The Intellectual and the Dog

October 27, 2011

One of he many great things about reading Empson is the regularity with which his intellectual wit produces the most remarkable imaginative conceits and insights. No matter how silly they may occasionally seem, there is always the strong sense of intellectual rigour, so that I disagree only cautiously and often as not find myself a few sentences later revisiting the point to examine further. It happens page upon page.

Of Voltaire calling Dr Johnson a superstitious dog:

The stress, of course, is on superstitious; with the stress on dog it would have seemed as rude then as it does now. Dog is unstressed because the phrase assumes everyone is some kind of dog, so that that is not the distinctive feature of Johnson. It is the pastoral idea, that there is a complete copy of the human world among dogs, as among swains or clowns.

The Structure of Complex Words by William Empson, from The English Dog chapter

The effect is to show how far the robust intellect need not fear either nonsense as obtuse argument or “nonsense!” as an accusation.

A Student’s Guide to the Prose of China Mieville

October 5, 2011

If you’re going to read China Mielville’s newish novel Embassytown you might want a few tips to help you through it. I’ll choose one paragraph at random and then go through how to negotiate it.

A complex, many-chambered place the angles of which astonished me. Everyone who had ever talked about my poise would have laughed to see me literally stagger backwards in that room. Walls and ceilings moved with a ratcheting machine life like the offspring of chains and crabs. A kind staff member steered Scile and me. Our party walked without Ariekne chaperone. I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart. I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them. More than I’d ever seen.

Ok forget the fact that the first sentence isn’t a sentence. Well, don’t exactly forget it, because it’s indicative of Mieville’s notebook style, just try to ignore it a bit maybe. I’m not exactly sure whether it’s a go at a ‘modern’ prose style, denuded of bourgeois fripperies of phrasing – it’s minimalism! – or whether such telegraphese is expressive of thoughts coming directly from the mind of the narrator, without any intermediary articulation. Up close and personal in an alien mind. Choose one, move on. You can say ‘hazy stab at a bit of both’ if you want.

Because there’s no description we just have to say ASTONISHED AT ANGLES and nod. After all, gothic ribbed vaulting is pretty impressive. That has angles.

There’s an odd subset of people/alien things you’re asked to imagine now. Here goes. Ready? “Everyone who had ever talked about my poise would have laughed”. Why are we being asked to imagine them? Not sure really. Wait, the narrator is female. Is this weird ‘teen girl’ style meant to be shorthand for ‘female’? Maybe gloss over this bit.

btw why is poise italicised? Hmm. Maybe it’s the equivalent of a recent French loan word in their alien tongue. I will say it PWAHZ.

I can’t quite do “to see me literally stagger backwards in that room”. I mean I know ‘literally’ is always easy pickings, but what’s it doing there? I think it’s quietly suggesting that “to see me stagger backwards” might be ambiguous, potentially metaphorical. Also somehow it manages to imply ever so slightly that it’s “backwards” that is open to ambiguity and that without “literally”, “stagger backwards” might be potentially be misunderstood as “stagger forwards”. Just silently take it out. It’ll be ok. Maybe it’ll be taken out for the paperback. Plain sailing now.

Or at least it would were it not for… well, never mind Embassytown, we’ve just hit PREPOSITION CITY. So the narrator and her group are walking into the room. Staggers back. Only preposition that really makes sense here is “out”. Well it doesn’t really make sense, but that’s the motion. But no, she staggers backwards in. No wait she staggers backwards “in that room” (which one? oh, that one). OMG THE ANGLEZ.

Ok! Description time! Welcome relief! “Walls and ceilings moved with a ratcheting mechanical life”. Shit! Sounds pretty cool! I wonder what that’s like! “like the offspring of chains and crabs”. Oh. Like that. Sounds painful. Cool man, cool. Chains and crabs, mechanical and organic, not sure whether this is metaphor or not but whatevs – got it.

“A kind Staff member steered Scile and me.” lol where. are they a golf buggy.

“I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart.” I could feel my bum.

“I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them.” Suddenly the author couldn’t be arsed. (Reminds me of the time I tried cycling home after a lock-in and plenty of whisky and ‘suddenly’ a parked car came out of nowhere).

“More than I’d ever seen.” Notice the way he balances the paragraph with non sentences at either end, lending formal symmetry to the whole.

The cumulative effect the short sentences have of building up the excitement and tension is well worth studying:

“I wanted to touch the walls. I could hear my heart. I heard Hosts. Suddenly we were among them. More than I’d ever seen. Phone dentists. Do laundry. Bills.”

OK, I didn’t choose the paragraph at random.

And I do feel bad. Mieville does stuff I feel I should be interested in – genre experimentation and constructing places that are attempts to reach outside realist description, building stuff out of a non-rectilinear imaginative Lego. But unfortunately it’s shit.