Flower spaces and flower trees

Deep Reading, Famous First Lines, Sonnenuhr und Rondell

The opening of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is the beginning of a long and arduous journey into a reader’s paradise. It’s also perfect to practice a little deep reading:

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

Generally, a good way to kick off a deep reading is to demand something unusual from a book, and to demand it subito: So what, if anything, is remarkable about you, dear first sentence? It doesn’t reply. It plays dumb. Then it hands us a little note: “I consist of simple and unremarkable words?”

But beginning a narrative like this also points to the difference between the narrator’s point of view and ours. The use of definite articles (“the fence”, “the curling flower spaces” and “them”) suggests that the narrator refers to specific, perhaps familiar things and persons. But the reader can’t know what these are. The narrative does not gently introduce us to the world we have just entered but rather rudely shoves us into someone else’s way of seeing. We don’t know which or what kind of fence or flower bed or persons we are supposed to imagine. Perhaps we can hope that all will in time be explained, but perhaps not.

Did I say “flower beds”? This would already be an attempt to translate the narrator’s way of seeing into my own. What the narrator is actually saying is “curling flower spaces”.  The words are simple enough, but then, what are they referring to exactly? “Curling flower” doesn’t seem to be a very common species of flower, so “flower spaces” seems to be the real compound here, which I can’t help but turn into “flower beds”.

Interestingly, though, the recent German translation by Frank Heibert seems to read “curling flower” as a compound instead: the phrase becomes “zwischen den Stellen mit den Rankblumen.” One can also read “curling flower spaces” as “a coil or spiral of open spaces where flowers would normally be,” as John P. Anderson does in The Sound and the Fury in the Garden of Eden (2002), p. 92.

So where I saw flowers in flower beds, another reader sees tendrils, and yet another sees empty spirals. (Anderson sees even more: “the coil or spiral suggests the snake from the Garden myth and female genitals,” he writes, and this means that “Sex is the ticket out of the garden.”)

The word “hitting” is another example of a deceptively simple word. In common usage, “hit” is a transitive verb, which means you can’t use it without an object of some kind. So what are they hitting? We don’t know. What we know is that something that to many readers would be missing doesn’t seem to be missing for the narrator. So it’s safe to say the narrator has an unusual way seeing things.

It’s similar in the third sentence:

“Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree.”

As a verb, “hunt” doesn’t need an object, but it still strongly suggests, on a semantic level, an object. If you tell your friends that you are going to go “hunting” in your private forest, they may very well ask “for what, pray?” and you wouldn’t be flabberghasted. By the way, Heibert’s German translation, for reasons unclear to me, chooses, instead of the obvious “jagen”, a word that I have literally never heard before: “schnofeln”.

And more: what’s a “flower tree”? Google gives me “flowering trees” galore, but is that what the narrator means? Probably. But the fact that it’s a “flower tree” instead suggests that this is another of many more variations on a special point of view that the book will graciously offer you.

Help and Happiness

So there you go. A few words in, and already plenty of chances to feel confused. It’s understandable to want to seek help. And if you google the first sentences you’ll get some explanations and even pictures for what “they” are “hitting”, and why they are hitting, and who they are, who the narrator is, who Luster is,  and when and why it all happens; but I would be careful to do that just yet, because it spoils some of the fun that the book offers.

There’s warm waves of understanding in store for you if you work your way through the book and at some point suddenly grasp something that you totally didn’t think was even significant before. It may be a long journey though, almost impossible to complete in today’s world: For me, it happened after trying to read the book like any other book and giving up after ten or so pages, then trying it again and giving up again, then changing my approach and superficially browsing through the whole book once, then jumping around in it like a stray dog, and then starting it all over again, failing at that once more, then getting some help from the Internet, and then starting again.

Did I enjoy myself? No. But then, while reading the first few pages again, something amazing happened: I suddenly noticed that I saw things clearly, as clearly as I believe things can possibly be seen in books. Flower spaces and flower trees and quarters and cakes became flower spaces and flower trees and quarters and cakes. And they also became shining tetris pieces that were gently finding their own way down to the right slots, where they landed with what I can only describe as a delightful click. Everything made sense: every word was in its right place. I still didn’t get very far, though, because, you guessed it, I had other things to do. But I was happy.

