Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Some insufficient notes on Lyn Hejinian's My Life

"The obvious analogy is with music." Hejinian's is not a minimalist poem, but like a minimalist musical composition it allows us to notice its unfolding repetitions at our own rate, to focus our attention on this or that rhythm of repetition as we choose or as our minds allow us, to be struck by the changes in the repetition as we are struck, to make of the interaction between what repeats and what does not what we will. In a minimalist composition, we make the music at least as much as the music is presented to us already made.

"It is hard to turn away from running water."

Somehow, as Hejinian constructs her Life, I construct my own: out of similarities, differences, gaps, repetitions. But she already knows, is perhaps laughing. "An extremely pleasant and often comic satisfaction comes from conjunction, the fit, say, of comprehension in a reader's mind to content in a writer's work."

"Now such is the rhythm of cognition."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

On "Nightfall"

Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" doesn't start very well:
Aton 77, director of Saro University, thrust out a belligerent lower lip and glared at the young newspaperman in a hot fury.
The histrionic description of body language, something we encounter often in Asimov, places us firmly in the world of the pulps, of course--and on the level of prose style we will largely remain there. Still, there is already something interesting going on: that name that opens the story. It's not, say, Jack Peters thrusting out his belligerent lip. It's Aton 77.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that this alone redeems the silly language; you can't turn an awful story into a good one just by giving the characters weird names. But if we've chosen to trust the author--and if we've picked up the sf magazine or anthology in which we've found this story with any kind of sympathy, we likely have chosen to trust him, at least provisionally--we already have a lot to think about.

We're obviously in a different time and/or place. Nowhere on Earth today (or in 1941, when the story was published) that we're aware of are people given numbers as surnames. This intimation of distance is reinforced by the mention of "Saro University," which we're fairly certain doesn't exist. Simultaneously, however, this very mention is one of several in this largely conventional sentence that tells us that, wherever and whenever we are in the story, it's not too different from where we are as we read it: they have universities and newspapermen, hot furies and lower lips. Thus the combination of the unconventional and the conventional tells us something about both: the unconventional is strange, but not totally; the conventional is familiar, but not totally.

So when we speculate on the significance of the number appended to the name (which we learn in the next sentence is a general practice, as we're given the newspaperman's name: Theremon 762), we feel that we can to some extent use ourselves and our knowledge of our society as a point of reference. We begin, perhaps, with the practice of giving men and royalty the same name over and over again with Roman numerals attached--but then these numerals of course rarely reach as high as Aton's 77, let alone Theremon's 762. Well, perhaps these families are just very well established and very devoted to the practice. Or perhaps it's a different family custom: maybe "Aton" is the family name, every member of the family sharing it, with the number assigned to distinguish individual members, and Aton is the 77th member of his family--since some arbitrary starting point? This seems perhaps unlikely, increasingly so as we read on and meet characters ranging all the way from Theremon 762 down to Sor 5--surely in this system the numbers couldn't vary that widely.

Or perhaps the numbers indicate rank of some kind? But then who or what assigns this rank, based on what? This theory seems unlikely, as Theremon 762 is, we learn, a popular but somewhat disreputable newspaper columnist, which doesn't make much sense if higher numbers indicate higher rank, while Sor 5 is a leader of religious sect widely regarded as fanatical and ridiculous, which doesn't make much sense if lower numbers indicate higher rank. Unless, perhaps, the numbers are assigned by whatever organization one is a part of, which would make both Sor and Theremon's make more sense--but, no, it makes nonsense of Aton 77, who is the head of the university's observatory, and Beenay 25, who is his subordinate.

We most likely do not focus heavily, or even consciously at all, on this question, but it lodges in the back of our minds somewhere, and as we read on we might combine all these speculations with the many subtle references throughout the story (which for the sake of relative brevity I will not enumerate here) which give us the sense that Lagash, the planet on which the story is set, is a wholly integrated world society. In light of this combination of details, we might imagine some sort of database system: new parents choose a name for their child, like "Aton"; a computer runs a check and discovers that there are seventy-six other Atons currently living on Lagash, and so this child is given the name Aton 77, in order to avoid confusion in a world in which people from any part of the planet might well end up interacting regularly with people from any other part--and in which centralized bureaucratic systems, no doubt, need to keep similarly named people distinct from one another. This, if "true," tells us a great deal about the society we are dealing with, from trivial details (Sor is likely a very rare name, while Theremon is more common) to large, if dim, visions of the overarching economic structure of the entire world.

