· Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator ·
Today my two previous posts have prompted a third on footnotes. I'm sorry if apologies are due. I take up from the musical world of footnotes sounded first in Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik — and reechoed in Bloch's The Historian's Craft — two added notes sounded by Nicholson Baker in his clever first novel, The Mezzanine (1988). If Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes and Footnotes: From Low Art to High Science make my noted theme old, I hope my variations are at least semi-pleasing. Please consider them an allegro, adagio, and presto "set" — with my belated "movement" being too long here.
Baker's first novel, you may know, describes a man's brief ride at the end of his lunch hour from the ground floor to the mezzanine on an escalator. Although Baker's text meditates on the man's brief ascent and, more, on his own needed noon-time purchase of a new pair of shoelaces, the text so well delineates much of what I have said recently that I have thought to share it — especially since citation and acknowledgment epitomize Baker's key themes, namely, physical-textual-dialectical displacements in vertical space and the old debt of consciousness to "the quotidian" — of art and thought to "the technological-scientific everyday."
Here foreshortened from 3 pages, Baker's notes are just 2 among 49 in a text of 135 pages. So fully "contrapuntal" and loopily "digressive" are they, that you might also be prepared for some slight "misquotation" — recalling my U & I post maybe — since the thought is riffed as subtly, cleverly, and trickily as that of a blues musician on speed. To help you follow, I've indeed had to largoize these notes, cutting them down some. So if you want your Baker "up," consider popping on down fast to buy The Mezzanine. After all, your next job is to recheck my notes.
Although Baker's first note aims clearly to link "shoelaces" and "footnotes," its note-referring sentence — "A glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky's History of European Morals (which I had been attracted to . . . by the ambitious title and the luxuriant incidentalism of the footnotes* . . . )" — also adds other crucial elements: the central notion, first, that artists and philosophers have quirky habits (I cite just two), and second, repeated news that Baker's narrator had earlier purchased a (Penguin) copy of Aurelius's Meditations, which text provides Baker with an epitomizing theme for all his notes: namely, "Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!" Here foreshortened to essentials, then, is the narrator's 46th note:
*In one footnote [he starts] . . . Lecky quotes a French biographer of Spinoza to the effect that the philosopher liked to entertain himself by "dropping flies into spiders' webs . . ." I crave knowledge of this kind of detail. As Boswell said, ". . . Everything relative to so great a man is worth observing. I remember Dr Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures at Glascow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes, instead of buckles." (Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Herbrides, Penguin, page 165. Think of it: John Milton wore shoelaces! ) Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of "ibid.'s" and "compare's" and "see's" that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one's mind. . . . Digression — a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument — is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. . . . It is true that Johnson said, . . . "The mind is refrigerated by interruption; . . . the reader is weary, he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book[.] . . . " ("Preface to Shakespeare.") . . . But the great scholarly or anecdotal footnotes of Lecky, Gibbon, or Boswell, written by the author of the book himself to supplement . . . what he says in the primary text, are reassurances that the pursuit of truth doesn't have clear outer boundaries: it doesn't end with the book; restatement and self-disagreement and the enveloping sea of referenced authorities all continue. Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wiser reality of the library.
Baker's "finer-suckered" image sounds a profound library note, in effect, that sounds "The Bathos," so to speak, "of the Bibliothek." For though it's happily occasioned by an earlier-mentioned (I'd say "Puget-Sound-locked") "octopus," Baker seems rather to anticipate a higher, but still lower, note — one pardoxically ending The Mezzanine. I'll cite it later myself. But for now, with such a "finer-suckered" grasp, Baker turns himself to a reflective understanding of his 49th note, wherein his narrator aptly invokes some "periodicity" (though I'd more simply call it his "style") "ratings." Baker's referring sentence reads: "It was impossible to predict which of the two, Aurelius or shoelaces, would rank higher in my overall lifetime periodicity ratings upon my death.*"
*I am fairly certain now [he avers] that shoelaces will rank higher. In the course of preparing the present record of that Aurelius-and-shoelace noon [essentially epitomizing The Mezzanine], I lived through a rigorous month in which the subject of shoelace-tying and shoelace wear came up 325 times, whereas Aurelius's sentiment cycled around only 90 times. I doubt very much that I will ever concentrate on either of them again, having worn both of the thoughts out for myself. But these sudden later flurries may not count, since they are artificial duplicative retrievals performed in order to understand how the earlier natural retrievals had come about. The very last instance of shoelace thought happened as follows: by chance, I was flipping through the 1984-1986 Research Reports of MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at my office, and I noticed . . . the subject of the "pathology of worn ropes" . . .
