This morning was the first time I’ve been able to surf in about two months. The report said that high tide was at 9:58 a.m. with light wind and a SSE swell coming up from hurricane Sandra. My break of choice is the Bolsa Chica jetties. The people are generally friendly there, and it’s rarely crowded.
Every time I get to the water’s edge, start to feel the cold of wet sand, my gut starts to tighten, my heart begins to race. No matter how many times I’ve paddled out before I still get nervous as I dip my cupped hands into the water and pull. A wave begins to build in front of me and, uncontrollably, I whisper words to myself. Words, such as “inevitable,” “destroy,” “failure,” “passion,” “disbelief,” “structure,” all evaporate into the ether of history in no particular order, and somehow, while they are not part of any phrase or complete thought, they all seem to fit into context of one another as some desperate response to oncoming waves. The paddle out is a struggle against time, the weight of the water, and past defeats. This morning, though, the word I whispered to myself over and again was “nightmare.”
There is a moment in House of Leaves, the moment where Will Navidson is lost inside the house and has just discovered that he is no longer supported by anything. He is falling, not down, or up, or in any direction. He’s not suspended, he just is. There are no more walls, no floors or ceilings, doors, nothing with which to triangulate his position. There is nothing separate from his being with which to define himself as a separate entity at all. He realizes he’s been falling for quite some time and desperately attempts to redefine himself, to reaffirm his existence. “I am,” he says. It’s hopeless, because hope is a non sequitur in this house, for it implies an end where there is not even a means to that end. Ultimately,
Navidson’s words, tunes, and shivering murmurs trail off into a painful rasp. He knows his voice will never heat this world. Perhaps no voice will. Memories cease to surface. Sorrow threatens to no longer matter.
Navidson is forgetting.
Navidson is dying. (Danielewski 482-83)
This is the closest comparison I can make to how I feel when I am in the water. The ocean is is alive, ever in motion, consuming. Yet, it is also senseless, unaware of my presence, and altogether uncaring. The moment I think I have figured it out, crouched down on my board and gliding along the face of a wave, something unforeseen happens, a ripple in front of me lifts up, the nose of the board pearls, and I am suddenly under the surface. It’s dark in the water, cold, there are no shapes to discern, the growl of the passing wave has silenced, and I am falling. Of course, I hold my breath, but I’m never certain if I will breathe ever again. All sights and sounds disappear and even the memory of what has happened only a second ago already begins to fade. There is no voice to heat this world.
I floated out in the line-up for quite a while, maybe forty-five minutes, give or take. It’s hard to be certain. The current El Niño season has kept the water temperature around 60°F, but the November morning air has retained its bite. I stared at my board, followed the line of the stringer from underneath me to out beyond the nose and through to the horizon. The grey of the marine layer blurred the threshold between the water and the sky.
I saw something that I had never seen before. A few feet in front of me I noticed what looked like glitter or confetti twirling in the water column right near the surface. It was a shoal of sardines, or maybe smelt. I generally notice them only out of the corner of my eye, a flash of movement, the only evidence of which is the ripple on the surface left behind as they hurl themselves out of the water and fall back in.
Is this not all that experience is anyway– phenomena that eludes observation, a cause that is only evidenced by its effect?
Johnny Truant experiences this when he visits the Whalestoe hospital his mother died in. His emotional state is heavily strained, to say the least. He wanders the country aimlessly, albeit to escape his fears. Though, it is a path of escape which leads him directly back to the origin of those fears, where “no cry of light, no glimmer, not even the faintest shard of hope to break free across the hold” has shone (497).
It’s a melancholy moment because he is initially convinced that he has become “a creature unstirred by history, no longer moved by the present, just hungry, blind and at long last full of mindless wrath” (497), and yet when he is unable to sense the spectral presence of his mother, he is unable to rectify his “mindless wrath.” So, he begins to break down. That is, he is indeed moved knowing that he still carries the memory of her. However skeptical he must remain of that memory, it is nonetheless unshakable. He sees his life as the ripple of her own nightmarish life.
All things observed are ripples. In which case the only quantitative or qualitative understanding we have of a cause is the memory of it, the effect. No one remembers the birth of their parents. Instead, those memories are passed down through language and the vernacular of genealogical history. For Truant, that language is collected in the feverishly written letters he receives from his mother, and it is the same language he uses in his own journal.
Someone else’s. Someone else’s memories…Oh god what constant re-arranging of thoughts, an endless rearrangement of them, revealing nothing but shit…The journal too. I thought I’d only written a few entries but now I can see–I can feel–it’s nearly full, but I don’t recall any of it. Is it even in my hand?…October Three Zed, Ninety Eight. That’s the day today. That’s the date. Top of this page. But the first page in the journal isn’t October Three Zed but May one. May one mean–meaning, I mean–months and months of journey. Before Lude died. Before the horror. Or all of it horror since right now I can’t connect any of it.
It’s not me.
It cannot be.
As soon as I write I’ve already forgotten.
I must remember.
I must read.
I must read.
I must read. (498)
Truant’s journal is still another ripple in the chain of causality, but his experience resembles a feedback loop. A question arises– is Johnny an end in of himself? When memory ceases so too does experience. Since Johnny cannot recall the experiences he has apparently described in his own journal, his only true experience is the vicarious reading of his past. He is merely the audience of his own narrative, not the subject.
This is how I often feel about surfing. At best I can only describe the experience through my mind’s journal, the memory of the experiences in the water. Yet, I must remain skeptical of these memories because, as we know, memory is a severely faulty thing, easily altered by emotion, and all the thousands of factors constantly imposing influence. The wave that I caught this morning, according to memory, was multifaceted, deeply complex, nuanced. How can I trust the notion that I remember every detail of it? Of course I can expand the wave metaphor to many other memories– childhood, school and profession, romantic relationships. Because my only understanding of those experiences is gained from my memory of them, I feel as though I too am merely an observer. I am the audience witnessing the downward spiral a self-defeating character who loathes the dichotomy of future and past, and who is obsessed with the means to his own end in order to finally disintegrate that and all other binaries. Each wave is a ripple in the closed loop of his narrative.