In naming his characters this way, Asimov is making use of incluing; and the fact that the story's narration starts out with an inclue sets up a pattern that it will stick to for almost its entire length.

As I have argued before, incluing is not--indeed cannot be--only the sort of naïvely immersive technique both its advocates and its opponents tend to think it is. Note that almost none of the thoughts summarized in the analysis/speculation above are actually present in the story, explicitly or implicitly. They are somehow generated by it, however; this is what Samuel R. Delany (as quoted in that previous essay) is talking about when he refers to the "technological discourse" that is neither explicit in the text nor implicit in the "textus" but rather "embedded" somehow in a reader to which it is hypothetically understandable. To put it crudely, writing that demands this kind of work of the reader cannot be only immersive.

Coming at these issues from a more "traditional narrative" standpoint, incluing, once again, cannot be only immersive because it necessarily turns what is ordinary and expected for the characters into a surprise for the reader: as Joanna Russ put it, the reader is "dislocated". Had Asimov chosen to rely more on the infodump in his narration, he could have begun "Nightfall" with some sentence such as "The inhabitants of Lagash had never known darkness, because the planet orbited a pair of stars which were themselves part of a system with four others, and so at all times and in all places at least one of the six suns lit the sky."* Though such a sentence would obviously leave much about the imaginary everyday life of the people of Lagash unsaid, it would establish immediately the single most fundamental difference between their lives and our own: a difference which is entirely ordinary to them; the difference out of which the story is built.

*Lest I be misunderstood, such an approach has its own, potentially wonderful, merits--it simply is not the approach at hand.

Instead, beyond the oddness of the names we get no concretely sfnal language until the twelfth paragraph, where we encounter this: "He stared moodily out at the skyline where Gamma, the brightest of the planet's six suns, was setting." Strictly speaking, the appositional phrase here is a brief infodump, and were we dealing with straight incluing it would have been omitted; this though is merely a reminder that while it is convenient to speak of incluing and infodumping as wholly separate phenomena, they are not quite so in practice. My inclination is to consider this sentence, roughly, as an example of incluing, as it relies on the relation of action and sensation (the dreaded "show-don't-tell") to carry the exposition of "fact." The brief dip into infodump no more means we've left the incluing mode than does a single sharp or flat mean we've left the key of C major (and in fact the brief feeling of discord is very similar).

Regardless, the point is that the narrative's careful avoidance of any explicitly sfnal content or rhetorical mode (beyond, again, the character names) up until this point places us in a peculiar position to receive this information about "the planet's six suns." We are in the situation Russ describes when she says that in sf "the relation between the 'secondary universe'...and the actual universe is both implicit and intermittently more or less perceivable...It is always shifting...One does not suspend one's disbelief in reading science fiction--the suspension of disbelief...fluctuates constantly." When we move from "Aton 77" to newspapermen, or from moody gazes to six suns, we are in this fluctuation. Another way to put this is to say that incluing, simultaneously (or alternately) immersive and distancing, involves us in a sort of push-pull of dislocation.

But I have only barely begun to describe the effect of "Nightfall"'s expositional strategies, for I have only touched on one half of them. It is true that the narration stays primarily in the incluing mode throughout almost the entire story, but the dialogue does not: it often leaps fully into infodumps. Of course this is not at all uncommon in sf, particularly at the still-early date of 1941. Indeed, it is common enough that the world of sf fandom has come up with a name for particularly (supposedly) "clumsy" examples of it: the "As you know, Bob" dialogue, in which characters recite to one another what they already know for the benefit of the reader. Asimov here mostly avoids AYKB, though often only by a technicality. Much of the expository dialogue takes a form one might call "Oh, you don't know, Bob?": the conversation will begin with the careful establishment that a character does not know what one would think they really should:

Theremon leaned back and folded his hands on his chest. "You people seem so all-fired serious about this that I'm beginning to believe you. Would you mind explaining what it's all about?"