And then [later at the library], checking the 1984 volumes of World Textile Abstracts, I read entry 5422:
Methods for evaluating the abrasion resistance and knot slippage strength of shoe laces
Two mechanical devices for testing the abrasion resistance and knot slippage performance of shoe laces are described and investigated. Polish standards are discussed. [C] 1984/4522
I let out a small cry and slapped my hand down on the page. The joy I felt may be difficult for some to understand. Here was a man, Z. Czaplicki, who had to know! He was not going to abandon the problem with some sigh about complexity and human limitation after a minute's thought, as I had, and go to lunch — he was going to make the problem his life's work. Don't tell me he received a centralized directive to look into a more durable weave or shoelace for the export market. Oh no! His very own shoelace had snapped one time too many one morning, and instead of buying a pair of replacement dress laces at the corner farmacja and forgetting about the problem until the next time, he had constructed a machine and strapped hundreds of shoelaces of all kinds into it, wearing them down over and over, in a passionate effort to get some subtler idea of the forces at work. And he had gone beyond that — he had built another machine to determine which surface texture of shoelace would best hold its knot, so that humanity would not have to keep retying its shoelaces all day long and wearing them out before their time. A great man! I left the library relieved. Progress was being made. Someone was looking into the problem. Mr. Czaplicki, in Poland, would take it from there [my emphasis*].
*Here is room, perhaps, to say that Baker's last chapter shows his narrator returned from lunch — at the "top" of the escalator — looking down finally: "I looked down," Baker's narrator says, "the great silver glacier to the lobby. The maintenance man was at the bottom. I waved to him. He held up his white rag for a second, then put it back down on the rubber handrail." Permit me, but could this itself be a proper acknowledgement of some "tenor" to his "vehicular ride"? It's a good "high note" to end on, at least, and perhaps "sustain" . . .
I linked last to a footnote seen on top of a page and thought today to say why. In An Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes, I linked to a Gibbon footnote represented in my text by its generic content initially:
Although I cannot stop to quote [my author] for every fact, I will observe that the navigation of [the subject] from [one place] to [another] and [another] is contained in [a text] ( [on some page] ), and that the historian has the uncommon talent of placing each scene before the reader's eye.
Although I haven't fully represented my own use of Gibbon's text, you can link to it to infer my larger intent. But my point is still larger, namely, to raise anyone's use of the academic footnote by such a dialectical move from a "low art" to a "high science," instructively invoking, to that end, a passage from Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft.
Marc Bloch you may recognize as a member of the Annales school of historiography (including Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, and Le Roy Ladurie). Although Bloch wrote as a practical French Medievalist, in The Historian's Craft he advocated scientific-theoretical standards for a still larger historical purpose. He believed that beyond objectivity, verifiable truth was the historian's ultimate aim. Bloch warranted this view on the assumption that history is a truth-seeking, scientific enterprise done by a group — even if conducted by individuals. So it's toward the development of the group's historical consciousness that Bloch aimed; indeed, he aimed ultimately at humanity's scientific consciousness.