The future is always a fiction, and it is impossible to actually experience the present. By the time any phenomena is perceivable, having taken even a few milliseconds to travel our neural pathways, it is already past and is therefore committed to memory. The past and our faulty memory of it is the only conduit for the narrative of our lives. So, as Johnny Truant discovers, we have no means of objective understanding. Even a moment of clarity, for all it is worth and what it may seem to be, affords him no answer.
It took me another hour to locate her room. So many of the rooms looking the same, all familiar, but never quite right, quite the same, their dimensions and perspectives never precisely lining up with the memory I had, a memory I was soon beginning to doubt, a surprisingly painful doubt actually, until I saw through her window the now vine entwined tree, every wall-line, corner-line, floor-line, instantly, or so it seemed–though nothing is ever instant–matching up, a sharp slide into focus revealing the place where she finally died. Of course it’s final, right? Closet to the side. Empty. And her bed in the corner. The same bed. Even if the mattress was gone and the springs now reassembled the rusted remains of a shipwreck half-buried in the sands of some half-forgotten shore.
Horror should have buried me.
I sat down and waited for her to find me.
She never did.
I waited all night in the very room it happened, waiting for her frail form to glide free of beams of glass and moonlight. Only there was no glass. No moonlight either. Not that I could see.
Come morning I found the day as I had found every other day–without relief or explanation. (504)
If the memory of his mother is faulty, he must also keep suspect of letters she had written to him. “Her letter,” he says, “was hopelessly wrong. Maybe an invention to make it easier for me to dismiss her” (517). Johnny realizes that he must also suspect the nature of the narrative these two sources coalesce to create. That is, he must ultimately suspect the very narrative of his life, it’s verisimilitude, and question the truth of his own existence. As we read further, we discover that the last section of Truant’s journal takes a drastic shift in point of view and voice. “I’m sorry,” he continues, “I have nothing left…Except this story, what I’m remembering now, too long from the surface of any dawn” (518). It is a very heartbreaking scene that follows, and one that I think about often, particularly while I’m in the water. It describes a woman who has just given birth to a baby boy with severe developmental issues and is “cyanotic.” The child is not expected to live more than a few hours. Doctors and nurses hurriedly employ an IC unit, an EKG monitor, IV pumps and lines, a ventilator, probes, saturated oxygen. Yet, the “mother sees none of this. She sees only her baby boy, barely breathing, his tiny fingers curled like sea shells still daring to clutch the world.” She refuses that her son “can only survive on machines,” refuses the inevitable, that “she will have to let him go.” To her the future is a fiction, and she can spin her own narrative yarn with her love for this child. She endures the hours clinging to a life that at once she is both defined by and is her only source of meaning. She doesn’t sleep. She sings to him, whispers her love to him. Then, on the fourth day, “ she leans forward and kisses him on the forehead. ‘You can go now,’ she says tenderly”–
And right before everyone’s eyes, long before Dr. Nowell or anyone else can turn a dial or touch a switch, the EKG flatlines. Asystole.
The child is gone. (521)
There is no mystery in this story, only loss. The reader must realize, just as Johnny does, that the entire time they’ve been reading HOL they have, in fact, been reading the life which the mother has imagined for her baby boy, and which she clung to out of love. Johnny is that narrative. As does Johnny, I can’t help but question what I have imagined for myself, and what others have imagined for me. Whether out of desperation to somehow alter the nightmare, or out of love, my life is still only a facsimile of memory, which is itself a facsimile. It’s a scary thought that the perceived world is possibly unreal, is false, for there is no where to turn after that, no trust, no hope of ever getting out of the house built by faulty semiotics and the misleading vernacular of day-to-day experience. After all “the words fail, the voice fails, so be it” (Beckett 406)
It happened in an instant. One moment all is calm, somewhere down the line-up a group of friends chuckled to some punchline I could not hear, a pelican silently floated by on a pocket of air ahead of a swell. In the next moment the face of a wave appeared in front of me, dark, moving fast, amassing as it approached the beach. Just as I had done maybe a thousand times before, I quickly turned the board around and started pulling myself along the surface. Just as I had felt maybe a thousand times before, the leading edge of the wave slid under me and lifted me up. Just as I had done maybe a hundred times before, I pushed myself up and to my feet. What happened in the next ten seconds, though, I am at a loss to reason beyond conjecture. Sometimes we surprise ourselves by our failures to act, to comprehend, or to respond to the ever changing whim of circumstance. Other times, we are surprised by our intuition. My skill level is amateur at best, and ‘innate’ has never been a term I use to describe my surfing. However, something was released and possessed me for those few seconds on the face of that wave. I saw the wave in it’s entirety out in front of me as I took a left for my frontside. Every ripple, dimple, and every breaking section of the wave I saw before it even happened, anticipated it’s every motion. I crouched to picked up speed and looked up to the lip at least a foot over head. I dragged the palm of my trailing hand along the face. Off I went down the line.
It was over in an instant. One moment I banked into my third carve of the wave, and the next moment I lay on my back on dry sand, breathing heavily, eyes tearing up. It was my only wave of the day. It was my first wave in at least two months. It was, by far, my best wave since last winter.
“Wow, man, I saw the whole thing.”
I sat up and turned to see a guy walking up to me. Salt and peppered hair, like mine, and with what looked like a seven-five or six mint-green Becker under his arm.
“You even got a little barreled,” he said.
“Yeah.” He pointed to the line-up, “I saw it.”
