More Charlie White.
“I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think” — Letter from Sigmund Freud to Oskar Pfister, October 9, 1918
1. Listening to someone’s dreams is usually pretty boring. Reading about someone’s dreams is even worse.
Except when it’s not, of course.
2. Perec, describing his dream journal La Boutique Obscure:
I thought I was recording the dreams
I was having; I have realized that it was
not long before I began having dreams
only in order to write them.
These dreams—overdreamed, overworked,
overwritten—what could I then
expect of them, if not to make them into
texts, a bundle of texts left as an o)ering
at the gates of that “royal road” I still
must travel with my eyes open?
3. La Boutique Obscure is new in English translation by Daniel Levin Becker, published by the good people at Melville House.
4. The dreams in La Boutique Obscure, rendered in fairly concrete prose (Perec avoids analysis), were recorded between 1968-1972.
5. I’ve been slowly reading the essays and riffs and lists collected in Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces over the past few years. There’s something wonderful about picking the book up at random and finding some little quip or note (or entire essay) that illuminates some fascinating aspect of what we might initially take to be a dull topic.
La Boutique Obscure works the same way.
7. Many of the elements that we see in Dream No. 24 / “Cats” run throughout the collection: Friends, doors, streets, houses, apartments, disasters, performances, lists, etc. etc. Note also Perec’s refusal to analyze or contextualize or otherwise attempt to make meaning out of the dream.
8. My favorite pieces in the collection are the ones that convey more plot—adventures, chases, fragments of films and plays—but there’s also pleasure in Perec’s shortest pieces, which often resemble imagist poems—like “The stone bridge”:
9. A good review, a responsible review, might try to situate Perec’s dream journal against his role as Oulipo gamesmaster, or set the entries against Perec’s biography, or maybe compare it to other dream journals. Or maybe even try to tackle it as a novel, or a novelish book.
10. But I’m more interested in the aesthetic experience of reading La Boutique Obscure. The book is fun, distracting, and divergent. Perec’s refusal to interpret his dreams leaves plenty of space for the reader to make his own connection—and if need be, interpretations—but to be clear, the same banal anxieties that inform our own dreams are what Perec traces the contours of in La Boutique Obscure. The book’s greatest strength is its imagery, its evocation of place, space, movement. To fault it for lacking depth would be to entirely miss the point.
11. Reading La Boutique Obscure provides another nagging reminder that I have yet to read Life A User’s Manual.
12. Finally: Roman Muradov’s response to the book is better than any review:
There are in English often long trains of words allied by their meaning and derivation; as, to beat, a bat, batoon, a battle, a beetle, a battledore, to batter, batter, a kind of glutinous composition for food, made by beating different bodies into one mass. All these are of similar signification, and perhaps derived from the Latin batuo. Thus take, touch, tickle, tack, tackle; all imply a local conjunction from the Latin tango, tetigi, tactum.
From two are formed twain, twice, twenty, twelve, twins, twine, twist, twirl, twig, twitch, twinge, between, betwixt, twilight, twibil.
The following remarks, extracted from Wallis, are ingenious but of more subtlety than solidity, and such as perhaps might in every language be enlarged without end.
Sn usually imply the nose, and what relates to it. From the Latin nasus are derived the French nez and the English nose; and nesse, a promontory, as projecting like a nose. But as if from the consonants ns taken from nasus, and transposed that they may the better correspond, sn denote nasus; and thence are derived many words that relate to the nose, as snout, sneeze, snore, snort,snear, snicker, snot, snivel, snite, snuff, snuffle, snaffle, snarl, snudge.
There is another sn which may perhaps be derived from the Latin sinuo, as snake, sneak, snail, snare; so likewise snap and snatch, snib, snub. Bl imply a blast; as blow, blast, to blast, to blight, and, metaphorically, to blast one’s reputation;bleat, bleak, a bleak place, to look bleak, or weather-beaten, black, blay, bleach, bluster, blurt, blister, blab, bladder, blew, blabber lip’t, blubber-cheek’t, bloted, blote-herrings, blast, blaze, to blow, that is, blossom, bloom; and perhapsblood and blush.
