Archive for April, 2012

On Fairy Stories

Because I study literature and languages, people often ask me for recommendations as to what they should read. Usually, I don’t give a straight answer, because different people look for different things in literature and my own interests are professional and hence a bit strange compared to most tastes. But something can be said about the reasons why one should read literature in general. And by literature I mean mostly fiction, although strictly speaking one should not exclude things like Ruskin’s criticism or Newton’s Principia, for example, from the category of great literature.

One of my childhood favorites, the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft once reportedly said: “I’ve always had [the] subconscious feeling that everything since the 18th century is unreal and illusory.” This is something I’ve come to believe as well, not because of any subconscious feeling but thanks to study. When one studies literary history, especially that of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, what one finds is something akin to rhetorical bootstrapping of literary registers. This has to do with the political theater of the court and many other things too complicated to go into here, but something like the final destruction of the link between res and verba seems to have occurred. That is, in some sense polite culture did become unreal and illusory.

Things like this happen in literary history once in a while. Something like it happened with Dante and with Shakespeare. The title of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human gives a hint of what happened with the latter. In the eighteenth century, however, this phenomenon — whatever we want to call it — happened on an industrial scale. With the Restoration, the English found themselves emerging from an Hobbesian world where the interpretation of the actions and words of men became more than an art. Rhetoric was no more mere ornament, it was a battlefield that required skills of skeptical reading and careful interpretation.

Dwelling on the subject for a few years will heighten one’s awareness of the doubleness of people and their words. It’s something close to paranoia if one does not keep it in check. Puritan critics of the Elizabethan period were still able to call for transparency in language and romances were one of their main targets. Moral improvement was for them the primary function of literature and what silly fairy stories did to readers was dangerous. And, in some sense, they had a point in their Platonic objections to poetry of this kind. It does make readers immoral in the sense that it will familiarize the reader with a different register that may overtake the plain speech the Puritans preferred. The unreal and illusory infect the register of plain speech and one has to deal with a new type of register that is morally dubious.

On the other hand, studying literature may also familiarize one with fiction in a way that enables one to recognize bullshit when one sees it. Romantic literature, for one, is notorious even in our time for installing silly ideas of romance into the heads of people who will look for transcendent love as if they were the heroes or heroines of cheesy novels or, more likely nowadays, soap operas. The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope was once asked what the point of his novels was, to which he replied that they helped young ladies decide on marriage. He was a great admirer of Jane Austen and she of course is widely recognized as the greatest writer of his genre. Every man contemplating marriage, I would say, should read Austen just to see how carefully the young ladies in her books weigh their options and pay special attention to the role money plays in their decisions. Austen, despite her reputation as romantic fluff, is fantastically brutal in the way she destroys whatever fairy stories one may have heard of marriage. She is one of the most unromantic writers I’ve come across and well worth reading, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to recommend her to anyone. Perhaps next time someone asks I will, because she teaches skills in ruthless judgment that might save lives.

However, where to begin one’s reading if one is interested in something else besides reining in one’s hormones? The one answer that I’ve given a couple of times and been happy with is that one should start with the ancient dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In this at least, my education in literature didn’t really differ that much from eighteenth-century schoolboys — although I didn’t learn Greek as a boy in order to read them. They show the lengths to which human beings are able to go and what they are willing to do in order to survive, to love, to exact revenge or to defend what is theirs. They also show that since the ancients people have struggled with problems related to distinguishing illusion from reality. They taught me that if you are willing to assume that everything you know is wrong, you are on your way to finding answers. It will probably not be a pleasant experience, but at least it gets you a little closer to something like the truth.

Language Learning: More Vocabulary

Since my last post about vocabulary, I’ve been focusing mainly on German and trying to keep up the habit of reading some every day and looking up words in the dictionary. I use two: and Wordreference. It’s incredibly easy compared to messing around with books and printed dictionaries. It’s a mystery how anyone got anything done before the Internet.

I’ve also done some German translations. It’s a nice way of getting one’s hands dirty and to get a feel for the language. Until now, I really haven’t thought of translation as a way of learning the language, but perhaps it’s time to give it a go. In Between the Ancients and the Moderns, historian Joseph Levine describes the methods of seventeenth-century pedagogy as written down by schoolmaster Richard Hoole:

A favorite device, for example, was “double translation,” which Hoole borrowed directly from Ascham and Brinsley. The student was asked to translate some of Cicero’s epistles into English and then back again into Latin, “to render many of them into good English, and after a while to turn the same again into Latine, and to try how near they can come to the Authour in the right choice, and orderly placing of words in every distinct Period.” . . . Evelyn was astonished when he visited Westminster School in 1661 to find the boys there capable of writing themes and verses with such “readinesse and witt” in the two classical languages.