I shook my head, “That’s kind of cool. I’ve never had that happen before. Wasn’t looking behind me so I didn’t see how far into it I was.”
“Yeah, it was real quick, like. But you were in it. Almost happened on the reform, too.”
“Wow,” I shook my head. “No one ever sees me surf, so I can never prove what happened.” “Nope,” he said nodding, “But I saw it this time. Great job, man.” He strapped his leash to his ankle then started towards the water.
“Good luck,” I said, to which he responded with a thumbs-up.
There is no choice but to move forward in experience, whatever it may be. The best we can hope for is that someone will be there to witness it with us and share in the facsimile, for they see what we can’t, they see what is behind us, perceive it differently, and somehow expand our experience.
Surfing is a very lonely venture to me. Yet, just as Will Navidson was drawn to the depths of the house, and Johnny Truant must wander the country in search of a past that does not exist, I too am compelled to paddle out. In search of what, though, I cannot say. If nothing else, through the unyielding solitude of it I have learned a great deal about the value of others in my life. Though it is only conjecture, I might discern some luminescence in the house with the thought that Navidson has discovered this too. He is prepared to die in the house. In what are his final moments–at least as far as he can tell–his “tunes” and “shivering murmurs” are all meditations on one thing, one subject. There is no voice to heat this world because he is alone, without Karen. As the fictional “Italian translator,” Sophia Blynn, says in her critique of The Navidson Record:
The most important light Karen carried into that place was the memory of Navidson. And Navidson was no different. Though it’s commonly assumed his last word was ‘care’ or the start of ‘careful,’ I would argue differently. I believe this utterance is really just the first syllable of the very name on which his mind and heart had finally come to rest. His only hope, his only meaning: ‘Karen.’ (Danielewski 523)
I am led to wonder whether these short, personal essays are my own shivering murmurs, tunes that go unanswered except their refraction and diffusion off the walls of language in this house.
Still, there is no choice but to move forward, for there are many, many waves to be surfed. “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on…I’ll go on” (Beckett 407).
Danielewski, Mark Z.. House of Leaves. NY, Pantheon 2000. Print.
Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. NY, Grove Press 2001. Print.
I just got back from watching the film End of the Tour. Don’t remember saying “thank you” to the lone attendant at the theatre, but I know I did. Sat on my bike for a long time, engine running, helmet, gloves and jacket on, and sweating in the August early afternoon. I sat and stared for a while, listening. Though, to what I have no idea. Must’ve been the same mode, the same staring at nothing in particular after I saw Mindwalk or My Dinner with Andre, broken only when an elderly woman pulled up in a Buick and parked right next to me, stoned rings on every one of her fingers.
Feeling very ashamed at the moment. Ashamed that I haven’t taken the time to read Wallace’s work. A copy of Infinite Jest has been sitting on my shelf for well over six years now, a clear indication of my status as a lightweight, a poser. How long can one hide from their own insecurities, their own, complacencey, apathy, lethargy? A simple equation S+a/W•w=L, where “S” is the weight of society, a weight that has, throughout the years, hammered one’s confidence down, shaping it into the sprocket necessary to continue the provisions of the wealthy few, “a” is the aggravation that has resulted, the particular dismay learned and conditioned only by consistent failure, “W” is the proposed body of work one is expected to accomplish, “w” is the body of work actually accomplished, and finally, “L” is unbridled laziness. Try this list on the Sesame Street Alphabet segment.
There was an idea brought up around the climax of the film. I’m going to have to paraphrase, of course, because I can’t remember the lines. It’s late. Wallace enters the guest room where Lipsky is staying. The two have been carrying around an awkward silence, an anger pointed at one another, but a circumstantial anger and resentment, one neither of them could help but feel nor distinguish the reasons for or the origins of. Wallace needs to apologize, but can’t find a justification for it beyond defending his need to protect his interests, which, he arguably has lost sight of. He references a section in his book, where a person makes the choice to jump out of a burning sky-scraper. To outside observers, the jump is the horror, the absolute of self-destruction, unquestionable death. Yet, to the person who decides to jump, the fall is the escape from the horror that awaits them otherwise. He goes on to say that he grew up entirely “American,” that he realized his fears, relentless anxieties that had come to define him, were altogether unfounded. That there was nothing to be afraid of. That was exactly the point, that there really was nothing whatsoever behind the veil of his existence. The greatest horror of all, nothing. Sartre one-oh-one. And so, anything that could help him escape from the “faux” of it all, be it television, drinking, a job as a security guard where he had no concerns and was amused by trivial things, all of it could serve to help him escape the fate of nothing. He was free to jump out of the burning building into his addiction, the chance to “turn off,” and fall into the banal world of television.
I don’t know the validity of the conversations that took place in the film, nor what percentage has been altered to fit the context of ninety-minute cinema. I could read Lipsky’s book, and intend to, but again, verisimilitude remains a question. If nothing else, though, the loneliness that Wallace mentions, and how it is inescapable because he sees something that no one else does, this is what will echo through these chasms for a long time. If not in the hollows of my own thoughts, but in the empty zeitgeist that, I feel, society seems to define. Is this not part of the great struggle to find more, or less value in the public and the private self? Is there not a raging conflict between the two? The battles between them have become so constant and ubiquitous that we hardly register the difference between the two. They are one in the same, our selves, ourselves. And yet, somehow both are controlled by forces unseen, colossal influences just beyond the horizon of our perceivable landscape.