In the native words of our tongue is to be found a great agreement between the letters and the thing signified; and therefore the sounds of the letters smaller, sharper, louder, closer, softer, stronger, clearer, more obscure, and more stridulous, do very often intimate the like effects in the things signified.
Thus words that begin with str intimate the force and effect of the thing signified, as if probably derived from στρωννυμι, or strenuous; as strong, strength, strew, strike, streak, stroke, stripe, strive, strife, struggle, strout, strut, stretch, strait,strict, streight, that is, narrow, distrain, stress, distress, string, strap, stream, streamer, strand, strip, stray, struggle, strange, stride, stradale.
St in like manner imply strength, but in a less degree, so much only as is sufficient to preserve what has been already communicated, rather than acquire any new degree; as if it were derived from the Latin sto; for example, stand, stay, that is, to remain, or to prop; staff, stay, that is, to oppose; stop, to stuff, stifle, to stay, that is, to stop; a stay, that is, an obstacle; stick, stut, stutter, stammer, stagger, stickle, stick, stake, a sharp, pale, and any thing deposited at play; stock, stem,sting, to sting, stink, stitch, stud, stuncheon, stub, stubble, to stub up, stump, whence stumble, stalk, to stalk, step, to stamp with the feet, whence to stamp, that is, to make an impression and a stamp; stow, to stow, to bestow, steward, orstoward; stead, steady, stedfast, stable, a stable, a stall, to stall, stool, stall, still, stall, stallage, stage, still, adjective, and still, adverb: stale, stout, sturdy, stead, stoat, stallion, stiff, stark-dead, to starve with hunger or cold; stone, steel,stern, stanch, to stanch blood, to stare, steep, steeple, stair, standard, a stated measure, stately. In all these, and perhaps some others, st denote something firm and fixed.
Thr imply a more violent degree of motion, as throw, thrust, throng, throb, through, threat, threaten, thrall, throws.
Wr imply some sort of obliquity or distortion, as wry, to wreathe, wrest, wrestle, wring, wrong, wrinch, wrench, wrangle, wrinkle, wrath, wreak, wrack, wretch, wrist, wrap.
Sw imply a silent agitation, or a softer kind of lateral motion; as sway, swag, to sway, swagger, swerve, sweat, sweep, swill, swim, swing, swift, sweet, switch, swinge.
Nor is there much difference of sm in smooth, smug, smile, smirk, smite; which signifies the same as to strike, but is a softer word; small, smell, smack, smother, smart, a smart blow properly signifies such a kind of stroke as with an originally silent motion, implied in sm, proceeds to a quick violence, denoted by ar suddenly ended, as is shown by t.
Cl denote a kind of adhesion or tenacity, as in cleave, clay, cling, climb, clamber, clammy, clasp, to clasp, to clip, to clinch, cloak, clog, close, to close, a clod, a clot, as a clot of blood, clouted cream, a clutter, a cluster.
Sp imply a kind of dissipation or expansion, especially a quick one, particularly if there be an r, as if it were from spargo or separo: for example, spread, spring, sprig, sprout, sprinkle, split, splinter, spill, spit, sputter, spatter.
Sl denote a kind of silent fall, or a less observable motion; as in slime, slide, slip, slipper, sly, sleight, slit, slow, slack, slight, sling, slap.
And so likewise ash, in crash, rash, gash, flash, clash, lash, slash, plash, trash, indicate something acting more nimbly and sharply. But ush, in crush, rush, gush, flush, blush, brush, hush, push, imply something as acting more obtusely and dully. Yet in both there is indicated a swift and sudden motion not instantaneous, but gradual, by the continued sound, sh.
Thus in fling, sling, ding, swing, cling, sing, wring, sting, the tingling of the termination ng, and the sharpness of the vowel i, imply the continuation of a very slender motion or tremor, at length indeed vanishing, but not suddenly interrupted. But in tink, wink, sink, clink, chink, think, that end in a mute consonant, there is also indicated a sudden ending.
