Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blindness, by José Saramago

It is not very original to refer to the length of the sentences one encounters in reading Blindness. Unspooling like so many tracks of flypaper, everything sticks between the periods—multiple speakers, direct and indirect discourse, metafictional asides and stage-whispered narratorial confidences, and a whole lot of proverbs. In discussing the specificities of Saramago's style, I can't really improve on the job done here by Edmond Caldwell. Read the two paragraphs beginning with "There comes a point, however…" In my opinion, Edmond hits several nails on the head, providing a very comprehensive analysis of the basic components of Saramago's style as well as his likely purpose and desired effect in writing in such a manner.

Yet it seems to me that most criticism which touches on the long "baroque" sentence is neither so subtle nor so specific. It treats the long sentence rather as an effect or a performance than as a strategy—one gets the sense that the length of the sentence is there primarily to be noticed, the author congratulated for threading a tricky needle or completing a high-wire act—for achieving art under precarious conditions. This stress tends to flatten the abundant variety of the long sentence, both within a single author and among the very many authors who practice the form in a wide assortment of contexts, for very different projects, and with very different results. When the long sentence is noted primarily for being notable—for being, in essence, experimentation-as-ostentation, a radical technique employed mainly to draw attention to its radicality—we lose sight of what the long sentence does for the author, what she tries to make it do, and why she tries to do it.

To me the most notable thing about the long sentence as a category is not its audacity, but its enormous dispersion into so many different (often transnational) contexts—it is quite obviously tremendously adaptable, malleable. I think what's called for is a good deal of comparative work, standing Bolaño up against Bernhard or Beckett up against Saramago or Stein up against Hrabal. Despite the popularity of these writers within the blogging community, I haven't seen much extended comparative work, although I'd be very glad if someone showed me what I've missed.

I think it would also be extremely valuable to consider the role of length or duration in the long sentence in relation to the role of duration in other media, particularly film. I'm hoping to have a post ready soon about long takes and the long sentence, and hopefully soon thereafter, I can start on some of this comparative work I think is needed.


Anonymous said...

When you start comparing, I'd suggest pairing Stein and Bernhard. There are clear stylistic echoes. Of tone and cadence. Also those loopy hypnotic dialogue tags ("He is bad, I thought, she said"). And both are openly averse to representing psychology.

Regarding Bernhard's more obvious progenitor, Beckett, I think the key distinction is one of content. Beckett emptied the vessel. Bernhard liked the empty vessel, and found that it was perfectly adapted to the contours of his rage.

Then I think a Bernhard-Sebald pairing would be illuminating. Using much the same hardware as Bernhard (long sentences, 100-pg paragraphs, inscrutably depressed narrators), he was able to fill the vessel with new materials. Or rather, he was able to adapt the old materials (character, poetry, sociology) to the more rigorous new vessel. Still, though, a contempt for psychologizing.

Bolano and Saramago, though on the level of prose style they at times resemble Bernhard, in other ways are pretty old-fashioned novelists. Never any overwhelming doubts about what can be represented, though both periodically pull back the curtain, as if to acknowledge, "Yes, yes, some amount of skepticism is in order, there's no wizard back here, in fact the very idea that there ever was a wizard is dangerous, but it's still damn fun to write as though there was one, right?"

Hrabal I find sentimental. I'm not sure he belongs in the same discussion.


Andrew Seal said...

I guess this is the point--that the formal element of the long sentence can be adapted by a sentimental writer, by anti-humanists (or post-humanists), by intermediate-humanists. Readers' and critics' enthusiasm for the technique has flattened this out, I think, so that we tend to read the long sentence as a marker of a certain kind of skepticism toward mimesis and/or psychologizing--toward narration itself. The discussion I would like to have is about the formal element of the long sentence, rather than the skepticism which many take to be its natural corollary.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Maybe the ideas of parataxis and hypotaxis might be useful in making distinctions between various authors’ deployments of the baroque sentence.

Paratactic sentences are those which make little or no use of linking devices (coordination, subordination, etc.) between phrases or clauses; typically paratactic sentences are just very short, declarative utterances separated by periods, but we could also think of long sentences whose individual units are more or less simply placed next to each other with “weak” or nonexistent grammatical relationships, just one thing and then another thing and another, and so on. Beckett (Fail again, Fail better, etc) and after him Bernhard (conjunction but rarely subordination between clauses) are closer to the paratactic end of the long-sentence spectrum.

Hypotactic sentences are those which make greater use of linking devices, coordination and subordination and so forth. The linking devices signify relationships between the items, relationships which some might consider “metaphysical,” such as cause and effect, or hierarchies of importance, etc. It’s not simply just one item and then another and another, but before/after, higher/lower, inside/outside, etc. I think of some of the “high modernist” practitioners of the long sentence, such as Proust and Faulkner, as being closer to the hypotactic end of the spectrum.

I don’t mean to suggest that paratactic sentences are always and everywhere “more radical” (because ostensibly less “metaphysical”) than hypotactic sentences. It probably depends on the context in which either type of long sentence appears. Beckett developed his very ascetic paratactic style after and in reaction to the encyclopedic sentences of Proust and Joyce, while some writers of the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school have pointed out how contemporary capitalism has encouraged the paratactic side of things (think of ad copy, for example), in which case the extremely hypotactic might be the antidote.

This is of course, I should add, all very algebraic, just a couple of provisional tools and a possible point of departure . . .

Re: Saramago & Bolano. Saramago’s sentences are intensely attuned to the way that language is always mediated (by ideologies, institutions, the discourses of the various professions, social classes, the nation, religion, the media, gender, political parties, regionalism, you name it). There’s no direct, one-to-one correspondence between word and thing or utterance and so-called reality; there’s no transparent window. Language in Saramago is constitutive rather than a “reflection” – and moreover constitutive in very complex, compounded, contradictory (and any other “c” word I might be missing) ways. All of the ‘ghostliness’ in Ricardo Reis, for example, could at one level be seen as a response to the fact that language is so radically ‘ungrounded,’ never affording a unitary viewpoint or stable place to stand, etc. With Bolano, I can see how the declarative simplicity of his sentences could lead a superficial reader astray, but consider the fact that, in Savage Detectives for instance, the central “object” of all those sentences, Arturo Belano, is never “the same” for any speaker. This is more or less the standard modernist “parallax view” and not necessarily terribly radical, but neither is it a naïve view of language or indicative of a stable, transparent, or unproblematic relationship between language and what it ostensibly refers to.

Finally: I want to put in a plug for Javier Marias to be included among the contemporary practitioners of the baroque sentence; I admire his work very much and don’t completely understand why his name doesn’t appear more often in the various roll-calls (including mine, before now!) on this topic.

Oh wait, one more point, on the interesting question you raise of duration and other media: How about Bela Tarr and his endless shots?