Verse Turns – Part One

Verse, of the poetic kind, has traditionally been defined by various sources as a line or a group of lines in metrical poetry or for describing these things in songs, as can be seen in the first definition given online by The Free Dictionary:


  1. A single metrical line in a poetic composition; one line of poetry.
  2. A division of a metrical composition, such as a stanza of a poem or hymn.
  3. A poem.

The final definition given there, “c”, points at the way the term has come to be used broadly to describe a whole poem—typically, a metrical poem—on the basis of the lines and parts of a poem:   a shortcut description for the whole composition which forgoes a consideration of what is happening in the lines or throughout the composition.  “It is verse.”

But what happens in verse?

Importantly, verse and meter are two different things although both may occur in the same poem.  Verse describes the whole line as a unit or a group of lines as a unit; meter describes how the stresses and/or beats are arranged within individual lines.  This distinction will be important for understanding the composition of metrical poetry—also, for understanding the composition of non-metrical poetry, or free verse.

Free verse may not have a meter—may be “free” from traditional metrical concerns, have no identifiable, regular arrangement of stresses and beats—but it can still be verse.

But what happens in verse?

Verse Turns

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a good description of what verse does:

verse (n.) c.1050, “line or section of a psalm or canticle,” later “line of poetry” (late 14c.), from Anglo-French and Old French vers, from Latin versus “verse, line of writing,” from PIE root *wer- (3) “to turn, bend” (see versus). The metaphor is of plowing, of “turning” from one line to another (vertere = “to turn”) as a plowman does.

Verse was invented as an aid to memory. Later it was preserved to increase pleasure by the spectacle of difficulty overcome. That it should still survive in dramatic art is a vestige of barbarism. [Stendhal "de l'Amour," 1822]

Old English had fers, an early West Germanic borrowing directly from Latin. Meaning “metrical composition” is recorded from c.1300; sense of “part of a modern pop song” (as distinguished from the chorus) is attested from 1927. The English New Testament first was divided fully into verses in the Geneva version (1550s).

The general meaning of verse, as understood from the etymology, is that it turns.  The metaphor of plowing is very good; also, Stendhal’s thoughts about its use:  “to increase pleasure by the spectacle of difficulty overcome.” (We can safely overlook Stendhal’s opinion of dramatic verse’s barbarism.)

But how, then, describe this turning?  What is turned?

In the same way that whole poems may receive the shortcut nickname “verse” without further consideration of the lines and groups of lines in a poem, some poets and readers of poetry appear to think that lineation creates verse:  If a poem is lineated, it can be called “verse,” whether metrical verse or free verse.  One’s eyes are turned from the end of a line to the beginning of the next line; is this not turning, is this not verse?

Indeed, the concept of verse has been thoroughly blurred with the concept poem, so that lineation has become a signal that a poem exists.  What the lines do, as units, may be beside the point—regardless of what they do (and they may be doing something), lineated text is seen to be a poem.

Maybe a given set of text written in lines is a poem; but is it verse?

My The Oxford Companion to Philosophy includes an entry for poetry, written by Prof. R. W. Hepburn of the University of Edinburgh, which begins:

No satisfactory single-concept theory of poetry has been produced:  a poem is not essentially a representation, or essentially expression, or essentially a formal or “organic” unity.  Not because none of these functions is relevant to poetry, but because no one of them does justice to its complexity and many-levelled nature.

The entry concludes by describing the efforts of poets to contend “against the pressures and seductive power of ordinary language,” and suggests that “Theory of knowledge and philosophy of religion cannot ignore poets’ claims to ‘timeless (visionary) moments’—’epiphanies’,” but the entry concludes with this caveat:

That is easy to say:  but to distinguish veridical from illusory in this area is notoriously hard.

The philosophers throughout history have disagreed on many things while often individually being quite sure of many things—as one might see written large in the whole Companion to Philosophy—but poetry, like many other things, has never been solved.  “What is poetry” is a trap question:  inspiration for debate, no doubt, but ultimately a large question mark.

Is verse similarly impossible to define?

I would answer:  Yes and No.


Verse turns, but what is this turning?

The short-and-easy answer to what is turning:  The argument of the poem, the train of thought, the development of the subject matter or of the expression, etc.

Simply having eyes turned, from the ending of a line to the beginning of a line, although this may indeed explain one type of turning, is not sufficient for describing what happens in those verse turns. One’s eyes turn all day long, even without looking at text; are all those turns verse turns?

But what occurs as one’s eyes turn all day?  One’s attention is trained onto whatever is being viewed.  Following that attention is thought and thought processes:  whether more or less, consciously or unconsciously, momentarily or for an extended time frame, the mind becomes focused on whatever comes into our view, our attention.  As our eyes wander—turn—and as our thoughts turn on the basis of what our eyes see, so our mind turns.

So unlike the concept of poetry, which seems to entirely defy definition, verse may be defined most basically as the way a reader’s attention and mind are turned throughout a poem, with the text being the medium through which the poet guides the reader’s mind.


However, how, specifically, verse does this turning remains an open, complex question.  Defining its operation may be impossible even if we can define it generally.

On an opposite end of one scale from poetry, we might look at meter.  Although any given meter might be complex, allowing all sorts of substitutions or variations in the arrangement of stresses or beats, the moment it can no longer be discerned it ceases to exist.  Definitionally, a meter with its possible variations forms a limited set—definition—unlike poetry which is too complex to define (never mind however many definitions for poetry have been given by poetry pundits and literary polemicists.)

Although verse may be defined basically as a method for directing a reader’s attention/mind, no poet can erase the natural human tendency for the mind to wander from item to item, line to line, and so forth:  A reader of a poem is always going to be navigating that poem, quite regardless of what the poet chooses to write.  If meter disappears as soon as it is no longer discerned, verse of a sort will always occur because turns will always be discerned—however unconsciously or consciously.

So for example, the ongoing joke that some formalist poets make of free verse:  The line could be cut anywhere.  What is different between this,

I am not one of those who think
with an inky pen in their hand,
much less one of those who
in front of an open inkwell
abandon themselves to their passions
while they sit in a chair and stare
at the paper.

and this,

I am not one of those who
think with an inky pen
in their hand,
much less one of those who
in front of an open inkwell
abandon themselves
to their passions
while they sit in a chair and
stare at the paper.

That is taken from the Walter Kaufmann translation of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, section 93.  So it was actually merely prose (or lineated as prose.  Nietzsche could be quite…poetic with his prose; he in fact once observed that the best writers of prose in his lifetime were also very good poets, and that this should be no surprise.  But what is poetry?)

In either example above, a reader’s attention will move from line to line, and any other arrangement would be navigated by the reader.  Turns, of a sort, will always be experienced.  In fact, all the words are the same between the two examples, so the question might be asked whether the mind turns differently between the two examples when reading?  Do the line breaks promote a different path for the mind, depending on where they are broken?

Yes and no and maybe.  I had given earlier the example of one’s eyes turning all day long, with the attention and mind also being turned; but sometimes the mind turns of its own will and the “eyes” are internal eyes.  One may be seeing a cashier ringing up a sale but be “seeing” again something that happened earlier in the day or something read last week in a book.  Or, while at the market, one may see something that reminds of a passage from a book, and the question might arise whether he is focusing on what he has just seen or on that passage he is “seeing” or on both simultaneously.  Similarly, the fact that the second example of lineation above isolates what is said in L1 and L4—

I am not one of those who
think with an inky pen
in their hand,
much less one of those who
in front of an open inkwell
abandon themselves
to their passions
while they sit in a chair and
stare at the paper.

—may mean that, as one finishes reading L4, L1 is chiming again, perhaps taking away a little focus on the surrounding lines.  Maybe the point of the passage is primarily to say:  There are those others, but I am certainly not them.  This would not necessarily happen when reading the first example of lineation, although it might just as well, given what Nietzsche is saying and that all the words are the same.  But the first example of lineation, for comparison, pulls a trick:

I am not one of those who think

Nietzsche’s primary point was to say that there are those who can only think when on the verge of writing or who don’t think at all but let their passions do the writing—and that he is neither.  But for the span of this line, he is saying “I am not one of those who think”—so, irony.  And that irony can stress the overall point of the missive, by the end of the passage.

But do these subtleties matter?  Perhaps different people reading these two example will not experience them quite like I have experienced them—even if they do experience turns. All of this goes to show that defining exact processes for verse may be impossible—in comparison to the relative ease of defining meters.  One cannot quite say, “Do it like this, or this, or this—but not like this” if the point one wants to stress is, “Write verse.”

The Good and the Bad

So what is a poet to do?

That is a trick question.  Just as verse and meter are not synonymous, neither are verse and poetry synonymous:  It is perfectly possible to imagine a poem that is not verse—or let us say, a poem that is not good verse.

We might as well take a poet’s or a reader’s word when he says that any given text is a poem:  What is poetry?  Similarly, although we cannot believe a reader or poet who claims a text is metrical when we see it is not, we have the problem of defining verse, as outlined above, on the basis of the apparent turns from line to line; so let’s take as a given that it is probably verse, if it is lineated, when he says it is verse.  But is it good verse?

Naturally, when assigning judgments of good and bad to artistic endeavors, some subjectivity will be involved.  Even formalists might disagree about whether a poem has good meter—depending upon what set of substitutions and arrangements each accepts as valid or as pleasing.  So too, with verse turns.

Awhile back we left the plowman and Stendhal.

Because the mind naturally turns, depending upon what comes into view, much of the mind’s turning is quite unconscious or becomes lost in the mixture:  so much turning, all day long.  One is always turning; if the world is your field, your plow is often left on autopilot.  When you write a poem, should you depend on the integrity of your autopilot, and wash your hands when you are done in the field, responsibility-free, guilt-free?

Sometimes one’s autopilot is very clever; intuition and “the gut” have been operating since your birth, after all, and your autopilot has learned a lot in that time.  The question may be in whether any potential reader of your poems has an autopilot able to understand what your own autopilot, as writer, does.  Is the plowman plowing, or did these grooves magically appear from nowhere in an arbitrary fashion?

Stendhal’s description of the purpose of verse is interesting and pertinent:  “to increase pleasure by the spectacle of difficulty overcome.”  First must come the spectacle:  One must see those verse turns, or experience them as turns, for them to be pleasurable.  Next comes the impression that something awe-inspiring has occurred in the turns:  a difficulty overcome.  Finally, no difficulty can be thought of as having been overcome without the reader becoming aware of the fact that some other human has overcome that difficulty:  the poet’s steady hand at the plow.

In other words:  One can float free all day long experiencing “turns,” so why bother with reading verse that offers only more of the same?  Good verse, even if we cannot always put a finger on what it does, certainly seems to be doing something out of the ordinary, as if according to a plan.  Pleasurable verse accomplishes something we did not know needed accomplishing until we read it.

An Example

The following example came from an idea for an exercise in detecting good verse turns that I had previously suggested on the poetry workshop site Eratosphere:   Take a poem that is unfamiliar, cover all but the top-most line with a sheet of paper, read that line and consider where the poem seems to be going.  Then, move the sheet of paper down to reveal the next line:  pause, consider where that line has brought you and where the two revealed lines together now seem to be going.  Rinse and repeat until the whole poem is revealed.

The poem I chose for the exercise was Jack Gilbert’s “To See if Something Comes Next.”


To See if Something Comes Next

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.

Here, we’re given a setting with a combination of a fairly abstract notion, “nothing,” and a phrase that points to a concrete reality, “top of the valley.” We might expect that the poet will go on to tell us, via the same type of direct statement, how the top of the valley contains nothing.

Taking the line at its face value, we might be picturing a barren wasteland—something like Mordor from the Lord of the Rings—and expect a forthcoming extension of that picture via images of barrenness, emptiness, bleakness:  Our understanding has been trained onto this barren valley-top.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell

But now we know that it’s not absolute nothingness. The juxtaposition of the two lines creates the question, “What is the nothingness?” because images of sky, morning, silence, and the dry smell have filled in the picture of the valley top with richer colors and smells than we would have imagined by the end of L1.

We might even expect (as I expected) that the dry smell is some dead foliage—now that we know the nothingness is not absolute, we begin to picture a more likely valley top and begin to wonder what barrenness the poet intends. Our understanding has been trained not only onto the real valley top, but on the paradox created between these fuller descriptions and the poet’s assertion of a present nothingness.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.

No, there is no foliage, fallen or otherwise. These are the hard elements on the valley top. This might be like Mordor, after all, where life doesn’t grow: stones and sunlight.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.

Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters

But there is life after all, goats and roosters. Though the hard realities of the valley top are becoming clearer, we still don’t know the barrenness the poet intended from the first line. Even this life is thin: goats occasionally, and only the sound of roosters. That sound, however, must be coming from somewhere, so we might imagine that this valley top is not quite so isolated as previously imagined.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead

Now we have a human presence to go with the goats and sound of roosters—”He”—but also death. The barrenness might not be an actual barrenness—the valley top might not be nearly barren, after all—but the nothingness from L1 might be relative to this man’s experience of the valley top, his subjective experience, rather than actual nothingness.

Thus far, the descriptions of valley top are distant-seeming, fairly abstract, as if the things which fill the valley top do not bear greatly on that “nothing” previously mentioned. These things, in fact, might be that “dead” with which he lives, though they are suggestive of life; here is life but to him it is “the dead.”  Even in this line, he is living in “bright heat,” which is not normally associated with death—but for him, and for the length of this line only (not considering the previous lines), the location might seem like hell, and the dead are the many co-occupants.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead

woman and purity. Trying to see if something

No, no, he has only two partners on the valley top: a dead woman and purity.

Ironic, that this nothingness and the memory of the dead woman co-exist with the idea of purity, a normally positive concept.

Finally, we are given a fairly clear picture of the nothing on the valley top. The final phrase of this last line is a bit ambiguous: does it refer to him, or to those goats and the roosters? (“to see if something”)  Probably, to him. He has the dead woman and purity, but the previous lines have, in one strong thread, shown that L1’s “nothing” is anything but pure.

There is a corresponding paradox in this last line, since “[dead] woman and purity” is one absolute assertion which we might easily combine into a harmonious reality, but yet he’s searching, “Trying to see if something,” so we may doubt that “purity.”

This “something” should point at the intended thrust of L1’s “nothing.”  We expect, though, (I expect) that the nothingness turns on the fact of the absence of this woman.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something

comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.

