11 January, 2006

An anarchy of atoms

But if this "provisionality" of "prose literacy" can thus become an overly convenient political alibi for the privileged aestheticist writer or the more irresponsibly pomo kind of reader, it may nonetheless really and not just alibiquitously constitute a soporific global textual containment of once grounded persons, positions, interests, and utterances which even now continue to demand—against all canonically prosaic hushing-up, including the late capitalist reaccommodation to the schizanalytical inevitability of the videoprosaic—continue, you textually lobotomized fuck, to cry out to be read as militating against such prosaic indifference at however pathetic and "purely aesthetic" a local level.
Following the positive response to 'Shakespeare and Asia', I felt my readers would welcome another helping of academic nonsense. The sentence above is taken from James Nielson's Unread Herrings, a 1993 doctoral thesis about Thomas Nashe which never should have seen publication—although I'm glad it did. As the title and present sentence (as well as his website) demonstrate, Nielson is monstrously pleased with himself; he puns constantly and badly—very badly—never hesitating to cite and reiterate the grungiest excesses of modern French theory. Fully aware of his own pomposity, which he assures us is mere playfulness, he apparently wants to be seen as a lovable scamp, hiding an important message behind the spectacle. As far as I could gather, having discovered the book while researching my own MA thesis on Nashe's style, there is no such important message. Jonathan Crewe and Ann Rosalind Jones made a respectable stab at the grunt-work of retrofitting Nashe's texts with fashionable theory: Derrida, Bakhtin, Kristeva. Nielson, on the other hand, seems too up-to-his-ears in fly-by-night pseudolinguistics to do that job properly.

Rather, it should be obvious that the sentence quoted above is a brilliant pastiche of the French style born from Derrida's love affair with Finnegans Wake. Nielson claims that one of his examiners viewed the work as the 'first Joycean dissertation', and his prose might superficially resemble the Wake if it weren't so vulgar, or, if I might claim a little vulgarity for myself, such a load of bollocks. The sentence quoted here in fact bears a closer resemblance to the aggressive, hurried, anti-Ciceronian farrago of inkhorn and vernacular which typifies the prose of Nashe himself—and Joyce's own debt to Nashe had already been asserted in Wyndham Lewis' influential Time and Western Man.

So how does it work? As before, I'll start with the words themselves. Ah, what words! Look at those perfectly cromulent portmanteaux: 'alibiquitously', 'schizanalytical', 'videoprosaic'! And at these nebbishes, quite gelded and vapid: 'provisionality', 'aestheticist', 'soporific', 'containment', 'canonically' (remember Shakespeare?), 'capitalist', 'reaccommodation'. Not one of these has any meaning, of course, but our author has at least left our earse stinging. Far more than with Bharucha, the jargon-words here strike out of the syntax, becoming part of the very fabric of Nielson's nonsense. The technique brings to mind a lament in Nietzsche's Der Fall Wagner:
What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole—the whole is no longer a whole.
Nielson's book, his chapters, his sentences, to borrow a subsequent phrase from this passage, are 'anarchies of atoms'. But in the present example they are also set into a structure which offers the reader continual surprise. We can divide the sentence into three parts. The first is based on a standard periodic structure, "But if X, nonetheless Y", farced beyond all recognition with lexical atrocities; its apodosis is careful to subvert the conventional syntactic balance of "really and not just apparently". Notice the absurd adjectivalism: 'alibi' has 3 predicates, 'writer' has 2, 'kind of reader' has 2, 'containment' has 3. . . although Nielson also inverts this by giving the predicate 'grounded' no fewer than 4 subjects (!), the last spewing out yet another clause. Nielson might as well be speaking in tongues, or reciting Lucky's monologue. The second part, enclosed by a pair of em-dashes—which, as Bharucha previously demonstrated, are a favourite of bullshitters—springs a new compound clause out of the word 'demand', with an even greater rate of nonsense.

It is the third part that most interests me: at this point our hero breaks away from his demented academese and turns to face himself, barking "continue", which, oddly enough, he was already doing admirably, and proceeding to assault himself with the rudest of billingsgates, still meaningless, replete with italics indicating speaker-emphasis.

What he wants from this temporary divestiture of style is to urge us, his readers, out of our complacency—these glazed eyes scanning the lines and lines of dry or senseless prose, mechanically—what Nielson wants, and what I think he achieves, is a brief epiphany which condemns, but never quite transcends, the stylistic nonsense which absorbs us. In the end he advocates explicitly the 'local level', the 'purely aesthetic', the words which 'cry out to be read': in other words, the 'anarchy of atoms' which Nietzsche found in literary decadence, and which Nielson no doubt discovers in Nashe. The intriguing result is not so much nonsense as process, as with Bharucha, but nonsense as chaos, as anti-process.

1 comment:

Greg Afinogenov said...

There is still something here of what Adorno and Horkheimer described back in the day:

When Fascism replaced involved legal procedures by an accelerated form of judgment and retribution, the up-to-date were economically prepared for this new development; they had learned to see things through the conceptual models, the termini technici, which remain as the iron ration when language disintegrates ... In the age of three hundred key words, the ability to make the effort required by judgment disappears, and the distinction between truth and falsehood is removed.
("Elements of Anti-Semitism")