Can you afford to miss this chance to be happy? Of course you can. But even if you want to go where the chosen ones go, it’s pretty difficult to take the journey all by yourself. But maybe you have to do it on your own? Of course you don’t.

Get some help: What I can recommend is a few visual displays of the book’s narrative structure that won’t spoil very much, found here. It would be awesome if on that site they actually had a real hypertext edition of the book as planned. But even this was pretty helpful to me. For a general reassurement that it all makes sense and you’re not wasting your time, there’s a fine article here. It’s on Oprah’s website no less, and it really helps, benevolently providing the timid first-time reader with a good frame of mind to get into. Because people, the risk of frustration with a book like this is just as high as the joy it gives you. And with this note, I think I have done all I can to save literature today.

Famous First Lines: Nabokov’s Lolita

Deep Reading, Famous First Lines, Sonnenuhr und Rondell

Lolita (or, more precisely, Humbert Humbert’s first-person narrative after the “Foreword”) begins with an explosion of imagery, sound, and rhythm:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Is it a love song? An invocation of a spirit? A dissection of a name? The form is simple, but the content is remarkably complex. For example, the first line seems to create both the object of desire, a light that shines outside or above like the sun, and the desire itself, a fire that burns within the narrator’s own body; so “Lolita” seems to be both external and internal, both the other and the self; and similarly, in the second sentence, Lolita both becomes another contradiction: she (or it?) is now both the narrator’s soul – something intricately linked and well-kept within an individual’s body or being – and the corruption of this soul. Pretty confusing this, and just to my taste.

Some of you may be already put off by either its fancy artfulness or its confusing shuffle of ideas, but for those who are intrigued instead or could use a few insights to get going, there’s a fine close reading of the opening chapter on Kit Whitfield’s blog.

If you just want to get into the right mood, listen to Jeremy Irons’ reading of it.

And then there’s also a Lolita site on Genius, which not only lets you profit from other readers’ insights but also allows you to share your own observations on specific words. When I told Inigo about it, he couldn’t resist the temptation to put in a few thoughts of his own. (He is still typing, emitting sounds of both exhilaration and exasperation.) Be warned though: There’s always a slight danger of spoilers in the annotations, and sometimes people are absolutely and blatantly wrong about everything.

Arbeiten und Träumen

Deep Reading im Alltag, Inigo's Inquiries

Michael hat heute beim Frühstückmachen und dann Frühstücken Radio gehört, so wie man es früher machte, nämlich ohne bestimmtes Ziel einfach DLF eingeschaltet. Und das hat er schnell bereut. Jetzt hat er sich in den Salon zurück gezogen, um nachzudenken und vielleicht noch “etwas Harmonisches zu lesen”, wie er sagt. Aber ich glaube, er denkt nicht nach und liest auch nicht, sondern liegt nur da. Vielleicht träumt er von irgendwelchen Marmortempeln ohne Menschen drin. Er hat nämlich diesen etwas glasigen Blick bekommen, den er immer bekommt, wenn über die Zukunft der Menschheit gesprochen wird.

Besonders wenn es um die wahrscheinliche und abzusehende Zukunft geht. Es kam heute nämlich – nach einer Sendung über 2 Komponisten, die so schöne Wörter wie “hinterfragen” und “dynamisch differenziert” enthielt – eine Sendung von “Essay und Diskurs”, in der über die Gegenwart und Zukunft der Arbeit, also der “Arbeit im Anthropozän” gesprochen wurde.

Es war zwar eine Wiederholung, also längst überholt von der Gegenwart. Trotzdem war so Einiges drin, wie wir beide fanden, während wir ein Rührei mit einer zuerst in Scheiben geschnittenen und dann mitgebratenen Bockwurst und jeweils eine Scheibe Käsetoast aßen: Nämlich zugespitze Einsichten und Thesen über das Leben heute. Einsichten, die man sofort als sinnvoll anerkennt, die man im täglichen Hin und Her aber kurioserweise immer wieder vergisst, obwohl sie das private Leben zu einem großen Teil steuern.

