Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Notes: picking on Westfahl

In my first post inspired by L. Timmel Duchamp's response to Jonathan McCalmont's response to Gary Westfahl's Heinlein essay (heh), I mentioned that I might eventually have some things to say about Westfahl's essay itself. Looking over my notes while working on my (still forthcoming) essay on Cordwainer Smith, I realized that I have very little interest in exploring my reactions to Westfahl in any great depth--and I would feel bad picking specifically on him at any length greater than what follows, because it's not him specifically that I object to but a general culture his essay seems to represent--but since it does seem to represent that culture, it seems also worth responding to in some way. And since my Smith essay is still taking much longer than I expected to come into being, I've decided to post my notes here, slightly cleaned up and elaborated upon so as to be (hopefully) understandable to people who aren't me, but still left as scattered points rather than anything pretending to be an essay. I feel like doing so is a little narcissistic and more than a little lazy, and yet somehow I'm going to do it anyway!

In what follows, all blockquotes are from Westfahl.

Readers of contemporary science fiction might understandably grow impatient with commentators who keep talking about older science fiction writers, since they have largely been supplanted by new favorites in today’s marketplace. Still, there is at least one classic writer that every science fiction reader must come to terms with; for when you visit a bookstore today, the science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.
There's more going on here than a simple faux-populist philistinism. Sf people (writers, editors, etc.) tend to demystify the commercial aspect of their art (which can be very refreshing) while unfortunately remystifying it in other ways; the total mystification seems about equal to that of "literary" fiction people--but along different lines. That is, sf people straightforwardly acknowledge that, in the system we have, writing is necessarily a commercial thing: you sell your writing, people buy it. But in acknowledging this, they act as if this is all there is: writers become only people with a product to market; readers become only consumers--and it's all a matter only of favorites in the marketplace, as represented by shelf space occupied. Everything else that writing is or can be, and everything else that reading is or can be, doesn't seem much to matter. Meanwhile, the whole apparatus that actually produces and distributes the writing-product, as distinct from the writing, is mystified: production and "consumer" desire are considered to be the same thing, and what causes certain writing-products to remain in print and positioned in the bookstores (or heavily promoted online, etc.), while other writing-products go out of print, or stay in print but are "neglected," is erased.
After completing [Citizen of the Galaxy], Heinlein might have logically felt that he had taken the saga of humanity’s future about as far as it could go without venturing in discomfiting territory, like the emergence of a genuinely superhuman race or the tragedy of our species’ inevitable decline.

Thus, there was nothing for Heinlein to do but to go back to the beginning and to retell his epic story – only this time, instead of being earnest, he would be silly.

I've read very little Heinlein, so I have no opinion on how accurate the assessment after the dash in the last sentence is; nor do I particularly care. What interests me more is the assertion that Heinlein couldn't take things any farther without "venturing in discomfiting territory," and that "thus," (thus is always a tendentious word, and this is one of the most tendentious thuses I've ever encountered) "there was nothing for Heinlein to do." This is possibly true of Heinlein (and is certainly true of many sf writers), but to whatever extent it is true, it is a serious problem. More important than the issue of accuracy are the many harmful unstated assumptions that allow Westfahl to write what he does at all. Chief among them: that it is not the duty of writers to explore discomfiting territory when they reach it, and that the only possible subject for sf is the territorial expansion (or, less directly literally, the "progress") of humanity.
As to why this sea change in Heinlein’s career occurred in the year 1957, there is one obvious event to consider: the October, 1957 launch of Sputnik, humanity’s first venture into outer space...
Similar assertions crop up all over sf "criticism": Sputnik, we are to believe, singlehandedly explains everything from Isaac Asimov's decades-long departure from sf (one of the most plausible of these Sputniky claims, though I would argue it obscures at least as much as it explains) to, most sweepingly, the advent of the so-called "new wave." If I may propose an SAT-style analogy:

Sputnik : Sf :: World War I : Modernism

That is, Sputnik and World War I are simplistic historical punctuation marks that lend themselves to use by people outside of the writer's perspective (as McCalmont says of simple-mindedly historical criticism in general, "it allows them to step back from the text") to "explain" shifts in artistic methods and concerns, to separate artistic practice into a "before" and and "after"--even though in both cases the claim is plainly ahistorical: Modernist approaches to literature (and all the other arts) appear long before WWI; and if we must pinpoint a moment when sf (and it is primarily American sf I am speaking of here) began to change drastically into the various forms that would be lumped together under the new wave umbrella, that moment must be in the early 50s at the latest, and has less to do with anything zeitgeisty than with the appearance of new magazines under editors with interests very different from those that had dominated the field to that point, which gave previously unheard voices a space to explore different ground.

(On editing this for posting it occurs to me that the analogy is a bad one in that where Sputnik is used as an explanation for how things in sf changed, WWI is used as an explanation for how Modernism came to be. But whatever.)

Westfahl's use of Sputnik is particularly telling because, as we have seen, he had already given an explanation of the "sea change" in Heinlein that had nothing to do with it: he had reached the end of what he, as a writer, saw as possible. But to Westfahl, this is apparently not enough, and some one-to-one correspondence with an easily graspable world-historical event must also be found.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Noted: Gabriel Josipovici on contingency

I had hoped to have a follow-up to my last post written by now, but it was not to be--I'm working on it and it'll appear sooner or later, just not quite yet. In the meantime, here is a passage from Gabriel Josipovici's "The Bible Open and Closed" which I find relevant to both of my pursuits here (i.e., sf and poetry).

In his essay Josipovici has been discussing several of the Hebrew Bible's odder moments--those that seem to defy our sense of what narrative should be--and finding very fruitful ways of reading them which seek to take this defiance on its own terms rather than paper it over or consider it a fault. Two in particular are relevant to this passage. The first is the character Phalti, who appears once, very briefly, in both First and Second Samuel--very slightly longer than is required for his part in the story--just long enough for us to feel his humanity but no longer. The second is the appearance, in the midst of the portion of Genesis which concerns the life of Joseph, of a seemingly irrelevant episode concerning his brother Judah and Judah's daughter-in-law, Tamar--an episode whose significance only reveals itself to the attentive reader much later on, long after Genesis is over, as Judah's line comes to more prominence.

I quote this passage as it appears on pages 14 and 15 of Josipovici's collection of essays, The Singer on the Shore.