During the dénouement, Lipsky attempts to fill in the blanks about Wallace. Wallace steps outside to begin to cut away the ice and snow that has buried his car, Lipsky hurriedly walks around Wallaces home with his tape recorder and speaks into it, listing and describing objects found around the house. He’s desperate to find some substance beyond the esoteric conversations that he and Wallace have had. Soda cans, Mountain Dew and Pepsi, stains on the carpet from the dogs, cigarette burning in an ash tray, cartoon of left and right human brain and a dog brain on the refrigerator, blue toilet seat, postcards on the wall of the bathroom. Lipsky is compelled to gather this information for two reasons. Firstly, he needs copy, something to round out the article. Lipsky is also attempting to reverse engineer Wallace, map him, define the equation that makes Wallace the success that he is, figure him out so that he can then apply the same terms of the equation in his own calculations, and therefore discover his own measure of success. But it doesn’t work. For as he finds these items in the house, he does not see the banality they alert too. They are the drone of the emptiness Wallace mentions earlier in the narrative, the drone Lipsky does not hear. It’s only after Wallace’s death that Lipsky begins to detect but the echo of what Wallace had said.
Right behind you, Dave. Right behind you.
Stevie’s death in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is undoubtedly one of the most baffling and violent moments in literature. It is certainly a tragic incident in the novel, but when pursuing a more clear definition of its distinct grotesque quality we begin to uncover a multifaceted correlation between each character and their sense of identity. With particular focus on Chief Inspector Heat, we can see that in exposing each successive layer of this correlation morality and social aesthetic become increasingly arbitrary. Thus, it is the element of the grotesque which destabilizes any sense of a singular, unified identity.
It seems the human psyche, no matter how morally resolute, will always be guilty of a voyeuristic infatuation with destruction. This is entirely natural. Take for example a moment from another of Conrad’s works, Under Western Eyes, when the “excited crowd” assembles “round the sledge” of the Minister-President after the first bomb explodes (Under Western Eyes 59). The crowd immediately gathers and it is only after witnessing the awe of destruction that they offer aid to the coachmen and the Minister-President. It’s as if the sight of destruction demands an audience. For what is destruction if not gazed upon and contemplated? To Chief Inspector Heat in The Secret Agent, the fleshy scraps collected from the site of the bombing that are displayed upon the hospital table are just such a sight to be witnessed, investigated, and marveled at. He stoops “guardedly over the table” of the indistinguishable remains (The Secret Agent 70), but what is to be “guarded”? Simply being near the remains, he feels he is in the presence of a “shattering violence of destruction” which threatens to turn he too into “a heap of nameless fragments” with “ruthless cruelty.” He is deeply mortified at the thought of experiencing the violence of having his own body shredded by a fiery bomb blast; it is ironic then that his name is “Heat.” This is a moment for him to ponder his own death, face its inevitability, and he realizes it is consistent with and inextricable from one of the most basic definitions of the human condition– pain. His “calm face” conceals his inner consternation as he peers at the table like a shopper “bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher’s shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner” (70). The image of the butcher shop uses the allegory of the meat packing industry to affirm the sentiment of the moment: an insignificant animal is raised for the sole purpose of slaughter and will inevitably face the cold, apathetic forces of commerce in the form of its complete dismemberment. We get the sense that the manner of Stevie’s death is also inevitable and equally dispassionate for he is subject to the forces of ideological, political, and socioeconomic maneuvering.
This dismemberment greatly affects Inspector Heat because of his instinct to empathize, or his attempt to imagine himself in Stevie’s position. He imagines himself being destroyed by the blast of a bomb:
It seemed impossible to believe that a human body could have reached that state of disintegration without passing through the pangs of inconceivable agony. No physiologist, and still less of a metaphysician, Chief Inspector Heat rose by the force of sympathy, which is a form of fear, above the vulgar conception of time.
Sympathy as a “form of fear” is key to understanding the grotesqueness of the image. The human body itself is arguably the most grotesque object to us for many reasons. There is a primordial aspect about our concept of all objects foreign to our bodies, such as rocks, chemicals, and especially things that are biological like predators or even fungi. This primordial aspect– fear. That is, we assess a foreign object as something to be frightened of according to the level of physical harm it may effect upon our fragile bodies. Rocks are solid and rigid in contrast to our soft flesh, chemicals are associated with burns, predators maul and devour, and fungi decompose, reminding us that the antithesis of life is not death, but the absence of a body’s homeostasis. The body is the only tool we have, or the only frame of reference by which we relate and quantify consequences caused by objective forces to our self-awareness– our identity. In other words, we identify ourselves as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, and this sense of identity depends upon our body’s homeostasis, or its amalgamated and sustained health. Grotesque occurs when the body is pressed beyond its physical limits. We might press those limits via a delusion that the body is infinite in its faculties, but in doing so, we discover that the body is, in fact, flawed and imperfect. This thought of imperfection, or the failure of homeostasis, induces a fear that is “at once underlined and contained by the defamiliarizing of the human” (Phillips 44). In other words, if the physical human body is deconstructed there is no unified identity and there remains instead only unrelated parts which no longer signify a whole. For example, the ball joint of the femur does not make sense without the socket of the hipbone. Much the same, a clump of flesh does not independently signify the whole of Stevie’s body.
This defamiliarizing is consistent with Conrad’s “discomfort with reducing a group of individuals as a ‘public’” because this “results, in [his] imagination, not in a unified, unbroken body but a mass of mismatched undifferentiated features” (Oliver 210). The word “grotesque” is itself “a storage-space for the outcasts of language, entities for which there is no appropriate noun” (Harpham xxi). This is where a “sense of formal disorder” arises in things we perceive to be grotesque and where “ontological, generic or logical categories are illegitimately jumbled together.” As an “outcast of language,” the word grotesque is linked to anarchy in that they both defy definition. Things that are grotesque are thus made up of indescribable parts. For example, while being essentially made up of countless drops of water, a puddle still has a form and is situated in one local, but the rain which formed that puddle is chaotic and difficult to quantify. Originating from visual art, the grotesque is then primarily concerned “with the beholder and the beholder’s attempt to define and categorize” every aspect of human life according to social norms or moral statutes “to which the grotesque may be regarded as resistant, hence the predominantly negative view of it held during the eighteenth century” (Phillips 42-43). Because Conrad was determined to expand the reader’s experience of his work, this may be why the grotesque is so evident in the novel.