Aton exploded, "Do you mean to sit there and tell me that you've been bombarding us with ridicule without even finding out what we've been trying to say?"

The columnist grinned sheepishly. "It's not that bad, sir. I've got the general idea.... What I want now is the science behind it."

What follows is a lengthy discussion of Lagash's anthropological record (cyclical series of civilizations, "destroyed by fire" every two thousand years), of the recent development of the theory of gravitation (more difficult to figure out on Lagash than on Earth, for obvious reasons), of the theory's prediction that every two thousand years a total eclipse will occur while there is only one sun in the sky. It is through this dialogue, then, that the story's central conceit (the titular nightfall only occurs on Lagash once every two thousand years, and it drives the planet's inhabitants, accustomed to eternal daylight, to destructive madness) is laid out for the reader.

While the incluing narration acts for all the world as though it is directed at some hypothetical reader on Lagash, the dialogue does not. Instead, it is frequently didactic, directed primarily at the reader on Earth--though it always pretends not to be. The technique is oddly reminiscent of the ancient Greek theater, an observation I owe to John Jones in his On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. When Theremon says "Would you mind explaining what it's all about?" he "is very plainly prompting, he is not asking," as Jones says of the scene in the Libation-Bearers of Aeschylus in which Orestes leadingly questions the Chorus about Clytemnestra's dream.

[T]he function of a line like "What food did it [a snake in the dream] crave . . . ", cast in question form, is to coax into the open an aspect of Clytemnestra's dream which the dramatist wants mentioned...the information that emerges serves the unfolding tale and not the questioner's ignorance.
We are misled, Jones suggests, if we allow the superficial similarity between the dialogue of "naturalistic" art and that of a distinctly non-naturalistic art such as Aeschylean tragedy (and, I would argue, sf) to make us look for some motivation internal to the characters for the asking of such questions. The characters of "Nightfall" have no such interiority (or at least not yet--bear with me); they are, as Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr., has put it, "not people but rather labels for the different parts of the story machine." Patrouch, beholden to what strike me as rather naïve notions of what fiction fundamentally is and does, views this so axiomatically as a flaw that he trusts we will treat this bare description as negative critique, but I see no reason that characters in a work of fiction must always be more than such labels.

I mentioned before that though the expository dialogue is clearly aimed at the Earthly reader, it always pretends not to be. Both aspects of this pretense--that is, the charade that the dialogue is entirely Lagash-bound and the fact that it is obviously a charade--are terribly important. "Nightfall" depends for much of its effect on being a sort of "pocket universe," much like the cosmology of its characters who, aside from vague and generally disbelieved religious notions of things called Stars that come out and steal human souls when the light goes away, are entirely unaware of how large the universe is. The story has sometimes been criticized for its implausibility, primarily in that it is unlikely in the extreme that any other planet, let alone one circling six suns, could evolve a species essentially identical to our own in physiology and psychology. What this misses is that the point is not to suggest that somewhere out there in the universe may indeed lie a world much like Lagash, but rather to say, "We know what humans are like--but what might we be like if...?" The story, through its characters, talks directly to us of this what-if; but at the same time, almost as if to preserve the integrity of a scientific experiment, it must put up at least an attempt at being wholly self-contained. Most intriguingly, as the narration goes on its way, as the characters exposit for us, never does any hint of extra-Lagashian knowledge come through. The characters may be speaking only for the benefit of us on Earth, but they know nothing, and say nothing, of Earth.

We saw before how the push and pull of incluing narration leads to a strange combination of immersion and distance, sometimes in alternation, sometimes simultaneous. When into this incluing narrative comes dialogue (which we are accustomed to think of as naturalistic) carrying infodumps (which are themselves a distancing, non-naturalistic technique), the combination becomes even more complicated, more strange.

Again I should stress that this technique itself is not uncommon in sf; it is not so much a sign of "Nightfall"'s peculiarity as of sf's in general. Indeed, after all this I've barely discussed "Nightfall" at all.* What I'm primarily trying to develop in these early essays is a way of reading, and of talking about reading, sf, which must be worked out before we can even begin to discuss these stories and novels fruitfully. Much has been said pro and con sf over the past near-century of its self-conscious existence, but almost none of it reflects my experience as a reader (and putative writer) of sf--and of non-sf. Most of it, on "both sides," has been terribly naïve. Perhaps I am as well. But it is my hope that I can in some small way contribute to overcoming all of this noise, if only for myself, so that all that is beautiful, when it is beautiful, as well as all that is stupid, when it is stupid, about these texts can be seen for what it is.