In both cases the modern reader is disorientated by the reticence of the narration. This often has to do with brevity, but not necessarily. The text can be prolix and yet deny us information we feel we cannot do without. We want the text to say more, to explain, to take sides; but what if this non-explanation, this not taking sides, were, like the inexplicability of the call, the mystery of the father's love, part of what this book is about and not a weakness or a lack? Phalti's sudden and disconcerting eruption into the story, saying nothing but going weeping behind his wife to Bahurim before turning back, still without speaking, when told to do so--this helps make us aware of the fact that the story teems with silent figures, some mere names in genealogical lists, yet each no doubt with his or her own life and joys and sorrows. Even more, though, it makes us aware of the fact that even though the story told here is that of the Israelites, there are other stories which we might have entered had we not entered this one. In other words, just as the various stories of election alert us to the contingency of life--it needn't have been me, but it is,--so the story of Phalti alerts us to the contingency of stories, even stories which, like this one, start with the creation of the world.

But even that is not quite right. It makes contingency sound too much like relativity. Relativity is rather a safe concept, at least in the abstract. It says that there are other ways of seeing things than ours, other worlds than ours. But we can easily accept this and yet remain locked up in our world, merely imagining other worlds like ours, only, somehow, different. Contingency, however, is radical. To experience it is to experience the frailty of life and also its wonder: this, now, and not something else. Contingency decentres one, and the Phalti episode shows how the Bible is a radically decentred book: it seems to go in a straight line from Adam to David to exile to return, but every now and again it opens a window onto another landscape, even if, as here, only for a moment. We are thus made to feel that we are not, as Joseph imagines himself to be, the centre of the universe, but only a tiny part of it.

(Incidentally, I'm not sure yet how directly I'll approach the issues raised here in the post I'm working on, which is an attempt to apply the methods discussed in my last post to Cordwainer Smith, but it does occur to me that Josipovici's points are very useful when approaching Smith's infinitely peculiar stories.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Coincidentally, About 5,175 Words

L. Timmel Duchamp recently linked to and discussed a post by Jonathan McCalmont entitled "Annoyed With The History Of Science Fiction." It is (as Duchamp says) a very useful rant inspired by yet another post, this one a naïve and frankly unnecessary reappraisal of Robert A. Heinlein by Gary Westfahl. McCalmont's subject is not so much Westfahl's arguments regarding Heinlein as the broader critical naïveté in the sf field which Westfahl's essay, to McCalmont, represents, and a call for a more sophisticated, "technical" sf criticism. The problem, he says, is that too much sf criticism relies on simplistic historical approaches and catalogs of plot synopses, resulting in a so-called criticism that is more an accumulation of half-baked, unsupported assertions and superficial natterings about personality and "influence" than any kind of attempt to come to terms with the texts at hand--and their relationships to the world. A better approach is emblematized for McCalmont--and me, and, it would appear, Duchamp--by Samuel R. Delany's famous essay "About 5,175 Words," which, McCalmont argues, issued a vital call for more that was, for all the attention the essay received and continues to receive, never particularly answered.

McCalmont's essay and Duchamp's brief but provocative response (in which she issues her own call for more analysis of sf's "special, particular aesthetics and sensibility," particularly as it is currently changing, and as relates to feminist sf) both contain a wealth of important material. I was immensely excited to see them, as much in them seemed to cut right to the heart of what I've been feeling about sf, but have only rarely seen discussed. Most exciting of all, for me, is that they have given me a point of entry to get into a discussion of all these issues, which until now I have been struggling to find. There is more going on here than I will be able to cover in a single post, no matter how long (and I do tend to go on), and so I hope to begin here a series of essays prompted by these posts (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the original Westfahl essay that started the whole thing, as it in its own way brings up some very important points). Topics for future posts will hopefully include (probably some but not all of) the following: a discussion of "sense of wonder," which Duchamp understandably but I think wrongly dismisses in her post; an exploration of some aesthetic issues particular to feminist sf (a necessarily rudimentary exploration, given my apparently incurable dudeness and the still woeful state of my reading in this area); the continued, systematic marginalization of the voices of women and other marginalized people within the sf field; the stylistic and aesthetic features of sf by virtue of which it nevertheless possesses considerable value for these marginalized populations; my difficulties with contemporary sf; and a number of other aesthetic and social issues raised by these extraordinary posts; along with, I hope, many more such issues not raised in them but which I have been considering for some time now. For now, though, I would like to focus on a section of McCalmont's post which Duchamp also highlights, in order to enter into a discussion of the implications of methods of exposition in sf.

McCalmont objects to Westfahl's assertion of Heinlein's influence on the sf field for many reasons which need not concern us at the moment; but what he feels is particularly "frustrating" is that this influence is

not only taken for granted but assumed to be positive. For example, the received opinion is that Robert Heinlein pioneered a number of techniques that are now used widely within the field but when you attempt to ascertain what these techniques might have been you will struggle to find anything more involved than an airy assertion that Heinlein's fondness for sentences such as "the door irised open" marked a radical improvement over the field's historical reliance upon a form of lead-footed exposition now dismissively referred to as 'info-dumping'.

Terms like 'info-dumping' are the science fiction equivalent of the film critic's 'deep focus', 'long take' and 'dynamic editing'. However, while film critics are able to draw upon a rich technical lexicon, the few technical terms used by SF critics generally come bundled up with their own unexamined assumptions about how best to write science fiction. For example, the lionisation of show-don't-tell at the expense of the info-dump assumes that the aim of science fiction is to tell a story that is immersive in that it never causes the reader to break from the story and think about what they have just read.

My own critical interest in the style of sf arose originally from my attempts to understand, both as a reader and as a prospective writer, why it was that writing typically described, even by many of its devotees,* as "clunky" or even just "bad" could have such a profoundly moving impact on me; and McCalmont's comments regarding the infodump,** which to a certain extent mirror many of my own thoughts, are crucial to this enterprise.

*Among whom a common, and to me infuriating and nonsensical, formulation is "They're a terrible writer, but their ideas are great."
**I prefer to write it without the hyphen, which is probably an American thing; your mileage, as they say on the internet, may vary.

Before I go further, a word about terms. To begin with, McCalmont is entirely correct when he says that the term "infodump" comes laden with a lot of negative baggage; however, I see no reason why a hopefully more sophisticated critical language cannot rehabilitate it. It has the advantage of being nearly universally understood among sf readers (i.e., though most readers might assume reflexively that it is a "bad thing," they will all at least know what you mean when you say it), beyond which, frankly, I like it as a word, not least because it really does convey an essential aspect of the feeling one gets on actually encountering an infodump in a work of fiction. So I will use it throughout, in the understanding that it is to be taken as a value-neutral term: indicating only the technique of placing passages of straight exposition into a narrative, implying no assessment of the validity of this technique--beyond, of course, what I state explicitly. Next, though McCalmont uses the familiar phrase "show-don't-tell" (and I shudder, as I imagine he may have, merely typing it) to describe what those who oppose the infodump suggest should be used in its place, to me this is inadequate. Mostly this is because show-don't-tell is a technique typically advised not only for exposition but for "action" as well.* As we are speaking specifically of expositional techniques--and of expositional techniques unique to sf--a more particular term seems desirable to me, and an appealing one I've picked up from somewhere (I have a vague impression I might have first picked it up from Jo Walton) is "incluing": that is to say, the process of gradually "cluing the reader in," indeed by showing-not-telling, revealing information through action which the reader then pieces together as they read to form an evolving picture of the world of the story.** Thus, Heinlein's famous "The door dilated" is incluing, where if he had written something along the lines of "The door was constructed out of a number of separate panels, which by a mechanism were made to etc.," it would have been infodumping.