Well, no, now we may have a different idea of the nothingness mentioned early in the poem: not the valley top, not the lack of the woman, not even the lack (or presence?) of some abstract purity, but a sustainable action, motivation: “Wondering whether he has stalled.”

The nothingness isn’t so dependent on the presence or absence of things, but on the flow of time. The “something” from the previous line is not present now; hence, nothingness, now.

Again, the final phrase twists the preceding “[if something /] comes next.” He’s wondering about his future actions/reactions-to-something-of-which-he’s-not-certain. The present lack of this something causes him to question his capacity to move, or to live (active verb; not “to be alive.”)

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something
comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.
Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: Whenever

This turn is quite extraordinary. We have gone from an assumption that the “nothing” is related to a lack of activity, but this line uses a description of activity, “he thinks,” to continue the poem—perhaps harking back to the “trying to see” which was a description of activity.

We are beginning to realize that this man is not fully self-aware; we are given a behind-the-scenes overview which he doesn’t share. (He wonders if he’s stalled, but he’s currently active: thinking, wondering, trying to see.)  Plus, we have leapt from a consideration of the things on the valley top — sunlight, goats, etc., and the man and “dead woman” — to a thing entirely unassociated with any valley top: the Noh.  We are shown by this leap that his mind is far from the valley top. (It is on the Noh, for the duration of this line.  But isn’t there resonance between the far away, missing woman and the Noh?)

We also have the subtle, “Noh: Whenever,” which is suggestive of “no-when/not-ever.”

But we don’t know where this is going.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something
comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.
Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: Whenever
the script says dances, whatever the actor does next

The introduction of the Noh, by addressing a script and actor, returns the focus onto the man’s understanding that his relationship to the aforementioned valley top is quite distant from his comprehensions. The reality of that location is now a stage, a pseudo-environment. The man is aware of his being an “actor;” and the mention of a scripting of action is a subtle acknowledgement that he’s aware of the “something / comes next” & “whether he has stalled” dialectic.

He is waiting for something in a present nothingness, and he knows it. He also suspects that whatever he does next will be significant, since it may (but may not?) rely on what the script “says.” He has a choice to make?

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something
comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.
Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: Whenever
the script says dances, whatever the actor does next

is a dance. If he stands still, he is dancing.

No, no, he’s not about to make an active choice to do something.  He’s beginning to wonder if he can’t help but be active. The present nothingness is something, maybe: though he feels powerless, lacking motivation, he’s nonetheless dancing—even if he is only following a script he didn’t intend/write.

This line’s combination of “stand[ing] still” and “dancing” mirrors the rest of the poem:

  • the fuller described valley-top w/ the earlier mentioned “nothing”
  • the [memory of the] dead woman w/ a [present] purity.

By the end of the poem, I have a sense that the case isn’t hopeless, that though the man seems simultaneously aware of a nothingness and a somethingness without fully reconciling them, he’s moving toward a Zen acceptance of the unsolicited script:

To See if Something Comes Next

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something
comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.
Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: Whenever
the script says dances, whatever the actor does next
is a dance. If he stands still, he is dancing.



Nietzsche, an Origin to Performativity, and the Particular Problem with Consciousness/Language

I have previously addressed what I believe to be a key to understanding performativity as it happens, as it has happened, and why it has happened, through an exploration of Nietzsche’s  Section 354 of The Gay Science, Kaufmann translation:

…it seems to me as if the subtlety and strength of consciousness always were proportionate to a man’s (or animal’s) capacity for communication, and as if this capacity in turn were proportionate to the need for communication.  But that last point is not to be understood as if the individual human being who happens to be a master in communicating and making understandable his needs must also be dependent on others in his needs.  But it does seem to me as if it were that way when we consider whole races and chains of generations:  Where need and distress have forced men for a long time to communicate and to understand each other quickly and subtly, the ultimate result is an excess of this strength and art of communication….

Supposing that this observation is correct, I may now proceed to the surmise that consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication; that from the start it was needed and useful only between human beings….; and that it also developed only in proportion to the degree of this utility.   Consciousness is really only a net of communications between human beings; it is only as such that it had to develop; a solitary human being who lived like a beast of prey would not have needed it.  That our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness—at least a part of them—that is the result of a “must” that for a terribly long time lorded it over a man.  As the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress and to make himself understood; and for all of this he needed “consciousness” first of all, he needed to “know” himself what distressed him, he needed to “know” how  he felt, he needed to “know” what he thought.  For, to say it once more:  Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this—the most superficial and worst part—for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication…..

In brief, the development of language and the development of consciousness (not of reason but merely of the way reason enters consciousness) go hand in hand.  Add to this that not only language serves as a bridge between human beings but also a mien, a pressure, a gesture.  The emergence of our sense impressions into our own consciousness, the ability to fix them and, as it were, exhibit them externally, increased proportionately with the need to communicate them to others by means of signs.  The human being inventing signs is at the same time the human being who becomes ever more keenly conscious of himself.  It was only as a social animal that man acquired self-consciousness—which he is still in the process of doing, more and more.

Take, then, the origin of performativity from this.   The section in red type above describes the pressure, the originating circumstances, and the prerequisite conditions leading to the development of performativity, and the section in blue type describes—in part—how any given human being makes use of performativity within the herd, or within the community of humans, for his own gain.

But then Nietzsche continues and gives us a key for understanding the limitations of language, which I will apply shortly to a consideration of the limitations on a poet:

My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature; that, as follows from this, it has developed subtlety only insofar as this is required by social or herd utility.  Consequently, given the best will in the world to understand ourselves as individually as possible, “to know ourselves,” each of us will always succeed in becoming conscious only of what is not individual but “average.”  Our thoughts themselves are continually governed by the character of consciousness—by the “genius of the species” that commands it—and translated back into the perspective of the herd.   Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that.  But as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be.

This is the essence of phenomenalism and perspectivism as I understand them:  Owing to the nature of animal consciousness, the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface- and sign-world, a world that is made common and meaner; whatever becomes conscious becomes by the same token shallow, thin, relatively stupid, general, sign, herd signal; all becoming conscious involves a great and thorough corruption, falsification, reduction to superficialities, and generalization.

The whole selection is important; but the section in bold cuts through to the central point. Tie this into what Nietzsche wrote earlier, in the first selection quoted at the head of this blog post, that, “For, to say it once more:  Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this—the most superficial and worst part—for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication“—and the limitations on communication via the written or the spoken word should become clear:

  • We have only ever needed the meanest, most average, most common language, in order to communicate effectively within the community, to survive;
  • In fact, strange language or uncommon signs could lead to the failure of performativity, might be dangerous directly (provocation, insofar as the strange may be seen as dangerous to the community, threatening cohesion or, at the very least, may suggest the future failure of the community’s own performative strategies when focused upon the stranger coming from a strange land) or indirectly (failure to secure aid and support through failure to communicate)—or, in terms borrowed from J.L. Austin, strange and uncommon signs may be infelicitous rather than felicitous.
  • Our consciousness and language are inextricably tied together; our conscious thinking, then, is often mean, average, shallow, general, and all the other things Nietzsche says about it.

The blue type in the selection above points a finger toward the troubles a beginning poet will experience when trying to establish himself as a poet, insofar as he is aware of his individuality, his uniqueness, and then begins to write what he believes to be rather lovely or special lines without first understanding the limitations of language and consciousness.

For the new poet straining against all known conventions of  language and of poetry:   The very language that he uses is borrowed, common, average, if it is not complete gibberish — even gibberish may make use of the common alphabet — and, however he strains against convention, whether a convention of language or a convention of poetry, that convention informs his straining.  More importantly for the beginning nonconformist poet seeking an audience:   His audience brings to bear on the poem the most average, common, shallow, general consciousness.

But the straining nonconformists are only half the tale.  The opposite type of beginning poet can be just as bad and ultimately just as sad.  Attempting to write what he thinks is perfectly conventional poetry, he will often receive for his troubles the yawn of boredom or else hostile laughter at the trite, overblown doggerel he has produced.  He may think he is bending the conventions to his unique vision, but he has not yet seen how his thinking is conventionally shallow, merely average, and terribly common.  His audience has come to his poem seeking more than what they are quite accustomed to thinking or having thought themselves and what they have read a hundred times over in similar doggerel.

The “Ineffable”

There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, however, and it has no name.

Nietzsche did not condemn all poets, all people, to a perpetual—even, nihilistic—hell filled with endless, meaningless, shallow prose—endless, meaningless, shallow minds.  He makes a distinction between the consciousness and thinking or experiencing on the whole.  In introducing Section 354, he wrote:

The problem of consciousness (more precisely, of becoming conscious of something) confronts us only when we begin to comprehend how we could dispense with it….For we could think, feel, will, and remember, and we could also “act” in every sense of that word, and yet none of all this would have to “enter our consciousness” (as one says metaphorically).  The whole of life would be possible without, as it were, seeing itself in a mirror.  Even now, for that matter, by far the greatest portion of our life actually takes place without this mirror effect; and this is true even of our thinking, feeling, and willing life, however offensive this may sound to older philosophers.  For what purpose, then, any consciousness at all when it is in the main superfluous?

The selections already quoted above answered his question For what purpose; but this introduction to Section 354 may be helpful for explaining why poets have often succumbed to the use of the word “ineffable.”

I have in the past made it my business to hate the word ineffable—because it is an easy out for poets, an excuse for much of what is bad in bad poetry—of which there is much.  The word is an attempt to dismiss the effect of the commonness, shallowness, superficiality of the written or spoken language, and thus it is often used to justify whatever language the poet has chosen.  “Incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable.”  It is the business of the poet to express, to offer utterances—make no mistake.

But it is also the business of the poet to go beyond mere repetition of the banal, the common, the shallow—and beyond the incomprehensible or merely incidental and frivolous excursions into nonconformity which are, in the final analysis, also mere repetitions of the banal insofar as each straining is informed by the banal.

The criticism of free verse, that it is merely lineated prose, is often correct.  The criticism can also be made of much modern metrical poetry:  that it is merely metrical prose.  One often runs into either variety and finds the precious “charged language” which is meant to turn the prose into poetry—that dreadfully common, superficial, shallow language arranged in an unexpected way or perhaps pulled from a specialized lexicon titled, Words Most People Don’t Often Use (But of Course Will Understand).  Poets may strive to become an Original merely on the basis of having thought of a new way to arrange the dreadfully common.  Or by breaking a line—such power of Originality! so easily available to anyone with an Enter or Return key.  None of these approaches removes from the poem the utterly, entirely effable. Curiously, that portion of our lives which is not bastardized by language or consciousness—the vast portion of our emotional, willing, thinking lives—might be provoked into responding to anything put down on paper—because, after all, that is the most active part of our living.  But this livelier, fuller portion of ourselves does not need to go to a string of words and whitespace for stimulation; Hollywood or the local dance club or the woods and beaches and public parks might suffice, or, if words and white space are wanted, Fifty Shades of Grey or the witty (and often, unconventional) Twitter stream.

One often finds poets engaged in mutual stimulation, however.

I have, through Nietzsche, come to a late détente with the word ineffable.  I am willing to admit openly my own frustrations as a poet—because, yes, I too am filled to overflowing with what, at least for me, cannot easily be reduced to the effable or easily translated through the effable.  Even when (as is my tendency) I attempt to break the effable.  I am not too concerned about being labeled an incompetent, because I think my status is dreadfully common in this world.  And so, dreadfully commonly, I will say:  The poem that engages, that takes up a life of its own and will live beyond its first reading, is not merely incidentally provocative, not merely a reiteration of a hundred other poems with slightly different language, rhymes, line breaks, names and events, but is one which seems to have arrived in a form through which—and only through which—it could have arrived.  This, too, is banal; it has been said before.  Such poems are quite rare productions, even for the best of poets.  I would explain them in more detail but I do not have the words.

In short:  The effable may be all that the poet has in his toolbox—and it is—but his primary business is with the ineffable.  Anything within that toolbox is merely incidental and not worth the effort required to utilize it—until it acquires new worth through evoking the ineffable.  “Poetry must be as new as foam, and as old as the rock.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson.   But the rock is the effable, not the ineffable.

Hamlet’s Silence

A crude synopsis of performativity:

  • Models modeling models modeling models modeling…
  • Even the pretentious or strident and bold Walking Refutation of a model is modeling that model
  • Every model, in modeling, is inexact; errors in the transmission or repetition occur, whether purposely (quite rare) or accidentally/unintentionally (by far, the most common)
  • These errors are largely responsible for all that is chaotic, hateful, confusing, sad and tragic in human interactions—but also introduce the possibility of progress.
  • One cannot escape performativity except through death.
  • Hence, Hamlet’s last line:  “The rest is silence.”  My understanding of the line is informed by the bullet points above.

I hold w/ Nietzsche that Hamlet is not best described as having been beset by great doubt and too many choices; but rather, that Hamlet knew-too-well.  The others in the play had that “veil of illusion” Nietzsche referenced, which allowed them to act; they did not think they were models modeling models modeling, but thought they were Originals—Hamlet knew what they were.  Worse, he knew he himself was, and only could be, a model modeling models modeling….and saw the impossibility of the situation—

In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint.  Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action.  Not reflection, no–true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.

[from The Birth of Tragedy]

—although, I take my interpretation in a slightly different direction, by addressing what Hamlet saw.  Iago saw it also, but became Director — the only Original, or so he believed.

A recent question came to my attention.  Where does poetry reside?  Is it in the author?  The text?  The reader?  Does it emerge when all three converge?  Is it in all three simultaneously?  Are three different poems existing in poet, text, reader, one each?  These are old and tiresome questions.  Plato came into the discussion, when someone crossed the question with Plato’s theory of Ideas.  I think Plato, as with many after him (including Nietzsche) was grasping toward the idea of performativity, but falling somewhat short.  In any case, I thought I’d interject my answer.

Q:  Where does poetry reside?

A:  In Hamlet’s silence.




Aside: Telling is Like Hearsay

In my last post, I explored the Show, don’t tell principle of writing.  A distinction was made between telling, which is merely the giving of information, and showing, which Ray Rhamey defined as evoking experience.

The point in effective fiction writing:  Enable your reader to experience the novel through the focal character’s experiences.  Enable the reader to feel as if he himself experiences whatever transpires in the novel.

