Miéville, Marvell, two Melvilles, and others (Narrative III -- the ordering of preferences)
December 16, 2010

Miéville and Marvell

I love this moment in China Miéville's The City & the City: The narrator (for this is an I-book), Inspector Tyador Borlu, is a noir cop in a fictional Balkan capital, Corwi is his assistant, and in their language aj Tyrko means Turkish-style:

I stopped and bought us coffee from a new place, before we went back to the HQ. American coffee, to Corwi's disgust.

"I thought you liked it aj Tyrko," she said, sniffing it.

"I do, but even more than I like it aj Tyrko, I don't care."

This can't quite be rendered coherently on a scale of preferences, but we know what it means. It means noir. The noir detective is typically broken and defeated, but unbroken and undefeated. "Baby. I don't care" is one of its touchstone lines (that's Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past; hey -- you know what's a great book? The Little Black and White book of Film Noir: Quotations from Films of the 40's and 50's -- that's what). It needn't mean only noir though. It can mean pastoral as well (though I guess maybe the point is that noir is a kind of pastoral, at least in Empson's sense).

I love this passage from "Damon the Mower" too, and I think for pretty much the same reasons:

What, though the piping Shepherd stock
The plains with an unnumber'd Flock,
This Sithe of mine discovers wide
More ground than all his Sheep do hide.
With this the golden fleece I shear
Of all these Closes ev'ry Year.
And though in Wooll more poor than they,
Yet am I richer far in Hay.

If you're ranking, wool is worth more than hay, so to be richer in hay, even richer by far, is still to be poorer. Better a flocksworth of wool than a garden's worth of hay. (After all, the hay will be used to feed the flock come winter, which makes clear that the wool more valuable.) But poetically it's the words "more" and "far" that matter. This makes no economic sense. Or rather perhaps we could say it makes only the childish sense that Piaget noted in early childhood quantification (or in the pizza parlors of my youth, with their bug juice in conical cups to make the quantity look greater): the beautiful, (increased) surface appearance of more is what counts, even if the adult, economic reality is that the actual quantity is less.

That's not what's going on in the noir case, but I think something similar is.

"Helter Skelter" and Dong QiChang

I may be in a minority in liking Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, but I do. Listening to the soundtrack a while ago I really heard some lines in "Helter Skelter" (sung in the movie by Dana Fuchs) that I'd never thought to pay enough attention to before, probably because they were to familiar: in particular the sublimity of "You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer."

This is a kind of reversal that never gets old for me - I remember seeing a show of the works of the great Ming Dynasty Chinese landscape painter Dong QiChang (1555-1636) at the Nelson Atkins Museum; the captions quoted his wonderful dictum: ''If one thinks of strange scenery, then painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonders of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting.''

Which isn't quite the same thing as saying that it depends on what you value. Rather it depends on what you're thinking about, what your attention is focused on. It depends on the aesthetic experience that you're having, part of the content of which is that what you love is this, here, now, in front of you; that this is the right aesthetic experience to be having at this moment, even that this is the future you are committing yourself to, if only for this moment, even knowing it's only for this moment. (You might even pay for this future, now, even knowing you're unlikely to continue to value it at the same level when the future comes about). This is a Kantian idea (that is the moment of universalizing but inconsistent judgment is related to Kant's antinomies of taste, though I won't belabor the claim here). Sure it must be abstract and it must change; but also it must give pleasure even if other things will also come to give pleasure--later. What matters in all these cases is an orthogonal or skewed relation between aesthetic valuation and, let's say, real life economic value. In math, we know, the complex numbers aren't well-ordered, though the real numbers are. Our aesthetic experiences -- at least one sort of aesthetic experience -- is complex in an analogous way: Kant's name for this is disinterestedness (utility theorists would [though they wouldn't] have to call it pleasure that can't be measured in "utils").

That's what's going on in "Helter Skelter" too. As we theorists of sexual selection know, dancing is supposed to get you to loving, but here, now, dancing is trumping loving. The singer, the performance, the music, dispenses with the goal and takes pleasure in the expenditure, in the potlatch which is rock performance at its best. (If this were twitter I'd be hash tagging @GeorgesBataille and then of course #TheWho and #JimMorrison and #TheClash: "Everybody smash up your seat / And rock to this brand new beat!")

Beckett and Melville (and Stieg Larrson)

Stieg Larrson's really good at a standard feature in intellectual thrillers: making us root for the wrong thing. We want characters to trust those they don't, and vice versa, and more often than not, the characters we care about turn out to be right, and we turn out to be wrong. Trollope and George Eliot and Austen are probably the best exemplars of this narrative technique, at least in English. But Larrson's skills and his craft are vivid and it's fun to see how good he is at this.