*Here I find I am running into a problem of terminology myself. To a large degree, every word in a piece of fiction is "exposition," in that it is these words that give us the information out of which we construct the story--and in discussion of non-sf fiction this sense of the word is often the most fruitful. But in this discussion, and in general all discussions of sf, with its highly particular expositional problems, it is useful to distinguish between narrative action--the "what is happening" of the story--and what I will here refer to as exposition, by which I mean the relation of information which we are meant to take as existing in the imaginary space outside of the story, but which is being brought into the story for the purpose (usually) of increasing our understanding of the events of the story. As I am about to discuss, the two goals can be achieved simultaneously, but even in these cases they are worth distinguishing as, to some extent, different goals. There are, I am aware, many problems and limitations in this model, but I think it will serve well enough as a starting point.
**Another advantage of the term "incluing" is that it avoids the tendentious and frankly nonsensical implication (which I am not, to be clear, imputing to McCalmont) that it is ever possible, in the medium of the pure written word, to "show" the reader anything rather than to tell them, and thus in itself contains, I hope, none of the naïve critical assumptions I am trying to avoid. Additionally, the word's formation is roughly parallel to that of
infodump, which is nice.

There is, I think, to some extent a general understanding among readers, writers, and critics of sf that these are the two primary methods of exposition, and that the central importance of exposition in sf means that these techniques are themselves important. However, understanding and discussion of what the techniques actually are, and more importantly what they actually do, seems generally limited to matters of preference: incluing as "good writing," infodumping as "bad writing," for example, with little discussion of why this might be other than appeals to the supposed virtue, as McCalmont mentions, of a smoothly flowing narrative in which readers can lose themselves.

McCalmont clearly thinks that this is not in itself a virtue, and though all my sympathies are with him in this matter, I find that I cannot agree with his implication (whether it is what he intends or not) that the preference for incluing over infodumping merely needs to be reversed. I think that what is first needed is an examination of what these techniques do, what effect they have upon the experience of reading--and it is my belief that such an examination will reveal that, while the two techniques are indeed vastly different, the opposition between the two is illusory and, indeed, untenable; and that what is needed is not an argument over which is the more valid or useful or beautiful or "realistic" or whatever value-oriented adjective one wishes to apply, but rather an appreciation of the formal/structural issues involved in their deployment: that is, the reasons why a writer may choose here to inclue, here to infodump, and what impact these choices have on the reader.

In Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a work surprisingly applicable to the study of sf (and every bit as central to my own current understanding of it as the critical works of Delany and Russ), he says of Robert Pinget's Passacaille:

The narrative is both much slower and much faster than in a traditional novel. Like a piece of music by Birtwistle it spirals forward via repetitions which are never quite repetitions, until we find ourselves in possession of far more information than would have been the case in a conventional narrative or symphony... There is this insistent counterpoint to the detail... The narrative goes calmly on its odd way, as more and more elements are dropped in... [T]he book leaves one with the sense of having participated in the birth of narrative itself...

Our response to likely to be precisely that which Malcolm Bowie posited [in Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult] of the reader of a Mallarmé poem: either to try to get 'with panic stricken rapidity' at 'what it means', or to abandon it for ever. 'The double effort required to allow Mallarmé's gaps their full disjunctive power', we recall Bowie saying, 'yet at the same time remain attentive to the multitude of invisible currents which pass back and forth between the separated segments, will strike many readers as inexcusably arduous and unrewarding.' Yet, he concludes, 'the view I shall propose is that time spent learning to read Mallarmé is amply repaid.' I would only add that Bowie is perhaps a little too defensive, or at least that reading Pinget, Simon or Robbe-Grillet is infinitely easier than reading Mallarmé, and that it is exhilarating rather than arduous. But then I imagine Bowie really believes this holds true for Mallarmé as well.

Now, the techniques of Pinget and of Mallarmé are, clearly, enormously different from those of most sf writers (and from one another), and where with the modernists Bowie is correct to speak of the perceived "arduous and unrewarding" nature of the works, and of the value of "time spent learning to read" them, in sf we might replace these phrases with, respectively, "clunky and simplistic" and "giving the writer the benefit of the doubt" (the latter of which in many ways amounts to the same thing). But for me, despite these immense differences in surface-level style and affect, there is a striking resonance between Josipovici's and Bowie's analysis here and the feeling I get from sf novels.

As so often happens, I find that I am having difficulty going on, because my thoughts on these matters shoot out in so many directions simultaneously; all I can do is ask that you try to bear with me as I attempt to put them into some kind of order.

For me, one of the things that fundamentally makes sf, sf, is that it goes out of its way to require more exposition than other literary modes. One cannot just "tell a story" in sf; one must also carefully and complicatedly establish the world in which that story "takes place" in order for the story to be in any way understandable. When you think about it, this is actually quite astonishing, especially considering that it is commonly agreed, or at least commonly asserted, that sf grew out of and to a certain extent remains "popular adventure fiction," in which the straightforward relation of incident, one would presume, should be paramount. But instead, sf by its very nature frustrates the reader's continual desire to "find out what happens next." Is it not truly remarkable that, from the very beginning (wherever one places this: with Gernsback and Amazing, with H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, with Mary Shelley, what have you), we find sf stories repeatedly stopping dead in their tracks while the narration lectures the reader on various matters of fact, real or imagined?

Looked at this way, we could perhaps say that a strength of the infodump is that it delays narrative. It encourages us to stop allowing ourselves to be swept away in fictional incident, to look up from the book and think about what we are doing by reading, what is being done to us, and to examine the difference between the fictional world we are building up in our minds and the world in which we live--in a way that a typical realistic novel never does (indeed, cannot afford to), but very similar to the way that modernist novels do. More, infodumps sometimes allow the stories that contain them to become boring for a time, and here it is perhaps useful to recall Susan Sontag's comment* that boredom can be a valid literary technique, analogous in some ways to the use of silence in music--which use can range from simple, but powerful, punctuation, as in "The Little Girl I Once Knew" by The Beach Boys, to a radical effort to recontextualize the everyday world outside of the artwork by allowing consideration of it to become part of the work, as in 4'33" and other compositions of John Cage.

