Monday, October 03, 2011

I Lied

"It seems very pretty", said Alice when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!...Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate--"  

A "man" is an adult human male. The word "man" is still sometimes used to mean "human being", although some people think it shouldn't be.

A "bar" is a place which sells alcoholic drinks. In English English, "bar" is to "pub" as "boat" is to "ship": you can put a bar in a pub but you can't put a pub in a bar. In American English "bar" is more likely to refer to the whole establishment, not just the counter where the drinks are served. (This discrepancy also applies to other facilities, incidentally. If you ask an Englishman "Where is the toilet?" he will probably reply "Upstairs, first on the left." If you ask the same question to an American, he is more likely to reply "In the bathroom; where else would it be?")

To "go" is a verb denoting movement from one place to another. At one time it meant "walk": Lear's fool says that when everything is in the proper order "going will be done with feet". At another time, the normal word for walk was "wend" as in "The Plowman homeward wends his weary way". For some reason the different tenses of the words got mixed so you say "I go" in the present tense but "I went" in the past tense.

So: there is nothing at all hard about defining the words "man" "bar" and "go".

But put them together in the sentence "A man goes into a bar...." and they cease to have anything to do with a human male walking into an establishment licensed for the sale of intoxicating drinks. If I say "a man goes into a bar..." I am saying "Please don't pay any attention to the logic or plausibility of the story I'm about to tell you: please don't ask me whether it's at all likely that barmen really have genies in magic bottles or whether health and safety officers would allow you on to premises where food is sold if you really did have a duck on your head." In fact, "man goes into a bar" means "I am about to point out a possible ambiguity in the English language which may not have occurred to you before", or, in short, "I am about to tell you a joke".

The really clever puns are the ones which exploit a genuine ambiguity in language, or at least a double meaning that could occur in real life. It will be remembered that when Oscar Wilde boasted that he could think of a joke about any subject, someone proposed "The Queen". Quick as a flash, Oscar replied "The Queen is not a subject." That's quite a complicated wordplay, because the two senses of the word "subject" – a citizen of a monarchy and a topic for conversation – are distantly related; and because the two meanings of Oscar's sentence both make perfect sense in context: the joke is that he's used the same words to give two different reasons for not telling a joke. C.S Lewis's joke about the vicar who goes to the local girls' school drama society's production of A Midsummer Nights Dream and finds himself saying "Well, I've never seen a female Bottom before!" is much less clever, but it is based on a mistake that someone could just possibly make in real life. On the other hand, there's no linguistic or semantic significance behind the fact that "I'm afraid not" sounds like "I'm a frayed knot": it's pure linguistic coincidence, and it's pretty hard to imagine that it could ever give rise to a misunderstanding. But the similarity of sound somehow becomes funny -- but not very funny -- if you embed it in a story about how three pieces of string went into a bar and ordered a drink. [*] We laugh at the pun just because it is a pun: it wouldn't occur to us to say "A peice of string went into a bar? What kind of gibberish is that? How could a piece of string possibly consume alcohol, since they have no mouths? Can they become intoxicated? Do they use the gentlemen's toilet or the lady's one? Is there a ghetto in the town where all the pieces of string live, or are these recent immigrants from piece-of-string land?" It's almost like, once we've spotted that two phrases sound the same, we create a story-shaped collection of words around them. The moment I noticed that the phrase "Piece of cod" sounded a little like "Peace of God" then the picture of a rather confused little vicar in a chip shop jumped into my head. I just couldn't stop it.

Admittedly, some people do insist on taking this kind of non-story literally. "Suppose you and I were in a restaurant..." you say, hoping to illustrate a point about good manners, or safe food handling, or English consumer law. "But why would I be in a restaurant with you?" they reply "I hardly know you. And anyway, I'm a vegan and you're not, I don't think we'd like the same kind of food. And on my salary, how can I afford to eat out?" I really wish they wouldn't.

Some people, possibly the same people, are also confused by the whole idea of fantasy. They think that "fantasy" really means "mistake": that you read Watership Down because you were under the impression that rabbits really do have human personalities, and once they have set you straight on this point, you won't need to read the book any longer. "But Japan didn't win the second world war," they point out, calmly, "And phone boxes can't travel through time and sapce. And we shouldn't teach children about Cinderella, because they idea that a pumpkin could spontaneously evolve into something complex like a coach goes against the whole idea of natural selection." (In fairness there are other other people who are equally confused by the whole idea of there being books which are not fantasy. "But there really are lots of poor people living miserable lives in dingy bedsits" they say "So why on earth would anyone want to make up a story about one of them?")

