Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Preeminence of Narrative


In the January 25th issue of “The New Yorker,” Jane Mayer writes about the rebranding of David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who have worked so hard and spent so much time and treasure to champion and shape American conservatism.  The two hired Steve Lombardo, formerly a senior executive of the global P.R. company Burson-Marsteller as their chief of communications and marketing to orchestrate their rebranding.  According to Mayer,

“Lombardo believed that the key to creating a positive brand was to reach the public’s “subconscious mind,” as he wrote in O’Dwyer’s, the public-relations trade journal. The most effective “pathway” to the subconscious, he argued, was “storytelling,” in part because it tapped into emotions. He expanded on this in a Koch Industries newsletter. “Building a brand is telling a story…”

I wouldn’t be surprised if many marketing professionals find it a rather banal observation about a concept they’ve actually used for decades.  However, it does allude to an important, consistent current in media, politics and academia, something I would call the preeminence of narrative, for lack of a better term.  Quite simply, nearly all discourse is leveled, understood and evaluated as “narrative” with a spectrum of effects, from the subliminal, to the emotional and the intellectual.  Often, as a consequence, validity and accuracy are complex, secondary issues, dependent upon perspective, semantics, cultural frame and audience. Truth is relative.

We’ve lived in an intellectual landscape shaped by Barthes, Foucault and Derrida long enough to see what a multiple edged sword such an intellectual stance that is.  It may seem that there is no rational, reasoned alternative, unless we resort to Kierkegaard’s reasoning.

But there is, at least, another way to look at the issue, and basic, formal Euclidean Geometry suggests a point of view.  Euclid begins with a very small number of intentionally undefined common-sense concepts: a point, a line and a plane and 5 postulates about them, for example, a straight line segment can be drawn between any two points.  From just those very basic concepts all of Euclidean geometry is derived by proving theorems, special kinds of stories, if you like, which are rigorously logical.  Inevitably, at some stage, anyone encountering Euclidean Geometry for the first time steps back and is amazed at how much, some of which is subtle and beautiful, can come from so little.

A narrative is not as simple and unambiguous as a point, a line or a plane, and that’s the point I’m coming to.  Narratives are dangerously complex, mutable even mercurial.  That’s a large part of why we love stories.  But choosing that idea as an elemental concept for discourse is fraught with dangerous consequences, not least of which is the challenge of evaluating very basic, necessary concerns, such as truthfulness and accuracy.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"War and Peace" and Mobile Phones


Heavy snow is blowing and swirling past my window this morning and I’m musing about why I consider “War and Peace” to be such a great novel.  It’s prompted, not just by the weather but also the BBC’s new television mini-series.

I’ve never read any formal literary criticism of the novel; I’ve never wanted to because the book speaks so directly to me. Here’s a famous passage, the conclusion of Prince Andrei’s experience of the Battle of Austerlitz.  Andrei has picked up a fallen Russian standard, rallied the retreating soldiers around him and is running, leading an improvised charge against the French line on foot:

            ‘What are they doing?’ thought Prince Andrei as he gazed at them. ‘Why doesn’t the red-haired gunner run away since he is unarmed? Why doesn’t the Frenchman stab him? He won’t get away before the Frenchman remembers his bayonet and stabs him…’
            And in fact another French soldier, trailing his musket, ran up to the struggling men and the fate of the red-haired gunner who had triumphantly secured the mop and still did not realize what awaited him, was about to be decided.  But Prince Andrei did not see how it ended.  It seemed to him as though one of the soldiers near him hit him on the head with the full swing of a bludgeon. It hurt a little, but the worst of it was that the pain distracted him and prevented his seeing what he had been looking at.
            ‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,’ thought he, and fell on his back.  He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not, and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds gliding slowly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful, and solemn, not at all as I ran,’ thought Prince Andrei ‘—not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!...’

In this single passage, you see the elemental, precision of the Iliad with the genius to make it subjective and so personal.  Then, without warning, the focus, the drama of the soldiers attempting to take the gun emplacement is ironically disrupted by the wound that crumples Andrei onto his back.  We and Andrei see the sky, remote, objective, implicitly beautiful with a single, perfect adjective, “lofty,” and yet we’ve moved more deeply into Andrei’s subjective experience with absolutely credible thoughts that are the heart of so much philosophy with echoes back to Ecclesiastes.  Yet it is still told with the same concrete, direct language.  It is as surprising and breath-stealing as the best turn in a Sherlock Holmes story and absolutely believable.  There are so many surprises: plain observation leading to subjective speculation spiraling into objectivity which is actually a deeper subjectivity of philosophical speculation. 

When I think of novelists, short story writers, poets and even historians who have written with terrible, fierce insight about war, Bierce, Remarque, Owen, T. E. Lawrence, Hemingway, Powers, Klay, and so many others, I see Tolstoy in them.

But this is only one passage:  Tolstoy writes with equal insight about family life, society, the equally fierce and complex struggles that women face.  These days, we applaud novelists for their world building, and rightly, too.  But sometimes we fail to recognize the same accomplishments in older works.  Tolstoy was writing fifty years after the events he chronicles.  Russian and French society had changed and were still changing, dramatically.  Yet, he succeeds in making his world detailed and complex as Tolkien’s and as visceral as Hemingway’s.

The new BBC series appears to have little time for philosophy and rumination.  It’s main characters simply don’t appear to think as much as their counterparts in the novel. Even though the production design feels absolutely authentic, I half expect all the young people at a ball to be surreptitiously texting on their mobile phones.

