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Signal and Noise (Paranoia and Reading)

I’m caught up on the reading! My computer’s battery is working just fine!  I’m back from Mexico City!  But I’m still not quite ready to comment specifically on chs. 5-7, so let me just set out here what I meant by the parenthetical, in that suggested post title above.  In a novel, what’s the signal, and what’s the noise? And what does it do to us if we try to read everything as signal?

This novel is clearly about signals and noise –the idea that minds and machines send out signs through a medium, and that the medium is not pure, or that at any rate when we receive the signs, we receive the medium at the same time, so that we have to pick out the meaningful “signal” from all the “noise” that comes accompanying it.  (Sometimes the “signal” is sent out with its own “noise,” like those ciphered messages in the newspaper, or those mixed messages that the parents in the Flame Alphabet keep sending each other. [I remember a Simpsons episode where Lisa is on vacation with kids who don’t know her and one of them says she likes her necklace; Lisa says to herself, “Checking for sarcasm –no, it’s clean!”].)  It’s a general rule of thumb that the simpler the signal the more noise it can withstand.  Even in a crowded noisy stadium the runners can hear the starter pistol.  The more complicated the “signal,” the more likely that you will want to keep ambient “noise” at a minimum.  This is why you don’t want cell phones going off at the concert hall; the many sounds/signals of the symphony are literally orchestrated, for maximum effect.  Riddle me this, Batman: How is a novel not like a symphony?

One answer in the history of aesthetic criticism is, It wishes it were:  “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” according to the great Victorian aesthete and teacher of Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, in his book The Renaissance (1873).  He said it in a chapter about the painter Giorgione.  The argument is that only in music are form and content inextricable –in painting, poetry, architecture, there is always something that you can analyze apart, something that the artwork is “about.”  The relevant chapter is of course available on-line, here, and the first paragraphs are the argument. The idea was picked up by Paul Verlaine in his poem “Art poétique,” “De la musique avant toute chose” (1885), here avec une traduction: Verlaine’s Art Poetique .  But notice how it’s changed:  here, instead of a tight and presumably conscious yoking of form and content, Verlaine wants blur and nuance –those Impressionists!–.  But while this is a different strategy, its purpose is to flout the same people, the ones who want to extract quickly and unproblematically a (presumably Moral) signal from a message that seems to be congested with mere sensory noise.  (Man, I miss teaching Aesthetics and Politics and The Visionary Company.)

The dream of a certain kind of verbal artist –usually they’re poets, and we as critical readers tend to mean something like this when we read a verbal text “as if it’s poetry”– is that everything counts as signal, nothing counts as noise.  It’s why it takes Joyce ten years to write Ulysses and seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake, and why we’re expected to take huge amounts of time to read them and re-read them.  Clearly it’s partly why we’re doing this book group:  Infinite Jest and 2666 and The Flame Alphabet and C can’t –or shouldn’t– be skimmed for the plot and the characters and the jokes.  Don’t read Faulkner on a bus, the bus might hit a bump and you’ll miss something.  [I used to joke that I read Absalom, Absalom! on a bus once, it hit a bump, and I missed the only period in six pages either direction.  (“Syntax and noise.”)]

But if I invoke Pater and Verlaine to start up this reflection, it’s as a cautionary.  If you get convinced that everything in a novel is really important, that this particular novelist has made thousands of conscious decisions and tens of thousands of semi- and unconscious decisions to orchestrate a total united effect, this conviction might make you a paranoid reader.  Not in the sense that the author is out to get you (although I gather we sometimes felt that way about Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, come to think of it), but in the sense that the paranoid is constantly “reading” the world as if it were sending signals to him or about him.  [Maybe the signals are coming from aliens!  Freud’s reading of paranoid schizophrenia comes from his analysis of the memoirs of the psychotic Doctor Schreber, who became convinced that dead souls, or maybe God, were shooting powerful rays into the earth and the only way Schreber could keep the world safe was by attracting those rays up into his anus, which he was more successful at doing when he was dressed as a woman. Go, Schreber, Go!  Pater and Verlaine are by no means the only people you would have wanted to meet in 1880. Ahem.] The paranoid reads the world; he refuses to believe in coincidence or accident; everything means something.  It is urgent to figure out what every one of these signs means.

Well, the verbal artifact of a novel is not the world; it really is one big long message from Tom McCarthy to, well, not you, Josh Malbin, in particular, but to a competent and enthusiastic English-language reader in general; why should there be any unorchestrated noise in this signal?  As we go through the novel –cheating a bit, maybe, by reading the book-cover blurbs or remembering the recommendations of friends or having preconceptions about what a Post-Modernist novel ought to be about– we hit material that we have been educated into seeing as Thematic, and in this case the big theme is Codes, Messages, Language.  Some people when they write a fiction with that as the theme want to emphasize the act of communication; here, it seems that the focus is more on one person putting meaning into a medium, and another person taking it out. (We got lucky; I hoped that this book would have connections to Flame Alphabet without having read either of them, and it looks as if I was right.) But where does this thematization of codes and language end?  Example:  during the pageant, the deaf children’s awkward elocution and the natural difficulty of deciphering the words of a chorus cause Widsun to mishear:

A wood environs every side the water round about

and with his leaves as with a veil doth keep the sun-heat out.