Though I cannot pretend to outline Bloch's thought, I can present a small but subtle part of it as it bears on footnotes. These are the humble forms binding Bloch's theory to his practice. For Bloch the footnote helpfully binds word to deed, language to reality, consciousness to act, and, indeed, historian to craft. Initially, he starts by noting the low footnote's too-common abuse:
[W]hen certain readers complain that a single note, strutting along by itself at the foot of the page, makes their heads swim, or when certain publishers claim that their customers, doubtless less hypersensitive in reality than they would have us believe, are tortured by the mere sight of a page thus disfigured, these æsthetes merely prove their imperviousness to the most elementary maxims of an intellectual ethic. For, apart from the free play of imagination, we have no right to make any assertion which cannot be verified and a historian who in using a document indicates the source as briefly as possible (that is, the means of finding it again) is only obeying a universal rule of honesty. Corrupted by dogmas and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification.
In noting the humble footnote's higher use, however, Bloch rises to a stylish eloquence linking factual notation to scientific verification to suggest, I think, even truth itself.
On that day when, having first taken care not to discourage it with useless pedantry, we shall succeed in persuading the public to measure the value of a science in proportion to its willingness to make refutation easy, the forces of reason will achieve one of their most smashing victories. Our humble notes, our finicky little references, currently lampooned by many who do not understand them, are working toward that day.
Published posthumously in 1953, Bloch's own text is ironically without footnotes. Considering his circumstances — tortured and executed by the Nazis in 1944 as a part of the Free French Resistance — we should maybe see Bloch as an abused footnote himself. The artful words of D. W. Brogan can suggest why:
I remember vividly the day on which the news of Marc Bloch's death reached us in Cambridge, and how eagerly we pounced on the rumour — false, alas! — that he had escaped. When we learned beyond doubt that he was dead, we felt that a blow had been dealt to the whole world of learning.
Consider — "in proper citation style" — about whom you could say that.
Yes, I know. Sorry. But they do charm me, and like puns mark a low form of thought — even (to mark to J-P. Sartre's case) of "Dialectical Reason." Know that I come to them here under the necessity of explaining the art of thinking to my students.
I begin with this "dialogue" (invoking the wider "dialectic" to which it points) because footnotes do, in fact, displace thought as puns do. You start out on one line of thinking, and end up on another. It's their virtue — though some think notes a low vice better lost than found today. Bruce Anderson in The Decline and Fall of Footnotes expresses the thought wittily: "Coming across a footnote, Noel Coward observed, is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love." I grant: Coward does have a point.
But they do bring good news, too. It might be — think about it — Ed McMahon at the door. Take an academic note cited from Fredric Jameson's Marxism and Form (1971) and translated from Theodore Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik (1958):
It is hardly an accident [just like my titular "Ode"] that mathematical techniques in music as well as logical positivism originated in Vienna. The fondness for number games is as peculiar to the Viennese mind as the game of chess in the coffee house. There are social reasons for it. All the while intellectually productive forces in Austria were rising to the technical level characteristic of high capitalism, material forces lagged behind. The resultant unused capacity for figures became the symbolic fulfillment of the Viennese intellectual. If he wanted to take part in the actual process of material production, he had to look for a position in Imperial Germany. If he stayed home, he became a doctor or a lawyer or clung to number games as a mirage of financial power. Such is the way the Viennese intellectual tries to prove something to himself, and — bitte schön — to everyone else as well.