(The illustration is “The Battle of Borodino” by Leonid Pasternak, the original illustrator.)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 30: a Maze of Twisty Little Passages, All Different


This is episode 30 of my exploration of the life, times and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

In my post of February 18th of last year I compared studying Sir Thomas Malory’s life to a section of an ancient textual computer game, “Adventure,” in which the player was lost in a “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”  Also in that game, adjacent to first maze, was a second one, a “maze of twisty little passages, all different.”

It’s an apt metaphor now.

In my last post I discussed the  lack of formal biographical information about Malory between 1461 and his death in 1470.  Nevertheless, during that time he was one of a very small number explicitly excluded twice from Edward IV’s general pardons, the language of which suggests it was for some grave, possibly treasonous offense.  Yet there is no formal record of Malory’s arrest, indictment, trial or imprisonment.  Then there is the matter of the inscription on his tombstone in which he is called a “valiant knight.”  And that is pretty much all we know for sure.  I decided to take Field’s sensible advice and look to “Le Morte d’Arthur” itself for further information. That’s when I fell into the maze:  the subject of how (and why) Malory emended his sources is not as simple as I presumed.  (At this point, I imagine an academic reader of this adventure who is more familiar than I with the literary scholarship of Le Morte d’Arthur enjoying an appropriate, well-deserved roaring laugh at my expense.)

Dorsey Armstrong’s 2003 book Gender and the Chivalric Community in Malory's Morte d'Arthur (University Press of Florida, 2003) has proven remarkably helpful in elucidating the scope of the issue.  Indeed, the examination of the narrative of Arthur’s conflict with the Roman Emperor Lucius in Dorsey’s introduction provides a fine, concise example of the diversity and occasional subtlety of the issues involved.  Then there is Ralph Norris’ Malory’s Library (Arthurian Studies LXXI, 2008) which, based on subsequent citations, appears to be a seminal resource on the subject of Malory’s sources and how he used them.

I began by making a list of Malory’s additions and revisions but given the number and complexity immediately realized that some structure or might be necessary to manage the information.  A simple hierarchical taxonomy wouldn’t work as many of his changes satisfied multiple potential categories, i.e. detail changes, structural changes, appearance in the “Explicits” (added to summarize sections).    I’m still reading Norris and mulling over the proper way to approach the problem of determining what, if anything, can be learned of the last decade of Malory’s life.  Here are a few of the “twisty little passages, all different” to which that question leads:
- When did Malory write Le Morte d’Arthur?  Was it during a single period of imprisonment during the 1460’s or was it a lifelong project?

- In what order were the eight major sections of the book composed?

- Did Malory view his work as history or fiction or something else entirely and how did that stance affect his composition and selection?

- How personal was the book?  Was it a recreation undertaken and selected to relieve the dreariness of years in prison or was it a passion that had been with him all his life, and, if so, what was the source?

Here is one more, which takes me back to why I was first interested in the apparent discordance of Malory’s life and the subject and themes of his book.  In Caxton’s prefix to the original printed version, he states,  “after that I had accomplished, and finished divers histories, as well of contemplation as of other historial and worldly acts of great conquerors and princes, and also certain books of examples and doctrine, many noble and divers gentlemen of this realm of England camen and demanded me, many and ofttimes, wherefore that I have not do made and imprint the noble history of the Sangrail, and of the most renowned Christian king, first and chief of the three best Christian and worthy, King Arthur, which ought most to be remembered among us English men tofore all other Christian kings.” (modernized spelling from the Penguin edition edited by Janet Cowen.)

Malory had a vast set of sources, some in English, some nearly contemporary and yet, of all, his work alone became the paradigm for the story of Arthur, the code of Chivalry and his knights.  For  proof, consider how the work, often indirectly, still influences narrative art.  Why did his telling become the single nexus for much that has come subsequently?

To give you a sense of the challenge, appeal and difficulty of using Malory’s emendations to infer biographical information, I want to finish by looking at just one, the Pentecostal oath.  Here it is from Vinaver’s edition with the original spelling:

…than the kynge stablyssed all the knyghtes and gaff them rychesse and londys; and charged them never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of fortifiture [of their] worship and lordship of kynge Arthure for evirmore; and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes [socour:] strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell for no love ne for no worldis goodis. So unto thys were all knyghtis sworne of the Table Rounde, both olde and younge, and every yere so were the[y] sworne at the hyghe feste of Pentecoste.

The oath is absolutely Malory’s original addition.  (Norris and others speculate that Malory may have been inspired by the oath taken by the Knights of the Bath, an order with roots as early as the reign of Henry IV, however, its codification began during the reign of James I; could it be the other way around?)  One can’t read the section of the oath concerning the treatment of women and wonder if Malory might have been responding in some way to the accusations against him during his first lengthy period of imprisonment?  It could be an implicit assertion of innocence or misdirection.  My view from what I’ve learned of his life so far is that it is the former, not the latter, but one can’t be sure. 

As I’ve been reading and listing emendations, I came across a curious piece of information which could be connected to the question of Malory’s inspiration.  One of multiple candidates proposed as the historical source for Arthur himself is a King Anwn of South Wales, a son of the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus and some have suggested he is in fact buried in the Old Bury cemetery near Atherstone, a mere 16 miles away from Newbold-Revel.  I wouldn’t presume to comment on the veracity of the supposition.  Nevertheless, whether or not it’s true, one can imagine the story being known to one of Malory’s uncles, (John?), who may have imparted it to a young, impressionable nephew on a summer walk.  So there’s another twisty little passage to consider:  to what extent did the rich and curious folklore of Warwickshire influence Malory?

(Final photograph of the Cloisters Museum, November 2015, courtesy of Mark Watkins and The Hawaii Project.)

You can find Episode 31 here.