In the summary to that blog post, I offered a description of the reader’s experience being obstructed by extraneous or excessive detail:  lengthy, vivid, and specific detail may “show” a scene, but if it is inconsequential then it is distracting.  Such detail is little more than the author telling about the environment by drawing things that don’t matter to the story, regardless of how much vivid imagery and action are used.  It is as if the author has offered guideposts that lead nowhere we need or want to go.

Earlier in the blog post, I had given a reason for the insufficiency of the opposite, of giving general and abstract telling statements without specific detail to flesh them out.  These are not even guideposts—because they are not directing us to go anywhere, no, but rather letting us know we have already arrived—even if we have no memory of an experience of having traveled there.

But either type of obstruction—the negative effect of telling—can be summarized as author intrusion.

Example:  “John was angry and afraid.”   Here, the author is offering his own assessment of John’s mental state.  Because we lack specifics, because we are not being shown John’s state of mind, we must take the author’s word for granted.  Our experience of that telling statement:  Some other person behind the novel who is not a character in the novel has spoken to us to tell us what is what.

Similarly, excessive and/or extraneous detail offers us the experience of being told by the writer, “Hey, I’m drawing a vivid picture just for you; enjoy the view!”  If that detail has no bearing on any character in the novel, who is it for?  “Hey!” rebuts Author, indignant.   ”I just thought this was something you needed to know!”

Rather than evoking an experience for us, the telling writer cannot resist offering an aside.

In The Fourth Theorem of Curtis, I included a section on hearsay with the following description of what occurs during hearsay:

Hearsay considered alone is a different conglomerate performance than the conglomerate performance being reported.  The person relating events or describing processes and objects that he has witnessed informally as a matter of course or formally through experimentation—describing his facts—saw one performance or multiple performances in the past; the person now listening to him relate his previous experience is witnessing a different performance in his speech, physical behaviors, his art, his writing.

In other words, when our friend Mary narrowly escaped a collision on Interstate 44, her experience of that event was different than our experience now that she is telling it to us.   She saw the swerve of cars; she felt the sudden rise in blood pressure, the fear running through her nerves; she heard the loud clash of metal and glass on metal and glass caused by two vehicles driven by individuals who were not as lucky as herself.   But we, hearing her tale, hear her words, see her gestures, see her face changing expression as she relates whatever few details she must be remembering at just that moment of telling us what happened.  That performance, were we to relate it to a third party, is hearsay:  “Mary said she was almost in a wreck.  She was scared.”  It is also telling.

Most novels, because they are fiction, do not have the benefit of having been written to represent something that has actually occurred in the past.  Even were they based on true-life events, the distinction would not matter.  The writer’s words are a performance we the readers witness—and they are the only performance we witness while reading the novel.   Regardless of the writer’s intentions, his readers can only witness his performance.

We may have memory of direct experience from a multitude of past circumstances in our own lives, memories of events similar to those described in the novel.  If the writer can evoke those, he may be able to fool us into believing that we are experiencing the events in the novel directly rather than witnessing an authorial performance.  He cannot maintain the illusion if he keeps offering us asides.

This authorial dilemma affects everyone, writers and non-writers alike, to the degree that any conscious performance is given in order to lead a listener down a particular path.   To the degree that we may use performative strategies to influence or manipulate another—or, merely entertain—the insertion of an aside breaks the spell and lets our audience know that we have a private agenda.  Our interlocutor may suddenly realize that his reaction to  our performance is not for any purpose beneficial to him so much as a reaction that will benefit us, the performer.  No one likes to feel manipulated, but we are happy to go along if we are living our lives, for our amusement or benefit, and if we can feel that our reactions—our actions—are our own.

In other words, if the performer can evoke experience, we the audience to that performance may lose ourselves in the performance.  This of course may be delightful or quite tragic.  Or first delightful and then quite tragic.

This dilemma also explains the silliness that is telejournalism:


The proposed diplomatic solution to the Syrian Crisis is not merely a proposed diplomatic solution.  No, America has been treated “like a rag doll” by Putin.  Putin has “castrated the United States.”  There is even a banjo somewhere in the mix.

These are attempts to show, don’t tell.   To the degree that they evoke a host of previous experiences and previous reactions to those experiences, these phrases might actually evoke an experience for the viewer or lead the viewer down an intended path.  Especially if the viewer was already treading down that path; now, he has a companion.  On the other hand, these might be viewed as authorial asides, signs of a hidden agenda for the performers.  Revealing that agenda might be another performance—this time used for entertainment, comedy.  Rarely do we find in telejournalism the perfect, non-intrusive performance; but they keep trying.


On Writing: Show & Tell

Recently, I was reading the Wikipedia page covering the principle Show, don’t tell,  and I found a link in the external links section of that page to a web site called Flogging the Quill.  The author, Ray Rhamey, had written a succinct and useful guide for new novelists called, “How to show, when to tell,” including examples.  In particular, his summary is valuable:

Boiled down to essentials:

  • Telling is dispensing information.
  • Showing is evoking experience.

A couple other links from the Wikipedia entry lead to other helpful articles or blog posts; but the essential point remains:  Showing is evoking experience.

As the Wikipedia article states, telling is also useful—

“Show, don’t tell” should not be applied to all incidents in a story.  According to James Scott Bell, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”  Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time more concisely.  A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling.

Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress.  According to Orson Scott Card and others, “showing” is so terribly time consuming that it is to be used only for dramatic scenes.  The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, summarization versus action. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play.

—but new writers may have difficulty sorting out when to tell, when to show.  Furthermore, the dictum Show, don’t tell, pounded into the heads of beginning writers as a matter of course, may also lead them to confuse telling and showing.

Being Anna

Rhamey, in his short guide, offers up this example:

Telling: Anna was physically and mentally exhausted.

Sure, you get information. You have an intellectual understanding of her condition. But you have no feeling for what Anna feels like, do you? To show that Anna is physically and mentally exhausted, you could do something like this:

Showing: All Anna wanted to do was crawl into bed and go to sleep. But first she would cry. She didn’t think she could be calm and composed for another minute.

The new writer, filled with ideas about making his writing vivid and showing his characters being active, might be confused by this example.  Rhamey’s version of showing is only “telling” us what Anna wants to do, is planning to do, and thinks she cannot do; wouldn’t he be better off “showing” her walking to the bed, shoulders sagging, halting with tears forming in her eyes, finally standing over the bed in stasis between slipping under the covers and erupting into a full-blown sob-fest, trembling?

Well maybe; maybe not.  Rhamey’s revision may work well if his novel is written in a subjective third-person narrative style, in which the subjective thoughts and feelings of characters help move the story along.  His revision would be quite out of place in an objective narrative style in which the story is told only through a description of events, actions, and objective elements of a scene.   Assuming that Rhamey’s novel is written in the subjective narrative style, how is his revision showing rather than telling?

Because it evokes experience.

Whatever has happened to Anna preceding that line could, in theory, provoke a wide range of responses in her.  In my last blog post, On Writing: Matter, I excerpted a section from Dwight V. Swain’s excellent book on writing,  Techniques of the Selling Writerin which he approaches an explanation of why external events must be connected to a focal character:

External events have no meaning in themselves, no matter how bland or how violent they may be.  Their inclusion or exclusion per se is completely inconsequential.  They aid in story development only as someone has feelings about them and reacts to them.

Whatever has happened to Anna is, considered by itself, inconsequential.  It becomes consequential only to the degree that it moves the story along; and, a part of moving the story along is moving Anna along.  Because the event considered by itself is inconsequential, it becomes consequential only because Anna reacts to it in a specific way—Put another way:  Before Anna’s specific reaction, a wide range of potential reactions exist in theory; and, until she has a specific reaction, the event remains inconsequential.  It needn’t have been written.

The Telling example above, “Anna was physically and mentally exhausted,” is so general, it leaves the provoking event inconsequential because we do not know the degree of her exhaustion and, indeed, we know that people can feel exhausted for a wide variety of reasons and feel it differently per person per event.  Rhamey’s revision, on the other hand, gives us a specific reaction to the preceding event because it shows us how this person, in this circumstance, reacts to her situation.  She does not think of making a relaxing bubble bath but thinks of bed; she does not merely begin to cry, she plans to cry—almost defiantly?; she is even then considering making another decision, a decision she knows is theoretically available to her, of forcing herself to remain calm and composed, while doubting that she can.  Another person may have decided to flop on the sofa, flick on the television, and start digging into a tub of ice cream to lose herself in sensory distraction.

But this specific person reacts in this specific way.  Through such specific reactions—even if they are internal reactions, or in the mind—Rhamey evokes the experience of being Anna.

Being a Ghost

If Rhamey handled the rest of his theoretical novel well, evoking the experience of being Anna would enable the reader to experience being Anna.   After all, in real life a reader might have reacted to the same event by flopping on the sofa or losing himself for a few hours sitting at the bar of a local dive.  Through showing Anna’s story rather than merely telling it, Rhamey can lead a reader down a path that he normally wouldn’t take under the same or similar circumstances in his real life.  Indeed, the reader could experience something that would be impossible for him in the real world.   As Anna experiences, so we experience it.

Many ghost stories describe ghosts as having very specific goals.   They exist to warn, to evict, to threaten, to get revenge, or to find solace in completion of some unfinished business.  Ghosts tend to be monomaniacs.  Sometimes, ghosts are described as being so focused on their goals or visions and memories of their past lives, they are incapable of seeing anything that does not concern these otherworldly obsessions.  For example, a ghost in a haunted house might be seen repeatedly carrying a bucket to a bed and throwing imaginary water onto that bed, making trips back and forth between the bed and the tub in the bathroom, occasionally wailing during the process but entirely ignoring the humans walking about the home and never, ever going to any other rooms of the house.

To a large extent, we readers are like ghosts in the novels we read, focused on the narrative of the novel in a monomaniacal way.  We are almost in possession of the focal character of the novel—experiencing the world through her eyes (or, perhaps, through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, or through the eyes of multiple characters)—and eager to put that fire out before the bed and its occupant end in ash.

But unlike ghosts, we can be distracted from our mission.

Some new writers, taking Show, don’t tell to heart, have spent a great deal of time and effort mastering the art of telling by showing.  They tell us every detail of a scene:  the different plants pushing up through the earth, the five different types of birds—feather colors, warbling song, flight patterns, size and shape—whirling overhead, the exact number of paces away each tree sits on either side of the path through the woods on which the focal character is traveling, the different shades of brown in the churned, rutted path before him…..  “Showing,” these new authors reason, “means vivid description and things being active in the environment.”    And so they tell us everything about every scene.  We who are eager to put out the fire find ourselves burdened with so much detail, wanting to scream at the novel, “Fire!”

Perhaps feeling a guilty impulse—they hear Show, don’t tell! not Fire!—other new writers insert a handful of things about each scene that do not matter much, describe things in the environment that have no bearing upon the story—or, incidentally, upon any of the characters of the novel, much less the focal character.   Drawing the scene, they might call it.  Giving the reader description—vivid description, by adding detail.   This sunset has a particular set of hues; a scene later, that ale mug has cracks in a particular pattern. Because the point is, a writer must show; right?

No, the point is:   The writer must evoke experience.

Now of course, the focal character might be exactly the type of person who notices all the birds, hues, and other details of his environment, unlike most everyone he meets, and the resolution of the plot may require just such a character.   Or this day he notices those things because the headmaster has let him have a day off after a month of brain-numbing study in wizarding school—and perhaps being distracted by all the sights will set up the ambush waiting for him a quarter mile down that path.

Unlike the ghosts in stories who are able to possess humans, we as readers are not capable of taking control of our host, the focal character.   We are also not chained to a familiar environment or automatically injected into an environment that will be important to us.  Instead, we are like ghosts who are whisked away to another dimension without much warning, chained to another being we have never met prior to being whisked away and thrown into his body.  Excessive detail or inconsequential detail is like being caught in a purgatory that offers no escape to either hell or heaven or away from itself.  We have a vague but insistent memory of some fire somewhere else that needs putting out.  But everywhere we turn, we keep seeing a giant guidepost that someone has erected.  Someone has nailed a sign onto the guidepost:  ”Enjoy you’re stay!”   Yes, in this case it is misspelled.  They’ve also drawn hearts and happy faces all over it.

Fortunately, unlike ghosts we can close the book after a chapter or two and swear, never again!


On Writing: Matter

A story is a succession of motivations and reactions.

Was reading Chapter 3 from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain this evening and found a concrete gem that answers the fundamental question a fiction writer might ask.  What should I write?   By this I don’t mean what kind of book, what kind of story; but rather, what words to put down when beginning the process of writing the novel or story.

Presumably, a writer already has some idea of what kind of book or story he wants to write before he begins to write it.  He probably has a very specific idea of what kind of story he wants to write.   But beginning the process of giving that story actual form, of putting it on paper, he might begin to ask himself what is the matter?

This might be a very different kind of question if he finds that his fingers stop on the verge of giving his story form, paralyzed.  Faced with the dread of realizing that his story might exist only within his mind, that now he does not know how to make it material on paper in a way that others will understand and enjoy, he might begin to wonder what is the matter with him.

But resolving this dread requires answering that other question:  What should the matter be of the book; or, what words, sentences, paragraphs should he write, what images or descriptions or exposition or events?

Chapter 3 of Swain’s book contains an observation that, alone, provides an answer to that question because it offers the most important compass.  Speaking of a character in a novel, Swain writes,

Concretely, you want external developments that will lead him to feel—and therefore behave—in a constructive manner where the story problem is concerned….

External events have no meaning in themselves, no matter how bland or how violent they may be.  Their inclusion or exclusion per se is completely inconsequential.  They aid in story development only as someone has feelings about them and reacts to them.

The dread that besets a new writer when he first begins to type out his story arises from the fact that, of all the things he might choose to write, Their inclusion or exclusion per se is completely inconsequential.  At least, to him they seem inconsequential because he does not know what the consequence of including them or excluding them might be.  More likely than not, he is worried about what the reader must be told, what the reader requires for understanding and enjoyment; and he’s afraid that he is going to miss that mark, that the reader will become confused or, what’s much worse, bored.  So he guesses that his choices will be consequential; he just does not know how or for what.  And so he sits, his fingers poised over the keyboard, probably hating himself just a little bit.  If he makes it as far as the keyboard.