*Which I unfortunately do not have to hand, but I believe that it is in the essay "On Style," collected in Against Interpretation.

In a way, the notion that the infodump is somehow a "primitive" technique which has been superseded by the more "sophisticated" inclue is reminiscent of the commonly held notion that the chorus of ancient Greek tragedy was a primitive device, and that the reduction of its importance in Euripides and its elimination entire by later playwrights was a progressive innovation to be admired as such, no more, no less. Both narratives rely on an assumption of teleological progress which treats the past as no more than some sort of a trial run for the present, which is parochially assumed to be both universally "better" and the only way that things could have "ended up." In the process, not only the techniques seen as belonging to the past but also those of the present are underestimated, treated not as the responses of artists to the pressures and needs of their worlds but rather as steps in some process of objective "improvement," as though, say, the chorus-free drama was in beta when Euripides wrote (or the infodump-free sf, perhaps under John W. Campbell?), and after the bugs were worked out it was ready for full release later on. In both cases, the actual experience of the audience of the time--past or present--not to mention that of the individual artist, is lost.

What, then, of the inclue? Well, just because I think the "evolution" away from the infodump is not something with which we should be pleased (and that its continued gleeful use by writers who ignore misguided advice should not be denigrated), it does not mean that the inclue is by some see-saw motion necessarily a "bad thing." I doubt that this is what McCalmont thinks, either, or at least not in any strong sense; however, there is a strong implication in his essay that the primary use of incluing is to create the kind of "immersive" narratives that he suggests should not be the goal of sf--as when, after mentioning Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Stanislaw Lem as examples of writers who "make frequent use of info-dumps as they believe that wading through densely written expositional text is an integral part of the science fiction experience," he goes on to suggest "that Lem's approach to info-dumping is so effective and idiosyncratic that it not only forms an integral part of his novels' literary affect, it also makes his work substantially more complex and interesting than anything written under the purview of show-don't-tell," or what I am referring to as incluing. His comments on infodumping and these author's uses of it are, as I have said, very important, and I agree wholeheartedly with them; where I differ is in the opposition McCalmont sets up between infodumping and incluing, and the notion that incluing is, or can only be, contributory to simplistic "immersion."

As McCalmont makes reference to both Heinlein's sentence "The door dilated" and the critical works of Delany, it will not be too much of a leap to go to Delany's remarks on this very sentence. In that same essay which McCalmont praises, "About 5,175 Words" (or, in the revised version that appears in the latest edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, from which I quote it, "About 5,750 Words"), Delany quotes Harlan Ellison on Heinlein's sentence--and for once, Ellison has something valuable to say:

...Heinlein has always managed to indicate the greater strangeness of a culture with the most casually dropped-in reference: the first time in a novel, I believe it was in Beyond This Horizon, that a character came through a door that...dilated. And no discussion. Just: "The door dilated." I read across it, and was two lines down before I realized what the image had been, what the words had called forth. A dilating door. It didn't open, it irised! Dear God, now I knew I was in a futuristic world...
(All italics and ellipses are present in Delany.)

Delany, bringing to bear his concept of sf's subjunctivity, comments that the sentence "is meaningless as naturalistic fiction...As SF--as an event that hasn't happened, yet still must be interpreted in terms of the physically explainable--it is quite as wondrous as Ellison feels it." Elsewhere, at "Shadows" 38, Delany has more to say about this sentence:

Science fiction is science fiction because various bits of technological discourse (real, speculative, or pseudo)--that is to say the "science"--are used to redeem various other sentences from the merely metaphorical, or even the meaningless, for denotative description/presentation of incident. Sometimes, as with the sentence "The door dilated," from Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon, the technological discourse that redeems it--in this case, discourse on the engineering of large-size iris apertures, and the sociological discourse on what such a technology would suggest about the entire culture--is not explicit in the text. Is it, then, implicit in the textus? All we can say for certain is that, embedded in the textus of anyone who can read the sentence properly, are those emblems by which they could recognize such discourse were it manifested to them in some explicit text.
There is much to explore here. A good starting point might be to examine the experience Ellison reports with Heinlein's sentence, which it seems to me safe to assume is fairly representative; I know I, at least, have had very similar experiences with similar sfnal sentences. The key here is that the experience Ellison describes is not one of immersion in the story--rather, it is one of being pulled, abruptly and quite startlingly, out of the story. Even more specifically, it is an experience of having been prepared for immersion, of perhaps expecting or even desiring immersion, to the point where the startling element goes unnoticed...until some process in the mind slower than reading forces one to stop, suddenly, to go back and consider what one has just read--and then to marvel.* At this point, the reader, aware (on whatever level) of the subjunctivity of the text at hand, must construct the various absent discourses to which Delany points in the quote from "Shadows"--otherwise, the sentence must necessarily remain meaningless.

*More on this aspect, I hope, in a future essay on sense of wonder.

A common aspect of naïve discussions of these techniques is the assertion that incluing is "more realistic" than infodumping.* Even putting aside the fact that sf, like modernism, is not a realist literature, and that therefore one would think realism would not even be a criterion for judgment,** this is at best a deeply questionable assertion. It is questionable because, and this tends to get overlooked, what incluing ends up doing is turning the quotidian into a mystery or a surprise. People for whom dilating doors are a part of everyday life would not have anything like Ellison's reaction; they would consider Heinlein's sentence every bit as ordinary as we would consider "The door opened." But for us it is startling; it pulls us for a moment out of the story to consider the differences between the fictional world and our own. More, it forces us to reevaluate every prior appearance of doors in the work, should there be any. At this point, I must admit that I have not read Beyond This Horizon (indeed, I have read very little Heinlein, and have not much cared for what I have read); but let us suppose that the sentence before the one under discussion is something like, "She walked to the door." Leaving aside for the moment any consideration of felicitous writing, I find it remarkable that in a case such as this the bizarre readjustment enforced by the definitively sfnal sentence casts its strangeness back onto the more mundane sentence before it, forcing us to retroactively change our apprehension of that prior sentence.

*This is particularly, but not exclusively, the case when the infodumping takes place in dialogue, specifically in the form often referred to as the "As You Know, Bob" dialogue. This specific form is another topic I hope to discuss at length in the future.
**Admittedly the issue of realism in sf is more complicated than I am allowing here, especially as regards scientific verisimilitude; but that, sigh, is again a topic for some hypothetical future essay.