In The Secret Agent, these “mismatched” and “undifferentiated features” become the visceral, unforgettable image of Stevie’s remains. Conrad might have used the element of the grotesque, in this case, as a “strategy for fragmenting rather than unifying his reading public” who, as suggested by the singular word “public,” are otherwise considered to share universally the same experience of reading his novel (Oliver 210). Instead, fragmentation, or the grotesque image of the remains of Stevie’s body, “favors multiplicity and uncertainty” (211). Thus, the definition of identity expands beyond the physical boundaries of the body and begins to test the limits of the psyche. Upon witnessing Stevie’s remains, Inspector Heat first empathizes with Stevie’s pain, then enters the foyer of the existential question– the meaning of life. In that instant of grotesque destruction, where lies the “inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence,” Heat sees a vast expanse of time and human experience (The Secret Agent 70). He sees “long and terrifying dreams” and an “atrocious pain and mental torture” that is “contained between two successive winks of an eye”. He comes to understand that the single most significant element that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the knowledge of mortality. To ponder one’s own finitude of his or her lifetime in relation to the infinitude of time and space is quite possibly the only acceptable meaning of life, albeit horrific. What’s more, the conclusions drawn from this internal struggle yield no further insight into the nature of identity. Inspector Heat can not even identify the bomber which means that his empathy for the deceased is displaced, and therefore in his attempt to identify with the deceased by imagining himself in the latter’s place he too becomes “mismatched,” formless, indistinguishable, and without identity.
Through his investigation of the bombing, Inspector Heat thus comes to discover that its grotesque aspect signifies a violence almost infinitely deep because it exposes and threatens to destabilize the core of human identity. He is ultimately able to cope with the grim sight of Stevie’s remains because shortly thereafter he discover’s the only psychological weapon to counteract the grotesque. This weapon is not the body– which is fragile and finite –but comedy, or humor. After being awestruck by the remains in the hospital he says “grimly” to the constable on duty, “‘The coroner’s jury will have a treat’,” the irony being that there is so little of the body for the coroner to examine much less make a report on which would add anything not already apparent in the case (79). While comedy may be equally hazardous as the grotesque, it is a great equalizer that renders the profound and the horrific as arbitrary, for “hazard has such accuracies” (208).
Danow, David K.. The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. NY: Penguin Classics, 2007. Print.
––– Under Wester Eyes. NY: Penguin Group, 1989. Print.
Harpham, Geoffrey. On the Grotesque. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982. Print.
Meindl, Dieter. American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. Coumbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996. Print.
Oliver, Matthew. “Conrad’s Grotesque Public: Pornography and the Politics of Reading in The Secret Agent.” Twentieth-Century Literature 55.2 (2009): 209-231. Print.
Owens, Margaret E.. Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama. Cranbury, NJ: Rosement Publishing & Printing Corp., 2005. Print.
Phillips, Terry. “A Study in Grotesques: Transformations of the Human in the Writing of Liam O’Flaherty.” Gothic Studies 7.1 (2005): 41-52. Print.
The following is a short Prezi examination of Patricia Bizzell’s Inner- and Outer-Directed teaching within rhetorical/composition theory.
Hello, this is the introductory post for my blog. Everything previous to this is migrated from a previous blog. This blog will be a series of short, semi-academic essays. In terms of context and subject matter I’m betting that a focal point or certain themes will begin to emerge after a number of posts. Nonetheless, after being a professional student for as many years as I have now I’m starting to feel rather enervated with respect to theory or critical perspective. However, I do feel very much akin to my literary, linguistic, and philosophic predecessors, so I am inherently compelled to write. Like many others, I’m sure, who feel trapped in the “postmodern condition” (whatever that’s supposed to mean, right?), I also often find myself hurling linguistic vomit into some nonsensical, cyclical social eternity. I’ll attempt to hold together some island with which to compile words and ideas upon as I float shamelessly through the universe that Hubble and Sagan helped to define and that Lyotard and Foucault have managed to disintegrate. Whatever manifests (Oxford commas and all), so be it. Take or leave it, that’s your prerogative.
The following is an examination of a large scale Digital Humanities project, Pynchon Wiki, a Mediawiki dedicated to the works of Thomas Pynchon.
PynchonWiki (PW) is the host site dedicated to Wikis annotating Thomas Pynchon’s (TP) eight novels. Launched in 2006, the website is designed and curated by Tim Ware, who’s company, HyperArts, also maintains ThomasPynchon.com. PW is designed with MediaWiki software and annotations regarding TP’s works are made by anonymously registered users. PW’s intended audience includes both scholars and casual TP fans alike. Since the creation of the Wiki associated with Pynchon’s most recent novels, Inherent Vice (2009) and Bleeding Edge (2013), PW has received approximately one edit per every fifty visitors, which might indicate that its visitors are most likely college students using the site as a quick-reference guide rather than a comprehensive source of critical review (Rowberry). No information regarding funding could be located, however it’s likely that Ware funds the project himself.
PynchonWiki is created by Tim Ware and has become one of the largest literary wiki resources with over twenty-thousand edits since it was launched in 2006 (Rowberry 1). According to the Tim Ware Wikipedia page, Ware (b. 1948) “is an American composer and musician, born in Sacramento, California” and he is “the owner of HyperArts (“HyperArts Web Design), a web design and development company” fittingly located in the Jack London Square district of Oakland, CA (“Tim Ware”).