Entertaining the reader is no doubt the primary goal, so the question of what will matter to the reader is very important.  Swain addressed this earlier in Chapter 3.  What will matter to the writer is also very important; Swain addressed that issue in his first chapter.  But the compass for determining what matter to write is the focal character:

Whether a setting is colorful or drab . . . whether an incident is important or inconsequential . . . whether another character is good or bad—each point will be judged and interpreted with the focal character’s reactions as guide.

At the same time, your reader judges and interprets the focal character himself.

The reader gains his bearings from the focal character, interprets and judges all that is in the story on this basis.

So, your reader’s feelings about your focal character, plus the focal character’s own feelings as communicated to said reader, unite to bring the story itself to life.  Together, they provide the sense of purpose and direction that a good story needs.

Without a focal character, your reader is in the position of a city boy plunked down in the middle of some mountain fastness in backwoods Colorado or Montana.  He’s completely free to travel, but he doesn’t know which way to go.

The boy is, in a word, disoriented.  Until he finds a landmark, or a tree to climb, or a compass to point him north, or a stream or an Indian guide to follow, he’s in deep trouble.

Double that in spades for your poor reader.  He stands confronted by a story world fully as baffling to him as are the Rockies to the tenderfoot.

People move through this story world.  Events transpire.  Situation and scenery change.

Yet somehow, it remains drab and empty to your reader, without significance or excitement, because he has no home base from which to judge it.  He simply doesn’t know where he stands.

This may seem well and good as a broad guide for what needs to occur as one begins to type out a story.  But, what does one type to make it happen?  What pragmatic guide, or compass, exists for the writer who begins to write?

A good measuring stick is to ask whether what one describes—in setting, in physical characteristics of any character or object, in events—whether this matters to anyone in the novel.

As a pragmatic measuring stick, I would expand the question to any character in the novel, including secondary and minor characters as long as those characters ultimately matter to the focal character.

Perhaps a minor character gives a magic dagger as a gift to a secondary character unbeknownst to the focal or viewpoint character.  The dagger will come into play later for the primary characters; they will be forced to react to its existence or to the consequence of its existence.  That gifting might occur at a time and place that doesn’t include the primary characters.  One could write that scene if necessary by including whatever matters to the gift-giver or to the receiver although they are not primary characters.  Though not primary, they do form a part of the world that will bear upon the primary characters.  One might also include description that would have significance for the primary characters were they present and which they will suffer not knowing.  In this way the web of cause and effect is drawn for the reader, so that when the primary characters eventually have to react to the existence of the magic dagger, the reader a) gains some understanding of why the primary characters are put in that position, and/or b) why they react the way they do, and/or c) will have some feeling, or some way of measuring their own reaction to what happens and to what the primary characters ultimately do in response.

However complicated or complex the web, the focus ultimately lies on the focal character of the novel (however much the viewpoint character, if he is different, also steals the limelight.)    So details of events, locations, objects, and persons are important to the degree that these details bear or will come to bear upon the primary character in determining his reactions and actions, whether through his awareness of these details or through his relative ignorance of them.

Many drab and tedious stories are written by authors who think, first and foremost, “What do I need to tell the reader?  What does the reader need to know?”  Many cringe-inducing stories are written by authors who ask themselves, first and foremost, “What will make the reader squirm, shiver in dread, excited, surprised?”  Of course, one can answer these questions as well; but the primary question when writing should be, “Does this detail matter to anyone in the novel—or will it—especially, to the focal character?”


Review: Stasis

Stasis by Kim Fielding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stasis, by Kim Fielding, is an odd little book. I had just finished reading the sixth book of another fantasy series of novels, reaching that point every fan of good fantasy dreads—waiting for the next in a series to be written and published—and a search for something else to read during my wait landed me on Fielding’s book. At only 99 cents for the Kindle edition, I thought, “Why not?”

With only 224 pages, Stasis barely meets the definition for “novel” when compared to, say, almost any other work of fantasy fiction published in that format.

Most novels in the fantasy genre range from slightly over 300 pages to well over 500 pages, with some very heavy tomes at the higher end. (“Heavy” being metaphoric for the Kindlized versions.) There is a reason for this. Most fantasy trends toward the epic in scope, involving either complex sociological and political themes or a long series of exploits, encounters, discoveries, and so forth through which the main characters come to grips with their situation and overcome whatever obstacles and enemies stand in their way—and usually, both, complex themes and a series of encounters working through those themes. Also, good fantasy often requires a great deal of world-building. Because the worlds in fantasy novels are so different from our own, authors find themselves expending energy building up the world to something we can believe might actually exist somewhere in the universe or multiverse.

Stasis, in its tone and development, forgoes much of what readers of fantasy have come to expect of the genre and in fact seems more like a very long short story rather than a novel. No doubt, Fielding’s writing process for the book contributed to this feel: It was written in one month as part of the NaNoWriMo experience. I cannot say whether that process had any positive influence on the outcome, but negative results are obvious in the final product. That said, it is still a very good short read, surprisingly good given the fact that it was written in only one month.

Giving an adequate summary of the plot of the book without including too many spoilers might be impossible, given its size. I will try.

Ennek, the main protagonist, is “the younger son” of the leader of a city-state ruled through strict enforcement of morality laws and, incidentally, through magic. Ennek’s father, the Chief, does not possess magic, but a shadowy co-ruler or enforcer, the Wizard, does possess magic, and underlying the rule of law is the ever-present threat of Stasis. Common criminals may be forced into temporary slavery as bond-slaves—with exceedingly long sentences for even relatively minor offenses—but those criminals branded as traitors to the ruling elite are sentenced to a kind of physiological imprisonment most readers will recognize from the movie Minority Report: Stasis means being suspended in a kind of webbing in chambers below the home of the elite, alive but not living, a kind of suspended animation that can last anywhere from decades to centuries.

The ruler of the city-state considers Stasis a humane form of punishment. Other city-states may execute traitors, but in Praesidium, the leader explains, these prisoners are allowed to keep their lives in Stasis, awaiting the time unawares until they are released from Stasis after decades and, typically, then forced into bond-slavery to serve out the remainder of their sentence. Bond-slavery, by the way, is no easy sentence; at one point in the book, one bond-slave tells Ennek that he was arrested while young for “joy riding” with a horse and is serving out a 40-year sentence for the crime. Ingeniously, the Wizard explains the difference between simple bond-slavery and Stasis: traitors awake after decades to find that the whole world has moved on, so whatever insurrection or traitorous activity was committed in decades past will no longer have a foothold in Praesidium. As one reads through the book however, it is easy to see that the Chief’s description of Stasis, that it is a humane form of punishment, is simply rhetoric used by him to cast the ruling family in a good light.

Ennek, as “the younger son” of the Chief, is pretty much just flotsam. His brother, the elder by six or so years, will become Chief one day, wielding all power in the city-state, and as heir is several magnitudes of importance above Ennek. There is a kind of inviolable totemic nature to the family structure in which all significance is forced upward, onto the Chief and his first-born son, and Ennek, as “the younger son,” while still recognized as a member of the ruling family is merely a kind of vestigial organ. This insignificance plays a major role in the book, after Ennek becomes aware of a particular prisoner held in Stasis and decides to free him; much that happens as a consequence of his ill-thought-out action could not have occurred if he had had the same spotlight on him that his brother, the heir, has.

For all its short length, the book is rather disquieting. Stasis, as it is described—how it is effected, the things done to some of the bodies in Stasis, some of what at least one character in Stasis experienced during his long Stasis—is far more macabre than what viewers of Minority Report will have witnessed in that sterilized, slick Hollywood treatment of a similar process. But for me, the most disquieting aspect of the book, by far, resulted from the thin veneer placed over the world it occupies. I suspect that Fielding’s writing process for the book, its having been written in only a month, contributed to this approach. At 224 pages, not much room is utilized for world-building. Instead, the setting for the book is quite obviously the western U.S. coast; but it is off-center. The home of the elites has indoor plumbing—their bathrooms seem rather like our own now, with toilets and tubs and hot water available at the turn of a knob; Ennek’s quarters could as easily have been a suite in a Marriott—and they also have indoor lighting; but the lighting is gas lighting, not electric, and they travel via horses, carriages, and ships with sails. Some mention is made of a breakthrough some city-state is about to make, of horseless vehicles, but has not yet made. They use swords; but Ennek briefly mentions guns (which never otherwise make an appearance in the book.) And there is magic, powerful magic.

Readers of fantasy who expect detailed descriptions of the processes of magic, however, will be disappointed. As little time is given to this as is given to the world-building in general. The off-center feel for the setting inhabits the whole book. Aside from Ennek and the prisoner he decides to free, and perhaps the main villain, all the rest of the characters in the book are merely backdrop. The various city-states, the land they occupy, the economy and society-at-large are mere backdrop, hardly developed at all. When you come right down to it, even the prisoner and the main villain are barely developed, at least in comparison to Ennek. The prisoner and the villain, and the principle members of the ruling family, and Ennek’s only friend in the book, do seem real—but in the way that acquaintances and colleagues around us in our everyday lives feel real. We brush against the veneer constantly, we are aware that other complete human beings shape our world, but we have no inside access to them, no connection beyond how we are affected by our constant brushes with them.

Stasis is written in a third-person limited point of view, not third-person omniscient. We are never given a real window into the thoughts, feelings, and so forth of any character but Ennek, but are instead left to experience the world as he experiences it. This approach was rather wise for Fielding, even if it was merely a consequence of the limited time put into writing the book. We know by Ennek’s reactions to his world and the people in it that he has some connection to the interior of others—so, vicariously, they do seem real to us—but frustratingly, our experience of that world is still enigmatic and limited. It seems obvious to me that Fielding’s choice of a title and theme was intended to inject some allegory into the book. Ennek, by the way, is gay in a city-state that abhors immorality; homosexuality is extreme taboo; he is furthermore “the younger son” and so shoved further aside; as such, and given the constraints of his world, at 28-years-old or so he is still a virgin — in sum, his own life is also in stasis. We come to learn that Praesidium itself appears to be in a kind of stasis, although this impression is developed more subtly, almost only barely. Against this, the off-centeredness of the book is almost like that persistent pain that warns of an underlying problem before any doctor has made a diagnosis: here is a small break in stasis which threatens a bigger break. We are as troubled by the book as Ennek is troubled by his life.

I cannot say that Fielding entirely succeeds. There are two very egregious mistakes in the book which could easily be resolved in a revision without much effort; and, one other slight irritation.

Of the two major mistakes, I can only mention one with any sort of directness without giving out a major spoiler. The directness will have to be indirect, even so: Late in the book, Ennek seemingly “forgets” something until someone reminds him of it, but it is such a thing that, really, given the whole rest of the book, it is impossible for us to believe that he did not keep it in mind daily for months. It would have been riding his mind heavily. I suspect that Fielding’s rush to complete the book in a month, her too-stubborn effort to do so, forced her hand into making the major mistake. Had Ennek really had that thing riding his mind for months, the development of the resolution to the book, its completion, would have required more finesse and more time—in all likelihood, quite a few more pages interspersed throughout at least the last third of the book.

Of the second major mistake, I can only mention another work, to avoid too great a spoiler: the movie The Incredibles. There is a lesson there, something that is parodied, but I can’t go into it further. I will however mention the word, monologuing. Suffice to say, Fielding’s rush led her into a particular trap near the end of the book.

The irritation, which is not really a major problem with the book except insofar as it exacerbated the two major mistakes, is in the lost potential of Stasis. I read the book in one sitting. As a long short story (in feel and lack of further development), it was surprisingly good, despite some stumbles—quite surprising, and almost superhuman. But it could have been so much more. I am almost irritated with Fielding directly, feeling as though she determined once and for all that it would be a book written in one month and, by god, that was what is was going to be. A deeper treatment of the world and the many implications of that world, a deeper treatment of the characters, could have led to a major work of fiction; but, alas, then she could not advertise that it was written as a NaNoWriMo enterprise.

I finished this book having enjoyed it, however slight it is. The story of Ennek and his love continues in two sequels, forming a trilogy—but a warning here: Book Two was a major, major let-down, worthy of maybe 2 stars at best. I could not bring myself to read Book 3 after the experience of Book 2. This first book can stand alone however, for what it is.

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[Note:  This is mostly a re-post of a review I wrote previously for this blog, with some minor edits.  I'm moving toward an integration of Goodreads for my book reviews and copied the review over to that site, to be re-blogged here.]


Lord of the White Hell — A Quick Review

Lord of the White Hell - Book One Lord of the White Hell – Book One by Ginn Hale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First an important note: This “book” should really be considered the first half of a book which concludes in the second of this series, Lord of the White Hell – Book Two. The break between Book One and Book Two is not much more than the type of break you will find within most single novels between one chapter ending on a tension-filled note and the next chapter beginning afterward in the aftermath of that tension. Quite literally, the action that takes up in the beginning of Book Two happens only a few hours after what happens at the end of Book One and could easily have appeared in Book One without seeming in the least bit odd. If you are planning to buy this book, you might as well plan to buy Book Two at the same time. They really can’t be considered separately; that would be like writing a review of only the first 20 chapters of a 40-chapter book; consequently, I feel obliged to review both at the same time.

Although I have read fantasy series involving gay or bisexual characters as main characters in the past, I am relatively new to the “M/M Romance” genre in which this book falls. I have been noticing that, within this genre, romance between the principle characters tends to take the center stage while plot — and action related to the plot — fills an almost incidental, background-noise type of role. Lord of the White Hell is no different.

On the one hand, Ginn Hale’s approach is a little frustrating for me and might be frustrating for others more used to reading straight-up fantasy than m/m romance in a fantasy setting. In typical fantasy, especially epic fantasy or even sword-and-sorcery fantasy, the plot revolves around some conflict between the protagonists and their principle antagonist; much of the action and forward movement is shaped by that conflict. In Lord of the White Hell, the plot revolves around the characters of Kiram and Javier and, importantly, the cultures of the world they inhabit. The antagonist is kept in the shadows for most of the book; he hardly makes any move or causes anything to happen but just lurks in the background like some trap that will eventually spring; and although Kiram and Javier become aware of an antagonist, their actions within the novel hardly address this knowledge. Instead, they are focused on each other, on their classmates, and on the general goings-on of the Sagrada Academy where they meet. Almost all of the action revolves around them and the secondary characters in their environment going about their daily lives.

