The Syllabication of Desire

You are here.In “The Stylization of Desire,” William H. Gass[1] complains philosophers have ignored the body. I guess if you live a life of the mind, you don’t dwell on the accoutrements. You save your energy for argument. Gass argues an evolution in the development of human desire, from a direct recognition and fulfillment to more sophisticated, abstracted satisfactions. A fly fisherman ties his own handmade, artificial flies onto barbless hooks, intending to catch and release fish not to be eaten. That’s my example, not Gass’s, and the fish dances, which is already style, but does the fish find or hunt the fly? While the fly fisherman is hooked on a style, not the object of his desire?

Gass says his subject is, indirectly, style, not desire. The hungry man finding food employs a different style from the hungry man hunting for food. The man who is not hungry, but who knows at some point he must eat, develops rituals when repeated over time create their own needs and wants, which may or may not have all that much to do with food anymore: on which side of the plate should the barbless hook be placed?

Style is need become recreation. Substitutions are impurities, and style is anything but a distillery. Style is additives, an acting out: a method, a process, a procedure, elliptical, indirect, never subtle. And style is a tool, a way of reaching for something just beyond immediate grasp or sight. In 1971, when Gass was writing his essay, the goal of music may have been lost in the style of sound systems, in stereo equipment, components, each creating its own desirabilities. The sound system is a stylization of music, as music is a stylization of sound. The war was sixteen years old, also a style, because there was no end in sight. It was the long reach of promise, the promise of style. You could master MLA, even if you had nothing to say. You could still read for style, before theory stylized the wrecking ball. Theory is a means to no end, all style.

By desire, Gass means basic human needs. By style, he means the infrastructures erected culturally and socially that achieve goals to reach those needs. To create the infrastructure, people have to agree about what they want. Things they want are then called values. Values are the styles of desire. You wanted a fish, to eat. You may have seen a bear or a bird snagging a fish from a river. You watched the bear eating the fish with her hands, cold, river to mouth, maybe a rock for a table. You could learn to do that too. But now you can grab a can of tuna off the shelf at the supermarket. You get a job so you can pay for the tuna. The job probably has nothing to do with fishing. It takes a whole lot of infrastructure so you can make a tuna salad sandwich, and all kinds of new needs are created along the way which have nothing to do with fishing for fish.

The object of desire is mystified by egress, the tool, the way. The path becomes the object of desire, as in Zen. Gass visited Plato country, maybe, but he seems to have been looking for a way out. Today’s gentrifications imply style, new rituals in old neighborhoods, where you can no longer belly up to the bar and drink beer from a bucket, which was also a style, but one now no longer valued. Styles change as values change. Gentrification is a means-end inversion, where desire for the object is lost to desire for the tool, and tool instruction becomes ritualized: indentured servant, laborer, apprentice, master, homemaker. This is the abstraction away from the body, from hammers and nails to blueprints and picking out your wall and rug colors and appliances. Houses, once homes, are now investments. Houses are the shells of families. The oldest ones have ceilings and walls and floors layered with sediment, basements full of dregs, the debris of style. An investment is not a body. But investments, like bodies, can get run down. Style is a value. Values are mutable.

But while the philosophers may have avoided the body, the poets embraced it as well as all of its functions. First comes the body, then the mind. That’s not to say the body is always taken seriously. From Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” a situation comedy:

“Speak, sweete bird, I know not where thou art.”
This Nicholas anon let fly a fart,
As great as it had been a thunder dent*;                     *peal, clap
That with the stroke he was well nigh y-blent*;                 *blinded
But he was ready with his iron hot,
And Nicholas amid the erse he smote.
Off went the skin an handbreadth all about.
The hote culter burned so his tout*,                             *breech
That for the smart he weened* he would die;                  *thought
As he were wood*,  for woe he gan to cry,                           *mad
“Help! water, water, help for Godde’s heart!”

From Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Episode Three, Stephen on a meditation walk:

Cocklepickers. They waded a little way in the water and, stooping, soused their bags and, lifting them again, waded out. The dog yelped running to them, reared up and pawed them, dropping on all fours, again reared up at them with mute bearish fawning. Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf’s tongue red panting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffling rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody! Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.

From Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” 21:

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.

and from 50:

Wrench’d and sweaty – calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep – I sleep long.

The body is energy, energy heat; how to cool the mind? Sprinkle some water on it.

In “Being Peace,”[2] by Thich Nhat Hanh, we find a tool that might be used to solve Gass’s algorithm, that style (means) usurps ends (desire), a game Gass calls civilization, the realization of values. Civilization is a clock, the stylization of time. It’s hard to live in the moment when the clock is ticking and clicking away. Tests are timed. Clock in, clock out. Days are geared for what comes next. Hanh’s solution, simply put, is to be in the moment, which requires body and mind to come together, stop arguing, come to some agreement. Hanh offers a three-fold mantra that blends breath (an amalgamation of body and soul) with mind. Breathe in calmly; be calm. Breathe out and smile. It’s not easy to smile under rigid conditions, but it’s even harder to feel anger, frustration, envy, or any of the other so-called deadly sins when smiling. Bringing the present moment into focus cuts style short because there’s no reliance on a past or future moment. There is no time for playing games, for acting out, for conceits and deceits. And there is no need for revisions.