Ware’s music is very much like that of Béla Fleck or Pat Metheny– prolific, and crosses many genres (“Tim Ware Group”). It’s no wonder, then, that his scholarly and professional achievements are just as prolific as his creative endeavors. In addition to PW, Ware created the Infinite Jest Wiki, Finnegan’s Web (which has since migrated to a different server and curator), and he has also worked with Erik Ketzan to co-creat of the an Umberto Eco Wiki for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (“The Mysterious Flame”), as well as Literary Wiki (“LiteraryWiki.org”), which is a site designed to allow anyone to create a Wiki for a literary text (Rowberry 1).
During the creation of PW, Ware received help from David Morris Kipen who is a writer, editor, and broadcaster and who from 2005 to 2010 served as the Director for the National Endowment of the Arts (“David Morris Kipen”). Ware also consulted Minnesota State University Professor of English, Donald Larsson, who had previously created the website A Companion’s Companion: Illustrated Additions and Corrections to Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion (Larsson), which launched in 2000 (“Thomas Pynchon Wiki: About”).
For the Vinland Wiki, Ware integrated work from another website, Babies of Wackiness: A Reader’s Guide to Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, by John Diebold and Michael Goodwin, which was launched back at the dawning of the web in 1990 (Diebold and Goodwin). In terms of the logistical side of PW, according to the “about” page of PW, the site “runs on MediaWiki, a wiki software package licensed under the GNU General Public License. It is written in PHP and uses either the MySQL or PostgreSQL relational database management system” (“Thomas Pynchon Wiki: About”).
PynchonWiki and DH:
I would love to see a larger website like PW dedicated to contemporary avant garde and experimental writers. Such a project could be a complex and massive network of hypertext annotations that cross-reference works by Pynchon, Barth, Joyce, Fowles, Danielewski and Tomasula, among many others. Because these works use intra- and intertextual references as a stylistic element, the sheer volume of hyperlinks within each annotation would be daunting for any one person or small group of people. However, using the Wiki, or user-edited format, such a project could be nearly complete in a short time. However, while I think PW is very user friendly and intuitive in terms of its site-map, I also think that it’s a bit dated in terms of its aesthetic quality. Each page of annotations looks like it was designed in web 1.0 html, giving it an almost flimsy quality. Each clickable link seems like it’s guaranteed to navigate to an “Error 404” page. Also, each header level is clearly visible the same way that the waistline of a guy’s underwear is visible when he bends down to pick something up, or for that matter, an exposed bra strap. This older style is fine for the sake of clarity, where there is a 1:1 ratio of 1 Page in the book to 1 section of annotations. The issue, though, is that the eyes easily wander because of the repetitive nature and length of each chapter’s-worth of annotations. Every time a user creates or edits an annotation, the page length expands, causing each individual annotation to get lost in the endless pattern of “Page” header and “note” body text. In other words, each annotation loses its value in a labyrinth of information, which defeats the purpose of the annotations. As Rowberry suggests, PW is not a “paradigm shift for the use of Wikis” partly because it “does not fully depart from traditional forms of interpretation,” and thus ignores “the multimodality and multidmedial aspects of Wiki” (Rowberry 1).
Quite frankly, too, Pynchon fans–who came up in the age of television and media boom–are likely to be finely attuned to the visual and graphic arts and well versed in other art mediums (“Thomas Pynchon”). In this case it might be worth providing adequate space along with the annotations so that the visual references in the novels could be represented in some other way than an image gallery at the bottom of the page. Though, considering that the site is maintained by HyperArts, who clearly have the technical ability to create a more streamlined website, I think that the archaic aesthetic of PW is by design, or intended.
The sheer gravity–pun intended–of annotating Pynchon’s work presents a unique set of issues with regard to the field of DH. Wiki software has made it easy for one or two people to compile the same amount of material that it might otherwise take a whole team of people to research simply because the curators of the project appeal to the mass Pynchon audience for help and input. As noted on the website, Ware used material from earlier websites to establish and build upon the annotations in PW. Then, anonymous editors who are registered to the site filled in the nooks and crannies of referential minutia in each sentence from TPs novels.
The criticism regarding PW focuses on the “Quantity v. Quality” issue where traditional, more academic Pynchon critics question the verisimilitude, or credibility of the annotations collected in the Wiki. These critics make the point that “substantial criticism”–academic articles–appear three to four years after the novel is published “due to the lengthy peer-review process” which ensures that the article is filtered through rigorous scrutiny so that the information is verified and the arguments are concise (4). This peer-review process is a “considered reaction,” protecting criticism with the interest of qualitative research, in contrast “to the knee jerk from the web.” Rowberry goes on to say that “what is lost in prestige is gained in scale and speed, thus facilitating a larger and faster feedback loop.” However, there is also the argument that web-based annotation format actually facilitates research rather than allows amateur scholars to blithely rush through the material without regard to qualitative concerns. Lisa Spiro makes the point that the format of the Wiki annotation process is collaborative rather than singular and critical as in the the more traditional academic article: “scientific research often requires scientists to collaborate with each other, whereas humanities scholars typically need only something to write with and about” (Spiro). Pynchon audiences, among all the literarily inclined, are methodical and almost scientifically minded when it comes to reading a Pynchon novel; they have to be. This in mind, the registered editors of PW have joined a larger, more accessible, but focused community of Pynchonites to create a database of intertextual references within their favorite novels.