On the other hand, their daily lives and their relationship to one another are very interesting. The characterization and the world-building in this novel are excellent, fascinating, thrilling even.

Sometimes while reading the novel, I grew frustrated because I wanted to see what would happen if Kiram and Javier even once — just once! — would take the growing threat against them, the existence of that antagonist, seriously enough to discuss it together and make solid plans for fighting it. That is the epic-fantasy-lover in me, wanting to see the plot revolve more around this larger conflict. I began to realize however that the principle reason I wanted to see this sort of development was that I wanted to see both Kiram and Javier more fully. I became so engrossed in their characters and the cultures of their world, I felt a little cheated by Ginn Hale’s refusal to show me this other aspect of Kiram and Javier: their capacity to plan and work together to solve a major conflict.

Another tendency of m/m fantasy romance which I have found frustrating relates to the way some authors present their characters as hapless or helpless reactionaries. Things keep happening to them against which they must react, but they do not themselves cause things to happen or direct the plot.

Compare for instance Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows and her whole Nightrunner series of novels. Alec and Seregil in that wonderful series in fact go out of their way to find trouble — that’s part of being a nightrunner/spy — and seem more in control of what happens to them even if they cannot always anticipate an antagonist’s actions. They discuss between them plans, strategies and so forth and appear like a very functional and effective duo.

In Lord of the White Hell, Kiram and Javier eventually do begin to work together to try to stop their foe, but they are primarily reactionary and much of the action they take occurs very late in the story — and the novel suffers for it. The ending to their story feels extremely rushed. For all her excellent characterization and world-building, the effect of this rush at the end of the story gives the impression that Ginn Hale realized that she had to wrap up her story and decided to throw together an ad hoc conclusion. Things seem to “come together” just right, too easily, in order for her to wrap it up.

Fortunately however, so much else in the novel makes this final rush forgivable, at least for me. The two cultures presented in Lord of the White Hell are very developed and fascinating. The romance developed between Kiram and Javier in ways that seemed utterly authentic. Utterly. Despite the weaknesses related to plot development and the rushing of the climax at the end of the book (and incidentally also the rushing of the denouement at the very end), I nonetheless found the book mesmerizing.

I did find some secondary characters to be a little too one-sided, almost caricatures — like the Grunito boys — but others seemed like very full, real individuals even with little focus on them (Kiram’s family, for instance.) Even the caricatures were fun, if not entirely authentic.

Book One contained many editing errors, especially cases where a whole word was missing, but this wasn’t too distracting and Book Two had fewer such errors.

After finishing Book Two, I instantly wished for a Book Three. I hope Ginn Hale considers showing us what happens following the events in these two books. That is a good sign. Because of the weaknesses I’ve described above, I cannot give Lord of the White Hell a 5-star review, but it gets a very solid 4 stars from me.

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Blood Song — A Quick Review (And Deeper Analysis)

Blood Song (Raven's Shadow, #1)Blood Song by Anthony Ryan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Blood Song in the Kindle edition. I’d purchased it a couple months before actually reading it, having decided to purchase it on the basis of Amazon reviews alone and because so few books in the fantasy genre receive as overwhelmingly positive a set of reviews as this book had received. Then, after purchasing the book, I let it sit on my Kindle for a couple months before I made the time to read it.

The first thing I noticed about the book when I began to read it was its incredibly long prologue written entirely in italics. On my Kindle, the prologue came to 14 pages. Prologues are always a dicey subject: usually unnecessary and almost always quickly forgotten as one reads, but seemingly pro forma for most authors of fantasy novels, especially those attempting epic sword-and-sorcery tales. (Similar to the pro forma inclusion of a map. This novel also includes a map. The map has few features—frustratingly few—and is probably unnecessary.) I’ve read many fantasy novels over the years, so I’m generally forgiving of the useless prologues in many of them. They are a habit for me as a reader; I’ve read and forgotten so many of them. However, the fact that this prologue was written entirely in italics, for so many pages, was an irritation. One expects italics to be used sparingly; as emphasis, they are used to emphasize something peculiar, making it stand out—and a prologue by its nature already stands out. Also, the fact that by the end of the prologue one learns that it’s actually a framing device rather than a prologue, and that it pretty much reveals at the very outset the protagonist’s final state after the next 600-or-so pages that will follow….Well, I was very suspicious of the remainder of the book after I realized that so much was being revealed so soon.

The author seems to have been slightly confused about what kind of book he wanted.

Normal epic fantasy should leave some doubt about its conclusion, which the framing device almost obliterates. Especially coming-of-age stories in which some abandoned youth gradually works his way up from nothingness to epic greatness: part of the tension is the question of “Will he make it?” and “What will he become?” which the framing device answers within the first 14 pages. The majority of the book, occurring in the past, is one huge flashback to the little bits written in italics and scattered throughout the book. I feel no fear of spoiling things for those who have not yet read the book when I say that, after the first 14 pages, you know this protagonist will live to his late twenties. Yes, the rest of the book occurs in the past, proceeding from the time he is ten years old; but the author will have spoiled the “great reveal” of his survival to his late twenties after the first 14 italicized pages. You will also know almost everything about what that 10-year-old will become. Not everything, however.

On the other hand, the author seems to have taken some pages out of normal movie or television practices by weaving back and forth between the present (the “framed,” extremely lengthy sections all in italics at the beginning of the novel and each “part” of the novel) and that flashback past while also purposely and quite obviously withholding information in either account. Indeed, he leaps about when writing the past events, purposely leaving out some of that narrative in order to have gotcha moments later in which the missing episodes are revealed. In a 2-hour movie or a 1-hour television episode, this is forgivable because so much has to occur within a short time frame; but in a novel of 600+ pages, when one quite naturally reads the narrative as….well, a narrative development, one would be forgiven for feeling that the author has tipped his manipulative hand far too many times. He’s not subtle about it. (I did have the impression while reading the novel, on several occasions, of being in the midst of a marathon of episodes of some television show.)

He seems trapped between the desire to create a semi-mythical character via episodic flashbacks and to create an epic tale. I think he settled on the former, and I think that is unfortunate. He could have had his mythical, great character without sacrificing narrative cohesion with so many jarring chronological moves and none-too-subtle pulling of the rugs from under our feet.

All-in-all however, the above criticisms do not detract much from the entertainment value of the novel. The imaginary lands he describes are intriguing, the cultures intriguing, the histories intriguing. The main protagonist is mostly interesting, although one quickly grows tired of the fact that he incessantly bemoans his own killer nature. The first 3/4 of the novel or thereabout reminded me of a blend of Ender’s Game and the classic movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin—with perhaps a little of the movie 300 thrown in, particularly when the protagonist undergoes one particular Test in his training. For those who enjoy the martial arts (by which I mean, the art of war and combat, not necessarily only the Eastern variety), this will be an engaging read. I tore through the book once I began reading it.

The worst aspect of the book, by far, is the fact that the author seems to have never learned of the semicolon. I have never in my life read so many run-on sentences. Some are not so bad, but sometimes the grammar is so convoluted by run-on sentences combined with clauses that you have to exit the narrative and try to parse out what he is trying to say. These run-on sentences are not merely oversights or accidents but form a huge portion of the writing throughout the book. It is as if he used his word processor’s find-and-replace function to find all the semicolons and replace them with commas. The rest of the writing is actually very arresting—at least, engaging, non-repetitive, descriptive—and I confess to being mystified that the lesson of the semicolon and sentence construction never made a dent on his psyche or inner critic.

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I also left the above review, originally written for Goodreads, at the Amazon page for Blood Song, where I gave it four stars.

An unnecessarily harsh, negative criticism by another reviewer — from a 1-star review — quoted a troublesome bit of writing from early in the book: “history had seen fit to garner him with titles aplenty.”  He received much useless rebuttal in comments to his review.  He was right; the wording was clunky, florid even, and had also bothered me quite a bit when I first read it.

I mentioned in the above Goodreads review that the author had used many run-on sentences.  I had wanted to highlight some examples but did not have the book handy when I wrote the Goodreads review.  So I’m adding my response to that negative Amazon review here:


That exact sentence threw me for a loop and caused a lot of dread for me when I read it. I will say that very little else in the novel was as jarring, thankfully. However, the author seems to have never learned the art of the semicolon or how to separate independent clauses into different sentences; it is as if he used a word processor to find all instances of a semicolon and replace them with commas. I have never read so many run-on sentences in my life. An example from the first chapter:

“The silence and the mist made him uneasy, he didn’t like the gate and the figure which sat atop it.”

These are two separate, independent clauses; either could be a complete sentence alone. He doesn’t use a conjunction. He just uses a comma, no semicolon or colon. The example above is not at all confusing, but many longer sentences in the novel are quite confusing, especially when he adds so many other clauses to a sentence. A more convoluted example from the first chapter:

“The entrance was an arched doorway, portcullis raised to allow them entry, the two spearmen on guard, both senior students of seventeen, bowed in profound respect as the Aspect stepped through.”

This could easily have been two individual sentences; e.g.:

“The entrance was an arched doorway, portcullis raised to allow them entry.  The two spearmen on guard, both senior students of seventeen, bowed in profound respect as the Aspect stepped through.”

However, as written, for just the first pass through it seemed as if “the two spearmen…” was a clause describing the doorway in the way the clause about the portcullis described the doorway-statues then? No, separate individuals who bowed when the Aspect stepped through.

The book is absolutely filled with run-on sentences. Some are much more confusing than either of the two examples above. I will say however that, as I came to expect such clunky sentence constructions, I began to be more careful reading the novel, even editing them in my head as I read along. For the uninitiated: Our language has a long tradition of a LACK of punctuation, before punctuation became formalized. The punctuation we use today is a formalization, only. So I decided to give this author a pass, just tried to move with the flow. I made it through the book and ended up enjoying the book as above-average entertainment; but it is not high art. I don’t think the book would have been hurt one bit if the author had not used so many run-on sentences. I think there was no discernible usefulness or purpose to his use of run-on sentences. I suspect he simply didn’t know the formalities of sentence construction. So they WERE stumbling blocks, unnecessary stumbling blocks.


A final note:  The Kindle version that I read was self-published apparently.  Ace has come out with a hardcover edition which will probably be heavily edited.  (Another commenter under that negative review already has a copy, and the florid, weird wording originally highlighted by the 1-star review has been edited in it.)  Hopefully, the editors will have made the many, many edits to remove the run-on sentences from the book as well.  I don’t think these fixes will raise the book above the four stars I gave it, out of five, for other reasons already mentioned above.  Still, it is an enjoyable bit of entertainment.


Addendum (spoilers):  When I said above in my review that the author ”seems trapped between the desire to create a semi-mythical character via episodic flashbacks and to create an epic tale,” I really should have clarified that statement.  I’m contemplating a new blog post just to focus on the particular issue of deciding what kind of book you are writing—an issue Orson Scott Card touched upon so well in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy but which probably needs a further expansion even beyond Card’s treatment.  Well, Card’s treatment was focused and to the point and fit the scope of that book rather well:  a case in point.  Expanding on my point about Blood Song’s development would have veered into a more detailed literary analysis—always my temptation when writing what is ostensibly a mere ”review”—and that’s why I didn’t go into more detail here.  However, I did not want to leave the review as-is without also pointing out where Blood Song might succeed—might.  As a review, perhaps the above needs a little expansion to include this consideration.

If I were to expand my review to consider not only the development process Anthony Ryan used but my own most solid impression of his book, I would have to say that his focus seems mostly to be the development, for our viewing pleasure, of a particular aspect of “the mythical figure.”  That phrase is slap-dash.  What I meant by it was the type of extraordinary figure experiencing extraordinary experiences.  The particular aspect Anthony Ryan wants us to experience is a kind of sad circumstance that such individuals face.

Let us use as an example Hamlet.  One of the chief strengths of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is the fact that the title character not only seems extremely real, as real as anyone alive now, but he also is quite mysterious.  Hamlet seems bigger than possible.  Yet, Hamlet most certainly exists; we just can’t get into his head, ourselves.  This effect is achieved by Shakespeare by not only putting Hamlet into an extraordinary circumstance—in large part, a circumstance that he himself creates—and not only by giving Hamlet such sparkling actions and words or speeches, but also by withholding much from us.  Centuries have been spent in debate over Hamlet’s true character, his true inner dialogue, his true motivations, and so forth.  We have his outward responses to his circumstances (including his spoken dialogue), but what we see does not match up 100% with what we assume to be his inner self.  At least, much concerning Hamlet does not make sense for us.  We are left with the impression that Hamlet may be even larger on the inside than he appears to us on the outside.

Now, enter Anthony Ryan’s character Vaelin.  Blood Song is in a different genre than Hamlet, not only because it is a novel rather than a play but also because Blood Song falls somewhere in the contemporary niche of epic fantasy, with all its usual devices.   What Ryan seems to have wanted to show is something that Hamlet, the character, shows:  How an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances will forever go unknown, remain misunderstood by all around him.  The interlocutor from the first-person, italicized portions of the book, Vernier, who comes upon “the Hope Killer” at a date much later than most of the rest of the book, certainly misunderstands him throughout this novel.  The populace of Vaelin’s own society, like the populace from Vernier’s society, misunderstands him; as the book opens, we are told:

He had many names.  Although yet to reach his thirtieth year history had seen fit to garner him with titles aplenty:  Sword of the Realm to the mad king who sent him to plague us, the Young Hawk to the men who followed him through the trials of war, Darkblade to his Cumbraelin enemies and, as I was to learn much later, Beral Shak Ur to the enigmatic tribes of the Great Northern Forest — the Shadow of the Raven.

Of course, such names and titles are pretty much common in the contemporary fantasy genre.  This is how one “builds up” a character.  The mention of these names occurs on the first page of this novel, however.  The rest of the novel, the whole non-italicized portions, are flashback:  we are meant to come to some understanding about those titles, about the understanding that the populaces of two societies have of this character Vaelin.  And Vaelin bemoans throughout, particularly as the novel advances, his own killer nature.  I.e., no one understands him; they see him as these things but he’s really a sensitive flower.  So Ryan seems to want to deliver this aspect of a mythical hero:  his loneliness, his isolation from all others.  At the same time, Ryan seems to be offering a critique of society’s tendency to force veneers onto great men who do not ask to have those superficial labels.