In “Being Peace,” Hanh identifies three energies: sexual, breath, and spiritual, a trichotomy, but peace requires oneness:

Breath energy is the kind of energy you spend when you talk too much and breathe too little [many examples of breath energy can be found on The Coming of the Toads blog, including this post]. Spirit energy is energy that you spend when you worry too much and do not sleep well.

The Zen practitioner works on conserving energies, though if describing an expert at it, work might be the wrong word.

For some reason, we have language. What is language? Do all animals have it? Do plants have languages? Writing is the stylization of language. Metaphor is style. To live in the moment as Hanh suggests, to meditate, sitting or walking, may require thinking anew and reevaluating the primacy of words as a means to cut away from the hankering that looks before and after and pines for what is not.[3] To live in the moment may mean to abandon metaphor. To liken this moment to some other moment we must leave, momentarily, this moment.

Hanh’s mantra can be shortened to four words: Calm, Smile, Present Moment. Present can be substituted with wonderful. This is the syllabication of desire, but can it be done without words? Below is a table I created containing variations on the mantra, simple syllables, monosyllabic, mostly. Read vertically top to bottom or horizontally left to right or right to left. Note the mantras are presented with their counter or anti-moment-mantras, the desired calm moment placed near its opposite, acknowledging tension and conflict and the difficulty of doing this, of being calm, of smiling (Hanh is talking about smiling in the face of suffering), while some attempt has been made to create a cycle using the four seasons:

Calm Storm Smoke Motion Drizzle Quiet
Smile Frown Swell Blow Open Spring
Present Absent Green Tube Empty Mouth
Moment Nowhere Dwell Past Scene Space
           
Thorn Palm Face Prayer Smooth Light
Snarl Wave Play Tick Listen Place
Reach Hand Wall Honey Summer Reel
Mist Balm Way Brim Water Well
           
Naked Red Still Rough Sweet Noise
Laugh Close Rest Remit Toss Circle
Full Scar Walk Future Soft Moon
Ocean Door Rhythm Evening Fall Flat
           
Snow Freeze Silver Bleary Cold Cool
Spur Scowl Thaw Abstract Breathe Call
Hither Fix Winter Weary Slow Bird
Rapt Incessant Drip Notion Motif Bell
           
Calm          
  Smile       Wave
    Present Current  
      Moment  
Eat Drink Enjoy Labor[4]  

[1] “The Stylization of Desire” appeared in The New York Review of Books, February 25, 1971. It’s paywalled, but the first few paragraphs can be viewed. I have it in an old copy of “Fiction: The Figures of Life,” a collection of Gass essays from late ‘50s to early ‘70’s.

[2] “Being Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh. 1987, 2005. Parallax Press, 118 pages.

[3] from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s, “To a Skylark,” stanza 18:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

[4] “And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.” Ecclesiastes 3:13 (KJV).

Ruddy Rubescent Red

RedIf you’re thinking about figurative language (and who isn’t?), you’ve probably bumped your head on the thought words have meaning, but whose? And too much meaning for their own good, or ours. We pick words like bananas, firm but yellow, not too green, ready to eat. We try to narrow our meaning, so as not to be misunderstood. Ambiguity is not valued in certain kinds of communication, but confusion is hard to avoid because readers puzzle over variations in a word’s meaning, and may disagree or simply read differently the meaning or significance of even the simplest of words.

It’s hard to stop words from connoting, from loitering. Words hang about, and we’re unsure what they’re going to mean next. Words are two-faced, and when you talk out of both sides of your mouth, you’re really asking for trouble. Denote this, literally, as if we are running our tongue around an auricle. The connotative meaning of a word is its suggestive, associative meaning, definitions farther down the word’s trough in the dictionary, the entry to the word corral. You might find a connection in its etymology between a word’s denotative and connotative meaning. The suggestive meaning of a word might include a cultural, technical, auditory, or personal source. Connotative meanings may be widespread and commonly understood, or limited to idiomatic or idiosyncratic inflections understood by only a few.

Try on, for example, the word red, the color, one of the three primary colors, located on the color wheel between orange and purple. What are some connotative meanings of the word red? Ideas, emotions, or things we might associate with red: shame, fear, or embarrassment; danger, risk, or emergency; love, passion, or temperature; emotion, anger, or temper; communism, US Republican states, or wine; blood, sacrifice, or courage; prostitution, fast cars, or valentines. Of course we think context is also a kind of corral, but its fences are weak.