If there be an l, as in jingle, tingle, tinkle, mingle, sprinkle, twinkle, there is implied a frequency, or iteration of small acts. And the same frequency of acts, but less subtile by reason of the clearer vowel a, is indicated in jangle, tangle,spangle, mangle, wrangle, brangle, dangle; as also in mumble, grumble, jumble. But at the same time the close u implies something obscure or obtunded; and a congeries of consonants mbl, denotes a confused kind of rolling or tumbling, as in ramble, scamble, scramble, wamble, amble; but in these there is something acute.
In nimble, the acuteness of the vowel denotes celerity. In sparkle, sp denotes dissipation, ar an acute crackling, k a sudden interruption, l a frequent iteration; and in like manner in sprinkle, unless in may imply the subtilty of the dissipated guttules. Thick and thin differ in that the former ends with an obtuse consonant, and the latter with an acute.
In like manner, in squeek, squeak, squeal, squall, brawl, wraul, yaul, spaul, screek, shriek, shrill, sharp, shrivel, wrinkle, crack, crash, clash, gnash, plash, crush, hush, hisse, fisse, whist, soft, jar, hurl, curl, whirl, buz, bustle, spindle, dwindle, twine, twist, and in many more, we may observe the agreement of such sort of sounds with the things signified; and this so frequently happens, that scarce any language which I know can be compared with ours. So that one monosyllable word, of which kind are almost all ours, emphatically expresses what in other languages can scarce be explained but by compounds, or decompounds, or sometimes a tedious circumlocution.
(From Samuel Johnson’s A Grammar of the English Tongue).
“Literary Composition” by H.P. Lovecraft
(First published in the January, 1920 issue of The United Amateur)
In a former article our readers have been shewn the fundamental sources of literary inspiration, and the leading prerequisites to expression. It remains to furnish hints concerning expression itself; its forms, customs, and technicalities, in order that the young writer may lose nothing of force or charm in presenting his ideas to the public.
A review of the elements of English grammar would be foreign to the purpose of this department. The subject is one taught in all common schools, and may be presumed to be understood by every aspirant to authorship. It is necessary, however, to caution the beginner to keep a reliable grammar and dictionary always beside him, that he may avoid in his compositions the frequent errors which imperceptibly corrupt even the purest ordinary speech. As a general rule, it is well to give close critical scrutiny to all colloquial phrases and expressions of doubtful parsing, as well as to all words and usages which have a strained or unfamiliar sound. The human memory is not to be trusted too far, and most minds harbour a considerable number of slight linguistic faults and inelegancies picked up from random discourse or from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and popular modern books.
Types of Mistakes
Most of the mistakes of young authors, aside from those gross violations of syntax which ordinary education corrects, may perhaps be enumerated as follows.
Of all blunders, there is hardly one which might not be avoided through diligent study of simple textbooks on grammar and rhetoric, intelligent perusal of the best authors, and care and forethought in composition. Almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, since the sources of correction are so numerous and so available. Many of the popular manuals of good English are extremely useful, especially to persons whose reading is not as yet extensive; but such works sometimes err in being too pedantically precise and formal. For correct writing, the cultivation of patience and mental accuracy is essential. Throughout the young author’s period of apprenticeship, he must keep reliable dictionaries and textbooks at his elbow; eschewing as far as possible that hasty extemporaneous manner of writing which is the privilege of more advanced students. He must take no popular usage for granted, nor must he ever hesitate, in case of doubt, to fall back on the authority of his books. Continue reading “H.P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Young Writers”
“A Dream of Armageddon” by H.G. Wells
The man with the white face entered the carriage at Rugby. He moved slowly in spite of the urgency of his porter, and even while he was still on the platform I noted how ill he seemed. He dropped into the corner over against me with a sigh, made an incomplete attempt to arrange his travelling shawl, and became motionless, with his eyes staring vacantly. Presently he was moved by a sense of my observation, looked up at me, and put out a spiritless hand for his newspaper. Then he glanced again in my direction.