I had mentioned in the original review that the author purposely, none-too-subtly, withholds some information, some scenes, only to use those things for gotcha moments later:   Just as we learn that Vaelin lies to the historian Vernier when giving his account of the past, we also learn that the author of Blood Song will lie to us by withholding information to be delivered later for that gotcha.

This manipulative strategy is far too obvious, blunt-trauma, to be successful—in the way it is employed.  Most of the book is not italicized—i.e., it is narrative taking place in the past, as huge segments of flashback—and we read the narrative thinking that we are reading about the “truth” of Vaelin.  And then along comes a new scene in the present in which Vaelin remembers a portion of that past that the author Ryan did not include in the original flashback.    For instance—SPOILER ALERT— at one point we read about Vaelin’s superior in the Order, its leader,  walking with him before the final war, and his superior tells him that the most important thing for Vaelin to do is to come back.  Then for several chapters, Vaelin recalls that warning.  But finally, near the very end of the book, another flashback is used in which his leader actually told him much more during that walk than merely to come back.  Why was this not a part of the original flashback of them walking together?  Why?  Because the author Ryan wanted a gotcha.   In truth Ryan was playing a game common to television and movies of not showing everything but quick-cutting to something else, only to reveal the whole of a scene later.  Surprise, audience!  So we’ve been reading with the understanding that the main protagonist knew very little about events, when he actually knew much more; to have revealed it chronologically in the narrative of the past would have let us know sooner too.  Since this information has a very important, direct bearing on the climax, knowing that the protagonist knew long before that climax what to expect would have spoiled the climactic-y nature of the climax, dontcha know?

All these efforts, the whole processes of the development of the novel, seem focused on the primary goal of drawing for us the image of misunderstood-great-man.

I think this is also the primary reason some readers have given the book such a great rating on Amazon and elsewhere.  Ryan certainly succeeds in giving us that image—really, the image of that aspect, which seems to be the whole point of the book.  But is this enough to sustain the novel?

Returning back to Orson Scott Card’s simple advice, I would say that Ryan seems to have wanted to write a character story:

All stories have characters, and in one sense stories are almost always “about” one or more characters.  In most stories, though, the tale is not about the character’s character; that is, the story is not about who the character is.

The Character Story is a story about the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to him.  The Indiana Jones movies are Event Stories, not Character Stories.  The story is always about what Indian Jones does, but never who he is.  Jones has many problems and adventures, but at the end of the movie his role in society is exactly what it was before—part-time archaeology professor and full-time knight-errant.

By contrast, Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding is about a young girl’s longing to change her role in the only community she knows—her household, her family.  She determines that she wants to belong to her brother and his new wife; “they are the we of me,” she decides.   In the effort to become part of their marriage she is thwarted—but in the process her role in the family and in the world at large is transformed, and at the end of the story she is not who she was.

Ryan wants to show how Vaelin became “Sword of the Realm…the Young Hawk…Darkblade…Beral Shak Ur” and “the Hope Killer.”  In the flashbacks, Vaelin begins as a boy abandoned by his father to the militaristic Order; he grows up and acquires each of those titles in turn; the whole time he’s hating his own killer nature; and —Spoiler Alert— he ultimately leaves the Order and, although we don’t know for sure (because there is a sequel), he appears to have finally left those other titles as well as his own killer role in these societies, having finally transformed.   But there is some confusion, because Ryan could have been shooting for a Milieu Story (the book is about how these particular societies misunderstand and label exceptional men, all within a milieu of fundamentalist religions) or an Event Story (how the fairly unexplored but constantly reappearing Very Evil Entity is trying to take over the world, and Vaelin must act against It.)

Even if the story was intended as a Character Story, most of the transformations are given to the reader within the first 14 pages.  We are told that Vaelin becomes all these things; then, the rest of the book is intended as an explanation of the how and the development of the fact that he wants to be something else—and that final development, the transformation into something else, is left rather vague, To Be Continued….  While much of the narrative showing Vaelin’s growth is intriguing and quite entertaining in its episodic fashion….he doesn’t actually grow much.  He just becomes the expert killer we already knew about from the first 14 pages.  The scenes in the Order are interesting, in an Ender’s Game/Hogwarts kind of way; but unlike either of those two series, there’s no there there.  I.e., there’s no particular plot, no particular contest between forces, and so forth, to sustain the story, to be the developmental force behind the story.  There’s merely the Great Man, from beginning to end, with some incidental insight to the way this Great Man just wants to be a sensitive flower.


WordPress Migration

I have just recently migrated to a WordPress installation for the blog from Typepad, on a new hosting account, and consequently not all may be well with the site for the next week or two.

I’m relatively unfamiliar with WordPress, having been a dinosaur of a Movable Type blogger for nearly a decade.  The waters may be choppy.

I blog so infrequently anyway, I don’t expect this to become much of a problem.

Many links to other blog posts within this blog will not work until they have been updated.  Some images previously stored at Typepad will need to be moved or at least have their permalinks altered.  Etc.

I’ll check back in with an update when I can.


The Fourth Theorem of Curtis



The Fourth Theorem of Curtis:  Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be.
A Problem

In reference to The Third Theorem, we might say that facts are not future performance.

Problematically, we often expect facts to repeat; the dependability of a fact is its recurrence — the recurrence of a conglomerate of performances, of context — over time; and we are tempted always to believe that what has been will continue to be.

A dependable fact is dependable precisely because it repeats.  It became a fact because it repeats; it could not have become a fact otherwise; and, because it has always repeated until the present, we have no counterfactual fact, or handy experience of its failure to repeat, and so we have nothing we might believe as an alternative to it.  Under identical circumstances, or context, water will still boil at the same temperature; under different circumstances, it will not.

But our understandable expectation of a recurrence of fact is problematic because it creates a special bias:  our normal everyday experience of regularity leads us to the temptation to define fact as future performance, or future context as present and past context, and present context as past context.1

Science, a Definition via Performativity

Science is the study of performances that is intended to expand qualitatively and quantitatively our available recognizable facts.  Formal science, which self-identified scientists profess to practice, is the systematic accumulation of facts, of contexts.  Informal science, practiced on a more regular basis by self-identified scientists and by all others in everyday life, is less systematic, a less conscious and less conscientious accumulation of facts, context.


Typically, a counterfactual is thought of as being any set of circumstances that have in no way actually occurred; they are termed “counterfactual” because they run counter to the set of circumstances that have occurred:

“If only it had not been raining, I would not have totaled my car.”

In the example above, we might be able to remember cases, experienced directly or experienced from reading accounts of circumstances, in which heavy rain was a part of a context in which a car collision occurred.  We might be able to look back from immediately after this referenced car collision and recognize the fact that heavy rain was occurring when we totaled our car.  We might be able to look back from this collision and remember our car hydroplaning just before the collision occurred.   We might even be able to remember days when it was not raining in which we did not total our car.  But these recognitions of past performances are recognition of separate contexts—involving many other distinct variables than rain or lack of rain, collision or lack of collision, and cars.  We cannot look back from a collision that has just occurred and recognize an immediate past performance of this collision not occurring at a time when it was not raining.  The counterfactual claim of fact, “If only it had not been raining, I would not have totaled my car,” may be an imaginary fact because it is a set of recognizable past performances, a context involving separate facts relating to different events; but these performances forming that set are not a past performance, or context, in toto.  Even the imaginary set lacks the fact of this-car-at-this-time, not to mention other variables such as location of this collision, speed at this time of collision, driving surface on which this collision occurred, total weight of this car at this time (including fuel, passengers, items in the vehicle) and many others besides.  Not to mention:  this car has collided, and a collision is a complex performance of metal, rubber, glass, and perhaps a tree or some other object included in the collision.

Counterfactual claims are dreams of a different past performance than that performance actually witnessed, typically created either by stitching together other performances actually witnessed at different times in the past under different circumstances or removing from the context that actually occurred some key variable of that context—and probably, both.

However, if one has experience of removing a variable from a recognizable context or adding a variable to a recognizable context and discovering that a new context results, one may begin to develop a fact concerning the absence or existence of that variable.  For instance, never having seen a stick of dynamite (or any other bomb) before (in one’s own immediate experience or in some other media such as a movie or via a book’s description or an acquaintance’s description, etc.), one would have no experience of what happens after one holds a fire source to the fuse.  After holding fire to the fuse just once, on purpose or accidentally — and assuming one has for whatever reason moved far enough away from the new context — one might learn a new fact.  One might even remember that fact in this context:  “If only I had not lit that fuse, the dynamite would not have exploded when it did.”

A counterfactual claim is a claim founded upon a lack of  understanding of the contexts involved, the actual resulting context (effects) and the preceding contexts (causes) which, taken together, are another, encompassing context.

Moreover, counterfactual claims are typically thought of as those in which complex sets of variables are considered only through the addition or subtraction of one variable which is claimed to be key in determining that overall cause-effect chain of events—especially, also, when that single variable, considered to the exclusion of multiple other variables, is itself dimly understood in relation to those other variables.  E.g., after a divorce: “If only I hadn’t married Amy 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be broke now!”

Finally, counterfactual claims also may be those in which a key variable is out of the speaker’s control or beyond his range of influence.  “If only it hadn’t been raining…” may indeed signal a key variable in a car collision if hydroplaning was involved in that collision; but having been able to halt the rain in order to change the context that later occurred (the collision) does not describe the person making the claim.  He could have said, “If only I had stayed in bed this morning, my car wouldn’t be totaled now.”    (This of course assumes that no one else would have borrowed the car that day; also, that he or someone else hadn’t already paid someone to come by and total his car if they saw it still sitting in his drive that morning.)

One might be tempted to label the results of  new “different circumstances” that actually occur as a counterfactual fact to some remembered facts when they occur, when these two sets seem to contradict.  I.e., something unexpected and never before experienced has happened.  Having no experience of them, no facts about them, the unexpected events are “counter-factual” in the sense that they run quite contrary to any imaginable set of performances, or to anything one has experienced in the past.  But they are different circumstances, a set of performances — a context — that is different from another set, or context, by the addition or subtraction of variables.  An entirely new context is impossible.  For one, the witness to any such context is the same witness to the past contexts that he has witnessed; i.e., he himself, at least, prevents the new context from being “entirely new,” because he is a variable within the new context just as he was a variable in those prior contexts.  In all likelihood, certain familiar laws of physics, familiar materials, and so forth will also prevent the new context from being “entirely” new.  However, to the extent that any set of variables considered as a whole may be considered a context, one set may be different from another set.  If sets of variables previously witnessed become facts in themselves — a past performance that has repeated; these variables have always occurred together — then a new set may be thought of as a new potential fact in itself and may be unexpected.

Formal science in particular may use counterfactual thinking by imagining a different context to a previously experienced conglomerate of performances, applying the variable or variables that make the difference (conducting an experiment) and looking at the results.2  These new “different circumstances,” in turn become new facts in themselves when they repeat.  Importantly, such new experience also creates an additional new fact that is the conjunction, or co-incidence, of the “old circumstances” and the “new circumstances” within the mind of the observer.  This is a process of dialectic, broadly considered; but, this process is also related to the operation of performativity, insofar as the old and the new sets of circumstances themselves become re-defined in relation to one another:

  • First: “Water begins to boil at 100°C.”
  • Then, after subjecting the water to greater pressure: “This water began to boil at 114°C”.
  • So: “Water begins to boil at 100°C at 14.69 psi.”  &  “At 24 psi, water begins to boil at 114°C.”
  • And, “Water under different pressures begins to boil at different temperatures.”

It should be noted that the second experience of a performance listed above, water beginning to boil at 114°C, might at the time of its being observed seem counter-factual to the original fact of water beginning to boil at 100°C; but these two facts are not counterfactuals, merely different sets of performances, different contexts, different facts.  In combination, the first and the second contexts may lead to the creation of another new fact, the fourth bullet point listed above.  In formal practice, this process might require multiple other contexts in comparison for isolating the variable of pressure while eliminating other variables like the purity of the water being boiled.

Under the heading formal science should be included:  Poll-watching intended to inform an assessment of the effectiveness of messaging (politicians, political strategists); bottom-line-watching intended to inform advertising campaigns, product desirability, and business practices (business strategists, CEOs, Mad Men); materials-watching intended to inform the assessment of construction, fabrication, and growing techniques (tradespersons, engineers, construction workers, farmers); and so forth—in addition to the normal characterization of formal sciences.  Any individual may utilize formal science when a conscientious, conscious effort is made to assess a situation with the intent of informing responses and attempting to accomplish a goal.  (This does not mean that the practice of formal science is always felicitous; i.e., that those practicing it are proficient observers and assessors.)  In all examples of the practice of formal science, counterfactual thinking may play a positive, felicitous role.

Informal science also uses counterfactual thinking, but less conscientiously, less consciously.

Young children who experiment upon one another with performativity, attempting to add or withhold context to the context that will be viewed by their targets — lying, manipulation — play with counterfactual thinking as an experiment to discern the sort of mischief they may cause without suffering undesirable repercussions — but this play is preparatory for the life ahead.  In their play, young children may not have a conscious goal in mind but approach their experimentation with performativity with a “Let’s see what happens” attitude.  They have in memory some object or behavior; now, they want to apply it to this context because they have never seen it in this context.  They are attempting to discover a process, to discover the operation of performativity itself, as well as discovering the bounds of any given type of performance.  They are learning that they, too, are performers and that others may be audiences who re-act to their performances.  Later in life, they will have a chance to apply their discoveries systematically.  (In learning to discern the operation of performativity itself, they may also be learning how to formalize their approach, or learning how to use science conscientiously.)

Young adults might use the same approach when trying new experiences for the first time, e.g. going to a bar or dance club or going skydiving.  Anyone of any age may engage with life similarly.   A search for “new experiences” is a search for new performances, for new sets of circumstances, by adding different variables.  New facts may be learned along the way, but the search for new experience is not always a fully conscious, systematic attempt to discover new facts.  (It may be, however.)

Indeed, one need not consciously seek new experiences.  A dynamic world often offers up new experiences, new performances for viewing, without being asked to do so.  New facts may be acquired along the way.

