Saturday, May 12, 2007

Pipe Dreams in Nietzsche's Playground or...

The Importance of Titles: Not a Treachery of Images

Other than the sentence you are currently reading, the most nuanced and detail-oriented task during the composition of this brief vignette was the creation of the title. Perhaps, it shows. Nietzsche understood the importance of a good title. Some of the most interesting titles, subtitles, and alternate titles of academic works from that era can be found in the corpus of Nietzsche. Just to highlight a few in case you are unconvinced:

"Twilight of the Idols, Or, How One Philosophizes With a Hammer"
"On the Use and Abuse of History for Life"
"Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None"

These works, of course, are more and less than what they offer. Titles are the dynamos of expectation. The efficiency of this mechanism depends on the cleverness, complexity, or the ability to communicate provocatively the contents within. As such, the title is the ultimate prostitute of the written language. It demands our attention, we are drawn to it by its superficialities, its pretty wares and its suggestive offerings. Upon purchase...the more glamorous the title, the greater the disappointment. It is not because the work within to which the title refers, cannot live up to its billing, and it is of course the case that the work gives us much of what we pay for, and can offer things no title could offer; it is simply that the title in all its exquisite formation is just that, an exquisite formation. It exists only for itself, only to perpetuate its own remembrance and repetition in the hearts and minds of book-shoppers.

The first sentence in the work, in contradistinction to the title, is beholden to the second, the third and the rest of the book. It must serve as fertile ground to give voice to the thoughts of the author and the explanatory foundation for the reader. The title is simply that which grounds the purchaser to give "voice" to her wallet. In many cases, the first sentence of a work is as memorable as the title of it, "It was the best of times it was the worst of times," and "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of large fortune must be in want of a wife." Dickens and Austen certainly had some appreciation for the importance of first lines, and not just for titles, but for characters and places as well.

Who can forget Mr. Wackford Squeers that less than lovable one-eyed Yorkshire schoolmaster from that alliteratively named Dickens work, Nicholas Nickleby?

Some first sentences try too hard, they are envious of their titular counterparts and seek to establish expectations of such momentous proportions that they fall miserably into a grammatically elusive, metaphorically overloaded and syntactically fucked abyss (See current sentence for evidence). Where do bad opening lines go, excluding the neighborhood pub, they go to the nomination bin for the
Bulwer-Lytton Award for worst opening line of a previously unpublished novel. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was actually quite an accomplished author, though he may not have written any literary tour-de-forces, he certainly had talent as a writer and is the attributed coiner of the interesting phrase, "the pen is mightier than the sword." His more critically successful novels included, Rienzi and The Last Days of Pompeii. However, the reason that this illustrious prize is named after him is that the novel, Paul Clifford, begins with the oft Snoopy-snatched intro:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
Before we get into why, if indeed this opening sentence is bad, the train wreck that is the 2006 winner goes something like this:
"Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean."
This piece of work was submitted by Jim Guigli. Now it seems that there are some who are actively involved in trying to win this award given year by the San Jose St. English Department. I think that is cheating, it is the unwitting naiveness of the author in his or her fiasco of an opener which generates a truly robust experience of Schadenfreude, the sort of experience that I would argue, this award is meant to make emblematic . In any event, it is pretty bad, and for some unambiguous reasons. One, the super burrito adds a cheese factor (my apologies) that is most definitely intentional. Second, is it the light or the window that is falling on the super burrito, which is filled with gravitas and extra beans? Third, and really-who knew that body parts would have such a mediocre grasp of the English language and the grammatical categories of person, voice, or tense. Finally, that grave site must be fairly muddy to be licking shovels clean, and frankly I don't think I would find any pair of eyes compelling me to lick a muddy shovel to be particularly sexy or desirable.

In the first sentence by Mr. Bulwer-Lytton, the torrential downpour's punch is awkwardly attenuated at occasional intervals. While the violent gust of wind seems to be doing double duty as a janitor, and in case there was just too much going on, i.e. rain and wind (the oddly placed parentheses are utilized to help reveal an essential piece of the puzzle, that scenes lie in London...those bastards), and apparently Bulwer-Lytton believes scanty flames are easily angered.

We expect a lot from our titles, and from our opening sentences. We also expect quite a bit from our final sentences as well. Some great ones, and we must rely on Dickens here again, have included:

"It is a far far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, it is a far far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."-
A Tale of Two Cities

and this one from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.:

"One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, 'Poo-tee-tweet?''"- Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

Quite an evocative title as well, no? I think this sort of emphasis on titles, and on opening and closing lines is a result of the obsession of surface, and the tyranny of substance-ontology. We expect greatness to have measure, extension, weight...when we look at a box, a gift let's say, we recognize the "giftness" of the gift by enjoying its pretty wrapping, weighing it in our hands, and many turn the gift around in their hands to see all sides of it (a strange artifact of gift exchange indeed, this sort of anticipatory foreplay). Are they making sure it has a bottom, is the left-side going to be so radically different from the right side, that one must make sure the other side is not an elephant? It seems that this kind of objectification is exactly the sort of process that we apply to books. Now, books are objects, paper or vellum (okay..vellum not so much), that are bound together and covered. But there is also an objectification of the narrative, or meaning of the work. The sort of literary equivalents of wrapping paper, top and bottom seem to be these qualities of a work which have been discussed. I am not so sure this is how we should conceive of works of literature.

is not just the words Shakespeare wrote down that are contained in a Folio somewhere in some museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. Hamlet is an unfolding event of performances, readings, movies, critical interpretations that each have a historically traceable "flow." Hamlet, his character, represents a different part of a radically different society, than it did in 16th and 17th century Britain. The opening and closing lines of Hamlet are: "Who's there?" and "Go, bid the soldiers shoot." Ironically, despite the richness of the plot, character development, the famous "To be or not to be?" it is the first line "Who's there?" captures a great deal of the work's meaning and importance. Or so a typical critical interpretation might begin. Yes, the existential dilemma of Hamlet, the lack of closure present in most of the relationships, all figure as important themes in the work that may or may not be captured by the line, 'Who's there?" But, that is not enough.

Titles, emblems, one-liners only flatten and make surface-like the richness and complexity of language, which itself is already a flattening process. It seems that those who are interested in the project of humanity, should seek to deepen and exteriorize the deep play of their being human. Instead, we have a flattening of language, a reduction of diversity in our speech and writing habits..BTW this type of "new speak" is quite disconcerting and IMHO this should not lead one to LOL. The emphasis on efficiency, simplicity, and pattern is a language-game in which there are no winners. I believe if Postmodernism has any salvific attributes it is a deconstruction of these calls to efficiency and simplicity and the reinvigoration of the love of confusion, and paradox which might lead us back from scientistic Barbarism. Taking play seriously does not mean seriousness is a toy it can be a tool as well.

Play, faith and style...