One should also note that in Richard Busby’s Westminster only Latin should be spoken and boys who failed to do so were whipped and even expelled. Whipping aside, it’s an ancient technique for learning a language and it works.

One of the modern proponents of the method is the Italian polyglot Luca and, if I’ve understood him correctly, he does translations in more or less the same way — the proof is in the pudding. His latest post tackles vocabulary and gives great advice on study techniques for vocabulary acquisition. He suggests (in English, French and Italian) that we all put our genius for forgetting to good use, forget actively and revise accordingly.

What I’ve found studying languages is that once you get into it, at some point you will begin to recognize words whose meaning escapes you. Tons of them. This used to be incredibly frustrating — I looked up the word before and thus it feels silly to look it up again for the fifteenth time. Some time has passed and now it just seems like a natural thing to do. Besides, using electronic dictionaries means the whole operation takes literally two seconds. Why not up the volume? The human brain is not a data storage unit that can upload information and retain it immediately and indefinitely. It’s too squishy for that and needs repetition. We might as well deal with it.

Stephen Toulmin’s Rules

Sometimes one comes across a book that seems to reveal rules that previously seemed indiscoverable. Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument (1958, 2003) was one of those books for me. I had previously read a (sadly) lesser-known Cambridge philosopher called John Wisdom and grown very fond of his Paradox and Discovery (1965) and Proof and Explanation (1991), and upon reading that Toulmin was a former student of his it was clear that his book, a legend in its own right, should be on my reading list. Even before going through it, however, I came across the famous Toulmin-model of argument. The simplicity and flexibility of the model was quite simply astonishing. It really is a thing of beauty, never mind the fact that the book is not strictly about this single model. Here it is:

It looks way too simple to be a powerful tool of analysis, but there is no denying that it goes a long way in any argumentative affair. (D) stands for data or datum; the horizontal line, the inference, leads us to (C), a claim that is put forth by using the argument; (Q) stands for qualifier, it might be a word like “probably” or “presumably”, but it can also be something more elaborate; (R) means rebuttal and it is characterized by the word “unless”, ie. it explains why the contingency expressed in the qualifier might come in handy; the warrant (W) supports the inference and it explains why it is possible, or warranted, to make the inference. Warrants, in turn, can be backed up (B for backing) with further arguments when, for instance, someone challenges the acceptability of a given warrant. That, in turn, can develop into a whole new discussion that needs new arguments. The model can therefore branch out in multiples and be used again to describe what goes on under (B). It’s scalable in this sense.

The model is so simple that one can gain a lot just by learning its vocabulary. These are pretty much everyday words: warrant, claim, data, qualifier, etc. Therefore, there is little need to screw around with fancy terminology on this level. Just picking up stuff in the papers or daily conversations and naming the constituent parts of argument one finds in them can help one to make a habit of picking apart simple, everyday argumentation. Most arguments come to us unlabelled, and thankfully so, and most are not constructed carefully enough to have backings for their warrants or qualifiers or much else, but in order to be argumentative they have to have at least a claim.

One can speak of argumentative rigor only after a claim has been made. After that, one can ask for instance: “What do you have to go on and what warrants your inference?” Assuming you are on friendly terms with your interlocutor and don’t get punched in the face for asking that, this questioning will lead you to think the matter through with more precision and, who knows, even construct a more solid argument to support the claim through constructive criticism. In any case, the model is one of those things that will have a lasting effect on your thinking when you get it.

Mick Goodrick’s Rules

Studying music has many, many benefits and can enrich your life in all sorts of absolutely amazing ways. One thing it does not do, however, is help you feel good about yourself in any simple sense of the word. Whatever you do, there’s always something you haven’t mastered and, as a result, you feel inadequate. Stuff you’ve learned before by taking great pains, perhaps even intricate virtuoso shit, feels lightweight and too easy. So easy, in fact, that if you were your own audience it would be an insult to your intelligence and talent to play that drivel.

This felt inadequacy can be used for good, as a motivating force, but its dark side can at times become too much, a source of stress and anxiety. Times like these require a good teacher. If there’s none of those around, you need a good book. The workbook I use for my own amateurish efforts is Mick Goodrick’s The Advancing Guitarist (1987). When I first started reading it, I noticed it had clever little jokes that at times seemed a bit off-putting, but it was easy to get used to the humor when it was submerged in so much theoretical information and, for want of a better word, wisdom. Check out this passage from a section titled “On Being Self-Critical”:

Students tend to think that eventually, after they learn whatever it is that they think they need to know (or they can do whatever it is they think they need to be able to do), they won’t feel insecure anymore. This thinking amounts to wishing that you didn’t dislike your playing so much. It’s fantasizing that things will gradually change for the better.