In informal science, counterfactual thinking, rather than being a process consciously utilized for discovery of new contexts or new facts, might happen in the negative:  cognitive disjunction, confusion, terror, and so forth may result in the belief and/or from the belief in “counterfactual facts,” a world that makes no logical sense.   The acceptance (creation) of a “new fact” that remains largely disjunct from all hitherto experienced performances or from all prior facts (an imaginary fact) may be an attempt to reify an unexpected and recently experienced performance, an attempt to give the new experience a place within one’s existing narrative of the world or at least to allow it the possibility of belonging within that narrative, by disposing of dimly understood variables, confusing and complex sets of variables, or uncontrollable variables.

The Hidden

Formal science assumes the existence of “the hidden” as an explanation for the disjunction of observations and conscientiously attempts to bring the hidden into view by use of varying contexts and careful observation of varying contexts.  Informal science may or may not assume the existence of the hidden but experiences the hidden primarily through disjunction and, occasionally, through serendipitous epiphany.  The phrase “the hidden” should be understood as “the unobserved” — unobserved performances which, should they become observed, might become new facts if they repeat.

The informal scientist — by which I mean, all of us, when not engaging in formal science — may become suddenly aware of The Hidden through the negative, that is through an observation of a disjunction between performances — this alone might be the serendipitous epiphany — and then attempt a systematic exploration of that disjunction, or engage in a formal scientific approach to discover the boundaries of The Hidden in order to give The Hidden definition and a place within an existing narrative.  (Again, the formal scientific approach may or may not be felicitous; the approach may or may not be what is typically called “successful.”)

Problematically, our view of any given context is limited.  Our capacity for observation is limited.  As I wrote at the end of my exploration of The Third Theorem of Curtis,

We humans have severe limitations on our observational capability, on our ability to witness all the details of any given conglomerate of performances.  Far from missing the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest, we typically don’t see the cells of the trees, the atoms of the cells, or the giant asteroid about to hit the forest.

I have previously diagrammed this dilemma by making use of a term now in vogue, transparency:


—while adding the note, this diagram is not drawn to scale.3

We do not have access to The Hidden in toto or en masse, even should we look for it with every available faculty or in all conscientiousness.

Fortuitously, we see far more than we think we see.  We see the forest even if we do not directly see the individual cells of the trees; and in seeing the forest, we are seeing at least some of the trees, some of the cells of some of those trees—just not up close or individually.4  A walk in the backyard does not seem to require a direct observation of the molecular composition of rocks (e.g., electrons flitting about) and the photosynthesis of grass.  Molecular composition and biochemical processes may indeed be a part of the context of any witnessed performances during our walk outdoors even if we do not see them or need to see them separate from what we call their “effects.”  Alternatively, we might say that these processes and subatomic particles, these performances, are observed indirectly.  To the degree that these other objects and processes may be witnessed in their effects, we might say we do see them—in the same way that our seeing any object is merely seeing the visible light reflected off that object, not the object itself.  Furthermore, we do not see the infrared or other non-visible wavelengths of light reflecting from seen objects or being produced by those objects, but this does not mean that we are not observing those objects when we view whatever reflections of light we may view.  We may see a mountain in the distance without seeing the other side of that mountain.

A “conglomerate of performances,” or a context, as I have been using the term, might be understood in one of two ways.

The context may be thought of as existing apart from or regardless of our observation, in which case the conglomerate of performances are, with reference to any given human, a conglomerate of potential performances (for us).5   The Hidden is there within the context even if no one is around to attempt an observation; The Hidden is there even if someone is around to attempt an observation of it.

Alternatively, we may think of the context requiring a human observer.  In the way that a tree falling unobserved may cause vibrations through the air and earth — we assume — but no sound without an observer’s brain to interpret those vibrations as sound, the conglomerate of performances in this case, or context, does not come into being at all until a mind has witnessed it via sensory perception.  Context in this sense would be a human creation within the mind, performance requiring a human audience in order to be a performance.

The asymmetrical relationship between the one context and the other, between the non-human-created context and the human-conceived or human-perceived context, may be considered a driving factor for all human science, human art, human religion, and more besides.

There are things known and things unknown and in between are the Doors.

—Jim Morrison6

Regardless, a fact is mere interpretation of witnessed recurring performances—“fact is past performance,” a human construction.

Consequently, our facts are limited to our observations.  Definitionally, any given fact is incomplete with reference to the available context or to the context in which it regularly appears.  When we say, “Water begins to boil at 100°C,” this may indeed be one of our facts, but a) the statement of fact is incomplete because we have not added to it references to the entire context in which it presents — pressure, for instance — and b) even given an understanding of multiple influences upon the water, or a complex context in which the statement of fact has hitherto proven true and which we understand to lie behind the simplified statement that “Water begins to boil at 100°C,” we cannot know whether some additional variables have hitherto been hidden from our view and remain hidden from view;—

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.

Albert Einstein

Through repetitive experimentation, or repetitive observations, we risk assuming that all that was once hidden, relative to any fact, has been discovered.  Even if it has been, how can we know that it has for certainty; and, does the question of our knowing or not-knowing the full context of any given performance matter if our human context, or relationship to the fact, does not alter significantly—if, that is, our accepted facts recur? 7

The Matter of Hearsay; or, Journalists, Gossips, and Experts

One may take as fact what one has not directly observed.  For instance, I have not run experiments on the boiling point of water, and yet I have chosen to accept as fact the idea that water begins to boil at different temperatures under different pressures.  The Einstein quote given above may be a paraphrase, after all, of similar ideas he actually expressed, rather than a direct quote; in any case, I was not around to hear it from his lips.

Three considerations:

  • No single human being may witness all that is available to be witnessed.  Not only are his perceptual faculties for observation limited, but he is prevented by time and space from observing all that may be observed.  Not every human can spend decades studying astrophysics, microbiology, metallurgy, the dynamics of culture and government in Iran and Zambia (nor, the languages), and so forth—each.  We have come to rely on second-hand reporting—as if others could become our eyes and ears in places and times we may not visit, studying the things we do not know how to observe ourselves or may not observe because of the limits of time and space and a human life.8
  • Hearsay considered alone is a different conglomerate performance than the conglomerate performance being reported.  The person relating events or describing processes and objects that he has witnessed informally as a matter of course or formally through experimentation—describing his facts—saw one performance or multiple performances in the past; the person now listening to him relate his previous experience is witnessing a different performance in his speech, physical behaviors, his art, his writing.
  • Our observation of performances is typically indirect anyway.   We do not see objects but the light reflecting off from objects and/or given off from objects; we do not hear objects falling so much as we hear the vibrations of air that have reached our eardrums.  Are those persons who report their own facts (past experience) merely another medium through which we observe those experiences that are distant in time and space from us?

Concerning the last bullet point, what seems clear to most who conscientiously consider the value of hearsay as a medium of experience:  One’s own eyeballs and eardrums and other sensory faculties are often more dependable when receiving stimulation within a short time frame and within a small space relative to initial events than when receiving stimulation more distant in time and space from those same events.  That is, most have had the experience of hearing facts related to them “after-the-fact” — distant in time and space from an initial event — which do not match up with the facts they themselves remember of the same event, themselves having been present at that event.

Concerning the second bullet point:  Having been in the position of weighing one’s own memory of observation of an event against the report another gives of that event “after-the-fact,” most who conscientiously consider the value of hearsay will have experienced being in error and will at least entertain the possibility that hearsay may have some positive value as a medium of experience.  Additionally, most will have experience of coming to experience events for the first time after similar events have first been described to them; i.e., of verification of reported facts.  That is, we learn that other human beings exist who have faculties of observation and memory that may sometimes surpass our own relative to given events.  A current performance—the sights and sounds and so forth of a person relating his past experience—may, therefore, relate a distant event or a conglomerate of past performances, a distant context, in a dependable way.

Between knowing and not-knowing may be Doors; another human being may be a medium of experience for us while creating a new performance or experience for us; or, may open up a doorway to a past event to allow observation of that event.  But then again, most humans have experienced false reports, inaccurate reports, lies, and so forth in hearsay.  Over time, individuals accumulate facts about other individuals and, importantly, facts about a range of performances other individuals may produce, in order to be better able to judge what persons may be dependable—what types of reports may be dependable and what types may not, what may be regarded as factual and what may not.9

As a medium of experience contrasted with what has inaptly been called “direct experience,” hearsay requires conscientious and conscious interpretation far more complex than normal sensory perception; or, translation:

translate (v.)c.1300, “to remove from one place to another,” also “to turn from one language to another,” from Latin translatus “carried over,” serving as past participle of transferre “to bring over, carry over” (see transfer), from trans- (see trans-) + latus “borne, carried.”

Initial observations of performances may themselves be limited by the human faculties and by time and space—context may be poorly observed.  The vessel carrying these initial observations, the memory, may be a poor vessel.  The faculties enabling conscious performance intended to relate these memories to another may be limited—not least by audience members whose own observation of this reporter’s performance will be limited and whose memory of contexts similar to those being reported may be limited.  As already described, statements of fact are surely to be limited, either because they are short-hand for the full context that was observed or because the reporter failed to observe the available context in full—and probably, both.10

Concerning the first bullet point:  If we have a need for other “eyes and ears” because of inherent limitation, that same limitation impedes verification of those reports.  Formal scientists and informal scientists alike may accept peer review as a form of verification—but peer review is merely more reporting, more hearsay, regardless of whether it receives the approbation, consensus.  Because personal verification (validation) of reported events in these cases is ipso facto impossible unless the audience member to hearsay makes the attempt to travel, study, experiment — seek out confirmatory performances — in order to enable himself to personally verify reports by removing his limitation, the result of relying on journalists, gossips, experts and so forth is an increase in the importance assigned to aggregating facts about the persons making the reports and about their methods of reporting.  That is, because of the impossibility of personally verifying the performances being reported, an audience to the report will focus on the performance of the report and their accepted facts about the reporter.11

However, when all is said and done, the intrinsic insufficiency of reporting, of statements of fact—a trending toward generalization—may nonetheless create anchors of understanding that will also be similarly limited but provide footholds.  Our own individual experiences, or collection of facts, also generalized, may find something in the reporting that is useful, that fits within our personal narrative.  Confirmation bias may be a result; but reports of distant events, when they have no immediate bearing on local and present events, may not require adept reaction from the audience members hearing those reports; and, whatever does have immediate bearing ipso facto also coincides with other immediate, or near-by, performances, and thus the potential for personal verification of those particular data points exists—or, the potential for invalidation.12

Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Divinity School Address

However, a potential for verification of reported facts does not always translate into a formal scientific attempt at verification nor a serendipitous informal scientific verification; confirmation bias, as a method of research and/or discovery, is neither research nor discovery but reiteration.

The Fourth Theorem:  Three Asses and a Hume

Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be.

This theorem is relatively simple on its face but rather complicated in practice.  Science, as a search for knowledge and understanding via an expansion of available facts, might give us new methods of influencing future events, a kind of expanded control via influence; but, it cannot tell us what ought to be, or, that is, what to do with what we have learned.

My most recent occasion for applying the Fourth Theorem occurred in response to an opinion piece at The Futurist written by Michael Lee called “The Sunset of the Alchemy of Uncertainty.”  Michael Lee expressed what I think is an unfortunate dichotomy, an infelicitous statement of fact, by comparing science with ideology:

While the scientific method and the application of scientific knowledge in fields like engineering, medicine and business have produced technological, industrial and social progress, ideology, by contrast, has always led to war. Think of the religious wars in pre-modern Europe. Think of the destruction caused by the conflicts between the competing ideologies of communism, fascism and capitalism throughout the previous century. Think of today’s a-symmetric war between the West and radical Islam. Ideology is a force keeping civilization in a mind-set of inflated philosophical pretensions. Unless kept in check, ideology is inherently conflictual and should perhaps be consigned to the private sphere of life where it can be practised safely. Furthermore, it creates bias and blind-spots in thinking when we view social problems.

Ideology is a great pastime for individuals but history has proven it to be a lethal social virus at the state level. Can we please finally get it that there is freedom of belief in this world and that to try to systematically impose beliefs on others at the national or international level is chasing an impossible dream?

We live on an extraordinary earth but its future is being seriously endangered by this misguided and mischievous machismo politics of medieval-style ideology-mongering. The thought-police of political correctness should also take a very long holiday. What we need is the clarity, truth and common-sense of a scientific approach to our future. The beauty of science lies in its pure commitment to truth, the proven laws of our wondrous world. The power of science lies in its freedom from ideology in dealing with problems and in looking for solutions.

Until the last sentence of this excerpt, I found myself somewhat in agreement with the general gist of his argument even if not in all particulars.  Ideology, as a unified narrative of accumulated facts, is probably always limited—for reasons already expressed in this blog post.  The application of an ideology in managing world affairs by universalizing it, or by assuming that the contexts under which it took form will repeat everywhere always exactly the same…is problematic.  But then Michael Lee suggested that science, free from ideology, will be ideal for “dealing with problems” and “in looking for solutions.”   Looking for solutions, yes, that is the hope.  Dealing with problems?  No.

I took from Michael Lee’s concept of “dealing” an assumption of action, of response to findings; because he said that science may do this “free from ideology,” I took his finding of fact to mean that he believes science alone can tell us what to do if only we will forego bothering about ideology.  He had already given a laundry list of problems besides war that science may solve on its own:

Society today, faced with global scale problems like climate change, environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, Peak Oil and the new slave trade of human trafficking, can ill-afford much more of this deconstructionist post-modernism. The world was so thoroughly deconstructed in the twentieth century – ethically, socially, philosophically and politically – that it’s just about ready to collapse altogether.

He did, however, modify what he had written in the piece when he responded to a comment I left under the piece.  I commented:


Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. That is, science alone cannot tell us what to do with the things we learn via science. Any application of scientific knowledge requires an ideology. The difference seems to be in whether those who utilize scientific knowledge are aware of this fact or operate from an ignorance of this fact (for whatever reason.)

He responded:

Good point, Curtis. We need some general philosophical and logical principles to guide the application of scientific knowledge, but, respectfully, we don’t need doctrinal ideologies which are always divisive.

I did not comment further on his blog, although I might have been mischievous in rebuttal by asking via another comment whether “doctrinal ideologies which are always unifying” would be best, or even whether “doctrinal ideologies which are less divisive” would suffice.