“I’d rather he let it in,” says the same man mock-shivering, emboldened by, or perhaps trying to make amends for, his last interjection.

“How does a wood shade ‘as without fail’?” asks Widsun.

“No: ‘with a veil,'” Carrefax tells him. “The leaves are like a veil.” (67)

Is this just filler?  No paranoid reader could accept that. No, it must mean that Widsun is hoping to hear about a completely safe space, an England impervious to foreign invaders, or maybe it’s supposed to mean that he wants to find failsafe modes of operation in general, and that McCarthy will deny him this; Carrefax, who wrote the text and therefore can claim to be authoritative, wrote something different, and he doesn’t expect leaves to shade a grove entirely. (An Impressionist like Verlaine/Pater would of course agree that veiled groves are more beautiful than unveiled ones.) Should the veil remind us of the silks that the family produces for profit?  The sheet that Widsun and Sophia/Mrs.C? have sex behind later that evening, which shows the silhouettes but not exactly who is having the sex? How about that strange symptom of Serge’s illness, which not only involves some hard lump in his stomach but also keeps him from seeing clearly: “The closest thing he could liken it to is one of his mother’s silks–the really fine, dark ones–held right up to his eyeballs and stretched out in front of them, making the world gauzed […] When it started, he’d try to blink a hole in it, or wipe it away, peel the veil back” (115). Not signal and noise, but symptom and noise. (Could it possibly be an allusion to George Eliot’s only quasi science-fiction novella, The Lifted Veil, not that I’ve read it, but some plot-sum, eh?)(Actually, for me the best justification for the Klodebrady spa chapter, thematically as opposed to literary-historically or how it might be used later in the plot, is to reflect on the idea that symptoms are a kind of bodily signal, with Doctor Filip as the kind of reader that Pater and Verlaine would disapprove of: “For Filip, it is all the same: all moral” (111).) (Is it meaningful that his name, which I presume is some Eastern European version of Phillip, also looks like ‘fillip’ whose meanings, here, suggest that not only is he a trivial person but that he wants to tap Serge with a flick of his finger, the way Sophia tapped his penis when he was so young?) When Herr Landmesser says “moral,” he probably means something like psychological or psychosomatic, but Filip is certainly not interested in the broad range of meanings of Serge’s symptoms.

But back to the pageant passage.  I jumped right over the snarky audience member who heard the words well enough, and made a joke –and the narrator’s two possible explanations why he might have made the joke.  It’s a chilly afternoon, and the man remarks about it –should we be reading that as a Sign of Edwardian Twilight, too?  We now know that Carrefax Sr.’s pageant is scripting not just (what we think he thinks it is) his own marriage between a dark king and a drowsy poppy-strewing maiden who is only half his, but also inadvertently scripting the untimely death of his daughter (and therefore he convinces himself that she will only be underground for a while and will need to communicate to everyone that although in the coffin she has come back to life.  This precaution too, however bizarre, occasionally happened during Victorian/Edwardian England and America, as I happen to know from my home town’s newest cultural venue, a short walk from Josh Malbin’s manse, The Morbid Anatomy Museum).  Shouldn’t this snarky audience member’s comment Mean Something too?

Not technically apropos of Doctor Schreber but he must be alluding to it, Bataille wrote “The Solar Anus,” available in translation here, where he says that “everyone is aware that life is parodic and lacks interpretation.” Over-interpretation is the paranoid’s response to a world that lacks interpretation, and is also a readerly vice encouraged by the Joyces and DFWs and Bolaños and Marcus/McCarthys who want their novels to aspire to the condition of an often very dark music.

July 11, 2015 - Posted by | C


  1. I haven’t responded because WHY ARE YOU SINGLING ME OUT?

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 16, 2015

  2. Ooh, paranoid much?
    Why doesn’t “singling” rhyme with “jingling”? (Or does it?) Is a little thing a thingling?

    Comment by poc2666 | July 16, 2015

  3. I am always struck and delighted Pat at how differently you and I read and react: this is such a rich and brilliant take on things I scarcely noticed in my first time through the book. Since we perceive so many signals through the strange, weirdly neutral medium of Serge’s (often drug-addled) consciousness, quasi-indirect discoursedly, what do you think this novel is doing? Is it trying to create a fresh postmodern take on novelistic communication by devising a singularly blank narrative/perceptive center? I will think about your post on paranoia and signals, noise, and see if I can understand how it helps see the narration in new ways.

    Comment by adkriefall | July 28, 2015

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