*And even after I'm done there will be much, much more that could and should be said about the story, even at the most basic levels.

But here, now, after all this discussion of pushing and pulling, of dislocation and immersion, of the narration sticking primarily to incluing, of infodumping staying primarily in dialogue, of the pretense we share with the story of being wholly on Lagash, entirely unaware of other places in the universe, of the characters existing merely as pieces of the story machine, I hope that I can begin to explain the tremendous power that one quick passage, a sudden non-dialogue infodump near the end of the story, typically considered one of the story's major flaws, has for me.

After the other suns have set, leaving only the dim, red Beta in the sky; after the slow creep of the eclipse has blotted out more and more of even this little light; when finally Lagash knows its first night in two thousand years, we read:

With the slow fascination of fear, he lifted himself on one arm and turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window.

Through it shone the Stars!

Not Earth's feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye--Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.

One could criticize the melodrama. Many have. Others, including Asimov (editor John W. Campbell--thankfully!--inserted the last quoted paragraph over Asimov's objections*), have protested that the sudden mention of Earth, and of Lagash's place in the universe as we understand cosmology, dispels the illusion built up so carefully over the entire story, what I referred to earlier as the "charade" that, even as the characters speak for no reason other than to convey information to readers on Earth, for them--and, for as long as we are reading the story, for us--there exists no other world than Lagash, no other perspective than the Lagashian.

*This story, as with so many published by Campbell, was so thoroughly shaped by him as to be essentially a collaboration--whether the credited author wanted it to be or not. Sometimes this intolerable situation resulted in good literature, somehow, and this is one of those cases.

For me, though, the paragraph's power lies precisely in its shattering of the illusion. There has been play on the illusion, the aforementioned push and pull, and that play has kept us alert to what it is that we're doing and that is being done to us as we read, but until now play has been all that it was. Now the play is over. All of the games--lively, intelligent games--that the story has been playing with us are torn asunder. In the course of one sentence--and I almost feel the exclamation point as a pivot--we leap suddenly out of the Lagashian perspective and back into ours. One moment we are with Theremon (no longer just a piece of the story-machine!) as he forces himself to gaze for the first time into the night sky...and the next we are staring down at him, from our privileged position both as readers and as human beings accustomed to the facts of the night and of stars. Though our sun is not literally one of those Theremon sees breaking through his sanity, we nevertheless are figuratively a part of the soul-searing splendor shining down on him, gazing down in awful indifference. We are a part of it because we are a part of the universe he never dreamed existed, and we are indifferent because, as readers fully aware that Theremon and his disintegrating world are no more than fictions, we know that we can put the story down and return to our unchanged world.

If this were all, if this were the end of the story and of what it has to say to us, then it would be powerful, yes, but cold; and ultimately empty. But it is not, quite, the end of the story, and even the moment itself has further implications.

The indifference of the universe is a common theme both in and out of sf, as is transcendence and unity with the universe. "Nightfall", movingly, combines these two irreconcilable themes at its climax--and the figure that achieves transcendence (or at least seems to, momentarily) is not a character in the story, but we, the readers of it. Through the immersive aspects of the narrative we are led to see the indifferent otherness of the universe from Theremon's position of fascination and fear, while simultaneously the story wrenches us into the knowledge that we partake in that indifference, and speaks of the signifiers of the indifference in terms which link them inextricably to us. And then we return. The story, having led us to this wonder and fear, this terrible doubleness of vision, will not let us go. We must remain, if only for a brief moment, a handful of paragraphs, on Lagash, knowing what we know, knowing what its people now know, witnessing their consequent dissolution. The comfort of our "what-if" and the sterility of our "science experiment" have vanished. We, the readers privileged to the omniscient voice of narration and to the indifferent view from above, are forced down, and though we can always get back up (the story, after all, does end), we are made to wonder what it might be like not to, and to feel that somewhere out there are those who cannot.