Curiously, the anti-fantasy brigade think it is perfectly okay for mainstream writers to steal fantasy elements and use them as plot devices. Shakespeare writes mostly about things which don't exist -- magic islands, ghosts, witches, wizards, fairies, identical twins, the divine right of kings, true love -- but that doesn't mean he's not a realistic writer, okay?  And it is quite permissable for whichever Bronte it was to use thought transferance as feeble deus ex machina at the end of Jane Eyre.

Some of those people who don't get fantasy, oddly, admire the works of Richard Wagner. Some of them believe, correctly, that Parsifal is the best thing that Wagner, and therefore anybody, ever wrote, but also believe, wrongly, that you can detatch the musical form from the mythological and philosphical content and still be left with a great work. Parsifal, they say, isn't really about retrieving the holy spear from the wizard Klingsor in order to heal the wounded grail king -- it and it certainly isn't about Buddhist ideas of renunciation and attatchment, whatever the libretto might say. It isn't actually about anything at all: it's a sublime and sophisticated collection of musical notes, which follow an internal pattern and logic. Close your eyes, ignore the actors in suits of armour and the surtitles, and just listen to noie. The phrase "tone poem" turns up a good deal. 

I understand that some music really does works like this. I get that Mr Beethoven's symphonies aren't about anything, except the way in which you can go "dit-dit-dit-DAH" slowly, twice; and then quickly three times; and then quickly three times again; and slowly slowly twice, and carry on that like for an a hour and a half. And very pretty it is too. The big deep "dit-dit-dit-DAH" at the beginning makes us feel sad; and the great big "dah-dah-dah-dit-dah-dit-dah-di-dah" at the end makes us feel happy. But asking "what are we happy about" would be like asking where the man in the pub found the duck that he had on its head . The music isn't about anything apart from the music. It may not be a coincidence that the opera which lends itself best to this approach is the one I like least. Tristan and Isolde is, it seems, at least as much about whether it is possible to avoid resolving a chord for five hours as about whether anyone could really be stupid enough to order "love potion" when what they really wanted was "poison".

Last year, when we were young, we talked about Mr Bob Dylan, and wondered whether it was a mistake to read the lyrics of his songs as coherent narratives, or even as coherent language. We agreed that there was very little point in wondering in what sense the lady in question was "jelly-faced", where she had lost her knees, and what might be done to help her find them again. We decided that a line like "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" probably derived its emotional effect from sound and rhythm, and that no amount of looking up the words "ghost" and "electricty" in the dictionary, let alone the close questioning of Bob Dylan, would allow the words to have a meaning in the way that "I am sitting in the cafe drinking coffee and typing" arguably have a meaning. We went so far as to speculate that the song is really chanting words: "ghost... electrictiy... howls... bones....face" and all the little words like "the" and "of" are just there to glue it together into something which looks a bit like a sentence, but actually, isn't. We decided, in short that a Dylan lyric is more like a Beethoven symphony than a Wagner opera.

Are all poems and songs like that? The question "who were these two ladies, Johanna and Louise, and why was Bob thinking of one while cuddling the other" is literally meaningless, like "what did the piece of string do after it had left the bar". But surely, if we asked "Who was the artistic lady with the interfering sister who Bob had the romantic tiff with" then all the Dylanologists would reply "Suzie Rotolo". I think that we can all agree that there exists such a lady, that Bob did date her for a while, and the song Ballad in Plain D was written after this love affair had come to an end. (I believe that Bob even said later that it had been a little caddish of him to have written a poem about a break up and put it in the public domain.)