Another way to put this might be to say that where infodumping, as we have seen, delays narrative (what "happens"), incluing delays knowledge (what "is"). In this connection, we should perhaps keep in mind Josipovici's comments on Pinget. Once again:

The narrative is both much slower and much faster than in a traditional novel... [I]t spirals forward via repetitions which are never quite repetitions, until we find ourselves in possession of far more information than would have been the case in a conventional narrative... The narrative goes calmly on its odd way, as more and more elements are dropped in... [T]he book leaves one with the sense of having participated in the birth of narrative itself...
It would perhaps be taking Josipovici too literally if I were to point in triumph to the word "information" here; and yet I cannot help but feel that, though the methods under examination are radically different, Josipovici's words can apply equally to the best sf novels. The reference to "repetition," too, puts me in mind of Delany's assertion at "Shadows" 37, that "Everything in a science fiction novel should be mentioned at least twice (in at least two different contexts)." Delany leaves this deliberately unexplored, and I will for the moment follow his lead; but I wonder if I am entirely off-base in thinking that this analysis of expositional technique, with the assistance of Josipovici's comments, has taken us quite close to what he means.

Though I do not agree with it, I think I can understand the source of the confusion that leads people to praise incluing as realistic, and others like McCalmont to denigrate it for the same reason. This is because formally, if one leaves aside the transformations wrought upon a text by its being sf, the inclue is very similar to the "telling detail" which is so central to the practice of so-called realist fiction. Josipovici is of much assistance in understanding why readers like McCalmont and myself might be skeptical of the telling detail. Again in What Ever Happened to Modernism?:

The notion that the new reality inhering in novels depends on their attention to detail fails to distinguish between 'reality' and what theoreticians call 'the reality-effect'. In fact [Adam] Thirlwell [whose criticism Josipovici has been discussing as representative of this failure] uses the two terms indiscriminately. But putting a faint scar on a face or alerting us to the fact that the carpet is turned up in the corner, like describing the smell of sweat and semen during the act of sex, no more anchors the novel to 'reality' than writing about stars in the eyes of the beloved. The novel is still made up of words, is still the product of a solitary individual, inventing scars, carpets, smells or stars. Of course we warm to a novelist who surprises us with his attention to detail... Too often though...detail seems to be there as a way of convincing us (and the authors themselves?) that what we are dealing with is the stuff of life.
There is much more in Josipovici's subsequent comments on the telling detail that is extremely relevant to sf, but once more I will have to leave it for another time.* What concerns me now is, as I have said, the superficial similarity between realism's "telling detail" and sf's inclue, which I think has led many commentators astray. But when Heinlein says "The door dilated,"** we are not meant to think that we are faced with reality; rather, we are meant to realize how unlike reality the world of the book is.

*I find myself wishing that everyone had read Josipovici's book, and, more improbable, understood it better than the majority of its professional reviewers, so that I would not feel that I was doing its vitally important arguments a massive disservice by leaving them--for now--largely unmentioned. For the interested who perhaps do not have the time right now to read the whole book (though it isn't all that long!), I recommend Stephen Mitchelmore's review, which admirably summarizes and meditates on the central themes of the book, and blog friend Richard's post reviewing the book and connecting some of the points it raises with more directly political issues gleaned from another essential thinker whose name ends in -ici, the feminist historian and organizer Silvia Federici. Another post of Richard's is relevant in exploring some of the reasons all this "matters."
**And I hope it is clear that I keep returning to this example only out of convenience, for the reason that it is discussed both in McCalmont's essay and in the Delany essays, not because I think it is the last word in masterful incluing. I could just as well be speaking of, say, Delany's casual mentions of the crumpling coffee bulbs in
Trouble on Triton, or any number of other examples.

In "Speculations: The Subjunctivity of Science Fiction," which begins as a response to "About 5,175 Words," Joanna Russ speaks characteristically perceptively of the peculiar relationship of reality to sf:

In science fiction the relation between the "secondary universe" of fiction and the actual universe is both implicit and intermittently more or less perceivable. It consists not of what is on the page but in the relation between that and the reader’s knowledge of actuality. It is always shifting.

One does not suspend one’s disbelief in reading science fiction --the suspension of disbelief (complex to begin with, as it is with satire) fluctuates constantly. That is, the relation with actuality--what Delany would call the subjunctivity of the story -–fluctuates constantly.

(I posted a longer excerpt, including this portion, here, and if you have your doubts about her conclusions here, I refer you to the rest.)

The method by which this fluctuation is achieved is precisely the interplay of infodumping and incluing. At times we find that the narrative has been delayed, that the book is reminding us that we are living long before the story it describes takes place (or in a different universe, or what have you), and we perhaps struggle to stay interested, or on the other hand become differently engrossed, in what is suddenly no longer narrative; at other times we find that our knowledge has been delayed, that the book behaves as though we are living in the future (or in the other universe, etc.) with the characters, and we struggle to keep our knowledge at a level which will allow us to function in this unfamiliar world.

All fiction lies. For Josipovici and those of us who take seriously the issues he discusses, fiction must be, and must make the reader, aware of the lie in order to have any chance at approaching anything like truth. To speak overly programmatically and risk eliding the experiences of and differences between individual writers in the interest of brevity (hah!), modernism does this by acknowledging the lie, admitting to it, in any number of ways; sf does it by lying so simultaneously audaciously and rigorously that the lie cannot be ignored, by lying in so complex a way that our awareness of the lie fluctuates, as Russ says, constantly (note too that these methods which I am ascribing separately to modernism and to sf are not mutually exclusive). Whether this works in anything approaching a majority of sf texts is debatable at best, as is the question of whether the average sf author is aware of or cares about any of these issues. But nevertheless it is there--latent, perhaps, but there--in all works of sf; and in the best it is tremendously powerful.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On the arbitrariness of the signifier

Writing as I recently did about the origins of words and about the instability of meaning reminded me of something.

A while back I read (about half of) the I suppose seminal gang-non-manifesto Deconstruction and Criticism. My feelings on deconstruction, to the extent that I comprehend it well enough to have feelings on it at all, are mixed. I think it asks very real questions that do not have easy or comfortable answers; and like M.H. Abrams I find that it has illuminated aspects of texts that might otherwise not have been so illuminated. On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to the arguments of those (like, again, M.H. Abrams) who point out that a critical method that always knows, every time, what it is going to find in a text before it even starts to read it--and is always right!--is an impoverished critical method. I have various other feelings about it--like that it seems able to deny political and experiential necessity even more than the New Criticism was (though it also seems more open to not denying this); or that the frequency with which sexist conceptions of The Feminine seem to pop up on the way to its aporias is highly problematic; or that I suspect that, despite its applicability to language in general, it just fundamentally makes more sense in French, a language where meaning is far more contingent than it is in English--but that's probably enough for now.