Contrary to what the traditional academic establishment might argue about the lack of qualitative research in the Wiki format, the PW community aids in the proliferation of “more comprehensive, more accurate” information” because “many people are checking the information,” and even produce the information faster, “it only took 3 months for the wiki to cover every page [for one] of Pynchon’s [novels].” Spiro also points out that a more traditional book of supplementary annotation and criticism authored by a single person–the example in this case being Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion–“is fixed,” unchanging and unable to adapt to newer, more informed analyses of Pynchon’s work, “while the wiki is open-ended and expansive.” For any one person to take on the solitary process of sifting through every possible annotation may, in fact, be a terminal endeavor in terms of sheer volume of personal resources and time. Spiro echos the research of a TextGrid project describing “how 3 different editors attempted to create a critical edition of the massive ‘so-called pseudo-capitulars supposedly written by a Benedictus Levita,’ dying before they could complete their work.” The suggestion, here, is that scholars no longer have to fear keeling over, their bodies eventually collecting dust and cobwebs while attempting to pan for gold flakes in an ocean of Pynchon’s jovial mind and literary interplay, for this is “much easier now that a team of scholars is collaborating to create the edition, increasing their chances of completion by sharing the labor.”
To further address concerns about the quality of the research, the element of illegitimate, or unsubstantiated annotations must, of course, be acknowledged.
Daniel Cohen discusses issues of quality in a DH project he had put together at one point, called Syllabus Finder. He talks about the limitations of API and KWIC in extracting information from a scanned document. He mentions that he had attempted to retrieve information regarding George W. Bush: “it may come as a surprise that the encyclopedia entries scanned to create such lists do not have to be perfect– only fairly reliable and openly available on the Internet” (Cohen). In other words, he is acknowledging that quantitative material doesn’t equate 1:1 with its qualitative measurement. “Indeed,” he continues, “the reference source I used for this experiment was Wikipedia, the democratically written encyclopedia much disparaged by publishers and professors. Despite its flaws, however, Wikipedia will probably do just as well for basic KWIC profiling of document classes as the Encyclopædia Britannica.” In short, Cohen is saying that the Wiki is a more accurate resource than traditional, more trusted print sources which have been scanned into databases (such as Google’s library scanning project) when using API and KWIC filters when data-mining for specific information. This is because “one can instruct a program to download the entire” Wiki page “and then subject that corpus to more advanced manipulations.”
There are, however, clear examples of qualitative issues that need to be addressed in PW. Because of the informal nature of the Wiki and a general obscurity about ethical practices on the web (though, the last decade has seen a shift towards more standard ethical practices), misunderstanding of the Wiki’s “rules have led to a community that can add knowledge to the Wiki in either great depth, or just superficial additions that can be expanded” endlessly by other users (Rowberry 9). These superficial additions are actually on verge of being a distraction. It’s not hard to find annotations within PW that are either totally blasé, biased, or entirely uninformative. For example, in the Bleeding Edge Wiki for chapter 23 the following annotations are made:
“He meets her gaze and then sits staring at her, as if she’s some kind of screen…” Crap. More Lacan references, only now Maxine’s a TV with a difference: instead of tubeside, Avi is Maxiside.
“…Avi pretends to be absorbed in the television.” Told ya. (“Bleeding Edge Wiki”)
I was simply curious to see if I could find any annotations that, having not yet read any of Pynchon’s work, would stand out to me as careless or sophomoric. I found these annotations almost immediately with only a 15 second search, which must mean that this kind of annotation must be rampant throughout PW. Honestly, though, I almost prefer its conversational tone. Because I don’t know the voice or the identity of the editor, I am free to project some sort of Bakhtinian dialogic conversation onto my experience of any of the PWs. “Crap. More Lacan references,” says one of my selves. “I wouldn’t have thought of that, but, ugh! come on! Why does everything have to be about the Other?” says another of my selves; still a third self says “The TV acts as both mirror and a conduit for power/knowledge,” to which the first two reply, “No! No more Foucault!” In other words, the anonymity of the edits, coupled with the less formal style of the internet community allows for my personal experience to be one of process, where a single line of text from the novel is offered many options of interpretation.
Here, in my opinion, is the crux of the argument about the qualitative measurement of the Wiki– process. The more traditionalist, or academic position is concerned with upholding the standardized final product of the annotation supplement as well as the peer-reviewed, critical article. On the other hand, much like Gertrude Stein believed that the creative process was as important, if not more important than the final product, the Wiki is in a constant state of flux. It is an on-going process as users add or delete content, begin threads of theoretical conversations within a single annotation, and adopt emerging critical views of some aspect of the novel:
The contributors to the Pynchon Wiki have tended to be more interested in annotating new material rather than improvising existing content. This is likely due to the synchronous editing process and the sense of community revolving around exploring new ground rather than retreading material in a slightly more daunting context of Pynchon’s older novels and their impressive range of scholarship (Rowberry 10)
Ironically, the more traditional–borderline elitist–Pynchon scholars who would disregard the Wiki argue against what is arguably a key manifestation of the very post-modern world which is also a constant process, unstable. The value of PW is in its compatibility and open sourcing– it is a source for databasing much larger bibliographies and intertextual references than the print (analogue) world could ever assume to be. Cohen says,”resources that are free to use in any way, even if they are imperfect, are more valuable than those that are gated or use-restricted, even if those resources are qualitatively better” (Cohen). This suggests that, because qualitative measurement is subjective, the value of PW comes down to an aesthetic preference for the user. In that sense, PW’s “output has not been substantially different to expectations of the [traditional] Pynchon critical industry” (Rowberry 5). Because of the democratizing nature of the internet, the academy is losing it’s control over information as it once appeared in a hierarchical form. Now the information is removed from that hierarchy and has taken on a different aesthetic. It’s no wonder, then, that the younger generations of online interpretive communities have “gained traction in a third of the time the academic community have achieved the same thing.”
My suggestion on the matter– use or use not; keel over and collect cobwebs in your search through the Pynchon labyrinth, or join the community of Pynchon enthusiasts to turn that lonely labyrinth into a bustling metropolis.
