Section 8

H. J. Ford: The Death of the Hunchback (1898)

Lecture 8:
Collage & Cut-ups (i)

Textual Paranoia

  • "The Story of the Hunchback" (1990): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 203-60.
  • Richard F. Burton, trans., "Conclusion to The Hunchback’s Tale" (1885): from the Course Book of Readings: 109-11.
  • David Pinault, "Story-Telling Techniques in the The Arabian Nights" (1992): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 504-19.

Plot Summary:
A tailor and his wife invite a hunchback to eat dinner with them. While eating a fish, the hunchback chokes on a bone and dies. Thinking he will be accused of murder if anyone finds out that the hunchback died in his home, the tailor devises a plan where he makes a Jewish doctor believe that he is the true murderer of the hunchback. Also not wanting to be condemned for murder, the doctor makes one of the sultan's stewards believe that he killed the hunchback. The pattern repeats again, and the hunchback is passed onto a Christian merchant who is promptly caught with the dead hunchback and is sentenced to death by hanging. Just before the merchant is about to die, the sultan's steward steps forward, accusing himself of the murder he thought that he had committed. The steward is set to die in the merchant's place when the doctor declares himself as the real murderer of the hunchback. The executioner frees the steward and the doctor is set to die instead. This time, the tailor admits that he killed the hunchback. Wanting to hear the incredible story of the hunchback and make sure that the real murderer has been determined, the sultan gathers all of the people who have been involved in the hunchback's death to tell their stories. He offers to spare them all if they can tell him a tale more marvelous than this. Each of them, successively, fails, until finally the tailor himself tells the story of the young man and the barber and his six brothers, and the latter (when summoned) succeeds in bringing the hunchback back to life.
– Adapted from The Arabian Nights (Farizah Ali)

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)

Language is a Virus

I want to start with three quotations, from three very different writers:

First, from the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno:

"... nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch, und das frißt auch die Erkenntnis an, die ausspricht, warum es unmöglich ward, heute Gedichte zu schreiben."

[... to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.]

- Prisms (1955)

J. G. Ballard (1930-2009)

Secondly, from Dystopian British writer J. G. Ballard (on William S. Burroughs):

His three novels are the first definite portrait of the inner landscape of our mid-century, using its own language and manipulative techniques, its own fantasies and nightmares … The almost complete inability of English critics to understand Burroughs is as much a social failure as a literary one, a refusal to recognise the materials of the present decade as acceptable for literary purposes until a lapse of a generation or so has given to a few brand names an appropriately discreet nostalgia. One result is the detachment of the English social novel from everyday life to a point where it is fast becoming a minor genre as unrelated to common experience as the country house detective story (by contrast the great merit of science fiction has been its ability to assimilate rapidly the material of the immediate present and future, although it is now failing in precisely those areas where the future has already become the past). Whatever his reservations about some aspects of the mid-twentieth century, Burroughs accepts that it can be fully described only in terms of its own language , its own idioms and verbal lore.

- Quoted in New Worlds: An Anthology. Ed. Michael Moorcock (London: Flamingo, 1983): 12.

Hieronymus Bosch: 'Hell' (from The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych) (c. 1500)

Third, from Burroughs himself:

Psychology, Politics, and Philosophy – the three ‘P’s’ – we’ve seen the application of these fields to some of the more interesting developments in contemporary fiction: but also the deep sense in which all these approaches and angles have been with us from the very beginning, from the first oral storytellers and the first scribes who began to shape more complex narratives in writing.

Textuality, and its complex relationship to language, is the subject of the next section in our course. There’s a Monty Python skit where someone invents a joke so funny that everyone who hears it immediately dies of laughter.

The military applications of the joke are immediately apparent. And yet anyone who sees the whole of it will immediately succumb to its baleful influence. A team of translators are therefore given one word each of the joke, which they proceed to translate into German (one of their number who accidentally sees two of the words together has to be hospitalised).

The joke is then reassembled, and issued to monolingual troops, who read it out phonetically as they advance on the enemy. The sketch fades out on piles of Germans dying in paroxysms of laughter as the dreadful joke reaches them.

And what is the joke? We see it (or something like it) superimposed in the form of subtitles on a Hitler speech:

This very silly gag can nevertheless be seen to touch on some of the same issues brought up by Adorno in his famous statement (reprinted above), generally misquoted as: ‘Lyric poetry is impossible after Auschwitz.’

There’s been much debate about what exactly he meant by this – as well as many attempts to produce lyric poems which somehow ‘contradict’ his remark – but the point he seems to have been making was that there was a certain way of thinking about mankind, and culture, and civilisation, which was no longer possible after the discovery of the full pitiless extent of the production-line killing factories of the Nazi Vernichtungslager [extermination camps]. Lyric poetry, for him, could only have meaning and value – however illusory – in that older, irrecoverable, pre-war conception of the world.

Language has teeth. That’s essential to remember. Language can be used both to create and destroy, to persuade us to massacre ethnic minorities, or – for that matter – to make (and use) Atomic weapons.

It can hardly be said that human nature changed in 1945 (an event Virginia Woolf dated to 1911), but certain illusions about it could no longer be seriously entertained after Auschwitz and Hiroshima: above all, the idea that we’re gradually getting better, that the advance of civilisation inevitably brings long-term improvements as well as temporary examples of exploitation, and that our wisdom increases exponentially along with the sophistication of our gadgetry.

There’s a kind of writing which aspires to do justice to the sheer danger of trusting in the stability of language to reflect reality. Its most famous exponent is probably the American Beat writer William S. Burroughs, with his otherwise inexplicable and alienating techniques of assemblage, cut-ups, and collage.