What I want to discuss is something Paul de Man says (and I think it's a common assertion) in his contribution to the book, "Shelley Disfigured." Towards the end of this essay on Percy Bysse's The Triumph of Life, de Man writes:

If, for instance, compelling rhyme schemes such as "billow," "willow," "pillow" or transformations such as "thread" to "tread" or "seed" to "deed" occur at crucial moments in the text, then the question arises whether these particularly meaningful movements or events are not being generated by the random and superficial properties of the signifier rather than by the contraints of meaning. The obliteration of thought by "measure" [a word whose course through the poem de Man has been tracing] would then have to be interpreted as the loss of semantic depth and its replacement by what Mallarmé calls "le hasard infini des conjonctions."
Now, I confess that I am (appropriately?) on very shaky ground here, discussing all this. I have already admitted that I have only the weakest of grasps on deconstructive theory; and here I must admit that I have read neither Shelley nor, except as I shall discuss momentarily, Stéphane Mallarmé. (I hope to investigate both before too long, but have not gotten to either yet--there are a lot of books in the world.) It is entirely possible that de Man here is archly and cattily accurate about Shelley--I wouldn't know. However, in terms of the underlying point he is making about the "superficial properties of the signifier" and what he describes a moment later (in the course, actually, of admitting that there is something more to the text than this) as the "arbitrary element in the alignment between meaning and linguistic articulation," I feel that he has missed something essential.

It is too bad, too, because this is a truly interesting subject, and de Man's discussion of it, interesting so far as it goes, would be far more interesting still if he realized that while there may indeed be an arbitrary element at work here, these similarities in sounds are far from "random"--and farther still from "superficial." To illustrate the point, let us look at the etymologies of those "compelling" rhymes de Man singles out, billow, pillow, and willow. They are a particularly good case study in that they are, if the 1991 edition of Clement Wood and Ronald Bogus's Complete Rhyming Dictionary in collaboration with my own brain can be trusted, the only three common disyllabic words in the English language to share this rhyme.*

*There are polysyllabic rhymes, but even they are as a rule recent and/or highly local importations from other languages that have not as yet changed orthographic form during their presence in English, such as (some pronunciations of) armadillo, cigarillo, and peccadillo; there is also the archaic killow, which does not seem to fit the scheme I am about to describe--and I am hesitantly tempted to suggest that this may be part of the reason the word has fallen out of use.

At the moment I have access only to the Oxford American Dictionary, so I will be limited to the very brief etymologies contained therein--but I think they will be more than suitable to my purpose. They are as follows, each quoted directly and completely:

  • billow: mid 16th cent.: from Old Norse bylgja.
  • pillow: Old English pyle, pylu; related to Dutch peluw and German Pfühl, based on Latin pulvinus 'cushion.'
  • willow: Old English welig, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch wilg.
The first thing to notice about these three word origins is of course their utter diversity: we have one word of Scandinavian origin, one of Italic, and one of Germanic; two words that have been developing with the language since the days of Old English and one which entered the language significantly later (indeed, closer to the time of Shelley than to that of Old English); none which in their "original" forms rhyme with one another or, for that matter, their current forms--and the same is true of the variety of original spellings.

And yet somehow, over different time scales, these three words converged to the point where the only difference in both sound and spelling is one letter (or phoneme). Possibly the process by which this occurred is in each case understood--indeed, once I finish writing this and take it to a computer with internet access to post it online, I no doubt could research each case individually. That I am not doing this is just one more instance of the shaky ground from which I write, I suppose. However interesting each of these case studies likely is, though, I suspect that they would illuminate little of direct relevance to my purpose here.

What will illuminate that purpose, as is so often the case, will be recourse to Samuel R. Delany, who writes at section 54 of his extraordinary discursive (in both senses of the word!) essay (in the current and older senses of the word!), "Shadows":

Think of grammar solely as the phonic redundancies that serve to transform a heard utterance from the interpretive field, through the range of assocations in the hearer/speaker's memory that includes "his [sic] language," into the hearer/speaker's generative field as an utterance.

In the qui, quae, quo of Latin, for instance, I'm sure the Roman brain (if not the Roman grammarian) considered the redundancy of the intial "qu" sound as grammatically significant (in my sense of "grammar"), as it considered significant, say, the phonic redundancy between the "ae" at the end of "quae" and the "ae" at the end of "pullae." (We must rid ourselves of the notion of grammar as something that applies only to the ends of the words!) In English, the initial sound of the, this, that, these, those, and there are all grammatically redundant in a similar way. (The "th" sound indicates, as it were, "indication"; the initial "qu" sound, in Latin, indicates "relation," just as the terminal "ae" sound indicates, in that language, "more than one female.") What one can finally say of this "grammar" is: When a phonic redundancy does relate to the way that a sound is employed in conjunction with the other sounds/meanings, then that phonic element of the grammar is regular. When a phonic redundancy does not relate, that element is irregular. (The terminal "s" sound on "these" and "those" is redundant with the terminal "s" of loaves, horses, sleighs--it indicates plurality, and is therefore regular with those words. The terminal "s" on "this" is irregular with them. The terminal "s" at the end of "is," "wants," "has," and "loves" all imply singularity. Should the terminal "s" on "this" be considered regular with these others? I suspect in many people's version of English it is.) For all we know, in the ordinary English hearer/speaker's brain, "cream," "loam," "foam," and "spume" are all associated, by that final "m" sound, with the concept of "matter difficult to individuate"--in other words, the "m" is a grammatically regular structure of that particular word group. Such associations with this particular terminal "m" may explain why most people seldom use "ham" in the plural--though nothing empirically or traditionally grammatical prevents it. They may also explain why "cream," when pluralized, in most people's minds immediately assumes a different viscosity (i.e., referentially, becomes a different word; what the dictionary indicates by a "second meaning"). I suspect that, in a very real sense, poets are most in touch with the true "deep grammar" of the language. Etymology explains some of the sound-redundancy/meaning-associations that are historical. Others that are accidental, however, may be no less meaningful.

This, I think, is very interesting! And if we apply this thought process to our three -illow rhymes, it is easy to see a way that they are "regular" with one another in this way, though I am finding it a bit difficult to put it into other words: something to do with a bulging, but not awkward, shape or action, perhaps, would be the best way to put it.

A digression: after immediately making this connection as I read de Man, further reflection led to my being flummoxed for a time by willow--or, rather, the adjective willowy, which in its meaning of long, tall, and slender seems highly "irregular" both with the related adjectives pillowy and billowy and with the mental image I, at least, conjure up on encountering the word willow, which is without fail one of a weeping willow--hence bulging, etc. In conversation with my mother the plant expert, she pointed out that willows tend to grow in very fast, straight shoots before curving over again, and that perhaps this was what was meant; and indeed the both of us as well as my father agreed that to us, despite the absence of this in the dictionary definition,* willowy always carried a connotation of bending, waving; a person so tall and slender that they and their limbs seem to curve, bend, blow in the wind--and it strikes me as at least possible that this aspect of our internal definition might come at least as much from association with billow and pillow as from association with the trees themselves. Digression over.