But I am not sure how far this takes us. I don't think that the point of Ballad in Plain D is that it convery inforamtion -- information which we could equally well get out of a biography or a gossip column. I care as much about Dylan's love life as I do about the love life of any other elderly gentleman who I have never met. But I do like the song; quite a lot, actually. I grant that it is less abstract that "Visions of Johanna", but I don't think that I would get much further analyzing "with unseen consciousness I possessed in my grip a magnficent mantlipiece though its heart being chipped" than "the one with the moustaches says "jeez, I can't find my knees'." I think that the point of those kinds of lines is that they are cryptic and ambiguous, and that it is the puzzle-like quality of the lines, not any solution that we may come up with, which gives them their affect. I concede that the song has a narrative like form, but at the end, I think that our feelings are very much like Alice's: "Well, somebody left someone over something -- that's clear, at any rate." I think that the opening line "I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze" mean "This is the first line of a romantic folk-song" in the same way that "Twas brilling, brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wove wabe" means "this is is the first line of an epic poem" and "Man goes into a bar" means "This is the first line of a joke". I don't think that any discussion of the etymolgy of "toves", or whether Bob was specially attracted to sun-tanned women, and whether fawns are in fact well-known for being innocent, or whether pieces of strings can get into bars without having legs can possibly make the line mean anything else. I think that the line about the mantlepiece sounds like the sort of thing an angsty self-important lover might say in a song, without telling us anything about mantlepieces. I think that the point of the closing lines: 

My friends in the prison the ask unto me
How good, how good does it feel to free
And I answer them most mysteriously
Are birds free of the chains of the skyway

mean "this is the last line of a romantic folksong." They mean "I want you to feel that I feel the same kind of maudlin, self-important self pity as the anonymous singer who wrote:"

My friends friends they ask unto me

How many strawberries grow in the salt sea
And I answer them with a tear in my eye

How many ships sail in the forest?


They mean "I am the sort of man who is so up himself that he quotes old English ballads when describing actual breakups."

The last time I said all this, a dissenting voice said that it was all very well to do this kind of thing to lyric poems and romantic ballads, but it didn't work nearly as well with, say, Star Wars because Stars Wars is, well, a story. 

But I'm not quite sure....

[*] "I suppose you are also a piece of string" said the barman. "No" replied the piece of string "I'm afraid not."


Mike Taylor said...

Wabe. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

Oh, and it was brillig. Not brilling.

If I give you fifty pounds, will you really write a thousand words about whether The Wedding of River Song made any sense or not? What if I asked you to write about, say, the songs of Richard Shindell, which (I am guessing) you haven't listened to?

Andrew Rilstone said...

If someone really wanted to pay me money then I would really regard it as a professional commission and really do the best job I could do within a reasonable time frame. I think that the surreal Michael Moorcock model is the right way for DOctor Who to go, but feel that Moffat has done curse of fatal death five times now. Naturally, there are some commissions I would turn down: I wouldn't write leaflets for the E.D.L for any money. It would probably not be worth your while to pay me to write about Doctor Who, because I am going to get around to that Real Soon Now (though in what format I haven't quite decided.) I am sure I could write about a singer I haven't listened to if someone sent me the CDs; indeed, I once reviews some gigs which were well outside my comfort zone on Bristol Local Radio.

Andrew Rilstone said...

In the mean time, don't forget that my Complete Guide to the First Doctor is in the current Skiffynow; hopefully to be followed by my Complete Guide to the Second Doctor in a few months, and so on til the supply of Doctors runs out.

Mike Taylor said...

Good to know that your Who thoughts are forthcoming. I think you may have been wise in holding off on this series until it was done: I have found it pretty exhausting blogging my way through each individual episode, and I rather suspect the end result is more than a little incoherent.

How does one obtain this "Skiffynow" of which you speak?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Sorry: the usual Sci Fi Now from Imagine Publishing, available at all good newsagents, and quite possibly some mediocre ones as well....

Mike Taylor said...

Hmmm. The results at
are disappointingly empty.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes, they don't put much stuff on their website, although the "why Star Wars" is quite good is by me. The rather bizarre Doctor Who infographic is based on my words, as well. But if you want the actual feature, or my occassional DVD reviews, you need to buy the magazine.

Mike Taylor said...

Well, I am quite baffled.

It seems Sci Fi Now is partying like it's still 1999.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Is that right? I mean does SFX or Empire put most of its content on line for free? I actually have no idea. They occassionally e-mail me and say "write us a piece" and then send me a cheque; we haven't discussed their business model. The Grauniad gives itself away for free, but I assume the advertising a big paper can sell on an online site is a lot more than a magazine?

Mike Taylor said...

I'm sure there are good reasons why Sci Fi Now does things the way it does, and of course I have absolutely no right to just go and read your stuff online -- for, as you say, free.

It just feels ... anachronistic. Like they didn't get the memo.

Ah well. If I wait a couple of decades, I'm sure someone will scan all the issues and torrent them.