A related but still more vivid skill in Larrson (and in Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps pre-eminently) is cross-cutting between cliff-hangers. Every time we're desperate to know what's going to happen, the narrative returns to pick up the previous cliff-hanger, which we were jerked away from against our will. Now that we're returned to that narrative, we don't want to be.

So how do we order narrative preferences? Well, the whole idea of narrative is that our preferences are not well-ordered. We want our heroes and heroines to be safe, but we also want them to be in danger. We want everything to work out, but we want things to be blocked first. Nothing more boring than a pure, wish-fulfilling narrative. Anyone can daydream that! But we pay fictionists (Trollope's great word) to make things hard for those we root for, and then we root for them to overcome these obstacles, preferably -- (!) -- in ways that we can't quite work out for ourselves, even though we try. We try to do something, that is to say, that we want to fail at. So what do we want?

Let's turn the question around a little and ask: where does a desire to be narrated, to be described as one wants to be described to others, rank in a series of preferences? Consider a typical conundrum in Beckett: "For except, one, not to need, and, two, a witness to his not needing, Knott needed nothing, as far as Watt could see," we learn in Watt. Here we broach the subject of preferences among preferences, to which I hope to return in a later post. Mr. Knott is not quite Bartleby: he prefers not to need (not to have a preference), whereas Bartleby's preference is simply negative: his expression is polite, but he is indifferent even to his preference not to. Bartleby is indifferent to narration. But Mr. Knott is not: which is to say, not indifferent to a vicarious experience of himself through other eyes, the eyes of a witness. Beckettian, Berkleyean Mr. Knott wants to be perceived. Bartleby doesn't care.

Mr. Knott, elusive, third person character, is nevertheless a version of the noir detective. In an earlier post I mused about the authority of the first person narrator -- the range of authority that such a narrator can have. One aspect of this authority (I also want to come back to this issue) is the Proustian question of the relation between the narrator and the character both designated by the word "I." Hardboiled noir, in Cain or Hammett or Chandler, can work the way it does because we make a distinction between the preferences of a character (the Continental Op, Philip Marlowe) and the narrator who tells the story (a distinction -- roughly speaking -- between worlds in which the narrative we are reading doesn't exist (no way the Op writes any of this up! -- the text we're holding and reading doesn't exist anywhere in his world) and our world where the narrative actually does exist -- after all, we're reading it.

So here again we can find that preference ranking isn't well-ordered. The Continental Op, the detective, wants to keep all this to himself. The Op-as-narrator wants as to understand what he's telling us -- wants anyhow a minimal but communicative relationship, and we can therefore take it that he is telling us the truth (or rather that he is not lying to us). So when Inspector Borlu tells Corwi that more than liking his coffee aj Tyrko, he doesn't care, two (or three) axes of preference are involved. As a consumer of coffee, he prefers it aj Tyrko; as a noir narrator he doesn't care; as a speaker within the noir he is forging or strengthening a connection between the noir narrator and the noir character; and in relation to Corwi, he is essentially turning her into the witness of his not needing (even as he does the same to us). I should add that The City & the City ends up being a beautiful thematization, beautiful narrative of just the issue of the narrative's documentary existence in the world in which its narrator knows, and feels, and lives, and moves as a character.

All of which suggests the way that style (in this case the hardboiled style) serves as a negotiator among these non-well-ordered preferences. Style is the one thing that narrator and character share in most cases of this sort -- cases where the narrator is a character but is also producing a work that the character never produces. The style of the work is (or refracts or reflects on to) the style of the character, even though the character never writes the work (which I note in passing is what happens in Proust).

What I register here is that we (or I) love having this dramatized. We like a kind of projection onto the plane of the work of the split between character and narrator, so that the characters are credited with indifference (or some other contrary attitude) towards their own desires or choices. One last, noirish example is this great (and important) moment in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge:

Le chef de la police: Il n'y a pas d'innocent. Les hommes sont coupables.
Le Commissaire Mattei: Même un policier?
Le chef: Tous les hommes. Tous coupables,

[Police chief: There are no innocent people. Men are guilty.
Detective Mattei: Even a policeman?
Police Chief: All men. All guilty.]

So the police chief is too, and if he's not in fact contradicting himself, the emotional tenor of this scene is heightened by the sense of contradiction.

Which is as it should be: noir detectives don't need to be thought innocent. Sam Spade to the D.A. on why he won't talk if he has nothing to hide: "Everyone's got something to hide." They don't need to be thought innocent, they don't care what we think, they only need us to know that they don't need that. I totally accept that. It's what I love about them.

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