*OAD: "(of a person) tall, slim, and lithe."

This is all, to be sure, on some level very silly, and if we attempt to take it in any deterministic or predictive direction it all falls apart instantly: for there are many hundreds of words more closely linked through "bulging" than these three that share no element of sound.* However, if we view the matter through the non-teleological lens of actual language use through time, I don't think it at all far-fetched to think that three words of different derivations but with moderately similar phonemic qualities could, over time, tend to converge phonetically and orthographically under the influence of one another and their hazily shared qualities.

*Interestingly, bulge does not seem to be etymologically related, as one might suppose it would be, to billow's root bylgja, coming instead from Latin bulga, leather bag.

The ground we are on is certainly aptly described by Mallarmé's hasard infini. But it is important to remember--and this is what I think de Man, in his eagerness, has forgotten--that "infinite chance" is not the same thing as "randomness." Right now (for since I said I did not have internet access I have relocated and am now writing at work--don't tell anyone) I can go to my favorite website,, and generate a string of however many truly random numbers from whatever range I choose--say, 5 integers between 1 and 100. When I do it at this moment, I get 61, 80, 33, 32, 82. I can come up with any number of ways in which I find these numbers to be linked (the adjacency of 33 and 32, the shared final digit of 32 and 82, the shared initial digit of 80 and 82, etc.), but this is just a game; in truth, there is no relationship, no reason whatsoever that 32 followed 33 rather than any other number; and if you click on my link and generate your own list, it will be different, and there will be no relationship between your numbers and mine--even if the two lists share items--even if they happen to be entirely identical lists, which, though unlikely, could happen--and even in its unlikelihood would mean nothing at all.

This is randomness; and perhaps one might be able in some constrained, to me unacceptably constrained, fashion to think of it as "infinite chance." But when Mallarmé speaks of le hasard infini des conjonctions I suspect that he has something rather different in mind.

As I mentioned before, I have not read Mallarmé. But in thinking about the issues I am discussing in this post, I decided that I should attempt to verify to whatever extent was possible my suspicions about this quote and de Man's use of it, so (on an earlier occasion at work) I googled for "Igitur," the work from which the quote comes, and found Mary Ann Caws's translation. My reading of "Igitur," I will freely admit, has been rapid, distracted, and superficial,* and I would not pretend to be more familiar with Mallarmé than Paul de Man is! However, I have noticed some things that seem to complicate the straightforward implication de Man seems to be reading out of these words.

*And though I have no reason to distrust Caws's translation, I also have no reason to trust it--I have no idea.

First of all, as I had suspected, it does seem that when Mallarmé says "conjonctions," he really means it: that is to say, he is talking about the infinite chance of conjunctions, not of words in general--and in fact though the grammatical sense of conjunction is very much on his mind ("igitur" is itself a conjunction, after all, and a particularly tendentious one at that), it is not the only sense on his mind. Now, speaking for the moment just linguistically, I am not so naïve that I think an assault on conjunctions could remain limited to just this one grammatical class. Calling one aspect of language into question, as (I hope) we saw with Elizabeth Willis's treatment of "to be," inevitably calls all of language into question. But it is still important to remember, as de Man seems not to here, the kernel: in Willis's case, it is statements of existence or equivalence that become so problematic as to unhinge all speech; in the current case (that of Mallarmé), it is specifically the infinite chance or randomness of conjunctions that troubles.

This, on a personal note, is something I can very much relate to: as (so I flatter myself) a writer conjunctions are for me, along with the verb to be, the possessive pronouns, and some others, among the most fraught of grammatical categories. William Empson's admission (in Seven Types of Ambiguity) that he has "usually said 'either...or' when meaning 'both...and'" is noble as far as it goes, but to me does not go nearly far enough; for while "either...or" is untenably restrictive in its way, so too can be "both...and." Both, all, conjunctions are inadequate; in the right mood I might go so far as to say perverse. How can it be anything other than perverse that I am forced to say "but" in that sentence of a moment ago ("noble as far as it goes, but to me...") when in many (but not all!) ways what I want to say is "and"? How can it be anything but perverse when I can't even be sure what the difference, finally, is?

And so when we use a conjunction, it is in many ways arbitrary; two things, two concepts are linked together, somehow, and we must try to express this conjunction--but (and!) the grammatical conjunctions we have available to us are set up in such a way that they must either exclude (such as the "either...or" in which I am currently engaged), or by their inclusiveness exclude the notion of exclusion. It is dizzying; it is a problem.

But (and!) not only a problem. Just a moment before he speaks of this infinite chance of conjunctions, Mallarmé suggests that "(t)he infinite emerges from chance, which you have denied." In some ways this could, and (or!) should, be taken as addressing the conjunctions themselves: by pretending to be absolute, finite, comprehensive and comprehendible, they claim to deny chance, and thus collapse what should, or could, be the infinity of our perspective to the finite realm of language, rationality, singularity. But there are other ways to take this, too: as an admonishment, perhaps, against those who would deny that there is an infinite chance to conjunctions; perhaps there is a suggestion here that we should throw ourselves into this infinite chance, embrace it, use these arbitrary conjunctions in the gleeful knowledge that that is what they are--and allow the infinite to emerge from this chance.

The problem with trying to assign, or glean, specific, one-sided meaning from Mallarmé's utterances in "Igitur" is of course the same as the problem with trying to place one specific conjunction between two other grammatical bodies: the nature of these utterances is such that their relation, their conjunction, is infinite, multiplex. In the two bits we have quoted here, "the infinite chance of conjunctions" and "the infinite emerges from chance," we see only a small portion of the work's constant rearrangement of and play with these words and concepts: chance, infinity. They appear in every conceivable conjunction, and more perhaps inconceivable; and this infinite chance in itself defeats the efforts of those who, as de Man seems to me to be doing, would paradoxically attempt to read some kind of absolute statement of unabsoluteness out of, or into,* them.

*Prepositions, too, are problematic.

I am probably being simultaneously a poor and an uncharitable reader of de Man. I'm not sure what to do about the former beyond to continue reading. As for the latter, I should point out that, though I've been discussing his use of Mallarmé's conjunctions solely in the grammatical sense of the word, de Man probably didn't intend it to be taken this way; after all, one conjunction he's referring to is the supposedly arbitrary one of the pillow/willow/billow rhyme scheme in Shelley. This is of course a direct conjunction of objects in the world (despite that the objects are in this case words printed on a page) rather than a solely grammatical function--though to the extent that I understand deconstruction, its adherents might object to this distinction, I don't know.