Burroughs attributed the grotesque and brutal travesty of order we call a culture to the influence of malevolent aliens, who originally implanted us with the disease of language as a means of control (a little like the black monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001). Hence his strange statement (quoted above) that ‘Language is a virus from Outer Space.’

The only way he could think of to avoid the guidance and corruption of these alien implants was to cut up texts randomly and display them both as provocations and as possible ways of decoding what was really going on (if all this bears some resemblance to the plot of the Wachowsky Brothers’ movie The Matrix, that’s not really accidental).

Whether he actually believed any of this is always going to be up for debate. The cut-ups were only one of the techniques he used in his writing, and his work in this field was heavily indebted to older Art movements such as Dada and Surrealism.

What is certain is that cut-up texts tend to reveal new, unexpected associations which cannot have been put there either by their original authors (who could hardly have foreseen the arbitrary ways in which they could be adapted or sampled from by irresponsible experimentalists), or by those experimentalists themselves, who tended to confine themselves to strict rules of procedure designed to randomise and reduce the amount of conscious intervention in the texts they produced.

So are human beings hardwired to see connections in things which are not ‘really’ connected – which have not been put together with either a clear cultural agenda or an unequivocal authorial intention? It would seem so, yes.

Just as a few shapes glimpsed in peripheral vision can become entire human beings (or even ghosts) until their true nature as tree-branches or shadows is revealed, so we have a tendency to try to make sense of things which have been put together by random processes.

Cut-ups therefore constitute both the best critique of this human faculty, and the most effective satire of the literary forms – such as fiction – which depend on it. Burroughs’ cut-ups often included, as their first stage, some fictional compositions of his own, which were then dismembered and sampled from in the body of his text. He is, then, both an author and an anti-author at the same time.

Perhaps that’s the proudest boast a writer in our times can make.

William S. Burroughs: Cut-up Poetry (#39)

Roman Jakobson (1896-1982)

There is, to be sure, a technical aspect as well as an ideological one to the manifestations of textual paranoia characteristic of Burroughs’ work. In order to discuss this, I’d like to start off by quoting a passage from linguistic theorist Roman Jakobson’s classic 1956 essay "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Disturbances" – a discussion of literary form and its relation to the common disorder of the speech centres known as aphasia.
The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the metonymic way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively. In aphasia one or the other of these two processes is restricted or totally blocked – an effect which makes the study of aphasia particularly illuminating for the linguist. In normal verbal behavior both processes are continually operative, but careful observation will reveal that under the influence of a cultural pattern, personality, and verbal style, preference is given to one of the two processes over the other.

Jakobson’s language may need a little unpacking here, but essentially he is saying that the two predominant types of aphasia – similarity and contiguity disorder – can be equated with two major subdivisions of figurative language: metaphor and metonymy.

To be more specific:

  • similarity disorder = selecting the wrong vocabulary items from pre-existing categories, substituting ‘fork’ for ‘knife’, ‘table’ for ‘lamp,’ and so on.
  • contiguity disorder = failing to combine words into a grammatical sentence, which leads to a tendency to confuse words with their approximate functions, and thus to the substitution (say) of ‘spyglass’ with ‘microscope’, or ‘fire’ for ‘gaslight.’

The two skills involved, the selection and combination of words and structures, are equated by Jakobson with (respectively) the poetic devices of metaphor and metonymy. In the case of metaphor, language speakers are selecting and substituting items not normally continuous with one another. In the case of metonymy, however, they are combining things which naturally cohere, the part standing in for the whole.

Jakobson goes on:
In verbal art the interaction of these two elements is especially pronounced. Rich material for the study of this relationship is to be found in verse patterns which require a compulsory parallelism between adjacent lines, for example in Biblical poetry or in the Finnic and, to some extent, the Russian oral tradition. This provides an objective criterion of what in the given speech community acts as a correspondence. Since on any verbal level – morphemic, lexical, syntactic, and phraseological – either of these two relations (similarity and contiguity) can appear – and each in either of two aspects [substitutive and predicative], an impressive range of possible configurations is created. Either of the two gravitational poles may prevail. In Russian lyrical songs, for example, metaphoric constructions predominate, while in the heroic epics the metonymic way is preponderant.

In other words, Jakobson equates the literary device of metonymy with the larger generic intentions of the traditional epic (or, for that matter, the realist novel): in forms such as these, a part of a fictional world is intended to stand in for the whole.

Similarly, he equates metaphor with lyric poetry, since the principle of asserting or pointing out the similarity of two alien or unrelated things is fundamental to its underlying intention of asserting the fundamental unity of things.

Metaphor, then (as a linguistic device), might be seen to line up with Poetry, Romanticism, and (in anthropological terms) magical thinking (as seen in Homeopathy, for example).

Metonymy, by contrast, can be similarly associated with Prose, Realism and modern medical ideas of contagion – or contamination through association. (cf. David Lodge, ed. ‘The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles.’ Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. London: Longman, 1988: 57-61).

Richard F. Burton (1821-1890): Arabian Nights

Critical Skills (ii)

Writing fiction involves thinking laterally, that is, sideways – following through an idea by thinking in terms of connections, so as to create characters; it involves thinking structurally, that is, vertically, to make a coherent narrative with enough upward drive to go until it stops; it also involves thinking in terms of images as well as words.
– Angela Carter (1976)

A workshop for general discussion of your critical assignments, before their date of submission next week.

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