Also vom Kern her: Wie die Industrie 4.0 mit ihren Leuchtfeuern, den Drohnen und Algorithmen, uns eigentlich auffordert, eine Alternative zum Traum der guten, richtigen Arbeit im Dienste des Kapitalismus zu entwickeln. Weil die Hälfte von uns demnächst überflüssig gemacht werden könnte. Und wie wir uns aber tatsächlich tiefer und tiefer in eine Bedrouille gesteckt wiederfinden, weil wir ja statt weniger zu arbeiten mehr arbeiten für weniger Lohn.

Mich betrifft das zum Glück nicht, da mein Arbeitsplatz und meine Rente sicher sind. Aber Michael hat es gar nicht gefallen, an die Realität erinnert zu werden. Wir mussten die Sendung schweigend zu Ende hören, und sein Gesichtsausdruck wurde finster. Er hat am Ende seinen Kaffee genommen und gesagt, er müsse jetzt nachdenken, wie man mit Deep Reading die Dinge in Ordnung bringen kann.

Denn irgendwie, das glaube er, sei das eine gute und richtige Sache, sich radikal und konzentriert mit dem zu beschäftigen, was den Menschen gerade noch liebenswürdig mache: mit dem Denken und der Vorstellungskraft und, ja, am Ende eben mit der Kunst. Und man müsse das weiter entwickeln, weil jetzt genau die richtige Zeit sei, jetzt wo nicht nur der Traum von der guten und richtigen Arbeit, sondern auch das Wachstum aller Dinge zu Ende gehe.

Ich habe nicht verstanden, wo da der Zusammenhang ist. Wenn er wieder aus dem Salon rauskommt, frage ich mal nach. Wobei es gut sein kann, dass er den Gedanken selbst wieder vergessen hat und stattdessen mit einer neuen Idee für einen prähistorischen Roman ankommt. Aus der dann nichts wird, weil es ja, wie er sagen würde, viel Arbeit sei, einen Roman zu schreiben, aber kein Mensch für diese Arbeit zahlen wolle.

Disagreement: good or bad?

Deep Reading, Inigo's Inquiries

Here’s a silly thought on why talking about literature is fun, from an ancient book about reading by English critic John Sutherland:

“One of the reassuring features of the current vogue for reading groups is the degree of disagreement they generate once the discussion gets going” (John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel, 2006)

(Is there a vogue? Was there in 2006? Anyway:) The assumption that disagreement should be something people actually want, is interesting if somewhat crazy. Because disagreement to me seems a rather terrifying and useless thing. That’s why I don’t like it. Basically, it’s enough for me to watch it on tv, in ritualized debates between politicians. This has a rather soothing effect on me.

Any decent discussion in real life is very similar if not as efficient as such rituals. We all know that what we think somehow makes a difference in the world. The more chaotic the world seems to be, the more important it is not to debate but to stick to who you are and what you represent. It’s rather a question of choosing sides. Disagreement doesn’t help in any way. Every wrong opinion helps to destroy the world, every right opinion can save it. If someone disagrees with you, about climate change, gender studies, or the use of Anglizismen, they are basically bad people, and there’s no need to listen to them.

But that’s probably why Sutherland thinks disagreement is a good thing when we talk about cultural stuff, because the cultural, soft stuff (films, music, dreams etc.), by convention, isn’t as important as the real, hard stuff (jobs, money, power etc.). So there is no obligation to be right. We can say whatever we want: it won’t matter very much. And I admit that there’s a great amount of freedom to be had here, even if it’s an illusion; you can debate and still respect each other, you can even change your opinion, and you can learn something new (it’s still useless knowledge of course).

As Mr Sutherland points out, a discussion about a novel can feel almost as real and important as if it were about things that matter. Take the ever popular Wuthering Heights, for example:

“‘Is Heathcliff a swine or tragic hero?’: throw that question into the reading group and stand back. Chances are no two members of the group, however like-minded on other things, will entirely agree with each other at the beginning of the discussion, and – however opinions may have changed – members will usually disagree among themselves even more as the discussion (good naturedly) winds up.”