“Bleeding Edge Wiki.” Pynchon Wiki. 1 Oct. 2013. Wikipedia. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.<http://bleedingedge.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Chapter_23>
Cohen, Daniel J.. “From Babel to Knowledge: Data Mining Large Digital Collections.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=40>
“David Morris Kipen.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 15 Sept. 2013. Wikipedia. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
Diebold, John, Michael Goodwin. “Babies of Wackiness: A Reader’s Guide to Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland.” N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http://www.mindspring.com/~shadow88/>
Diebold, John. “Senior Research Scientist John Diebold.” Columbia. N. p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2013. <http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~johnd/>
Larsson, Donald F.. “A Companion’s Companion: Illustrated Additions and Corrections to Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion.” N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. < http://www.english2.mnsu.edu/larsson/grnotes.html>
“LiteraryWiki.org.” Literary Wiki. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. <http://literarywiki.org/index.php?title=Main_Page>
“HyperArts Web Design.” HyperArts Web Design & Social Media. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. < http://www.hyperarts.com/>
Rowberry, Simon. “Reassessing the Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon Wiki: a new research paradigm?.” Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon [Online], 1.1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 24 Oct. 2013. <https://www.pynchon.net/owap/article/view/24/70>
“The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.” Literary Wiki. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <http://literarywiki.org/index.php?title=The_Mysterious_Flame_of_Queen_Loana>
“Thomas Pynchon.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 20 Oct. 2013. Wikipedia. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
“Thomas Pynchon Wiki: About.” Pynchon Wiki. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.<http://bleedingedge.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Thomas_Pynchon_Wiki:About>
“Tim Ware.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 24 Aug. 2013. Wikipedia. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
“Tim Ware Group.” The Tim Ware Group. N. p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
Spiro, Lisa. “Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. N. p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.
There are a series of quotes that have been knocking about my head for quite a while now. They have a way of resonating at every frequency, becoming relevant to every situation. These phrases–comments, insights, concerns, indignant rantings–congeal and become the stuff of subjectivity, the skeletal framework which experience molds onto. Yet, according to the duality that is inherent to them, they are plastic, pluralistic. They adopt entirely different meanings with each new dialect that speaks them, and each newly discovered meaning is equally substantial as the previous. They conjure moments like little Stevie’s death in Secret Agent and have us rolling on the ground, clutching our sides in abject pain because we are laughing uncontrollably. They make both the Pope and Adrienne Rich blush.
My simple thesis: in comedy there is only truth. There is no capital “T” here, no grand narrative, no arbiter, no design or creator, no head of state, no house of worship which to gather in on the weekends to sit, kneel, stand, sing, kneel again, stand some more, and compare clothes…none of it. There is simply the collective of words, signifiers which no longer have any pretense of any signified, and thus the Saussurean linguistic cycle is at its most fragile but dialogue at its most vibrant. Bakhtin might chuckle when his predecessor and teacher says, “Jumbo shrimp…? Well, which is it?!” The voice is inextricable from the quote:
- George Carlin
- Doug Stanhope
- Whoopi Goldberg
- Jim Jefferies
- Richard Pryor
- Bill Hicks
- Victor Borge
- Amy Schumer
They are voices that are strong and loud. These troubadours, players, jesters, clowns, harlequins, willing sophists hold a mirror to moralists (and by extension, ethicists) and there expose a sterile King Midas who is unaware of his curse. What do they say?
- “I always hope that, no matter how small the original problem is, it’s going to grow into bigger and bigger proportions and get completely out of control, and I’ll give you a concrete example: Let’s say a water main breaks in downtown Los Angeles and it floods an electrical substation, knocking out all the traffic lights, tying up the entire city and emergency vehicles can’t get through. And at the same time, one of those month-long global warming heat waves comes along, but there’s no air conditioning, no water for sanitation, so cholera, small pox, and dysentery, and thousands of people start dying in the streets, but before they die parasites eat their brains, and they go completely fucking crazy, and they storm the hospitals, but the hospital can’t handle all the causalities, so these people start to rape all the nurses and set the hospital on fire, and the flames drive them even crazier so they start stabbing social workers and garbage men, and a big wind comes along and the entire city goes up in flames, and the people who are still healthy, they get mad at the sick people, and they start crucifying them to crosses, trying on their underwear, shit like that, then everybody smokes crack and PCP and they start to march on city hall where they burn the mayor at the steak, strangle his wife, and take turns sodomizing the statue of Larry Flynt, and at this point it looks like pretty soon things are going to start to get out of control…” (Bret A Warshawsky. “George Carlin- Life Is Worth Losing- Show Ending Piece.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 10 May 2011. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)
- “Now, you may think you’re a good brother, good sister, good mother, good daughter, whatever the fuck you think you are in this world, but you’re nothing until you’ve washed your disabled brother’s cock to take him to a prostitute.” (Saku E. “Jim Jefferies brothel story.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 24 May 2013. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.)
- “Now, I don’t wanna do these people no harm, I wouldn’t do them no harm. But I know one thing, when I see them, I spit, and give a good spit, too. Because ain’t none of them worth nothing, not one single one. And that’s why I’m proud to be what I am. I’m what? I’m a bigot. And there ain’t but two of us left, and I don’t care for him.” (Mike Stratton. “Bill Cosby on prejudice (1971).” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.)
- “…terrorists are coming to blow up your Ford Focus in particular. That’s far more palatable for people to buy than to accept the reality, which is that, probably, at statistical high Vegas odds probability, is that nothing of any significance will ever happen to you in your entire, boring life.” (Stanhopetv. “Doug Stanhope: Voice of America – FEAR IN THE U.S. NEWS MEDIA.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)
- “The world is like a ride at an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, round and around, it has thrills and chills, it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while. Some people have been on a ride for a long time. They begin to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’ Other people have remembered. They come back to us and they say, ‘Hey, don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ And we kill those people.” (Ifctomo123. “Bill Hicks – It’s Just a Ride.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 28 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)
I look forward to exploring this thesis with greater detail in further blog posts.