Well, as good as it sounds on paper, it seldom (if ever) happens. In fact, it tends to get worse. If you start off being critical, you tend to remain that way, and more likely, along with everything else, your criticalness will improve. If you try to deny your criticalness, that messes you up, because it amounts to lying. If you become critical of your criticalness, it’s the same thing removed one step. . . . Being self-critical actually has a lot to be said for it. People who are self-critical tend to improve in music because they always seem to see so many things to work on. They tend not to get involved in overly developed egos. They tend to be much less critical of everyone else. Often, they are compassionate. (98)

At first glance, this has very little to do with music. It’s just saying that your criticalness will improve as your playing progresses. But the book is not for brief glances. It’s for practice in the sense of rehearsing and active meditation. There’s very little “just” in it, except for the odd joke or two. Its advice is based on a pluralism that always has music in mind. There are many approaches to any given aural device, of which Goodrick gives a few, but it always comes down to the same two questions: What does it sound like and why does it sound like that?

Stephen Fry’s Rules

Stephen Fry’s acting career often overshadows his literary output. His books are a strange bunch that includes fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, and some other things I don’t have a name for. His latest book is called The Ode Less Travelled (2005) and it’s a book about poetry. Actually, it’s a self-help book, with a cheesy subtitle and everything, that is aimed at people who want to learn to write poetry. It’s jam-packed with rules, forms, and writing exercises. And despite all that it’s great fun to read.

A good portion of the introductory remarks are aimed at explaining why Fry chose to write a book like this. My favorite reason is the simple fact that nobody teaches form. A few university English courses dwell on the subject around these parts, but even then the formal aspects of poetry are seldom given the treatment they deserve. Those of us who have gone through some version of the Finnish university system will recognize an iambic pentameter when we see one, but that’s about it. There is, however, another more interesting reason that pertains to actual writing skills given in the preface:

But however well or badly we were taught English literature, how many of us have ever been shown how to write our own poetry?

Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to rhyme. Don’t bother with metre and verses. Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

Suppose you had never played the piano in your life.

Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result. Yet this is the only instruction we are ever likely to get in the art of writing poetry:

Anything goes.

What do you do when you are told you can do anything? Anything you do will come out as noise. Sloppy, unrehearsed, uninspired noise. In artistic endeavors it is often the case that the rules of the game enable you to express yourself freely. This fact is often dressed up as a paradox, but it is nothing of the sort.

To take a musical example, say you want to improvise over a chord progression that swings by a certain chord you recognize as F minor. Any note on your guitar will do, meaning any note will have some effect on the overall harmony, but you don’t want to play random notes and risk violence. An F minor arpeggio would do nicely, but you have to know the notes of the chord in order to play it. That’s easy to figure out. Say you do this and now you have a bunch of arpeggio patterns literally at your fingertips. Then you want to do something else and move around a bit. Say you have figured out the arpeggio for the preceding chord and want to make those notes flow nicely into your F minor patterns when the chord changes. But you happen to be stuck in an awkward place on the neck and would have to make a giant leap from one position to the next that would ruin the effect you are looking for. These are the sorts of places where you need more rules to enable more freedom. You open your theory book and discover relative keys. After studying this little rule you discover that in addition to F minor arpeggios you are able to use Ab major arpeggios under F minor as well. The damn things just happen to sound the same and by knowing this relation you’ve just opened up a good portion of the neck for further exploration.

The final trick in study of this kind, after the rules have become second nature, is to forget all about them and just express yourself freely. No shortcuts are available as far as I know. The best you can do is make learning the rules fun and Fry succeeds in doing precisely that.

Beware Monsters!

Charred into position like Pompeian hordes
Or frozen mid-step like a woolly mammoth
Dragged from the Pole by bored English Lords
Who mistook blessed idleness for sinful sloth,
The muse who wants to rot on her laurels
Sits on a throne of waste and mold.
Her words slither prayers of shame and morals,
The eyes that pierced heroes now cold.
She’ll ne’er speak or bring words to the lips
Of men who sang her praises before.
Like sirens who sank all beggarly ships
Your verses wail on her barren shore.

By Each Let This Be Heard

Mike Ashton's Rough Draft