"So what now of your titular 'Owed'?" you ask. Well, naturally, it's Jameson's own take on Adorno — quite instructively explained. "Stylistic juxtapostion of music, symbolic logic, and financial sheets?" he inquires. "The text under consideration is all of these things, but it is first and foremost a complete thing, I am tempted to say a poetic object" — a footnote! So Jameson of course sings its praises. Adorno's mind "incarnates itself in order to know reality," he claims, "and in return finds itself in a place of heightened intelligibility" — a place where there's "momentarily effected a kind of reconciliation between the realm of matter and that of spirit . . . a socio-economic style [my emphasis] which can be named." Then Jameson adduces his own footnote, one partially quoted below:
[A]n almost physical cause [Jameson writes] may be said to account for the structural peculiarity of the text in question, which is neither more nor less than a complete footnote: and the abundance, as well as the stylistic and philosophical quality of the footnotes to Philosophie der neuen Musik is itself "no accident" and has symptomatic value. The footnote in this context may indeed be thought of as a small but atonomous form, with its own inner laws and conventions and its own determinate relationship to the larger form which governs it — something on the order of the moral of a fable or the various types of digressions which flourished within the ninteenth-century novel. In the present instance, the footnote as a lyrical form allows Adorno a momentary release from the inexorable logic of the material under study in the main text, permitting him to shift to other dimensions, to the infrastructure as well as to the wider horizons of historical speculation. The very limits of the footnote (it must be short, it must be complete) allow the release of intellectual energies, in that they serve as a check on a speculative tendency that might otherwise run wild, on what we will later describe as the proliferation of "theories of history." The footnote as such, therefore, designates a moment in which systematic philosophizing and the empirical study of concrete phenomena are both false in themselves; in which living thought, squeezed out from between them, pursues its fitful existence in the small print at the bottom of the page.
Naturally, Jameson's own debt to Adorno marks my debt to him, so before quitting, maybe I should add another footnote. And what better one to cite than an apt, long-time favorite from Edward Gibbon, a footnote simply, directly, and wisely marking the many debts authors generally owe one another. I mark Gibbon's text generically.
Although I cannot stop to quote [my author] for every fact, I will observe that the navigation of [the subject] from [one place] to [another] and [another] is contained in [a text] ( [on some page] ), and that the historian has the uncommon talent of placing each scene* before the reader's eye.
*Here what Gibbon calls "each scene" is a readerly metaphor, but if we just think about it, of course, the footnote's unfitful existence is likewise "seen" here.
ANew Yorker essay has put me in mind today of style as a form of "substance abuse." John Lanchester in an essay entitled "High Style: Writing Under the Influence" (1/6/03), addresses what he calls "the discourse of recreational drug use." Although Lanchester employs what he calls the "barbaric" but sometimes "useful" dialect of "contemporary critical theory," his essay nonetheless interests me because, though I'm, like Emily Dickinson, "an enebriate of air and debauchee of dew," I do sometimes drink when I'm not otherwise splitting my occasional posts. For the sharp tools of my own literary style — facts especially, as Aldo Leopold has said — do demand sobriety.
Should you wonder, here's Lanchester's prime literary example — Jean-Paul Sartre in The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960):
But it should be noted that this regulatory totalisation realises my immanence in the group in the quasi-transcendence of the totalising third party; for the latter, as the creator of objectives or organiser of means, stands in a tense and contradictory relation of transcendence-immanence, so that my integration, though real in the here and now which define me, remains somewhere incomplete, in the here and now which characterise the regulatory third party. We see here the reemergence of an element of alterity proper to the statue of the group, but which here is still formal: the third party is certainly the same, the praxis is certainly common everywhere; but a shifting dislocation makes it totalising when I am the totalised means of the group, and conversely.
Well, if you say so, Mr. Sartre! Of course, passed by his hard-working New Yorker fact checkers, Lanchester's view is itself more fairly, subtly, and rightly presented: "There are a number of valid responses to these arguments," he writes: "They sure don't make public intellectuals like they used to. Another might be: I'm not sure Sartre's arguments constitute more than a footnote to his work in 'L'être et le Néant.' A third might be: What was he on?" The answer, it appears, is "corydrane, a form of amphetamine," Lanchester avers, "mixed with, of all things, aspirin."
Although I hardly wish to dispute Lanchester's claim, as you read his essay, ask yourself how Sartre's stylistic "alterity" — to borrow Sartre's language — precisely marks a more serious form of philosophical substance abuse? For taken in the larger "totalising" context of Western thought, it might be said, as old Styles might say, just "substance abuse" Aristotle-Aquinas style — meaning: Sartre doesn't much care for you dear reader rhetorically, nor for that matter, logically, for God, either. As for Sartre, well, Lanchester does find the goods on the guy.
Meanwhile, Lanchester's rhetoric and logic are clearly uppers.