is inseparable from oblivion, from the invisible. But fictive voicing is all too mimetic, all too obliterative of oblivion. It is difficult for fiction to recapture its fundamental rhetoricity; it is difficult not to lapse completely into what John Gardner called "the fictive dream": "the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols." The reader forgets too. It's like Eliot's objective correlative, only without the objective part. It's language idealized, all spirit and no letter.

Fictive sentences don't have to work this way. There's Gordon Lish and his theory of "consecution," as explained in a valuable essay by one of his students, Gary Lutz: "a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows." The writer reacts to the material properties of constellated words and letters, and proceeds by association from one sentence to the next. In a manner somewhat akin to Ron Silliman's "new sentence," each sentence exists in its own torqued bubble, generative of and yet separate from the sentence that follows it (Lutz calls his article on consecution, "The Sentence Is a Lonely Place"). In a review of Lish's own novel, Peru, David Winters claims that for Lish, "composition cuts across ontology, not only aesthetics" (italics in original).

Winters goes on to compare the "cut" of consecution to, of all things, the clinamen of Lucretius:
"consecution may be less a methodology than a metaphysic; a miraculating agent; an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world. In Lucretius, the force of composition is described as a clinamen—our world is born from a 'swerving of atoms in their fall from heaven. Such is the purpose served by Peru’s perpetual swerving, rhyming and recursion. Each consecutive swerve steps closer toward a total curvature, an arc that delimits the work as a world apart." Each Lishian sentence is its own world, its own monad, in which the universe of the story is contained without being merely represented. It's a mimesis beyond mimesis; the immanent transcendence of representation. The reader encounters the story as a sufficiency, as a world to be explored rather than as something presented. It's an essentially Modernist rather than postmodernist technique.

The Lishian "cut," the Lucretian "swerve": these are comfortably poetic concepts for me, reminiscent as they are of the volta or turn that is central to the operations of verse. The more-than-semantic, physical cut-in-language of the volta is what charges a poem with energy unsupplied by subject matter. Poems cannot completely evade subject matter; words never can. But they come much closer to such evasions, and can entangle a reader in themselves, with a more intensively minimal mimesis than can fiction. And this perhaps is why Yeats can say that poetry makes nothing happen but rather "survives, / A way of happening, a mouth."

Fiction is also a way of happening. And yet to be fiction, something has to happen. To write it, there has to be story. But there's a problem with the Lishian ontological sentence: it's too definitive and determinate. It says things.

A happening is an event. In a recent essay on "the novel as event," Cooper Levey-Baker seems to mean something less eventlike than the scene of events (way of happening): something like architecture or ambient music. Touchstones for his piece include an artwork by Anish Kapoor (creator of Chicago's beloved Bean, aka Cloud Gate) and the collaborations of filmmaker Béla Tarr and novelist László Krasznahorkai. Levey-Baker seems interested in recapturing a particular dimension of Modernism: the challenge to the reader or viewer to encounter the artwork (a film or a novel) so as to make its silence audible, often to the point of discomfort: the unpleasures of boredom. The very long shots without cuts in Tarr's film version of Krasznahorkai's Satantango are the equivalent of the novel's very long sentences, which endlessly defer answers to the audience's questions about what exactly is going on. As at a poetry reading, or leafing through one of Ashbery's longer works, one's mind wanders without ever losing the sense of being in the presence of something, an environment in which the figure-ground relation is rendered ambiguous, if not threatening.

Boredom, Levey-Baker claims, is the last refuge of the avant-garde, the one affect that cannot be recuperated by the entertainment-industrial complex. Long sentences, in their excessiveness, their accumulation and angular momentum, do not have to be boring; but they do tend to be far more open than short sentences. In their attenuated hypotaxis, the extension and interaction of dependent and independent clauses begin to overwrite each other, to introduce a dubiety, room for interpretation.

The past master of this is of course the Master himself, Henry James. Here's a sentence, chosen more or less at random, from The Golden Bowl: " He remembered to have read, as a boy, a wonderful tale by Allan Poe, his prospective wife's countryman—which was a thing to show, by the way, what imagination Americans COULD have: the story of the shipwrecked Gordon Pym, who, drifting in a small boat further toward the North Pole—or was it the South?—than anyone had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the colour of milk or of snow." This is not unstraightforward; and yet its dart backward toward an impugnation of the American imagination, its dart sideways into Poe, and its ambiguous image of the white mist of others' motivations (concealing the future of our hero) lend an astonishing multiplicity to the sentence's mimesis of what is supposedly happening in Prince Amerigo's mind. James is famous for his psychology, but thanks to his brother William's work we know how close psychology is to philosophy, which is to say the art of disclosing the real. Reality, as William James teaches us, is perspectival. The activity required of the reader of a Jamesian sentence sends her grasping in and through language for a meaning one cannot help but be conscious of creating.

James is also capable of Lishian sentence pairs, as in the following beautifully asymmetrical chiasmus: "He was taken seriously. Lost there in the white mist was the seriousness in them that made them so take him." The reader leaps from stone to stone. The cut is there. But it's the longer sentences that makes James James, and that suggest, for me, a possible fiction, an immanent mimesis, the paragraph-environment, story in language.

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