Figurative language involves more than connotative meanings, but the difference between denotation and connotation provides an effective illustration of the difference between literal and figurative language, and since one of the characteristics of literature is the conspicuous use of figurative language, an early awareness that words may mean more than we want them to mean is useful. At the same time, literature involves more than the use of figurative language. Flaubert is very much interested in literal meaning and in literal descriptions. A Simple Heart might be described as a realistic portrait. But when Flaubert describes Felicite early in the novella, she is said to wear a red dress all through the year. A perspicacious reader may ask why a red dress? Why not a blue or green or white dress?

The narrator of “The Custom House” introductory chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter seems to be a perspicacious reader:

But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth, — for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag, — on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were  signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.

At first glance, we want nothing past denotative meaning. We get the literal meaning, forget the word, and move on. We don’t even bother rolling the word around in our mouth, tasting it before we swallow a meaning, minding our manners. The sentence got us to where we wanted to go; no need to get out and look under the hood. And we often keep connotative meanings, when we do experience them, to ourselves. And denotative meanings are fairly reliable, often going unchanged for long periods of time, while connotative meanings may change relatively quickly. We might first associate the color red with love, roses, and amorous adventures, but when Stephen Crane titled his novel about the Civil War The Red Badge of Courage, we may safely assume he was thinking the color of red might suggest something more along the lines of fear, blood, violence, and sacrifice. In the earlier parts of the 20th Century, and particularly during the 1950’s in the US, the word red was often used to suggest an association with communism, as in “the Red Scare”; a reference to a “red state” today appears to reverse that connotation. And then there’s true blue, Mary’s color.

For some reason, for Robert Burns, in his poem “A Red, Red Rose,” a single red was inadequate. Why does he repeat the word red in the title and the first line? Does he simply mean a very red rose?

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June…

For William Blake, in his poem “The Sick Rose,” primary red also seemed inadequate. How might our reaction to the poem change if Blake had said “Of red joy” rather than “Of crimson joy”?

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Is Burns’s rose blushing? Is Blake’s crimson closer to the color of blood than red? How might our reading of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” change if the line read “Of bloody joy”?

Even if we don’t make an effort to think consciously about the effects of words upon our reading experience, connotative meanings influence our comprehension and reaction. It is difficult to avoid the effects of connotation, of suggestive meanings. Remember the effect of the sound of fingernails being scraped on edge across the face of one of the green chalkboards back in grammar school? Words make noise. Noise soothes or grates. Words have texture and color and flavor. Some words are soft, mushy, others strong, firm. We like some words; we dislike others. When we get a bunch of words together we don’t like, we might say poetry, and spit them out. Or there’s been a stampede, words running ruddy and rubescent, out of the corral. But we can always brush away the ruddy gnats and make banana bread.

C

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C comes to close,
chimes, “Oh! Hello,”
and commences
to catch water,

waiting for the ferry,
then the crossing,
and the long cruise
back to the city.

A bald eagle floats,
driftwood across the cant
tilt and lilt of the wharf:
tackle shops and taverns.

“Sure,” C says, though
sounds disappointed,
cooped up in Coupeville
open mouthed, chip

on shoulder shooting pool:
“7 ball, side pocket,”
but clips the cue
ball curling.

“A difficult shape,
a hard cut,
to make sense of,”
C says, scanning
sound’s mirror,
ceiling reflecting cold water.

Another crew of sailors
occupies the tavern,
drinking to a mate’s
re-upping:
“Here’s to Carl,”
amidst a cheer
and a clap.

C looks around,
fails to see
any circular irony.

Punk Villanelle

but we really do careTele
stars emerge crash & collide
with the click of the snare

what the lyrics say we can’t hear
lufu songs behind us hide
but we do really care

what’s yr name the color of yr hair
right this way come inside
with the snack of the snare

saw you out at the county fairNo Thru Access
no thru access past the tide
blue mudflats of real care

have so much no need to share
in white spotlight gone walleyed
with Apollinaire’s uncanny stare

top of wheel a kiss & a prayer
what we missed we never cried
but we really do really care
with the tears of the snare

Bonus Bootleg Lines:

off yr rocker no way no scareText
all these lines eventually elide
with the test of the snare

with Apollinaire’s polished care
where strings in cushions hide
& release the strained snare

The Sneeze

The sneeze loosens paper odors in the cubicles,Self Portrait
suggests days of paper dust peppering the air,
stops the manager stoned in his excel trail
near the closet where the sneeze built its lair.

Surprise! A shredder confetti party! Paper! Ah!
Shoeless clerks dance out of their chairs.
“I’m not sure about this,” the manager demurs,
“Sneezes this robust should be curtailed.”

In a paperless wireless future, clerks recall
the daze of the sneeze: vinyl nostalgias,
sheer nylons and frigate wing tips, stairs,
grey metal desks, smokes and perfumes.

Cadmean Victory

They do not want for something to sayTree at top of park.
They run around and play all day
Syllabicating back and forth
No one asks what another is worth

At night they climb trees to sleep
They dream of mouths of lips and teeth
And breath of a land where speech
Is silly and fluid and free

Having no bowels they don’t see
The lithe ape thinking in a tree
Who would trap them in a man
And call himself can