My friend Michael tells me that’s actually what he wants when he does Deep Reading. He says he likes people to discuss useless things in class, because he believes – somehow influenced by book lovers like Sutherland I think – that literature isn’t totally unimportant. (He is unable, of course, to explain this assessment.) He says he actually encourages people to disagree because he “likes it”.

I don’t know. It’s obviously wrong to think that way. But I thought I share this idea with you anyway.

Another reading mistake to consider not doing

Deep Reading, Inigo's Inquiries

The other day, while I was thinking about regression, reading the explanation I had found again and again to make sure I had understood it, a newspaper article made me aware of another mistake people apparantly make: reading too much. Instead of reading whatever comes our way, the author said, we should read only fine things and then read them again:

Wir lesen falsch. Wir lesen zu wenig selektiv und zu wenig gründlich. Wir lassen unserer Aufmerksamkeit freien Lauf, als wäre sie ein zugelaufener Hund, den wir gleichgültig weiterstreunen lassen, anstatt ihn auf prächtige Beute abzurichten.

It’s a decent suggestion not to treat your attention like a stray dog. It’s what my friend Michael lives for. And I remember how he has even used the idea of re-reading to explain people why he likes certain writers more than others, because if he can read them at least twice they must be really good. Michael also likes quoting the idea that a book that’s not worth reading twice isn’t worth reading once. He keeps forgetting who said that, but it is both witty and true, he says, so what does it matter.

If you consider the incredible amount of available books to read, reading anything twice is indeed a bit radical: It’s being stubborn, saying no to what you don’t know, and insisting that what you like is good enough for you. Which I feel is somehow a little bit wrong, ideology-wise. Sooner or later, people will say you’re a hermit and lack open-mindedness.

In any case, if you actually read only the good stuff you own again and again then at some point in your life you may not need to buy anything new anymore. Can you imagine a life like that? No Amazon wishlist? Nothing new to discover? If this frightens you half as much as me, it may help that the author of the article said you should start being a self-sufficient reader at around forty. Before that you can read whatever and build up a taste. So if you’re young, just let your mind be a dog and eat whatever it finds.

A typical reading mistake I have internalized

Deep Reading, Inigo's Inquiries

So the other day I happened to find the self-description of a course in “improved reading”, which includes the following, rather confident, objective:

“The first day of the course teaches you how to eliminate the typical reading mistakes which most people have internalized and maintained since primary school: regression, reading word by word, complete mental hearing.”

I don’t know what “regression” is, so I’m making a mental note to look it up. (It doesn’t sound good, though.) And I don’t know what “complete mental hearing” is either (though it sounds pretty interesting, and I may want to try it one day). But I think I do have a vague idea about “reading word by word”, because it’s what for my friend Michael makes all the fun in reading. He never stops talking about it, really. It’s also what he tries to encourage doing in a so called “deep reading workshop”. So when I told him about this being a mistake, he told me he “had half a mind to be mildly frustrated” by the fact that what he likes doing so much is now considered a typical mistake he may have carried over from his childhood. Like a habit that seems fun but really isn’t good for you if you want to make it in this world. Like counting birds landing on trees, for example, or talking to stones.

Well, I told him that, obviously, “improved reading” has nothing to do with reading for fun. The course I was quoting from is designed for people who have to read lots and lots of things. Most of these things are probably so academic that they would make you go mad if you were forced to read them word by word. (Interesting idea, though, to torment people by making them read something really awful this way.) So “improved reading” is designed for people who have to turn themselves into reading machines in order to survive. (“Do they?” is what my friend Michael asked, “Couldn’t they do something else with their lives?” A characteristic response from someone who has never worked hard for anything.)

I keep digressing. I guess my point is that I should look up those terms I don’t know. And that I should maybe remember not to be too harsh on PhD students in the future, because their life is hard. (My friend Michael says that’s rubbish, and that doing a PhD is “easy as pie”, but I don’t think he knows what he is talking about.)