I do not want to mischaracterize Michael Lee’s opinion piece.  I find ironic the fact that he responded to my comment which had the title, “Is/Ought,” with studied agreement; earlier in the piece, he had attacked Hume as a skeptical precursor of his reviled post-modernists.  But alas, I would agree with him that skepticism can be transformed into a doctrinal ideology, an extreme universalized ideology of uncertainty, and so be limited, infelicitous—unfortunate.  It is primarily this weighting of skepticism that Lee attacks in the piece, not ideology per se:  “In my view, the scale of uncertainty in our world has been misconceived.”

But in his limited approach, Michael Lee has fallen into his own trap by presenting an opposing universalized ideology.  He has sown the seeds of a conflict, an intellectual casus belli, while attacking ideology in general as a distracting conflict-producing impediment to the wonders that science might work.

His apparent ideology is not original to him.  Scientists, when they express an agenda, often have a blind spot that leads them to assume many things that science cannot prove—also, and in particular, that science alone can guide us into the future.  I alluded to this common error at the end of my comment to Michael Lee.  A faith in the recurrence of fact becomes a faith in future action — as Michael Lee stresses strongly in his opinion piece, certainty is a certain benefactor and, according to him, the only benefactor —, so that fact becomes future performance rather than mere past performance.

“If I heat this water to 100°C at 14.69 psi and control for all other variables, it ought to begin boiling.”

—there is a moral statement, if one likes; and a robust lifetime experience of verification of facts through experimentation may lead one to create a system of morality founded upon a faith in the recurrence of fact; but one might also add:  These facts are quite conditional.  (Which is to say, context-dependent.)  These facts also do not tell the scientist whether he ought to make the experiment or no, in the first place, never mind the conditions under which water will begin to boil at 100°C.

A scientist may engage in counterfactual thinking when constructing an experiment, an opportunity for discovery of The Hidden, but until he makes that discovery, The Hidden remains hidden.  Choosing via science alone between a present context and a future context to be created, for a purpose other than discovery of The Hidden, would put the scientist in the position of Buridan’s Ass.

The scientist as Buridan’s Ass:   All his available facts are past performances; he has a range of expected results which are ipso facto past results previously experienced, depending upon changes in context, changes in variables; and any one of them might be repeated as facts are wont to repeat, depending upon how the context is changed.  None of this tells him how the context ought to be changed:   they are equal possibilities to the degree that they are all possible.13   A scientist put in charge of determining a future to be created, relying on science alone, would be incapable of picking one future out of a range of potential choices.14

Balaam’s Ass seemed to know what to do, even if Balaam did not or had other plans—surprising Balaam in the process.

Without first requiring a lengthy exegesis concerning Balaam’s Ass, we might take from the report of this event, however literal or figurative, an intended implication that an extra-sensory variable ought to be considered when weighing options for what to do in the future.  We might apply this implication here.  The solution to the scientific problem of that other ass, Buridan’s Ass — of weighing equally possible futures — may be the existence of some variable outside or preceding the process of science and the effects of scientific processes, a preexisting determinant which aids us in choosing one possible future over another.

Attempts to describe this extra-scientific determinant have suggested various preconditions, from biological imperatives hardwired into our genes and brains to the fuzzier moral imperatives (which may or may not also be biological in origin), to more rarefied categorical imperatives a la Kant.  Nomological determinism and theistic predestination have been used as “solutions” to the problem of solving Hume’s Guillotine.   Nietzsche thought humans bridged Is/Ought with a Will to Power—a vague, perhaps overly broad solution to the problem; he also gave many pages to describing socially constructed oughts in his attacks on prevalent morality.  Plato seems to have hit on an extremely odd response to the problem between Is and Ought when he suggested that all knowledge is known by the person before birth and is merely recollected or remembered during life:  As a consequence, we already have a memory of beauty, virtue, etc., locked in our subconscious and come to recognize it later, saving science the problem of inventing an Ought.

Whatever extra-scientific determinant or determinants exist, the questions arise:  To what degree do these determinants prefigure, inform, and/or generally influence our science?   If these extra-scientific determinants have any effect on our science, do they affect merely how we utilize science — i.e., enable and influence action based upon our accumulation of facts — or do they also affect how we do science, that is, how we observe and accumulate facts in the first place?  To what degree do they influence our performance; i.e., our statements of fact, our attempts to offer our own facts for the edification or entertainment of others, to influence others?

I wave a peace flag to Michael Lee because I use the term and concept of ideology more broadly than most.  The ideologies he attacked in his opinion piece are doctrinal in nature; I view them as attempts to codify systems of morality—or, of imperatives.  Per the discussion immediately above, concerning extra-scientific imperatives, these ideologies to me represent established methods of attempting to meet the requirements of those original imperatives:   The ought of an established ideology, for example a sect of Christianity, has its origins in some more basic imperatives but, having been established over centuries, the doctrinaire ideology has transferred over time those original oughts into judgments on types of behavior, into short-hand, simplified statements of doctrinaire fact in the form of abstract concepts.  (Charity, Love, Piety, and so forth.)   Henceforth, these doctrinaire facts serve as a mask for the original imperatives, even if not intended as masks.  In themselves, these are new oughts:  As per my comments above concerning our faculties of observation and the effects of hearsay, these doctrinaire oughts may not be exact translations of the original imperatives that were only vaguely guessed or observed to exist — may indeed be quite detached from those original observations — but this does not mean that the original imperatives have somehow disappeared and are no longer in effect.15

The same may be said of any ideology, any system of facts codified internally—including, scientific facts and dim impressions of the effects of some original imperatives.  One takes as a given that we must preserve the human species; one takes as a given — given through formal scientific processes — that the climate is warming due to human activity; one takes as a given that species and civilizations may be destroyed by extreme climate change (again, given through formal scientific study of past examples of such destruction); therefore, one takes as a given that something ought to be done to reverse the effects of the human-caused climate change now occurring.  A Green Movement is born that has an established narrative which includes how climate change is occurring, in specifics; how those specifics can be traced to certain big industries; and how those industries must be changed, “improved” or eliminated.   Another individual or group of individuals come along that have made connections leading to a similar ought:  certain industries must be eliminated—because those industries are rolling in wealth while others struggle to stay afloat.  These groups attach themselves to one another; “Hey, maybe they are destroying the environment too!” say those in the second group.  But the original imperative of both may have been the Will to Power of each member; or, sheepishness, a sheep feeling threatened, needing a larger herd in order to feel protected via strength in numbers, and anti-industry serves as an excuse; or, merely a strong need for self-preservation; or,  who knows, maybe the will of God acting through so many individuals.

Science may expand our available options for altering contexts—for acting—through the accumulation of facts about our context, our world; but it also serves us by limiting our choices through elimination of fanciful, counterfactual ideas about the world.   This is the role science has to play.   Its role is not to decide for us what we ought to do—except insofar as we can weigh our accumulation of facts against our given imperatives and eliminate options counter to those.16



1 Tangentially, see also:  Nietzsche’s “The Four Great Errors” from Twilight of the Idols.  Also, see Nietzsche’s description of the origins of punishment in On the Genealogy of Morals, 2nd essay, section 13, in which he says

To return to our subject, namely punishment, one must distinguish two aspects:  on the one hand, that in it which is relatively enduring, the custom, the act, the “drama,” a certain strict sequence of procedures; on the other, that in it which is fluid, the meaning, the purpose, the expectation associated with the performance of such procedures….the procedure itself will be something older, earlier than its employment in punishment,…the latter is projected and interpreted into the procedure….in short, that the case is not as has hitherto been assumed by our naïve genealogists of law and morals, who have one and all thought of the procedure as invented for the purpose of punishing, just as one formerly thought of the hand as invented for the purpose of grasping.

He then explored a multitude of meanings of punishment which, over time, have been adopted (as the purposes of punishment) and which have been interpreted into the procedure as if they were the original causes for the existence of the procedure, or performances, of punishment.  A case of latter intended effects of punishment coming to be interpreted as the causes of the procedure; e.g., “These acts of punishment were invented in order to ______________, or for the purposes of ______________.”  This is related to the Four Great Errors outlined later in Twilight of the Idols, particularly “The error of confusing cause and effect.”

2 See:  The Second Theorem of Curtis linked above for a look at control groups and (competing) influences upon a context.

3 Importantly, the diagram as such also may mislead and/or abet a common misconception:  We ourselves are actually in the universe, not separate from it looking at it.  See also:  Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, #346:

The whole pose of “man against the world,” of man as a “world-negating” principle, of man as the measure of the value of things, as judge of the world who in the end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting—the monstrous insipidity of this pose has finally come home to us and we are sick of it.  We laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of “man and world,” separated by the sublime presumption of the little word “and.”

4 Here I will not quibble over the fact that we are merely seeing the light reflected from so many trees, and perhaps hearing only the vibrations in the air caused by wind rustling leaves, and whether a tree falling unobserved in the forest makes a sound—but these are important to note.

5 It is possible to conceive of non-human objects being “observers” to performances.  Action-reaction; the effects of gravity between any two objects; etc.  So it is possible to conceive of these interactions as performances happening — performer and audience, audience re-acting and performer becoming audience in turn — even if no human is present to observe them.

6 It was most likely Ray Manzarek, co-founder of The Doors, who said it, although others preceded him in expressing a similar metaphor and idea; see The Quote Investigator website exploration.

7 This question, incidentally, may relate to both, the Brain in a Vat question and the Anthropic Principle.

8 I have touched upon this before, suggesting that the Question of Our Time will relate to this issue of limited observational & effective capacity + a need to delegate authority conscientiously.  What I have not yet written but intend to write one day is the consequence of a) this necessity in collusion with b) its initial circumstances—a futurist dream or speculation perhaps, relating to technological developments and our “foreign eyes and ears” system of orientation.  No doubt, the subject of performativity will play a role in any future exploration of these ideas.  I have put off writing this exploration for different reasons, but not least among them is a disquiet re: the implications.

9 Judging of the performances that other humans create is a very fertile subject, an immensely important topic, that could fill libraries.  Here I would mention formal writing styles like those used to create academic papers, for example APA Style:  perhaps useful for all who might come afterward seeking sources for verification of each important point made in a research paper, but then again presenting an aura of authenticity—that is, of authorial, or even authorized, legitimacy.  Of all those who may read any given paper written in APA Style, how many will actually seek out the source of every citation, read the source in full, and compare or contrast all and sundry while comparing all and sundry with one’s own immediate observations, experiments, and past observations, conscientiously?   No doubt, conscientious explorers will do so in full—assuming of course that every cited source does not similarly cite a plethora of sources, leading to an unending search for verification or context—but many others will not.   The word glamour, meant as a magical effect or charm one person (or demon) placed upon another, descends from the Latin for grammar; in Medieval Europe, the commoner would hear Latin being spoken and it would seem as if magic were being cast or a supernatural element was at play—note also that the Catholic Church utilized Latin for a purpose….Abracadabra indeed.  But then humans have learned how to lie effectively by being authentic.

10 In a blog post titled, “Look Away—If You Can,” I excerpted a portion of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, #354, in which he appears to have given a consideration of the origins of performativity without using that term or the specific concept of performativity.  In that section, he proposes the origin of consciousness also:  Developing hand-in-hand with language, consciousness emerged from social need, a “social construct” but not in the normal sense:  Not an agreed-upon model created by social contract but rather an emergent condition springing from the need early humans had for interacting with one another for their individual survival.  Consequently, language is bare-bones and consciousness also is bare-bones; our conscious thinking follows our language, and vice versa, and both are limited by what we have found necessary for interacting positively with one another for our individual survival:

My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature; that, as follows from this, it has developed subtlety only insofar as this is required by social or herd utility.  Consequently, given the best will in the world to understand ourselves as individually as possible, “to know ourselves,” each of us will always succeed in becoming conscious only of what is not individual but “average.”  Our thoughts themselves are continually governed by the character of consciousness—by the “genius of the species” that commands it—and translated back into the perspective of the herd.   Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that.  But as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be.

This is the essence of phenomenalism and perspectivism as I understand them:  Owing to the nature of animal consciousness, the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface- and sign-world, a world that is made common and meaner; whatever becomes conscious becomes by the same token shallow, thin, relatively stupid, general, sign, herd signal; all becoming conscious involves a great and thorough corruption, falsification, reduction to superficialities, and generalization.

—One need not go so far as Nietzsche in labeling all consciousness as so mean, so limited, nor in labeling all observation a mere reaction to a predetermining social need, while recognizing that observation and consciousness often are limited, or that they trend toward the average, especially when the attempt is conceived, to communicate what one has observed for another’s edification.

11 For those familiar with the concept of 4GW, or the fourth-generation of warfare or the fourth-gradient of warfare…Well, this issue may relate but I will not expound upon that here.  A broader look would focus on our current “infosphere,” i.e., on the state of our modern world in all its complexity and interrelations, and might spot the many ways that this issue now presents.

12 When Montaigne wrote the following, he may have had some inkling of this distinction between the near and far, and our response to either:

I am of Sulla’s opinion; when I scrutinize closely the most glorious exploits of war, I see, it seems to me, that those who conduct them make use of deliberation and counsel only for form; they abandon the better part of the enterprise to Fortune, and, in the confidence they have in her help, go beyond the limits of all reason at every turn.

[in Various Outcomes of the Same Plan]

13 Example.  When Michael Lee mentions in his piece climate change as an issue that science might resolve, he failed to mention the assumption behind his example, that we ought to solve or deal with climate change.    A conscientious discovery of the Earth’s past might reveal the fact that many, many species have gone extinct over the lifetime of the planet due to climate change, or that various civilizations have disappeared over time as a result of climate change; discovery might reveal that changes to the climate have helped to benefit a species or civilization, or by extension have prevented extinction of either due to disadvantageous climate change which could have been the alternative.  How is it that science, telling us these potential effects of changes in context, simultaneously also tells us that we ought not allow or hasten our own extinction or our civilization’s collapse due to climate change?

14  Typically, the concept of Buridan’s Ass is used as a thought experiment concerning the existence or lack thereof of free will.  I am not using it for that here—important note.  However, what I have written here could be extended into a much lengthier consideration involving the concept of free will.

15  Really, I know I may seem to be paraphrasing Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals here, among his other works.  I would however point a finger back at an included Emerson quote:  “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”  But then one does not often understand the true force of performativity—of the power and dimensions of influence.  Ironically, this footnote leads back to a consideration of the effects of translation and hearsay…

16  I have studiously avoided delimiting and defining with specificity what these imperatives are.  Suck it.