I feigned to read. I feared I had unwittingly embarrassed him, and in a moment I was surprised to find him speaking.
“I beg your pardon?” said I.
“That book,” he repeated, pointing a lean finger, “is about dreams.”
“Obviously,” I answered, for it was Fortnum-Roscoe’s Dream States, and the title was on the cover. He hung silent for a space as if he sought words. “Yes,” he said at last, “but they tell you nothing.” I did not catch his meaning for a second.
“They don’t know,” he added.
I looked a little more attentively at his face.
“There are dreams,” he said, “and dreams.”
That sort of proposition I never dispute.
“I suppose—” he hesitated. “Do you ever dream? I mean vividly.”
“I dream very little,” I answered. “I doubt if I have three vivid dreams in a year.”
“Ah!” he said, and seemed for a moment to collect his thoughts.
“Your dreams don’t mix with your memories?” he asked abruptly. “You don’t find yourself in doubt; did this happen or did it not?”
“Hardly ever. Except just for a momentary hesitation now and then. I suppose few people do.”
“Does HE say—” he indicated the book.
“Says it happens at times and gives the usual explanation about intensity of impression and the like to account for its not happening as a rule. I suppose you know something of these theories—”
“Very little—except that they are wrong.”
His emaciated hand played with the strap of the window for a time. I prepared to resume reading, and that seemed to precipitate his next remark. He leant forward almost as though he would touch me.
“Isn’t there something called consecutive dreaming—that goes on night after night?”
“I believe there is. There are cases given in most books on mental trouble.”
“Mental trouble! Yes. I dare say there are. It’s the right place for them. But what I mean—” He looked at his bony knuckles. “Is that sort of thing always dreaming? IS it dreaming? Or is it something else? Mightn’t it be something else?”
I should have snubbed his persistent conversation but for the drawn anxiety of his face. I remember now the look of his faded eyes and the lids red-stained—perhaps you know that look.
“I’m not just arguing about a matter of opinion,” he said. “The thing’s killing me.”
“If you call them dreams. Night after night. Vivid!—so vivid… this—” (he indicated the landscape that went streaming by the window) “seems unreal in comparison! I can scarcely remember who I am, what business I am on….”
He paused. “Even now—”
“The dream is always the same—do you mean?” I asked.
More from William Gaddis’s 1986 Paris Review interview:
Is JR’s story something you extrapolated from life only, or did you rely on sociologies devoted to how the corporate world works upon social values, human qualities, and relationships in American culture?
The boy himself is a total invention, completely sui generis. The reason he is eleven is because he is in this prepubescent age where he is amoral, with a clear conscience, dealing with people who are immoral, unscrupulous; they realize what scruples are, but push them aside, whereas his good cheer and greed he considers perfectly normal. He thinks this is what you’re supposed to do; he is not going to wait around; he is in a hurry, as you should be in America—get on with it, get going. He is very scrupulous about obeying the letter of the law and then (never making the distinction) evading the spirit of the law at every possible turn. He is in these ways an innocent and is well-meaning, a sincere hypocrite. With Bast, he does think he’s helping him out. As for the corporate world, I do read the newspapers, clip things, ideas, articles, and just use them as fodder. But all that hardly requires a text in sociology. And this may be the place to make a further point. I’m frequently seen in the conservative press as being out there on the barricades shouting: Down with capitalism! I do see it in the end as really the most workable system we’ve produced. So what we’re talking about is not the system itself, but its abuses, I don’t mean criminal but the abundant abuses just within the letter of the law. The essential question is whether it can survive these abuses given free rein and whether these abuses are inherent in the system itself. I should think it is perfectly clear in my work—calling attention, satirizing these abuses—that our best hope lies in bringing things under better and more equitable control, cutting back the temptations to unmitigated greed and bemused dishonesty . . . in other words that these abuses the system has fostered are not essential, but running out of moral or ethical control can certainly threaten its survival.