But to return to de Man's comments on rhyme specifically, I should begin noting, which I think it is worth doing, that they are not applicable, or at least not equally applicable, to every language as they are to English: in French, for example, many more words rhyme; and in Italian almost literally everything does, or can be made to--there, rhyme is more a matter of matching parts of speech than anything else (and even that is not often necessary), which is why it was much easier for Dante to write however many million lines of terza rima without being obnoxious than it is for his English translators, many of whom don't even try, or for that matter than it was for Shelley in the very poem de Man is discussing. This may seem irrelevant to the point--which after all arises in an essay written in English on a poem written in English--but I think it is important, when discussing the contingency, arbitrariness, and putative randomness of language, to remember that these things are different, and apply to differing degrees, in different languages--in other words, linguistics knows no universals, and though to a certain extent we can speak of language itself, in most cases we're more properly speaking of a language in particular. (This also is where my earlier comment on deconstruction making more sense in French comes in.)

And when we're talking about a language, we're talking about something that has a history, a particular context for its past and present use. And it seems to me that it is this history, like all histories, that contains the dizzying arbitrariness and randomness which de Man attributes to rhyme. For who could have predicted, a thousand years ago, that bylgja, pyle, and welig would converge to the point where they could serenely punctuate a Romantic's revival of a scheme of classical artistic order? ...And yet today we can look back on this history, see what happened (to whatever extent it is possible to do so), formulate all kinds of theories about it, and allow the resonances from these theories and the feelings these words have gathered over all this time being used in ways similar and different from one another to color our reading of the poetry they so punctuate.

A favorite example of this for me is the bizarre word guerdon, particularly as it is used by Hart Crane in the "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge" which opens The Bridge.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.
(The italics and ellipses are Crane's.)

Guerdon, my dictionary (again the OAD) tells me, is "chiefly archaic" and means "a reward or recompense." This definition allows us to make some sense of the stanza, to be sure; but I am equally sure that in order to feel what Crane is saying we must also be aware, consciously or not, that guerdon rhymes with, suggests, and to a certain extent shares in the meanings of, burden, a word strongly present in its absence, both through this phonic resemblance and through the surrounding Jews, reprieves, pardons, obscurations, and even bestowings. It is difficult to resolve the question of whether one is meant to superimpose the meanings of the two words, resulting in something like "a reward or payment that is in itself a burden,"* or whether the "vibrant reprieve and pardon" of the nevertheless "obscure" guerdon simply lessens or removes (reprieves and pardons) a burden; and this difficulty itself is I think a central factor in the not insignificant impact of the stanza. It is a difficulty that would not exist had Crane used the word burden directly, thus collapsing its range of potential meanings into one specific one; and it is a difficulty that could not exist did not guerdon and burden rhyme.

*This is an important concept, and it is interesting and equally important that English does not have a word for it. Some other languages do--there is a Korean word, which I unfortunately can't seem to conjure up out of the internet at the moment, that can be used to describe someone, or the actions of someone, who has burdened you with their kindness. It is, again, interesting and important to note that poetry is capable of making up for a language's lacunae in this way.

And how did they come to rhyme? Burden has a very straightforward etymology, arising from Old English byrþen, with the same meaning, which requires only the function of very well-known and familiar principles of linguistic drift to transform into the form familiar today. But guerdon is an entirely different story. The OAD gives the etymology as follows:

late Middle English: from Old French, from medieval Latin widerdonum, alteration (by association with Latin donum 'gift') of a West Germanic compound represented by Old High German widarlōn 'repayment.'
This has to be one of the most peculiar etymologies I've ever come across. There is the odd zig-zagging of the word's journey, out of Germanic languages into Romance and back into (Germanic) English, rather than passing as most words do directly from Germanic or Romance roots to English usage; there is the religious implication of its having passed through medieval Latin (as well as the peculiar feeling one gets from learning a word comes from Latin, though it was never actually used by Romans); there is the merging of distinct words similar in elements of sound and meaning, reminiscent of what we have speculated above with the -illow words; and then there is the uncommented-on transformation of widerdonum into guerdon, which I can, just barely, explain to my own satisfaction through a handful of processes familiar to me, from simple elision (-donum to -don, sure) to the interchangeability, between Romance and Germanic languages, of gu and w (as in guerre/war, Guillaume/William; or, within English, such pairs as guile/wile and guarantee/warranty).

To read this brief etymology, presented so unassumingly in the dictionary, is, to me at least, to be overtaken by a kind of vertigo, though not an unpleasant one. It is to see a word, or rather a few words, jumbling their way through history, through languages, in and out of notability; bumping into one another and sticking; curated, perhaps a bit sloppily, by monks; released back out into the wild, carried from French to English through some mechanism other than the usual one of the Norman conquerors, whereupon it presumably flails around a bit before dying--only breathed back into life, fitfully, by the occasional oddball poet.

Le hasard infini...

Infinite chance, yes. But the infinite arises, perhaps, from chance, which we are ill-advised to deny. Beyond all this that I've been talking about, there is indeed as de Man points out a large degree of arbitrariness in the assigning of sound to meaning, signifier to signified--there is no reason, say, why the -illow sound should represent this bulging shape or action common to willows, pillows, and billows, rather than any other sound. But once this representation occurs, it becomes a sort of center of gravity, drawing other representations into it, allowing (or even forcing) others to circle around it. The history of what falls in, what circles, and what remains aloof is peculiar, wonderful in the fullest sense of the word, and perhaps to a degree random. But in the words as they are used, in their relationships of signifier to signifier, there is a kind of logic, an algebra even, representing sometimes obvious, sometimes unexpected similarities in the signified, and this, far from superficial, is what rhymed (or, sometimes, unrhymed) verse ideally taps into--perhaps giving us in the process, if not the infinite itself, then at least hints towards it.


Or, doggone it, you could do like William Empson did--which I saw too late to work into this essay--and sum up just about everything I'm trying to say in one footnote. From the third edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity:

What you normally get from a likeness of sound is an added force to the Paget effect in cases where there is a clear group of words with similar sound and meaning (e.g. skate, skid, skee, scrape). But this makes you feel the meaning of the one word more vividly, not confuse it with the meanings of the others. On the other hand, it might be argued that a controlled partial confusion of this kind is the only real point of using alliteration and rhyme.
A "controlled partial confusion" in combination with "feel[ing] the meaning of the one word more vividly"--among other reasons, by reinforcement from the similar meanings of the other phonically related words--is very much what I'm arguing goes on in cases like this.